Easter Sermon 2005

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A sermon preached at Forest Lake Anglican Community[1] on Easter Day 2005.

It all began with the vision of a dead man, a dead man still bearing the wounds of an execution as horrible as hate could devise and contempt accomplish. And it happened outside the city walls, where dogs and crows waited for an unburied body. There was also a story. It told of a community, conceived in heaven but born on earth. It told of a kingdom standing in opposition to the other kingdoms of the world. It told of an individual, peacemaker and Lord, Savior and Son of God, who proclaimed the kingdom’s advent as gospel, good news for all the earth.
If you had heard that vision and that story in the early first century, would you have believed it? If you heard that vision and that story in the late twentieth century, would you believe it? And what, in first or twentieth century, would such a belief entail?
John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity. (1998:xiii)

Those penetrating words from John Dominic Crossan challenge me to think deeply about what Easter, and thus Christianity, is ultimately about.

Just over three months ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus. There are not too many questions posed by that festival. The legendary elements trouble some folk more than others, but it is pretty clear that if Jesus existed at all he must have been born and he must have had a mother!

Two days ago we commemorated the death of the man whose birth we so recently celebrated. Good Friday poses a few more questions than Christmas. One of those questions is about who to blame for his death. For most of the last 2,000 years Christians in Europe have blamed the Jews for Jesus' death, and Good Friday was often the time for violence against local Jews.

Just this week I learned of the death of a friend and colleague who was a Jewish scholar. I remember him describing how, as a boy growing up in New York in the 1920s, he feared Good Friday when Christian neighbours would vent their anger at the "Christ killers." He also spoke of his shock the first time he went into a church and saw a crucifix—€”a dead Jew on a cross in the front of a Christian church!

There are other questions on Good Friday. No matter who was to blame, what did the death of Jesus mean? What value could it have to God or to us? What difference does one more unjust death make in a world that has seen so many murders? After 2,000 years and six million dead Jews in the Nazi holocaust, what value is this one man's death?

Today we celebrate Easter, and the questions gather like flies at a bar-b-q! Was Jesus really dead? Did he even exist? Is Easter just a Christian variant of the ancient fertility myth with its dying and rising gods? The colour magazine in this weekend's edition of The Australian newspaper has the cover story: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? The article rehearses the familiar variants on the Easter story, with Jesus either moving to southern France with Mary Magdalene (whose fantasy is being projected there?) or travelling to India, or even Japan! These Jesuses, of course, manage to avoid actually dying on the cross, and eventually succumb to age and death.

Doubtless I shall hear some of those familiar questions on one or other of the radio programs this evening!

Crossan, whose vivid statement of the issues was cited at the beginning, reminds us that many of those who most fiercely defend traditional forms of Christian belief share with their radical opponents a misconception of just is at stake in this debate. Both critic and defender seem to think that the core question is whether a dead person can come back to life. But that would not have been disputed in the first and second centuries—nor indeed for most of human history prior to the European Enlightenment.

That the dead could return and interact with the living was a commonplace of the Greco-Roman world, and neither pagans nor Jews would have asserted that it could not happen. That such interaction could generate important processes and events ... was also a commonplace. You did not expect the dead to return from Hades simply to say hello. (1998:xvi)

While contemporary believers and sceptics slug it out over the possibility of resurrection, they are missing the point of what the resurrection stories actually meant to the earliest Christians. We shall come back to that point in a moment.

In addition to addressing the wrong question, the modern protagonists also use the wrong data in their attempts to settle the issue.

Whether it's a TV documentary on The Da Vinci Code, or a newspaper article on alternative explanations of Jesus' survival after crucifixion, I am struck by the lack of critical thought in the use of sources. Both sides seem to take the Gospel accounts as historical sources, and hang whole sections of their argument on a particular phrase in one or other of the Gospels.

In fact, the NT Gospels are relatively late sources -- with Matthew and Luke, and perhaps John as well, being entirely dependent on Mark for the story of Jesus' arrest, trial and execution. No critical NT scholar would use these ancient accounts in the simplistic way of our supposedly sceptical critics.

It can be helpful to get the basic timeline clear in our minds:

  • 30 CE - death of Jesus
  • 50-€“65 -€” Paul's letters
  • 66-€“73 -€” Jewish/Roman war
  • 75/80 -€” Gospel according to Mark
  • 85/90 - Gospel according to Matthew
  • 95/100 - Gospel according to John
  • 110/115 - Gospel according to Luke

As we have no written material for the formative first twenty years after Jesus' death, Paul's letters are the oldest surviving Christian writings. They are also the only words written down by someone who claims to have encountered Jesus after Easter. We have nothing that can be traced to Peter, John, Mary, et al. Paul is in a class of his own!

Between Paul and the Gospels is the great upheaval of the Jewish/Roman War of 66-€“73 CE. This resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the demolition of the temple. Both Jews and Christians alike found themselves picking up the pieces from among the ruins of a world gone for ever, and needing to establish afresh just who they were and how they related to one another. The Gospels come out of that experience, and they reflect a new situation long after the time of Jesus.

When the NT texts are studied closely, we find that the earliest Christians had three quite different ways of talking about the resurrection:

  • affirmations ("God raised Jesus from the dead")
  • appearances ("he appeared to Peter," "he appeared to me")
  • stories of the empty tomb

Paul has pride of place in these Easter traditions because his writings are the earliest texts and because he alone writes as a firsthand witness to the resurrection.

Paul is not averse to quoting stories about Jesus if he has them, as we see in 1 Cor 11 where he cites an early tradition about the last supper. But Paul never mentions the empty tomb. This set of stories does not seem to have been known to him.

Paul does, however, give us the classic examples of both the affirmation and the appearance traditions.

I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is:

Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say.
He was buried,
and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say.
Christ appeared to Peter,
then to the twelve.
After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers.
Most of them are still alive, but some have died.
He also appeared to James,
and then to all of the apostles.

Finally, he appeared to me, even though I am like someone who was born at the wrong time. I am the least important of all the apostles. In fact, I caused so much trouble for God's church that I don't even deserve to be called an apostle.

Paul seems to equate his experience of the risen Lord with the appearances to Peter, the Twelve, James, more than 500 followers at once, and "all the apostles." He does not distinguish between those who found an empty tomb and those who had a vision of the living Lord after Easter.

If we read on through 1 Cor 15 we find that Paul understood the resurrection of Jesus not just as something really special that God had done for Jesus, but as the first step in the resurrection of all the dead:

But Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life. Just as we will die because of Adam, we will be raised to life because of Christ. Adam brought death to all of us, and Christ will bring life to all of us. But we must each wait our turn. Christ was the first to be raised to life, and his people will be raised to life when he returns. Then after Christ has destroyed all powers and forces, the end will come, and he will give the kingdom to God the Father.

Indeed, Paul plays with the parallels of the first Adam and the second Adam to tease out the implications of resurrection for us all:

The first man was named Adam, and the Scriptures tell us that he was a living person. But Jesus, who may be called the last Adam, is a life-giving spirit. We see that the one with a spiritual body did not come first. He came after the one who had a physical body. The first man was made from the dust of the earth, but the second man came from heaven. Everyone on earth has a body like the body of the one who was made from the dust of the earth. And everyone in heaven has a body like the body of the one who came from heaven. Just as we are like the one who was made out of earth, we will be like the one who came from heaven.

Far from worrying about the fate of Jesus' physical remains, Paul describes Jesus as having become a "life-giving spirit" at his resurrection! Paul still imagines Jesus to have some kind of form, but he is clear that it cannot be a flesh-and-blood body since "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God:"

My friends, I want you to know that our bodies of flesh and blood will decay. This means that they cannot share in God's kingdom, which lasts forever. I will explain a mystery to you. Not every one of us will die, but we will all be changed. It will happen suddenly, quicker than the blink of an eye. At the sound of the last trumpet the dead will be raised. We will all be changed, so that we will never die again. Our dead and decaying bodies will be changed into bodies that won't die or decay. The bodies we now have are weak and can die. But they will be changed into bodies that are eternal. Then the Scriptures will come true,

Death has lost the battle!
Where is its victory?

Where is its sting?

For Paul, resurrection involves transformation not resuscitation.

Paul's educated contemporaries would have agreed with Paul on that point, but they would have challenged his claim that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish peasant from an unknown hamlet in Galilee, was the recipient of such a divine transformation. Their cognitive dissonance would have centred on the question, "WHY JESUS?"

Originally Paul would have agreed with them.

By his own account, Paul initially despised Christianity and considered the followers of Jesus to be deluded and dangerous. He could not see any reason why Jesus would have been raised from death to life with God.

But then -- as Paul himself tells us -- he encountered Jesus. He had some kind of vision experience that changed his opinion of Jesus and convinced Paul that Jesus was very much alive AND also elevated to a very special place in God'€™s scheme of things.

Paul came to believe that Jesus' personal faithfulness (pistis) to God had been matched by God's own faithfulness to Jesus, and that anyone who identified with Jesus could share in that same blessing. This was the Easter faith, as Paul came to know it, and teach it.

For Paul, the cross demonstrates Jesus' ultimate faithfulness to God. No matter what it costs me, I will be faithful to what I believe you are asking of me.

For Paul, Easter was God’s response to that faithfulness on Jesus' part. Death cannot be allowed to have the final word. Pass through death and into life without boundaries.

For Paul, the Church is an intentional community of blessing. This is the place where people identify with Jesus, imitate his profound faithfulness to God, experience in their own lives the transformation of Easter as death gives way to life, and create a new society that begins to practice the wisdom of Jesus here and now. On earth as in heaven.

The challenge for me this Easter is not to debate what happened to Jesus' bones, but to BE the Body of Christ. The challenge for us as Church is not to persuade others that Jesus is alive, but to live our lives together as a community of blessing.

To do that we gather at the Table of Jesus. We take bread and wine as Jesus once did. We honour them as his Body and Blood, his true self, and as signs of what we already are and must more fully become. As the bread is placed in our hands we are invited to become what we already are: the living Body of Christ.

Christ is here:

  • next to you,
  • in front of you,
  • behind you,
  • above you,
  • beneath you.

Let's pray that we can be so faithful to God's call on us, so truly the Body of Christ in this place, that others will discover for themselves the reality of the Risen One.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

©2005 Greg Jenks