The children, in their forgetful playfulness, left the farm gate open again, giving free rein to the wandering instincts of our old Bassett Hound. Equipped with her overactive sniffer, instigated by the Earth-shaking peals from the sky, she disappeared into the stormy night.
It might have been hours later when we discovered her absence, and began to comb our rural neighborhood, searching in vain. We looked in some of her favorite haunts, but when these turned up as dead-ends, we widened the search. Emotions rose. Darkness descended. Rain soaked. Hope slipped.
We began knocking on doors. “Have you seen our hound?” we inquired, only to be answered with the shaking heads of sympathetic neighbors. No one had seen her. Rising to the surface, the fear that a faithful and beloved hound was missing, possibly for good.
Hours and days of fruitless searching passed. Local telephone poles displayed our homemade appeals: “Missing dog. Please call.” Animal shelters took our report, joining in the search. More days passed. No luck. No word. She had gone off to die, we figured, and would be gone forever.
We sat the kids down to have the serious, life-and-death talk. Coming and going. Breathing and burying. Living on a small hobby farm had not insulated our kids from the births and deaths of dozens, but this was something different. The family dog was no chicken or rabbit or cow or bee. Tears came, accompanied by questions, hugs, and comfort.
The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and we carried on with our lives.
THE SURPRISE OF RESURRECTION
About two months after the fateful storm and the events of that night receded into memory, the miraculous happened. My wife was driving home when all of a sudden, there she was—our hound, back from the dead! She was alive again!
Pulling the car to the side of the road, a mass of emotions rose up in Keri. Shock and awe at a healthy, living, breathing pet we once thought deceased.
Though never really dead, she went missing from our lives only to be found in the care of some kind neighbors. Wires, but not paths, had crossed. The finders couldn’t find the owners. The owners missed the finders by hours, maybe even by a few feet. Our dog lived for a time in another home, under another name (Lazarus would have been fitting). Now a second caring family had to say goodbye, experiencing grief and loss in a different way, on a different day.
My middle daughter shed tears on that day, too, her body wracked with the uncontrollable convulsions of a healthy sob. I held her, dry shirt sacrificed to receive tears, asking her why these tears were flowing, even now. Her response: “I’m just so happy that she’s alive!”
Resurrection always surprises.
Jesus’ resurrection was no different. Even though he had prepared his disciples for its inevitability (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34, et al), they were still shocked. They responded in fear, joy, and worship (Matt. 28:8, 9; Mark 16:8; Luke 24:12, 31), while some even doubted it altogether (Matt. 28:17; Luke 24:11, 38, 41; John 20:24-29). These strong, mixed emotions mirrored the intensity of my wife’s and daughter’s responses, suggesting that witnessing resurrection may send our entire being into shock.
RESURRECTION IS CENTRAL TO THE GOSPEL
We can understand, then, how Jesus’ resurrection quickly became the central theme of the Apostles’ message. We see this in both Peter’s (Acts 2:24-32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 10:40-41) and Paul’s preaching (Acts 13:30-37; 17:3, 31-32; 23:6; 24:15, 21; 26:6-8, 23), as well as throughout their Epistles (Rom. 6:4-11; 1 Cor. 15; Eph. 1:9-20; Phil. 3:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:3; 3:21).
Jesus’ death is truly the crux (the word itself is Latin for cross) of the gospel. But without the resurrection the cross is devoid of power. The suffering of Christ won’t do anything for us—like free us from our great enemies of sin and death—unless Christ was also raised from the dead. This is why Christ’s resurrection is central to the gospel message. Because if it didn’t happen, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
If resurrection is central to the gospel, then it should be core to our entire lives as disciples. It should affect not just our past justification or future glorification. It should deeply influence our present sanctification. Every part of the gospel should affect every part of our lives, and to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), must entail, as Eugene Peterson has put it, “practicing resurrection.”[i]
However, we don't always practice resurrection. Often, we don’t even expect it. Paul’s question rings true: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:28).
Here are three reasons why resurrection fails to make a real impact in our lives, along with three corresponding practices to help us live out the power of the resurrection.
Problem #1: We struggle to believe in resurrection. A dead person coming back to life—it just doesn’t seem possible. But look around. Resurrection is built into the world around us. Spring appears without fail after the long, cold winter. Seeds fall into the ground, die, and become plants. New life is a part of God’s created order. However, faith becomes fragile when we bump up against the evil in the world around us and the sin in our own hearts. Death seems more real than the promise of resurrection, and so our view of it becomes obscured by the clouds of evil in our world.
Practice: Expect resurrection power. This is exactly why Paul prayed for the eyes of the Ephesians’ hearts to be opened, so they might know “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph. 1:19-20). To rekindle faith in resurrection, we can foster hearts that see God’s power working around us. We can cultivate wonder and gratitude at every day miracles: water droplets, children laughing, sunrises, thunderstorms, blooming daffodils, snow-capped mountains, and the intricate beauty of each human face you see. Seeing small miracles trains our eyes to expect the big ones.
Problem #2: We become stuck in the past. As creatures of habit, the normally recurring parts of our lives tend to be most real. However, because they are regular, they also carry with them a sense of the mundane. They are expected but don’t carry a sense of expectancy. We’re not holding our collective breath waiting for the sun to come up tomorrow. We desire this kind of normality. Consistency and stability are important to us. And the regular rhythms of God’s creation—the common graces—provide us with the stability we crave. We might desire the unusual, miraculous in-breaking of resurrection power in the present, but we have come to accept and expect the status quo because it has always worked in the past.
Practice: Look to the future. In order to allow the resurrection to have an impact on our present discipleship, we must surely look to the past, to Christ’s own death and resurrection. But we ought to also look to the future resurrection and meditate on Christ’s coming. This was the practice of the first Christians: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).
Problem #3: Resurrection is out of our control. When we plant a seed in the ground and water it, our work is basically done. We’ve tended and cared for the soil. We’ve done our best to provide the necessary water and sunlight. Our contribution to the life of the seed is minimal. The potential of life inherent in the seed is unlocked through its death. There is not a magical incantation we speak over the seed, or a training program we put it through.
The same is true with conception and birth. Our scientific society has distilled this miracle to a necessary biological act of evolution, emptying child-bearing of its miraculous mystery. In our desire to “control” and to “understand,” we have undercut the possibility of resurrection power. Fittingly, Jesus used both metaphors—a dying seed (John 12:24) and childbirth (John 3:1-8)—to describe the necessities of death and resurrection. Resurrection is the uncontrolled and uncontrollable breaking in of life into the human experience.
Practice: Give up control. In Romans 6-8, Paul paints a compelling picture of the power of resurrection in the life of the believer. Sin no longer has power over Jesus’ followers. As we learn to actively walk in the Spirit, we discover that God’s activity is what defines us, transforms us, and will ultimately save us. God’s action of resurrection is primary and completely out of our control. And this is truly Good News, because of all people, we Christians should be the least surprised and the most transformed by resurrection.
Let’s practice resurrection and help the world continue to experience the surprise of the resurrection as they witness the life and light of Christ in us.
[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Peterson borrowed the phrase itself from Wendell Berry.
Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 21 years, and they have five amazing kids. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikephay) or check out his blog.