“And I believe in Jesus Christ, who was… crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day, he rose again from the dead!”
Those ancient words of the Apostle’s Creed speak of two central convictions of faith for the church. They also raise one poser of a challenge.
The first conviction is the absolute uniqueness and centrality of Jesus as the Son of God who took flesh and became fully human for us and with us. That conviction is that God’s own sinless Son walked this earth, wept over it, faced rejection by it, suffered on it, and gave his very life for it. He lived our life and died our death and went, quite literally, to hell and back for our sake. And he rose again. And therefore, He alone is our ransom, our reconciliation, our atonement and our hope. Thus we shout our hallelujahs and our praise: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Christ is Lord! He is Lord indeed. Thanks be to God!
The second conviction is that our God is not only a God of infinite, fierce, extravagant and unconquerable love in the lengths to which God would go to save us, free us and win us, but more amazingly, our God is a God of resurrection! To speak of God raising Jesus from the dead is to declare that not even death, nor the grave, not even the prison of hell itself can stand against the sovereign purpose and power of the Lord. When St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome saying that absolutely nothing could separate us from the love of God, he was not simply writing with poetic grandeur. He was telling gospel truth. Our God is a God who brings to life where death held sway. He brings salvation where sin seemed to have a strangle hold. He brings victorious hope where despair seemed all powerful, and our God brings impossible joy into the depths of anguish, fear and shame.
The massive challenge to us, however, is to remember and accept that for resurrection to occur, first there must be death.
I fear that oftentimes we are more prone to believe in resuscitation than we are in resurrection. I often witness this tendency within our church life, where we will pour in massive amounts of effort to keep well-loved programs and valued ministries on life-support; yet all the time, God may be asking us to surrender and release those things that were for a season because the new life He wants to release can only happen when we have first allowed things to die. Just as in the art of pruning a rose bush, the very best blooms can only be produced when we are ready to cut away not only the dead branches, but also the sick branches and those that are the least strong. I tend to be a timid pruner at times, and wonder why my rose bushes do not flourish.
But the real challenge is in our readiness to let God prune and kill off in us the dead, sin-sick and less than healthy attitudes and behaviours that keep us from growing into new Christ-like graciousness and discipleship. The challenge is letting the Lord cut away and eradicate from our hearts the death-dealing resentments and jealousies, the life-sapping addictions and anxieties, the soul-crippling lies, lusts and laziness that would leave us crippled and living a tepid and passionless Christianity, when all the time God wants to raise us from the dead of our past into the glorious wonder of life in Christ. When Jesus talked about dying to self, he was not asking us to embrace a drab, colourless existence of self-deprivation. He was inviting us to surrender ourselves to God’s transforming grace and find ourselves embraced by a life far grander, more glorious and beautiful than ever we could imagine. But we would need to die to self in order to live to God.
Easter is certainly the most glorious season of the Christian year, but I fear we want to make it tiny, tame and insignificant, because we would rather not have to its terrifying challenge to faith and obedience. Jesus really did suffer and die. His was a corpse, dead and buried, not just a comatose body in need of a rest. And he really did rise from the grave, overcoming every power of darkness and evil that had presumed to be able to defeat the Son of God. And he really is the living saviour and King of Kings who invites us into the banquet and dance of his risen life.
But we can taste the delight and glory of that new life only as we let our old self be crucified with Christ so that his life really can take hold of us and make us a new creation.
Or do we prefer just a little bit of self-help methodology, a bit of feel-good inspiration and a dash of trying harder?
More and more, I understand what Paul was asserting when he said that he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, which meant also being ready to know the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and thus somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:10). We may indeed have to die to live, but the majesty and might of resurrection life in Christ so far outshines the paltry resuscitated religious life most of us try to hold onto, there really is no comparison.