2020: An Easter in Exile and in Denial?

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This Easter, pastors will be proclaiming—via technologies like webcams, Facebook Live, and YouTube streaming—“Christ is risen.” But there won’t be an audible congregation to respond, “He is risen indeed!” As Drew pointed out last week, we aren’t sitting next to one another in congregations this year. Instead, this April 12, we’ll be sequestered in houses and apartments. And, while we proclaim life over death, we all know that death, through the coronavirus, is spreading all around us.

It’s hard not to feel as though we are in exile, and perhaps, even in denial.

And yet, as I’ve been preparing this installment, it struck me that we, in Easter 2020, are living like the church throughout much of our history—during the horrific Black Death of the 1300s, for example—or today like a quarter of a billion Christians who live under extreme persecution. By this I mean that, whether it’s political pressure or natural phenomena like the coronavirus, Easter has always been about proclaiming God’s giving life in the midst of death, and about worshipping the resurrected, yet also crucified, Lord.

Science of the End

At Easter we come to the limits of science—which is critically important to recognize for those who work in science and faith. Science studies the natural world, and resurrection doesn’t arise from inside nature, but from the One who is not bound by the natural world, the God who creates and upholds nature. As biologist Jeff Schloss has pointed out, resurrection can’t be the result of evolutionary optimism and the idea that we’ll keep evolving into something better. Even more, resurrection can’t be simply “life wins” or “hope wins” as something within the natural processes—something I’ve heard in far too many Easter sermons.

We recognize that there are definitely places where science can only take us so far, and resurrection is one of them. When he spoke to his assembled, attentive audience at the prestigious Gifford lectures, the eminent particle physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne reminded his listeners in Edinburgh that science sees only an end to natural life. “Cosmic death and human death pose equivalent questions of what is God’s intention for his creation.” And however it arrives, the destruction of life on Earth—and thus our lives—remains certain. This fact can certainly shock us. It’s not unlike the women who stood at Jesus’s Cross on the Friday before Easter (John 19:25-27). They knew the terrifying reality: Jesus, Son of the God of life, actually died.

And yes, I know this week is about the science of Easter and resurrection, but it seemed to me that we need to be honest about our life in a COVID-19 world. Because only then can we truly feel the miracle of God’s redemption, which C.S. Lewis puts into a remarkable and moving mini parable:

One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanishing rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.

Before we consider the promise of Christ’s resurrected life for us and our world, we need to know how deep God descends in Christ, even into death itself, to bring us the amazing promise of new life. Because, as the preacher once proclaimed, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’!”

Will This Be More Like “Good” Easter?

As church leaders, this year let’s be sure to name the pain even in—or especially in—the hope of resurrection. Our hearts may feel downcast like Mary Magdalene who approached Jesus’s tomb that first Easter morning (John 20:1-15). We can feel like it’s more Good Friday than Easter Sunday. We have to be able to grieve in order to celebrate. I turn to Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard:

The strange heart of Christian faith is that… grief and loss go together in Christian faith with vision and hope in a singular way, because they are the story of Cross and Resurrection. There is no greater grief than Calvary, the crucifixion of the very Son of God by the ones he came to save. There is no greater hope than Easter. And the risen Lord of Easter made himself known to his disciples by the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. When we rise and reign with him over the new creation, he will be in appearance like a Lamb that was slain.”

And as Polkinghorne affirmed for his Gifford Lectures audience, after highlighting the scientific certainty of death in this world, God promises a new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21). “The new creation represents the transformation of that universe when it enters freely into a new and closer relationship with its Creator, so that it becomes a totally sacramental world, suffused with the divine presence.”

That all sounds like the Good News to me, especially while we’re living in a COVID-19 world. As we used to say in my church, “That’ll preach!” For that reason, even in 2020, we can certainly proclaim “Christ is risen indeed!” (And do I hear the response out there? “He is risen indeed!”) May it be so.


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