Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Why did Jesus rise?

It seems particularly appropriate to be asking the question of why Jesus Christ rose from the dead while we are still celebrating Easter. But, of course, the liturgical season of Easter is simply a reminder of what we celebrate each Sunday of the year when we come together to meet our Risen Lord.

The resurrection, like the cross, is one of the great and central mysteries of Christian faith; indeed they are part of the one, saving reality. We can, however, draw out several themes, in the knowledge that no words can exhaust its meaning.

In the first place, the resurrection represents Gods re-creation of the world. God's first words in the making of the world are: Let there be light, the first words spoken in the Bible, the first words of creation (Gen 1:3). On Easter Day, the first word of God's new creation is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14), the one who is the Light of the world, bringing light from darkness (Jn 8:12).
The resurrection indicates, in other words, Gods transformation of creation. Just as God made the world by his creative word, so God will re-make it through the same Word. The resurrection is the first indication of Gods re-creation for all who have faith in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). Sunday, the first day of the week, is the first day of God's new creation.

Secondly, the resurrection points not just to spiritual realities but also to earthly ones. It shows the importance of the body and material reality. Christians do not believe in a vague, disembodied spirituality. We believe that Jesus was materially raised from the dead: not revived as a resuscitated corpse but, more radically, raised to a new life in a transformed body, a 'spiritual body', no longer subject to the limitations of space and time (1 Cor 15:42-49).

The women disciples who come to the tomb on Easter morning find it empty. They encounter not a dead body, as they expected, but astonishingly an empty tomb and a living Lord whom they can see, hear and touch (Matt 28:9; Jn 20:16-17). They bear witness to the reality and tangibility of the resurrection.

In affirming the body, the resurrection also affirms the whole of creation. In his rising from the dead, Christ is the 'first-born of all creation' (Col 1:15). Sometimes people assume that Christians have no time for the body or material reality, no time for social or environmental issues. We are only supposed to be concerned with saving souls. But the resurrection challenges that view. Matter matters to God, who created it and will re-create it.

The resurrection implies, therefore, that issues of health, ecology, political structures and community welfare, are all as much a part of the hope of the gospel as individual spirituality. That is the promise of the resurrection, the promise of transformation of all that God has made, all that makes created life possible and meaningful.

Thirdly, the resurrection spells Gods triumph over death and all the forces of sin, evil and violence within and around us. In nature, death has the last word on our lives, and the lives of those we love: the great and final No on us and all created things. But the resurrection transforms the natural order. It shows that death is not the last word after all. God has the last word, and Gods word is a triumphant Yes to us and to creation in the face of sin, suffering and death (Rom 8:19-23).

Because of the resurrection, death now becomes a penultimate reality, a second-last but not final reality. It remains difficult and painful for us and those we love, and we experience a natural sense of fear, loss and grief. But there is no room for despair now that Christ is risen from the dead. Our hope is in Gods joyful and unexpected Yes in the resurrection, in and beyond all sin, all evil, all death.
Just as God has the first word on our lives, by bringing us into being, so Gods word will be the last on our lives - not death but God; not No but Yes. This triumph means that we live in hope: hope in God and the Yes of God, which is spoken to us in Jesus Christ and his rising from the dead.

The resurrection, moreover, is not only the promise of God's future. It also makes all the difference to our present. The resurrection is not an airy-fairy dream for the end of the world. It is as much about living in that hope in the here-and-now (Jn 11:25-27), knowing that God will remain faithful to us and to creation, in life and in death. It is about living by faith in God now: a covenant God whose word and promise in Jesus Christ are true.

The resurrection, therefore, calls us first and foremost to the transforming worship of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Worship is the primary vocation of the Church. Along with Mary Magdalene and the 'other Mary', we fall at the feet of our risen, conquering Saviour (Matt 28:9), who has 'trampled down death by death'. Love and worship of God - this God, the God of resurrection and new life - come before everything else.

The resurrection also means that we are commissioned in the Church to proclaim the message of the resurrection in word and deed. It is a call to mission and to action, proclaiming the message of forgiveness and renewal, and working for God's new world in self-giving love of others, in cherishing the earth, in struggling for justice, kindness, reconciliation, peace.

Jesus rose from the dead to transform us, so that we can live out our baptism by dying and rising with Christ (Rom 6:4). This transformation begins with our worship each Sunday, the commemoration of Easter Day in word and sacrament, the day on which we acclaim Jesus as our 'Lord and God' (Jn 20:28-29). Each day of the week thereafter we are called to proclaim, and participate in, God's re-creation of the world in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, in joyful faith, hope and love. 

Why did Jesus die?

To ask the question of why Jesus died is one of the most difficult yet decisive questions we could ever ask. It is a question that the Church throughout its history has asked, and answered in a variety of ways.

Jesus’ death is grounded in creation, the works of God’s hands —  a creation that is good yet somehow distorted and alienated by sin. The cross implies also the incarnation: God’s entering into creation and becoming one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. In this event, the New Testament attests to Jesus’ unique identity as divine and human, the Son of God manifest in our flesh and blood (Jn 1:14; Heb 2:14). If he is fully human he must die, for that is what it means to be mortal.

But why did Jesus die the way he did: crucified by the Romans in an excruciating and humiliating death? Why did the Son of God die in this way, the one who shared in God’s own being?

For the New Testament writers, Jesus’ death is not a disaster, despite appearances to the contrary. Along with his incarnation, life and ministry, and resurrection, Jesus’ death is God’s plan for salvation: definitive for human beings and for creation. The whole Jesus event, for the New Testament, stands at the centre of history, including the cross. Our salvation, and that of the world, is achieved in it and through it.

There are a number of ways to explain the death of Jesus, though no explanation will ever exhaust its mystery. In any account, God is intimately involved in the cross, not as an outsider or distant spectator, but as a direct participant, fully present to Jesus in all he undergoes, even (paradoxically) his experience of abandonment. In a very real sense, in describing Jesus’ mortal suffering, we are describing the experience of God. In the truest and deepest sense, what happened on the cross involved the whole Trinity.

In the first place, Jesus’ death is God’s profound and radical identification with sin and suffering. This is hinted at in Mark’s Gospel by Jesus’ baptism — why otherwise would Jesus need a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mk 1:4)? On the cross, Jesus (and for this read ‘God’) enters into the dark waters of our desolation, torment, sin, suffering and death (Mk 15:34). It is our depths into which Jesus descends, bringing with him — because of who he is — the redeeming light and life of God.

In this act of love, the greatest act of love the world has ever known, God enters the place of lovelessness and abandonment, sin and shame, suffering and violence. God has identified with us, has been there, has suffered, has endured the torment of our sin, our shame, our pain. The cross shows the extraordinary depths of God’s love for us and for creation (Jn 3:16-17), a love that is profoundly transforming.

In the second place, the New Testament affirms again and again that through the cross our sins, and those of the whole world, are forgiven (Matt 26:28; Lk 23:24; Acts 10:43; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; 1 Jn 2:2). On a personal level, it means that through the cross, our failures and inadequacies, our acts of cruelty and destruction (including our self-destruction), are forgiven through the merciful love and grace of God revealed in Jesus.

In the Old Testament, one of the functions of the temple was to atone for sin through animal sacrifices (Lev 5:6-10). On the Day of Atonement, animals were sacrificed for the sins of the people, and the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness bearing those sins (Lev 16:10). For the New Testament writers, these practices point to Jesus, the ultimate and one-and-only sacrifice for sins, whose blood atones for the sins of the world, and is available for all who repent and turn to God (Jn 1:29; Heb 9:22). The cross is the supreme act of atonement, making us one with God in our alienation and sinfulness, setting all things in right relationship to God, and therefore to one another and to creation (Rom 3:21-26; 5:6-10).

In this sense, Jesus’ death on the cross effects a ‘cleansing’ from sin (1 Jn 1:7-9). This is a paradoxical image: blood having the power to cleanse and make clean.  It means that forgiveness removes our guilt and shame: the sense that what we have done wrong — how we have harmed another — has polluted us. In Jesus’ cleansing death, our guilt and shame are washed away. It is as if God, to change the image, has fallen on the bomb and absorbed the explosion into himself. God has taken on the stain of sin and, in doing so, removed it in the one act of forgiveness on the cross.

In the third place, the death of Jesus is a moment of glory and victory, overcoming ‘the ruler of this world’ (Jn 16:11; 13:31-32). In Jesus’ death, the end of sin and evil is spelled out in an event that in human terms is shameful and degrading but is, in fact, a glorious event revealing God’s true nature. The cross is the ladder on which the triumphant Son returns to the Father, drawing ‘all people’ to himself (Jn 12:32). It is an act of glory because it shows the transforming radiance of God’s love. In this terrible event of the cross, ironically, both Father and Son are glorified, revealing definitively God who is (1 Jn 4:16). At a cosmic level, the cross signifies God’s final overcoming of evil.

To sum up: the cross in the New Testament represents the transforming power of God’s love for us and for creation. It signifies the radical entry of God into our suffering and desolation, cleansing us from sin and liberating us from evil.

As one of the Good Friday prayers says: ‘We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your death you have redeemed the world.’