The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
Alleluia! Christ Is Risen! The Lord Is Risen, Indeed! Alleluia! Post-modern western Christians can be a bit shy about making such proclamation with any real conviction. Today—regarding the Easter proclamation—there is deference to the doubts of scientific critique and historical criticism. And of course there are also those impish theologians who enjoy seeing us lay folk squirm in the “seat of our Faith”. But what is more, is that for many Christians worship as an act of faith is actually the joy of being together with like-minded people, hearing old treasured and sacred stories, sharing great music and poetic verses, all which we adore but no longer believe.
Hope in life beyond death has even been moved to the edges of theological discourse. The center of theological discourse is now reserved for social, political and economic justice, for therapeutic spirituality, and strategic discussions about the nature of community. All of which are indeed defining and critical matters of Christian faith. However, I sense that why matters of hope, particularly for the “life to come,” have been edged to the side of serious Christian teaching and preaching is that as difficult (and even divisive) as these other matters are, they are things we believe can be effected and changed by our political prowess and determination; and in some instances, by our acts of human compassion. The contrary assumption being that there is little we can do or know about death and afterlife. So, regarding such faith claims, we assume one either naively accepts it or politely rejects it and then gets on with living.
But to be Christian in any age is to be an “EASTER PEOPLE”. And therefore our central proclamation of “Easter-faith” and identity is not simply, “Christ is Risen”—But ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN! It is a statement of faith, hope and profound joy. It is a statement that has brought the Church in all times and places—through persecutions and suffering, through its sins and shame, its failures and triumphs. So, age after age, Sunday after Sunday, Easter after Easter, this has been the Church’s central proclamation: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!
But the question remains, what do these words about resurrection have to say to Post-modern Christians? In the current edition of our National Cathedral magazine, CATHEDRAL AGE [to which I am sure you are all subscribers] there is a very interesting article by the co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan. Professor Crossan says, “If we get the first century meaning right, we get the 21st century meaning right”. He asks what did the resurrection of Jesus mean most to first century Christians? “Not resuscitation, not apparition and not exaltation…but a new age of justice had begun, the general resurrection had begun with Jesus”.
You see, what first century Christians realized in their post-resurrection experiences was that the most powerful and unique sense they had of Jesus during his earthly ministry was not his physical body, but his presences. (We sometimes discover in our own experience that after someone has left our community or died that what we miss most are not their social or administrative skills or physical presences, but their unique spiritual gifts, the unique character of their presence.) It was not even Jesus’ healing, or his teaching, or prophesy, or even his social convictions. In fact most first century Palestinians knew there were others with the same abilities and passions. But there was a unique sense of God’s presence about Jesus. A presence veiled by his humanity and the way they (and we) were conditioned as humans to assess other human beings. So those who experienced him were puzzled saying: “Where does His authority come from?” “He speaks as no other great prophet we know.” “Never before have I met such a man.” His touch seemed to heal deeper than the body. His love had an authenticity, his passion for justice had a source deeper than human moralist, and he spoke of God with a shocking sense of intimacy.
What was different about Jesus? It wasn’t the idea of resurrection. Many first century Jews had belief in resurrection. Remember Martha, angry with Jesus for not getting to Bethany before her brother, Lazarus, died. When Jesus arrives late, she says: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus says to her, “[don’t worry,] your brother will rise again”. Never one to have her concerns glibly dismissed, I can imagine Martha looking directly into Jesus’ eyes as she replied: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Now, imagine Martha seeing Jesus looking back into her eyes, feeling that he was looking deeply into her soul as he said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this, Martha?” There was something about Jesus that made her spontaneously confess more than she intellectually understood: “Yes, Lord! You are the messiah.” [John 11:17-27]. Martha had as little understanding of that irrational impulsive response of her soul, as did Peter when he made his irrational impulsive response to Jesus: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God! WHAT WAS THERE ABOUT THIS JESUS?
No one could quite rationally put their finger on it…and those who did were considered insane, such as the mad man of “The Garasenes” [Matt 8:28]. In fact, in the Easter accounts of Luke and Mark, when the women disciples came to tell the other disciples, most of the men at first thought the woman were temporarily insane or “hysterical”. We too must ask, what in the world could have excited them so much? Was it seeing strange men in dazzling clothes? Or that intellectually the women began putting together pre-crucifixion words of Jesus with the now empty tomb? Maybe. But in the various Gospel accounts there was also, at the tomb, a surprising sense of the presence of Jesus. Did they recognize the spiritual power they had so often experienced before, but could never explain?
Whether we are talking about the post-resurrection appearance experience of Jesus to disciples on the Road to Emmaus and later breaking bread with them; or Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the Tiberian shore—eating fish with them; or appearing among disciples hiding in the upper room and later being themselves embodied with that presence at Pentecost! EASTER WAS ALWAYS ABOUT THE PRESENCE MORE THAN THE BODILY FORM.
The presence they had loved and adored was alive, and they were now convinced that nothing could crush the power of God in Jesus. NOTHING!!—not an evil government, not an immoral culture, not an angry public, not the whims or outrageous fortunes of life, not even death—NOTHING!! And that is what they meant when they proclaimed: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!
BUT DOES THIS FIRST CENTURY PROCLAMATION OF FAITH HAVE MEANING FOR 21ST CENTURY CHRISTIANS? Yes, I believe it does. First. Because Jesus, who is our Lord, is at the center of the proclamation. Therefore, we must have a relationship with him. This comes about through a religious life. Through prayer and worship, reading of scripture, and serving others in the spirit of Jesus. This opens us to discover Christ in the worlds of our everyday living….on the Emmaus roads you and I travel everyday.
Biblical scholar of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg, writing in the journal, Bible Review (April 1994) said: “[For the first Christians] Jesus was not simply a physical figure of the past, but a spiritual reality in the present….Emmaus never happened [once]. Emmaus always happens. It is the mystery of Christ’s continuing presence in the lives of Christians as both companion and lord.” Yes, when we know the holy presence of Jesus in prayer and worship, we can come to recognize him in the home, work place, marketplace, even on the street.
A few years ago I was downtown rushing from one meeting on Pennsylvania Avenue to another meeting a few blocks away. A vagrant looking man approached me, “Father.” I tried to avoid him, but it was too late. He stood in my path and said, “Father, give me a blessing.” Not believing him, I reached into my pocket for money. As I asked for what purpose? He said it had been avery difficult day, and he felt he needed God’s blessing. Suddenly, I felt Christ’s presence with calling us both to our vocations. So, I blessed him, and he disappeared into the crowd. We know the resurrected Jesus not because we recognize his face, but his presence—his reassuring, directing and empowering presence.
THERE IS A SECOND IMPORTANT MEANING FOR OUR DAY. We must understand the Easter Proclamation is about Justice (social, political and economic). As in the first century, Justice is at the heart of the resurrection. First century Christians understood, and 21st century Christians must understand that the divine vision for a just society cannot be killed. Easter proclaims that Justice is God’s work and we are servants of God, called to do the work of justice in the “spirit of Christ”. So many Christians—liberal and conservative—who today claim to be prophetic around very important issues but are seen as simply political types with religious titles. When we do not make the connections between our social passions and the Easter proclamation, we end up doing it our way and not God’s way. Without Easter, Justice Faith is simply legal and political activity, and we can become consumed by the fire of our passion; like some in the struggle for justice, we can become consumed with bitter passion and strive without compassion and without humility.
I think of the words of caution by Martin Luther King, Jr. to those preparing for the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott in 1958. Dr. King linked Easter and justice when he said: “This is the faith that keeps the nonviolent resister going through all of the tension and suffering that [one] must inevitably confront. Those of us who call the name of Jesus Christ find something at the center of our faith which forever reminds us that God is on the side of truth and justice. Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumph of Easter. He goes on, “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ …[and that is why] we can walk and never get weary because we know that there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice.”
FINALLY, THE EASTER PROCLAMATION IS JUST AS MEANINGFUL TODAY AS 2,000 YEARS AGO because it is still true: you and I shall both die one day. Saint Paul wrote: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead….” [I Corinthians 15: 19,20]. HOPE FOR ETERNAL LIFE IS A CENTERPIECE OF THE EASTER PROCLAMATION. YES, THE EASTER PROCLAMATION IS ALSO ABOUT OUR DEATH.
[As pastor, I have seen Christians die. No Christian can predict how tragically, peacefully. Those with a life of active faith die differently than those for whom things spiritual have been unimportant. If they know the presence in this life, there is a greater confidence in that presence as we approach the hour of death.
The great 20th century mathematician and metaphysicist, ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD, was asked in an interview: “WHAT IS THE MOST CENTRAL PROPOSITION OF LIFE?” Professor Whitehead replied: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide.”
A pastor’s role, like that of the angels who greet the women at the tomb, is to remind us of the presence of Jesus we have come to know in this life. To remind them that eternal life begins with a relationship with the Eternal One. So when in the darkness of dying, even as the shadows fall, when nothing but the soul can sense truth clearly, we will recognize the presence of Christ—the presence we have come to know in this life—calling for his own. Remember, Jesus said: “The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice…I am the good Shepherd. [John 10:4, 14] Our hope is in him.
And this is why the first words of a Christian funeral liturgy begin: I am Resurrection and I am life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.
I know that my Redeemer giveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
Yes, if we know Christ in this life, we will know him in the life to come. As St. Paul wrote: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” [Romans 14:7,8,9] Yes, fast falls the eventide. But in the hour of death, we, the People of Easter Faith, can say to the Eternal One, who is our friend and not a stranger, Lord, abide with me!
So these are our words of Easter Proclamation. They are not terribly sophisticated, they do not provide academic certitude or scientific evidence…they are simple words spoken from the experience of the heart; words of contagious joy and infectious hope. They mean for us what they meant for the first Christians: joy that we can personally experience the eternal presence of Christ; confidence that justice and truth will ultimately prevail; and finally, hope and comfort in the hour of our dying.
And so on this Easter Day 2001, let us join with Christians of every age to proclaim the central joy of our Easter Faith…saying: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN! THE LORD IS RISEN, INDEED! ALLELUIA!