Hail to the King: A Meditation for Good Friday

TriumphMark 15:16-39

We began this Holy Week by talking about a parade on Palm Sunday. But some historians belive that there were actually two parades that day. There was the procession of the Roman cohort, led by Pontius Pilate, which came into the city of Jerusalem from the west as a show of imperial power, a sign to the people that no unrest would be tolerated during the Passover Festival. At about the same time, coming into the city from the east, was Jesus—riding not on a war horse but on a donkey. His followers shouted royal slogans and put palm branches in the road. We said then, and are reminded now as we talk about Friday, that these two parades—representing two different worldviews—would come into direct conflict, but not in the way that people expected. In fact, on Friday, Good Friday, these two parades somehow merge into a single parade that leads out of the city and into a new future that would change the world.

If the Gospel of Mark was written to a Roman Christian audience, which was probably the case, that audience would have read this narrative and understood the relationship of these processions and the images they evoked. Parades were fairly common in Rome, but they were reserved primarily for imperial victory celebrations. When emperors or victorious military commanders returned to the city from foreign conquests, they were given a parade called a “triumph.”

A look at the history of Rome tells us that the procession was almost always the same. The imperial honoree was called the “triumphator” would be mounted on a chariot and would display the symbols of his office, being clad in a long purple robe and wearing a crown of laurel leaves. Purple was the color reserved only for royalty—it was unlawful for anyone else under a certain rank to wear it at all. Above the triumphator’s head, a slave would hold a crown of gold fashioned in the shape of laurel leaves. The purple robe and golden crown would have been borrowed from their permanent location, where they clothed the statue of the chief Roman god Jupiter in his temple, the Jupiter Capitolinus. The connection between the triumphator and the gods was unmistakable—a symbol of divinity. Before the triumph would begin, the soldiers in the imperial guard would give their accolades to the triumphator: “Hail, Caesar! Hail the conqueror! Hail Son of God (one of the emperor’s most common titles)” The parade would then move toward the city with drums beating and the shouts and accolades of the people echoing off the stone buildings and pavement.

Following the triumphator in the procession would be a sacrificial bull, which was dressed and crowned in a similar fashion to signify its identity with the triumphator. The bull would be sacrificed as an offering to Jupiter once the parade reached its terminus. Walking along side the bull was an official carrying a double-bladed axe—the instrument of death for the sacrificial victim.

The procession would move along the prescribed route until it came to its end at the temple of Jupiter, which sat on a hill called the “Capitolium.” The legend was that when the foundations for this temple were being dug, the diggers discovered a buried human head with all of its features intact. The hill was thus named the Capitoline Hill, because the Latin word for “head” is the word “capita”—where we get the word “Capitol” in English. It was to be the “head of all Italy,” the capital, the place of the head.

Arriving at the Capitolium, the triumphator was offered a cup of wine, which he would refuse and then pour on the altar. The wine was given just before the bull was sacrificed and thus represented the precious blood of the victim freely poured out. The bull would then be slaughtered and placed on the altar, signifying the god who dies and appears as the victor in person of the triumphator. The sacrifice, in other words, signifies that the emperor is one of the gods. The triumphator then ascended to a high rostrum or throne, where he would take his place and be flanked by other, though lesser, men of royalty.

This formula, with some slight variations, was repeated for every triumphal march in Rome—thus it would have been familiar to Mark’s first readers. And when those Roman Christians opened this particular scroll and read the story of Good Friday, the message of that parade would have been unmistakable.

On Friday, Jesus is tried by Pilate and rejected by the religious leaders and the crowd. He is charged with being royalty—Pilate called him “King of the Jews,” a title which infuriated Jesus’ accusers. Wanting to keep peace, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified—and the parade begins.

According to Mark, Jesus is led from his trial before Pilate into the “Praetorium,” which is an interesting phrase. This could mean that he was taken to the general military headquarters in the Antonia Fortress, next to the Temple in Jerusalem, but the word choice is unique. “Praetorium” was also the term used for the unit of the imperial guard in Rome—the emperor’s bodyguards, if you will—and also referred to their barracks, which was also the place from which each parade of triumph began. Notice, too, that Mark says that “the whole company of soldiers” was called together. That meant probably about two hundred, which would seem like many more than necessary to flog and mock a prisoner. Normally, the whole company would fall out only for necessary occasions—drills, battle, and, notably for Mark, for triumphal parades. Is Mark trying to tell his readers something here?

I believe so, and the evidence continues. Jesus is dressed in a purple robe—reserved only for royalty. It’s hard to imagine where they got it—Pilate would have been the only ruler at hand who had one, but Mark tells us that Jesus was dressed in royal color, like a triumphator in Rome. Like in Rome, too, a crown is placed on his head—not the glittering crown of golden laurel, but the bitter mockery of a crown of thorns. Just like at the beginning of a Roman triumph, the imperial guard shouts its accolades, “Hail, King of the Jews!” but here it’s a punch line rather than a proclamation.

Passion_of_Christ_Simon_of_CyreneThe parade begins. Instead of riding a chariot, this King walks—stumbles, really, down the prescribed path. A passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, a foreigner and a spectator, is compelled to walk beside the King, carrying the instrument of his death—not a double-bladed axe, but a cross beam of rough wood that will be used to kill the triumphator himself—a true and personal sacrifice.

The procession winds slowly through the narrow streets. Instead of the shouts of an adoring public, this King hears instead shouts of derision and disappointment. Leaving Capitolium—except here it is called Golgotha, the place of the skull.

Just before the moment of sacrifice, the triumphator is offered wine, but he refuses. It is his own blood that will be poured out in sacrifice this day. At the crucial moment he is lifted up, set high above the crowd—not on a throne but on a cross. There beside him are two others, not officials or friends but murderous revolutionaries who don’t hail him, but instead hurl insults at him. A sign is nailed above his head—KING OF THE JEWS, but in this case it is not a title but a joke. The triumphator, the King, hangs there nailed fast through the hands and feet, naked, bleeding, gasping for breath, the life ebbing out of him.

And this is a triumph?

It’s hard to imagine the impact this story had on Mark’s first readers. Roman Christians knew the symbols and knew the way of triumphal parades. They had heard the proclamations of the emperor’s divinity and seen the demonstration of powers in Roman streets and temples. For them, this story has all the elements of a triumph, but it ends so differently than all the others. The divine ruler is not given a coronation here, but a cross. He is not ruler of Rome, he is Rome’s victim. He has not entered the city triumphantly, but has been marched outside and nailed to a tree beside the road so that the whole world could see his shame. Yet, somehow, Mark and the other Gospel writers say, is a victory—a real and lasting triumph. 

The Apostle Paul certainly saw the connection. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 Paul writes, “But God always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” The reference to scent is also connected to the triumph, which included the distribution of different aromatics along the parade route. The connection here, though, is unmistakable—for Paul, and for the early Christians, Christ was the triumphator and the cross is his sign of victory.

I think that sometimes we miss the scandal of Good Friday, perhaps because we’ve turned the cross into a decoration rather than understanding it for what it really represents. How could the instrument of ultimate death become a symbol of triumph? How could the bitterest kind of defeat be celebrated as a victory? These were the questions those early Christians had to answer in the midst of a Roman world where emperors still rode chariots and took their place at the head of the empire.

Their answer was a simple one—the death of Jesus on a cross, they said, was not a defeat by the forces of evil, but the defeat of the forces of evil. On the cross, Jesus Christ—Israel’s representative, God’s representative, humanity’s representative—took upon himself all the pain and injustice the world could muster. He was innocent, yet he bore the pain, suffering, and condemnation of those who were guilty—guilty of sin, guilty of ambition, guilty of setting up systems that ground people into dust physically, economically, and spiritually. Instead of offering a token sacrifice to God, he gave his whole life over to God and God’s plan for the redemption of the world. He was fully divine, fully human, and fully committed to defeating evil—not through violence, but through suffering.

To put it another way, the cross became the sign that the empire and its deified rulers, who ruled by force and achieved victory through violence, was being decisively challenged by a different kind of power—the power of sacrificial love. The real King had come, as Jesus said earlier in Mark’s Gospel, “not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). The cross thus becomes the “Capitolium” of the whole world—the focal point of the true King’s ultimate victory.

Mark’s first audience would have continued to see triumphal marches years after hearing about the death of Jesus on a Roman cross. They would have continued to see the display of power, the flaunting arrogance of world rulers and despots, the wealth and excess of the empire. Truth is that we still see the same things paraded before us today—the deification of celebrity, the gluttonous wealth of the few, the violence of military conquest, and the political posturing of people seeking power. Jesus’ victory parade seems to have been for naught.

But it’s not. It’s a sign—a sign that there is, indeed, hope. Growing up I was trained to repeat the mantra that “Jesus died on the cross for my sins.” I believe that’s true, but I also believe that the cross means so much more than that. The cross is not simply a means to my personal eternal destiny, it is the means through which God chose to change the world for good.

Remember that less than 300 years after Mark wrote these words the Roman empire was changed. The persecuted Christian minority of Mark’s day would become the dominant faith of the empire. That, of course, would cause its own kinds of problems, but the fact remains that wherever people catch this vision that evil is not the last word, wherever people choose to fight evil with good and choose sacrifice over self-indulgence, wherever people are willing to give their lives for a cause, wherever God is at work, it is in those places and in those hearts that no amount of evil can ever be victorious. In the cross of Jesus, the ultimate victory has been won, but we still await its completion, that day when Jesus once again comes in triumph to set the whole world to rights. Things can change…they will change…but only when we, too, pick up a cross and follow Jesus, living that victory in our own lives.

The choice that Mark offers to his readers is an important one, and it’s the same choice we talked about at the beginning of the series—the same choice offered on Sunday: whose parade are you going to follow? Which King do you choose? Do you hail the Caesars of this world, or do you choose to take up a cross and follow Christ?

Centurion.25482507_std.jpgThe centurion, captain of the Roman company who led the parade that Friday, was watching the condemned man die there on the Captiolium, the hill of the Skull. He had seen triumphal marches before, probably had shouted his own “Hail Caesar!” at the passing chariot. This day, though, for all its parallels to a Roman triumph, was different. On this cross hung a man whose sense of purpose was unmatched by even the most powerful emperor. Here was a man whose quiet suffering held within it the dignity of true royalty. Here was a man whose compassion and humility never wavered, even in the face of the cruelest torture and most gruesome of deaths. Here was a man who did not need to claim divinity for himself—it seemed to shined through him. As he hung there battered and beaten, drawing his last breath, he looked defeated, destroyed, yet somehow he was not.

Says Mark: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"

Hail to the King!




Revelation: Back to the Future (Surprised By Hope – Part 5)

JetsonsRevelation 21:1-6

One of the more interesting books I've read in the past couple of years is one titled, Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and Other Dead Wrong Predictions of the 20thCentury, written by Paul Milo. It’s a look at some of the technologies and lifestyle changes that people from about 1900 to the 1980s thought would be part of our lives in the year 2000 and beyond—stuff like, well, like this:

Many of us who were born in the early to mid-twentieth century believed that by now we’d be using flying cars, that science would have figured out a way to keep the majority of people alive and well long after the age of 100, that we’d have a colony on the moon, or that weather would be controlled and predictable. We figured that the Jetsons life was just around the corner, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Now, granted, there have been some tremendous advancements in techonology in the past 20 years—think about life pre-internet, for example. When I was a kid, cell phones were for fabulously wealthy people and computers were big banks of machines with blinking lights and reel to reel tape drives. I served in the Army and learned how to use a map and compass, which seems so medieval compared to GPS. Going back to school for my doctorate has been fascinating in that vein, given the fact that I went through seminary without the net and without the benefit of a powerful laptop computer (I remember paying my cousin $1 a page to type my history papers in college). Professors used chalk instead of powerpoint, and I jotted notes in a real notebook instead of a notebook computer.

That’s not to mention, of course the many advances in medicine and in other areas that would have amazed our early 20th century ancestors. 

But despite all that advancement, there are still lots of visions that we haven’t achieved. Take the flying car, for example. In 1943, an aviation publicist named Harry Bruno said that “automobiles will start to decline as soon as the last shot was fired in World War II. The helicopter will all but replace the horseless carriage as the new means of popular transportation…These copters will be so safe and cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads.”

Uh-huh. Imagine teenagers running amok and buzzing your house in a chopper. You thought auto insurance was expensive! Then again, quick survey, how many of you have ever flown in a helicopter? Certainly not as many who have driven a car!

Consider the kind of air travel we actually do—flying in airplanes. I found it interesting that in 1895, Thomas Edison—himself considered to be a innovator who invented the lightbulb—declared that research into the airplane was a “dead end whose possibilities have been exhausted.” Even Orville and Wilbur Wright’s father, who was a preacher, scoffed at the possibility of heavier-than-air flight in a sermon.

Well, we know how it turned out. Within 50 years of the Wright brothers first flight, people were routinely flying around the country in large airliners. But even then, people thought that the technology would enable them to go even farther and faster. The Concorde was an answer to that for several years, but the sonic booms it produced were disruptive and the fuel consumption expensive, so ultimately the Concorde was retired. Milo observes that while avionics have evolved, the planes we fly in aren’t that much different in terms of power and speed than those of the 1960s. In fact, it now takes us longer to fly than it did then because of all the security protocols!

See, the future is here, but it’s proven to be pretty expensive. The technology for electric cars and automated roadways has been around for a long time, but no one wants to really pay for it on a grand scale. We’ve mapped the human genome, but we haven’t yet figured out how to prevent every disease or regenerate non-functioning organs—working on it, mind you, but not there yet.

If someone awoke, Rip Van Winkle-like, from the 1920s, they’d certainly be impressed with our advances, but they’d still notice that war, death, and the internal combustion engine are still with us. The future isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

I think about this when I read the book of Revelation, which everyone seems to want to discuss, especially during tough times. I find it interesting that there are so many Christians who look at Revelation as a prescriptive vision of the future, a roadmap of sorts (or GPS—God Positioning System, if you like). Every generation has turned to Revelation, it seems, to try and make sense of the events of their own time and, in turn, to map out the time and circumstances of the end of the world—a future filled with mysterious beasts, avenging angels, and cosmic battles.

But is that what Revelation is? Is it the literal vision of our future, or is it something else? And since we’ve been looking in depth at the story of Scripture and where it is leading us, what does Revelation’s placement at the end of the Bible say about it and its role in the rest of the narrative? 

Well, to answer that we need to take a step and define our terms. We use the word “apocalyptic” to talk about end of the world events. What we need to understand, however, is that apocalyptic is first and foremost a genre of literature, Apocalyptic literature uses a lot of symbols to describer current events. Those symbols act in some sense like political cartoons—you have to understand the symbols in their own time to understand what the artist is saying. Apocalyptic literature is usually couched within the idea of a vision or a dream (Revelation is the English translation of the Greek “apocalypsis”). Daniel was a dreamer, as was Joseph and many others in the Bible. John had a dream as well, but a dream with a very distinctive purpose.

Revelation was written by John, whom many believe to be the same John who was a disciple of Jesus. He wrote down this vision while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. The text doesn’t say he was the beloved disciple, but we do know that this writer, like the others we’ve studied, was writing to a specific Christian community about some specific issues they were dealing with—namely, the distress and harassment they were experiencing as a marginalized community in the Greco-Roman world. The letter is addressed to seven churches throughout Asia Minor and to their present situations. In other words, Revelation has a specific first century context, and many interpreters forget this or ignore it in favor of making it say what they want it to say for their own time.

Lots of people have spent their time envisioning the future as being pretty bleak for the world. Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye who have written books claiming that Revelation was written to predict the events of our own time, but their credibility is in question. For example, when Lindsey wrote in the 70s that the Soviet Union was the beast and its leader the Anti-Christ, he had to change it in the 80s after the wall fell. What we’ve had since then is a kind of “beast of the month club.” The Left Behind series plays on the idea of a rapture that takes people away from the corrupt earth before it gets destroyed. You get the picture. You’ve got others like Harold Camping who periodically come up with dates for the world’s end, and this year even the Mayans have entered the picture. Lots of Christians and even non-Christians have this vision of the future—a vision of cataclysm, war, and destruction. What you don’t hear is a lot of hope for the world.

What’s interesting about these visions of the future is that, historically, each generation interprets Revelation through its own situational lens, and each generation faces much the same circumstances—war, famine, despotism, injustice, violence—you get the picture. 

Our short time together this morning doesn’t permit me to go into a lot of detail here, but the point I want to make is that the meaning of Revelation is not to be found in a detailed prediction of what the grim future end of the world will look like. Jesus himself warned his disciples to not engage in that exercise. Rather, I want to suggest that the point of Revelation is not about the end of the world, but rather the completion of God’s good creation. Instead of a horror film, it’s designed in the end to be a vision of hope—hope that God will be doing in the end of time what God was doing at the beginning, making all things new and good.

We’ve been saying all along that the Bible is a record of God’s redemptive mission for the whole creation. God creates the world, creates humanity to care for it and to have relationship with God. But the humans choose to try and be gods themselves and derail the goodness of creation. Yet God does not abandon these people—God chooses instead to work with and through them—specifically through the family of Abraham, whose descendant Jesus would deliver the climactic act to the whole project. God makes covenant with these people—they break it, they suffer the consequences, they are forgiven, and God restores them. This pattern is repeated over and over again. Ultimately, God comes in person in Jesus Christ and does for his people what they could not do for themselves. He fulfills the covenant promise, offers himself as a sacrifice for sin, and rises from the dead, defeating death and ushering in a new age—the age of the Kingdom of God, the divine project that ultimately sets the world to rights. Revelation is a vision, albeit a highly symbolized one, of how this age comes to reality. It’s an age that recaptures the goodness of God’s creation-a way of going back to the future, if you will, back to the image of God we were created to be in the first place.

And it’s a vision of the return of the King. Today is Palm Sunday where we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is a kind of model for the triumphal entry he will make in the future. Yes, Jesus will return, but he will not be coming back to take us away. Rather, he will be coming back to take over and complete the vision of hope for the whole creation.

Revelation is thus a lot less about the specifics about how Jesus returns, but more about the result of a world transformed by his righteous rule. Notice the power in these verses from Revelation 21:

  • A new heaven and a new earth—not an abandonment of the first ones, but a renewal—the old has “passed away,” meaning it has fulfilled its time, and the new has come. This world, God’s good creation, is not replaced but redeemed. God does not make “all new things” but rather, “all things new.” There is a continuity, a recognition that God is completing his good creation.
  •   Notice—“the sea was no more”- Remember that the sea represented chaos in the ancient world—now God dries up chaos.
  • And notice the direction – the new heavens and the new earth, the new Jerusalem, coming down—God dwelling with God’s people in person, a new relationship free from the dividing spectre of sin and death.
  • In fact, as Paul would say in 1 Cor. 15, death will be defeated and be “no more.” The fear of death and the pain of life will be swallowed up and replaced by the joy of life in God’s presence and power.
  • God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end—and God completes the divine rescue mission. “It is done” reminds us of the words “It is finished” that Jesus utters from the Cross

The point is that, in the end, God wins and those who follow him participate in that victory, finding themselves restored, redeemed, renewed in a new creation. All the visions of beasts and horns and blood are simply symbolic plot devices and cartoon symbols–interesting for discussion, but ultimately not the main point.

The main point is that Revelation invites to envision God’s future. While it’s fun to speculate about what life might be like for people in 2112, as Christians we focus our hope on a future where we are alive and well in God’s good creation, a future made possible by the coming of Jesus.

During our Wednesday night Lenten class I taught those in attendance some important seminary words. “Eschatology” refers to the “study of last things.” Ecclesiology refers to the “study of the church.” These two words are very closely related. Your eschatology largely determines your ecclesiology. If you vision of the future is a world that is to be abandoned and blown up, then your ecclesiology will be all about how you escape the world. If your eschatological vision of the future is, like that of Revelation, a world restored and renewed, then your ecclesiology will be focused on engaging the world with a message of hope. That’s a message so different than many have offered, but it’s a vision that I think the world can embrace. For God so loved the world that he did not abandon it, but came and dwelled in it in Christ—that’s good news!

So don’t worry about who will get your flying car when you’re raptured up to heaven. John wanted his readers to stop speculating and start living a life of hope even in the midst of persecution. Revelation is less about the future and more about how live and work as a disciple of Christ in the present. Participate in his project of making all things new. Make that eschatology your ecclesiology.

I don’t know if we’ll be zooming around in personal helicopters any time soon. What I do know is that God’s future for us is a promise of hope that’s something to look forward to!





The Ascension (Surprised By Hope Series: Part 4)

AscensionChurch2sActs 1:1-11

On top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is a very small Crusader-era church called “The Chapel of the Ascension.” Unlike the overwhelmingly popular Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, this little chapel sees a lot fewer visitors. This little church, which has been administered by Muslims since the end of the crusades, marks the traditional site of the events we just read about: Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The Muslims believed that Jesus was a prophet, so they maintain the site and allow Christian pilgrims to come and see what’s inside.

And what’s inside is a small area that was traditionally said to contain the footprints of Jesus—the place where he stood right before he was taken up. Christian pilgrims in the medieval period would take home dust from this little spot as relics of their Holy Land visit but, like the pieces of the “true cross” we talked about a few weeks ago, if you took all that sacred dust and put it together, Jesus footprint would be about size 500.

It’s interesting, though, that this little chapel is often not on the main tour route for visitors to the Holy Land today. Maybe that’s because the ascension of Jesus has been a downplayed story in many Christian churches. Visitors flock to the Holy Sepulcher and the site of the Upper Room – representing Maundy Thursday, Easter, and Pentecost—but the ascension gets skipped.

I want to argue today, however, that that missing piece is vitally important to our understanding of the story of Jesus and the story of the church. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples what they are to do next with that reality. There on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gives his disciples a strategy for implementing the resurrection life of the new creation in the present. He has spent three years instructing and training them for this moment and now, as he ascends to take his royal place with the Father, he commissions his disciples to carry on his work until he returns to bring it to completion.

Remember that the author of Acts and the author of the Gospel of Luke are the same person. Acts is a kind of part 2 to Luke’s Gospel—the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say. The end of Luke and the beginning of Acts thus overlap, much like in the way a movie sequel has to have a brief synopsis of what happened previously in order catch the viewer up on the action. Luke ends with Jesus instructing his disciples and then ascending into heaven, and Acts picks up the action and expands it. The point is that the ascension of Jesus is a key component in the whole story of how the kingdom movement, the resurrection movement of Jesus is going to bring the surprise of hope to the whole world.

So, how does that movement unfold, and what’s our part in it? That’s the question we need to deal with if we’re going to take the next step in understanding and living out resurrection. There are three key components here that I think we need to embrace if we as individuals and as a church are to be part of the transformational movement that Jesus is launching in the world. If we are to be resurrection people, then we need to embrace the three tasks that Jesus gives his disciples before his ascension: word, waiting, and witnessing.

First, word. In verses 1-3, Luke gives us a synopsis of what Jesus “did and taught” in the 40 days between his resurrection and his ascension. Forty is an important number in the Bible because it’s a number of preparation. Noah was in the ark 40 days, Israel was in the desert 40 years, Jesus was tempted for 40 days –all precursors to a new beginning. In those 40 days between Easter and Ascension, Jesus was preparing his disciples for their new mission by both teaching them about the kingdom of God and giving them “convincing proofs” that he was, indeed, raised from the dead.

I think it’s interesting that even after three years of teaching, Jesus spends 40 more days instructing his disciples. Maybe it’s because he knew they were guys who have a tendency to start working at things before they read the directions and wind up with a lot of spare parts in the end. Before he leaves them and before they go charging off into the world, Jesus wants them to wait and make sure that they have read all the directions.

And what were those directions? Well, Luke tells us at the end of his Gospel that Jesus primary instruction to the disciples was grounded in Scripture. Luke 24:44 – “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”


 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Jesus uses the whole story of Scripture to place his ministry, his death, and his resurrection into context. As we’ve been saying throughout the last several sermon series, if we really want to understand Jesus, we have to understand him through the lens of the whole Bible and the story of Israel. Whatever we believe and whatever we do must be grounded in that word.

But like the disciples, we need to be willing to be immersed in that word and understand where it is leading us. The Bible does not stand for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,”  as someone sent me in an email this week, but rather it is the instruction and revelation of how God comes to earth and redeems his good creation. That is what is happening in the work of Jesus, and that is what the continuing work of the disciples is all about. They are to take this kingdom movement and make it viral—the word of the kingdom becoming flesh in their lives and in their work.

 If we’re going to be disciples of Jesus who enact his kingdom movement, then we have to be willing to be not only students of Scripture, but allow ourselves to be immersed in it every day as Jesus was. We need to see it as a story—God’s story, God’s mission—in which we’re invited to participate. Jesus instructs his disciples in the word, and calls us to join them in making it the grounding foundation of our lives as his disciples. Daily reading, and regular study with others anchors our sense of mission.

That immersion in the word leads to the second task we need to embrace as disciples—waiting. In Acts 1:4, Jesus orders his disciples not to go rushing off into the world with their newfound knowledge but, rather, they are to “wait there for the promise of the Father” and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Waiting isn’t something that we humans tend to do well. How many of us enjoy waiting in line, or waiting in traffic, for example? The disciples were no exception. Jesus tells them to wait in Jerusalem for God to give them his promised empowering Spirit, but the disciples respond by asking an impatient, “are we there yet” kind of question. Yeah, yeah, but Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?

Now, they are right in connecting Jesus’ resurrection with the restoration of the whole world through the promise to Israel—this is what the Scriptures are about, after all, and Jesus has instructed them as such. But they misunderstand that this promise of restoration needs to be proclaimed throughout the world. They will not merely be bystanders to this project, but rather the ones who will help to bring it to reality. This is the work that Jesus has been doing all along and now it will be their work. It will not be an easy task and they will not be able to do it on their own. Jesus did not choose these disciples because they were the best and brightest and most capable people. He chose them, as God often chooses people, because God’s power can be revealed through them. They had no power of their own, only the power that God would give them. And that power will come through the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit coming upon them.

Acts 2 tells us what the work of the Spirit accomplishes in these simple people—they move from hiding out in locked room to speaking boldly in the streets. They move from being timid, unlearned men to speaking in many languages. They will challenge authorities and risk their lives for the good news of the kingdom—but first they will have to wait.

As we said last week, most people view “spirituality” as a rather passive exercise—a sense of good feelings and inner peace, if you will. That’s not the kind of Spirit that is at work in Scripture and here in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is none other than the Spirit of God and the ongoing Spirit of Christ—the dynamic member of the Trinity that indwells and empowers people to do the work of the Lord. There is no passivity in the Spirit, but the Spirit is always moving us outward.

At the same time, however, the Spirit is not an uninvited guest in our lives. To receive the Spirit is to cultivate an openness to God’s presence. Biblically speaking, “waiting upon the Lord” is not a passive activity, but an active one. We actively seek God’s presence and we await it anxiously with anticipation. Jesus tells his disciples that they need to wait for the Spirit’s power, and they do so—not by sitting around wondering when the Spirit would come but rather (v. 14) by constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Notice also that they don’t wait as individuals who are hoping for a personal spiritual experience, but rather as a community. When the Spirit comes they are “all together in one place” (2:1).

Besides a biblical illiteracy, one of the major problems in the church is a failure to wait upon the Lord, to wait upon the Spirit through prayer. Churches come up with lots of activities and programs to look busy, but the primary work of the church is done through the Spirit and we wait on the Spirit in prayer. Apart from the Spirit, we are powerless. When we fail to wait in prayer, we will fail because we try to do everything under our own power.

I know I struggle in this area. I am, like the disciples, sometimes apt to do things that I think God wants me to do without first waiting upon the Spirit in prayer. I can do things under my own power for a while, but that power will always fade. When I wait upon the Spirit’s power in prayer, however, those things will prosper and make a great impact on the world. There are lots of burned out pastors and burned out churches out there who thought they could do it on their own without waiting on the Spirit. I don’t want to be one of them.

I want to invite us to learn how to wait together. We will soon have altar rails here in our sanctuary where we can kneel together in prayer for each other and for the needs of the church and the world. That’s one way we can wait upon the Spirit together, but there are many others. A daily entry into the word and daily prayer are two ways we become shaped for God’s mission.

Word and waiting then lead us to the third task: witnessing. Jesus tells the disciples that once the Spirit has come upon them and empowered them, they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (v. 8). This is really the thesis statement of the whole book of Acts because this is precisely what the disciples will do. But what does being a “witness” mean?

Well, remember where we’ve been. Jesus’ resurrection is the launch of God’s new creation and the vindication of Jesus as Israel’s true Messiah and the world’s true Lord and King. In the first century world, when someone was enthroned as king or emperor, that new authority would take effect through heralds going off throughout the territory announcing the good news that “We have a new king.” This was good news indeed because a arrival of a new king meant the restoration of order and not the chaos of anarchy. Imagine, for example, a new Roman emperor coming to power and heralds being sent as far as Britain and Spain and Egypt—literally to the ends of the empire—to announce the emperor’s enthronement.

That’s the image we get here. The disciples are asking about the kingdom, when it will come about…and Jesus is telling them that in one sense the kingdom is already here because the king has beaten his enemies (for Jesus, the enemy of sin and death) and is taking his place as God’s Messiah and the world’s righteous ruler. And yet, his kingdom is not all the way here yet. The world is still not fully and visibly living under God’s just and healing rule. The kingdom is already here and not yet fully here, and disciples live in this in-between time. The disciples are to go out as heralds—witnesses to a crucified Lord, witnesses to his resurrection, witnesses to the transforming power of God, witnesses to Jesus as the world’s true king—and proclaim that his kingdom is at hand.

The disciples were thus to be the bearers of this good news of the world’s true king, but notice their travel agenda. They were to begin in Jerusalem—the place where Jesus had been crucified and where there were people looking for them, too. To Judea and Samaria—Samaria being Israel’s bitter enemy. And to the ends of the earth—to a Roman empire that already had a lord named Caesar and who would not take kindly to the enthronement of a rival. The disciples would bear good news, but it would be bad news to some. It’s no coincidence that the Greek word for witness is “martyreo”—from where we get the word “martyr.”

To be a witness for Jesus thus means a whole lot more than merely telling the story about how an individual gets to heaven, as it has often been understood. To be a witness is to proclaim and demonstrate Christ’s Lordship in our own lives —to tell those stories of forgiveness and transformation, to recall how God’s grace has made us new. Baptism marks us a people who have been transformed by God’s grace in Christ and his lordship over our lives. And when we ourselves have said yes to Jesus’ call to be witnesses, then we  witness to Jesus’ lordship over the whole world and demonstrate what that looks like through our lifestyle, our actions, and our love for the world that is God’s good creation. It’s a witness that lifts the poor, eats with sinners, forgives sins, brings healing, and demonstrates sacrificial love. It’s a witness that is grounded in a Jesus-shaped vision of the world as God’s kingdom—a witness that compels the world to ask, who is your Lord?

Indeed, Jesus implies that his disciples will not only be his heralds and witnesses, but they will also continue his work. At the end of this passage, Jesus ascends in a “cloud,” leaving the disciples standing there gawking at the amazing sight. In Scripture, a “cloud” is very often associated with the presence of God—God guided the Israelites from Egypt in a pillar of cloud, Moses met God in a cloud on Mount Sinai, and God’s glory dwelt in the tabernacle in a cloud. Jesus thus ascends into God’s presence which isn’t far from us and will return to us as promised. Heaven and earth are interlocking realities. Luke wants us to be reminded of that reality and that Jesus has not gone far and is still present in the Spirit, empowering the disciples to carry on the work.

But there’s another kind of reference here that I think Luke is making. It goes back to the story of Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings 2. Elijah the prophet, at the end of his life, ascends to heaven in a whirlwind—this after Elisha has asked for a double portion of his mentor’s spirit. Elisha sees Elijah go in this way and then picks up Elijah’s fallen mantle, his symbol of prophetic authority, and carries on Elijah’s work.

The ascension of Jesus acts in a similar way. Jesus is taken up and we pick up his mantle to continue his work—a work revealed in his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. In fact, in John 14:12 Jesus says,

“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” The ascension of Jesus does nothing less than commission his disciples to do his work and be his witnesses. Living in the word, waiting on the Spirit, and witnessing to the king—these are the tasks of discipleship. And if we focus on those tasks, Jesus says, great things will follow!

I love how this text ends with the disciples still staring at the sky. A lot of Christians still do that, focusing all their attention on a heavenly destiny waiting for the sky to fall like Chicken Little. But the two angels who show up tell the disciples of Jesus that the sky isn’t their destiny. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” So now, they imply, pick up the mantle and go to work. Turn your gaze from the sky and toward the world that needs the message of the good news of the kingdom. Go and be witnesses.

You know, it’s interesting to me that when the Crusaders built that chapel on the Mount of Olives it was originally open to the sky, but then they put a roof on it. I’m not sure they had a theological purpose in mind (usually they had a defensive purpose in mind), but I think there’s a theological truth here. The closed stone dome and the dark interior compels the pilgrim to go outside where you see a panorama of Jerusalem before you. Word and waiting turn to witness.

May we be disciples of Jesus who no longer keep staring at the sky, but looking out into the world and seeing every day as an opportunity to be a herald of the king in what we say and what we do. Yes, Jesus will come back and we will talk about that next week. But in the Spirit, Jesus is still at work and he chooses to do that work in us and through us.

 To be in the word, to wait, and to witness. That’s the mission of a disciple. What story do you have to tell? What difference has King Jesus made in your life? Where might the Spirit be leading you?




The Life After Life After Death (Surprised By Hope: Part 3)

Empty_tomb1 Corinthians 15

So far in this series we’ve been looking at some big themes. In the first sermon we looked at the hope of resurrection in the Old Testament as a promise that God would return and vindicate his people. Last week we looked at the resurrection of Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise and the launch of a new creation. The next step for us is to talk about what all that means for us, and nowhere does this get a better treatment than in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15. This is Paul’s magnum opus on resurrection and Christian hope and a key text for us to get our hands around if we’re going to understand what resurrection is all about. So, I want to do a little bit of expository preaching on that text today. If you have your Bibles with you (and you should) let’s open them there.

We can break Paul’s argument about resurrection in I Corinthians 15 into three sections. In the first section, verses 1-11, Paul talks about the apostolic tradition around the death and resurrection of Jesus, which happened “in accordance with the Scriptures.” The “Scriptures” he refers to are the Old Testament, the story of Israel, the story of how the Creator God launches a mission to redeem his good creation and the people he made in his own image. We’ve talked about that at length over the past several weeks. Jesus is the climax of that story, and his death and resurrection represent the hinge point of history. This story is the basis of Paul’s ministry and a story of which he himself became a part. After talking about all the people whom the risen Jesus appeared to after his resurrection, Paul then says in verse 8, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me,” which would have seemed unlikely given that Paul saw himself as “unfit to be called an apostle because [he] persecuted the church of God” (v. 9). The grace of God in the person of the risen Jesus there on the Damascus road changed Paul’s life. Paul is who he is because of Jesus’ resurrection (v. 10).

In the second section, Paul goes on to refute the assertion of some in the Corinthian Church that there is no resurrection of the dead. That would have been a common belief in ancient Corinth because they were, as most Greco-Romans were, dualists who believed Plato’s assertion that the material world was weak and corrupt and the spirit or soul the pure representation of personhood. To be embodied was a bad thing, to be “spirit” was to be free. That philosophy led them and many others with that worldview to believe that they could do anything they wanted with their bodies because, ultimately, the body doesn’t matter.

In chapter 5, for example, Paul admonishes them for allowing someone in the church to be in a sexual relationship with “his father’s wife.” That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the kind of sexual immorality that was going on in Corinth, where ritual prostitution was a major business. The Corinthians, like most people in the Greco-Roman world, thought that sex really had no consequences because it involved their bodies only. Doesn’t matter who you have sex with, or how. Your body has little to do with the real you, so why not?

I would argue that that is still the prevailing worldview in much of western culture. We are the philosophical descendants of Plato and Corinth. Sexuality dominates our culture, and people seem to believe, even in the age of AIDS, that my body is mine to do with as I please. It’s not the real “me” anyway. Anything goes.

But Paul wants to make it clear to the Corinthians that this worldview isn’t the way things are. What we do with our bodies matters because they are an essential part of who we are. We are not separate bodies and souls, but a unified whole created by God in his image.

Look back at chapter 6 beginning at verse 3 where Paul is talking about the importance of the body. “The body is not meant for fornication,” says Paul, but for the Lord and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” He goes on to say that who we unite our bodies with matters—do we unite them with the others merely for self-gratification, or do we unite our bodies with the Lord? (v. 16-17).

Then, in verse 19, Paul says it plainly, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.” Paul is no dualist or Platonist, but understands that our bodies are really us and that they matter, even in the end. The hope of life isn’t that we become disembodied spirits, but embodied, resurrected and renewed persons.

That’s what Paul is driving at in this second section of chapter 15. Some of the Corinthians are questioning this whole idea of resurrection and embodiment, and Paul goes right at their false assumptions. His argument goes like this: Christ has indeed been raised. If not, then everything we’ve been talking about and your faith itself has been “in vain” (v. 14). If Jesus hasn’t been raised bodily from the dead, then we won’t be raised either, and if that’s the case then death is still the ruler of the earth and sin right along with it. If the resurrection didn’t really happen, then there is no hope. Without the resurrection, the whole project is a failure.

This is a major point. Much of Christian theology still buys into the same kind of Platonist understanding that Paul was challenging in Corinth. Many Christians hold the belief that the bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t really that important, nor are our bodies really that important in the end. Paul is making it crystal clear here that that cannot be the case. Our bodies matter. Jesus’ resurrection matters.

Why does it matter? Look at verse 20. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” In the ancient world, the first fruits of a crop signified both the beginning of the harvest and a pledge or promise that the rest of the harvest would look just like this! The resurrection of Jesus, according to Paul, is nothing less that the first evidence, the long-awaited first fruit, of the kind of destiny that we and God’s creation both hope for. What happened to Jesus on Easter will happen to us, too! Resurrection of the body!

Indeed, Paul says that Jesus resurrection reverses the very curse of death itself. Verse 22: “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” Death through one man, life through another. Jesus’ resurrection signifies the beginning of the end for capital D death! Jesus reigns over the earth, and his resurrection breaks down the authority of rulers and authorities and powers. His resurrection challenges and breaks their last weapon—the enemy of death (v. 26) . The empty tomb is a beachhead in the last great battle to come when Jesus returns and defeats death forever.

This is the message that Paul preached every day at the risk of his own life. It’s why he endured so much conflict, as in Ephesus and other places. If it wasn’t true, then what would have have gained in preaching it? Indeed, says, Paul, if the dead aren’t raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”

Non fui That was the philosophy of many in the ancient world, and our own—a fatalism that leads to a purpose-less existence. You see this on some ancient tombstones as well. A common inscription on Roman tombs goes like this: “I was not, I was, I am not, and I don’t care.”

But no, Paul says, there is hope—the hope of resurrection and the restoration of meaning to life, to creation, to everything. How does that work? Paul addresses that in the third section.

“How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Paul addresses those questions in surprising ways and in doing so gives us a prototype of our own future. He begins with an argument from nature. There are different kinds of bodies for different kinds of environments. Seeds, for example, have a body created for the soil and to raise a particular crop. Humans have a body suited to their environment, so do birds equipped for the air and fish equipped for the sea (v. 39). Every body in the universe is uniquely crafted for its environment.

And, says Paul so is the resurrection body. Like a seed it is sown one way, in a body suited for the ground, and raised another as a plant that is good for food and shade. It’s the same body, but it undergoes a radical change to suit its new environment.

This, says Paul, is what is resurrection means. What we have now is a body that is perishable, subject to decay and death. What we will have in the end is, like Jesus, a body that is imperishable, incorruptible, glorious—but a body nonetheless.

Look at verse 44, one of the most misunderstood in Scripture. The NRSV puts it like this: “It (the body) is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” Now, hold on a minute, you might, that sounds an awful lot like a dualism between the physical and the spiritual. Is Paul contradicting himself here?

Well, here’s where the original language can help us. The word that the NRSV renders as “physical” is actually the word with the root “psyche.” The word “soma” refers to a body. We would never use the word “psyche” to refer to physicality, but rather what animates and motivates the person. So a better translation of the text here is “What is sown is an ordinary body, motivated and animated by the ordinary things of this world—including things like sin, decay, and death. The “soma psyche” is our present condition, and our bodies have an expiration date.

All well and good, but what about the “spiritual” body? Here’s another linguistic and historical problem. When we think of “spiritual,” what do you generally think of? Something ethereal, undefined, bodiless, imaginative, right? It’s very much in vogue in our culture for people to say things like “I’m a spiritual person” or, my personal favorite, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For many people, spirituality implies something disconnected from actual embodiment, a “vague religious aspiration”—a head trip, if you will.

But that way of thinking about spirituality would have been completely foreign to Paul. The word he uses here is “pneuma, or pneumatikon”—the same word that he uses over and over again throughout 1 Corinthians to refer to the Holy Spirit or the work of the Holy Spirit. Note, too, that there’s that word “soma” again—this is a body. If the “soma psyche” is a body animated and motivated by life in the present, a “soma pneumatikon” is a body that is animated, enlivened and motivated by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, but still a body nonetheless. To put it another way, our hope is not in a spiritual, unembodied life far away but, rather in a new body that is a transformation of the old—a body that is built for the environment of the new heaven and the new earth that is to come. Rather than the body of Adam, a body made from dust, we will have a body like Jesus, a body clothed in God’s own Spirit.

Indeed, Paul says in verse 50, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Instead, the mystery is that “we will all be changed” from one body to another, from one environment to another. Old body, old creation–new body, new creation. The body still matters!

That brings Paul’s argument to a crescendo in verse 54. Look at what he says, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality (notice, there is continuity here) the, the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Yes, in verse 52 talks about this happening “at the last trumpet”—a military image. The trumpet blows to send troops to battle and rallies them after it’s over. The king’s arrival signals the end of the battle and the defeat of the enemy. Resurrection is nothing less than victory over capital D death and small d death, and sin along with it. Resurrection is God’s ultimate victory and the full redemption of his good creation!

That’s such a different view than many of us were taught. We’re so used to downplaying death or circumventing it with spiritual language. Paul offers us a much different vocabulary of resurrection language—the redemption of our bodies and the redemption of God’s good creation. They both will be transformed. That’s the good news! Our hope is not to escape the world, but to be redeemed and resurrected within it. This is what God has been up to all along. We’ll talk about that some more in a couple of weeks when we talk about the new creation.

For now, though, a couple of questions usually surface at this point: 1) If resurrection is our future hope, then where are our loved ones who have already passed on? And 2) What does resurrection mean for our present?

The first question can have several answers biblically. On the one hand you have a statement from Jesus on the cross where he says to the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise in some Jewish thought was a kind of garden, a place of rest and refreshment where people are with God in some sense, but awaiting resurrection. Revelation 6:9 has the image of the martyred saints under the altar who ask God when he will judge the earth, but are told to “rest a little longer.” Both of these and several other accounts seem to suggest that there is an intermediate state. On the other hand, you have  statements from Paul and others equating death with “sleep.” Death puts us to sleep in this world and we wake up in God’s new world, just like sleeping at night leads us into a new day and we didn’t notice the time passing as we rested. The Bible holds both of these views in tension, and either or both can be gleaned from the text.

What’s most important, however, is that there is not nearly as much in the Bible about the intermediate state as there is about resurrection. Whatever happens in between, the ultimate hope is resurrection. N.T. Wright calls resurrection the “life after life after death.” It’s the thing we look forward to in the future.

But it’s also the thing we embrace in the present. Unlike the Platonist idea that the future is about escaping the world, resurrection calls us to ground our hope in God’s future for this world. God’s mission is to renew and remake this creation, and us within it. The new creation will have continuity with the old, just as our resurrection bodies have continuity with our present selves. What this means is that what we do now matters and carries over into eternity! Our work, our purpose, our participation in God’s mission for the world makes a difference.

Paul says exactly that in the last verse of this chapter, verse 58. After laying out his argument for the future resurrection, Paul thus gives the present application: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Here, Paul refers back to chapter 3 where he talks about building on the foundation laid in Christ. Our lives are all about building on that foundation and, in the end, how will build will be tested. We can build on Christ’s foundation with permanent and precious efforts worthy of his kingdom and in ways that reflect his Lordship, or we can be sloppy and only focus on the temporary things that don’t last like our own personal “spirituality.”

In the end, Paul says in 3:13, “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit (God’s pneuma), dwells in you?” We are building for a king.

N.T. Wright offers a beautiful image of how this works that goes something like this:

StonecutterIf you’ve ever been to Europe you’ve seen some of the grand cathedrals that are there, many of them built in the middle ages. These are spectacular structures. Imagine, then, a guild of 11thcentury stonemasons working in a yard on the construction site, each chiseling out a design on a block of granite or limestone.. Some may think to themselves, “I’m just here to cut stone,” but others might think, “I’m building a cathedral.” Each has his own piece, and none has an idea of how it fits into the whole project. Only the master builder knows how it all fits together.

Then, after many years, comes the great day when the master builder announces that all the work is finished. He gathers all those stonemasons together and leads them through it, pointing up at the ceiling or to a column and saying to each craftsman—“There’s your piece. Here’s yours. You did this.” No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, every stone matters. Every stone is part of a cathedral.

CathedralSomeday, I imagine, God will take each of us by the hand, as he will those who have chiseled out their work for the Kingdom before us, and tour us through the new creation. He will point out—“There’s your piece. Your act of compassion built that, your prayers did that, your visit, your giving, your leadership…all of it has a place in the eternal work of God’s Kingdom.

So, what will you do with your block? We all have a block of time, some material to work with, a life to fashion and build. We each have certain gifts, a certain piece of the whole project that God has given to us. What will you do with your block?

The hope of resurrection is a present hope—a call to mission, a call to celebrate life in God’s good creation. That’s good news! 


What Happened at Easter? (Surprised by Hope Sermon Series: Part 2)


Chrch-of-the-holy-sepulchreJohn 20:24-29

Walking up to the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is an experience that many Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land look forward to their whole lives. The church is the holiest site in Christendom, and marks the traditional site of the Mount of Calvary and the location of Jesus’ tomb, so you’d think that visiting this place would be a powerfully spiritual and emotional experience. Well, it may be for some, but it never has been for me.

First, the church is pretty non-descript, buried as it is in the midst of a bunch of other old buildings that cling to it like barnacles. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d walk right past it, though the crowds going inside the massive wooden doors might give it away.

Once you make it through the doors, however, you immediately feel not a little bit disoriented and perhaps a little bit disappointed. Right inside the doors there’s a set of steep steps that you go up marked as the Mount of Calvary. At the top of the stairs you don’t find a hill but a chapel that is crammed with people all jockeying for position. Monks yell at the crowd to stay in line and be quiet. People argue with one another about who got there first. I actually felt somebody tug at my wallet once before I slapped the unseen hand away. All of this to move to the altar in the little chapel, underneath which there is a hole in the floor where people, one by one, kneel down and stick their hands in and touch the “rock of calvary,” the place where Jesus was crucified. This should be a holy moment, but getting yelled at by a monk to “move along” makes it less so.

You join the crowd down the back stairs and across the church to a large rotunda, underneath which there is a small building which is considered to be the site of Jesus’ tomb. No garden here, like the Gospels talk about, just a crushing crowd of people waiting in line to go into a tiny room where there’s a slab of limestone that is supposed to be the place where Jesus was laid. But the stone comes from Europe and was put there in the 19th century to mark the place where the original slab probably stood.

It’s a strange mixture there at the holiest site in Christendom. Archaeologists generally consider the site to be accurate given the fact that the church was built on top of an old first century rock quarry with lots of first century tombs still evident. The church was originally built in the year 330 by Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine, who discerned the site based on the tradition of Christians worshipping at the site, and the fact that the Emperor Hadrian had built a temple to Aphrodite over the site in the second century—probably as a way of negating the Christian influence. Helena tore down the pagan temple and built the church, which has undergone many additions, rebuilds and renovations since. It’s one of the few places in Israel where you can say with some certainty that “this is the place” where Jesus was.

And yet, it’s a place that is buried under layers of church tradition and conflict. The site is now divided by seven different Christian traditions—Ethiopian, Greek, Syrian, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Coptic—all of whom claim rights to the church and who defend those rights, sometimes violently. It is said that if a monk sweeping his tradition’s part of the church goes too far into another’s territory it can spark a riot, which happens with surprising frequency. The Israeli Police have to come in and break it up.

Interestingly, too, there’s a ladder on a ledge above the main entrance door that’s been there since the mid 19th century because none of the churches can agree on who has the authority to move it. Here, in the holiest site in Christendom, Christ-like compassion, peace, and care is ironically elusive. The true meaning of the cross and the resurrection seems to be buried underneath all those layers of church tradition, ornamentation, and conflict.

Every time I’ve gone there, I’ve thought about the idea that the reality of Easter isn’t only buried there in Jerusalem under layers of liturgical stuff, it’s often buried in many of our churches. Like angry monks we often have a tendency to see our traditions as needing to be guarded and defended, rather than asking the deeper question of what Easter really means biblically. When we do that kind of excavation, we tend to find a story that isn’t something to be defended, but something to be lived out.

So, what does Easter really mean? Well, as we dig into the resurrection stories in the Gospels themselves and into Paul’s understanding of the resurrection we will see that they are not, on the one hand, stories about a spiritualized idea of Jesus, nor are they, on the other, a comprehensive defense of Jesus’ divinity or of a heavenly destiny. That’s how the resurrection has generally been viewed by the left and right on the continuum. Ask most people what resurrection means and they’ll tell you one of those two versions. What the Gospels are trying to tell us instead, if we’ll listen, is that the resurrection of Jesus is the inauguration of a whole new world—a new creation that shatters all the old categories of life, death, body and spirit and leads to a very different worldview than the ones we’ve been given either on the left or the right.

Belief of thomasThe story of Thomas provides a prime example of this shift in worldview in the Gospel of John. The disciple most often known as “Doubting Thomas” is sometimes used by preachers and commentators as a kind of straw man representing skepticism of the Christian message, but the story is less about Thomas’ doubt than it is about his belief.

John tells us earlier in the text that Thomas wasn’t the only one who questioned the story that Jesus had been raised. Mary Magdalene was the first one to see him, and then rushed to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (v. 18). Notice, however, that the disciples hiding out in the house “for fear of the Jews” didn’t seem to believe her until Jesus himself showed up. Only when they saw him themselves did they “rejoice” (v. 20). Thomas hadn’t been with the disciples at that moment, but the disciples told him, as Mary had told them, “we have seen the Lord” (v. 25). Thomas isn’t that different from the other disciples who cannot quite grasp what the empty tomb means.

Thomas, however, is more honest in his attempts to guard his reason. Like a good historian, Thomas wants to see and to touch. He wants to see the nail prints and the scar in Jesus’ side, just like his friends had seen. Rather than doubting their story, Thomas needs to see evidence before belief. The word “doubt” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in this text. In the Greek, the word is “apistos” or “unbelief.” Thomas, in other words, isn’t dismissing the good news, he simply wants to guard his reason until he sees evidence that demands a verdict.

But the evidence that Thomas is looking for isn’t something that can be categorized in the normal way. We know, as they knew, that people who die tend to stay dead. We know, too, that some people report seeing visions of departed loved ones or report seeing apparitions, but this wasn’t that kind of account. Thomas wants evidence that can be seen, felt, touched. A ghost you could explain away, a vision you would understand, but an embodied, risen Jesus? This I have to see to believe!

And Jesus obliges, showing up a week later with an invitation for Thomas to touch and feel. Now, you’d expect that John would give us a short sentence saying that Thomas did just that—that he would examine the evidence with his sense of touch. But John doesn’t say that. Instead, Thomas transcends the kind of knowing that he had intended to use and passes into a deeper and richer one. In the midst of the risen Jesus, Thomas moves from unbelief requiring evidence, to belief requiring a response.

It is Thomas, the historian, who thus speaks the first words of confession about what the resurrection of Jesus meant to him, to the disciples, and to the world. He simply says, “My Lord and my God!” He moves from guarding his position to giving his worship

Thomas’ statement is a loaded one that draws together all that we’ve been talking about over the last several weeks. When Thomas calls Jesus “Lord” it’s a title granted to a king—the one whom all of Israel had been waiting for—the one whom would inaugurate God’s kingdom and begin setting the world right—the one who announced that this new creation was at hand. In the first century world, “Lord” was a title reserved only for Caesar—Thomas now declares the first Christian creed in two words—“My Lord”—you are the true king and the kingdom has truly come.

And then, “my God.” Remember the hope of Israel—that God would return to Zion in power and dwell with his people in a renewed and restored temple. Well, here was Jesus, the one in whom heaven and earth come together, the one who, like the temple, was destroyed but, unlike the temple, the one who rose again. God had indeed returned—beating Israel’s greatest enemy, death, by going through it and out the other side to the kind of resurrected life so many of them had been waiting for. The resurrection of Jesus was the coronation and vindication of Israel’s true king—the king of the whole cosmos, and in him a new creation had begun.

The resurrected Jesus stands as the evidence of that new creation that transcends the categories of the old. It’s not merely a spiritual kingdom, but an embodied one, as his scars and, later, his appetite suggests. But it’s not merely a physical kingdom, either. Jesus is embodied, but he seems to appear behind locked doors. His friends didn’t seem to recognize him right away. In Jesus’ Easter body there seems to be both continuity and discontinuity with his pre-resurrection self, and he announces a new kingdom that has both continuity and discontinuity with the present world.  It’s a kingdom that brings heaven and earth together, and we see that most beautifully represented by the risen Christ. We’ll talk about that more next week.

For now, however, like those guardian monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we can continue to guard our positions on the continuum or, like Thomas, we can choose to confess that the risen Jesus is both Lord and God not just of the future, but of our present. We can stop trying to fit the resurrection into our existing scientific and spiritual categories and, instead, begin to see it as the first event of the new creation and as our vocation to participate with Jesus in making it a reality. If the resurrection means that Jesus is Lord (present tense), then it means that we, as his subjects, have work to do in announcing his kingdom. If the resurrection means that Jesus is God returning to take up residence with his people, then we have a vocation to live and act as if God’s justice and peace and glory is already filling the whole world. Easter means that God, in Christ, has beaten the enemy Death and that all that remains is to announce that victory in advance of his coming. Resurrection then isn’t just a position to be defended, but a vocation for us to live out every day until he comes!

This is clearly what the disciples did. Before Easter, they are hiding out in a locked room wondering if they should quietly go back to fishing. After Easter, they are soon traveling around the ancient Mediterranean world telling people about the crucified and resurrected Messiah, which would have been a blasphemy to many Jews and a puzzling anomaly to many Gentiles. They knew this message was bizarre, but they preached it anyway—they preached it because they witnessed it, and no amount of persecution or even their own violent deaths could stop them from doing it.

Now, a lot of people in the world believe some crazy things, but they usually do so for some personal benefit—that they’ll have many wives, or get their own planet, or advance in levels of knowledge or status. But the early Christians had no upside to their beliefs that would benefit them in the present—no secret knowledge, no promise of riches, no social status. Quite the opposite, actually. They could only expect scorn and ridicule at best and being torn apart in the arena at worst. Being a Christian in the first two plus centuries after Jesus was a dangerous proposition, and it still is today in some places. Did you see the story about the Iranian Christian Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who has been sentenced to death for converting to Christianity? He and others like him reflect that apostolic spirit. The disciples, weren’t concerned so much with personal reward as they were with the renewal of the whole world. They preached Easter not just as a future hope but as a present reality. You could kill them but they still believed they’d be back, embodied and renewed one day. They didn’t go out to fight for their faith, but to give it away sacrificially. You can’t stop a movement like that—and Easter movement, a resurrection movement—a movement that believes death itself can be and will be beaten.

But we’re a long way from those early days, and most of us aren’t on the edge of real persecution. We tend to only talk about resurrection once a year, on Easter. That’s the day that, like every day at the Holy Sepulcher, the guardians start mixing with the tourists—those who come to look around and try to figure out what it’s all about—something to do with tombs or bunnies and eggs and the like. The world is confused about Easter because the church has been confused about it as well.

On my second trip to the Holy Sepulcher, I squeezed into the door at the tail end of my group and joined the crowd pressing up the stairs to Calvary. At the top, waiting there in line, a young couple behind me tapped me on the shoulder. They were Italian, and in broken English they said, “Can you tell us what this place is?” They were in Israel on holiday, and had apparently just followed the crowd into the church. That’s what tourists do.  I told them the story, but what they heard seemed to not connect with what they saw in the crowded chapel. I wanted to tell them more when it was quiet, but then they were gone, whisked away by the crowd.

I wonder how many people crowd into churches every Easter, or look at Christians and  wonder, “Can you tell us what this is all about? How we answer that question is vitally important. Is Easter the event that changes everything, or is it just another religious holiday?

Instead of a theory, instead of a tourist attraction, instead of a spiritualized formula, what they need to hear is the story—the story of how Jesus is both Lord and God and how his resurrection makes all things new, and that that’s what we’re up to right here—practicing resurrection and bringing the life of God’s new creation to bear on a broken world groaning to be made whole again.

May we recapture the call to be Easter people—not just believing in resurrection but living it. People who proclaim Jesus as Lord and God as King—right now, today, and every day.