Easter, on the Resurrection

(Note: This essay was originally an Easter homily of mine from 2015. I repost it because of 1. the importance of the arguments, and 2. that I won’t touch on many of these major themes in my preaching this year.)

Easter, as the principle commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, ranks first among the Church’s feasts. Celebrating the Eucharist, especially this day, we don’t merely remember that earth-shattering event; we participate in and partake of it.

Before we get to the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection we must first affirm that it happened. Here we can say with confidence that “the actual bodily resurrection, into a transformed physicality, of Jesus himself”[1] is an historical event. The Apostles made this claim with conviction, refusing to recant even when threatened with death. Nothing can except for the fact that it happened.

There is more evidence for the resurrection than we have time for today, but before we move from the fact of Jesus’ resurrection to its meaning, I want to examine three aspects of the early Christian view about life after death that demand an explanation.

To begin, Christianity is a decidedly Jewish movement. What we find in 1st Century Judaism is that there is a wide spectrum of belief about life after death, so we should expect to see the same in the early Church. What we find, however, is that all early Christians “believed that their ultimate hope was the resurrection of the body;”[2] no such spectrum of belief exists. What can explain this peculiarity? The lack of any spectrum of belief requires an answer, but we can’t stop there. We should also ask why “the early Christian belief in resurrection had a much more precise shape and content than anything we find in Judaism.”[3] The many characteristics of Christian belief in the resurrection – that it will be: 1. A new creation; 2. Accomplished by the Holy Spirit; 3. Not a simple return to the same sort of body as before; 4. Not an abandonment of our bodies; and so on – dwarf the few and vague speculative ideas of Jewish belief in life after death. Why was Christian belief in the resurrection so well defined?

Further, the best-known feature of resurrection in 1st Century Judaism comes from Daniel 12, in which it is written that the righteous will shine like stars. Why is this image totally absent from the resurrection ideas of early Christians?

One last point to consider here, albeit briefly, is the early Christian claim that Jesus was and is the Messiah. Here we see that, contrary to Jewish expectation, Jesus had not won a decisive victory over Israel’s political enemies. He neither restored the Temple (except in the most ambiguous symbolic fashion), nor brought God’s peace and justice to the world, all of which the Messiah was meant to accomplish. How is it, then, that after his shameful execution, anyone could call him Christ, Israel’s Messiah? When “messianic movements – and there were many of them – tried to carry on after the death of their would-be Messiah, their most important task was to find another Messiah.”[4] The early Christians had a number of outstanding candidates – Peter, the leader of the rebel crew, and James, Jesus’ kinsman – but neither of these men were nominated. The early Christians, to a man, continued to regard Jesus himself as the Messiah. Like the other evidence we have considered, this peculiarity demands an historical explanation.

In sum, “The early Christians retained the Jewish belief in resurrection, but both modified it and made it more sharp and precise. They retained the Jewish belief in a coming Messiah, but redrew it quite drastically around Jesus himself. Why?”[5]

“The answer the early Christians themselves give for these changes… is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. It is Jesus’ own resurrection that has given force and new shape to the Christian hope. It was, they insist, Jesus’ own resurrection [, to which they were witnesses,] which constituted him as Messiah, and, if Messiah, then Lord of the world.”[6]

If we are faithful to the historical data, and there is much to consider, we see that the birth and growth of Christianity as a movement can only be explained by Jesus’ being found bodily alive again after his death and burial. We can arrive at this conclusion with certainty. Jesus’ resurrection is not merely something we have to ‘take on faith.’

Putting aside the historical question of Jesus’ resurrection, we turn now to its significance. What does the resurrection mean?

Having made our way through Good Friday, we are tempted to see Jesus’ resurrection as the happy conclusion to an otherwise dark and dismal story.[7] The shame of his passion and death, we are tempted to think, is set right by the fact that Jesus is now in heaven. If this is our line of reasoning, we are likely to think that the point of Christian life is to go to heaven when we die.

Without dismissing this idea out of hand, it is not the main story. The point of Easter, rather, is that God is setting right the whole of his creation. The resurrection of Jesus, as the beginning of that great work, is how the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.

The long-standing hope of Israel was that God would recreate the world so that peace and justice would flourish for all peoples; a world in which God would finally put everything to rights. When the first followers of Jesus proclaimed his resurrection they were saying that this new world had begun, because Jesus had defeated the forces of sin and death. Their proclamation was an invitation to all people to be created anew in Christ and so renew the face of the earth.

In Jesus’ dying and rising again we see that new life can only happen when death is overcome; we see that God’s new creation is a place where sins are forgiven precisely because, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, sin has been dealt with. God’s new life for us is the fully flourishing human life, but our only hope of living it is if something happens to us and in us so that we ourselves make the transition from the way of death – which is to the world the normal way of living – to the way of life. We receive God’s life by being plunged into the death and resurrection of Jesus so that his death becomes ours and his resurrection becomes ours.

This is the significance of baptism, which we celebrate in a special way at the Easter Vigil, and throughout the 50-day season with the renewal of our baptismal promises and the sprinkling of water. In our baptism, we were drowned in Jesus’ death, coming forth from the waters into his new life, his new world.

The meaning of Easter reaches further still. It is not simply that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has given us the Spirit of his Son to live within us. It means that God is giving himself not only to us but also through us to the entire world. We are to embody God’s life for those around us: for our husband or wife; for our children or parents; for our family, friends, and coworkers.

We are here today precisely because we are alive with this new life God has given us, but we cannot sustain it alone. To live in God’s new world we need constant help; we need Jesus himself as our strength and sustenance. Sunday after Sunday we relive his death and resurrection that we might die to the ways of death and rise to new life with him. As we entrust ourselves to God, the Body and Blood of Christ become our own, that through us God will enliven the entire world.

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[1] N.T. Wright, Christ is Risen. A paper delivered to the Conference of Italian Bishops, 2012.

[2] N.T. Wright, Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins. Originally published in Gregorianum, 2002, 83/4, 615-635. http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Jesus_Resurrection.htm

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For the argument of this homily I have relied on N.T. Wright, Water, Fire and Breakfast. Sermon at the Easter Vigil in Durham Cathedral, Easter Day (April 3) 2010.