Resurrection (Isaiah 65:17-25; Colossians 3:1-4; Luke 24:1-12)
People have been preaching and teaching on Easter about the resurrection of Jesus for thousands of years. It’s all been said, and many of you will have heard what could pass for a summary of much that there is to say. Indeed, I’ve been at work here for a long time, and certainly shot my bolt as well, so if you’re looking for novelty, you won’t find it today. Yet perhaps, that’s just the point about such days as Easter and Christmas. The basics of the days themselves don’t change. I learned something a long time ago about knowing things generally from reading Plato. Very little we learn is really new, but rather, much of learning means bringing into our conscious minds those things we already know, so that we can, if possible, configure them in new ways to fit our lives now.
That’s much of what the poet in Isaiah 65 said:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
This poetry contains a common Hebrew figure of speech called a merism that takes two opposite or contrasting things and uses them to refer to the totality of one thing. So here (and other places in the Old Testament) “heavens and earth” = “everything.” This poetry says that God is on the cusp of making everything new. The former things (even if they used to be “new”) are not to be used as a measuring stick for reality. The rest of the poem goes on to characterize what the “new everything” will be like. It will be a place of delight, rejoicing, security, long life, justice (no one shall build and another occupy, or plant and another steal the produce). The poet then refers to a vision of well-being found in chapter 11 that
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
The lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent – its food shall be dust!
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
Here the poet underlines that God’s new everything includes justice as a top priority. Those who choose to be destructive ( as in the serpent story in Genesis 3) will reap what they’ve sown. The whole poem describes Shalom, and is a wonderful introduction to resurrection. Resurrection is the new thing that makes old disasters and defeats not worth remembering. Today we celebrate not just Jesus’ (or “the”) resurrection, but resurrection as a reality in God’s new everything. I want to say more of resurrection as we go along this morning, but this day is also about “the” resurrection.
The Gospel Lesson (this year it’s Luke’s version) tells the tale. It’s about women who came to Jesus’ tomb early on that first Easter day, only to find it empty (we all know that). The women found two men in dazzling clothes who said some important words that we don’t always take in their depth. They said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (that’s even on our bulletin cover).
The men in white said to the women, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to those who don’t know better, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Jesus had said that he was moving on and a new thing was on the cusp of happening. We can’t blame these disciples for not getting it, because it’s hard to embrace new things, especially when they’re brand new.
Remember that Luke was writing to a congregation of disciples at least half a century after these events at the Tomb. By that time they had experienced the fact that Jesus “moved on.” We have that experience, too. We think that we ought to be able to go right back to where we remember putting Jesus and expect to find him there like an elf on the shelf (to confuse my holidays). We look for him just where we left him after we left grade 6 Sunday School, or in the verses or doctrines we memorized and could spit back with ease. Just as if there were no new things. No, folks. The tomb is empty. Jesus has risen and is out of there! Why are we still there?
Do you remember the story of the Valley of Dry Bones from the Prophecy of Ezekiel (chapter 37). The dry bones were the whole people of God who had thought that God was to be found in the things of yesterday. And the prophet is asked to, of all things, to preach to a congregation of corpses, or worse, old dry skeletons. He did. And they came together bone to bone, sinew to bone, flesh to sinew, skin to flesh. And they looked real, but were still dead without breath or spirit (same word in Hebrew and Greek). And it was God who did the new thing and put breath in them: “and they stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” The prophet gives God’s summary of the whole matter:
Thus says the Lord GOD. I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back home to the Land, and you will know I am God.
Resurrection. Why are we still insisting on being at the tomb?
A few weeks ago I saw a picture of the resurrection, painted by the renaissance artist Jacopo da Pontormo called “Resurrection” that pictured Jesus being raised in the context of a large body of others. As I inquired further, I discovered that most Eastern Orthodox icons of Jesus’ resurrection depict him, not alone, but grasping in each hand, others who he pulls out of their graves along with him. Such wonderful artwork reminded me of how important the idea of resurrection is to the new thing that God is doing, and that resurrection is contained in the idea of “the resurrection.” It is also not only about Jesus, but about us, too.
In this regard, it is interesting to remember that what is probably the most famous description of Jesus’ resurrection in all of the New Testament (maybe in all of literature) is Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 15, which is often our Easter Epistle Lesson. This famous chapter is really not about the resurrection of Jesus so much as it is about the resurrection of the disciple of Jesus. It was much easier, it seems, to believe in the transformation of Jesus’ earthly body into a heavenly one, than the transformation of our bodies into heavenly ones. It is true the resurrection of Jesus is assumed by 1 Corinthians 15, but it is just that, the assumption, the starting point, not where Paul drives his argument with the Corinthians.
But, I think that there is something more important than getting our doctrine of the resurrection right. As I’ve said to you for the last two weeks now, I think it’s more important to “live” our faith than to “explain” it. This world has had 20 centuries of explanations, creeds, arguments, orthodoxy, punishment for getting out of line with orthodoxy and so forth. In our day, it would seem better to me that we live the truth. That’s where our Epistle Lesson comes in today.
So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Here we have Jesus’ hand being joined to ours in resurrection. As I’ve said to you before, in a Greek sentence beginning with a word translated as “if,” it is possible to tell whether the writer considers what is said is true to reality. Here, we have what we call a condition of the First Class, assumed to be true. The writer assumes that it is true that the ones to whom he wrote had, indeed, been raised with Christ (i.e., they were followers of Jesus). So, we ought, really to translate this line” “Since (it is true that) you have been raised with Christ.” Such resurrection carries with it a “risen” life style and “risen” decisions that are the ones Jesus, now at God’s right hand, would make. If our identity shares in resurrection, the new thing that God is creating (back in Isaiah 65), then our acts will look like Jesus. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, it is a new creation, the old is gone, see everything is new.”
On this Easter Day, this means that, Jesus’ resurrection makes it possible for us to act with Christ’s love, compassion, kindness, grace, mercy, acceptance, inclusion, and humility. It makes it possible not to think that all that matters is whether what we do is lawful, even if it’s awful. It’s not as simple as saying, “I believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.” It means, doing our best, with God’s help, to follow Jesus in the creation of the new thing that God is doing. It’s about living a resurrection life. Resurrection is a new thing that God is doing, resurrection belongs not only to Jesus, but to us together with him, and resurrection contains within it an ethical payload. So, let us not be caught looking for the living among the dead, being bound to the old things, but looking for new, creative, and relevant ways to be like Jesus, whose resurrection we celebrate and share today.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Creator, AMEN.