Happy Easter! He is Risen! He is risen indeed!
Each year, we greet each other with these timeless words. What hope! What joy! And so we rejoice on this most important day of the year—Resurrection Day. Hallelujah!
End of post? Not quite.
CROSS OR RESURRECTION?
The life and death of Jesus is often presented as a means by which God solves our greatest problem—sin. We have a sin problem, we are cut off from our creator, so God sends Jesus to save us. He does this, wonderfully, on the cross, bearing our sin, taking our punishment. Problem solved. But then we’re left with pieces of the story that seem superfluous. What about his life? The early creeds don’t have one single mention of his life. It’s “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” His entire life, all his teaching, everything he accomplished on earth, completely absent. He might as well have hidden in a cave for thirty-three years, and appeared for the last week of his life, to suffer and die.
But there’s a further problem, because we are then presented with his Resurrection, and I’m capitalising Resurrection for a purpose. Resurrection, capital R, is often poorly understood, even today. I’ve heard a number of options, all of them incomplete.
The Resurrection proves that he was who he claimed to be—the Son of God.
The Resurrection showed that he was sinless, because death could not hold him.
The Resurrection showed that he had triumphed over death (though the speaker often doesn’t quite know what that means.)
None of these responses is wrong. They’re all part of the picture, but they’re inadequate. They don’t express the enormity of what took place on that first Easter Sunday. Because what took place explains why the life of Jesus has relevance; it explains the very nature of what it means for us to be embodied human beings. And not only that, it communicates a message of hope that completely transforms the way we are called to live our lives.
STILL UP IN THE CLOUDS
Sadly, there are many believers who are hoping for a disembodied life. As the hymn by Sanford Fillmore Bennett states, In the sweet by and by. Indeed, some of our most cherished hymns seem to allude to this hope. Take this section from How Great Thou Art, for example.
When Christ shall come with shout of acclimation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Without wanting to ruffle too many feathers, let me just say that I love this hymn. It’s considered one of the greatest for a reason. The poetry is beautiful; it deserves its place among our most treasured favourites. However . . .
Take me home. Just three words, but I’m afraid this isn’t Christian hope. The hope of heaven quickly conjures up images of clouds and harps and . . . the indescribable. We’ll be right there with God, being seen by him and seeing him on his throne. It all sounds wonderful, but the bible doesn’t present this as our ultimate hope. Certainly, when we die, our spirits may be in the presence of God—there are actually very few sections of Scripture which describe this—but this isn’t our destiny. That’s not where we’re headed. That’s not our ultimate hope.
Our ideas about the future, God’s future with us, and our ultimate destiny really matter. Either this world is doomed, to be consumed and tossed aside, or remade in some way, restored, re-fashioned to be a place in which God dwells with us as our king. You can’t have both. The key passages are Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15. 1 Corinthians deals directly with the Resurrection itself.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
1 Cor 15.3-5
Paul hangs the entire Christian faith on an historical event. That’s a bold move. Most religions contain all sorts of interlocking beliefs, some of which might be rejected. Christianity is completely different. It ALL hangs the Resurrection. This is the event that both the apostles and St. Paul believed was the one key event that changed everything. Absolutely everything. Why? Romans 8.
This is the chapter in which St. Paul writes about the Spirit. Take verse 11, for example.
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Notice that the Spirit “gives life to your mortal bodies.” Both Spirit and bodies are in view. Later, he sheds more light on this subject.
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
Physical life, embodied life, is under a curse (Gen 3). Yet one day it “will be liberated from its bondage to decay”. We, as embodied souls, “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies”. The “already but not yet” of Christian belief is wonderfully expressed here. Yes, we have “the firstfruits of the Spirit” but we’re not there yet. The creation will be “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”. God hasn’t given up on this world in which we live. It is not destined for destruction, but renewal.
Enter the Resurrection, and all that it shows us. For Christ’s resurrected body gives us a glimpse of life in the new creation—just a glimpse, and with some rather strange elements, but a glimpse, nevertheless. Here’s Luke’s account.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
Touch me and see. I have a physical body. They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it.
I have properly functioning body which means my mouth, oesophagus, and stomach are all required to make it work. I’m not just a bag of bones floating around but an integrated system designed to do the same kinds of things that you do. For example, eat.
We still live with many Greek ideas, made worse by the Gnostic heresy, which divide physical and spiritual, elevating the latter and sometimes condemning the former as somehow terminally corrupted. But that’s a mistake. Sin hasn’t simply corrupted the physical at all, and the Resurrection demonstrates this clearly. The issue of whether Christ walked through walls is a bit of a red herring. The verse in John (20.19) isn’t clear about that. What is much more important is what we read in 1 Corinthians 15.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.
1 Cor 15.42
Resurrection involves bodies, but they are not the same as before.
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
1 Cor 15.53-54
This is our destiny in the new creation—imperishable bodies. An imperishable body isn’t something we can fully understand, but one thing is for certain—it’s a body, not just a spirit. That’s what’s important. And this is what Christ showed us in his Resurrection: a kind of proto-type of a resurrected body.
So, when I hear people speculating about “going to heaven when we die”, I despair a little because while it is, of course, wonderful to be united with Christ after death, this isn’t where Christian hope is found. Instead, in theologian Tom Wright’s words, Christian hope is “life after life after death”. It is what follows after death has been fully defeated and Christ returns in triumph. Hence, one of the most glorious passages in Scripture—Revelation 21.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
God comes to earth; we don’t ascend to heaven. He comes to make his dwelling place with us, being fully known and experienced by his chosen ones in the new creation. Do I know what this will be like? No, but I look forward to it.
Why does this make a difference? Because embodied life has meaning. The Resurrection is a declaration by God that the physical lives we live have meaning and value. That’s why it was essential that Christ lived a human life and didn’t just parachute down to die on a cross. He lived among us in a human body, teaching us about his kingdom, a kingdom in which God’s ways are to be demonstrated by those who worship him, follow him, and love him. Here on earth. Using our bodies. Tom Wright expresses it this way.
What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
Surprised by Hope. Tom Wright.
Resurrection Day. The day when we celebrate God’s triumph over sin, death and the Enemy. It’s also the day when we catch a vision of life in the new creation, one in which we will live together in imperishable bodies.
We face terrible suffering here on earth. It is very tempting, therefore, to preach a kind of gospel which tells people that we’ll be able to escape it all. Sometimes we steer very close to the idea that God has made a big mistake, but he’s fixing it by rescuing some from this hell where we live and giving us a future without our painful, wretched bodies that we keep misusing.
That isn’t Christian hope. Hope, instead, is expressed when we rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus, living embodied lives that carry the message of God’s kingdom in every act of compassion and care for the creation he loves. When we love and forgive, are patient, longsuffering, when we go the extra mile, are merciful, make sacrifices for others, when we demonstrate God’s gospel of forgiveness through his Son, this is how we express Christian hope. It’s why our lives matter. Every single second of life matters, because Christ is risen, and he makes all of life meaningful. For it contains the hope of a glorious future, expressed now in love, and received joyfully and in full, when Christ returns in triumph. Not to carry us away, but to live among us by his Spirit.
That’s the message of Resurrection Day.