The Risen Lord: On Sovereignty and Tyranny

lightThe resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of Christianity’s most central creed. It is also one that is subject to literal as well as spiritual interpretations. The contention between the two stems from a lexical ambiguity of the term “body,” a word that, in respect to spiritual salvation, signifies a group of believers; an assembly, hence the church, rather than the anatomy, the flesh. The Good News proclaimed by Paul and the Apostles reveals that despite the crucifixion, the Lord has risen and is present among his believers. The cross is the symbol of tyranny of this world that consists of the political, legal and priestly institutions that have judged and condemned Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God and the Messiah. Thus, the Good News proclaims that although the worldly powers attempted to dispose of Jesus by putting him to death, he was exalted and risen from the dead. With his passion and resurrection of the mystical body of Jesus Christ, the living Church is henceforth sovereign and risen above the tyranny of this world.

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom 12:4)

What is conveyed by certain words in the Bible is different from their ordinary, everyday use. Many of the terms used in the Old and New Testaments have a distinct and specifically religious connotation. This is especially true of the meaning of body, death and the resurrection. Consequently, it is essential to put the original meaning of some of terminology in proper perspective. The expression, “Good News,” synonymous with “Gospel,” is equally used here as it conveys a better mental representation of what the Apostles and the first Christians meant about the message of the risen Lord and the church as the resurrected body of Jesus Christ.

Apostle Paul

Apostle Paul was a determinant figure in the spreading of the Good News. His militant work made him the second most important figure in Christendom after Jesus Christ. Moreover, his epistles are the oldest documents relating to the development of the early church. In his letters, he outlines the basic tenets of the resurrection of the body of Christ. Although he has never met Jesus, he did meet Peter, the apostle that the Lord chose as leader of his church, in Jerusalem. As a result, Paul heard Peter’s testimony of Jesus’ message firsthand. Nonetheless, Paul is a controversial figure. Some blame him for a fateful opposition between Jews and Christians; others contend that too much emphasis has been given to Paul instead of Jesus Christ. Regardless, Paul was Christianity’s most persuasive and crucial organizer. Without him, Christianity would not be what it is today.

Saul, who is also called Paul, was born between 1 and 5 A.D. in Tarsus, a city in south-central Turkey renowned for being a center of Greek culture comparable to Athens. He was an orthodox rabbi and according to his letters, he was a Pharisee. The book of Acts reveals he was a Roman citizen, but some scholars suspect the assertion. He was raised and educated according to the strict rules of Rabbinical law. There is no explanation on his part as to why he wrote his epistles in Greek. Nevertheless, his exhortations – meant to be read aloud – reveal a traditional Jewish, rather than Hellenistic, mindset.

According to his letters, Paul persecuted Jews who were proclaiming Jesus’ message and was actively involved in trying to destroy the early church. As a result, Christian Jews were either beaten or chastised according to the law. Paul doesn’t give any details about his persecution and the level of violence, except that he was driven by Pharisaical zeal in defense of his ancestral tradition. He simply perceived Christian Jews as violating Jewish law.

The irony is that, on several occasions, the Gospels describe Jesus being confronted by Pharisees, who claimed that Jesus did not have the authority to forgive sins and that he should not be eating with sinners. He was also admonished for healing a follower on a Sabbath. On one occasion, Pharisees confronted him by saying that the law of Moses requires that an adulteress be stoned, to which Jesus replied that “he who is without sin throw the first stone.” (John 8:7)

One day on his way to Damascus – presumably in order to persecute Jews who believed in Christ – Paul heard a mysterious voice calling him and was shaken to the ground by a vision of Jesus. He gave no details of what exactly happened. Nonetheless, the event brought a radical change in his life. This religious experience compelled Paul into having a diametrical view of Christ Jesus and the Jews who believed in him and, as a result, he submitted to the revelation of “Christ and I are one” and in “One body in Christ.”

From the outset, Paul was educated in the school of thought that relied on the oral and written tradition of the Torah, or instructions, a belief system based on the liturgy and rituals that constitutes rabbinic Judaism. As a result, he opposed Jews who believed in Jesus whom he perceived to be violating the law. His calling unraveled a shift where the law that was responsible for his persecution was no longer necessary. With Jesus’ message of “love thy neighbor like yourself” (Mark 12:31), Paul the Pharisee opened his heart to all followers of Christ: Men, women, Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men, and members of all nations. Hence the term “neighbor” is no longer limited to a group of chosen people but to all who submit to the commandment of love.

As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of
them is love. (1 Cor 13:13)

As a consequence of his persecution of Christians, Paul equates the law with sin and death. For the apostle, sin is the condition of being devoid of faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. It is linked to Adam’s original sin that resulted in being cast out of God’s presence, ensuing in a spiritual death. Whereas, with His mission and presence on earth, Jesus redeems Adam’s sin by restoring God’s presence among the believers.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. (Rom 5:12)

In Genesis, God commanded Adam and Eve to not eat the fruit in the middle of the garden or they would die. The story reveals that Eve listened to the serpent who tempted her by promising that, if they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve would be like gods knowing good and evil and that they would live forever and would not die. Adam’s sin stems from listening to Eve and eating the forbidden fruit rather than obeying God’s commandment. The betrayal resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and incurred an estrangement from God’s presence and dominion. Paul equates this original alienation from God to a spiritual death – a death that is redeemed by the Son of God’s presence on earth among the people who have faith.

The Gospels

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written between 70 A.D. and 90 A.D. after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are considered “synoptic” because they share a similar chronology of the life of Jesus. Mark, the oldest gospel, was written approximately 20 years after Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians. The Gospel of John was written the latest, circa 90 A.D., with a chronology and style all of its own. None of the authors knew or met Jesus. The narratives are recollections of oral testimonies of Jesus’ mission. The authors were likely all Jews. They took great care of linking the Old Testament to the messianic legitimacy of Jesus. All of the text was written in Greek and share a similar allegorical style in respect to their use of metaphors, parables, signs and miracles.

The synoptic Gospels share a similar chronology of the last supper, the passion and resurrection. The accounts use the same metaphors to describe Jesus’ central message of his body. During the last supper, Jesus breaks the bread, drinks the wine and shares it with his disciples and says:

Take and eat; this is my body

Drink from it; this is my blood (Matt 26-28)

In terms of literary criticism, the metaphor is a figure of speech. Whereas in terms of messianic expectations these words inaugurate a shift away from the normal use of language, an exile from a former way of being in respect of communication, community and communion. The metaphor is used as a code to reveal the spiritual meaning of the Good News. It implies a shift in meaning, a break in the ordinary use of language instituting a new symbolic reality in terms of religious commandments and ritual practices. The metaphor expresses an expansion of being as an assembly of believers as the body of Christ.

The breaking of a loaf of bread and sharing with all the disciples constitutes the one body. This institutes a living church comprised of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus giving the commandment to do the same in his memory and preach his message to all. The same goes for the sharing from one cup of wine that become the blood of the new covenant. Thus the Good News proclaims that all are welcomed to partake in the breaking and eating of the bread in remembrance of Jesus Christ.

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me. Cor 11:25

Although the Gospel of John does not have a last supper scene, he does confirm the importance of the metaphor in order to understand the Good News.

I am the gate ─ door (John 10:9)
I am the way (John 14:6)

Jesus told his disciple Simon that he would be known as Peter (literally meaning rock) on which he would build his living community, his church. This is an additional confirmation and an allegorical allusion that the metaphor holds a vital role in understanding the meaning of the Word.

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community ─ Church. (Matt 16:18)

The Passion

Jesus’ fate unraveled shortly after his last supper. He was betrayed by one of his followers, abandoned by his disciples, and arrested by the Roman occupying forces. He was denounced by the priests and the mob in Jerusalem and judged and condemned by the crowd under the supervision of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. He was tortured, humiliated and forced to carry the instrument of his death and was finally nailed to a cross as a violent display of the sanctioning power of the Empire. Finally, he was left to die between common criminals. Throughout his ordeal the only people that stood by his side were Mary of Magdala, the mother of James, Joset and Salome in the books of Matthew and Mark, and Jesus’ mother in the book of John.

During Jesus’ ministry, a number of women followed Jesus but typically remained in the background of the twelve male apostles. These women, among them Mary of Magdala, provided financial support to Jesus’ ministry. Early on, Jesus cured Mary of Magdala of her possession of seven demons (possession was a term used to imply an illness for which there was no known explanation or cure.) In the eight times that a list of women is mentioned in the Gospels, on every occasion Mary of Magdala is named first. All in all, she is mentioned more times than any other disciple.

There is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the surname Magdala. The Church’s position is that it refers to a place named Magdal (Migdal in Hebrew and Magdala in Aramaic), meaning tower or fortress. However, such a place on the banks of the Sea of Galilee no longer existed at the time of Jesus. Nonetheless, the surname Magdala should be viewed as a metaphor and symbolic attribute in terms of fortitude similar to John, who was also known as John the Baptist, or Simon, who was given the metaphorical name of “rock” by Jesus.

Mary of Magdala is not only mentioned in the synoptic Gospels but is also present in the book of John. All four accounts describe women that accompanied Jesus during his last week and were present at the crucifixion. They alone remained until the end, whereas the male disciples fled. Foremost, these female followers were the first to witness that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb.

It was Mary of Magdala who discovered the empty tomb and was the first to witness the risen Christ. She was also the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, a messenger to the Good News. As it happens, the root word apostle in Greek means “messenger.” Consequently, the narratives bestow the attribute of apostle to Mary of Magdala and the other women.

The Gospels describe Simon as the metaphorical rock on which Jesus builds his Church. Mary of Magdala, who was the first to witness the risen Lord, is alluded to in the narratives as the metaphorical tower proclaiming the Good News of the resurrected body of Christ to the believers. In addition, the name Madgal-eder also appears in Micah 4:8-10 and refers to a symbolical “tower” or “stronghold of the flock,” a biblical link that infers that Mary of Magdala is a stronghold of the church.

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Paul’s letters reveal that Jesus appeared to him in the same way he appeared to the Apostles following his crucifixion. The appearance is described as establishing a communication and a spiritual union between the risen Christ and his followers. In this sense, Jesus does not re-assume his physical life on earth but he is present with his disciples who are living witnesses and members of his risen body. His resurrected body rising up above the tyranny of the ruling system of this world.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (Cor 15:42)

Sovereignty & Tyranny

Paul and the Gospels proclaim that the Son of God has inaugurated a new covenant, one that consists of the inclusion of Jesus’ commandment of love. Consequently, the old meaning of neighbor is supplanted and expanded to include not only a chosen people but all who have faith in the resurrected body of Christ: Men, women, Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised and people of all nations, and members of all walks of life; the disfranchised, the outcasts, the powerless and the poor.

The Good News proclaims that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that he was exalted as Lord/sovereign. With his resurrection, the Lord granted a divine birthright to all who have faith, a birthright that bypasses one established by a worldly order and its institutions. However, his messianic message is not to be understood as political but as spiritual. It does not challenge any political system. It is a body that lives in but is not of this world.

The Epistle to the Romans were meant to be read to Christians living in Rome. Although Paul had planned to visit the church personally, he never made it willingly. He was arrested in Jerusalem in 56 A.D., likely for sedition. He finally ended up being extradited and sent to prison in the capital. Paul’s letter planted the Good News at the center of the empire. His exhortations, seen as a challenge to the spiritual legitimacy of the ruling order, in all likelihood led to Paul and Peter being executed in Rome. History shows that the Roman empire eventually collapsed. It was unable to destroy the living church in its midst. And although the tyranny of a worldly power can put Christians to death, it is incapable of eradicating the Good News of the Sovereignty of the body of Christ.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come
Amen
Nicene creed

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