This Sunday, millions of churches all over the country will celebrate Easter, or as we called it in my Evangelical days, “Resurrection Sunday.” The sermons preached in those churches will recount the story of how Jesus died a brutal death at the hands of the Romans before His tomb was discovered empty three days later. Many of those preachers will insist that the crucifixion and resurrection can only mean one thing… that they can only be understood as the events through which “salvation” has come to people who hear the Evangelical Christian message and affirm its truth.
However, my understanding of the empty tomb’s relevance changed radically several years ago. My exposure to Church history helped me to realize that throughout my entire life, I had engaged the resurrection through a lens provided by people who were just trying to understand what it meant and why it was important.
It occurred to me that I knew what the crucifixion meant to Paul, Irenaeus, Origen, St. Augustine and even my pastor… but I had never asked myself what the death of Jesus would have meant to the blind man who regained his sight after the Healer’s touch. I had never asked myself what it meant to the woman who had been restored to her place in society after being rendered unclean for twelve years by her unstoppable flow of blood. I had never asked myself what the crucifixion meant to the leper who, undoubtedly desperate for human contact, received that and more during a chance encounter with Jesus. I had not asked how little Talitha’s family, or Lazarus’ family, or the Centurion may have felt to hear that Jesus had died on the cross that day.
I had never divorced myself enough from the traditional understanding of the narrative to see why Peter so desperately wanted to protect Jesus from the centurions in the Garden of Gethsemane… or why the religious people and political authorities so desperately wanted to kill Him. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to think outside my theological box that I could see what really died on the cross that day.
When I thought more carefully about it, I realized that each lash of the whip, each nail, and every insult hurled at Jesus while He hung on the cross was a simultaneous assault on a generation of people who had finally started to feel loved… and free… and hopeful. I finally realized that the claim of resurrection by early Christians was arguably not as much a cosmic one as it was the subversion of a system that had been stacked against “the least of these.” Finally, I realized what it meant for them to say: “Jesus is not dead.”
Those who claimed that Jesus “had risen” were telling the powerful that despite their attempts to bury hope and equality… despite their efforts to kill the voice of the one who had touched them when no one else would… despite their efforts to entomb the Good News that was being preached to the poor and the radical message of liberty for the captives, the hope of the people would continue to live.
For us, resurrection means that hope is still brewing, even in the most corrupt systems. Resurrection means that love is still powerful in ways that can often only be explained by invoking the transcendent. Resurrection means that nothing can stop the will of a downtrodden people who feel driven by a force greater than themselves– Not the death of one person. Not the death of a religious ideology. Not even the death of a generation.
And so, on this Resurrection Sunday I celebrate the scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ– not because of what it meant to Paul or the church fathers, but because of what it means to the sick, the outcast, the hungry and the voiceless. I believe that like Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, for he has anointed us to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19) And my prayer is that all Christians, whether they fall on the theologically conservative or the liberal side of God’s family, will find the enduring courage live out the resurrection by proclaiming this Good News.