RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
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.