April 21, 2019 Easter
Isaiah 65; 17-25
Psalm 118:1-2; 14-24
Luke 24: 1-12 1 Corinthians: 15:19-26
On this Easter morning, I think it appropriate to start with verse 24 of this day’s psalm.
This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118: 24)
It is both a privilege and a challenge to give a teaching on Easter, likely the most important and significant celebration in our liturgical year. It is a celebration that for me claims the incredible courage of Jesus in living out how he understood, how he taught and how he lived out the Shema (shuh-mah), the Jewish declaration of faith found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.
Luke included this declaration in chapter 10 of his gospel when a lawyer, likely a scribe, was trying to test Jesus by asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25). Jesus then asks the scribe, “What is written in the law?” And the scribe answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (10: 26-28)
This Easter we focus on Luke’s gospel. It’s one of three gospels that include resurrection stories at their end. I will read and reflect on today’s story from Luke, but first want to say that throughout his life, Jesus was always living courageously in the territory of Resurrection, honoring the great commandment; that would cost him his life. Re-membering Jesus’ courage would be a reality for the disciples and followers of Jesus if they were ever to heal from the trauma of the crucifixion. Through their memories, the disciples and followers would need to take Jesus’ message and story out into the wider Gentile world.
Each of the four gospels presents Jesus in a different way. If we try to harmonize the four into one, we risk losing some of the richness of each story. There are different structures, themes, stories and details as well as differing portraits of Jesus. And then there are the different writers telling Jesus’ story to differing communities over a span of about seventy years. Luke, the third oldest gospel anchors this year’s lectionary gospel readings. Luke was written about forty-five years after Jesus’s death. In Luke we meet Jesus of Nazareth—prophet, poet, teacher, storyteller, preacher and healer. Jesus is compassionate, a friend to outcasts, outliers, and those on the margins. Luke also relates Jesus to Israel’s history and to the first century contemporary world. Jesus is sent as savior to seek and save the lost, but the Roman Empire’s leaders and many Jewish religious leaders see him as a threat; thence, they eventually reject him and his message and hand Jesus over to death, to the brutality of crucifixion.
Luke is one of three gospels that include resurrection stories at their end, but as I previously said, I want to stress that throughout his life, Jesus was consistently living in the territory of Resurrection, the religion of Creation: doing that took great courage, ultimately heartbreaking courage. That heartbreaking courage would be a reality for the disciples and followers of Jesus to ultimately claim and live out of. Instead of a road map, their memory of and experience of Jesus would open a way to live forward with some trail-blazing skills. Luke will tell that story in the Acts of the Apostles where Paul will experience a life-changing conversion and call to carry forth Jesus’ story and message.
The New Testament scripture for today in Luke points to the critical importance of memory. “Re-membering life in God, letting what has been cut off and scattered be found and transfigured together, is at the heart of spiritual formation:” (Edwards, p. 70) Memory . . . carries our experiences of the past; it can be both blessing and curse or distortion or incompletion. Memories can be healing or they can “take over the newness of the moment and turn it into a reflection of the old, thus becoming ‘haunting’ [disturbing] memories.” (Edwards, p. 70)
This happened to me when my mother died years ago. Her physical appearance in the last year of her life was a distortion of her whole life. And that distortion was one I became fixated on during the last three weeks of her life. She was frail and shriveled to 85 pounds, breathing only with the help of full-time oxygen; life with her was a constant round of medical appointments, finding friends and family to stay with her for short periods of time. Fortunately, she was mostly lucid, but there were moments when her stubbornness and demands angered me because I could not fill them in the moment. Every evening after getting her to bed, I sat and sobbed. Sleeping soundly never happened, and I lashed out at my brother whom I blamed often for leaving the harder work of care-taking to me. She died alone in the ER at the local hospital. For many months and into the next year after her death, this experience and the physical image of my mother at her life’s end clung to me and brought tears to my eyes at unexpected moments.
More than a year later while on the 8th Day silent retreat at Dayspring, I had a dream. I was standing behind my mother off to the right as she was facing a mirror. The light in the dream was soft and golden, and as I looked at her image in the mirror, she still looked like a 74-year old woman, but she was healthy and strong and whole. I then realized that the image I had been carrying of her was truncated it wasn’t whole. I needed to take the image of her whole life and my experience with her into my present and future. So, I had to remember forward.
This concept of re-membering forward is simple. We do it all the time. So did our Jewish and Christian ancestors. We take the past into the present and then into the future. We bring our questions and imagination to the story of life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even as he faced death, that Christianity brings essential questions and insights into the world--insights that the world needs, and that it will constantly reinvent and rename these [questions and insights] even as institutions betray them." (S of F, 41)
We need to take our story, our religion, our faith tradition, seriously, "to see its substance and its weight in the world and its meanings in human life, both light and dark." (S of F, 47) Our faith tradition reveals life as it is; it is a vivid tradition of storytelling, of calling us to remember, and of modeling how to live into our individual and corporate story and move forward with it. Bruce Birch, the professor of Hebrew Scriptures, whom I studied under at Wesley Theological Seminary claimed Hope as Memory. He stated that
The community of faith has always been a community of hope because it is never left with just its own present resources. Over and over again, and in hopeless situations, the Hebrew Scripture writers called on images out the past that called forth [and forward] trust that the future also belonged to God. Over and over again, the community of faith draws hope from its memory of God’s work. This is an antidote to rootlessness.” (Birch, 86)
I believe Jesus was about God’s work from the earlier days of his life. So, as he moved toward his likely death, he had to trust that his work had been God’s work, and that it would continue. The continuance is what we name as Resurrection, and it happened.
During the past six weeks of Lent, Jesus in Luke’s gospel has been walking to Jerusalem, a dangerous destination, and it is there that he is tried and executed by the Roman Empire. I want to briefly remember where we have walked with Jesus over the past six weeks, but I want to add two scriptures in Luke that focus on Jesus, first as a young person and then on Jesus’ transfiguration. And, we will get to the empty tomb story in Luke.
Re-membering Jesus by walking through the Lenten gospel scriptures
This story is a glimpse of Jesus’ childhood: He is 12 years old, and he and his parents are in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. His parents leave for the return trip to Nazareth thinking he is in the caravan but discover he is not. Then they worriedly return to Jerusalem to find him. They find him in the Temple engaging with the teachers, “How is it that you searched for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (KJV)
What is Jesus’ Father’s business? What would he be talking about with the teachers in the Temple? Might it had been about the Great Commandment and its implications or the liberating story of the Passover? He is of the Jewish tradition, having been brought up within the customs and traditions of Judaism, but he and his family are outliers in the Roman Empire.
He may be accepting for himself the implications of his dedication to God and possibly of an unusual vocation attributed to him by others.
Jesus seemed to have a growing awareness of God’s purpose for his life. His life did not seem driven by fate or legalism. Jesus’ life seemed bound to God’s design for it and likely his understanding of the first and great commandment: love God, love neighbor and one’s self was forming and going to put him in harm’s way given the reality of the practices of the Roman Empire and the Jewish Temple authorities. This is an awareness that he had to grow into. The temptation story will confront Jesus with his vocational choice and with what [ultimately] anchors his life. (Culpepper, NIB Vol. IX, 77)
The temptation in the wilderness --The devil, the tempting agent, who represents chaos, is stalking Jesus. This story relates Jesus’ time in the wilderness like the prophets of old. This time is a rite of passage. Jesus’ commitment to the great commandment will be tested.
Test 1, turn stones into bread; why wouldn’t Jesus want to do this given the reality of frequent famine and scarcity for the poor?
Test 2, worship the devil and you’ll get “glory and authority” over worldly kingdoms.
Test 3, jump from the pinnacle of the Temple, and trust the angels to protect you and trust God also since the truly righteous are promised God’s protection. Jesus says no to each temptation, passing all the three tests and “sets in motion a whole new era in God’s relationship with all of humankind.” (Ringe, 60)
Luke 9:28-36 The Transfiguration on the mountain top
The divine voice confronts him on a mountain and says, “This is my son, the Chosen; listen to him.” (9:36) This story defines the nature and direction of Jesus’ work as the son of God. It fulfills the command at the heart of Judaism, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is Our God, the Lord alone. . . Jesus as the model Jew, fulfilling Israel’s heritage, the Son of God who loved God with all his heart. Jesus comes down from the mountain, re-engaging with his healing and teaching ministry.
Luke 13: 1-9
This is an example and a parable warning for hearers to repent—to turn their lives in a different direction—or face dire consequences. Jesus is trying to move people away from linking suffering and disobedience toward recognizing the need to repent, gain a reprieve and accept a reckoning that can open up a future.
The parables of “losts and founds”: the missing sheep, the lost coin, the two sons, the younger a prodigal. The last story is one of resurrection: “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. The father rejoices in both sons, but the older brother does not respond; there may still be one lost brother, possibly a cause of divine sadness.
Luke 22:14 – 23:56
Last Sunday, Kent ably walked us through these scriptures of the last supper, the arrest of Jesus, his hearings, and his crucifixion.
When I think about the life of Jesus, it seems to me that as a mature adult he was a still point at the center of a turning and brutal reality of life for many who lived on the margins and suffered under the economic oppression of the Roman Empire. And then, there were the laws of the Jewish religious authorities’ establishment whom most of the poor and marginalized could never live up to. And, Jesus consistently confronted that reality as an affront to the religion of creation, to the great commandment and to God’s reign on earth.
So, we move to the Easter gospel scripture for today--the empty tomb.
A good and righteous man, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council of chief priests and scribes asks Pilate for Jesus’ body and provides an unused rock-hewn tomb for his body. Women from Galilee who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem saw the tomb and then left to tenderly, I think, prepare spices and ointments for the body. The body stays in the tomb during the Sabbath, Saturday. Then the next day, the women return to the burial site providing the “thread of continuity from the crucifixion (23:49).” (Ringe, 283)
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
This is story of high drama: an empty tomb with no body; wonderment/perplexity about this; two dazzling presences; feelings of terror forcing the women onto the ground with their faces touching it. And, then the question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” Well, where would you look? How are these women to take this in? I suspect that the distress is so present, that they grasp at any hope offered. I don’t know for sure. I imagine them taking some deep breaths so they could respond to the command from the angelic presences to remember. It is so easy to forget when we humans are grieving, distracted, anxious, in denial, guilt ridden, or terrified. There is no way forward except to trust this experience. And, they remembered enough to get them through the next steps. That’s the process that appears to be happening: take one step necessary, then the next step will be given.
“The place of memory is crucial to Luke’s interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus. In the first place, since the women indeed ‘remember’, Luke obviously intends to present them as part of the inner circle of disciples with whom such information was shared (see 9:18-22; 18:31-34, and suggests a limited audience of Jesus’ teachings). The memory, however, has apparently not been available to the women to help them understand the events they have witnessed in the preceding days of Jesus’ apprehension, trial and crucifixion, for there is no mention of such predictions in the course of or aftermath to the story of Jesus’ arrest, hearings, and execution (Luke 22 and 23).
The chaos and horror of the actual events have [seemingly] blotted out the memory. Only later, as they prepare to engage in one of the rituals of mourning, the preparation of the body, are they able to remember what they know.” (Ringe, 284-85)
The continuous presence of the women, not just at the crucifixion but through Jesus’ earlier ministry (Luke 8:1-3) certainly qualifies them as reliable witnesses of what follows despite the fact that their testimony is termed an “idle tale.” But, Peter, bless his heart, charges on to verify the emptiness of the tomb. He, of all the disciples, would need to remember the forgiveness and mercy that Jesus offered. Otherwise, he would never be freed from his guilt at denying his relationship with Jesus.
Reflections and thoughts on this story
This story holds before us the importance of memory and its enlightenment in our faith journey
The angelic presences tell the women: “Remember, how he told you . . .” (24:6-7)
In the crises of life and when we lose a loved one, the loss can impact and obliterate most, if not all, the rest of life from our awareness and memory, severing connections to the past and present. (Culpepper, NIB Volume IX, 472-3)
Remember God’s presence in the past so to find the resources for the present and future. Remember what Jesus has done, taught, and lived. Remember the meals Jesus shared with people from all walks of life, the healings, the stories and parables. Remember his courage, his kindness and compassion, his humility, his openness, his love of God, his love of you, of many others, and his love of creation. These are what have gone forth from the tomb. These, too, are what we are to remember. “You have but to remember and you will see the light.” (Quaran – The Heights 7.201)
The importance of the empty tomb
The discovery of the empty tomb is the heart of the matter for the Christian faith.
Paul’s words in today’s epistle echo on the edge of our consciousness:
‘If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15: 14, 19 NRSV)
We are to hope and remember, and then hope and remember forward.
The New Testament never suggests that the death of Jesus would have been adequate for salvation apart from Jesus’ resurrection. The two, crucifixion and the resurrection, is God’s response to Jesus’ death. (Culpepper, NIB, Vol. IX, 472) “He is not here; he is risen.” (Luke 24:6)
Where do we look for Jesus?
Where are we looking for Jesus? Do we look in the wrong places or do we remember where Jesus rooted himself? Do we see only darkness, despair, sorrow? Then, that is what we will always see. But, if we see hope and opportunity and see love and have the courage to see the face of God, then we live in the territory of Resurrection. Is that where you, where we want to live? It’s a question to keep in our memory and respond to daily. We have a story, a poetic story of Jesus and his encounters with outcasts, with the crowds, with the religious authorities and the Roman Empire’s officials and with his followers. He is always pointing to and welcoming resurrection. That is where Jesus lives.
Tasks for hard times
In the midst of their grief, the women were tending to a critical task, preparing to anoint Jesus’s body when they
were met by the unexpected experience of God’s grace. Sometimes faith means going on and tending to what is needed . . . Be faithful in the tasks that are [yours] and ours . . . for in them we, too, may be bearers of good news of the day. ‘He is not here, but has risen. (Culpepper, NIB, Vol. IX, 473)
So what are the tangible evidences of resurrection in our experiences, past and present? How does Jesus’ presence continue to live in your life and in our life together?
Last summer, while at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat and education center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, I attended a session called The Poetic Leadership of Jesus, It was taught by Ken Evers, a poet and the senior pastor of Tualatin Presbyterian Church in Oregon. He shared with us participants a poem he had written about his tangible evidences of resurrection. I found it moving and want to end by sharing it with you.
Resurrection is Not an Argument
Resurrection is not an argument,
Not an idea to which you might agree,
And move on
Resurrection is a weed.
Her roots cracking into concrete
Finding a way where there is no way.
Resurrection is resistance,
The thin man, white shirt,
Facing down four machines of war,
Vulnerability his only weapon.
Resurrection is the dwarf mountain hemlock (a tree)
Fighting through rime ice.
Stunted by howling wind.
But growing anyway.
Resurrection is you,
Showing up one more time,
To a place you don’t understand,
To a love you know you don’t deserve,
But bringing everything you have
Hoping she is right,
When she says you never disappoint.
Resurrection is not an argument.
It is a song sung in another tongue,
That somehow still brings tears to flow,
A warm hand finding your shivering shoulder
On the coldest night.
Resurrection is life,
When all you know for sure
Is the shadow of death
Ken Evers Hood
All creatures, particularly humans, live in the shadow of death. But, today’s story of the empty tomb holds before us the directive to look for Jesus’ life among the living, not the dead. It continues to challenge us to remember that death and its shadow do not have the final word.
Living in the Presence by Tilden Edwards
Luke by Sharon Ringe
Speaking of Faith (S of F) by Krista Tippett
The Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX: Luke by Alan Culpepper
What Does the Lord Require: The Old Testament Call to Social Witness by Bruce Birch