April 1, 2018: The Strange Victory of God

April 20, 2018

Summary

What especially complicates following Jesus for us is how entwined American Christianity has become with American culture. The “black lives matter” movement reminds us that this includes the specter of white supremacy, yet it also includes consumerism and the American dream morphs into “greed is good.” The Easter morning story of Jesus’ resurrection is God’s strange victory over such powers. God’s call to us is to walk in the resurrection.

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The Strange Victory of God

Scriptures: Isaiah 25: 6-9; Mark 16: 1-8

Here we are as three smaller churches joining with each other to celebrate on this Easter Sunday morning. We rightfully rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection by singing songs such as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” We, furthermore, enjoy learning to know each other better as followers of Jesus through our shared Easter morning breakfast and fun kids’ activities such as our Easter egg hunt.

Yet we know it was a bit more complicated than that for the followers of Jesus on the first Easter morning. And it’s also complicated for us. Here we are, three smaller churches trying to figure out and live into faithfully following Jesus in our world today. It’s hardly straight-forward. What especially muddied things on that first Easter morning was that Jesus’ male disciples had fled when he was arrested. Even worse, Peter had denied that he even knew him. Only the women remained with him until the end. They thought it was all over when his dead body was laid in a tomb and a huge stone was rolled into place, sealing the entrance. End of story.

Even so, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome had enough faith to venture out early to that first Easter morning with the hope that they could find someone to roll aside the stone, so they could anoint Jesus’ body with spices. That took courage because Jesus had been executed by the imperial state on the charge of sedition. To even be identified with him was risky business.

What muddies things for us is that Christianity in America has been so entwined with our American culture that it’s hard to recognize us as followers of Jesus. The “black lives matter” movement has brought the connection between Christianity and white nationalism to our consciousness. Kelly Brown Douglas writes, “By linking Anglo-Saxonism with godliness, evangelical Christianity has been complicit in promoting a ‘great’ America that is equated with white supremacy.”[1]

If it were only that black and white! We’re actually much more entwined in American culture and nationalism. In their book, The Church as Movement, J. R. Woodward and Dan White critique big-box churches in America or what they call the “Christian-industrial complex.” They assail how our churches have made fetishes out of the preacher, the band, and the budget, all of which is very American. Our consumerist piety and our fixation on felt needs gets in the way of genuine discipleship. When that happens, the gospel of Jesus easily morphs into the American dream and then into “greed is good.”[2]

This can all become so depressing—believe me, I’ve been there. But this is Easter Sunday morning when we celebrate faith in our God who practices resurrection. Such resurrection faith goes beyond the story of the empty tomb. We can already recognize it in the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis when the Spirit of God sweeps over the face of a formless primordial soup and creates a very good world bursting with light and life.

We see it again in Isaiah where God is depicted as creating a banquet of rich food and well-aged wine for all people. Our God wipes away our tears, removes our disgrace, and destroys the shroud of death that covers all nations. Can we even comprehend what that might look like in our world of 65 million refugees or how we can be a church movement living in the thick of such resurrection?

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright coined the term “victory of God” in relation to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.” He calls it a strange victory.  Our normal take-away from the story of Jesus’ resurrection is that there’s life after death and we will spend eternity with him. We don’t want to dispute that conclusion—the Apostle Paul, for example, makes it in his letter to the book of Romans. Wright, however, notes that neither “going to heaven when you die,” “life after death,” nor “eternal life” is so much as mentioned in the gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, it’s a renewed call to follow Jesus and to go make disciples. He concludes that Mark’s gospel is a dangerous, even a revolutionary book for both the first century and the twenty-first century.[3]

Let’s push that out a bit further. According to biblical scholar Ched Myers, the call to follow Jesus anew follows the trajectory of a community that was “deconstructed” when Jesus’ disciples deserted him, and Peter denied that he even knew him. Now the women at the tomb are instructed to go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus was raised and will meet them in Galilee.

Notice the sequence of telling the disciples and Peter. As one who had denied Jesus, Peter now isn’t even included among the disciples—still God’s call and gracious invitation extends even to him. From our safe seats here in our church sanctuary, it’s easy for us to be critical of the disciples—and hard for us to comprehend the existential fear that must have gripped them. It might help if we were wearing seatbelts and crash helmets.

Likewise, people have struggled throughout the centuries with the abrupt end to Mark’s Gospel at verse 8 when the women run away in terror and don’t tell anyone because they’re afraid. Different translators have assumed that it couldn’t have ended there and that the original end of the manuscript has been lost. They therefore added what our Bibles contain as both the shorter ending and the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel. The women certainly found their courage at some point or we wouldn’t even have the story. Still, more recent scholars conclude that Mark most likely intended to end the story with the women running away in fear. Mark’s ending is not an ending—only we can bring closure. Ched Myers writes:

Here at the end of the story we find ourselves in exactly the same position [as the women]. We do not entirely understand what “resurrection” means, but if we have understood the story, we should be “holding fast” to what we do know: that Jesus still goes before us, summoning us to the way of the cross.[4]

This is the most provocative ending of all because it means we must respond. As a thought exercise you might insert your name in the place of Peter’s name, “Go and tell the disciples and (insert your name here).” We should not be afraid of death because God is always practicing resurrection.

Have you noticed how churches tend to accumulate clutter? I’ve often wondered about that. Is it because of our unrecognized anxiety about being discarded ourselves—a kind of fear of death? Likewise, we tend to erect imaginary fences. Have you noticed that we climbed over one such fence in our joint Easter service today? Sliding over that short fence is one way to practice resurrection. Related to the accumulation of clutter is our tendency to store up our treasures in buildings and equity funds. Having such assets can be a huge blessing if we’re not afraid to invest it in ministry. But such treasures accumulate lots of rust when we hoard them.  We will want to, instead, dream boldly. Finally, J. R. Woodward and Dan White remind us:

Jesus doesn’t say to go and start a church service—he says to go and make disciples. And in that effort Jesus values smallness, not greatness. The missional church knows it must learn the neighborhood, find in it people of peace, host and be hosted at table, and build “thick community” through authenticity, honesty, and mutual submission.

For Jesus’ first disciples it meant going back to Galilee and meeting Jesus there. This was their hood, their home turf, the place of their daily routines. Galilee of the Gentiles was also a strategic location for launching their mission to the nations. What about us? Fairfax County is our hood, our home turf, even though most of us are not from here. White farmers used to till tobacco fields in our neighborhood with the help of slave labor. Now we’re one of the wealthiest and most diverse regions of our country. We’re a very transient community—people are constantly coming and going.

How do we go about learning to better know our neighborhood, find people of peace, host and be hosted at table, and build a “thick community” of Jesus followers here in this place? Like the women on the first Easter morning, we sense that it involves resurrection even though we don’t quite know what that means. Like them, we’re afraid because grace is not cheap—it costs everything. And like them, we know that Jesus goes before us in the strange victory of God.

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[1] Kelly Brown Douglas, “How Evangelicals Became White,” Sojourners, (April 2018), 19.

[2] As quoted by Jason Byassee in “Can these churches live again?” Christian Century (March 28, 2018): 39.

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 20030, 616 ff,.

[4] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 401.