Isaiah 25:6-9The following was scribbled in the margins of my bulletin during Easter worship this morning. Reformed worship at least frees the mind for contemplations.
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
114:1 When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
114:2 Judah became God's sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
114:3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back.
114:4 The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.
114:5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?
114:6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?
114:7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob,
114:8 who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.
1 Corinthians 5:6b-8
5:6b Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?
5:7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
5:8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,
24:14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
24:15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,
24:16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
24:17 And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad.
24:18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?"
24:19 He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,
24:20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.
24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.
24:22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,
24:23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.
24:24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him."
24:25 Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!
24:26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"
24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.
24:29 But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them.
24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
24:31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
24:32 They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"
24:33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.
24:34They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!"
24:35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
24:36While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."
24:37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
24:38He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
24:39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."
24:40 and when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
24:41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"
24:42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
24:43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
24:44 Then he said to them, "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."
24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
24:46 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,
24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
24:48You are witnesses of these things.
24:49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Easter mystery—what was the resurrection? We are so sure we know, long, long after the fact and based solely on accounts written when the event was already 100 years old (although oral memory is probably more reliable than we credit, we who have transferred the communal memory almost entirely to the much more corruptible written word). We are so sure we know what the Easter story is, what the Easter story means, when even the Gospel writers weren’t so sure in each of their own accounts.
Mark ends in silence: an empty tomb, the women told the story but running away afraid, terrified by the mystery they have encountered. Matthew’s Jesus tells the disciples he will see them in the city; Luke’s Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus, a transformed person unrecognizable until a gesture (a familiar gesture? A gesture of revelation? Even Luke isn’t sure) reveals him. The resurrection is revealed, then, not discovered; it comes from God and not from humankind; but still we are convinced we have had a better revelation, made a surer discovery. Even Peter, who saw the clothes in the tomb, went away amazed, not knowing. We, who face no more than a tomb in the telling, we are still sure we know.
Jesus, not an angel, speaks to Mary in the Garden of John’s version. Then he appears to the 12 when they are locked in a room, afraid (fear is a constant theme of these stories! Does Easter’s mystery ever make us feel afraid?). But Thomas touches his wounds, feels the hole in his side; this resurrected Jesus is no ghost, still he appears in ways no mortal could. Finally he is on the lakeshore and proves to Peter, again, he is not a ghost; he is cooking the fish, and he eats, one last time, with them. Each of the gospel writers struggles to explain the Resurrection, struggles just to present the reality of something far beyond even their experience. Mark avoids it; Matthew barely mentions it; Like takes Jesus from Emmaus to the Ascension to prove the resurrection real, but also to prove Jesus has indeed “gone away”; and John works overtime to show the resurrection is physical, not just spiritual. None of them can explain it fully, truly, satisfactorily. Yet we are sure we can. We are sure, every Easter Sunday morning, that we know what resurrection is.
“Death is transformed to life, despair to hope!” we proclaim in our churches; or some variation of that theme. Is that what resurrection is: death transformed? No. The mystery is greater than that, profounder than that, darker and more perplexing than that. Death shall be no more, John Donne writes, echoing Holy Scripture. But then Donne goes one step further, and announces the paradox, the holy mystery: “Death, thou shalt die.” What paradox is this? What mystery? This is the Resurrection. Who can fathom it?
Resurrection as we end up trying to understand it, fills our popular culture: it is zombies; or vampires. It is a corpse reanimated, life continued, death conquered simply by not yet having the last word. But vampires die; zombies fall; corpses return to the state of the corpse. Death is not conquered; simply postponed. Resurrection, next, is life after crisis. But life continuing after crisis is not resurrection: it is merely life doing what life always does. Life continuing in the face of darkness, sorrow, horror, despair, depression, is not resurrection. Like plants returning after winter, life continued is merely: life. Without death as the final and only possible answer, without death as an ending from which there is no continuing, there is no resurrection.
Resurrection is new beginning, but it is not reincarnation. Mark doesn’t even show us a body; in Luke he is unrecognizable and then, when they do know him, he vanishes. In John Jesus appears behind closed doors, but he has wounds, he can be felt, although he has just warned Mary in the Garden not to touch him. The body is gone; but the body returns; and yet it doesn’t return. The person is gone, but the person returns; and yet doesn’t return. The scars may even still be there, but the scars no longer matter.
Resurrection is not about my recovery, my gain, my renewal; but about the world’s recovery, the world’s gain, the world’s renewal. It is not about my blessing, but about the world’s blessing. From the resurrection the word explodes outward: first from the frightened women; then from the men. It is made known to people otherwise unknown in the gospels, on the Emmaus road; it is made known to multitudes, according to the letters of Paul. Resurrection is not about my being in God’s hands, safe and sound after all, assured of my life even in the face of the overwhelming odds of death: it is about the world being in God’s hands, safe and sound, assured finally of life, even in the face of the overwhelming odds of death.
Resurrection is not personal, it is universal. It is not about our wounds, but about our world. Resurrection is not about our presence, but about the unbroken and unbreakable presence of God in the world. Resurrection is not for us, it is to us. We come to the empty tomb, the tomb in which we expected to find the corpse, the confirmation that our God is dead, that there indeed is no God, no hope, no purpose, no salvation…and we find it empty. We come to the empty tomb and, like the pilgrim in the desert, we find God’s presence there, marked by the absence of the evidence of the ultimate power in this world, of what we were sure is the ultimate power. We come to the tomb and we find, not answers and at last clarity, but mystery; holy mystery, the greatest mystery.
The power we thought made us, or at least others, ultimate powers, is undone in the face of this mystery. It is no power at all. The power we sought evidence for in the tomb is nothing, and the empty tomb with its mysteries is everything. The empty tomb God has worked miracles in that dead place were are still only beginning to understand. The empty tomb means God has mysteries to give us which only prove there is much we will never understand. Peter walked away from the tomb amazed. So should we. And give thanks to God for our perplexity, our amazement, the depth and even the clarity of this mystery.