Easter in the Rear View Mirror
The church has finished the season of Easter, and Pentecost is up next week. Gone are the lilies (long wilted by the record St. Louis heat), gone are the white stoles and altar paraments, gone is the greeting “χριστός ἀνέστη!” So I’m a bit late. I picked up a new book back in April, The Resurrection of the Messiah by Christopher Bryan, an Anglican New Testament scholar. My intention was to post some items from the book to give you some things to think about as you celebrate and preach the resurrection — I’m obviously late. Or not.
Bryan’s work is part exegetical, part historical, part theological, and part impassioned plea. Bryan argues that Jesus actually rose from the dead. But even more, he wants to help us see that this resurrection does something. Hint: It might not be what you think.
He begins, as all good stories do, at the beginning: with the children of Abraham and the covenant. The resurrection makes sense only within the story of God acting in and through his covenant people. What is the end of that story?
Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead is, as we have observed, one element in prophetic hope for renewal of the world. God’s promises are not fulfilled until the whole created order, including the body, is given justice. The more platonically stated view is surely open to a much narrower interpretation. [In this Platonic view,] Since the rational soul alone is asserted to be godlike and immortal, it has and should have no lasting relationship with the material creation. The material creation, for its part, has not right to or expectation of justice and, therefore, no serious role to play in eternity. (p. 18)
The resurrection stands precisely against this platonized view, for Jesus did not rise as a being that has “no lasting relationship with the material creation.” No, this is the gnostic view, and the view of much of American “Christianity.” (To wit, see Jeff Gibbs’ notes on Heaven is For Real). Creation is not to be abandoned, the baptized will not be “raptured” while the earth is annihilated. Rather, Jesus rose as a transformed body, to use 1 Cor 15:44 language, as a “spiritized body” (not “spiritual body” — the Apostle is not a Platonist. Scratch that translation out of your ESV or whatever you have). Moreover, Jesus is the “Firstfruits.” God has begun the “Great Divine Clean Up” in Jesus’ resurrection. It has already started. And what will be “cleaned up” is not just people, but God’s entire creation. All this should be very familiar to careful readers of George Ladd, N. T. Wright, and 1 Corinthians 15.
But here’s where the resurrection is not merely a rear-view mirror event. Something we look back at with fondness, thank Jesus that he rose from the dead so that we can got to heaven, and then go on as if nothing is different. One of the great lines in the book (which unfortunately I can’t find right now) goes something like this: “The early Christians did not say, ‘Good, Jesus rose from the dead. Now we get to go to heaven.’ What they said was, “Jesus rose from the dead, now we’ve got work to do.” [side comment: try to find anywhere in the NT that says that when we die we “go to heaven.” It isn’t there. Look it up. We made that one up.] Thus the last verse of 1 Cor 15, the payoff verse, the one we never preach on: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, unmovable, abounding in the work of the Lord always, because you know [now that I have preached the resurrection to you] that your labor [while you wait for the trumpet blast] is not useless.”Work,” “labor.” Sounds like we’ve got stuff to do.
What to do?
While for these believers the foundation of ‘the last things’ was still, of course, God’s mighty act, just as Israel had always said it would be, yet in this version the faithful also had a role to play and a job to do as witnesses to that mighty act. Just as during Jesus’ ministry those who followed him had been sent out to proclaim the coming kingdom, so now they are sent again, this time to witness to the Risen One and to lead a life consistent with that calling. (pp. 40-41).
Or, as Bryan summarized the peroratio of 1 Cor 15: “Let there be less speculation, and more work.”
So Easter is not entirely in the rear view mirror. Forty days after the resurrection, Jesus told his apostles that they would be “witnesses” to him, and ten days later it finally happened. Pentecost. The Spirit filling foolish followers so that they become witnesses, and baptizers, and people “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Creation is still groaning; tornadoes, E.Coli bacteria, and governments firing on their people. But God’s people, even in this present evil age, see both the rear view mirror of the resurrection and up ahead the horizon of the Last Day. All at the same time. And so we witness in this age, proclaiming a victorious Jesus Christ and rolling up our sleeves in Joplin, Tuscaloosa, and wherever we find ourselves.
One of the final hymns sung in the Easter season by the congregation where my family worships catches this exactly, Martin Franzmann’s “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (Lutheran Service Book 473):
Let all our deeds, unanimous,
Confess Him as our Lord
Who by the Spirit lives in us,
The Father’s living Word.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Again
Sing alleluia, cry aloud: Alleluia! Amen!
Catch that? “Let all our deeds, unanimous, confess Him as our Lord.” Deeds speak. We’ve got witnessing to do.
There is a lot more in Bryan; a discussion of the historical veracity of the gospel accounts; the plausibility of the resurrection, and several helpful appendices (one of them presciently, though perhaps not satisfactorily, raises the same issues brought on by Rob Bell’s Love Wins). This is a valuable resource for studying the biblical teaching of the resurrection. Buy a copy, but don’t leave it on your shelf until next Easter. We’ve got too much work to do.