Can Easter be more than the church’s self-congratulatory triumphalism?

Can Easter be more than the church’s self-congratulatory triumphalism? April 16, 2017


I’ve never known what to make of Easter. For evangelicals, the big day is Good Friday, when Jesus dies for our sins so we can avoid being tortured forever in hell. Easter is like the confirmation email that the payment went through. Since I’ve developed a more complicated understanding of the cross, it seems important to wrestle with the meaning of Easter.

We visited a large evangelical United Methodist church at the beach this morning. The pastor quoted NT Wright several times in his sermon, which kicked off his sermon series REVOLUTION in which the EVOL had backwards letters in a different color in the bulletin so you could see that it was LOVE backwards. I haven’t read Wright’s new book about the love revolution that Jesus started, but I’m presuming that’s what inspired the sermon series. The sermon was mostly the standard evangelical message about the four spiritual laws and Jesus’ penal substitution on the cross.

The pastor basically had two things to say about Jesus’ resurrection: 1) If he hadn’t been resurrected, we never would have known that he died for our sins. 2) He started a “revolution” that resulted in all the glorious achievements of Western Civilization like charity, hospitals, libraries, and a lot of other things that never would have existed otherwise (because the brown people in other cultures all over the world never knew how to take care of their sick and poor until we sent missionaries to teach them about Jesus).

That didn’t sit well with me. I can’t celebrate Easter if Easter is nothing more than the self-congratulatory triumphalism of European Christendom. I’m not sure what to do with our checkered history. Because centuries of slavery, genocide, and imperial conquest were justified by a genuine sense of religious superiority. And these sins have not been accounted for by the church. We uncritically use the same theology that inspired our ancestors to dehumanize the other. I wrote a seminary term paper on the 16th century Spanish theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda who told his king that it was his duty according to Jesus’ Great Commission to enslave and “Christianize” the natives of the Americas.

A basic point of Christian orthodoxy is that Jesus accomplished everything that needed to be accomplished through his cross and resurrection. All that’s left for us to do as Christians today is to bear witness to what has already been achieved. If I’d never written that term paper on Sepulveda, I might be able to do that. I might be able to squint my eyes shut, throw my hands up in the air, and sing Chris Tomlin with all the earnestness I can muster.

I realize I’m supposed to believe that Jesus won decisively and completely on the original Easter morning, but I’m not sure that Jesus has all the way won yet. I think Christianity loses something essential to its nature when it becomes the religion of people who have already won, of kings who are crowned by bishops. It’s kind of like Star Wars, where the good guys can only be the Rebel Alliance or the Resistance. If they ever win and take over the Empire they were trying to beat, then they lose everything by having won. Whatever Easter is, it cannot be the self-congratulatory triumphalism of the white church. That’s utterly alien to what it looks like in the Bible.

Easter happens to a woman who thought everything was lost until she ran into a gardener with a strange familiar twinkle in his eye. Easter happens to the followers of a failed movement who are hiding from the authorities in a locked room when suddenly their fallen leader materializes in their midst. Easter happens on a beach at dawn where a coward is reestablished as a leader. My favorite line from the original Easter is John 21:12: “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”

That’s the Jesus I worship. He’s a mysterious figure who doesn’t look like the Italian model I’ve seen in all the paintings, but when I see him, something about him will say it’s the Lord. He’s far outside the pomp and circumstance of the triumphalist churches who have found all the best practices to capture and retain visitors. He’s wandering around cemetery gardens to comfort the bereaved and cooking breakfast on mostly abandoned beaches for fishermen who didn’t get Easter Sunday off. If the biblical stories of Jesus’ resurrection are any indication, I think Jesus spends his Easter with people who have not won yet.

I’m not sure Easter has good news for people who are already satisfied with the world the way it is. If it’s actually God’s confirmation email that those of us who are winning in this life will keep on winning in the next one, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it. One of my favorite lines in Revelation is when God says, “Behold I am making all things new!” That makes me want to believe that Easter keeps happening, that Jesus cannot be conquered by his church any more than he could be conquered by the grave. I want to believe that Jesus will never stop astonishing the people who think they already know the story backwards and forwards. I pray that he will heal me of my cynicism so that I too can be astonished by Easter.


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