Acts 9:1-6 Revelation 5:11-14 John 21:1-9
In today’s gospel, as last week and the week before, we hear of a resurrection appearance. How strange and evocative they are, these eye-witness accounts of an encounter with a deep mystery. They seem to me to capture extraordinarily well what it feels like to be in relationship with God – the atmosphere, if you like, of the spiritual life. The way familiar things or people, staring us in the face but not recognised, all of a sudden light up, and they are full of meaning and emotion. But in the meantime, until the light flicks on, we wait and wait – waiting for God to call us by name. And, all the time, there is a sense of the truth hovering at the edge of our vision, the tail of God’s coat flicking around a corner. “Such a fast God,” as the poet said, “always before us and leaving as we arrive.”
I have begun by recognising the mystery of it all – the way God is not accountable to us, and will not be pinned down by our accounts of Him. The reason I have begun this way is actually that today I mainly want to preach rather an unmysterious sort of sermon, more the explaining sort. I want to run through the three main theories in Christian tradition about what difference Easter made – what changed because of cross and resurrection. However, I do want to stress that having a theory about what has happened does not shrink the event to something that we can hold and control. Christ’s death and resurrection remain a mystery that envelops us. It is not like a snow-globe scene that we can inspect from the outside, but a landscape that we inhabit. It is just that having a bit of a map can help us to feel at home within that landscape.
After that preamble, let me introduce three theories about what Christ’s death and resurrection achieved. Each goes back to the beginning – they are all Scriptural, all valid, I am not saying one is right and the others wrong. That said, you might find one or the other speaks to you more powerfully; I will say a word at the end about why that could be. Briefly put, they can be summarised in three descriptions of Christ:
- As a triumphant king, conquering sin and death;
- As the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice atones for sin;
- As the second Adam, demonstrating how we might live without sin and in union with God.
Let me enlarge a bit on these.
First, the conquering king. Jesus did not become a king at Easter, He was a king from His birth, royal by right as the incarnation of God. But the Cross shows the particular nature of his rule. And then He was resurrected because He was king and God – so could not be contained within death.
This view is, as I say, biblical. Throughout the gospels, Jesus shows His sovereignty over sin death (e.g., in raising of Lazarus). St Peter’s summary of the gospel, in the first Christian sermon in Acts 2, is that the Resurrection vindicates Jesus’ status as sovereign. And St Paul in 1 Cor 15 sets the whole of cosmic history in the context of Christ’s sovereignty: “after [Christ] has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power, He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
So, theory one: Jesus as king conquers sin and death.
The second theory is to see Jesus a sacrifice for sin.
This is, once again, clearly a Biblical idea: Easter coincides with the great sacrificial festival of Passover; Jesus is described from the beginning of the NT (by John the Baptist) to the end (Revelation) as the Lamb of God; and the letter to the Hebrews talks about Jesus as both High Priest and sacrificial victim.
That said, pinning down exactly how sacrifice makes a difference is not straightforward. Sacrifice is a basic principle of OT religion but, even in the Mosaic law, quite how it works is a bit mysterious.
- Some sacrifices in OT simply acknowledge that all we have is God’s, they are a simple expression of our total dependence on God and our gratitude for His love for us. A love-gift, if you like.
- On the other hand, sometimes OT sacrifices seem to represent some kind of an exchange. Passover, for instance, originates from a basic deal: if you kill a lamb, and put its blood on your door, then the angel of death will leave alone your firstborn. It works by a swap between the life of a lamb and the life of the firstborn (or, by extension, the life of the whole people of God).
- But then, a third kind of OT sacrifices represent a transfer of sin: notably, the scapegoat driven into the desert bearing the people’s sin. The “scapegoat” idea looms large in some Christian thinking, but it is worth noting that this is the exception in the Mosaic system, not the norm. It happened just once each year, of all the hundreds of sacrifices in a year.
Whatever the precise logic of the sacrifice, somehow, Christ’s death deals with our sin and guilt. There is, somehow or other, a process of substitution: not us, but Him. That this is sacrifice in the sense of a “swap” (a life for a life) is emphasised by the fact that Easter takes place at the time of Passover – and, as I say, Passover seems to work on a substitutionary basis.
This is not to say that the sacrifice involves a transfer of culpability – in the jargon, not just a substitutionary sacrifice, but specifically a penal substitution. Penal substitution was very much the doctrine of the Reformation, but many now see it as quite problematic. This is mainly because it does not honour the character of God as depicted in the Bible. The doctrine of penal substitution implies that God must receive satisfaction or exact a penalty before He forgives. But that is absolutely not the picture of God we see in the OT, where God continually offers free forgiveness, if Israel will just return to the covenant. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father does not greet his son with a demand: “How are you going to make it up to me?”
So, I would suggest that we see Christ as making a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, but on the basis of “a life for a life”, not on the basis of a transfer of culpability.
The third theory of why Easter makes a difference sees Jesus as the second Adam, re-tracing the path of human development. That is, by living out a fully human life but without sin, Jesus has not only achieved His own life. He has also created for us a new template. The old template was the life of the old Adam, taking us through the trackless jungles of alienation from God, following our own will. Jesus, on the other hand, has carved out a new way – and because He has blazed the trail, this is a path which any of us can walk. Not following our own will, but the will of the Father which inspired Jesus every step of the way in His life.
Jesus followed this way right to the end. Because it was a way that confronted evil, and that did not fight hate with hate or violence with violence, it was inevitably going to be a way of self-sacrifice, a way of the cross. So the crucifixion is an acted parable, which summarises the whole of Christ’s way. And the resurrection is the Father’s vindication of that way: “Yes,” the Father says by raising Jesus from the dead, “this is indeed my will. This is indeed the template for how to be a human being that I want you all to follow. And by the gift of the Holy Spirit, I will enable Jesus to live within you so that you can follow it.”
So there you are: three explanations of Christ’s passion and resurrection; all valid, all soundly based in Scripture and tradition. Which of them makes most sense to you probably depends on a number of things– perhaps, most fundamentally, your sense of how you understand the basic problem that Christ is trying to overcome. From what do we need to be rescued?
We call it “sin and death” as a short-hand, but in fact this is a short-hand for several different things.
Some people have a strong sense of their own personal sinfulness. Most of us, from time to time, do things that are properly wicked – harming ourselves or others, out of greed or lust or just a failure to take care. It must very much be part of the pastoral practice of the church for people to come to acknowledge such grave sins, so as to make amends where possible, to receive forgiveness and become free. Seeing Christ as a sacrificial lamb, dying to take our sins away, is very powerful.
However, the sad fact is that, even when we repent of our sins, we find it very difficult to step away from them. And that is not just because of personal weakness – but because sins have us in their power, and we cannot see the way to escape from them. Structural sins such as environmental damage or oppressive economic systems are literally beyond our individual control. And even some personal sins arise from deep psychological roots that we cannot even understand properly. Perhaps they arise from damage that was done to us when we were very young, and from which we cannot in our own strength escape.
That is why we might want to describe Easter as a royal victory. This imagery implies that, before Jesus came, sin and death had power over us. The brokenness of the world is not just a result of our personal choices; rather, the cosmos had fallen lock-stock-and-barrel into the hands of “elemental spirits” (St Paul’s phrase) that are harsh, cruel and random. We are their prisoners, until Christ redeems us. He breaks their power, defeats them, and sets us free.
Finally, some of us might see the essential issue as one of immaturity. The biblical account in Genesis still dominates our religious imagination, the myth that we started out fine and then got worse. But we now know that, as a matter of history, we did not start out better than now, and then Fall. Actually, we started out as rather less evolved primates than we are now – cruel, violent, even cannibalistic creatures – and our historical trajectory has been not downwards, but upwards, towards civilisation and law. Given this, some may see our continued alienation from God as a result of this process of evolution and maturing being still incomplete. Against this diagnosis, the third theory – the idea of Jesus as the new Adam, pioneering a new and better way to be human – makes a lot of sense.
The main thing is that, whether you see yourself as immature or sinful, as choosing your sins or imprisoned by them… in any event, Jesus’ death and resurrection bring us into new life. Abundant life, lived in intimate fellowship with God. For whatever reason, it is Christ’s death and resurrection that enable this new life. Jesus is our Prophet, who shows us how to live; our Priest, who sacrifices to atone for our sins; and King, who defeats our enemies. Glory to Him, Alleluia.