Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People

“Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. . . . Our task in the present . . . is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day.” ( N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)
What does it mean to live as resurrection people? As agents of hope in a world where hope is in short supply?

How do we demonstrate – in our daily actions – our confidence that death is no longer the final word?

What does it look like to live so aligned with Jesus, so like him in word, deed, motive, that people who see us see evidence of resurrection?

The sermon on the mount is a good place to start. Looking back, it becomes clear that Matthew 6 is the proclamation of the Great Reversal: a new kingdom coming, a new way to live. Jesus says: Look, you do it this way. Turn it upside down.

Blessed are the rich and powerful? No – blessed are the poor and humble.

You love those who love you? Love those who don’t as well.

You worry? Learn to trust.

You want your own way? Want my way instead.

This reversal shows up in small ways through the gospels: tax collector Zacchaeus, stunned by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness, decides to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four-fold anyone he’s cheated.

Woman at the Well, Hyatt Moore, US
The Samaritan woman at the well starts her story afraid to draw water at the normal times, reluctant to talk with Jesus, a secretive woman burdened by shame. She ends her story sharing the news of Jesus with everyone in town; according to Orthodox tradition, she was renamed Photini, "Equal to the Apostles,” and went on to witness in Africa and Rome before being martyred for her faith.

Were there others whose lives demonstrated a reversal of intent, a radical, visible change? Certainly people were healed. Lives were redirected. The teaching and example of Jesus attracted plenty of attention.

But in the gospels, although Jesus taught about the coming kingdom, it wasn’t really visible in the lives of his followers. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were still wondering how to maneuver their way to power. Peter, self-focused from the start, was busy with his own off-beat agendas. Mary and Martha bickered about the proper role for a spiritual woman. All seemed convinced their own ideas, their own plans for the future, would somehow work better than whatever Jesus had in mind.

What Jesus had in mind, in his cross and resurrection, took their ideas, plans, hopes, vision of how the world should work, and shredded them. Completely.

Want power? Turn the other cheek. Again.

Want a future? Let your best hopes die.

Want to be an insider? Part of the gang? One of the club? Align yourself with the marginalized, forgotten, despised. Set your reputation with theirs. Claim their abandonment as your own.

The resurrection isn’t some sweet idea of spring and tulips and happy thoughts rising as the days begin to lengthen.

It’s God’s deep song of joy, rising up from the very darkest place of pain and grief: the story isn’t over. The hardest word is not the last. The thing you feared most is the best gift yet. The deepest loss is the avenue to deepest joy.

Beyond that, with the knowledge of that, everything changes.

The Crucifixion of Peter, Filippino Lippi,
c. 1581 , Florence
The disciples, once fearful, found themselves courageous beyond imagining: singing in the face of imprisonment, merry in the face of floggings, buoyant when confronted with crosses, lions, vats of oil, stones, beheading, new instruments of torture. Their persecutors exhausted themselves trying to find more frightening forms of execution. And still the disciples, and those who came after, women, teens, thousands on thousands, went to their death rather than deny the truth they’d come to believe: Jesus was God himself, raised from the dead, bringing freedom for anyone who would follow.

Origen, an early church theologian, at seventeen lost his father to beheading, lived most of his life under the threat of persecution, spent years in hiding and more years suffering a mix of ingenious tortures. In his “Principles,” he wrote:
“When God gives the Tempter permission to persecute us, we suffer persecution. And when God wishes us to be free from suffering, even though surrounded by a world that hates us, we enjoy a wonderful peace. We trust in the protection of the One who said, ‘Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world. . .  From His victory we take courage.'”
The power of the Christ’s victory showed up not just in the courage of the new followers, but also in outrageous generosity.

Resurrection people, from the start, have shared things with each other, and with those in need. Not just now and then. Not just when the harvest is exceptional, or the person in need a particular friend.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” Acts 3. 
The early resurrection people acted as if they understood, and could trust completely, what Jesus had said: we don’t need to worry about our own stuff. We can let go of the anxiety, the fear of scarcity, the competitive worry that if I feed you today, my family will go hungry tomorrow.
Ignatius of Antioch:  "I prefer death in Christ Jesus
 to power over the farthest limits of the earth. . .
 He who rose for our sakes is my one desire."

Justin Martyr, in one of the earliest histories of the church, wrote:
“We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it.”
Clement, describing the change visible in any person who took on the name of “Christian,” noted:
 “He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.”
Clement, like the others who chose to live the resurrection, put a high value on love: your pain is my pain. Your poverty is my poverty. Your illness is my illness.

In Philippians 2, Paul says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Who does that? Who puts the interests of others first? Not occasionally, but daily? Not when it’s easy, but when it costs health, future, personal safety?

When plague devastated the 3rd century world, Christians cared for the sick, gathered and took into their homes people thrown into the street by family members fearful of becoming infected.

When Romans and others threw their deformed, surplus, unwanted babies on trash piles or into rivers, Christians gathered them up, fed them, cared for them as their own.

John Chrysostom taught, "If you see anyone in affliction, do not be curious to enquire further... [the needy person] is God's, whether he is a heathen or a Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, still he needs help."

As Justin Martyr observed:
“We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” 
Inexplicable courage, outrageous generosity, sacrificial love. There have been glimpses of those in every culture, in every age.

But only in gatherings of resurrection people do these traits become visible on a scale that rearranges history.

St. Francis and the Leper, Frederic Loisel
1961, France
Resurrection people were the first to imagine free, generous care for the sick.

Resurrection people were the first to offer financial and emotional support for the aging who had no families to care for them.

Resurrection people started the first orphanages, the first free schools, the first homes for the mentally unwell.

Resurrection people worked, and continue to work, to end the ugly sin of slavery.

The story goes on and on, from the first centuries following the resurrection, through stories of Benedict and Francis, through the leper colonies of Africa, mission to untouchable Dalits in India, prison ministry in forgotten holes of misery around the globe.

Yes, generosity shows up in people of other faiths, and no faith. So does courage. So does love.

And yes – people calling themselves Christians have done great harm, in many ways. That’s a story for another day.

But the sheer volume of care, poured out by resurrection people, year by year, country by country, gives proof to a reversal of agenda with no other explanation than Christ’s defeat, through love, of hate and death, and his invitation to live as new people in a new, unending kingdom.

Where that reversal is visible, God’s glory is made clear, the good news is heard and joyfully received, and God’s people “shine like stars as they hold out the word of life” (Philippians 2:15).

This is the second in a series about Resurrection.

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