April 16, 2017
The gospels make it clear that the tomb was empty—that nothing was left behind when Jesus was raised from the dead. Why is this important? Why should we take these scriptural accounts literally? After all, isn’t it most important that the spirit of Jesus lived on in and among his disciples and that his life and teachings have inspired generations? Some think this is what Christ’s Resurrection is all about. Well, that is certainly a big part of the story, but it misses something crucial.
It is of vital importance that not only Jesus’s spirit but his body was caught up in an amazing transformation to new, unending, glorified life beyond anything we can imagine. This transformation was altogether different from what happened in Jesus’s raising of Lazarus, the subject of a recent gospel reading. In the case of Lazarus, a corpse was wonderfully brought back to earthly life, which eventually ended in death. In our Lord’s case, the fullness of Jesus’s humanity, which included his body, was raised by the power of God to what Fr. Richard Benson called “a region of spiritual power that is altogether new.” Human nature, for the first time, became united with divinity without the limitations of bodily life on earth. Jesus could thus fully act as the mediator of a new covenant linking God and humanity in a bond that cannot be broken, a bond which guarantees life and peace, and into which eight children were baptized here last evening.
Only with the Resurrection of Jesus in the fullness of his being was the horror of the crucifixion totally reversed. The disciples thought they faced a situation of absolute loss, a situation beyond hope of redemption. Instead, God reversed this completely, raising Jesus fully and exalting him to a new realm as Lord of all, to whom all power and authority was given, both in heaven and on earth. As the angel told the astonished women who came to the tomb early in the morning, the crucified one was not there; he had been raised. What had seemed a horrible ending was only the beginning of God’s glorious work in Christ to redeem the whole creation, including its material aspects, in order to bring it back to God and God’s purposes.
This marked the biggest turning point in human history. Now, as Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it, “at the heart of the desperate suffering there is in the world, suffering we can do nothing to resolve or remove for good, there is an indestructible energy making for love.” Rather than giving up on humanity, God amazingly exalted it in Jesus, as the means by which the world might end its destructive ways and move slowly and painstakingly toward the life that he exemplifies.
It’s a new day, and things can now be fundamentally different, in wonderful ways. The love and the power of God, which are revealed in the Lord’s Resurrection, can turn things around for the good, no matter how bleak the circumstances. We call this redemption, and we have evidence of it, of God’s power at work among us, from that first Easter morning until now.
In an Easter sermon at my seminary back in 2002, Dr. Jonathan Linman, a Lutheran pastor, noted how Matthew’s account of the risen Lord’s encounter with the women at the tomb points to his power, from that point on, to reverse humanity’s destructive course. The first word Jesus says to the women, in the original Greek, is kairete, which we translate “Greetings.” That may seem insignificant until we realize that Judas used a form of the same word when he came up to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to betray him. Two chapters earlier in Matthew, Judas betrays Jesus to the religious authorities with a kiss, saying “Kaire, Rabbi.” Perhaps the gospel writer is pointing out the fundamental shift in what is possible for human beings, thanks to the Lord’s Resurrection. Jesus uses a word, which Judas’s use had tainted, in a transformed context as a means of grace, thus taking away the sting that it had had before. The evil was still remembered—it was an unalterable fact of history—but it had no power to do harm any more. This is the nature of redemption; the scars are still there, but the evil that produced them has no power or effect any more. Its sting has been removed.
This brings to mind redemption through the power of God that occurred in my own family—of God taking away the sting of the past and bringing new life. My mother’s parents were wonderful, loving people, both of whom struggled with alcoholism. My grandfather won this struggle in his 40s, but my grandmother continued until a much older age, until she finally prevailed as well. (She wouldn’t have wanted me to talk about this in church, but I bet she has a different perspective now.) The experience of all this left scars on my mother’s psyche that were not quick to heal. For years, she couldn’t help resenting what her parents had put her through and were putting her through, despite the good times that they also had. But my mother was a devout Christian who believed in the power of God in Christ to overcome any evil. At one point, she remarked to me that God had taken away all her resentment and bitterness, with which she had been burdened for years. Evil had no power, no sting anymore, through the grace of God, and she was freed from that bondage to live and love in the power of God’s Spirit. That, my friends, was an Easter victory.
Here’s another example: African-Americans in this country who, through God’s grace, have overcome the resentment and bitterness that they naturally felt toward those who had exploited and discriminated against them—and worse—through many years up to the present. Many of the horrors in this history echo the horror of the crucifixion. For example, 100 years ago, after the United States entered World War I, Leroy Johnston, an African-American man from Phillips County, Arkansas went to fight in Europe and spent nine months in French hospitals recovering from his wounds. He came home in 1919, when dominant elements in the Delta feared African-American resistance, in the form of demands for fuller compensation. Around the time of mass violence in Elaine, Johnston arrived on a train and was dragged out and shot along with three of his brothers, simply because of the color of his skin. One who had almost sacrificed his life for this country met with the worst possible reception at home. How can this be forgiven? How can the situation be redeemed? It is not humanly possible. Only God’s grace can turn such a situation around and take away the sting of the past. In some cases, the legacy of such evil has been overcome so that people can live freely and love, unburdened by the past. The past is not forgotten, but it is given over to God, whose power takes away its ill effects.
A new day is possible, a new way is possible. Jesus showed us the way of responding to evil not by retaliation but by forgiveness and love, and he makes this new way possible by uniting us to himself, and hence to the power of God the holy Trinity. From my perspective, this can and should shape our outlook on the multiple executions that our state has planned. Executing people who have done horrible things denies the possibility that God can turn their lives around. It also denies that God can redeem the situation of those they have harmed. Killing someone will not bring victims the healing and peace that only God can give.
The truth is, we have all been victims, and we have all victimized others. God’s saving acts in Jesus can free us from this destructive cycle, in our individual lives and in the world around us. The risen Christ brings us into what the letter to the Hebrews calls a “new and living way.” In the same letter, we read that the blood of Jesus, which sealed a new covenant between God and humanity, “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,” who was murdered by his brother. Old ways are at an end now, or can be, through the redeeming power of the risen Christ.
It is significant that Matthew begins today’s Easter narrative by noting that it happened as the first day of the week was dawning. This was a turning point as momentous as the beginning of creation when God said, on the first day, “let there be light.” With the Resurrection of Christ, a new light dawned and a new creation began. All things then became possible through the one who loved and loves us so much.