Matthew 28: 1-10
A standard answer is that the resurrection was an historical event that happened almost two thousand years ago and that our Easter Vigil is only a service of remembrance, not a vigil at all. But then, what changed with that one and only historical resurrection, assuming for the moment that’s what happened? Filled with belief in Jesus’ resurrection, his followers assembled a community of people convinced that Jesus was inaugurating a new divine Kingdom, about to appear, that would culminate in their own resurrection, perhaps the resurrection of everyone. The Kingdom did not appear, of course, and the result was that instead of the Kingdom we got the Church. Now the Church is not bad, at least not very bad. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters believe the Church is a foretaste of the end-of-time resurrection of all of us to feast with Christ in Heaven. But as for what happened after Jesus’ time until now, the whole history is compatible with Jesus’ resurrection changing nothing, just as it is compatible with the claim that Jesus was not raised at all, that his body was stolen away by his disciples who made up the story of his resurrection appearances, which is what most people in the world think about that story.
So we need to look again at what resurrection means. This is the Holy Saturday part of my sermon where all otherwise presupposed certainties are thrown into question. Literally, resurrection means coming to life again after having been dead. The Bible has many resurrection stories. Both Elijah and Elisha raised people from the dead, as did Jesus, the most notable of whom was his friend Lazarus. Matthew said that when Jesus died, many tombs were opened and people rose from the dead; after Jesus’ resurrection, that is, after the Sabbath, these newly resurrected individuals came into the city where many people saw them. Matthew did not say what these resurrected people did when they went about the city, but surely they must have been looking for lawyers to reverse the probating of their estates. Imagine the consternation that would have been caused by a large group of newly resurrected people whose goods had been passed on to their heirs who now needed to get their lives in order again! That we don’t hear about this consternation suggests a bit of myth-making in Matthew’s account. But the point is that resurrection in these cases only means returning to and continuing the lives that had been lived before. Resurrection itself had little religious significance beyond signifying the power or mysterium tremendum in the persons or occasions that caused the resurrection.
The literal meaning of resurrection is not religiously interesting. So those of you who worry about whether you should believe in a literal resurrection that you find hard to believe can stop worrying. Even if resurrection is literally true, that is not religiously interesting. What did Jesus do after the resurrection? Taking the resurrection appearances at face value, he made sudden appearances and disappearances, talked with his disciples, and cooked, all of which he had done in ordinary life. The astonishing transformation of the disciples and growth of the Christian community came from a deeper meaning of resurrection, not a literal one.
What then could the deeper meaning be? Is resurrection a metaphor for something else that is like resurrection? In these late modern times we know how much the mind and its expression in soul are so closely linked with the biology of the brain that bodily death is hard to square with reanimation. So preachers often say that resurrection is a metaphor for something like it, such as renewal of nature in the spring, starting over without being bound to the past, signs of vitality, fresh starts, hope for the Red Sox. Resurrection is a powerful metaphor for things such as these. The metaphor of resurrection gives zing to things like renewal; but renewal and the vernal equinox are sad come-downs from the dramatic power of resurrection in the life of Jesus. What should we think about metaphors in religion?
Step back, if you will, from the loaded metaphor of resurrection in the Easter Vigil and think about the 23rd Psalm. The King James translation is one of the cornerstones of English-speaking culture and its words resonate in our souls with a thousand associations. Say with me, if you know it:
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The Psalm literally says that God is a shepherd and that the singer, that is, we, are sheep. Now surely, no one past the age of ten ever has believed that literally. This would be idolatrous in reference to God and overly humiliating in reference to us—sheep are stupider than the dimmest human. A literal interpretation is nonsense.
The age-old tradition of interpretation is metaphorical. Like a shepherd who cares for his sheep, God supplies what we need, life in pleasant places, peace, tonics for the soul, a righteous life, no evil even in death, comfort, gloating repasts in the face of enemies, anointing oils, overflowing cups, a life attended by goodness and mercy lived in the constant presence of God. Each of these divine beneficences is itself a metaphor for thousands of other benefits from the benevolent God. The 23rd Psalm is such a classic because everyone understands this metaphoric meaning and is in love with the vision it sings.
But it is false! Life is full of trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death. To think God is like a provident shepherd is just perverse in the face of life’s realities. Sure, life has many good things, including occasional triumphs and the comforts of the overflowing cup—but all these things pass, and many people get none of them. The ancient Israelites knew this as well as anyone. The Psalm traditionally has been attributed to King David, who was anything but a docile follower of the divine shepherd. Remember how he lusted after a married woman, impregnated her, and had her husband killed. Then to punish David, God killed their newborn baby, according to the text. That text of David’s grief and resignation was read at the funeral of our daughter who died at four months. Life is trouble, not green pastures and still waters, save on rare vacations. And everyone knows this.
How then do we understand the extraordinary moving power of the 23rd Psalm when it is literally
nonsense and metaphorically false? Both literal and metaphorical intentions are claims that God and life are like what the Psalm says, in different but related senses of like. The deeper meaning of the Psalm, which everyone gets, does not have to do with likeness at all. It has to do with becoming connected. If we shape our souls with the images of the Psalm, even though it is literally nonsense and metaphorically false, we become connected with God and our own lives so as to be transformed into gratitude and peace that passes understanding, a truth far more profound than satisfaction with the good things of life. In fact, it is because life is filled trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death, that we move beyond the historical to the depth dimension of our relation with God. Because we know that the life of a happy sheep is a lie (remember why shepherds keep sheep), we come to realize that the genuine comforts of God are not like that. But letting the 23rd Psalm work in us to shape our soul causes us to connect with God beyond that superficial metaphor, and to take overwhelming comfort in the Abyss out of which the maelstrom of life arises. The depth meaning of the Psalm is not in its likeness to anything: it is not an icon. The depth meaning is in its transformative pointing and connection: it is an index, like a pointing finger whose direction we follow until we connect with something otherwise inaccessible. That transformative depth meaning has worked for centuries with astonishing indexical power regardless of people’s literal or metaphorical thoughts in the matter.
Come back to the resurrection of Jesus as we work our way out of Holy Saturday into Easter Sunday. The depth meaning of Easter resurrection lies neither in the literal meaning of coming back to life nor in the metaphorical meaning of springtime renewal and fresh starts. So whatever you believe about these iconic or “likeness” meanings of Jesus’ resurrection does not matter much for religious purposes because the depth meaning of resurrection does not lie there. Rather it lies in what the fulsome celebration of the resurrection stories does to transform our souls so as to connect us with God the Creator in deep ways. With those deep connections that grow from the Easter stories we can embrace the goodness of creation even when we are not so good, the wholeness of creation even when we are not so whole, the loveliness of the world even when we are halting lovers, and the meaning of life even when our own achievements are middling. Most of all we can embrace with gratitude and profound love the gratuitous and shocking creation of this wild world filled with troubles, ecstasies, desolations, satisfactions, and death because those stories of Jesus, when lived with, raise us up into that glorious creation. Those resurrection stories are not what the world and God are like. They are pointers causing us to be raised into life’s most profound ecstatic connection with the Abyss whence we come. This is the Easter triumph: not a life in which everything is new and fine but a life that transforms all the metaphoric content of crucifixion and death into the joyous glory of God’s creation itself.
The transformative work of the Easter celebration does not happen all at once. Perhaps it takes a lifetime–Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Day every year. The resurrection stories of Jesus cannot be separated from all his other stories, his teachings, his historical roles, the birth narratives, and all the mythologizings of the Church that changed a rural Galilean into the Second Person of the Trinity. All these stories interweave, not as literally or metaphorically true but as indicatively true, causally true, transformatively true. So do not worry about either literal or metaphorical truth, however interesting those questions might be on their own. Do not worry about the credibility of the virgin birth, or the sagacity of the Wise Men, or the reliability of the accounts of the Transfiguration, or what really happened when people thought they saw Jesus alive after Good Friday. They are not religiously important in the long run. Worry rather about how to make those stories about Jesus and his resurrection transformative elements in our souls. Enjoy them all. Delight in the crowds of newly raised people swarming into Jerusalem after the thunderous breaking open of their tombs! Perhaps none of these stories is true as a likeness or icon of what happened. But all of them have been true for at least some people in transforming them into New Beings, as Paul put it, lovers of God: and they can be true for us.
Most Christians believe those stories with naïve innocence and are transformed by them. But it is not the likeness kind of truth that is important, however much they might believe it is. Rather it is the causal consequence of dwelling in those stories that is spiritually and theologically important. Some people these days find the stories incredible if construed to interpret reality as being like what those stories say. Sadly, such people often go on to conclude that the stories therefore simply are not true, which is a mistake. The depth meaning and truth of the stories is not in their iconic likeness to anything but in their indicative transformative powers that bring us into connection with the source of all things, with gratitude, joy, and peace that passes understanding. This is how it has always worked, even when people believed that salvation comes because the stories are literally or metaphorically true. That was naïve of them even when they actually were transformed. We need not be naïve like that. What would be naïve of us would be to think we can do without the stories and their celebrations in our souls. To proclaim the resurrection is not to assert it but to lead in the celebration of it.
So let us listen to the stories of Jesus and his miraculous birth, his calling of disciples and teachings of friendship, his sharp knocks at hypocrisy and love of childlike innocence, his proclamation that the last will be first and the first last, his miracles of healing and his struggles with fickle crowds, his interpretations of history and parables of the Kingdom, his gospel of love and demands for justice, his institution of sacraments and founding of a beloved community, his bitter betrayal and corrupt trial, his bloody suffering and desolate crucifixion, his harrowing of Hell and glorious resurrection, his blessing of our maturity and gift of the Spirit, his ascension into Heaven and mythic transformation into the atonement for all sins, into the Cosmic Christ, into the Second Person of the Trinity, into the divine founder of the Christian movement, into an ever-loving friend personally available to each of us, into a reality that is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All of these things are part of the deep truth that works in us when we celebrate them. Better yet, let’s sing them, because music moves the soul faster than words alone. What changes with resurrection? We do. What is that change? A closer connection with God. What is that connection? An entry into the divine life whose wildness is embraced with Easter joy. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” You bet!! “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” Amen.
Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011