This past Sunday many Christians around the world celebrated what is known as Pentecost Sunday, which officially marked fifty days after Easter Sunday. I’m sure that for most of those who celebrated Pentecost, it was a time to reflect on the power of the Holy Spirit being unleashed on some of the first followers of Jesus, and a time to marvel at some of the things they did through that power.
Me? I woke up groggy, went to church, heard the word “Pentecost” and thought to myself, “Oh yeah, Easter Sunday…that actually happened…”
Fifty days can seem like an eternity, and eternity can seem like fifty days sometimes (isn’t that a Bible verse somewhere?) when you’re a graduating senior, completing a double major, wedding planning, and job hunting. So pardon me on my “waking up,” so to speak, to the huge, massive, INCREDIBLY-HUGE-MASSIVE-AWESOME-INCREDIBLE-GAMECHANGING-LIFECHANGING-FREAKISHLY-EXPANSIVE-AND-AWESOME realities and implications of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But I’m finally awake, and I’d like to share some of my post-Easter reflections here with you.
And yes, if you’re wondering, the resurrection of Jesus is really that big of a deal. Because the worst possible thing that could have ever happened to a human being happened…and it wasn’t the end of the story.
Claims of deities rising from the dead were not uncommon in Jesus’s day; there were dozens of stories circulating around about deities dying and then coming back to life. “The Greek god Dionysus had been brought back from death, so had the Egyptian god Osiris, the Hindu god Ganesha, a hero from Finnish mythology, and a Japanese goddess” (Ryan Duncan, http://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/easter/christs-resurrection-vs-those-of-other-gods.html). What makes Jesus’s resurrection account so remarkable are a few things: (1) None of these other beings knew they were going to die, but Jesus did (Luke 22:39-45). (2) None of these other beings willingly went to their death, but Jesus did (John 18-36-37). (3) These beings cheated death, but Jesus defeated death (2 Timothy 1:10). The point I’m trying to make here is this: Jesus’s resurrection is truly one of a kind. For a broader exposition of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, check out N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God; I highly recommend it.
So, Jesus really did rise from the dead. Great – what does it have to do with us and the universe 2000 years later? Glad you asked. A lot, actually. It means everything…but maybe not everything you think it does.
See, for a lot of Christians, Jesus rising from the dead means that we can have salvation, that we can be reconciled to God, and that we can go to heaven when we die. Which is true! Absolutely, unequivocally true. No doubt about it. The subtle danger, though, that may arise in viewing the resurrection of Jesus like this is that it can become a purely self-serving, self-referencing, self-centered idea. “It’s all about me and my salvation.” Here’s the thing though: we are not the center of the universe. Indeed, the resurrection does have personal dimensions and implications, but it doesn’t start with us at the center. It starts with the entire created order at the center – cosmic dimensions and implications. In other words, we’re just part of the bigger picture, a larger story.
To flesh this larger story out, let’s look at the resurrection from John’s perspective, found in John 20. If you’ve ever read John’s gospel straight through in one sitting, you’ll start to pick up some of the Jewish patterns of writing that, to us, are mere nuances, but to Jewish readers would have been like this: DSFIOFBGIFGBIBEIRPGERPGPIIPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (That’s the Greek and Hebrew word for wink wink, nudge, nudge). One of these patterns is numbering major miracles Jesus performed and referring to them as signs. The first sign is found in John 2, where Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:11). The second sign is found in John 4, where Jesus healed an official’s son (John 4:54). John numbers the first few signs, and then expects his readers to pick up on the remaining signs. Tracking through the gospel, we arrive at John 11, where Jesus raised a man from the dead (wink wink, nudge nudge). This also happens to be the seventh sign (wink wink, nudge nudge). For Jewish readers, the number seven would have reminded them of the seven days of creation, which rested deep within their hearts, minds, and souls. So for John to reference Jesus’s seventh sign as raising a man, namely Lazarus, from the dead would have been huge, sort of like the ultimate “keep that in mind for later” phrase.
To summarize, John is writing his gospel intentionally to Jewish readers, showing them the importance of viewing rising from the dead in terms of creation. Get this though: there’s actually eight signs in John’s gospel. The eighth sign occurs in John 20, which is when Jesus rises from the dead. If raising Lazarus from the dead was massive, then this is just, well, massive times infinite. Let’s take a closer look from a Jewish reader’s perspective to see what we can gleam from this eighth sign.
Right before John 20, John tells us that “in the place where He was crucified there was a garden” (John 19:41). (1) Jesus was buried in a garden (wink wink, nudge nudge).
When Mary goes to the tomb, we’re told explicitly that it was “on the first day of the week” (John 20:1). (2) Jesus’s resurrection occurred on the first day of the week (wink wink, nudge nudge).
Mary was crying outside of the tomb, when a stranger, none other than Jesus, comes up to her and asks her why she’s crying. John tells us in a fast passing comment that “she thought he was the gardner” (John 20:15). (3) Jesus is thought to be a gardner (wink wink, nudge nudge).
And on top of all of that, it’s the eighth sign, which, in a creation-week framework would be the first sign in a new creation week (WINK WINK, NUDGE NUDGE).
Are you slowly beginning to get the point that John is trying to make here? If not, here’s the big reveal: “It’s the eight sign, the first day of a new week, the first day of the new creation. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus Himself right here in the midst of the first creation.” (Rob Bell, Love Wins, 133). DSFIOFBGIFGBIBEIRPGERPGPIIPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
John is telling his readers that Jesus’s resurrection not only has personal implications, but cosmic implications, on the size and order-of-magnitude of the entire created order. We, as individuals, are then invited to see our story of salvation in the larger story of Jesus’s renewing and reclaiming all of creation. Paul echoes this idea in his letter to the Philippians, where he says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The words began, good work, and complete first appear in the creation story of Genesis in that particular order. Paul, a man well versed in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, uses those words in the same order to say that by trusting in Jesus personally, we are able to take our place in God’s cosmic-wide mission of redemption and new creation. This, of course, has many implications, including reconciliation, eternal life, and hope.
First, reconciliation. Reconciliation entails the restoration of a broken relationship. Viewing the resurrection in terms of new creation means talking about reconciliation from a personal and cosmic standpoint. On a personal level, we are “implored on behalf of Christ (to) be reconciled to God,” which is possible because “Christ reconciled us to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5). On a cosmic level, Paul writes about how it pleased God to “reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” through Jesus (Colossians 1). Does it seem odd to talk about God’s relationship with the cosmos to be restored? It should – He made it! He created it purely from Himself and for Himself, out of joy, love, and goodness. This is His universe, His world, His people, and He has been reconciled to all of it – “each little flow’r that opens, each little bird that sings,” and each and every single human being on planet Earth (lyrics in quotations from All Things Bright and Beautiful).
Second, eternal life. This is a big one, and one that often has many misconceptions surrounding it. Many people believe that eternal life starts when we die. Which is somewhat true, but not really: eternal life starts now, and continues on after you die. A life experiencing truth, beauty, shalom, and the presence of Jesus is available for here and now. This was the dominant message of Jesus, who always talked about bringing the life of heaven to earth, and who talked about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven being among us, upon us, and in us. And eternal life involves, you guessed it, all of creation. The life of heaven is described throughout the Bible, especially Isaiah, using very “earthy” language. Isaiah talks about how the earth will be “filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea,” (Isaiah 11) and how people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2). Amos speaks of “new wine [dripping] from the mountains” and how people will “plant vineyards” and “make gardens and eat their fruit” (Amos 9). Again, Isaiah describes a “feast of rich food for all peoples” and a “highway from Egypt to Assyria,” which will allow Israel, Egypt, and Assyria to be “a blessing on the earth,” which, in modern terms is like saying America, the Middle East, and North Korea will, together, be a blessing on God’s earth (Isaiah 19). Heaven on earth, literally, which we get to partake of and catch glimpses of in the here and now. The bodily resurrection of Jesus shows us that God has not abandoned the world. He wants to dwell here, with His people. This world is good! It is not perfect (yet), but it is very good. And the resurrection is God’s way of laying claims to it over the powers of evil, darkness, and death. His kingdom is not of/from this world, but it surely is for it.
Third, and last, hope. Hope has been defined as a “feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen” (New Oxford American Dictionary). All of us experience moments of intense anticipation and times of deep yearning for something or someone – that’s not a surprise. It may surprise you that creation itself yearns too; Paul tells us “creation eagerly waits” and that the “whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains” for new creation to come to its full fruition, for the world to be restored to righteousness. Eventually, “death will exist no longer; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away,” and because God will make “all things new” (Revelation 21). At the center of new creation is hope, for without it, our faith is in vain. But, praise God, it is not in vain. Jesus gave Mary hope that first Easter Sunday, just as He gives the entire created order hope, and just as He promises to fill our hearts with hope, if we trust and accept that, through Him, God has reconciled the world to Himself, ensuring the promise of eternal life, both in this life and the next.
Needing strength for my journey, I knelt at the cross
Where Jesus once died for me
And I asked, “Is this the place where hope abides?”
And this He said to me:
“Beyond the Cross is a tomb that is empty
You won’t find Me there anymore
And beyond the tomb is life ever-lasting
And hope forever more.”
Then I sought reassurance and I went to the tomb
To the place where His body once laid
And I cried, “Lord, help me see. Is there hope here for me?”
And this I heard Him say:
“Beyond the Cross is a tomb that is empty
You won’t find Me there anymore
And beyond the tomb is life ever-lasting
And hope forever more.” (Mosie Lister, Beyond the Cross)
Do you trust this, deep within your bones? Do you accept this, in your heart of hearts? New creation is at the heart of the resurrection of Jesus, which has personal and cosmic implications of reconciliation, eternal life, and hope. How’s that for INCREDIBLY-HUGE-MASSIVE-AWESOME-INCREDIBLE-GAMECHANGING-LIFECHANGING-FREAKISHLY-EXPANSIVE-AND-AWESOME?