Easter Day C
April 15, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
A friend of mine who is a true believer in the Gospel once confessed to me that Easter services can be a little hard on him. There’s just something about all that exuberance, all that blaring brass, all those bright lights and white lilies that combine to go sufficiently over the top in ways he finds jarring. That much excitement, he says, also does not quite match his own spiritual struggles in the workaday world very well.
So I once told him that he’d enjoy John 20’s way of doing Easter. Maybe John’s account really does fit our ordinary lives better than all the high, bright, light, and clear stuff of many Easter services.
Because 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: 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 a general rule, dead folks don’t do a lot for themselves.
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 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. Easter doesn’t happen around the dinner table when we have our family around us and mounds of delicious food to tuck into.
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 cinderblock 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. In all of life there are some people who hug at the drop of a hat and some who clearly prefer a civil handshake. But even those of us who are not “huggers” typically allow an embrace in certain situations of singular joy and astonishment. You may typically dislike hugs, but if your kid swished the winning basket for Christian High with 1 second left on the clock, I’d wager you’ll be happy to get a hug from everyone around you in the bleachers!
But not Jesus. “No hugs,” he as much as says. “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. We discover a hope, and then cling to the joy of that hope, so as to remind ourselves that death is not the end. By faith, we also have seen the Lord. And for now, it is enough. Enough.
Some years ago Tom Long told the story of Mary Ann Bird. Mary Ann had it rough growing up. Born with a cleft palate and a disfigured face, Mary Ann also had lopsided feet and so an ungainly way of walking. Naturally, she was the target of all the school-age cruelty the other children could muster. “Did ya cut your lip?” they’d sneer. “How come you walk like a duck?” Mary Ann lived in a dark world.
One year her teacher was Miss Leonard. Miss Leonard was short and round and a little doughty but she shined with kindness. Back in those days teachers were required to administer a kind of homespun hearing test. The teacher would call each student up to her desk, have the student cover first one ear and then the other, and the teacher would whisper something to see if the child could hear. Usually the teacher would say simple things like “The sky is blue” or “You have on new shoes today.” Well, Mary Ann dreaded this test because she was also deaf in one ear and so this test would be yet another chance for her to be singled out for her deficiencies in life.
On the day of the test when it came time for her turn, Mary Ann waddled and shuffled forward. She covered up her bad ear first and then, as Miss Leonard leaned in close, Mary Ann heard words that would change her life. Because for Mary Ann’s hearing test, Miss Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.” And through those words and in the midst of her personal darkness, Mary Ann heard the voice of Jesus, the voice of love, the voice of grace. And it changed her. Mary Ann grew up to become a teacher herself, and now she shines with kindness and grace for her students. And it started when Mary Ann heard Jesus call her name through the voice of a middle-aged teacher. Mary Ann.
John 20 gives us an Easter that fits us. John 20 gives us an Easter that can go back home with you when you leave here this morning. Because, you see, if Easter’s joy and proclamation required the blare of trumpets, the thunder of pipe organs, and the shining brightness of white banners and vestments–if that type of setting were the only place where Easter could thrive–then who among us could take that back home with us? Who among us would claim that just about every single evening when we walk through the door after a day at work, we launch right into the “Hallelujah Chorus” because it had been such a wondrous day? How many of us ride the crest of a joy wave most every moment of the average week? Maybe a few of you do lead that kind of singularly lilting existence, and if so, God bless you in it. But some of the folks I know wake up many mornings “while it is still dark,” and they’re not sure they can outrun the shadows the balance of the day, either.
That’s why John 20 gives us good news we can live by and also live with. Because somewhere in the shadows of your life and my life, a truly risen Savior is lurking, bursting with new life. You see, the darkness of this world does not need to lift completely in ways no one could miss for the truth of Easter to be available. It’s here. It’s now. He’s here, he’s now.
And he knows your name just as surely as he knew Mary Magdalene’s name and burst Easter into her heart the moment he called that name to her. Mary. No matter how deep the darkness of your life may seem, listen for that voice calling your name. Because he is calling. Mary. Philip. Keith. Lucy. Listen. Listen for that voice. Listen and then start living Jesus’ new life right now.
Author: Stan Mast
Every preacher knows what a challenge it is to preach on Easter. On the one hand, it is the epicenter of the Gospel, the event that makes or breaks the claims of Jesus, as Paul says in I Corinthians 15. So, how can we mere mortals do justice to such a world changing moment in God’s great plan to redeem the world?
On the other hand, everyone knows the story and you can be certain that the huge majority of worshipers are in church today because they already believe it. So, how can we preachers make the familiar interesting, gripping, and stunning? How can we provide an Aha so unexpected that our people will gasp in surprise? Maybe we should just sing those glorious Easter hymns and forget about preaching?
Today the Lectionary comes to our rescue with a plethora of preaching possibilities for Easter. We could focus on the bare facts of the story by preaching on the Gospel readings in Luke 24:1-12 or John 20:1-18. Allow the power of narrative to convey the surprise, the confusion, the doubt, the joy, and the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection. Or we could tackle Acts 10:34-43, the first Easter sermon preached to Gentiles. Or we could zero in on the clarity of Paul’s doctrinal explanation of the cosmic importance of the Resurrection in I Corinthians 15:19-26. Just follow his logical argument to give people a clear-headed understanding of why the Resurrection matters so much. Or we could focus on the sheer joy of the Resurrection by preaching on Psalm 118. Preach a doxological sermon and invite people to respond with full throated praise.
There’s one more possibility, and that’s the one I urge you to consider. Isaiah 65:17-25, written centuries before Christ, uses the poetry of prophecy to paint a word picture of a world radically changed by a new thing that Yahweh will do. Originally, of course, it was written to encourage the post-Exilic Jewish community. They were home, but home wasn’t heaven, not by a long shot. They needed hope that it would get better. Reading this Jewish text from the other side of Easter, it gives us hope, too, hope that we can imagine.
That, I think, is the secret to preaching on Isaiah 65 at Easter. Let it serve as an imaginative picture of the long-term effects of Easter. Let God’s promise of a new thing in the history of Israel serve as an illustration of the results of the New Thing God has done in the history of the world. Often, we talk about salvation in terms so spiritual and other-worldly that ordinary folks can’t grasp them. Isaiah 65 uses pictures from daily life on earth to help us imagine how Easter changed and is changing and will change life in this world. One scholar said that this text “falls far short of Easter kerygma.” On the contrary, it preaches the Easter kerygma using the poetry of prophecy to convey the real-world difference Easter makes.
This real-world focus is thrust before us with the very first words of our text. In the previous verse, God has promised that “past troubles will be forgotten and hidden from your eyes.” How was that possible? Israel’s past troubles had destroyed life as they had known it for hundreds of years and the results of those troubles were still all around them, completely visible to the naked eye. The same is true for us. So how can we forget? How can we not see the results of sin and evil all around us?
Well, God promises, not an escape from this earth, not a home in heaven, but “new heavens and a new earth.” Verse 1 uses a verb that is very familiar to readers of Genesis 1—create, bara in the Hebrew. The God who created the universe out of nothing will create a new universe, a new heaven and earth, in place of the old one ruined by sin and evil. It will be so “good” (recall how often that simple word describes the first creation in Genesis) that people won’t remember the former things. Instead, people will simply rejoice forever in what God will create. Note the “forever,” because it points beyond the merely earthly and temporal. Though Isaiah uses that language, the new heavens and earth promised here will go on forever.
It’s hard to imagine a new heaven and a new earth. What will it be like? Well, it will be missing “the former things.” What does that mean? God explains using features of life plagued by “past troubles.” At the center of those troubles was the destruction of Jerusalem, the city of God, the center of their social, political, and, most of all, religious life. Even rebuilt, it was a shadow of its former self. Even re-inhabited, it was a place in which weeping and crying filled the air. God had once forsaken his own city and it seemed that he still wasn’t there as he had been before.
In the new heaven and earth, God will dwell in the midst of his people, as he had back in the Garden. To symbolize that, God says, “I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” God means that he will “rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people.” After centuries of conflict, during which God was often angry with his people and even sent them away from the city, God will love his people with unalloyed joy and delight. Because of that unconditional love and approval, the sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more.
That “no more” is the first of 10 variations on “no” in this text. So many of the former things that made life so sad and difficult will be “no more” in the new heaven and earth. The following verses will illustrate that.
But before we move on to those features of life after God has done his new thing, I must say a word about the promise of a rebuilt Jerusalem. Some Christians take that promise in a literal, geographical, political sense, and focus their attention on the land of Palestine as the key to God’s redemptive plan today.
I read this text through the Jesus lens of the New Testament, which replaces physical Jerusalem with the spiritual Body of Christ, and looks toward a Jerusalem that descends from heaven filled with people of all races and nations. So, I hear this promise of a recreated Jerusalem as a promise that God will dwell among his people in the New Heaven and Earth, as symbolized by Jerusalem (Revelation 21). This interpretation, of course, is highly debatable, but I had to make the point, because if Isaiah 65 is only about the Jews and their physical Jerusalem, then the rest of this lovely picture of life after the Resurrection is lost to the church.
Let’s go back to the “no’s” in this prophecy. In the brave new world created by God, “the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard no more,” because the causes of such grief will be no more—things like infant mortality or the pre-mature loss of a grandparent. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years.” Indeed, “a man who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.”
Now wait a minute. There will be no infant mortality, but old men will still die in the new world? Here’s we must read the prophecy as poetry. Using sources of grief with which we are all too familiar, the prophet paints a picture of life in which there will be no grief because, as the New Testament says, death will be utterly defeated. We may not be able to grasp the concept of eternal life, but we know what it’s like to lose a child or a grandpa. No more!
And no more futility in work or at home. No one will steal your home. No one will highjack your raise. No one will get the credit for work you have done. No longer will you struggle like Sisyphus to roll the stone of your life up a hill, only to have it slip from your hands and come rolling back down. Instead of endless, futile labor by the sweat of your brow in the midst of thorns and thistles, your life will be endlessly, increasingly fruitful as you enjoy the works of your hands and minds. As C.S. Lewis puts it at the end of The Last Battle, “every chapter is better than the one before.”
The poet/prophet sums up these two “no more’s” with these lovely words: “They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune (or terror).” Then he gives the reason, which is the central blessing of the new world: “for they will be a people blessed by Yahweh, they and their descendants after them.” After centuries of living with the curses of Genesis and the wrath of God against their covenant unfaithfulness, Yahweh will once again, and forever, bless his people. Here is a dramatic reversal of history, Paradise Regained, the world re-created, because God has done, is doing, and will do a new thing.
The heart of Paradise was that God was right there, walking and talking with Adam and Eve, a constant Presence continually communing with his creatures. Then came sin and hiding and God’s agonized, “Adam, where are you?” followed by humanity’s own, “God, where are you?” When God does his new thing, paradise will be restored. “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.” Instant, unbroken communion with the source of all blessing! Right here on earth! After centuries of apparent God forsakenness, a lifetime of seemingly unanswered prayers, hellish moments of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” “the dwelling of God will be with his people (Rev. 21:3).
The effects of Easter, that death defying and death defeating act of God, will extend even into the animal kingdom. No more law of the jungle. Traditional predator and prey, meat-eater and grazer, will live in perfect peace. Impossible!? Yes, and that’s the point of Easter. The impossible has happened. That’s the point of verse 25. It shows us Shalom, the complete restoration of peace on earth. No more sin, no more sorrow, no more futility, no more harming or destroying “on all my holy mountain.”
This is what Easter inaugurated—the peaceable kingdom God intended when he decided to create the heavens and the earth. I use the word “inaugurated” intentionally, because Easter was the big moment that began something that would get bigger and bigger. Indeed, the verb bara in verses 1 and 2 here can be translated in both the future (as the NIV does) and the imperfect. What God did once and for all in raising Jesus from the dead has immense future results, but those future results are developing now. The God who will create a new heaven and a new earth is, even now, recreating the old world into that new one. Yes, there will be a dramatic break, a moment as earth shaking as the Resurrection, when all things will experience the great Restoration (Acts 3:21).
In the meantime, the Risen Christ calls us to proclaim and promote the Peaceable Kingdom by battling death and destruction, futility and unfairness, infant mortality and senior abuse, all that brings grief to this world, as we commune with the God who has come close in Christ and accompanies us by his Spirit.
Easter is more than a single death and resurrection that gets us to heaven. It is the great new thing that inaugurates a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell.
The Storyteller is a horrific and wonderful book by Jodi Picoult. In it, a 20 something Jewish girl named Sage knows that her grandmother, Minka, is a Holocaust survivor. Quite accidentally, Sage befriends Josef, a beloved old man who taught at her high school. As she gets to know Josef better, she discovers that he worked in a Nazi concentration camp. The book interweaves the stories of Minka and Josef. Both are haunted by their pasts, by the “former things” they experienced– Minka by what had been done to her, Josef by what he had done. Could their paths have crossed somewhere? You will have to read to find out. Suffice it to say that the themes of justice and forgiveness make the book a compelling, and troubling, read. Neither victim nor perpetrator could imagine not remembering “the former things.” Neither can many of us. It will take a revelation from God and a redemptive act so stunning as to be nearly unbelievable to make us forget, stop weeping, and live with joy. That’s what the Resurrection of Jesus will finally do.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Author: Scott Hoezee
Call it the little Psalm that could. Call it the Psalm of stealth and surprise. Call it the Psalm that fits the Gospel bill.
Why? Because out of all the 150 psalms in the Hebrew Psalter, many people have their favorites but those favorites—most anybody’s “Top 10 Greatest Hits of the Psalter” list—would likely not include Psalm 118. Psalm 1 perhaps. Psalm 23. Psalm 27. Psalm 46. Psalm 100. Psalm 150. Other psalms may or may not count as anyone’s particular favorite but they contain well-known lines like Psalm 47’s “Clap your hands, all you nations” or Psalm 84’s “Better is one day in your courts” or Psalm 42’s “As a deer pants for streams of water.” And the list could go on.
But would Psalm 118 ever make the grade? Likely not. And yet as it turns out, no single Old Testament passage—psalm or otherwise—gets quoted more often in the New Testament than does Psalm 118 and in particular its 22nd verse about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone after all. What’s up with that? What drew all four Gospel writers and the Apostle Peter to quote Psalm 118 a total of eleven times in the New Testament?
Well, there was something about that image of the cast-off and rejected stone becoming the most important stone of them all that just reminded them of the central dynamic of the Gospel. Wasn’t Jesus, after all, the ultimate example of the most precious person in history who was even so cast aside, rejected, spurned, killed? Doesn’t that spurned stone that becomes highly important after all remind you of Someone? Isn’t this what the victory of Easter is all about in the first place? Apparently so.
And while we are at it, we can notice the further irony that Psalm 118 as a poem appears itself to be an exemplar of this very idea. After all, here is a little, largely unknown Hebrew poem that looks to shrink back in importance compared to better-known and more widely quoted psalms like Psalm 23 or Psalm 100 and yet . . . this little psalm also does the surprising thing of becoming the most important Hebrew poem for the New Testament. Who would’ve thunk it, as they say.
But probably the four evangelists and Peter knew that there were still other reasons to quote Psalm 118, and most of those reasons go along very well with a celebration of Easter. The overall psalm is a prayer of praise to God for deliverance from the psalmist’s enemies. As is often the case with the Lectionary, we are directed to skip over the shank of this poem where the poet writes about swatting back his enemies like so many bees. But that is the context for the psalmist’s overall joy in praising the Lord for his help. God delivers us from the throes of death, and since that is a theme that could not fit Easter much better than it already does, it’s not clear why the RCL folks want us to avert our eyes from verses 5-13 but . . . so be it.
But that deliverance is the root of this psalmist’s thankfulness and joy. Indeed, as the psalm begins, this poet wants everyone to join his choir of praise. “Let Israel say . . . Let the house of Aaron say . . . Aw, what the heck, let EVERYONE and ANYONE who fears the Lord say, ‘His love endures forever!’” It reminds me of roller-skating parties at a rink where there would be times when they announced an “All Skate.” Except here it is “All Sing!”
But, of course, the word translated “love” here is not just any word for love broadly defined. This is in Hebrew chesed, that almost untranslatable word meaning “lovingkindness” or “grace” or “covenant faithfulness”—this is that characteristic of Israel’s God Yahweh for which the psalms and all of Scripture praise God the most. This is the #1 defining trait of God, and I have in the past made the case that chesed in the Hebrew Scripture is what charis is in the New Testament and especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul: it is God’s grace, the love of God that saves us even while we are yet sinners. This is the love that endures forever, this is what makes Yahweh “good.”
And it is in the context of praising God for this trait that the psalmist throws in the verse about the rejected stone becoming the head of the corner. It looks like the psalmist is saying that he himself felt like that stone but that after God rescued him from his foes, he felt like a very important and very honored piece of masonry after all. As is so often true in the Bible, the writers who were being guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said and wrote more than they knew. No doubt this psalmist—were he able to see what became of his words in the New Testament and in connection to Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah—would be shocked. He had no idea that someone would read that “rejected stone” stuff and turn it into a prophetic image that would fit the actual Christ of God like a glove. But there it is.
As an Easter meditation, Psalm 118 gives us the opportunity to celebrate not only Jesus but each one of us. Any one of us may or may not appear to be very significant in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, not a few of us feel downright unimportant. And yet the Savior who was himself a rejected and seemingly useless stone is very good at lifting up also each one of us.
In the sermon starter on John 20 on this CEP website, we noted that the way John presented Easter fits our real world. Easter creeps up on us from behind. Easter finds us precisely in our moments of dark and deep sorrow. Easter appears in all those places—the cancer ward, the unemployment line, the funeral home—where we most need to know that life and not death has the final word.
But Easter can and does find each one of us because though we too may feel like worthless, tossed-aside, and rejected stones, God in Christ can make us one with Jesus in becoming the head of the corner of a whole new edifice of salvation. Why does this happen? Because our God in Christ is good and his lovingkindness, his grace, endure forever.
Let everyone say it, “God’s lovingkindness and grace endure forever!” Hallelujah!
They called themselves “Hobbits.” But to many outside their home in The Shire, they were somewhat derisively referred to as “Halflings.” Get it: half of a real person on account of their short stature. Even the short and stout Dwarves were taller than the average Hobbit, not to mention how the world of Men and of Elves towered over these diminutive Hobbits with names like Frodo, Sam, Merri, Pippin. Why, a regular-sized person could pick up the Hobbits like a toddler. “They would appear in your eyes like only a child” someone in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy once said of the Hobbits.
But, of course, it was the race of Hobbits that delivered Middle Earth from the peril of the evil Lord Sauron. And that fact, in turn, leads to the lyric scene near the end of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films when, at the coronation of the new King Aragorn, the Hobbits come before the newly crowned sovereign only to begin to bow. “My friends,” the King tells them, “You bow to no one.” And then the assembled throng bows down to the four Hobbits, making them appear to stand taller for just a moment than any Man, Dwarf, or Elf in sight.
Something about that surprising turn of events reminds me of that rejected stone in Psalm 118.
Text: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Author: Doug Bratt
Some biblical texts deal with rather ordinary things such stealing, eating and even caring for animals. Other texts, however, open readers’ eyes to far bigger issues. While Paul talks much about daily concerns early in his first letter to the Corinthians, he closes it by talking about bigger concerns. As Daniel J. Price to whose fine commentary on this passage in The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles (Eerdmans, 2001) I owe a great deal notes, Paul asks questions like, “What is love?” “What happens to believers after they die?”
The Corinthian Christians seem to be drifting away from the truths Paul had taught them. “It’s as if,” one scholar notes, Paul is saying, “This is it, Corinthians. If you faithfully to cling to God’s grace about which I’ve taught you, it’s your salvation. If, however, you throw it away, you’re in great danger.”
So what is of “first importance,” as Paul refers to it in verse 3? It would be an interesting exercise for 1 Corinthians 15’s preachers and teachers to ask our hearers to summarize the gospel message in a few short phrases. Paul boils it down to, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures … he was buried … he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures … he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.”
What’s most important is, in other words, God’s actions. After all, just as the Old Testament had predicted, people executed Jesus Christ. God, however, raised him from the dead. God in that resurrected Christ then appeared to his disciples.
But what if this isn’t true? What if Christians celebrate nothing but an elaborate hoax on Easter? Paul’s answer is as clear as it is chilling. If, as verses 17 and following insist, “Christ has not been raised your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will stay dead forever.” If Jesus is still dead, everything we’ve staked our lives on is what one paraphrase calls “smoke and mirrors.” If God didn’t raise Jesus, we’re telling people nothing but what one scholar calls “a string of barefaced lies about God.” We’d be little less foolish than the followers of crackpots like David Koresh.
“But,” it’s as if Paul roars in verse 20, “Jesus is alive. God has raised him from the dead.” So how can he make such an audacious claim? How can the apostle be willing to die for this claim? First, God revealed the risen Jesus to him. Paul met this resurrected Jesus even as he was traveling to kill his followers.
What’s more, the apostle writes 1 Corinthians 15 probably only about twenty years after Jesus’ resurrection. So plenty of people who knew Jesus could have challenged Paul’s version of events, just like they did some of his other teachings. No one, however, challenged the apostle’s account of Jesus’ resurrection. Early Christians agreed that God had physically raised Jesus from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection means that our faith is not useless. It also means that we’re telling the truth about God. It means, moreover, that our faith has, by God’s grace, real value. Of course, Jesus wasn’t the first person that God raised from the dead. Jesus was, however, the first whom God has raised who never died again.
Yet while Jesus’ resurrection was the first of its kind, Paul insists that it won’t be the last. It’s a harbinger, a “firstfruits.” Those who garden know the joy of harvesting a “first fruit.” Whether it’s that first juicy strawberry or first crisp bean of the season, it brings its harvesters great joy. The first crop of a season, after all, indicates that more fruit will follow … unless critters get to it first.
Jesus’ resurrection, says Paul, is like that. It’s a sign that more resurrections will follow. That those who have died, who have “fallen asleep,” are not dead forever. They do have a real future. Even after God’s adopted sons and daughters die, we’ll still, by God’s grace, have a great future. Our bodies merely await the resurrection at the end of measured time.
Christ’s resurrection, however, insists Paul, also points to God’s reversal of the death and decay that has ruled since Adam sinned. Because of his and our sin, all of Adam’s descendants eventually die, unless Christ returns first.
Lots of different things separate people from each other now. Some seem to be, as Price notes, born with two strikes against them. Others seem to be born, as we used to say, “with a silver spoon in their mouths.” Few of us would claim that those groups of people have, humanly speaking, the same chances of success in life.
Paul, however, reminds us that all of us share one thing in common: we’re born into a doomed race. In the ultimate sense, since we’re all Adam’s descendants and will all eventually die, we’re all “dead.” So even the most powerful, wealthy and attractive people have inherited death from our first parent.
That means that the scent of death clings, in a real way, to all people. We catch a hint of it whenever we walk into an intensive care unit or a funeral home. You and I may even catch a whiff of death when we celebrate a birthday or write a check for a life insurance policy.
However, God’s beloved children also smell a puff of it every time a child is cruel to a classmate. We smell death every time someone neglects or abuses a spouse or child. People even smell death every time a leader misuses her power or authority.
However, those who die in Christ can be sure that, because of Jesus’ resurrection, God will someday blow away that awful stench of death. After all, God will also raise all of us from the dead.
So we can say that a hint of life also clings to even Christians’ youngest children. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, God also promises to raise all of Adam’s descendants from the dead. While God will raise some to the hell they’ve chosen, God will raise God’s people to eternal life. Someday God will overcome every evil ruler, power and enemy – even death itself.
God, however, doesn’t just promise to graciously raise God’s children to life on the last day. God has already raised us to life, giving us the gift of life that we begin to enjoy even now.
Just outside of Prague lies a testimonial to both the power of death and the power of God’s gift of life. The Nazis built and operated the Terezin concentration camp. It was a somewhat unique camp. After all, the Nazis built what they called this “model ghetto” to cover up what they were really doing to Jews and Gypsies, pastors, homosexuals and people who were impaired.
The Nazis even fooled the representatives of the Red Cross who inspected this camp. Tourists can, in fact, still see what the inspectors saw: spacious bathrooms, showers and sinks with mirrors. The Nazis, however, didn’t admit that Terezin was just a transit camp where inmates stayed only briefly before the Nazis shipped them off to death camps where virtually all of them were murdered.
Among the things about Terezin was its disproportionately high number of children: 15,000 of them passed through its gates. Only 100 survived. Yet those children did what children do while they were in Terezin. They laughed and played, argued and fought, ran and made up games.
However, Terezin’s children also drew pictures, some of which visitors can still see at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They drew them on the walls of their crowded barracks, in notebooks and on scraps of paper.
Those children drew pictures of camp life from a child’s perspective. However, they also drew pictures of flowers, birds and butterflies, lots of butterflies. Terezin’s children, condemned to die by the powerful, deadly Nazis, drew pictures that spoke of life in the midst of death.
On this Easter, those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15 invite our hearers to think of our lives in a similar way. God’s adopted sons and daughters too are, after all, condemned to die, unless Christ returns first. However, Jesus’ followers, in a sense, also draw pictures of life by the way we live, talk and even think.
Each time Jesus’ followers hang around with a lonely classmate, forgive someone who hurt us or speak up for justice, we paint a kind of picture of the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Whenever we share our faith with an unbeliever and share our resources with the poor, we paint a kind of picture of Jesus’ resurrection power. God’s adopted children are like artists who show the world the importance of Jesus’ resurrection here and now.
What if dead bodies can’t be raised from the dead? It’s the kind of question some say Simcha Jacobovici and his colleagues raised in 2007. They collaborated on a television program and book about ossuaries labeled “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Mary” and “Joseph” that archaeologists found in a Jerusalem tomb.
Jacobovici claims that, while the names Jesus, Mary and Joseph were common in Roman-occupied Israel, it’s statistically unlikely to find them on the same tomb. He also claims DNA tests show that the Jesus and Mary of these tombs weren’t related, meaning they were probably married. So Jacobovici believes people found the bones of Jesus Christ.
The holes in Jacobovici’s hypothesis make it look like a thin slice of cheap Swiss cheese. His television show and book attracted more viewers and readers than converts. Yet would the discovery of Christ’s bones mean that, as an editorial in the March 20, 2007 Christian Century magazine asks, “Christianity must close up shop?”
Unless one could somehow show that bones can be left behind after a resurrection, I would suggest the answer must be “Yes.” That’s how central Jesus’ physical resurrection is to the Christian faith.