Monday, March 20, 2017

What We Have Meant by Resurrection

As a pastor and theologian, I'm not sure there's anything I can do that might convince readers that observing Holy Week is as crucial as entering a bracket for March Madness.

So, as a theologian, I'll double down. If some people can memorize stats for colleges they've never laid eyes on, I figure theologians can dance around a bit in the esoterica of theologizing.

Here goes.

The cross and resurrection are stunning in their mundane implausibility. That the world would reject the full presence of God in the full humanity of Jesus Christ is unsurprising. Like Col. Jessep's response in A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!"--so too the world (and therefore us, I) have never been able to handle the truth of God in Christ... and so we kill him.

As Luther wrote in the Heidelberg Disputation, that person deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

Which is to say, Christ died on the cross because he was fully God, and the cross was humanity's response to God made manifest.

The cross is the central and most important story. The gospel of Mark gets this best, by ending near the cross, and re-centering readers on the life of Christ itself, always telling the ending as it does, with a word pointing ahead to the Christ, but no visible sign of his appearing, only the promise, and then these words, "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8).

Yet, although the cross is the most important word, it is no word at all without its completion, and the completion of cross is resurrection. Resurrection is not at all a replacement for the cross, or its usurpation. Far too many approaches to the resurrection are supersessionist, implying that somehow in the resurrection the cross either didn't happen, or is of no account, or is no longer central.

That simply can't be true. But if we take resurrection as it gives itself, it is the completion of the cross in quite a different manner, as its deepening.

The resurrection is mundane in quite the same way as the cross. Christ was raised on the third day because he was fully human, and the resurrection was God's response to full humanity made manifest.

The cross is humanity's response to God. The resurrection is God's response to humanity. They complete each other. They are both completely natural outcomes if we take the subjects for who they are. Humanity kills. God is alive. They are completely implausible if we take the objects for who they are. God does not die. Humanity does.

So why does this all matter for our Lenten observances, and why should we devote an entire Holy Week to it?

Well, once we consider the full magnitude of these two events in their coupling, that the fully God and fully human both died and rose again, participating in both, the paradox of it all, then a number of considerations follow.

First, we are offered in the cross and resurrection a much more embodied theology. We encounter insights from, among others, the profound eco-feminists like Rosemary Radford Ruether, who connect the resurrection of the body to the deep sense of God filling the whole cosmos.

But we also open space for exploring the resurrection not just as something that happens historically "in Christ," but rather resurrection as shared experience of the whole community, perhaps even exclusively as this, like in the sermons and writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Countering this, but equally compelling, some of our best theologians have argued that the resurrection is thoroughly reasonable both on scientific and historical grounds. The best on this is that great systematician Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Or finally, we might consider that in the resurrection the oppressed are freed for struggle, that the resurrection is more than just experience, or science, or history... that the resurrection is praxis, revolution. 
The cross and resurrection of Jesus stand at the center of the New Testament story, without which nothing is revealed that was not already known in the Old Testament. In the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his earthly life achieves a radical significance not otherwise possible. The cross-resurrection events mean that we now know that Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the wretched was God effecting the divine will to liberate the oppressed. The Jesus story is the poor person’s story, because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated from poverty and powerlessness. God becomes the victim in their place and thus transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom. This is what Christ’s resurrection means. The oppressed are freed for struggle, for battle in the pursuit of humanity. 
Jesus was not simply a nice fellow who happened to like the poor. Rather his actions have their origin in God’s eternal being. They represent a new vision of divine freedom, climaxed with the cross and the resurrection, wherein God breaks into history for the liberation of slaves from societal oppression. Jesus’ actions represent God’s will not to let his creation be destroyed by non-creative powers. The cross and the resurrection show that freedom promised is now fully available in Jesus Christ. This is the essence of the New Testament story without which Christian theology is impossible (James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 73-74).

I hope everyone will commit to worship during the Sundays of Lent, and Holy Week, because of their intrinsic value (this year, Holy Week worship in our congregation includes Maundy Thursday (April 13th, 6:30 p.m.), Good Friday (April 14th, 6:30 p.m.), and Easter Vigil (April 15th, 6:30 p.m.), plus Palm Sunday April 9th and Easter Sunday April 16th. I'll just remind everyone that it's the full week, and all the services, that will ground you in the cross and resurrection more than any other set of liturgies you might attend the rest of the year.


  1. Truly, one of the best theological expositions I have ever read. My deepest appreciation.

  2. Love it. Feels fiery to me. I'm so ready for the oppressed to be free. Wish I could go read this to Ms. DeVos and her group and then discuss it with them. It really bugs me that they claim Christianity.

    Tough part about working nights is you have to miss all the evening church and activist stuff!