March 23, 2008
Last week, on Palm Sunday, we explored the events of Holy Week and saw Jesus arrive in Jerusalem and engage in prophetically important events in the Temple. We saw Jesus arrested, turned over to the Romans, and crucified by the end of that week. As we remembered Jesus in the tomb, we recalled his mission, understood in three parts:
• Reconstituting “Israel” around himself
• Reestablishing the mission of the covenant people
• Proclaiming that the time had come
We saw that his whole purpose hung in the balance. Would it all end in the darkness of the tomb? Would the life of Jesus turn into a pointless footnote in the history of first-century Israel?
And now on this Sunday – Easter Sunday – we encounter the extraordinary description of the empty tomb and the first resurrection appearances of Jesus. Everyone in the narrative seems shocked. It appears that nobody saw this coming! That should be no surprise to us because in the wider Graeco-Roman world of the Mediterranean Basin the idea of someone coming back from the dead simply was not part of the worldview of most people. Homer, in the Iliad, describes Achilles addressing Priam, the father of Hector (whom Achilles had killed in battle,) saying, “You will be dead yourself before you bring him back to life”. No thought of a “resurrection” there, it seems! In a similar vein, Aeschylus in Eumenides has Apollo speaking at the Areopagus (the Athenian high court), saying, “Once a man has died and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection”. People, in general, saw death as a one-way street. There was no coming back.
Even in the context of the Old Testament narrative, it is hard to find anyone taking seriously the notion that there is any return after death:
• Psalm 6:5 In death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?
• Genesis 3:19 Dust you are and to dust you shall return
• 2 Samuel 14:14 We must all die, we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up.
• Job 7:7-10 …my life is a breath … those who go down to Sheol do not come up…
By the time of Jesus, it seems that the dramatic experience of the Exile in 586/7 BC had been re-imagined in terms of the life and death of the people of Israel, as described by the prophets:
• Hosea 6:1ff Come, let us return to YHWH for it is he who has torn and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.
• Daniel 12:2-3 Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.
Even though the geographic Exile of the people ended when Cyrus allowed them to return and to begin rebuilding the Temple, the sense of being in Exile never went away. The people remained almost always oppressed by foreign powers, almost never able to live lives of faithfulness to Torah, and almost never able to function within the Temple as they once had. For these reasons, the idea of “being in Exile” continued through the days of Jesus.
Some people in 1st-century Israel understood the Exile in terms of a “death and resurrection” metaphor of the people of Israel:
(i) Being taken into Exile = dying
(ii) Living in Exile = death
(iii) Returning from Exile = resurrection
(iv) Living at one with God = new life
And it appears that over time this metaphor came to be understood in terms of a representative of the people of Israel (a Messiah/King figure) symbolically acting on their behalf:
(iv) new life (= the Exile is over!)
The dying, death and resurrection to new life of Jesus thus confirmed for those who held to this understanding that:
• He is that representative of the people of Israel: the Messiah/King
• The judgment of the Temple authorities and the Romans was reversed
• His message was authenticated
The good news for the folks who understood things this way was that the Exile (which had come to be seen as a consequence of the sin and apostasy of the people) was really over! This end to the consequences of sin and apostasy would later allow Paul to write in Romans 6:10-11, “For his death was a death to sin, but his life now is a life which he is living to God. Even so see yourselves as dead to sin, but living to God in Christ Jesus.”
This, then, is the result of the resurrection: Jesus inaugurates new life! We see now why the resurrection of Jesus is different from the cases of Lazarus (John 11), the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5; Luke 8), and the son of the widow at Nain (Luke 7), all of who were dead but were restored (by Jesus) to life. Each one was restored to their old life. The resurrection of Jesus dramatically inaugurates a new life! His resurrection announced to the world:
(i) The Exile is over
(ii) New life begins
(iii) The inauguration of the Kingdom of God is confirmed
(iv) The time really is now!
And the evidence for all this is that a certain group of people who understood and believed began to live their lives just as if the Exile was over, new life had begun, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God was confirmed, and the time really had arrived!
And who were those people? They were those whom Jesus had gathered around himself and those who were convinced by the evidence! As time went on, those people became known as “Christians”! How do we become one of “those people”? Hear the good news! Symbolically enter into the community that Jesus inaugurated through the sacrament of baptism, exactly as we have witnessed here today. The resurrection is good news for all people because for us it dramatically proclaims that:
(i) Our own exile from God is over
(ii) Our new life as the people of God gathered around Jesus has begun
(iii) The Kingdom of God is a reality
(iv) The time really is now!
And for these reasons, we are EASTER PEOPLE!