This Is The Message

For Sunday March 27, 2005
Easter Sunday

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Acts 10:34–43 or Jeremiah 31:1–6
           Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
           Colossians 3:1–4 or Acts 10:34–43
           John 20:1–18 or Matthew 28:1–10

           "This is the message God sent," Peter says, according to the writer-physician Luke (Acts 10:36).

           I love Easter. After two thousand years of barnacle-like incrustations, institutional failures, grotesque betrayals, familiarity that breeds casual contempt, idiotic counterfeits, and watering down the astringent wine of the Gospel, Easter calls us back to the full-throated message that God sent.

           The message that God sent is simple to describe but hard to explain. You can track some of the most brilliant minds ever, like Augustine and Aquinas, Pascal and Kierkegaard, and try to wrap your brain around this message—and every believer has that obligation at some level, but sooner or later you will have to resort to metaphor and mystery, poetry and not merely prose. You can enter the message today, but count on the journey of a life-time to experience even a modest degree of its nuances and ramifications. This message is either the silliest fiction ever foisted on humankind (and not a few people hold this opinion), a sort of sanctified snake oil that is alternately harmless, vile and irrelevant, or else it is the most stupendous drama that the wildest imagination could conceive.

           And what, exactly, is the message? That God raised Jesus from the dead, and in so doing He vanquished sin, death and the devil. 

          The collateral implications of this basic message are radical and comprehensive. Anticipation displaces dread. Regret gives way to equanimity. Cynicism vanishes before joy. Self-control conquers addiction. Purpose usurps futility. Reconciliation overtakes estrangement. Inner peace calms disquiet and distraction. Creativity banishes boredom. Death will give way to life, darkness to light, fear to confidence, anxiety to calm, and despair to hope. These collateral implications are something like the fulfillment of your deepest desires, your wildest dreams, your fondest hopes, and your secret wishes, only in this scenario your hopes, dreams, desires and wishes originate from the heart of God rather than from the human heart curved in on itself.

           The Easter message shatters and subverts conventional human wisdom. We will, in fact, cheat death. Play can be more important, even more sacred, than work. The physical, material world is not all that exists, which is to say that spirit transcends matter, and that for all the many gifts that science has given us, it is not always the best way to know or the only way to know. Knowledge is a gift and a pleasure, and ignorance is nothing to brag about, but love is more powerful still, which means that we are not defined so much by Descartes's cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) as by amo ergo sum (I love, therefore I am). If you listen carefully, the neighborhood preacher, however bland, likely speaks more relevantly to our human condition than does the propaganda from the White House (whatever the administration) or blather from CNN and Fox. Read the Bible in addition to the New York Times if you want real news. Wealth and its concomitant power look impressive, but they generate as much envy, self-importance, and hubris as anything else, and to be sure they can disfigure whatever it means to be truly human. And despite its contribution to debunking the Enlightenment program, to the postmodernists, the message that God sent insists upon the Ultimate Grand Narrative. These subversions, and you could name many more, help to explain the paradox observed by the physician-novelist Walker Percy in his book Lost in the Cosmos, that some people often feel bad in good environments and others feel good in bad environments, or why Mother Teresa thought affluent westerners had a poverty of spirit that she had never seen in Calcutta's poorest of the poor.

           No believer fully lives up to this billing. Admittedly, on this side of the grave we experience only what Paul called a "foretaste" of the message. Elsewhere he compared it to a down payment, as if to imply that the transaction is legally finished but that there is still a ways to go, or to a seal that verifies that a document is official. So, today we experience the Easter message partially and not fully, only possibly and not necessarily. But there comes a time in a chess game when the outcome is a foregone conclusion, even though you must finish the match.

           Despite the shadows of death that darken our world, if you look carefully you see Easter resurrection breaking out everywhere. In the boisterous laughter of a child rollicking with the family dog. In the bright orange poppies, red azaleas, yellow daffodils, pink dogwoods, and white apple blossoms that paint the neighborhood in an extravaganza of spring-time color. In a leisurely dinner with neighbors. In the human creativity of art and architecture, film and music, painting and photography. In the self-sacrificial goodness of so many people the world over. Magic is in the air.

            In the irreverent idiom of Anne Lamott's new book Plan B, we can say that God's standards for us are very low. The Jewish Peter advised his Gentile audience that the message that God sent is characterized by radical inclusion, for God is a God of acceptance and not favoritism or partiality (Acts 10:34). Accustomed to the canons of ritual purity that excluded the "dirty", Peter confessed that "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean" (Acts 10:28). Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a world in which we experienced a conversion like Peter's. The Easter message is also unapologetically comprehensive and universal: Jesus is "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36). Peter's colleague Paul expanded the message and believed that the "whole creation" will be liberated from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:18–22). Finally, according to Peter, the message that God sent is good news about peace, not violence, and repentance and forgiveness of sin, not its celebration (Acts 10:36, 43).

           Is this message believable? In the colloquial sense of the word, no, it is unbelievable. Paul admitted that many people in his day judged it scandalous and foolish (1 Corinthians 1:23), but he still staked his very life on the belief that it was true. Porcius Festus, the Roman governor of Judea under the emperor Nero, ridiculed Paul as insane (Acts 26:24). When his preaching provoked a riot at Ephesus, Luke's commentary back then could as easily characterize today: "Some were shouting one thing, some another" (Acts 19:32). The women who were the last at the cross and the first at the empty tomb believed, as did a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimethea. Mother Teresa believed, and so did Martin Luther King Jr., while others like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett follow Festus in his condescending scorn. The Cambridge mathematician Bertrand Russell rejected the message and wrote a famous essay about his unbelief ("Why I Am Not A Christian"). The slave girl turned powerful preacher Sojourner Truth accepted it. Everyone's a believer of some sort, either pro or con, for or against, so make your choice.

           I believe the original apostolic believers, and stand on the shoulders of other believers across time and space, who have believed, confessed and taught that God raised Jesus from the dead. So with readers from 125 countries who have visited this weekly webzine for the global church, I join the chorus, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!"