Progressive reflections on the lectionary #12

Luke 24:36-48 Post resurrection appearances

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #12

After the stories of Jesus death come those of his resurrection. In these accounts we find the material which, for some, confirm the divinity of Christ, and for others confirm the unreliability of the text.

This week’s gospel passage is one of those stories. It starts with Jesus appearing, out of nowhere and frightening the disciples who, not unreasonably, think he must be a ghost. He puts these fears to rest by showing his hands and feet (as a matter of accuracy: although the text says hands, any nail holes would have to have been in the wrists, but that’s something for another day) and by eating some fish. Interesting to note that catacomb depictions of early Christian communion meals show that people were eating fish and bread - but then again they were eating actual meals, so perhaps that’s not so great a surprise.

The gospels forge their own paths in terms of what happened after the resurrection, just as they do with what happened before it. Some find it important to ensure that there is a way for all these accounts to tally up, if they do then readers who want to treat the stories as ‘fact’ or ‘reportage’ can feel secure about their veracity.

For a long time the fundamental dispute within the Christian tradition about these passages has been whether to read them as history, or as something more like metaphor. The resulting wrangling becomes over whether this or that were possible, whether times and places match up, whether one account of an event may be an alternative description of another, and so on. Depending upon where you land on this would determine your stance to the fact/metaphor divide.

I make no secret of the fact that, while I certainly understand Jesus to have been a real person, I don’t feel the need to read the gospels as reportage or ‘reliable history’. I do, however, respect the fact that this is just one perspective. My view on this has changed over the course of my life, it may yet change again. So rather than fortify a position that says: ‘the appearances are metaphorical, and here’s why…’ I’m more interested in considering what the stories may be intended to communicate - I think that doing so provides some common ground for a range of perspectives on the resurrection.

What did it mean to believe that Caesar was divine, as he was claimed to be at the time? Ultimately it meant that you accepted the rule of Rome. It meant that you submitted to the imperial edicts and laws.

What, then, would it mean to say that Jesus was divine? Surely it would mean that you stood for another kingdom, another, very different way of living. At the time it probably also meant that you expected the ‘world as we know it’ to soon come to an end.

Stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances - whether understood as factual or metaphorical demonstrate that here, truly, was one who transcended the human/divine divide. Never mind the claims of the divinity of the Emperor, here was the true ‘Messiah’, the anointed king of Israel who could, and would, do the impossible.

The hard to accept possibility of the impossible is a key recurring theme in the gospel accounts - and in the greater story of second temple Israel. Whether it is the strength of the weak, the riches of the poor, or now: the presence of the absent, it is this possibility that a people who find themselves in an impossible position must cling to.

In reading these stories we cannot overlook the position the original readers of the stories were in, we can’t ignore the fact that Israel (as a whole) had been devastated, that only a remnant of “God’s chosen people” now remained, and that fulfillment of destiny would only come when the lost tribes were regathered. Out of this, already small and downtrodden, people group, now came an even smaller and more despised new sect of Jews - people who became known as ‘Christians’. They were people of the impossible, in many ways they (we) still are.

In the face of impossibility a leader who embodied/embodies the possibility of the impossible was/is required. All through the stories, this is the message that Jesus has been preaching: the impossible is possible. So the triumph of life over death is entirely in keeping with the broader narrative.

It’s perhaps interesting to note that another divine death and resurrection story dates from around the same time as the story of Christ. The earliest representations of the Hindu deity Ganesh can be dated to the first century CE, although the fuller tradition of his killing, by decapitation, by Shiva, his father, and his subsequent resurrection by means of the bestowing of an elephant’s head, may have taken longer to develop. Ganesh is a unifying deity who represents, among other things, the removal of obstacles. Although Christ is more often compared to Krishna, there is, I suspect, an interesting comparison to be made here - if you are so motivated, and are daring enough.

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Image: William Hole, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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