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.


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  1. Damian Snyder June 7, 2011

    Ever since I first heard Gibbs’ presentation at the Theological Conv ten years or so ago about regaining the Biblical hope of the Parousia, I have been deepening my membership in the “Heaven ain’t my home club”. A few days age as I taught about our future resurrection during my Bible Class, one of my students, a devout woman in her 80’s, asked something like, “Pastor, what you have said makes sense, what didn’t our Pastors throughout the years tell us this?”. I have heard this sentiment expressed by many others as well.
    I had no reply other than to assure her that this was not a new doctrine.
    Any idea how we got to this point?

    • Jeff Kloha June 7, 2011

      I tried passing this off to the master of all things eschatological (Jeff Gibbs), but he can’t get to it right now. I seem to remember that one of his articles in Concordia Journal talked about this. Let me do some checking.

  2. Erik Herrmann June 7, 2011

    Because of the resurrection of Jesus “your labor is not in vain.” That is fantastic now that I think about it. Our labor would be in vain if the creation was destined for destruction when the universe collapses … painting the Titanic: now that’s useless labor! But IF the creation will ride on the coat tails of Christ, the “firstfruits” and “firstborn” from the dead … IF the creation is waiting in eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God, i.e. the redemption of our bodies … THEN our labor, our work (which God has prepared for us in advance for us to do) is not in vain. The sweat of our brow does not fall to earth only receive our worn out bodies, but it moistens a ground that will spring to new life–eternal life! Thus the famous apocryphal saying of Luther: “If Christ were to come tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.” After all, who wants an eternity without apples?

    • Jeff Kloha June 8, 2011

      You are Israel’s teacher, and yet you did not understand these things?

      I think this helps a lot when we talk about “sanctification” or “good works” — they are “necessary” not for our salvation, but necessary for the benefit of others, because we are now (as you reference Eph. 2) “God’s workmanship, created *in Christ Jesus* to do good works” (note the baptismal language). So, the one commandment, “Love the Lord, your God,” has a second one, “Love your neighbor.” That is not a “law” that we must do or else we get in trouble, but the inevitable result of our baptism, which results in our being made a part of His Kingdom and therefore, as Bryan points out, participants in his “Great Divine Clean Up.”

      In your case, Erik, Luther’s phrase apparently means “plant a garden” instead of a “tree” — just watch out for the squirrels, rabbits, and other furry eating machines.

  3. Erik Herrmann June 8, 2011

    Ha!-can’t even teachers of Israel see old things in the Scriptures in a new way? Of course, we just finished 10 weeks on this very topic in “Theology of Compassion and Human Care” and this was a theme that the students picked up on and developed in their papers.

    Your response mentioned the relationship of works to salvation … we Lutherans got that one down pretty well. But because we got the “coram deo” question down, we don’t always ask certain “coram mundo” questions. For example, what struck me was not the positive place of works per se, but how these works have value because they are part of the new creation in some way. Usually we situate our theology of works under the 1st article, as part of Luther’s doctrine of vocation. This is a very important perspective–we are masks of God’s continual preservation of his creation–but it is not the only perspective on works in the Scriptures. If we limit our theology of works to the 1st article alone, the role of the Spirit in these works seems a little problematic, especially since God utilizes non-Christians as well as Christians as “masks” of his preserving work. Then we debate about the qualitative difference between Christian works that arise from the Spirit and non-Christian works (difference of motivation? difference of sincerity? difference of the kind of works themselves?).

    But in the New Testament the gift and work of the Spirit in the Christian is more often related to the eschatological guarantee and downpayment of our coming inheritance. Thus to “walk by the Spirit,” “live by the Spirit” and in the “fruits of the Spirit” is to manifest of the life of the new age that has broken into this present one. That is to say, our works participate in a new thing (not just preserve an old thing)–as fruits of the Spirit they anticipate the future renewal of creation. Precisely how this work is to last into God’s ultimate future is not clear (maybe my apple tree will be there, maybe not), but it is a work that is carried out in hope, and that “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

    See, even historians read the Bible sometimes …

    • John Reschar June 10, 2011

      Jeff it is always entertaining to read two profs responding to each other. Can you put into perspective the thief on the cross where Jesus says ” Today you will be with me in paradise”. I think tends to cause confusion or beg the question from some about an interim sleep or soul sleep until the resurrection. Your comments

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