Perplexing and confronting. Whether believers or not, that is how many of us find the events of that first Easter week in Jerusalem. Here are the elements of high drama: betrayal, confrontation with Jewish and Roman authorities, a trial, torture and a cruel death by crucifixion.
Even so, Jesus would have disappeared completely from history had it not been for what happened next: Jesus’ Resurrection, and the appearances which convinced his incredulous followers that he was indeed alive. This did indeed changed everything.
The disciples themselves were deeply perplexed, for it was blasphemous for these pious Jews to acknowledge that Jesus was the embodiment of the God they worshiped. And it was complete madness to those from Greek culture, that such a shameful death could be accepted by God.
From being a bewildered and frightened crowd, the first believers were transfixed by joy at their sense of the intense presence of the spirit of Jesus. They had the experience, but understanding the meaning was altogether another thing.
Retelling the story of Jesus and interpreting it for wider groups of people eventually gave birth to the Gospels and other New Testament writings. And still we believers struggle to understand what Jesus’ Resurrection means for our lives now.
So shocking to Jewish ears, Christians believe that the mighty Creator God has taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Believers then see all the words and actions of Jesus as an unveiling (revelation) of what is deepest in the heart of his Father.
Why then does Jesus submit to such a degrading death? I would suggest it embodies the ultimate commitment of God to our human wellbeing, demonstrating in the most graphic way that God is not indifferent to pain, death and evil in the world. In Jesus, God gives his life for us. It is as if in Jesus God is sucking all the evil in the world into himself, not to be overcome by evil, but to transform it through his Resurrection.
Jesus talked incessantly about the Kingdom or Reign of God, yet as he said to Pilate, his Kingdom was not of this world. Such a belief relativises our life in this world. This life is a journey to our final home in heaven.
Such belief profoundly transforms our worldview, our sense of values, our priorities in how we live. If God loves us so intensely as to express his solidarity with us so graphically in Jesus’ life and death, then indeed we are all precious in God’s sight. And God expects us to recognise this in the way we treat one another.
No words of Jesus capture this more powerfully than the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. Jesus makes entry to heaven entirely depend on how we have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited those in prison.
Consider how confronting are these words, and not just for the pious people of Jesus’ day who fulfilled all their ritual religious duties. The words of the parable are quite extreme: entry to heaven is conditional on our care for the destitute and suffering. God is not fooled by mere piety if it is without compassion and ignores human wellbeing.
Moreover God takes care for the poor and distressed intensely personally. ‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brethren of mine, you did it to me.’
The message of Easter relativises our life in this world but without trivialising it. Evil and suffering are not taken away, but our struggle against them is given new meaning in the light of Easter.