The “Nonsense” of Resurrection

Emmaus, Janet Brooks Gerloff

“Christ is risen from the dead!” we say. What a concept and what an impossible demand on me to believe in such a thing! We are born into a world where everything about it declares that it is ultimate, that there’s nothing beyond this world.

Not that one could not be called a Christian and hold to this understanding of the world. You could be a wonderful Christian, a pious woman and man of God, living in a naturalistic universe where you and your church have had to assimilate. You assimilated the explosive message of the resurrection to your current reality.

We often think: the resurrection is the fairy tale of our Sunday Schools, but now we are adults, we must grow up, mature, and start interpreting the resurrection in a tamed way, in a way that’s compatible with our current reality. Not according to the embarrassing naiveté of our childhoods. We treat resurrection as a nice myth that may be used to inspire us, but is our celebrating it much different than the way we enjoy, say, the coming of Santa Claus every Christmas?

However, resurrection is embarrassing. It is childish. It is untamed. You will be called a dreamer, a romantic, a pre-modern naïve individual who needs to be educated on science, on how things work, on how this world’s structures are in place and are immovable. But if you decide to stick with it, belief in resurrection, a resurrection that has not been reinterpreted in submission to the structures of this world, is outrageously out of this world.

We may also ask: “Didn’t God put in place the immutable laws of nature? Isn’t it His order that makes His world function this way without interruption?” Of course, this is absolutely right. But at the same time, we are forgetting the moment in which he created. That event in which He put all this in place, an event which itself was a disruption of nothingness, a new thing, a divine intervention. So, while we may attribute to God the power of maintaining the world and the natural order, even sustaining us believers in a not-so-ideal world, at the same time we deny him the power of creating out of nothing, of disrupting the world as we know it.

We see the church being busy being good in the existing structure of this world without challenging it, and, as a result, being a good Christian has come to mean nothing more than simply being a good, law-abiding, citizen. But this is not how believing in resurrection looks like. This is what belief in immortality might look like, which is not very different from what almost every religion that ever existed has believed. Belief in immortality does not interfere with the existing world structures. Immortality leaves the world as it is and its believers simply emigrate to another dimension when they die, they get out of the way. Any discomfort, anger, or sorrow that is felt in experiencing the world as is, is resolved by quiet patience, individual piety perhaps, until one day, death transports us to another, supposedly better, place. This belief in immortality surrenders victory to the existing state of affairs of our capitalistic world, our war-stricken world, our impoverished, starving, asylum-seeking world. In this world, even with a belief in immortality, we remain in fact prisoners, meaning that our imagination is kept from dreaming anything unlike what already exists.

But, resurrection is completely different. “Resurrection sustains the belief in a possibility of divine interruption to the status quo. The possibility of another reality that will disrupt this one.”[1] All our efforts for justice, all our activism, all our prophetic resistance to oppressive powers presupposes and is animated by, whether consciously or unconsciously, the belief that there is a God who resurrects the dead. There is a God who is so committed to His creation, so committed to His promises, that He will keep being faithful to His people even after they die. His faithfulness to His world does not expire with the body’s expiration date. His commitment to us and his creation stretches even beyond the grave. He doesn’t think of Himself as “off the hook” once we are dead. There is a beautiful rabbinic prayer called Shemoneh Esreh, that spells this out:

He sustains the living with kindness and revives the dead with great mercy, supports the falling, heals the sick, releases captives, and keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust.

This is the God we believe in, faithfully committed in the face of despair – through death! Why do you think a trafficked woman in a brothel could find the strength to stand up and walk out of there, defy the threats of her trafficker, and seek a new life? Because she has come into contact with people for whom this coming reality of liberation, God’s coming intervention, is so real, even more real than her present state of slavery. Initially the Christians’ claims may sound ludicrous to her, their call to freedom sounds suicidal, their prayers sound ineffective, their worship pointless (in fact, prayers often seem pointless to Christians themselves). But time, after time, after time, the present reality begins to be captivated by the coming one, by the one portrayed so clearly before her eyes by the Christian witness. The coming reality, just by its mere anticipation, is able to destabilize current structures.

My friend Christos works with the homeless, a group of people who gave up believing that they have a future or that they deserve a home. But Christos’s vision of restoration, of the possibility of another reality fitting to God’s suffering creatures, gradually takes over the narrative of despair. And one person after another, slowly, begin to trust what Christos sees and follow him.

When John in Revelation, in the fourth chapter, saw the risen Christ, he was able to see not only the glorious status of the risen Christ but also the sacred status of creation. Christ, in his throne room, is surrounded by representatives of the human and non-human creation. These representatives reveal how the resurrected status of our world looks like before it is actually experienced in history. I was struck by a huge mural of this scene in the Coptic church of Athens. Christ seated on his throne with his feet on the ground, at the congregation’s level and his face reaching all the way up to the church’s ceiling. The colors were bright and glistening before the candle light. On the four corners of this mural, surrounding Christ, stood the four creatures described by John in 4:6-7:

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. (4:6-7 NIV)

Note, that in the centre of the throne room, surrounding the resurrected Christ, framing his glory, is his creation. Not an unknown creation we are yet to meet, but images, beings of our existing creation. The lion, the king of our wildlife, the ox, the king of our farm life, the man, representing humanity, the eagle, the king of the birds of the sky. And the order does not privilege human creation. Human creation comes third. But the animals we kill, the animals we torture and abuse are not further from the divine presence than we are. Non-human creation is not a lesser participant of holiness than we are. Their worship to the resurrected Christ is not secondary to human worship. Animals are in the holy of holies and this means that resurrection is good news for them! Resurrection was the event that they have been groaning for (Rom 8:22), therefore, any appropriation of the reality of the resurrection cannot exclude non-human nature. Our sense of the holy cannot exclude the animals around us. We are co-participants in worship with non-human creation, right now, in the heavens and on earth. But how does that look like for the church today? How is the resurrected status of the cosmos, that may break into history at any moment, demonstrated communally and individually in our lives?

Various scholars spoke about the concept of performativity. Initially this concept applied only to what humans are able to do with language. The idea is that we do not simply describe something with words but we do something with words to the world we describe. Performative language affects reality. A word that is a promise, for example, changes the relationship of the speaker to the recipient. This does not apply only to words, but also to body language, gestures and repetitive behaviour. Others, like Judith Butler, applied this to gender, saying how both verbal and non-verbal communication serve to define and maintain one’s identity. You signify that you are a boy by wearing blue, for example, or play with trucks, or wrestle with other boys, and at the same time these performances contribute to the formation of your identity as a boy. Regardless of culture one’s performance signifies who they are and simultaneously creates who they are.

My purpose is not to talk about gender but to take this theory a step further with respect to what Christians do. The resurrection of Christ has revealed our destiny and, as we have seen, it has revealed non-human creation’s destiny as well. We are therefore in the position to examine our daily performance and ask: does my daily performance betray mine and the world’s resurrected future? Am I performing life as one who is expecting a disruption to this world’s finality? Do I move in the midst of creation as one anticipating its glorious future? Also, what do my performances actually do to me? What kind of person or identity have they formed in me and is that compatible with what I claim to be? How can we perform now our new creation?

The ancient church realized, from the very beginning, that God’s people needed rituals of resistance to the finality of this world. We need rituals and practices that demonstrate that something began coming and we must continually rehearse for it.

I would like to share a sample of things that made up the performance of the ancient church, hoping that you might get some ideas and add more to these ones.

1. Prayer. We tend to think of prayer, both communal and individual, as a passive ritual, but all speech presupposes and creates the world for which it speaks. We speak sacredness into everything we pray about. The church saved a prominent place for the voiceless in her daily prayers. Liturgical prayers begin by turning attention to those who suffer from any kind of sickness, for those who, for one reason or another, had to leave their homes, to emigrate or find work or refuge, for non-human creation (the earth and the skies, the trees and their fruits), for the poor workers, the weak and those who suffer any kind of oppression, for the prisoners and all kinds of captives (which may include addictions). Pray for these ones first, add their names, their images, their pictures wherever you are, surround yourself with them as the resurrected Christ surrounds his throne with these beings. Like a grandmother sits and gathers all her beloved grandchildren all around her, this is the image of our resurrected Lord. We pray for these that He has gathered so close to his throne, the ones he loves most dearly. Pray for them knowing that the reversal of their unfortunate state is imminent, it is not their permanent story.

Prayer is an act that anticipates the disturbance of our own solutions. It curbs our lust for power. It safeguards our social activism that may so easily fall into the temptation of using power and coercion to achieve its goals. Activism without prayer performs something totally different. It does not perform resurrection since it does not anticipate divine disruption. Its faith is grounded in our own power to bring about change, our own money, our own expertise. Therefore, prayer is what makes our activism a rehearsal or a mirroring of the coming kingdom.

2. The church adopted a new calendar. Also, we can disrupt the days, the months, and the years of our capitalistic world. You are not a machine whose time is passing endlessly from work day to work day. You are not a slave in the never-ending work of Egypt without feasts or Sabbaths. You are living in liberated time, and liberated time is a performance of Christ. His life is spread out over the year and the church participates in Christ’s time: his birth, his baptism, his passion, his resurrection, his ascension, his outpouring of the Spirit. How are our calendars marked?

What these calendars had achieved was not simply to provide time off for the workers to renew their strength so they can be more effective to the industrial machine. Liturgical calendars infused the daily, mundane work of the farmers and labourers with meaning, or rather, the human work and even the suffering of the people was brought into the sacred narrative. They were no longer simply sowing, harvesting, or watering. They were sowing in the time of the incarnation, they were harvesting in the time of the passion, they were watering in the time of the Pentecost. Work begins to mirror a narrative, the divine narrative, a narrative that climaxes in resurrection. The end of all suffering and labour. Sure we may follow the football season, or sales seasons, or academic calendars, but for the Christian these are subordinated to seasons performing Christ’s life.

3. The church fasted. Fasting is a performance with multiple significances. It is done in solidarity with the hungry of this world. It demonstrates that “humans do not live by bread alone” which is itself a resistance to the finality of the naturalistic world (imagine that people were determined to fast from that pathetic slice of bread they were given once a day in the death camps of Auschwitz). The voluntary hunger and thirst of the church signifies not that they are hungry for lack of food, but that they are hungry to be filled with what is coming. Food can only fill this much.

As Mark 2:19-20 says, people fast when the bridegroom is away from them and their fast performs the anticipation of his coming and the satisfying kingdom he is bringing with him. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Mat 5:6). Sure, there is metaphorical hunger and thirst, but this is demonstrated by the body as well. Spirit and body are one! Fasting may differ from church to church, but voluntary hunger, a hunger that refuses to be satisfied by what this world has to offer, refuses to be satisfied by means of killing other creatures, has ritualized the anticipation of another world, the world of the resurrected Christ who is coming to satisfy not just humans but all of His creation and reconcile all things among themselves.

The explosive news of the resurrection should make us run, even though the message may sound romantic, naïve, pre-modern. In fact, this is how it sounded to those first recipients. When the women run to tell the disciples that Christ is risen, the text says that the men “did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” Was it really nonsense or were they still held captive by the claims of this world that this is all there is? If Christ is risen, then none of our efforts, none of our struggles for justice, our sufferings, and our resistance will be interrupted by death. None of them will be in vain, for He is on His way to honour them.

[A form of this talk was given to the Justice Conference Australia in May 22-23, 2021]

[1] Jon Levenson, Resurrection,