Easter Day B
March 26, 2018
The Easter Day Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 16:1-8 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 25:6-9 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 2 (Lord’s Day 1)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suppose a grandfather calls his granddaughter over and says to her, “Sweetie, out on the back porch I have a special surprise for you: a new bike!” Upon hearing this news the little girl will probably quickly run out to see the bike. If so, you might describe her as sprinting away from her grandfather, maybe skipping out to the porch, or perhaps as dashing or bounding out with glee. You would not, however, say, “Upon hearing about the new bike, the little girl fled from the presence of her grandpa.” End of story.
End of story?? Really? Fled?
Not much of an ending. Weird response, too, to happy news.
The first Greek word of Mark’s Gospel is arche, “beginning.” “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Now the last word is gar “for/because . . .” The beginning seemed promising. But what about this ending?
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . .”
“They said nothing to anyone as they were afraid because . . . “
Mark tells us that the women fled. They ran away but not with a skip in their step. They were bewildered. They didn’t even tell anyone a single, blessed thing because, as Mark tells us in the end, they were flat out “afraid.”
“They were afraid because . . .”
And that 8th verse really is the end of Mark as there is now near-universal agreement among biblical scholars and commentators that the last seventeen verses of Mark 16 were not written by Mark but were added on later by someone who clearly believed Mark had not ended his gospel very appropriately. True, my former Greek professor from college told me that it’s not too unusual for a Greek sentence to end with gar the way it would be in English, so grammatically maybe we cannot make too much out of that final Greek word in Mark 16:8, but the sense of ellipsis, of incompleteness, persists even so. “For they were afraid . . .” Really? End of story?
Mark concluded his gospel with the bewildered silence of women who were too afraid to speak. But why? Surely Mark knew what profoundly good news this was. Surely Mark knew that these women did not remain silent forever–if they had, how could he have even written even verses 1-8? Mark was not there in person but somebody told him this story eventually and if it was not the women themselves, then it was someone (perhaps the Apostle Peter, who may have been Mark’s source for this gospel) whom the women did tell. They did not remain silent. That much we know and can infer. So why end the gospel in that silence?
Maybe it fits a larger theme Mark is working on. One of the most striking features of Mark’s telling of Easter is how it is framed by motion. The women begin in verses 1-4 moving toward the tomb, and they end in verse 8 moving rapidly away from the tomb. Indeed, that last verse shows them almost exploding away from the tomb, hurtling outward like projectiles from the middle of an explosion.
Verse 8 is almost like some freeze-frame which catches the women in mid-flight. Picture them with eyes wide in surprised terror, mouths hanging open in shock, their arms outstretched like some sprinter racing for the finish line, their feet a blurry smudge of rapid motion. They flee the tomb, and Mark snaps a photo for us, freezing the action, showing the women in motion.
But in between this to-and-fro movement of the women is still more motion: Jesus is also on the go. The women arrive at the tomb and encounter a young man who says, “You are no doubt looking for Jesus.” Yes, they were. Since he was, as the young man admits, “crucified,” it made sense to seek Jesus in a cemetery. But he’s not there.
“You just missed him,” the young man as much as says.
Why couldn’t Jesus have waited!? Why do the women need to deal with a proxy, a stand-in, a substitute whose only purpose seems to be to tell the women that, indeed, they just missed Jesus. He’s gone, on the road, moving right along to Galilee. “He’s going ahead of you,” the young man says. So if they want to see Jesus, they need to get going once again themselves. Because for some reason Jesus did not hang around to be encountered at the tomb. Easter morning, according to Mark, is not about running over to where we think Jesus is and then sitting down with him for coffee and conversation. Easter morning is not about throwing a party, it’s about Jesus in motion. It’s about our being in motion, too, if we hope to catch up with and so see him.
Jesus was not there that morning because there was too much work to do! A dying world was in need of the renewing grace which only the resurrected Jesus could give. This was a task that could not wait. Jesus could not and would not hang out at a tomb he no longer needed just to greet his friends and have a little celebration. He had to go on up ahead of them, demanding that if they wanted to see him, they’d have to get moving, too.
So why does Mark end so enigmatically? Why this puzzling final image of bewildered women, silent in their fear? Well, certainly fear was an appropriate thing for these women to feel. Not only did something totally unexpected take place, but this particular unexpected thing was fiercely cosmic. It shattered reality. It changed everything, and the first people to ponder that mind-addling fact were right to feel a little afraid. Any other reaction would have been downright weird!
But what about Mark’s leaving them that way? Why this snapshot of the flight in terror as Mark’s final word? Well, at the very least it creates some tension, a challenge for all of us. We see the silent and fearful women and exclaim, “But the gospel can’t end in silence! There’s just got to be more to the story than this!”
The Gospel cannot end in silence . . .
Yes. Just so.
Perhaps this, then, is where we come in.
“The Gospel cannot end in silence!” Mark agrees, nods his head, looks at the reader and then as much as says, “I know. So what are YOU going to do about that?”
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page . Here is also a link to a sample sermon on the alternative Lectionary text from John 20.]
“He’s not here. He’s going ahead of you to Galilee.” Thomas Long—riffing on Donald Juel and perhaps also Ched Meyers—has offered a clever interpretation of those words. Long thinks that Mark was about as highly skilled a writer as you could hope to find in the ancient world. And so for us readers of this gospel–for those of us who cannot and do not literally travel over to Galilee to see if we can find the risen Christ–this reference to Galilee may be a clever framing technique for Mark’s gospel. Jesus is risen, and we are directed to Galilee. But in Mark’s gospel where is Galilee? It’s in Mark 1:14. John the Baptist gets imprisoned and so Jesus launches his own ministry by going to Galilee and there preaching that the kingdom of God was at hand.
So Mark 16:7 may be Mark’s way of saying that as readers we now need to return to the beginning of the gospel and read the whole thing again. Now that we’ve been to the cross, now that we really understand what being the Messiah was all about for Jesus, we need to go back and read the gospel again. We need to hear Jesus’ parables afresh, see the miracles anew. We need to re-consider Jesus’ every word and act in the light of the cross and empty tomb. Because only then will we, by the Spirit, see and understand the nature of God’s kingdom. And the nature of that kingdom is grace, grace, grace.
Now that we’ve seen Jesus take our place on the cross, descending to the derelict agonies of hell and death, now we understand that so long as we think we can make it on our own we’ll never really “get it.”
Computers are powerful tools. Most people under the age of 30 can’t imagine what it was like back in the days of typewriters when every revision of a paper required re-typing the entire thing. Now we store our documents on disks and, even if we have already printed a copy, can easily make a few changes, and then re-print it without having to re-type.
One of the advantages of word processing is something called “global replacement.” Let’s say you had written an essay in which you used the word “society” a lot but when you finished you realized that you really should have used “culture.” With global replacement you can tell the computer to find each place the word “society” appears and automatically change it to “culture.” Even if you used “society” 200 times, the computer can change every one of them to “culture” in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes churches utilize this tool for documents that get used a lot. Some time ago I read about a church office which had stored onto its computer the standard funeral service. Each time a funeral had to be held the secretary would tell the computer to find the name of the deceased, replacing it each time with the correct name for this specific funeral. So one week Mary Smith passed away and the secretary had the computer put Mary’s name into all the right spots, such as when the minister would say, “We remember our dear departed sister Mary” or “May the Lord now give Mary his eternal peace.”
The next week Edna Jones died and so the secretary made the appropriate global replacement of names. But it was quite a surprise at this particular funeral when, in the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed, the congregation learned that Jesus had been “born of the virgin Edna”!
Well, that’s a true story but if my relaying this struck you as humorous, it did so because, like a joke, this story concluded with a surprise ending that took you off guard. A few years ago I heard about a curious tradition of the Orthodox Church–each year on Easter Monday they get together to exchange jokes. The idea is that since the Easter story has the ultimate surprise ending, they enter into the spirit of the season by exchanging other stories which also have surprise endings.
Author: Doug Bratt
Easter Sunday may not seem like an ideal time to compare God’s kingdom to Isaiah 25’s lavish feast. After all, many of those who proclaim and hear the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday will spend at least some of Easter preparing, eating and cleaning up food.
Yet nearly every culture and society dreams of feasting and delight. Those who dream of better circumstances sometimes dream nearly first of all of more food on their table. Stories like the novel The Grapes of Wrath and the Little House on the Prairie books vividly portray children who live in poverty or at least temporary deprivation. The Joad and Wilder children dream of sumptuous snacks like bags of licorice or fresh strawberries.
Yet it isn’t just hungry children who dream of more and better food. The Grapes of Wrath’s Grandpa Joad in dies on his trip from Oklahoma to California. Yet right until he dies he repeatedly talks about how great it will be to live in California.
As soon as he gets there, Grandpa Joad says, he’s going to find a big bunch of grapes in a famous California vineyard. He vows to eat those grapes with such enthusiasm that their juice just trickles down his chin. But Grandpa says he won’t care because it will show their hard times are finally over.
This may help us understand why Isaiah invites God’s Israelite adopted sons and daughters to think of God’s coming kingdom as a glorious banquet. It reminds all those who now suffer deprivation that some day God’s people’s own hard times will finally be over.
However, in the light of the New Testament, the prophet’s picture of God’s kingdom as a banquet also reminds us that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t a purely spiritual matter that only affects our souls. Christians profess that the first Easter also has a definite and dramatic impact on every part of us.
Of course, the risen Jesus lived at a very specific time and in specific places. As Scott Hoezee notes in his fine March 30, 2015 Sermon Starter on Isaiah 25, the risen Jesus was never either exactly nowhere, nor was he everywhere. He was in Galilee or he was in Jericho. He was in a boat or praying on a mountain.
So though Jesus was somehow able to get around far faster and more mysteriously after his resurrection than before it, the stories of his resurrection life are still usually confined to a specific time and place. He’s still in Galilee, or in a dining room in Emmaus, or on the beach cooking breakfast.
In fact, as Hoezee also notes, each story of the risen Jesus is so specific and local that we easily forget that his resurrection has universal implications. It didn’t just affect the relatively few people who actually saw him after he rose from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection also involved all people at all times and places. In fact, it somehow affected not only his Body that is the Church, but also the whole creation, as well as every one of its creatures.
So while even after the first Easter we live in a creation that sin scars, someday, as the church father Iranaeus, wrote, God will change that: “The days will come in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each twig ten thousand shoots, and in each of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give ten and twenty meters of wine. And when any of the saints shall lay hold of another cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.”
Iranaeus’s vision of God’s peace is of a creation that almost overflows with life, that’s filled with abundance that never runs down or out. Yet there’s even more to the glory of Isaiah 25’s peaceable kingdom. As former Calvin Seminary President Neal Plantinga has written (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Eerdmans), “Above all … God would preside in the unspeakable beauty for which human beings long, and in the mystery of holiness that draws human worship like a magnet.
“In turn, each human being would reflect and color the light of God’s presence out of the inimitable resources of his or her own character and essence. Human communities would present their ethnic and regional specialties to other communities in … glad recognition that God, too, is a radiant and hospitable community of three persons. In their own accents communities would express praise, courtesies, and deferences that, when massed together, would keep building like waves of passion that is never spent.”
That’s the kind of vision of God’s peaceable kingdom that Isaiah 25 offers. It describes a time and place where people will know the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to make him a blessing to all the nations of the earth. In God’s glorious kingdom the smell of delicious food and taste of fine wine will draw together all of those now-divided nations.
There will be no room for bellies that hunger bloats. In God’s peaceable kingdom mother and fathers won’t have to resort to desperate measures to feed their children. That kingdom will be, in other words, a place of abundant life where people live together in the peace for which God created us.
And in that lively place, there will also be no room for death. We’ll no longer need the kind of “shroud” in which people wrapped the dead Jesus and his contemporaries. In that peaceable kingdom there will be no more need for the sheets we now drape over the faces of dead people.
In fact, in Isaiah 25’s peaceable kingdom Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated, hospitals or nursing homes will go out of business. Morticians and gravediggers will have to find new jobs. Land now used for cemeteries will be converted into parks, playgrounds and soccer fields. Even those who make the tissue paper with which we dry our eyes will have to find some other line of work.
Yet Isaiah’s picture of God’s peaceable kingdom that’s full of good food and empty of death may not offer much comfort to some of the people who proclaim and hear Isaiah 25. After all, its power came in part because its first hearers were so often hungry and threatened.
So maybe the thought of a big banquet like Easter dinner mostly makes those who proclaim Isaiah 25 a little queasy. Perhaps the threat of death or dying seems very far away. Maybe those who hear our Old Testament lesson are more worried about their job or immigration status. God’s people’s loneliness, fear or doubt may plague them more than their awareness of their mortality.
The prospect of a heavenly banquet might intrigue a starving North Korean child or Sudanese mother. The prospect of the final death of death may attract people who are suffering, sick or dying. But what about that American child or young adult who must worry about dodging bullets on her way to (or even at) school? What does Isaiah 25 have to say to that Indian teenager whose society has locked her into an untouchable caste? What about that Iranian family that must worship the Lord in secret?
Perhaps the Spirit gives those who proclaim Isaiah 25 the freedom to expand its meaning for such vulnerable people. We might say that the Lord Almighty will also turn handguns into plowshares. That the Lord Almighty will shred the veil that segregates races from each other. That people will worship the Lord Almighty without fear of reprisal.
Of course, the peaceable kingdom about which Isaiah writes is both a present reality that Jesus inaugurated through his death and resurrection as well as a future blessing. That means that, among other things, Easter provides the rhythm by which we live right now.
So already Christians are learning to share our “banquets” with the hungry. Some of God’s adopted children are doing the kingdom work of feeding malnourished people. Some missionaries are teaching hungry people to feed themselves. What’s more, Jesus’ resurrection has already taken away the worst sting of death. While people still die, God’s children know that death for us is only a passage from life to Life.
But, of course, Isaiah 25 will find its full fulfillment in the glory of the new earth and heaven. In it there will be no room there for even hunger pains, to say nothing of starvation. Because of Christ’s resurrection, people won’t just live eighty or ninety years as some do now, but will live forever in the glory of God’s presence. Quite simply, someday God’s adopted sons and daughters will fully know that, in Isaiah’s words, God saves those who trusted in the Lord.
Some mealtimes less resemble that of Isaiah 25 than that of the monastery in which Mark Salzman sets his novel, Lying Awake. Its nuns dedicate their whole lives praying and meditating. The rhythm of worship dictates the schedule for their lives. Those nuns spend so much time thinking about the Lord that they reject anything that would distract them from God.
They view food and drink as one of those potential distractions. So when the nuns gather to eat three times a day, they say absolutely nothing. The only person who speaks is the one who reads their mealtime devotions. The nuns even put a human skull on a table in front of them to remind them that food and drink are only minimally important since they’ll all die one day anyway.
I don’t think either the prophet or many of us who proclaim and hear Isaiah would have lasted very long in such a grim setting. C.S. Lewis even once said that our deepest longings are at least faint echoes of what God longs for us.
He noted that a fish that washes up on a beach longs to return to the water because that’s its natural element. In a similar way, Lewis suggests, if people long for something, it’s because we long to return to the abundance for which God created us in the first place.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 118 is the Lectionary’s default Psalm for Holy Week. It is used in all three years of the cycle for both Palm Sunday and Easter. It is easy to see why. Verses 26-27 are a virtual description of what would happen on Palm Sunday and verses 17-18 fairly shout, “Easter.” Making a connection to Christ is not an example of homiletical gymnastics, because the New Testament, applies Psalm 118:22-23 to Christ, beginning with Jesus himself in Mark 12:10 (and parallels) and continuing in Acts 4:11, I Peter 2:7, and Ephesians 2:20. Indeed, there is a long tradition of reading Psalm 118 as Jesus’ post-Resurrection cry of victory.
While that may ultimately be what you decide to do with Psalm 118 this Easter, be sure you don’t leap over the original meaning of the Psalm in your desire to get to Christ. That would rob your Easter sermon of the richness embedded in this classic Psalm. Originally, it was a call to national thanksgiving. Note the triple call to God’s covenant people in the first 4 verses: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let Israel say, ‘His love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the Lord say, ‘His love endures forever.’”
The focus on the enduring love of Yahweh (hesed in Hebrew) at the beginning and at the end and throughout the Psalm is crucial for understanding Easter. What happened at Easter is the work of the enduring love of the covenant God of Israel. As the final verse in our reading puts it, “This is the day Yahweh has made” or “Yahweh has done it this very day.” Easter is the culmination of all that Yahweh has done for his people. It is the day of days when God’s hesed finally triumphed over all Israel’s enemies, including the last enemy, death. No wonder “shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous (verse 15).” So, we need to pay attention to the opening verses, because they place the resurrection of Jesus in the context of covenant history. They emphasize that what happened on Easter Sunday was the result of Yahweh’s hesed acting decisively in history.
But Psalm 118 is more than a national call to Thanksgiving, used at one of Israel’s great festivals (experts tell us that it was part of the liturgy at the Feast of Tabernacles and at Passover). It also includes a very personal confession of faith, running from verse 5-21. Perhaps it is more correct to say that Israel is called to celebrate what God has done for one of his covenant people, so that the personal experience of one Israelite becomes the occasion for the whole nation to give thanks to Yahweh. Maybe this one was the King, or perhaps it was an ordinary person who is the Representative of the rest. At any rate, in a way that anticipates the work of Christ, what happened to the one affects the all in a miraculous way.
It is nearly impossible to tell exactly when and where this person experienced “anguish (verse 5).” Maybe that’s good, because the vagueness of it enables all of us to enter into the Psalm personally. And that is surely good, because verses 5-13 (before our reading) are rich in both trouble and grace. The Psalmist’s description of his personal trouble fairly jumps off the page with vividness. His enemies buzz around him like a swarm of bees, but their fierceness burned out as quickly as a fire fed by thorns. And the words used to describe the grace he received in that trouble are among the loveliest in Scripture. “The Lord is with me: I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies.” “I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me.” There is Gospel in those words.
All of that is background for our Easter Sunday reading. And most of that background is not new; we find similar things in other Psalms. In your Easter sermon, I suggest that you focus on the new thing that happened on that day. I hear that newness suggested by the shift in the verbs of verse 14. “Yahweh is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” For centuries and for all of my life, Yahweh has been the source of strength and joy in my life. Now something new has happened, and he has become my salvation. I wouldn’t want to push that verse too far, but it does give us an angle from which to approach this familiar Psalm.
Out of all the powerful things said in verses 14-24, I want to focus on two verses, verse 17 and verse 24. I would begin with verse 24 because it is the objective basis for the subjective faith in verse 17. After the Psalmist completes his personal testimony of deliverance by Yahweh and offers his personal thanksgiving for that salvation, the congregation accompanying him gives this profound interpretation of what has happened in the Psalmist’s rescue/resurrection (cf. verse 17-18). “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; Yahweh has done this, and it is marvelous (a “wonder” in Hebrew) in our eyes.” This wonder is the basis for verse 24. “The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The fact that verse 22 is quoted so frequently and fruitfully in the New Testament alerts us to its importance. The enemies of Jesus, the people in charge of God’s house, the builders of the human house in which God would live among the nations, rejected Jesus as unfit. He literally did not fit their conceptions of the Messiah. He wasn’t right for the job. So, they threw him away, onto the slag heap, into the dump outside the city. Except we know it was worse than that. They didn’t just reject him. They killed him, and in a shameful way, a way designed to say he was accursed. And he was laid in a borrowed grave, because even in death, there was no place for the Son of Man to lay his head.
But that was not the end of the matter, because Yahweh in his enduring love had other plans, plans he had been working on forever. He raised the Rejected One and made him the capstone of his entire kingdom-building enterprise. God didn’t just defeat the human enemies who had rejected The Stone; he also defeated death itself by raising The Stone from the grave. And now he is exactly right, the precise fit for the work of building the Kingdom of God on earth. Paul puts it profoundly in Ephesians 2:19-21. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.”
Your sermon will become vivid if you can picture what a capstone or cornerstone did and still does. I quote from Robert Davidson in his magnificent commentary on the Psalms. “A capstone or cornerstone—head of the corner—was the block of stone which joined together at right (note the emphasis on right) angles the walls of a building. If it were flawed, the whole building would be unsafe. Builders, therefore, chose this cornerstone with great care. Anything that did not meet their specifications and quality control would be rejected. Surprise, surprise, that such a rejected stone became the cornerstone.”
That is exactly what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead. By focusing on verses 22-24, you can emphasize that it was precisely the God of Israel who raised the rejected one. This was the exact point of Peter’s sermon to the same rejecters in Acts 4. Yahweh, your God, our God, the God of enduring love has acted in a decisive way to save us. “Yahweh has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” It is a “wonder,” a miracle that changes everything. So, let us rejoice in this day when the Lord has done this great thing.
Among the things that the resurrection of the Rejected One accomplished is confessed with great confidence in verse 17. “I will not die but live.” God has raised Jesus from the dead, and that changes forever the way we live our lives. Or at least it should. Verses 17 and 18 give us an opportunity to press home the life changing reality of Christ’s resurrection. Delivered from the threat of his enemies, the Psalmist shouts, “I will not die but live and proclaim what the Lord has done. The Lord has chastened me severely, but has not given me over to death.”
Preachers have often noted how those words could be put in Christ’s mouth as he emerged from the tomb, but that interpretation runs afoul of those words about being chastened. Jesus was not chastened, disciplined, corrected with a view to making him better. He was punished for the sins of the human race. The words of verses 17-18 fit better in the mouths of people who believe in the life changing power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Because he conquered death once and for all, we do not need to fear death (cf. Hebrews 2:14-16). Indeed, in a culture held captive by the fear of death, we can boldly say, “I will not die but live.” Jesus said it very clearly at the wake of Lazarus. “I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in me shall live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Living a thousand years before the Christ died and rose, the Psalmist spoke for everyone who does believe those words of Jesus. “I will not die but live.”
Can you imagine how a genuine faith in those words would change the way we live, how it would transform our hopes and dreams and fears, how it would affect health care and end of life issues and funerals? The affirmation of verse 17 runs counter to the uncertainties of life, where there is nothing certain except death and taxes. Well, taxes are a moving target these days and, since the resurrection of Jesus, death isn’t certain either. Not if you believe in him who is the Resurrection and the Life. This simply must be preached with power. “I will not die but live.” It will change the way we live.
So, on this Easter Sunday, let us come to worship with the words of verses 19 and 21. “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. I will give thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation.” Indeed, every Sunday as we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, let us say with the universal church. “This is the day the Lord has made,” “this is the day the Lord has done it; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
When Maya Lin created the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, she ran into all kinds of opposition. Key among the critics was the U.S. military. They wanted to put a huge flag behind the Wall flanked by immense statues of soldiers in full battle dress, signifying victory. But she resisted, because she wanted the Wall to be a memorial to the dead. She said, “We have a hard time with defeat and death in the United States. We simply don’t want to face death head on. This wall does that.” We are a nation in bondage to the fear of death, as Hebrews 2 says. Indeed, the whole world is enslaved, except the believer who looks into Christ’s open tomb and cries, “I will not die but live.” That’s not a denial of death’s reality, but an affirmation of Christ’s victory, and ours in him.
As a way of connecting with middle school children on this Easter, you might pick up on that word in verse 23, “marvelous” or “wonder.” One of the most popular books for young readers these days, and now a fine movie, is titled Wonder. It’s about a little boy with a terrible facial deformity. After being home schooled for his entire elementary career, he goes off to middle school, where he receives the expected cruel treatment. He is rejected by one and all at first, but then he gains one friend and then another. He perseveres through all the hazing and torture, dying a thousand deaths. But by the end of the movie, and at this graduation, he is honored as the student who made the biggest contribution to his school. He is, indeed, a wonder. The grace of God isn’t mentioned anywhere, but clearly that is what moved him from homeroom reject to recipient of honor.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Author: Scott Hoezee
OK, lots to say about these verses but to start: What do you mean, Paul, that Jesus appeared post-Easter to 500 people at once? When in the world did THAT pretty big event happen but that is referenced nowhere else in the Bible except in passing right here in 1 Corinthians 15? How did Luke (or John who has more to say about the 40 days after Easter than anyone else) miss reporting this one for us? The only stories we get at the end of Luke, at the beginning of Acts, and at the end of John show Jesus appearing to one, two, seven, or a dozen folks at a time but that’s about it. And so inquiring minds want to know: 500 people at once? Where? When? Who?
For the time being, we’ll just never know. But some of those folks are still around, Paul claims to the Corinthians. So go ahead and ask them about it. They’ll tell you: Jesus the crucified one was alive and well and undeniably a physically restored being. If Paul’s own encounter with the living Christ Jesus was not enough for the Corinthians to buy that story, then let’s bring in some more witnesses.
You would think this would have been unnecessary, though. Superfluous. Yes, yes, even the most casual reader of 1 Corinthians cannot fail to notice that this congregation—probably numbering fewer than 100 folks—had issues. Lots of them, a laundry list of questions they’d sent to Paul as long as your arm. Maybe as long as both arms. Lawsuits, sexual issues, prostitution questions, marriage questions, arguments about gifts and status and worship and the Lord’s Supper . . . Well, it went on and on.
But really? They also argued over whether a real resurrection was all that big of a deal? Some were denying it. Others were saying it was just a little too hard to believe that story so maybe it’s an optional add-on to the faith but one you could do without and still be a Christian. Still others mounted more sophisticated counter arguments, wondering how a physical body can be part of a spiritual being? What is a resurrection body? Isn’t that an oxymoron as nonsensical as “bright darkness” or “married bachelor”?
Surely Paul got to this part of the letter he had received from Corinth and he hung his head. You just CANNOT mess up this one! All the other stuff was important and he’d taken significant pastoral pains to deal with it all in the first fourteen chapters of this epistle. But in chapter 15 it was time to lower the boom. “Take away the resurrection” Paul will go on to say, “and it’s game over. Because if Christ was not raised—the first fruits of all the rest of us having the same thing happen some day—then we’re not just deluded, mistaken, or a little bit off base. No, we are pathetic, pitiable creatures offering up our very lives to an illusion.”
Paul will go on in this chapter to try to help people wrap their minds around an admitted oxymoron: a “spiritual body.” No, we maybe cannot understand all of this just now but that does not mean it’s impossible. Jesus has a real body and it is in the mode of resurrection life. It’s physical, it’s spiritual; it’s tangible, it’s imperishable. Both. And if that seems odd or weird or something hard to wrap your mind around, well, that’s often true of those things we call “miracles,” isn’t it? And Easter is in most every respect the grandest of all miracles and so it ought neither surprise nor unduly unsettle us that it defies our usual categories of thought.
But in this particular eleven-verse reading chosen by the Lectionary, it’s enough to note that proclaiming the resurrection remains our #1 message in the church, then and now. It is the unexpected but finally glorious in-breaking into our time and space of our very future in God’s renewed creation and kingdom. And it is Good News to everyone, even to the likes of the former Saul of Tarsus.
The Apostle Paul is painfully aware of how undeserving his former “wipe the name of Jesus from the face of the earth” self had been. Surely Paul was now and then haunted with the memories of the families he broke up, the men he brutalized, the women he dragged off to jail by their hair—all in his Pharisee zeal to rid the world of the Gospel and of the Jesus at the center of it all.
And yet, that very Jesus—undeniably alive despite having been definitively crossed out by the Romans—had compassion on Saul, lavished his grace on this violent man who had hated the very name and the very idea of Jesus. It was an out-of-the-blue salvation. But it somehow fit the Savior who had an out-of-the-blue resurrection one Sunday morning outside Jerusalem. The One who shocked everyone by coming back from the grave would go on shocking the world with a gracious salvation that knows no bounds and shows no signs—even 2,000 years later—of coming to an end.
You have to love the language of 1 Corinthians 15:1: “Now I want to REMIND you . . .” It’s a nice example of dramatic understatement. “Remind” is what you do when your spouse is headed out the door to the supermarket and you “remind” him or her that you’re low on toilet paper so pick some up. You “remind” someone he has a dentist appointment at 11am the next day or that the electric bill is due by Saturday. “Remind” seems several rhetorical rungs lower than “command” or “warn” or “urge” or even “implore.” But Paul needs to remind them of the centrality of the Gospel. He says “remind” because they knew this already but had obviously forgotten its central place.
Maybe sometimes in the church today we do, too, though we don’t mean to. Not usually. And you don’t have to be in some wholesale denial of the resurrection to forget a bit its true power, its centrality. Maybe we also need to be reminded of this.
Because honestly, when I listen to some of the more prominent church leaders today as well as to what rank and file Christians are concerned about politically and socially, the way they talk about issues and concerns are rarely if ever framed up inside the central and vital importance of the resurrection. Maybe we think it’s just assumed. But if the jaw-dropping reality of Jesus’ having been raised from the dead is not the animating center of all we do and advocate for and talk about as Christians, then what is? And if we’re not framing up our spiritual, social, political concerns inside the reality of Easter, then what is our central frame of reference when engaging the world?
“I need to remind you of what is of first importance” Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
Maybe he’s writing the same to us today as well.
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 42-3). Buchner is here pondering how the Christian idea of an afterlife stems not from some innate “immortality” but from the gift of God. Here is part of his reflection that fits Easter well:
“Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is a natural function of man as digestion after a meal. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection. It is entirely unnatural. Man does not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how he’s made. Rather, he goes to his grave as dead as a doornail and is given his life back again by God just as he was given it by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made. All of the major creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made him the particular human being he was and which he needs something like a body to express: his personality, the way he looked, the sound of his voice, his peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense, his face. The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of man’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love.”