Raleigh Mennonite Church
In the Bible Easter is called a triumph. We hear it in today’s reading from Colossians: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them triumphing over them.” We hear it again in 2 Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal processions.”
There’s a long history of this in the church, the earliest way of understanding what happened when Jesus died and rose again, and what that means for us. We call the working out of these questions “atonement.”
For most of us, the story of atonement we’ve heard goes something like this: Adam and Eve sinned and God became angry. In order to save us from the wrath of God, Jesus comes into the picture and takes our place. Jesus’ death on the cross appeases God’s anger and sets us right. Jesus becomes our substitute, stands in our place. This view of atonement is called “substitutionary atonement.”
But more ancient than this, the tradition of atonement formed for the earliest Christians was christus victor, “Christ is victorious.” These ancient Christians believed the world was always at war between opposing forces. In Romans Paul talks about this war constantly, the war between sin and death on the one hands, and the power of God on the other. We hear this language throughout Scripture – the powers, the principalities, rulers, authorities, demons. These are all the forces that work against God’s will in the world.
Jesus is the final conqueror of these powers, the non-violent act of self-giving love ends the power of sin and death in the world. 1 John says Jesus comes to destroy the power of the devil, finishing the cosmic war raging all around us.
That’s why for centuries the church has celebrated the Sunday after Easter with jokes, laughter, picnics and parties. Easter was a joke on the devil, holding evil up to ridicule as we come to realize that evil has no more power on the earth. Sin and death have been defeated.
And that is why we’re here today, with a kazoo choir, a Dr Seuss liturgy, and a time for telling jokes. Easter is a triumph.
“Triumph” is also an ancient word. When an enemy threatened a city, they would send out an army to protect the people. When the army won, when they defeated their enemy the home team would return to find an arch built in their honor. We can still see these arches in cities throughout the world.
The conquering army returned, parading under the arch. Part of the procession were the conquered warriors. These generals or kings would be stripped naked to walk through the town, in front of all the people they once threatened, now harmless, silly, and pathetic.
In the parade, they would also include wild animals from the conquered lands, tied up, docile and unable to harm the people. It was a symbol that the threat that terrorized them, their greatest fear was laughable. Children would come up and pet the animals, play with them. Ferocious tigers, wild boars and bears – now the toys of children. That is what the Bible means when it says Easter is a triumph.
Because at Easter Jesus does just that. The power of sin and death that threatened us are now defeated, a laughing stock. The thing we feared has no power to dictate our lives, to scare us into submission, to make us believe that we have to be enlisted to these powers any longer. We’re in a new world, one in which God is making all things new, God welcoming us to participate in the Good News, the news that proclaims “He is not here! He is risen!”
What’s remarkable about God’s triumph, the joyful, ridiculousness of it all, is that it doesn’t come about through armies. Death and sin aren’t defeated by military might, equally matched forces raising their swords. Instead, the Defeater is the Defeated One, God who comes to earth as a baby, born to a peasant teenager in a barn, raised in poverty to become a homeless adult who lives off the charity of others and eventually is executed as a criminal of the State. He never works a job, never holds an office, never starts a family. He bears none of the cultural markers for success. The absurdity of it, that this one man, this Jesus, reconciles the cosmos.
But that’s what happens here. We remember those revolutionary words of Mary as we see a world turned upside down:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
At Easter it matters how atonement happens as much as the fact that it happened at all. Jesus sets a new pattern for us, a new way of participating in the world. If we want to be a part of what God is up to we don’t look for those in power, we look to the weak. We don’t look to those with money, we look for the poor. We don’t look for those who are free, we look to those who are imprisoned. We don’t look for the wise, we look to those who seem foolish in the eyes of the world.
The foolish joy of this Easter news is that God works in unexpected places, through unexpected people. I once had the opportunity to spend some time at the L’Arche community in Washington DC. L’Arche is a community for people with intellectual disabilities who share life with people who are cognitively typical, people like me. L’Arche is all about finding gifts in unexpected people and places. These little, fragile communities are a sign of peace, a sign of different way of being. They’re places where life isn’t about who is the fastest and strongest, who can make the most money, be the best. Everything is turned on its head.
I’ve always loved that there’s a L’Arche community in Washington DC, the seat of the Empire. I love thinking that while all that jockeying for power, trillions of dollars in military spending, lobbying by corporations is taking place in the old office buildings that this little experiment in gentleness is unfolding, just down the street. Ben is cutting up food and feeding it to Ryan. Cheryl and Patricia are singing along to Love Shack. Sarah is sharing her collection of shells.
L’Arche is real life, the life that God intends for us, where everyone has a gift, where every voice is heard, and every life is precious, where everyone is discovering their limitations and finding others to help them face those limitations. It’s an Easter life, a ridiculous affront to the powers of this world.
It’s hard not to take the powers seriously, hard not to be consumed by the horrors that sin and death continue to assert upon our world. Because we still see that the world gives itself over to sin and death. We still offer ourselves up in service to the losing side. We find that so many are like the Japanese solider who was sent to a remote island in the Philippines during World War II. After the soldiers with him were killed he never received the news that the war was over. Even when others came to tell him the news he refused to believe it. For 29 years he continued to hide in the jungle, shooting at everyone who approached,” refusing to believe the war had ended.
The work of our Christian lives is convincing this man to lay down his gun. The work of our Christian lives is convincing the world that the war is over, that we no longer have to give our lives meaning by securing our own destiny, by hording every resource available, by doing whatever it takes to survive. Jesus, the broken one, the bruised reed, who went without violence to his death – he has defeated the power of sin and death. They no longer rule over us, so we can rejoice. The work now is to share this Good News that he has triumphed. He has triumphed in peace.