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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.

15 thoughts on “The Challenge of Easter {1}

  1. Thank you for a great start to this read/discussion on the Challenge of Easter. Personally, Wright's remarks that Nathan quotes, toward the end of the chapter: “[The early church] busily set about redesigning their whole worldview around this new fixed point.” were both challenging and overwhelming to me.

    I confess it's something I struggle with, and quite frankly, something I don't see in the church or in my friends who are "followers of Jesus". ALL of life for the early church revolved around Jesus and His resurrection.

    ALL is big to me. It's TV, it's friendships, it's music, it's art, it's books, it's neighbors, it's family, it's transportation, it's coffee shops, its clothes, etc.

    It's everything.

    I was asking several people this past week, what was it that radically changed the disciples and men like Paul to wholly forsake everything as they knew it – to the point of being happy – even more, actually longing- to die for Jesus? I got answers primarily like "The Holy Spirit's power enabled them and made them fully aware of the teachings and work of Jesus."

    I believe it was resurrection. It was something new. It was Jesus resurrection from death. It wasn't adding Jesus to existing life, it was dying and finding Jesus as only life. Just as Jesus was laid in Joseph's tomb taking the place that should have been Joseph's, He also resurrected and with it offered Joseph and everyone else, resurrection.

    But I have to come back to the challenge again, because I know Monday is happening right now. And yes, I will see glimpses of resurrection -and even longings for it – throughout this week, but will my whole existence and function in life revolve and find its purpose and meaning around it? That is the challenge for me.

  2. "in the world": these are the words ringing for me as I engage this. I think this was a perfect chapter for you, Nathan, because you are a man (and this is one of the many things I love about you) is very much enmeshed in the lived-in realities, textures, scents, and friendships of this world God called good.

    Isn't it odd, you think, that the resurrection is the very thing many moderns would consider least "this world," least physical and connected to the realities of our hopes and jobs and relationships. It might seem like hokus-pokus "spiritual" stuff, but the gospels have the audacity to say they are as gritty and earthy as it gets, life and death.

  3. Nathan, thanks for tipping the domino. Great thoughts. I was struck by this one – you cannot 'help but pray…in the middle…' those last three words being almost a synonym for Winn's 'in the world.'

    As we're here, right now, in the middle, in the world, I wonder if our major work should be to 'but pray'? As Wright said, the Romans knew how to kill people, and most of us, be we moderns or post or pre, know how to get things done, make things happen, assemble the troops and take the hill. Might our challenge in these days of Easter be primarily to pray? Oh, keep meeting for coffee and preaching and going to ballgames and blogging…but also and possibly most importantly, to pray? Old Alfred Lord wrote 'more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…'

  4. I like that John, good word…

  5. I think prayer just might do.

  6. This first chapter brought me back to an on-going conversation Noel and I have about faith and doubt. I've always said that somehow I think I would still believe even if presented with a body that was verifiably Jesus'. Noel says that would probably be the breaking point for him – where doubt would overwhelm faith. We've decided that it really comes down to the basics of theology – where is your center? I locate myself in a more theocentric (God-centered) approach while he is more christocentric (Christ-centered). It is a conversation we revisit regularly – What if Jesus didnt get up from the grave?

    My faith in people, and therefore even in the person of Jesus, has always been tenuous. However believing in something more than "person", more than human is reassuring. The further down this road of faith I get, the more I am pushed to think about whether or not a bodily resurrection is an absolute non-negotiable of my faith. I still havent decided. I dont know if I ever will, but as I am challenged by Wright's defenses of a bodily resurrection, I am reminded of my favorite argument for a full bodily resurrection.

    C.S. Lewis' Lord, Lunatic, Liar theory really hits at the core for me. Jesus couldnt just have been a good guy – or even a miracle working human. Either he was who he said he was and lived and died how the scriptures say, or it is a lie – ALL of it.

    We are living in a time swamped with the demand for inter-religious dialogue and compromise for the sake of unity. This makes finding and holding on to our non-negotiables ever more crucial. We need those foundations in place not so we can isolate ourselves but so we can interact and love at an even deeper level. This continuing conversation is sure to make me revisit my own thoughts on resurrection and its importance in the life of the church.

    On a side note – does anyone know what happened to the third stage of Wright's argument listed on p 11, pp 2? Is it in a forthcoming chapter?

  7. Also – just as a point of clarification – I do believe in the bodily resurrection. I am just not sure that it is a non-negotiable for me.

  8. Dayna, I don't have my copy with me and am out of town — anyone else have an answer for her? I can't place the section… If it isn't there, I would imagine it is covered in _The Challenge of Jesus_, or most certainly, _The Resurrection of the Son of God_.

    Thanks for letting us in on your personal angle of the question. I'd love to hear how your thoughts develop as you move along in the book…

    And I think this is a great question to ponder sometime between now and when we near the end of the book: does it matter (or how much does it matter), whether or not the apostles were right in suggesting that Jesus actually walked out of a tomb?

    On the theo-centric and christo-centric, I'm thinking that I wouldn't know God very well if I didn't have God's self-revelation in Jesus. Elsewhere, Wright makes the point that if we want to find out what God is like, we start by looking at Jesus.

    Miska will be seeing you soon!

  9. The self-revelation of God in Jesus is crucial for sure Winn. I think it is the greatest gift of love that we have ever experienced. But what the question comes down to is – did he have to get up with his body intact to make it all true? Thats where my theocentric approach allows me to say that even if we found Jesus' body I could still believe that God had done a restorative, salvific work through him. Thoughts anyone? Would this kind of discovery make it all a sham? Could you believe anyway? Still journeying here…

    Cant wait to be with Miska this weekend. Hope you all enjoy your time away this week. (Dont be tricked into buying a condo!!!)

  10. Yeah, no condo purchases, though the idea of Miska and me in our 80's, tooling around on the beach and shuffling to bingo and the fish fry is enticing…

    I think these are great questions, Dayna, at the heart of it really. I think our answer hinges on (1) what resurrection actually means and (more importantly perhaps) (2) why resurrection? what is the point of it?

    I want to ponder those two questions a little more.

    What I also hear you saying, though, is that you don't need some magical feat to believe in Jesus. I find that very refreshing.

  11. Yes, great questions and thoughts…although if you're going to shuffle to bingo, Winn, you need one of those cool, purple N.T. Wright shirts.

    Dayna, I have to say I want the magic, I want the whole kit-n-kaboodle bodily resurrection, scars and all…yes, I realize in both of those statements I've used the phrase "I want"…there's something there of desire, some deep longing in mah bones that if I'm gonna put my eggs in some guy's basket, I want the guy who can pull off the greatest feat of all time, the thing that's never ever been done before…the word "magic" rubs many the wrong way, but I've come to love it, as in that deep magic, the stuff that whispers through Narnia and Denver and Middle Earth and bingo games…

  12. John – I totally hear you on the magic bit. That is where Noel comes down too. If it isnt real – if there arent scars and death truly overcome it all starts to fall apart for him. The strangest thing is that in our house I am the artsy one who read 90% fiction and Noel the scholar, reads 90% non-fiction. Yet I am the one who approaches faith from a more rational/logical angle, while he does so more from a creative/artistic angle. I certainly am far from having faith all figured out, but I do wonder what would happen if the magic was stripped away from the greatest story ever told. Perhaps you all are right – perhaps it would no longer be such a great story. But then again maybe even without all the magic God can still be, well, God.

  13. Hello all!

    Nathan – it does my soul good to read and hear your writing. Loved this thought – "a 'spiritual resurrection' could not inspire the kind of hope needed to face our most earnest questions – in the world."

    John – thanks for your words and powerful reminder. Those are deep and hopeful words from Alfred Lord. What do you do in those times when you can't or don't want to pray?

    Dayna – I'm excited to see where this conversation leads in the next 5 weeks as your question is one of our central wrestlings. I'll be posting some specific thoughts on bodily resurrection in my post for next week's discussion so I'll not say too much now. But I'm curious what you thought about Nathan's comment I high-lighted above as well as Wright's thoughts about the meaning of resurrection in the early church (p14-17) (as bodily not just spiritual) and its implications.

    All – I love how Wright doesn't mess around – "And if they think belief in the resurrection was a way to power or money, they should read the New Testament and think again." That made me pause.

  14. I love the wrestlings that are being discussed and I'm anxious to see where Wright takes us throughout the book. I think one of Wright's central themes is that that Jesus movement was a Resurrection movement. With the season of lent fresh in my mind, I think of how dark Saturday actually was and for the disciples, if Easter and resurrection never came I don't know that we would have our faith at all.

    I learned a lot from Wright about the Jews perspective of resurrection and their expectation of a socio/national resurrection and how God, in His mysterious, unpredictable way, gave them the resurrection they really needed — one that brought about spiritual life and hope for all things to be made new.

    Juli, I'm looking forward to your insight in to next week's chapter. Nathan, thank you for your words, it was good to hear your voice. Winn, thanks for getting the conversation started.

  15. Glad you're joining in, Austin.

words have a way of making friends. drop a few here.