Resurrection is a difficult subject to talk about. When we contemplate the Resurrection, our habit of rational thinking leaves us at a loss. Although we may, in theory, believe in Christ’s Resurrection, we may not have not thought about it much, or in much depth. This reality is due to trends in church teaching that go back to the third century.
During the seven weeks of Easter, I will write about Christ’s Resurrection. I begin today by looking at how the early church might have viewed Resurrection, and how it came to be displaced out of its central role in Christianity. Next week we’ll continue looking at the early church, as well as ways in which today’s theologians are trying to recover awareness of the role of Resurrection in our lives. In the third week, I’ll discuss how Christ’s Resurrection enables us to participate in the Eucharist and in God’s plan for full communion of all creation. In the fourth through sixth weeks, we will look at the gospel accounts of Christ’s appearances after the Resurrection, and what the appearance accounts might tell us about the gifts of Resurrection.
Pheme Perkins’ book, Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection, (Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1984) is a major resource for these reflections.
Historically, the Church taught salvation as a form of judicial transaction, as “satisfaction” made by Jesus to God for our sins. The result was that Christ’s death became connected more with the cross than with Resurrection. How often have you heard someone say, “Christ died for our sins”? On the other hand, how often have you heard “Christ rose again for our sins”? The emphasis on “Christ died for us” has made it difficult for believers to talk or even think about the saving function of the Resurrection in our lives. Devotion to the risen Christ, formerly central to the early church, became shifted to devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. (Perkins, 393)
Due to an increase in study of the Bible in its historical context, and research on the early church, the central role of Resurrection to Christian faith has been rediscovered. One very basic question asked is what sort of event is the Resurrection? Many saw Jesus’ death but no one saw the Resurrection. We have only stories of visits to an empty tomb.
The New Testament narratives do not seem concerned with what happened to Jesus’ body, but instead seek to clarify that the risen Lord is not merely a spirit, ghost or hallucination, as many opponents of Christianity argued. On the other hand, Resurrection never meant the resuscitation of a corpse. Nor is Jesus a kind of supreme yogi, able to separate the eternal self from the body. Rather, Resurrection expresses something about the uniqueness of Jesus. It implies that there is something about Jesus’ being with God that is not like that of other righteous people who had the courage to die for their fellow human beings. Surely Martin Luther King and Ghandi behold the face of God today. So why Resurrection? Why isn’t it enough to say, “Christ died for our sins”?
The uniqueness of Christ is expressed in Paul’s description of the risen Lord as the second Adam. Read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, available here. Resurrection proclaims that some part of God’s ultimate purpose has been accomplished in and through Jesus. Jesus is both a foretaste of and a pledge of a new creation. Resurrection is something that happened to Jesus, but it also belongs to the larger story of Salvation History. Resurrection is incomplete, since it has not yet reached its fulfillment; in Resurrection, God and Christ are One, but God is not yet all in all.
Today, Christians need to revive the illuminating power of Resurrection in our own lives and in the life of the world. How do we talk about Resurrection in our time, the time of science? This is the topic of my blog during the seven weeks of Easter. In Part II, I will discuss how the early church understood Resurrection and compare it with the way that theologians are talking about the role of Resurrection in our lives today.