Recognising Jesus

The following talk was delivered by Associate Professor Dr Mary Coloe pbvm at the Finding Jesus Easter Season Planning Day on 24 February. 

He lives!

I begin with the question - What is Easter about? Can you describe Easter without using the word "Resurrection?"

The Easter proclamation is - Jesus is alive. This is the amazing, unexpected, beyond our experience fact. Jesus is alive.

Let's begin by considering the situation of the disciples - what they had seen, what they knew and what they now know. Their context for thinking about and speaking about Jesus is He is dead. So shocking was their vision of his death that that is all they can consider - he is dead, gone, lost. This may help us understand why so many of the Easter events are about not recognising Jesus.
My experience has often been teaching students in class where I know them, know their names, and have a relationship with them for a semester. But then 5 or 10 years later they see me in a supermarket, or on holidays or giving a parish lecture and come up and say, "Hi Mary." And I have no idea who they are! You have probably experienced something similar. Out of context we do not immediately recognise people. I knew my students at the time in the classroom, but not later in the swimming pool! The disciples' context is Jesus is dead - in graphic torturous detail.

Read through the familiar story of the Emmaus Journey in Luke 24. Two former disciples of Jesus - perhaps a couple, a man and woman, or perhaps two other disciples, are walking away from Jerusalem going over the horror of 'all that had happened'. These are the facts, seen and known by everyone in Jerusalem. Then they meet someone apparently ignorant about all these events. So they tell him the facts: Jesus, a mighty prophet, condemned to death then crucified, and now, in their minds and experience, dead. This is what they know. Jesus, who they had hoped in, is dead. And this is where they are stuck.

Jesus walks with them, but they fail to recognise him, as recognition demands more than good eyesight. Specsavers cannot help these disciples! It is utterly incomprehensible to them that Jesus could live - he is dead - full stop. And so they do not, cannot see him. Then Jesus begins to try to open their minds to comprehend what their eyes see but don't see. He goes through their scriptures, interpreting the words they have heard repeatedly about the Christ - didn't they know from all their scriptures that the Christ would first suffer, before entering into his glory?

His teaching begins to make a difference. They begin to move from the head to the heart and to a deeper level of perception. Later they will say - "did not our hearts burn within us as he talked and opened the Scriptures." This is a start - they have heartburn - forcing the attention away from the horror of their earlier chatting.

From this inner experience, heartburn, longing - they ask - "stay with us." They reach out to this stranger. Now, something more happens - no further words are spoken - their heads are already filled with all the words needed, the events they have seen, and the scriptures they know. What happens now is the action of the stranger taking bread, blessing it, and breaking it. This is a sign. In this sign their memory is awakened to the last time this happened - when the hands of Jesus took and broke bread in their midst and interpreted what this breaking meant - this is my body given for you.

This sign, accompanying their burning hearts, finally breaks through the barriers of their preconceptions and they now 'see' with understanding. Jesus, the one who breaks bread, and gives his body, is alive. In response to this sign, the disciples 'arise,' they are resurrected and rush back to tell the others. There they are told, "The Lord has come back to life."

The experience of Jesus being alive then continues in the early Church communities and they use various words to speak of this - he is exalted, he is glorified, he is risen. What all these words are trying to proclaim is that Jesus lives on; he is not dead.

Jewish Ideas of Life after Death

For most of the biblical history, there was really no sense of life beyond the grave. The basic idea was life is now, and if you lead a good life then you will experience the rewards now - a long life, wealth, many children, health. Of course if this did not happen, then it must mean that you were not leading a good life, and your ill health, or poverty, of lack of children was God's punishment for sin. You might remember the story of Job.

This idea changed very late, around 100 BCE, and even in the time of Jesus many still considered illness as a punishment for sin, and the Sadducees did not accept any notion of life after death. The change came about as Jewish thinkers considered God, almost in a philosophical way. If God is just, then why is it that good people suffer? In particular this awareness was raised by the fate of the Jewish people who were persecuted and died for their faith during the time of Greek oppression - 300 - 180 BC. The Greeks tried to force the Jews to abandon their religion, and some did, while others such as the Maccabees, were tortured and killed, to make them give up their Jewish faith. This is the context for thinking about the justice of God. And how might God reward these faithful, good people when their life on earth is finished.

Resurrection Beliefs

One solution is found in the books of Daniel (12: 2-3) and Maccabees (2 Macc 7:9, 14), where those who have died will be raised at the end of time.

Daniel 12:1-3

Though appearing to write about the time of the Persians, this book in fact berates the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes whose persecution and attempted Hellenization of the Jews eventually lead to the Maccabean revolt around 170 BCE. Daniel assures the righteous Jews that God will be faithful to them.
"Of those who are sleeping in the land of dust, many will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting horror. Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity" (Dan 12:2-3).

Similarly in the book of Maccabees there is an affirmation of life after death.

(7:9) And when he was at his last breath, he said, "You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws." ... (7:13) When he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. (7:14) And when he was near death, he said, "One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life (2 Maccabees 7: 9-10; 13-14).

As in Daniel, this approach promises bodily resurrection of the righteous at the end of time.

A Second approach to life after death

But there was a second stream of thought emerging, perhaps even contemporary with the life of Jesus, which is found in the Book of Wisdom. This book was possibly written as late as 70 C.E. and is the last in the Greek Old Testament. Here, probably influenced by Hellenistic views, we find a new thinking about human life in relationship with God, and a new anthropology, and a new conception of eschatology.

The Greeks considered that the gods were immortal because they were able to feed on ambrosia, which prevented their "atoms" from dissipating and corrupting. Humans did not have access to this heavenly food, the nectar of the gods and so human life knew death, disintegration and decay.

When considering God's response to the death of the righteous, the Book of Wisdom postulated that God gave the righteous, those who choose the way of Sophia/ Woman Wisdom, the gift of immortality, which is usually a quality of divine life, "for righteousness is immortal" (Wis 1:15). The righteous one already participates in the life of God and can be called a "child of the Lord" (Wis 2:13), and "boast that God is their father" (Wis 2:16). Drawing on the creation account of Genesis 1, the writer makes the bold claim, "for God created us for incorruption -and made us in the image of God's own nature" (Wis 2:3). According to the book of Wisdom, the righteous only "seem to die" (Wis 3:2), in fact they already have the gift of God's own "incorruptible spirit" (Wis 12:1) enabling them to live on "in the hand of God" (3:1), and "live forever" (into eternity life) (Wis 5:15).

What is noticeable in the Book of Wisdom's concept of what it means to be human, that the divine gift of immortality is given prior to death. The righteous, who have chosen the way of Sophia, live now, in this life, with this gift of eternity life. Their mortal bodies will experience death, but the eternity life they now possess will continue. Thus the righteous are able to see and enter into the reign of God.

This theology is particularly strong in the Gospel of John, which frequently uses the expression - eternity life. And this gift is a present gift offered by Jesus making believers children of God and participating in God's own life - eternity life.

Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are both promised eternity life if they can believe and accept Jesus. Jesus teaches that this new gift, a quality of life belonging to God, requires being born again. Being born of water refers to ordinary human birth when a mother's waters break beginning her labour to bring a new life into the world. This is a first birth. To be born again, or anew, is to receive the gift of God's Spirit through belief in Jesus. This is a second birth, which Nicodemus cannot understand.

(John 3:3) Jesus answered him saying, "Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless one is born anew it is born anew it is not possible to see the reign of God. 4. Nicodemus said to him, "How is it possible for a person be born when he is old? It is not possible to enter into the mother's womb a second time and be born." 5. Jesus answered, "Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, it is not possible to enter into the reign of God...
(14) And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternity life (John 3:3-4; 14-15)

Remember, this phrase, "eternity life" draws upon the book of Wisdom's theology that God gives the righteous a share in God's own immortal Spirit now (Wis 12:1), enabling the righteous to live forever (Wis 5:15). In Johannine terms, those who believe participate already in the life of God, they can be called "children of God" (John 1:12). To use a modern metaphor, they now share in God's DNA! They need not wait in death for an end-time resurrection. Eternity life is brought into the present in and through Jesus. Eternity life is now! While the body comes to an end and corrupts, the essence of the person continues on in the life of God. Bodily resurrection on the last day may happen but is not essential in this view. Easter bears witness that life never ceases. The grave has not brought an end to Jesus' living presence and this is the promise of what awaits all of us. Jesus lives in God's eternity and so do we.

Dr Mary Coloe pvbm is Associate Professor and the Head of the Department of Biblical Studies at Yarra Theological Union. She teaches in the field of New Testament studies, with a particular focus on the Gospel of John. Mary has also taught at the Australian Catholic University, Boston College, the Jesuit School of Theology Berkeley and at the Ecce Homo Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. 

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