Easter Sunday, 1992
“I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
This week we reach the turning point in the church year, shifting our attention from Jesus in his interaction with his disciples to our lives as they relate to him.
And the question with which we are dealing today is the most basic one in our lives: for what, and on what basis, can we hope in this life? When it comes right down to it, what is the reality on which we can really count, and how can it be manifested in our lives? Do we have any right to expect a happy ending, and if so, what is the nature of that happy ending?
As we sing the songs and recite the old familiar phrases of the Christian celebration of Easter, we would like to think that the answer has something to do with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The story just read in Acts attracts us, the hope of the writer in the book of John inspires us, and most of all, the spirit of the early Christians recounted in First Peter, as they faced the numerous trials of their difficult lives, makes us wish that we had their strength, their power, and their ability to deal with the world in which they had been put.
We would like to believe it all, but if we are honest with ourselves, and we begin to think the matter through, it all seems fantastic, hard to comprehend, unbelievable.
Why is it that the resurrection is so hard for us to accept in this day and age?
Well, one reason might be that some of us have given the resurrection a bad name, and have caused other people to turn away from it to something else.
We must remember that the resurrection is an unusual, one of a kind event–an event with a factual basis, as the texts make clear, but also an event challenging the ways in which university people have come to understand historical reality.
But some of us have ignored the difficult and extraordinary nature of the resurrection and have approached it like any other historical event. So we point to the empty tomb, the recorded appearances of Jesus, and the veracity of the early Christians as proof that the resurrection really happened. Our mood becomes one of self-confident, and sometimes even, arrogant assertion of the resurrection, with the implication that those who do not believe are either unintelligent or morally at fault.
(I should say at this point that the empty tomb, the recorded appearances of Jesus, and the veracity of the early Christians–when taken in the context of the rise of the early church in the most difficult of circumstances–is convincing to me. The cause has to be adequate to the event, in my way of thinking).
But I have to remember, and WE have to remember, that no amount of evidence will convince a person if he is not ready to believe that a resurrection is possible, and for such people, almost any explanation of what happened is preferable to the one that animated the early church, and convinces me.
Intelligent, reasonable, and moral people of good will both believe, and disbelieve.
Something else is going on here, and we need to pay attention to it. Beyond all rational calculations, we need to remember that there is a mystery involved in the coming to faith of the early followers of Jesus, and of his followers down through the years, that there is a risk involved in the assertions of those who believe in the resurrection as traditionally recounted, and that there are other “rational” explanations for what we assert happened.
Intelligent, rational and moral people may have other explanations for what happened.
We forget that when it comes to foundational convictions about the meaning of life, that the reasoning process takes second place to our changing history, and to the action of God in that context. We forget that the best we can do is testify to the way it seems to us. And by our self-conscious and obnoxious over-certainty, we drive others, who might be willing to consider a less aggressively presented interpretation, away from the classical understanding of what happened.
But let us now consider what happens when others of us, sometimes the very people who in an earlier time pushed the overly-certain view of the resurrection, come to the point that we feel we should consider alternative understandings of what happened and what it means–and reinterpret the resurrection in that context.
–So, we reinterpret the resurrection existentially (we assert that the resurrection represents the affirmation of life in spite of what seems like a depressing and awful end)
–Or, we reinterpret the resurrection biologically (we assert that the life force rises up and fights the trend toward death, even in the face of disaster)
–Or, we reinterpret the resurrection in terms of one or another historical trend (we assert that we ought to really put our trust in evolution [overcoming human limitations], or the development of science and technology [overcoming the bonds of nature], or the revolution [which will overcome poverty and injustice].
Each of these reinterpretations, which you can hear in one form or another in many churches and on the public media at Easter time, revise the traditional understanding of the resurrection in favor of the kinds of things that inspire us as modern citizens of the university community. They constitute a serious attempt to find meaning in a world in which the traditional understanding of the resurrection no longer is convincing.
We should honor these attempts at finding meaning in our world, while at the same time realizing that they are inadequate to what is demanded of them.
Before we get too enthusiastic about these modern revisions, let us at least try to hear the witness of the Biblical writers about these and other attempts to discern meaning in our lives apart from the action of the one true God who alone has the power to deal with our problems.
The Christian View
Let us return for a moment to the statement of the problem mentioned earlier: the problem of our finitude and limitations, our self-contradictions, our lack of fulfillment and the negation of fulfillment in our lives–underlined and punctuated sooner or later by the death that must come to us all.
It is good for us this evening to remember the Biblical realism about death and its meaning for life, because only then can we really grasp why the hope of the resurrection was so important to Biblical people.
When the Biblical writers sum up life, they are not so melodramatic or Pollyannaish as we modern citizens of the university community tend to be. If we place our hope on anything in this life, they assert, the only realistic mood for us is melancholy.
Our life lasts for seventy years, according to the Psalmist, eighty with good health; but all it adds up to is anxiety and trouble. It is over in a trice and then we are gone.
Man, born of woman, says Job, has a short life,
yet has his fill of sorrow;
he blossoms, and he withers, like a flower;
fleeting as a shadow, transient
there is always hope for a tree, when felled, it can start again;
its shoots continue to sprout.
Its roots may be decayed in the earth
its stump withering in the soil
but let it scent the water and it buds
and puts out branches like a new plant
But man? He dies, and lifeless he remains;
man breaths his last, and then where is he? (Job 14)
The problem is that our life is a brief interlude in the onrush of things, beset by contradictions, full of trouble, ending in death. And, when faced squarely, the question arises: does such a life, with such high aspirations and such ambiguous results, have meaning? What is the meaning of life, if so much toil and trouble are connected with it? What is the use of striving, of trying, if it is all for naught?
If we looks at reality on a strictly earthly plane, the Biblical writers assert, we cannot be optimistic.
–resolute people may do what is right, but life catches up with them in the end, and they are defeated
–the life force may prevail, but we as individuals may be ground up and lost in the process
–the revolution may not come, and even if it does, it may not solve everything; in fact, it may create its own suffering and destruction
–our scientists and technocrats may be able to help us increase our command over nature, but they may not be able to control the technical processes they have unleashed
–the process of evolution may sweep everything before it, but what is the meaning of the human wreckage left in its wake?
Again, I repeat: the Biblical judgment is clear. All our worldly sources of hope, all of our techniques, all of our enterprises will be brought to naught. On the human plane, the Biblical mood is one of melancholy, of pensiveness, of frustration at the contrast between the height of human aspirations, on the one hand, and the measly achievements of our lives, on the other.
How is it possible to keep on working, struggling, sacrificing, in these circumstances?
There are really only two adequate responses to this situation, according to the Bible: the first is alluded to in the book of Ecclesiastes, and in much of the classical tradition, where the answer is that one can only courageously grapple with what fate has given us, plan to enjoy what little pleasure life has to offer, and gut it out.
The other answer is the main thrust of the Christian tradition: that our efforts may ultimately fail, but that the God who brought our forefathers up out of Egypt, led our ancestors to the promised land, gave us His son, Jesus, and has sustained the church down through the centuries, will somehow retrieve our individual lives and our history and that the God who has begun this good work will surely complete it.
For those with the eyes to see, the Bible seems to be saying, for those who realize how flimsy and weak are the sources of hope which inspire us as modern people in the university community, THIS is the hope that we can hang on to:
–that something happened on that Easter morning some 2000 years ago;
–that what happened strains the boundaries of human comprehension, but that it was real, for the early Christians, for Christian over the years since then, and it can be real for us;
–that it is not wise to be overly confident about many things about the resurrection–about the furniture of heaven, for example–but that we should have the confidence that “while it does not yet appear what we shall be,” nevertheless, “when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
The faith grounded in the resurrection is certainly fantastic, against all expectations, beyond what we normally think about as reasonable–but it is less fantastic, and more reasonable, than placing our faith in nature, or science, or technology, or the revolution.
The authentic Christian mood about these things is not triumphalistic, on the one hand, or stoically enduring, on the other. Rather, it is a mood of hope against hope, hope in the midst of the direct confrontation of life’s limitations and evils, hope that is grounded in God’s power, character and action rather than our own.
An Easter Celebration
The major celebration of Easter among the Moravians of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, takes place in the cemetery, or “God’s acre,” as they call it. From the point of view that we’ve been developing this evening, it could just as easily be called the acre of shattered dreams, unactualized potential, unfulfilled life.
This is how one observer describes the scene: “Between Holy Week and Easter, the Moravians arrive at the cemetery with brushes and pails of soapy water to scrub the grave stones, and on the Saturday before Easter every stone gets a bouquet of fresh flowers. Then, on Easter Sunday, before dawn, the whole community meets at the church and to the sounds of brass bands, they march to the cemetery, and there, among the tombstones, in the very teeth of death, they celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”
I have not personally observed this ceremony, but the reports of it are striking, and linger long in the memory.
“It is as if the cemetery is the only place to have such a celebration, out there among the tombs where death is unavoidable, even in the dawning light of an April day among the flowers that have not yet begun to wilt. By all reports, it is the mood which strikes the observer on this occasion. It is not brassy or arrogant, but it is not sad, or morose, either. The bands sound slightly cold as they play antiphonally from hill to hill. There is no sermon, just the reading of the familiar gospel texts on the resurrection.”
“It is understated, and there is about it a quiet waiting for the sun to come up, and for more.”
Additional comment by Wolfhart Pannenberg:
“The life to come is the strength of this life, the liberal German theologian Ernst Troelsch said….Contemporary secular men and women have lost this strength. The Christian proclamation should once more make it available to them and that could be done if only we contemporary Christians would ourselves recover the authentically Christian confidence in a life beyond death, in communion with our risen Lord and with the eternal life of God the Father in his kingdom to come.”–Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Resurrection: The Ultimate Hope,” in Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, edited by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002, p. 262.