First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"Making Meaning out of the Resurrection Story"
March 24, 2002 Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore
Imagine standing at the foot of the 'T' (Jesus was not crucified on a cross but rather a stripes or post with a beam called a patibulum across the top). The man who proclaimed that the Father's Imperial rule had already come and been established on earth writhed in pain, struggling to breathe and crying out in anguish, "why has thou forsaken me?" The man who revealed his power to cure a leper, restore sight to the blind, and cast out evil spirits tormenting the mentally ill was now helpless to save himself. When he uttered his last words and fell limp, his disciples hope must have collapsed. There would be no divine rescue by Elijah returning on his flaming chariot. This seemingly superhuman Jesus was mortal too just like the rest of us - or was he?
On the third day after his death, Mary returned to his tomb. She discovered the enormous stone covering the cave entrance had been rolled back. As she entered, she saw that it is empty. Jesus' burial shroud remained but his body was gone. Was it stolen? Had she gone to the wrong cave? Other disciples also checked and confirmed what she reported. What happened to his body? Is it possible he didn't die? And then came the report that he had been seen by the disciples, that he had even eaten with them. Could it really have been him?
We Unitarian Universalists are children of the enlightenment. We believe in science. Bodies that die just don't get up, walk and eat again. While we've always been willing to receive the ethical teachings of Jesus, we are extremely suspicious of all the stories describing the events after his crucifixion. We prefer to talk about the religion of Jesus, what he taught and stood for in his life, as the basis for our Unitarian Universalist Christians' faith. We mostly reject the religion about Jesus that focuses almost exclusively on his atonement, resurrection and ascension into heaven to sit at the right hand of God as part of the Trinity.
We are not alone in our skepticism. We refuse to take the Christian Scriptures word for word as the one and only historical record of what Jesus said and did. We refuse because the earliest of the four gospels, Mark, probably wasn't written until 40 years after Jesus' death. The earliest writings known recording Jesus' sayings don't appear until 20 years after his death. And sometimes these different stories and versions conflict with each other.
We are not alone in our skepticism. Some of you attended interim minister Davidson Loehr's class on the Jesus Seminar and their search for the historical Jesus. To sort out what Jesus said and did as accurately as possible, the Jesus Seminar scholars went through the Bible line by line and separated the passages they felt came from the lips of Jesus from those that they think were put in his mouth by the Gospel writers imagining what he should have or likely might have said. They did this by voting with four different colored balls. The results of their democratic decision making was shocking to most Christians. These scholars threw out most of words attributed to Jesus as inaccurate in content or style. In particular for my topic this morning, they found no textual sources that supported the empty tomb and the resurrection stories. The earliest texts we have today are silent about what happened after Jesus was killed. The Apostle Paul, who had no personal experience of Jesus, writing letters 20 years after Jesus' death is the first source that mentions Jesus' resurrection as an article of faith.
The fact that the earliest texts are silent on resurrection doesn't mean it didn't happen, only we have weak historical evidence. For that matter we have weak historical evidence that Jesus existed at all. We have far more evidence that Paul existed and was instrumental in creating Christianity as it is practiced today.
Those of us with a scientific approach to reality will be interested in looking for other explanations of the resurrection than Paul presents.
The first century was a very turbulent time in Jewish history. The Romans were not as easy conquerors to live with. The Greeks before them had been accepting of and curious about the different religious traditions they discovered as they expanded their empire. The Romans were also religiously tolerant but demanded that the Jews sacrifice to their Gods as well. Jews, central belief in one and only one God caused a great deal of friction. What was really troubling to the Jews was the Roman desire to extract far more wealth out of their empire than the Greeks had. The additional Roman economic pressure to usurp their land, their sacred means of production as well as tribute brought a simmering situation to a boil.
A popular Jewish sentiment of the day was Apocalyptic thought. Many believed there would be a great upheaval very soon, the Judgement Day would come and God would begin to reign on earth. Jesus and John the Baptist were of this tradition. The Jesus Seminar scholars believe Jesus is highly likely to have said "This generation shall not pass away before all of these things have been fulfilled." There's considerable evidence that the early Christian church was rooted in an intense apocalyptic anticipation (1). Apocalyptic prophets foretold the dead would be raised on the Judgment Day. This prediction created the expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead first to lead the way.
This might have been one explanation why no one bothered to write down what Jesus was saying. What's the point if paradise is just around the corner? When the generation had passed away before these things were fulfilled, proving Jesus wrong, something had to be done to reinterpret his words.
Why did his disciples so fervently believe in Jesus even after he was killed? The empty tomb story and stories of his appearances to his followers may have stoked their faith. Given there were other apocalyptic prophets vying for those same followers to join them, a strong belief must have worked to keep them together and sustain them to endure the early persecution they suffered. Paul was intimately connected to the disciples who knew Jesus personally. Since the Resurrection was so central to Paul's and the early churches' faith, I find it highly unlikely they fabricated it without some kind of reliable report or actual evidence. For this morning, I invite you to struggle with the empty tomb and Jesus' after death appearances. Let's see if we can make sense of these stories.
A number of well-known theories have been put forward to rationalize the empty tomb and Jesus's after death appearances. Some believe he did not die at all. When he was taken down and entombed, he wasn't dead but in a coma from which he later revived. This seems highly unlikely give our medical understanding of how crucifixion was done. The victim's inability to breathe without struggling means after he passed out, his brain would have been deprived of oxygen. Another idea is that Mary went to the wrong tomb. Yet this seems pretty unlikely especially when other disciples are reported to have verified what she said. Hugh Schonfield in his book The Passover Plot put forward the idea that Jesus' disciples mistook another man for Jesus, another theory that seems pretty far fetched.
Probably the best theory that has been put forward to date has been that the disciples hallucinated seeing Jesus. I was introduced to this idea by reading a book by the Unitarian Universalist minister, the Reverend Jack Kent titled The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth. This theory is built on evidence that some people sense their loved ones after they have died. The most common experience is to feel the presence of the person nearby. The bereaved will be involved in an activity and all of a sudden have the strong impression that the deceased person is close to them. Sometimes people hear voices. Not just construct an imaginary voice, rather they actually hear the person's voice just as you are hearing me now. Sometimes people actually see the deceased!
This seemed a little loony until I spoke with Philomena about it. She seems like a pretty levelheaded person to me, one of the reasons I married her. She told me that she had auditory hallucinations as a child of her lost cat in the basement. She also saw an upstairs neighbor who had died sitting at the wheel of his car in front of her house. Both experiences were strong enough to be very disturbing to her, not one of those experiences where you look then do a double take uncertain what you saw or heard.
The results a scientific survey of about 300 widows and widowers reveal that around 50% of them report these hallucinations. The researchers also discovered these hallucinations were more likely when the loved one died unexpectedly or violently. Given the traumatic way Jesus died, the expectation that the apocalypse was imminent, and that the dead would rise from their graves really soon, one can begin building a case his disciples would hallucinate visions of him, even in groups.
I read Kent's book in anticipation of my sermon this morning expecting to be persuaded by his arguments. While I do like them and think they are quite plausible, some pieces of the puzzle just don't fall into place that I'm troubled by, forcing me to re-title my sermon from "grief and resurrection" to "making meaning of the resurrection story."
The first concern I have is the empty tomb story. This gets a lot of ink in the Gospels suggesting to me that the early church felt it was important and reliable. Bishop Spong, a popular liberal Christian theologian, suggests Jesus was probably buried in a mass grave and his disciples scattered. Since the apocalyptic ideas of resurrection required care in the way a body was buried, I think it unlikely either family or followers didn't take pains to be sure he was carefully laid to rest, ready to rise again. In fact I can imagine this is why his body would have been carefully protected. The discovery of his tomb being empty would have been profoundly energizing for his followers but it is highly unlikely they would have moved his body to pretend he had been especially so soon after his death.
The second problem I have is the descriptions of how he reappears. Take the Road to Emmaus story found in Luke. Two Jesus followers are walking to Emmaus and a third joins them. They talk together about the events in Jerusalem and the stranger teaches them. His follower's hearts burn within them but they do not know who he is. They only recognize him as Jesus after they break bread together.
In all the contemporary stories of people hallucinating that they sense a dead person, they immediately know who the person is. They aren't confused about who that presence they feel might be. That is what makes the experience remarkable and disturbing, the sense of recognition. In the Emmaus story there is no initial recognition.
The last problem is that Jesus doesn't just appear to one person but also to groups of people. The likelihood that people could hallucinate a common experience hearing the same information is unlikely.
This intense focus on Jesus' resurrection creates an intense commitment in his followers. It is a commitment for which they are willing to endure Paul's persecution of them and die. The stories of these appearances were tremendously fortifying to their faith. This has me wondering if there might have been something more that happened than hallucinations. Could there be another explanation that comes from another continent. Could there be an explanation that wasn't a unique event but an unusual but human one?
In the past, I've drawn connections between Jesus' teachings and Buddhist teachings wondering if there might have been some kind of connection. I wondered if Jesus could have been a Bodhisattva, a person who vows to take rebirth again and again to bring all beings to enlightenment. I've wondered if he had access to some of the esoteric teachings of Buddhism.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes one way to die I've heard referred to as "rainbow death." When a great, highly accomplished and enlightened monk dies, their body can dissolve and disappear over a period of several days. It is called rainbow death because the sky fills with rainbows during this process. This isn't just a historical oddity. As late as 1998, a Tibetan monk is reported to have died in this way (2). Father Francis Tiso, associate pastor at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Mill Valley and Tibetan Buddhist scholar traveled to Tibet to investigate this case. He reported the monk's disciples covered his body with a sheet after he died. The body gradually shrank and disappeared over the course of eight days. His disciples reported visions of him and his great compassionate presence after that eight day period. This is hardly scientific verification but rather a curious idea that bodies can disappear and visions can happen that have parallels with the resurrection story.
I shared this story with my father, a chemistry professor, who didn't believe a word of it. I too have my strong reservations. I like it however because such an after death transformation of a body into light could be studied and confirmed very easily. Conceivably, it could form the basis for a revolutionary new understanding of the nature of matter and energy and their interchangeability. Tibetan lamas say that we all have rainbow bodies but don't realize it because we are so attached to our material form. One of the purposes of rainbow death is to encourage the other monks. Father Francis put it this way, "[Rainbow death] is ultimately a manifestation of compassion, of a real bodhisattva's ability to show people that the path is worth taking, that the sacrifices are worth it, and that their endeavor has universal power to reach out beyond the confines of the body or time." (2)
If Jesus' was a bodhisattva of compassion too, could he have undergone rainbow death and appeared to his disciples to inspire them that the hardships they would suffer would be worth it? I don't know, but it makes a good story. What I do know is opening our minds and expanding our thinking about reality is what a good story does. A good story stimulates the imagination and opens the heart. I find my flexibility and imagination with other people's stories is very helpful when I engage those who believe differently than I do. Imagining Jesus as a Bodhisattva of Compassion helps me find a meaningful connection to Christians I work with in our community. It is our social imagination, our creative interchange with each other that generates meaning for us.
The fact is, none of us will ever know what happened 2000 years ago to Jesus' body. We do know life transcends us as individuals and also animates us as individuals. We know we have value and worth without needing to earn it or prove it. We know love cannot be born or die.
May we recognize in the scraps of text that record the life of Jesus, describe his death and reach beyond his death, may we recognize in that story a truth as alive now as it was then. In that record and in the Christian tradition that carries Jesus' story is an eternal principle of being that can give life meaning, resurrection or no resurrection.
True or false are the wrong questions to ask of a story.
Every story has a little of both.
Buried or risen,
Hallucinated or seen,
Imagined or witnessed,
Both become half remembered dreams over time.
What speaks to us today are the messages carried in the stories,
Messages of hope, messages of love, messages of freedom.
Let us hear the message of these stories, feel their encouragement,
and use them to create the story of our lives others will tell of us.
Copyright © 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.
(1) Paul Boyer, History Professor at the University of Wisconsin from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/explanation/jesusjohnbaptist.html