17 Pentecost: 23 September 2007
(Acts 10:34-43/Te Deum laudamus/Colossians 3:1-4/Luke 24:1-10)
On the third day he rose again.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It’s a classic scene in the film Shrek. Shrek, the ogre, and his companion, a talking donkey named Donkey, are walking through a field on their way toward a great and life-changing adventure. For the first time the surly and defensive ogre begins to open up a little, to reveal his emotionally fragile and wounded “inner ogre.” Of course, doing that to a talking donkey has its risks.
Shrek: Ogres are like onions.
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes. No.
Donkey: Oh, they make you cry.
Donkey: Oh, you leave em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin' little white hairs.
Shrek: NO. Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
Donkey: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody like onions.
Well, the resurrection is like onions; it has layers, too – layers of meaning. Or maybe a better image would be the nested, Russian Matryoshka dolls. The largest, outer doll is beautiful in itself, but, twist it open and inside is another beautiful doll. And inside that, yet another. And so on until you arrive at the inmost treasure, an exquisite, tiny figure and perfect reward for your effort.
On the third day he rose again. That’s all the Creed says about the resurrection: it happened, and it happened on the third day. The Creed assumes that we have been taught by the Church to unpack the layers of meaning of this bare statement, that the tradition has been faithfully passed on to us and that we have faithfully received it, and that we will pass it on to our children – our children in the faith or in the body, or, if we are so blessed, in both.
The meanings of the resurrection are preserved in the tradition of the Church: in liturgical worship, in the sacraments, in the Scripture, in life in community and in the world. When we give voice to the liturgy – Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. – we witness to a particular meaning of the resurrection. When we attend to the Holy Gospel, we hear and proclaim still other meanings. When, during the Eucharist, we acknowledge the great mystery of our faith – Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. – and feed on the most precious body and blood of God’s Son, our Savior, we reveal yet another layer of meaning in the resurrection. Layer upon layer, truth upon truth, mystery upon mystery, it unfolds before us.
It is this way in Scripture, too. The New Testament authors – and ultimately the Holy Spirit who inspired them – present multiple layers of meaning in the resurrection. Gospels, Acts, Epistles, Apocalypse: these nested dolls of Scripture show a development in the church’s understanding and appropriation of the resurrection. The earliest, inmost, layer is found in Acts, in Peter’s great Pentecost Sermon. A few year later, Paul explores and develops the meaning of the resurrection in his letters to various congregations scattered throughout the Mediterranean – congregations attempting to live the resurrection in their place and time. Later still, John, the last of the Apostolic witnesses of the resurrection presents the fruit of his deep reflection in his Gospel and in the Apocalypse – a meaning so grand and sweeping that it takes us from the Garden to Heaven and back again. On the third day he rose again.
It is Pentecost; only fifty days have lapsed since Passover, since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On this morning God, the Holy Spirit, has come like a mighty, rushing wind, like flames of fire, to bring new life to those few witnesses of the resurrection. Driven into the streets, Peter preaches to the gathered multitudes.
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:22-24, 32-36, NRSV).
What meaning has the resurrection for Peter? The resurrection is the declaration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ: that is Peter’s sermon and the Gospel in a nutshell – Jesus is Lord! The resurrection vindicates Jesus before the powers that opposed him; it declares him to be right before God and all of them to be wrong. The resurrection exalts Jesus in his triumph over the powers that opposed him: Pilate, who boasted he had the power of life and death is shown to be an impotent coward; Satan, who thought he had the power of sin and death is trampled underfoot and soon will be cast into the lake of fire prepared for him and for his angels. The resurrection makes possible the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise – I will ask the Father and he will send a comforter. – his promise never to abandon or forsake us, but to be present with us and to empower us through life in the Holy Spirit. Jesus is Lord: vindicated, exalted, and present. This is what the resurrection means to Peter on this first Pentecost. It is the inmost layer, the most fundamental meaning of the resurrection: Christus Victor – Christ the Victor, Christ the Triumphant. Because of the resurrection all the world may “know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus” who was crucified and who rose again.
Some twenty years later Paul writes to a troubled church in Corinth: split by sectarian loyalties, polluted with sexual immorality, enmeshed in pagan cultural practices. He writes to remind them.
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor 15:1-8, NRSV).
What is of first importance for this church or any church? Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ was raised on the third day: this is the tradition that Paul received and the tradition that he passes on. Some in Corinth were denying the resurrection of Christ – denying, in fact, the general resurrection of the dead. Paul confronts them with eye witness testimony to the resurrected Christ – confronts them with credible witnesses like Peter (Cephas) and the other apostles, James the brother of the Lord, five hundred disciples, and even Paul, himself.
What meaning has the resurrection for Paul and for his Corinthian brothers and sisters? He spells it all out for them clearly.
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have died in Christ have perished. If for life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But, in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power (1 Cor 15:17-24, NRSV).
The resurrection of Christ is the substance of faith, the evidence of forgiveness, and the hope of eternal life. Yes, Paul agrees with Peter: Jesus is the Lord who will destroy every rival ruler, authority, and power. But Paul deepens the meaning of the resurrection and makes it intensely personal. We will die, every one of us. Death entered the world through Adam and has brought all humanity under its dominion. Until Jesus. For the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ shows that death is a defeated enemy who has lost its sting. Jesus’ death brings us forgiveness, but his resurrection brings us life. And not just more of the same life. No. Eternal life, the life of the ages: imperishable, glorious, powerful, immortal. Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54, NRSV). What is the meaning of the resurrection? Jesus is Lord – Lord of life: author of faith, fount of forgiveness, and hope of eternal life.
By now, late in the first century, Peter is dead. Paul, too. Only John remains as eyewitness of the resurrection. Through many years – six decades or so – he has pondered that mystery and has peeled away its layers of meaning one by one. Before he falls asleep in the Lord he tells the story once again for all future generations – for us and for our children and for all who are far off, so that we, too, better may grasp its meaning. John the Apostle, John the Theologian, John the Seer, John the poet writes.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb (John 21:1, NRSV).
Some time later the same day – a few hours, perhaps, on that same first day of the week – Mary stands alone, weeping at the empty tomb, not comprehending its message. She hears or senses someone behind her, and turning, she encounters a stranger who says, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thinks the stranger must be the gardener, the caretaker of this garden cemetery. She learns better as the gardener speaks her name, “Mary,” in a voice so familiar that she recognizes it immediately. Rabbouni! Teacher. Jesus. And in this simple, touching story, John unveils a new layer of the resurrection, one so sweeping and profound that it encompasses all of creation. The resurrection is the first day of the week, and on that first day we find ourselves in a garden. This is a creation story – more truly, a new creation story – God at work in a garden bringing forth new life. John consciously writes his gospel account as a parallel to Genesis: this is the meaning that he wants to reveal to us, that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is once again busy creating – recreating – the world; that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is once again busy bringing forth life; that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is once again busy among his people to bless.
The first Christians, though thoroughly Jewish, nevertheless left behind the Sabbath as their day of worship; they replaced it with Sunday, the first day of the week, which they called the Lord’s Day. For 1200 years they had followed the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Why forsake it? Because the resurrection inaugurates new creation, a new creation in which the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Because the resurrection inaugurates a new creation in which the Spirit of God is busy recreating, renewing – not resting. Because the resurrection inaugurates a new creation in which our promised rest lies in the future, in the hands of the one who said, “Mary,” on that first day of the week and who has spoken each of our names, as well. What is the meaning of the resurrection? Jesus is Lord – Lord of life: author of faith, fount of forgiveness, and hope of eternal life. And this Lord is busy renewing the face of earth, restoring all creation, making all things new.
It is Sunday on the island of Patmos near the end of the first century. John’s body is exiled on this barren spit of rock, but his spirit is not imprisoned there. No, it is with his churches. It is with his Lord. It is caught up in worship with the elders and the four living creatures, with angels numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, around the very throne of God. And there he sees things, things which he is permitted to write. There he sees the ultimate layer of meaning in the resurrection.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:1-4, NRSV).
What is the ultimate meaning of the resurrection? Nothing less than the full reconciliation of the created order with the Creator. Nothing less than eternal life in the presence of God. Nothing less than the fulfillment of man’s created purpose to be the true and perfect image-bearers of God. Nothing less than the world put to rights. On the third day he rose again.
Peter had the first public word on the resurrection: Jesus is Lord. He has a fitting final word also, a word which encompasses layer upon layer of meaning.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice (1 Pe 1:3-6a, NRSV).
On the third day he rose again.