Wesleyan Wisdom: Christianity is all about Easter—and risen Christ

Beginning with Augustine and in contrast to Eastern Christianity, Christianity of the West has seen the meaning of our salvation primarily through the cross. We are engaged in a perennial debate over theories of the atonement, asking, “What does it mean to be saved by Jesus’ death on the cross?”  Was it that blood must be shed before God can love God’s children?  Or, on the cross did Jesus pay a ransom to the devil to “buy back” the children of God?  Or, did Jesus on the cross give us a moral example of how far we should go in dying for our principles or for each other?

These are over-simplified references to some of the theories of the atonement, all focusing on Jesus’ death.  However, the full meaning of the cross cannot be fulfilled in either our doctrine or our own journey until we see it from the vantage point of the resurrection.  The resurrection is both clue and key to our being not

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

We should not consider it inconsequential that the cross on the spire or the communion table or hanging from the ceiling of every Protestant Christian church is an empty cross.  In the words of Paul, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” but without the resurrection Jesus would have been a crucified man, period. The same is true if, on that famous “first day of the week,” Mary Magdalene had found a corpse on which to put the spices. The cross takes on its redemptive meaning only when we see it through the resurrection.

J. B.  Phillips, in his book Ring of Truth, wrote, “I feel it is high time that someone, who has spent the best years of his life in studying both the New Testament and good communicative English, spoke out.  I do not care a rap what the ‘avant-garde’ scholars say; I very much care what God says and does.  (This book) is my testimony to the historicity and reliability of the New Testament.”

The church reflected in the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul apparently taught little if anything about the Virgin Birth or the Bethlehem manger. The great point made by Peter, Stephen and Paul was “this Jesus whom you crucified is risen.”  All the gospel writers and Luke in Acts and Paul emphasized that the resurrection was a “fait accompli” with enormous consequences.  Paul went so far as to say, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is futile.” (I Corinthians 15:17)  The heart and core of the Christian message that replaced Greek and Roman religions and Jewish theology in town after town, province after province, was that Jesus was raised from the dead. To deny or de-emphasize that is to revise history.

The resurrection does not have the characteristics of a hysterical vision. The disciples and the faithful women were much too shattered to have cooked up a conspiracy to “fake out” the Romans and Jews. Certainly we must face the historical fact that if either Caiaphas or Pilate or Herod could have produced a body, they would have.

New understanding

One of the great teachers on my journey has been Paul Scherer, a Lutheran pastor who taught homiletics at Princeton, Union in Richmond, Va., and Union in New York City.  In his wisdom he wrote, “Jesus’ resurrection was the solemn vindication of all that had been: his life and his death.  It was in this (the resurrection) that history found a footing. What was left of the ancient world toppled and fell.”

Then there arose among the Greeks, Romans, and so called “barbarians” a new understanding of God and of themselves.  House churches meeting in secret, parchments copied and distributed and testimonies of changed lives spread until the spires of great cathedrals and thousands of houses of worship gathered around the cross and experienced what Jesus had promised: “the spirit of Truth.”  Though culture was often uncouth and progress was made in fits and starts, life itself took on a new dimension.  Despair did not prevail over hope and salvation remained a golden thread of relief and release from a life that was both hard and harsh.

Paul Scherer continued, “There is a whisper from Bethlehem, a cry from the cross, and the sound of serene silence from the tomb. To the clamoring voices of every generation that keeps shouting `Aye,’ God responds, `No’. With God’s `No,’ God answers the sin of humankind and the evil of the cosmos.  It is the Gentleness of providence ‘standing o’er the wrecks of time.’  If we miss it, we shall not find anything else worth finding.  We go around looking into holes with our backs to the sky, trying to persuade everybody that the facts are down there; while the only facts that count in the end are the facts that are up yonder.  The gospel is a hope beyond optimism; it is no starry-eyed illusion about human nature or the politics or the economy or what it will be like when we get a better job, or are paid a higher salary or even when we are free from all physical pain.”  These are what Scherer calls the “contradictions which characterize human life always.”

The authentic Christian message is never utopian.  Humankind repeats history’s “times of troubles,” unaware that we are bankrupt.  The Gospel message is that only in our despair do we find the hope that comes with the resurrection.

We must not explain away the resurrection as “immortality of the soul.” That is Plato, not Jesus! The resurrection is not general; it is specific—“this Jesus whom you crucified.”  It is not abstract; the body was gone!  It is one thing to study botany; it is another to hold a dozen roses given you by someone who loves you. Just so, it is one thing to believe in immortality, but quite another to say with Mary Magdalene in the hymn “In the Garden”: “… and the voice I hear falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.”

Grace, experienced

The resurrection fulfills what Jesus said to his disciples: that he was leaving but would be back, that he was not leaving them orphaned. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The mortal must put on immortality, the perishable must put on imperishability.” Then and only then, he writes: “Death be swallowed up in victory.” Paul is very specific in saying: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The resurrection gives meaning to all that precedes it.

The point of Easter, though, is not to convince doubters that Jesus was raised.  The point of Easter is what Phillips Brooks prayed when looking down on Bethlehem:  “Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.” Jesus told the disciples that after the resurrection the Spirit would come and “lead you to all truth.”

It is in the experiential grace of the post-resurrection spirit of Christ that John Wesley uttered on his death bed, “Best of all, God is with us.”

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference and the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

 

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Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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washaw
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And most certainly Easter calls us to action. Perhaps another meaning of "the experiential grace of the post-resurrection spirit of Christ" is to calls us to be "grace-givers". "We must ask God to show us how to be His “grace vehicles” in each other’s lives." (Robyn Henk) Dr. Haynes, perhaps it is time for the UMC to turn away from the theological seminary rhetoric of centuries past and look to the true meaning of Easter. You and J. B. Phillips seem most excited about translations, words, dogma, rhetoric. But Dr. Haynes, Easter calls us to ACTION. Two remarkable "grace-giver" examples:… Read more »
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