Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-3, 11-14; John 11: 3-8, 17-25, 43-44; John 11: 45-53
`The Bible is an act of faithful imagination. It is not a package of certitudes. It is an act of imagination that invites our faithful imagination that makes it possible to live faithfully,` said biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.
My childhood imagination of Easter was the Pagan festival of the Spring Equinox, a celebration of the renewal of life bursting forth from the earth after the death of winter. But as the years have progressed I have been increasingly challenged to re-imagine the Easter story.
The concept of resurrection is a symbolic expression of hope with a long history. It challenges us to imagine what happened to the early followers of Jesus after his brutal crucifixion. The ideas and hope that Jesus had ignited did not die, but became renewed as their approach to life became transformed. Some were even inspired by monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, to live out Jesus` radically different approach to life, spreading Christianity as a result throughout the known world.
In the story of Lazarus we read today, Martha said, `I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.` However, John has Jesus responding in the present tense, `I am the resurrection and the life`. The experience of resurrection is Now.
Slides of Anastasis
This NOW is captured in the Anastasis iconography of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, that I discovered while on a Pilgrimage to Turkey with Borg and Crossan in 2014.
This imagery builds on Ezekiel`s 37:13 reading. `And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up . . . O my people,` to tell this is fulfilled by Jesus` life and teaching.
In this image we see the risen Jesus stomping on the Gates of Hades, depicting the Hell on Earth humans cause when we resort to violent behaviour against people and the environment. As the gates of hell are shattered, we see the risen Jesus clasping the hands of `Adam and Eve`, the representatives of humanity releasing them from hell on earth. Watching on are David, Solomon, John the Baptist and the Prophets. The past, present and future together.
This Eastern Orthodox iconography contrasts with Western theology where the resurrection of Jesus is imagined as a second coming based on the Persian myth of the last judgement at the end of time.
After the Lazarus story revealing Jesus as the `resurrection and the life`, John has Jesus going up to Jerusalem where he confronts the Temple authorities who keep the people subservient, to maintain the flow of taxation to Rome for the Army and their own luxurious homes and buildings.
Slides: Coliseum and Pantheon, Arch of Titus in Rome with the loot of the Temple.
Excessive taxation, temple tithes and levies was forcing many peasants off their land and fishing boats, becoming landless labourers and beggars. To these, Jesus taught a non-violent alternative to the tyranny of corrupt and violent use of power. Attracting a significant following, the Temple authorities, feeling threatened conspired to have Jesus killed. So in John 11: 50 Caiphas says: `Better that one man die than we all suffer` because he must have feared that the Roman Authorities would remove him and his cronies from their privileged position.
The Temple authorities had over the years resorted to `Conventional Wisdom`, by building religious walls of exclusion through the strict observance of the 613 laws of the Torah - creating insiders and outsiders, the blessed and the sinners, Jews and Gentiles. Similarly across the world today in many places, `Conventional Wisdom` sees the wider world as hostile, turns inwards and defends its self-interest at all costs.
Marcus Borg said: `If the problem is bondage, then the solution is liberation - It means leaving Egypt and the dominion of Pharaoh. It involves passing through the sea to the other side - a passage from one kind of life to another.`
The situation faced by the Jews in Jesus` time, has striking parallels to the globalized world we now confront as we hit the limits of our finite planet.
With a grossly unequal distribution of wealth, rampant pollution of the atmosphere by the rich causing catastrophic climatic effects on the poor, amassing wealth beyond all human imaginings and destroying the environment in the process. We are the new Roman Empire.
There is hope however, because God`s grace of unlimited generosity has gifted us the scientific knowledge, technologies and natural resources to solve these problems without violence. We have the tools but we need the moral will.
Over the past millennium of plagues and exploration, revolution and scientific discovery, women`s rights and technological advances, human society has changed beyond recognition. British Historian Ian Mortimer, a non-believer in his book `The Human Race: 10 Centuries of Change on Earth` reviews all the key people of history to decide who was the greatest agent of change. His epilogue, concludes that it is `God` that has brought about these changes.
Mortimer said the Catholic Church`s perception of God`s will resulted in the `Peace Movements` that stopped the war lords from incessant war and the discontinuation of slavery in the 11th and 12th Centuries.
It was Christian monasticism that in the 12th Century led to the renaissance and beginnings of learning and science. After the reformation, when printing was invented, the study of God in the Bible led to widespread literacy creating better government which in turn caused the decline in personal violence.
Exploring God`s creation led scientists to uncovering the mysteries of the universe and nature. Belief in God`s healing powers gave many 17th Century physicians the confidence to heal the sick. In the 19th Century it was the understanding that God had made everyone equal that led to equal rights of men and women, black and white, rich and poor as the only defensible moral standpoint.
Only in the 20th Century did Mortimer find that God`s influence had declined, but predicts that religion`s influence will again rise. If so, we must recognise that science is a two-edged sword giving us access to unrivalled wealth, but also warnings of the consequences. If a re-visioning of Jesus` teachings and life can challenge the `conventional wisdom` of continual economic growth in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the environment is progressively destroyed, then the influence of religion will revive.
Can we this Easter, breathe new life into our old ways, outdated thinking and way of doing things? Can we re-image Easter as Ezekiel did when he saw the faith of Israel as a valley of dry bones, but had a prophetic vision of the Spirit of the Lord restoring their life, bringing them out of their grave of despair, returning them to their land of hope to continue their mission to the world. A prophecy that repeatedly comes to fulfilment when we live out the resurrection of Jesus in new and imaginative ways. AMEN
Marcus Borg, 2006, Jesus a New Vision: Spirit, Culture and the Life of discipleship.
Brendon Byrne, 2014, Life Abounding: A reading of John`s Gospel.
David Felten and Jeff Proctor Murray, 2012, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.
Lloyd Geering, 2010, Such is Life! - A close encounter with Ecclesiastes.
Geering and God: 1965-71 - The Heresy Trial that divided New Zealand.
Ian Mortimer, 2014, Human Race, 10 Centuries on Earth
Joseph Romm, 2016, Climate Change, what everyone needs to know.