I have began to realize lately that North American Christianity (and I speak about North American Christianity because it is what I know, though I include here both Catholics and evangelical Protestants) displays an unhealthy fascination with the death of Jesus to the exclusion of both his resurrection and his earthly ministry. I mean, we do have, as our symbol, the cross, the device upon which our Saviour was tortured and died, as if to suggest that this might be the only (or perhaps most) important aspect of Jesus’ action on our behalf. I do not care to diminish his work on the cross, because it do believe it is vital for the church to properly understand it and unapologetically proclaim it, but what about the resurrection (which was the primary focus of early Christian teaching and preaching) or what he taught us? In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the mystery of the Incarnation itself, not the crucifixion, has nearly always been the focal-point around which theology and the proclamation of the Gospel has been packaged.
Jesus’ teaching, resurrection, and death deeply interpenetrate and interpret one another, such that one cannot be understood without the others. One might be able to argue that Jesus’ death would be efficacious completely independent of any interpretive apparatus — i.e. the Father could still make his offer of salvation to us even if Jesus rose out of obscurity, died one day, and was never seen again and the Bible were never written to inform us about what such an event might mean — but unaware of the event and without some guidance in regard to its significance, humankind would be entirely unable to come face-to-face with its alienation from God and be able to appropriate the death of Jesus as the solution. Strangely enough, however, we often act as if the message of the death of Jesus does in fact exist in such a vacuum. The standard Gospel message of the tent meeting/revival/crusade-era and those indebted to that tradition might never actually make any significant mention of the miracles of Jesus (other than to promise healings) and only engage the teachings of Jesus in order to explain what living a good Christian life looks like. And Jesus’ resurrection may be mentioned to demonstrate that we, too, may experience a resurrection to eternal life one day, but beyond that, things get pretty thin. However, if anyone does interpret Jesus for us, it’s Paul.
Now, I do not mean to castigate Paul or suggest that his writing is of lesser value than other NT documents, but Paul did not write even the earliest of his works (very possibly Galatians) until two decades or more after Christ’s ascension. In the meanwhile, what were people to make of these events surrounding this Galilean rabbi? What did people who saw Jesus in the flesh in his earthly ministry think about what was taking place, and what did they think when the heard he had died? Not having access to Paul’s writings, the followers of Jesus-in-flesh and other early Christ-followers would have had a different interpretive apparatus, which would have been Jesus’ words and actions while alive and then the miraculous testimony of his resurrection. I suggest, therefore, that we need to see the life and teachings of Jesus as integrally connected to, and informing our beliefs about, his death and resurrection.
Jesus himself tells us what he intends to be all about. In Luke 4:16-21 we read these words:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Elsewhere, he says: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you.”
What does Jesus say? In essence: “Watch what I do for the short while I am with you and listen to my teachings.” Should his acts of deliverance, then, as well as his powerfully counter-cultural message (as most poignantly exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount), not be part of our Gospel proclamation, seeing as it serves as a window into what exactly Jesus accomplished on the cross? Moreover, what ought we to think about his death in light of his victorious resurrection? But again, think about the last time you heard a Gospel message that incorporated ideas of the Kingdom of God and our movement into a state of shalom and freedom from captivity and imprisonment to sin. I do not suggest that this does not ever happen in pulpits across the continent, but I dare say that this connection is not nearly as strong as it should be, nor as clear as the kerygma of the early church would have made it.
The consequence of such discontinuity between the death and life of Jesus is a Gospel that does not challenge us to live as part of the community of God’s people, nor invite us to be standard-bearers of the new kingdom ethic. Such a Gospel is often an individualistic, problem-based response to person sin (which is very real!) that does not take into account the cosmological and systemic issues that enslaves us as individuals and the human race in a much more powerful and subtle way. The life of Jesus was one that focused on the needs of the needy, the widow, and the orphan; it was one that sought to release people from demonic oppression; it was one that sought to confront the all-too-human impulse toward violence and retaliation; and it was one that lambasted those who had sold themselves out to systems that have inculcated people with pride and greed. Jesus’ Gospel message is about the restoration of shalom for the individual and the community of God’s people, something that can never be communicated with a singular focus on his death, especially as understood through an exclusively Pauline-Reformed lens. As an heir to the Anabaptist tradition, I ask us to see the Gospel as an indictment of postlapsarian society on all levels and the corruption of the individual heart. And I ask us to see his resurrection not as simply a promise of heaven, but as ultimate proof of Jesus’ victory over inimical forces, allowing us to begin at this very moment to live in the reality of this freedom.
As an heir of the Anabaptist tradition, I ask us to see the Gospel as an indictment of postlapsarian society on all levels and the corruption of the individual heart. And I ask us to see Jesus’ resurrection not as simply a promise of heaven, but as ultimate proof of Jesus’ victory over inimical forces at the social and cosmological level, allowing us as his followers to begin at this very moment to live in the reality of the freedom that he paid so dearly to secure for us.