Tag Archives: John Spong

Tell me!

Someone I love is murdered or disappears. I don’t know where she is buried. I am consumed by a deep need to know what happened, where the body is. Ian Brady, the ‘moors murderer’ adds to the pain of his victims’ relatives by refusing ever to tell where he buried the bodies. Relatives of the missing Malaysian airliner may never know where that doomed plane and its passengers now lie. Not knowing can be the source of continuing grief and pain.

John’s Gospel tells the story of Mary of Magdala (chapter 20). There she stands outside an empty tomb: the body of the man she loved, Jesus of Nazareth, is missing. “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” she cries. Then, to someone she supposes to be the gardener she makes a grief-stricken plea:

“Tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

I published a post on April 20th about John Spong’s book, The Resurrection: Myth or Reality. He speculates that no one knew where the body of Jesus was buried. Executed criminals were tossed into a mass grave. The disciples had fled. They weren’t there to see it. Spong suggests that stories of an empty tomb were later inventions, trying to illuminate the life-changing experience the disciples called the Resurrection. Maybe there’s an echo of this reality in John’s story. Mary, wrapped in grief, desperately wants to know where the body is, so that she can give it a proper burial. TELL ME! I want to know! At least give me this crumb of certainty in my grief, then I’ll have some small ritual to do which might help.

But no one knows, and the garden is empty. Or is it? Does the gardener become the risen Christ only when we accept that we don’t know; only when we accept uncertainty? Standing here, not knowing, allowing that not-knowing simply to be the case for me; maybe then the place becomes vibrant with a Presence.

Of course it is good to know and to face the facts, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings in South Africa showed. I wish they would set up a similar process in Northern Ireland. But when no one knows, when there is no one able or willing to answer the question, ‘Tell me’, then accepting uncertainty is the only way forward. And think of the pain that can follow a refusal to accept uncertainty. Think of the pain caused by our zeal to promote certainty in the absence of facts. ‘Accept this dogma, this creed, because we KNOW and you don’t, or you have got it wrong’.

The Psalm doesn’t say, accept this set of beliefs or facts. It says, “Be still and know that I am God….”

Be still and know that I am…

Be still and know…

Be still…

Be.

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The Resurrection: Myth or Reality?

The Resurrection: Myth or Reality is the title of a book published a few years ago by Bishop John Spong. In the run-up to Easter I have been re-reading it. I love the Bishop’s profound knowledge of the Bible. He explores the contradicting stories about the Resurrection in the four Gospels and reminds us that they are not history books. They are examples of ‘midrash’: that Jewish method of exploring a profound spiritual experience by commenting on or expanding earlier Biblical stories. The remarkable parallels between the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection and what we Christians call the Old Testament are well known. Traditionally Christians have appealed to these parallels as proof of the way in which the ‘Old Testament’ prophecies are fulfilled in the Gospel stories. However to the non-Jewish mind, and especially to 21st century people the contradicting details will no longer allow us to accept that we are reading historical accounts of something that literally happened.

Having explored all this the Bishop comes up with an imaginative reconstruction of what might have happened on that first Easter. Whatever the Resurrection event was, he suggests it happened not in Jerusalem three days after the crucifixion but in Galilee six months later, just before the feast of Tabernacles. The Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem becomes the return of Peter and his fellow disciples from Galilee to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, their consciousness now awakened. Like  blind Bartimaeus in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, NOW they see!! Now they KNOW what Jesus meant by the kingdom. In this reconstruction bits of the Gospels’ jigsaw fall into place: the Transfiguration, the cursing of the fig tree for example. I cannot summarise a carefully argued book here. It’s worth reading if you are unfamiliar with it.

“God does not know how to be absent” wrote Martin Laird in ‘Into The Silent Land’. I wonder what the Christian liturgical calendar would look like for a God-does-not-know-how-to-be-absent Church?!

Happy Easter!