The Challenge of Easter {1}

The Question of Jesus’ Resurrection

{nathan f. elmore}


On this first Monday of Easter, our guide for the first chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Nathan Elmore.
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N.T. Wright most likely prefers soccer to baseball, his national pastime to ours. Nonetheless, on the traditional Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season, it seems destined that we should begin our conversation surrounding his book, The Challenge of Easter, with a baseball story.

On a crisp, sunny Saturday in March, Camden, my eight-year-old son, joined over 500 Richmond Little League (RLL) players in reciting the Little League pledge. RLL’s annual Opening Day ceremony in Byrd Park – which includes each team from each skill level sprinting onto the immaculately manicured dirt and grass, a performance of the national anthem, and candy bars, ring-pops and grilled hot dogs for sale – was pitch-perfect Americana.

The only patriotism left, in fact, was for Glenn Beck to toss out the ceremonial first pitch with a copy of his latest book tucked under his arm and for Justin Bieber to sing “God Bless America” without a shirt.

The Little League pledge begins with four words that, given this Easter season, should actually make every Little Leaguer (not to mention their parents) pee their pants: “I trust in God.” Hearing this simple recitation made for a religiously surreal moment, to be honest, and it reminded me of Donald Miller’s slyly provocative statement in Blue Like Jazz: “It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything.”

As a father, I could imagine the gap between Camden’s mouthing of those four words to start his baseball season and what the seasons of his life will have to say about whether he will practically believe and utter those words – in the world. Likewise, the three triumphant words of Easter’s season – “He is risen” – open a similar gap for the Christ-follower between affirming a meaningful truth and authentically and wholly surrendering to the truth’s meaning – in the world.

Wright asks, so why did Christianity arise? And he begins the answer by saying: “The early Christians themselves reply: we exist because of Jesus’ resurrection.” As I read this, however, I could feel the painful disjointedness of my own existence despite the renewed joints of Jesus.

Wright then traverses a bit through what he calls “false trails” leading away from the tomb. Here, my favorite Wright-ism, in response to the recycled charge of Jesus’ non-death, was his almost blithe quip: “As has been shown often enough, the Romans knew how to kill people.” Indeed.

Rather seriously, Wright goes on to marshal “two scholars who do not appear to believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection” to remind us that “Christianity began very soon after [Jesus’] death and began as precisely a resurrection-movement.” I appreciated Ed Sanders’ vague but poetic description of the disciples carrying on the “logic” of Jesus’ work in “a transformed situation” even as I mused on Jesus’ words in John 14:12: “…greater works than these will [the one who believes in me] do, because I am going to the Father.”

Suddenly (and this is the anecdotal, coincidental truth), as I typed the above words, a blind instructor from the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired, walked into Stir Crazy Café, a neighborhood coffee shop where I’ve been known to perch. The instructor was teaching another blind man how to navigate the café. (Before you jump to any fantastical conclusions, no, I was not able to pull a “greater work” and heal the man. Besides, if I had, I certainly would’ve tweeted about it. God only knows if the tweet would’ve trended higher than Beck or Bieber.)

Seeing this obviously humble navigation – with my own eyes! – was, in the moment, a remarkable kind of grace. It pushed my nose further out of Wright’s book – into the world. It sent my spirit deeper into Wright’s not-new-but-profoundly-new-considering-the-stripe-of-evangelicalism-I-grew-up-with assertion: that the kingdom of God did not mean for the early Christians “a new personal or spiritual experience, rather a Jewish-style movement designed to establish the rule of God in the world.”

Download Luke 4. You know, where Jesus is handed the Isaiah scroll in the Nazareth synagogue and spellbindingly announces: “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind.” “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Back in the Richmond coffee shop, of course, this established rule of God comes into direct conflict – literally –with my eyes. Watching the blind student’s walking stick go tap-tap on the floor in search of the coffee shop door, well, how could that not become intellectually and spiritually disturbing? In the moment I wanted to beg the heavens for more kingdom come, for God to resurrect this man’s blindness – like he raised to life Jesus’ body – “in the middle of the present age,” as Wright says. If only that 21st century man could open the damn door, walk out and see.

Right about now, it shouldn’t be very hard to reflect on our own desperately penetrating questions: our exile, our not-yet fulfillment, our agonizing un-renewal. No doubt these questions are our human way of tap-tapping at the door of heaven, with a walking stick. However, at least one thing seems strikingly clear after absorbing Wright’s opening chapter: a “spiritual resurrection” could not inspire the kind of hope needed to face our most earnest questions – in the world.

In the world, then, Mahmood and I sat quietly in a smoke-filled Lebanese restaurant and discussed the parables of Jesus. On this night, Mahmood, a Muslim pre-med student at Virginia Commonwealth University, was distracted by an upcoming presentation on the subject of ancient healing. He told me he was also distracted – intellectually and spiritually – by the healing miracles of Jesus.

Somehow we ventured into the story – detailed in John 9 – where Jesus’ disciples, upon beholding “a man blind from birth,” inquired into the origins of the man’s blindness, supposing it to be a matter of personal or generational sin. Jesus’ response, as you might recall, was morally and theologically incisive: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus then concocted a mud ointment, which he applied to the blind man’s eyes, telling him to wash in a pool. And the rest of the story is all sight.

While the actual miracle is very compelling (for any number of reasons), at the end of the day Mahmood was mesmerized by Jesus’ transcendent answer: “…that the works of God might be displayed in him.” I responded: “It’s quite an answer, isn’t it?”

Having entered the explicit Christian joy that is Eastertide, I can’t help but pray: for my friend, Mahmood, in the middle of Islam; for my son, Camden, in the middle of American-styled civic religion; for that blind man in the coffee shop, in the middle of his physical disability; and for that other “blind man” who’s watching him with good eyes, in the middle of his everyday cup of coffee. Do they really know that Jesus’ God-forsaken death has culminated in his bodily resurrection that the work of God might be displayed – in the world?

Hope was and is a body, a person. Surely the great rising up of everything dead had/has begun.

No wonder Wright remarks, toward the end of the chapter: “[The early church] busily set about redesigning their whole worldview around this new fixed point.” It was as if they believed the new age had dawned in the middle of the present age. And, after all, it is so cumbersome to believe anything.

Nathan F. Elmore lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he pastors, writes and mantains an affinity for the word artisanal.