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Easter focus: The significance of the Resurrection

I warn my seminary students to watch out for “litmus test” theology. “If you find yourself getting backed into a corner on a doctrinal issue, with someone pressing you merely to ‘check “yes”’ or ‘check “no,”’ do your best to redirect the conversation,” I advise them.  Being a Christian believer is not, primarily, about checking the right boxes.

I warn my seminary students to watch out for “litmus test” theology. “If you find yourself getting backed into a corner on a doctrinal issue, with someone pressing you merely to ‘check “yes”’ or ‘check “no,”’ do your best to redirect the conversation,” I advise them.  Being a Christian believer is not, primarily, about checking the right boxes.  Rather, it is about seeking to understand, and bearing witness to, how the doctrines of the faith impact our lives and our world.

Too often we forget that Jesus cares less about “right answers” than about us being committed disciples.  I think of Peter’s exclamation that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”  He answers Jesus correctly, but immediately reveals that he has no idea what he is talking about, resisting the way of the cross (see Mk. 8:27-33).  And then there is the rich young ruler, who brags to Jesus that he has kept all the commandments since the day he was born.  It soon becomes evident, however, that he is unable to give up the idolatrous managing of his own spirituality to be a disciple (see Luke 18:18-29).

When discussing the doctrine of the resurrection, we tend to fall into the trap of “litmus testing” one another.  “Do you believe that Jesus Christ bodily arose?”  “Do you believe in the resurrection, I mean, literally?”  In our anxiety to assure ourselves of either the orthodoxy of another (check the ‘yes’ box), or the modern, scientific, sensibilities of another (check the ‘no’ box), we often neglect to engage what it means to participate, as Christian disciples, in the church’s confessions that Jesus Christ “rose again from the dead” and that we, too, will be resurrected.  Why and how does the resurrection matter to our lives of faith? 

I address this question by exploring three ways in which the doctrine of the resurrection conveys God’s unfathomable benevolence toward us:  (1) it reminds us that we actually know God, in Jesus Christ; (2) it affirms that this world, and our existence in it, is precious and worthwhile; and (3) it assures us that sin and suffering are not the end of the story, despite appearances to the contrary.

First, the resurrection of Jesus Christ reminds us that the incarnation is not a thirty-three year experiment, but a revelation of God’s very self.  To better see what is at stake in this, it might help to imagine what it would mean if we confessed Jesus was raised “spiritually,” but not in body.  Surely, it would make more sense to many of us if Jesus (being God) had simply shrugged off the flesh associated with creaturely existence, in this way reminding us that what we see in Jesus Christ is not ultimately true to who God is.  To confess the resurrection would then mean to remember that the creaturely condition into which God temporarily entered is not, finally, claimed by God.  The resurrection, in such an understanding, would mark the end of the incarnational event, the completion of the supreme good deed, and the return of God to God’s rightful (non-embodied, non-creaturely) state. 

In contrast to this, bodily resurrection (and the corresponding doctrine of the ascension) affirms that the God who met us in Bethlehem did not simply pay us a visit, but is eternally with us, participating in the joys and sorrows of our creaturely existence.  To confess the bodily resurrection is to insist that who Jesus is, as the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, is not overridden by who he is as the Resurrected One.  His birth to Mary, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and cry of desolation are not left behind in the tomb, but somehow taken into the very life of God.  The resurrection, then, does more than mark the culmination of wonderful things God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  It reveals that God is “with us and for us” (Barth).  In the person of the bodily resurrected Christ, we confess, we witness God’s humanity, rejoicing both that God is with us and that we are with God. 

Second, the resurrection communicates that bodies, and this world and day in which bodies live, matter to God.  In confessing that Jesus Christ bodily arose, we recognize that resurrection is less about conquering the world and more about embracing and healing it.  In the person of the Resurrected One, God takes into God’s own life our historical, embodied existence, exalting us to participation in the very life of God.  Our confession of the resurrection, then, should lead us to resist and to challenge trajectories of the Christian tradition that emphasize the insignificance of this world in relation to the next.  To live into the reality of the resurrection as those whose lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) is to celebrate the beauty of creaturely existence and to care deeply about the healing of the world. 

On the wall of my living room is a saying from American artist Brian Andreas that helps me picture what it might look like to live with the hope of the resurrection.  “Anyone can slay a dragon,” says the knight, “but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.”  Jesus rises from the dead, and we witness God loving the world all over again.  We confess the resurrection of the body, and we recognize that our frail existences and efforts should never be neglected.  Truly, they participate both in the beauty of creation and in God’s promised re-creation. 

Third, our confession of the resurrection tells us that the cross – and the suffering and death associated with it – are not the end of the story.  While the resurrection affirms life in this world, it does not argue that this world is all there is, and that it will therefore be indefinitely maintained.  If it did, what hope would our confession bring us?  After all, the last thing we desire is to be stuck, for all of eternity, with the sin and suffering associated with creaturely existence!  Thankfully, our confession reminds us that resurrection is not resuscitation.  In contrast to a culture that seeks vainly to perpetuate bodies (endlessly promoting new ways of resuscitating them), to confess resurrection is to acknowledge that our bodies will pass away and will be created, again, anew.  Because we believe the One who created us out of nothing will re-create us free of sin and free of sorrow, we are empowered both to resist efforts devoted to perpetuating life at all costs and to care about and nurture every life so loved by God, however insignificant in the eyes of the world.

Knowing that death is not the end, we are not incapacitated by the pain of the world.  But we are filled with anguish over it.  To confess the resurrection is to be constantly reminded, when we see broken bodies, that God’s promise in the Risen Christ has not yet been fully realized in relation to creaturely existence.  “Thy Kingdom Come!” we demand, remembering.  And then we go forward to do the will of God, engaging in the work that heals while watching, hoping, and praying for the new life that is ours.

As we journey through the coming weeks, may we together reflect, as Christian disciples, on what it means to confess that “Jesus Christ is risen, indeed!”  May we live into our identity as “resurrection people,” knowing that God is with us and that we participate, through Christ, in the life and purposes of God.  And may we learn to live with the anguish that comes with having hope, yearning for every body to be healed, knowing that this is indeed the will of God revealed on Easter morning.

Cynthia Rigby

CYNTHIA L. RIGBY is W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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