Wow! What? and So What?
Sometimes I think about Easter in three parts: The “Wow!” the “What?” and the “So What?”
We talked about the “Wow!” two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday. We see it in the transformation of Mary Magdalene when she realizes that Jesus is standing in front of her, when she sees that he has been raised from the dead, when she tells the others “I have seen the Lord.” Easter is a “Wow!” moment. Empowering. Inspiring.
But part of Easter is also the “What?” What just happened? What’s going on here? The questioning, the doubts, the confusion. The lack of recognition. Jesus appearing in locked rooms. Thomas with his doubts and questions. And in today’s gospel, this time from the gospel of Luke, we get that marvellously confused phrase about the disciples who have just encountered the risen Jesus: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and wondering.”
The first part of today’s gospel is about the “What?” The disciples think they’re seeing a ghost at first, but Jesus makes sure that they know that he’s not a ghost. The take-away from this exchange is this: to see a ghost is to encounter the spirit of someone who is dead. But Jesus, and Luke the gospel writer who records this, they want us to know that Jesus is really and truly alive. That death itself has been overcome.
Like the disciples, most of us go through these first two stages: the “Wow!” the excitement and wonder and power of Easter, and the “What?” the wrapping of our heads and hearts around the question “What just happened?” But we’re not done yet – because all this just gets us to the most important part of Easter: the “So What?”
The “So What?” of Easter is where we start to wrestle with the questions of what does this mean, why did this happen, what difference does it make and what are the implications going forward? The first followers of Jesus wrestled with the “So What?” question. Jesus wants to help them with the “So What?” He wants them to understand the meaning of Easter. And in order to help them understand, he turns to the scriptures.
Luke’s gospel is particularly insistent on this. In this final chapter of Luke’s gospel, after Jesus is raised, we are told no less than five times that the meaning of Easter, the answer to the “So What?” question is to be found in the scriptures:
“Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
The meaning of Easter is to be found in the scriptures. That puts us at a bit of a disadvantage. Because the scriptures that Jesus is referring to are the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. And unfortunately, most of us just don’t know the Old Testament that well.
I really wish I could have been there when Jesus opened up the scriptures to his disciples. Here’s what I imagine he may have said:
He may have pointed to specific verses about death and resurrection, verses like the one in Hosea where the prophet talks about the sickness of Israel, how Israel will be struck down, but how God will raise Israel up on the third day. But I think that Jesus would have set that verse and others like it in the context of the entire narrative trajectory of the Hebrew Scriptures, and especially of Israel’s vocation as part of the arc of human history.
The story of Israel begins with the call of Abraham. It is the beginning of a rescue mission. The world which God created, the creation which God saw and pronounced as very good, had become infected with violence and injustice. Sin, the scriptures call it. And so God called Abraham to be the father of a great nation, a nation which would be a blessing for all nations. That was the beginning of the people of Israel. God made a covenant with Abraham and with Israel, which basically went like this: I will be your God and you will be my people. And God gave Israel the law through Moses to teach them how they were to live as God’s people. Later, the prophets, especially Isaiah, would reassert Israel’s vocation. “Thus says the Lord: I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” So Israel’s vocation was threefold: to live in relationship with God: to live in the way that God taught them, loving God and neighbour; and to reveal God’s ways to the whole world. This is what Israel was meant to do. This is what God promised that Israel would do.
But it didn’t work out that way. Israel never lived up to its vocation. Israel became prey to the same violence and injustice that infected the rest of humanity. Eventually Israel was taken into exile, an exile that they themselves understood as a separation from God as a consequence of their sinfulness. The people who were supposed to rescue humanity from its violence and injustice were themselves in need of rescue. Ezekiel captures this in his vision of the valley of dry bones: Israel is dead, and needs to be raised from the dead.
At this point it looks like Israel has failed in its vocation, its threefold vocation to be in relationship with God, to live in God’s ways and to be a light to all nations. Which is why Jesus takes the vocation of Israel upon himself.
Jesus becomes the prophet prophesied by Moses. In the law of Moses, the first section of the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses says, “The Lord God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me.” Jesus is the new Moses, the one who will save his people not from slavery in Egypt, but from the slavery of sin and death. Jesus’ death and resurrection become the new Exodus, the new way home to God, the passage from slavery into freedom.
Jesus then looks to the prophets, the second section of the Hebrew Scriptures, and identifies himself as the suffering servant found in the scroll of Isaiah. The suffering servant is the one sent by God as a teacher, the one who breaks the cycle of injustice and violence by refusing to respond in kind, and who through his suffering brings healing and a restored relationship with God, atonement in the language of the scriptures.
Jesus then turns to the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures which begins with the psalms, and finds in the book of Daniel the prophesy of the Son of Man, a vision of a great battle in which the Son of Man is sent by God to defeat the forces of evil and is then exalted by God and given dominion over all peoples. Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man and he reinterprets the scripture. Initially it was thought that the beasts in the vision were the armies of foreign nations, such as the Roman army, but Jesus sees the beasts as evil itself, as the violence and injustice which have infected and enslaved humanity and which need to be defeated, evils which did their worst in the violence and injustice of the cross, but which God has overpowered and overcome in raising Jesus from the dead.
And so, Jesus, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to his disciples the things about himself in all the scriptures.
So that they could understand what had just happened.
So that they could understand that through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus had accomplished on behalf of Israel the vocation that God had given through Abraham, Moses and the prophets, and that in so doing he had fulfilled God’s promises to the people.
So that they could understand that through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God had overcome sin and evil and rescued humanity from the injustice and violence with which we are infected and which separates us from God, and that there will be healing from the wounds of sin and injustice.
So that we could be reconciled with God, restored to right relationship with God and reconstituted as God’s people.
So that we could see in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection what it looks like to live as God’s people. What it means to love God and to love our neighbour. What it looks like to change our ways and to love one another the way that Jesus loves us.
So that we, restored and reconciled as God’s people, living in the way that God has taught us, we can participate in the vocation to make these things known to all people, proclaiming repentance (that is, a changed way of life) and forgiveness of sin (that is, a reconciled relationship with God) and healing to all people.
So that we can be witnesses of these things.
And that is what the disciples did. And that is why we are here today.
Homily Yr B Easter 3, April 15 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 3.12-19, Ps 4, 1 John 3.1-7, Luke 24.36b-48
Image by Paul VanDerWerf (Creative Commons)