Life from Death

John 20:1-18

Luke 24:1-12

Allelujah, Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! This is the central affirmation of Christianity. Its metaphoric sweep is broader and deeper than any specifics about Jesus. Concerning what they believe happened to Jesus, Christians contradict one another in many ways. Many Christians simply don’t care much about the specifics of Jesus. And yet all agree that the meaning of Easter is that new life comes from the bleakest of circumstances, even death, and that this new life is available to us, our hope. If Easter were only about Jesus and not about our own hope, it would not be so central to Christianity.

The metaphoric sweep of life from death encompasses far more even than Christianity, and is symbolized in other ways than Jesus’ resurrection. All the great and small religions in climatic zones with distinct changes of seasons celebrate the new life of spring emerging from the death of winter. Some religions focus on the celebration of the season itself. Others celebrate founding events in the springtime, such as Passover. Ancient paganism celebrated the dying and rising of gods. Our late-modern urbanized societies are less close to the land, less immediately conscious of the spring thaw making our livelihood possible. Yet even in Boston, prayers for the coming of spring after a hard winter are second only to prayers for the Red Sox. More than that, in Boston, hope for the Red Sox’s new season is our central sacrament in the pan-religions celebration of new life from death.

Because we have hope that new life can come from death, we have hope even when people we love have died, we have hope in the face of illness, we have hope for careers despite failures, we have hope to improve spiritually, we have hope to gain health, to build strength, to lose weight, to slow ageing, we have hope for our families, for our friends, for our enemies, we have hope to improve our neighborhoods, our schools, our local governments, we have hope to conquer racism, we have hope to lessen poverty, we have hope to respect our environment, we have hope for courage to engage our time, we have hope to overturn prejudice against ethnic and gender minorities, we have hope to ban unfair discrimination from our laws, we have hope to understand cultures that are threatened by our own, we have hope for peace in central Africa, Palestine, and Northern Ireland, we have hope that the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq will soon govern themselves, we have hope to remove the grounds for terrorism and to stop the terrorists, we have hope to stop making war, we have hope for the justice of our economy, we have hope for the honesty of our government, we have hope that the Red Sox will win the World Series this year! It is a metaphysical condition of the cosmos at our scale of things that new life is possible in the worst of conditions, even death, or the Yankees.

I heartily welcome all of you who are here or listening on the radio, not because you are may be dedicated to the community of Jesus, but because you are celebrating spring, the resurrection of life from death, and the ever-recurrent hope that our intractable griefs and obstacles can be overcome. When Martin Luther King, Jr., said “I have a dream that someday . . .,” he was expressing his bigger-than-Easter faith. Christianity is but one way of symbolizing that hope which defines the human spirit under pressure.

Let me turn now, however, to the specifically Christian way of having that faith and hope. Christianity is based on the cosmic drama of creation and redemption. I have been preaching through Lent on the vastness of creation and how to understand that in terms of our own knowledge now. Whatever else might happen in the rest of the cosmos, on Earth human beings have become faulty creatures, symbolized by the Fall. Human faults are of many kinds, and I listed some of them a moment ago in respect of which we have hope for repair. The chief fault, however, is that people are estranged from God the Creator who gives them a world filled with joys and troubles. The proper relation to God was symbolized by the Covenant between God and Israel, according to which those who are pure and holy in terms of the Covenant can approach God. That was symbolized as approaching the Holy of Holies where God is. Alas, people constantly break the covenant, and as a result cannot approach God. As a restorative remedy, the Torah, particularly the book of Leviticus, specifies sacrifices that people can have made by the priests on their behalf to repair specific breaches of the covenant, thereby restoring their readiness to approach God.

In Jesus’ time, however, the system of Temple sacrifices to enable a proper relation to God was widely perceived as not working. For one thing, out of political necessity to keep the Temple functioning those who managed the Temple had to be collaborators with the Roman Empire. The Sadducees, mentioned in the gospels, were the “party” associated with the Temple and their collaboration with Pontius Pilate in the trial of Jesus illustrates what was probably a widespread political reality. Many people felt that under these circumstances the practice of the religion of Israel had become lax and corrupt. Some extreme groups, such as the Essenes, attempted to live apart from the larger society altogether. Preachers such as John the Baptist and Jesus began reform movements within the larger society, preaching repentance and a purer practice of the relation to God. The Pharisees were a group or movement that supplemented worship in the Temple with a quasi-independent religious life centered in local synagogues, advocating an earnestness about keeping the law and a personal piety centered in the family. When the Temple was destroyed a generation after Jesus, the Pharisaic movement, loosely defined, became the default center of Judaism because it could flourish without the Temple, though always remembering it. What we know as Judaism today is descended from the Pharisees and associated reform movements within Second Temple Judaism. Jesus’ own teaching was within the general orbit of the Pharisaical reform movement, contrary to the impression you might get from the gospels that depict the Pharisees as debate partners with Jesus; it was something of an in-house debate.

Jesus preached not only a critical message, as seems to have been the case with John the Baptist, but also a very hopeful message. His followers had great expectations on Palm Sunday, and were devastated by his death on Friday. When the tomb was reported empty on Sunday, the disciples suddenly paid attention to some of the strange things Jesus had taught, hard lessons they had refused to understand, such as that the first shall be last and the last first, that it’s easier to relate to God if you are a loser than if you are a winner, and that he himself would be killed and rise again. Then the disciples began seeing Jesus here and there. Many of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are strange. Often his close disciples don’t recognize him at first, as Mary Magdalene in our gospel mistook Jesus for a gardener, or the people on the road to Emmaus walked with a man most of the day before recognizing him as Jesus when he broke the bread at dinner. I don’t know whether you think that Jesus’ resurrection means his corpse was resuscitated, a point that has been debated for centuries. Some people would say that Mary mistook a real gardener for Jesus. I myself do not believe the issue is important because the disciples found the person of Jesus in whomever they saw and believed to be Jesus. The theologian Robert Jensen says that Jesus’ resurrected body is wherever his person is to be found, which is why we can say that the communion elements are the body of Christ, or the Church is the body of Christ. The point is, Jesus lived again for the disciples,
and later for Paul, and they were profoundly transformed by that. How so?

Remember in our gospel text Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him because he had not yet ascended to God, but was about to do so. The early Church’s profound transformation came with its understanding of the ascension. Think what it means. First, the ascension means the possibility of approaching God without the Temple. Second, Jesus himself was able to approach God that way. The book of Hebrews calls Jesus our High Priest who goes into the heavenly Holy of Holies for us. Third, Jesus goes to prepare a place for the disciples so that they too can approach God. Fourth, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit so that the disciples can live in right relation to God in the midst of their struggles in ordinary life. This in effect is a total restoration of the Covenant, and Jesus’ death symbolically is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Its importance is not to appease an angry God but to perfect and transform the covenant relation of Israel to God. Within twenty years of the beginning of the Christian movement, the apostle Paul generalized this point to say that Jesus made it possible for Gentiles, not only Jews, to inherit the covenant promises made to Israel. Jesus makes God cosmically accessible to everyone, and the Holy Spirit helps us live in right relation to all that.

Understanding this, the first disciples were transformed from what Paul called “old beings” living under the broken covenant to “new beings” who were rightly related to God. Jesus had taught that the right relation was to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Participation in the new covenant, extending the old, is to be a lover of God and neighbor. The idea of becoming a lover is easily generalizable, like new life from death; in fact, becoming a lover is new life from death.

So the early Christians cultivated loving communities as well as devotion to the love of God. What does it mean to love your neighbor? It means to be kind in all ways. But more important, it means to help you neighbor become a better lover, a new being. Thus began the particular history of the development of Christian communities around the globe and down through history to us. Its glory is that the resurrected Christ is seen in the persons of the saints, in our sacraments, teachings, good works, and in the Church itself as the body of Christ. Its shame is that our Christian communities have so often failed to embody Christ. For both cases, the risen and ascended Christ is judge over the Church, accessible through the Holy Spirit in our imaginations, and discriminated by our minds in careful discernment of spirits. For nearly two thousand years, Jesus has lived in the Church’s imagination and grown as Lord of the Church, creating lovers and reconciling people to God, addressing issues the young Galilean could never have imagined before the resurrection.

The good news is that there is a power abroad in the Churches that makes new beings of us, that makes us God-lovers and lovers of one another. Loving God and one another we can face death as the price of life. We can engage the vital and sometimes intractable issues of our watch with genuine hope. That power is the person of Jesus raised from the dead into countless bodies around us, lovers all, ascended into heaven as our eternal host in God, king of the universe who makes possible our life before God, historical pioneer and perfector of the Christian movement, the dear friend who can live in our hearts, the savior who embraces the worst of us, and when we fall again, embraces us again, the Way to come to God, the Truth of God’s justice and mercy, the Life whose substance is love. These symbols of Jesus are the Christian’s ways to engage God in gratitude for the creation, in humility before the creator, and in love that embraces all the Creator’s creation. If only in part, we have felt this gratitude, we have knelt in humility, we have loved this love. I tell you, like the disciples waking up at Emmaus, in this we have seen the Risen Christ! Allelujah! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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