Resurrection: A Scandalous Reading of a Scandalous Gospel

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.

Cross-posted at TheReligiousLeft.org.

27 responses to “Resurrection: A Scandalous Reading of a Scandalous Gospel

  1. I am so thankful for your postings. You make so much more sense to me. I attended church this weekend and so much emphasis was placed on the salvation part. The pastor kept saying “Jesus wants to do something new with your life.” But he never expounded on what that was. I wanted him to get past the “saving” and talk about what it means to live out what Jesus taught. It seems to me that most churches just want you to check the box that you believe, but they don't talk about what you then need to do to help bring about God's Kingdom on earth.

  2. Crystal…thank you. That is a Jesus I can fall in love with…again. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the way you re-frame theology for me…!

  3. @eklipa I'm so happy to hear that! It's a thrill to know that people are finding value in the stuff I write on this blog. It helps me to remember that I'm not the only one in search of a new way to engage Jesus and the Bible. Have a good week! :)

  4. I know I have way more respect for the teachings of Jesus than I ever did of the teachings of most of conservative Christianity.

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  7. Your thesis is perplexing. I agree with almost all of the points you make after that. I’ve been a voraciously hungry Christian for about 40 years now, and I’ve never once heard a member of the clergy state that Christ’s death and resurrection can mean one, and only one thing. And I’ve been to Southern Baptist, Mormon, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Seventh Day Adventist and Messianic Jewish services. Where did you get that idea?

    Your general theological position on anything seems to be not much more than repackaged gnosticism. Fresh as a daisy to someone who’s never really read the Bible. Old as sin to anyone who is as wise as they are learned.

    Have you ever found baseless anything you’ve been taught about Christian orthodoxy in college? Have you confirmed as legitimate anything you previously believed about God since you went, besides “God is love?”

    I’m an information nut, a critical thinker, and a big believer in education, academic and otherwise. It just looks like that by going through so much effort to publicly and summarily discount every orthodox belief upon which students far more seasoned and learned that you and all of your professors put together have agreed for centuries now, you are throwing the baby out with the bath water. You have some ax to grind, and it has nothing to do with popular orthodox Christian belief. That’s just your grinding wheel. Where’s your peace, your joy, your sense of humor?

    I’ll give you this. You are a splendid and captivating writer. And you answered every question but one: do you believe that Jesus was physically resurrected after certain death? I’d love to hear that answer in clear and simple terms. Because graduate degrees are the ticket to a lot of great opportunities, but entrance into the Kingdom of God, as it turns out, isn’t one of them.

    Blessings to you. This could be fun, and who knows? I might learn something along the way.

  8. @Superlew Regarding resurrection meaning one thing, most of the Christians I know believe that one’s belief in a literal resurrection is the sole litmus test for 1.) whether or not he or she is a legitimate Christian and 2.) whether one can go to “heaven”. Your apparent inability to read my post without wondering whether I “believe” that Jesus literally rose from the dead is a blaring example of this. Many Christians are obsessed with the beliefs of others. As it stands today, I read the resurrection account metaphorically. By your standard, that’s clearly not enough to be a legitimate actor on behalf of God in the Kingdom. I’m okay with that. ;)

    As for “having an axe to grind”– I can understand how you may come to feel that way, but it’s actually not true. I write about religion from the perspective of a liberal Christian. I do it because I enjoy writing about this stuff and others enjoy reading it. Not because I have something to prove.

    You also asked, “Have you confirmed as legitimate anything you previously believed about God since you went, besides ‘God is love?’” I presume that by “since you went” you mean seminary. The short answer is that I believe “God-is-love” is a good place to start and end. I did not undergo a major shift in my theological opinions as a result of my studies here. I spent more than a decade rethinking my former assumptions before I came. I knew who I was spiritually when I arrived here. I did not come to seminary to prove, disprove, deconstruct, or reinforce any of my current or former beliefs. I came here to prepare for either an interfaith vocation or further study. I’m not particularly interested in going back to the things I used to believe about God, theology, Jesus or the afterlife. There’s no need for it on the path I undertake. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Ms. Lewis, thanks for your prompt, thoughtful, and forward response.

    I wasn’t questioning whether or not you had heard Christians refer to the physical resurrection of Jesus as foundational to the Christian faith. Of course you have. That started with Paul.

    I questioned whether or not you had actually heard a Christian state that the resurrection had only one meaning or application, that being propitiation for the sins of the world. Certainly it’s the primary meaning propagated in the Bible.

    But that no other applicable meaning for life could be extrapolated from that meaning, or the resurrection itself, seems a preposterous notion for anyone to have, and I was wondering who you have heard say that, specifically. Because stating that one meaning is essential and stating that it is singular are two different statements. So I ask again, have you heard anyone say that the physical resurrection of Christ has one meaning, and one meaning only?

    Then again, if Christ wasn’t physically resurrected, what was the point of his ministry? He said he would die for the forgiveness of sins, and that he would rise again. When he appeared again three days after his crucifixion, he represented himself as having been physically resurrected from death to life. Did he fail? Was he mistaken? Was he lying? If either of these is true, then why do you revere him?

    Of course, the alternative perspective is that the Gospels don’t record the historical truth, but that instead the writers wrote what they wanted readers to believe. If that is the case, I ask you then, how do believe any of the Bible at any level? Little to none of it, apart from time, place, and the occasional person’s existence, can be empirically verified. On what basis, then, do you believe any of the Bible? If you believe some of it by faith, why not all of it? If your belief is based on what makes sense to you, or what sounds right, but you do believe some of the Bible, then do you see its insights as inferior to yours, since you determine the legitimacy of its claims by your current sensibilities, instead of vice versa?

    In what does your faith lie? Your understanding? That of your mentors? Surely it stands on something more eternal than that. God? But from what dependable, constant source do you get your understanding of God? If your belief is based entirely on an intellectual understanding, then how is that faith? Or is faith even a legitimate term for you? Would you rather use the term knowledge to describe the basis for your belief?

    And yes, when I said, “since you went,” I was referring to seminary, as is obvious by the fact that the last common noun before the verb “went” was the last word of the previous sentence, “college,” of which seminary is commonly thought to be included. I’m glad you were able to surmise that.

    For someone who has nothing to prove, you spend a lot of blog space attempting to do exactly that. You say that you are going to seminary to “prepare for either an interfaith vocation or further study.” Prepare for an interfaith vocation in a way that never examines any of the beliefs you might employ in it as a part of your preparation? Preparation that never challenges, deconstructs, adds, or reinforces any past or current beliefs on the way to further study? That sounds nonsensical. What are you doing in seminary then? I thought that was the whole point of any post-secondary education.

    Your “about” page says that the first point of your blog is to “… work through my changing theological perspectives in a manner that would help me to organize my thoughts.” But you say above that you did that before you got to seminary. Are you current “changing theological perspectives” not basic, as they were before you arrived at seminary? Because the issues you tackle are subjects like existence of Hell, the Trinity, and the omnipotence of God. Those are pretty basic issues that you’re working through, and since they are “changing,” and you’re in seminary, I’d say there’s a good chance something in seminary is having an influence on these changes. I can’t imagine you didn’t anticipate any of these changes when you were applying for admission — into seminary.

    I just don’t think you’re being honest with yourself. You entered seminary for the same reason most others do: to confirm what you want to believe and find a way to convince others to believe the same way, which says that you, too, as one of those “Christians,” have a keen interest in the beliefs of others. Surprise, surprise. That’s the only explanation for your blog. Otherwise you’d just have a diary by your bedside.

    And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with those goals. But your denial of them in the face of all of your actions to the contrary is disingenuous. The sources for your belief are no more studied, logical, or legitimate than the sources of those with whom you disagree, and you are no less independent or original in your thinking than they are, either. By teetering on the denial of absolute truth, you succeed theoretically in making everything possible and nothing matter, and both are delusions of the Adversary, who is tickled with what I suspect is your scholarly disbelief in him. The Babylonians got it from somewhere, too. Who’s to say it wasn’t from a kernel of truth at the beginning? Your shortcoming is the same as all of those whose beliefs you now so condescendingly disregard. When you find what you want, you stop digging.

    • Superlew, why do you ask questions if you believe you have all the answers?

      There’s a blog where the writer cooked in a crock pot for a year and blogged every day for 365 days about it. She doesn’t have an “axe to grind” about ovens. She’s not trying to prove something to people who prefer skillets. She just likes to write about crock pot recipes. I like to write about liberal theology. It’s not a crime. And I don’t have to have an axe to grind in order to do what I’m doing here.

      As for the “changing perspectives” comment, you’re reading way more into it than what was intended by those few words. I started this blog before I came to seminary. I had never written down what I had come to believe over the years and I liked the idea that others would be able to read my thoughts and share their experiences, too. End of story. I know you want it to mean more than it does, but it doesn’t.

      The seminary I attend is home to both conservative and liberal Christians, Unitarian Universalists (who, of course, include many faiths as well as people of no faith at all) and even a Jewish student. Contrary to what you believe, we aren’t all here to learn how to indoctrinate others into Christian belief systems. It’s possible to learn to indoctrinate others for free– without help from a seminary.

      I read the Bible as myth. All of it. And I find that practice very fulfilling. I think the human conscience can guide humankind; God is not a requirement for legitimate morality. In fact, some of the most caring, moral people I know are atheists. I happen to believe in God, but don’t particularly read the Bible’s portrayal of God as a fully believable one. By “God” I mean something greater than you and I. I don’t obsess over who/what “God” is because I don’t think it’s possible to ever fully have an answer concerning who/what God is.

      As for being condescending, you should check your own tone. You came to MY webspace and dropped several rude comments because you don’t like the content I produce. Nobody asked for your input or your stinky attitude. I simply responded in like kind.

      Frankly, if anyone has an axe to grind it’s you. I don’t see how this discussion could ever be productive at all, as you’re more interested in showing that your position is right than with simply accepting that there are many perspectives about God and theology.

      With that, I’m done responding to you. I have better things to do. Have a nice life.

  10. Let me correct myself. In my the third paragraph of my last response, I said that traditional meaning of Christ’s resurrection was propitiation for the sins of the world. That is, in fact, the biblical intention of Christ’s death.

    I meant to say that the meaning of Christ’s resurrection was to be a demonstration of the power of God’s forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life for those who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Please forgive the faux pas.

  11. Touche’. But really, that’s funny. What I’m most interested in is finding out why persons of your ilk think the way they do. If I’m wrong – and I am enough to know I need to keep asking – I am game to find that out. I ask the questions I do precisely because I don’t believe I have all of the answers, and the ones I have might not be yours, or completely right or informed, or anything upon which I could improve without your perspective. So when I ask, I’m really asking.

    My reference to your condescension was about several statements in your posts that you don’t even want to hear the argument that …. and then you summarize the argument you are so beyond.

    When you write, Crystal, I’m not seeing a lot of questions. You state your points not as one who is searching, but as one who is so done with simpletons who actually (yawn…) take the Bible to be what it says it is. And you sooo don’t have time for that in your rarified air these days. That’s what I see when I read you. But I’m willing to say I’ve been guilty of the same on more than one occasion. It comes with passion, and that’s not all bad.

    So, unlike you, I’ll admit I have an ax to grind. I take those who act like they’re above it all to task. Sort of like Jesus did, except not as perfectly. I want to see how much of their superiority is warranted. Because sometimes, it is. But I’ve found that the less it is, the thinner the skin that person has. So far, I’d say your middling. And when I jump to conclusions about someone, I apologize eventually. In fact, I’ve become quite good at it, when the time is right. Either way, I have fun.

    When you write with such certainty about topics that are so important, Ms. Lewis, and then leave an option for unmoderated commentary at the bottom, you are indeed inviting every attitude, stinky or not. You did invite me by default in providing this open forum, and I thank you for not only that, but also for your willingness to engage me to this point. And I must take exception. I don’t think you responded in kind at all, and I didn’t take anything you said personally to me as rude. I commend you.

    I hope you won’t shut me down just yet. Like I told you, I might learn something before it’s all over. That is why I’m here.

    I’m fascinated with your series on Hell. From a cursory skimming, it appears that you might have something worth reading. You’ve obviously covered a lot of material, and you address the Bible squarely in it. I look forward to reading it over the next few weeks. Whether I agree or not in the end, thanks for putting it out there. But please tell me you aren’t expecting, or even wanting, every response to be fawning on a subject that provocative. You’re sharper than that. Plus, how much fun is that? Anyway, thanks again. Blessing upon you from a God you don’t know, by your own admission. I’ll put in a good word for you. :)

    • “Super” lew, you might benefit from having a professional read your posts here to help you see yourself a little clearer.

      • Wow. Sweet Cheeks? Based on your comments on this post and other posts, and based on the grossly condescending and sexist nature of this comment, I’ve decided to ban you. I have never banned anyone from commenting on my blog prior to today because I believe RESPECTFUL opposing opinions are healthy… However, I cannot tolerate your behavior anymore. Goodbye, “Superlew”. I hope that on your search for truth, you’ll find a bit of humility.

  12. I have to agree with Dairy State Dad, that is definitely an Easter sermon! Thanks for sharing. I’m doing Holy Week posts, taking a metaphorical look at some of the key events. Please stop by when you get a chance. Peace!

  13. Crystal:
    I like your words here. I have preached on Easter from time to time the idea that Easter is God’s response to all the world’s “Final Solutions.” All the forces that deny human dignity, justice, hope, equality, and so on are the crucifiers in the world, and Jesus was God’s response to all the dehumanizing elements in the world. And Easter was then God’s final response to the efforts of all the crucifiers everywhere. Our question as followers of Jesus Christ is this: whose ways are going to be our ways?

    • “Our question as followers of Jesus Christ is this: whose ways are going to be our ways?”

      I love this perspective. At church on Palm Sunday, the minister preached about Jesus entering Jerusalem while riding on a donkey. He explained that on that day, there was a simultaneous procession during which the king of Rome rode into Jerusalem, too. He said that one procession represented the Kingdom of God and the other procession represented imperialism. He asked: “Which procession are you in?” This really caused me to think about the messes we often make when we mix the two kingdoms together. Thanks for your comment and the great food for thought. :)

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