Even in the relatively free-form worship of my local congregation, there's at least one liturgical habit we've picked up that I'll hear this Easter Sunday:
Call: He is risen.
Response: He is risen indeed!
He is risen. I love this phrase, not only because it is a biblically-based and ecumenically-received statement of praise, but also because it is loaded with theological meaning. Attention to the details of this simple statement can serve to unpack the meaning and significance of Easter. Let's attend to each word in this phrase to see what lessons we can learn and what mistakes we can avoid.
He is risen.
The first thing to note is who is risen: it is none other than Jesus Christ. He is risen, not someone else. The one who is found walking and talking with his disciples in Jerusalem is the one and the same Jesus who had walked and talked with them in his years of ministry in Galilee. Although he has undergone a radical transformation of his being, he is still one and the same Jesus Christ. There is continuity of identity even in the midst of the surprising discontinuity of resurrected flesh from ordinary flesh. This continuity of identity is emphasized in the New Testament Easter narratives. Jesus repeatedly offers signs that he is who he is. The implication for us is that Easter is first and foremost about Jesus before its about anyone else.
This emphasis on the identity of the risen one wards off the mistake of making resurrection about someone other than Jesus. For instance, we must be careful to not cheapen the meaning of resurrection by attributing it to any "rise" of faith, hope or love among human beings. This danger is especially present for preachers, who in our search for illustrations and analogies sometimes draw attention away from the risen Lord Jesus Christ. If not the rest of the year, at least on Easter we should be careful to remember that we are called to talk about Jesus.
By turning our attention to Jesus, we are reminded that the future hopes of humanity are now tied up with this one man. Christians don't believe in life after death; Christians believe in Christ, who has been risen from the dead and is Lord over death. Only by hoping in him may we hope for eternal life through him. Jesus is not just "the only way to heaven." Jesus is heaven. In him alone is found eternal life. And at Easter we do not proclaim resurrection in general but the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
He is risen.
A unique contribution of this liturgical phrase to theological discourse is its present tense verb. The equivalent biblical phrase is often found in the past tense: "he had risen." Now the past tense is definitive in this case: the resurrection of Christ is something that happened, an event in history, an event in the past. But the risen Christ is not trapped in the past! If so, that would undermine the significance of Easter. You see, Jesus was not raised from the dead only to die again. In his healing ministry, Jesus raised many to life who would later die. But the New Testament consistently proclaims that Jesus has been raised from the dead to never die again. And so he not only has risen, but he is risen. Thus the message of Easter contains the good news of the continuing presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This emphasis on the present tense is an important counter-weight to any fascination with proving the resurrection of Jesus. Whether or not the resurrection of Jesus can be or should be proved by historical reason is a discussion for another time. The question I want to raise concerns the rhetorical effect of such proofs. Could it be that the language of historical evidence tends to lock our attention on the past event and perhaps distract us from attending to the living Lord? I do not wish to prejudice the answer to this question, but merely to recommend careful consideration of potential unintended consequences in our mode of presenting the gospel.
An emphasis on the present tense, provided it is grounded in the singular identity of Jesus Christ, serves as a bridge to the "relevance" of the Easter message. If we treat Easter as a distant history that requires our hermeneutical and homiletical endeavors to bring it into the present, we have already undermined the Lordship of Christ made manifest at Easter. The relevance of Jesus is already established from his side, as he is the contemporary of each and the Lord of all. The question is our relevance to him. Is our identity wrapped up with his or not? That is the question. We must reckon with Jesus at Easter, because he is risen.
He is risen.
It is crucially importantly that the apostolic witnesses almost never say, "He is alive!" This, of course, would be an eminently true statement, and the word "life" plays an important role in the theology of the New Testament. But the consistent refrain is that Jesus is risen. What is the significance of this word choice? The language of "risen" Christ points back to the death of Christ: one is risen from something -- in this case, from the dead. Jesus Christ is risen as the crucified one. His death is not a mere ordeal through which he passed. Crucifixion is not a means to resurrection, or a stage along the way. No! The crucified one is risen. The humble one is exalted without leaving behind the marks of his humility. The Lamb is seated on the throne.
Jesus' resurrection from the dead is an important reminder to not use the triumph of Easter Sunday to obscure the significance of Good Friday. We might be tempted to think Jesus exchanged his cross for a crown, when in fact his crown of thorns was his coronation. On the cross Jesus Christ really did reconcile the world to God. On the cross Jesus Christ was lifted up. On the cross Jesus Christ finished his work. Does this make the resurrection an afterthought? Certainly not! For in the resurrection, Jesus Christ comes to us to bring the reconciliation achieved by his obedient life-unto-death into our lives. The reconciliation achieved in his death does not stay his private property but becomes his shared inheritance with us in his resurrection from the dead. This deep interconnection between crucifixion and resurrection must be kept in mind so that we avoid overemphasis in either direction.
Some preachers might complain that so many attend Easter services that are not involved in Good Friday services or some other cross-centered Holy Week event. Although this limited liturgical participation is a serious matter to be addressed, the fact is that the message of Easter contains within it the message of cross. He is risen, risen from the dead, risen from his death of the cross, which reconciles us to God. From this very particular and significant death, Jesus has been raised.
He is risen.
He is risen indeed.