Jesus is seriously dead. None of the rest of it makes any sense otherwise.
Many – if not most – conservative evangelical and fundamentalist “Bible” churches began the week before Palm Sunday to declare on their billboards that “He is Risen.” It’s a code. Everyone knows who “He” is (capital “h”), and that “He” rose bodily from a grave. For literal believers, the Gospel stories of the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are generally ignored. Jesus makes a triumphant parade through Jerusalem, briefly and passively accepts torture in the place of sinners who really deserve it (the more gruesome the torture, the greater the “love” thus demonstrated), and comes back to eternal life “on the third day” after the crucifixion. Confrontation with the reality of Jesus’ unjust and appalling death is avoided, and the transformational meaning of the resurrection is lost.
Folks who see Easter as a “season” for candy and new clothes find the Tomb is Empty because it was never occupied to begin with.
If Jesus’ resurrection is to have any serious significance for 21st century, post-modern, post-Christian minds, the first idea that has to be jettisoned is that Jesus died in order to save humanity from personal, petty, and sexual sin. Put bluntly, as my favorite Presbyterian Heretic does, the theology of blood atonement goes like this:
You are bad. In fact, you were born bad. Bad and sinful. That’s you. You deserve the punishment Jesus received because you are so bad. Jesus suffered and died because of you, for your sins. Even if you weren’t born yet when Jesus died, it doesn’t matter. You are still bad. And if you don’t believe all of this hocus pocus and repent, down the chute to hell for you. See how loving God is?
The Elves generally do not treat 1 Corinthians 15 as an Easter text. A few verses are used for Easter in Years B and C, but most of it is scattered among the Sundays in Epiphany of Year C. Paul apparently never heard any legends about an empty tomb or an improbable, miraculous, resuscitation of a corpse. Instead Paul relies on the ability of his community members to understand ecstatic, even mystical, theological language, and to be inspired to change their lives accordingly.
According to the NRSV, Paul says, “Christ died for our sins . . .” But according to the translation by the Westar Scholars who developed The Authentic Letters of Paul, the word “sin” becomes “the seductive power of corruption.” As explained in the Glossary:
Corrupting seduction of power [also, as above]: Greek hamartia. Traditional translation: “sin.” Usually the mythic sense of the word hamartia is overlooked in translation. For Paul hamartia is a personified force that enters and obstructs the human story. It is more than a single act or specific actions; rather it refers to a fated condition that gains momentum over time” (SV, p. 261; brackets mine).
This is a socio-political, systemic, imperial condition that is extremely difficult to counter. We might imagine that the apostle Paul was very familiar with the idea that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Paul says, “The Anointed died to free us from the seductive power of corruption” (1 Cor. 15:3; SV p. 102) “and that he was buried, and that he was raised ‘on the third day’ according to the scriptures.” By the way, in a footnote the Scholars suggest that this “third day” business is the equivalent of “after a short time,” or – in the time-honored story-telling tradition, “after a long time, or a short time, or no time at all . . .” Paul then launches into the difficult development of his Jewish, pharisaic argument: (as John Dominic Crossan puts it) “No Jesus resurrection, no general resurrection; no general resurrection, no Jesus resurrection” (In Search of Paul pp. 342 ff). Paul’s point is that if none of it happened, then “you are still not free from the seductive power of corruption.” But once we realize that Jesus died at the hands of the Roman empire because of his counter-cultural insistence on distributive justice-compassion, and we sign onto the continuing struggle to change that imperial paradigm – which still captivates humanity – we are then saved, liberated, delivered from that seductive, imprisoning, limiting, personified force.
1 Corinthians 15:20-28 cannot be understood without knowing that Paul was not only an educated Pharisee and a brilliant polemicist; he was an apocalyptic mystic, who believed that God would act directly to establish God’s kingdom as the prophecy of Daniel proposed, and that Jesus was that one anointed – designated – by God to do so. Jesus did this, Paul argues, both while he was physically on this earth, and through God’s action that raised Jesus into God’s heavenly realm. It is here in the labyrinthine, 1st century, Jewish mysticism where we lose post-modern, post-Christian minds. When Paul speaks of the “dead,” he is not talking only about those who have physically left the Planet. He is talking about those who have been caught in the seductive power of corruption – or the corrupting seduction of power (sin works both ways). When he juxtaposes the agricultural metaphor of “sown” versus “raised,” he grounds his argument for transformation in the present moment, not the future apocalypse. Verses 42-49 now can take on a post-modern rhetorical crescendo:
And so the dead will come to life like that: sown in corruption, raised incorruptible; sown in a condition of humiliation, raised in a state of splendor; sown in a condition of weakness, raised in a state of power. Sown with a body fit for earthly life, they are raised with a body fit for life in God’s new world. If there is such a thing as a body fit for earthly life, there is also such a thing as a body fit for life in God’s new world. As scripture says, “the first Adam was created for earthly life,” the last Adam became a life-creating power. The body fit for life in God’s new world was not first, but the body fit for earthly life; then the body fit for life in God’s new world. The first human was a lump of earth, an earthly man; the second human is from heaven. As with the earthly man, so are those who are earthly, and as is heavenly man so are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so we will also bear the likeness of the heavenly man. SV p. 105.
He goes on to declare that “flesh and blood is not capable of inheriting the coming Empire of God, no more than the corruptible can inherit the incorruptible.” Then he says,
Listen now, I am going to tell you a wondrous secret: We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet signal. The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we too will be transformed.
If we stop there, liberal Christian eyes will be rolling, and humanists will head for the exits. Instead we need to realize what Paul means: All it takes is a moment to transform the way we live our lives on this Planet – from the corrupt systems that constitute imperial injustice (death), to the incorruptible integrity of non-violent covenant with justice-compassion i.e., the kingdom — empire — of God (life). Paul ends with the conviction that “when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable and the mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been engulfed by victory. Where O Death, has your victory gone? What’s happened, O Death, to your fatal sting?’” We must clothe ourselves, Paul says, with the imperishable, with immortality. That is, we must wrap ourselves in God’s enduring covenant by which the rain falls, the sun shines, and – as Jesus is highly likely to have said – the lilies of the field are clothed, and the birds of the air are fed – now and forever, world without end.
Then comes the heart of the matter: “ The law is what makes the seductive power of corruption so lethal.” The law seems to allow civilizations to prosper, but the end result is entrenched systems that make non-violent, distributive justice-compassion virtually impossible. Look at the promises Barack Obama made in his 2008 campaign, and the promises that have been and continue to be broken as time goes on: the abomination that is Guantanamo prison; the deliberate targeting of Islamic communities with agents provacateurs; the cowardice manifest in the unwillingness of the Administration and any political party to stand for a fair tax code, regulation of coal, oil, and gas industries; the continuing collaboration of the Administration with Wall Street “banksters”; the unchallenged threat to women’s health, and the progressive social programs of the past 70 years posed by special economic interests and their tea-party dupes; the ongoing erosion of civil liberties under the guise of “homeland security”; the moral failure on the part of this country’s leadership vis-a-vis the emerging movements for political, social, and economic liberation in the Middle East because of historical political alignments, misplaced liberal guilt, and Christian Zionist hypocrisy.
“But thanks be to God,” Paul finishes, “For giving us the victory over corruption and death through our lord Jesus the Anointed.” Not “Cesar,” says 1st century Paul, but the crucified criminal Jesus, the Christ. For 21st Century, post-Christian, post-modern minds, the victory is not won in our president Obama, or our pope Benedict (formerly the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, aka the Inquisition), nor in the corrupting influence of corporate economic coercion. The victory cannot be won unless we change the paradigm from death to life by participating in“the heart work called compassion,” as Matthew Fox calls it, “the work of the cosmos itself.”
The victory is won through the Christ, and the Tao, and the Buddha nature, and all the highest and most sacred impulses of humanity. When the possibility of this change in paradigm is realized, then the words from Revelation 5:12 can be reclaimed in the name of every person who died in the cause of justice from the fall of Jerusalem to the Holocaust, and whose blood will continue to be demanded until either humanity evolves into sustainable, non-violent, covenant, or the world as we know it comes to an end.
“Worthy is the lamb that was slain, and has redeemed us to God by his blood, who received power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.”
It is and always has been our choice.