HOW are we to think about the death and resurrection of Jesus as the first Good Friday and Easter day approaches in the 1970s? The radical challenge to traditional orthodoxy has not left these fundamental Christian truths unscathed. But it has at least this value: that it refers us to the New Testament to review the teaching of the apostles. They seem to represent the death and resurrection of Christ in at least five ways.
(1) The apostle Paul transmitted to others the gospel which he himself had received: “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again on the third day according to them it appeared. . . “
We sometimes wonder what form the “appearance” of the Risen Lord took, and what would have been seen on film if a photographer had been present with his camera handy. Those who ask this question usually imply that the image would not have come out, and that while the appearances of the resurrection had some objectivity, it was not a physical objectivity that a camera could have captured.
Some have supported this position from I Corinthians XV, pointing out that the last resurrection appearance in Paul’s catalog is that of himself on the road to Damascus, which (because it happened after the Ascension ), they suggest that it was more of a vision than an apparition. Would the other “appearances” have been similar? They ask.
However, it would be more natural to equate Paul’s experience with others than the other way around. His concise statement of the gospel seems to demand it. He declares not only that Christ died but that he was buried, not only that he was resurrected but that he was seen. If the burial guarantees the reality of death, then appearances guarantee the reality of the resurrection.
At least the testimony of the evangelists is clear: that the Risen Lord enabled the apostles to ensure the objectivity of his appearances by sight, hearing and touch.
(2) The Lord’s death and resurrection is presented in the New Testament as more than just a story. They are the significant story, indeed the story of salvation. It is often claimed that the focus of the apostles was the resurrection, not the cross. Certainly, the burden of the sermons of Acts rests on the reversal of the sentence of men by God in raising Christ from the dead.
However, it was through His death that the Savior dealt with our sins. “He died for our sins,” continues the witness. The New Testament never says “He rose again for our sins.” It is his “blood” that cleanses from our sin, and his blood is the symbol of his life deposited in violent death.
The Church should be more faithful than she usually is to those uncomfortable words of Scripture which say that in his death he was in fact “made to sin” and “to be a curse” for us (II Cor . v, 21; Gal. iii, 13). I remember reading as a schoolboy Bishop Blunt’s comment on this last verse from the Clarendon Bible: “The language here is surprising, almost shocking. We shouldn’t have dared to use it. May be. But the point is that the apostle Paul used it, and we have no authority to ignore his authority.
The resurrection confirmed the fulfillment of the Savior’s death, the bearer of sins. It is not so much that he “rose up” as that he was “brought up”. The resurrection is portrayed as a mighty action done to him, powerfully designating him the Son of God (Rom. I, 3) and publicly confirming his completed work of redemption (Rom. Iv, 25). Without the resurrection there could be no assurance of salvation “unless Christ is risen, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins” (I Cor. Xv, 17).
(3) The death and resurrection of Jesus are also presented as events in which (by faith and baptism) his people participate. It is not just history and theology, but a vital Christian experience. “Don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ have been baptized into his death? . . . But if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. . . Death, he died, he died to sin, once and for all, but the life he lives, he lives for God. You must therefore also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive for God in Christ Jesus ”(Rom. Vi, 3, 8, 10, 11).
Romans vi is a closed chapter for many Christians. But, once she has revealed her secret to us, it is wonderfully conducive to holiness of life.
(4) The death of Christ was a death “to sin” once and for all, inasmuch as he suffered the punishment when he died. By his resurrection, he “lives for God”. If we have become personally and organically united with Christ, then we have died to the old life and we are raised to a whole new life. The benefit of his death and the power of his resurrection have become ours. It is therefore inconceivable that we fall back into the old ways from which we have been freed.
The death and resurrection of Christ must be imitated as well as shared. It is written of Christian believers in the New Testament that not only are we dead but that we must die, not only that we have been crucified with Christ but that we are to take up our cross daily and follow Christ to the place of execution. .
This death is a daily death to oneself. “When Christ calls a man, he commands him to die,” Bonhoeffer wrote. The cross is our Lord’s dramatic stylistic figure for self-denial, taking our slippery selves and nailing it to the tree. It is the practice of “mortification”, which we hear too little about in the contemporary Church. Yet Jesus told us to be ruthless with the causes of sin, plucking or cutting off our offending eyes, hands, and feet. We tend to be too gentle with ourselves, too permissive.
This death is the way of life. “Whoever would save himself (clinging to his old life and refusing to die) will be lost, but whoever loses himself (will die to himself and sacrifice himself for Christ and others) will find himself. “
It is urgent that the young generation, eager for freedom and in search of meaning, grasp this Christian paradox. A radical theology student at the University of Helsinki told me earlier this month: “I long for freedom. I have become freer since I abandoned God. He had not learned that it is by submitting to the yoke of Christ, not by shedding it, that one finds rest (Mt xi, 29, 30).
Thus Paul writes: “If you according to the flesh (yielding to the desires of your fallen nature) you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. Viii, 13). This statement has been extremely important in my own Christian life. It’s hard to die. It is painful to crucify your lower nature. But the promise is certain, and its truth is abundantly proven by experience, that if we are willing to die like this, and only then we will live.
(5) A recent edition of Observer the magazine called the death “great unspeakable”. “Far from being prepared for death,” he said, “modern society has made the very word almost shameful. . . and, when the time comes to die, we can react with anything from excessive banality to utter despair.
But, if we have believed (in history and doctrine) that Christ died and is resurrected, and if we have known (in personal experience) the reality of dying and being resurrected with him, then we can expect physical death with equanimity, even with joyful confidence. For we will be assured of the life and resurrection that will follow it.
Of course, the Scriptures still call death an “enemy,” whose final destruction is in the future. Yet he has already been deprived of power. It has become for the believer such a trivial episode (being a mere doorway from life to abundant life) that Jesus could even say: he “will never die”.
Death is “ours” if we are “Christ’s”. For all for whom life means Christ, death will mean “gain” because it will bring more of Christ. No wonder Henry Venn’s doctor could say that his joy at the idea of dying kept him alive for another fortnight!
I fear that the Church will never have an impact on the secular community if it continues to silence the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. Our vocation is to proclaim his death and resurrection as historical events and saving truths, to manifest in our own behavior that the only way to live is to die to ourselves, and to demonstrate the conquest of physical death by the Christ by our joyful anticipation of the resurrection.
The Church hours digital archives are available free to subscribers