Half awake, the radio told me in a bare five second grab that in his final address Pope Benedict had said it had felt at times in his papacy that God was asleep. I thought of Mother Teresa and her overwhelming sense of God’s absence through much of her life. I tried to picture God asleep. It was a melancholy picture which rang true with how the world feels at times.
But when I went to read more of what he had said, I discovered the radio grab and the headlines are a reduction and distortion of the pope’s words. His comments were much more astute, a comparison to the time the apostles are in the boat with the Lord Jesus in stormy weather and the Lord sleeps on. The point was that God was present in the boat, even if he was asleep. The headlines miss the significance, the evocation of a profound story. It’s a far better picture, the Lord Jesus sleeping in the boat to our frustration and bewilderment as the storm rages, than a deistic picture of a God in the heavens asleep.
I was reading Matthew 10 last night. Jesus sends out the newly appointed twelve apostles to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ to announce that the kingdom of heaven is near. Some instructions follow, which are more familiar to me in their form of Luke 11 in the sending out of the 70/72 (find a person of peace…). Matthew’s account includes this interesting verse:
23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
We might be conditioned to hear it eschatologically, but then it makes no sense. What if it just means they won’t finish going to all the towns before Jesus catches up to them? In that case, it is a strange way to say something so simple.
But what was most strange to me is that there is no record of the Twelve leaving or coming back. Chapter 11 has Jesus teaching and preaching in the towns of Galilee; the disciples reappear in chapter 12, with no mention of their big mission. How long did they go for? What happened? Matthew must have had something in mind, and the record of some tradition, but he gives us no account. Luke at least records, rather barely:
17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
I looked at three major commentaries at lunchtime; none even mentioned the (problem?). F.W. Beare gave a paper on it in 1969 to SBL; I’m going to read it properly, but his gist was that the lack of an account was evidence for it not happening. That doesn’t really answer my question, of course, and I’m not so sceptical. Just a passing question as I read.
A middle eastern bearded man who was a threat to the empire is summarily executed, while rumours quickly spread that the man did not really die.
Conspiracy theories about Osama Bin Laden’s death are already appearing days after it happened. Was he really killed? Where’s his body? Why won’t the president release the photograph? If this is the case days later, what will the stories be in a few decades time? In a couple of thousand years?
How does this situation compare to the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Does it lend credibility to sceptics who would see the empty tomb and resurrection stories as the conspiracy theory of an extremist group?
I think the questions are valid ones for sceptics to ask. (Not that I’ve heard them asking them, but the sceptical side of my brain was weighing up the comparison this morning.) But I see a number of important differences.
1. The source of the conspiracy theory is not Bin Laden’s inner circle. It’s people who are much more removed, people without the facts, Americans who are used to seeing conspiracy theories in everything and Muslim extremists who don’t trust anything the West tells them.
2. Jesus’ execution was very public while Bin Laden’s was not. Jesus’ resurrection was also public, with many of his disciples testifying to seeing him in the days after the resurrection. (Of course, the sceptic will ask why only believers saw him, and insist that the empty tomb tradition of Mark is the earliest account, while the resurrection stories are a later fabrication.)
3. The early church responded in a way consistent with Jesus’ resurrection: they grew quickly, motivated by a deep love and hope and performing acts of service and compassion. They did not seek revenge and they did not go through a crisis. I expect both of these could be the outcome within Al-Qaeda. Of course, Al-Qaeda is a group with a very different ideology to the first Christians and they may go through a resurgence stirred up by Bin Laden’s martyrdom. I am not sure what I would make of such an event in relation to the early church.