Easter doesn’t come easy; a poem by Christina Rossetti; and the lessons for Sunday, April 1, 2018

See the source imageRESURRECTION OF OUR LORD

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Mark the Evangelist’s Easter story is dark and terrifying. It begins and ends in a graveyard with three women racing from the scene of a violated tomb in stark terror. It appears to end that way too. The women, we are told, said nothing to anyone about what they had experienced. Of course, we know that cannot possibly have been the case. If it had, there would be no church and I would not be writing these lines. At some point, the women must have shared the good news about the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. But we don’t learn anything about that from Mark. Mark would surely have been familiar with accounts of the resurrection and appearances of the resurrected Christ to his disciples found in the other gospels. These stories were floating around the church a good two decades at least before he wrote his gospel. Yet for reasons concerning which we can only speculate, Mark did not see fit to include them in his Easter story. Mark will not let us slide so easily from the shock of the empty tomb to the joy of reconciliation with the risen Christ. He leaves us instead with an unfinished story. If we want an ending, we will have to make it.

As unsettling as it is, Mark’s account of Easter Sunday resonates best with my instincts of how things likely went down. I expect the women were going to the tomb of Jesus for the same reason I might visit the tomb of a lost loved one. They wanted a measure of closure and to get on with their lives. Finding the tomb violated and the remains removed could only have added to the already traumatic loss they had experienced. I doubt that resurrection topped the list of possible explanations the women were entertaining for the empty tomb. Most likely, they concluded that the grave had been ransacked by some of Jesus’ many enemies. Seeing a man at the scene of the crime could only have made the experience more terrifying for the women. The fact that he happened to be wearing a white robe would not necessarily lead them to conclude that he was an angel, nor do I think they would have been inclined to trust much of anything he had to say to them. The women’s response-terror and silence-strike me as entirely understandable.

Those of us who have experienced the traumatic loss of a loved one know that the way back from total devastation to healing is a long, slow journey. There is a part of us that simply does not accept the terrible thing that has happened and believes we will wake up to discover that it was all a very bad dream. There is another part of us designed to protect us from entertaining such irrational hopes that will only be dashed in the end, thereby adding to our pain. I understand why the women who came to the tomb were terrified by the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. It was too good to be true and it would hurt them just too much if they dared to believe it.

Perhaps many of us have reached the point where we can no longer hear the good news of Easter. Perhaps we have been lied to, betrayed, taken advantage of so many times that we have lost the capacity for trust and hope. Maybe Mark’s audience was at that very point. Could this be a church that had seen so many set-backs, so many dashed hopes and so many failures it no longer dared to believe that Jesus was alive and leading it? Perhaps the troubling ending for Mark’s gospel was the shock therapy required to jolt an anesthetized church out of its spiritual coma and back into action. Yes, Jesus is risen. No, you can’t see him now. But if you go after him, if you return to Galilee, you might just catch a glimpse of him. You might finally overcome your fear and find your voice again. If you want Easter, you will have to work for it this year. Mark isn’t handing it to you on a silver platter!

Here is a poem by Christina Rossetti about Resurrection the hard way.

A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the daughter of an Italian poet and exile who emigrated to England in 1884. There he established himself as a scholar and teacher of Dante’s works at Kings College. He married an English woman in 1826 and they had four children together, one of which was Christina. Christina Rossetti’s childhood appears to have been happy, characterized by affectionate parental care and the creative inspiration from her older siblings. A devout Christian, her many poems, short stories and devotional works are rich in biblical imagery. You can find out more about Christina Rossetti and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 10:34-43

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.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

“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.

The psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another. Some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist. This switching of voices has led many Old Testament scholars to v this view this hymn as 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 words from this psalm most commonly cited in the New Testament are at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42Mark 12:10Luke 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.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

These verses form the introduction to Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection throughout the whole of I Corinthians 15. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here Paul makes the very important point that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply his own, but the beginning of a general resurrection of the dead in which all believers participate even now. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the dead whose resurrection follows. The end comes when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power.” I Corinthians 15:24. This is precisely the claim that ultimately got disciples of Jesus into big trouble with the Roman Empire. As far as Caesar was concerned, there was only one kingdom and that was Rome. Suggesting that there might be another kingdom to which allegiance was owed could get you nailed to a cross. Asserting that all other kingdoms, including Rome, must finally be brought under the reign of such other kingdom was a direct shot across the imperial bow. These letters of Paul were considered subversive material in the 1stCentury and would be equally so in the 21st Century-if we really paid attention to what Paul is saying.

“Now I remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel…” vs. 1. These “terms” involve specifically the resurrection of the body. Paul’s non-Jewish audience would have been quite receptive to any number of concepts for life after death. What confounded them was the very Jewish notion of the resurrection of the body. Rosner, B.S., “With What Kind of Body Do they Come?” printed in The New Testament in Its First-Century Setting: Essays on Context and Background in Honor of B.W. Winter on his 65th Birthday, Edited by P.J. Williams (c. 2004 by Eerdmans); Wright, N.T., The Resurrection of the Son of God (c. Fortress Press 2003). The canonical Hebrew Scriptures generally speak of resurrection in terms of national restoration following exile rather than personal resurrection from death. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones is an obvious example. Ezekiel 37:1-14. In the 26th chapter of Isaiah the prophet declares that “your dead shall live” and says explicitly that “their corpses shall rise.” Isaiah 26:19. Yet even so, these words in their context appear to function more as hyperbolic metaphors than literal promises of individual or corporate bodily resurrection from death. Only in the Book of Daniel do we find an explicit promise of resurrection from death:

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:1-3.

Notwithstanding the lack of any fully developed doctrine of resurrection from death, the Hebrew Scriptures nonetheless lay the foundation for such a hope in their witness to God as Creator, righteous Judge and merciful Savior See, e.g., Bauckham, R., The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, Supplements to Novum Testamentum (c. 1998 by Leiden: Brill). Moreover, the resurrection of the dead is firmly attested by later Jewish apocalyptic literature. See I Enoch 51:1; I Enoch 62:14-16; 4 Ezra 7:32-33. In Paul’s unique take on the subject, the resurrection of the dead is preceded and made possible by the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrected people of God. I Corinthians 15:20-23. Hays, H.B. First Corinthians (c. 1997 by John Knox Press) p. 263.

Verses 3-8 contain the earliest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus we have in the New Testament. It begins with the assertion that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Vss. 3-4. Echoes of these verses are heard in the second articles of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. But what does Paul mean by “scriptures?” Clearly, he can only mean the Hebrew Scriptures as these were the only Bible the church had during his lifetime. We mistake Paul’s meaning if we understand him to be saying that the Hebrew Scriptures “prove” that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfill the covenant promises to Israel. It is actually quite the other way around. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are attested by the witness of the apostles as we will soon see. But these events can be properly understood and appreciated only through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is to these scriptures we must turn in order to interpret Jesus. Without them, he is readily misunderstood as has been demonstrated by numerous heretical teachings that have attempted to sever the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament. According to Paul, “the message of the cross must be understood through the OT categories of sacrifice, atonement, suffering, vindication and so forth.” Ciampa, Roy, E. and Rosner, Brian S., I Corinthians, pub. in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edit. Beal, G.K. and Carson, D.A. (c. 2007 by G.K. Beal and D.A. Carson, pub. by Baker Academic) p. 744.

Paul’s recitation of the resurrection appearances to the apostles is interesting in that it implies Cephas (Peter) was the first to meet the resurrected Christ, followed by the Twelve, the five hundred and then James (the brother of the Lord?). He makes no mention of the appearance of Jesus to the women attested in Matthew, Mark and Luke or the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel. Since Paul is arguing the resurrection of Jesus to some in Corinth who appear to deny it, his purpose in citing these witnesses seems to be that of bolstering his position. As women were not generally deemed to be competent witnesses in Jewish culture and in some other near eastern societies, he might have intentionally avoided mentioning them in this letter to avoid weakening his case. In any event, the point here is to illustrate that Jesus both died and was raised from death and that there remain eye witnesses to this saving work of God.

Paul includes himself among the apostolic witnesses to the resurrected Christ. Vs. 8. Indeed, he appears to ground his apostleship in part on his having seen Jesus. I Corinthians 9:1. Most likely, this is a reference to his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. This story is related by Paul himself in Galatians 1:13-17 and throughout the Book of Acts. Acts 9:1-9Acts 22:6-16Acts 26:12-18. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ is removed not only in time but in quality from that of the other apostles. Mary Magdalene, the other women at the tomb and the twelve all encountered the same One they had known and followed throughout his ministry (though they were not always quick to recognize him). There is no indication that Paul ever knew Jesus during his mortal lifetime and thus could only have known him through his self-identification. Paul seems aware of this difference, referring to his encounter with Jesus as an “untimely birth.” Vs. 8. Nonetheless, untimely though it may have been and unworthy as he may have been, Paul had an encounter during which he “saw” the resurrected Christ. His witness further substantiates the claim that God has indeed begun to raise the dead and the proof in the pudding is Jesus.

A word or two further should be said about resurrection from death. This is not a distant hope to be fulfilled only in the indefinite future. Death is destroyed even now-if we understand that it is not the last word. I must say that one of the greatest disappointments I have experienced throughout my life in the church is our inordinate fear death. I cannot honestly say that I have found in the church any less denial of death, inability to discuss death or acceptance of death than in the public at large. Now I am not suggesting that death should be treated lightly or that anxiety about dying is unnatural or suggests a lack of faith. But I do believe that disciples of Jesus ought to know how to die. Like all other disciplines, the art of dying well is learned and practiced in a community of faith. The church should be a place where a person can discuss the deterioration of health, life threatening sickness and the effects of chronic pain in comfort and without awkwardness. We should all be assured that no one of us has to die alone. People in hospice should be comforted by visitors who read psalms to them, pray over them or simply sit at their bedside. A disciple’s funeral should be in the sanctuary where s/he worshipped. The casket should stand in the presence of the baptismal font and be surrounded by the symbols of faith. The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated as a testament both to our resurrection hope and the communion of saints that even now transcends the grave. The church should then accompany the casket to the cemetery where the body is placed in the earth like a seed awaiting the life giving Spring of the resurrection. None of this makes death pleasant. But, as Paul tells us, it can take the sting out of it. I Corinthians 15:54-58.

Mark 16:1-8

As I have mentioned before, Mark’s resurrection is the Transfiguration story at the center of his gospel. At least that is how I see it. See my post of February 15, 2015. There Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved Son transcending both the law and the prophets. At the end of the book we have only an empty tomb, a cryptic messenger and some women running away in terror. It is hardly surprising that subsequent editors sought to supplement the gospel with some other resurrection traditions. See Mark 16:9-20. I suspect they were uncomfortable with the loose ends left hanging at verse 8. But Mark excels at loose ends, unfinished stories and unanswered questions. He seems to delight in denying us “closure.”

Though scholarship is virtually unanimous in viewing the resurrection accounts following verse 8 as non Marcan accretions, not all New Testament scholars are convinced that verse 8 is or was intended to be the end of Mark’s gospel. Vincent Taylor, for example, argues that “it is incredible that Mark intended such a conclusion.” Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 609. The argument is based largely on the fact that the concluding sentence, “the [women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” ends with the Greek word “gar,” meaning “for.” Such a construction is admittedly clumsy and hardly an appropriate conclusion for any literary work. Cranfield likewise rejects the conclusion that Mark intended to end his gospel at verse 8. “Since the fact of the Resurrection appearances was clearly an element of the church’s primitive preaching, it is highly improbable that Mark intended to conclude his gospel without at least one account of a Resurrection appearance.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press). The supposition is that the original ending was either lost, deliberately suppressed or never completed.

I don’t find any of these objections to ending Mark’s gospel at vs. 8 persuasive. As I noted earlier, Mark delights in leaving us with more questions than answers. Awkward grammar in the final verse fits nicely into the messy, jerky and twisted manner in which the gospel is told from beginning to end. As Morna Hooker points out, there is a fine irony in the closing scene. Whereas up until now Jesus has been urging his followers and the benefactors of his miracles to remain silent about what they have experienced, here the young man at the tomb orders the women to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee. But the women now manage to do exactly what no one else had been able to do throughout the entire narrative, namely, keep quite. The women run from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 587. In sum, Mark has given us a splendid (if deeply troubling) literary ending to his work. The church’s attempts to improve upon it only blunt its impact.

In the Gospel of Luke, the women disciples are identified in the midst of the text at Luke 8:1-3 where we learn that they played a pivotal role in financing the ministry of Jesus. In Mark the women make their appearance only after the crucifixion of Jesus where we learn that they were watching this event and Jesus’ subsequent burial from a distance. Mark 15:40-41. They were, it seems, the only witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion as the other disciples had fled. Their presence at the crucifixion, albeit “at a distance,” explains how they knew where to find Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday. As noted above, when confronted by the (angelic?) messenger, told that Jesus has been raised and commanded to bring this news to the disciples, they flee and say nothing to anyone.

Here, too, Matthew and Luke tell a different story. According to Luke, the women carry out their commission and bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the rest of the disciples. Their tidings, however, are discounted as an “idle tale.” Luke 24:1-12. In Matthew, as in Mark, the women are directed to tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus has risen and to instruct them to go to meet him in Galilee. But in Matthew’s telling, the women carry out their commission and the disciples evidently believe them and meet Jesus in Galilee. Matthew 28:1-10; 16-20.

I do not know how to reconcile these seeming inconsistencies. Nor am I fully convinced that I understand why Mark chose not to include any resurrection appearances of Jesus although it is clear from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that such accounts were circulating within the church decades before Mark’s gospel was composed. But it seems to me that Mark has deliberately written an open ended Gospel, challenging us to tie up the loose ends and fill in the blanks. How and when will we find the courage to speak the good news of Jesus’ resurrection? When will we overcome our fear and break the silence? How and when will the news of Jesus’ resurrection draw his terrified disciples (then and now) out of hiding to follow him once again? Perhaps we should read the gospels of Matthew and Luke, who rely heavily on Mark’s gospel, as faithful responses to Mark’s challenge.

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