Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter, Now and Then

"I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day:
And brought'st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th'East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavor?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever."

These lines from George Herbert's Easter remind us that the link between Earth Day and Easter that occurred this year is a logical one. Images from nature abound as the poet looks for ways to express his effortless amazement at a phenomenon at once ordinary and astonishing.

As a lefty Christian, I naturally get asked a lot whether I believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. The answer is yes.

I am not going to devote any space here to defending this belief, which is contrary to all logic and counter-intuitive in the extreme. What I want to talk about is why it matters that we understand the resurrection as physical, and not just as something that a bunch of people coined a metaphor to express.

It's important because it means it took place in the world, which is God's creation. As such, it was actually a vindication of the beliefs of the radical Pharisees, who of course do not come off well in the New Testament. Really, though, the Pharisees' belief in a physical resurrection is itself a logical extension of the images of God's justice expounded by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, among others. The vision of the New Jerusalem that concludes Isaiah is virtually identical to the one that concludes Revelation, and that is no coincidence. The Old and New Testaments are in complete agreement in proclaiming that God's purposes, including justice, will be worked out entirely on earth. We will not go to live with God; God will come to live with us.

It may surprise many people to hear that this is the only vision of the afterlife or of ultimate justice offered anywhere in the Bible. Absorbing this fact, though, has profound implications. On the one hand, on this Easter, we don't have to wait for God's justice to be fulfilled. It has just happened. On the other hand, as Franz Kafka said, "the Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary. He will come only on the day after his arrival." Preparing the way for what is yet to come is our business, and we shouldn't expect any more miraculous intervention until we've done a much better job of it than we have so far.

As New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright points out, until the later 19th century, when belief in the physical resurrection began to be replaced by mushier notions of the afterlife, the deep connection between the Gospel and social justice was well understood. Only after the waters have been muddied and the resurrection metaphored onto the sidelines has it become possible for an idiot like Glenn Beck to claim otherwise.

So here's my Easter challenge. Let's act as though it's real again.

• Let's respond to the evil of violence not by arming ourselves and attacking others, but by daring to walk unarmed and non-violent in a world in which death has already been conquered.

• Let's respond to the reality of social injustice by acting with prophetic vision. In particular, let's acknowledge that glorifying the acquisition of wealth, under the assumption that it will somehow benefit everybody, is a complete inversion of justice of which we should be deeply ashamed.

• Let's assume that when both the Old and New Testaments speak of God's justice extending to all people, they mean it. You can exclude people from an other-worldly paradise on the basis of all kinds of criteria, including what they believe, what they look like, whom they love and, of course, what church they don't belong to. You can't do that in a world that is covered by God's justice as the waters cover the sea.

• Let's continue to expand this bullet list by adding other ways in which we can take seriously the Easter claim that God has conquered death and injustice permanently, and that the place where that happened, and will continue to happen, is here.

Happy Easter.

1 comment:

  1. "What I want to talk about is why it matters that we understand the resurrection as physical, and not just as something that a bunch of people coined a metaphor to express."

    I agree that a physical resurrection could imply a physical an earthly change. No sharp division between salvation of the spirit and salvation of the world. However, I still believe that the very idea of physical resurrection can only function symbolically. The physical event of the resurrection of Jesus (if a real event) cannot move the spiritual imagination toward any particular kind of action (social justice or "getting people saved") except through metaphors connected within a greater web of some religious meta-narrative. Especially from our vantage point in the 21st-century, that some understand Jesus' resurrection as physical instead of merely spiritual or metaphor only shows that Jesus' resurrection functions differently within different people's religious imagination. I think that "religious truth" is symbolic all the way down.

    With that said, I think that the symbolism of a physical resurrection and the idea that God has come to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth is very profound and a beautiful way of seeing. The call to justice sensed by the OT prophets and continued in the NT is still real today.