Yesterday I posted this on my Facebook page: it seems to me that the challenge of preaching on Easter is to preach resurrection as something that God really did and still does without turning it into a metaphor for stuff that was going to happen anyway, with or without Christ’s resurrection.
Too often, I think I’ve missed the point in my Easter preaching. In 25 years of Easter preaching, I think I’ve preached a few of those Easter sermons where I talk about our own experience of resurrection. Someone experiences a reconciliation in a relationship; it feels like a resurrection. Someone is told that they’re cancer-free; it feels like a resurrection. One year, we had come out of a pretty serous congregational conflict; Easter that year felt like resurrection, and I’m betting that’s what I preached. In those cases, I was using resurrection as a metaphor. In a sense, they were resurrections. A metaphorical sense. I’m not denying God’s presence in those experiences, and I’m not even going to deny that God might have had something to do with them, though I’m less certain about that. Regardless, they aren’t the point of Christ’s resurrection. Those things would have happened whether Christ rose from the dead or not. And if Christ’s resurrection is the game-changer that the New Testament tells us it is, then it has be be more than a metaphor for the places in our lives where we experience rebirth.
In that great chapter that interprets the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), Paul begins by simply stating that the resurrection happened, that it’s an historical fact. He doesn’t begin by explaining it, but by proclaiming it. He then goes on to say that Christ’s resurrection from the dead means that there will be a general resurrection from the dead; Christ is the first in a long line of those who will rise from the dead. But even that isn’t what Paul is getting at, I don’t think. It’s an aside; not unimportant, but not the point.
What lies closer to the center of what Paul is getting at is embedded in these words: Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:24-27)
God’s work is on a trajectory. The kingdom is coming. The work is happening. God is working to foil the powers of evil and sin, to bind the powers, to lay low the authorities. Christ’s resurrection was the decisive turning point in the work of bringing all things to their fullness, to that restoration that God promises, the endgame to which all things are moving.
To do that God has made a people. That’s not our usual language to take about the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’re much more likely to talk about personal salvation, of the implications of Christ’s resurrection for me personally. But I don’t think Christ’s work has ever been about personal salvation. It’s been about calling and creating a people. It’s been about a body, a qahal, an ecclesia. It’s been about forming a royal priesthood and a holy nation (not to be confused, fellow Americans, with a nation-state).
So, the connection of Christ’s resurrection to our own baptism is not that we have now been saved, it’s that we have now been joined to a body through whom God is working to bring redemption, healing, and reconciliation to all creation.
Here’s why I think it’s important. There’s enough bad stuff going on out there to make any reasonable person give up on resurrection and just let it be a metaphor for nice stuff that happens regardless of whether or not the tomb was empty on that first Easter morning. Truth is, I don’t guess that there is any more wrong with the world than there usually is when Eastertide rolls around. But it seems like it to me. I’ll own that. The bombings in Brussels aren’t anything new. But they are fresh and raw. This crazy circus that we call a presidential campaign has moved from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright scary. My heart aches at the way we polarize and demonize each other and perpetuate structures of oppression. These are the front lines of the rulers and authorities and powers.
Most personally, for the last month our family has been trying to support each other and find light in our own darkness. Five weeks ago, our grandaughter, Eliana Frances was born; she’s a precious, beautiful little girl. Eliana was born with an extremely rare skin disorder, epidermolysis bullosa, and has been in the neonatal intensive care unit since her birth. EB is a very nasty disorder in which baby Eliana’s skin is deficient in the proteins that allow the layers of skin to adhere to one another. The doctors and nurses work tirelessly to manage her severe pain.
The resurrection of Jesus is not immediately going to change any of that stuff. The presidential campaign is what it’s going to be. Turning around the structures of oppression will take generations. ISIS isn’t going away and there will be more loss of life in terrorist incidents. And the resurrection of Jesus isn’t going to cure Eliana.
So, what does it mean? I think it means that in the midst of all the shit, in the damn middle of all the obvious signs of sin and brokenness and darkness and evil, God is at work. If the resurrection of Jesus was a game-changer, then I have to believe that in the same way that God was at work in Jesus’ death, so God is at work in the midst of the contrary bringing life in the midst of death. It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that death has been defeated; there’s too much of it hanging around to believe that. Paul reminds us that one day it will.
Here’s where we get at what I think is the heart of the game-changing action of God in Jesus’ resurrection. If God is at work in the middle of it all, then the body of Christ must be the incarnation of that work, a body called to live differently. We are called, reborn, and empowered to be a people who live as if that defeat has already taken place. The powers and authorities are at work: anger, rage, oppression, vengeance, retaliation, fear. Those are the ways of death and they eat away at the human soul. They are the ways of death that God intended to put to rest in Christ’s resurrection. In it’s place a people was created who love without condition, who serve without counting the cost, who honor every human life as a brother or sister made in the image of God.
A people who have been raised from the dead. Not metaphorically. Literally.