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Friday, 8 June 2018

A developing understanding of resurrection

Here is my sermon from Wednesday's Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

This is a story about interpretation of scripture (Mark 12. 18-27), which is possibly as important for our understanding for what it reveals about ways of interpreting scripture, as for what it says about resurrection.

The Biblical scholar Tom Wright has noted that: ‘Resurrection was a late arrival on the scene in classic biblical writing … Much of the Hebrew Bible assumes that the dead are in Sheol …“The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17). Clear statements of resurrection are extremely rare. Daniel 12 is the most blatant, and remembered as such for centuries afterwards: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Daniel is, however, the latest book of the Hebrew Bible.’

In Jesus’ day: ‘There was within Judaism a considerable spectrum of belief and speculation about what happened to dead people in general, and to dead Jews in particular. At one end were the Sadducees, who seem to have denied any doctrine of post-mortem existence (Mark 12:18; Josephus, War 2:165). At the other were the Pharisees, who affirmed a future embodied existence, and who seem to have at least begun to develop theories about how people continued to exist in the timelag between physical death and physical resurrection. And there are further options. Some writings speak of souls in disembodied bliss, some speculate about souls as angelic or astral beings, and so forth.‘

The Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as proposed by the Pharisees’ and ‘saw the written Torah as the sole source of divine authority.’ They insisted that the traditions did not contain this newfangled doctrine and that resurrection was not taught in the Torah itself. Their question to Jesus was based on the literal application of a commandment from the Torah and was ‘designed to make belief in a resurrection look foolish by proposing a dilemma it might entail.’ (Timothy J. Geddert, Mark, Herald Press)

In his reply to the Sadducees’ question Jesus goes back to the Torah itself (the five books of Moses) which were the only ones the very conservative Sadducees regarded as really authoritative, and stated that ‘God defines himself there in terms of his relationship to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ The underlying point was that ‘God would not define himself in relationship to people who were now non-existent.’ Therefore, Jesus implies or leaves unstated the remaining move in the argument that ‘if they are alive this must be because God will in fact raise them from the dead.’

Jesus therefore disagrees with a literal argument about scripture based on the earliest texts and affirms an emerging doctrine which only appears clearly in the last book of the Hebrew Bible. What he is affirming is an evolving revelation from God in scripture which develops or adds to or changes earlier interpretations and understandings.

The extent to which God’s revelation is fixed or emerging is one which continues to be debated within the Church and is a key ground on which debates about women’s ordination and human sexuality take place. What rarely seems to feature in these debates are the approaches to interpretation of scripture used by Jesus, the disciples and the Early Church, which are often very different from standard ways of interpreting scripture used today, particularly those which attempt to fix understandings of scripture for all time through literal interpretations. Here Jesus clearly teaches a later, newer doctrine which does not appear in the Torah and was not part of early Judaism. This emerging understanding, however, becomes central to Jesus’ mission and to Christian belief as Jesus’ resurrection and the teachings of the Early Church based on it are entirely new in the history of Judaism.

Tom Wright says: ‘The early Christian hope for bodily resurrection is clearly Jewish in origin, there being no possible pagan antecedent. Here, however, there is no spectrum of opinion: Earliest Christianity simply believed in resurrection, that is, the overcoming of death by the justice bringing power of the creator God … This is a radical mutation from within Jewish belief.’

Our core hope as Christians derives from a changing understanding of God’s revelation which Jesus taught and experienced. The literal interpretations of the Sadducees meant that they could not see or receive the new thing that God was doing in their midst. May God keep us open to receive the new things he is doing in our world through his Holy Spirit and prevent us from rejecting the unexpected moves of his Spirit because our rigidity in our own understandings of scripture.


Resurrection Band - Colours.

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