It has been said that if we understood the true implications of the cross in its own time, wearing crosses around our necks would feel like wearing miniature replicas of electric chairs. When I think of the earliest Christians, the apostles who witnessed the crucifixion of their Lord, it seems impossible that they could ever have thought of God’s sacrifice without being completely overwhelmed. For this, I envy them.
But we are not called to be first-century Christians. We are called to be Christians right here, right now, inside our many tangled relationships—with our families and ourselves, with money and success, with sacrifice and worship. It is not humanly possible for us to feel what the disciples felt, living through Good Friday before that day had a name. They were there, and we were not. They saw what we did not see, and we know what they did not know: that resurrection was only three days away, that this suffering had a purpose, that God had not abandoned them. We cannot despair over the crucifixion as deeply as they did, and so we cannot duplicate the stunned joy that came when they found Christ, whom they thought gone forever, risen among them. We know how the story ends; we cannot un-know it.
And yet there are stories in our lives right now whose endings we do not know; there are situations that seem headed for irrevocable death. There is the death of moving, of leaving a place you love. There is the death of beginning something new and finding it to be less than you had dreamed. There is physical death, cancer, depression, divorce, Alzheimer’s, separation, isolation, loneliness. There are deaths in relationships: When you are desperate and no one seems to care. When someone asks for more than you can give. When you lie to someone you love. When you trust and your trust is betrayed. We have our own Good Fridays; there are too many to count.
“The world goes forth to murder dreams,” E. E. Cummings said, and this indeed is the darkness that has no greater aim than to kill until we believe in death more than we believe in life. In a talk, Dallas Willard once stated that we have, in our churches and our lives, confused profession and belief. We agree, intellectually, with the tenets of Christian doctrine. We repeat our agreement aloud, and when the repetition changes nothing in our lives, we say we’ve tried Christianity and it didn’t work. Certainly belief has an intellectual element, and doctrine matters. But the deepest measure of our belief is our real-life response to death. When someone hurts us, do we give up the relationship for lost? When we hear God’s voice calling us to do something that is clearly impossible, do we follow anyway? When our dreams burn up and death invades our lives, do we remember, through our tears, that the foundation for our hope cannot be shaken by anything on earth?
Life with God begins on the Easter Sundays that come after our own personal days of disaster. Our stories may not contain physical resurrections; then again, they may. But living faith comes from the experience—whether physical, spiritual, emotional or intellectual—of resurrection in our very own lives. Jesus will rise from the dead in us, again and again.
Paul says that if the resurrection really happened, then the tide has turned, death has lost, life has won, and our hope is based not on something that may happen some day, but on something that has already taken place. And if the resurrection was not physically real, Paul says, then we are done for. Jesus’ rising from the dead—the actual, scientific, total dead—is not icing on the cake, not the happy ending that makes for a nice fairytale. It is the steel without which the building collapses, the cornerstone that anchors everything, the moment of truth when all shams are blown sky-high.
The more deeply we believe, the more unshakably we will hope. Hope does not equal optimism; hope does not mean always expecting the best. Hope means knowing that even after the worst has come, God remains. Knowing that, in fact, the very worst has already come: God has died.
And yet God lives. And as long as God is with us, no loss is too great to be turned into joy; no death is too deep for resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15