Archive for April, 2017
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, your Son makes himself known to all his disciples in the breaking of bread. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Rightly or wrongly, the lectionary makers have aligned the Easter resurrection accounts from the gospels with our earliest testimony to the infancy of the church recorded in the Book of Acts. This blurring of the lines between the seasons of Easter and Pentecost is perhaps a good thing. It reinforces the New Testament insistence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes a difference. In today’s reading from Acts, the consequence of conversion on the part of those who heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon was that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:43. The word translated “devoted” in the English Bible is the Greek word, “proskartereo,” meaning “to continue in or with.” Thus, the believers who responded in faith to Peter’s preaching did not simply shake his hand, tell him he had preached fine sermon and then go home to chow down on buffalo wings and watch the game. They stuck around. They continued to engage with the apostles by learning the scriptures, strengthening their fellowship through Eucharistic meals and praying together. They grew together as church by engaging together in these ancient disciplines of study, common meals and prayer. That is because conversion is a lifetime project that involves weaning oneself away from social, political and moral norms governing the culture in which we are born and being formed by and within the culture of God’s reign into the image of Christ.
The word “conversion” has taken on unsavory overtones in recent years. In common parlance it is almost synonymous with “brain washing.” Only fanatical cults seek to convert people. Legitimate religious organizations employ civil and logical presentations of their beliefs in a spirit of openness-or cool programming for youth, cheap bus trips to Amish country for seniors and free coffee and donuts for all. To some extent, I agree with the mainline churches’ general reluctance to use the term “conversion” in describing the church’s mission to make disciples of all nations. Conversion is a violent and manipulative process when it involves one person seeking to convert another to his or her faith. I suspect that most of us have at one time or another encountered someone who has tried to “save” us. But that is not the sort of conversion we see in the New Testament church. It is not the apostles, but the Lord who converts people to faith in Jesus. Acts 2:47. Moreover, conversion is not a matter of one person’s making up his or her mind about whether to be a disciple of Jesus. Conversion is the lifetime process, communal and individual, undergone by persons called by the Spirit through the preaching of the word to the life of discipleship. As Paul says, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” Romans 12:2. To be sure, we invite enthusiastically everyone we meet to join us in this process of conversion, but it is the Spirit alone who decides whether a person accepts that invitation-or not.
According to the Book of Acts, effective preaching (and all aspects of the church’s mission for that matter) is necessarily grounded in the same faithful practices of study, Eucharist and prayer that sustained the initial converts in the second chapter of that book. Before the launch of the mission on Pentecost, the disciples themselves had been fully and faithfully engaged in these practices. Acts 1:14. In other words, the disciples were undergoing the very process of conversion to which they would soon be inviting the rest of the world. These practices, along with a communal lifestyle intolerant of poverty, selfishness and deceit formed a community reflecting an alternate reality, a radically different culture, a new way of living that proved irresistible and lent credibility to the apostles’ preaching. Of course, the community was hardly perfect. Like the church in every other age, the New Testament church had members who were less than fully committed, members that gamed the system and took more than they contributed, members who deserted when the going got tough and members who saw the church as an opportunity to gain power and control over others. But in spite of all that, the world could still see the reign of God for which the church longed and to which it witnessed. To sum it up, people were drawn to the church as much by what they saw as by what they heard.
That might go a long way toward explaining why us mainliners are bleeding out rather than growing. Understand that I am not concerned here with numbers. Jesus never promised and never envisioned a large church with unquestioned cultural support. It would hardly be a setback for the reign of God if the church were to shrink by 90% or more in membership, as long as the remaining 10% continue to be shaped by study of the scriptures, Eucharist and prayer. But therein lies the rub. I fear that too much of our evangelical outreach is aimed at recapturing our market share, preserving institutions we built in the age of our cultural dominance and protecting our real estate assets and professional turf. Too often our evangelism appears to be “market based” and designed to appeal to the demographic we are trying to reach, i.e, millennials, families (however defined), ethnic groups, etc. Of course, the gospel invitation goes out to all of these groups, but tailoring our mission to their needs, wants and preferences results in precisely the opposite of what Paul calls for in his letter to the Romans: be transformed, not conformed.
Notwithstanding my church’s (ELCA’s) production of many fine adult Bible Study resources, our adult population is, in my own experience, woefully ignorant of the scriptures generally. To be clear, this is not an affliction solely of the younger generations. I am finding increasingly among my own contemporaries and older church members people who cannot retell iconic biblical stories, remember parables of Jesus or even recite the Ten Commandments with any degree of accuracy.
Maybe that explains why 81% of those who identify as evangelical Christians managed to vote for and continue to support a president who bragged about criminally assaulting young girls, systematically discriminated against people of color in his real estate business, bullied, insulted and encouraged violent attacks against his critics throughout his campaign. Perhaps that is why people who identify as Christians can call for mass deportation of “aliens” whom the Bible tells us we must treat compassionately and love as we love ourselves. Leviticus 19:34. The vast majority of self-identified Christians have lost the capacity to distinguish between a bland American middle class morality designed to protect white male privilege and the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Either these folks have no clue what is actually in the Bible or they just don’t care. No wonder they fall prey to halfwits like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Mike Huckabee and the sick religion they peddle as Christianity.
But let’s not get too carried away pointing our fingers at the ignorant masses. All of this begs the question: why are they ignorant? It seems to me that those of us who have been called to preach, teach and administer the sacraments have some explaining to do (particularly, those of us who have been at it for the last thirty-five years!). After all, as I have said many times before, the Bible is a complex and layered book. It isn’t self-explanatory. It can only be understood rightly when preached and taught out of a community formed under its influence. If there were no Israel and no church, the Bible would be only another literary curiosity of interest to historians, archeologists and professors of ancient religion, but no one else. The sad fact is that most of our churches are not sufficiently formed by biblical preaching and teaching to be effective witnesses. Or, in the words of one of our seminary presidents, “most of our people remain unconverted.” That is our true existential threat, not loss of members. The church doesn’t need more members. It needs disciples. For the most part, our churches are neither producing nor attracting disciples.
I honestly don’t know how we get ourselves off the corporate self-preservation track and back onto the conversion track. I don’t believe the answer lies in rolling out a new worship leadership program, a new Bible study curriculum or (God forbid!) a new hymnal. I am not convinced that the answer lies with us and I don’t know where else to look for it. But I think that a return to earnest study of scripture, frequent Eucharist and constant prayer is likely the best place to begin. It would at least give the Holy Spirit some room to work with us and forge us into a Body.
Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry. It reflects, I think, the quality and depth of relationship generated by the church’s faithful practices and absolutely required to sustain a witnessing community.
The Handing Down
Speaker and hearer, words
making a passage between them,
begin a community.
in succession, grandfather
and grandson, they sit and talk
on the enclosed porch,
looking out at the town, which
takes its origin in their talk
and is carried forward
Their conversation has
no pattern of its own,
but alludes casually
To a shaped knowledge
In the minds of two men
Who love each other.
The quietness of knowing in common
is half of it. Silences come into it
easily, and break it
while the old man thinks
or concentrates on his pipe
and the strong smoke
climbs over the brim of his hat.
He has lived a long time.
He has seen the changes of times
and grown used to the world
again. Having been wakeful so long,
the loser of so many years
his mind moves back and forth,
sorting and counting
among all he knows.
His memory has become huge,
and surrounds him,
and fills his silences.
He lifts his head
and speaks of an old day
that amuses him or grieves him
Under the windows opposite them
there’s a long table, loaded
with potted plants, the foliage
staining and shadowing the daylight
as it comes in.
Source: Poetry Magazine, (c. 1965 by Wendell Berry). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. Born in 1934, Berry lives in Port Royal, Kentucky near his birthplace, where he has maintained a farm for over 40 years. He holds deep reverence for the land and is a staunch defender of agrarian values. He is also the author of over 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. You can read more about him and his many works at the
This week’s lesson is a continuation of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, part of which we heard last week. For an outline of Peter’s argument, see my post of April 23rd. The sermon concludes with the bold declaration: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Vs. 36. The crowd responds in the only way possible where credence is given to such a message: “What shall we do?” vs. 37. What is left to be done when you discover that God has offered you his best and you have rejected it? Repentance might seem like the natural response, but it is hardly that. How can one repent after having thrown God’s greatest gift back in God’s face? You have passed the point of no return and now there is no going back-unless God makes a way of return. That is the gospel: God responds to the crucifixion of Jesus by raising him up and offering him back to us, the same people who murdered him.
Again, care must be taken to avoid giving this text an anti-Semitic slant. Peter does not lay responsibility for the crucifixion solely on his fellow Jews. Though Jews, to be sure, this group is made up of pilgrims from all nations. Acts 2:5-11. They may or may not have been in Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was tried, convicted and executed. More to the point, their diversity foreshadows the church’s worldwide mission soon to include the gentiles. The gentiles are no less in need of the gospel than are the Jews. It is the sin of the world that put Jesus on the cross and the sin of the world that is overcome by the cross. All people are implicated in Jesus’ death on the cross just as all people are so reconciled. The Jews bear no more guilt than the rest of us for what transpired in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. We would be naïve to assume that Jesus would have fared any better had he come to the United States of the 21st Century rather than 1st Century Palestine. (Though, of course, we would put him down by lethal injection rather than by crucifixion and so to that extent, I suppose we can say that we have progressed a little over the ways of Rome.) Repentance, then, is a gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon all flesh. It is freedom to turn away from our death dealing ways to the alternative life Jesus offers to us.
“…be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 38. Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to Peter’s call for his hearers to be baptized “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:
“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.
“For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Vs. 39. This declaration echoes Isaiah 57:19 and Ephesians 2:13-17 emphasizing the breadth of the promise which, referring back to the citation to Joel 2:28-32 at Acts 2:17-21, is the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Something more than terror, sorrow and regret is required for true repentance. In the end, the penitent must cry out, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10. Pentecost is God’s affirmative response to that petition. As Peter points out, his hearers are witnesses to God’s pouring out his Spirit “upon all flesh.” Vs. 17. As Peter will soon learn in Acts 10, “all flesh” is a category far broader than he now imagines.
The prominent Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann would probably call this a psalm of “new orientation” described in this way: “…the psalms regularly bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected. That new orientation is not a return to the old stable orientation, for there is no such going back. The psalmists know that we can never go home again. Once there has been an exchange of real candor, as there is here between Yahweh and Israel, there is no return to the precandor situation.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms-A Theological Commentary, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 123-124.
Our psalm for Sunday fits this description to a tee. Formally, it is a prayer of thanksgiving offered by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult tour of cancer therapy and received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce that brought to an end a relationship that was supposed to last until death, and thereafter found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship.
The psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand, as Brueggemann observes, that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a better future that God promises. That promise lies at the core of our Easter faith.
The “cup of salvation in verse 13 likely refers to the thank offering given in response to God’s answer to his/her cry for salvation. See Numbers 28:7. It could also simply be a metaphor describing the psalmist’s experience of salvation. Either way, it is a graphic expression of thanksgiving.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Vs. 15. The Hebrew is difficult, but the meaning appears to be that God protects his “saints” (righteous ones) from an untimely death. Such persons must die eventually, but God experiences acutely their passing.
The dating of this psalm is difficult and scholars are divided over whether it was composed before or after the Babylonian Exile. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 81. As I have often said before, these psalms have undergone a lengthy history of editing and revision to make them relevant to each succeeding generation. Consequently, the pre or post-exilic dating controversy may be one of degree. Perhaps it is a matter of both/and rather than either/or.
The opening verse is a little off setting. The reference to God as one who judges everyone impartially according to deeds rubs my Lutheran sensibilities the wrong way. I believe, however, that it was probably heard altogether differently by slaves, women and the poor living in a strictly hierarchical society where class distinctions, the privileges they confer and the burdens they impose went largely unquestioned. A God whose eye is blind to class distinctions, but sharply focused on justice and righteousness offers hope to the oppressed even as he threatens the position of the oppressor. Furthermore, a community that values slaves and free, men and women, rich and poor as indispensable members of the one Body of Christ cannot help but undermine the hierarchical culture in which it exists. Not surprisingly, then, the powers that be eyed this odd community with suspicion.
“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Vss. 18-19. The Greek word rendered “ransomed,” was used for the manumission of slaves in Greco-Roman culture. The slave’s price could be deposited by the person wishing to redeem him/her in the temple of the local god or goddess. The temple, in turn, would pay the slave’s owner and the slave would henceforth be regarded as free from his/her master, but a slave to the god whose temple paid the manumission price. Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, (c. 2007 by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; pub. by Baker Academic) pp. 1018-1019. So also these believers to whom Peter writes have been bought with the blood of Christ from the tyranny of “futile ways inherited from your fathers.” Vs. 18.
Peter’s reference to “futile ways” suggests that the churches to which he writes are primarily gentile in composition. The Greek adjective translated as “futile” is used throughout the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to modify words for pagan idols and temples. Ibid. 1019. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the pre-Christian lifestyle of these believers was pagan rather than Jewish. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the cultural line of demarcation between Jew and gentile was not as sharply drawn throughout the far flung regions of the empire as it was in Palestine. Certainty about the composition of these churches, therefore, is impossible to establish.
Redemption by the blood of a lamb is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. While it is impossible to link this assertion to any particular text, it seems to me that Peter must have the Exodus/Passover narrative in mind. Although the Passover meal does not have anything to do with the remission of sin, that does not seem to be Peter’s emphasis here. The point he makes is that the believers to whom he writes have been rescued from slavery to their “futile” and destructive lifestyles by God’s costly act of deliverance. Like the Exodus of old, this redemption of the church was not in any sense her own doing. It was brought about by the victory won for her through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The story of Jesus’ appearance to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus is found only in Luke’s gospel. There are two towns identified in the literature of antiquity as “Emmaus.” One is twenty miles from Jerusalem and the other is about four miles away. Given that the two disciples made the round trip in a single day, the latter is almost certainly the one to which Luke refers. Travel was hazardous along country roads connecting cities and villages in 1st Century Palestine. Bandits frequently attacked lone travelers as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. It would not be unusual for travelers to seek safety in numbers and quite natural that a single traveler would join a group of two for that reason.
It is evident that these two disciples have discounted the testimony of the women concerning the message of the angels at Jesus’ tomb. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Vs. 21. The cross represents for these two disciples a ruined hope. Jesus begins employing the scriptures to place the cross in a new context for them. He argues from the scriptures that, so far from signaling defeat, the cross represents the fulfilment of God’s redemptive purpose. It was “necessary” that the messiah should suffer. As I indicated last week in connection with Peter’s Pentecost sermon, we need to take care in discussing the “necessity” of Jesus’ crucifixion. Once again, the crucifixion was not necessary to satisfy God’s need to see sin properly punished. The necessity arises from Jesus’ determination to be genuinely human in a violent and inhuman world. The cross was the cost of Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father’s will in the midst of a sinful world. It is a cost shared by all who follow Jesus.
We are not told what the disciples expected in terms of Israel’s redemption. Whatever those expectations were, they were too small. We can hear echoes here of Isaiah where the Lord says of Israel and his prophet, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. That, indeed, will be the theme throughout the Book of Acts as the church breaks out of its ethnic shell to embrace the ends of the earth. One cannot read the Gospel of Luke without encountering at every turn premonitions of its sequel.
This narrative again reinforces the nature and purpose of the Bible as faithful testimony to Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son. Jesus and only Jesus can interpret the scriptures for the church and the scriptures are rightly interpreted for the church only as testimony to Jesus. I cannot overstate the importance of making this point at every available opportunity because the Bible is probably the most misunderstood, misused and blatantly abused piece of literature on the face of the earth. It has been claimed as the source of moral norms for the western world; a full proof guide to financial planning; a handbook on marriage/child rearing; a political/social manifesto for America; an oracle for divining the end of the world and probably much more. The Bible does not claim to be any such thing and whoever asserts that it does obviously has never read it. But don’t get me started on that.
“Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” Vs. 30. There is something so pure, so innocent and so beautiful about this simple request. It is hardly surprising that it has found its way into our liturgy for evening prayer. See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 309. That Jesus is finally made known to these disciples in the breaking of the bread is of course pregnant with Eucharistic imagery. Not only the identity of Jesus, but also the meaning of the scriptures becomes clear to the disciples as they recall how their “hearts burned” as Jesus interpreted them. Vs. 32. Although meal fellowship is important in all of the gospels, it is particularly emphasized in Luke. In Luke’s gospel Jesus seems always to be coming from or going to a meal. He dines with outcasts and tax collectors as well as with distinguished religious leaders. Jesus’ practice of meal hospitality extends to crowds of five thousand. It is fitting, then, that the disciples should finally connect the dots at the table where Jesus presides.
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The internet has something for everyone-even people seeking to “undo” their baptisms. Really. You can’t make this stuff up. At unbaptism.org you can obtain a certificate renouncing your baptism and disassociating you from your church. At first blush, it seems unlikely that there would be any sizable market for such a document, even though the service is free. After all, if you are convinced that baptism is an empty and superstitious rite, why would you even bother revoking it? If there is no God, the gospel is a myth and the resurrection a hoax, then there is nothing to revoke. Why not just toss your baptismal certificate into the recycling along with that “most valuable player award” you and everyone else on your first grade T-ball team received at the end of the season?
I am not convinced that the militant atheism we see popping up these days is so far removed from faith as might be supposed. At least the individual seeking a revocation certificate from unbaptism believes that his or her baptism has some meaning, some significance, some claim on his or her life that needs to be removed. In a strange way, their determination to dissociate themselves from Jesus testifies to his ongoing potency in their lives. I think that perhaps these folks are a good deal closer to genuine faith than the couples who come waltzing up to my office seeking to get their baby baptized, but have no interest in raising their child within the Body of Christ.
That brings us to our friend Thomas, whose name unfortunately acquired the prefix “doubting” that has stuck for the last two thousand years. As is the case with our baptism revoking friends, so too, I think Thomas’ refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples and his insistence on hard evidence for Jesus’ resurrection reflects a sort of faith. After all, you can’t really have doubts about something unless you have at least some suspicion that it might be true. For all his protestations, we find Thomas still in the company of the rest of the disciples eight days later when Jesus appears again. You wouldn’t think anyone thoroughly convinced that the disciples were lying, crazy or deceived would stick around for even another hour. If Thomas did not believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, it appears that he wanted to believe-or at least be firmly convinced that he could safely dismiss the disciples’ claim as baseless.
Perhaps, like Thomas, we live most of our lives in that no-man’s land between belief and unbelief called “doubt.” Why else do I sing “I know that my Redeemer Lives” even as I worry about my grandchildren’s future in the shadow of increasingly ominous news here at home and abroad? Why else do I continue preaching, teaching and witnessing although I continue to be concerned about membership decline throughout my church and loss of interest in faith generally throughout society? Why do I confess each day my belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” yet grieve so deeply the loved ones I have lost? Often it seems that I am unable to believe with the deep certainty for which I long, yet cannot shake the claim of faith sufficiently to free myself from it. At the end of the day, I continue to believe because Jesus has gotten ahold of my heart and won’t let go. While my faith is hardly unwavering, my doubts never sink to the level of unbelief. That is what keeps me in the church where I encounter the resurrected Lord.
Nobody understood the symbiotic relationship between faith and doubt better than Soren Kierkegaard. Recognition of “despair” or the “sickness unto death” is, according to Kierkegaard, the prerequisite for faith. This “sickness” consists in a sober recognition of human finitude, sinfulness and the impossibility of healing oneself. Faith grounds itself in the limitless possibility God opens up for us in the resurrection of Jesus from death. Discipleship consists in living between judgment and promise, finite human limits and the unlimited grace of God, frank acknowledgment of death’s inevitability and hope based on the conviction that Jesus lives. Here’s a poem honoring Soren Kierkegaard by Dana Gioia.
Homage to Soren Kierkegaard
Work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling.
I was already an old man when I was born.
Small with a curved back, he dragged his leg when walking
the streets of Copenhagen. “Little Kierkegaard,”
they called him. Some meant it kindly. The more one suffers
the more one acquires a sense of the comic.
His hair rose in waves six inches above his head.
Save me, O God, from ever becoming sure.
What good is faith if it is not irrational?
Christianity requires a conviction of sin.
As a boy tending sheep on the frozen heath,
his starving father cursed God for his cruelty.
His fortunes changed. He grew rich and married well.
His father knew these blessings were God’s punishment.
All would be stripped away. His beautiful wife died,
then five of his children. Crippled Soren survived.
The self-consuming sickness unto death is despair.
What the age needs is not a genius but a martyr.
Soren fell in love, proposed, then broke the engagement.
No one, he thought, could bear his presence daily.
My sorrow is my castle. His books were read
but ridiculed. Cartoons mocked his deformities
His private journals fill seven thousand pages.
You could read them all, he claimed, and still not know him.
He who explains this riddle explains my life.
When everyone is Christian, Christianity
does not exist. The crowd is untruth. Remember
we stand alone before God in fear and trembling.
At forty-two he collapsed on his daily walk.
Dying he seemed radiant. His skin had become
almost transparent. He refused communion
from the established church. His grave has no headstone.
Now with God’s help I shall at last become myself.
Source: 99 Poems (c. 2016 by Dana Gioia, pub. by Graywolf Press) Dana Gioia has little in the way of formal literary education when he began his career as a poet. Born in 1950, he graduated from Stanford Business School and went to work for General Foods and ultimately became vice president of marketing. He later completed a master’s degree in comparative literature at Harvard University. In 1992, he committed himself to writing full-time. He served as chairperson of the now endangered National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008. Gioia was named Poet Laureate of California in 2015. You can find out more about Dana Gioia and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
Our reading for Sunday is taken from Peter’s Pentecost sermon. In Luke-Acts, Pentecost marks the transition from the “time of Jesus” to the “time of the church.” Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 57. While this reading might seem misplaced from the standpoint of our liturgical calendar, it fits in very nicely with the gospel lesson from John. John’s Pentecost occurs on the evening of Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the disciples and “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22.
In the lesson from Acts Peter, emboldened by the Holy Spirit, addresses a diverse group of Jewish pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. His text is Joel 2:28-32. Little is known about the prophet Joel. It is believed that he prophesied to the people of Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history between 539 B.C.E.-331 B.C.E. This group, you will recall, returned from exile in Babylon following the conquest of that empire by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. The exiles had high hopes of rebuilding Jerusalem, constructing a new temple and restoring the land. Contrary to their expectations, however, restoration was difficult, frustrating and slow. Many of the people became discouraged and abandoned the project altogether.
During his ministry the prophet Joel witnessed a devastating plague of locusts which he understood to be a judgment of God designed to call his people to repentance and faith. Such locust swarms, still experienced in the Middle East today, can consume an entire field of crops in a matter of hours. Their numbers are so great and their hoards so dense that they can eclipse the sun and moon much like a dark cloud. According to the prophet Joel, this plague was a portent and a sign of the “Day of the Lord” when the light of sun and moon would be dimmed in earnest.
The Apostle Peter quotes this text, but for him the “Day of the Lord” is not a future event. It has already taken place as shown by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples enabling them to speak the gospel in languages of all nations. The apocalyptic sign of the end, the darkening of the heavens, occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus when “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed…” Luke 23:44-45. Peter therefore declares to the crowd gathered before him that the Day of the Lord has arrived and the new age has come. I should add that many scholars, perhaps the majority, hold that Peter’s use of this text from Joel is to highlight the anticipated “second coming of Christ” rather than the crucifixion. E.g., Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M., The Acts of the Apostles (c. 1964 by the Order of St. Benedict, pub. The Liturgical Press) p. 29.) I respectfully take the minority view.
It should be borne in mind that this audience probably knows Jesus or knows about him. What the people know is summarized by Peter in verses 22-23. Jesus was a worker of signs and wonders done in their midst. He was delivered up to “lawless men,” that is, the gentile rulers of Rome. He was crucified. That much is common knowledge. What the people do not know is that all of this took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (vs. 23) and that “God raised [Jesus] up.” Vs. 24. What the people assume to have been the cruel death of a tragically misguided prophet, perhaps a prophet with messianic delusions, was in reality the working out of God’s mission of salvation for all people.
Peter continues his sermon by citing to a section of our Psalm for today, Psalm 16:8-11. In this psalm, traditionally attributed to David, the psalmist declares that God will not allow him to see the “Pit” or be abandoned to “Sheol.” Vs. 10. Peter argues that David cannot be speaking of himself because he has, in fact, died and the place of his burial is well known. Consequently, David must have been speaking about one of his descendants as God promised David that his line would endure forever. Thus far, Peter is interpreting the psalm in much the same way as it was widely understood in the 1st Century by many strands of Jewish tradition. The belief that God would raise up a descendant of David to restore Israel was a deeply held hope. But now Peter delivers the knockout punch: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” Vs. 32. The crucified and rejected Jesus is the promised descendant of David raised up for Israel’s salvation.
Care must be taken in speaking of the “foreknowledge and plan” of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. If this language is forced into the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” we come out with a perverse understanding of God the Father whose treatment of his Son can only be described as child abuse. Jesus’ suffering and death was not “necessary” to appease the thirst of an angry God for vengeance. The crucifixion was not required to enable God to forgive. God does not need the death of Jesus to forgive sins. Jesus’ suffering and death was necessary or inevitable because living a life that is truly human and obedient to the will of God in a sinful and inhumane world can have but one consequence. That consequence of rejection, suffering and death God was prepared to embrace in the person of his Son in order to embrace us with human arms and love us with a human heart. The cross is the price of God’s covenant faithfulness to all of creation-a price God was willing to pay.
Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.). Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 172. Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Ibid. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Ibid. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.
The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.
As we have seen, the Apostle Peter cites this text (assuming Davidic authorship) to demonstrate Jesus’ messiahship. By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus was spared from “Sheol” and the “Pit”. Vs. 10. It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” Peter does not use the text in this manner either. His emphasis is not resurrection as such, but on Jesus’ resurrection as vindication of his faithful life and proof that God’s purpose has been worked out through that life. The notion of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
The brief verses constituting our lesson are taken from the salutation given to the churches of northern Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) by the author of I Peter. These churches lived at the frontier of the Roman Empire where national security required greater internal government scrutiny. Societies such as the church that met regularly in private homes aroused suspicion. The refusal of Jesus’ disciples to take part in civil ceremonies acclaiming the deity of the Roman emperor seemed to confirm the government’s fear that the church might be a seditious movement dangerous to Roman society. As a result, members of the church experienced persecution ranging from social ostracism to outright violence.
This salutation sets the tone for the rest of the letter. Peter reminds these believers that they have been “born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” vs. 3. This hope is an inheritance that cannot be taken away; thus, believers can rejoice even though their faithfulness to Jesus occasions suffering in the short run. Such rejoicing, as Stanley Hauerwas observes, is unintelligible apart from this community’s firm belief in Jesus’ resurrection. See last year’s Post for April 20th. That resurrection represents not merely the destiny of the church, but of all creation. Consequently, belief in the resurrection means shaping one’s life to fit the contours of the new creation soon to be born rather than to those of the old creation that is dying. Birth does not occur without pain and the shedding of blood. Martyrdom is the church’s ultimate testimony to the reality of God’s kingdom. The persecution of the saints constitutes the death throes of the old order just as surely as it does the birth pangs of the new.
It seems to me that John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection differs from those of Matthew, Mark and Luke in this respect: Whereas for the first three gospels Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion are interpreted through the shock of his resurrection; for John, Jesus’ laying down his life interprets his resurrection appearances. Or as one commentator puts it:
“…when we consider the nature of St. John’s gospel, in which the Lord during his ministry has revealed Himself as the resurrection and the life, and the cross, as interpreted by St. John, marks not only the last stage of His ‘descent’ but also His glorification, it should not surprise us that the evangelist is not concerned in ch. 20 to dwell upon the Lord’s resurrection as forming primarily a reversal of the passion. He expects his readers to have learned by this time the secret which he has gradually unfolded to them in the first nineteen chapters of his gospel, the secret, namely, that the Lord at the moment and in the fact of his laying down of His life has revealed the glory of the Father, and therefore His own oneness with the Father, to the fullest possible degree. If one moment of His revelation of the Father in the days of His flesh is to be distinguished from another, then at the moment of His death, more than at any other, He has glorified the Father, and His return to the Father has at least begun (cf. 6:62).” Lightfoot, R., St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary, (c. 1956 Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) pp. 329-330.
In narrating the resurrection appearances, John takes care to emphasize the physicality of the resurrected Christ. Jesus must tell Mary to cease clinging to him before he can go on his way. John 20:17. He appears to the disciples with the wounds of the cross on his body. Vss. John 20:20. He even invites Thomas to place his hands in those wounds. John 20:27. John makes clear that the incarnation is irrevocable. The flesh of Jesus was not merely a clever disguise. God became human and God remains human. “No one has ever seen God,” says John. But “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. God is known and knowable only through one’s abiding in the fully human Jesus. Nothing makes that point quite as emphatically as Thomas’ confession: “My Lord and My God.” Vs. 28.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? In my own tradition (Lutheran), this verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Thomas comes in for a good deal of criticism for doubting Jesus’ resurrection, though to be fair, he was not asking for anything more in the way of proof than the disciples had already experienced. It is worth noting that however doubtful Thomas may have been, he remained in the company of his fellow disciples. That is to say, he remained in the church. That is the best possible advice I can give to people who have difficulty believing. Faith cannot be argued into anyone, nor can it be manufactured. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that must be given. Still, we know where the Holy Spirit hangs out. The Spirit accompanies the preaching of the Word; the Spirit is poured out upon the bread and wine at the altar; the Spirit is present where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. If you want to believe, that is where you need to be. Of course, if you don’t want to believe, I can’t help you with that.
RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of mercy, we no longer look for Jesus among the dead, for he is alive and has become the Lord of life. Increase in our minds and hearts the risen life we share with Christ, and help us to grow as your people toward the fullness of eternal life with you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Easter Sunday presents a unique opportunity for those of us who preach. We get a chance to speak with a lot of folks we don’t see in church on any other day. This is our one shot at bringing the resurrected Christ into the lives of people who have little to no interest in Jesus or his church. For years I have been struggling to get it right. I keep asking myself, how can I catch the attention of the unattentive? How can I interest the disinterested? What can I say in fifteen to twenty minutes that will convince an audience of lapsed, skeptical and perhaps even hostile listeners that Jesus’ resurrection matters to them? Every year I come away from Easter Sunday disappointed in myself. I just can’t seem to connect with the unconnected in a meaningful way.
Well, after years of effort resulting only in frustration, I have finally concluded that I have been preaching to the wrong audience. The good news of the resurrection will never make sense to the unconnected. It is addressed to the connected, to those who have been following Jesus throughout the season of Lent, dying daily to self through prayer, fasting and alms giving. There is no grasping the cosmic significance of the empty tomb without having seen Jesus laid there after his death on the cross. It is impossible to know the resurrection as a transformative event unless you understand that the one who was raised met the death of a criminal because he lived joyfully, faithfully and obediently as God’s beloved child a life of passionate love for a world we are prone to give up on. In short, the resurrection is a story for people struggling to follow Jesus in a world that is hostile to him and the reign of God he proclaimed. Easter is a good word directed to people who are living in the way of the cross. By trying to make it intelligible and appealing to disinterested observers, we water it down to sentimental mush.
The object of preaching, I believe, is to bring people into the presence of Jesus. But that simply cannot be done in a single sermon. Yes, I have known a few people over the years who have told me that a particular sermon turned their lives around. But I suspect that in these cases also there was a lot of additional preaching, teaching and witnessing going on in their past lives laying the groundwork for that moment of revelation. The truth dawns on us gradually most of the time. If Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, could not immediately recognize the resurrected Christ even as he stood in front of her and spoke to her, how can I expect a person not even casually acquainted with Jesus to spot him for the first time in one of my sermons?
The resurrection of Jesus is good news only in the context of the total gospel narrative. Ours is a story that stretches from the dawn of creation to its redemption and fulfillment. It cannot be told in one sitting and it cannot be understood apart from the community the story creates and sustains. That is why speaking the good news to the world at large is inseparable from the speaker’s engagement with the hearers in a way that beckons them to enter into our community of faith and get to know us as disciples of Jesus. We are the people who follow Jesus, the people whose way of life makes no sense apart from the remarkable claim that Jesus has been raised. Until the mind of Christ is formed in us, our witness to Christ will amount to no more than a metaphysical assertion. That is why a sermon is only as strong as the Spirit pulsing through the church in which it is preached. That is why our Easter preaching must be addressed first and foremost to God’s Easter people.
So I will be preaching this Sunday to Jesus’ disciples as I typically do on every other Sunday. I will preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from death to the ones who have been following him from Galilee, to Jerusalem, up the hill to Golgotha and into the tomb. I am glad, of course, for the presence of the unconnected in our midst. Perhaps they will get caught up in the joy of our celebration, the unusual vigor with which we sing on this great queen of seasons or the wonder and awe with which we take into our trembling hands the very body and blood of the resurrected Lord. Who can say whether this Sunday will be the day that peaks the interest of a bored teenager, moves a resentful spouse a tad closer to appreciation of his/her beloved’s faith or rekindles the longing of a lapsed member? My job is simply to tell the story to those who hunger for it as simply, as truthfully and as passionately as I know how-while trying to keep my worries about how it will be received from getting in the way.
Here’s a poem by Joyce Hernandez that speaks to the hope of every preacher for his/her Easter Sunday sermon.
When Jesus early rose and breathed
The pungent air of new-dug earth,
Passed the stone, and passed the flesh,
Passed the mourners of his death,
(and left them dazed, but following)
He rose with such a limpid flight
As wind or wings could only clutter,
And left no scratches on the world,
No broken twig or parted cloud,
To draw our eyes away from him.
(c. 1972 by Joyce Hernandez) Joyce Hernandez is a teacher, nurse and poet living in Yakima, Washington whose publications include The Bone Woman Poems (c. 2009, pub. by Allied Arts and Minuteman Press). She is also, coincidentally, my sister.
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.
In order to appreciate fully the resurrection narratives in John, one needs to rewind the tape back to chapters 13-17 where Jesus discusses at great length the life of discipleship and the shape it will take following his resurrection. While it might appear at first blush that Jesus is preparing his disciples for his “going away” and for life without him, he is really doing nothing of the kind. His “going away” is actually his “going before” the disciples to prepare a place for them. John 14:1-3. The disciples should be glad for Jesus “going away” because it means that Jesus will be even more intensely and intimately present to them through the Spirit. John 16:5-11. All that God the Father has is revealed in Jesus and it is the Spirit’s job to take what belongs to Jesus and impart it to his disciples. John 16:13-15. And this is so that the Trinitarian love between the Father and the Son might abide among Jesus’ disciples so that the world will know that the Son has been sent by the Father for its sake. John 3:16; John 17:20-21; John 17:26.
There were no witnesses to the actual resurrection of Jesus. In all four gospels, the stone sealing the tomb where Jesus was buried had been moved away before the women arrived at the gravesite. The tomb was already empty. According to John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first to arrive at Jesus’ grave on Easter morning. It is still dark. Vs. 1. John’s gospel uses “darkness” frequently to describe sin, ignorance, failure to comprehend or inability to see properly. “Darkness” is the antagonist to the Word which is described as “light” in John’s lyrical prologue. John 1:4-5. Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” John 3:1-2. “Night” is a time “when no one can work.” John 9:4. It is “night” when Judas departs to betray Jesus to his enemies. John 13:30. So also it is still “dark” as Mary approaches the tomb and concludes, naturally enough, that the grave has been desecrated and Jesus’ body taken away. Vss. 1-2. This prompts Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved” to race toward the tomb to investigate. Vss. 3-4. There they find the grave wrappings lying in the tomb with the shroud that had covered Jesus’ head folded and lying separately. Vss. 4-8. Whereas both Peter and the “beloved” disciple go into the tomb and find it empty, it is the “beloved” disciple who believes, though he does not yet fully understand the “scripture that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.” Vss. 8-9. This is perhaps an intended contrast to Thomas who insists that he will not believe unless he sees. John 20:24-25. The beloved disciple is the “blessed” one who has “not seen and yet believe[s].” John 20:29.
Mary (who evidently returned with Peter and the beloved disciple to the tomb) remains at the tomb to weep. Vs. 11. As illustrated in the story of Lazarus, such lamentation at the gravesite was customary. John 11:31. Why Mary should look into the tomb a second time is not clear, but she does. At this point, she sees inside the tomb two angels who ask her why she is weeping. Vs. 12-13. Remarkably, Mary does not demonstrate the terror and awe that usually accompanies human encounters with angels. She simply tells them that someone has taken away the body of Jesus and she does not know where it is. Vs. 13. Are we to infer that Mary does not recognize the two white clad individuals as angels?
When Jesus appears and first addresses Mary with inquiries about the cause of her weeping, she does not recognize him. vs. 14. Supposing Jesus to be the garner and supposing further that he is responsible for taking away the body, Mary begs for him to disclose where that body is. Vs. 15. Once again, seeing is not believing. Though Mary sees Jesus, she does not recognize him until he calls her by name. Vss. 15-16. At the mention of her name, she finally does recognize Jesus and responds with the exclamation, “rabboni,” that is, “my rabbi” or perhaps, “my dear rabbi.” Vs. 16.
Much speculation has been wasted on Jesus injunction for Mary not to touch him-in contrast to his invitation to Thomas to do just that. Vs. 17. Cf. John 20:27. The Greek text employs the present imperative with a particular negative particle indicating that the “touching” was already in progress and that Mary was clinging to Jesus. As pointed out above, Jesus is indeed ascending to the Father. Vs. 17. From now on, his presence with his disciples will be qualitatively different, though every bit as real and even more intimate and intense. Thus, like the disciples in the farewell discourses, Mary is wrong to want to cling to the pre-resurrection relationship to Jesus. Something much better has just transpired in the new age that is dawning.
Mary Magdalene returns to the disciples and with her testimony breaks open to them and the world the advent of a new creation: “I have seen the Lord.” Vs. 18. Those are the last words we hear from Mary in the New Testament. Perhaps that is appropriate. After all, once you have ushered in the messianic age with your own lips, anything else you might do after that is bound to be anti-climactic. I love this story told through the eyes of the first witness to the Lord’s resurrection and I intend to preach this text on Easter Sunday. For anyone focusing on the appointed text from Matthew, I invite you to revisit my post of Sunday, April 20, 2014.
SUNDAY OF THE PASSION/PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Shortly before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the joyous shouts of “Hosanna,” there had been another procession-that of Pontius Pilate with his army into that same city. Passover was known to be a volatile season in Jerusalem. After all, it was a feast celebrating God’s liberation of slaves from their imperial master. Rome was understandably uncomfortable with such narratives. Stories like these did not sit well with the emperor who considered himself solely entitled to designations like “Lord” and “King,” and whose raw military power maintained the social, economic and political stability dubbed “Pax Romana.” Keeping the peace in Palestine meant demonstrating to the Jewish population that there was just one king and one Lord. Pilate no doubt found it more than a little convenient that Jesus should arrive on the scene just in time to become an object lesson. A man hanging on a cross in full view of all pilgrims coming to the Passover feast would serve as a salutary reminder of who is really in charge. The inscription over the cross, “this is the King of the Jews,” would make it clear to everyone what happens to people who claim to be Lord and King.
As much as the Jewish people resented Roman domination, I suspect that Pilate’s military parade gave them a measure of relief as well. For all their brutality, had not the Romans maintained law and order? As onerous as their taxation system might be, is it any less onerous than living in fear of crime, lawlessness and revolution? To be sure, the occasional crucifixion of an innocent man is lamentable. But perhaps such imperial ruthless is the price we must all pay for peace and security. As Caiaphas so aptly observed in John’s gospel, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. Anything for national security.
I can recall the Armed Forces Day parades we had when I was a kid in my home town of Bremerton, Washington. Like Pilate’s parade, the endless columns of marching soldiers with freshly polished shoes and bayonets, the tanks rumbling down the street and warplanes flying overhead were all there to assure us at the height of the cold war that we were well protected. Our military was prepared for anything the Soviets might throw at us. We all clapped and cheered, though the festive mood was actually a little hollow. Deep down, we all knew that there would be no victors following a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Living as we did at “ground zero,” next door to the largest navel facility on the west coast and only fifteen miles from a critical submarine base, we were well aware that no desk under which we might hide during drills nor any shelter in which we might take cover would protect us. We knew that national security was a national delusion, that the parade was a promotional opiate and that the security promised by force of arms was a fraud. A peace imposed by the threat of annihilation is no peace at all.
Professor of biblical studies, John Dominic Crossan suggests that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem might have been a parody of Pilate’s earlier parade. Crossan, John Dominik & Reed, Jonathan L., Excavating Jesus, (c. 2001 by Crossan & Reed, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 262. In short, Jesus was lampooning Pilate in much the same way as Alec Baldwin has been spoofing President Trump on Saturday Night Live. That makes some sense. After all, nothing is more threatening to tyranny than humor. For good reason women protesting the activities of anti-immigrant “watch groups” in Finland dressed up as clowns. It is hard to project a fierce and intimidating persona when you are chasing a clown. Whatever the merits of Crossan’s suggested reading, there is no question that the Jesus parade of harlots, tax collectors and outcasts along with his honor guard of singing children constituted a stark contrast to Pilate’s procession of heavily armed troops into the city days before. It is likely that Jesus’ act of impudence in the face of Rome contributed to Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify him. Such was Rome’s verdict in the Jesus affair.
Nevertheless, in the resurrection to which we look forward, God reverses Rome’s judgment. The “Peace of Rome” is unmasked for the fraud it really is and Jesus is revealed as the one who truly is Lord. The cross was the symbol of Rome’s power to kill. But Jesus made of it God’s instrument for breathing life into the world and a symbol of hope. The empire employed violence and threats to impose its peace. Jesus used divine power, but only to bring healing, forgiveness and life. Pilate can kill, but only God can raise the dead.
Two parades: one threatening death; the other promising life. The question you need to keep asking yourself is this: in whose parade am I marching? Am I secretly cheering the might of the principalities and powers that maintain law and order at the expense of justice, truth and freedom? Am I frightened by what might happen in their absence? Or am I marching with the one who upends the hierarchy of domination? Am I marching with the friend of those deported, discriminated against and vilified-all in the name of national security? Or am I cheering for the oppressive machinery that protects my position of privilege? Am I a disciple of the fearless clown who exposes and mocks the impotence and empty promises of raw power? Or am I a willing subject of the governor who wields it? It seems to me the importance of these questions intensifies with each passing day.
Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver about where the imperial parade invariably leads.
Of The Empire
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
Source: Red Bird, Oliver, Mary (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 46. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity, created for them by Persia’s conquest of Babylon, to return home to Palestine. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Matthew’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfils all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
There is far more material in Matthew’s passion narrative than I can hope to consider in this post. Furthermore, I am not sure scrutinizing the text is at all helpful here. I do not believe I have ever attempted to preach on the passion itself. After hearing it read, silence seems to be the only natural and appropriate response. Instead of reading commentaries, I believe the best preparation for the Sunday of the Passion is to set aside a few hours and listen to J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. That said, a few things about Matthew’s passion narrative are noteworthy. Of particular interest are those episodes unique to Matthew’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Matthew alone tells us that Judas, after realizing that his betrayal of Jesus will end in Jesus’ crucifixion, regrets his treachery. Matthew alone tells us that Judas returned his ill-gotten silver and subsequently committed suicide. Matthew 27:3-10. Mark and John tell us nothing of Judas after his act of betrayal. Luke refers to Judas’ death only in an obscure passage from Acts. Acts 1:18-19. Wherever Matthew obtained this information, it fits nicely into the “fulfillment of prophesy” theme running through his gospel. Matthew has referred to Judas on several occasions as a “paradidous” or “one who hands over” or “betrayer” according to the RSV. See Matthew 10:4; Matthew 26:25; Matthew 26:46 and Matthew 26:48. Now Judas takes that name upon his own lips and so labels himself. “I have sinned in ‘betraying’ innocent blood.” Matthew 27:4.
The chief priests initially refuse to accept the money but obviously cannot return it to Judas once he is dead. Because the funds constitute “blood money,” they are unfit for the temple’s general treasury. Scholars debate the scriptural origin of this supposed prohibition. Some believe it to have been a rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:18 forbidding payment of a vow by any Israelite from the wages of a prostitute. This seems a stretch to me. Judas was not seeking to pay any religious obligation when he returned the thirty pieces of silver, nor were the priests who received it. Moreover, the wages of a prostitute do not involve the shedding of blood. Finally, there is no actual rabbinic interpretation of this text that comes close to a specific prohibition against the receipt of blood monies. Others have focused on I Chronicles 22:8-9 in which the Lord forbids David from constructing the temple in Jerusalem because he has “shed much blood and…waged great wars.” While a rabbinic gloss on this text extending the prohibition against David’s construction of the temple to the deposit of blood money into the treasury is logical, it likewise lacks support in any known rabbinic literature.
Whatever may be the case with respect to laws governing deposits into the temple treasury, Matthew employs this episode to demonstrate once again that what happens to Jesus fulfills the scriptures. His citation to Jeremiah appears to be a conflation of three texts: Zechariah 11:12-13; Jeremiah 18:1-3; Jeremiah 32:6-13. Perhaps the more significant of these is the third. Jeremiah relates how God instructed him to purchase a field from his uncle at the height of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. This was obviously a foolish short term investment, given that all the land would soon be under the control of Babylon and the people deported. But the prophet is not thinking short term. He looks to the day when the land will again be re-inhabited by his people and at peace. This seemingly senseless business transaction reflects the prophet’s faith in God’s promise to bring Israel back from exile and restore to her the land of promise. In reverse literary symmetry, the chief priests conduct what seems to them an imminently practical transaction that turns out to be the prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ messianic destiny.
The other episode unique to Matthew’s passion narrative occurs in Matthew 27:51-52. Immediately following Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. Vs. 51. In this much, Matthew is consistent with Mark (Mark 15:38) and Luke (Luke 23:45). But Matthew goes on to describe a great earthquake that opened up the tombs housing many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep, but were raised and entered Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew 27:51-53. Eduard Schweizer believes that a textual corruption or inept editing is responsible for the testimony that the resurrected saints were not seen in Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 516. He maintains that the narrative makes sense only if we understand the appearance of the saints to have taken place on the day of Jesus’ death.
I will admit that the text as it stands makes for an awkward sequence of events in the passion story. Moreover, if the appearance of the saints did take place after Jesus’ resurrection, it would fit more naturally into the resurrection account in Matthew 28. Still and all, I am not thoroughly convinced. Jewish belief in the resurrection (among those who did so believe) understood that resurrection to be a general one. All the dead would be raised and judged together. See Daniel 12:1-3. There was no understanding, so far as I know, of individuals being resurrected (as opposed to simply being raised like Lazarus in last week’s gospel). Consequently, Jesus’ resurrection could only be understood in Jewish thought as the first fruits of the general resurrection. That is clearly how Saint Paul understands the resurrection. (See I Corinthians 15). The appearance of the departed saints (“righteous ones” or “Zadiq” in Hebrew) at the time of Jesus’ rising therefore substantiates Jesus’ resurrection as the resurrection.
If you are hell bent on preaching the passion, these are two sections you might consider focusing on. Still, my advice remains: Don’t do it. The passion preaches itself. Let the story be told. Let the mysteries, the imponderables and the questions hang in the air. The Son of God has uttered his last words. What can we possibly add?