“Christ is risen! … He sure is!” (Easter memories and thoughts)

“Christ is risen! … He sure is!” (Easter memories and thoughts) March 31, 2013

Years ago I took a theology class to an Eastern Orthodox Easter divine liturgy. The cathedral was packed, but I had called ahead and my friend, the dean of the cathedral, had reserved seats for us in the back (as requested). I had told my undergraduate theology students not to go forward for the eucharist but to wait and go forward for the bread of fellowship after the service or at the end of it. A kind usher came to us and instructed us to stand and join the whole congregation in moving forward to the front. I had forgotten to tell the students what to say when the priest, in this case the dean, offered the bread and said “Christ is risen!” The people in front of us were quiet as they whispered “He is risen indeed,” so the young student from California who led our procession didn’t hear the response. I saw her step in front of Father Wojcik as he handed her the bread of fellowship and said “He is risen indeed.” She took the bread, looked at him and said “He sure is!”

Father Wojcik got a good laugh out of that. Later, during the question and answer time, he made clear to us that her response was entirely appropriate and he enjoyed it because it was unexpected and unusual–out of the routine.

I have many good memories of Easter but many of them include snow and darkness. You see, I grew up in the Upper Midwest and often Easter was during winter–and I mean winter as in weather: cold, limited sunlight, wind, snow.  More often than not our (my brother’s and my) “Easter egg hunt” had to be held indoors. Our church always held an “Easter Sunrise Service” early on Easter Sunday morning. After that we retired to a large room with a kitchen attached in the nearby “Settlement House” for breakfast. (That room served as our church’s fellowship hall.) Then came Sunday school and worship.

One year, when I was a child and Easter came later than usual, when it was really and truly finally spring, our Easter Sunrise Service was held outdoors–in a cemetery. The pastor, my father, obtained permission from the cemetery. The sun began to rise as we stood there singing “Low in the grave he lay” and then “Up from the grave he arose!” The focus of the service that Easter was on the dead all around us being raised to new life–just like Jesus.  (My mother’s grave was near where we stood, so that made it especially meaningful and memorable.)

This past week, during “Holy Week,” I heard one of the best sermons on the resurrection, our resurrection (because of Jesus’ resurrection), that I have ever heard. The preacher was my colleague Joel Gregory, a true pulpit master. Not many preachers can move the congregation to tears one moment, laughter the next, and deep thought the next. Joel’s focus was 1 Corinthians 15:44 and 2 Corinthians 5:1. His sermon sparkled with intriguing illustrations and stories from his own ministry but also with references to theologians such as Oscar Cullmann (famous for rejecting the “immortality of the soul” as a Greek doctrine in favor of the “resurrection of the body”).

I especially appreciated that Joel emphasized that Jesus’ resurrection body was and ours will be “spiritual bodies,” not “physical bodies.” Paul’s phrase is σῶμα πνευματικόν and he contrasts it with “physical body.” Resurrection is not resuscitation of a corpse–even to everlasting corporeal existence (unless “corporeal” means simply “bodily”). Not long ago I preached at a church whose statement of faith, printed in the bulletin, included belief in a “physical resurrection.” I find that many conservative Christians think the resurrection body will be material. Joel made clear he wasn’t talking about us becoming “ghosts” or phantoms. But neither will we (nor was Jesus) revived corpses. What we will be is a mystery; we can’t really understand it except to say there will be continuity and discontinuity between our present bodies and our resurrection bodies.

Just hours after hearing that chapel sermon I led my students in discussion of the theology of Paul Tillich. (I wrote the chapter on Tillich in Stan Grenz’s and my 20th Century Theology book [IVP 1992] and have recently rewritten it for the forthcoming The Journey of Modern Theology.) Although Tillich had many great ideas, he was most to be pitied because he did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. When he died he probably believed in reincarnation, but it’s impossible to know for sure. (According to his wife she “read him over” using The Tibetan Book of the Dead at his request.) Tillich agreed with Bultmann that the resurrection of Jesus was a “restitution of faith” in the lives of the disciples. We look forward to no bodily resurrection (according to him).

One of the strangest Easters in my life was when I was a Ph.D. student at Rice University in Houston. The chairman of the Religion Department, my mentor Niels Nielsen, was preparing me to go to Germany to study for a year with Wolfhart Pannenberg who was the subject of my dissertation project. I had to raise some of the money myself, but he set up appointments with several wealthy women who had contributed to such fellowships for Rice students in the past. On Easter Sunday afternoon, 1981, I drove into an estate owned by one of the wealthiest women in the world. The estate was in Houston–hidden in one of the most luxurious neighborhoods of the city. The mansion was so decrepit that I wasn’t sure it was where she lived. Eventually she came to the door and bid me enter. She had been cutting white lilies from her garden and had some in her hand. After our strange conversation she handed one to me and said “This is to remember the resurrection of the spirit, not the body.” During our conversation I found out that she had been a close friend of Tillich’s and he was even buried on property she owned in Indiana. She had a special “roofless chapel” built for his burial site. She was a leader of Houston’s Jung Society (dedicated to the study of Carl Jung’s philosophy). She was one of the strangest people I have ever met, but she gave me some money to go study with Pannenberg, so I’m grateful to her.

Last evening, this Easter weekend, I attended one of the best Easter musical events ever at a church near where I live. It’s an unusual church: independent Pentecostal and Anabaptist. I don’t know of any other like it. The church has about a thousand members. There were approximately 1,500 people there last evening and most of them were not church members but guests. (Most of the church members voluntarily step aside to allow guests to have the seats. The choir, orchestra and singers put on the concert for church members another time.) As I looked around I saw many local dignitaries–judges, newspaper publisher, college presidents, etc. (Last year a former president and his wife and one of their daughters was sitting near us at the concert.)

I was moved to tears by a soloist’s (accompanied by the almost 100 voice choir and approximately 50 piece orchestra) rendition of “I See a Crimson Stream of Blood.” (The musical selections are about the cross and the resurrection.) She sang with passion (and great talent!) but it was the words that moved me.

For much of my adult life I have attended churches that rarely sing about the blood of Jesus. I grew up in a form of Christian life that talked and sang and preached about “the blood of Jesus” much. Whenever my family got in the car to go on a trip my stepmother would “plead the blood of Jesus” over the car (for protection). I tend to think now that was a kind of magic, but it was well intended. But it seems to me we contemporary evangelicals have become squeamish about the blood of Jesus. We substitute “death” for blood or avoid mention of his “blood” altogether.

Now anyone who knows me knows I’m not one of those fundamentalists (do these even exist anymore?) who insist that every sermon, every testimony must include mention of the “blood.” But have we gone to the other extreme? I think so.

I don’t hold with magical, mystical ideas about the blood of Jesus as in “The Chemistry of the Bood” by M. R. DeHaan–a famous radio preacher of the 1950s. There was nothing special about the “chemistry” of Jesus’ blood. It was ordinary human blood.

However, I wonder what motivates us, contemporary evangelicals, to abandon all mention of the blood. (I once led an informal hymn and gospel singing event with colleagues at an institution where I formerly taught. Some of them would not sing about the blood or even play their musical instruments for songs I chose that included mention of the blood of Jesus!) To me, when I was growing up, talk about the “blood of Jesus” made his death more realistic. Without it I would have been tempted to think he, being God, just sort of fell asleep or died a painless death, not the hideous death he actually suffered and died.

Anyway, I don’t see our abandonment of the “language of Zion” (as one of my seminary professors called it) as a good thing. Sure, it needs translation for the uninitiated. But Scripture itself is full of mention of Jesus’ blood. So is Christian tradition. I suspect we thin out our Christianity by making it less offensive to tender sensibilities. For me, “the blood of Jesus” is part of a “thick description” of Christianity–more profound and meaningful than Christianity bled dry of everything offensive.


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