When Jesus was executed by Roman authorities in 30 CE, he died. His heart stopped beating. His brainwave activity ceased. He wasn’t mostly dead; he was completely dead. The biblical tradition says that the body was then removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, sealed with a large stone.
buried or left to rot?
John Dominic Crossan reports that the Roman practice of crucifixion did not usually allow for burial. Crucifixion was an extremely painful death that was intended to create both a public humiliation for the victim and a public warning for passersby. The corpses of lower class criminals or revolutionaries were not buried. Instead, the naked bodies of crucified victims were left hanging on the cross, to rot as they were exposed to the elements, and be eaten by carrion, a meal for crows and hungry dogs.
In any event—whether he was left on the cross or buried in a tomb—we simply don’t know what became of Jesus’ corpse. In the gospel accounts, the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning were unable to find it. It was never seen again. The earthly Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus, was gone.
a new experience of the living presence
The resurrection in the New Testament is not a story about a resuscitated corpse. Believing in the resurrection is not a belief that somehow God performed cosmic CPR on the dead body of Jesus. There were no angelic E.R. attendants with paddles to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm again. Instead, the resurrection was a new experience of the living presence of Jesus.
What the first disciples of Jesus experienced was far more than an earthly body that was resuscitated. What they experienced was something completely new and different.
In one story, two dejected disciples walking from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus met a stranger on the road. They didn’t recognize him. Only after they shared a meal together and the stranger departed, did the disciples realize that Jesus had been with them in a remarkable and different way. (Luke 24:13-35)
In a room back in Jerusalem, Jesus suddenly appeared to a group of frightened and disillusioned disciples. He calmed their fears and then disappeared through a closed and locked door. They too had experienced something new. (John 20:19-23)
Several years later, we are told that Jesus appeared to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus in Syria. Paul didn’t see Jesus, whom he had never met. He only heard a voice. (Acts 9:1-19) Paul later said that his resurrection experience was just like that of the other disciples. A living, breathing earthly body was not involved. This was a different kind of reality, a different experience of Jesus. Yet Jesus was still very real.
The miracle of the resurrection was that people could still experience the presence of Jesus in their lives in a vision, in a voice, or in the face of a stranger.
God is with us
After Jesus died, the disciples applied the Hebrew name Emmanuel, “God is with us,” to him. They recognized that in Jesus, God was with them. For in Jesus, they saw the face of God. In Jesus, they experienced the presence of God. In Jesus, they learned the wisdom of God. In Jesus, they heard the word of God. In Jesus, they observed the power of God.
We so often see Jesus as unique—one of a kind. And in many ways, he was. But he wanted to show his disciples that they too could do the things that he had done—to bring people healing and wholeness, acceptance and forgiveness. Jesus taught his followers that they too could have the presence and power of God in their own lives. “Greater things than I have done, you will do,” Jesus said.
So he sent them out to the villages and towns of Galilee to proclaim the kingdom of God, to share meals with anyone and everyone they met, and to bring hope and healing to their lives.
a spirit-filled fellowship
In the Old Testament, the prophets were people who were filled with the spirit of God. Elijah was such a prophet. Filled with God’s spirit, he performed miracles and raised the dead. We are told that Elijah didn’t die, but was taken up into heaven alive. When he ascended into heaven he promised that the same spirit that had filled his life would also come to his disciple Elisha. And so it did. Elisha too performed miraculous works.
In the same way, the book of Acts tells us that the spirit that had filled the life of Jesus, also came into the lives of the disciples on Pentecost. Not just one disciple, but hundreds.
Clarence Jordan, a New Testament scholar and translator of the “Cotton Patch Gospels” once wrote:
“The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”
The spirit of God that filled Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River was the spirit of compassion. This spirit motivated Jesus’ ministry, and he invited those who followed him to live in that spirit; the very spirit of God. “Be compassionate as your father in heaven is compassionate,” said Jesus. (Luke 6:36) The gospels tell us that because Jesus was moved by the spirit of compassion, he reached out to people. His compassion moved him to heal them, to forgive them, to liberate them from oppression, to transform them into a compassionate community. When compassion is with us and in us, God is with us and in us. That is the spirit God sends to us—the spirit of compassion.
Jesus said that you could tell what kind of spirit motivates someone—what’s in their heart—by the things they do, the fruits they produce. And he said that you could separate the sheep from the goats by observing whether they are moved by compassion to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and tend to the sick. God’s spirit, then, leads us to see the need and respond with compassion.
a compassionate community
Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine said that the mission of Jesus was to create community. Emmanuel doesn’t mean, “God is with me,” it means “God is with us.” God wants us to be in community with others. That’s what the kingdom of God is all about—a transformed compassionate community here on earth. Jesus’ prayer was that it would become a reality, not just a vision.
Jesus said, “If you want to be my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” Denying ourselves means putting aside our personal concerns. When Jesus is experienced as a living reality, when the spirit of compassion fills our lives, we stop focusing on ourselves and start focusing on others.
carrying on the task
The task that Jesus sets before us is the same task that he began when he was alive. Change the world. Make it a better place. Share more of what you have. See that kids are getting enough to eat. See that families have a decent place to live. See that outcasts, immigrants and strangers are welcomed. See that the sick are cared for. See that old people don’t die alone. Try to get people to stop killing each other.
Do it one step at a time. And do it together. Build a compassionate community where no one is left behind and no one is forgotten.
Carrying on the ministry and message of Jesus to a broken world is what the resurrection is all about. Jesus is still with us, and his spirit leads us to do the work of the kingdom.