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Easter: The Demand and the Promise

by Robert McAfee Brown

Robert McAfee Brown, whose name is symbolic for engaged theologian and ethicist, is perhaps best known for being able to write clearly, for example, in Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theology and Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar. This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis March 17, 1986. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.

It’s a few days after your leader has been captured, roughed up by the jail keepers, tried in a kangaroo court, and then (to employ the currently favorite CIA euphemism) "neutralized."

You had been captivated by him that day when he appeared over the hill and caught you working on your fish nets. He shared a compelling vision of a new world. So compelling, in fact, that almost on the spur of the moment you turned your back on the fishing business, left your wife and kids who were perplexed if not put out at your departure, and went off with the wandering teacher.

In the beginning, as you glimpsed what the teacher not only talked about but lived, as the crowds responded enthusiastically, your rash decision to follow him seemed almost reasonable. But then the crowds had tailed off, and the new world didn’t seem to be coming quite on schedule. So you and the other disciples had followed him down to Jerusalem, at the height of the holy season and the tourist trade, in an effort to force the issue.

You had forced the issue, all right. By the time you got there, the opposition was well orchestrated and finely tuned, and in less than a week your leader was strung up, and you were smart enough to head for the hills. You made it back to the lakeside up north, and had taken a few days getting things squared away with the family, which had remained unenchanted during your impulsive leave of absence.

You had been particularly careful not to tell friends and neighbors what you had actually been about during your absence, not only because you felt you’d been taken in and made to look three parts the fool, but because you knew the authorities had an all-points warning out on you. You felt distinctly uncomfortable at the thought of being fitted for a cross of your own, nailed there on a "guilt by association" charge. So you had nursed privately your embarrassment and fear, vowing that the next time a wandering prophet came down the pike you would be smart enough to he looking the other way.

And then -- just when the fishing business was picking up again and your family beginning to let you hack into its good graces -- Bartholomew had come over the hill and found you down by the lake shore mending the fishing nets. The following conversation had ensued:

Bartholomew: "Hey! He’s risen!

YOU (out loud): "Oh, no!"

YOU (continuing to yourself): "Oh, no! If he’s risen that means he was right all along. It wasn’t just a dream. And that means back on the road, back into the midst of trouble. Why couldn’t he have stayed dead? Just when I’m beginning to get my life together again, this has to happen."

It probably didn’t take place that way. And then, again, it might have. But even if it didn’t, the episode reminds us that the resurrection story is not just a happy ending tacked onto an otherwise gloomy tale. "If Jesus’ death is the end of the story," we are usually informed on Easter Sunday morning, "then we’re in big trouble. All our hopes have been defeated."

The message really ought to go, "If Jesus’ resurrection is the end of the story, then we’re in really big trouble. All our hopes could be realized, and we’re being enlisted to make them come to pass. The bottom line is no longer Business As Usual, but Everything Is Up for Grabs. The lid is off: Neighbors are to be loved rather than mistrusted. Enemies are to be loved even when we oppose them. How inconvenient."

That’s about where our lakeside conversation ended, the Easter message seen in the form of a demand. And if that’s not the full message, at least it is the only condition within which the full message can be heard. The full message is one of promise. But only those who have heard the demand can rightly hear the promise.

How would the conversation continue? Then or now? It might become a monologue that would go something like this:

If he has beaten death, then everything changes. If he calls us to spread the word around -- in Jerusalem, or right here by the lakeside, or off in Thessalonica, in Washington or Chicago, or off in San Salvador -- we won’t have to do it alone. We’ll not only have each other; we’ll have him too. It doesn’t mean we are safe -- any more than he was. But he’ll somehow be with us, lending his strength and help. We won’t be alone. And -- my God! -- if he has somehow even beaten death, that’s his promise that nothing can really separate us from him.

You know, I think it’s worth another try.

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