Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles. Here Peter recounted Jesus’ ministry: how Jesus began his ministry in Galilee after being anointing by the Holy Spirit. He cured those possessed by demons before being put to death rising from the dead after three days. All those who believe will have their sins forgiven. John’s Gospel described the events of Easter morning. Mary Magdalen went to the tomb where Jesus was buried but found the stone had been removed and the tomb was empty. She immediately ran to Peter and John and told them Jesus’ body had been stolen. They all returned to the tomb and saw the burial linens were still present. They then recognized that Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection
Happy Easter! While we’re all celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, I imagine there are some who are just plain grateful to have made it through another Lent. It’s time to indulge in those things we gave up for Lent.
But in all seriousness, these readings (like last week) are so familiar in our imaginations it can be hard to see them with new eyes. As a matter of fact, it didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that the readings are backward. We first read from the Acts of the Apostles, and then read from John’s Gospel even though the Gospel describes events that happened before Acts. A small point, but an interesting one.
I say this because we’ve always been told this narrative: Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his apostles. After rising into the sky 40 days after his resurrection, his followers (all Jews) explained that Jesus was the Messiah they all had waited for. They evangelized first those around them, and eventually Gentiles (non Jews), and Christianity spread all over the world and is the Church we see to this day. Matthew’s Gospel exists only convince Jews that Jesus was exactly who they had waited for all these years.
It’s actually a little more complicated. We all recognize that not all Jews of Jesus’ time recognized him as the Messiah (as evidenced by they’re still being Jews today) but I think we may easily overplay that hand. When I was a child I was implicitly told that those who followed Jesus made the right choice and those that didn’t made the wrong choice. We weren’t told how many Jews converted but most of us thought most Jews did convert. But there’s good reason to suspect that relatively few Jews converted.
It’s true that Jews of the time were awaiting the Messiah but there was far from full agreement on what this Messiah would look like or do. It was based on the belief that this Messiah would descend from the line of David and restore all Israel to their previous glory.
The first apostles had the unenviable job of convincing their fellow Jews who lived as subjects of the Roman Empire that a criminal who had been executed by the Romans was this Messiah. We can all agree that this isn’t what most Jews of the time pictured for the Messiah.
Additionally, the historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell has written a series of excellent books called “The Saxon Chronicles” that described events of the early Middle Ages. The protagonist, a man named Uhtred, was a pagan who worshiped the Norse god Thor and was puzzled by Christians. He referred derisively to them as those who worship “the nailed god” and can’t understand how anyone worships a god who was killed.
And that is, perhaps, what we must glean from our celebration of Easter. We find our strength in dying to preconceptions and our future in seeing truth in ways we didn’t expect.
Still, in so many ways we can easily slip back into old ways. We’ve just seen our current president and a former vice president get into a dust up over who would win a fistfight, each claiming to be stronger. The current Russian president proves his strength by riding a horse while shirtless. We honor those who dominate and blame those who fall victim.
On the other hand we’ve also seen signs of hope. I write this a few hours after high school students (and those who love them) marched in cities all over the United States and indeed the world. They aren’t old enough to vote but they boarded buses and planes to speak truth to power.
Easter, for us, is not simply a historical event but a living reality. In the same way that Peter and the rest of the apostles challenged those around them to see that eternal life comes to us not through strength but through death, we are challenged to see old things in new ways.
Two hundred years ago most Americans (and most Christians) took slavery for granted. But a small group of abolitionists read the same Bible and came to a different conclusion. They recognized that while slavery was given tacit approval in the Bible, they were called to look beyond their preconceptions and see truth in new ways. Abolition wasn’t easy and it nearly tore our nation apart, but the truth that we are all created equal makes us who we are today.
The end of slavery didn’t end racial prejudice (even to this day), but we find another example of new truths in 1947. American baseball finds its roots in the mid 1800s and by 1887 it was generally agreed that only Americans of European descent were “talented enough” to play in the major leagues. Americans of African descent were thought to be inferior and were barred from even trying out. But in 1947 a strict Methodist named Branch Rickey, who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, saw Jackie Robinson (an African American) in a new light. He looked at Jackie and said: “He looks like a major league second baseman.” Taking nothing from the courage of Mr. Robinson, it also took the imagination of Mr. Rickey. Again, the road to the integration of major leagues baseball wasn’t easy, but today virtually nobody advocates for segregation in baseball.
The living reality of Easter calls us today. Whether it be LGBT rights or how we see neighbors who don’t look or worship like us, we are called and even required to see life and each other with new eyes. But let’s face it: when we live in a place of fear we feel great pressure to find safety in what we’ve always known. We feel pressured to build walls to protect what we have and warned against challenging our preconceptions.
But our faith would not have survived the first generation had the apostles succumbed to this fear. They didn’t protect their lives or their futures. Instead they granted us our futures. We should find gratitude for their decisions which should empower our decisions.