For the decreasing number of people who celebrate Easter in any religious sense there seem to be two contrary views of what it's all about: Jesus died for us and Jesus lived for us.
That Jesus died for us has been asserted, in one form or another, since the early days of Christianity. From at least the time of the theologian Origen, early in the 3rd century, up till Archbishop Anselm late in the 11th, the prevailing idea was that the Devil held hostage the souls of sinful people and that God redeemed them by offering his perfect son Jesus. The story said that God turned over Jesus to the Devil but then beat the Devil by bringing Jesus back from the dead. This story came to be called "Christus Victor" — Christ in triumph.
Anselm, who was an Archbishop of Canterbury before the RCs and the C of Es went their separate ways, thought that the presence of the Devil was not a good look and rewrote the story to say that God, out of his anger at sinful mankind, found it necessary to sacrifice his son in our place.
When 20th century Protestant Christian fundamentalism got underway in the 1920s, this view (called 'Substitutionary Atonement') was declared to be one of the Fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy. It remains part of classical Christianity right across the denominational spectrum, even though it is no longer even a good metaphor. Its archaic brutality renders it long overdue for repudiation as Gibson’s reli-porn snuff movie, 'The Passion of the Christ', so graphically demonstrates.
There is a growing body of people, some just inside the Christian Church and many outside, who say that all this is emotionally and spiritually unhealthy and that Jesus deserves a better memory. They take the view that the basic biblical record talks about Jesus as an itinerant teacher and healer from the unsophisticated northern province of Galilee who came into Jerusalem with the simplest of all appeals to faith — love God with everything you’ve got and put the wellbeing of your neighbour on a par with your own. And, while you’re at it, love your enemies — it just might turn them into friends.
The developing Christian church failed to promote the teachings of Jesus and instead turned him into a sort of cosmic redeemer figure.
If we, in the 21st century, are going to reject the God killed his son story, which has been called the ultimate in child abuse, what lasting significance do we see in the crucifixion?
The evidence is clear, at least to this writer, that when unflinching personal integrity deliberately confronts naked and corrupt systemic power, the power will always win at least in the short run. Jesus did not die for the sins of the world — he died because of the sins of the world. Jesus was murdered because he confronted the power-brokerage system of his day. That’s the Good Friday bit.
The record shows that his followers were at first gutted, but later came to realise that all that the God-intoxicate sage from Galilee had stood for, still stood.
The Easter Sunday message says that Jesus was raised from the dead. His enemies hadn’t said the last word and neither had death. So, using the thought forms of their day, his followers said that God has raised Jesus from the dead . In other words his life and teachings had been vindicated.
Today we are left with fragments of his teaching, even fewer fragments of his actions and 20 centuries of a huge supporting cast of chaps and mostly chaps in long gowns, painting colourfully elaborate pictures.
My portrait of Jesus utterly rejects the slaughtered-lamb-and-scapegoat motif. It ignores the synthesis with classical Greek philosophy — especially Plato’s denigration of the world. It ignores Constantine's grab for imperial power.
It ignores Aquinas' brilliant but irrelevant merger with Aristotle; it ignores the Victorian sentimentalism of "gentle Jesus meek and mild".
My portrait is of the man of nearly twenty centuries ago who talked passionately of a mode of living so rich that it deserved to be called "God’s Kingdom".
And, in that sense, he is still with us.