A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Four Common Assumptions - Getting the Easter Story Right

Over the years, I have noticed that people both inside and outside the church don't always get the story about Easter quite right. Since Easter is the greatest of all the Christian celebrations, let's take a look at some of these commonly held assumptions that may take us off course in our understanding of the good news of the empty tomb.

Assumption  #1 - The good news of Easter is that Jesus died for me and rose again so that I can go to heaven someday.

How can this commonly held assumption not be quite right? Isn't this what my 2nd grade Sunday School teacher taught me? Isn't this what those evangelical religious tracts are all about? Actually, many Jewish people during the time of Christ believed that a day would come when all of God's people would be raised to new life. They believed that this would come at the end of the present age. The whole heaven question wasn't an issue for them. They already believed that this would happen for God's people.

The uniqueness of the good news of Easter is that heaven has already been launched on earth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and we are called to be part of this new reality where God is transforming the world. As we serve in the name of Christ, we are living out this good news.

One of my favorite sermons I delivered was the sermon that I entitled, "The Good News of the Good News." In summary, the sermon basically said that the good news of the good news is that we don't have to wait to go to heaven someday. Heaven is happening in the here and now as we participate in the building of God's kingdom here on earth. That's the good news of the "Good News."

Assumption #2 - The Old Testament was very clear that God would send a Messiah to die on a cross and be resurrected. 

OK, this is what we call "arm chair quarterbacking." Yes, in hindsight, after reading through any of the four gospels, we can look back at the Old Testament and pick up on some hints, but even the most evangelical Christian living today would not have guessed that Jesus' life would have played out the way it did had that person lived during the time of Christ.

The disciples didn't get it and they were his closest followers! Yes, there was a belief that God would someday send someone who would suffer on behalf of God's people. And yes, there was also a belief that God would send a Messiah to free the Israelites from foreign oppression. Nobody ever put these two thoughts together to see this as one person fulfilling both roles, not to mention in the specific events that we see in the life of Jesus.

Jesus of course, brought these two strands of Old Testament thought together, the suffering servant and the conquering Messiah. Put together, you have the story of Jesus who suffered on the cross and by doing so defeated sin and death. Putting these two things together was genius on Jesus' part and if we lived back then, like the disciples, we would have been two steps behind Jesus at every turn. Maybe we should refer to Easter as the "surprising good news."

Assumption #3 - The resurrection story is about how Jesus went to heaven and that someday we can go to heaven too.

This is closely associated with assumption #1 which is covered there. The focus with assumption #3 is the meaning of the word, "resurrection." In the first century, "resurrection" had a particular meaning. It referred to when God's people would be given new bodies at the end of the present age when God's kingdom would fill this earth.

By resurrection bodies, I am referring to physical bodies that are not subject to disease and death anymore. When Jesus was resurrected, he didn't go to heaven. We are told that Jesus spent the next forty days with the disciples. He was not a ghost. He was someone who could even eat a meal with the disciples and be touched by them.

On the fortieth day, Jesus ascended to heaven in his resurrected body. Notice that there is no thought here of Jesus' body being discarded so that his soul could be freed to go to heaven. In Jewish thought, the body was not seen as divided from the soul. The division of body and soul is more of Greek philosophy which many people think is biblical but really isn't.

The whole point of resurrection is that one day, God will give all of God's people resurrected bodies that will never suffer or die again. Jesus' resurrection is a foretaste of this good news.

Assumption #4 - Heaven is a place that is really, really far away from this world.

There are many misunderstandings of the word, "heaven" from a biblical perspective. In the bible, heaven is not in outer space somewhere. Heaven is God's space and the world is what God has created and wants to renew and make whole again.

Easter is the good news that this rescue project of the world has already begun through the resurrection of Jesus and we are invited to join in the fun! In this view, heaven is not really, really far away from the world. God has come close! Whenever we see love, justice, peace, compassion, hope, and joy in our world, we are seeing the signs of heaven overlapping our world. How cool is that?!

No comments: