The Link Between the Resurrection and Elections

I went to a funeral recently. It was an old friend and former colleague. The big “C,” diagnosed six years ago. He outlived the first diagnosis by five years but eventually it caught up. Splendid service, lovely music, fine sermon, many poignant moments. I met dozens of people I hadn’t seen for years. All as it should be.

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Except for one thing. The service was billed as a “resurrection” celebration. The printed service paper said so. The preacher said so. Some of the hymns said so. But the resurrection itself—a new bodily life in God’s eventual new creation—was conspicuous by its all-but-absence. And that’s a problem. Not only because most people in our culture don’t know what “resurrection” means, but because they don’t know why it matters.

Resurrection matters because what you ultimately hope for affects the person you are right now. More particularly, it matters because people who really believe in resurrection have a different approach to all of life—including politics. Including issues of justice and mercy, at all levels. Including, dare I say, voting and elections. This affects all of us.

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So what does “resurrection” mean? Most people today assume that it’s a fancy way of saying “life after death.” That’s certainly what I would have picked up from that funeral service. But “resurrection” never meant “life after death,” or “going to heaven.” Plenty of people in Jesus’ day believed in “life after death,” in some form, but were still shocked by talk of “resurrection.” That’s because “resurrection” always meant people who had been physically dead coming back to a new life—a new bodily life. Whatever we might mean by “life after death” (the Bible actually says very little about that), “resurrection” is a further stage. It’s life after “life after death.” Wherever Jesus was after his horrible death, he wasn’t raised again until the third day. “Resurrection” is the final stage in a two-stage post-mortem journey. With that, a new world is born, full of possibilities.

Jesus’ risen body was the first element in God’s long-promised “new creation.” A little bit of God’s new world, coming forward from the ultimate future into our surprised and unready present time. And launching the project of new creation that continues to this day.

Most people in our world, including most churchgoers, have never heard this explained. This robs us, as individuals, of our ultimate hope, leaving us with “pie in the sky when you die,” which was never the original Christian vision. In particular, it robs us of the motivation to work for God’s new creation in the present. And that means public life—justice, politics, voting—and all that goes with them.

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Here’s the point: Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t mean, “He’s gone to heaven, so we can go there too” (though you might be forgiven for thinking it meant that, granted the many sermons both at funerals and at Easter). It means, “In Jesus, God has launched his plan to remake creation as a whole, and if you are a follower of Jesus you get to be part of that right now.” What God did for Jesus, close up and personal, is what he plans to do for the whole world. And the project is already under way.

How does this work? One way of putting it is to say that God intends to put the whole world right in the end. This will be a great act of total new creation, for which Jesus’ resurrection is the advance model. In the present time, though, God puts people right—women, men, children—by bringing them to faith in Jesus and shaping their lives by his spirit. And he does this so that they can, here and now, become “putting-right” people for the world. In the future, God will put the world right; in the present, God does put people right.

And the “put-right” people are called to be “putting-right” people, Sermon-on-the-Mount people, lovers of justice and peace, in and for God’s world. They are to be signs of the new creation which began with Jesus’ resurrection. They are to produce, here and now, further signs of that new world. The church as a whole, and every member, is called to become a small working model of new creation.

And that new creation includes (what we call) social reform. Check out the relevant biblical passages. The Psalms sketch the ideal society: in Psalm 72, the No.1 priority for God’s chosen king is to look after the weak, the poor and the helpless. The prophets add their dramatic pictures, as in Isaiah 11 where the wolf and the lamb will lie down together. (They tried that in a zoo in California, and it worked fine provided they put in a new lamb each day.) Already in Jesus’ day some Jewish teachers were interpreting Isaiah’s picture of the peaceable world in terms of warring nations finding reconciliation. Jesus announced that the time had come for this new way of peace. St Paul picked up that theme, seeing the church as, by definition, a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, without social class or gender hierarchy, as a sign and foretaste of the coming new creation of justice and peace.

The tragedy in the western churches is that, by misunderstanding “resurrection,” both the “conservatives” and the “liberals” have robbed themselves of the whole message. The conservatives, eager to tell people how to go to heaven, regard any attempt to improve the present world as a distraction, not realizing that with Jesus’ resurrection the new creation has already been launched. The liberals, having long been taught that science has disproved Jesus’ resurrection, dismiss its importance and pursue their own vision of social improvement.

Hence the unholy stand-off: liberal Christians saying “justice and peace” but denying resurrection; conservative Christians saying “resurrection” but meaning “going to heaven.” The problem is that trying to get the result (social justice) without the resource (Jesus’ resurrection) is building on sand. Just as a “heaventhat is not “a new creation” is vacuous (and unbiblical), a liberal agenda that is not rooted in the resurrection is rudderless. The 18th-century Enlightenment tried that experiment (reform without resurrection), and it clearly hasn’t worked. No: it is because God raised Jesus from the dead that ultimate new creation is promised, and present new creation becomes possible.

A true understanding of new creation, instead, starts with the Easter message about Jesus’ new bodily life, and the powerful gift of his spirit. It flows out into creative, healing, and restorative work in God’s world—including, of course, political and public life. That insight slices through our present culture wars, where bits of half-remembered “religion” get muddled up with bits of half-understood “politics.” It’s time to reset the terms, both of debate and of action. Get resurrection right and political priorities, including wise voting, will rearrange themselves.

That is the hope. And, in the New Testament, “hope” doesn’t mean “optimism” or “always look on the bright side.” It means Jesus.

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