Easter Sunday—“Our master’s power is the love that moves the human heart by consent”
Mark 16:1-8 — The short ending of Mark recounting the first Easter morning.
Acts of the Apostles 1:15-26 — recounting the story of the choosing of Matthias rather than Barsabbas as the disciple to replace Judas
How Joseph Barsabbas's letter might have read, written by Michael McGhee for the Guardian newspaper.
Please note that it is important to read all three readings above first, otherwise what follows won’t make as much sense as it could . . .
Easter Sunday—“Our master’s power is the love that moves the human heart by consent”
As our reading from Mark reminded us, in the Gospels the earliest account of what became known as “The Resurrection” did not tell of a clear and distinct sighting of Jesus at all, only of a ghostly messenger in the form of “a young man . . . clothed in a white robe.” All the stories concerning the putative bodily appearances of Jesus come later which, as far as the writing of the actual gospel texts themselves are concerned, means some fifty to ninety years later.
Given this it seems reasonable to say that there were at least some people within the wider early-Christian community who were content to let the Easter event remain more or less ineffable, pregnant with a poetic, fearful, amazed ambiguity and open-ended possibility; an event which said no more — nor any less — than that all was not lost and that after the darkness and loss of Good Friday and Black Saturday there now resonated among and within them a new, hopeful, creative, open-hearted spirit helping them to move into the future.
When it comes to Easter this, along with my own generally skeptical, religious naturalist disposition, allows me also to rest quite content with no more than Mark’s original, short ending and to express my own feeling that the resurrection “of” Jesus is best thought of not as being any kind of literal bodily one but as something like this:
That something of the mysterious, powerful, peaceful, beautiful, life-affirming, loving resonation which set Jesus’ heart moving — and which Jesus habitually named “Abba” (Father) — was now felt also to be resonating powerfully within and among the hearts of those who had gathered around him and that this was able to help them begin to fashion a new way of being religious.
But, before we go any further, let’s be quite clear that the mysterious, powerful, peaceful, beautiful, life-affirming, loving, anarchic resonation which set Jesus’ heart moving could, still cannot, and almost certainly never will be perfectly or assuredly identified, delineated, described and fully controlled by us. This was as true for the first disciples and the later Christian Church as it is for us. As the writer of the Gospel of John perspicaciously reminds us, “The spirit respires [i.e. blows] where it will, and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).
We should also note that in every attempt/opportunity to pass Jesus’ resonation on (each of which is for a person or community potentially a kind of “resurrection” or little “Easter” and a “meeting with Jesus”) there is always the danger that some kind of “interference” or “distortion” of perception will enter into play which, in turn, means that the resonation may at times affect in a person’s heart, not a loving, peaceful and beautiful transformation but, alas, a disturbingly destructive and ugly one.
It’s important to note that the way I’ve been putting things so far might seem to be suggesting we can somehow be sure that Jesus’ own inner resonation was itself without any distortion of perception or interference. But let me be clear and say that this seems vanishingly unlikely because, like every other human being — and a human being Jesus most assuredly was — perfect perception is an impossibility. The orthodox Christian churches may well continue to claim otherwise but my rather more modest claim is simply that Jesus lived and taught in such a resonant fashion that still, to this day, many of us feel he was an exceptionally fine, wise and perceptive teacher and one worthy of following. At the risk of revealing my hippie proclivities, I want to say that Jesus’ “vibes” were (and are) for me such good vibrations that I've always felt compelled to respond positively to them and they have helped keep my own heart resonating from my childhood to today.
Anyway, given the aforementioned caveats, the only way we can have the slightest hope of discerning whether the resonation Jesus attempted to pass on to the disciples (and through them down to us) is one which we can say meaningfully seems to resemble that which originally set Jesus’ heart moving is by carefully heeding Jesus’ own teaching that “from their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20).
The question we must always keep asking is whether an individual person or a community’s whole “resonation”, “vibe” or “heart” feels right — i.e. does it genuinely seems to resonate in a similar fashion to the mysterious, powerful, peaceful, beautiful, life-affirming, loving resonation we sense in Jesus’ teaching or do they give off very different kind of resonations or vibes?
However, I imagine this will feel to many people a too vague and intuitive (even “mystical”) way of discerning whether or not any person or community can legitimately say they are truly living in the spirit of Jesus or not. Well, if you do feel like this you’d be in good historical company because this way of proceeding seems to have been way too vague for the early Christian community’s quickly developing “official” leadership which became increasingly tempted, not to pass on a mystical, living, loving, creative and anarchic resonation but to pass on increasingly inflexible orthodoxies about Jesus.
The latter are, alas, an awful lot easier to pass on in a uniform and secure way than the former and, consequently, these orthodoxies are amenable to those who desire control, power and greatness. Unfortunately most of us have inherited our ideas about and experiences of Easter solely from within this second kind of tradition.
To help us further to explore this last thought we can now turn to the powerful letter composed in 2011 by the British philosopher Michael McGhee as he tried to imagine what might have been written to the first Christian martyr Stephen by the passed-over disciple Barsabbas.
In his letter McGhee is concerned to remind us that there was almost certainly never a time when distortion of perception and interference were not getting in the way of Jesus’ attempts to pass on to his disciples the powerful resonation he felt in his own heart. McGhee has Barsabbas write:
Now for the sake of our movement — listen to one who was among the disciples when we had the Lord Jesus with us. I once saw him shake his head at us — “how long must I endure you”, he said. He called us fools, lamented our hard hearts.
And what was it that McGhee thought lay at the hard, resonance-resisting hearts of those before whom Jesus shook his head? It was, as you heard earlier, the wanting of “greatness” and with the wanting of greatness there always comes an ever-increasing need for power and control — not only over others, but also over the anarchic, loving resonation that set Jesus heart moving; a deadening power that could only be achieved by killing the spirit in favour of the letter — the letter of orthodoxy.
As they engaged in their power-struggle, McGhee imagines the twin founders of what today we call Christianity, Peter and Saul/Paul, right from the very beginning creating a religion clearly filled with many distorting, interference waves that are always set in motion whenever there is present the desire for greatness. And the consequence of this was that Barsabbas, and we may imagine many others in the wider Christian community, soon found themselves visited by “smiling men who show too much zeal” and who, pretending friendship, wanted names.
In McGhee’s telling, Barsabbas is a trustworthy character because he has at least had the honesty to admit that he, too, had felt the desire for greatness — his own heart was also found wanting. The first disciples/apostles in casting lots may well have said as much but, as Barsabbas realised, being themselves full of the desire for greatness, they “didn't know that, nor did they know in what way it was wanting”.
But, of all the disciples/apostles, McGhee has Barsabbas feel that the desire for greatness was most dangerously present in the hard, non-resonating heart of Peter, a man who was seeking to achieve his own greatness through the creation of a great organizational hierarchy, in time to become a great Church, and this desire had unknowingly created in his heart a great confusion — a set of distortions and interferences that would continue to ring through the centuries to this very day. It is this confusion that makes Peter speak and behave in a way that reveals he was now serving
. . . a vengeful and punishing God, not the God of forgiveness and truth that our master, Jesus, called Father.
Peter’s desire for greatness was something that even brought “fear to the Lord's supper, into the breaking of the bread we share that betokens our mutual love” and so McGhee has Barsabbas attempt to remind Stephen — who was, remember, a deacon appointed by the twelve disciples/apostles led by Peter — of an earlier and better time:
Remember the joyful spirit of the first days when we held everything in common — or thought we did? Remember Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who sold their house and handed over the cash to the common pool, but kept some back? Peter rebuked them — and they both dropped dead. What God does that serve, and with what secret pleasure in humble power does Peter report the outcome of his rebuke? What did Peter say after Iscariot's squalid self-slaughter? “Let his homestead fall desolate; let there be none to inhabit it.” The text appealed to him, but is against the spirit of our Lord.
And then McGhee/Barsabba begins to draw his letter to a close by coming to the heart of the matter, reminding Stephen that
Our master's power is the love that moves the human heart by consent, Pilate's rules through coercion.
At this, surely, introduces us to the archetypal fruit or Easter that best indicates whether or not a person or community’s heart resonates in a sufficiently similar way to the resonation of Jesus’ heart. Wherever we encounter a love that moves (or resonates) the human heart by consent then there we can meaningfully say that we have seen something of the post-Easter Jesus. (And this holds true whether or not the person or community calls themselves Christian, holds to another entirely different religious tradition or even sees themselves as being secular, atheistic and/or humanist).
The contents of McGhee’s fictional letter seem to me to be resonating with this same non-doctrinal love and it is this that allows him to conclude with what are for me the most powerful words in his letter when McGhee has Barsabbas remind Stephen that
Peter is like the rest of us, he stands uncertainly between the two worlds.
And isn't that always true of all of us, all the time? We might like to think that our hearts are resonating most of the time in the way we believe Jesus’ did and that we are ourselves already pure and standing firmly in the world of consenting rather than coercive love but, whenever we begin to think this is securely and finally true about us then we, too, begin to commit the sin of Peter and reveal that our hearts are wanting for there remains in them the desire for greatness.
So, in the end, above all else, what is particularly required of us as we celebrate on this happy Easter morn the passing on to us from beyond the grave the living resonance that set Jesus’ heart moving, is always to be vigilant, never to condemn others as Peter (and the Church has) condemned, and always to be praying that “the Lord will not hold our sins against any of us”.
Only this kind of daily practice of repentance — epitomised for us by the Lord’s Prayer — will help ensure that our hearts are being truly kept open to our master's power, the love that resonates the human heart by consent.
A Happy Easter to you all.