Last revised: April 29, 2015
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THE RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD — YEAR B
RCL: Isaiah 25:6-9, or Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18, or Mark 16:1-8
RoCa: Acts 10:34, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, the chapter entitled “Hope and Concupiscence.” Alison shows how the Resurrection breaks down many former dualities. Chief among them is the social duality such as that between Jew and Gentile. Acts 10 is an example of the gradual process: Peter has to be pushed by God into entering Cornelius’ house and then has an “Aha!” moment. One theme for preaching might be that the Resurrection provides a new basis for human sociality that does not depend on having a common enemy, that does not pit some against others.
2. James Alison, On Being Liked, the Introduction makes ample use of this passage, pages vii-xi; and then again on pages 101-102.
Reflections and Questions
1. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” Here is the heart of the matter: Humankind declares Jesus guilty and executes him; God declares Jesus innocent and raises him. One thing I’ve wondered about in these typical sermons of Acts, however, is that they never quite get to universalizing what happens to Jesus. When Peter speaks to Jews at the outset, he tells them that “you” killed Jesus. Here, in addressing Gentiles, he says that “they” killed him. When does the revelation of the cross as universal get to the point of saying “we” killed Jesus? St. Paul takes this latter tactic due to his personal experience of having persecuted Christ; he is able to identify himself as a persecutor. But this is in his own letters. Luke’s accounts of Paul’s first sermon in Acts follows the same pattern of blaming the Jewish leaders (13:27-28). It begins to change a bit with his sermon in Athens (Acts 17).
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
1. I’m not aware of direct references to 1 Cor. 15 in Girardian works, but I will lift up several references to what I consider the theme of 1 Cor. 15: the necessity and importance of belief in the resurrection. Most importantly, the first three of James Alison‘s books begin with the Resurrection as the starting point for both the Christian faith and theology. Knowing Jesus is a great example of beginning with the Resurrection as the basis for theology. His other two books follow in the same pattern. The Joy of Being Wrong also uses a polemic against Eric Gans‘ Science and Faith. Gans is correct, he says, in using an a posteriori methodology that constructs a theory from a given starting point. But he goes on to say:
I differ somewhat from Gans. Gans posits the moment of the constitution of human monogenesis [i.e., at the birth of human culture] as, in itself, a moment of revelation. By this he means the birth, through a particular event, of an entirely new form of awareness. It seems to me that he is right about the birth of the new form of awareness, but wrong to call that a revelation. A revelation implies that something that had been covered, hidden, is now dis-covered, unhidden. However, in the moment of the constitution of a properly human consciousness there was nothing previously human to be uncovered. By definition, what led up to, and permitted, the forming of the human representational awareness was not, itself, human. The constitutive event itself is not dis-covered, or revealed in the birth of the new human awareness. Rather, it is exactly this event that is hidden, or covered, in the structure of the awareness which it has made possible. (p. 66)
Alison is differing from Gans on their accounts of the birth of human culture, which is itself the point of hominization, the point at which those primates who were not yet human took the step of becoming human. For Girard, that point of hominization is founded in the real events of collective murders that give rise to feelings of awe at the peace created, and begin to spawn religion of the Sacred. And one of keys to Sacred religion is to hide the human reponsibility for the violence behind a veil of the Sacred. The gods are given credit for the violence, the birth of the idolatry at the heart of all religion. The birth of human awareness, then, includes the covering over, the veiling, of the nature of its genesis in violence. In Alison’s terms, as opposed to Gans’, there is a veiling, not an unveiling, or revelation. It is only in the cross and resurrection of Christ that we begin to dis-cover or unveil the truth of our origins. The resurrection thus becomes the starting point for the revealing of all truth, both about who we are and about who God is.
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John,” tape 11. Before unpacking John’s story of the crucifixion, Bailie begins by emphasizing that the resurrection actually comes first, in the sense that we cannot come to understand the meaning of the cross without the resurrection. Otherwise, the cross is simply another tragic scapegoating. He cites 1 Cor. 15: Paul experienced resurrection as conversion. Similarly in Luke, on the road to Emmaus: the risen Jesus explains the events of the cross by pondering Scripture in light of these events. The resurrection experience seems to be a gradual process of coming to understand the crucifixion. The early apostles came to understand the crucifixion as at the heart of the meaning of Jesus’ life, not the destroyer of it. It was the event of full revelation.
Reflections and Questions
1. St. Paul speaks even more directly in the verses immediately following, vs. 12-19. The Christian faith without the resurrection is quite simply in vain. I think that the Girardian emphasis on the revelation of the cross and resurrection helps make sense of St. Paul’s insistence in this matter. As we said of Alison’s argument above, it is in the nature of human consciousness to be conceived in a process of delusion. Only a radical intervention on God’s part could break us free of those delusions. That act of intervention was the resurrection, God’s bold declaration of innocence upon one whom we had tried once again to reconstitute our human solidarity through collective murder.
As an option for the Gospel in all three years of the lectionary, I have put together a separate page for John 20:1-18.
The biggest decision exegetically is whether you believe Mark 16:8 is the original end of the Gospel. I don’t see many scholars claiming one of the alternate endings, from less reliable manuscripts, as original. Scholars such as N. T. Wright are arguing in favor of an original ending that was lost, based on Mark’s story needing another ending (see, e.g., How God Became King, p. 121, or his interpretation of Mark 16:1-8 in Mark for Everyone). But I disagree with Wright, for the following (non-all-inclusive) reasons:
- I find compelling Mary Ann Tolbert’s (Sowing the Gospel) basic thesis about the centrality of the sower parable in mapping out the characters in Mark’s Gospel: Jewish and Roman leadership as the hard soil, Peter and the disciples as the rocky soil, Herod and the rich young man as thorny soil, and unnamed suffering characters who show faith as the fertile soil (more below). Mark’s community was possibly one that lacked any apostolic connection, and so the members of Mark’s community may be represented as the fertile soil, by those unnamed sufferers who step out in faith. Their response to the Resurrection comes from hearing the Good News of God’s Son and is not represented by any characters in the Gospel itself — thus, Mark ends it in Mark 16:8.
- John Dominic Crossan’s recent The Power of Parable paints Mark’s Gospel as itself a challenge parable to apostolic authority, through its negative treatment of the disciples — thus accepting 16:8 as the original ending.
- I agree with many of N. T. Wright’s arguments concerning the Historical Jesus, yet I might argue against him that accepting Mark 16:8 as the ending to his Gospel fits just fine with his other arguments. For those unfamiliar with Wright, his recent books (Simply Jesus and How God Became King) portray Jesus as very intentionally acting as God’s Messiah who fulfills the promise of God taking charge and becoming king of the world. But he does so in a way that completely redefines what kingship is. The crucial move is that Jesus understands and reads the Hebrew Bible as prophesying a Messiah who takes on his people’s suffering. Perhaps the two most important passages are in Luke’s Easter Day stories (passages also very important to Mimetic Theory; see the homepage essay on this site):
Then [Jesus] said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. — Luke 24:25-27
Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day…” — Luke 24:44-46
Couldn’t we interpret Mark’s sudden ending as his way of portraying how foolish and slow of heart we are to accept suffering as integral to the Messiah’s mission in the world? The women running away in fear is representative of the typical disciple’s fear of accepting suffering as part of the call.
- In Mark’s Gospel those who step out in faith are those, mostly unnamed, whom Jesus encounters in suffering: the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit (1:23), Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30), a leper (1:40), the paralyzed man with four friends (2:3), a man with a withering hand (3:1), the Gerasene demoniac (5:2), Jairus and his daughter (5:22), the woman suffering hemorrhaging for twelve years (5:25), the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter is ill (7:25), a deaf man (7:32), a blind man (8:22), the man with a son who suffers seizures (9:17), people who brought their little children to him (10:13), Bartimaeus the blind beggar (10:46), one of the scribes who agrees with Jesus’ Greatest Commandment (12:28), a widow who puts her last coins in the Temple treasury (12:42), the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (14:3), and the centurion at the foot of the cross who proclaims him God’s Son (15:39). Some stepped out in faith to approach Jesus or to act in faith such that Jesus commends them; others stepped out in response after being healed, often spreading the Good News even when asked not to.
- Nadia Bolz Weber has an 8-minute video presentation in the Animate Bible adult education series on the Gospels, in which her main focus verse is Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Near the end of the video she emphasizes the word beginning. Her points can be summarized: ‘Its not the whole story. Its not even most of the story, because it doesnt stop there. The stories of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have done its work in people for centuries to right now here in this place where youve gathered…. Mark was right. Hearing is only the beginning of the Good News. His declaration of the Good News was meant to elicit a response. Those who have heard the story become part of the story. We are agents of the continuation of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God.’ I think this makes a good case for what Mark is trying to do by ending his story as he does. His listeners are to be the continuing Gospel of Jesus Christ — which is the theme on my 2015 sermon “The Continuing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 57-59. A good snippet: “The announcement is not, ‘Here he is!’ but rather, ‘He is not here!’ (16:6). What the resurrection symbolizes is not simply part of the present order, but something that belongs to the future.” Hamerton-Kelly also begins the next chapter explaining how Mark’s gospel is circular, the sudden ending bringing the reader back to the beginning.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 8, entitled “Hope: Where Boldness Blossoms out of Fear.” Alison frames this whole chapter with the fear of the women running from the tomb in Mark 16:8, a fear out of which hope is born. I highly recommend reading this chapter before preaching on this passage.
3. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, pp. 48-50. Beck’s most general outline of Mark’s Gospel is to divide it in two: rising action into increasing tension and conflict, Mark 1-13, and the falling action of conflict resolution, Mark 14-16. What distinguishes Mark’s Gospel from other conventional stories is its nonviolent conflict resolution.
Both halves of Mark’s story use his favorite device, bracketing. Mark 1-13 is bracketed by cleansing episodes: Jesus’ initial act of ministry in 1:21-28 is the cleansing of a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue; and the climactic act of Jesus’ ministry, especially in terms of heightening conflict, is the so-called cleansing of the Temple in 11:15-19. The second half is bracketed by anointings: 14:3-9 and 16:1. They both are mis-timed:
The Bethany anointing (14:3-9) is sandwiched between a pair of passages that some critics see as originally forming one unit (14:1-2, 10-11). It has to do with the council’s conspiracy against Jesus and Judas’s instrumental role in that conspiracy. The anointing is identified by Jesus as a burial anointing, by anticipation (14:8). Like the burial anointing at the end of the Gospel, it is untimely. This is too early; the later anointing is too late. This effort succeeds in anointing Jesus’ body, though his body is not dead; the later anointing fails because his body is gone from the tomb: although he has died, he is apparently not dead. Together the two anointing attempts work to make a whole. At opposite ends of the passion account, prior and subsequent to the appropriate moment, they strive to supply the necessary ritual of burial. Neither succeeds since they are shut off from access to the body of Jesus during the crucial time of his death and burial, by the Sabbath prohibition and by the hostile forces that have crucified him. They can only do homage from the edges of the arena of narrative action. (pp. 48-49)
Both anointings carried out by women, we should not miss the political dimension. These ritual actions are more than ritual show:
Like the cleansings of the holy places characterizing Jesus’ initiative in the rising action, the anointings of his body provide a powerful symbolism for the falling action of the fallen hero. Like cleansing, anointing is a ritual action we still use. At Bethany it is Jesus’ head that is anointed (14:3), which signals that Jesus dies as Messiah, as D. E. Nineham recognizes (Saint Mark [London: Penguin, 1963] 372-73). “Messiah” literally means “Anointed One” and refers to the practice of anointing the head of a new king.The political dimension of the symbol speaks to the agon — Jesus dies as Messiah, the anticipated king, the threat to the usurpers in present control (like Herod, in Matthews infancy narrative [Mt 2:1-11]). Jesus’ claims, backed by his actions, have resulted in his execution. Furthermore, the only anointing given the Anointed One is burial anointing. The meanings of “Messiah” are condensed in this narrative symbol. And while it brings to mind ideas of the “suffering Messiah,” the phrase is not to be confused with certain pious extrapolations of this theme. We ought not put aside its narrative context. We do not have here an “innocent victim” ambushed by the unprovoked malice of wicked enemies unable to stomach the prospect of sharing the planet with virtuous persons. Rather Jesus is experiencing the consequences of his deliberate, sustained challenge to the standing social arrangement through the first thirteen chapters of the Gospel. Any piety here is political and confrontational. (p. 49-50)
4. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, pp. 127-129. Here, Beck more directly discusses Mark 16:1-8 and its apparently open ending. The bracketing by anointing actions speaks for Mark’s intentionality in leaving the ending hanging. Beck writes:
Like the anointing that signals it, the closure of the narrative is declared by returning to the opening event, but it does not manage to be quite complete. Its unfinished quality is intended. It is both closed and unclosed. It moves into its sequel, as was seen in chapter 13, where Jesus looked ahead to the future of the disciples and the present of the reader. That is to say, the Gospel story explicitly makes reference to the yet-to-come story of the disciples. It addresses the reader and says, “This is to be your story.”When the women come to the tomb, they find the man in white who tells them, “He has been raised; he is not here.” The tomb is the wrong place to look for him. Where instead ought they look? “Go and say to his disciples and to Peter: ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee: there you will see him as he told you.'” In terms of the narrative, as we have been reading it, this advises a return to the starting point of the narrative. The disciples are invited to begin their own enactment of the story. If the portrait of Jesus in this narrative is located in the plot, the reenactment of the narrative action of the lives of the disciples is testimony to Jesus’ continued presence and the continuation of that presence. The story will not die.
In the more traditional terms of resurrection, terms that we find more satisfying because they are more familiar and not because they are less astonishing, Jesus lives. Despite the claims of cultural reality, his path through these events has been toward life. The assurance given is not unlike that offered by the story in 2 Maccabees 7, where a mother loses her seven sons to the persecuting zeal of an emperor. The brothers are able to persist in their nonviolent resistance to the very end by drawing on a tangible faith in resurrected life. They will be vindicated, not the emperor. Similarly, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lives. God vindicates him, not the emperor.
And so, in the final chapter of the Gospel, the narrator reaffirms the order of “reality” conspicuous in the irony of the passion account but implied from the very first verse. Appearances are deceiving. In the power struggle portrayed by the narrative plot, the apparent victors have lost. Violence, as seen concentrated in its most representative moment, that of killing, does not prevail. In its irony the narrative finds a way out of the mythic contradiction that would hold that violence redresses, or cures, or civilizes — the cultural trap that would claim that violence can be relieved by adding more of the same. (pp. 128-129)
6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on this passage in 2015, “Running Away from the Resurrected Life.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 my personal life impacted Holy Week in an important way: my father died on the Friday before Passion Saturday (March 27), and because it came in such close proximity to Holy Week, our family decided to set the funeral for the Saturday after Holy Week (April 11). The Three Days came right in the middle between his death and funeral. The resulting sermon was more personal than usual, because I found myself asking how the Easter message played out for me at my own time of grief. I spoke more personally about how it is a message of comfort and hope for me. And the bottom line came with a theme from Nadia Bolz-Weber (see above) for the sermon “The Continuing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
2. In 2009 I used the theme of the sudden ending to explore new ways of faith that are calling us to lives of mission, in a sermon titled “A Surprise Beginning.”
3. In 2012 I again began with a query about the sudden ending, but this time I use the theme developed above in the exegetical notes: the women run away afraid because of the suffering involved in following this Messiah. Luke’s Gospel has Jesus tell the disciples how slow of heart they are to understand that the Messiah must suffer. Mark shows their slowness of heart by having them initially run away afraid. They are slow to follow Jesus to Galilee. See the sermon “Slow to Follow a Suffering Messiah.”
4. The young man says to the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Why is Peter singled out? Compare this with the picture of Peter throughout Mark’s gospel. I think that Mary Ann Tolbert presents a good case in Sowing the Gospel, that the Parable of the Sower has Peter and the disciples in mind for the rocky soil, which “when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). Simon is even nicknamed Peter, the Rock. In Mark’s Gospel, I don’t think this is meant in flattering terms. He’s not the rock of Matthew’s Gospel on which the Church is built. He’s the rock who exemplifies the disciples’ constant denseness to the Gospel, and who denied Jesus at his hour of trial. Yet he’s the same Peter that the young man singles out in his promise that the Risen Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark’s Jesus does not speak words of forgiveness from the Cross, but he promises to go before “his disciples and Peter” as their Risen Lord. Apparently, God’s forgiveness can begin to break apart even the rocky soil. Link to a sermon using these themes entitled “Much More than a Moral Victory.”
5. This reference to Peter, and the promise to go before him, also recalls the sermon a several weeks ago (Lent 2B) that I shared, about God the Chooser and Satan the Accuser. Part of the dynamic of that passage is Peter being in the wrong place, seemingly trying to lead Jesus. Jesus tells him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Here, there is a more gentle reminder that Jesus goes out ahead of them.
6. The preacher might consider using Mark 16:8 as a starting point for a sermon, posing it as a brief break from our celebration of the resurrection in order to consider why someone would be afraid of it. In fact, the gospel accounts primarily show ambiguous reactions to the resurrection on the part of the first witnesses, Mark’s account being the most dramatically anticlimactic. Are we ready to have Jesus intrude on our lives with the light of who we really are? Generally not, I think. But he comes anyway, and we are relieved to find out that it is as our forgiving Savior. From the word of forgiveness, new life can begin.