We can know and experience the resurrection on this side of the grave. Put differently, in knowing the Resurrected One — Jesus Christ — and experiencing him as the Resurrected One through the Word and the sacraments, we can live in the here and now as people of the resurrection. We are to live as resurrection people now. That’s what the Christian life is supposed to look like. That’s the ideal after which we are to strive in sanctification, albeit hampered every step of the way by our “et peccator” self.
United to Christ’s resurrection through Holy Baptism, we are people who have experienced the resurrection of our spirits and now anticipate the resurrection of our bodies. The fact of the resurrection brings about an understanding that the future reality — resurrection life — continuously breaks into our world through Jesus the Resurrected One precisely where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments are administered according to the gospel. We can find and experience the resurrection in the Church where Christ presides, speaks, and acts as the once-crucified-now-resurrected Lord.
When Jesus rose from the grave with a transformed humanity, our fixed and regimented universe suddenly became open to new possibilities of knowing and existing, new possibilities of epistemology and ontology.
Sarah Coakley, honorary professor at the Logos Institute, the University of St Andrews, says that with the resurrection of Jesus new questions arise concerning a “renewed epistemology” (how we know things), as well as a “renewed ontology” (the nature of being). In other words, when Jesus rose from the grave with a transformed humanity, our fixed and regimented universe suddenly became open to new possibilities of knowing and existing, new possibilities of epistemology and ontology. Whereas once before death was the fixed law of the universe, not so since that first Easter Sunday. Christians thus have available a new way of understanding things in light of the resurrection-fact. We may “see” things as they will be in the future state of the world and, what is more, we may actually participate in that future state of the world in the here and now.
This idea of a renewed epistemology should intrigue every Christian because it’s that kind of sanctified imagination that’s necessary to conceive of the sacraments rightly. Viewed through the lens of resurrection life, the sacraments are never mere things — water, bread, wine, words. Instead, Jesus gives himself through them. Luther liked to refer to the way the Word “seizes” the water, bread and wine, arresting them for the presence and purposes of God. The very person of Jesus thus constitutes the sacraments or, better, Christ the supreme sacrament himself sacramentalizes the sacraments. Because he is the Holy One, they are called holy, as in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. They are not common; they are not of a common way of knowing; they are not a common way of existing. Instead, they straddle time and eternity; they bridge heaven and earth; they make visible the invisible, physical the metaphysical, and manifest grace amidst nature. The sacraments are meaning-laden from Scripture and set aside for extraordinary use by the Resurrected One as vehicles for divine self-giving. Because the water, bread and wine already have meaning in Scripture, we conform to them rather than having them conform to whatever meaning we’d like to ascribe to them.
The sacraments are meaning-laden from Scripture and set aside for extraordinary use by the Resurrected One as vehicles for divine self-giving.
And this is why the ordinary, old world epistemologies won’t do. What all these epistemologies hold in common is the non-necessity of regeneration; they don’t require participation in resurrection life. They also preclude a superior epistemological source in divinely-initiated revelation. The unbeliever possesses common sense, empirical apprehension, and rational powers be they ever so flawed. However, none of these ways of knowing penetrate to the depths of resurrection life; none of them offer the possibility of sanctified imagination and, so, the renewal of our faculties of sense and reason, such that appreciates the agreeability of faith and reason or, better, vertical-knowing and horizontal-knowing.
In light of the dominance of these old world ways of knowing, but also their abandonment in superstitious fideism, Saint Paul admonishes his readers in Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). The Apostle posits a strong adversative — “but,” as if to say, “Not that way, but this way.” It’s that contrasting “but” that gives us the great juxtapositions that bespeak of resurrection life — the fresh possibilities of knowing and being in Christ.
- And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead (Acts 13:29-30).
- And you were dead in the trespasses and sins … but God, bring rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:1, 4).
- I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
There is then an epistemology and ontology that belongs to the baptized. Professor Coakley, it seems, couldn’t improve upon Paul’s word choice and, so, likewise speaks of a “renewed” way of knowing resultant upon Christ inaugurating a renewed way of living (or being) encompassed by his resurrection life. A vocabulary of “renewal” bespeaks of the dawning of a new creation that began with the resurrection of the Son of God: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:18). Firstborn from the dead! That means there’s much more to follow this cosmos-altering event. Resurrection life in us allows us to see through the wardrobe and into the Narnia of the new creation so as to envision/imagine the two dimensions of our one reality thoroughly overlapping and interacting. It is at that point of intersection between heaven and earth that we find the Christian experiencing God in Christ through the Word and the sacraments, with the furthering consequence of such knowing and experiencing spilling into every aspect of our lives. Stated plainly, resurrection life is best known and experienced in the Church — the dominion of Christ where we encounter the living Word and sacraments.
Resurrection life in us allows us to see through the wardrobe and into the Narnia of the new creation so as to envision/imagine the two dimensions of our one reality thoroughly overlapping and interacting.
So when it comes to the sacraments in particular, we are not asked to play “make pretend” that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are present and active in Baptism because all that we sensibly know are water and words, as the Common Sense and empirical philosophers would say. Neither are we asked to suspend cognitive abilities when participating in Holy Communion, as the Church asserts that the very humanity of Jesus, such that was taken up into the mid-most mysteries of the Holy Trinity, are given to us under the auspices of bread and wine. Far from it. The resurrection of Jesus says that, because resurrection life is in fact the new state of affairs since the new creation has begun in and through Christ’s person, there abides a renewed way of knowing and being for which the old ways of knowing and being are insufficient due to the effects of sin upon human nature.
Not that common sense, rationality and empirical inputs are wrong or failing; it’s just that in and of themselves they’re limited to knowing merely on the horizontal plane. To be sure, they have value and, so, are employed by Christian apologists to bolster our confidence in the fact of Jesus, the historicity of his crucifixion, and the verity of his resurrection through a myriad of verisimilitudes. But they hit a wall when it comes to knowing and being in Christ’s love. A renewed epistemology and ontology participates in the love of God, indeed, participates in the divine life of love. Jesus was the love of God made manifest: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (John 3:16). Love wasn’t merely the motive to save us. God’s love became incarnate for the expressed purpose of renewing the world, and that includes the totality of our person. Love, it turns out, is an even greater kind of knowing or trusting than either faith or hope. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of theses is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). This makes sense because God is love.
Knowing and experiencing Jesus in his resurrected state, and that resurrected state manifesting or becoming concrete for us is precisely what the sacraments are, indeed, it is the very purpose of the sacraments themselves. Simply put, the sacraments are points of contact for our knowing and experiencing resurrection life or, put differently, participating in the renewal of our own persons through divine love, in the here and now.
The Word and the sacraments constitute the points of contact between our world and God’s world: where heaven invades earth; where the invisible becomes visible; where grace transforms nature; where spirit possesses matter. Together, they are the breaches and friction points between the two dimensions of our one reality, where renewal seeps into creation. Put differently, by the power and presence of the Word of God, the sacraments are points of contact with Resurrection Life or, more precisely, with the One who is the Resurrection and the Eternal Life (John 11:25).
So then, we are not talking about merely the power of the Word, i.e., the real voice of Jesus during the Church’s Divine Service. Frequently, we stop there — just with the Word. And when we do so (as Lutherans tend to do when speaking about justification), we sound like nominalists, whereby all of our doings and relations to the Lord are mere words, mere ideas. Examples of this can be found in songs about the blood of Christ by those who do not know that we can come into contact with the blood of Christ on this side of Golgotha, yet on this side of heaven, in and through Holy Baptism and Sacrament of the Altar. Due to a renewed epistemology and ontology predicated upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can actually have an encounter with the “blood of God” (Acts 20:28).
The late Lutheran theologian, Robert Jensen, who in his mature years abandoned progressive theology for the theology of the cross, articulates the implication of a renewed epistemology and ontology for practical pastoral care in his celebrated article, “How the World Lost Its Story.”
The great drama of the Eucharist was the narrative life of [the ancient church]. Nor was this a fictive world, for its drama is precisely the “real” presence of all reality’s true author, elsewhere denied. The classic liturgical action of the church was not about anything else at all; it was itself the reality about which truth could be told. [The reality of resurrection presence in our midst.]
In the postmodern world, if a congregation . . . wants to be “relevant,” here is the first step: It must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction. … If the church is not herself a real, substantial, living world to which the gospel can be true, faith is quite simply impossible.
If we are in our time rightly to apprehend the eschatological reality of the gospel promise, [that is, the reality of resurrection life to come present with and in and among us now], then we have to hear it with Christ the risen Lord visibly looming over our heads and with His living and dead saints visibly gathered around us. Above all, the church must celebrate the Eucharist as the dramatic depiction, and as the succession of tableaux, that it intrinsically is. How can we point our lives to the Kingdom’s great Banquet, if its foretaste is spread before us with all the beauty of a McDonald’s counter?Jensen speaks the same language as Coakley. The renewed mind lives with a sanctified imagination, by which one’s reason and senses are subdued to the reality of the divine Word and presence. Presence and confidence is the resurrection difference for Luther, Jensen, and Coakley. No other claimant “god” matches or can compete with the kind of immanence and assurance that the ever-present Resurrected One brings. Jesus can truly help us through this life and into the life to come. And it is only someone present that can truly help transform our knowing and being.
Don’t just give me the Word, Wittgenstein persuasively argues, but give me presence and the ability to know in faith and love. Only the resurrection of Jesus guarantees and facilitates divine presence and love to us as divine life for us.