I have a confession to make. I’ve been preaching every Easter Sunday since the early 90’s and I think I’ve been missing the main point for most of that time. What has been there all along has moved from the background and recently has become glaringly, shockingly obvious.
I think that I have nearly always preached about the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for the individuals sitting before me; it has been some variation on the theme of the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for our own lives. Or, should I say it more precisely, the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for each individual who is sitting in that sanctuary on that Easter Sunday. Occasionally, I’ve highlighted the evangelistic element inherent in the resurrection stories, but even then, I think it has been couched as a call to each person to be one who goes and tells.
What has struck me this time around — and got some mention in my Easter sermon this year — is the unmistakable communal underpinnings of the resurrection accounts. With the exception of John, every evangelist tells of the women going to the tomb together. They went to do their work together. And when they were sent, they were sent to the gathering of disciples, not to individuals. When Jesus walked along the Emmaus road, it was with two disciples. When they recognized Jesus, they immediately returned to Jerusalem to the place where the 11 were gathered, in other words, to the community of Jesus’ followers. Even in John, if you grant that Mary Magdalene went the tomb alone, she didn’t stay alone. She went to tell Peter, and when she finally recognized Jesus, she was given the instruction to go tell the community.
According to John, Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. Regardless of where Thomas might have been, he doesn’t first encounter Jesus alone, but in community, with the others who had encountered the risen Lord. And as far as I can tell every one of the post-resurrection appearances was to a gathering of disciples.
So, here’s what I think I’ve been allowing to fade into the background all these years. Jesus’ resurrection was just one more piece of the large work he came to do of bringing in God’s reign, of establishing a people for the sake of drawing the world into God’s loving embrace. While there is such a thing as individual salvation, the individual salvation is always the means to the end of fashioning a people. So, when he was raised, Jesus went right back to the work he had been doing, of gathering a people, of building a community, this time a community that could laugh in the face of death, knowing now that even death will not stand in the way of God’s work of redemption and reconciliation.
I have been mired in the grossly individualistic nature of American Christianity for so long that I can’t even see how it affects the way I understanding things and the way I preach. I have been unwittingly supporting an application of the resurrection stories that is not false, but misses the point.
If the big thing that Jesus came to do was to fashion a more inclusive, more universal people of God for the sake of accomplishing God’s intentions for the world, that big thing came to some kind of climax in his resurrection. And the point, it seems to me, was resurrection community, not individual salvation. Individual salvation is not excluded; it’s just not the point.
Listen to how Bernard Lohfink says it: Baptism. . .obligates us to a new life in the world. Whoever has died with Christ in baptism is born into the new society of the church. . .The Easter expectation in Christian communities means expecting that at every hour the Spirit of Christ will show the community new paths, expecting new doors to open at any moment, counting on it that at any hour the Spirit can transform evil into good, hoping that at every hour the impossible will become possible.” (Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was)
For the sake of the world.