What changed after the resurrection?

March 28th, 2016

I know I should still be riding the wave of Easter excitement, but I have to confess something:

The excitement didn’t really come this year for me. At least not like it has in years past.

That’s not to say I’ve suddenly stopped believing in God or that I love Jesus any less than I did last year or that I’m simply disappointed that this year marks some twenty years in a row that I’ve woken up on Easter Sunday morning to find no Easter basket waiting for me.

What has tempered my paschal enthusiasm this year is a question that has been hanging over my head long before Holy Week began. It’s a question I first heard asked during college, but which comes roaring back like an unstoppable torrent of doubt every time there’s another tragedy like the one that took place Easter morning in Pakistan or during Holy Week in Brussels or the week before in Istanbul or months before in Paris or everyday in between in smaller, less infamous, but none the less tragic ways.

The question, my professor said back then, was the most challenging question he had ever been asked. Naturally, every single one of us in the classroom that day just knew we were the brilliant student who stumped our respected professor. To no one’s surprise but our own, we weren’t. The question came from another theology student years before any of us ever showed up at freshman orientation. It was and is as challenging as it is simple:

“What changed after the resurrection?” this anonymous student of yore asked.

Of course, you don’t need a degree in systematic theology to have a prepared answer waiting should anyone have the audacity to ask such an obvious question. Any Sunday School veteran worth their salt knows that after the resurrection our sins were forgiven, the grave was conquered and all things were made new.

Or, you know, something like that. If you want a more detailed answer, I’ll need some sort of reward. Preferably in chocolate form.

Now, to be clear, I believe all of those claims and more are true. But here’s the rub: if we press pause on the Sunday School answers and look around at the world around us with dogma-free eyes — a world filled with death and sorrow, terrorism and abuse, rape and murder, oppression and exploitation — it’s hard not to wonder if anything actually did change after the resurrection.

We can pile on all the theological implications we want to the resurrection, but they don’t change the fact that even as Jesus was walking out of the empty tomb people in his own country were still dying, still suffering under the oppression of the Roman empire, still being taken advantage of by their neighbors, still suffering and causing others to suffer. It’s continued that way for some 2,000 years now as if nothing happened that holy morning.

When you think about it that way or when you simply turn on the nightly news, it becomes hard not to ask if anything actually did change after the resurrection and, at least in my case, just as difficult to find the energy to get excited about Easter when the promises of Easter seem like they’re still going unfulfilled.

To be completely honest with you, I don’t know how to answer my predecessor’s question and, if I recall correctly, neither did my professor. Theodicy, or the matter of why a loving God could allow evil to persist in the world God created, is a question without an easy answer — or perhaps any answer at all. It’s a specter that’s hovered over the good news for millennia and will continue to haunt the Church for centuries no matter how hard we try to drive it away.

But hope is not lost. As challenging as my academic predecessor’s question appears and indeed is, it’s not the question we should be asking.

Because the Church doesn’t believe something changed after the resurrection.

We believe something is changing.

It’s a subtle difference, but a profoundly important one. As Christians, we are not naïve enough to believe that Jesus walked out of the tomb that first Easter morning and in an instant everything changed, all things were made new and suffering and death were no more. As Christians, we believe that when Jesus walked out of the tomb that first Easter morning everything began to change, all things began to be made new and the reign of suffering and death was finally beginning to come to an end. But in believing thusly, we also profess that the kingdom of God is a present but not yet fully realized reality, and it won’t be fully realized until our Lord returns again.

This is, in part, why Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s an active prayer, not a stagnant one. It’s a prayer of expectation, not a declaration of a promise fully realized. It’s a call to stop standing idly by and start participating in the always unfolding fulfillment of heaven coming to earth.

Which is why the question to be asked this Easter season is not what changed after the resurrection, but what has been changing since the resurrection?

If the transforming effect of the resurrection was merely a one-off moment, the centuries of unspeakable suffering and tragedy that have followed in its wake would serve as an indisputable denouncement of our faith in a risen savior. But if the resurrection is a moment that happened and continues to happen and will continue to happen not just in the life of Jesus, but also in the lives of those of us who call him Lord, then we can begin to see its transforming power in how we respond to the tragedies in our own lives, how we love and console one another, how we work together to keep evil from ruling tomorrow, and how we come together to alleviate the daily suffering that is all around us.

The resurrection was a powerful, history changing moment and the resurrection is a daily reality that transforms the world around us through us by the power of the Holy Spirit so that "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" becomes not just a prayer, but a way of living the resurrected life.

If we look at Christ’s resurrection and ask what happened, it’s easy to become jaded and say, “Nothing.”

But if we look at Christ’s resurrection and ask what is happening, we find an invitation to participate in the transformation of creation, the making new of all things and the ultimate conquest of suffering and death.

This is what is so incredible about Easter and what makes the resurrection worth believing in despite what we see on the nightly news or even in our daily lives.

The resurrection didn’t just happen.

It’s happening now.

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