Easter Day C
March 21, 2016
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 recent 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 here in this room or in any similarly 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: Doug Bratt
I sometimes wonder if Peter almost choked on the words: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…” (34) In fact, with one biblical scholar, I sometimes wonder how he justified this profession to himself, much less Jerusalem’s church, as he does later.
His family and synagogue had, after all, raised him to believe that God does show favoritism. Peter had always believed that the Jews were somehow special to God. Sure, they recognized that God might show occasional love to a few Gentiles. However, the Jews also always maintained that God’s favoritism dictated that those outsiders had to act like Jews in order to fully experience God’s mercy.
In the “Old Testament” lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, however, Peter stands up and admits to some of those Gentiles, “God does not show favoritism.” Later he’ll even tell his fellow Jewish Christians, “God gave [the Gentiles] the same gift as he gave us.” Clearly God has convinced Peter that God doesn’t look at faces. God doesn’t play favorites. God has convinced Peter that God shows no partiality.
Yet Peter’s message of God’s favor toward the Gentiles could not have been an easy word for even his Christian Jewish contemporaries to hear. It’s not, after all, as though Peter told us God favors Cowboys’ fans just as much as Redskins’ fans. No, it’s more as if Peter says God loves murderers, rapists and child abusers as much as God loves nice people like us.
Perhaps, however, this wide embrace should not have surprised Peter, the early church or us. God’s Spirit is, after all, on the move throughout the first part of the book of Acts, steadily edging the church out of Jerusalem and into Samaria. Acts shows how God nudges us through Joppa, and past the converted Samaritans and Ethiopian. God even introduces us to the Jewish persecutor of Christians, Saul, whom God has turned into God’s missionary, Paul.
Now, however, God shoves one of God’s sons and us up against a Gentile, a Roman soldier named Cornelius. This man is completely involved in an oppressive political system. In fact, he makes his living off Rome’s sometimes-brutal military occupation of Peter’s country. God, however, is clearly working in the Gentile Cornelius’ life. Acts 10:2, after all, describes his family and him as “devout and God-fearing.” It also reports that this Roman soldier “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”
So Cornelius is, like the Magi who worshiped the newborn Jesus, a racial, religious and vocational outsider. However, unlike those men from the east, God has already drawn him to the edge of the God-fearing community. In fact, this Roman soldier shows he’s already willing to have God and people teach and guide him. However, it’s also clear that Cornelius hasn’t yet chosen to become part of Christ’s church by being baptized.
So Acts’ narrator portrays this Roman soldier as more of a passive actor in a cosmic drama that Someone Else directs. This man who usually gives orders to others now finds God giving him orders. Does that sound familiar? Some of us, like Cornelius, after all, also have great responsibility and authority. We usually tell our children or students, employees or people we supervise what to do. However, even the most powerful Christians also take our commands for faith and life from the Lord.
In a similar way, God through an angel, prompts mighty Cornelius to order a man named Peter to come to him. Yet while Peter accepts his “invitation,” (after all, who can turn down a Roman soldier’s “request?”), he’s clearly no more in charge than the Gentile is. Just as Cornelius had a strange vision, so Peter has a dream that also confuses him. As he’s praying, someone lowers a big sheet that’s full of all sorts of animals. A voice then commands him to kill and eat what’s in the sheet, including food no faithful Jew ever ate.
It’s hard for 21st century Christians to imagine how hard it was for Peter to accompany Cornelius’ messengers. Sure, the Spirit’s message and the Roman soldier’s story of the angel’s visit emphasizes God’s directing role. Yet Peter’s synagogue had raised him to avoid Gentiles like this soldier to whom he’s going. God, however, drags Peter, a leader of the Jewish Christian church, to the home of a Gentile. God empowers him to recognize that his mysterious trip to Cornelius’ home even has something to do with that strange dream about pure and impure food.
After all, God is gradually revealing to Peter a full and, to Jews, a frightening implication of the gospel: God does not show favoritism! In response, Peter breaks at least one cherished law. He enters the Gentile Cornelius’ home. Yet once God breaks down that wall, we see God crumble a whole series of old walls. When, after all, Peter enters his home, the Roman soldier falls at his feet to worship him. While this rightly embarrasses Peter, it shows that the mighty Gentile soldier is not too powerful to kneel before a Jewish former fisherman. What’s more, eventually Peter stays with his Gentile hosts for a few days. So we can imagine that he also probably ate things that were unkosher.
So who needs conversion in this story? Is it the mighty Gentile soldier or the ordinary Jewish missionary? The answer is: both. Peter and Cornelius each need God to change them if God’s mission is to go forward. Who, then, needs God’s conversion in our world today? Those who aren’t Christians certainly need God to convert them to the faith. However, we profess that we also need daily conversion away from our sinful ways and toward Christ-likeness.
When converted Cornelius tells his remarkable story, converted Peter can draw only one conclusion. “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (34-35). After all, God had, as Peter says, sent Jesus to Israel. Jesus went around “doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.” However, those captives of Satan included all sorts of Jews and outsiders and outcasts.
Eventually, Peter recalls, Satan’s allies convinced the Romans, for whom Cornelius works, to crucify Jesus. God, however, Peter announces, raised this Jesus back to life and sent him back throughout Palestine. Eventually this same Jesus, whom Peter now recognizes is Lord not just of the Jews, but also the Gentiles, ascended back to the heavenly realm. However, he didn’t do so before sending his followers to witness “to the ends of the earth.”
Now one of those followers, Peter, must feel as though he’s not just standing at the very end of the earth, but perhaps even on another planet. He’s, after all, standing in a Gentile’s home, admitting that God does not show favoritism.
If Peter has any lingering doubts about God’s gracious impartiality, the Spirit shatters them right before his eyes. As if to confirm that our impartial God is directing this process, the Holy Spirit somehow descends on everyone who has just heard Peter speak. Just, in fact, as Luke earlier reported the Spirit earlier descended on Jesus.
How, then, can Peter refuse to baptize these outsiders whom God has drawn into God’s family? How can Peter also refuse these Gentiles’ hospitality? The Spirit, after all, already lives in them. The Spirit has blown where it pleases. Peter and Christ’s church can only respond in faithful obedience.
After all, that’s the way it is with Christian faith. It’s far more than a decision that you and I make. Our Christian faith is far more than something we offer to God. It’s our glad response, our joyful reception of God’s gracious offer of himself to us.
Faith is quite simply a gift from God that we can’t make, but can only gladly receive. So God equips all those the Spirit moves to respond in faith. Both Jews and Gentiles, both virtuous pagans like Cornelius and religiously zealous persecutors like Saul may faithfully receive God’s grace.
This offers Acts 10’s preachers and teachers an on opportunity to explore where the Spirit might be nudging the 21st century church. Are there, for instance, people that seem hopelessly beyond the reach of God’s amazing grace? Perhaps they’ve embedded themselves in a religious system that rejects Christianity. Maybe they’ve been part of the church but consciously decided to reject it. Such people may seem to us hopelessly lost.
Yet God knows no partiality. God doesn’t play favorites. Of course, all people, both Jew and Gentile, must receive God’s grace with their faith. However, people’s rejection of God does not derail God’s longing that they faithfully respond to God’s work. As long as they live, God longs to send God’s Spirit on those outsiders, just as God sent the Holy Spirit on the Cornelius.
During Eastertide the Revised Common Lectionary appoints readings from Acts in place of Old Testament readings and so the sermon starters during Eastertide will center on those texts.
In his book, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, David M. Kennedy writes about how during WWII Americans and Japanese hated and vilified each other based on racial stereotypes and thus fought a “war without mercy.” The Japanese thought Americans were “decadent” and “self-indulgent.” Americans had no stomach for war, the Japanese believed, and would, after Pearl Harbor, “immediately sue for peace” to Japan’s great advantage.
Besides, the Japanese thought of themselves as racially pure and of one will. Americans, by contrast, were in the eyes of Japanese “a contemptibly polyglot and divided people . . . riven by ethnic and racial conflict, labor violence, and political strife, incapable of self-sacrifice or submission to the public weal.” All because Americans were infected with the “detestable Western virus of individualism.”
Americans, for their part, thought the Japanese were “servile automatons devoid of individual identity.” Meanwhile, “wartime cartoons and posters routinely pictured the Japanese as murderous savages, immature children, wild beasts, or bucktoothed, bespectacled lunatics.”
Kennedy observes that national pride issuing in stereotypes of the “other” and war-making on this basis is an ancient phenomenon seen, for example, among ancient Greeks, who thought of themselves as cultured aristocrats and thought of everybody else as mere “barbarians.”
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Author: Stan Mast
Many times I have questioned the lectionary’s choices for specific Sundays or seasons, but not this Easter Sunday. With good reason, Psalm 118 is the Easter Sunday selection from the Psalms for all three years of the lectionary cycle. Even a cursory reading reveals numerous connections with Jesus’ last days and with the first day of the rest of his life. It fairly drips with Messianic allusions. Verse 6, for example, sounds a lot like Jesus’ bold words and brave actions in the face of his accusers and executioners. We can read verses 10-12 as a parallel to the way Psalm 22:16-21 describes the enemies of Jesus swarming around him. And once we begin to read the Psalm with Messianic glasses, who can fail to see verses 17 and 18 as a prophecy of his resurrection after severe God-imposed suffering.
Other verses in Psalm 118 are even more obviously related to Jesus. Verses 26-27 are shouted by the crowds on Palm Sunday in all four Gospels. Clearly, the common people thought of this Psalm as Messianic, and they identified Jesus as the Messiah who had now come “in the name of the Lord.” Even more significantly, Jesus used verse 22 in all three synoptic Gospels when the hostile Jewish leaders objected to his parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (Mt. 21:42, Mk. 12:10, Lk. 20:17). Jesus was bluntly saying that he was the rejected Son in the parable and the rejected Stone of Psalm 118:22. That is surely how the early church understood him. Acts 4:10-12 applies Psalm 118:22 to Jesus’ death and resurrection. And Peter uses that verse in his famous riff on stones in I Peter 2:4-8.
The connection between Psalm 118 and Jesus becomes almost spine-tingling when we learn that it is the last in a series of Psalm known as the Egyptian Hallel (Psalm 113-118). In post-Exilic Israel, these Psalm were sung in a liturgy of thanksgiving for national deliverance at the great religious festivals (Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, Dedication, and New Moon). Particularly, at the Passover Psalm 113 and 114 were sung before the meal and Psalm 115-118 were sung after. So it is probable that Psalm 118 is the “hymn” that Jesus and his disciples sang at the conclusion of the Passover at which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. (Matthew 26:30) If that is true, we can conclude that, as Jesus went out to suffer and die, he sang about his coming victory over his enemies, including the last enemy, death. By singing this Psalm, Jesus was expressing his faith that in what was about to happen, “the Lord’s right hand [would do] mighty things.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself here by moving so quickly to Jesus. By moving too quickly from the Old Testament to the New, we might miss something significant. That is the case here. Over the course of history, this Psalm has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways, but most of them can be distilled to the three summarized in the footnotes of the NIV Study Bible. First, the speaker in the Psalm is a Davidic king leading the nation in a liturgy of thanksgiving and victory after a hard fought battle with a confederacy of nations. Second, the speaker is a Levitical figure (perhaps at the Feast of Tabernacles) leading Israel in a celebration of her deliverance from Egypt and her victory over the Canaanites. Third, the speaker is a Levitical leader of a liturgy in which post-Exilic Israel celebrates deliverance from their enemies, either at the dedication of the Second Temple or at the dedication of the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem.
If we adopt #1, we have a victorious King offering a song of thanksgiving for victory in battle. If we adopt #2 or #3, we have a Priest offering a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from Egypt or Babylon. In either case, it is both ironic and prophetic that Jesus should sing this song of victory before his defeat by his enemies. Psalm 118 gave our Victorious King and Sympathetic High Priest the words that would summarize what was about to happen. No wonder the early church saw this Psalm as a powerful prophecy that helped unlock the mystery of what had actually happened in the death and resurrection of the One who came in the name of the Lord.
But again, I’m getting ahead of myself, and thus probably missing something important in the Psalm. It is fascinating to follow the action in the Psalm as the speaker moves from that moment when his solitary life was almost over to that moment when he stands together with the congregation singing God’s praise. In verse 13 the Psalmist recalls when he almost fell in battle, but the Lord helped him. That theme of the Lord’s help at death’s door is the central theme of his song of thanksgiving. Verses 14-16 focus particularly on God’s right hand, a familiar biblical symbol for God’s saving involvement in human affairs. By his right hand, God has “become my salvation.” In verses 17 and 18, the Psalmist measures the depth of his salvation; “I will not die, but live.” Yes, he realizes that the Lord has been involved in his encounter with death; “the Lord has chastened me severely….” (Cf. Hebrews 12:5 and 6 for a New Testament echo of that idea.) But though the Psalmist faced death, the Lord “has not given me over to death.” We see the deepest meaning of those words in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Then in verse 19, the now-delivered speaker approaches the gate of the Temple requesting permission to offer his thanks in the sanctuary. “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” Is verse 20 the response of the priestly gatekeepers? “This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.” The speaker is righteousness, not because he has perfectly kept God’s law, but because he has come into God’s presence “in the name of the Lord.” His righteousness comes through his trust in the Lord, rather than in human allies (verses 8 and 9). Once inside the gates, the Speaker at last addresses God directly. “I will give you thanks, for you have answered me; you have become my salvation.” (Verse 21)
Now the Speaker is joined by a chorus of worshipers who don’t simply repeat the words of the One who has been saved by God, but also give the deeper meaning of that salvation with this marvelous verse about stones. “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” The word translated “capstone” has three possible meanings: a capstone over a door (a large stone used as a lintel), or a cornerstone (a large stone used to anchor and align the corner of a wall), or a key stone (a large stone that completes and holds together an arch). However we understand it, this stone rejected by the expert builders has become the key to the entire building, whether we understand that edifice as the Temple, the Church (Ephesians 2), or the New Creation.
The Psalmist’s point is that God has done this miraculous thing. Human beings rejected this Stone and tried to kill him, but God by his mighty right hand has raised him up from the dust of death and made him the center of God’s great saving work. “The marvelous thing is that one whom our human instincts and wisdom reject, God has nonetheless, in spite of us and for our salvation, made the chief cornerstone.” (James Luther Mays) And that is the reason for the joy of God’s people in Psalm 118 and on this Easter Sunday. The NIV translates verse 24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Perhaps an alternative translation captures the meaning of the Psalm better. “This is the day the Lord has done it; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” On this day, the Lord has done this marvelous thing. On this day called Easter, God has completed his work, becoming our salvation by raising Jesus from the dead and making him the center of all God’s saving action.
There are multiple preaching themes in this rich Psalm. We could focus on verse 14, noting how the emphasis shifts from the first clause to the second. “The Lord is my strength and my song….” That’s who God is and always has been. That is the character of God; those are his attributes, if you will. But now God has done something new in history; he has become my salvation by revealing his mighty right hand and reaching down into history for me and my salvation. This line of preaching would emphasize that verse 14 is a direct quotation of the Song of the Sea that Moses and the Israelites sang on the banks of the Red Sea. On this Easter Sunday, we celebrate how the great “I am what I am” became active in human history for our salvation.
Or we could focus a bit more closely on that concept of God’s right hand, or as the Psalmist puts it, “Yah’s right hand.” Six times he uses that abbreviation of the name Yahweh. In other words, it is the covenant God who has done this marvelous thing. So often God’s people think that their God has forsaken them, but the use of this name for God is a reminder that God always keeps covenant. Indeed, the opening words of the Psalm call on Israel to give thanks to God, because “his love endures forever.” The word there in the Hebrew is chesed, which refers specifically to God’s covenant keeping love. A sermon focusing on this theme would highlight God’s faithfulness to his covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Or we could zero in on the Psalmist’s confidence that “I will not die, but live.” Obviously this has a direct connection to Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it also has deep resonance with the history of Israel. God gave them over to the nations, where they thought they would die and cease to exist as a people. But they did not die, because God gave them new life. Further, this theme echoes Jesus’ famous words to Martha in John 11:25, 26. “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” These are the words of Jesus and of all who follow him: “I will not die, but live.”
Or, finally, we could emphasize verse 22 as Jesus did. If we preach on Jesus as the capstone, the cornerstone, the keystone, we will be able to highlight God’s project of re-building a creation ruined by sin. The salvation accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection involved not only the reconciliation of individual sinners to God and their ultimate resurrection from the dead, but also the regeneration of the cosmos. Easter, then, is the beginning of what Peter called “the restoration of everything.” (Acts 3:21) Or, to put it differently, Easter is Apocalypse Now, the beginning of the end of everything, ala I Corinthians 15:20-28. Have yourself a cosmic Easter!
Whichever tack you take, be sure that you don’t get so lost in the heavy doctrine that you forget how Psalm 118 begins and ends. “”Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” This is a worship Psalm, a call to the people of God to “rejoice and be glad” on this day of days.
I just finished reading Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eloquent, but bitter memoir about his experience as a black man in America. Praised for its diamond-like clarity about the destructive effects of racism, Coates’ book was hard for me to read. That was partly because of his wholesale condemnation of “those who think they are white,” but also because he sees no hope for a better future. Having rejected the Christian faith that gives hope to so many people (red and yellow, black and white), Coates doesn’t see any real possibility of change. Many people feel that way not only about the racial problems that divide America, but also about income inequality and political gridlock and global warming and religious wars and God knows what else. With its multi-faceted explanation of what the mighty right hand of God has done in history by raising Jesus from the dead, Psalm 118 proclaims that there is hope and joy for all who “come in the name of the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Author: Scott Hoezee
One of the most difficult sermons of the year to write is the one to be delivered on Easter morning. The homiletical challenge we preachers face is obvious: the resurrection of Jesus is like the sky above: it really covers everything in the Christian faith. As a result there is a sense in which every sermon all year long has something or another to do with the resurrection and so with Easter. Come Easter morning, then, and it can be a little difficult to find anything “new” that you have not already said before (and have been saying all along).
Still, it’s as important a day as there is for the Church—it actually outstrips Christmas quite easily in importance, which is why you can have a Gospel in the New Testament with no birth narrative of Jesus but you cannot have a Gospel without the climax that just is Easter. But what can one say that is fresh.
Some years back when I was a preacher in a congregation, I was casting about for just that “something fresh” and as I did so, I was pulling old sermon manuscripts out of my files. Back when I was a weekly preacher, whenever I filed a sermon away, I always attached also the liturgy for the service in which the sermon was delivered. For morning services I usually took a red pen and at the top of the liturgy page make a list of the things I wanted to include in the congregational prayer. Typically this list contained events that were coming at the church, global issues currently in the news, and of course a list of those members who were sick or in the hospital.
As I perused my past Easter sermons, I took note of the names on my prayer lists. And I noticed that all but one of them had since died, a few of them having died before ever reaching the age of 60. We prayed for these dear folks at an Easter service once. We prayed to the Lord of life, to the God who has the power to heal and restore, the God who we believe brought back from the dead Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd of us, his sheep. We prayed in faith and in hope, we prayed (some of us) with fervency, fierceness, and maybe even a sense of desperation. And then they died.
The man with lung cancer and the woman with breast cancer, the man with Alzheimer’s and the woman with Parkinson’s died. They died and we rolled them back into the sanctuary in a box, shedding more than our share of tears even as we choked out the words to the Apostles’ Creed and fought our way through the lyrics of “By the Sea of Crystal.” We then went home, feeling sad, but such feelings were nothing compared to the widow or widower who went home to a void so vast they could hardly breathe. Grief, someone once noted, feels a lot like panic. And so some of the members of the congregation I served went home panic-stricken with a grief that made them feel oddly frightened.
Whatever else Easter means, the church has known for almost as long as it has known about Easter that it does not mean people stop dying. The very early church did not realize this right off the bat. That’s why in Paul’s earliest letter (I Thessalonians) you find Paul dealing with what looks to be the shock and sorrow of Christians who, despite their belief in Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of his return in glory, nevertheless watched fellow believers die just like anybody else. Some may have thought that with the power of resurrection life in them they would not die at all. Some may have thought that everyone would remain alive until Jesus came again. Still others may have thought that you needed to be alive yet when Jesus returned if you were going to get transported to heaven.
Whatever they thought, however, the need still to attend funerals shook them up enough as to warrant Paul’s intervention in his first epistle. Paul had some reassuring things to say on this subject, of course, but what cannot be disputed is that the Thessalonians knew what we still know: namely, the stark and stubborn fact of death in our world poses a most difficult challenge to our faith. Maybe we do not always realize it, but when we stand on the lip of an open grave–slit into the skin of the earth like an open wound–and say via the words of the Creed “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” we are committing a most audacious and bold act.
Because there is no doubt in our minds of just how dead the corpse is. Though we don’t like to think about it, we know the decay that is already present. Some years back the New York Times Magazine presented a grim and vaguely gross report on a research institute somewhere down in Kentucky. The doctors and scientists there conduct research on cadavers whose bodies were left to science. In an effort to hone the science that helps police determine the when and the how of murders, these scientists study the breakdown and decay of the human body under the kinds of conditions where the bodies of murder victims are sometimes found—exposed in a woods, stuffed into the trunk of a car, etc. Under many circumstances it flat out does not take long before there is virtually nothing left of us after we die.
Modern morticians are good at making a dead person look reasonably OK yet, but we don’t pin any Christian hope on the relative success of the funeral director’s art. It’s not make-up and rose-colored lights that give us any hope for this loved one’s future. And yet as Christians we proclaim the reality of that future. Before we close out our weekly recitation of the Apostles’ Creed we stake our belief in “the resurrection of the body” and what we mean there is not Jesus’ body but your body, my body, Uncle Sylvester’s body.
There is absolutely nothing about the nature of corpses or about any other aspect of this physical world that provides a basis for that hope and belief. Dead bodies don’t come back on their own. Our only basis was also the apostle Paul’s only basis: Easter. If Jesus was raised from the dead–if God really and truly pulled that off–then we can and will be raised too because the same God who made the first Easter possible has promised it. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive,” Paul sings out in this famous fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians. The first part of that verse is doubted by no one. All of us sons and daughters of Adam die. Entropy, decay, and eventual death are the one constant in the universe on which both believers and non-believers can readily agree.
The proof of Adam’s death is all around us, in every newspaper’s daily Obituary section and even listed on the family tree page of the family Bible (back when people had such family Bibles anyway). In recent decades scientists have even speculated that death awaits the entire physical universe. It cannot continue forever. We know the universe is expanding but that eventually it will either reach an outer limit and so, rubber-band-like, will snap back the other way or it will stretch out and out like a wad of Silly Putty until finally it starts to get so thin, breaks and holes begin to appear. Either way, reality as we know it will die.
In Adam all die, Paul says. No one doubts that much. In Christ all will be made alive. A great many people doubt that. Faith bridges the gap between the death no one denies and the life to come which Christians proclaim.
But if you want to hold onto the faith, Paul says, you must not hesitate and you certainly may not deny it. (You also have the feeling that Paul would not cotton to much mumbling, either!) Because if God cannot do this for Jesus, then he cannot do it for anyone else. And if God cannot do it for anyone else, then Paul says in verse 18 that the Christians who have already died are “lost.”
The Greek word Paul uses there for “lost” is actually a bit darker than it appears in translation. If you “lose” your car keys, there is a good chance you can find them back again. But the overtone of this word is not lost in the sense of misplaced but lost in the sense of destroyed, ruined. If you lose your car keys somewhere in the house, you look for them. If you lose your car keys because you accidentally dropped them in a vat of molten lead, you don’t look for them but recognize that they are irretrievably gone.
If Jesus was not raised, then we cannot be, either, and if that is so–if even God can do no more in the face of human death than watch it happen–then those who have already died ,and one day we ourselves, are just gone. Vanished. But if God could bring Jesus back, he can do it for you as well, and he will.
Faith gives us that hope but also counsels us to humility. Let’s not pretend on Easter Sunday or any time that this is easy to believe or that we have all the details of this sewn up in our minds. For all his confidence Paul himself, a bit later in this chapter, struggles mightily to draw a bead on just what kind of a body we will have after the resurrection. There is much we do not know and will not know for now. As Paul will say in comparing our present bodies to seeds, sometimes you just need to plant a seed to see what will grow.
Some years ago archaeologists in Japan uncovered a tomb estimated to be at least 2,000 years old. Among the artifacts in this tomb was a cache of seeds. Since these seeds did not come in some Burpee’s seed bag with a picture of the plant printed on the label, it was a mystery what kind of seeds these were. They analyzed and pondered them for a very long time until one bright scientist finally made the sensible suggestion of just planting one. So they did and to their wonder the seed was still able to grow, sprouting eventually into a glorious, seven-foot high, eight-petaled white magnolia.
What we are to be in the future we do not yet know. But when Christ Jesus appears, we will be made like him. The scientists in Japan were much taken with their find of seeds in that tomb. What they maybe did not realize is that the corpse in that tomb can, in Christ, also sprout and grow and be made alive once more.
On Easter as at all times, there are dear people whom we miss. After loved ones die, we can still hear their voices, see their faces, remember them so keenly. We remember them. But we are not the only ones who remember them. God does, too. And he has a plan.
It’s called Easter.
In recent years science has developed a branch of study called “complexity theory.” In part this theory recognizes the incredible high-order complexity that attends various systems in the universe, including certainly human beings. What goes into making you the person you are is not just this or that physical and mental feature to your person but also the complex way by which all the components interact. Every person has a few trillion neurons in his or her brain. But complex though each brain is, what makes you unique is the way those neurons are connected, inter-connected, cross-wired, and cross-referenced to each other. It all forms a pattern. But since the number of possible patterns within even a single human brain exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe, it is a cinch no two patterns will ever be alike.
On the old TV series Star Trek the “transporter” is how Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock got around. They would get “beamed” down from the starship Enterprise to the planet below. The premise of this fictional machine is that a computer was able to scan Captain Kirk’s body, memorize every single speck of energy in that body (as well as every single connection and pattern within the body and brain of Kirk), translate the physical body into a beam of pure energy, and then re-assemble the whole kit-n-kaboodle in another place. Of course, scientists admit that it would be impossible ever to develop such a device. The amount of data in just one person could never be analyzed by, much less stored in, any computer. We are, each one of us, simply too complex.
The Christian faith, however, claims that God is able to maintain, store, and re-assemble your unique pattern and my unique pattern and everyone’s unique patterns. We call it the human soul–that unique spiritual core to each person which God is able tenderly to maintain even when the body dies. If God cannot do that, then death is the end. If God can do that, then hope flourishes once again.
Is it a miracle of staggering, mind-boggling complexity? Of course, that’s why we call Easter “the grand miracle.” Christians of all people are not casual about what happened to Jesus. It was not inevitable that he be raised again and it was not automatic. This was no sleight-of-hand trick, no deception, it really happened in a way quite unexpected and exceedingly marvelous.
And it is our hope.