“..songs affect what we think because of repetition – singing the same songs over a period of years embeds the message; and when music is added to the text, an emotional element is introduced that causes greater attachment to the message of the song.” (Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect, 2010)
The above statement carries all sorts of implications for the music we listen to, the music we encourage our kids to listen to, etc. But here we are asking about the words that shape our theology and faith over time. Modern songs get a pretty hefty (and often deserved) criticism at times for their vague or shallow theology. But there are plenty of songs (I’m looking at you, “I’ll Fly Away”) that we love to sing, that we should also be careful to examine/balance with Biblical teaching/awareness.
Today I’m asking us to re-examine the words of a song most of us probably sang over the weekend. “He Lives” (#220 if you’d rather not use the screen), is a classic hymn with some great reminders in it. “I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today.” What a hope-filled offer for us to live toward! But on further review of the entire song, there’s something significant missing from it: a resurrected Jesus.
Let’s pretend you don’t have it memorized for a moment, and examine the chorus:
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today,
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.
Yes! Amen. I love it. I sing it loudly, and I even hold out the final “LIIIIIIIIVES” until the lack of breath begins to turn my lungs inside out. Yet the Jesus in this song is not the physically resurrected Jesus we celebrate visiting His disciples and revealing His scars. I’m not saying Jesus couldn’t visit us physically, either recognizably or hiding his identity (both are seen in post-resurrection accounts). But I’m saying when most of us sing this chorus (and the rest of the song), we’re probably actually referring to the SPIRIT of Jesus at best…and the idea of Jesus at worst.
Yes, I believe the “presence” of Jesus we have been given through the Holy Spirit, and a God who is omnipresent/immanuel is “God With Us”. That means so much of the song still rings true. But if we lift this song up as our primary “Easter Song”, we can miss something vital to our faith:
We believe Jesus was physically resurrected ahead of all things. That all humanity who have died or will die, continue to wait for a full and coming revealing of God’s fullness at which point we will all share in the same physical and bodily resurrection.
He does not “walk with me and talk with me” the same way He walked and talked with the disciples who saw him after the resurrection. Why? Because he has physically gone to be with the Father, to a location many simply refer to as “Paradise” (using Luke 23:43). A place where it seems both non-resurrected beings (like the thief), and resurrected beings (only Jesus, for now) can be together in God’s presence as we await the final return of Jesus.
The promise and hope of the resurrection isn’t that Jesus has returned spiritually to “be in our hearts”, and help us not feel lonely along the paths we walk. That’s one of the blessings of the encourager He has given us (Holy Spirit). But the promise and hope we receive as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus are found in 1 Corinthians 15 (take a moment to read it!). In Jesus we see the “first fruits” of all New Creation, and an example of what God has in store for all of us – our loved ones, and creation itself!
This is a foundational truth, and one of the greatest things we can clarify to a world that assumes we all think Jesus is a spiritual being hiding in our hearts that helps us to be “good behaving people”. The Holy Spirit can help transform our hearts and minds, and the grace of God is actively moving to heal/restore the image of our Loving God He intended in creation. But we believe there is much more to celebrate in Jesus, and much more hope for the embodied lives we live today. These physical bodies (and this physical world) are tied deeply to the New Creation we believe will exist fully someday. So caring for others, for creation, and for ourselves happens in fully embodied ways. There are so many things still to say here, but plenty have already said them. I just wanted to throw out a quick reminder.
For more on this, check out: Surprised by Hope by NT Wright, Salvation Means Creation Healed by Howard Snyder, and Earthen Vessels Matthew Anderson