Holy Week and Easter have come and gone. Even before we faced a global pandemic, I had already been thinking about grief and loss and letting go as important work this year during the weeks leading up to Easter. As I’ve shared already, this work is required to have the space within us to welcome new life. Accepting even the small deaths in our lives creates a little more room. In the same way, resurrection isn’t always this epic transformative scene—especially during a global health crisis.
Our time sequestered within our homes is far from over. Anyone who even tries to guess how long this will continue will most likely be wrong. There are facts we have: It will be close to a year before a SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the virus which causes COVID-19) vaccine is available in the US. California schools are closed through the end of this academic year. Those who are at higher risk will need to stay home after public gatherings begin to resume. There are things we don’t know yet. We don’t know if there will be another spike of COVID-19 cases in the fall which requires another or a continued shelter-in-place order. We don’t know when large gatherings will resume. In light of this uncertainty, I saw many pastors and leaders say that Easter won’t happen until we gather again in person. Whatever we celebrate right now, will just be Easter “lite.” To me, that sounds like holding onto the past in ways that are untenable. The world has been and is still changing. This was already the case long before coronavirus changed our everyday lives. The Church has been headed toward a reformation-sized transformation for the last fifty years or longer. This pandemic may just be the catalyst akin to Martin Luther’s sending of the Ninety Five Theses in 1517. This may seem like a strong statement, but we must find new ways to celebrate the resurrection in our modern contexts.
I think this is why I struggled a bit with my sermon on Easter Sunday. How do we talk of new life when we are daily surrounded by death? So I began to think back to the ways the resurrection was talked about in my experiences before finding a more progressive Christianity. I didn’t find much help. The promise of new life was equated to an eternal afterlife in heaven. Evangelicals still overemphasize the wages of sin being death and Jesus paying it all on the cross to atone for that sin so that we might have a life after our earthly one. It reduces Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to an equation of me + sin = death but me + Jesus = eternal life. It feels so reductionist. It’s life-giving only in the sense of what happens after we die. Sure, it might give us security in the present about our eventual destination, but does it really make life have more meaning, more beauty? If you’re pushed to a sense of depravity because of your sinful nature, then yes, but I wonder if that’s a self-prophesying construct. Does that view of atonement from our sins only work if we’re mired by our sinful ways? That’s a bit too all-about-me, isn’t it? The primacy of atonement theology creates theological holes which others pointed out when I was fervent in my somewhat misguided attempts at converting others in college. To me, that view falls short. I’ve talked previously about the harmful identities placed upon us by those who espouse such theology. If the Gospel is reduced in such ways, it’s no wonder so many people find that uninteresting. If Jesus’ entire existence was primarily as a sacrificial lamb, what comfort does that bring me in the present?
Do I think atonement has a place in the Gospel? I do. The work of the cross bridges a gap between us and God in ways that are far more complex, however. I find it far more powerful and interesting to consider the ways in which Jesus overcomes through his life, death, and resurrection. We should not remove Jesus from his context. What got Jesus killed was that he was a threat to those in power. He was turned over to an empire because the leaders of his community didn’t like what he had to say. The transformative power of the Gospel was growing in reach as the crowds grew and people were afraid. The fear of how of His ministry undermined everything the leaders in the synagogue were teaching provoked them to respond. They needed to get rid of him, so they did. There is no miracle in that. It’s politics at its worst. They made an example out of him for upsetting cultural norms, not for committing any crime. The beauty in this story is how new life is possible against all odds. Jesus experienced the worst of deaths. It was slow and painful and unjust. Yet, this act of hate which leads to his death is not the end. Jesus overcomes. He overcomes those who sought to silence his message. He overcomes the oppression of his religion and even the Empire. He overcomes death itself so that we might be free, so that we might live. No matter what we face, no matter how bad things get, Jesus over came worse. It may not feel like that. The pain we experience so often feels like the worst of the worst and insurmountable. But it’s not. Jesus shows us it’s just as possible for us to overcome whatever we face. The power of His resurrection is available to us in all sorts of ways, big and small. It’s rare for us to face what Jesus did. Many of us are oppressed and marginalized because of who we are. Systemic racism, homophobia, misogyny, you name it, are impossible for us to overcome on our own. Yet, the one who was raised from the dead can transform and heal the world—and we’re invited to participate in that.
As I celebrate Easter and the Resurrection this year, I am reminded of the ways we talked about death during Holy Week. We experience death in all sorts of ways. Resurrection is not possible without dying first. The new life for which we hope is only made possible by dying to other things. By allowing the grief to change us, we are opened to what can be. Our present is not permanent. Our collective trauma will come to an end. We will grieve what we loose and then we will recover from this. We will also be changed, forever. Honestly, I believe that is good and needed in our world. I don’t want things to go back to normal. I want new life. I want our world to be resurrected, and I believe it’s possible. We will overcome, in the name of the One who did so before us. Amen.