Not So Fast
Updated: Apr 22, 2022
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
So what just happened? And what does it mean?
I mean Easter, the original one. It actually happened. According to the apostle Paul, if it didn’t happen, we should be pitied for throwing our lives away for nothing. A bit over the top maybe, but why did he say it?
While I’m a doubter by nature, not much of my doubt gets spent on Jesus’ resurrection. It’s the only fact that explains all the other facts around his death. Take as an example the radical character change in Jesus’ first disciples, and what they were willing to subject themselves to going forward. It’s a riveting story, one that to me is inexplicable apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Unless the resurrection happened, I can’t imagine Jesus' name being the household word it is today. The apostle Paul was repeatedly tortured and imprisoned for talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection. He gave up a prestigious and influential career as a Pharisee after his encounter with the risen Christ. Tradition tells us that he was ultimately beheaded in Rome.
If Jesus’ followers wanted to start a new religion or a spiritual movement, they would’ve been wise to come up with a different storyline. The only rational explanation for their talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection was that these events actually happened. They were witnesses.
So if Jesus’ resurrection happened, what does it mean? Three words come to mind – sign, beginning and power.
Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of how much God loves the world. If Jesus is in fact the Son of God, then just his coming into this world is a pretty big deal. Jesus showed us flashes of his power throughout his ministry – he healed people, raised the dead, walked on water, fed thousands of people with a boy’s lunch, calmed the wind and waves. So I don’t doubt that he could have prevented his death. All four gospel accounts tell us that he walked into it purposefully and intentionally.
Without getting into the possible meanings of Jesus’ death, my main point here is summarized in John’s Gospel – “God so loved the world that he gave his Son….” God gave his Son to a world that he knew was chronically and terminally diseased. Calling this disease “sin” doesn’t tell us very much about this malady, but God could see we all had it. He knew it would take over when we encountered the kind of pure goodness his Son embodied. He knew it would make people go crazy; enough to kill Jesus by the most shameful, excruciating instruments of torture and execution available at the time. All of that was predicted and predictable. But God loved us enough to entrust his Son to us anyway. God is that incredibly and inexplicably faithful, compassionate and forgiving. Given what happened to Jesus, and given what I see still happening in places like Ukraine, in my own country, even within Christ's church and especially within myself, I figure there’s no way God should still be loving us. Heck, even his closest friends betrayed, denied and abandoned Jesus.
And yet his first words to his disciples after his resurrection were, “Peace be with you.”
There’s lots of potential barriers to believing God loves us, many of them idiosyncratic to our own personalities and stories. I’ve had to encounter and deal with some of my own obstacles lately – ways I keep God at arm’s length, ways I have difficulty letting go and living fully into the incredibly rich life he’s given me. Because of an interaction I had with God early Easter Sunday morning, followed by the Easter message I felt led to share with some people gathered in our home, followed by a book by Mandy Smith my wife handed me that afternoon called Unfettered (and, uh, after an argument I had with my wife on Saturday night), I feel like an inner earthquake is beginning to roll away the stone of my resistance. Then yesterday morning I heard him tell me about as convincingly as I’ve ever heard him how much he loves me. (He even gave me a list of things that have happened over the last year to prove it.)
If you’re doubting any of this (I wouldn't blame you), I would be too if Jesus hadn’t come back from the other side of that horrible death and said to his guilt-ridden disciples, “Peace be with you,” followed by a lighthearted, “Does anyone have anything to eat?” It just fits.
So the resurrection is a sign – a sign that God loves us, and how that’s not going to stop. We threw our worst at him and he still came back.
Jesus’ resurrection is also a beginning. It’s not just a new start. Jesus’ disciples weren’t just being given another chance to prove their love for him. What matters is that God proved his love for us.
What began on Easter was not just a new beginning but the new beginning. Jesus’ transformed body was a kind of prototype for what the Bible calls the New Creation. While this New Creation or age (eternal life means “life of the age”) won’t arrive completely until Jesus comes back, Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated it. What’s more, our life in Christ catalyzes our participation in this new world: “If anyone is in Christ, there is New Creation!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The future has begun!
Jesus was realistic – “In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world!” Jesus called this New Creation the kingdom of God. He talked about it in present as well as future terms. Because of the spiritual and human forces that still influence the present age, what we often experience is a clashing of kingdoms. Jesus used many metaphors, like seeds and yeast, to indicate that his kingdom would come slowly. It wouldn’t come through violence or coercion of any kind. “Compassion, kindness, humility and patience” would pave the way. Everyday forgiveness and love for enemies would wear down the forces of darkness. Jesus’ followers would seek to serve rather than be served, being generous with their possessions rather than becoming consumeristic worshipers of money and wealth.
So don’t believe everything you read in the news, or only what you read in the news. In spite of the tragic, sickening destruction that’s happening in Ukraine right now, the overall trend of human history is towards less war, less violence, less poverty, and more human flourishing. But the greatest potential for transformation is still within the human person. Just before his torture and death Jesus said to his followers, “I say these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy be made complete.” Earlier he said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Which brings me to my third Easter word – power.
Jesus didn’t give us a blueprint for the future with step-by-step instructions for us to carry out with our own ingenuity and resources. He said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” The apostle Paul talked about this resurrection power in conjunction with his own suffering:
I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me (Philippians 3:10-12).
“I want to know Christ.” The key is realizing that this resurrection power is relational in nature. It’s connected to our actual relationship with God. Mandy Smith writes: “We ricochet between ‘It’s all up to God’ and ‘It’s all up to me,’ neither of which actually requires much engagement with God.” A relationship with God requires engaging with the world as it is – paying attention to God’s blessings with childlike gratitude and wonder; noting the countless ways he’s constantly communicating with us (and learning the language); offering ourselves in service and blessing to the people around us, while prayerfully asking God to multiply the benefits of our meager efforts. This is meant to be a partnership. Jesus invited his followers to be “yoked” to him.
The good news is that we can let go of our Western hyper-controlling, anxiously-striving, rage-inducing efforts to make this world conform to our utopian visions (Christian nationalism being only one of the latest examples). No matter what we do or fail to do (which is absolutely no excuse for inaction, by the way), the New Creation has been guaranteed by Jesus’ own death and resurrection, and it’s already begun. Even if, God forbid, we fail to take the drastic action needed to prevent the most extreme consequences of climate change; and if, God forbid, a miscue between superpowers were to set off a nuclear conflagration resulting in unimaginable suffering, it wouldn't be the end of the story. As the Eucharist reminds us, God made a covenant with us when we were at our worst, signed and sealed with the blood of his Son. He means to keep it. He's invested everything.
And that, my friends, is very good news.