On Easter Sunday afternoon I had dinner with some friends of mine. After dinner, my friends’ three-year-old brought me one of his toys and asked me to disassemble the plastic parts; the toy did not cooperate. The three-year-old said, “Use your strongest muscle.” Unfortunately, I had already used my strongest muscle to no avail. I’m sure that a few decades ago I could have disassembled the toy with no difficulty; time has sapped my former strength.
When we say that God’s salvation redeems us from the burdens of sin and death, we are referring to more than the moment of death. We are also referring to those minor reflections of death such as the loss of strength and stamina that is unavoidable in old age.
Jesus’ Resurrection offers us salvation. Those who remain faithful to the vows of Baptism are promised a renewed, bodily life free from the burdens of sin and death. I can’t wait.
There was an op/ed piece in the newspaper a few days before Easter Sunday. The author made the commonly recognized observation that interest in organized religion continues to decline. Like everyone who is concerned about the decline in church attendance, the author deduced that some crucial element of the Christian experience has been lost or forgotten; the implication, of course, is that if the Church could recover that lost experience, membership and participation would increase again. He suggested that the missing element in contemporary Christian experience is the utter strangeness of the event of Jesus’ Resurrection.
The author recounted some of the details of the Resurrection recorded in the Gospels. Some of the members of Jesus’ inner circle came to his tomb on the day after the Sabbath; finding the tomb empty, they were confused and afraid. According to the author of the op/ed piece, the confusion felt by the disciples upon finding Jesus’ tomb empty must be rediscovered and re-experienced by the baptized today.
The author of the op/ed piece tried to make a very convincing argument, but it fell flat. The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection portray the disciples as being amazed and confused when they found Jesus’ tomb empty. Then, the Gospels point out that that disciples’ lack of understanding was their result of their lack of faith. At first, the Resurrection of Jesus probably did seem strange to the disciples, but that was because they had yet to acquire faith in the Risen Lord. The Resurrection of Jesus shouldn’t seem strange; rather, it should make perfect sense.
Because he was perfectly faithful to God, Jesus was saved from death by God’s power. He was restored to life, but now a life free from the burdens of sin and death. He promised his faithful followers that they too would be set free from the burdens of sin and death. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
As soon as the Apostles began to give witness to Jesus’ Resurrection, large numbers of converts were added to the nascent Church. After a while, even gentiles began to respond to the preaching of the Gospel.
The first converts, Jews who heard the preaching of the Apostles, were prepared to accept the Gospel message because they were familiar with God’s promise to send a Messiah. They knew that God would redeem God’s People and make them a light for the world. For those first converts, Jesus’ life, preaching, death, and Resurrection made perfect sense as the fulfillment of the messianic promises.
The gentiles who came to faith later were also ready to hear the Word of redemption. Gentile religion in the ancient world believed in gods and goddesses who were fickle, selfish, inattentive, and often petty. Those pagan gods required constant appeasement but gave no guarantee of help. The prayers offered to those false gods were intricate formulas that had to be repeated often and precisely; one slight omission required a person to start again from the beginning due to fear that any minor deviation from the magical ritual would prove ineffectual. The Gospel message proclaimed a God who was faithful, merciful, and providential. The gentile converts to the way of Jesus saw in the Gospel the fulfillment of their hopes for religious belief and practice that was consoling and renewing.
Any person can understand the appeal of the Gospel of Jesus, the Risen Lord. Through faith, we are promised redemption from sin and death. All of us have experienced the burdens of life: our limited strength, our limited abilities, and ultimately, our limited life span. Rather than being strange or foreign, resurrection (Jesus’ empty tomb), is familiar and consoling; it is the fulfillment of all people’s hopes.
Easter is no strange, confounding event, except to the faithless. Those who reject Jesus as the fulfillment of human hope for salvation will undoubtedly find the Gospel witness about the Resurrection to be strange, even nonsensical. On the other hand, those who look beyond themselves, and their own power, for a Savior will find a familiar ring of truth to the Gospel stories about the empty tomb.
All of us have had the experience of being overwhelmed by life’s burdens. Sometimes, life’s challenges exceed the capacity of our concerted efforts and concentrated strength. We know precisely how sin and death weigh us down. There is only one credible possibility for salvation; it is a renewed human existence set free from the burdens of sin and death. Salvation can only be bodily resurrection of the sort promised by Jesus’ Resurrection. Salvation through Jesus’ death might well have been unforeseen at the time, but it is certainly not a strange experience; it is, to the contrary, familiar and consoling.