RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“While [the women] were going [from the tomb to tell the rest of the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection], behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’” Matthew 28:11-14.
“Unfortunately, no longer does anyone need to be bought off to deny the resurrection. For us, that is, for anyone schooled in modernity, the resurrection is quite simply unbelievable. The resurrection is the miracle of miracles, and miracles are unbelievable. Of course, the resurrection is the miracle of miracles, but not because it defies belief. The resurrection is the miracle of miracles because it is the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. But little will be gained in trying to convince anyone that the resurrection might have happened. To do so threatens to isolate the resurrection from the life and crucifixion of Jesus in a manner that distorts the witness that Matthew has trained us to be. The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if in fact Jesus has not been raised from the dead.” Stanley Hawerwas in his commentary on Matthew, (Brazos Press) p. 249.
Hawerwas puts his finger on something important: Disbelief in Jesus’ resurrection is a much bigger problem for the church than it is for the public at large. Belief in the resurrection is inspired by the witness of a community whose existence and way of living cannot be explained in any other way. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is entirely unworkable as a general ethic. It is simply not possible for individuals living in contemporary society to apply it in any meaningful way. The Sermon only becomes intelligible where it is lived by a community convinced that Jesus has been raised from death, that a new age has arrived and that life must be conformed to the contours of that new age rather than to the principalities and powers governing the prior age.
The problem, however, is that the life of the church is often entirely intelligible without Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, we mainliners go to great lengths demonstrating that we are relevant, that we make sense and that we share the same enlightened values that all decent human beings promote. My church has published dozens of “social statements” over the years on one issue or another. Most of them are well reasoned, carefully thought out and reach conclusions that I can agree with more or less. But for the most part, they would be no less reasoned, thoughtful and agreeable (to me at least) if you were to leave Jesus out of them altogether. In short, we seem to be finding our way just fine without the resurrection of Jesus. That is a huge problem for the church in seeking to fulfill the great commission to baptize and teach. How do you convince all nations that Jesus matters to them when Jesus doesn’t matter to you? What, then, does it mean to be a people who are unintelligible without Jesus’ resurrection?
First let me say that being a people unintelligible apart from the resurrection doesn’t mean that we are unintelligible altogether. It isn’t enough just to be strange. Our strangeness must grow out of our conviction that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have made a fundamental difference for the entire universe. If even death is reversible, it seems to me that we ought not to waste another nanosecond worrying about and discussing the future of the church in our society. The word “sustainable” ought never again to come up in our discussions of mission and ministry. Since when has sustainability ever been part of the discipleship package? And let’s stop fretting about our loss of financial support. What more do we need in the way of material wealth to be the church than a Bible, a loaf of bread and a little wine?
No vote should ever again be taken to resolve any issue, whether in a congregation or at a synod assembly. Instead, we should devote ourselves to prayer until the Spirit makes the mind of Christ clear to the whole Body of Christ. If that takes years to happen, so be it. God has all eternity to work with us. Unrealistic? Tell the Mennonites. They have been employing this patient method of decision making for generations.
Furthermore, if the church is truly the Body of the resurrected Christ, then each congregation is committed to the health and wellbeing of each of its members. The church as a whole is obligated to each congregation as it seeks to fulfil this commitment. There is no excuse for any member of any Christian congregation to be without sufficient food, health care or housing. That is not how parts of a healthy body behave toward one another. Lest anyone suggest that this is impossible or impractical, networks of Christian communities have actually been providing such care for one another for decades. See, e.g., Shane Claiborne on CNN (Healthcare).
I make no claim that any of this is practical, cost effective or sustainable. Quite the contrary. You would out of your mind to do things this way-unless, of course, you happen to believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead. In that case, living as members of his resurrected Body is the only rational response.
This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord. The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Vss. 34-35. Peter had to give up long held interpretations of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be. As I have said many times before, this story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47
While the context of this passage is important, the Easter emphasis is on Peter’s witness to Jesus. Note well how Peter makes clear that his witness goes not merely to Jesus’ resurrection, but also to Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit, his works of healing and casting out demons and his execution-the natural outcome of his faithful life. Without this narrative, the resurrection is empty of any real meaning for us. Unlike us, the ancient world had no doubt that God (or the gods) could resurrect a dead person. The gods might bestow such a favor on anyone to whom they took a shine. But in the realm of Greco-Roman literature, such persons tended to be heroes. The notion that Israel’s God (or any other deity) would raise up a crucified criminal was absurd. Under all objective standards, Jesus had been a colossal failure. He was misunderstood, betrayed and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by his people and put to death in the most shameful way possible. But God’s judgment on Jesus’ life is entirely different than our own. God raised Jesus from death to say, “Yes, this is what my heart desires of human beings. This is my very self and is also everything I ever wanted humans to be. This is the measure by which I judge; this is the depth of my love for all so judged.”
“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good.” Vs. 1 Saint Augustine remarks, “I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God…” On the Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, The Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VIII, (c. 1979 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 557. “Goodness,” however, is not an abstract principle. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. God’s goodness is both defined and illustrated through the salvation narrative of the Pentateuch. The Exodus stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It is the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to illuminate saving acts of God occurring in Israel’s present context and to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Thus, whether this psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, it echoes God’s glorious victory over Egypt at the Red Sea and Israel’s liberation from bondage.
The “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” in verse 16 might refer to encampments on the battlefield and therefore indicate the celebration of a military victory. Alternatively, the tents might refer to pilgrim encampments about Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W. Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86. Again, given Israel’s practice of adapting her ancient liturgical traditions to new circumstances, these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Because the psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another while some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist, many Old Testament scholars believe this hymn to be a compilation of several different works. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 85. Professor Bernhard Anderson sees this as a “royal psalm,” a liturgy in which the king of Judah approaches the temple gates and seeks admission that he may give thanks. In so doing, he serves as a priestly figure representing the whole congregation of Israel. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 113.
The passage most commonly cited in the New Testament is at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17. They are also cited at Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7. The “chief corner stone” is probably the chief stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.
Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his own. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.
Chapter 3 brings us to the center of the concentric circles of thought. Our reading for Sunday summarizes Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of God’s resurrection future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and also head of the church which is his Body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.
This lesson makes clear to the church that Jesus’ resurrection makes a difference. A new world order has begun, whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. The church need not build the kingdom of God. It is already here. The church only needs to witness to the new reality by living faithfully under its sway.
To appreciate the full impact of Matthew’s resurrection witness, we need to go back to the account of Jesus’ burial. The chief priests, you will recall, had petitioned Pilate to seal the tomb of Jesus and set a guard over it for three days in order to prevent his disciples from stealing the body and claiming that he had risen. Matthew 27:62-66. But as it turns out, the disciples are the least of their worries. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James proceed to the tomb on the dawn of the third day and witness an earthquake as a descending angel of the Lord moves the stone away from the tomb. Vss. 1-2. It is critical to note that by this time, the tomb is already empty. The seal has been broken from within. The angel’s mission is neither to immobilize the guard nor to let Jesus out of the tomb. He comes only to demonstrate to the women that the tomb is empty. Jesus has already been raised. The impotence of the mighty Roman Empire could hardly be clearer. It’s false “peace” imposed by the violence practiced against Jesus has been shattered. The seal on its reign of terror has been broken. In its failed effort to seal Jesus’ tomb, Rome has sealed its own fate. Pilate’s wife was right to be troubled over the death of this “righteous man.” Matthew 27:19. Be afraid, Pilate. Be very afraid. The nightmare is only beginning.
It should be clear from the preceding paragraph that I do not buy into the commonly accepted belief that Matthew is merely trying to dispel a rumor of fraud and fabrication surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. I do not believe that Matthew or the other gospel writers were the least bit concerned about such trifling matters. I think they were a good deal smarter than that. Matthew’s literary purpose here is to juxtapose the imperial might represented by Rome, might that Jesus’ enemies exploited in their efforts to destroy him, over against the purpose of God worked out through Jesus’ mission that his gospel takes pains demonstrating at every turn through citations to the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as Herod’s futile violence against the children of Bethlehem only confirmed the prophetic witness to Jesus, so the violence of Israel’s religious authorities, Pilate and the hostile crowd unwittingly moved God’s final saving act to completion. All authority on heaven and earth now belongs to Jesus, not Rome. Vs. 18.
Matthew’s resurrection account follows Mark insofar as the angel instructs the two women to tell the disciples that he will meet them in Galilee. Vs. 10. Cf. Mark 16:7. By contrast, both Luke and John place Jesus’ initial resurrection appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem. Luke 24:33-43; John 20:1-29. It is pointless to try and reconstruct the actual sequence of events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection, just as I believe it is futile to search for the so called “historical Jesus” lurking about behind the gospel texts. God has not given us “history” in the New Testament witness. The Spirit inspired the Apostles to preach the good news about Jesus and inspired subsequent generations to put that preaching and testimony into narrative form. That is disquieting to the 19th Century prejudices of historical/critical scholars who still believe in that antiquated notion of “objective history.” But for a world that has outgrown the Enlightenment, the apostolic witness speaks a word about Jesus that has the ring of truth.
That the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the disciples should take place on a mountain has clear significance. Vs. 16. It stretches back to the Mountain of Transfiguration and perhaps also to the locus of the Sermon on the Mount. There are, of course, also echoes of the appearance of the Lord on Mt. Sinai narrated throughout the Pentateuch. In the face of such a theophany, worship is the only appropriate response. Vs. 17. Nonetheless, “some doubted.” Matthew recognizes that faith is a complicated reality. It cannot be “wowed” into existence by a demonstration of “shock and awe.” Not even the appearance of the resurrected Christ can “prove” the resurrection beyond dispute. So, too, faith does not require such appearances. The testimony of the apostolic witness is sufficient and it is that with which the Gospel of Matthew concludes. The disciples are sent out with the assurance that the resurrected Christ will accompany their testimony. Nothing more is required.
Let me conclude as I began with a citation to Stanley Hauerwas: “The resurrection, of course, is not a ‘knockdown sign’ that establishes that Jesus is the Son of God. The soldiers were scared to death by the angel, but that did not incline them to believe in Jesus or the resurrection. They remain under the power of the chief priests and elders and seem more than willing to do their bidding. The truth that is Jesus is a truth that requires discipleship, for it is only by being transformed by what he has taught and by what he has done that we can come to know the way the world is. The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed-but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him. That is what it means to live apocalyptically.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 247.