Abundant Life, Abundant Love, and the Empty Tomb

What do you think of when you see a cross? The cross is the most ubiquitous symbol of the church and one of the most recognizable images in the world.  It’s so common that I sometimes wonder if the cross’s origin as a means of execution has been forgotten, or at least overlooked. It was the electric chair of Ancient Rome, an instrument designed with precisely one purpose – death. Just substitute “electric chair” (or simply “chair” if you have to make the syllables work) everywhere that the cross is mentioned in discussions of Christianity and you’ll get the sense of how odd this feels. Next time you see someone with a cross on a necklace, think of how strange it would be to see someone with an electric chair on a necklace. When I hear people sketch out the story of salvation, the cross is often the climax, and the resurrection almost feels like a denouement.

Within Christianity, it only takes look at a hymnal or a list of praise and worship songs to give you a feel for how often the cross is mentioned. I did a quick count in the index of the hymnal used by both my home church and the church I attend while at Swarthmore (The Celebration Hymnal) and under the heading “Christ: Atonement, Crucifixion, Suffering and Death,” there were 66 hymns. The Hymnal has over 700 hymns, just for the sake of perspective. Under “Christ, His Resurrection,” there were 22. Now, the way that the headings work, some songs, like “Were you there?” that talk of both the cross and the empty tomb are placed under both categories. But still, the fact that there were three times as many entries in the former category says something.

Looking at the story of Jesus’ life as it is presented in the Gospels, most of the space is devoted to his teaching, healing and generally interacting with people. He does miracles, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and angers the religious and political authorities. Then, in the space of just a few chapters, those authorities have him arrested and crucified, and just as quickly, his tomb is found empty, he appears to his apostles and several other followers, and the resurrected Christ ascends to heaven.

There are two main questions that I want us to wrestle with, first, what is emphasized at the Cross and the empty tomb respectively? Secondly, how does focusing on one or the other affect faith?

At the Cross, the focus is on three things: Christ’s love, human sin, and Christ’s suffering. The Cross is necessary because of human sin, possible because of Christ’s love and through Christ’s suffering. The magnitude of God’s love is shown by the magnitude of Christ’s suffering.

That suffering is a large part of what makes the Cross so powerful. The idea that God understands human suffering in an experiential way can be a tremendous source of strength when one is suffering.

There’s a significant portion of Christian theology that’s devoted to explaining both why the Cross is necessary and why God would be willing to be crucified. Explanations of why it’s necessary are generally focused on the Law, as laid out in the first five books of the Bible[1]. Taking the rules laid out in these books as binding for all humans, a legal argument for human guilt is formed. The Apostle Paul explains the concept in Romans, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;”[2] and For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[3] Consequently, guilt is necessarily tied into discussions of the Cross. Second, the explanation of why it’s possible focuses on the utterly incomprehensible nature of God’s love.

As the scriptures referenced above show, in a Christian framework, humans are guilty of sin.  Moreover, we’re guilty, but we’re pardoned, and as the second half of Romans 6:23 explains, we’re pardoned because of God’s love as shown through Christ. Guilt is an extremely powerful emotion. Think of a time that someone tried to persuade you with some sort of a guilt-trip and the effect that it had. It’s not easy to move forward in life while constantly being reminded of one’s guilt. Moreover, the fact that God’s love is incomprehensible makes trying to understand its magnitude a really mind-bending exercise. That attempt at comprehension can lead to a deep sense of awe and worship and reverence, it can be wonderful, but it can also be a really easy place to get stuck. Jesus told the disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you”[4] The call on the disciples is not just to ponder how Christ has loved, but rather to show that love to people. It’s a twofold call to contemplation and action.

Lastly, the Cross is easier to comprehend than the resurrection. People who accept the historical existence of Christ generally don’t deny that he was crucified – the argument is over what happened next. Moreover, thinking about death and what may or may not happen afterwards is uncomfortable and often painful. Furthermore, the idea that something could return from the dead, that death could be defeated- not by prevention but by a cure- a treatment to be applied after the condition has set in, is completely and utterly unheard of. I’ll admit to the fact, from a strictly rational perspective, it’s rather crazy. More accurately, it’s humanly impossible. I can’t explain the “how” of the resurrection as anything other than an example of the omnipotence of God. But, that’s part of what makes the resurrection important.

An empty tomb is, in and of itself, a strange object. Typically, an empty grave is waiting for a dead body; it’s a place of sadness. Tombs are places of death, and thus even at the empty tomb death is acknowledged. Yet, in contemplating the empty tomb, death is secondary to life. In Christian circles, it’s often said that Christ was “born to die,” and there’s truth in that. But it’s like describing a square as a rectangle – while it’s technically accurate; it omits the square’s most remarkable trait. Christ was born to die, but he was born to defeat death. While death gets its place at the empty tomb, it’s immediately secondary because the tomb’s not supposed to be empty and the obvious question: “Why is it empty?” is more salient than the fact that it’s a tomb. Tombs are empty because the person to whom they belong is alive. Usually, this is because the person hasn’t died yet. In Christ’s case, it’s because he’s been resurrected. The tomb has been filled, but now it’s empty, and this empty tomb is a place of joy, not sadness.

At the empty tomb, I want to ask the same two questions as at the Cross – why is it necessary, and why is it possible?

Dealing with the second question first, the resurrection is a miracle. It’s an example of the supreme power of God. Just as God’s love is incomprehensible, so is God’s power, and while power is less personal than love, contemplating it brings a different but roughly analogous set of potential risks and benefits. It can lead to a wonderful sense of who God is, but it can also lead to getting stuck in a world of thought divorced from action. Omnipotence means that God can make things like the resurrection happen. Personally, I take the resurrection as an example of what of omnipotence really means, and, since I believe in an omnipotent God, I find this to be sufficient. That’s not to say that I don’t wonder how God actually did it, but the fact that I don’t know how he did it doesn’t make it any less possible.

For me, the necessity of the empty tomb is somewhat more self-evident than the necessity of the cross. We want life, but we live in a world that is full of death, both literal and figurative. Counting the number of fatalities in one of the copies of the New York Times floating around campus will give a rough sense of the amount of physical death that occurs in the world on what is essentially a daily basis. Moving to a more metaphorical death, the world is full of brokenness: relationships, people, governments and all sorts of societal systems. Death is, essentially, the ultimate form of brokenness. Different parts of the physical body stop working and death occurs when enough essential parts have broken for the whole body to stop working. Physically, you can be alive and still have lots of things inside you that are in need of healing. The same is true spiritually and emotionally, we can be mostly dead without being all dead, and mostly dead still requires some measure of resurrection to be fully alive.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[5] So what does “abundant life” really mean? “Abundant” means marked by great plenty or amply supplied (Merriam-Webster online). We supply ourselves with things that we need, so abundance is connected to having our needs more than met. Acknowledging the connection between abundance and need is an important step in understanding what “abundant life” means and looks like. If Christ had come with “abundant food,” as he does on a few occasions in the Gospels, (Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-14; Mark 8:1-10, Matthew 15:32-39) then he’d bring so much food that everyone’s needs were met, and then some. Abundance is more than enough, in fact, it’s so much that it overflows. As Jesus says in Luke 6:15, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Therefore, the “abundant life” that Christ brings is a life and a joy- “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[6] and a peace- “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[7] that is so deep and plentiful that it spills over out of us and is shared with others. Abundant life does exactly what Christ did at the tomb. It enters into a space that is dead and then it fills it with life. But it doesn’t just fill it with life, it fills that space with so much life that the space can no longer contain it, the space overflows and that abundant life spills out into the world, just like Christ walks out of the grave and into the world.

Overflowing requires being filled first, and being filled with life requires healing the things that are broken and resurrecting the things that are dead. Abundant life is built on resurrection. We live in and through Christ, and he lives because of the resurrection, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”[8] But that fact can easily be missed in all of the discussion of sin, suffering and death that surrounds the Cross, and even in the first half of Romans 5:10. The story doesn’t end on Good Friday; in fact, it doesn’t even end on Easter Sunday. Death gets its moment, but life gets the last word, and it’s still speaking. Resurrection isn’t something that just happened once; it’s something that Christ makes it possible for everyone to experience.

I want to be a part of a Christianity that, instead of telling people how Christ died, shows how he lived, that ministers to the sick, the hungry, the homeless and to the modern day equivalents of tax collectors and Pharisees, that brings resurrection and abundant life into the places inside ourselves, in our lives and in the world that are full of brokenness. I want to be a part of a Christianity that practices abundant life, that spreads a message of love, justice, hope and eternal life and that loves, works for justice, hopes, and lives in a way that – though it is a shadow of eternal life – makes me want to experience the real thing. That’s something worth examining, worth questioning and worth living for – now excuse me as I try to find a way to put an empty tomb on a necklace.


References

[1] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Romans 3:23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Romans 6:23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (John 13:34-35) Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[5] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (John 10:10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[6] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 15:11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[7] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Php 4:7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[8] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 5:10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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