In his typically thought-provoking way, Bishop Tom Wright says that it’s time the church re-thought the way it celebrates Easter. It is the greatest Christian festival of the year, and yet many churches struggle to give Easter the significance it deserves in their calendar of activities.
“Easter week itself ought not to be the time when all the clergy sigh with relief and go on holiday. It ought to be an eight-day festival … with lots of Alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder that people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply a one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system. And if it means rethinking some cherished habits, well, maybe it’s time to wake up.” (Surprised by Hope, p268)
Typically, Presbyterians don’t focus on the church year or the ecclesiastical calendar, and we don’t normally make a big deal about Lent or Palm Sunday. Good Friday and Easter Day are more prominent. But compared with the emphasis that we give to Christmas, our celebration of Easter seems less than half-hearted. The over-full Christmas programme means that most ministers struggle to come up with a series of sermons, children’s talks and carol service epilogues that are fresh and new each Christmas season. In a typical advent season, I have counted six or seven different occasions when I have had to reflect publicly on the Christmas story of the incarnation. The Advent season is such a challenge to my creativity.
But in biblical terms, if you leave the Christmas story out, all you lose is two chapters at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. That’s not to say that the incarnation and virgin birth are unimportant doctrines. However, if you leave Easter out, you finish up without a New Testament. Christianity and the gospel make no sense apart from the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. So why do we not give it greater prominence?
A senior colleague of mine has a very controversial answer to this question. Blame it on the caravanners! He actually means not just those who own caravans, whether touring or static, but also those who have holiday homes around the coast. The exodus of people from our churches each Easter weekend to their caravans and cottages not only has our coastal meeting houses bursting at the seams, but deprives many local congregations of their regular worshippers and leaders so that Good Friday and Easter Sunday congregations are significantly smaller. Ask any choirmaster, or praise band leader, and they will tell you how hard it can be to muster people to lead worship on what has to be the most joyful day in the year for Christians. And if an Easter morning service is a challenge, then how much more difficult it is to gather a decent congregation of joyful worshippers on the evening of Easter Day?
Quite simply, the culture in which we live militates against the church celebrating Easter as we should. As in so many other aspects of our theology and practice, we are diverted by the schedules, habits and mindset of a secular world. Easter ought to be celebrated with more than one day or one service of rejoicing. We need to waken up to it’s true significance.
In Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright invites us to consider the fact that the message of Easter is actually much more extensive and much more important than many people realize. It’s not just that God once did a spectacular miracle in raising Jesus from the dead, but then decided not to do too many others since then. It’s not just that there is a life of bliss and glory to look forward to after death. The really big message of Easter is that God’s new world has been inaugurated and unveiled in Jesus Christ and that we are invited to become part of it. Precisely because the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a bodily resurrection, and Jesus was raised with a transformed body, the power of Easter to transform and to heal our present world must be put into effect.
One of the prominent themes in the writings of Paul is his firm hope concerning the resurrection of the body. He is quite clear that because of the resurrection of Jesus, you and I can have hope for the life to come. Paul says that his own desire is to “depart and be with Christ, which is far better”. And beyond that, he has the clear hope of the resurrection of the body, all because of the resurrection of Christ. But the meaning of Easter is by no means confined to hope beyond the grave.
Like the Gospel writers, he sees the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the start of a new world, a new creation, in which Jesus is already ruling and reigning as Lord. That truth has significant implications for the entire world and for the ordinary life of every man, woman and child.
In I Corinthians 15 Paul is battling hard to get the meaning of the resurrection into the heads of ex-pagan Corinthians who just didn’t grasp its significance. His punch-line comes in verse 17: if the Messiah isn’t raised, then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. In other words, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a new world has dawned in which sin has been dealt with. Sin is the root cause of death; if death has been defeated, then it must mean that sin has been dealt with. But if Jesus the Messiah has not been raised, we are still in a world where sin reigns supreme and remains undefeated. And the foundational Christian belief that God has dealt with our sins in Christ is just a fallacy and we are deluding ourselves.
But Paul goes on argue that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is actually just the first installment of a greater and more wonderful resurrection. The victory won at Calvary and on Easter morning will be fully implemented when all enemies, including death itself, will be put under the feet of Christ. “For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet.” (I Cor. 15:25)
In other words, we must waken up to the fact that Jesus is already reigning even though we do not yet see the full result of that reign. You can imagine the questions that the Corinthians would ask: “What on earth can possibly justify such an outrageous statement, Paul? It seems to us as though Caesar is king of the world. It seems to us as though death itself is rampant in our world. How can Jesus be king?” There is only one answer: it is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
If we grasp the fact that the resurrection is the proof that the whole created order will be redeemed by Christ, then it transforms almost every aspect of our lives. It gives us a new perspective on the need for justice and beauty in our world. It inspires us to a new life of personal holiness. And it gives us a new incentive for evangelism and mission.
“The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and thus the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.” (Surprised by Hope p277)
If we waken up to that truth, then that should give us the energy to think again about our Easter celebrations and how we can better reflect in our worship and church activities this fantastic truth that Jesus is alive. It should inspire our worship every Lord’s Day, and not just on Easter Day.