“Jesus is risen!” Here is the gospel in its most compact, succinct, and exhilarating expression. The gospel can be proclaimed in a multitude of ways, yet all ultimately distil to Easter. Apart from the resurrection, Jesus’ preaching of the coming Kingdom is proved empty and his agonizing death on the Cross meaningless. Apart from the resurrection, Jesus simply joins a long line of dead prophets and messianic pretenders. He may have exercised a powerful ministry back in the day, but why should subsequent generations pay him much attention? If Jesus is dead, then he exists only in the past, and it would be folly to imitate him. It’s one thing to die for a cause that one deems greater than oneself, but it’s quite another to embrace a loving that inevitably leads to death and is at that moment undone. Love promises the gift of self to one’s beloved, yet death destroys the gift and voids the promise. How is that salvation for the world? As the Apostle Paul reminded the church in Corinth: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Apart from the resurrection, life in Christ is impossible. Faith rests on the unconditional promise of the Kingdom proclaimed by Christ and sealed in his obedience unto death:
If Jesus were dead, following him would be the imitating of a figure of the past, and so self-defeating: for the life to which the past Jesus called was exactly that we give up all such clinging to the past, and live by hope for the future Kingdom. Precisely the historical facts of his words and his actions means that only if he is alive, only if he is free to surprise us and upset all our imitations of what has been, is it possible to be his followers. Christian faith is not a matter of knowing about what Jesus did back there, and then seeking how now to get benefit from it; it is a matter of the promise made right now in the name of a living man, Jesus—who is of course known to us only by what he did back there, and by the self-surrender unto death in which he did it. (Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise, p. 44)
The message of resurrection need not be heard as gospel. It all depends on who Jesus was. If Jesus had been an inconsequential fellow who lived down the block (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46]), we might well respond to the news of his resurrection with a yawn. “How curious,” we’d remark, and then proceed with our lives as if nothing of import had happened.
If Jesus had lived a particularly wicked life, if he had in fact been a tyrant responsible for the oppression and death of millions, then we would probably be horrified by the news. Substitute the name “Josef Stalin, “Adolf Hitler,” or “Pol Pot” and see how you feel. As Jenson wryly observes: “‘Hitler is risen’ would lift few hearts” (Systematic Theology, I:31). The world rejoiced when Hitler died, for his death meant that his evil had finally reached its conclusion.
But everything changes when Jesus of Nazareth is made the subject of the resurrection confession. Hearts are transformed and disciples are made—suddenly there is Church. “Jesus is risen!” becomes breathtaking news because “Jesus” names the love narrated in the four gospels. If Jesus lives, his love has a future, for us and for his God:
Jesus lived and then died. Therefore we have a definition of what it means to be Jesus, we know what he is: he is the one who lived wholly in the hope he had to bring his fellows, giving himself to that hope even to death. If despite death he now lives, then his self-giving is not only an item of the past to be remembered, but a surprise in the future to be expected. And if that, then not merely one item of the future, but the last future, the conclusion of the human enterprise. For death is already behind him, and nothing can any more limit his hopeful self-giving; it will necessarily encompass all men and all man’s history. To say “Jesus was dead and is alive” is to say something about the last future. (Story and Promise, p. 44)
Jesus now lives with death behind him—here lies, contends Jenson, the eschatological significance of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Kingdom. And here lies, I contend, the driving conviction of Jensonian theology. That the God of Israel has exalted Jesus as Lord and Christ means not only that God has ratified the teaching and mission of Jesus, but that he has eternally established him as the eschatological consummation of humanity. (I know that the way I have just worded the above might sound alarms of adoptionism. Be at peace. Your worries are misplaced.) Jesus is risen and his love must triumph! The Kingdom would not be Kingdom otherwise.
Death limits all the promises we may make to each other, yet Jesus dared to proclaim the Kingdom unconditionally to his hearers. When the Lord invited himself into the life of Zacchaeus, thereby incorporating the tax collector into the communion of the Kingdom, Zacchaeus responded with an act of sacrificial thanksgiving: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). “Today,” Jesus immediately announced, “salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). We misread the story if we interpret Zacchaeus’ repentance as a precondition for his salvation. In the symbolic act of table fellowship, Jesus had already brought the Kingdom to him. Such was Jesus’ faith in his Father and the eschatological mission entrusted to him. In this faith Jesus freely embraced the death the passion and death that was the inevitable conclusion of his mission. “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). Only Pascha would prove the faith of Jesus. “In that he interpreted his fellows’ lives by God’s future rather than by their own pasts,” writes Jenson, “Jesus interpreted his own life by that same future. The outcome of his own life would be the fulfillment or failure of the promise he brought” (pp. 39-40).
By the mighty act of God, Jesus now lives. Death lies behind him, and therefore his promise of Kingdom is not only confirmed but has become sayable in the world.
If Jesus died but now lives, his reality is open to the meaning and outcome of what he did, suffered, and was, without the condition that we must observe: he does not need to specify, “I am committed, of course, only insofar as my commitment does not lead me to death and so to its own negation.” Since death is behind him, nothing can anymore separate him from his future. He is himself the one he evoked by his teaching, the one for whom the prophets’ promises are the word to live by right now—without intervening space for preparation, postponement or failure, without intervening death, without intervening law. Alienation is no longer a possibility. …
If Jesus died and lives, the fulfillment of his life opens unconditionally to him. But his life was speaking the promise of Israel’s Kingdom to other men, acting it out with them, and doing both in a way that removed all conditions and refused all social and religious distinctions. Therefore the fulfillment now promised to Jesus, is exactly that the promises of Israel will be fulfilled for his fellows, and that his fellowship will reach to all men. “The Word of God” is first of all the word by which the man Jesus now lives; and what that word says to him is: “All men will be your brothers, despite their alienation and unconditionally, in the new order that will fulfill Israel’s hope. Just so this word is equally addressed to us, without distinction; it is the word that each of us may speak to the other in Jesus’ name, and in this form it says: “Israel’s hope will be fulfilled for Jesus’ sake, and for you; despite all past or future failed conditions, despite all alienation, and despite the death that rules in both.” (pp. 48-50)
Jesus is risen!
The gospel of Easter!
Our paschal hope!