Easter Sunday is the most exciting day of the year. This is the day when Christians proclaim, ‘The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!’. When I was a pastor, every Easter Sunday I used to begin the service with this traditional Easter greeting. ‘The Lord is risen!’ I would shout. ‘He is risen indeed! the people replied. But at this stage they normally only seemed half-awake, so I would shout out yet louder, ‘The Lord is risen!’ By now the church would be getting the message and with some fervour they would shout back, ‘He is risen indeed!’. Once more, I would proclaim, ‘The Lord is risen!” The congregation would roar back, ‘He is risen indeed!’ And together we would lift the rafters and praise God with an almighty ‘Hallelujah’.
In most churches the Easter Sunday morning service begins in an exciting fashion. But to what extent is the excitement maintained through the preaching? Forgive me if I appear to be a cynic, but I would guess that in many churches the Easter Sunday morning sermon is predictable. Most Easter sermons are a variation on the theme ‘Face the facts – Jesus rose from the dead. The evidence is incontrovertible. The tomb was empty. The appearances were for real. Jesus is alive. Hallelujah!’.
I wonder whether the first Christians would have recognized this theme? I guess they probably would – after all we have the early Christian creed in 1 Cor 15.3-7. But almost certainly this would have not been the main theme of early Christian preaching. For if the New Testament is anything to go by, the message of Easter was not ‘Jesus is Risen’, but rather ‘The risen Jesus is Lord of all!
Look for instance at what is probably the earliest Christian confession of faith: ‘Jesus is Lord’. It was with these words that the first Christians were baptised – and later with these words on their lips that many were martyred for their faith. What makes this this confession of faith so interesting is that in Rom 10.9 Paul links the lordship of Jesus inextricably with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is the resurrection which is the basis for the lordship of Jesus. The lordship of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus are not two separate articles of faith, but one. In rising from the dead Jesus triumphed not only over death, but also over every power that can be named. The resurrection of Jesus does not simply offer hope of life to come, but it changes the course of the world now. The Risen Jesus is the Risen Lord.
The fact is that when the early Christians declared ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom 10.9, 16) they were not saying he is ‘my Lord’, nor even that he is ‘Lord of the church’, but rather, as a direct result of the resurrection, he is Lord of every ‘principality’ and ‘power’. The implications of this thinking are amazing. If Jesus is Lord of all, no aspect of life today can be beyond his jurisdiction.
Or take the Christ hymn in Phil 2.6-11. As with the early Christian confession of faith in Rom 10.9, so here we have not Paul’s words, but rather an early hymn Paul is quoting. As New Testament scholars have discovered, Paul was not the first theologian of the church – there were others before him. Notice the intimate connection between the lordship of Jesus and the resurrection/ascension of Jesus. “God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every kneed should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2.9-11). The name refers not only to a new dignity, but to a new office: Jesus is here given the ‘divine’ function of rulership over the cosmos. The resurrection marks the beginning of his Kingdom. Here 2 the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus is spelt out in terms of this world, rather than the next; it concerns not so much the re-animation of our bodies as of the lordship of Christ over the world. We who believe can be certain of our destiny because Jesus is Lord of all.
Sadly, by comparison the church of today cuts a poor figure. To a large degree we have lost the boldness of the early church. We have largely privatised the resurrection, in that for the most part we just see what Jesus can do for us. We have to a large extent imbibed the ‘post-modern’ philosophy of our day and allowed our faith in the risen Lord to become just one way of looking at the world. By contrast when the early church proclaimed Jesus as the risen Lord it had the world in view and saw the difference that Jesus had made to all. In a multi-cultural and multi-faith world the early church shamelessly celebrated the lordship of Christ over all. No wonder the church grew. and no wonder the faith of today’s church makes so little impact upon our contemporaries. With our emphasis on what Jesus can do for “me”, we have to all intents and purposes created a ghetto-mentality. We need to recover the faith of the early church and go out and claim the world for him!
The lordship of Jesus is also celebrated in the hymn to the cosmic Christ quoted in Col 1.15-20: Notice for instance the claim that that Jesus “rose as the first-born from the dead in order that he – and he alone (the underlying Greek employs the personal pronoun and is emphatic at this point) – might be supreme”. As in Rom 10.9 and Phil 2.9-11, the resurrection forms the basis for the lordship of Jesus. Jesus is Lord by virtue of the fact that God raised him from the dead. Notice too that the hymn allows for no exception to his rule. The “all things” refers to the whole creation – “all things… in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” (v16). Nothing is to be exempt from his rule. Although not yet a present reality, the mood and tense of the underlying Greek suggest that this is already in process of happening. The outcome is not in doubt. Jesus is Lord!
Again, just think of the implications of this claim. If Jesus is Lord of all, then we Christians need to be concerned not just with the affairs of the church, but with the affairs of the world: the struggle for human dignity and for justice, the issues of ecology and the use of resources – even the question of space colonization comes onto the Christian agenda. This is what Easter preaching should be about.