"Risen" by Kume Bryant © Used with permission www.kumebryant.com by Kume Bryant ©

Our Turn to Engage and Change the World — John 20

Chapter 20 in the Gospel of John is shaped by the theological question: “Where is Jesus?” It is about how the earthly Jesus relates to the risen Jesus. Mary Magdalene speaks for the community: “We do not know ” (Jn 20:2). The scene with Thomas suggests this is an ongoing question for disciples (Jn 20:19-29). Thomas did not experience the resurrection of Jesus like the other disciples because he was not with them at the time. Like Thomas we have come to believe through the testimony of the People of God, the Church.

This Easter we’re entering the mystery of the crucifixion-resurrection of Jesus while we’re experiencing dark times in our world. COVID has changed our ways of connecting, divisions are cracking our former unity, we’re shocked by the invasion of Ukraine and our powerlessness to stop it, and we continue to hear dire news of Earth’s struggle. It can feel bleak. We may feel as Mary did the morning after Jesus’s death and burial: we approach this Easter just as she “came to the tomb while it was still dark.”

God Reveals Godself

In the Old Testament God revealed Godself through intervening. God’s self-revelation is reaction to the suffering inflicted by humankind on humankind. An example is the Exodus from the Empire of Egypt: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut 5:6). God reacts to the suffering of victims with compassion, mercy and justice.

In the days of Jesus, the hope of resurrection did not mean immortality for all believers as we are inclined to believe today. Hope in resurrection had emerged among the Jews in the centuries preceeding Jesus’s life in response to the many Jews who had been persecuted and killed because they chose to stay faithful to God. We find this in Maccabees where seven brothers were killed when Palestine was under the Seleucid Syrian Empire (2 Maccabees 7). Another example is described in Wisdom 2-3. This hope of resurrection was about a hunger and thirst for God’s liberating justice on behalf of innocent victims. It was not about everyone longing for immortality.

Resurrection as Liberation from Injustice

In this context we understand the resurrection of Jesus as above all God’s liberating action. God vindicated Jesus for his life and death. God raised up Jesus who was a victim because of his faithfulness to mission — he was a crucified prophet. God is reacting to what humans did — they killed Jesus because of the way he lived. God raised Jesus for justice, to free him from the injustice and violence of the kind of death he was given. The cross in this understanding is not only an instrument of evil but a product of oppression.

God raised Jesus, the One who inaugurated the basileia of God in Galilee, offering God’s compassion and love to the poor and despised. We can sometimes focus so much on Christ that we ignore this cause of Jesus — to spread the basileia of God.

To Engage and Change the Empire

Palestinian Mitri Raheb describes Jesus’s life as actively engaged in dismantling the oppression of Roman occupation, not by reacting to Rome, but by spreading the vision of the basileia of God. The way of Jesus is to be seen in his context of living under Roman occupation. The challenge for us is to also spread the basileia — “to engage and change empire.”

The coming of the Messiah in Jesus marks a pivotal change in our understanding and belief in the meaning of a faithful life. We no longer have to wait for direct divine intervention, because that intervention has already taken place. God has done God’s part; Jesus the Messiah has come.

Now the “ball is in the court of humankind”. We are transformed “to engage the world, to challenge the monopoly of power, and to live the life of an already liberated people.” Belief in Jesus as the Messiah “replaced the idea of divine intervention with the direct intervention of the faithful.” It is now ourselves, those who believe in Christ, who “have to step into this world to engage and change the empire” in our particular contexts.

Our Engagement in the Basileia

It is tempting to understand faith as a package of certitudes rather than a faithful relationship with the Risen Jesus. Especially now, when we are waiting at the tomb in darkness, we might wish for less mystery and more certainty — for revelation in the form of intervention. But the ball really is in our court: we will need to discern how to intervene, engage and change the empire.

Our “empire” has recently been changed in very real ways. The pandemic has changed our working, social and personal lives. Without our interventions, the most vulnerable in our society would have suffered unduly. But we have found ways to act with compassion, mercy and justice: we Zoom the lonely, work from home to protect our colleagues, deliver necessities to those isolating. We have made and followed rules put in place not for our benefit, but for that of our neighbour.

We can’t let feelings of powerless-ness paralyse our responses to evil. We are not alone, we are a liberated people. While the “empire” of Russia is seeking to crush Ukraine, our response is to join in peacemaking efforts at home and around the world, to encourage those with power to do the right thing, to support those Russians and Ukrainians who are seeking peace, to welcome refugees to settle in our country. And our attention and efforts need to be sustained for the long haul — until peace is restored. All along we need to resist the urge to meet violence with violence, to spread blame indiscriminately and so take up the tools of the oppressors. We are a resurrected people of hope.

Meanwhile, the threat to our common home intensifies. Caring for our brothers and sisters means caring for the home we share, calls us to “ecological conversion”. We might participate in the seven Laudato Si’ goals: Response to the cry of the earth; Response to the cry of the poor; Ecological economics; Adoption of sustainable lifestyles; Ecological education; Ecological spirituality; and Community and resilience and empowerment (https://laudatosiactionplatform.org/).

The People of God are resurrected people graced with imagination and hope to live the vision of God in dark times as in the light. “New life starts in the dark,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor. “Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 269 April 2022: 24-25