Easter Day A
April 06, 2020
The Easter Day A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 20:1-18 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 10:34-43 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Colossians 3:1-4 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 45 (Lord’s Day 17)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In a recent article on preaching in these days of COVID-19 isolation and fear, I suggested that despite the sadness we are all feeling at not being able to gather for Easter services in 2020, we don’t want to preach downer sermons. We don’t want our own disappointment at not being able to preach to an extra-full church seep into our sermons in way that undercut the very resurrection hope and joy we all need right now (well, we always need it but you know what I mean).
I also suggested, though, that now is a good time to let the rather understated Gospel accounts of the resurrection to come through precisely because although we try to celebrate Easter with all the brass ensembles, streaming white banners, and over-the-top enthusiasm we can muster, that’s not what you get from the four Gospel stories about Easter. It is certainly not what you get in John 20, and that just may make this text the one we need in Easter 2020.
I would title my sermon on this passage “While It Was Still Dark” and that may fit this dark moment. Let me explain.
John 20 tells the climax of the gospel story in about as understated a way as can be imagined. Here we have no pre-dawn earthquakes, no soldiers fainting dead away. Like all four of the gospels, we also have absolutely no description of the moment Jesus emerged from the tomb (apparently no one witnessed that and so no evangelist embellishes otherwise). Instead John purposely keeps this whole story on the level of ordinary expectations precisely so that when those typical expectations are shattered by the new thing God has done, our amazement and awe will be the greater.
We begin simply: While it was still dark that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene treks to the tomb. She notices the stone has been moved and, apparently without any further checking, concludes that there is something fishy going on. Similarly, if you went to the grave of a loved one only to discover the headstone cracked in two and mounds of freshly dug dirt all around, you wouldn’t bother, probably, to hop into the hole to see if the casket was still there. You’d high-tail it out of there to call for help. What had happened was obvious. Since Jesus had been dead, and since Mary knew what dead looked like and how undeniably Jesus had fit the bill that past Friday, if he wasn’t in the tomb where they laid him, then someone else had taken him. As the wonderful writer and undertaker Tom Lynch reminds us, as a general rule, dead folks don’t do a lot for themselves. They can only have things done TO them.
Peter and the other disciple, probably John, make the same conclusion, albeit only after a bit more of a thorough investigation of the alleged crime scene. Taken together, verses 8 and 9 of this passage indicate that Peter and John and Mary did not tumble to the notion that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What John says he “believed” in verse 8 is obviously the conclusion that something fishy, and maybe even grizzly, had gone on. (In his commentary on The Gospel of John, my friend Frederick Dale Bruner asserts that he does think John believed the resurrection at a deeper level already at this moment. It’s a rare point on which I disagree with Dale!)
What follows is the now-famous scene of Mary Magdalene weeping her eyes out over this latest indignity visited upon a man she loved. Twice the Jesus-incognito figure asks Mary why she is weeping. Often we read this ironically: that is to say, we know there is actually no reason whatsoever to weep and so we inflect Jesus’ words with a tone similar to what a parent would take toward a child who is crying over a dead pet when, really, the pet is just fine and sleeping over in the corner. “Jimmy, why are you crying? Knock it off and open your eyes–Squeaky is right over there!” But I suspect that is the wrong way to inflect the voice of Jesus here. Jesus knew better than anyone that Mary Magdalene’s tears are representative of the tears of all humanity. This is the weeping, the bitter spilling forth of salty tears, that has enveloped the human race for ever-so-long now.
Why was Mary crying? For the same reason COVID-19 is making people weep the world over right now: because of the bluntly obvious fact that all of us are altogether too familiar with death, that we know about death’s irretrievable finality. Mary wept because death had done to Jesus’ body what death does to each person’s body: renders it vulnerable to decay, decomposition, as well as totally defenseless against the whims of those who might be minded to abuse a corpse. Jesus twice asked his logical question out of a deep well of both compassion and empathy. Mary Magdalene on Easter morning is an emblem of the whole human condition. Mary is at once every single one of us and the whole lot of us taken together. And so it is precisely into that situation of dereliction that Easter must burst forth.
Listen: Easter does not happen in a bright, airy, and decked-out-in-white church sanctuary. And a good thing too this year because we cannot celebrate it that way.
Listen: Easter doesn’t happen around the dinner table when we have our family around us and mounds of delicious food to tuck into. And since larger gatherings of even our closest family members may not be wise to do this year, either . . .
Listen: Easter happens in the E.R. when the doctor comes out to the waiting area and shakes his head. We couldn’t save him.
Easter happens at the funeral home when that first glimpse of dad in the coffin hits you like a cinder block to the solar plexus. You can’t breathe.
Easter happens in the crack house where men and women watch each other slowly kill themselves with drugs, where life has become a living death.
Easter happens on the nursing floor where once strong-bodied men and women watch their peers disappear one by one and where these wheelchair-bound precious people know that all of life has now come down to this long waiting for death.
Easter happens where death is, because that is the only place it is needed.
So today Jesus still comes up from behind to ask, “Why are you weeping? Why are you depressed? Why are you filling your veins with heroin? Why are you so afraid that you, too, will end up in that wheelchair? Why are you so sad?”
Every one of those questions has a perfectly logical answer. We none of us weep without cause. Mary Magdalene didn’t either. She, like each one of us, had an absolutely iron-clad good reason to cry that morning, and had God not done that day a new thing the likes of which had never before been known, Mary’s reason for crying would have also been correct. That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebuke her for crying. There is here no hint of “Knock it off” or “Silly woman, open your eyes!” Jesus himself knew that he and Mary both needed the tears if the truth of what had just happened was going to come to mean exactly what it still means: we have the hope of new life smack where we need it most: in the midst of a world full of death and dying.
But John 20 knows something else, too: for now we hold onto that hope of new life without our just yet escaping the very death in whose midst the good news of the gospel becomes truly great news indeed. Once she sees who it is behind her, Mary leaps to her feet and does the utterly logical thing of throwing herself at Jesus in one whale of a hug. And Jesus stops her. That doesn’t seem very nice. The recently coined (and painful) oxymoron phrase of “Social Distancing” is difficult for us because we want that human connect. We want the handshakes we cannot give right now, we yearn for the hugs that would be unwise in this moment.
Mary wants this too but Jesus says, “No hugs. You can’t hold onto me until I have ascended to the Father.”
OK, but hugging Jesus after he ascends into heaven won’t be a cinch either, will it? What does this mean? Perhaps it means that for now, we just cannot grab Easter fully. “You can’t hold me here, Mary” Jesus says. Surely she wanted to do that. I’m sure she wanted to hug his neck and not let go. I’m sure she wanted to grab his hands and then just sit there, staring into his eyes. Now that she had this beloved Lord with her once more, she never wanted to lose him again. Yet Jesus said she had to.
The ascension had to happen, and if there would be no holding onto Jesus before the ascension, we are now living witnesses to the fact that there is no embracing after that ascension, either. It seems that if Mary Magdalene stood for all humanity when she was weeping over the sadness of death’s presence in our world, she likewise stands in for all of us even after she learned the truth of Easter.
She, like we, can’t quite yet take hold of that resurrected person in the middle of the story. She, like we, couldn’t hold him there, keep him there. Life goes on, death continues to stalk us, and we are left with many tears that have not yet been dried from our eyes.
But before this stage of the Easter drama closes, Mary runs back to where the other disciples are and becomes the first apostle and minister in the history of the Christian Church as she becomes the first one to declare to another, “I have seen the Lord!” She saw him, even if she could not hold onto him.
And the good news: if you have faith, then you also have seen the Lord. The trumpets may not always blare at every moment of your life as a result. In fact, you may well still do your share of crying, too. But it is in the midst of those bitter tears that Easter happens. It is in the midst of COVID-19 isolation with services on Livestream, on Facebook, held via Zoom that Jesus comes up behind us in our disappointment, sadness, and fear just now to show us he is still here.
By faith, we also have seen the Lord. And for now, it is enough. It’s not everything just yet. But it’s enough. Enough. It is enough this year, while it is still dark.
At the Hollywood Presbyterian Church years ago, the pastor was doing a Children’s Sermon on Easter morning. As recounted to me once by the Bible scholar Frederick Dale Bruner, the pastor asked the children, “What do you suppose was the first thing Jesus said to his disciples after he was raised from the dead?” One little boy instantly leapt to his feet, flung his arms out wide, and declared “Ta-Da!!!”
But as Bruner observes, funny though this little story is, the truth is that Jesus did not do any grand flourishes of the “Ta-Da” variety when he appeared to people after his resurrection. He did not bust through any front doors to sweep in with razzle-dazzle and proclamations of “I’m BAAACK!” No, he usually crept up from behind. From behind the weeping Mary in John 20. From behind the Emmaus-bound and deeply disillusioned disciples in Luke 24. When in John 21 Jesus puts in one of the very few post-resurrection appearances about which the Bible tells us, he appears as just a stranger on the beach, an unknown figure tending to a little campfire on which he’s cooking fish and biscuits.
It is in quietness and in understated ways that Jesus assures us he is really alive again for now and for all eternity. He comes up from behind not with any grand “Ta-Da” flourishes but with simple words like, “Hey, friend: why are you crying?” That is where people after the original Easter found Jesus to be alive in their lives. It’s no different today, especially in the hard time we are all facing in 2020 when we celebrate the greatest news ever told.
Jesus assures us he’s alive. And if he finds us weeping before he reminds us of that truth once more, that’s just fine by him. He understands. That’s why he’s here.
Author: Stan Mast
In this (Old Testament?) reading, we hear not the original story about how Jesus rose from the dead after being crucified by Roman soldiers, but a retelling of that story to a Roman soldier. If you want to emphasize the fact of the resurrection in your Easter sermon, choose the Gospel readings for your text. If you want to focus on the implications of the resurrection for the ancient and modern church, this shorter version of the story should be your choice. As Peter preached to that Roman soldier the shape of the church’s mission radically changed.
Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus had given the infant church the mandate of being his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Luke has been tracing how the church was growing exactly as Jesus had commanded. In this chapter of Luke’s history, the Gospel reaches the edges of Israel in Caesarea. Yes, it had been preached by a deacon to the Ethiopian eunuch, but that story was a bit of an outlier.
Here we have the chief apostle preaching to an official of the Roman Empire, with a very clear implication for the future of the church and its mission. Interestingly, Jesus had designated the newly converted Paul as “my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings (Acts 9:15)….” But here God chooses Peter to preach the first Gospel sermon to a Gentile.
As we read the aftermath of this story, it is obvious why God chose Peter. Given the changes this event would bring to the church, God needed someone with the greatest credibility and authority—and that was Peter, not Paul. Thus, it would be Peter who gave the keynote address at the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) where the church wrestled with the changes inaugurated by this event in Acts 10.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. In the run up to this story, we read that it took two visions from God to effect the meeting of the thoroughly Jewish Peter and the thoroughly Roman Cornelius. In the vision to Cornelius God told him to invite Peter to his home and listen carefully to his message. So he did. In the vision to Peter God told him to accept Cornelius’ invitation and speak the gospel. So he did, though not without considerable qualms. Jews, after all, were not allowed to enter the home of unclean Gentiles, any more than they were allowed to eat unclean animals. But God had commanded Peter to stop thinking in those clean/unclean terms. Just go preach!
Undoubtedly Peter had given much thought to his own vision as he travelled to Caesarea. So when he heard Cornelius’ account of his own vision, Peter came to a stunning conclusion, a conclusion that would reshape the way the Jewish Christian church would relate to and accept Gentile Christians. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
Peter knew that truth before, sort of, in a peripheral way, because the Old Testament teaches the impartiality of God. But that idea was always presented in the context of the covenant, in which Israel was the chosen people of God. It was hard to think of Israel’s special status and of God’s impartiality at the same time. But now God has brought that truth home to Peter in a powerful, personal way, a way that would change the church and society forever after.
God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” That is a universal declaration with very particular boundaries. God does not favor one nation; even the choice of Israel was always intended to be the source of blessing to all nations on the earth. But to be acceptable to God, says Peter, you have to fear God and do what is right. One commentator on this text says that God has no favoritism with respect to nation, race, sex, class, or religion. It is with that last word that Peter would have more than a quibble.
The “fear of the Lord” had, of course, a particular Old Testament meaning. It meant to reverence Yahweh, the God of Israel, by trusting and obeying Torah in all things. And doing “the right thing” meant more than just trying to be good. The word “right” is the Greek dikaiosune, “righteousness,” a word with legal connotations. It was at the center of the doctrine of justification that Paul would later develop.
I doubt that Peter had that doctrine in mind when he used that word here. But it is very clear what he did mean, because he goes on to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And he ends with this very particular clause, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” God universal favor comes to every person through Christ, the One who is for all people, regardless of their national origin, the ethnic heritage, their social class, their gender or age.
His sermon is all about “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all.” There’s that universal emphasis again, but there is the same particularity– it is Jesus who is Lord. This Jesus was a very particular man, which Peter emphasizes by briefly rehearsing Jesus’ Galilean ministry after his baptism by John and his anointing with the Holy Spirit. He went about doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.
This story is not a myth, insists Peter. “We were witnesses of everything he did.” Note the use of the very word Jesus used when he commissioned his disciples for their world-wide mission. This is why they were with Jesus all those months and on the very days of his passion—to be witnesses.
They were there when the Jews “killed him by hanging him on a tree.” And they were there when “God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.” They were the “witnesses whom God had already chosen.” They were the ones who “ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” And they are the ones whom Jesus “commanded to preach to the people… that he is the one whom God appointed to judge the living and the dead.”
This is a very particular message for the whole world—a message centered on Jesus who was not only a teacher and miracle worker (there were plenty of those wandering the earth back then), but also, and mainly, the Savior who died on a cross, but rose from the dead, and who is now the judge of all human beings. The good news is that there is peace for everyone who believes in him. Yes, he is the judge, but “all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” God does not show favoritism but accepts men (and women, of course!) from every nation who fear him and do right, by accepting the gospel and putting their trust in Jesus Christ, the Lord of all.
This message had tremendous implications for the early church, as became immediately evident. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon all who heard the message.” The Jewish attendants of Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out “even on the Gentiles.” Underline those words. Yes, they knew Jesus had told them that they should go to the ends of the earth, but they hadn’t anticipated that Gentiles might become equal partners in the covenant love of God. They knew that a few Gentiles had become proselytes in the past, becoming sort of Jewish. But these Gentiles have now believed in their Jewish Jesus and received the same Spirit they had received at Pentecost. The Gentiles have a Pentecost, too.
What does this mean for the church going ahead? How Jewish do these Gentiles believers have to become? How many of our covenantal rules do they have to keep to be considered real Christians? If God has fully forgiven and accepted them, as evidenced by this outpouring of the Spirit and signified in their immediate baptism, how should we treat the Gentiles going forward? In the past, we have seen them as unclean, people to avoid, people to exclude from our fellowship. What do we do now? That was the subject of much debate in the early church. Even when the Jerusalem conference settled the question, it remained a very controversial subject for decades, even for Peter himself, who withdrew from the Gentiles when he was criticized for associating with them (Galatians 2:11-21).
It has remained a controversial subject to our day. While we don’t disagree about Gentiles (since, as someone put it, “we are one”), we battle fiercely about how to treat Christians who are different than us. While God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation, Christians get embroiled in issues like immigration policies, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, class strife, just like the rest of the populace. It often seems as though we have never heard the universal message of the Gospel. Instead of focusing on the particular Person who saves all humans regardless of their race or nations or any of that, we focus on the particular people and exclude them from some of the privileges we enjoy.
On this Easter Sunday, we need to focus on the One who rose, so that All could have life. You can focus on the story of his resurrection; that’s a good thing in a world that denies it ever happened. Or you can focus on the implications of that story for the life of the church today. That’s a good thing for a church that sometimes acts as though Jesus didn’t rise from the dead so that all could have the fullness of life in him. Cornelius had a vision that led to his conversion to Christianity. Peter had a vision that led to his conversion from a narrowly conceived church to a church for everyone who believes in the Name of Jesus. Maybe what the church needs today is a new vision.
In “The Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor, Mrs. Turpin has quite a vision. While sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Mrs. Turpin has a conversation with another patient about people who are below her on the social ladder, white trash and black n-word. A young girl overhearing this patronizing blather, hurls a book at her and calls her an old warthog from hell. Back home, nursing her head and her wounded ego, Mrs. Turpin considers whether God might be sending her a message about her attitudes. As she sprays down her hogs, she argues with God. “Why me? Who do you think you are?”
That’s when she received her vision, “The Revelation.” The rays of the sun form a kind of bridge, and on that bridge is a “vast horde of souls marching into heaven.” In that horde are “whole companies of white trash, bands of black n-word in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics.” It is only at the end of the procession that she sees people who like herself “had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right….” She and her ilk were marching behind that vast horde of undesirables “with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.”
In her vision, Mrs. Turpin sees her social ladder turned upside down with the least taking precedence over the best.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Author: Scott Hoezee
You wouldn’t know it to look at it. Yet it’s true: a portion of Psalm 118—specifically verses 22-23—is the single most-oft quoted Old Testament text in the New Testament. Not Psalm 23. Not Psalm 100. Not some well-known story like Abraham sacrificing Isaac or David and Goliath. Nope. It’s little old Psalm 118.
That has always been curious to me. Even most ardent Christians would be hard-pressed to tell you (without looking it up) what is in Psalm 118. In a Psalms & Wisdom Literature class that I co-teach, my colleague Amanda Benckhuysen begins the first class by having each student in turn relate their favorite Psalm or a Psalm that has long been particularly meaningful to them. Not once has anyone mentioned Psalm 118. I have never heard anyone cite this poem as their favorite out of the Psalter’s 150 selections.
The verses about the stray stone becoming the head of the corner seem like themselves stray verses. It’s not even real obvious how this construction imagery pops up in Psalm 118, which is not otherwise a poem about buildings and such. Yet somehow Matthew, Mark, Luke (twice), and the Apostle Peter all latched onto these little verses and their cornerstone image as somehow capturing the essence of Jesus’ ministry.
Maybe there is something apt here. Jesus himself, after all, was also not much to look at. After he had been doing ministry for a while, even John the Baptist started to have his doubts and so dispatched a cadre of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the One or should we expect someone else?” You know, someone BETTER, someone more outwardly impressive.
It went that way most of the time for Jesus. Just a baby whose parents were too poor to afford anything better than a goat’s feeding trough for his first crib. Just a carpenter’s son working in Dad’s shop for most of his life. And then an odd itinerant rabbi with a penchant for telling stories few people could puzzle out. When he stood in front of Pontius Pilate, even Pilate could not for the life of him figure out what all the fuss was about. “You’re worried about this fellow?” Pilate all but asked the Jewish authorities out to get Jesus.
And then finally, there he was: literally crossed out by the Romans. There he was, hanging on a cross looking—as Neal Plantinga has said—far more like a street accident than a Savior. Talk about your rejected stones . . . Jesus was indeed tossed aside, spurned, rejected, killed.
Yet he was the One after all. On this Easter Sunday we see him raised by the power of the Father and made the head of the corner of a whole new edifice that just was the New Humanity, the New Israel, the New People of God. “The LORD has done this,” the psalmist rhapsodized, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Who knows exactly to what or to whom the author of Psalm 118 was originally referring. Like most biblical writers, he wrote more than he knew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Surely this poet could have never guessed that centuries later the evangelists and apostles would apply this verse to the Messiah of God.
But that’s what happened. A stray verse about a stray stone became the perfect emblem for how God achieved salvation in Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and rejected one. The relative obscurity of the verse fits the relative obscurity of the Savior who later appeared out of nowhere to be baptized by John.
This is Good News because in the larger context of Psalm 118 this is all about our being rescued from death. This is all about God’s finding an end run on death to do something new, something previously unheard of and, just so, something marvelous indeed. Most preachers don’t choose the Psalm text for their Easter sermon but this year, if you have chosen this text to preach on or to weave into your Easter liturgy in some other way, then this fits well for this troubling Easter in 2020 when COVID-19 is forcing most—if not all—Christians around the world to do the decidedly counter-intuitive thing of not coming together to celebrate the resurrection.
Maybe we all feel a little rejected this year. Well, dejected. Disconnected. Tossed far away from the people we ost want to see and embrace. Can any good come of any of this, we are asking. Does God see us in our social isolation? Can we manage to celebrate Easter via Livestream or on Zoom?
Well, the message of Psalm 118 would seem to be: Yes. Not easily, mind you. There are no neat and tidy answers to any of our harder questions just now. But we serve a God who pulled off the salvation of the cosmos by taking note of and then restoring to glory and honor a decidedly rejected stone. And that means that this Savior, this cornerstone, the One seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty is really adept at seeing us in our isolation just now. And he is really good at promising us Life. Life, not death, has the last word.
It is not easy to sing joyful songs this year. It is not easy to try to sing to a computer screen while seated at your dining room table even if your church musicians are doing their best to stream forth some hymns. But with the rejected One now the Cornerstone of God’s grand salvation edifice, we can still rejoice.
The Lord has done this. And it is marvelous in our eyes.
Since I don’t have easy access to my library at Seminary right now, I cannot replicate this in full. But I have always loved Frederick Buechner’s character sketch of Abraham in his delightful book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. Buechner begins by saying that if (in Yiddish) a schlemiel is someone who is always spilling soup onto his tie and a schlemozzle is someone who always get soup spilled onto his tie by others, than Abraham was something of a schlemozzle. He sort of bumped along in life, often having others get the best of him and just doing his level best to figure stuff out across the long journey God commanded him to take (a new journey he had to undertake at the very moment in his long life when rest and retirement, not becoming a wandering nomad, should have been the order of the day). But he lived on the promise: he would have heirs as numerous as stars in the sky, sand on the seashore.
At the end of his character sketch, Buechner imagines a very old Abraham at a family reunion picnic. “They weren’t a great nation yet by a long shot, but you’d never know it from the way Abraham sits enthroned there in his velvet yarmulke with several great-grandchildren on his lap and soup on his tie. Even through his thick lenses, you can read the look of faith in his eye… and more than all the kosher meals, the great achievements, and Einsteins and Kissingers, it was THAT look that God loved him for -and had chosen him for in the first place.”
And then this: Who knows, Abraham thought to himself, one day they will be talking about my great-great-great . . . grandson, the Savior of the world.
Somehow the simplicity of this portrait of this ordinary man pressed into doing the extraordinary thing of founding a new nation for God fits with Psalm 118. Rejected stones becoming the heads of corners. That’s the Gospel all right.
Author: Doug Bratt
On that glorious first Easter morning an angel shocked people by insisting that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Two thousand years later an aging apostle may no less shock Colossians 3:1-4’s proclaimers and hearers by insisting that God also raised us with Christ.
After all, if it’s sometimes hard to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, how much harder is it to believe that God raised Jesus’ adopted siblings with him? It isn’t just, after all, that we’ll still die, unless Christ returns first. It’s also that we don’t always feel even spiritually alive. God’s people, in fact, sometimes feel spiritually listless, if not downright dead.
Scholars suggest that much of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae is a kind of catechism for new Christians who wished to be baptized. He’s teaching them about the kind of life that’s most appropriate for those who through faith God has raised to life.
Since the early church often baptized Christians early on Easter, we might imagine church leaders reading this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to people who have been baptized only for a few hours. Colossians 3’s proclaimers and hearers may even picture some of its first hearers as figuratively still wet.
In Romans 6 Paul uses baptismal language that’s similar to what he uses in Colossians 3. In Romans, however, he focuses on Jesus’ death that his followers share by virtue of our baptism. There, after all, the apostle calls the Romans whom God has buried with Christ to “live a new life.” In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson he focuses on Christ’s resurrection, referring to us as “raised with Christ” (1).
In a sense, however, Christians’ burial and resurrection with Christ are just two sides of the same coin that is the Christian life. God didn’t, after all, just bury God’s beloved people’s sinful selves with Christ. God has also raised those same people with Christ to a life of obedience.
On what seems like the strangest Easter of my lifetime, our text may seem about as practical as instructions for living on Venus. Yet I hope that we can see its implications for the way we move into a week that’s shadowed by COVID-19 and its horrible stepchildren.
Paul fills his letter to Colossae’s Christians with language about what it means to live as Christians whom God has filled with the Holy Spirit. He reminds his brothers and sisters in Christ that God has made Christ’s death and resurrection our death and resurrection.
And since God has done all that to, in and for us, Paul challenges us set our “minds on things above” (2). Yet at first that may sound like an invitation to some New Age ascent to a higher mental state. It sounds almost as if the apostle is calling us to detach our minds from this world.
Others worry that Paul’s calling God’s dearly beloved people to be, as the saying goes, so “heavenly minded” that we’re of no “earthly good.” In other words, so busy thinking about heaven that we don’t get involved on earth.
In fact, however, already in Colossians 2 Paul calls his audience to resist such detachment. There, after all, he rejects “fine-sounding arguments” and “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” So when the apostle calls his brothers and sisters in Christ to set our minds on things above, he’s at least calling us to structure our lives in ways that are consistent with Jesus’ resurrection.
God has, after all, “hidden” our lives “with Christ in God” (3). Whatever else that mysterious phrase means, it at least means that the fullness of Christ’s obedient life now belongs to his followers. So God graciously views and treats us as God does Jesus, God’s only “natural” Son.
However, those whose lives God has hidden with Christ now also have God’s Holy Spirit living in us. So God has given God’s adopted children both the freedom and the power to live as God’s responsible children.
As a result, Christians can let that Spirit shape our lives in ways that are similar to Jesus’. God, has after all, put God’s precious people’s sinful ways to death and is raising us to new life ways of faithful obedience.
So those who have faithfully received God’s grace don’t just have eternal life when we die. God has given God’s dear children himself, life and Christ right now. God has given us the Spirit so that we already have change, growth and a closer walk with God.
So Christians don’t have to wait until we’re dying to think about “the things above.” God already “clothes” us with virtues like compassion and gentleness, forgiveness and love. Quite simply, God equips Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters to already now act, talk and even think in our Big Brother’s ways.
Sometimes, however, as Leonard Kline, who lent me some ideas for this Starter, notes, it’s very hard to wear such clothing. The clothing of the Spirit is, in so many ways, after all, out of style. The Spirit equips us to live out Christ’s resurrection in hard stuff like our money, family and friendships. We want to think about the things above in connection with nitty-gritty things like work, sexuality and our attitudes.
However, in April, 2020 the Spirit perhaps especially equips Jesus’ followers to set our hearts not on vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, but “on things above.” We set our minds not first on when we can return to work and socializing, but “on things above.”
God’s adopted sons and daughters let the Spirit “clothe” us with compassion for the virus’ sufferers and those who love them. We clothe ourselves with kindness toward those who grieve its terrible effects, including ones’ deaths.
Jesus’ followers let the Spirit clothe us with gentleness toward those who are terrified about loved ones or even themselves catching the virus. We clothe ourselves with patience as we wait for God to reveal God’s good purposes and plans in and through all of this. God’s dearly beloved people clothe ourselves with love for those on the virus’ frontlines, including health care providers, first responders and those whose “necessary” jobs expose them to the public’s possible contagion.
Of course, such thinking about things that are above and clothing ourselves in Christian virtues means letting God reorder our desires. Even Jesus’ followers, after all, naturally desire wrong things like revenge, complete independence, happiness that we choose and control over others.
On this Easter God reminds us that Christ is his adopted brothers and sisters’ life. God has, after all, raised not only him but also Jesus’ followers from the dead. Now God’s dear people belong to Christ, in body and soul, in life and in death. So we let God set our desires on the things God desires.
Misplaced desire can kill faith and vitality, beauty and goodness. God, however, gives us life to make us fully alive with Christ. So God equips God’s adopted children to desire what’s good as we let God put to death our sin and raise to life new obedience that thinks about the things that are above.
The extraordinary movie, Dead Man Walking tells part of the story of Matthew Poncelot. Poncelot is a bitter, hardened and cynical criminal whom the courts justly convict of murder and sentence to death.
However, Sister Helen Prejean volunteers to become his spiritual advisor as his time is running out. Because she’s a Christian, she wants to show Poncelot the face of love and help bring him to genuine repentance before he dies.
Eventually the condemned man announces to Prejean that he’s reading his Bible. It has convinced him, Poncelot adds, that Jesus will be waiting for him after he’s executed. While this profession of faith is theologically solid, Sister Prejean reacts to it with something resembling shock. “That’s not how it is, Matthew,” she tells him. “It’s not like a ticket you hand in. You have to participate in your own redemption.”
Some Christians may react with our own shock at what Sister Prejean tells Matthew. Yet she seems to be onto something. Matthew Poncelot doesn’t, after all, seem to be “setting his heart on things above.” He just seems to want to save (or at least comfort) his own wretched skin.
Sister Prejean, on the other hand, wants Poncelot to enjoy the fullness of salvation in Jesus Christ. So shortly after Easter she challenges him to admit his responsibility for the ghastly crimes he has committed. Sister Prejean wants Matthew to repent not only to God, but also to the parents of the young people he killed.
At the end, the Holy Spirit equips Poncelot to finally admit that he did assault the young woman and pull the trigger that murdered her young friend. As the authorities strap him, as if to a cross, to the gurney with a poisonous IV dripping into his vein, he finally admits his role to his victims’ parents. As Poncelot awaits his execution by lethal injection, he expresses deep sorrow for what he’s done.
So Poncelot, in one sense, participates in his own redemption. He, after all, accepts the implications of his baptism. Poncelot no longer offers excuses or alibis for his sins. He stops treating God as a miraculous helper only at the time of his death. Poncelot, instead, begins to treat God as a loving Father who longs to hear God’s children confess our sins.
He has, in other words, essentially set his mind on the things that are above. He’s finally begun thinking the way God wants God’s children to think about things. At the moment of his death, Matthew Poncelot finally lives as God intended him to live all along. He shows that God has buried his old, sinful self and has raised Matthew’s weak, often self-serving faith to life.
On just this side of Poncelot’s grave, God wraps his life in Christ’s, so that God sees and treats him as God’s adopted son, albeit a sinful one, as one whom God has saved by grace. As a result, there’s little question with whom Poncelot will spend eternity on the other side of the grave.