A promise of more to come

A few months from now, these branches will be so thick with leaves I won’t be able to see through them. Their own weight will drag them down to brush against my car. By fall we will be trimming them back just so I can get into my car without being poked and prodded.

But now they still look mostly dead. If I hadn’t seen them grow back every summer, I’d worry we cut back too much last fall. While the maple and other trees (which I haven’t succeeded in identifying despite going through a book about trees) are covered with tiny new green leaves, these (whatever they are, we haven’t even decided if they’re properly called trees or bushes) have only a few shoots of green against the stark grey branches.

Those few green leaves are enough, though. I know they mean that a lot more are on the way. (The birds chirping incessantly as I tried different angles for the picture – though always just far enough away that I couldn’t take a good shot of them – likewise assure me that our yard is teeming with life, even if I can’t see most of it.)

It seems a very apt metaphor for Resurrection Sunday. The Scripture passage from 1 Corinthians 15 that was read at both church services this morning (ecumenical sunrise service at the Methodist church, then our regular service at the Presbyterian church where my husband now preaches regularly) speaks of Christ as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Now, I know from many Bible studies that the “firstfruits” are the first part of a harvest, dedicated to God. (This same practice was common to other religions of the ancient world, not just the people of Israel.) They represent the expectation that the rest of the harvest will be plentiful (whether because the people bringing the firstfruits thought that by their gift they assured God’s blessing on the later harvest, or if it simply demonstrated their faith that the rest of the harvest would be good so they would not go hungry because of having given this first part).

Even living in the midst of farming country, however (on the way home from church this morning, my husband noted that we could easily tell which fields had been used for soybeans last season, and which for corn), the idea of “firstfruits” is purely an academic one for me. Having been blessed by God with plenty of food, the vast majority of which comes from the shelves of grocery stores, it’s hard to appreciate the critical importance of the harvest to people living in an agricultural society (where most people lived at a subsistence level, rarely sure of the next meal).

I do understand signs of spring, though. A few leaves on otherwise bare branches mean that more growth is coming. One dandelion near the back steps means that soon our yard will be covered with bright yellow blooms (much to my husband’s annoyance). The tiny mint plants growing in my garden mean that my hopes, last year, of planting mint once and getting it back year after year, seem to be fulfilled.

I spent a good deal of time yesterday reading about the Resurrection. Partly it was to help my husband prepare his sermon for this morning (one of the things I like about being a pastor’s wife is getting to help him this way), partly in response to comments by someone who goes by the name Musing on WorldMagBlog. He asked a few years ago, and occasionally since (including yesterday) what is the theological necessity of the Resurrection.

Most Evangelical churches point to the cross as the focus of the Christian faith. Explanations of what it means to be a Christian, or how to become one, are all about Jesus’ death and its significance for us who believe. It is always considered very important to believe in the Resurrection, but I found it surprisingly difficult to explain why it should be so.

I’m obviously not the only one. Another commenter at WorldMagBlog, Allen Wrench, provided a link to an excellent article on the subject at Christianity Today. The author acknowledges that during his senior year at college, “it dawned on me that the gospel as I understood it had no need for Jesus to be raised from the dead.” The Gospel, as it is presented in most evangelical churches, is all about how the cross bridges the chasm between sinful man and a holy God. The resurrection is often presented simply as confirmation that Jesus was who he said he was, and that his sacrifice on the cross was accepted as payment for our sin.

Even before I read the article, even before Musing asked his question again this year, I had been thinking about it. (Thanks to Musing, I’ve thought about it ever since the first time he asked on WMB.) The sermons in the early chapter of the book of Acts say relatively little about the cross, but strongly emphasize the significance of the resurrection. Jesus is exalted at the right hand of God; Jesus is Lord; Jesus is appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

I had always thought before (probably because this is what I always heard) that the resurrection demonstrated that Jesus was Lord, that he was the Son of God (and therefore would naturally re-assume his place at the right hand of the Father). No doubt it does demonstrate that, but I decided Thursday evening that it has to be more than just a demonstration.

After all, there are those who consider Jesus’ death to be only a demonstration. Its effect, according to the Moral Influence theory, is simply in changing our view of God by convincing us of his love and willingness to forgive us. I’m not certain which of the various theories is/are best, but I think this one, unless coupled with others, is inadequate. The Bible does say that God demonstrates his love for us in Christ’s death (Romans 5:8), but it also speaks of a ransom paid, of Jesus becoming sin for us, of us being healed by his wounds and redeemed by his blood.

If the Cross was necessary in order to accomplish our salvation, not just to provide a vivid picture of love, then it makes sense to think that the Resurrection was just as necessary for the same purpose. My sins can be forgiven because of the Cross, and the judgment against me cancelled. But without the resurrection, I’d still be the same person I was before I came to Christ. I didn’t come primarily looking for forgiveness – I came looking for the power to live a different kind of life.

The mental image in my mind now is that of a prison whose doors have been torn open. The prison was sin and death, and Jesus entered that prison for us. Because of the Cross, our sentences could be commuted. But without the Resurrection, we wouldn’t be able to actually walk out of the prison. The Resurrection wasn’t just a statement that the prison doors were open, it was the opening of the doors. When Jesus rose, he “burst his prison” (as one of the wonderful Easter hymns puts it), and left the doors gaping open so the rest of the prisoners could follow.

Of course, Jesus being “firstfruits” or the promise of things to come doesn’t mean that our daily lives always reflect his victory. I think that’s the biggest discouragement of the Christian life for me, that I see in myself and in other Christians so little evidence of the power of the Resurrection. Like ex-convicts who find life on the outside too difficult and return to their old ways and soon to the familiar life of prison, we return to our well-worn habits of thought and action apart from Christ rather than venture out into the unpredictable freedom that Christ offers.

But we’re not stuck where we are. The resurrection is a promise that our future is better than that, better than we can even imagine. And because the Resurrection was to a physical body (as opposed to some sort of “pure spiritual essence” that has no place on earth but only floating around on clouds in some imagined heaven), then the promise of our future includes life on earth. Both now in this life, and in the resurrected, immortal bodies we will have someday, we have the promise of Christ’s resurrection power to make us like himself.

One Response to A promise of more to come

  1. Karen O says:

    A very inspiring post, Pauline!

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