Is the resurrection really so important? Does Easter really matter, beyond pastel colors that mildly suggest spring’s vitality and innocent animals that vaguely represent springtime fertility? Is it necessary to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead to a new life — rather than simply resuscitating or waking up or something more objectively plausible — to be called a Christian?
Paul seems to think so.
Paul writes urgent, lengthy letters to the Corinthian Christians, because they seem to be asking many of these same questions. Their debates and misunderstandings prompt Paul to write pages and pages, all of which hinge on Jesus’s–and, therefore, on our own, as those in Christ–real resurrection. Paul comes right out and says it in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians:
And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Do not be deceived:
“Bad company ruins good morals.”
Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. (1 Corinthians 15:30-34)
Paul offers himself as a living example of what he is trying to say. Because Christ is risen and death is vanquished, Paul lives a certain, peculiar way. He is willing to undergo and endure suffering “every hour,” to “die ever day.” He even “fought with wild animals”! This is Christ-ian living, because it is firmly and forcefully directed by hope in the promise of sharing in Christ’s new life.
N.T. Wright explains this further in his book Surprised by Hope:
For Paul, holiness is never a matter of simply finding out the way you seem to be made and trusting that that’s the way God intends you to remain. Neither is it a matter of blind obedience to arbitrary and out-of-date rules. It’s a matter of transformation, starting with the mind. That is why, to return to I Corinthians, it is the resurrection–both that of Jesus and that of ourselves–that provides…the ultimate rationale for Christian behavior. It isn’t the case that Christian ethics consists of a few odd regulations and restrictions that Christians are supposed to follow while still living in exactly the same world as everyone else, just as it isn’t the case that the resurrection of Jesus was simply a very strange miracle within the world of old creation. The resurrection was the full bursting in to this world of the life of God’s new creation; Christian ethics is the lifestyle that celebrates and embodies that new creation. (page 284)
This may sound strange and surprising. I was certainly caught off guard. So much of the spiritual formation material I have read and sampled and seen used in churches relies on the idea that Christian living is precisely “a matter of simply finding out the way you seem to be made and trusting that that’s the way God intends you to remain.” So-called “spiritual gifts” surveys, the Enneagram tool, and many of the Bible-application studies for small groups assume that who I most basically am is exactly who God made me to be, and yet at the same time expect an unspecified, eventual “transformation” to occur in spite of this premise. Thankfully, I have also seen some more helpful tools used — for instance, the Apprentice series — which honestly and helpfully examine the whole self, the inherently mixed good and bad of which we are comprised, and present a very specific vision of transformation into Christ-likeness.
We are not already perfected creatures. This was, in part, the Corinthian Christian’s mistake, to believe that they had achieved real transformation and that sanctification was a finished thing. Christ’s resurrection does not mean that we are already resurrected; we yet wait. The 16th-century English pastor and poet John Donne articulates the struggle and suffering of this waiting well:
As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God, first I was made
By thee, and for thee, and when I was decayed
Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine,
I am thy son, made with thy self to shine,
Thy servant, whose pains thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, thine image, and, till I betrayed
My self, a temple of thy Spirit divine;
Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish that’s thy right?
Except thou rise and for thine own work fight,
Oh I shall soon despair, when I do see
That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.
Donne recognizes that he is thoroughly and wholly God’s — “made” by God, “bought” by God; “son,” “servant,” “sheep,” “image,” “temple”; God’s “right” and “own work” — and yet he must wrestle with the reality of his sinfulness: “I was decayed”; “I betrayed / My self”. What is more, Donne wrestles with Satan’s work to “usurp,” “steal,” and “ravish” Donne. This is the paradox of the Christian life: that God has utterly and entirely claimed us as His own, and yet can seem so distant and disinterested; meanwhile, Satan loathes all that bears God’s divine signature, and yet sweats and swears to claim it for his own. It is this paradox that Christ’s resurrection answers. We wait in hope, real hope, because Christ has risen indeed!
One last note. An important component to this resurrection transformation, which Paul recognizes, is the Christian community and it’s life together. Paul uses a proverb — “Bad company ruins good morals” — to encourage the Corinthian Christians to persevere toward transformation together. This is a particular strength of the Apprentice series I mentioned earlier. This is also why our churches must become resurrection communities, and why “membership” is not optional for the Christian, but vital.
Living out a life of Christian holiness makes sense, perfect sense, within God’s new world, the world into which we are brought at baptism, the world where we are nourished by the Eucharist. Of course, if you try to live a Christian lifestyle outside of this framework, you will find it as difficult, indeed nonsensical, as it would be for an orchestral performer to play his or her part separated from the rest of the players amid the crashes and metallic screeching of an automobile factory. Not that we aren’t called, of course, to practice our discipleship in the hard, outside world, which rumbles on as though Easter had never happened. But if we are to be true to our risen Lord, we will need, again and again, to retune our instruments and practice once more alongside our fellow musicians. (Surprised by Hope, 284-285)