I realise that we are not even in Lent yet, but have been prompted in a number of ways to begin to think about the message of Easter.
Fairly frequently in my teaching of either New Testament or Preaching, a student will tell me I need hell. Not me personally, you understand. They might think that, but that is not what they say. What they mean is that I need to include hell in my preaching and my exegesis of the New Testament. “Without hell there is no need of Jesus,” they say. “Jesus must rescue us from something, and that something is eternal torment.”
But “Gospel” means “Good News”, I might say. “Only to those who believe,” they tell me. “Believe what?” I ask. And at great length and with not a little passion they go on to explain that in order to avoid eternal damnation people need to believe, well, frankly, they need to believe what my challenger believes!
Over the last thousand years the church has drifted from a focus on the resurrection life of Jesus to a focus on his death. A visit to places such as the National Museum of Catalonian Art in Barcelona make this drift abundantly clear. Early in the church’s history, Jesus was depicted on the throne of heaven, risen, ascended and ruling. By the thirteenth century he had descended again to be the permanently crucified passive sacrifice.
It seems to me that that’s the kind of theology that makes a difference to how Christians live and how the church behaves. On the basis of no social analysis whatsoever, I do wonder whether the American Evangelical church voted Trump because it has for so long lived with a powerless Saviour still nailed to a cross by the anger of a so-called loving God. Perhaps they turned from a God unable to change things to a political power who would make them great “again”.
It often feels to me as though Jesus’ “Easter People” has become instead a “Good Friday People”. I’ve heard the cross mentioned in sermons at Christmas and on Easter Sunday as well as on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It feels as though we celebrate resurrection life one day a year, before scurrying back to the comfort of anguish on the cross. It’s as though we like to feel bad.
The early church did the reverse. They remembered the crucifixion one day a year and celebrated resurrection life the rest. They offered people life, not escape from death. Their actions demonstrated that. The church’s mission toward the end of the Roman Empire was to care for the sick and dying, and to share with the poor. Their mission was life affirming rather than word affirming.
It seems to me that the church in the West has come to focus on sin, and God’s absolute need for somebody to pay for it. As a result, in order to remain the faithful people of God one of the sacred jobs of the church is to identify sin and condemn it. Therefore a great deal of time is spent categorizing people and behaviours as “sin” or “not sin”. Isn’t that the basis of some of the argument on human sexuality?
Imagine what would happen if instead of a sin-identifying church we became a life-affirming church.