Luke 21:5-19

Gravity and Easter theology

During this past week I visited my local multi-screen cinema and saw a disaster blockbuster on the grand scale. It was Alfonso Cuaron's 'Gravity'. Watching it in 3D had me ducking and squirming as space debris came straight at me! 'Gravity' is bound for Oscar success, including Sandra Bullock who is outstanding throughout. Vince Abbott's special effects are stunning and he is sure to receive an Oscar. However, the one other actor that we see on screen, George Clooney, may not be in the running for an Oscar - I recall that we only get to see his face some 2/3rds of the way through the film!

'Gravity' has no real story other than disaster upon disaster, so minds are not exercised - but visual and sound both impact [and I mean impact] upon the audience for 91 minutes. Sadly the ending ruins the entire disaster film. If you want a comical, almost farcical, sentimental, weak and ultimately unworthy ending, stay to the sugary sweet end. However, if you like a disaster film of the highest order, I recommend that you leave the cinema as Sandra Bullock faces the perils of re-entry into earth's atmosphere. Then you can decide how the film ends for you.

I apply the same disaster principle to the final week in the Jesus story. Mark, the original Gospel that made it into the Christian canon, has his story of Jesus ending with terrified women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, running away from the empty tomb. There is no 'good' ending of a physical resurrection. The post-tomb experiences of Jesus that have been added later to the Mark version, along with the endings of the other 3 Gospels, are not history but explanations of the on-going 'presence' of the Jesus Spirit in the decades that followed. These were intended to encourage their respective followers to continue the counter cultural Jesus Way in the face of on-going Roman occupation, oppression and brutality, coupled with increasing hostility from the synagogue leaders who rejected the witness of Jesus and his followers.

For me, the good news of resurrection is not a sugary sweet moment beyond death kind of experience but is the sacrificial way of life to be lived on a moment by moment, day by day basis. Every personal sacrifice in the service of others [the Jesus Way] is a death to self / selfishness and will always be followed by a resurrection to a renewed life for both the giver and the receiver. The Easter story is not a once a year event but a consistent way of life in the here and now.

Notice that our Lectionary reading in Luke 21:5-19 occurs at the beginning of that fateful final week in the life of Jesus. But we need to understand the historical and religious contexts of the events of what we call 'Holy Week' along with and the contexts in which the Jesus stories were later written, including the persecution of Christian that coloured the content of those stories [Additional note 1 see below].

This is important because Mark's Gospel was written in the midst of turmoil and persecution, and subsequently became a primary source for both the Gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke. But by the time Matthew's Gospel was written, and then after wards Luke's Gospel was written, the story of Jesus telling of the impending destruction of the temple had been added. It was not there in Mark's story in which Jesus acknowledged the signs of the times. But there was nothing new in what Jesus was recorded as having said - deceivers, wars, famines, and earthquakes [Additional note 2 see below].

But if we put these signs plus the added comments about the impending destruction of the Temple into the context of the writing of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke some 60 years after the first Easter, then things begin to take on a different significance. Now we see the followers of Jesus looking back and realizing what had happened. Indeed many deceivers had come in the name of Jesus, claiming, 'I am he,' and, 'The time is near.'

In Luke's Book of Acts, not yet written but the content obviously known to Luke and doubtless already used by him as a warning to his community, the author has the story of Paul and Barnabas encountering Elymas Bar-Jesus meaning 'Elymas son of Jesus' when they reached Cyprus [Acts 13]. Elymas meant 'magician' or 'corrupter' - the 'corrupting son of Jesus'! And Mark, Matthew and Luke all warn the believers in their communities not to follow any one who claims to be the new or the returned Jesus.

The followers of Jesus in the Matthew and Luke communities would have been fully aware of war and revolution. Many would have been the survivors or immediate descendants of the survivors of the Judean uprising between 66 and 73. I interpret this as the encouragement to the followers of Jesus: "even in these dark times of oppression and persecution, do not be frightened because God is with us."

When both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were being written, the Followers of Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, were being systematically ejected from the synagogues. The early churches all knew and many would have experienced persecution. But, if there was no substance to the message of encouragement and support contained in vv18 and 19 of this chapter, "But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life" then why should the people have remained followers of Jesus?

Notice that theirs was not a set of Creedal beliefs - the Creeds of the Church had not yet been written. The strength and power that fuelled the growth of the early churches against all the odds was the way in which they lived. It was not just in what they said but it was in the way they loved and cared for one another; it was the way of sharing the little that they had so no one need go hungry. It is my belief that while the Church in Britain today requires Creedal beliefs as the foundation for membership, people will continue to leave and to turn their backs on the Christian Church. The traditional messages and teachings and creeds were designed to bring about unity amongst those who wanted to belong and to exclude all contrary opinion and experience. The major Creeds were written in times long gone and they tell us about the birth of Jesus and the death of Jesus but the really important part - the life of Jesus - is left out of these Creeds.

God is no more above the sky than we are. We now know that the world is not flat and neither the Devil or Hell are just below our feet. We only need to look at television news to know that Heaven and Hell are not simply about experiences beyond death but they are very real amongst us now. We know that 2/3rds of the world will go to bed hungry tonight - that is Hell enough for them. If the people in the early churches did not also experience the life force of Jesus then why should they have become missionary minded? Why should they have invited others to join in the life giving, life-enhancing experience of the Spirit of God found so completely in Jesus of Nazareth?

If the invited came and failed to find the Spirit that gives spiritual drink to the spiritually thirsty, then the Churches would not have grown. If the persecuted, oppressed and hungry did not find the depth of love, support and encouragement lived and not just spoken about amongst the followers of Jesus, then the Churches would have gone the way of all organizations that fail to deliver what they promise.

It was the writer of Mark's Gospel, having taken oral tradition and the teachings and memories of Peter, who attributed to Jesus these words of comfort that all will be well. "Stand firm and receive life." They were written in extremely dark times for the Followers of Jesus. Later still, both Matthew and Luke took Mark chapter 13 vv 1-13 to encourage and to reassure their community members who were followers of Jesus that all would be well. This passage in Luke 21 was an encouragement to the Christians who were facing hunger, Roman persecution, oppression and exploitation, and Jewish expulsion from the synagogues. And yet they also experienced the on-going presence of Jesus in the love that was shared amongst the members of the Christian communities.

So what has 'Gravity' and Easter theology to say to us today? First, spiritual inspiration is to be found within and beyond the Bible: literature and poetry; theatre and cinema; lakes and mountains; art galleries and museums are all spiritual sources. In fact, spiritual inspiration is all around us, especially in the people we meet if we only look for it. Secondly, to go forward the churches in the post-modern world will need to go back to the beginning, to the Jesus of Nazareth who lived fully in the dirt and dust of an oppressed land before the creeds imprisoned him. Today we have choices and unlike the first century communities of Followers of the Way of Jesus, maybe we suffer from having too much rather than from having too little. Perhaps this is the message that we need to live - a message of sacrificial love and costly sharing for all our sisters and brothers in the One God of All people, no matter where they are in this world or the religious labels they put upon themselves?

And there are no Oscars for living the Jesus Way, just daily small deaths to self and daily resurrections!

Additional notes:

[1] An early tradition concerned the years in which Peter was in Rome and can be traced back to Jerome, the late 4th and early 5th century monk and scholar who stated that Peter, the first Pope, laid the foundation stones to a great Church in Rome in the year 42 CE. Emperor Claudius then expelled all Jews from Rome in the years 49 and 50, and it was then that Peter returned for a short time to Jerusalem and was party to the Council of Jerusalem in 50 CE. Emperor Claudius died in 54, and Peter returned to Rome, perhaps thinking that persecution was over? However, persecution of Christian followers of Jesus the Jew came again when Emperor Nero accused the Christians of intentionally causing the Great Fire of Rome. According to the historian Tacitus, who was 9 years old at the time of the fire, the fire began on 18th July 64 CE. Both Peter and Paul were executed in the persecution that followed that Great Fire. Evidence as to the extent of the decimation of the early Church leadership can be found in the writings of Hippolytus, the 2nd century Christian writer. Eusebius, the early 4th century Bishop of Caesarea and historian of the early churches, also confirmed that Peter had been executed in Rome. Mark is thought to have been Peter's interpreter in Rome, and as a result of the executions of Peter and Paul, Mark wrote down all that he could remember Peter telling about the life and ministry of Jesus. Notice that Mark's Gospel has no indication of the dreadful events of 70 C.E. when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans. I conclude that Mark's Gospel therefore was most likely written between 64 C.E. and 70 C.E.

By the time that Mark, Matthew and Luke were writing their Gospels, persecution had been a major experience of the followers of Jesus. Church leaders, including many of the original disciples of Jesus, had been martyred, beginning with Stephen by stoning and shortly after of James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John, by beheading, causing the Diaspora that spread the good news of Jesus from its home in Jerusalem and Judea throughout the Middle East as followers of Jesus fled the religious persecution in Jerusalem. James the son of Alphaeus was also stoned to death as the result of preaching in Jerusalem; Andrew was crucified in Greece; Bartholomew was crucified in Armenia; James the brother of John was killed by the sword in Judea; Philip was crucified in Hierapolis; Thomas was killed in India. Also many followers of the way of Jesus had been brought before kings and governors down the decades. There was nothing new in any of this.

[2] As for earthquakes, Vesuvius had erupted on August 23-24 in the year 69 C.E. and in all probability news of this had reached this part of the Roman Empire in which the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written [between 80 and 90 C.E.]. They would almost certainly have within their oral folklore the story of the Qumran earthquake in 31 B.C.E. These events had happened and would happen again. As for famine - there had been a great famine throughout the Roman Empire, including Judea from 42 to 44 C.E. and again from 49 to 52 C.E. This would have been in the Judean folklore. Indeed, the church in Antioch is recorded in Acts 11 as having sent famine relief to the Jerusalem Church in 43 C.E.

Copyright ©: 2013, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.