A Theology of Easter

by Chris TerryNelson

This is the third talk in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

Mark 15:25   It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.  26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”  27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.  29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days,  30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!”  31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

Mark 15:33   When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.”  36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”  37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (NRSV)

So we talked about Christmas, the day where God so loves all of humanity that God proves it by becoming one with us in Jesus, the true human being.  God joins us in a Halloween world, a world that is unsafe and full of horrors.  Now we come to Good Friday and Easter, where the full horror of the world actually leads to the one thing we cannot conquer and that we fear: death.

Not only does God take the risk of living in an unsafe world, but God actually suffers and dies.  The fears and horrors that we talked about, they aren’t just a fantasy, not just something we dress up as or create scary movies about – they are real.  Jesus is betrayed by a friend, Jesus is abandoned by his followers, Jesus is whipped and beaten, humiliated in public.  But perhaps the most utterly horrifying thing happens to Jesus – he is abandoned by God.  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is sometimes called the Cry of Dereliction.  It has the same tone as the cry of Psalm 88 that we read earlier.  Some have gone as far to say that, on the cross, Jesus becomes an atheist, that God becomes an atheist.  I’m not sure I would go that far, because Jesus is still speaking to God, asking “Why?”  Nonetheless, it seems as though Jesus is, in a very human way, let down by God.  Jesus told God he didn’t want to do this in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he said “Not my will but yours be done.”  Still, Jesus asks “why?”  Where is God?

Just as the Psalmist experiences that sense of being abandoned by God, and is free to feel it, and to talk about it, so it seems that Jesus is free to feel abandoned by God, and to question God: “Why?”

That is a question that never really gets answered, in the same way that our suffering really never has an answer to “why?”  Why does Jesus die?  What does God abandon him?  I think it’s because the only way one can live a truly human life is to lose that which is most precious to us.  This is the tragic nature of what being human is.  The thing that we think will not fail us, that will always keep us safe and secure – sooner or later we find out that we’re not as safe and secure as we thought.  I wonder if that’s what Jesus felt.

What I find fascinating about this story is what happens immediately after Jesus dies.  What happens to the curtain in the temple?

37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

What was the temple?  The temple was the place where God was the supposed to reside, in the Holy of Holies, behind the curtain.  Only the priests could go back there.  Now, when Jesus dies, the temple curtain is torn.  And what is behind that curtain?  Nothing.

And this reveals the great paradox of Christian faith: GODISNOWHERE

This can be read two ways: God is nowhere.  Or God is now here.

God is both greater than we could ever imagine, and less than we could ever imagine.  God is both that which is too much for us to comprehend, like standing up close to a infinitely large LED TV.  And God is absent, like the cold vacuum of space.

And Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is an invitation for us to live a truly human life.  Do you want to be saved from your sins?  Too bad.  You are a sinner.  The only thing Jesus seems to be interested in is whether or not we own it.  So own it, own your humanity, and stop waiting for someone else, even God, to come fix you.  People have this idea that Christianity and religion is all about trying to find something out there that will finally satisfy.  The Gospel is that there’s nothing out there that can fill you, that can fix you.  There’s no job, spouse, no church, no God behind the curtain waiting for you to say the secret password.  You’re already enough as you are.

Guess what Jesus does after he resurrects from the dead?  The same stuff he was doing before.  Eating, drinking, loving, living.  And he tells us disciples to go and do likewise, to be good news.  Be enough, and be at peace.  When you come to the point where you are born again, such that you love yourself enough to be born again as the person that you already are, when you love yourself as much as God loves you, then you will experience resurrection, you will begin to experience new life and new creation.

And this is not just your own experience, but you will become resurrection for others, because you are already enough for yourself.  And that means you have an excess amount of love and energy to give to others.  Jesus teaches us to love others as we love ourselves, but that means that you have to love yourself first.  And there are too many people out there, including me, who have to pretend that we’re loving and caring and nice just to get attention.  The problem is, we know it’s pretend, that it’s not genuine, and we aren’t all that satisfied with the attention that we get.  The stuff out there will never be enough, including the God out there.  What we need to learn is that what’s in here is already enough.  It’s good, in all of its tiny-baby-needy-fragile-vulnerable way, it’s all good.

Now, what I have just said is probably very different from how most of you have heard the cross and resurrection spoken of.  You’re probably used to hearing about the cross and resurrection with Jesus as a superhero who conquers death, and that if we believe this then we get to go to heaven.  The problem is that the New Testament doesn’t talk about resurrection as this reward for believing the right things.  The resurrection is a way of life – it is new life.  This is why Paul talks about the body of Christ, because the body of Christ is the resurrected Jesus in the world.  And when start by knowing who we really are as children of God who are loved for who we are, and when we do the things that Jesus spoke of: loving the poor and the oppressed, loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us – when we do these things, that’s when we really show that we believe the resurrection.  But when we don’t do these things, even though we might say we believe in the resurrection on a Sunday morning, we actually deny the resurrection.

The New Testament teaches us that if we really want to receive new life, then we must pass through crucifixion first.  We must lose.  We must die.  We must change.  We must suffer.  This is the only way.  Anyone who promises otherwise is speaking a lie.  The Good News is that, in retrospect, when we receive new life, we realize that the things we were holding onto – our masks, our superhero identities, our money, our talent, our ideas about God, our possessions, our relationships – all these things pail in comparison to the God who dwells within us.

My hope and prayer is that you and I will be the body of Christ, and that we will pass through our crucifixions together, that we will help each other let go of the old life, and pass into the new.

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