First things first – Happy Easter! “Christ has risen!” What an amazing claim to make: “Christ has risen!” Before there was any of this… Easter dresses and huge crowds…egg dying and candy…
Before there was any institutional church, before the cathedrals… before Catholics and Protestants…
Before there was theology even and dogma and doctrine…
Before there was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John….
Before there was a New Testament…
Before the Easter narratives (that, by the way, don’t agree on who got to the empty grave first and who did what when)…
Long before Christmas was celebrated…
Before there were Fundamentalists and Evangelicals and Liberals and Progressives…
Before Christianity even moved out of the shadows of Roman domination or even became a recognizable sect different from Judaism…
Before any of this, there was a first experience – a reality of the first encounter.
“Now I remind you, brothers and sister,” Paul writes, “of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand…”
Paul wrote these words maybe 25-30 years after Jesus lived; that is an historical fact. There were no blogs, no social media, no 24 hour news coverage, no FOX, no MSNBC. The first disciples (Peter, James and John) were still alive. And yet, Paul still has to remind those folks in Corinth what was primary.
Primarily, Christian faith is not an ethic (how you are supposed to live – although that is very important.)
Primarily, Christian faith is not a spiritual practice (although spiritual practices and disciplines are crucial.)
Primarily, Christian faith is not a philosophy or theology (although the use of the intellect to probe the mysteries of faith is a gift to be celebrated and in today’s culture much under used!)
First things first, primarily Christian faith is all about an experience, an encounter with the Risen Jesus. William James, the noted sociologist of religion, once described the momentous change that comes over one who has been transformed by a religious experience as: “The explosive power of a new affection.”
For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t a myth like Mithras, or Osiris, or Zeus. It wasn’t a new belief system. It was an encounter with a new reality; the fulfillment of all our yearnings for life and meaning.
What was dead is alive. The one who was crucified by the Romans and entombed behind a big rock was seen. Jesus encountered Cephas (that’s Peter) and then the twelve disciples saw. Remember them? The disciples, the ones who scattered and fled, and betrayed and denied and rejected, and in their devastation that Jesus hadn’t brought back the kingdom and started a political revolution against the Romans – shrugged and embarrassed made their way back home… “oh well, it was a good idea while it lasted. If only it were true.”
To those disciples – Jesus appeared. There was an encounter (the explosive power of a new affection) that transformed the lost boys into the proclaimers – who would now scatter across the known world – to Egypt and India, and Syria, and Turkey and Greece, and Italy – not to drive people at sword point to convert or else (that would come later) but only with the news of an encounter… Jesus lives.
Paul writes: “For I handed on to you as of first importance, what I had in turn received…” “Christ died for our sins… that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
Paul stakes his claim, his life, his call on this primary experience. He will face hardship and famine and sword, imprisonment and ultimately death for this experience of an encounter.
However, 30 years or so after the resurrection, Paul is having another kind of encounter with the folks in Corinth; the same kind of encounter that Christian faith has with modern culture – an encounter with an “Atlas who shrugged.” People are busy – this resurrection thing is not all that important – the most important thing is to be nice to people, not to make waves, to make money, to follow along the status quo, to claim their individual rights … if Jesus were really alive and God was really good – there wouldn’t be wars, and my brother wouldn’t have died, and that earthquake wouldn’t have happened, and my marriage would be better, and I would drop 50 lbs. I need God to show me he exists. Who needs a resurrection? That doesn’t happen – let’s be real.
I get it. I am even there sometimes, aren’t you? But then Paul reminds me of a new way of looking at the world, less cynical – not just optimistic (“don’t worry be happy”) – more powerful than that… something transformative … even my enemy is a beloved child of God, those on the fringe are brought into the center, ME, YOU – gifted, unique, worthy, powerful. The very place where God seems to be absent is the very place of God’s most powerful presence…I know that it isn’t easy to get our head around that… but what about your heart? Our faith is not belief in spite of evidence but life lived in scorn of the consequences!
For Paul without the resurrection of Jesus, all this is a joke and I don’t have a job and the history of the church is foolishness, a myth – and it has all been for naught. I get it… it isn’t much of a leap to look at our world and focus on the foolishness of the church and the so-called Jesus followers… it is self-evident that there is evil and sin in this world. But don’t you sometimes want to jump into a larger picture than what is simply evident…don’t you want to go deeper, make connections?
Paul writes about hope, and that hooks me…. Hope that there is something beyond my limited life. Hope that “tears may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” HOPE that despite what I can see, and hear there is some river of righteousness running through it, there is some fountain of joy worth jumping around in, and some great narrative that bends towards justice and re-writes all the other narratives. This is not just words, not just a good idea – but a glimpse of reality, stemming from an encounter of an audacious nature.
Resurrection madness – resurrection reversal – resurrection topsy-turviness – because if Christ is raised from the dead – man! – anything can happen… we really can dream and press on…. If Christ is really raised from the dead -YOU and I are part of something large and redemptive and good.
And then Paul writes something wonderful, so revolutionary, so heretical actually, that the institutional church and most Christians have been trying to explain it away for centuries; “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
That is some dangerous, radical teaching – Jesus didn’t interpose his precious blood to drive you to guilt and despair that you are the worst thing ever and you will go to hell if you don’t say the right words, or “believe” the right thing. Jesus didn’t die to protect you from an angry God who really delights in punishment. That God doesn’t even exist.
Jesus died to show that the maker of the universe is present in suffering and will go to the ends of the earth, will hang on a cross, will go to hell for ALL – for you and everyone else – no exceptions. As Simon Tugwell writes: “We had thought of God as the dispenser of all good things… but God has nothing to give at all except himself.”
It was just last week on Palm Sunday that Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem and quoted the prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL people!” All people – not just some – not just Christians, not just Jews, not just Muslims – but all people – such is the radical nature of the resurrection encounter.
I shall never ever forget September 12, 2001 -the day after the tragedy – and then September 13, and 14th, the second and third day after the towers fell. The dust was still thick – many were still entombed in the debris – but there was a church opening its doors to everyone – and there were Muslims and Jews and Christians and atheists, gay, straight – “here comes everybody” to help, to love, to find, to bind, to drive onward in faith and hope and love.
I guess you can read it anyway you want to – but as for me I see Resurrection power, and Resurrection hope and a witness of victory over the evil, and the darkness, and “the sin that clings so closely.” God doesn’t protect anybody – but there is always more – pressing on beyond whatever darkness.
Three days after a gruesome death – something happened that changed the world.
“Now I would remind you of the good news… for I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received…. That Christ died for our sins, and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures and that he appeared.”
Christ appeared – he was seen. What are you looking for?
And even now, using the words of Thomas Wolfe who understood the reality of resurrection hope, the reality is bursting forth: “under the pavement trembling like a pulse… under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of our cities, there will be something growing, like a flower, something bursting forth from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming to life again.”
First things first: Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!