This sermon has drawn extensively on the work of Karen Armstrong in St Paul: The apostle we love to hate
The resurrection is often talked about by Christians as an event, an historical happening, though hard to prove. Such talk tends to frame ‘resurrection’ pre-eminently as a belief, as something one might assent to. I think it is better to look at some of those early followers of the Jesus Way and ask what resurrection meant for them. In particular this morning I want to talk about Paul. Because resurrection totally flipped his framing of God, flipped his actions, and flipped his purpose in life, upside down.
In the Sundays after Easter the readings are usually taken from the Gospels – particularly John, Matthew, and Luke. These gospels were compiled late 1st and early 2nd century. The stories of the appearances of the risen Jesus [or the post-Easter Jesus as Marcus Borg would say] are creative pieces of fiction designed to tell us about the faith of the Church at that time. In particular they were about leadership. To have “seen” the risen Jesus was the mark of an apostle.
But some 60+ years before these appearance stories in the gospels were compiled we have the writing and experience of Paul who also claimed to have “seen” the risen Jesus.
Paul, or Saul as he was known then, persecuted the early followers of Jesus. He was scandalized by the outrageous idea of a crucified Messiah. How could a convicted criminal possibility be the Messiah and restore the dignity and liberty of Israel? A crucified Messiah was an utter travesty or scandalon [“a stumbling block”]. The Torah was adamant that such a man was hopelessly polluted[i]. Although Jesus’ followers later on were insistent that he was buried on the day of his death, Paul was aware that Roman soldiers had little respect for Jewish sensibilities and might well have left his body hanging on the cross to be consumed by birds of prey. To imagine these desecrated remains had been raised to the right hand of God was abhorrent, unthinkable, and blasphemous. It impugned the honour of God, and Paul/Saul believed it was his duty to eradicate this sect.
So Paul entered house after house, and sent men and women off to prison. “How savagely I persecuted the household of God”, he later wrote. The texts imply that this was done forcefully and brutally. A synagogue could, for example, administer a punishment of 39 lashes. The persecution under Paul was such that Greek speaking followers of the Jesus way left Jerusalem. [Though note Aramaic speaking followers remained – was there a racial bias in this persecution? Probably.]
Paul was called to Damascus. This group of Jesus followers were threatening the wellbeing of the whole Damascus Jewish community. The news that a Messianic pretender executed by a Roman Governor had been raised to life and would soon return to destroy his enemies could endanger every Jew. Note that 30 years after these events, at the start of the Roman-Jewish war, all the Jews of Damascus were rounded up on a blanket charge of sedition and slaughtered. The possibility of inciting Roman retaliation was real.
Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that as Paul/Saul came near the city he was blinded by a light and fell down [Note the horse does not exist!]. He heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Paul asked who was speaking, the voice allegedly said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. [Which as an aside is wonderful resurrection ecclesiology – we, the followers of the Way, are the body of Jesus... we are Jesus. Jesus is not separate from us].
This experience was an overwhelming moment of truth for Paul - a revelation, a seeing. Paul “saw” the tortured and polluted body of Jesus standing in “glory” at God’s right hand. Jesus’ followers were indeed right and he, Paul, was wrong. Indeed Paul’s violence had broken a fundamental principle of Torah – “love thy neighbour”. Paul had forgotten God’s command: “Thou shalt not kill”.
Note this is Luke’s telling of Paul’s experience – some 60+ years after it happened. In The Acts of the Apostles Luke calls it a ‘vision’, an ‘ecstasy’, or an ‘apparition’. But when Luke, in his gospel, described the appearances of the post-Easter Jesus to the disciples he didn’t use any of those words. These earlier sightings Luke believed had been physical objective events – walking, talking, and eating just like before he had died. Paul’s vision experience accordingly to Luke bore no resemblance to this. Indeed Luke went out of his way to explain that Paul did not actually ‘see’ Jesus at all because he was blinded by the light [as Manfred Mann would say].
Luke wrote it this way because he had an agenda. As Dom Crossan points out the appearance accounts in the gospels are actually all about the leadership of the early church, who should be in charge and who should not. For Luke, Paul was not a witness to the resurrection in the same way as ‘The Twelve’ [note the New Testament is not clear who ‘The Twelve’ actually were].
Yet Paul, in his own writings[ii] some 60+ years before Luke, is very clear that he actually did ‘see’ the Lord and that Jesus appeared to him in exactly the same way as to the Twelve. Paul’s claim was controversial, and would often be contested. In I Corinthians 15 Paul recounts what had become a major tradition in the Jesus movement, listing in order who got a post-Easter sighting of Jesus – Peter, the Twelve, the 500, James, and “last of all he appeared to me to.” [The women seemed to be in the 500. Or maybe Mary was one of the Twelve?].
Paul’s Damascus experience – his sighting – was not a conversion in the usual sense, since Paul did not change his religion. Paul would continue to regard himself as a Jew for the rest of his life and he understood the Damascus event in entirely Jewish terms – namely that he had been called like the prophets Isaiah or Jeremiah, given a vision and a job to do.[iii]
Luke writing in the early 2nd century says in his Acts of the Apostles that Jesus appeared to his disciples for a limited period of 40 days, after which his body ascended up to heaven. So Luke believed that Paul’s vision, some years after those 40 days, was quite different from the experience of the Twelve. But as I’ve said Luke was writing at least half a century after Paul. When Paul dictated his letters in the 50s, the stories of Jesus’ physical meeting with the Twelve had not yet become part of the tradition. Paul knew nothing about the 40 day period and had never heard of Jesus’ ascension as a separate occurrence, since in those early times resurrection and ascension formed a single event – namely that God had raised Jesus’ body out of the tomb and conveyed his body immediately to the heavenly world. [Note Auckland Church leaders: there never was any Jesus walking out of a tomb!!].
Writing in the late 60s Mark still saw the resurrection like Paul did. He described the women going to anoint Jesus’s body after the ‘three days’ and finding the tomb empty. “He has been raised”, the angel said. “The women ran from the tomb trembling with amazement.” And that’s all that Mark says. Later on in the 2nd century a revisionist added some appearances tacked on to the end of that gospel to fit with other gospels.
Paul was a Jewish mystic. As Karen Armstrong points out,[iv]a Jewish mystic/visionary experienced an ascent through the heavens until he or she reached God’s throne, bringing back terrifying news about God’s imminent judgement of the world. Paul described a celestial flight exactly like this in another letter to the Corinthians, and some scholars believe he might have been describing his Damascus experience in this passage.[v]
The American scholar Alan Segal[vi] helps us to understand how Jesus’ earliest followers understood their “seeing” of the post-Easter Jesus. Adam, Enoch, Moses, and Elijah were all said to have been carried bodily into the heavens. Mystics saw them sitting there on golden thrones. A mystic could never see God but could glimpse God’s “glory.” In Ezekiel’s vision [1:26, 28; 2:1] he glimpsed a ‘being that looked like a man’.
These precedents from the Hebrew Scriptures helped Paul and the other Apostles to understand the Easter event; it also explains how their perception of what had happened to Jesus was so widely and rapidly accepted by so many Jews at a very early stage in the Jesus movement.
In the risen body of Jesus on his heavenly throne his disciples had seen the “glory” of God. In one of Paul’s authentic other letters [Philippians], Paul quotes a very early hymn that associated Jesus with God’s ‘glory’. The crucified Messiah had given limited human beings an astonishing glimpse of the divine. He had been elevated to this extraordinary eminence by “emptying himself”, by becoming a slave and dying on a cross.[vii]
Instead of calling his encounter with Jesus in Damascus a vision, Paul called it a revelation, ‘an unveiling’. A veil as it were was suddenly stripped away from a reality that had been there all the time but which he had not seen before. At Damascus it was as if scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he had an entirely new insight into the nature of God.
For Paul, the Pharisee, God was utterly pure and free of all contamination – sinless. Like a priest who stood in the presence of God in the temple, a Pharisee had to purify himself if he had any physical contact with a corpse, because the God that was life could have nothing to do with the corruption that was death.
But when Paul saw that God had embraced Jesus’ filthy, degraded body and raised it to the highest place in the heavens, he realized that in fact God had an entirely different set of values. In honouring Jesus this way, God had signalled a change in the way God approached humanity. The old rules no longer applied. All bets were off. Who now was high and who was low? Who was close to God and who was far from God? Who were the winners and who were the losers?
Paul talked about his Damascus experience to the disciples in Galatia long before Luke wrote about it. Paul talked about his experience as a directive for his life. Paul had previously chosen to live in Roman occupied Palestine, the Holy Land, because the gentile world was unclean. [Jews tended to regard the non-Jewish nations as impure and morally inferior]. But in raising Jesus, God had shown that God did not judge by these earthly standards and that God stood by people who were despised and denigrated by the rules and laws of this world. God had no favourites, no insiders, and no ‘chosen’ sinless people. This is what then Paul set out to proclaim to the un-favoured, the outsiders, the unchosen, and the sin-filled.
This is what then resurrection meant for Paul – a re-orientation of his life, a flipping of categories, an un-doing of normal.
[i] Deut 21:22-23
[ii] I Corinthians 9:1.
[iii] Galatians 1:15 cf. Isaiah 49:1,6; Jeremiah 1:5.
[iv] Karen Armstrong St Paul: The apostle we love to hate; New York : Icons, 2015, p.21-30
[v] II Corinthians 12:2-4, 7.
[vi] Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert, p.39-64.
[vii] Philippians 2:6-11.