Friday, April 22, 2011

Resurrection Vocabulary

   For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if  Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
    But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
-1 Corinthians 15:16-23 (NIV)

If, as William Shakespeare once wrote, “all the world’s a stage,” then Illinois Governor Pat Quinn wants us all to play a little Hamlet or King Lear tomorrow.
    The Governor issued a proclamation this week designating Saturday, which would have been the bard’s 447 birthday, “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” in Illinois. Laying aside any cynical observations I may have about politicians wanting to make their language more difficult to understand, the idea actually originated as an educational effort by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Marilyn Halperin, he theater's director of education, explains, “We're looking at a culture where...our sentences are getting shorter and our vocabulary is getting smaller.” She estimates that Shakespeare contributed 1,700 words to the English vocabulary, and hopes the day will help us to appreciate the Shakespearean origins of many of the words we use regularly.
    The theater offers some tips on speaking like Shakespeare, including:
    • use “thee” and “thou” instead of “you.” “Ye” is the equivalent of “y’all.”
    • stick a few “-eth” suffixes on your verbs.
    • be creative with your insults, if you must use them at all. “Jackanape” or “clouted doghearted dewberry” sound great when shouted at other drivers in heavy traffic.
    Truth be told, I don’t think I’ll be speaking like Shakespeare tomorrow. But, if we learn anything from Shakespeare, it’s that words matter. And that significant people and events can change the way we speak by changing the parameters of what’s true and right. If something important enough happens, it can give us a whole new vocabulary and and change the way we talk about ourselves and the world we inhabit.
    We’re celebrating an event like that this weekend, in fact. Believers celebrate Jesus’  resurrection every Sunday - it’s why we gather for worship and share the Lord’s Supper on Sundays in the first place. But Easter gives us an annual opportunity for some extended reflection on the significance of the resurrection. Most of us  probably focus on, think about, and talk about the death of Jesus much more than his resurrection. We thank God for the cross whenever we ask for forgiveness. We sometimes talk about the personal sacrifices of loving someone else in terms of the cross. We think of disease or hardship sometimes as “a cross we have to bear,” and sometimes think of obeying and living like Jesus as “carrying our cross.” All that’s fine, of course, and right, and biblical.
    It has no meaning, though, without the resurrection.
    While Western religious art tends to picture Jesus on the cross, or in his mother’s arms after his death, Eastern religious art is much more likely to picture him risen and victorious. We can probably get off-balance in either direction, but as a Western Christian I probably need to be reminded that Christ is risen.  Lots of people have died because of the sins of others - and sometimes even in lieu of those who deserved to die. But we don’t claim their deaths secure forgiveness for anyone. Who’d want to carry their cross if it led only to death - and not through it, to life and hope? The cross, in and of itself, is no more hopeful a symbol of our faith than a guillotine or gallows. It’s not the fact that Jesus was laid in a tomb that gives us hope - it’s that his tomb was empty three days later. That’s when his followers knew that the game had changed; that’s when they started preaching and writing about forgiveness and life in his name.
    That’s when they came out of hiding and started putting their lives on the line for the gospel.
    On Pentecost, Peter preached the resurrection. Paul did, too. They built a whole  new vocabulary, a new way of speaking and thinking, that revolved around Jesus’ resurrection. After he was raised, they started reading the Jewish Scriptures differently. Paul plays his “what if?” game in 1 Corinthians 15, and reminds us that things would be much different without Jesus’ resurrection. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,” he reminds us, so in Christ all will be made alive.” “All who belong to him,” at least.
    Our world, with its stunted vocabulary for talking about hope, needs us to witness to the resurrection of Jesus as much as it ever has. Jesus’ resurrection is sometimes easily forgotten, buried under the demands of our busy lives and the immediacy of hardship, pain, and death. All the more reason for us rediscover and develop in our own practice the biblical vocabulary of resurrection. Not medieval theology, or denominational dogma, but the confident trust of Jesus’ first followers that an empty first-century tomb outside of Jerusalem changed everything.
    So let’s talk about his resurrection. Let’s tell the people around us unashamedly and without reservation that the hope we have has its source there.
    Let’s remind our youth-obsessed friends that aging isn’t to be feared. Let’s challenge the  terrible tyranny of death over our culture by disrupting the silence around the whole topic with the good news that Jesus’ resurrection gives life to those who are his.
    When we grieve over loss and death, may it not be as those who "have no hope". May our sadness over living our lives here in the absence of someone we love be tempered with joy in a fellow believers’ going to be with the Lord, and the anticipation of seeing him again when Christ returns.
    And may our own lives reflect the conviction that pain and hardship are not evils to be avoided at all costs, but are marks of “the fellowship of sharing in [Christs’] sufferings” and the means by which we come to know him - and the power of his resurrection. May we say, with Paul - and mean it -  that what really matters is only that Christ is exalted in us - whether through our death or our life.
    Like Shakespearean language, this new vocabulary will sound strange to modern ears. But we’re the only ones speaking it right now, and if the world doesn’t hear it through us they may not at all. But if they do hear it, then it might be that God will raise up a great nation of people, from every race, tribe, language, and ethnicity on earth, who will learn to speak the common language of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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