Resurrection as Change, Part II

The Emmaus Experience of Transformation

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“Situated by the River Thames and next to Lambeth Palace, London’s Garden Museum,” according to it’s website description, “provides a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of central London and is an ideal setting for a pre-dinner drink reception or a barbeque.” It all sounds terribly lovely.

When the venue was constructed centuries earlier however, it served as a different kind of refuge, known as St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth. But in more recent decades, when church attendance waned and interest turned from things religious to gardening, the sanctuary was recently deconsecrated and converted into a horticultural museum.

In the course of renovation, an as-yet undiscovered manhole cover led to a crypt beneath the sanctuary floor. And among the thirty coffins was found a bishop’s mitre and the earthly remains of Richard Bancroft, head of the Anglican Church from 1604 to 1610. It was Bancroft who was selected by James the First to oversee the creation of the first English translation of the Christian scriptures, known as the King James’ Bible.

In the liturgical season some Christian faith communities still observe as Eastertide, it’s somewhat amusing to consider how an ancient building — with its walls still adorned with stained glass depicting some of those biblical stories — has so changed and been recycled and repurposed. And in the undercroft lie the fertile dust and bone of someone dead and gone who once presumably preached a gospel of resurrection.

While certainly not the most scholarly translation, it still seems fitting nonetheless to then read Bancroft’s version of this post-resurrection appearance tale; in which the words attributed to a risen Lord are clearly the fanciful creation of an early believing community.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days? And he said unto them, What things?

And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures? And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. [Luke 24:12-34]

“Did not our hearts burn within us?” The Emmaus legend is about both the inevitability of change and the possibility of transformation. The unrecognized stranger — who draws up beside the two despondent disciples on a road that’s going to take them from a former place to someplace else – is portrayed as the only one who is unaware of all the changes that have just taken place.

The biggest change, however, awaits the two other sojourners when the eyes and ears of understanding are opened to see and hear what has presumably already been said and done previously by the Galilean sage, now dead and gone. In all the swift and varied changes of this world, the elusive goal of converting hearts and minds remains optional.

The Emmaus legend is about both the inevitability of change and the possibility of transformation. … In all the swift and varied changes of this world, the elusive goal of converting hearts and minds remains optional.

It’s akin to that other fanciful gospel story of the transfiguration. The human Jesus doesn’t really change in the presence a few of his dumbfounded followers; along with the visages of some ancient prophets who are long gone. What changes is the way he is regarded by those companions. Resurrection is not about any return of that which is already gone, but the transformation of one who is not yet fully present to the now, and next, and for the time being.

Consequently, I liken myself to a disciple of Jesus on the Emmaus road — who has striven to recognize one who I now refer to as the Galilean sage — in the remembrances of what were his likeliest words and ways; and as I periodically break bread with some fellow sojourners at a gathering we intentionally call Pathways. Admittedly, I am only able to imagine a faint resemblance of someone long dead and gone; but whose remembrance is borne out in our reenactment of study, exploratory dialogue and supping each month along the Emmaus road.

Even so, I acknowledge the inescapable fact that with only the earliest and varied memories of who that historical figure really was, we share much of the same fate as those who were only one or two generations removed from him. We all have our own Jesus figure. And whoever he was, the world in which that 1st century CE figure walked and talked with his own god-language and religious tradition remains only partially transferable and translatable to the time and place in which I live two millennia later. Things change. So, when it comes to any religious construct, the question is, what — if anything — remains? And what might be more meaningfully repurposed?

One of the things that hasn’t changed is the way in which common language is still best used to describe that which is beyond our present capacity to fully express and explain the human experience. We have strong evidence that the most authentic sayings of the historical Jesus were likely the “kingdom” parables, combined with a certain god language; and used to provide a context to imagine this same world differently.

Did Jesus have a “theological premise” different from mine, at this point; especially with regard to the use of the word “god?” Probably. If Jesus were alive today, would he view things differently himself, and express himself differently as a result? Maybe. But it’s probably the only reason it makes me wish I believed in something as incredible as a Second Coming!

But at the heart of those parables are the universal stories of ordinary life that can stand on their own, without any religious language whatsoever; and still remain sufficiently transformative to warm hearts. It is the reason I call them transformative “parables of now and next.” And it is in this sense that I ask what new language we might continue to employ to better express the place we have arrived, with so many changes, and for the time being? How, for instance, might I use resurrection language for whatever is new and next?

I’ve considered the meaningfulness and usefulness of the notion of resurrection this way, based on personal experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived long enough in order to have died a sufficient number of little deaths along the way; that I might not only experience restoration, but the deeper reality that life itself continues, with or without me. In those experiences, there was no “god” that raised me up again, but life itself; along with those other mere mortals surrounding me, loving me, and supporting me, both now and for the time being.

In this way, I’ve also thought of my own late father, now dead and gone. Over a half-century ago — and, following along within the apostolic succession of Anglican bishops himself — he had built a magnificent cathedral in the Midwest town in which I grew up. It was a grand testament to the orthodox Christian beliefs of his generation. It was even within that soaring space that he once laid hands upon my head, and ordained me to preach a gospel of death and resurrection.

 But following his retirement, things changed. Interest in the mainline denominational packaging (those century-old traditions, rites and rituals) waned and the market for religious things went another direction. The property was sold off to a non-denominational mega-church that built a worship center three times the size of the original structure. And, the former cathedral was repurposed as a wedding chapel.

One thing remained, and was required to be maintained, as part of the sales agreement. It was the Resurrection Garden that had been installed as a columbarium, adjacent to the former cathedral. There the remains of some mortals, including my father’s ashes, have been interred; to simply return to the earth as part of another horticultural museum, of sorts.

And all shall be well.

Read Part I Here
Read Part III Here

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive go here.

Topics: Belief, Bibles and Bible Study, Early Christianity, Jesus Studies, and Transformation. 8 Points: Point 1: Teachings of Jesus. Seasons & Special Events: Easter. Ages: Adult. Texts: Luke. Resource Types: Articles, Early Christian Writings, Read, and Series.

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