By Wesley Hill
During the afternoon of Maundy Thursday, as I sat writing in my office, the sun burst through the colorless gauze that had been hanging over Pittsburgh for most of Holy Week. I quickly checked my weather app to see how warm it was and decided now was the perfect time to take a walk with the dogs. We’d only gone on a couple of brief jaunts that week, due to the cold and rain, and with the shelter-in-place orders having made the four walls of my office seem that much more confining, I knew I needed to seize the moment.
There’s an electric pleasure that you feel in your skin when spring sunshine finally arrives in climates like the one I live in. (Pittsburgh is neck-and-neck with Seattle, vying for the position of U.S. city with the lowest number of sunny days.) I could see that the dogs felt it too. They were friskier, more inquisitive and alert, than I’d seen them in days.
After what seemed like only a few minutes, though, thick fingers of dark-blue clouds began to reach over our route. I started to feel rain drops on the bridge of my nose, then see them dotting the lenses of my glasses. Within moments, the rain was falling in light, breezy sheets — not quite a downpour, but enough that my jeans began to feel heavier, and the dogs’ coats started to frizz with the wetness. The chief thing I felt was the cold, and my main reaction was resentment. Did the clouds forget it’s supposed to be spring?!
A particular hazard of being a preacher and teacher of theology is having to endure a brain primed to look for pedagogical illustrations in every experience like this. And, true to its training, mine immediately supplied me with an idea.
I am currently teaching a one-semester introduction to the New Testament, and I have mentioned several times Oscar Cullmann’s illustration of the New Testament’s “already but not yet” eschatology. Jesus’ heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God and his inauguration of it in his death and resurrection is, according to Cullmann, theological D-Day, the spiritual equivalent of that fateful battle in June of 1944 when the Allies secured a beachhead in France. Historians look back to that moment as the turning of the tide in World War II. The Axis powers had not yet acknowledged defeat, though their empire had in fact been decisively, irrevocably weakened. That, says Cullmann, is what happened at Calvary and with the empty tomb: Though the enemies of God still wreak their havoc (1 Cor. 15:24-25; 1 Pet. 5:8), their doom was guaranteed by Christ’s cross and resurrection. The victory really has been assured.
But just as it would be another 11 months after D-Day before the Allies would see “Victory in Europe” declared, so too, for the time being, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to [Jesus]” (Heb. 2:8). The defeat of sin and death is certain but not yet visible. And so the church lives in the tension of the “overlap of the ages”: heralding the appearance of the long-awaited messianic age of peace and justice and celebrating its light, even while still experiencing the trials and griefs of “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4).
Maybe, I thought, as I urged the dogs to run with me in the rain toward home, I’ll retire the Cullmann illustration for a while. I could use this rainy walk as an alternative: I had started out rejoicing that spring had already arrived, banishing the cold for good. But no sooner had I hung up my coat than I felt another chilling blast — a dying gasp from a not yet fully vanquished winter. Easter sunshine had made its welcome incursion, but “the present evil cold” (cf. Galatians) still had to be endured. Just as spring was both here and not yet here in its fullness, so too with the eschatology of the New Testament.
The dogs and I finally made it back to the house, and they shook themselves dry. I toweled the droplets off my glasses and thought a bit more about my illustration. I imagined myself standing in my classroom, recounting the walk to my bemused students who would no doubt wonder what significance my theological brain had managed to wrangle out of a typical April shower.
I imagined saying to them that the sunshine was like the kingdom of God breaking into our dull present with healing light and that the clouds and rain were like the last vestiges of the defeated power of evil that, nonetheless, still make themselves felt — as any glance at coverage of the ICUs in our world right now will attest.
But the more I thought about what I would say, the more I realized I was omitting something crucial. According to the New Testament, the inbreaking kingdom of God isn’t only discernible in the moments of sunshine — the moments when the blind receive sight, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news preached to them. It is equally discernible when those who face evil’s icy blasts are not undone by them but press through them in the power of Jesus’s indestructible risen life.
It’s telling, for example, to notice the sequence of Paul’s thought in a portion of his letter to the Philippians. First, he mentions the glorious, spring-sunshine reality of Easter: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (3:10). But then, immediately, he spells out what he means in the least intuitive way: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Strangely, Paul seems to think the Easter life of Jesus is manifested in and through a growing conformity to the dying of Jesus. New Testament scholar John Barclay has spoken of Paul’s vision of the Christian life as one of “new life in dying bodies,” and that describes well the flow of Paul’s thought here. As Karl Barth once commented on this passage, “To know Easter means to be implicated in the events of Good Friday.” Apparently, the way Paul expects to “attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:11) at the last day is through a process of lifelong participation in Jesus’s sufferings. And he appears to think that that participation is itself already a sharing in the power of Jesus’ resurrection — that the perseverance he performs in his mortal body is what the power of Easter looks like in the present.
So perhaps I will tell my students that it is like this with the kingdom of God: It isn’t just the rays of sun and their warmth on your skin that tell you spring is here. It’s the way you keep running in the sudden rain, the way you rebuff winter’s lingering cold with your determination to keep going, that also shows that spring has come.
The Rev. Dr. Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.