“Our Witness to the Resurrection,” by Ursula M. Niebuhr
March 31, 1947
“Christ is risen, alleluia.” The triumphant words ring out: “Jesus Christ is risen today…”; “Earth tell it out abroad…”; “’Tis the spring of souls today; Christ has burst his prison…” The familiar words call us to fresh faith and hope, and thousands recalling the Easter message, instinctively if blindly, will throng the churches at Eastertide. Newspapers will report the record attendances, and those to whom the ministry of the church is entrusted, will preach to overflowing congregations. The pews will be bright with Easter hats; the altars will be decked with Easter lilies, and the offertory plates will be heaped with Easter offerings.
But will our Easter worship, our Easter preaching witness to the Resurrection? As soon as the question is asked we see how hard is the task of trying to interpret the gospel to our world today. How can our generation be told that if it wishes to walk with the risen Christ in newness of life, first it must be baptized into his death and sufferings? The words and the meaning of the words seem equally incongruous. Yet the Christian minister, gazing at the large congregation before him on Easter morning, well may be haunted by the thought that if those anxious to receive the assurance and comfort of the resurrection message had been following the drama of the Lord’s ministry and sufferings in the days and weeks before Easter, they would not have had the time or interest to shop for Easter finery. But in the moment that such a thought crosses his mind, perhaps he remembers that his own organist and choir and inner flock also had been busy “getting ready” for Easter instead of watching with the Lord through the agony in the garden. So, his minor uneasiness confessing that the Resurrection without the Cross is just a dream of an empty tomb, he goes into the pulpit to preach a sermon about the joy of spring, or—and the proportion is about equally divided—to expound the hope of immortality.
The fact of spring—nature all-glorious with the promise of new life—however beautifully interpreted does not by itself proclaim the gospel. Nature may carry the gospel, but it is not itself the gospel; “except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.” Nature shows the sequence, and can be the parable for the event which gives meaning both to nature and to history, but usually the preacher who equates Easter with spring does not dwell on the fact of death.
“Death,” said I, “what do you here
At this spring season of the year?”
Yet it is death which is the ground, conscious or unconscious, of men’s interest in Easter, and also it is death which is the ground of the Christian faith in the Resurrection. “If Christ hath not been raised, ye are yet in your sins,” that is, ‘in a condition of death’ (for in the Bible sin has always the aspect of ‘death,’ alienation from God who is Life), and against this statement of Christian faith no beautiful presentation of spring avails to save men from ‘death.’
If the Easter sermon be not on the theme of spring, most probably it will be concerned with the hope of immortality. There is a version of Christianity with the heart and what Von Hugel called the “costingness” left out. According to this, everlasting life is held out as the Christian hope, everlasting life viewed as a sort of extension of this life to which we shall be transported when we die. Thus, if we accept death when inevitably it comes, (as if there were anything else we could do but accept it!) we shall live forever. According to this sentimental travesty of Christianity, the church is the community of those who have been “let off” paying the price of death because, as Studdert Kennedy said twenty years ago, God was good-natured enough to allow Christ’s death to do instead. What nonsense this makes of the gospel and its reiterated insistence that the only way to life is to die here and now; that we are asked to be baptized into his death; to be crucified with him; to drink his cup; to continue with him in his temptation, agony and death. The fact that the message of the Resurrection is so often confused with such a doctrine of immortality, convicts those of us who claim to stand close to the Christian tradition of our own slackness in response to the preaching of the gospel. We hang back; we are afraid to give up that which we possess, our spiritual or intellectual goods; we are afraid of the emptiness and the blankness, the possibility that ideologically or theologically, we may not have where to lay our heads; and we stumble when we go to take up the cross. We are anxious, and want to save our life and keep it, so we do not launch out into the deep; we are scared lest we, having sold all we have and having bought the pearl of great price, might find it to be counterfeit. So we hesitate, and try to soften the hard words of the preaching, and seek a detour around the events that led to Calvary. But for the disciple who would be “risen with Christ” no detour is possible. He must die unto self, he must give up all he has, his certainties, those ideas which seem to make sense out of life, and at the cost, it may be, of having to echo the cry of despair from the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Within the Christian fellowship and for the Christian disciple, there is no other gospel; Crucifixion—Resurrection; the Cross—Easter; the two events are one in the economy of God, for it is the figure on the Cross that cries across the world, “Behold I am alive forevermore,” and it is the word of the Cross that is the power of God, and the glory which men beheld.
But how can we be found not false witnesses of God when it comes to the task of preaching today? Death hath no more dominion over us, we say, yet our age is in thrall to death and the fear of death. The fear of want, of economic disaster, fear of that group or of that power, fear that life has no meaning for us; these fears are all aspects of that anxiety for life which in itself is a condition of death: “He that would save his life shall lose it; and he that shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.” “For my sake and the gospel’s” the Christian at Easter time worships the God who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, and offers himself in love and service for those who have filled up the sufferings of Christ in the flesh, for this is the reality of being of the body of Christ. The act of faith and humility before the Cross becomes the life of service in the power of the Resurrection, but the two are one. Being dead to sin, which is self, and alive unto God through Christ Jesus is the disciple’s sharing of the Cross and of Easter. It is what St. Paul describes when he declares, “None of us liveth to himself, or none dieth to himself.” And when we are dead unto self, but alive unto God, then we may witness to the faith of the Resurrection in terms which go far beyond the fear or dread of any historical contingency for us or for our generation, and with St. Paul may cry, “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s.”
Ursula Mary Niebuhr, née Keppel-Compton (1907 – 1997), was born in Southampton, England, and after graduation from the University of Oxford, she became the first woman to win a fellowship to Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 1931, she married Reinhold Niebuhr in Winchester, England. As a lay minister in the 1930s, she preached in Anglican churches, and in 1940 she began teaching at Barnard College, where she founded and headed its Department of Religion. She retired from the college in the 1960s. Her professional papers left at the Library of Congress show that she co-authored some of her husband’s later writings.