Easter has long since become, at least in certain Protestant circles, a day aimed largely at “catching” a few from the crowds in the pews that otherwise make themselves scarce at ecclesial gatherings. This means, to the extent such efforts are made in given congregations, pastors and other church leaders must attempt a precarious balancing act, looking to incentivize attendance among non-churchgoers with perquisites and simplify the liturgy and sermon to make them more “relevant,” or at least friendlier to the uninitiated, while simultaneously offering the faithful just enough of the tradition via readings and hymns to make them feel like they’d been to church.
Such attempts, in my admittedly curmudgeonly experience, are at best marginally successful. The visiting masses are sufficiently well-inoculated against even friendly Christianity that they witness the spectacle politely, without being too much tempted to reorient their lives in the direction it points, while many church members leave a bit perplexed—again—about exactly what it is that makes Easter the highpoint of the Christian year. Having witnessed this approach several times in more than one strand of Christian tradition, I am increasingly convinced it is misbegotten.
Easter—the climax of the drama of God’s work among creatures—is the signal event that makes sense of everything else about the Christian life. It is the reality toward which all else points, as is witnessed by the readings of Easter Vigil liturgy. Its rich, joyful celebration makes Christian faithfulness possible. Apart from the fullness of Easter, the way of Jesus and his kingdom makes no sense and we, as Saint Paul exclaims, “are of all people most to be pitied.” Or so it would seem.
A pastor friend once told me the story of a parishioner who confided in him that she just didn’t buy into the whole resurrection business, which to her smacked of primitivistic fantasy. But, she said—presumably trying to reassure him—she did teach her children to live according to the Sermon on the Mount.
My friend’s response was reactive, rather than pastoral. “What?!” he exclaimed. “Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?! Why would you do such a thing to your child if you didn’t believe God raised Jesus from the dead?!”
His rhetorical question gets right to the heart of the identity of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed, taught, and embodied, and in a way we seldom consider. The accounts of the resurrection that most of us learned early on and remain deeply embedded in our theological consciousness are terribly attenuated. They are primarily about us as individuals and the possibility of our lives somehow continuing after we die. Beyond that, there’s not much else to say; in raising Jesus God defeated death, making possible eternal life for us. It’s all there, in black and white. End of story.
I have no desire to deny this general point of view its rightful place in our tradition’s consideration of the resurrection and its meaning. I, for one, look forward to the possibility of living in a New Creation in which sin and its products—suffering, death, and injustice, to name but a few—are nowhere to be found. It’s important, though, to point out that the typical life-to-come account of the resurrection leaves a great deal unsaid, leading us to imagine the gospel reductively, as a kind of insurance policy against mortality, and not as a revolutionary proclamation that God in Christ is, as the book of Revelation declares, “making all things new.” The careful reader of 1 Corinthians 15 will note that death is the last enemy to be destroyed, after the risen Christ has vanquished the rulers, authorities, and powers, those idolatrous pretenders to the divine throne whose violent ersatz rule over the Creation serves their own interests, rather than those of God’s reign and “the least” who are its most cherished members.
Certainly it is correct—and vitally important—to claim that the resurrection of Jesus is the definitive sign that God’s salvation has irrupted into the brokenness of the old age, which has from that point forward been passing away. Yet it is just as vital to remember that Jesus’ resurrection is inseparable from the kingdom he proclaimed and made present, and for the sake of which he was tortured and executed.
When Jesus ascends the mountain in Matthew ‘s gospel to deliver what some have called the kingdom’s manifesto, he calls his followers to a way of life that he warns could get them killed in the same way it did the prophets who preceded them. That’s among the things that happen to those who proclaim God’s truth to corrupt, self-aggrandizing power, and it’s why my friend the pastor found his parishioner’s self-assured follow-up to her denial of the resurrection so confounding.
In raising Jesus from death God is undeniably doing something new, which is among the reasons Paul calls Jesus the “first fruits” from among the dead. At the same time, though, the resurrection is God’s continuation of a healing of Creation begun much earlier, one proclaimed at great cost by generations of prophets. The resurrection is not simply God’s vindication of Jesus as Messiah; it is even more God’s vindication of the shape of his reign and the means by which that reign will be brought to consummation—not by the violence of the sword or the slickness of a marketing scheme, but by the way of the cross.
We are blessed to be among the generations of the baptized who have been invited to participate in and bear witness to God’s reign. We can only do so, however, through the power and grace God administers when we gather to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus the Son. May that power and grace be given abundantly to each of us, this Easter and every Sunday, and may we put it to use in the service of the peaceable kingdom God is even now calling forth.