“Truly he is risen!” “He…sure is!” An Easter Meditation
On Easter Sunday morning I took my “Church Fathers and Reformers” class to the Orthodox cathedral. The priest knew we were coming and invited my class and me to come forward first for the antidoron bread at the end of the liturgy. We sat together in the middle of the sanctuary through the long service, trying our best, and with the kind help of members, to follow along with the liturgy in the worship book. I had warned the students not to go forward with the faithful Orthodox believers for the eucharist, but I also told them to go forward for the antidoron bread at the end of the service as the ushers directed us. What I forgot to tell my mostly Baptist students was what to say when the priest handed them the bread and said “Truly he is risen!”
We dutifully followed the ushers to the front of the magnificent cathedral at the end of the divine liturgy. I was near the front of our line of about thirty students, but allowed a few of them to go in front of me. A very bright, attractive young female undergraduate from California (I forget her name as this was about twenty years ago!) was at the front of our group and first came before Father Ted. (Father Ted was a regular speaker in my classes and I took classes to his cathedral often, so we knew each other well.) Father Ted handed her the bread and said “Truly he is risen!” She took the bread, looked at him for a moment, realizing she was supposed to say something, and then, very loudly announced “He sure is!” Father Ted and his acolytes and members of the congregation who heard it laughed with delight at the unusual but appropriate response.
I have so many memories of Easter Sundays. When I was a child our little Pentecostal church always had an “Easter Sunrise Service” either outside in a park or inside (depending on the weather) and then a church breakfast at the Settlement House that we used as our fellowship hall. (The church was in a rather poor part of town and it had no room large enough to host a hundred people for a meal. The Settlement House was the whole community’s indoor playground and community center.) The Easter Sunrise Service tradition, of course, goes back to Pietist leader Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the “noble Jesus freak” who was bishop of the Moravians who lived on his estate in the early 18th century. (He also started the New Years Eve “Watchnight Service” tradition which our church observed every December 31st.) Part of the Sunrise Service (or Easter Sunday morning service) at our church was singing “Christ Arose.” We sang the verses slowly, mournfully, and then the chorus loudly and joyfully. I still have trouble fully enjoying an Easter worship service without singing that hymn.
Often, after the morning worship service, our family went to someone’s house, either church members’ or relatives’, for an Easter feast—usually including ham as the main course. If we had an Easter egg hunt, it was indoors if Easter was in March or at a park if Easter was in April and the weather (as this year in Iowa) was springlike. But the “Easter bunny” was Verboten as he, she or it was regarded by us as a symbol of a pagan takeover of our precious holiday. (We also did not include Santa Claus in our Christmas celebrations either at home or at church. We regarded him as also a symbol of a pagan takeover of our Christian celebration of the Lord’s birth. Strangely, however, we had no problem having a Christmas tree!)
Music has always been an important part of my Easter observance. As I mentioned, without “Christ Arose” it’s not fully Easter for me. (So I sing it softly to myself when it’s not in the order of service.) I’ll never forget how, during one Easter morning (Baptist) worship service, the “song leader” (as he or she used to be called in our evangelical churches) had us stand for the first hymn. To my great delight it was “Christ Arose.” However, much to my dismay, as always, he chose to leave out one verse—the third one! (If you know the hymn, you’ll get the irony.) I fussed and fumed through the rest of the service and my poor wife and daughter had to endure my tirade over Easter dinner. (Yes, I’m a little obsessive about singing all the verses of hymns but especially that one! The same song leader had the congregation [not the church where we are now members] sing verses one and four of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on a Sunday morning before Christmas. Again, if you know the song, you’ll understand why I ground my teeth at that! Clearly he, the song leader, did not look at the verses of hymns before deciding which ones to leave out!)
I believe the resurrection of Jesus is a crucial event without which we would not be saved and without which Christianity would be meaningless. And by “resurrection” I mean bodily resurrection (not resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse) and empty tomb. I have never been able to understand so-called “Christians” who deny the historical reality in time and space of Jesus’ resurrection or who demythologize it to mean only the restitution of faith in the hearts of the disciples (Bultmann and Tillich). In fact, I will admit that I have real difficulty regarding anyone who denies it as Christian at all.
If Jesus did not conquer death, then neither will we. That is Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 15 where he links Jesus’ resurrection inextricably with ours and vice versa. But why? Why is the resurrection of Jesus so important? Why not just believe that his soul went back to God (or something like that)? Why bodily resurrection?
The early Christians believed and taught that by his death Jesus conquered Satan and by his resurrection conquered death. Our own victory over death is guaranteed by his if we are “in Christ” by faith. The resurrection demonstrates that God values our bodies and not just our souls. Matter matters to God. In fact, according to Paul in Romans 8, the whole cosmos will be resurrected in a manner analogous to Jesus’ resurrection and promised bodily resurrection. Of course, these resurrections are not to be thought of in grossly material forms as if decay and death would once again be a possibility. In some mysterious way, our resurrection bodies, like his, will be “spiritual bodies,” but that by no means cancels out the fact that they will be bodies. In the case of Jesus there was continuity and discontinuity between his buried body and his risen body. The same will be true of our resurrection bodies. The same will be true of the resurrected cosmos in the new heaven and eath.
The resurrection of Jesus is the eventful promise of ultimate redemption for those who are by faith transferred from Adam’s humanity to Christ’s (Irenaeus). That promise and hope shines a light backwards on life now. It means, if we take it seriously, that creation, including our bodies, is God’s gift and so valued by God that he plans to redeem it/them. This will not be just a return to the garden as in a Christian version of the myth of eternal return. It will be a glorious joining of God with creation in what Moltmann calls the Great Sabbath of God when God will be “all in all.” Beyond that we get into realms of pure speculation.
The tragedy is that, over my thirty years of teaching theology, I have discovered that many people who grow up in Christian homes and churches think of the resurrection as “spiritual” to the exclusion of “material.” They think of these dualistically, as if matter could not be spiritualized and still be real. That is, to them, the resurrection body is a ghost with no substance, the only “substance” being physical. (They learn differently in physics classes, but somehow that doesn’t translate into their folk religion.)
Gnosticism has invaded modern Christianity. It shows nowhere more clearly than in modern Christians’ thinking about the resurrection and “heaven.” Many, I would dare say most, think of these in purely spiritual, ethereal terms, even as escapes from the body and the world.
I admit to being a fan of Southern Gospel music. But there are some gospel songs I can’t listen to, let alone ever sing. One typical one is “My Soul is Gonna Live On” by Bill and Gloria Gaither. (If you must, you can watch and listen to it on youtube!) Whenever I hear it I wonder “What were they thinking?” It’s a perfect musical expression of the old Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. I’m not accusing the Gaithers of denying the bodily resurrection; I’m just saying that songs like that easily mislead people to think of the “resurrection” as soul immortality and not as what the New Testament teaches—the restoration of bodily life gifted with immortality. Of course, that song stands in a dishonorable tradition of gospel music that implies Gnosticism such as “I’ll Fly Away.” (Plato would have loved “like a bird from prison bars has flown!”)
In sum, the bodily resurrection is theologically necessary for authentic Christianity and ethically fruitful for responsible stewardship of the world God has given us as our home and that he plans to redeem—including our bodies. It means that Jesus was vindicated by God such that his claims about himself were not lies while the accusations made against him (viz., that he lied by making himself equal with God) were. It means that God values materiality and bodily existence and so should we.