This great question came from one of my cellmates around Easter, but it holds year-round. We were talking about our sunrise meeting and the meaning of the holiday and she got real honest and said something like…”I really like this Jesus thing we’re doing: community love and goodness. But it’s hard for me to believe that anyone actually rose from the dead. Do I have to really believe that to be a Christian?”
We all thought it was a great question, because as central as the resurrection is to our faith, it may be really hard for most people to actually believe, at least cognitively or intellectually. How could a person actually could come back to life after being dead for three days, especially after a torturous and disfiguring historic death? My friend who was asking this question is really smart, multiple graduate degrees, and she knows how biology works. Who can actually reverse the natural process of death? Plus, we are all so surrounded by death, and most of us have sort of sinking sense of it in our own lives, so it’s much easier to believe that “all good things must come an end” more than that everything is going to have a new beginning. Which is what the resurrection actually means! That Jesus was the first to rise, and eventually all else will be restores and made new, nothing wasted or lost. What if we actually believed THAT???
More on that later…
Because the easiest answer to this question is no, you don’t HAVE to believe anything. Faith cannot be forced and doesn’t have to be faked. Our doubts and questions are all part of the God-seeking and faith-finding process. My dear friend was wondering if she was in or out of the club for her lack of faith, but the fact is that many dedicated Jesus-followers through the centuries (and ones that I know personally) have gone through long seasons of struggling with cognitive belief. And many folks who don’t call themselves Christians seem to produce the most beautiful fruit of resurrection faith in their life and work. So only God can judge, and we probably put too much emphasis on cognitive “belief” vs a trust in God that is lived and practiced and sought and wrestled out through all the tensions of our everyday modern lives. In all of it, I think God’s heart holds all of us of “little faith.” Remember when he affectionately called the disciples “little faiths?” He understood their struggle to believe even though the miracles were happening right before their eyes.
Part of why I hold cognitive “belief” loosely is that we’re all on a journey of working with the revelation we’ve been given. Life hands us so many versions of the “truth;” it’s hard to know who and how to trust. People sometimes make up their own realities sometimes to survive, and alternative facts were a thing long before Donald Trump. My dad likes to tell a story of being a military commander in Uzbekistan, when he asked his lieutenant for a report on a complicated situation, the lieutenant said, “Sir, nobody’s lying, but the truth keeps changing.
This happened with our car two weeks ago. A man who was high and asleep at the wheel flew down our street in his car and slammed into our minivan that was parked across the street from our house, totaling it. My son Zach heard the crash and ran outside in time to see the driver waking up and trying to gather his needles and dope bags from the front seat of the car. About 10 neighbors saw this whole thing too, and one neighbor even has it on video from their surveillance camera that’s apparently always filming our street!
But what the police report says is totally different. They have a woman driving the car with a guy in the passenger seat, and they said it was raining and the car slid in the rain! None of that is actually true, but I imagine they are trying to protect this driver from being charged, who is incidentally is a white man who had a “Back the Blue” sticker on his car. “Nobody’s lying, but the truth keeps changing.”
The “truth” changes so much in our world, and justice so often eludes us. That’s why it’s understandable to me that it’s difficult to accept something as purely wonderful as eternal life and the victory of God over death forever. We might be afraid that it’s too good to be true.
Jesus understands our challenge, too; so much so that he mentions us modern people in this great story at the very end of John’s gospel. I added some explanation and bolding:
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus first came to them (in his resurrected body.) So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, (because Jesus must have known Thomas’s struggle!) “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Blessed. Blessed are you who haven’t seen and yet believe. That’s us! Jesus is pronouncing a special blessing over all of us here today who weren’t around 2000 years ago to put our hand in his side. He is acknowledging that it might be hard to believe this ending to his story, (that is really just a beginning.) It might be hard for us to believe, so he offers us this gift, saying that we are blessed when we do believe. What does he mean by blessed?
It’s not the #blessed that we like to throw around when we feel good or get some desired outcome in our lives. There actually no word in the English language to describe what Jesus means by makarios, the Greek term for this kind of blessing, but I’m going to try to describe it.
Makarios is a happiness that comes only comes by God’s intervention. It’s not just a feeling as much as it is satisfaction and comfort in God’s grace and mercy. It’s about being in a position to RECIEVE from God, and it’s a gift that cannot be forced on another. It is received by those who are hungry for it and not willing to accept any purely human substitute. (You can see how this annoyed the violent revolutionaries who want to force God’s will on the world, and it really annoyed the religious leaders who wanted to earn their favor with God.) Makarios “blessed” cannot be earned or forced, it is the gift of faith from the Spirit. My friend Zach just pointed out to me that we might replace the word “belief” with “hope” to understand what Jesus is offering. I agree! “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
We might be setting the bar way too high on our ability to work ourselves into cognitive belief, when the invitation is to receive something miraculous from God. Part of why it’s so difficult to believe in the resurrection, friends, is because we’re addicted to thinking that we have to do everything ourselves! We’ve gone through so many difficult things that we assume we have to take everything into our hands to make it happen. We’ve become so capable and smart and self-reliant that it’s really difficult to accept what we don’t understand or can’t control.
This is why we need Holy Saturday. I love the practice on the day before Easter of just sitting around in the nothingness of the grave and wondering again if anything is going to happen. Will God save us again, or is it all for nothing? Will we waste away in our grief forever, or will God rescue us? I think we need a day, in fact, a life posture of waiting on God to receive instead of running ahead of God to do. We might not actually have to pump and work our way into happiness like we think we do. We could learn to receive the miracle from God, unexpected grace and mercy that we might never fully understand.
That’s the resurrection, friends. My friend Dave Michaux and I love Walter Brueggemann, a modern-day prophet who likes to dig into this Easter mystery. One year he wrote on his blog (emphasis mine):
Christ is risen.
We give thanks for the gift of Easter
that runs beyond our expectations,
beyond our categories of reason,
even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives.
We know about the powers of death,
powers that persist among us,
powers that drive us from You, and
from our neighbour, and
from our best selves.
We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety,
and brutality and certitude.
powers before which we are helpless.
But then You – You at dawn, unquenched,
You in the darkness,
You on Sunday,
You who breaks the world to joy.
Yours is the kingdom…not the kingdom of death,
Yours is the power…not the power of death,
Yours is the glory…not the glory of death.
Yours…You…and we give thanks
for the newness beyond our achieving.
It’s hard to believe in the resurrection, friends, because we can’t achieve it. It breaks all the rules and norms that we’re comfortable with. That’s why the religious leaders killed Jesus right after he raised his friend Lazarus to life. Resurrection was too much; too uncontrollable and uncontainable and unachievable for them, too.
But what if we opened our minds and hearts to God for it? What if we asked for the faith to believe that the resurrection is true? What would happen? Would hope leak into the hidden corners of our hearts? What new risks of love might we take? What would be possible Jesus was right here alive and at work in the midst of our worst conflicts and biggest worries? Then we are blessed, makarios, to trust him to keep moving beyond our understanding to make all things new. To make us new. The resurrection gives us a glimpse of an eternal future where there will be no more sorrow, sickness, violence, death, or any separation from God or each other. Can you imagine that? I can barely imagine it, either. But it know it brings hope through the suffering and death I face now. I believe in the resurrection because I need to know there is more.
I want to leave you with a little discovery from the Hebrew language that helps me believe in the resurrection, too. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and in just that very first phrase the ancient Hebrew holds the message “the Son of God pressed by his own hand to a cross.” It blows my mind that right from the beginning, God foretells this miraculous story of love. That right from the very beginning, God presents a way for new beginnings. And it’s an open conversation; the Hebrew language is organized more around verbs than nouns (unlike western languages) so there is lots of room for doubt and revelation over fixed ideology and certitude. God is making a way for our becoming, in ongoing relationship. We really are blessed in this hope that nothing we face right now is the end. God’s grace and mercy is at work on our behalf in ways we don’t have to understand in order to live in faith and hope. The invitation is to trust Jesus to save us from death both now and forever, and that hope is the heart of the Christian faith. It’s as wild and miraculous and wonderful as it sounds, and we can hope for the hope from wherever we are on our spiritual journeys. If we can’t muster up the hope on our own; even better; we can ask the question and seek him in community like my brave friend. He doesn’t leave us alone in our seeking; he comes to our side like he did with Thomas.