We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called
according to his purpose.
--Romans 8:28 NRSV
Growing up I was taught in so many words the resurrection of Christ was an afterthought. The climax of the story of Jesus took place on the cross and the resurrection was merely the denouement, perhaps an epilogue attached to the real story, maybe an addendum. Every sermon, every prayer, every Sunday School lesson included some mention of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, while the resurrection showed up only on Easter.
When I was a religion major in college, a seminary student and later during coursework for a Ph.D. in New Testament I never finished, I was taught the earliest narrative part of what became the four gospels we have in the New Testament was the “passion narrative” telling the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. The gospel writers assembled this narrative along with collections of Jesus’ sayings and miracles to form most of the gospels as we know them. Lastly, the writers added on the resurrection stories and the birth stories. The original ending of Mark or at least the earliest manuscripts of what is widely considered the earliest gospel end at the empty tomb rather than with a resurrection appearance of Christ. For rationalist-minded scholars looking for the “historical Jesus,” the resurrection was wishful thinking or perhaps ecstatic visions brought about by the disciples’ grief to be dismissed as at best ahistorical or at worst childish mythology.
Over the years since I encountered the resurrection seen as an afterthought, my theology has changed. What if the resurrection is the climax and not something added on that you see as the credits roll? What if the resurrection is what the story builds to rather than the cross?
There are a number of different theologies of what exactly Jesus’ death on the cross means, but in contemporary theology the most common one seems to be that Jesus pays the penalty imposed by God for sin in place of us sinners. Although I believed this particular understanding of the cross for decades, it has some weaknesses. The biggest weakness is God comes off like a violent punishing deity who commits divine child abuse. Another is the idea that because God made us with the ability to sin then God must punish us through eternal torment if we don’t. . . what? Join the right church? Say the right prayer? Partake of enough sacraments? Do enough good deeds? Not punishment for only a year or even only for a billion years but punishment forever—that seems a bit excessive.
Among the other ways Christians have thought about Jesus’ death on the cross is the belief that Jesus’ faithfulness to God and faith that God would be faithful to him demonstrates to us how to live. Jesus lived as God wanted him to live even if it resulted in betrayal, torture and execution trusting, as do so many other voices in the Bible from the Psalms to the Apostle Paul, that God would be faithful to him even after death. Seen this way, the resurrection is the real point of the story—God is faithful to us no matter what pain and suffering we may experience in this life.
What this means for you and me is God is in the resurrection business. Not only when our mortal bodies die but as we experience all kinds of little deaths along the way—death of loved ones, death of dreams, death of jobs, death of relationships, death of hopes, death of opportunities. This means that what we see as final is far from over, because God is always creating new life out of our experiences of death along the journeys of our lives. Amid the pieces of our broken dreams, hopes and expectations, God is busy reassembling those pieces into something new. The cracks remain visible between those pieces, just like Jesus’ wounds remained visible on his resurrected body but they become symbols of what one has gone through on the way to God’s newness. It is just in God’s nature to make beautiful and wondrous things out of what has been broken—none of those broken pieces is wasted, all of them are used in God’s re-creation process.
The writer Henri Nouwen puts it this way in his book Our Greatest Gift:
The resurrection does not solve our problems about dying and death. . . No, the resurrection is the expression of God’s faithfulness…. The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste. What belongs to God will never get lost.
I believe what we celebrate on Easter is not a mere addendum to what happened on the cross but rather the cross is merely a preface to the resurrection. It reveals to us that whenever we stand in the middle of the shattered pieces that remain from how we thought our life would be God is there with us using those pieces to create something new.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851