A Post-Resurrection Meditation

Two events are juxtaposed in my current experience. We just celebrated the resurrection of Jesus from the dead—the one cataclysmic event that validates both His and our claims about what is collectively called the Christian Faith. And now, this coming Saturday, we will pause to celebrate the life of one of our friends and Christian brothers. The brother passed from this life a couple of weeks ago, and his memorial service is two days away.

Resurrection and death. We can’t really have one without the other. This struck me afresh a few years ago as I was re-reading John 11. I can hardly make it through a memorial service without reading Jesus’ stirring words to the sister of a friend that had just died. He said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26a, NIV). What a dramatic and powerful statement in the house of mourning! When I read that statement afresh, it struck me as if for the first time, there is no resurrection without death. For Jesus Himself to be “the resurrection,” then He must first experience death. The writer to the Hebrews says, “… He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9, NIV, my emphasis).

“Taste death for everyone.” What a phrase! Just a paragraph or so later, that same writer says this: “He too [meaning Jesus] shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery to their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15, NIV). So, Jesus has taken death into Himself so that through His resurrection He might conquer the power of death over God’s children once and for all.

As I see it, that changes everything for this coming Saturday! My friend confirmed his personal faith in the grace of God expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ just a couple of years ago, at the age of 80. It was a great pleasure to baptize him to declare the renewal of his faith in Jesus. So this Saturday, we are not just looking back to remember a life that is now over. Rather, we are not only looking back with gratitude, but even more, we are looking forward with hope to a life that is just now beginning.

For the followers of Jesus, Death has been transformed from the Executioner to the Escort. He is no longer tasked simply to cut short this mortal life, but now he is called to guide Jesus’ people to the door of the fullness of eternal life. Death and resurrection. This changes everything for every day, doesn’t it? The question Jesus asked Martha after His resounding and audacious claim to be “the resurrection and the life” was challenging: “Do you believe this?” Good question for us, too.

Smiley Mudd

 

For Christians the Cross of Jesus Is Empty.

There is a rather sad conversation I read about some years ago now that illustrates a fundamental ignorance of what lies at the heart of Christian belief. A woman was shopping for a necklace in a jewelry store, and the man behind the counter was eager to cater to her needs. She said that she was interested in a cross pendant, and he said, “Oh, yes, we have some nice cross necklaces. Would you like a plain one, or would you rather have one with a little man on it?”

“A little man on it”? Really? Why not ask a Muslim why so many Muslims have Muhammad in their names. As far as jewelry goes, the cross should be a sobering reminder of the focus of Christian faith. Those who have come to follow Jesus confess that he “died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3, NET). Whether cross-jewelry depicts Jesus on the cross or whether it is plain is not that big of a deal, on the merely aesthetic level. As a university professor of mine used to say, “Pay your money and take your choice.”

However, as a matter of conviction, I argue for what the late Michael Green of Regent College, Vancouver, B. C., called “the empty cross of Jesus.” In a book by that title, he made a good case from the New Testament of the Bible that Christians have always considered the death of Christ as a necessary element of Christian teaching, but only one of two essential elements. The next phrases of that sentence from 1 Corinthians continue the thought: “… and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:4-5, NET).

In short, Christians believe in the death of Jesus for the sins of the world, and they believe that He was raised to life again by the power of God the Father. This two-sided affirmation of truth is the center of what Christians call the gospel, or “good news.” Everything else in Christian thought and life rest on these twin confessions about the death and the resurrection of Jesus. The cross is a sobering reminder that forgiveness from God comes as a result of His sacrificial love. “God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NET). Because He died for us, we can now be reconciled to God through our faith in Jesus (cf. Romans 5:9-10). But that is not the whole story. The death of Jesus makes possible reconciliation with God, and the life of Jesus makes that salvation complete (cf. Romans 5:10-11).

Many churches depict the cross prominently in their places of worship because it is a standing reminder of the love of God shown to the world through the death of Jesus. As we would affirm, He died that we might live. But that cross is empty, because it was not the end of the story. As Jesus Himself said to all His followers, “Because I live, you will live too” (John 14:19b, NET). In His resurrection, Jesus not only confirmed the truth of His claims, He also assured those who believe those claims that death has been made powerless over them. The contemporary of William Shakespeare, John Donne, captured this in one of his holy sonnets. Here is how that poem begins and ends:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

Why? For a variety of reasons, but especially …

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Smiley Mudd