Commentary

Easter Riddles: Man or God?

By Nancy Petro

 

Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia! —Charles Wesley, 1739

 

Happy Easter to you and your family.

 

Easter, arguably the most important holiday on the Christian calendar, begs questions not often asked in polite company: Do you believe in Jesus’s resurrection? Does it matter?

 

One can assume non-Christians don’t believe. But belief in the resurrection is not assured even among Christians. Debates dating back to the early church raise a longstanding dilemma: For some, this foundational tenet of the faith is a stretch.

 

Upon retirement I recognized my lifelong Christian faith was still in infancy. I pursued mature faith the way other retired boomers learn to play the piano or bungee jump. I read the Bible and faith writings; worshipped and prayed more purposefully; and published online faith-related musings.

 

In full disclosure, I long believed in the resurrection. A college religion course introduced different interpretations—mythical and metaphorical. My retirement deep dive enriched my belief without full clarity (but with increased appreciation for the diverse ways God calls to us).  

 

However you view it, believing in the resurrection requires a leap of faith. If we could prove it and answer every question, the resurrection would be a matter of history, science, or other academic endeavor. By it’s very nature, faith requires we believe without proof: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV)

 

Some argue the resurrection is an unnecessary stumbling block to many who could benefit from Christianity. After all, the faith offers motivation to serve others, a supportive community, moral guidance, and other benefits sorely needed in this world. Jesus, the carpenter-teacher whose itinerant short ministry launched a faith that today numbers 2.2+ billion followers (more than any other religion), provided teachings and an unorthodox model of living in integrity and love.

 

I suggest that unresolved questions regarding the resurrection should not deflect followers any more than Jesus’s recommendation that we sell all our earthly goods and give the proceeds to the poor (Luke 18:22). We Christians are works in progress.

 

That said, I believe the resurrection matters, profoundly.

 

The alternative requires viewing Jesus as only human—even if admirable enough to justify adoration. This presents a conundrum famously articulated by C.S. Lewis. If you don’t believe Jesus is who he says he is, the Son of God, Lewis said you must consider him a “lunatic” or a “demon” (often interpreted as a “liar”). These are completely inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings and life.

 

Believing is not one leap of faith and done. The recognition that Jesus died an agonizing death for you and me, with all our sin and imperfection, has great implications on heart, soul, and living. Our inclination is to conclude that if Jesus really is the Son of God, he momentarily appeared, masqueraded as man, to fulfill this curious mission (to make atonement for our sins and deliver the good news of God’s loving offer of eternal connection)…which is nearly the opposite of believing Jesus was (only) a very moral man.

 

Viewing him mostly or only as God, however, diminishes the fullness of Jesus and our connection to him. One of the great gifts of believing in the resurrection is expanded knowledge of Jesus and his ministry. His final hours of earthly life dispel superficial understandings and call us to truly behold the son of man and the Son of God…as difficult to take in as the resurrection itself.

 

Jesus is one of us! His dual nature wonderfully humanizes this man who is also God.

Only as a man could Jesus provide his astonishing example of selflessness extolled by Mahatma Gandhi: “A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”

 

As C.S. Lewis demonstrated in the earlier reference, our leap of faith does not require abandoning reason.

 

We reason that disbelieving the resurrection requires we reject what Jesus said and believed about himself. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31); and “…can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:36)  

 

Disbelief requires rejection of witness accounts. Jesus reappeared in ways no superhero author or religious apologist would invent. Many followers did not recognize him (Luke 24: 13-31). He revealed his humanity (and I suspect his sense of humor) when he asked his disciples if they had anything to eat (Luke 24: 41-42). He seemed ethereal as he seamlessly entered the locked room of his followers (John 20:19-21) but later commanded Thomas to feel his wounds (John 20:27-28).

 

Disbelief struggles with the question, what else could have transformed Jesus’s scattered, frightened disciples into disciplined, courageous followers fully committed, even to their own martyrdom?

 

Others can debate the riddles of the resurrection. I have chosen to accept on faith, reinforced with reason, this transcendent act of love. And while the good news of Easter is God’s gift of absolution of sins and eternal connection, it is Jesus’s humanity demonstrated in the passion and resurrection that calls to us.

 

We witness Jesus’s hours before the cross, asking God to relieve him of this cup but only if it is God’s will (Matthew 26:39); praying in such anguish his sweat was like “drops of blood” (Luke 22:44) and later, crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46) In these haunting human moments, we understand that this extraordinary man truly suffered, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. The Son of God—also the Lamb of God—received no free pass from his atoning sacrifice.

 

After his darkest hour on the cross, we learn that Jesus arose three days later, appearing unceremoniously, an understated clarifying confirmation of his promises. How much more meaningful after his resurrection were his earlier assurances, such as, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)

 

Before his ascension, Jesus charges his disciples with their transforming mission, the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 18-20)

 

Our leap of faith is a tiny step in light of Jesus’s total sacrifice for us. In the passion and resurrection we learn that God loves us more than we love ourselves. We feel we don’t deserve this forgiving love, and we are correct. The great cost of our redemption elevates the importance of this earthly life and of mankind. An extraordinary blessing of Easter is that through his sacrifice, Jesus becomes uniquely accessible to us. He knows our pain, loneliness, anxieties, humiliations, and heartache, because he has suffered the worst of these, for us. How could we have imagined such grace?

 

The son of man, the Son of God. Our perfect savior is risen. Alleluia!