Thursday, April 21, 2011

Death and Resurrection! -- A Lectionary Meditation for Easter

Jeremiah 31:1-6



Colossians 3:1-4


Matthew 28:1-10



Death and Resurrection!



As we once again experience Holy Week, we’re reminded that life emerges from death. There is no better analogy of this truth than the transition from winter to spring, which is why it seems appropriate that Easter and the coming of spring coincide. With spring’s coming, the long dormant flowers and trees suddenly come back to life as spring’s warmth replaces winter’s cold darkness. Surely, we can see the parallels between this and Good Friday/Easter.

Now, of course, there are questions to be addressed when it comes to the Resurrection. David Hume has had his way with us, and we must face the fact that people just don’t rise from the dead every day. Therefore, we don’t have analogies that can truly help us grapple with this article of faith. Is it a physical event or a metaphor? The Gospels speak of empty tombs and appearances, and we even have defenses of the event against charges that the disciples stole the body. Of course there are the discrepancies between the various stories as to when and where and how Jesus appeared to his disciples. Did he meet them in Jerusalem or in Galilee (or both?). We can speculate, but that gets us nowhere. Whatever the nature of this reality – and I personally find myself somewhere between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright – and the nature of the debates, what we hear in these texts of Easter is a call to confess our faith in the risen Lord. It is a reminder that we don’t serve a dead hero, but a living Lord, who shares with us the fullness of God’s everlasting love.

Ultimately we must hear each witness on its own, listening for its voice, and in this case, for this meditation (and for Sunday’s sermon) I will limit my thoughts to Matthew’s testimony – together with that of Jeremiah and the author of Colossians.

Jeremiah doesn’t explicitly speak to Easter -- there’s no promise of resurrection here, but there is a promise here concerning God’s intention to be present with us forever, sharing with us the everlasting love of God. Now this word goes first and foremost to Israel, which must endure the suffering of exile, but here in Jeremiah 31 comes the promise that God hasn’t forgotten them. God promises to be the God of all Israel, even as they have endured the wilderness. The word that comes to Israel (and to us) is that God has loved Israel with “everlasting love,” and therefore God continues to be faithful to Israel. This confession of God’s faithfulness leads Jeremiah to invite the people to pull out their tambourines and begin to dance like merrymakers. Having heard the promise that Israel will continue to be God’s people and that exile is ending, they are invited to celebrate something that is equivalent to life out of death. But not only will they dance, but they will also plant. Yes, merrymaking leads to work. And from there, the call goes out: “Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God. All of this, however, is but a sign of God’s everlasting love. As I reflect on this truth, my thoughts go to the point made by Rob Bell in his new and controversial book, wherein, he speaks of God’s desire that all be saved–or reconciled. He writes:

History is about the kind of love a parent has for a child, the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds. The kind of love that moves toward, embraces, and always works to be reconciled with, regardless of the cost. [Bell, Love Wins, p. 99].

Jeremiah understands this truth – God seeks out and restores the people to the land, and therefore they will rejoice with song and dancing, and also by planting, by taking possession of the land that is promised. This is, after all, an act of love.

We hear the resurrection story from Matthew’s perspective in this lectionary season (unless you decide to go with John’s version). In this version of the story, Mary Magdalene and another Mary go to the tomb, though the reason for their visit isn’t mentioned. As they reach the tomb on this first day of the week, with the Sabbath behind them, they discover that an earthquake has rolled the stone away from the tomb. Now, I know something about earthquakes and generally their not as localized as this report would suggest. Whatever the nature of the quake, the stone is rolled away, and an angel of heaven with a countenance like that of lightening, and the clothes, a dazzling white, sits on the stone – having frightened the guards away. The message of this angel is simple: Don’t be afraid (like the guards?). Instead, hear the message he brings – the one they look for isn’t there, but is instead risen from the dead, just as he had said. Remember, God is faithful! They might not have gotten the message, but God remains faithful, due to God’s everlasting love.

The angel has another message – go tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. With this command these two women become the first witnesses to the resurrection – at least of the empty tomb. But as they go back to the larger gathering, they receive another visit. This time it’s Jesus himself, and like the angel, he tells them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee (where they’ll receive their commissions). It bears repeating here that one of the marks of an apostle is that the apostle is a witness of the resurrection, and thus these two women are to be counted among the apostles of Jesus. Oh, and there’s one other thing about this passage, not only do the women bear witness of the resurrection, but when they meet Jesus they worship him. Matthew says that they grabbed his feet and worshiped him (proskynein). While this could mean an acknowledgment of someone of higher rank, James Dunn notes that in almost every case in the New Testament it’s used in relationship to worship of God or of Jesus (as is the case here) [James Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?, p. 10-11].

There’s not enough space here to wrestle with the issue of what it means to say that they worshiped Jesus, but it’s clear that the women are rejoicing at this sign of God’s everlasting love. They can’t help not worshiping this one who was dead and now lives! And is that not the point of Easter – the one who brings God’s everlasting love to us is alive and present with us, so that we need not see ourselves alone in the wilderness?

Finally, our attention goes to this short passage from Colossians 3, where the author (we don’t know if it’s Paul or not), declares that if we’re raised with Christ then we should look for the things that come from above, for that is where Christ is sitting – at the Right Hand of God. The message of resurrection is to consider the things of heaven, rather than the earth. For many of us this command does raise warning flags. We’re all aware of the danger of “being so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” That is, it sure sounds as if the author of this letter is giving us permission to walk around with our heads in the clouds, but I don’t believe that’s the case. It is, I would suggest a reminder to examine our own sense of allegiance. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you must keep your allegiance with the one who sits at the Right Hand of God. And when he’s revealed then you, having hid your life in Christ, you will be revealed in glory.

Here we are at Easter, being called upon to declare our allegiance to the one whom God has raised to the Right Hand, a God who as Jeremiah reminds us, is faithful to the promise to love with everlasting love. If this is true, if Easter is true, then what is your response? How will you celebrate Easter’s glory?  Will you take out the tambourine and dance for joy?

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