Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Easter Faith

"For Simon and the others, "resurrection" was simply one way of articulating their conviction that God had vindicated Jesus and was coming soon to dwell among this people. And this interpretation would have held true for the early believers even if an exhumation of Jesus' grave had discovered his rotting flesh and bones." --Thomas Sheehan

Easter is central to Christian conviction. The earliest affirmation of faith was "Jesus is Lord." In fact, that statement is the only thing we ask those who join the church to affirm. "Is Jesus your Lord and Savior?" We let individuals interpret that however they can for themselves.

I affirm it wholeheartedly. My life's joyful duty will be to unfold what that affirmation means and how it calls me to live. You can read one of my previous posts that suggests some of what that affirmation means to me at this point in my life. But that isn't the point.

The point I wish to make today is that we have lost so many people to what John Shelby Spong coined "The Church Alumni Association" largely because literalism has entombed the faith with simplistic and incredible dogma. By literalizing the Gospel, we have robbed it of its power. As a minister I find myself helping people get rid of their beliefs because their beliefs are not helping them. In fact, their beliefs inhibit growth. To shake off simplistic dogma you have to rattle the cage.

I rattled the cage with my first post on this blog, What If We Found the Body of Jesus? My point was to raise the question, what is Resurrection? What did the earliest followers of Jesus mean when they said, "Jesus is Lord"? Thomas Sheehan, professor at Stanford University, wrote an article entitled: "How Did Easter Originally Happen? A Hypothesis." In this article, Sheehan offers a sidebar entitled: Chronology of Jesus' Alleged Easter Activities. All he does is to take the accounts regarding the post-resurrection stories of Jesus in the gospels and put them in order. It is impossible to do, because the accounts contradict each other. For instance, when exactly did Jesus ascend?

The point of picking at these things is not to destroy people's faith. Literalism has already done that. Thinking people have been avoiding the church in droves. Others doggedly hang in there, hoping that the preacher might say something that makes sense. They put up with the simplistic banter because they like the music and the community. Yet others are interested in growing but are afraid of being ostracized by the "true believers". They read books by Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg in secret.

I find that to be a sad state of affairs. It is sad because I believe in spiritual communities. I believe in what Jesus called the domain of God. I believe we need faith in a god who is big enough to enable us to grow and to respond to the needs of Earth and Earth's inhabitants.

I find it heartening that there is a progressive movement taking shape both within and without established churches. The Center for Progressive Christianity is one such expression. Our congregation has affiliated with it. If you are curious what progressive means, you can read these eight points. This is not a "creed" of course, more of a spiritual orientation (whatever that means!) They are not meant to be dogmatic or to replace the particular historic confessions of any church.

When Hal Taussig and Perry Kea come to our congregation in November, we will be talking about the power of early faith communities and progressive movements in our time. Have you registered yet?

A question to ponder: As you reflect on Sheehan's article, what is Easter faith in light of the issues we have been discussing (energy, economy, ecology, empire, entitlement, exceptionalism, evolution, cosmology, war, etc.)?



  1. That is a wonderful article by Sheehan. Thanks for posting a link.

    What he wrote matches up pretty closely, at least in the broad outlines, with what Spong wrote in "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", namely the importance of Peter after Jesus's death, the fleeing of the disciples after death back to Galilee, and the nature of the resurrection experience for the disciples as an undestanding or experience of Christ, after a period of reflection, as having been taken into God's presence. (Spong also proposes a lot of more specific theories about the relation of the Festival of Tabernacles to the eventual myths that became encoded into the Gospel stories of Jesus's passion and crucification, but even aside from that theory which may or may not be persuasive, the essential outline of what Spong came up with matches pretty closely with what Sheehan wrote.)

    Sheehan's comments about the disciples not being witnesses to the crucificion also match up with some points that Crossan has made in the two books of his that I have read. They clearly fled and were not witnesses to any trial (if there even was a trial, which Crossan considers unlikely) or the crucifiction, and Jesus was probably buried in a common grave like most crucified criminals were. Sheehan also points out that Jesus was a revolutionary opponent to the empire of his time, and thus was almost certain to be executed as a threat to the established imperial authority.

    I think that Sheehan has really nailed what probably happened. Remember that Paul, in his description of the resurrection (written before the Gospel accounts were written), uses the same verb "appeared" to describe his own experience of the risen Jesus with the experience of Peter, "the twelve", the 500, and so forth. In other words, Paul clearly did not believe in a bodily resurrection. He presumably believed that Jesus was taken directly up into heaven, with no bodily appearances.

    Also, if you place the Gospel accounts in the order they were written, we note that Mark gives us no accounts of any resurrection appearances--just an empty tomb and terrified women. Matthew has Jesus descending down from heaven to a mountain--implying that Jesus had already had his ascension before his bodily appearance, which obviously doesn't jibe with the idea of his ascension after 40 days. Also, Matthew has him showing up in Galilee, while Luke has all these various appearances in Jerusalem. And the later accounts of a bodily resurrection are strange because it is bodily only to an extent, since Jesus also seems to be able to walk through walls and such.

    Overall, Sheehan's account makes a lot of sense. I really believe that what Sheehan (and others like Spong) have come up with the most plausiable explanation for the resurrection, and this is one that can serve as the basis for the kind of Christianity that the "church alumni" can accept. To me, this is where contemporary progressive Christianity needs to progress. I think that Sheehan expresses in a nutshell what I think Jesus's earthly message was about, the reasons for his execution, and the origins of the resurrection experience, and how this can relate to our own understanding as modern believers.

  2. By the way, I think that TCPC is a great resource. I looked in their list of affiliate churches in my area (San Francisco) and began attending one of them. I notice that there is also a Presbyterian church in SF that is an affiliate (Seventh Avenue). I don't know anything about that church--their newsletters and sermons aren't online--but at least there is one other church in your denomination besides your own that is an affiliate!

  3. Actually, I forgot that the Noe Valley Ministry is another Presbyterian church in SF that is part of the Center for Progressive Christianity. But after reading some of their sermons online, I got the impression that their theology was more conventional than mine is, and not necessarily very much in accordance with the ideas of Sheehan, although perhaps I misread things. This does raise the question of how much diversity with respect to these kinds of ideas does exist within the churches that are affilated with TCPC.

  4. On further reflection, since I don't want to characterize any of the Presbyterian churches in the TCPC that I haven't actually visited, I decided to reread the Easter sermon from the Noe Valley Ministry's web site, and here is a quote from that sermon. I appreciate the opening sentence of this quote below, since it indicates that the minister is not imposing his own theology on his listeners, but his own comments do suggest that he believes in some sort of a literal resurrection of Jesus into some kind of "spiritual body" (I'm not clear on what that means):

    "Now, I am not a teacher or a pastor who demands that any of you believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are, in fact, many ways to explain it away. We can say
    that the story means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven, and that their wisdom and truth will impact us forever. Or we can say that it means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives among us the way that Socrates does for example, in the good that he left behind, in the lives of all who follow his example. We can say that the language in which the Gospels describe resurrection is the language of poetry and that as such is not to be taken literally but as
    pointing to a truth more profound than the literal. Or we can reduce it to the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth and the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul.

    But friends, if I thought that this whole religion business is just an affirmation of the human spirit, or of moral values, of Jesus as the great Example, then, like Pilate, I
    would wash my hands of it. I believe in the literal Resurrection of Jesus Christ, not just resuscitation of the human body, and probably not in flesh as we know it, but in a real
    spiritual body – mysterious to be sure, but real. Resurrection is what keeps me safe, forgiven, open, empowered, committed to life. The resurrection is the sureness of God
    still living among us. In Christ, God "pitched God’s tent among us"; God has dwelt with us where we are and as we are. In resurrection, that presence continues."

  5. Hi MS!

    I never liked Spong's title, "Myth or Reality". Myth or Journalism would have been better but less catchy. Myth points and uncovers reality in a way history, fact, science, etc. cannot.

    Spong writes a great deal about the Jewish festivals and so forth. I couldn't even follow his book, "This Hebrew Lord". As I understand him, the gospels were written to follow the Jewish festivals. So Spong doesn't follow the two (or four) source hypothesis (Mark is the source for Luke and Matthew. Material common in Luke and Matthew not found in Mark comes from a hypothetical source called "Q" which is quelle, German for source).

    I know you know all of that. The Jesus Seminar fellows are very good at spelling every thing out when they write for the public.

    Back to the topic: thank you for your summary. Your comments are an excellent addition to what I am trying to do here!

    We tend to think we have two choices regarding resurrection.

    1) The gospel writers were like journalists reporting a literal rescusitation of Jesus' corpse. If that isn't a fact, then

    2) The gospel writers were liars and frauds and wrote fantasy stories.

    You and I and many others are looking for a third way. Sheehan's article might be a helpful way to begin.

    San Francisco Presbys are an interesting lot. Overall, for a hip town, the Presbyterian Church is pretty conservative. Seventh Avenue and Noe Valley are progressive for the most part, I think, for their advocacy of glbts. Calvary Presbyterian in Pacific Heights might be progressive.

    Author Anne Lamott, goes to a Presbyterian church in Marin City. I don't know if she is progresive, but she is funny! The presbytery in Marin County is more progressive in some ways.

    Thanks for bloggin'!

  6. Hi John, I agree with you on the title of Spong's book, but it is possible that it was his publisher's title and not his. He mentioned in a talk he gave that is available online ( that the publisher always change the names of his books. After all, we all know that a myth can be true without being literally true, so it isn't like one must make a choice between "myth" and "reality". The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps "myth" and "literal reality" would be a better way to put it.

    In his book where he proposed that the gospels were written to be a Jewish lectionary, I agree with you that he seemed to go off in strange directions. His rejection of the Q hypothesis seems to put him at odds with most of established scholarship, and his synchronization of the gospels with the Jewish festivals is interesting, but it does remind me of efforts at synchronizing "The Wizard of Oz" with Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon", as I suggested in my blog. Humans do have the ability to make patterns out of randomness some times. Still, it was an interesting theory.

    On the other hand, I did think that certain critical parts of what he wrote in "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" jibe closely with what Sheehan said. It is true that Spong goes on on a theory about the palm Sunday procession as reported in the gospels really making more sense in the context of the Festival of Tabernacles rather than the Passover, and thus he thinks that much of the passion narrative represents a merger of the crucifiction story (at passover) with a subsequent remembered return to Jerusalem that following autumn (at the festival of Tabernacles) by Peter and the other disciples. Clearly this is speculative, even if it is an interesting theory, but in any case he did believe, as Sheehan did, that Peter was central to the post-crucifiction resurrection experience, and that they experienced the resurrection not as literal appearances by Jesus in bodily form.

    Anyway, I think Sheehan's article is a wonderful summary of the issues involved in building a progressive Christian understanding of the crucificion and resurrection.

  7. Thanks for that clarification about the title. I like Sheehan's work as well!