In the church, we say the events of Holy Week and Easter are central to all scripture, the defining moments of our faith. Everything else leads up to them, everything we know stems from them. We say this because, through these events, Jesus did something that none of us could do: save us by conquering the power of death and bringing us to new life. In my Easter Sunday sermon, I claimed this story was less about changing us than changing the universe around us. When Jesus couldn’t teach, heal, or persuade us into salvation, he changed how the whole thing worked! He traveled into death to be with us, to break open the power of death so that instead of an ending, it led to new life.
This is a weird and strong claim, one misunderstood by most folks. How did Good Friday and Easter change death? Where did it go? We still see it all around us! Though we don’t like to think of it much, all of us are still dying people, even after Easter.
As it turns out, death did not disappear…at least not yet. Instead Easter robbed it of its power over us and our destiny.
We read in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 15:
52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the change made by Jesus through his own death and resurrection. To understand why things work this way, we have to first understand where death came from.
The earliest, most foundational mention of death comes in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, where God warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the tree he has reserved “lest they die”. Adam and Eve do eat, and afterwards they are told that they were created out of dust, and to dust they shall return.
Many have read anger and punishment into these words. These are the same people who read Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice to appease an angry god, or a son paying off debt to his father on behalf of humankind. These interpretations are harmful. If all this happened because God was angry, why didn’t God just choose to stop being angry? If some kind of cosmic debt was owed God, why didn’t God just forgive it? What kind of monster would insist that his own Son die to calm him down or settle the ledger?
Neither God’s words in Genesis nor Jesus’ action on the cross had anger at their root. Granted, breaking the world (in Genesis) and crucifying God’s Son were unhappy things. I’m not suggesting God remained detached or unaffected. But God’s participation in these things cannot be reduced to, or centered on, negative emotions. God’s actions drive towards reconciliation and healing, not retribution and punishment.
Instead, death was God’s response when imperfection entered the world after Adam and Eve broke it. “Imperfection” encompasses pain, suffering, hatred, illness, warfare, devastation. Once creation was broken, all those things would follow.
When we think about life forever, we think about the good stuff: eternal youth, always feeling well, day after day of endless bliss. We don’t think about racism forever, warfare forever, poverty forever, suffering from bone cancer forever, relationships with our family members broken forever. Having these things endure for eternity, without any possibility of them being resolved or coming to an end, is not bliss, but cruelty.
Death sets a limit on creation’s brokenness, both our power to enact it and our ability to experience it. Death ends the tyranny of human wrongdoing. We may rule for a day or for a generation, but we cannot rule for all days and all generations. Death also releases us from the pain we suffer as victims of the world’s tyranny. This is necessary, lest we fall into eternal despair.
Death didn’t come because God was angry. Death came because God isn’t mean. God refused to let brokenness, wrongdoing, and pain last forever. We are supposed to live eternally in joy, love, and peace, not in imperfection.
That’s the way it was before that first Easter. Each generation rose and fell. Many were amazing. Every one of them had something good to share. None of them were perfect, nor were the individuals that comprised them. Wherever imperfection showed up, it had to come to an end. Since all of us were (and are) imperfect, we all had to come to an end too.
I often tell my confirmation students to think of this like a Pac Man game. Throughout history, death was Pac Man, chasing us, eventually gobbling us up. It had not only the right to do so, but the duty. It ended us and our imperfection with each bite.
It’s no accident that the descriptions of death in the Old Testament refer to it as “nothingness” or “powerlessness”. Our broken selves were just…gone. At best we were insubstantial shades, unable to affect the world further.
When you think about it, this system was just! If something is wrong, get rid of it! Makes sense. It wasn’t satisfactory, though. God still loved us. The same God who wouldn’t stand for his children hurting each other in a broken world forever also couldn’t stand being separated from them by death forever. The story of our relationship with God wasn’t supposed to be, “We’re here, then we get gobbled up by death, now we’re gone and that’s it.” God’s will for us was still life everlasting.
This is where Jesus comes in.
We’re going to tell the rest of this story on Thursday. Join us then for Part 2: how Jesus changed everything on the cross and Easter morn!