April 24, 2011
The Easter Effect
Today, people around the globe gather to remember, honor, and reflect on events that happened some two thousand years ago in a micro-spot on the world map. It is a good time to take a break from the relentless and, at times, tedious debate about politics and policies. Let us, for a moment at least, focus on a simple yet profound scenario -- one that can be described succinctly and received joyously.
It is called the Gospel.
The word itself comes from the idea of "good news" or "glad tidings." It is intended to convey the idea of divinely directed redemption and deliverance. It is also a reminder that there is hope -- now and in the future.
It is all too easy to get worked up into a lather over issues that polarize people. I am not suggesting that these issues lack importance, but as I read the biblical record, I find it endlessly fascinating that a small group of people, from ordinary backgrounds and with few natural gifts, could make such a difference in their world and subsequent history.
The key to their success was that they were the first to experience the Easter Effect. They lived, worked, and died with a sense of fulfillment and joy because they never got over what they knew to be true -- that is, the Gospel -- having seen it with their own eyes. They were dramatically transfigured people. We could use the word "converted" to describe their lives. They were radically redirected in life by an encounter with the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the fledgling and deeply flawed church at Corinth to address several concerns and offer corrective counsel. Toward the end of the epistle, he reminded his audience that part of the reason why they were so dysfunctional in their faith and practice had to do with what they had forgotten -- or at least minimized. He drew them back to the basics. And it all had to do with what Jesus had done a few decades before.
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you -- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (I Corinthians 15:1-8 NIV)
When Paul wrote this, first-century Christians were migrating and ministering en route to the uttermost parts of the earth, as Jesus had instructed. And Corinth was a strategic, if spiritually stubborn, place. The city was synonymous with evil to the extent that to use the city's name in reference to a woman was the worst kind of vulgar slur.
Then there was the fact that the early advance of Christianity was made against the backdrop of the reality and rule of Rome. It was the era of Pax Romana: Roman hegemony kept the relative peace, which meant that there was more time for other pursuits. Decadence was in full bloom. Moral restraint was virtually nonexistent. Frankly, the political and cultural dynamics were arguably much more challenging than what we see in America today.
Many of those early practitioners of the Christian faith, however, didn't seem to be intimidated by such a potentially daunting challenge, the problem-laden Corinthians notwithstanding. This was largely because they grasped the concept that the message of the Gospel was more about redemption than reformation. It was more about individual salvation than solving social problems. And it was more about a world to come than the world that was -- or is.
This is not to say that these souls on fire were indifferent to cultural or political matters. They just seemed to know that ultimate hope and change were never really possible via human means and methods. To bring about social justice, the kind implied in the command to love neighbor as self, required obedience to a greater commandment first. That would be the one about loving God completely.
Loving God fuels righteous deeds, healed relationships, and cultural conscience and stability. The attempt to truly love one's neighbor in a social justice sense without acknowledging and loving God tends to devolve into a mere struggle for power.
And when first-century Christians were admonished to pray for those in authority -- even those with tyrannical tendencies in Rome -- it was about a desire to be left alone in a sort of "libertarian" way:
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. (I Timothy 2:1-5 NIV)
It's like the Rabbi's famous prayer for the Tsar in Fiddler on the Roof -- "A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar...far away from us!"
Paul's instruction about prayer and civil authority carries a clear appeal for freedom and privacy -- but not as primary virtues. It was more of a supplication for conditions to be favorable for modeling and sharing the Gospel.
The early Christians functioned in the wake and warmth of the Easter Effect. The Gospel changed them from the inside out, and they went forward and turned the world upside-down.
Happy Easter -- He Is Risen!