If you were to ask someone from the 1st or 2nd c. CE what they thought the church needed to be talking about, I’m pretty sure they would say “the resurrection.”
It’s front and center in Paul’s letters. It is there in the church’s first creeds and confessions. It is proclaimed at the Lord’s supper and in baptismal rites. You get a real sense that the early church was convinced that none of the challenges or uncertainties it faced – and there was an abundance of both – could be addressed apart from deep theological reflection on the resurrection.
The same is – or should be – true today. But it often isn’t.
I find a surprising lack of theological reflection on the resurrection in conversations I’m hearing about the future of the church. It’s as if the resurrection is well and good as a theological statement, but it’s not the sort of thing that is going to help us know how to respond to declining attendance on Sunday mornings or what to do about racism and social divides. Why? The problem is not that we have entirely stopped talking about the resurrection. The problem, as I see it, is how we talk about resurrection – our working assumptions about what it is and why it matters.
For one, we seem to operate with a theology of a deathless resurrection. That is, we are glad to talk about the empty tomb, just not the cross. To quote Evillene from the musical The Wiz, our mentality seems to be: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news.” The result is that our resurrection talk is barely distinguishable from a generic spirit of optimism, a vague hopefulness that somehow, some way our lives, the church, and the world will gradually improve. What we miss is that God is not in the business of keeping dying things alive; God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life. That’s why we find Paul saying as much about Christ crucified as he does about Jesus raised. The cross and the empty tomb coexist in the same body. They are inseparable.
If we want to tap into the profound, revolutionary, subversive hopefulness of resurrection, we have to be willing to talk honesty about what’s dying (or already dead) in the church as we have always known it – programs, liturgies, staff models, big buildings, Sunday worship as the apex of discipleship, denominational structures, etc. Let’s help our congregations name reality, embrace the grief, mourn what’s gone, and pivot decisively towards the new thing God is raising to life. For it is only then that we will be able to joyfully receive the words of the angel who says to the women visiting the tomb, “He is not here; for he has been raised” (Matt 28:6).
Second, we tend to talk about the resurrection as a fact of history. It’s something that happened in Jerusalem around 30 CE. Paul would hardly disagree – if Jesus was not actually raised, then our faith would be in vain (1 Cor 15:14). But at the same time, it is the ongoing power of the resurrection in his own life and in the life of the church that sustains Paul in the face of persecution and emboldens him to preach among the Gentiles. What matters to Paul, so it seems, is not just that the resurrection happened, but that it happens.
A similar chord is struck by the Brazilian Catholic nun and Latinx feminist theologian Ivone Gebara. In her book Out of the Depths, Gebara speaks powerfully of the idea of “everyday resurrections.” For her, the search for salvation for us and our communities must begin again every day. She invites us to be alert for the ways in which resurrection happens in the here and now through small, but decisive, moments of liberation, grace, compassion, and reconciliation. Gebara is quick to say that these everyday resurrections are only provisional and occur within the limits of our bodies and the brokenness of the world. And yet, these everyday resurrections are exactly what save us – from ourselves, despair, conceit, ego, ambition, pride, envy, prejudice, self-destructive busyness, etc. Gebara, like Paul, understands that if we want the church to truly thrive, we have to start talking about resurrection as a present tense reality – something that we actually hope for, pray for, and expect to happen in surprising and disruptive ways in the midst of our everyday lives.
Third, in many conversations I hear about the resurrection it seems like the operative assumption is that God brings dead things back to life in the exact same form as they originally had. It’s sort of like recharging our phones. Once recharged, the phone is exactly as it was before dying except that it now has power. But that’s not how the resurrection works. The New Testament tells us that through the resurrection, God gives Christ a new body, not his old body spruced up and repowered. Christ’s resurrected body is material and physical just like his executed body, but it’s also largely unrecognizable in comparison to what it used to be. That’s why when the disciples first encounter the resurrected Christ they mistake him for a stranger (Luke 24:16) or a gardener (John 20:15). The newness of the resurrected body is blinding.
What if we believed that the same could be true of the church? What if we expected the form of the resurrected church, much like the form of the resurrected body of Christ, to be virtually unrecognizable with respect to what it previously looked like? Would this not unleash creativity and imagination? Would it not engender audacious hopefulness? Would it not embolden us to get off the hamster wheel of sprucing up old programs with the hopes that they might work better this time?
There’s no Ikea-like set of directions about where all of this will take us. But it’s hard to imagine faithfully responding to the challenges and uncertainties before us apart from deep and sustained theological reflection on the resurrection. This was the case for the early church – may it be so for us as well.