The Challenge of Easter {2}

Paul, the Resurrection and the Messianic Movement

{juli kalbaugh}


On this second Monday of Easter, our guide for the second chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Juli Kalbaugh. 
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Tell me baby
What’s your story –
Where you come from,
And where you wanna go…?
~Red Hot Chili Peppers

They seem to be everywhere.  The more I look, the more I find.  One on my chin – a dive into home plate.  One on my wrist – chickenpox in second grade.  Several on my legs – falling off my bike, falling in love, falling down… again.  A nice big one on my left knee – ACL torn and remade.  There are also ones that can’t be seen with the eyes.  Some are small.  Others aren’t easily hidden.  Some have a funny story or fond memory.  Others are bathed in shame.  Each one a mark, revealing a little bit of where I have been and who I am.  Signs that I have lived – here and now.  All of them telling a piece of a story – my story.

My mom used to tell me not to worry about some of the especially nasty scars. “They’ll be gone by the time you’re married,” she would assure me.  While I believe my mom had good intentions, I fear something gets missed by easily dismissing part of the story.  I also fear that we, as Christians, have this same sort of sentiment about heaven and earth.  “Don’t worry about it – everything that is here will be gone when you ‘get to heaven’.  It will all be erased and you will be rid of your body!”  It seems good at first glance.  I mean, of course I want to be healed and freed from the hurt and pain and awful things I experience in this life.  And yes, I believe that God can and will do that.  But if the answer is that everything is simply wiped out and heaven is someplace I escape to, away from all that I have known or been or done – then why the hell does anything matter now?

I fear that when we tell God’s story this way we are not telling all of the story.  Surely there must have been something more to Easter than simply an erasing of what has been, more than an escape from earth.  It must have been something that was big enough, deep enough, real enough for the first Christians to have it be, as Wright said, “the ground not only for [their] future hope but for their present work.”  This same reality must also have something to do with us here and with us now.  Perhaps if we take a closer look at Jesus’ resurrection we might be able to tell a bit about God’s heart for the world as well as something about our part in the story.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection reveals that this was not simply, and only, a “soul-saving” work.  Wright puts it another way in his book Surprised by Hope, “[The early Christians] believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.”  The whole cosmos.  All of creation.  Not just part of it.  All of it.  He’s not going to, and didn’t, only redeem the immaterial and spiritual – He has and is renewing the material, the corporeal, the dirty, dusty, messy, earthy stuff too.  He has and is redeeming me and you and all of the marks we have made on our selves and on each other and on this earth – both seen and unseen.

Jesus’ resurrected body holds both continuity and discontinuity with this world – it is similar but radically different.  His resurrected body still has evidence of the wounds and scars He received on earth.  It holds signs of the past –  signs of where He had been and what He had been through.  The resurrection didn’t just erase everything or pretend that it didn’t happen.  After the resurrection Jesus also continues to hold His identity.  The disciples knew who He was, but they also knew that something was drastically changed.  And, in His resurrected state, He continues His relationship with us.

Jesus’ resurrection tells His story – where He came from, who He was, who He is, and also reveals what is to come.  The resurrection is His life made new – not erased, not dismissed – but healed, and glorified, and most true.

Why does it matter that Jesus actually and physically rose from the dead?  Because the resurrection also tells our story – where we have been, what we have done, what has been done to us, and what is to come.  It acknowledges all of who we are.  It says: you – matter.  What you do – matters.  Your body – matters.  What you do to another person – matters.  The earth and how you treat it – matters.

“The present life of the church, in other words, is not about ‘soul-making,’ the attempt to produce or train disembodied beings for a future disembodied life.  It is about working with fully human beings who will be re-embodied at the last, after the model of the Messiah,” says Wright.  So, when Jesus tells us to care for the sick, feed the poor, plant trees, sing songs, paint a picture, restore a house, say you’re sorry – He’s not just telling us to do them so we’ve got something to keep us busy we wait “to go to heaven.”  No, in fact, the Bible says heaven is coming to earth and it started with the resurrection of Jesus. He tells us to do those things because we are invited to be a part of His redemptive work on earth.  It’s because it matters – here.  It matters – now.  It’s because we are a part of the story.  We are a part of building God’s kingdom and what we do matters both now and later.  This is why Paul is able to say, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  Because what we do and who we are – matters.

So, tell me, baby… what’s your story?  Where have you been?  And where are you going?

Juli and her husband Corey currently live in Charlottesville, VA where she is a resident visual artist at Skylight Studios. Juli will attend Duke Divinity School this fall and hopes to invite people to wrestle through questions about God and issues of theology as viewed through the lens of the arts, the senses, and the imagination.Juli loves nooks and crannies, cheeseburgers, and 80s music. You can keep up with her at EveningSoultide or see more of her art at JuliKalbaugh.com.

From Death to Life

You’ve got to give yourself to something in order to truly experience it. You can’t know the deep ocean waters unless you dive in – not even the BBC’s Planet Earth (good as it is) allows you to taste the salty sea or get that short panicky sensation when a high wave envelops you in crashing, rushing, drowning torrents.

For weeks, we’ve remembered death, via lent. And we haven’t watched it from afar; we’ve submerged ourselves in it. We’ve tasted our sadness and sat with our sorrows. We’ve faced up to our failures and our hollow places. We’ve mourned over injustice, and we’ve been quiet enough to sense our longing for redemption. All this is to say we’ve come nose-to-nose with the reality of sin, what the Puritans referred to as “the plague of plagues.”

But death is not the central character in God’s story, the Good story. In God’s story, death is the villain, the ruinous beast that brings havoc but in the end, gets it just desserts.

Life – that’s where God’s story leads. When God finishes a story, the villain is finished, the child is found, the shattered pieces are beautiful again. When God says the end, the hungry aren’t hungry anymore, the lonely aren’t lonely anymore – and the tomb is magnificently empty.

So, in these days ahead, I’m giving myself to resurrection. I’m going to allow life to slip in, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes believing something good is a whole lot harder than believing something bad. I love it that Eastertide stretches out a good bit longer than Lent. In God’s way of reckoning, the beautiful always outlasts the ugly.

The way that our church All Souls Charlottesville entered life and death during this season was truly a story to live in. Read about it, if you like.

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.