Another Easter has come and gone. As we reflect on what it means 2,000 years after the event, I am reminded that the circumstances in which the world finds itself in today, early in the 21st century, are similar to that in which the first Christians found themselves 2,000 years ago.
On that first Easter day, a handful of Jesus’ disciples became convinced that a new King had been enthroned, a new Lord. They became convinced that the teacher from Nazareth who they had been following around for three years was alive again, was the saviour of the world, and was the world’s rightful Lord. He actually was who he said he was, and now they finally understood.
From that day on, what these disciples were saying about this risen Jesus was politically explosive. The resurrection was an act of subversion the likes of which the world had never seen before. Terms like “Saviour of the world”, “Lord”, and “Son of God” were familiar terms used to describe Roman Emperors, who at that time either accepted worship or even demanded to be worshiped. The word “saviour” was used in connection with Julius Caesar, and Augustus was repeatedly called “saviour of the world”. It was also written about Augustus that he “has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Priene calendar inscription; 9 B.C.). And whenever any great deeds of Augustus were proclaimed, they were called “good news” or “gospel”.
So when these Christians started using these terms about their risen Christ, they were doing nothing less than boldly subverting the awesome power of Rome. They had the audacity to say that Jesus was Lord, which meant of course that the Emperor was not, and that the empire of Rome was a false empire. Do you see now why they were persecuted? How dare they undermine the might of the greatest empire the world had ever seen to that time?! Who did they think they were? They must be crushed!
The Christians were convinced that, because Jesus, not Caesar, was the world’s true Lord, that meant that Jesus’ kingdom was the ultimate kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom, and not the empire of Rome, was the one that was ultimately going to triumph. Jesus’ kingdom was one of nonviolence, justice, peace and transforming love. It is the opposite of the reign of empire. Rome’s “Pax Romana” – the peace of Rome – was no peace at all. It was a “peace” that was enforced through coercion and violence, and if you didn’t submit, you didn’t survive.
What the resurrection meant was that violence was never going to win. The way of empire, of crushing rebellion and exercising might by military power, was a lost cause. The resurrection meant that love was going to win, and indeed that love had already won.
This was what the early Christians knew and this was what they lived. Jesus was Lord and because of that, they weren’t going to bow down to any other so-called King.
2,000 years later, nothing has changed. Because of the resurrection, Jesus is still Lord, love is still going to win, and indeed it is still the case that love has already won. And today, this still means that violence is not going to win. In recent months, it seems terrorist attacks around the world have increased. Paris and Brussels have received most of the world’s attention, but there have been more attacks in Turkey, Yemen, Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, not to mention other places where violence has been inspired by Isis.
What we know though, because of the resurrection, is that Isis is not Lord. They will never ultimately succeed. But any retaliatory violence on the part of the West will also never win. Love and nonviolence, the way of Jesus, will win.
The triumph of love and nonviolence is also shown in history. It is not just unrealistic, idealistic fantasy. It is truth. Historically, nonviolent resistance has been shown to be twice as successful as violence. It is true practically and it is true historically, and it is true theologically and universally. Martin Luther King, one of the greatest architects of nonviolence, said the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. The war has already been won; it is over. There are just some battles left to fight.
The resurrection means that God’s kingdom is already being established and nothing can stop it. A new world order is coming into place. It is an order based on a love that transforms everything, every fibre of our own being, and every fibre of the universe. The resurrection is not just about your personal relationship with God. If we leave it at that, we are short-changing the gospel. When we say Jesus is Lord of all, which part of “all” don’t we understand? The universe will live by love. As Desmond Tutu said to the white South African military once as they lined the inside of his church armed with their weapons, “you have already lost; come and join the winning side”. And as that other great prophet, Martin Luther King, said, the weapons we fight with are the weapons of love.
What we see in the resurrection is what we see lived out in the early church. The resurrection life is not about personal victory over sin in your life. I mean it is that, but it is so much more. In the Book of Revelation, we see that the Lamb that was slain is the one who has conquered. A lamb. Think about that for a minute. Not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of God. And it is this that transforms everything.
The resurrection is as relevant today as it ever was. We just don’t realise it. We get drowned out by the noise of the world, the noise of consumerism, the noise of hatred, the noise of fear and the noise of me-first. And we get drowned out by the loudness of our worship music, as if louder is better in case dear old God needs to turn up his hearing aids. But all through the noise, if you have ears to hear, Jesus whispers down the ages, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, and I am making all things new.”
To the question of how the resurrection matters today, let us look to the life of the early church, and let us saturate ourselves in the life of Jesus. Read the gospels over and over, and read the rest of the New Testament over and over. Worthy indeed is the Lamb that was slain by the might of empire. Because that slain Lamb has brought the universe victory through apparent defeat. Through death and rising from death, it has exposed evil for what it is and defeated death once and for all. The days of violence are numbered.
The resurrection of Jesus is the greatest subversive act in history. And the early church took up the challenge to subvert the power of the Roman Empire because of the ultimate paradox of a crucified messiah who rose from death and inaugurated a new world order. This is why the resurrection is just as relevant as ever in today’s world of violence.