Holy Week has arrived with all of its theological baggage.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I love Holy Week. It’s one of those times in the year when we immerse ourselves in the stories, discovering that no matter how many times we tell and retell them, there’s always more to discover. But for many people, Holy Week also brings with it memories of guilt-laden, gore-filled teachings meant to impose the sense of seriousness and moral responsibility necessary to fully appreciate the grace of Easter. Sadly, for many, this leads to the arrival of Easter with a sense of dread and confusion rather than a sense of joy and celebration.
I’m going to be completely blunt: a theology that emphasizes the suffering and death of Jesus as the central event in God’s salvific work is weak theology. It’s theology meant to justify a horrible act and to relieve us from any responsibility besides simply “believing in it.” Jesus did suffer, excruciatingly. And yes, I believe that hearing and understanding this story is crucial to fully appreciating Easter—but not for the reason of proving our faith is “the right one” or boosting numbers of converts saved from certain hellfire.
That being said, the Easter story is undoubtedly one of sin and salvation, for those who followed Jesus then and for those who follow Jesus now. So as we move towards Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I’m unpacking some of the things we say this time of year. My hope is that by placing these ideas in the broader, richer context of Christian tradition we might experience Easter in a way that is fresh, unencumbered and transformative. Here goes:
Jesus died for our sins.
The story of Jesus betrayal, arrest and crucifixion is absolutely a story of human sinfulness. It’s the story of people seeking power over justice and security over mercy. From Jesus’ friends who failed to stand with him, to the people who shouted “crucify him,” to the authorities that conspired in the night to execute an innocent man, all participated in the crucifixion. And when we look in the mirror and confront our deepest truths, we know we’re still part of the same systems. We might not have participated directly in that event 2000 years ago but we participate every single day by the choices we make and the harder choices we refuse to make. To the extent that Jesus is with the oppressed, as he himself says he is and will be, he continues to die because of our sins.
We are saved by Jesus’ death.
Often when we talk about salvation we’re talking about salvation from hell after death. There is certainly some biblical instruction that supports this but it’s an incomplete view. When we look to the broader context of the biblical teaching, we see that salvation begins now. It begins with learning to be people of hope rather than people of fear. The fact that this path can lead to death is a sign of the seriousness of choice we must make when we decide to follow Jesus.
I don’t know what happens after we die but I can say this: I’ve experienced the deep love of God in Jesus. Because of that, I trust that whatever happens, it will be consistent with a God who is good and loving and merciful.
Jeus is a sacrifice/God sent Jesus to die and/or God came to earth in the person of Jesus in order to die
Jesus did not come to die. His life wasn’t lived out simply so that he could be a “pure sacrifice.” Jesus came to show us the Way and to invite us into deeper living. His life stands on its own. Now it certainly seems that Jesus knew that his way of life would lead to his death. (He’d have to be crazy not to know this—people who challenge power don’t live long.) The sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life isn’t that he was led to slaughter like a lamb but that he chose to follow God’s way even when it became dangerous.
The Resurrection proves that Christianity is the Right Religion and/or proves that Jesus was God and/or proves that Jesus was God’s sacrifice and/or proves anything else we try to prove
Look, the Resurrection doesn’t prove anything because we can’t prove the Resurrection. There was time in my life when I would fight tooth and nail to argue that a bodily resurrection happened. And then there was a time when I would fight tooth and nail to prove that a bodily resurrection didn’t happen. Now, I tend to stay out of the debate all together, not because I don’t care about the Resurrection but because these debates are too often a distraction from the actual Good News.
Somehow, in some way, Jesus’ followers experienced him alive again. And with that experience came a renewed commitment to following him. But the wonder of it all doesn’t stop there because ever since then, Jesus followers have continued to experience him alive again. We don’t have to understand this but we do have the joy of learning to trust it.
My frustration with all the ways we tie ourselves in knots about the Resurrection is that it robs us of the joy of simply experiencing it and being transformed by it. That’s the mark of this Easter faith—that we trust something as completely ridiculous and completely unprovable as the idea that God is moving in ways we cannot fathom. And that part of God’s promise to us when we choose to follow the revolutionary way of love and peace is that while it may very well be dangerous, death is not and will not be the end.