Sunday, March 24, 2013

Easter Day 2013 Sunday 31 March

Theme                  When Jesus was raised to life    

Sentence             Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed. To him be the glory and dominion for ever and ever. Alleluia! (Luke 24:34; Revelation 1:6) [NZPB, 592].

Collect                  Jesus Christ our Saviour,
                                You have delivered us
                                From death and sin
                                You have brought with the dawn
                                A new beginning and an empty tomb;
                                Grant us strength and humility
                                To enter into life. Amen. [NZPB, 592]     

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
                        Luke 24:1-12

There are variations in the lectionary. I am going with the gospel reading from Luke because Luke is the gospel for this year.

At the foot of the post are some general remarks about the resurrection narratives in the New Testament which I have published on my main blog, Anglican Down Under.

Our readings for today are coherently focused on the single topic of resurrection, God raising Jesus from the dead. The 'line' we could take in our sermon is varied. An apologetic meeting of possible doubts in the minds of the congregation? A rehearsal of the immense miracle constituted by raising someone from the dead? The vindication of all Jesus claimed in his teaching and deeds? The difference Jesus makes to life - to our lives - because he conquered death? The new world order created by resurrection life invading the normal world order?

Acts 10:34-43

This is a masterly summary of the gospel which repays careful study beyond the specific attention it gives to the resurrection. Here we might be especially interested in verse 40, which makes a distinction between God raising Jesus from the dead and allowing him to appear, and verse 41, which nails an often observed fact about the appearances, that they were to those who already knew Jesus (a famous exception being Saul/Paul) and not to the public at large.

The distinction in verse 40 means that the act of raising Jesus from the dead is a specific action by God, a consequence of which are appearances of the risen Jesus. Contrary to some ways of explaining the resurrection, the resurrection of Christ did not consist of a set of appearances to people, a not unknown occurrence after death in which grieving people experience the presence of a loved one. The resurrection was first an action by God. Jesus died and was buried but "on the third day" something happened to his body which can described only in terms of being "raised." The four gospels unitedly attest to the logical consequence of being raised from the dead: the tomb was emptied of Jesus' body. The theme of a bodily raising of Jesus continues in the second part of verse 40 as Peter describes eating and drinking with Jesus "after he rose from the dead."

It is important to note the word used in verse 41 to describe the people to whom Jesus appeared: "witnesses." Jesus did not appear, so to speak, to comfort distraught followers, or as a kind of divine party trick. He appeared so that those who experienced him as their risen Lord and Saviour might testify to him. So Peter continues in verse 42, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead."

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

We have already used this psalm on Palm Sunday (principally verses 26-29). Here we repeat its reading in our service because it speaks to the triumph of God over death in raising his Son: verses 17, 18, 22 in particular. In the reality of Jesus' life and death there is variance from the psalm: Jesus was given over to death. But his death was not permanent, he has not been given over to the state of death in perpetuity. With the psalmist Jesus could say, verses 17-18,

"I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.

The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death."

Our response on this Easter Day would then be verse 24:

"This is the day which the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it."

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

It is not just that Christ has been raised from the dead (as a kind of "stand alone" miracle). A new possibility for humanity has begun, "the resurrection from the dead." Christ's resurrection is a "first fruits" of this  new dimension to life. Our hope for our own resurrection lies completely within Christ's resurrection.

Resurrection here is a victory over the powers that oppose God, and in particular the power of death which is the "last enemy to be destroyed." From this vantage point we see that resurrection is not an unusual or weird occasion (as some might try to paint it). Rather if God is God, the Great Power over all lesser powers, then death cannot, must not and will not have the last word on life. God is greater than death and the resurrection is both evidence for God's power and the result of God's power at work in Christ.

Luke 24:1-12

One of the interesting things about the resurrection narratives is the risky way they are told! Mark 16:1-8 (the likely original ending of that gospel) leaves us thinking that the first witnesses of the empty tomb told no one about it (when obviously they did). Matthew both admits and then rejects an explanation for the empty tomb that the disciples stole the body. All four accounts offer (in those days, arguably unreliable) women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. Here Luke shares some of this riskiness but puts in his own oddity when he declares that the apostles didn't believe the women (verse 11) then straightaway has Peter running off to the tomb as though he did believe them! A possible explanation for the interesting ways in which the resurrection stories are conveyed to us is that the gospel writers understood that their readers had their own doubts and so they tried both to encourage them (Look, the apostles doubted too!) and persuade them otherwise (Look, Jesus did rise from the dead, lots of people attest to that!).

At this stage in the way Luke develops his account of Jesus' resurrection, the emphasis is on the empty tomb and the witnesses to that - angels, women, Peter.

Only from verse 13 onwards, in the story of the two disciples going to Emmaus, will Luke tell his readers about the risen Jesus himself appearing to his followers. Eventually, in verse 33, we find that the doubts of the eleven have been met through an appearance to Simon (and in verse 36 Jesus will appear to the gathered throng, including eating with them). In this way Luke anticipates the distinction we noted above in Acts 10:40: the raising of the dead Christ is one event, and the appearances of the risen Christ is another.

Meanwhile this is Holy Week and time once again to reflect on the sacred mysteries of this week. I suggest we work backwards from the Resurrection. If Jesus had died on the cross and that was the end of his life, what would his legacy have been? Not much, I suggest. A paragraph, perhaps, in the history of impact-making rabbis of Israel under the Romans mentioning some notable healings and memorable insights into the rule of God in the world. Maybe today scholars of Judaism would produce a monograph or two on ancient magicians among the rabbis, notably Jeshua ben Joseph. Perhaps there would be a brief headline making news item that the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran had been identified by an unusually radical scholar as that same Jeshua ben Joseph.

It is the resurrection which makes the difference here, which sets the Jesus movement on a trajectory apart from Judaism and which drives the leaders of that movement to see in Jesus things which were not obvious to them when they walked the dusty roads of Palestine with him. We read the gospels forwards from Jesus' beginnings to his end because that is the way the narrative is told, but theologically we should begin with the resurrection and read backwards. What was it about the resurrection which led to the telling of the story of Jesus in the way that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John  and, yes, Paul told it?

That is why, to offer a first reflection this Holy Week, the question of the witness to the resurrection is vital to Christianity. Deny the resurrection and everything about our claims to truth falls over. Personally I find the variations between the gospels, 1 Corinthians 15 and, say, Acts 10:34-43 puzzling. Why isn't the account of that witness more consistent? Modern skeptics have driven a horse and cart full of doubts through the lack of consistency (even, some might say, inconsistency). Yet closer inspection yields more consistency than some are prepared to allow. At the bedrock of each gospel narrative is the empty tomb. They are consistent on the fact that the crucified body of Jesus was placed in the tomb, on the third day the tomb was empty, and thereafter the risen (i.e. raised up from the tomb) Jesus appeared to people.

This, further, is consistent with two accounts which do not explicitly mention the emptiness of the tomb, Acts 10:34-43 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. What is 'raised on the third day' phrasing in these passages about but an act of raising from the dead, a physical raising which leaves the tomb empty. Acts 10:40 beautifully distinguishes between the raising and the subsequent appearances, 'God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.' So also 1 Corinthians 15:4-5, 'he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve'. If the tomb was not empty why mention the act of raising from the dead and not proceed straight to the accounts of the appearances of Jesus?

Running these accounts together, with all their variations, I suggest we can account for the variations in a couple of ways. First and foremost, we get the impression that Jesus appeared on a number of occasions to a range of witnesses. Between the four gospel writers and Paul's 'tradition' account in 1 Corinthians 15 we receive a set of accounts with heavy selection at work. Paul's tradition is focused on the appearances to the leadership of the Jesus movement, with the exception of the appearance to 'more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time'. The four gospels uniformly emphasise the immediate witnesses to the resurrection, women. Matthew, Mark and Luke (distinct from Acts 1) move quickly from the immediate experience of the risen Jesus to his departure (albeit somewhat implicitly in Mark). Only Acts 1 and John 21 imply a period of more than a few days or weeks in which Jesus remained with his disciples. Together these witnesses to the variety of Jesus' appearances do not provide anything like a coherent account of the history of Jesus between resurrection and ascension. That, perhaps, leads us to a second reason for the variations between accounts.

Secondly, we get the impression that the gospel writers in their gospels are focused on providing for their readers an account of the ordinary human life of Jesus, prior to death. The continuing presence of the risen Jesus via the Holy Spirit in the movement perhaps made unnecessary a prolonged account of the period between resurrection and ascension. (Luke, in his 'sequel' to the life of Jesus unveils in Acts many ways in which the risen Jesus post-ascension continues to engage with the movement). What their accounts needed was a wrap up and what we find is that the accounts of the resurrection are overlaid with conclusions to the gospels as a whole (or, in the case of Mark 16:1-8, we might say, denuded of a conclusion via intentional abruptness in the closing of the account - a kind of anti-conclusion).

Thus Matthew draws us rapidly to the Great Commission and Luke does so similarly, but in a challenging manner because in Luke 24 he almost conveys the impression that a long day (of about 25 hours?) elapses from raising to commissioning-and-ascending whereas Acts 1 is explicit that the period was 40 days. (Luke also manages the most flagrant rewriting of gospel tradition when he converts Mark's "you will see him in Galilee" into "as he said in Galilee", Mark 16:7//Luke 24:6, in the cause of confining the resurrected Jesus to Jerusalem and its environs).

John works in a different manner, having proposed through his gospel that everything is going on all at once ("my hour"): death and departure, cross and glory, descent and ascent. Thus his Pentecost occurs on the day of Resurrection but there is a epilogue or two as a week elapses before the appearance to Thomas and further time before the appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. But like his evangelical colleagues, John is all the 'resurrection' time wrapping up his gospel: this is a word to skeptics among the believers, this is a word to rival claimants for leadership of the church.

In the end, then, I am arguing that the accounts of the resurrection, between the gospels, Acts and 1 Corinthians have a coherency when we dig beneath the varied ways of wrapping up the narratives of Jesus' earthly life, acknowledge the basic facts which are shared (principally the emptiness of the tomb and the sheer multiplicity of appearances), and allow that different things mattered to different writers.

We need not doubt that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. That is the witness of the apostles. But what was the impact of the resurrection on understanding who Jesus was prior to death and is after resurrection? Jesus rising from the dead in the midst of ancient Judaism in Israel in the first century AD was like a fox in a chicken coop. A certain theological mayhem ensued. The epistles effectively tell us about the mayhem and that it was a good kind of mayhem!

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