My partner gave me a rose bush one year. It was a lovely little bush in a green ceramic pot. It had tiny red roses that were meant to signify his love for me. As the original blooms finished their life spans, new ones grew in their place. The budding eventually stopped, but the leaves were still pretty and green. That is, until some parasite started nibbling them. Before I figured out what to do, the leaves were all gone. But it was a determined little plant, and on its own grew a second set of leaves. Again they were devoured by some unseen pest. Finally, I accepted that it was dead, and I stuck the pot and the lifeless roots, stem, and branches under the deck.
The following spring, just before Easter, I discovered that the rosebush had come back to life under the deck! After blooming twice, after losing and growing new leaves twice, I thought this plant was over and done with. But there were new leaves! Could rosebuds be in its future? It proved a providential illustration to a congregation I was serving going through a transition.
It also reminded me that God, out of love, has built resurrection into the very nature of things. We are blessed with a glorious resurrection of trees and plants and gardens each spring, and this year the wonder has come a little earlier. Other ancient religions celebrated this annual, natural regeneration. Traces of this are found in our own tradition as early as Cain’s supposedly “unacceptable” offering of produce through the condemnation of the fertility rites of the surrounding cultures, and, positively, from the Psalmist’s celebration of nature to Jesus seeing God’s providence at work in the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
The whole of the biblical story is about what God did for love. The Bible is essentially a love story about a passionate and compassionate God who came down, first from abstraction, “the heavens,” then from a mountain of expectations (Mt. Sinai) to descend as one of us—finally, into a grave of self-sacrifice. And the climax of this love story is resurrection, for “God so loved the world....”
I believe the crucifixion was the result of human rather than divine will; God’s will is manifest in resurrection. God’s preference isn’t death or suffering or sinning (the latter of which is simply resisting the will of God, which is love). God enjoys us alive and pleasuring and loving. That’s why the preferred imagery of Christians in our first three centuries consisted of life-affirming symbols: the fish, the lamb, and the shepherd—not the cross. (See James Carroll’s book and documentary, Constantine’s Sword, for how the cross became our central symbol.)
In the Gospel of John two intimates of Jesus first believe the resurrection: the “beloved disciple” who sees the empty, still-wrapped death cloths, and “believed” without further proof, and the beloved disciple Mary, who, weeping in the garden, mistakes her vision of Jesus for the gardener.
The scriptures are clear that only believers saw Jesus, and even among those believers who saw him, some doubted. And apparently there was a diversity of belief, much as there is today, about the nature of the resurrection: some stories suggest a spiritual resurrection, other stories suggest a physical resurrection, and still others, a bit of both.
Doesn’t matter how we receive the story. What matters is its transforming effect on the early disciples and on the world and on us. Though their “success” would generate its own set of problems, both for the church and the world, a tiny fraction of a single percent of the population was in four short centuries to spread throughout and alter the very Roman Empire that crucified their rabbi.
So, are we ready for resurrection?
For more on my views of the crucifixion and resurrection, see the chapter “God Comes Out” in my book, Coming Out as Sacrament.
You may also wish to read my post from last year, suggesting the crucifixion as a hate crime against the Jews by the Romans, “Faggot Jesus.”