Sunday, April 8, 2012

Risen Indeed? The Hermaneutic Community

Easter morning worship is the high point of the Christian year. I look toward it through the reflections of Lent, the fasting of Good Friday, the inner stillness of silent Saturday, with a sense of  anticipation.
Orthodox icon: Resurrection

Annie Dillard, writing of church attendance, asked:
"Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? . . . It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews." (Teaching a Stone to Talk)
I feel that most strongly on Resurrection morning. We gather to celebrate God’s power breaking through, the proclamation of life in a world of death, the promise of all-things-new in a world where we have been held captive far too long by the burdens and the boundaries of the old.

As a child, I attended a small, somewhat somber church. Our organist appeared to meditate before each change of chord. Our hymns echoed in a space too large for our meager few. But Easter morning we took part in a sunrise service with other congregations in a nearby park. I loved the trumpets, often off-key, and the exuberant songs sung together in the early-morning chill:
 Up from the grave he arose;  with a mighty triumph o'er his foes;  he arose a victor from the dark domain,  and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.  He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!
Watching adults I’d come to know and respect, I could see: they believed it. They sang with rare energy and conviction.

When my own children were small, we attended a much larger church where the rector (our lead pastor) encouraged everyone to bring bells and tambourines to the Easter service. At every proclamation of  “Christ is risen” we were to ring the bells, shake our tambourines or car keys. Our rector himself set the example, with exuberant banging of his tambourine, and our most staid and proper parishioners joined in the buoyant clamour. “Christ is risen!”  “The Lord is risen indeed!”

The Empty Tomb, Bertrand Bahuet, France
At my current church, sharing of space between two services led to the practice of renting a large tent for our contemporary Easter service. The worship community gathered to roll out carpet, arrange potted flowers, hang banners, truck in a large stone to remind us of the open tomb. As we gathered for the service it was with a sense of joyful awe: the community itself was a gift, those gathered were a gift, and we were there because we had seen, lived, experienced together the resurrection power we were there to celebrate.

Our worship itself can be an avenue to encountering God, and we have many in our church family who sat uncomfortably in the back row until God spoke to them in worship, until the resurrection power drew them further into the center of our celebration.

One Easter, as part of our worship, we prepared a visual way of sharing some of our stories. It still makes me cry to watch, as I reflect on the power of the resurrection in the lives of those I know and love.

I regret the few Easter mornings, a guest in other churches, where I’ve found myself listening to talk of “the ‘Easter story,” a weary myth passed down as part of a time-worn liturgy, metaphor for spring, occasion to speak of cocoons and butterflies.

“Go home,” I’ve felt like saying. If it’s just about spring, let’s go outside and pick tulips. I grieve that in far too many churches of my own Episcopal denomination, Easter will be celebrated with pomp, lovely music, and scant awareness of the power invoked and far too often ignored.

Without the resurrection, Christianity is just one more religion: a tattered set of rules, a philosophical construct patched together to shield us from our fear. As the apostle Paul said emphatically to the doubting Corinthians,
“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God . . . And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. . . .If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Over the years I’ve come to value thoughtful affirmations of the logical, historical evidence for a resurrected Christ. C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity was helpful early on. More recently, Tim Keller has done good work in defending the resurrection in an accessible way, while N. T. Wright takes a more scholarly approach in the Anglican tradition.  (Both have written books on this, but summary articles and video are available online: Keller in Relevant Magazine, and Wright in a summary video.) For a wider view, Telford Work of Westmont University offers a helpful summary of approaches, with some useful links.
Christ Resurrected, Anna Kocher, 2006

For me, though, the proof of the resurrection goes far beyond logic and historical record. The resurrection is visible in human lives across continents, across centuries. Dig back through the stories of Augustine, Jerome, or Patrick, any of those early saints whose lives were upended by the voice of the risen Christ, calling them to lives of forgiveness, compassion and bold witness of the resurrection.

Or listen to the stories of  Brother Yun of China, who came to know Christ through the miraculous healing of his father and the subsequent discovery of a Bible long hidden in rural China after the Cultural Revolution had done its best to suppress all knowledge of the Christian faith.

Spend time with Christians from other places and stories surface: men and women who met Christ in dreams or visions; teens dramatically transformed by an encounter with the Father who will never leave them; healings on sidewalks in London, under trees in Africa, on hillsides in Bolivia: resurrection power still pouring out, sometimes through human hands and voices, sometimes through the voice of God alone.

Leslie Newbigin, missionary in India from  1936 to 1974, returned to the UK to find a skeptical culture dismissive of the Christian faith. Wrestling with the question of apologetics, he asked:
"How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified saviour, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world which can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the gospel: a congregation which believes it. Does that sound too simplistic? I don't believe it is."
Continuing in his discussion of Evangelism in the City, he noted:
“The hope of which the church is called to be the bearer in the midst of a famine of hope is a radically other-worldly hope. Knowing that Jesus is king and that he will come to reign, it fashions its life and invites the whole community to fashion its life in the light of this reality, because every other way of living is based on illusion. It thus creates signs, parables, foretastes, appetizers of the kingdom in the midst of the hopelessness of the world. It makes it possible to act both hopefully and realistically in a world without hope, a world which trades in illusions. If this radically other-worldly dimension of the church's witness is missing, then all its efforts in the life of the community are merely a series of minor eddies in a current which sweeps relentlessly in the opposite direction.”  
Over the years I’ve watched many people come to faith, and many fall away. Those who see their faith as a list of rules to follow or services to attend, who have seen the church as an arbiter of dogma or shared "values" more than community of grace, are not likely to remain.

The Risen Christ, He Qi, China
Those who have seen, experienced, become part of a living community convinced of resurrection power begin to live that power in their own lives, to share it with others, in ways that build hope, and faith, and deepen love. As walls fall down between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, racially and ethnically divided, as God’s people demonstrate the freedom that comes from full forgiveness and the compassion that springs up from the knowledge that all that’s needed is provided, as gifts are affirmed in women, children, the marginalized, the previously ignored, resurrection becomes visible, inescapable.

If the truth of the resurrection is held in doubt, it’s not our apologetics that needs attention, but our lives together as visible community of love. 
“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. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about. . . . Our task in the present . . . is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day.”  ( N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church )

This is the first in a series considering what it means to be “Resurrection People.”

For others:

The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People

Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection

Resurrection Responsibilities: Feed My Sheep

It’s also part of the April Synchroblog examining the truth of the resurrection. Here's a list of bloggers who contributed to this month’s Synchroblog.

And for poetry and more resurrection art, visit Resurrection.

Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.