4/4/18

thoughts on the domestication of easter

Easter focusses the mind of the church and its pastors. One of the gifts of the Christian Year is its seven Sundays to celebrate and to explore the vast implications of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet most around us think of Easter as a single celebratory Sunday. It means that it is crucial for Easter Sunday preachers and presiders to focus the mind of the congregation on the gospel and its implications for the church and for the world in which it serves. This is no easy task given the commodification and domestication of Easter weekend. The church's proclamation is overwhelmed in my part of the world by bunnies and chocolate eggs. The clerks and tellers greet their customers with a cheery "Happy Easter" comfortably assured that it has little to do with proclaiming their shared faith in the Saviour of the world.

But the domestication of Easter does not necessarily end once one enters worship on Easter Sunday. There one may well be greeted by a cross adorned in flowers and by a sanctuary decorated with butterflies. Yes, these are metaphors that have been used by Christians for centuries in an attempt to make sense of the mystery of the Resurrection. For those who inhabit the Northern Hemisphere the season of Spring itself becomes a type of natural resurrection (I often imagine that celebrating Easter in the Southern Hemisphere, as Winter draws near, would be a healthy antidote to this problem). The challenge is that metaphors are always both like and unlike the thing they describe. Flowers that grow from bulbs that look dead may remind us of the Resurrection but their growth is a natural part of their life cycle. When caterpillars enter a cocoon they do not die but instead complete their natural course of life. When such metaphors are used in the church it is crucial that the pastor emphasizes the ways in which they are not like the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is not a universal myth that we see replicated in nature. It is not self-evident in the cycle of life. It is about the capacity of God to break that cycle by overcoming death. For this reason we would be wise to exercise caution in our use of metaphors from nature to explain the mystery of the Resurrection.

For Christians the Resurrection is the central chapter in the story of the God who called the Jewish people into being and then, in Jesus Christ, welcomed Gentiles into the covenant. When removed from this plot to stand alone as a universal truth the Resurrection no longer has dramatic voltage. There are, of course, universal implications of the Resurrection of the Messiah. It is good news not just for the church but for the whole world. It signals God's intention to save and redeem a sin-soaked creation. In the Resurrection God keeps faith with God's ancient promise to bless the world through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. This is what the church gathers to proclaim and to celebrate on Easter Sunday. Alas, we too easily reduce the implications of the Resurrection to what it means for us as individuals. The preacher can be tempted to keep the sermon's focus up close on how the grief and despair of individuals in the pews is now turned to joy and hope. This is true. But there is so much more to be proclaimed. The Resurrection confirms that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lamb of God - "Agnus Dei" - who takes away the sin of the world. This is not just about us and our needs. It is about the future of the earth and its people. More than that, it means that the earthly Jesus who called disciples to follow and to pick up the cross is alive and present, calling here and now for disciples who will repent - turn their lives around - and live in the new way of the Kingdom of God that is inaugurated at Easter.

This is the frightening part of Easter and the part that is easily missed in the midst of flowers and butterflies and joyful "Alleluias". It is the altar call aspect of the celebration of the Eucharist on Easter Sunday. At the church where I worshipped on Easter Sunday this year there was a warm invitation to be welcome at Jesus' table. We were reminded that Jesus welcomed all manner of folk to eat with him. The invitation might have also looked forward to the Messianic Banquet when all people will sit down at table together in peace. In this meal we not only remember back. We also remember forward to the great Welcome Table that awaits all nations. All are welcomed and included in the invitation to eat at the Lord's Table. But - and it is a big but - there is something more that needs to be said. It is a warning of danger. Eating with Jesus is to seat oneself as one of his companions (a companion is literally one who shares bread: "com-panis"). It is to dare to identify oneself as a follower of his way. Jesus Christ is the Servant Lord who is calling out a servant people as a sign and herald of God's intention for all the world. Accepting Jesus' invitation to share his table is to risk taking him into one's life - to ingest him into one's mind and heart and soul (to eat his body and drink his blood). It means that wise presiders will graciously remind the congregation that some present may choose not to receive the bread and wine, recognizing that this is not simply a matter of receiving spiritual food but also a matter of committing one's life. Communion is the rededication of the community to the covenant first marked in Baptism. On Easter Sunday we celebrate that this holy covenant is made not with a dead Jewish rabbi but with a living Lord. In the church culture that I inhabit it seems that the Sacrament of Communion is mainly understood as "bread for the journey." In other words, as sustenance for the spiritually hungry. The focus seems to be on the needs of individuals rather than on the God who is forming a people being saved by their participation in Jesus' death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).

Now that I am retired I look back on my Easter Sunday preaching and wish I had been better able to say then what I see now. Then I would have thought the following passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer better suited Good Friday or perhaps any Sunday other than Easter Sunday. Then I felt the pressures to keep Easter Sunday happy ... as in "Happy Easter." Now I wish there had been more courage in my Easter preaching to say that the implications of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are that ...

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. Those who enter into discipleship enter into Jesus' death. They turn their living into dying; such has been the case from the very beginning. The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads to death.” 
                               - Dietrich Bonhoeffer ("The Cost of Discipleship", Fortress Press, 2003, p. 87)

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