Jesus worked to bring people together: Samaritan and Jew, Greek and
Roman. He practiced an open table, rich and poor, male and female. He
challenged unjust boundaries and rules.
That is what got him killed!
The Empty Tomb
20 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb
There has been a particular question that has always been there since the first “followers of the way” started to become a new way of viewing the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. That question must be “is it true”? It relates to the Easter story as it has become known of an empty grave. The other issue is how does this relate to the Passover period of the Jewish calendar to which the three gospel writers point in their varying liturgy’s of who Jesus was and how he related to Jewish traditions.
With regards to the first question that one I will leave you to decide for yourself, as a title in the most recent inquirer says “does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead or not?” To some extent the truth behind the resurrection is not the issue, as I started to think of a message for today I was interested to note however that all four writers of the Gospels agree one thing and that is Women and the most named on of these is Mary Magdalene went to the tomb with intent to administer spices to the body.
In a study by Craig Evans on Jewish burial customs at the time of the Gospels, he writes-
“It is further concluded that it is very probable that some of Jesus’ followers
(such as the women mentioned in the Gospel accounts) knew where Jesus’ body had been
placed and intended to mark the location, perfume his body, and mourn, in keeping with
Jewish customs. The intention was to take possession of Jesus’ remains, at some point in
the future, and transfer them to his family burial place”
This then would confirm Mary the Mother of Jesus being present as consistent with the custom of moving Jesus to the family grave later.
Did they find and empty grave as the liturgies of the gospels record? That question presents itself again. I am still not going to attempt to answer it, that’s your choice.
But I want to turn to the backdrop to the Easter Story and that is that it is said to have occurred at the time of the Passover according to three gospels. Now to put the life of Jesus in context we must remember his gospel recorded year of ministry is related to the Jewish calendar, and the Gospels especially Matthew Mark and Luke are written as liturgical statements to explain how the early “followers of the way” of Jesus fitted his way in with the observances of the Jewish calendar of major festivals. So it is not automatically an actual account of time and day, but a way of viewing the festivals on reflection. The gospels are all written at least some 60 years after the events, and are centered probably on the time of the destruction of the Temple CE 70 in Jerusalem. The three gospels who put Jesus in a place of a Passover celebration are written before the “followers of the way” are excluded from being a sect among Judaism while the Gospel of John is written later and so has less relation to the Judaist teachings sensitivities.
Now the point of all this preamble is that when Jesus partook of the seder meal or Passover meal with his disciples it is sometimes lost how significantly different it was to a traditional Jewish Passover meal. The clue to this is found not in the Gospels we have mentioned but in the Gospel of John clarified by the Letter to the Corinthians, in John we have the Cup God has given me and in Corinthians the words and After Supper he took the cup.
The significance of this clarification in the letter to the Corinthians helps us to see more in the Gospels about the Seder meal. In a Seder meal there are actually 5 cups of wine, the first four are consumed during supper and relate to the order (in fact the word seder means order) of the Torah or Old Testament teachings about the laws of Jewish people.
In practice, the fifth cup has come to be seen as a celebration of future redemption. The cup that is not drunk of after Supper is that of the cup of Elijah who is said to return and drink the cup when the Messiah comes to redeem his people.
If Corinthians is correct then Jesus took the cup of Elijah and in so doing proclaimed him-self to be the incarnation of this Old Testament prophet and the Messiah. Looking at the three Gospels written as liturgical statements to accompany the Jewish year such a detail concerning tradition is a little lost, but let us also remember such Gospels were written down by gentile authors in Greek not Aramaic or Hebrew. Translation is not always clear, and subsequent re writes and translations often miss points made originally. Bit like Chinese wispers..
Further parallels with this mythical figure of Elijah follow as the Story of Jesus is told, and some connections with John the Baptist are also involved in the fulfillments of the expectations of this character of the Old Testament. These are however not a literalism of Elijah but a similarity of the spirit of Elijah to be seen in the coming of the man that some ascribe as the messiah of the Jews.
Now the interesting thing about this character Elijah is that he is important in a lot of other religions not just Judaism, he features in ancient Paganism, he is extolled in Islam, he is part of Eastern folk law and the founder of the Bah’I faith the Bab was said to be his reincarnation and is buried on Mount Carmel where Elijah is said to have had a confrontation in ancient literature. This character Elijah ends up in all manner of later religions, from Rastafarianism to orthodoxy. He has had more returns than just about anyone else.
Sometimes I rather wonder at people of faith who actually expect some character to turn up from the past in a literalism. Just as that person was they think they will be when they return. I don’t know how many of you remember the Film those magnificent men in their flying machines?. If you do. Think about those hilarious Germans trying to do everything by the book and you have a comic picture of literalism in faith. The actual joy of flying is lost to them as they struggle to find the right page in the book. Then without the book they crash.
Remove literalism from your mind and look at the Gospel of John and you will then see this particular Gospel as a narrative that seeks to show a spiritual aspect of the Jesus portrayed. It is not like the other gospels constrained to traditional Judaism and paints a picture of an emerging new church, not a “people of the way” still a part of the old Jewish synagogue in the synoptics.
Johns Gospel is the new Church flying free of the constraints of Judaism, it maps out a spiritualization of how the faith becomes Universal not only a “way of doing Judaism”.
“The new faith must be built upon the old, It can not be born except out the old. Religion always evolves by transcending the limits if the past and giving birth to a new consciousness.” Says Bishop John Spong in his book “Re-claiming the bible for the non religious world.”
The Easter message is this a celebration of the birth of a new consciousness, seen in the Gospel of John as the story of the evolution of Christianity, from an old religion that of “Judaism” to “the people of the way” who after exile from the synagogues at the same time as the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem become the early church.
It s in Johns Gospel that the Physical resurrection is strongest, but hang on this is not a book to be taken literally. Unlike the other Gospels this book is written after the “followers of the way” of Jesus had been expelled from the synagogues of the Jews. This is a book about flying free from the constraints of the Old order, post seder you could say, for when Jesus took of the cup of Elijah he ends the reign of an order of legalism.
This is a book about the new consciousness not the old traditions, it gives a fresh insight into the misconstrued thoughts of the old ways and brings to life the new. No wonder such symbolism as Eggs and new life surround the Easter traditions that follow on from here on, in many ways they reflect the old but in a new consciousness.
The problem is they become a tradition in themselves, shortly after the “followers of the way” become bogged down in fresh legalism. Read the epistles and you see this time and time again, look at the unholy rows surrounding the establishment of Christianity as the state religion and it becomes bogged down more and more.
The point about the resurrection is not did it happen but does it happen in the lives of those people who seek to be a new consciousness of a spirituality that promotes humanity to be compassionate, to promote justice, to seek peace not retaliation and to care for one another and to put others before yourself. These are just some of the things that the sermon of the mount much loved by Unitarians is about. It is the life of Jesus reflected in the gospels and the epistles, not the traditions of old interpretations that count.
Any religion that is to be effective in doing good is not at war with another one, it is no good being like those Germans in the film those magnificent men in their flying machines, following every letter of the instruction manual if you do not find yourself exhilarated by flight itself.
The Gospels and the Jewish festivals are great when put into practice and flying. But we do not all have to follow these to be working together for the good of humanity. Looking at instruction manuals for flying an early bi plane will not help you to fly a modern airbus. Thank goodness that is not the case,, can you imagine heathrow with planes being piloted by people reading an old manual on flying a bi plane. Id rather not, it’s a ridiculous scenario.
Equally ridiculous to my mind is following to the letter what worked in ancient times. We need to be able to step forwards. We are an evolved people we need an evolved interpretation and most of all we need to fly, not literally but spiritually. “To step beyond traditional religious thinking into a new consciousness”. This is what the old traditions were doing once, but we need to be doing it now. The message of Easter, the message of the Passover, is to put into practice the love of humanity. A humanity that is joining together to promote the things that are needed in this world for our generation and those yet to come, grounded on the messages of tolerance peace justice and so on. Sadly this world needs those things still today and we need to be a new consciousness of this.
Let us be the resurrection and the life, Let us be a new consciousness of the gift of life, Let us be all that is needed to usher in more love peace and joy, with a compassion that brings wholeness to all not just to some.
May it be so…