Too bad people tend to forget the true meaning of Easter. So texted a former coworker named Dan last night. Aside from feeling reflective he was feeling pretty good because his Colorado Avalanche scored a road victory over my hometown L.A. Kings.
One reason – maybe THE reason – that so many miss the true meaning of Easter is that churches, entrusted to preach the resurrection of Jesus and all that it means, tend to reduce it to symbolism. Jesus and resurrection are only symbols that help us feel better (which is one of the atheist’s basic dismissals of religion).
Some friends in Australia are surveying their sermon landscape and finding a bunch of symbol-sermons. In their online comments on one Anglican Cathedral’s Easter message, they write Read this and tell me if you are one iota clearer on why the bodily resurrection of Jesus is good news...Er….does this actually say that the gospels are made up half truths and myths to help make sense of the crucifixion experience????? Did I read that right?…It’s not that it’s a heretical gospel, it’s that there’s no Gospel to be heretical about there!
I got to musing about it because I’m not in church this Easter. I missed all of the Holy Week services. I’m not doing well – by which I mean struggling with stuff that hurts AND not living in a godly way. I have no excuse for not being with other Christians.
And there are people enduring all kinds of stuff this Easter, as on any other day. A parish priest in another state is missing all of his Easter services (his last before retirement) with pneumonia. And there are plenty of folks in church for whom Easter Sunday still feels like Good Friday – illness, loss, all kinds of personal tragedies and catastrophes lugged along by decent people trying their best.
Is the resurrection of Jesus irrelevant if it doesn’t make us feel better? Aren’t the array of of things I spread out for the picture above – top shelf Tequila, vitamins (gummi supplements!), coffee, muscle relaxants, antacids – more convenient and immediate feel-goods than sermons? What John Donne wrote in mockery of death – And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well – could just as well mock the resurrection of Jesus if our criteria is what makes us feel better.
The Apostle Paul anticipated (maybe confronted is a better word?) the tendency of the church, let alone unbelievers, to diminish the gospel of Jesus Christ:
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. (2 Timothy 3:2-5)
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied…If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame. (passages from 1 Corinthians 15)
Paul knew that people glom onto religion for the feels. Can you imagine an Easter preacher today pointing that out and, like Paul, telling the congregation, I say this to your shame?
What resurrection sermons should reveal is a massive, one of a kind transformation. It’s not symbolic transformation from current problem to decent outcome (until the next problem comes). It is transformation of our way to God’s way, from me-likeness to Christ-likeness, from fading flesh to resurrection glory.
The only path of that effects that transformation is Christ’s way of the cross. It isn’t self-help but self-denial and affirmation of God, as Jesus taught,
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:35)
The resurrection of Jesus is not a symbol of “things getting better with time.” With time, we repeat the same dumb stuff, decline and die.
The resurrection of Jesus is not a symbol of human progress (e.g. my group vs. those stupid people I don’t like). Visit the ash ponds around Auschwitz.
The resurrection of Jesus is the transformation of reality that only God can accomplish. Hebrew has a verb for “create” that expresses only acts of God. There’s stuff we can’t do on our best day. (Pause here – do you believe that? Or are you certain that enough money, laws, education, coffee, whatever, will allow people to accomplish any and everything? Isn’t that resurrection thing just a symbol of God rewarding enlightened effort?)
The resurrection of Jesus says that our hurts – including the ones that nag, never go away, and even kill us – are not the final word if we are found in Christ, being transformed by following him as though lugging a cross. And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
We have to follow him. Because there is no resurrection but his, which becomes the resurrection of those he transforms. An Easter sermon about a symbolic resurrection is a less efficient shot of tequila, or sweets, or medication, or whatever gets us through the night. But the proclamation of his resurrection – real in history, real now and real for his people in the new heavens and new earth he is bringing – is transformation from death to life:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
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