When We Sleepers Rise

There’s a story told about Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. Jesus is traveling throughout the towns of Galilee, the northern reaches of Palestine. A leader of the local synagogue in the place through which Jesus is passing seeks him out. His name is Jairus, and when he gets close to Jesus, he throws himself at the teacher’s feet. “My daughter is about to die,” he pleads in anguish. “Please, come and lay your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.”

Jesus had a reputation as a healer and was being sought out by many for the healing of their afflictions. Jesus goes with Jairus, is led by this local leader through the crowds to where the young woman is. On the way there, messengers from Jairus’ household arrive and tell him, “Your daughter has died. We don’t need to bother the teacher any longer.” Jesus overhears them and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting.” He then takes only a select few of his students with him to the synagogue leader’s home.

When they arrive, there’s a commotion of grief surrounding the house. People are crying and wailing. “What is all this tumult and weeping for?” Jesus asks them. “The child is not dead. She’s just sleeping.” They all laugh at Jesus. Jesus gets them all to leave. He brings his students and the girl’s parents with him to the room where the child lays. She’s twelve years old. Taking her by the hand, Jesus says simply, “Little girl, rise up.” I imagine he speaks softly, squeezing her hand as he rouses her. And then she gets up. The way any of us would get out of bed first thing in the morning. And then she starts walking around. Her parents and the friends Jesus brought into the room are in shock. Jesus instructs them not to tell anybody, which seems a little odd considering the crowd that’s there mourning the death of Jairus’ daughter. What are her parents going to say, that she was merely asleep? But he says not to tell anybody and please, give this child something to eat.

There are many stories in the Christian scriptures about Jesus healing people and even reviving them from death. The gospels, the books in the New Testament that narrate the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, are not, of course, eyewitness accounts. These texts are not biography, nor are they journalistic reportage of events. These texts are theological proclamations written by the earliest members of the Jesus movement more than a generation after his death. The basic, remembered facts about what Jesus said and did are narrated as theological reflections on the meaning of his words and actions.

He was remembered as a healer, as a person who was able to restore health and wholeness to the bodies of the injured and infirm. Jesus is represented as God’s healing agent, a divine salve, for the suffering of the mind, body and body politic.

The followers of Jesus who wrote and redacted these stories were expecting a new world order to arrive imminently. Indeed, they believed that it was already arriving, breaking into the current world order in small sometimes unseen ways like small cracks in the solid façade of the world’s systems of domination and oppression, like small mustard seeds or bits of yeast, that would grow and expand and eventually bring the current world order down.

The incoming order is marked by the principle of shalom, the biblical ideal of peace and wholeness. Shalom is a word that resonates with meaning; it does not merely signify the absence of war. It also means wholeness, balance, health, harmony, integrity and completeness as well as peace. Shalom is right-relation, wellbeing that is personal and interpersonal, economic and social, international and planetary.

The wholeness and health and integrity of individual bodies is a microcosm for the balance and harmony and peace of the body politic, the social order. Shalom for the nation means shalom for persons, and vice versa.

In one healing story, Jesus is called upon to expel an unclean spirit that possesses a man and causes the man great suffering and self-destruction. Jesus says to the spirit, “What is your name?” And the answer comes: “Our name is Legion, for we are many.” Legion, of course, is the name for the basic unit in the Roman military. It comes from the Latin word legio, which means military conscript, because the Roman Legion were drafted from among the Empire’s citizens.

So when Jesus expels the Legion from the body of a man, who then enter a herd of pigs and drown in the sea, we are getting a theological-political statement about the power of God to expel the unclean, foreign bodies from the nation, the restoration of national wholeness and integrity and peace.  As the nation is possessed, contaminated by a foreign, unclean power, this possession is expressed in the body. So, when the formerly possessed man appears dressed and in his right mind, he is a sign of liberation and shalom.

(Lest we think such imaginative views are a product only of the ancient world, think for a moment about our own metaphors of illness. Think of our images of disease as an invasion of the body, of the immune system being a defense against that invasion—all military metaphors. Think of the names of what we might suffer from—German measles or Asian flu. Anxieties about invasion are named for national and political enemies).

Restoring the wholeness of body and mind, then, are signifiers of the in-breaking divine social order, the arrival of God’s shalom. Health is a sign of what Jesus and his movement called the kingdom of God.  It is a realm in which suffering and illness have been vanquished, in which brokenness and disease are no more. It is a realm in which God’s shalom overcomes powers of destruction and death. Perfect bodies that never experience pain, never get diseased or disabled…perfect bodies that never die.

Our bodies will no longer fail, they proclaimed, because there is a life-giving, vivifying power greater than our bodies’ failures. Greater even than death. Death itself is merely an illusion in the face of this living power—she’s not dead, she’s just sleeping.

Resurrection, for the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth, was ultimately about history.

It was about a time, in history, when the rule of God would manifest in the world—the real world of nations and rulers and armies. It was about a time, in the future, when worldly kingdoms were defeated and the kingdom of God was ushered in—a real territory on the actual earth. Not an otherworldly kingdom in the heavens—the real world of bodies and passions and appetites. Not an afterlife in the clouds—a restored creation, a renewed earth, an earthly paradise full of redeemed people with unfailing, perfect bodies. This was an expected utopia, a verdant place of peace and prosperity and plenty. It was coming, and the early Jesus movement believed it was coming very soon.

The gospel stories of Jesus healing and reviving people were told as indications that the Kingdom of God was arriving. And so, the stories tell us, in his presence, nobody went hungry. In his presence, bodies were restored to wholeness. In his presence, the dead are rejuvenated. Healing, being restored to wholeness, being made sound—these are signs that prefigure the arrival of that day when all have transformed bodies, when all are whole, healthy.

The word “salvation” comes from the Latin and it means to be made whole, or sound. “Salvation” is simply a Latin word for shalom. A savior in the ancient Greco-Roman world was a natural philosopher, the ancient world’s equivalent of a physician. The Roman ruler or emperor was sometimes called a savior because he brought health and soundness to the body politic.

In the Jesus movement, salvation, for individuals, was an embodied state of everlasting, abundant life in a renewed body on this renewed earth–not being bodiless in a spiritual heaven.

The Jesus movement proclaimed that God’s saving work in the world is healing, wholeness, salvation. People’s brokenness, our wounds, are bound up in the healing salve of God’s love, our broken selves are made whole. The broken down and ruined places in our world are salvaged by God’s grace and are transformed, rebuilt. These are all motifs in the Jesus story and hearken back to stories and motifs of the other Jewish prophets found in Jewish scripture.

Some Jews (namely, the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus) believed that in the time to come, life would be restored to those righteous people who had died, and others did not. The biblical notion of the afterlife was an underworld called Sheol to which the souls of the dead retired. The New Testament, which was written in Greek, uses the Greek name Hades for the abode of the dead.

Around the time of Jesus, there came to be known another place to which dead souls went called Gehenna. The Hebrew is literally, Ge Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, and is believed to be somewhere outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It was a place where offal—animal remains—and other refuse was slowly burned.

Gehenna was conceived as an afterlife of torment, a place of unquenchable fire. In the New Testament, it is distinguished from Hades and Sheol as a place of punishment for the wicked. The name is also found in the Qur’an and later Jewish writings with the same meaning; the King James Version of the Bible translated Sheol, Hades and Gehenna into the single Anglo-Saxon word, Hell. This effectively erased the distinction between the silent abode of the dead and the afterlife of burning punishment for wickedness.

The resurrection of the dead came to be seen by some Jews, including Jesus’ followers, as an occurrence at the beginning of the messianic era at the end of this present age. When God was going to usher in his paradise on earth, those righteous people who had fallen asleep and were resting in their ghostly abode were to be awakened from their deathly slumber. The wicked would meet their fate in Gehenna, and both their bodies and souls would be consumed in the flames there.

Followers of Jesus were among those Jews who believed the messianic era would begin with the dead being restored to life. The righteous would rise up with their new and improved bodies and live in the realm of peace and plenty, wholeness, health and holiness. They believed Jesus, the paradigmatic figure of this incoming kingdom and time, was the first to rise up. But he was not thought of as unique in this feat.

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he describes Jesus as the firstfruits of the harvest, the first crop of a general harvest. Everybody will be resurrected; Jesus was merely the first to be given his new body. The resurrection celebrated by Christians at Easter was not the singular resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus, but a sign that the messianic age had begun.

The most articulate vision of this early Christian hope is found in the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth, the fifteenth chapter. The expectation had been that Jesus would be coming back to usher in the new world order sooner rather than later. And as time wore on and he didn’t return and his followers began to die, the question about the resurrection arose. It was this question that Paul is answering in his letter. Those dead people had merely fallen asleep and would be awakened when Jesus came back in glory to rule a redeemed world. And those that are still alive will experience themselves as transformed on that day. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery,” Paul writes.

“We will not all die [literally “fall asleep”] but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 NRSV)

“Our dead and decaying bodies will be changed into bodies that won’t die or decay. The bodies we now have are weak and can die. But they will be changed into bodies that are eternal.” (1 Corinthians 15: 53-54 CEV)

The bodies that we will have in that time will be nothing like the bodies we have now, Paul explains. “We do have a parallel experience in gardening,” Paul says in a paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Patterson called The Message.

“You plant a dead seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38)

At the resurrection, the living will be transformed. Their perishable bodies will transform into their unfailing bodies. Everybody who had lived a good life who had died or fallen asleep would be raised. The hope of this occurrence is the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

The meaning of Easter, in those years following Jesus death and appearances among his followers, was that the many who had fallen asleep were beginning to be roused; the entire citizenry of the age to come were beginning to wake up; everybody who would inhabit the future in their perfect bodies were beginning to receive them. It was a soaring hope and affirmation that the new life in the new world order was beginning.