Well, we’re finally there: Easter comes on Sunday. Do you remember as a kid when you thought Lent would never end? What is Septuagesima, anyway? Easter is the most important celebration of the Christian faith.
Out texts for today are all powerful and weighty. Some of them refer to one of the others.
Acts 10:34-43. Today’s reading is in the context of Acts 10.23b-48 Peter’s Sermon to Cornelius’ Household, which is in the context of all of Acts 10, especially the Vision of Peter.
Peter’s sermon is essentially the kerygma, the Christian story in a nutshell: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” The sermon will be difficult under the best of circumstances, to Jews and Gentiles alike, so he begins at a point which they’ll all have in common: the latest gossip about events in Palestine, the crucifixion of Jesus.
The story contains some breathtaking claims: 1) God revealed to some Galilean fisherman—Peter—that God has changed the rules about interactions between Jews and Gentiles. And 2) that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Both of these are tantamount to blasphemy in the Jewish community. They would back up the charge with scripture:
5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
B) Dt: 7.6-8
6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
“In every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” God shows no partiality. God doesn’t go by appearance, race, religion, or gender. So, Cornelius and his friends and family don’t need to become Jews; they’re already acceptable. Paul isn’t preaching to Cornelius and his family anything different—he’s not dumbing it down for Gentiles; he’s preaching to them exactly what he’d already preached to Jews in Jerusalem at Pentecost, see Acts 2.14-42.
He’s telling them about Jesus’ life and ministry; also about Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit at the time of his baptism by John, and about the fact that there are eyewitnesses to all of this.
But it’s important to go beyond Jesus’ life and ministry; Peter has to talk about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The death was momentous, not only to Jesus’ followers but to all members of the Jewish community, because of the manner of his death: crucifixion. The reason is this piece of scripture:
22 When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.
In other words, Jesus bears for us the curse, the judgment, of God.
But then comes the crucial part: “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” And Jesus commanded all the witnesses to tell the story:
- “he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.”
- “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Jesus died. Jesus died for us. Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus will come again to be our judge, but at the same time, he advocates for us. Breathtaking! Good News!
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. This is a psalm of thanksgiving. The speaker compares himself to a stone which, once rejected as unfit, is now the chief stone. Is the speaker David, the David who, despite everything, has become king? When Samuel came to anoint as king one of the sons of Jesse, David was the boy tending his father’s sheep, the one who almost didn’t even get considered. He was later the servant of King Saul—who almost killed him. Now he’s the victor, coming to the Temple to give thanks to God. He’s “the stone that the builders rejected (which) has become the chief cornerstone.”
You don’t have to apply too much imagination to see that this psalm (also) applies to Jesus. After the Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem, Jesus is questioned by the authorities as to his authority. He’s surrounded by “a swarm of wild bees” (Ps. 118.12, not part of today’s lection). One bee sting you’ll probably survive—provided you don’t react in anaphylactic shock—probably even two, but a hundred stings, the stings of an entire swarm, will probably kill you. And Jesus pokes the bees’ nest; he challenges the authorities right back, telling them the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. And he quotes this psalm to them: “The stone that the builders rejected ….”
And Peter and John, called before the Council in the days following the death and resurrection of Jesus, quote this very same psalm. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” By the way, Peter is Simon’s nickname. What does Peter mean? ‘Rock, stone’ And now Peter is a stone which was rejected … and now look at him!
1 Corinthians 15:1-11. We just said that Peter was in a difficult situation, trying to tell the story of Jesus to a crowd of people who would understand it only with great difficulty. The same is true for Paul in Corinth. We already know that the church in Corinth were a pretty fractious bunch. We could call them “spirited”, but not in the sense that they need to be. Naturally competitive? Or did they not yet really get it? Were they not yet a proper Christian community because they didn’t understand Jesus and what Jesus had done for them? They might have been “spirited”, but were they “Spirited”?
This passage from Chapter 15 of Paul’s letter is set right in the context of that sort of discussion. If you take it out of context—or if you’ve failed to make the contextual connection—it looks as if Paul has suddenly shifted gears. But he hasn’t. He’s trying to help the church to a solution. He focusses his remarks on the Resurrection.
The Resurrection is the heart of the Christian message; it’s what binds the Christian community together. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” We say that often as a part of the Prayer of Consecration. It’s one of the earliest forms of the creed, a short summary of the Christian faith. It’s a concentrated formulation, just as the Shema and the Law are to the Jewish faith. It’s pre-creedal—the creeds we know weren’t developed until later—but it’s good for Paul to use in the Corinthian situation.
“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” That’s essentially verses 3-5 of today’s reading—but with an important addition: “he was buried”. It’s important to say that: “he was buried”. Back before the creeds were developed, there were various interpretations of the Christ-story, and some of them got pretty far from the generally accepted form of the story. We now call these variant stories heresies. The heresy we’re dealing with here is Docetism, a belief that the death and resurrection only appeared to happen. Most of Christianity is now pretty insistent that Jesus died and was buried. The empty tomb is crucial to the whole story; it’s all connected to the resurrection. And it’s a perfect opportunity for Paul to say, “The old age is dead and buried; a new age has arisen.”
“Christ died for our sins.” There’s another one. “Christ” means ‘the anointed one’, the same as “Messiah”. But the death of Jesus the Christ is a complete redefining of the original concept. The Jewish Messiah doesn’t suffer, much less die. The Messiah, the Christ, is the anointed king (1 Sam. 16.13). Hebrew texts, e.g., Is. 11.1-5, describe the governing qualities of the king; to govern, the king has to live. The Christian Messiah frees us from the old age through suffering, not conquest; the kingdom of God comes through the cross, not victorious armies. So, Jesus rebukes Peter for his misunderstanding of “Messiah”, and he completely reinterprets the scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
“[F]or our sins” “For” our sins. I’m always troubled by that translation of Gk. uper huper. From what we know about the Indo-European languages, the meaning of huper should be ‘over’. Many Biblical Greek scholars give three translations: 1) on behalf of, for the sake of; 2) over, beyond, more than; and 3) more, beyond, over. The Proto-Indo-European root is *upar ‘over’. From this root, we derive, e.g., Lat. super ‘over’ and Proto-Germanic *ofar/ovar ‘over’. “Over” can mean ‘spatially over, above’ or ‘more than’. I believe there’s a strong “over-ness” in Jesus’ death. His death puts him over sin; it conquers sin.
Before I can finish that, I have to talk for a moment about Paul’s notion of sin. For him, sin is not immoral things we do; it’s a power which has a hold on us. And this power is inherent in the Law because the Law makes it seem that we earn our way into God favour, when in fact God’s favour for us is God’s doing, God’s grace. All we do is belove that—have faith in that. Any attempts to win God’s favour are, for us, death. What Jesus’ resurrection (God’s raising of Jesus) does is leave that death in the grave. It gives us life. It’s victory over our sins. I know that Jesus is “the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1.29) and that the Lamb of God is sacrificed, but to me, that sacrifice is the end of the old age and the beginning of the new one. But that’s just me.
The resurrection is the start of Christian community—literally. With it, Jesus takes, e.g., Peter, who misunderstood him, who denied him, and says, “Come.” Just go to that scene at the end of John’s gospel (Jn. 21):
“Simon, son of John, do you love me …?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.” He lovingly picks Peter up, dusts him off, and gives him a job. You don’t do that with someone you’re angry with.
And one by one—the women at the tomb, the rest of the disciples, Paul—he gives them all jobs. And for the first time ever—after the Resurrection—they get it, and they take that job-offer, and they work with it. They’re now the community of workers-for-Jesus. Were they ever a community before Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection? And that’s where we came in; is the church in Corinth a community? Are they workers-for-Jesus? Not yet. They’re still competing with each other over who’s the best.
Mark 16:1-8. The Resurrection stories in all the gospels are different; each one tells the story differently. Does that mean that the evangelists couldn’t get their act together? I’d say, “No.” I think it means that different people see things differently. Just listen to the telling of a story at a family gathering. By the time we’re finished telling it, there are umpteen versions of it. “No, don’t you remember? Mom said ….” I’ve been in that discussion so many times. In the ancient world, stories were transmitted orally, so there was lots of room for interpretation, for retelling and revising. Four people’s versions of the story probably agree substantially, but there are also individual differences about certain details.
I’m also pretty sure you’ve heard each of the Resurrection stories pulled apart and discussed until the cows come home, so I’m not going to rehash all of that. All the details. All the whys. All the wherefores. What really gets me about Mark’s telling of the story is the ending: the “young man” (an angel?) tells the women who have discovered the empty tomb, “’Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Did you get that? The angel tells them the whole thing. Do they understand? Do they believe? And what do they do in response to all of this? They do nothing. They clam up. They’re afraid. Afraid of being laughed at. Afraid of being mocked. Afraid of being dismissed. Was the community ready to be formed? Seems not. Not yet.