When you are small, the wonder of an Easter egg hunt is exiting. But as you grow older, the awe of the experience begins to fade. I remember a particular Easter when I had to make a choice: Would I listen to my older cousin or would I do what was right.
It was Easter and I was six. All of the grandkids were sent upstairs into the bedroom while the adults went outside to hide eggs. The problem was that the bedroom window faced the main part of the yard. What my cousin saw as an opportunity, my gut told me was an obstruction of justice, a desecration of the wonderful art of hide and seek, the surprise of finding Easter eggs.
Inevitably, I followed his lead and that day we were like the spies sent into Jericho. We watched from that upstairs window as the adults hid the eggs. Rather than experiencing the wonder of actually discovering eggs, we knew exactly where to look. The whole experience was sanitized.
John’s resurrection account
There is a one-in-four chance that on Easter Sunday your church community will reflect on John 20: an account of the greatest event in history—the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is the most beautiful thing that the church has to offer the world. Nevertheless, each year it becomes the “old familiar story” instead of the fresh account of God transforming all of reality. It is as though the resurrection loses its shock value, that it has become sanitized.
It is interesting to see how the author of John’s gospel tells his story. There are some striking themes that can very easily be missed if we are not careful. Notice how this good news of Jesus begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1.1-3).
The first line of this historical story should jump out and scream of familiarity. For a 1st century Jew this spoke volumes. Whenever we read the New Testament it is a good to remember what the original readers had in the back of their minds. Or as one author has put it, we need to remember the Bible Jesus read.
John’s story of creation
What I am talking about is the “principle of first mention.” We need to ask ourselves: Where else in the Bible does it say something similar? In this case we would say, “Oh I know. Genesis 1.” So we ought to read whatever John is writing with the original “in the beginning” story in mind.
John’s gospel has something to communicate about humanity and the whole cosmos. This is a story about creation. John wants us to understand that Jesus was with God before the creation of the world and then chose to become part of God’s earth as a human being. Jesus’ life not only enters into cosmic history, but somehow affects all of creation itself. It is very important to keep this in mind as we return to John 20.
Chapter 20 begins with an interesting detail that gives us the exact day that Jesus rose from the dead and also a clue into something deeper. The writer states: “Early on the first day of the week” (John 20:1, emphasis mine).
Now what does this have to do with anything? Couldn’t the author just as easily have said “on Sunday”?
It seems that John is emphasizing something quite specific. This minor detail is so important that later in this same chapter he says again: “On the evening of that first day of the week…” (John 20:19, emphasis mine).
A new kind of week
What is John getting at? Remember the start of his book? John makes sure that we have the Genesis creation stories in the back of our minds as we read the rest of his gospel. It is important to John that we see clearly the flow of the passion narrative. Jesus dies on the sixth day of the week (the same day in which humanity was created in Genesis), rests in the ground on the seventh day (just as God rested) and then is resurrected on the first day of a new week. Or to say it another way, Jesus’ resurrection happens on the eighth day or the first day of a new kind of week.
N.T. Wright describes it this way in his book Surprised By Hope: “John 20 stresses twice (in verses one and 19) that Easter is the first day of the new week. John has so ordered his gospel that the sequence of seven signs, climaxing in the cross of Jesus on the sixth day of the week and his resting in the tomb on the seventh, functions as the week of the old creation; and now Easter functions as the beginning of the new creation. The Word through whom all things were made is now the Word though whom all things are remade…. Jesus’ resurrection is to be seen as the beginning of the new world, the first day of the new week, the unveiling of the prototype of what God is now going to accomplish in the rest of the world.”
John is trying to help the reader understand that Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of a process of God recreating the world. Jesus is re-created first and then someday the rest of humanity who are in relationship to God will be re-created along with the rest of the created order. When Jesus walks out of the tomb on that first Easter morning, hope for something more invades reality. God in Christ begins a whole new creation in the midst of this world’s brokenness!
Our new world
In Revelation 21 and 22 John describes in great detail what the world will be like when the new week that Jesus inaugurates through his resurrection comes to its completion. We read that the heavenly New Jerusalem will come down to this earth—not a destroyed planet that God has given up on but to this one. Although the word “new” gives English readers the sense that the “new heaven and new earth” will be brand new, the Greek word “kainos” literally means “new in nature or quality.” It is a categorical mistake to believe that God will give up on this world and replace it with a brand new one.
According to John, eternity in God’s restored earth will be the completion of creation, the beautiful union of heaven and earth. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21.4). Poverty, pain, sickness, injustice, violence and even death will all cease for eternity as God consummates the fullness of the kingdom of God!
Article 18 of the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith says it this way: “All God’s children will be united with Christ when he appears, and they will reign with him in glory. Pain, sorrow and death will be abolished, and the redeemed will be gathered into the new heaven and new earth where together with the angels they will worship God forever. God will make all things new, and God will be all in all. This is the blessed hope of all believers.”
Paul reminds us of this hope in Romans 8, stating that this will be a day when “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” For now, we have the Holy Spirit who “groans” within us in the midst of the brokenness of our current reality and invites us to do something about it.
We are empowered to partner with God to remind our world that it isn’t always going to be like this. We, the people of God, are invited to live as though tomorrow’s new creation has already begun. Because according to John 20, indeed it already has!
A new gardener
Mary Madeline stands outside of the tomb weeping when the gardener shows up. This seems a bit familiar as well. Back to the original creation story we go. Adam was placed in a garden as its overseeing gardener and given a green thumb to nurture it, to make creation flourish. Now a new gardener has arrived.
Mary doesn’t realize it at first, but this gardener is everything Adam and humanity failed to be: God’s untainted image-bearer. Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity and has called us to not weep as though we have no hope but to live in light of the new week of creation that he inaugurates.
As we move towards Easter Sunday, my hope is that the resurrection fills us with a sense of wonder. Christ’s resurrection should be more like the surprise of a child stumbling across an egg in the yard and less like viewing things from an upstairs window. We can continue to let the “old story” be redundant and sanitized, or we can realize that Easter is about God doing something fresh in the world.
“Christ is risen” means that a whole new creation has been born in the midst of this old one! May our culture see glimpses of the resurrection through our churches as we live as conduits of the new week of creation.
Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook