Explaining Christianity is an interesting exercise. I suggest starting out with the really reasonable details.
Well, you see, we follow this man named Jesus.
Okay, what’s so special about Jesus?
Jesus was a friend of the forgotten, a protector of the abused, an activist for those not given a voice. He engaged in nonviolent resistance against corruption in both government and religion.
Wow, yeah. He sounds like a great guy.
I notice you say “was.” Because he died a long time ago, right, after a good long life.
This is where our story takes a turn, right?
Well, not exactly. Yes, he died—kinda—a long time ago, but his life was not long. And his death was…painful.
Oh. That’s too bad. Leprosy? Demon possession?
No, crucifixion. Public crucifixion. Actually, all of his male friends either turned on him or ran away, but it has a happy ending!
And here. Right here is where it starts to get a little, well, unusual. Here is where many people get stuck, or turn away, or feel downright confused. We believe that God became flesh, modeled for us how to live a life of service, compassion, justice, and love, went to the cross in an act of solidarity and sacrifice, and died. Then, after three days that aren’t really three days, he appears in a new body (kinda) proclaiming the good news that death is not the final word.
I say this as someone who believes it: our story is weird. We Christians will say boldly that we are not ashamed of it, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t acknowledge that if we are going to proclaim it, we should be honest about the stumbling blocks. What are we celebrating today? For those of us who journeyed into the upper room and to the foot of the cross on Thursday and Friday, who waited in the tomb with Jesus on Saturday, what did we just do? Why do we gather this morning in song and prayer?
These questions go back to the time immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and reports of resurrection. The Apostle Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus but claims a resurrection encounter on the Damascus Road, says that if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. He puts the whole of the Christian confession on the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. This was not the only opinion, however; at the same time, communities gathered around Wisdom traditions, such as the one recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, that regard Jesus as a teacher, make no reference to crucifixion or resurrection, and claim that the Kingdom of God will arise from shifts in consciousness, much like what is found in Hinduism and Buddhism. Some, like the Docetists, argued that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, he just appeared to; this is the view recorded in the Quran.
Easter also comes at the time of Pesach (Passover), the Jewish celebration of God leading the Chosen People from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Exodus becomes the paradigm of Jewish spirituality: God is always offering us liberation from that which oppresses: addiction, greed, anger, self-hatred. The Exodus moves from death to life. Easter coincides with numerous fertility rites and traditions from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, and Persian cultures. Christ descends into the underworld, as do Ra and Odysseus and Osiris. The word Easter derives from the word Eostre, who was a pagan Anglo-Saxon Goddess, who also is found in Norse mythology as the goddess of spring. The mytho-poetic is written all over this time of our season cycle.
When we proclaim “He is raised, he is raised indeed,” we are making a faith statement. But not all of us make it in the same way, with the same understanding, with the same needs, with the same affirmations, with the same trepidations. The literal resurrection of Jesus Christ has been the single biggest stumbling block of my faith life. I scoffed at it as a child; I tried to intellectually understand it as an undergraduate; I tried to rip it apart as a graduate student. And then my brother died. Everything changed. I re-approached it. First as a myth. Then as a metaphor. Now as a parable, a koan, a mystical riddle meant to push us past the limits of reason and into a spiritual understanding of existence. Of what it means to be imago dei, made in the image of God. Of what is required to imitatio Christi, to imitate Christ.
I fear that much is lost when we insist on having arguments regarding the literalness of the resurrection and there is no room for dissent or interpretation. On one hand, we see that the resurrection is literally true each and every year. We have yet to experience a year in which spring does not come, in which fertility and fecundity do no return, in which the long, cold winter does not give way to the victory of saplings and bulbs pushing through the soil. Each year we see birth, ascendency, decay, and death. Resurrection is, at its heart, a declaration that death does not win and that life will out. On the other hand, resurrecting bodies sounds a lot like The Walking Dead.
For some of us, the resurrection of Christ is literal in the way described in Scripture. To others of us, the resurrection narrative points to a deeper, mystical reality in which we find meaning and purpose in life by thinking about the ways in which death is defeated over and over again. All without our doing. All without our control. We know that each one of us at some point will shuffle off these mortal coils, and then. Well, and then. That’s the rub, right? And then, what?
For the disciples and later for Paul, the “and then” has to do with a manner of living. I personally may not be overly thrilled by how so much of our faith tradition has come down to policing what other people believe rather than inspiring ourselves to continue Jesus’ work in the world, but the fact remains that once you affirm the resurrection as true—not necessarily factual, but true—your life changes. If death is not the final word, what then is the point of life? What is the purpose of our time here? Is it pure pleasure? No pleasure, no matter how delicious, can be sustained indefinitely. We build up tolerances. We require more and more, often to the detriment of other things. Pleasure so often leads to pain. Or is the purpose of life the acquisition of wealth and power? Despite the massive mausoleums and private pyramids, no potentate or monarch has managed to take anything with them. The purpose of life seems beyond our sense pleasures. It seems it cannot be purchased in cash or on credit.
For every Christian, the declaration that he has risen, he has risen indeed, says something about ourselves. It means that during Lent we have been walking the Jerusalem road, crosses upon our backs, dust in our eyes, confusion in our hearts, and that we sacrifice our sense of self, our individual notions that we are somehow separate from all of creation, and we have asked for death. For the death of our egos. We have asked God to kill that self that nods along on Sunday but forgets to live the Gospel on Monday. Easter is a proclamation that if we on Good Friday do the difficult work of dying to that which separates us, on Easter Sunday we will be reborn into an eternal community that animates us to work for justice, mercy, love, and compassion for all.
It’s weird, this Christian story. I think it is important to recognize that; it is easily ridiculed and lampooned, and frankly, we Christians kind of deserve some of that because we are sometimes rather simplistic in how we describe it. Too much telling people that if they believe the wrong things, they will go to hell after death. Not enough talking about following Jesus so that others no longer have to live a life of hell. We don’t talk about how the resurrection story is another way to say that hope springs eternal. When we proclaim he has risen, he has risen indeed—which, just to be clear, I believe—let us be proclaiming ourselves as a people who know that only light can drive out darkness, that only love can conquer hate, and that if we want to be filled with life, we should start the process of dying to our temporary, artificial selves so that we may embrace our identity as those with stardust in our bones and God in our souls. Amen.