24 April 2014

On Star Trek Next Generation and the Resurrection of Jesus

In one of the Star Trek Next Generation episodes (yes, I admit I am or was a fan of most all the Star Trek series!) Command-der Geordi La Forge and Ensign Ro Larren are caught in a transporter accident. There is some sort of power or radiation surge during a return "beaming" and when the two of them "materialize" back on the Enterprise they cannot be seen or heard. Neither can they interact with the ordinary material world they know in a way which will let folks know they are really alive (for the crew of the Enterprise have concluded they died without a trace). La Forge and Roe try to get folks' attention and learn that they can walk through walls, reach through control panels or other "solid" objects, stand between two people conversing without being seen, and so forth. It is as though the dimension of reality Geordi and Ro now inhabit interpenetrates the other more everyday world, interfaces with it in some way without being identical with it. Their new existence is both continuous and discontinuous with their old existence; they are present but with a different kind of bodiliness, a bodiliness in which they can connect with and be present to one another but which their crewmates must be empowered to see.

They leave a vague radiation trail wherever they go and in attempting to purge the ship of this trail the Enterprise crew causes the boundary between these two dimensions to thin or dissolve and LaForge and Roe are made visible briefly in the other world, fleetingly, time after time.  It is only over time that the crew come to realize that their friends are not dead but alive, and more, that they exist not in some remote corner of empty space, but right here, in their ship amongst their friends. In fact, it is at a somewhat raucous celebration in memory of and gratitude for their lost friends' lives, that this clear recognition occurs and Geordi and Roe become really present to their friends and shipmates.

It is not hard, I think, to see why this story functions as an analogy of Thursday's Gospel lection, and in fact, for many of the readings we have and will hear during this Easter Season. In particular I think this story helps us to think about and imagine two points which Jesus' post Easter appearances make again and again. The first is that Jesus' resurrection is bodily. He was not merely "raised" in our minds and hearts, his "resurrection" is not merely the result of a subjective experience of grace and/or forgiveness --- though it will include these; Jesus is not a disembodied spirit, a naked immortal soul. Neither does he leave his humanity behind and simply "become God" --- as a pagan emperor might have been said to have done, nor as though his humanity was merely a matter of God "slumming" among us for several decades and then jettisoning this. Instead, Jesus is raised to a new form of bodiliness, a new form of perfected (glorified) humanity. He is the first fruits of this new bodiliness and we look forward in hope because what has happened to Jesus will also happen to each of us. Jesus' resurrection raises Jesus to a life which is both earthly and heavenly --- like the story of Geordi and Ensign Ro, Jesus' existence straddles (and integrates) two worlds or dimensions. It brings these two together (reconciles them) and also mediates between them. It symbolizes, in the strongest sense of that term, the reality which will one day come to be when God is all in all.

The second point that this story helps us to imagine and think about then is the fact that Jesus' resurrection makes Jesus the first fruits of a new creation. Jesus' participation in literally Godless, sinful death and his descent into hell has implicated God in and transformed these with God's presence. Godless death has been destroyed (how can it be godless if God is there?) and one day, when God is all in all, death per se will be ended as well. In other words, the world we inhabit is not the same one we inhabited before Jesus' death and resurrection. Instead it is a world in which the veil between sacred and profane (or secular), heavenly (eternal) and fleshly (mortal) has been torn asunder and heaven and earth begun to interpenetrate one another, a world which signals that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth with the entire cosmos remade. We who are baptized into Christ's death are, as Tom Wright puts the matter, citizens of heaven colonizing the earth; as a result we are privileged to see reality with eyes of faith, and when we do we are able to see when the boundary between these two interpenetrating realities thins and Jesus' new mediating bodiliness is revealed to us.

For Christians this "thinning" (only a metaphor, of course) occurs in many ways. In baptism we are initiated into Jesus's death and made both part of this new creation and capable of perceiving it with eyes of faith. In prayer we become vulnerable to Jesus' presence in God. In times of grieving and loss we may also become uniquely vulnerable and open to it.  And there are especially privileged ways this happens as well. There is the bodiliness of the Scriptural text where the Word is proclaimed and Jesus is able to speak to, challenge, comfort, and commission us to act as ambassadors of this New Creation. The stories within the Scriptures, most especially the parables, serve as doorways to this new creation; they ask us to let go of the preconceptions, achievements, defenses, etc which work so well for us in the pre-resurrection world and step into a sacred space which is, because of Jesus' resurrection and ascension, always present here and now. There is the ecclesial body where even two or three gathered together in Jesus' name (or, for that matter, even a single hermit in her cell praying in the name of the Church) reveals this New Creation in a proleptic and partial way. And of course, there are the other Sacraments which mediate Christ's presence to us; among these especially is the Eucharist where sacred and profane come together and ordinary bread and wine are transformed into a form or expression of Jesus' risen and unique bodily presence.

Too often we locate heaven in some remote place "out there" in space. But in a real though imperfect (proleptic) way heaven is right here, right now, interpenetrating and leavening our ordinary world. Jesus is the New Temple, the new One in whom heaven and earth meet; he Rules not from some remote heaven, but from within this New Creation. The Star Trek Next Generation episode is, of course, science fiction where this challenging and consoling reality is not. Still, it helps me imagine a more genuinely Scriptural paradigm of the nature and meaning of  Jesus' resurrection from death than the even more inadequate ones I grew up hearing!! I hope it will do the same for you.

N.B.,  Jesus' ascension will modify the form of bodiliness or presence the original disciples experienced and, among other things, mark both the end of the unique and privileged post-Easter appearances and the beginning of a kind of intermediate state between these and the "second coming" or parousia when God will be all in all. Even so, this does not change what I have presented here. With the ascension we move from the period of time when people saw (via these privileged appearances) and believed to that time when they "do not see" but believe. Still, the essential truth is that we belong to a new creation in which heaven and earth interpenetrate one another as they did not prior to Jesus' death and resurrection. In Christ we also straddle, reconcile, and mediate between these two worlds.