Tag: Resurrection

Easter and the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday (Isaiah 65)

The Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
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                “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” When “up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes, he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign.” [Chalice Hymnal, 224]. Yes, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and with his resurrection is born the new creation. The old is past and needs to be forgotten. The past no longer holds sway over our lives. The journey to the cross and then to the tomb has led to this point when something new is born, for out of death comes life, like an acorn that falls from the tree and is reborn as another oak tree.
                The reading from Isaiah speaks not of resurrection but new creation. At first glance it doesn’t read as an Easter text, and yet it serves to deepen our understanding of resurrection. It speaks to the implications of the resurrection, but not directly.
It’s likely that few will preach from this text on Easter morning (I am of those who will place it at the center of my sermon), and yet it might have something important to say to us, even as it spoke to the original recipients. Authorship is attributed to the post-exilic prophet whose words of encouragement and guidance are found in the book called Isaiah. The author is often designated as Third Isaiah, and he speaks to a people living with shattered dreams. Once a nation that at least thought of itself as being independent, the nation of Judah was scattered and sent into exile. The Temple was destroyed, along with the city of Jerusalem. The people of Judah had heard words of promise from the one we call Second Isaiah while still in Babylon. Now, with the exile ended, and the people (a new generation that was born in Babylon) having returned to Judah, they still aren’t complete free. They live not in the form of a nation, but as a province of the Persian Empire. They may have come home with high hopes of seeing their nation restored, but things aren’t turning out as expected. This new generation has heard stories of what once was, and what became of their people, as well as prophetic visions of a new beginning, but it still doesn’t feel right. The hoped-for transformation of their lives is not happening, at least not in the way they expected. That new beginning has yet to emerge. So, the prophet tells them to forget the former things. Forget the past. Instead take hold of a new vision. Consider the promise of a new creation. This new vision takes us back to the beginning of creation, to the garden, where all of creation lived in harmony. This is the vision of the new creation that will come upon the people. It is a vision that deepens our understanding of the resurrection.
                To get to the new creation, we need to return to the first day of the week, when in Luke’s account, women came to the tomb to finish preparing the body that was hastily laid in the tomb. Resurrection is a sign of new creation, but they’re not yet ready to experience it. When the women reach the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and the body missing. It does appear they expected to find Jesus still lying in the grave. Instead, they encounter two men in dazzling clothes (angels?) who tell the women Jesus has been raised from the dead and will speak to the community soon. When they arrive back at the place where the church is gathered, their report is received with disbelief. Jesus may have spoken of resurrection, but this message hadn’t sunk in yet. But Jesus had risen from the dead (Lk 24:1-12). The old had passed away, and the new had emerged in the resurrected Jesus. In his resurrection he embodies the vision of a new creation.  
 
                The Gospel accounts in Luke and John give us the story of Jesus’ resurrection. They remind us that death could hold him. Death had staked its claim, but God proved too powerful, and Jesus, whom the world discarded, was vindicated. Resurrection wasn’t and isn’t a singular event. It’s not just about overcoming death and moving on to the heavenly realm. Resurrection is about new creation, a new vision for the people of God. The word we hear in Isaiah is that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth. There will be a new Jerusalem where joy will be abundant. Weeping will be absent. People won’t labor in vain. The “wolf and lion shall feed together, while the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” It’s a vision that strikes us as one of peace. Now, I understand the biology of wolves and lions. They’re carnivores, not herbivores. Nevertheless, the image is striking enough to get our attention. It is the vision of a return to the Garden, where life is lived in harmony. 
 
                For those who gather on Easter morning, this vision offers comfort and perhaps a balm for the soul. It might offer a word of encouragement and empowerment. These are words that seem in short supply these days. For a moment the Easter gathering offers us an opportunity to dwell in the new creation. Our realities might change in an instant. We still must go out on Monday morning to face what is often an unfriendly world, but we go forth with this vision of a new creation as a light to the pathway we take.
                When we gather on Easter Morning, having traveled a path that led through Golgotha, we will have acknowledged that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. Now that it is the third day, we gather to celebrate the news that Jesus is risen from the dead. With his resurrection, the old has passed and the new has emerged from the tomb. This news has cosmic implications. As Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not only a witness to the promise of life after death. It is also a testament to the promise of resurrection grounded in a life given to others against all manifestations of evil.” In this new cosmic order that is initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, “relationships embody the joy of God’s creative power” [Feasting on the Word, p. 358]. These relationships are the ones represented by the Wolf and the Lamb, both are God’s creatures, and in the new creation that live together in harmony. Perhaps the word we hear as we gather to celebrate Easter is that in Christ, God is transforming our relationships with one another and with creation itself into something new.
                Too often Easter becomes little more than an opportunity to show off new clothes and share an Easter basket. There’s nothing wrong with such things, but they are not at the heart of Easter. What is at the heart of Easter, it is the triumph of “the steadfast love of the Lord,” which “endures forever” and evidenced by the new creation in Christ’s resurrection. We may not see it fully revealed at this moment, but as Paul reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of that new realm of God (1 Cor. 15:23).   

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earthy many days has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green. [John M. C. Crum, Chalice Hymnal, 230].

 

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A Word About Salvation – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4B

A Word About Salvation – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4B

Acts 4:5-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is

‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

it has become the cornerstone.’

12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

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A healing leads to preaching, and preaching leads to arrest, which leads to a trial, and a trial gives an opportunity for preaching. At least that’s the way things seem to work for Peter and John here in chapters three and four of the Book of Acts. Peter had been preaching to a large crowd in Solomon’s Portico, after healing the man who was disabled at the gate to the Temple. In other words, an act of power opens an opportunity to explain the source of power, which of course leads to the message of the cross and the resurrection. While you might think that it would be the cross that stirs the pot here, it is really the message of the resurrection. It appears from the opening verses of chapter four that it was the message of resurrection of the dead that got the attention of the religious leaders, who order them arrested. That is the background story for Peter’s next sermon, this time delivered in front of the religious leaders who have gathered to pronounce judgment on Peter and John.

Unfortunately for the leaders, Peter takes advantage of this appearance to speak once again about the resurrection. Peter begins his defense with an acknowledgment that it seems they had been arrested for doing something good, that is, bringing healing to a man who had suffered for years. The question was—how did they do this? The answer is simple—they acted in the power of the one whom the religious leaders had crucified, but whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. If you want to know how this happened, well that’s the answer—Jesus! Yes, this Jesus whom God has raised is the source of healing, which means they have been arrested for doing a good deed in the power of the risen one!

This is all boiler-plate apostolic preaching. We hear this message time and again, whether on the lips of Peter or Paul. Central to the message is that of the resurrection, which divides Sadducees and Pharisees. While the two parties aren’t named in this selection, according to Luke, the arresting party included priests and Sadducees. In this scene the Pharisees are absent, so Peter can’t divide and conquer like Paul will do in a later scene. Since the opposition in this scene are Sadducees, for whom the resurrection doesn’t fit into their theology, you can understand their consternation at hearing Peter preach about the resurrection in their presence. For Peter and the early church, as was true of the Pharisees, the resurrection was the key to their theology. It was the revelation of God’s power present in Jesus. Since this is the Easter season, this passage offers the preacher and the church an opportunity to again reflect upon and celebrate the Resurrection.

Where this passage becomes controversial in modern contexts, is the wording of verse 12. This verse is often used as a proof text to defend the premise that one cannot be saved without confessing faith in Jesus, for “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” In other words, it is a foundational text for an exclusivist vision of salvation. A question that might be asked of Peter concerns what he means by salvation and how Jesus is the name by which one is saved. Is Peter setting up a point of division? Is this a red line, at which Peter is asking his accusers (and anyone else) to dare to cross? That is, one’s eternal destiny hangs on how one responds to the message of Jesus. That is how it has often been read, but is this how Peter means it to be heard? Is it how Jesus would have us hear it? Or, could we read it in a more inclusive way?

We might want to start by remembering Peter’s audience, which is comprised of fellow Jews. It’s important that we remember that Peter was a Jew before he met Jesus, and that he remained a Jew after he met Jesus, and he remained a Jew even as he stands before the Sanhedrin, accusing them of their complicity in the death of the one by whom he has engaged in healing ministry. So, once again this is an intra-family debate, with Peter inviting the religious leaders to affirm God’s work in and through Jesus. Yes, they had participated in his death, but God overturned that deed in the resurrection. Of course, the court here is composed of a group of leaders who deny the resurrection of the dead, and so they would be reticent to accept Peter’s message of vindication. In their minds, Jesus is dead and remains dead, and therefore is unavailable to empower Peter and John. Nonetheless, this is Peter’s testimony, and apparently some 5000 people had stepped forward to follow Jesus through his ministry. In other words, Peter and his partner John were stirring the religious pot, undermining the authority of the religious leaders, who were charged with keeping order by the Roman occupiers. Nonetheless, Peter remains firm: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no other name.

When we hear the word salvation (Greek: soteria), it is good to remember that this word has a variety of nuances and meanings. Context is important if we’re going to understand its meaning. When it comes to Acts 4:12, almost all translations offer up “salvation.” However, we could translate this word as healing, which makes sense in this context. After all, they are under arrest, at least in their own minds, for healing someone in the name of Jesus. There are other ways of rendering the word, including rescue and spiritual wholeness. In other words, Peter might have something in mind other than getting to heaven. In fact, there is nothing in this passage that hints at salvation being the means of gaining heaven. So, he might be speaking in very terrestrial terms.

I find wisdom in the reading of the passage by Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, who point out that “Luke is not here addressing the theoretical issue of the eternal destiny of people in distant centuries and countries who have not heard the Christian message.” In context, he is expressing his belief that the God of Israel has acted in Jesus, who was crucified, but was raised by God, and it is in Jesus that the power of God is being revealed in the healing of this man who had been disabled, but who is now running around proclaiming his healing. Craddock and Boring also remind us that Luke’s theology of salvation is not reflected either in the view that “the Christian way is only one of ‘many roads to God,’” nor are we being “encouraged to believe that only confessing Christians are finally accepted by God.” As we ponder this passage, we would be wise to heed our commentators and affirm that “on the basis of this text, Christians ought to say neither than only Christians shall ultimately be saved nor that people can be saved through a variety of saviors. Christians should confess their faith that the God revealed in Christ is the only Savior, without claiming that only those who respond in faith will be saved” [The People’s New Testament Commentary, (WJK Press, 2009), p. 378].

As we continue the Easter journey, may we ponder together the power of Jesus name, by which God brings healing and salvation. For Peter, the risen Jesus was the only means by which the God of Israel acted to bring healing, wholeness, and salvation. In him God’s power was let loose.Peter invites us to embrace the Risen One, as we walk in God’s wholeness.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Christian Community in the Shadow of the Resurrection

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Acts 4:32-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

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During the Easter season, the first reading in the Revised Common Lectionary comes from the Book of Acts (as opposed to the Hebrew Bible). As we move through this season of post resurrection visitations on the part of Jesus, we hear words about life in the early church. On this Sunday we hear a word about a community that has chosen to live the common life. When I was teaching a college class on the book of Acts years ago, I liked to tell the students, who were from a conservative Christian background, that this was evidence that the early Christians were communists—long before Karl Marx came around. I’m not sure they appreciated my making note of this, after all communism is a dirty word in some circles. but it was a good conversation starter.

Throughout the history of the church, there have been attempts to approximate this model of Christian life, but it never became the dominant form of Christian community. We don’t even know how long this form of community existed in Jerusalem. But, even if it did not last more than a year or two, what might we take from the message that they were all “of one heart and soul?” At one level there appears to have been a concern for the welfare of the entire Christian community. They shared equally of their resources so that no one was in need. Gustavo Gutierrez, who is one of the founders of Latin American Liberation Theology, writes in his seminal text that this act on the part of the Jerusalem church “was not a question of erecting poverty as an ideal, but rather seeing to it that there were no poor…. The meaning of the community of goods is clear: to eliminate poverty because of love of the poor person” [A Theology of Liberation, (Orbis)1973), p. 301].

We’re told that the members of the community sold their property and brought the proceeds, laying them at the feet of the Apostles, who then distributed the goods among the people. One member in the community stood out as an exemplar, and that was Barnabas. Barnabas is an intriguing figure in the history of the church. We are told that he came from Cyprus and that he was by descent a Levite. Thus, he was of the priestly caste. He seems to have been a person of some means, as he is held out as an example of one who sold all so that the community might thrive (as opposed to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5). Barnabas will go on to become a leader in the church at Antioch, and a partner in ministry with Paul on Paul’s missionary journey. Luke likely mentions Barnabas and his example because he was known to the readers, at least by name and story.

One of the messages of this passage is that standing at the heart of the Gospel is compassion for the other. One of the attractions to the early Christian church was the welcome given to people on all socio-economic levels. It wasn’t always easy, as we discover when reading 1 Corinthians. Despite the challenges, the Christian community was one of the most economically diverse religious communities of its day. That commitment, which was always difficult to put into practice, helped spread the faith throughout the Roman Empire.

The reading for the second Sunday of Easter has a stewardship element to it, connecting as it does money to discipleship. Willie James Jennings, in his theological commentary on the Book of Acts, writes that “money matters are inescapable. They are at the heart of discipleship, but they are not the heart of discipleship.” Our relationship to money says a lot about us. There is no joy to be found in poverty, despite St. Francis of Assisi’s claims. At the same time, money doesn’t necessarily make a person happy (there a lot of unhappy rich people). People who give, however, tend to be happier people. So, there does seem to be a benefit of giving, even if we don’t sell everything and give it to the church (that’s not a stewardship message that will go over well). Back to the insight into this matter from Willie James Jennings:

“Money here will be used to destroy what money normally is used to create: distance and boundaries between people. Distance and boundary is not merely between the haves and have-nots, but also between the needy and the comfortable, and between those who testify to Jesus and those who, like Jesus, help those with little or nothing” [Jennings, Acts: Belief, (WJK Press, 2018), p. 50].

Ultimately, this is not only the story of giving, but as Jennings points out, it is about the joining together that comes because of these acts.

The message of community expressed here was not new, at least not to the Jewish community. The principles of sabbath and jubilee were strongly implanted within Judaism, even if these principles might not have been fully embraced or developed. The principle of Jubilee, with its plan of redistributing land back to the original owners after fifty years, was designed to prevent monopolies of land or money. Thus, this is part of an overarching theme of justice that marks the biblical story.

As we attend to this passage today, in an age of increasing gaps between rich and poor, between management and worker, what message do we hear? How is Jesus speaking to the church on matters of income inequality? We need not go as far as this community, but what is it that we hear in this reading? To put it differently, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? For American Christians, who tend to grow up with an individualistic world view, what do we hear in this passage? Even if the model espoused here is not perfectly adaptable to our community, and may have been quickly abandoned, what does it mean for us to be “of one heart and soul?” How might we better exhibit God’s compassion for the poor in our own lives. It’s possible that some reading this are struggling financially, while others are blessed. How might this speak to both situations?

These are all important questions that for us are being raised in the shadow of Easter. So, the further question concerns the connection of resurrection to community, and how it is lived out in a world that often devalues human life. As Gutierrez prophetically writes:

“The ‘poor’ person today is the oppressed one, the one marginated from society, the member of the proletariat struggling for his most basic rights; he is the exploited and plundered social class, the country struggling for its liberation” [A Theology of Liberation, p. 301].

What then is the message of resurrection in this context?

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Death Has Been Swallowed Up Forever – Lectionary Reflection for Easter B – Isaiah 25

Isaiah 25:6-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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.
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.
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.
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.

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                Easter celebrates the victory of life over death. We gather on Easter morning to declare in song and prayer: “Christ the Lord is Risen today.” We joyfully sing: “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won, the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!” Easter is a glorious moment in the Christian year, for it celebrates resurrection—God’s victory over death. As Paul reminds us, our resurrection is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. (1 Corinthians15:20)
                The Gospel reading for this cycle of texts comes from either Mark 16 or John 20. Mark 16 gives us a rather abbreviated version of the Easter story. It may leave us wanting more, which is why many will turn instead to John 20, which invites us to encounter the risen Jesus through the witness of Mary Magdalene.

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