Easter means so much more than booking a ticket to heaven.
Sometimes you watch a breaking news story on the television and although you can see it’s important, you struggle to make full sense of it until a respected commentator comes on to put it all in context. The day of resurrection must have been like this for the friends of Jesus.
It was less than forty-eight hours since his death and they were still mired in grief and shock over the brutal ending of the life of the man they had gambled their futures on. It is unlikely they had slept more than fitfully – Mary Magdalene herself arrived at the tomb before daybreak. And so the significance of this defining historical event is missed by Mary when she says: ‘they have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him’. Great events often feel chaotic and unreal as they happen. Only later can people impose some kind of meaning on them.
Mary Magdalene must have felt doubly abused. Having witnessed the crucifixion of a dear friend, she now had to cope with the apparent desecration of his final resting place by the people who had sent him to his death. But as she cried openly, Jesus appeared behind her. It is the understated nature of this event that is most striking. Two friends meet up in the park and hold a short conversation. Jesus could have appeared at the gates of the temple in Jerusalem to shock the worshippers or in the market square of Tiberias to stun the traders. Instead he chose one woman and gave her a few simple directions to take with her, as if she were just going out to do some shopping. It was so casual you could miss the significance – and indeed many do.
Within days more people would meet Jesus: one at a time; in couples and clusters; and at one point in a gathering of over five hundred people. After Jesus’ ascension they were charged with sharing this news globally. As they filtered out across the ancient world, the early Christians began to make sense of the event, remembering the teaching of Jesus and the words of Jewish prophecy and adhering to the interpretation of Paul and the Apostles to create a new departure in thinking about the resurrection of the dead.
Many people today do not know what is celebrated at Easter in the Christian church and those that do can tend towards either sentimentalism or dualism or individualism. Let me explain these categories. There are those who understand the resurrection of Jesus in purely narrative and dramatic terms. His rising from the dead shows that he wins in the end at the expense of his enemies and that nothing can now separate him from those who love him. This slant appeals to the sentimental in human nature. But the resurrection is far more than a lazy plot device to ensure we can leave the cinema uplifted with a happy ending. It prefaces nothing less than the recreation of the world, as we shall see.
The second danger is of dualism, which owes more to ancient Greek philosophy than to the earthy realism of Hebrew thinking. It is frustrating how deeply embedded this Greek way of thinking is in practically all of us. In essence it leads to a view of heaven as an ethereal and other-worldly place. In this way of thinking, we escape from the world at death and migrate to a ghostly after-life where nothing has substance. For the Greeks at the time of Jesus this was their highest hope because they thought the material world was inferior to the spiritual realm and that human embodiment was a curse that we could escape from only at death. This explains the revulsion the Greeks felt when Paul preached in Athens about the resurrection of the body in Acts chapter 17. The idea that we would be embodied once more after death was to them a ghastly form of karma where we cannot escape the impurity of a beastly world.
Today perhaps the majority of people who believe in life after death view it in terms of leaving this world for good to be reunited in some shadowy other place with those who have died before us, only to have to wait for those who have yet to die to join them. This is not at all how the early Jewish Christians who formed our New Testament would have understood the resurrection. For them, the sight of the resurrected Jesus doorstepping the disciples in Jerusalem, eating Sunday tea with bewildered followers in Emmaus and cooking breakfast for hungry night-shift workers on the shores of Lake Galilee, became proof that one day all creation would be recreated and freed from the corrupting power of sin. This is the future the New Testament says we can look forward to: the re-creation of the world we live in through the power of Jesus’ resurrection. For now the dead rest in peace until they rise again in glory at the Day of Judgment. We are not really going anywhere after all, for this is the place of Christ’s eternal rule as his prayer demonstrates: ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’.
Our struggle to embrace this as the dominant theme of the New Testament is compromised further by the highly individualised way in which we understand concepts. The Reformation achieved great things in re-capturing the idea of justification by faith for the individual, and Christian thought has prized the personal relationship which the individual can have with God. But salvation is not simply about me putting myself right with God through Christ. In Romans chapter 8, St. Paul says ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (verse 21). We share our redemption with creation itself. This is the earthy realism of biblical thinking and it has deep implications for how we live as Christians.
This earth is no mere backdrop to our lives to be discarded for good like a computer generated image when the time comes. It is the place over which Christ will reign. Every good thing we do in his name now is a signpost to this coming kingdom; a signpost that shall become a landmark to our work for Christ. What we do in this world now matters eternally.
One of the things I love about the resurrection is its inescapable logic. If it didn’t happen then there is no point following Jesus because this would make him a liar and a fraud. If the resurrection did happen then the day is coming when the world itself will be recreated according to the promise. There is no middle ground. This is either true or it isn’t. It is either a pack of lies or the single most important thing we will ever hear in our lives. And if we think it’s the latter, we have to give him everything, because he has given everything for us.
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