Why am I up here? What am I doing here in this pulpit? What are you expecting me to say?
It is Easter Sunday; I have a packed house and a captive audience. I suppose I can do whatever I want to up here. Now would be the perfect time to talk at length about the need for voting representation in the U.S. Congress for the people of D.C. Or I could talk at length about some other major issue of concern to me (and perhaps to you). Or, I could just use the opportunity to get a bunch of things off of my chest: like how I really hate it when people say, “Just between you and I” when it should be “Just between you and me.” Or “This is really important to Bob and I” when it should be “This is really important to Bob and me.” Or how there is an increasingly inaccurate usage of the apostrophe–sometimes called the greengrocer’s apostrophe–to make plurals. S-A-L-A-D-apostrophe-S, is not the way “salads” is spelled. Or I could talk about how putting something in quotation marks is not the way one shows emphasis, and how when I see a sign for “fresh” vegetables, I wonder what kind of vegetables they really are.
I could talk about all those things. But that’s not what you are expecting me to talk about. What are you expecting?
II. WHAT THEY EXPECTED—LIFE AND DEATH IN ISRAEL
A. Expectations of the Disciples
What were those women expecting on that first day of the week, almost 2000 years ago? We are told in the text we read earlier that the women came at early dawn to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared to anoint the body, and that they found the tomb empty. We are told that they were “perplexed” by this. They were clearly expecting Jesus’ body to be there. According to the text, only after having been told by the ‘two men in dazzling clothes’ of Jesus’ words predicting his death and resurrection did they understand. They remembered the words, but they had expected otherwise. They had expected to find his still dead body in the tomb. They were not seeking the living among the dead, they were expecting to find the dead among the dead. They returned to the disciples and told them the same message we proclaim: Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.
Now, there may be some among you who are asking yourselves, “Okay, granted they were expecting to find him dead, and we was alive. That’s a nice dramatic twist, but so what? I saw them bring a guy back to life on ER last night–no one started worshipping him as the Son of God.”
Others of you may be saying, “Wait a minute. Other people have come back from the dead in the Bible before. Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, the widow at Zarephath’s son. Why didn’t anyone make such a big deal over those people?” In short, what’s the big deal with Easter?
Good point. Clearly the Resurrection impressed people in ways that other experiences didn’t. Paul’s conversion–indeed his entire ministry–is affected by his encounter with the Risen Christ. This is not simply a story of a man believed dead brought back to life. This is not the story of a resuscitation–this was new. This was a reversal of expectation. “22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
But, how big a reversal was it?
B. The Span of Life
To understand the scope of this reversal, we need to look back into the Hebrew scriptures.
Sometimes when someone dies, you’ll hear people say, “Well, he’s gone to a better place.” Others imagine death as a doorway to a spiritual plane–our soul is freed from its bodily imprisonment and flits away to heaven. Others contemplate ghosts walking the earth–the disembodied spirits of the dead lingering to haunt the living. Well, none of these is what the ancient Israelites thought. In fact, what surprises us is how little they dwelt on life past death, and how much they focused on the here and now.
Listen to the way that the death of even the greatest of prophets, Moses, is related:
Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command.Deuteronomy 34:5
That’s it. The greatest prophet in the history of Israel. The Lawgiver. And no mention of his eternal fate. No mention of Moses being brought up to heaven to live out eternity in Paradise. No angels accompany his soul to the pearly gates. He dies. He is buried. The people mourn. Joshua takes over.
The Hebrew scriptures rarely focus on life after death. The predominant view appears to be that you are born, you live, you die. There is little contemplation of what lies beyond that.
Now, I know what’s going to happen at this point. Someone is going to come up to me in the coffee hour and say, ‘So what’s this Sheol we keep hearing about, like in Job and the Psalms?’ Well, alright, let’s take a look. Listen to these words from Job:
Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good. The eye that beholds me will see me no more; while your eyes are upon me, I shall be gone. As the cloud fades and vanishes, so those who go down to Sheol do not come up; they return no more to their houses, nor do their places know them any more.Job 7:7–10
And these words from the Psalms:
Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?Psalm 6:4–5
“For in death there is no remembrance of you…” This is not exactly the most encouraging word. Death, here, is not seen as anything to look forward to. No sitting on a cloud playing the harp, here. No great party where you get to meet all the famous people who ever lived. Rather, in death there is no remembrance of God. (I should note here that the lack of remembrance does not mean people forget God, it means that they are not able to praise God). Sheol. The Pit. The Grave.
When Jesus died on Good Friday, the disciples and those around him would have expected Sheol to be his fate. This is something we affirm in some versions of the Apostles’ Creed when we say, “…he descended into hell.” We get confused often when we read this, because we think, “But Jesus was good–Why would Jesus go to hell? ” There is a little book you can buy in the Cokesbury bookstore that is titled, You Might Be a United Methodist if… On one of the pages it says, “You might be a United Methodist if you’ve never heard a sermon on hell and don’t feel that you’re missing out.”
But this curious affirmation makes a little more sense if we substitute the word Sheol for hell. “He descended into Sheol.” The realm of the dead. The pit. On Good Friday, Jesus is dead. Not in some spiritual plane floating on a cloud, nor is he in a fiery pit with demons. The disciples do not comfort each other by saying, “Don’t worry, I’m sure he’s gone to a much better place.” No. When Paul describes the Resurrection he says that God raised Jesus, the Greek words he uses are ejk nekrou ek nekrou–from out of the dead, not from the spirit realm. He was dead.
Death is real. It is not simply a passage way or a door. But a very real end. This was what was expected.
All this points to one thing–a focus in the Jewish tradition on the here and now and on the sanctity and importance of this life. The Israelites understood that the fullness of our human lives was lived out now, with union between body and soul. If the soul should live on in a shadowy afterlife after the body perishes, it is nothing like a full existence. It cannot even praise God. The ability to praise God, indeed to truly live is embodied, incarnate.
III. THE RESURRECTION: GOD’S JUSTICE
Now, it should be noted that this created something of a problem for the Jewish people. The people of Israel had long believed that the righteous do not suffer without hope, that the creation will not remain broken forever. However, it had long been apparent that things did not always get set right in this lifetime. Since to them the afterlife was not a place of reward and punishment, they came to believe that in order for God to set everything right, in order for us to be brought into a new life where sorrow is no more, injustice is no more, and where death is no more, God must restore us to bodilyexistence. The Resurrection of the Dead. What is the Resurrection of the dead?
The Resurrection is different. It is not simply a resuscitation of a corpse. It is life in a new and glorified body. How is the Resurrected glorified body different from a regular body? Idon’t know. We read in the Gospels of disbelieving Sadducees questioning Jesus about marriage in the Resurrection by way of ridiculing the idea. Debates have raged about this. St. Augustine notes in the of City of God that
There are some who think that in the resurrection all will be men, and that women will lose their sex… For myself, I think that both sexes will remain in the resurrection.
To tell you the truth, that’s one of those things that I am content to leave up to God. The biblical witnesses do not spend a lot of time on the particulars of the Resurrection. Sometimes, Jesus’ resurrected body is very much like his earthly body–it bears the wounds of the cross and the spear. He is recognizable. Other times, he is not recognizable–Mary Magdalene is unaware of the fact that she is talking with Jesus. In John, the disciples do not recognize Jesus as he stands on the shore. In Luke, he us unrecognizable to some companions on the road to Emmaus until he dines with them, and then suddenly disappears. All we are told in the Bible is that the ‘dead will be raised incorruptible.’ (Rev. ) Not a lot of detail.
It’s a bit like Geoffrey Rush’s line in Shakespeare in Love, when asked by his creditors about the end to the Shakespeare play he is producing: “It’s a mystery, but it all works out in the end.”
Given the apparent inability of the Biblical writers to offer a simple explanation, perhaps we should let it stay at that: It’s a mystery, but it all works out in the end.
IV. CHRIST’S RESURRECTION
A. Significance to the Jews
But it is not in the details of the Resurrection that it has power. Rather, it is in what it means. The Resurrection is confirmation of God’s reign breaking into the world—proof that the righteous do not suffer in vain. For those earliest Jewish Christians, Jesus’ Resurrection was the surprising and wondrous proof that Jesus was the agent of God, that Jesus had been acting with the authority of and in the name of God. It was that divine stamp of approval. It was proof that God was setting things right. This is not just God showing off or performing tricks–this was a foretaste of the Redemption that awaits us all. This was the Good News–the unexpected twist. The suffering one, who had humiliated himself, even to death on a cross, was now raised in glory, confirmed as God’s messiah.
B. Significance to the Proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah
The surprise of the Resurrection is absolutely necessary to our proclamation that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. Without it the Christian proclamation makes no sense. Without the Resurrection, we are followers of a failed, dead Messiah, with no more hope for eternal life than wishful thinking. We might reflect on a case in point:
In 1648, the Chelmenicki riots were violent pogroms in which 100,000 Jews were killed. There was a great expectation and messianic frenzy in the Jewish world. Into that vacuum, Shabbetai Tzvi, a Turkish Jew, stepped, claiming to be the Messiah. Nathan of Gaza accompanied him saying that the 10 lost tribes would soon return to Israel. Nathan said that the Turkish Sultan would be overthrown and Shabbetai Tzvi would rule Israel. Shabbetai was on his way to demand that the Sultan give Palestine back to the Jews. The Sultan was very concerned by the political fervor being generated and instead presented Shabbetai with an ultimatum: convert to Islam or be killed. With Shabbetai’s conversion to Islam he lost some credibility with the Jewish community. Because if there’s one thing the Jewish people believe: the Messiah is supposed to be Jewish.
As much as Shabbetai Tzvi’s conversion was a stumbling block to believing in him as the Messiah, the death of the Messiah would be an even greater stumbling block.
And not just any death. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read the following:
When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 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.Deut. 21:22-23
C. Significance to Paul
“Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree.” echoes St. Paul. The messiah is not supposed to die. And if he were, certainly not a death under a curse. This was not what the disciples–or anyone else–were expecting. But the Resurrection serves as the sudden and unexpected confirmation of Jesus as Messiah.
This is certainly how Paul saw it. Because of the Resurrection, the one who had suffered a humiliating death on a cross can be proclaimed as Lord and Savior. This is what he means when he writes in Romans that he is:
“…a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
The Resurrection reverses our expectations. Imagine the grief and confusion of those who had followed him when he was executed. All their hopes and expectations for a messianic king had been dashed. Imagine the wonder and power of his resurrection. Their dreams had been met in ways beyond their expectations. Noted New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders notes that “…the Resurrection was the engine that drove early Christianity. “
The conversion of Shabbetai Tzvi convinced the Jews of Europe that he was a false messiah. The death of Jesus on the cross–followed by nothing else–could just as easily convince us that he was a false messiah, or at best a failed messiah. But the Resurrection convinces us otherwise. We weren’t expecting that, were we?
V. CONCLUSION: WHAT DO YOU EXPECT?
So. What do you expect? What do you have a right to expect?
Were we to have lived 2000 years ago our expectations would have been rightfully different. We would have expected to live out our lives and then to die. That’s it. We might have hoped for more, but that would be all that we could expect. The women who went to the tomb that Sunday morning had that expectation. We can still expect those things. We still acknowledge the reality of death.
But Easter reminds us that we can expect much more. We have received the Good News. With the assurance of Christ’s Resurrection, we can be assured of the life everlasting. We can expect it. In the words of the Burial liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life…”
So, what am I doing in this pulpit? There is only one thing you should expect me to be doing, proclaiming: Hear the Good News, God, has raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and contrary to our expectations, has inaugurated the Kingdom. We await its final consummation–a consummation we no longer simply hope for, but we expect. We need not remain perplexed any longer. We need not seek the living among the dead. We can expect God’s inbreaking reign and the manifestation of God’s grace.
Hear the Good News, contrary to our expectations
22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
The Grace and Peace of the Lord our God be with you all.
1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” 14 The LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the LORD does valiantly; 16 the right hand of the LORD is exalted; the right hand of the LORD does valiantly.” 17 I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. 18 The LORD has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
1 ¶ But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The 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. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But 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.