Easter is not a statement of metaphysical profundity; it’s a commitment to a way of living. To say ‘Jesus is risen’ is a commitment to living the way of Jesus, despite all that happened to him. It is about celebrating that even though justice-love can be killed, buried, and have a huge slab of impenetrable concrete poured on top, in time cracks appear and, in defiance of all that seems logical, little flowers break through and bloom.
The appearance stories that we read in the Gospels about Jesus supposedly coming back to life were all written more than 40 years after his death. These stories mix four metaphorical models: “raised up”, “he has been seen”, “taken up” and “exalted”. These models all derive from the cultural and historical context of 1st century Judaism. In short, they all speak about vindication of the one who has been martyred, Jesus. None of them are about the after-life or the immortality of the soul.
Without going into too much detail let me just say that biblical resurrection is always about justice, always a story, and always about God.
Elements of Judaism accepted the raising of the dead because the martyrdom of the pious ones violated their understanding of God’s justice, and the only way to restore that justice was by raising those martyrs up. This thinking drove the earliest understanding of Jesus’ death.
Secondly, this thinking was expressed in stories – not stories to be taken literally - but stories that present a promise and a demand. Story imagines the way the world should be and can be.
And lastly, resurrection is about God. It is not about an invisible personal saviour Jesus who is hanging around wanting to be your friend. It is about believing that the power of godding, the power of justice-love, can and will overcome all that seeks to demean and destroy human mutuality and flourishing.
Some of you will have seen the new movie about Martin Luther King Jnr called Selma. King drew up his religious tradition to recast resurrection as a metaphor relevant beyond the doors of the Church. In his 1963 famous ‘I have a dream’ speech he says:
“We have come now to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now… Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation… now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice… now is the time to make justice a reality.”
Note the ‘to rise’ [raise up language], and the ‘to lift’ [exaltation language]. He is linking these biblical metaphors with the persecution and captivity of black America, and crying out for freedom and justice. While never explicitly mentioning Jesus’ resurrection, the theme of new life, of rising from the dead, runs through this speech [like many of his other speeches] giving hope to the future and promise to the present.
Martin Luther King was a prophet. He was vilified and persecuted; he was martyr, just as much as any prophet of ancient Israel or the early church. He deserves his place over the west door of Westminster Cathedral with three other modern martyrs: Mother Elizabeth of Russian, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Just as much as Jesus, King was a martyr. And like God raised Jesus from the dead, so too God raised up Martin Luther King. King’s prophetic words and martyrdom helped raise up a nation to a new standard of God’s justice. Once we see that resurrection is not literal language but a metaphor used to explain the experience of God vindicating the martyr, then we can see that King stands foursquare in the tradition inaugurated by Jesus.
King’s programme was clearly political, but it was driven by religious convictions, and his speeches were interwoven with biblical images. Just as Jesus’ programme, convictions, and speeches were. King’s speeches help us to appreciate, even experience again, the power of resurrection, of being raised up from the dead. To hear King’s triumphal shout, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last” is to be drawn into the kin-dom of God, to be raised from the dead, if only for the moment. A movie such as Selma offers us such a moment.
Wendell Berry encourages us to ‘practise resurrection’. Or as DeWane Zimmerman says, “The message of Easter is not simply ‘Don’t be afraid to die’, but ‘Don’t be afraid to live’”.
The reality of the human condition leaves many people ‘entombed’ by systems, circumstances, or attitudes. Metaphorical large ‘stones’ or ‘rocks’ blocking ‘tombs’ are everywhere: the rocks of discrimination, insecurity, poverty, and fear. We’re often sealed in by the rocks of arrogance, prejudice, addiction, or indifference. Our eyes adjust to the darkness of the tombs we are in. Almost anything that stands between a person, or a community, and the transforming presence of justice-love can be seen as a stone in need of being rolled away.
So, here are 15 suggestions about how to practice resurrection:
- Life is precious, and so are you. So be nice to yourself. Forgive yourself. Help create a climate of forgiveness in your family and amongst your friends.
- Life is to be shared generously. We need to build communities and cultures of generosity. Start or join a group who want to make life better for some for whom it is not.
- Help someone who is hurting. Give the gift of yourself. Give of your time, your commitment, and your resources.
- Ask questions and throughout life keep on asking questions - particularly around inequality and prejudice. Things don’t have to be how they’ve ‘always’ been.
- Laugh at least twice a day. Laughter is both cleansing and subversive. Read joke books or watch comedians on-line. Laugh at your own foibles. Laugh at the powerful who think they deserve their power. There are plenty of examples.
- Plant a tree. Plant a thought. Plant a token of friendship. Then water them, nurture them.
- Make a practice of giving flowers. When you do so you brighten up two people’s day.
- Look fear in the face. Feel your own fear in doing so. Then smile and wave. Fear, and those who feed on fear, hate people who smile and wave.
- Always be kind, even when critical. Political movements for justice will never achieve their goals if their methods are not laced with kindness. Who wants to be part of a utopia where purity of thought is all important?
- Occasionally be outrageous; or more than occasionally if you like. We need the vibrant colours and ideas that outrageous people bring to the common landscape.
- Pray. Get in tune, find your way into tune, with the music that is in your soul, the music of godding. That will require you to be mostly still and mostly listening.
- Give away something you don't really need but occupies quite a lot of room in your life. Possessions are both blessings and curses.
- Dance. Shuffle. Twirl. By yourself. With a child. With your lover. On a hill top. At a concert. In your lounge room. Just start moving those feet. I know it’s not a thing Presbyterians used to do. But times change.
- Dance sometimes when you feel you can’t breathe. Dance when religion or culture is so oppressive that there doesn’t seem to be any spiritual air in the room. Like those six Iranians who dared to dance at home to the Pharrell Williams' song Happy and were arrested by the police for violating Islamic law. Iran needs to learn from us Presbyterians who have been there.
- Lastly dance and sing [yes, those two are siblings] because you’re alive. Dance and sing because you are free in your soul, if not in your body. Dance and sing because they symbolize resurrection. Every major political movement for justice-love has had its dancers and singers, as has the Jesus movement. So what are you waiting for?