April 20, 2014
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 28:1-10 or John 20:1-18
In the eyes of modern popular culture, Easter is the second most important Christian holiday, after Christmas. The baby in the manger trumps the Easter bunny and spring flowers. If I wanted to be cynical, I might point out that the tradition of giving Christmas presents contributes more to the economy than the tradition of filling Easter baskets. Less cynically, I might say that the joy we feel at the birth of a baby is more profound than the pleasure (and relief) that spring brings.
But if there had been no Easter, we wouldn’t celebrate Christmas.
In the paragraphs leading up to this week’s reading, a hungry Peter received a vision in which various reptiles and birds were offered to him. but he refused to eat, saying, “I have never eaten anything unclean.” The answer came, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” Immediately afterwards, Peter was asked to go to the house of a Gentile named Cornelius to preach the Good News. He would have refused, because Jews were not allowed to associate with Gentiles, but he realized that the Spirit had sent the vision for the purpose of telling him that things had changed. Despite the shock, he embraced the new order with enthusiasm.
Our reading tells us what Peter said to the members of Cornelius’ household. The following verses record the result: even before Peter finished speaking, his listeners began to speak in tongues and praise God, clear evidence to Peter that the Holy Spirit was working through them.
As in the next reading, a traumatic event (for Peter, the Crucifixion; for the people to whom Jeremiah spoke, the Exile) helped people gain a deeper understanding of God. What is central to this passage is not that Gentiles can now become members of the church, but that God wants this to happen.
Jeremiah’s ministry in the Southern Kingdom lasted from 626 BC until probably 586, a period that spanned the last decades of Judah’s existence, including 11 years after the first invasion by the Babylonian Empire and the deportation of many of Judah’s leaders to Babylon. Jeremiah’s prophetic message was that God would allow the Babylonians to finish conquering Judah if they didn’t begin to take seriously their Covenant obligations as God’s Chosen People.
When the Southern Kingdom fell to Babylonian general Nebuchadnezzar in 587, 125 years after the Northern Kingdom had been defeated by Assyria, people naturally worried that Judah’s death throes signaled the end of the Covenant.
But once Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom had been fulfilled, he began to offer words of hope. The exile would make possible a process of moral regeneration. Coming, as it did, to a people surrounded by an alien culture with a very different religion, this regeneration fostered an ability to recognize new facets of God’s self-revelation. The remnant who returned to Jerusalem around 538 were among the first practitioners of Judaism, an outgrowth of the ancient Hebrew religion with a more profound understanding of God and human beings’ relationship with Him.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of verse 3: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” The Covenant, as described in the first five books of the Bible, would have produced a society in which the goodness of God’s creation would enrich the lives of everyone. Because God doesn’t impose his will on us without our consent, the establishment of a just human society is up to us as human beings. We have resisted doing this but God, because he loves us and because he is faithful, has kept trying to persuade us.
Political, military, and geographic realities seem definitive to us as human beings, but they can’t limit God as they do us. Jeremiah assured people that God will ultimately succeed in redeeming creation so that its fruits are available to all.
This rich collection praising God’s unending love for us carries hints in verse 19 of an older tradition dating from pre-exilic times. The “gates of righteousness” may refer to eastern doors in temples built so that the sun, as it rose on a particular festival day, shone through the temple without casting any shadows. This flood of light was experienced as God’s Presence and was referred to as “the glory of Yahve.” (See Resources.)
The Easter Sunrise Service is my favorite service of the year, not because I particularly like getting up before dawn, but mostly because of the years when the sun came up and flooded the sanctuary with light just as the Gospel account of the Resurrection was being read. It was always a powerful experience. I write this blog largely because I think it’s very important to worship God with our minds, but I recognize that the Bible is full of emotional words — “rejoice”, for example. We can say about every day that the Lord made it and we should rejoice in it, but that sentiment is pre-eminently true of Easter, when it became clear that the Immanuel — “God with us” — of Christmas would be with us forever, and not merely for the span of one human life.
What does Paul mean by saying we have died? One way to answer that is to remember that Jesus introduced what is now called the Eucharist or Holy Communion (or any of several other names) before he died on the cross. The disciples who ate his body and drank his blood at the Last Supper were symbolically crucified with him.
Influenced no doubt by the festivals of the Jewish Liturgical Year — Passover, and Succoth, for example — which allow new generations to participate symbolically in the great foundational events of Judaism, Jesus’ Jewish followers baptized new members and held regular observances of the Lord’s Table. This allowed Gentiles and succeeding generations to experience the emotional and spiritual power of Christianity’s foundational event.
When we participate in the sacraments, the same thing is true for us. We are first baptized into Jesus’ death and then sustained through the Lord’s Supper. As the crucifixion was a one-time event for Jesus, so is our baptism a one-time event for each of us that incorporates us into the Body of Christ. And as a body needs a continuous supply of food, so the Body of Christ needs the frequent spiritual nourishment that comes with the union of all its members, past, present, and future, with each other and with the crucified and risen Christ.
Last week’s Gospel account of the Crucifixion, ended with the Judean religious leadership posting a guard at the tomb of Jesus to make sure no one could steal his body and then claim that he had risen from the dead. This week’s reading shows us how it happened that loyal followers of Jesus were able to witness the Resurrection — not the actual translation into a new kind of life, but the empty tomb and the risen Jesus — despite the presence of the soldiers.
Matthew reports the details readers need to know to evaluate the charges that Jesus’ followers had perpetrated a fraud in claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Mary’s reaction to the empty tomb — failing to recognize Jesus and asking him to “tell me where you have taken the body” — ties in with that part of Matthew’s account.
All the Gospels make clear that none of the witnesses to the Resurrection were expecting it to happen. The Crucifixion had seemed to them to mark the end of all their hopes, had cast serious doubt on everything they were beginning to understand about Jesus as Messiah. The death of Jesus must have left the disciples feeling much the same way the people of Judah had felt when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and carried the nation into exile. It must have seemed to be the end of everything that mattered.
The urgent question people asked in the decades that followed the time Jesus spent on earth as a human being was “Do you believe that Jesus really rose from the dead?” The writers of the New Testament give a clear and consistent “Yes” to that question.
The question of whether Jesus really came back to life has gained renewed attention in the last few years, thanks to scholarly speculation that the Resurrection may be more accurately described as an experience of the early church than as something that happened to Jesus. For a long time, though, many Christians have taken Easter more or less for granted, and treated Christmas as the more important Holy Day.
That should be remedied. The question of whether Jesus is alive has enormous ramifications. We can’t ask Paul or any of the other Biblical authors the nature of their inspiration or what they meant by any particular passage. We can’t ask the Founding Fathers why they did what they did. We can’t ask the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whether he thinks we’ve come any closer to achieving his dream of improved race relations. We can’t ask any of these people anything because they’re dead.
If Jesus is alive, it means that we can ask him for guidance as we search for answers to life’s many questions. We can lean on him for support. And, not least, we know he is listening when we praise him.
The truth about the Risen Christ is hugely important for individuals, but of course its significance doesn’t end there. It’s no exaggeration to say that the implications are cosmic, shedding light on, among other things, the nature of God’s power and his plans for creation. At the same time, focusing primarily on these abstract concepts ignores something implicit in the Biblical record: that, unless big ideas like love or justice can be seen to operate in the lives of individuals, they don’t mean much.
The Resurrection is a big idea. Without it, there would be no Christian Church. What is at least as important is that countless individuals now and for the past two thousand years wouldn’t have been able to rely on the love of the Risen Christ to guide and sustain them in their daily lives.
Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures: An Introduction to their Literature and Religious Ideas, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, ISBN: 0-19-502369-2, p. 64.