(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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Saint Genevieve, who is the patron saint of Paris, had her life story written by an anonymous monk in the year 520 CE – only ten years after her death. The biography describes many of Genevieve’s supposed miracles. To combat Attila the Hun’s army that was threatening Paris, she had a tree cut down, that she then cursed, causing demons to emerge from it and kill hundreds of enemy soldiers. Later, when she joined troops in boats crossing the Seine River, many of the boats capsized during a storm. Genevieve had the boats brought up from the depths, re-floated, and the soldiers saved. She’s also said to have healed hundreds of sick, blind and lame people – just by her touch.
Such hagiography, defined as over-the-top exaggerations of a deceased person’s life, are so elaborate in Genevieve’s case, that truth about her is impossible to determine. And that’s because nobody disputed her biography – even though countless people knew her. Why were the fictions allowed to go uncontested?
The ability to widely distribute printed material in ancient times was not possible. Scrolls of parchment, which were the books in the ancient world, were very expensive. Parchment, made from animal skins, cost the equivalent of fifty dollars a page. Many scribes were needed to painstakingly hand-write each of the scrolls. And those scribes had to be taught to read and write – at a time when less than 10% of people were literate. Because scrolls were so time consuming and expensive to produce, only the Catholic church and wealthy people could afford them. The result was the average person had no access to factual news. People got their news by word of mouth, gossip and from sermons – since the Church controlled all information. Genevieve thus became a Saint because nobody was able to widely dispute the miracle stories.
This same situation happened five hundred years earlier with the biographies of Jesus. Few people could dispute what was written about him. What was helpful, though, is that several people, not just one, wrote biographies about Jesus. And they significantly differed from each other.
The traditional understanding of Jesus’ resurrection is that he literally came back to life after having died and was buried. That’s the story presented in three of the Bible’s gospels – Matthew, Luke and John. But the first one written, the gospel of Mark, differs in its account of what happened on the first Easter morning. Mark, along with accounts in gospels not included in the Bible, suggest that the original understanding of the resurrection is far different from what other gospels say.
Almost all scholars believe a man named Jesus lived two thousand years ago and that he was executed by Roman and Jewish elites because he was a threat to their power and wealth. The historical Jesus taught amazing truths about human ethics. But that Jesus, I believe, did not literally cause miracles and was not god.
That’s a radical statement to make on Easter Sunday but it’s not because I think Jesus was a fictional person or that he should not be greatly admired. My intent on every Easter is to offer a different – and hopefully more accurate – interpretation of his life and resurrection. I believe Jesus died a horrible death, he was buried in an unmarked grave like all other executed persons of the time, and he remained dead. He was symbolically resurrected, however, through the legacy of his work with the poor, diseased and marginalized. He was resurrected by the impact he had during and after his life through his teachings on forgiveness, humility, compassion, non-violence and service to others. His real resurrection is thus a symbolic one that assures us that we too can impact the future long after we are gone. My intention is to resurrect the true resurrection in order to find meaning that is relevant to anyone – no matter one’s religion or no religion.
The four gospels in the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were all written decades after Jesus died. Mark was the first written – around 63 CE, or thirty years after Jesus’ death. As the earliest gospel, Mark is thus considered by many scholars to be the most authoritative. It does not include any story about Jesus’ miraculous birth or, as I’ve said, about his bodily resurrection.
Mark, chapter 16, which is the final chapter in the gospel, concludes with the female followers of Jesus arriving at his tomb on Easter morning. They find the tomb wide open and without Jesus’ body inside. There’s no description in the original Mark about Jesus’ resurrection or him appearing alive after his death.
This ‘no resurrection’ version of Mark is in the earliest known copies of that gospel. Much later copies of Mark, ones printed in Bibles you may own, contain eleven added verses that DO describe Jesus appearing alive after his death. However, virtually every scholar, Christian and otherwise, say those verses were added centuries later by Church leaders who wanted a miraculous Jesus – and not a great but very dead man. That’s proven because the two earliest copies of Mark, discovered in 1859, do not contain the added verses describing a literal resurrection. Because of that, many Bibles today – you can check this in yours – put a disclaimer before those added verses stating they are not original.
The implication of this is significant – one that most fundamentalist Christians avoid contemplating. The miracle of Jesus coming back to life on Easter morning, after being tortured, crucified, killed and buried, the event that supposedly proves there is a life after death for everybody, was probably made up.
What the original version of Mark described is that in the empty tomb sat a young man who tells the female followers of Jesus that he is risen and to find him in Galilee. It’s in Galilee where Jesus lived his entire life and where he taught his famous Sermon on the Mount declaring the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful and the peacemakers of the world are the truly good. It’s also in Galilee where he served and showed compassion to the hungry, sick, blind and other abled, and where he confronted religious hypocrites who worshipped money and power. Galilee, more than any other place, represented Jesus’ humble life and teachings. It’s there, not some tomb, that the young man said to find the essence of Jesus and his legacy of forgiveness and love. The heart of the resurrection, in my interpretation of Mark, is not about a physical life after death, but is instead a spiritual and symbolic one.
My interpretation of Mark’s original description of the resurrection is also that of the first Christians. Once again, a relatively recent discovery proves this. The gospel of Peter, another biography of Jesus, was found sixty years ago buried in what was an ancient library in Egypt. This gospel was not included in the Bible by early Church leaders. It’s exclusion was likely because it says that instead of Jesus being bodily resurrected, he was simply “taken up”. That’s a crucial distinction and one that fits with the original ending of Mark.
The gospel of Peter, experts believe, was written very close to Jesus’ death which makes it more authoritative than ones in the Bible that were written decades later. Jesus’ essence – his spirit – was taken up into a symbolic realm comprising his teachings and all the good he did. Jesus’ afterlife, and ours too, is not to rest forever on some heavenly cloud, or if we do evil things, burn in some ghastly hell. Many of the first Christians believed we will be taken up into a spiritual – not literal – heaven, one which I believe is purely symbolic.
This is something I describe whenever I officiate at funerals. It’s my belief that humans, not some mythical god in heaven, are the true gods and goddesses that make the world better. Because of that, it is what a person does to influence other lives, that lives onward. That is why kindness, compassion, and serving others are so essential. They are the purpose for our existence. We help make the world better off than if we had not been born. We don’t do good to selfishly earn a spot in heaven. We do good just for the sake of doing good – and to improve life for everyone.
Doing good in life, according to Jesus, means to forgive others – even our enemies. It means living humbly and sacrificially by practicing the Golden Rule to love and serve others at least as much or more than we love and serve ourselves. And our contentment and happiness come not from money and material possessions, but from living at peace with everyone. We can’t know the impact we’ll have in the distant future, but hundreds of years from now, our lifetime deeds will have been paid forward generation by generation such that it will be as if we are there too.
For me, that’s the resurrection I celebrate today – a reminder to live as Jesus lived – simply, compassionately, and joyfully.
A few years back, I visited a Gathering member who was terminally ill. He had assured me during his hospice time that he was at peace with death. But when dying got very near – and he knew it, he was terrified. Even though he’d become an Atheist as an adult, he began to fearfully remember his Christian upbringing and its teachings about hell. He asked that I come to him shortly before he passed, and with much anguish and emotion, he asked that I pray with him to help him find some peace.
And so I clasped his hands in mine and I prayed with him in gratitude for his beautiful life – one that included love for his family, partner, and many friends. I prayed with the assurance that he would be remembered and his life legacy would last far into the future because of the love he had given away, the generosity he had shown, and the kindness he’d extended to those less fortunate. I prayed with thanks that he had followed the life example of Jesus. I finished my prayer reminding him of the many people who had loved him – who still do – and who will for many years to come. And then I looked up at him. He was no longer trembling, he had something of smile on his face, and tears stained his cheeks. He said a very quiet, “Thank you.”
I still remember that encounter. His fear of death shook me, but I’m hopeful he passed into eternity unafraid because he better understood what resurrection means. No hell. No heaven. Just peace and an eternal legacy of goodness.
I hope a gentle death comes for me and for you. To the depths of my heart, I believe in a resurrection, an afterlife, for each of us – one that will be a timeless extension of how we have loved, given, served and spoken. It’s the things we do today and tomorrow that will influence others far into the future. It is not hyperbole to say that each of us touch eternity by how we show love – even in very small acts or expressions of kindness. Whether or not future generations know our names, we will nevertheless be there with them.
My hope is that we can resurrect the resurrection – and restore its original understanding. We will all die one day and our bodies will become part of the universe. But the essence of who we are will not end. We will live onward in the countless ways we have impacted the world. Nobody lives and dies in vain if he or she has selflessly loved family, friend and stranger. Doing those things, eternity for me and you will be a continuous Easter morning.
I wish you each much peace and joy.