April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday
Donna G. Joy
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12
We are gathered here to celebrate the resurrection of Christ; the new life that is offered by his rising from the tomb. This past week, beginning with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem we have traveled through Holy Week: on Thursday we re-enacted the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, as well as the foot washing where Jesus instructs us to love and serve others as he loves and serves us; on Friday we walked with Jesus and met Him on the cross, where he absorbed all of humanity’s suffering and sin. Saturday, yesterday was a day of waiting; a day of rest, if you will. Last night we began the celebration of Jesus rising from the tomb, along with Oskar who became related to the risen Christ in a new way through the Sacrament of Baptism.
And here we are today, once again, celebrating this great and glorious, life-changing, world-changing moment in the unfolding of God’s plan. It all sounds pretty wonderful, but what does this actually mean? Today I am prepared to share with you some of what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has to say about the meaning and purpose of this mysterious rising, and why its significance exists at the very core of our faith.
In our first reading this morning we heard the prophet Isaiah promise a “new heaven and a new earth” to the Israelites who were struggling with serious hardship after returning from exile to their homeland. Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise: Because he is fully human and fully divine, with his death on the cross and rising to new life, God’s new heaven and new earth have been renewed and united in a new and mysterious way. With his death, our tradition teaches us that Jesus went on to Paradise, where he promised the thief hanging beside him on the cross that they would be together. Paradise is not the final destination; it is a place of radiant light and truth, which we pass through in order to get to a new reality where we will discover a full and complete cosmic communion of love; with Jesus’ death and resurrection there is no longer a separation between heaven and earth. So: Friday he died; Saturday he carried on to that place of Paradise; that place of light and truth; and on the first day of the week – a new beginning for humanity – that small group of followers discovered that his death was not, after all, the end of the story. It was only the beginning. In and through Jesus, this new heaven and new earth has been inaugurated with everything that is true and beautiful made perfect, and everything that is bad and sad and degrading abolished.
So this is how N.T. Wright and other great theologians guide us into a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ resurrection. But the big question still remains: Has anything really changed? It would appear that – in terms of life’s circumstances - nothing really changed with those first disciples after the death of their beloved Jesus and his rising from the tomb. The Roman Empire still cast a shadow over the world in which they lived, where oppression, injustice, and heavy handed dictatorship continued to rule the day. And in addition to this, their own personal struggles, fears, and pain were not miraculously removed. Jesus came, dwelled among them, died a painful death, and somehow his bruised and broken lifeless corpse mysteriously rose from the tomb… but how, in fact, did this actually change the circumstances in which they live? In practical terms, how did it make life any better? How did it bring about the new heaven and new earth that was promised?
One way to understand this is to think about what happens with different time zones. When it is 1:00 a.m. here in Winnipeg, it is 4:00 p.m. the next day in Australia. If someone we know is visiting Australia, and somehow forgets this time change, they might phone us when it is 4:00 in the afternoon there, and wake us up out of a dead sleep because it is 1:00 in the morning here. The purpose for the call may be any number of possibilities. But when it is time to say good-bye and end the call, the person who made the call remains in his/her time zone, and we remain in ours. We may be changed somehow by the conversation: overjoyed with good news, devastated by sad news, or simply enriched by the conversation, but when the call comes to an end, each remains in their respective time zones.
We might say that what happens with Jesus’ resurrection is like this. This whole world is still in the old time. Evil and death are still at work. We’re all still asleep and we think nothing is ever going to be different, when suddenly we get, not a phone call, but a visit, from someone who is living in the New Time. With His death and resurrection, His experience in Paradise as he promised the thief on the cross beside Him, He is already in the new day. He has gone through death and out into God’s new world, God’s new creation, and to our astonishment he’s returned to our world, which is still in the old time, to tell us that the day has in fact dawned and that even though we feel sleepy and it still seems dark, the new world has begun and we’d better wake up and get busy; that is, figure out how to participate in the setting to rights the injustices of the world; to carry on the work of love begun with Christ: to love and serve others as Christ has loved and served us.
The point of the resurrection is to recognize that God’s promised future of love and harmony has come to meet us. In his death, Jesus has taken all the sin and death, shame and sorrow of the world upon himself, so that by letting it do its worst to him he has destroyed its power, which means that now there ought to be nothing to stop the new creation from coming into being. Jesus’ resurrection body is the first step in the new creation: the sign of the new world that is to come.
Easter Day is the first day of a brand new time; truly a fresh new beginning. And that is why Easter is the start of the church’s mission. The point of the resurrection is that if Gods new creation has already begun, those of us who have been wakened up in the middle of the night are put to work – with God’s help – to bring into being more steps toward the new creation.
Which brings me back to my question: Has anything really changed? In many ways, no. We began this journey toward the cross with our own particular pain that weighs heavily on our hearts: grief, sorrow, regret, sadness, hatred, anger, bitterness… (we’re human, so the list can be long…) The Paris Cathedral is still largely destroyed by a massive fire. This morning we heard the news that 207 Christians in Sri Lanka have been killed while celebrating Easter Mass.
I read that yesterday would have been Hitler’s birthday; the coincidence that this coincided with Holy Saturday is quite horrible. And worse, neo-nazis are said to be planning celebrations of Hitler’s birthday in many locations, in Europe and elsewhere, with marches and parties. Locally, this was made manifest on Thursday night, as BerMax Bistro (a Kosher restaurant on Corydon) was brutally vandalized and a woman assaulted. That establishment has experienced anti-Semitic graffiti in the past, and this week’s assault took these acts of hatred to a whole new level.
The rise of hatred in this world is terrifying – racially-based hatred in particular, but rampant political mudslinging as well. This pain, and these types of atrocities, existed a week ago as we entered into Holy Week; such hate was aggressively occurring just a few blocks away as we celebrated Maundy Thursday here at St. Peter’s, and this has not been miraculously resolved with Good Friday or Easter Day. And this is why we were encouraged on Good Friday to place at the foot of the cross all the pieces of the old creation: the burden of our sin, along with all that makes us sad; all that is depressing to us and our communities; those things that weigh us down and prevent us from participating in the new creation that God promises through the crucified and risen Christ.
And with this, we need to pray for vision & wisdom to know where God can & will make new creation happen in our lives, in our hearts, in our homes, our communities, and the wider world in which we live. While we cannot stop people from aggressive hate crimes, we CAN allow God’s love to inform, enrich and inspire the way we choose to live; this can and does shine a transforming light in the midst of such darkness and despair. To quote N.T. Wright:
People will say it can’t happen, that it’s just a pious dream. That’s what they said to all the great Christian workers from the earliest Christians through to William Wilberforce 200 years ago and Desmond Tutu 20 years ago. But the answer isn’t better politics (though we need that too), nor better government funding (though that wouldn’t go amiss), nor simply better youth work (and, yes, we need that too). The answer is that where God’s people celebrate Jesus’ resurrection they discover that new possibilities open up in front of them. That’s why we renew and reaffirm our baptismal vows at Easter, to claim once more that we stand on resurrection ground, not just for ourselves but because of what God wants to do through us. We claim the victory of Jesus Christ over all that is evil, so that we van leave it behind on the cross and go forward to do new things in the power of his Spirit.
How this occurs through each of us within the context of our own individual lives, or through us in and through St. Peter’s requires serious discussion and discernment. But it begins with spiritual roots here in the church – the gathered Messianic community - where we discover how to create once more the kind of society where people trust each other and live together without fear. It’s going to have to be rooted in prayer and in celebration of the risen Christ; that is the only way that Christians – with God’s help - may engage in this task with faith, courage, and love. Indeed, this is possible through us. At a time when church decline is on the rise throughout the whole western world, we need to remember that Jesus began his work of new creation with a tiny number of very puzzled women and a few frightened fishermen. In fact, one of the things about the way new creation works is that very often God seems to take special pleasure in doing things despite the fact that the human resources seem slim; at times dreadfully inadequate.
So, no, the acknowledgement of the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, along with the celebration of His resurrection does not miraculously change our lives or the world in which we live. It has, I hope, taken us on a journey through bereavement and grief to the foot of the cross, and planted some seeds of hope. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead; God’s new creation has begun, and we are called to respond in two ways: first, to be true to our own baptismal vows to die with him and share his new life, and second, allow his Spirit to work through us to make new creation happen in this world.