Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.” (Mark 16)
In a 1969 essay on religious pluralism, the American Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote that, “the common challenge for all religions today is to resist the rising tide of nihilism.” Nihilism: the belief that nothing is of intrinsic value or worth. On this Easter Sunday, I would like to sharpen the focus of that observation to say, that the most urgent challenge for all people of faith right now, is to resist the increasingly strident and global attack upon the dignity of the human person.
We see signs of the ebbing of our ability to value one another everywhere. Ideologues of both the right and the left look upon one another as unworthy even of a hearing. Political leaders cynically scapegoat the foreigner and the immigrant. Movements driven by supremacist creeds rally in the public square. The terrorist with his bombs regards other people only as instruments of his own cause. Children—teenagers—marching in the streets to advocate for their own safety are ridiculed by those who would suppress their voice. Citizens ready to risk their life for their country are denied the opportunity to do so simply because of their gender identity.
But what, you may ask, has all this to do with Easter? Well, everything, actually. When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered what is perhaps the most dehumanizing form of execution humanity has ever fashioned. And yet … hidden within that pitiful spectacle, another and more powerful force was at work that could not be put down or defeated: the strength of God’s love surging through him even in what appeared to be his utter defeat.
The physical Jesus dies on the cross, but the mystery is that the spirit within him did not stop loving us even then. In Jesus we find that God is not exhausted by what we do, even putting him to death. It turns out that we are powerless to change God’s mind, which is focused upon us purely for life and for mercy. So on the third day, the love that is the life-force of Jesus comes roaring back into the lives of those who had counted him as lost, simply because God cannot do otherwise.
And suddenly the picture comes clear: Jesus’ death on the cross is a bit like the cross-section that we might take of the trunk of a tree, where we can see and count the rings. But the cross-section gives us only an intimation of the whole picture: the veins we see there, running circularly around the tree, in fact also run longitudinally up and down the tree from bottom to top, just as God’s creative love runs through human history from beginning to end.
In the historical Jesus, we see only a cross-section of that love. At first, it seems to come to an end in his death, but then when that life and love reasserts itself in his resurrection, we realize that Jesus is not limited by historical time after all, but is the one about whom scripture says, “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” In short: Jesus’ resurrection is not a miraculous resuscitation of a human corpse, hard for us to imagine, but a revelation of the metaphysical constant of God’s love, wondrous for us to contemplate, radiating uninterrupted through the cosmos much like the elemental energy from the moment of creation.
And what has this to do with human dignity? Well, if God created us human beings in the divine image and likeness, it was to live in a reciprocal relationship, mirroring back to God the same love with which God loves us. When we look into the face of another human being therefore—no matter who or what they are—we see there nothing less than what God does: the likeness of God’s own self. And if it is God we see, then that person is truly holy, worthy of every dignity and respect we can bestow. To do anything else, is in effect to curse God. As Abraham Heschel put it, “To denigrate another human being, is to be blasphemous toward God.”
Easter, then, is the ultimate celebration and consecration of the dignity of the human person, because it is the vindication of the power of the love through which we were created, and by which we are sustained. In what Jesus suffered from us on the cross, and in the still stronger power of his love for us as it reasserts itself in his resurrection, we encounter the decisive truth of who we are: creatures made holy by the divine nature God has bestowed upon us, and unsparingly loves in us.
There at the front of the church, you see a multitude of icons of saints, and angels, and of Christ himself. They cumulatively weave together the human form we bear, with the divine image in which we are created. On this Easter Day, these images are a bold and unequivocal restatement of the primordial truth which we as Christian people hold: that all people are created equal in God’s image, and that they are therefore endowed with an inalienable holiness and dignity that cannot be desecrated, except by violating Christ himself. In that regard, resurrection must include insurrection, whenever and however that dignity is defiled. Amen.