Rushing to the Resurrection? Not So Fast.

Why we need to understand Good Friday before we celebrate Resurrection Sunday.

I was not at my grandmother’s funeral. She died young, before I was born. But I have never forgotten a conversation my mother and father had about words spoken at my grandmother’s burial service. In the solemn, sacred moments that followed the service, a Christian man and church elder, intending to strike an encouraging tone, said “We are standing on resurrection ground.” I recall my mom and dad having a spirited conversation about his words. For my father, they brought encouragement. For my mom, on the other hand, the words struck her as insensitive. Steeped in the feeling of utter loss at her mother’s gravesite, she needed space to grieve; not an injunction to rejoice.

Both my parents were and have been people of strong faith. In so many ways, it was their embodiment of faith that drew me to Christ. But I always found it curious that this statement about the Resurrection could stir such strong and opposite feelings among two individuals so anchored in their Christian faith. It made me think about how we as Christians view Easter.

In many strands of the Christian faith, the liturgical observance of Easter is practiced weeks before Easter weekend actually arrives. For other church traditions, Easter weekend is, in many ways, what Easter is. Holy week might be acknowledged, Good Friday might occupy some nook of the theological imagination, but the bulk of the focus tends to be placed on Resurrection Sunday.

Now don’t get me wrong. Resurrection Sunday is and should be the center around which the Christian faith orbits. “If there is no resurrection,” writes Paul, “we of all people should be pitied.”[1] But I wonder if some of us place disproportionate focus on Resurrection Sunday and observe Good Friday only vaguely, causing us to miss the greater profundity and power of what actually happened on that Sunday?

Christianity’s Thorough Acknowledgement of Death and Life

I am convinced that one of the most beautiful aspects of the Christian faith is that it provides the most thorough acknowledgement and description of death and life. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”[2] The whole of Scripture is filled with stories of humanity having to endure loss of life.

Death is complex, we know, but one thing is sure: Losing a loved one is excruciatingly painful. If there were any confusion as to how the Christian God views death, we find some clarity in how Jesus responds to the premature death of his friend Lazarus in John 11. He weeps. Pathos fills the page of John’s Gospel as one reads his telling of Lazarus’ death. In his book The Cross of Christ, the late John Stott points out that Jesus was not only sad; he was angry. Something often missed in translations of this story is “The violent ‘snorting’ of indignation that Jesus experienced in his confrontation with death at the graveside of Lazarus. Death was a foreign body. Jesus resisted it; he could not come to terms with it.”[3] There is much to glean from Jesus’ response to the death of Lazarus, but one point that should not be lost is the utterly human response of horror in the face of death.

When we shift our focus to how death is experienced and understood in Christ’s crucifixion and death, we see death in a different light. Death as we know it is always shocking, but the death of a Messiah in first century Palestine? There was simply no category for this. Philip Yancey writes:

“By the time Jesus was nailed to wooden crossbeams, everyone had lost hope and fallen away. Scholars report that first-century Jews had no concept of a suffering Messiah. As for the Twelve, no matter how often or how plainly Jesus warned them of his impending death, it never sank in. No one could imagine a Messiah dying.”[4]

No one could imagine a Messiah dying. There is an incredible richness to all of what was happening on the cross that horrible yet wonderful day. But a truth we ought never to forget is that the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus Christ tells us that the Christian God knows what suffering is like. He has experienced pain and loss.

A truth we ought never to forget is that the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus Christ tells us that the Christian God knows what suffering is like. He has experienced pain and loss.

I think it was this feeling of complete loss and pain that gave my mom mixed feelings about the words spoken at my grandmother’s gravesite. The reminder of “resurrection ground” was not false, it was just untimely.

As we look forward to Easter, I believe there is a lesson to be learned here. For those of us who rush to the Resurrection, perhaps it would give our theological imaginations a type of mouthwash cleanse to meditate on what Good Friday means—to think and feel the weight of Easter Saturday—before we celebrate Resurrection Sunday.

But What If My Life Is More Like Good Friday Than Resurrection Sunday?

How might the message of Easter speak to the person who feels as though life is stuck on Good Friday or even Holy Saturday, but definitely not Resurrection Sunday? For the person who is experiencing pain, or has endured severe loss, Christ’s resurrection is indeed beautiful, but it can feel as though we are always on the outside looking in.

The story of the men on the road to Emmaus speaks to this situation. Here were two men who had seen Christ. They had heard him teach, yet they did not recognize him on this day after he had died. “Are you the only one who does not know?” they asked Jesus. Strangely, Jesus did not reveal himself to them there. For these men, life as they knew it had crumbled. Their reality had been centered around Jesus. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they confessed. I imagine their heads hanging low, tear ducts dried up from shedding countless tears, and almost muttering these words to Jesus out of fatigue and despondency.

That evening Jesus revealed himself to these men in the breaking of the bread. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” they said to one another. They realized suddenly that they were in the presence of their Lord. Jesus had risen, they now saw, and this changed everything. They could not help but go tell others about this newfound reality.

The story of the men on the road to Emmaus speaks to those of us who are in pain. It tells us that the pain of loss, the constant feeling of disorientation and fatigue is valid. Perhaps most powerful about the conversation Jesus had with these men is that he did not correct them. He simply listened to them. Before Jesus revealed himself and showed them the power of the resurrection, he validated the pain they were experiencing simply by walking with them. I do not think that they would have understood the immensity of Christ’s triumphing over death without their lived-out experience of loss on the road to Emmaus that day.

If we pay close attention, I believe the story of the Emmaus Road can provide a type of compass – one that guides our thoughts in the days leading to Easter. The story tells us that it is perfectly normal – even appropriate – to spend time living in, thinking through, and feeling the reality of Good Friday and the Saturday before the resurrection. For the person who feel as though life is stuck here, this ought to bring encouragement: that the same God who went to the cross and rose from the dead does not correct us in our pain; he simply walks with us and listens to us. That in itself is good news.

“Trash-Talking” Death

Of course, Easter does not stop on Good Friday or Saturday. The eyes of Easter implore us to hope in the Resurrection. Easter tells us that Christ’s response of listening then moves to action. Our cries for help are ultimately heard in the resurrection of Christ. Again, the Apostle Paul is a great help in explaining the profundity of the cross and Resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:55 he quotes from an Old Testament passage to help the church in Corinth make sense of Christ’s resurrection:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?”

I remember listening to The New Testament scholar Gary Habermas comment on this passage from Paul. He emphatically explained that when we hear this passage from Paul, we should not imagine him gently waving his hands as if he were citing poetry. No. Paul, says Habermas, was not in poetry mode! Habermas insists that Paul “was trash-talking death.” It was as if Paul was speaking to death and saying, “Death, you think you’ve won? You think you’ve got something on me? No, you haven’t. Christ has won! Christ has defeated you. Death, where is your sting? You’ve lost! Christ has beaten you. You have lost!”

I will never forget Gary Habermas reminding us of the weightiness and immensity of Christ’s victory over death. Are we walking on resurrection ground? The story of Easter resounds with a victorious yes. But the Easter story also reminds us to not forget that although we walk on resurrection ground, it behooves us to think upon what Good Friday and Easter Saturday would have been like. To enter into the full richness of Easter, to understand the stunning shock of what Habermas called Christ’s ‘trash talking of death’, we must remember the pain, the catastrophic loss, and the feeling of defeat on Good Friday.

Let’s look forward to celebrating Christ’s resurrection, but let’s not rush to get there. If we bypass Good Friday and Holy Saturday en route to Easter Sunday, we will miss the greater wonder of all that took place on that glorious Resurrection Day.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:19

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:26

[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 68.

[4] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 242.

To enter into the full richness of Easter, to understand the stunning shock of what Habermas called Christ’s ‘trash talking of death’, we must remember the pain, the catastrophic loss, and the feeling of defeat on Good Friday.

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Ask Away Podcast

Easter and the Resurrection

Mar 28, 2018

Jesus’ resurrection can sound crazy to skeptics and many don’t take it seriously. Does it really matter if Jesus was raised from the dead or not? What evidence is there and why is the resurrection so important? In preparation for the Easter holiday on Sunday, Vince and Jo Vitale look at the compelling evidence for the resurrection and explain why it was an event that changed everything.

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