Easter Sunday – April 24, 2011
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Acts 10.34-43 or Jeremiah 31.1-6||Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24||Colossians 3.1-4 or Acts 10.34-43||John 20.1-18 or Matthew 28.1-10|
By David J. Lull
Easter Day turns our focus to our deepest hopes and desires. Many of us have forgotten what those are or have replaced them with hopes and desires that are too small, too narrow, and too selfish. Easter Day reminds that God is the source of our deepest hopes and desires, and not we ourselves.
The first Easter faith did not arise as easily as Easter faith forms on our lips and in our hearts today. Jesus’ crucifixion was a crushing blow to his followers. Their first thoughts were not about his resurrection “on the third day.” They hunkered down in a room behind locked doors for fear that the imperial authorities would come after them next (Jn 20.19 and 26). Some headed home, hopeless, ready to return to their former lives (Lk 24.13-24). In the ancient Greco-Roman world, resurrection was for heroic athletes and warriors, not for criminals crucified for refusing to pledge loyalty to the Empire and teaching others to refuse to put their trust in Caesars and their client princes. The message of the crucified Messiah was pure foolishness (1 Cor 1.18-31)! We need to encounter brutal realities out of which the first Easter faith arose, because “Alleluia, Christ is risen indeed!” has lost so much of its original edginess.
God’s hopes and desires are theological and political! Easter faith proclaims that the crucified Jesus and the God who raised him up from the dead pledge their solidarity with all who, like Jesus, are “crucified people.” The crucified Jesus and the God who raised him up from the dead say to them, “My peace I give you.” Witnesses to good news for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed are witnesses to the presence of the living Christ, accompanying them in their suffering and calling everyone to struggle for their release from suffering.
The primary lections for Easter Sunday are Acts 10.34-43, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3.1-4, and John 20.1-18, but I encourage you to consider the alternative readings (Jeremiah 31.1-6 and Matthew 28.1-10) as well, even though Easter Sunday is a day for preaching from the Gospel if there ever was one. Spending time with Jeremiah will reward you with fresh perspectives with which to approach the Easter message. Matthew, with its emphasis on God presence in, with, and through Jesus (1.23) while the disciples engage in God’s mission in the world (28.20), complements John 20 and has a message our churches need today. In addition, both John and Matthew highlight the role of women in the story of Jesus’ resurrection—an accent that resists the patriarchal framework of the gospel narratives and the patriarchal polities of many churches today.
Jeremiah 31.1-6 [For Acts 10.34-43, see below.]
Easter Sunday is a day for preaching from the Gospel if there ever was one, but I hope you will spend time with Jeremiah. Doing so will reward you with fresh perspectives with which to approach the Easter message. In the following commentary, I begin by locating this reading within Jeremiah’s own context. Then I turn to Jeremiah’s relevance for Easter in analogous “universal” contexts.
The united kingdom of Israel, comprising the “twelve tribes” named after Jacob’s sons, fell apart at the end of the 8th century b.c.e., due to rivalry between a confederation of ten tribes in the north and two in the south and their conflicting alliances with empires in the region. The Assyrians, allied with the kingdom of Judah in the south, annexed portions of the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria, eventually conquering the whole of the northern kingdom and deporting the population to Assyria. The southern kingdom of Judah had broken its covenant with God when it formed alliances with the Assyrian Empire, which collapsed at the end of the 7th century b.c.e. When early in the 6th century, Judah fell to the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Jeremiah and other ancient prophets interpreted its destruction and the Babylonian exile as divine judgment.
Jeremiah nevertheless proclaimed God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Following earlier scathing words of judgment against Judah (chapters 1-29), Jeremiah’s words in 31.1-6 express a strong note of hope as Judah returned from the Babylonian exile. The opening phrase, “At that time” (31.1), refers to “the latter days,” when God will come down as a warrior, like a “storm,” against “the wicked,” who scattered Judah (and Israel) in foreign lands and made them slaves (30.8-24). “At that time” God will “redeem” Judah (and Israel) from “hands too strong” for them (31.11).
Jeremiah envisions the restoration of one united kingdom of Israel in the north and Judah in the south: “…I will be the God of all the families of Israel” (31.1). The restoration of this united kingdom will be God’s doing, but not without the willing participation of the people of the northern kingdom in seeking reconciliation with the people of the south. Those who will enjoy the fruit of the vineyards “on the mountains of Samaria” (31.5) will need to heed the “sentinel’s” call to the people “in the hill country of Ephraim”—the land of the tribe of the first king of the northern kingdom—to “go up to Zion”—Jerusalem, the city of David, king of Judah in the south and then king of the former united kingdom of Israel (31.6). The people of the north will need to “dance” together with the people of the south (31.4) in celebration of God’s “faithfulness” and “everlasting love”! God will claim both people of the north and people of the south as God’s people, and both peoples will live as one people, loyal and faithful to God: “…they shall be my people” (31.1).
Exile in foreign lands, described in language echoing the narrative of exodus from Egypt and the search for “promised” land (“in the wilderness”), was a time when it appeared that God had abandoned God’s covenant because Israel and Judah had broken the covenant themselves. Instead, they “found God’s “grace” (31.2). God appeared to Israel “from far away.” Because God’s love is an “everlasting love,” God continued God’s “faithfulness” to them (31.3).
In the introduction to Jeremiah 30-33, Jorge Pixley rightly points out that, “If we are to take the book of Jeremiah as Holy Scripture, the Word of God, we must read it not just as a book about Judah and Babylon in the sixth century b.c.e., but as a book about empires in general. Today, the book speaks to Jewish people and Christian churches in their complex relation with today’s empire, the United States” (Jorge V. Pixley, Jeremiah, Chalice Commentaries for Today [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004], 95). He goes on to point out that many church members support U.S. “military adventures” out of a sense of patriotism, and that Israel occupies a significant place in U.S. national/imperial interests in the Middle East (95-96). Jeremiah 30-33 envisions a time when empires will “no longer exist,” or be reduced to “ordinary” states, and when “scattered people of God will be again gathered in the promised land…” (96). In short, Jeremiah speaks a word of warning to today’s empires.
The lectionary also re-contextualizes Jeremiah by including 30.1-6 in the readings for Easter Sunday. Jeremiah reminds Christians that God’s “grace” on Easter is a decisive event in a long list of such “grace” events in the history of Israel. On Easter, as at the time of the return of Israel/Judah from exile, God reaffirmed God’s “faithfulness,” not only to Jesus, God’s faithful servant, but also to all who looked to Jesus for salvation.
- To those for whom salvation is forgiveness for their sins, Easter is God’s faithfulness to the transformative forgiveness with which Jesus transformed sinners. For, God’s love embodied in Jesus is an everlasting love, as it was embodied in God’s restoration of ancient Israel.
- To those for whom salvation is liberation from injustice, oppression, and domination at the “hands too strong” for them, Easter is God’s faithfulness to God’s preferential option for the poor and all people wounded by injustice, to and for whom Jesus gave his life of service to God’s justice, and for whom God’s love is an everlasting love.
- To those for whom salvation is redemption from the forms of death they experience under the rule of tyrants and empires, Easter is God’s faithfulness to “crucified people.” God showed God’s love for them is an everlasting love when God claimed the crucified Jesus as God’s own son and transformed him into a life-giving presence, witnessing to good news for “crucified people.”
Easter also comes at a time like that of Israel/Judah’s “wilderness” experience of exile in foreign lands: the “wilderness” experience of Lenten remembrance of personal and communal disobedience, and the “wilderness” experience of the appearance of God’s absence on Good Friday. In the language of Jeremiah, Easter is a time of “rebuilding”—a time of restoration from death to life, thanks to God’s faithfulness and everlasting love.
Easter is God’s “Yes!” to Jesus’ attempt to reconcile Jeremiah’s people—Galileans, Samaritans, and Judeans, still separated by ancient hostilities. Alas, the message of Easter has also contributed to hostilities that separate Christians from Jews and Muslims—say nothing of the scandal of hostilities separating Christians from Christians! Would that Easter could be a time for Christians to dance Jeremiah’s “dance of merrymakers” with Jews and Muslims. At least on Easter Sunday, Christians should dance in reconciliation with other Christians, just as Jeremiah envisioned dancing in celebration of God’s faithfulness to love “all the families of Israel” with everlasting love!
Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24
The lectionary committee’s penchant for splicing and dicing texts peaks my interest in what they did not want us to hear! By cutting out verses 3-13, the lectionary silences the psalm’s political content, which is the psalm’s interpretive context. The psalmist chastised the people for putting their hope in political alliances and in the strength of the military to deal with their national enemies (like Jeremiah). Instead, the psalmist praised God as the source of their hope of deliverance from their enemies. That is why this psalm is the final psalm sung as part of the Passover celebration. Read these verses! They connect the political liberation theology of Passover with Easter (see the commentary on Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29 and Psalm 31 for Palm/Passion Sunday). The lectionary committee severed that connection when they cut out the political content of the middle verses of Psalm 118. As a result, they have prevented Christians from considering the political implications of applying Psalm 118 to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
According to the Gospel of John, those who put their trust in “mortals” and “princes” when they declared that Caesar was their only “king” (Jn 18.1-19.42) crucified Jesus. To show that God is the only true ruler of the world, and not the Caesars of this world, God lifted up and exalted the very one “mortals” and “princes” crucified to assert their imperial rule over the world. Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke, put his trust in God (Lk 23.46). Marti Steussy’s comment on Psalm 31 also applies to Psa 118.18: “Unlike the psalmist, who commits his spirit to God in confidence of being saved from experiencing death, Jesus finds deliverance on the other side of death—he is not sheltered from human plots” (Marti J. Steussy, Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004], 92). Her final comment on Psalm 118 is also apt: “The challenge for our faith is to keep the joy of Christ’s exaltation from erasing the memory of his suffering, which the Bible presents as a necessary part of God’s participation in human life. A true Easter faith must embrace Good Friday” (Steussy, Psalms, 184).
Through the lens of Psalm 118, we see Jesus as a “wounded healer,” a “redeemed redeemer”! In this “redeemed redeemer,” all those against whom the world’s “princes” have sinned, the world’s “crucified people,” can find someone who transforms their suffering by accompanying them in their suffering. At this point, a preacher’s instinct might be to move quickly into “a pep talk” or “marching orders” for what we ought to do in response to what God has done in and for the crucified Christ, but Psalm 118 is a song of praise. Before giving “marching orders,” the first order of business is the reorientation of our hopes and desires to their proper source: God. As someone has said, right theology, and I would add right preaching, is first of all doxological. Proper doxology, however, invites and calls us into active participation in God’s healing and saving actions in the world. How can we praise God for liberating slaves from Egypt without asking God’s help to liberate slaves in our own time and world? How can we praise God for redeeming Jesus Christ from the death-dealing hands of the “princes” of the Roman Empire and not also ask God to help redeem all who suffer and die at the hands of death-dealing nations and empires today? After all, Jesus protested against a temple whose faux doxology served the interests of unjust “mortals” and “princes” (see Mk 11.15-17 and parallels in Matthew, Luke, and John). Proper doxologies lead to serving God’s mission of justice “on earth as in heaven,” and God’s mission of justice “on earth as in heaven” informs proper doxologies!
Colossians 3.1-4 [For Acts 10.34-43, see below.]
It is easy to misunderstand this text in two ways:
1. Its claim in 3.1 (see also 2.12), that being “raised with Christ” was an event in the past, looks and sounds triumphalistic. The future tense in 3.4 and the imperatives in the rest of the letter, however, offset the past tense. Evidently, God is not yet finished with those who “have been raised with Christ”!
2. Its admonition to “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3.2) looks and sounds otherworldly. This admonition, however, has to do with life here and now, on earth; it is not about “going to heaven.” The imperatives “seek” (3.1) and “set your minds” (3.2) are present tenses in Greek, which implies that people were supposed to continue seeking and setting their minds on “things above,” as they already were doing here and now, on earth. In addition, the statements in 3.1-4 about the present reality of the lives of those who “have been raised with Christ” are the basis for the string of exhortations beginning in 3.5. Those exhortations do not denigrate “earthly things” as such; rather, they put the focus on commonly recognized vices (3.5, 8-9). Seeking and setting one’s mind on “things above” was supposed to guard against such vices and inspire commonly recognized virtues (3.12-17) here and now, on earth. Notice the rules for running the household in 3.18-4.1, which modify but do not fully transform “earthly,” patriarchal roles!
A life oriented toward “things above” is a life, here and now, on earth, oriented to Christ, “who is your life” (3.4). Since “Christ is sitting at the right hand of God” (3.1), a life oriented toward “things above” is a life, here and now, on earth, oriented toward God, who alone is worthy of complete trust and loyalty, and who alone is the source of all virtues. Such a life “is hidden with Christ in God” (3.3). That might mean God is keeping new life in Christ here and now, on earth, safe from “earthly” vices. On the other hand, that might mean what life will be like in the future is invisible, since it is “with Christ in God,” and God is invisible. If this “hidden” life is the life God will reveal when God reveals the fullness of Christ, seated at God’s “right hand,” it is a life “with Christ in glory” (3.4). This “glory” is the pure light of the divine, but what it is beyond that is a complete mystery. This future life “with Christ in glory” is quite “hidden with Christ in God”!
Col 3.1-4 envisions the transformative power of participation in the reality of Christ. Colossians has nothing to say about the historical Jesus’ life of faithful service to God’s justice that I have talked about in my Lenten lectionary commentaries. Instead, Christ has God’s attributes (1.15-23; 2.9) and sits at God’s “right hand” (3.1). Here we have a vision of the transformative power of God’s real, effective presence in the lives of those who “have received Christ Jesus the Lord” (2.6).
Let’s not rush to the Easter verse: “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear” (10.40). For, we cannot grasp its full significance apart from the rest of this passage. If we raise our voices with shouts of “Alleluia, Christ is risen indeed!” too quickly and easily, we likely will replace Easter’s prophetic edginess with shallow piety.
Peter’s sermon is primarily about who Jesus is and what Jesus did as a witness to who God is and what God does. God shows God’s characteristic impartiality in, with, and through Jesus. The Greek word for “all” appears seven times in these ten verses. Four of those demonstrate that “God shows no partiality” (10.34).
- God accepts those “in every nation” who reverence and show respect for God and practice righteousness (10.35). As the preceding story about Cornelius demonstrates, God pays no attention to a person’s ethnic or national origin; nor does God pay attention to a person’s social status (10.1-33). Not only was Cornelius a gentile; he was also a centurion in the Roman army stationed in Caesarea, a city named for the emperor (10.1)! As such, Cornelius represented the extreme case of a non-Israelite. If God could find him “acceptable,” God’s impartiality is unlimited indeed! In this narrative context, God’s impartiality has to do with the inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles in the people of God—including an officer of the imperial army maintaining Roman occupation of Israel’s ancestral land. Its message, however, transcends this historical context. God’s impartiality means that God does not exclude anyone based on their race, gender, social class and status, marital status, sexual orientation, nationality, disabilities, etc. All means all, without exception. The only condition is the two-sided love command: reverence/respect for God and practice righteousness. Cornelius exemplifies what God finds “acceptable” in “every nation”: his many acts of charitable giving and his regular practice of praying to God show his reverence and fear of God (10.2). Oh boy, are we in trouble now! This is a simple but demanding benchmark. How many of us can measure up to it? At the end of his sermon, Peter offered some comfort in the promise of God’s impartial forgiveness, but for now we would do well to contemplate the demand/challenge side of God’s impartiality. The adults and children in Africa suffering from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, malaria, and the lack of clean drinking water, and the world’s hungry are waiting for the “acts of righteousness” God asks of those God would find acceptable “in every nation.” All too often idolatries stifle “acts of righteousness.” Too many “revere and fear” God in word only. God have mercy!
- The “message” God “sent to the people of Israel” was one of “peace through Jesus Christ” (10.36). God sent this message of “peace” to “the people of Israel… throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee (10.36-37),” but that does not mean God was partial to Israel to the exclusion of every other nation. For, the following declaration in 10.36 (“he is Lord of all”), makes it clear that Jesus Christ, like God, shows no partiality. The people of Israel, like Peter, needed to be reminded that God is “Lord of all.” In the same way, today Americans need to be reminded that God is Lord—ruler, savior, provider—of every nation, including those nations our leaders call enemies of U.S. national interests and security. God is Lord not just of the U.S., but also of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and Syria. God is calling prophetic messengers to preach “peace through Jesus Christ” to the people of the U.S., from Maine to Hawaii, beginning in Washington, D.C. Since God is “Lord of every nation,” God holds all nations accountable to the peace God desires for all nations.
- Jesus’ good deeds of “healing all who were oppressed by the devil” show “God was with him” (10.38). His “healing all” also witnesses to God’s impartiality. God offers God’s transforming power to anyone oppressed by evil. God resists oppressive evil in all of its forms—physical, mental, economic, social, political, ecological, etc., and so should we.
- In the context of the narrative, Cornelius and other gentiles are Peter’s audience. The “implied audience,” however, are the hearers of the Acts narrative, which included believers among “the people of Israel.” Perhaps they were the primary audience. They would need to know that the next thing Peter says is backed by the testimony of “all the prophets”: God’s impartiality toward “every nation” guarantees that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name” (10.43; this “all” is repeated in 10.44, but with a focus on the gentiles who heard the preached “word”). The traditional translation of the Greek verb pisteuō as “believe” limits it to a cognitive act: assent to propositions, beliefs, or doctrines. Another traditional translation, “have faith,” limits it to an affect: trust, confidence, or assurance. These traditional translations have been important in the development of Christian piety. Martin Luther was especially instrumental in making “faith,” which comes from hearing the preached “word,” an essential characteristic of Christian piety and life. An often-overlooked aspect of Luther’s understanding of “faith,” however, is the emphasis on “faith” as the reception of and participation in Christ’s “faith,” which is Christ’s “righteousness.” The Greek language expresses the participatory character of “faith” when it uses the preposition eis to introduce the object of “faith.” This preposition conveys a sense of motion toward someone or something to enter that person or thing, so that putting one’s “faith” into someone is to enter into and, therefore, to participate in that person. All “in every nation” receive “forgiveness of sins”—God’s impartial peace—by entering into Christ, God’s messenger of this “peace.”
Jesus preached a message of “peace” and “went about doing good and healing….” So, why did “they” crucify Jesus (10.39), and who are “they” (10.38)? Luke-Acts’ answer to the second question, like all the gospels, is that Pilate, the chief agent of Roman imperial occupation of Palestine, found Jesus innocent of all charges (Lk 22.4 and 23.14, 22). Luke-Acts and the other gospels shift responsibility away from Pilate to Jewish temple authorities (Lk 22.66; 23.1; Acts 4.8, 10; 5.27, 30) and ultimately the Jewish people in Jerusalem and throughout Judea (Lk 23.13; Acts 2.14; 2.23, 36; 3.12, 15; 13.27, 28). Luke-Acts’ theological message is that Jesus’ fate was like Israel’s prophets before him: death at the hands of Israelites in Jerusalem (Lk 6.22-23; 11.47-51; 13.33-34a; 24.19-20; Acts 7.52). The appropriation of this message in Christian anti-Jewish traditions is a slander against God, for it perverts and rejects Luke-Acts’ primary message, which is that God’s mission, through the preaching and acts of Jesus and his apostles, is to restore Israel and to bring peace among all nations (Lk 24.47 and Acts 1.6-8).
For Luke-Acts’ answer to the first question, we have to follow the echo of Acts 10.39 back to Lk 23.5, where the Sanhedrin’s charge against Jesus was that his “teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (i.e., Jerusalem), stirred up “the people.” A few lines earlier in the narrative explained how Jesus’ teachings “stirred up the people”: the Sanhedrin accused Jesus before Pilate of “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Lk 23.2; see also 22.66-71 and 23.14). Luke says that Pilate and Herod Antipas—two agents of the empire who together ruled Palestine from the Galilee to Judea—found Jesus innocent of these charges. Luke-Acts’ theological-political apologetic—that Jesus suffered the fate of prophets in Jerusalem and was no leader of insurgent resistance—is not convincing. The historical reality is that Pilate and the imperial army played an integral role in Jesus’ execution. Crucifixion was an exclusively Roman means of execution, used to suppress resistance to imperial occupation. To Pilate, the imperial army, and perhaps the temple authorities, Jesus could well have talked and acted like a leader of insurgent resistance “throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (Lk 23.5). Luke-Acts knew about others the imperial authorities executed for leading resistance movements, like Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5.36-37; also see Lk 13.1), and for publically rebuking imperial rulers for their immoral and evil deeds, as in the case of John the Baptist (Lk 3.19-20; 9.7-9). The gospels call Jesus a lēstēs, a “bandit” or “rebel,” like Barabbas and others who engaged in resistance to Roman occupation of Palestine (Mt 26.55; 27.38, 44; Mk 14.48; 15.27; Lk 22.52; Jn 18.40). Today, some Christians are finding Jesus’ preaching and actions inspire resistance to economic, social, political, and imperial oppression around the world.
Now, finally, we are ready to lift our voices with loud shouts of “God raised him” from death (10.39-40)! Empires cannot tolerate God’s impartial peace among all nations, so they try to discredit and even execute messengers of God’s impartial peace. The Easter message, however, is that God transforms their executions, as God did for Jesus and all the prophets before him. Death cannot silence God’s message of impartial peace for all nations, though empires may try to silence those who preach God’s message of peace. Jesus, God’s messenger of God’s impartial peace, is not dead but lives on in God, and in those whom God calls to be new messengers of God’s impartial peace for all nations. The God who raised Jesus from the dead “commanded” his apostles to “preach to the people and testify” that Jesus is the one God “ordained as judge of the living and the dead” (10.42). That means God’s message of God’s impartial “peace through Jesus Christ” was meant not just for “the people of Israel” and “every nation” in the late first century of the Common Era; it was also meant for all “the living and the dead” of all ages. That is good news for messengers of God’s impartial peace among all nations, and bad news for imperial powers, for they are accountable to “God who shows no partiality.” Alleluia, Christ is risen indeed!
John 20.1-18 [For Matthew 28.1-1, see below.]
John 20 has two parts: verses 1-18, assigned to Easter Day, and verses 19-31, assigned to the second Sunday of Easter. Part I takes place at the tomb. As in the Synoptic tradition, a woman is the first to discover the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene deduces from the opened tomb that unknown persons removed Jesus’ body to an unknown location. Two disciples, Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” go to the tomb to see what Mary reported. A somewhat comedic footrace honors the special place the “beloved” disciple has in the Johannine community: he outruns Peter to the open tomb. This scene, however, leaves room for Peter’s status in the tradition as the first among the disciples to discover Jesus’ resurrection, since the “beloved disciple” only looked in the tomb, but Peter was the first to enter it. [See 1 Cor 15.5 and compare Lk 24.34, which unexpectedly refers to an appearance of the risen Jesus to Peter, but Luke had not provided any account of it.] Both disciples saw what Mary saw, but only the “beloved” disciple “believed.” What he believed, we are not told. Neither disciple understood “the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” We are also not told what “scripture.” Psalm 118, or all of scripture? In any case, the two disciples return “home” as devoid of Easter faith as they were before their footrace to see the empty tomb. In the scene when Jesus appears to the disciples in a room behind locked doors, “Easter faith” has not yet occurred to any of the disciples, including the “beloved disciple” who “believed” upon seeing the empty tomb. The emptiness of the tomb did not produce the first Easter faith. Neither did the clue about the “linen wrappings” and the “cloth” for Jesus’ head, which both disciples saw. Their neatness and location argue against tomb robbery or removal of the dead body. Their purpose is to hint at the manner of Jesus’ resurrection. When Jesus resuscitated Lazarus, he emerged from his tomb stinking and still wrapped in his burial cloths. The narrative detail about Jesus’ burial cloths, by implication, describes his resurrection as a mysterious transformation, allowing him to slip out of his burial cloths without disturbing them, in the same way he will enter a room through locked doors (20.19-31). Despite this obvious clue, the two disciples remained clueless.
The narrative returns to Mary, pushed aside to give the two male disciples a chance to proclaim the first Easter faith, which they fail to do. Weeping in grief, as one without hope, Mary has a vision of two angels standing where Jesus’ head and feet would have been. Their question, “Why are you weeping?” is dumb—it is obvious why a woman would be weeping at the tomb of her dear friend. It must serve to elicit Mary’s theory, a second time, that “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” in order to underscore another obvious point. The first Easter faith was not a logical deduction from the tomb’s emptiness. An empty tomb is a cold, silent fact. The first response to Jesus’ death was grief, instead of “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1.29)! The first response to the empty tomb was not the joy of Easter faith, but grief at the thought “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20.2, 13).
As Mary “turned around,” the story turns away from rational deductions and assumptions to an encounter with a person. She saw “Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” Typical of ancient Greek and Roman stories of appearances of friends and heroes after they died and gods made them alive again, encounters of this kind begin with an initial mistaken identity. Mary thinks this is the unknown person of her assumption: a gardener who has moved Jesus’ body to an unknown location. This mistaken identity is another indication of the narrator’s belief that Jesus’ resurrection involved a physical transformation. Like the two angels, Jesus asks a dumb question, as if to make sure we understand the tomb’s emptiness is not the reason for the rise of the first Easter faith. It also sets up the reason for the season: when Jesus calls her name, in this personal encounter Mary recognizes the identity of the stranger. Later she will announce to the disciples that she had seen the Lord, but for now she just wants to cling to his body. Does she think someone, with God’s help, has revived or resuscitated Jesus, like Lazarus? Or does she want to keep the risen Jesus for herself? The storyteller does not help us out here. Instead, the narrator tells us that Jesus’ resurrection will not be complete until he has “ascended… to my God and your God.” The first Easter faith arose in this narrative, not from the empty tomb, but from personal encounter with the risen Jesus, first by a woman mind you, and then by the rest of the disciples (20.19-31 and 21.1-25; compare Mt 28.9 and Lk 24.13-53). Is it any different with us? Do we come to Easter faith through cold, logical deduction from narrative details about the tomb and burial cloths, or do we come to Easter faith in experiences of Christ’s presence at times of our own sorrow and grief, in those who comfort us or work for our justice, or in our neighbors whom Christ calls us to accompany in their struggle for comfort and justice?
In this gospel, Jesus’ resurrection is about Jesus’ departure “from this world … [to] go to the Father” (13.1 and 20.17), so that God can send the “Advocate” (Paraclete), the Holy Spirit, who is a surrogate for Jesus, to comfort and instruct his disciples in his absence (14.16, 26; 15.26; 16.7). This theme has two sides: that Jesus’ resurrection reaffirms that he is “in God” beyond death, just as he was “in God” in his life in this world (10.38; 14.10, 11, 20; 17.21); and that Jesus, through the Advocate/Spirit, continues to comfort and instruct those who believe Jesus bears witness to the reality of God.
This is good news for those who, in every age, cannot “see God” in their lives or in the world. Jesus, whose commandment for his followers is “love one another as I have loved you” (13.34 and 15.12), is a decisive witness that “God is love” (1 Jn 4.8). Since “love is from God” (1 Jn 4.7), “…if we love one another, God lives in us…” (1 Jn 4.12).
The interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion as God’s predetermined plan that Jesus should die to redeem sinners—as in “satisfaction” and “substitutionary sacrifice” atonement theories—isolates Jesus’ death and resurrection from the rest of his life. To the extent that they also emphasize Jesus’ innocence from sin, however, they create an opportunity to shift the focus to Jesus’ faithfulness to proclaiming “God is with us” (1.23) in his life and death, and beyond his death (28.20b). That’s the message I think this Gospel wants to proclaim, and wants us to proclaim today.
Before we proceed with this theme, however, we need to consider four features of this Gospel that seem to lend support to “satisfaction” and “substitutionary sacrifice” atonement theories. First, Jesus “predicts” his death three times. In Mt 16.21, we read that “it is necessary” for him to “undergo great suffering, …be killed, and…be raised” (see also Mk 8.31 and Lk 9.22), but the next two “predictions” are stated in the future tense (Mt 17.22-23 and 20.18-19; see also Mk 9.31, 10.32-34, Lk 9.44, and 18.31-33). There are three ways to understand this “necessity” and these predictive future tenses. The first is that they indicate God’s purpose in “sending” Jesus is for him to die and, since God is in control of events, God will see to it that Jesus, Judas, and the imperial authorities carry out God’s predetermined plan. The second way is similar, to the extent that it also includes a dimension of “necessity”: Jerusalem is a city “that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Mt 23.37; see also Lk 13.33-34). The third way holds together the contingency of events and the predictability of the outcome if the players in the narrative stick to the patterns of decisions and actions based on their core values. At every step of the way, the narrative portrays the main characters as making their own decisions and acting on them. At any point in his life, Jesus could have chosen to abandon his calling to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3.15), but instead he chose to be faithful to his calling, even if Judas and Jesus’ imperial opponents were determined to put him to death, and God did not intervene. The “necessity” was in Jesus’ God-given calling to “fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus’ voluntary faithfulness to his calling even to the point of death, and Jesus’ imperial opponents’ determination to put him to death.
Second, in Mt 20.28, Jesus says, “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (see also Mk 10.45). Of course, the phrase “to give his life” includes the notion of “to die” for someone, but if the idea was that his death alone was “a ransom,” it would have been clearer to say he came “to die as a ransom.” The phrase “to give his life” suggests Jesus’ faithful service throughout his life, including in his death, was “a ransom for many.” The term “ransom,” which was commonly used in Jesus’ day for the manumission of slaves and entailed the notion of liberation from bondage, appears only once in this Gospel. More common are terms for “forgiveness” (Mt 6.12, 14-15; 9.2, 5-6; 12.31-32; 18.21, 35; 26.28), which entails the notion of the cancellation of an obligation, guilt, or punishment. This is the only Gospel where Jesus’ death—his “blood…poured out”—offers “many…forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26.28). Jesus, however, does not offer forgiveness only through his death. His transformative encounters with those in need of healing also demonstrate his “authority to forgive sins on earth” (Mt 9.2-8; Mk 2.1-12; Lk 5.17-26). When Jesus died, this Gospel is unique in saying, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Mt 27.52). At this critical moment, this Gospel says nothing about a “ransom” or “forgiveness of sins.” Instead, Jesus’ death is the event that brings new life to “the holy people” who have died. My point is that this Gospel uses a variety of concepts to express the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, but “satisfaction” and “substitutionary sacrifice” atonement theories are not clearly among them. What is clear is that Jesus’ faithfulness to his death to the proclamation of God’s justice on earth collided with the imperial authorities’ claim to rule Palestine and the rest of the world through imperial military and economic power.
Third, in Mt 26.39, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (compare Mk 14.36, Lk 22.42, and Jn 18.11). Some interpreters have proposed that “this cup” refers to God’s wrath: In death, Jesus would experience God’s wrath, either to satisfy God’s wrath or to endure God’s wrath in the place of sinners, if that were to be God’s will. Jewish scriptures do speak of God’s wrath filling a cup the wicked must drink, but they always explicitly identify the content of the cup as God’s wrath (see, e.g., Isa 51.17). Without specifying the cup’s content, I doubt anyone would have thought Jesus’ “cup” was filled with God’s wrath if they had not poured (read) “satisfaction” or “substitutionary sacrifice” atonement theories into Jesus’ “cup.” Others think “this cup” refers to the suffering that was to come prior to the end of the age. [See the brief discussion in Russell Pregeant, Matthew, Chalice Commentaries for Today [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004], 198.] Jesus’ “cup” also came up earlier in Mt 20.20-28 (see also Mk 10.38), where Jesus asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” The simplest interpretation is that the “cup” in both cases is a metaphor for martyrdom as the destiny awaiting Jesus and some of his disciples (see Mt 16.28: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”). Again, it is possible to see in these “cup” passages an emphasis on Jesus’ faithfulness in the face of his imminent martyrdom. His faithfulness offered strength to his disciples who face the same destiny.
Fourth, in Mt 28.5, the angel says to the women, “…I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” The phrase “who was crucified” is a perfect tense in Greek (see also Mk 16.6). This verb tense signifies an act or event completed in the past whose effects continue into the future. That means Jesus’ crucifixion was not a temporary event in the past, which God undoes through Jesus’ resurrection. The risen Jesus remains the crucified one. Of course, the perfect tense cannot mean the risen Jesus is nevertheless still dead. So, what effects continue? Are they not the effects of Jesus’ execution at the hands of imperial authorities for his faithfulness to God’s justice on earth? The imperial authorities stand condemned by Jesus’ faithfulness even to the point of death, and Jesus’ faithfulness even to the point of death stands victorious over his imperial opponents!
Jesus’ resurrection, of course, makes no sense apart from his death. If, however, we read Jesus’ death as an integral part of his life, instead of as an isolated event of cosmic battle or of a transaction between Jesus and God’s wrath, it is possible to read Jesus’ resurrection as God’s response to Jesus’ life of faithful service to God’s justice on “earth as in heaven.” This faithful service led to resistance from imperial powers and ultimately their execution of Jesus on a cross. We can then proclaim that God’s resurrection of Jesus is God’s vindication of the costly faithfulness of Jesus’ proclamation: “God’s life-giving justice rules on earth as in heaven!” In this reading of Jesus’ resurrection, the risen Jesus’ missionary charge to his followers is to continue his engagement with “the powers,” even, and especially, powers of death in all their forms: economic preferential treatment for the rich, imperial occupation and domination, ecological exploitation, and so on (compare Pregeant, Matthew, 198-99). Resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus and his cause, and confirmation of his authority.
In addition, Matthew’s entire Gospel has been leading up to Jesus’ missionary charge to the disciples at the end of the resurrection narrative (28.16-20). Before Jesus’ resurrection, his missionary charge to his disciples was “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (10.5-7). The risen Jesus’ missionary charge to his disciples, however, echoes the story of the Canaanite woman (15.22-28): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. …” (28.19-20a). Jesus’ identity as “God is with us” (1.23) and Jesus’ promise, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28.20b), frame Matthew’s story of Jesus’ missionary charges to his disciples. Two details of the Easter Sunday Gospel connect it with this framework.
First, the heavenly angel informed Mary Magdalene and the other Mary that Jesus “has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee…” (28.7a; also see 28.16 and 26.32); and the risen Jesus charged the two women to “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee” (28.10a). [By the way, when Jesus calls his disciples “brothers” (28.10), it is a sign of Jesus’ reconciliation with his disciples, who had “deserted him and fled” (26.56).] Of course, Matthew is following Mk 16.7, but when Matthew tells us that Jesus’ public ministry began in Galilee, as do all the gospels, we learn that this was to fulfill God’s word through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles [or “nations”]—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Isa 9.1-2 quoted in Mt 4.12-17). Galilee was the site of the risen Jesus’ appearances to the disciples because Galilee was the site from which the disciples were to launch their mission to “all the gentiles/nations,” just as Jesus had launched his mission in “Galilee of the Gentiles/nations.”
Second, when the risen Jesus joined the women, they were on their missionary journey to proclaim the Easter message to the disciples (28.8-10). The women can grasp Jesus’ feet, and the risen Jesus can speak like ordinary mortals, but he is also a spiritual presence. In this Gospel, Jesus, whose name “God is with us” (1.23), accompanies his disciples (14.22-33; 18.20) “to the end of the age” (28.20). Resurrection is how God makes Jesus present with his followers on their missionary journeys after his death. In short, Matthew’s Easter message is a promise and a challenge: Go and continue God’s mission, proclaim God’s justice on earth as in heaven, for God is with you—with, in, and through the risen Jesus!
Russell Pregeant also wrestles with the tension between Matthew’s dominant patriarchal focus on the male disciples and “a significant undercurrent” highlighting the role of women (Pregeant, Matthew, 199-200). The patrilineal genealogy at the beginning of this Gospel highlights five women: Tamar (1.3), Rahab and Ruth (1.5), “the wife of Uriah” (1.6), all in the period before the Babylonian Exile, and finally Mary (1.16). Matthew’s Jesus singles out the faith of three women: a woman suffering from a twelve-year flow of blood (9.18-22; also in Mk 5.24-34 and Lk 8.42b-48), a Canaanite woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon who bested Jesus in a debate about whether a Jewish healer/Messiah could or should heal the daughter of a gentile woman (15.21-28; also in Mk 7.24-30), and a woman who anointed Jesus’ head in Bethany (26.-13; also in Mk 14.3-9, Jn 12.1-8; compare Lk 7.36-50). The Canaanite woman and the Bethany woman both receive more positive treatment than the male disciples do. Then Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary flatly contradicts the tradition that Jesus’ first appearance was to Peter (1 Cor 15.5-7, which makes no mention of an appearance to women). These women did not desert Jesus and flee like the disciples (26.56). They were among the women who “had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him,” and who watched the crucifixion of Jesus “from a distance” (27.55-56). They were the first to learn the significance of the empty tomb, the first to see the risen Jesus, and the first to worship him; and they were the ones the angel from heaven and the risen Jesus commissioned to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples (28.1-10). Evidently, Matthew did not like Mark’s story, which ends with the women “afraid,” full of “terror and amazement” (Mk 16.8). For, the women received the heavenly angel’s proclamation, “The crucified Jesus has been raised” (Mt 28.5-6) with “fear and great joy” (28.8).
Unexpectedly, however, Matthew does not report that the two women carried out their Easter mission. Perhaps 28.17 implies they did, but a more natural reading of this sparse narrative is that the disciples’ worship is supposed to be a response to the risen Jesus’ appearance, not to an off-stage Easter sermon by the two women. In any case, Matthew leaves them out of Jesus’ final missionary charge (28.16-20). What’s up with that? As Pregeant says, the highlighting of the role of women in the story of Jesus is a “significant undercurrent that resists the patriarchal framework of the narrative and cries out for recognition” (Pregeant, Matthew, 200). Its prophetic resistance to patriarchy has played out from time to time in the history of the church. Thanks be to God the risen Jesus ordained Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to preach the first Easter message! Alleluia, Christ is risen indeed!
David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.