Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?'
The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.'
7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
The Gospel for Easter Sunday: Matthew 28:1-10
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, "He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him." This is my message for you.'
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!' And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'
Full Sermon Text
(An abridged version of this was preached, with this text printed for the congregation to take home.)
At Easter we affirm that Jesus died and was raised again.
That's the short story. Very, very short, if you think about it, because people have been thinking and writing about it for two thousand years...
not to mention basing their whole life and how they approach it,
around this story, and no one has it all worked out yet!
The problem with Good Friday, and Easter Day, is that we don't really know what happened.
Jesus was killed. Marcus Borg says in The Heart of Christianity pp 91-96 that this is a fact everyone knows,
but whose significance is often overlooked. He didn't simply die; he was executed. .... Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority. And if we ask the historical question, "Why was he killed?" the historical answer is because he was a social prophet and movement initiator, a passionate advocate of God's justice, and radical critic of the domination system who had attracted a following. If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather, he was killed because of his politics-because of his passion for God's justice." [Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity]
The early Christians tried to work out what this dying meant. The most common answer we now hear to the question, "Why did Jesus die?" is that he died for our sins. (This is what we call atonement theology and in lots of churches, it's the only correct answer to the question about Jesus death.)
Actually, atonement theology is only one of five major ways to understand why Jesus died! Many mainline scholars would even say atonement theology was not something that Jesus ever thought about! In fact, the version of atonement theology we sort of imbibed with out mother's milk in church, dates to St Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a book published in 1097 AD!
Let me outline the five main understandings of what Jesus death means. I'm not going to test you on these at the end of the sermon. However, if the "we are all lost sinners and so Jesus had to die for our sins" idea has never quite rung true for you, you will see it is not the only way to understand things. I'm following an outline of the five provided by Marcus Borg here, but it is a generally accepted understanding.
This is closest to the political meaning of the cross.
It is a simple rejection-and-vindication understanding of Good Friday and Easter. The authorities rejected Jesus and killed him; but God has vindicated Jesus by raising him to God's right hand. "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." The authorities said "no" to Jesus, but God has said yes. [Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity]
The line "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." is from Acts 2:36
This understanding says that it is not simply the Roman rulers and Judean leaders who cause Jesus death, but the "powers" they represent and incarnate. We see this interpretation in the New Testament epistles attributed to Paul: the writer talks of a world in bondage to "the principalities and powers," "the elemental spirits of the universe," "the prince of the power of the air." God, through Jesus, "disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross."... The whole social and political system, something much larger than individual consciousness, killed Jesus and thereby disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat [Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity]
The third way to see the death of Jesus is as a revelation of "the way." His death and resurrection are the supreme example of how to live life. They are the "embodiment or incarnation of the path of ... spiritual transformation that lies at the center of the Christian life." This is that way of living we call dying to the old way of being and being raised up into a new way of being. A good example of this thinking in the New Testamentis in Paul's words, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." Galatians 2:19b-20a
Interpretation 4 sees the death of Jesus revealing the depth of God's love for us. Jesus is not simply a Jewish social prophet executed by the authorities. He is "the Son of God sent into the world for us and our salvation. How much does God love us?" John 3:16 answers that question: God so loved the world that God gave God's only Son for us. Or in Romans 5:8 "But God proves God's love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." As Borg says, "In the cross, we see God's love for us." [Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity]
Interpretation 5 is the sacrificial understanding of Jesus' death: "Jesus died for our sins." We have inherited our highly developed sacrificial understanding of Jesus death and resurrection from The Middle Ages, more than from the Bible. It says we have all sinned against God and are all guilty. These sins cannot be forgiven unless an adequate sacrifice is made. The only adequate sacrifice is a sinless human being. And God provides this adequate sacrifice in his son Jesus.... "but only for those who believe that Jesus died for our sins." [Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity]
Let me quote from Marcus Borg at length. This is important.
If taken literally, [the sacrificial view] is very strange. It implies a limitation on God's power to forgive; namely, God can forgive only if adequate sacrifice is made. It implies that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary-not just the consequence of what he was doing, but that it had to happen, that it was part of God's plan of salvation. It also introduces a requirement into the very center of our life with God: knowing about and believing in Jesus and his sacrificial death. [Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity]
In other words, if no one ever tells you about Jesus, then you are sunk!... which doesn't seem very fair.
I'm making a fuss of this interpretation, because it is one of the most offensive things outsiders understand about our faith. And, frankly, I don't blame them! It is offensive! A God who damns an innocent child, or a person who never heard of Jesus, is a monster. We should be ashamed if we really think that what God is like!
Borg goes on to say something quite different about sacrifice. Different and exciting:
... in its first-century setting, the statement "Jesus is the sacrifice for sin" had a quite different meaning [to the way we see it now.] .. According to [the theology of the Jewish leadership and temple], certain kinds of sins and impurities could be dealt with only through sacrifice in the temple. Temple theology thus claimed an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins; and because the forgiveness of sins was a prerequisite for entry into the presence of God, temple theology also claimed an institutional monopoly on access to God.
In this setting, to affirm "Jesus is the sacrifice for sin" was to deny the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God. It was an anti-temple statement. Using the metaphor of sacrifice, it subverted the sacrificial system. [My words]
(This is the good news of Easter Day.)
It meant: God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God; you have access to God apart from the temple and its system of sacrifice. It is a metaphor of radical grace, of amazing grace.
Thus "Jesus died for our sins" was originally a subversive metaphor, not a literal description of either God's purpose or Jesus' vocation. It was a metaphorical proclamation of radical grace; and properly understood, it still is. It is therefore ironic to realize that the religion that formed around Jesus would within four hundred years begin to claim for itself an institutional monopoly on grace and access to God.", [Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity]
So let's be careful what we say about Jesus' death. What do we really believe?
Now if all that complexity about what the death of Jesus means is not enough, we get to Easter Sunday, and the Resurrection. Nobody knows what happened then. If we look at the New Testament carefully, what do we see? Paul doesn't really address the issue of what or how. He talks about meaning. The four gospels have four different endings, and four different stories of Easter morning!
The earliest of these gospels was written 40 years after Jesus death, and the latest 70 to 100 hundred years after... You could wonder if it looked like people didn't know what happened... they couldn't get their stories straight evendecades later!
And yet, in another sense, they did know what happened! We read the story of Paul's experience on the Damascus road earlier today. Just as it was for Paul, something in the first Christians' lives was changed. There was a new experience of God, because of Jesus. There was a resurrection, a being raised to a new understanding.
Each gospel has its own understanding and emphasis about this mystery of Jesus resurrection. Matthew, which we heard today, shows the Roman power being shaken to its core and defeated... the word for earthquake and for the guards being shaken is the same. The power of Rome is like a dead man. Rome cannot even see resurrection.
The angel of the Lord, the messenger of God descended from heaven, came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. God has the power over Rome, and over the huge stone of death, that closes off our lives. God is more powerful than death. And this is for everyone; Jesus appears first to the least privileged, the women at the tomb
What happened was a mystery, but it is a mystery with an answer. We understand the word mystery today as something without an answer. In the gospels' time mystery meant a happening that could be understood, if you had the correct insight. And Matthew gives the key to the mystery. He says it twice. In Matthew's story of Easter the angel tells the women the answer. Then the risen Jesus himself says to the women, Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.
How will we see Jesus? How will we understand Good Friday and Easter Day? After all the insights of study and prayer, the answer to the mystery is simply in the saying: "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
The answer is not in proofs and argument. The answer is going to where we first met Jesus, back to "our Galilee," back to the church, our family, our neighbours, our friends. The answer is to go and live out the faith, together as a church. It's like the story Luke's gospel tells of the Emmaus road... live out the Christian life, living like Jesus would live if he were here, breaking bread together.... that will bring resurrection, and the presence of God, into our lives. We will know the mystery.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved
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