At the Threshold of God’s New Creation
by Rev. Jack King
Easter Day, Year C, Apostles Anglican Church, March 27, 2016
Psalm 118; Luke 24.1-12
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! [Response] In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the event that forever changed the course of human history— the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is not enough to say that human history changed; this event changed our world. That still isn’t enough—the resurrection of Jesus changed the entire cosmos—the earth and our galaxy, and galaxies upon galaxies.
This is the day that forever changed the course of God’s good world and all that he created. From the beginning, God created the world by his Word, his Son. And now a new creation begins by that same Word—the Word that was crucified; the Word that rises again in resurrection power. The resurrection of Jesus is the dramatic beginning of God’s new project, not its completion, not its ending. If there’s anything we’re meant to understand about the resurrection, it is this: a new world has dawned, but there’s more to come. Jesus is the firstfruit of the resurrection. There is much more fruit to come from the power of his resurrection.
This year we hear the empty tomb story from Luke and this is a central message of his resurrection story: there’s more to come. What’s fascinating about Luke’s account of Easter is the brevity of the empty tomb episode. Luke devotes 12 verses to the experience of the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb. But he devotes 22 verses to the story of what happens after the empty tomb, when Jesus walks with two disciples to Emmaus Road, where the Lord reveals his resurrection life in the breaking of bread. After the Emmaus Road story, Luke will conclude his Gospel with the story of Jesus ascending to the Father.
And we, who have been praying the Psalms this Lent; we, who have prayed Psalm 118 both on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, we will forever sing this psalm as a resurrection and ascension song. For we hear Christ himself praying: ‘Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.’
The empty tomb story may be brief in Luke’s account, but it’s the heart of the Gospel, the meaning behind everything that preceded it and everything that comes after it. No wonder Luke wrote a sequel to his Gospel called the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke ever tells us: the empty tomb is just the beginning; everything will be changed to radiate the glory of God.
With that broader scope in mind, let’s return to that first Easter morning with Luke as our guide. Luke tells us a story of the world’s new creation, but he deliberately connects the destiny of the cosmos with a place and a time familiar to all his readers. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place in an outpost of the Roman Empire, just outside the ancient city of Jerusalem during the time of rulers named Caesar and Pilate and Herod. This isn’t a fictional tale. It happened at this moment of human history, in this city where people worked, lived, and raised families. The resurrection story may be a cosmic drama, but it’s a story that always makes contact on the streets of our cities and the homes in which we dwell.
That’s the emphasis Luke gives us from the very beginning of his Gospel story. Luke intentionally shapes his whole Gospel so that we will connect the beginning of Jesus’ story with the events of his death and resurrection. And what is a one connecting thread throughout Jesus’ story? We just don’t understand what God is doing. We can’t see it clearly.
Let’s trace that thread through Luke’s story. Heaven comes to earth in the moment when the angel Gabriel enters a backwater town named Nazareth and greets a young girl named Mary. Gabriel tells Mary she will conceive the Son of God by the Holy Spirit. How does Mary respond? She doesn’t understand. ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’ She needs the help of heaven to understand what God was doing and what is coming next.
When Mary and Joseph lose Jesus on a trip back from Jerusalem, their son says to them, ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ Then Luke tells us the young parents did not understand what their Son said. They did not know what was coming next.
After Jesus gathered his disciples, he began his ministry of preaching and teaching; healing and casting out evil spirits. In the middle of his ministry, Luke tells us Jesus’ disciples marveled at the works he accomplished. In that moment, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.’ But the words didn’t sink in. They did not understand what God was doing. They couldn’t see what was coming next.
And when the Son of Man was ultimately delivered into the hands of sinful men, Luke makes sure we hear the words of a Roman official supervising the crucifixion at Golgotha. When Jesus breathed his last, the centurion said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ He did not understand what God was doing. He couldn’t see what was coming next.
When Luke leads us to what happens next, he leads us to three women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James. He wants us to experience the time of day—it’s early dawn. It’s part of the true, historical record, but it’s also a symbol. Early dawn is that middle time between the end of darkness and the full appearing of the light. So it is in the minds and hearts of the myrrh-bearing women.
In that time of day between darkness and light, they enter a dark place, now pierced with light. Entering the tomb, they do not find the body of Jesus. They do not understand what God is doing. But there in the place of their confusion are the holy messengers of God. Just as angels appeared to Mary and to the shepherds at the birth of the Lord, so angels appear to these women at the resurrection of our Lord. They cannot understand what resurrection means on their own. They need help. They cannot comprehend that the entire cosmos is being made new and it’s beginning in a tomb outside Jerusalem. It’s interesting that the angels of the empty tomb quote that same statement Jesus made to his disciples in their previous moment of confusion: remember that [the Lord] must be delivered into the hands of sinful men.
And yet even in their confusion, they are chosen witnesses to hear the good news: Jesus is not here, for he is risen. They are witnesses of the resurrection with a role in the new thing God has begun. They must tell the eleven remaining disciples the staggering news of the empty tomb.
But remember: these women are speaking into those same ears into which Jesus had once spoken, “let this sink into your ears.” It’s not surprising that these apostles first perceived the news an idle tale. They did not understand what God was doing.
Yet confusion has a differing effect across a spectrum of personalities. For Peter, his response to these confusing words is to see for himself. He runs to the tomb, stoops, walks in and sees a strange sight—not the Lord himself, but a sign of the Lord risen. The linen cloths lay in the tomb by themselves. Here lay the grave clothes of a man once capable of death. Lying on the ground by themselves signified the absolute powerless of death over the Man now risen. For the body of the risen Jesus, incapable of death, had swallowed up Death in victory. Peter departed the empty tomb amazed, but not yet comprehending what this meant, not knowing what was coming next.
Maybe our experience of the resurrection mirrors Luke’s message about the resurrection. We don’t celebrate Easter just one day a year. We aren’t moving on to something else next week. Today begins the Great Fifty Days of Easter—the season known as Eastertide—because we need an extended season to comprehend what this resurrection means. Just like the women of the empty tomb, we need the help of heaven—we need the Holy Spirit—to lead us into the truth of the resurrection. And even more, we need to meditate on who God calls us to be because his Son is risen from the dead. We celebrate Easter today, we celebrate Eastertide for the next fifty days, and we celebrate Easter every Sunday throughout the year so our minds and hearts can be transformed and renewed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. For the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is that everything must change—in our hearts, in our relationships, in our worlds—because God has begun making his whole cosmos new.
This year I had a unique Holy Week experience: Eastertide began on Tuesday in my experience, before Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Just before Palm Sunday, I learned the sad news that Father Matt Jordan, a priest in our diocese, suffered the loss of his seven year-old daughter, Abigail. On Tuesday, I made the trip to Holy Cross Cathedral in Loganville, GA, with Fr. Aaron Wright from Old North Abbey for Abigail’s funeral.
Soon after she was born, doctors told Matt and his wife, Gentry, that Abigail was a child with special needs. Abigail lived through her disability and underwent countless doctor’s visits and medical procedures in her lifetime. Her disability affected her ability to speak, yet it was clear that Christ spoke his love and joy through Abigail to everyone who she knew. Oh, there were tears and sadness on Tuesday for the bodily death of this little girl. But the spirit of hope, a hope stronger than death, permeated that sanctuary with light and love and peace and even joy. Even at that grave we made our Easter song—Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. It wasn’t just a scripted portion of liturgy, it was the heart-filled song resounding in a Loganville, GA—a place where people work, raise families, support one another in trials, bury their dead, and await the final resurrection day.
You know why we stake our entire faith on the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body? Because every human soul living within a human body was created so that they might walk in the light and life of God. The resurrection of Jesus in the body means everything to two parents who suffer the loss of their daughter.
And the resurrection of Jesus is everything to any of us who have suffered—which means all of us. I do not have answers why children are born with disabilities and suffer in the body throughout their life. I do not know why terrorist attacks succeed and violence persists in our world. I do not understand untimely deaths, surprise diagnoses, or the injustices of poverty and human trafficking upon children.
Many days I walk in confusion, seeking answers to the unanswerable questions of life. I know I’ve got plenty of company.
How strange that we, journeying the roads of Knoxville in the rhythm of our daily lives, are not altogether different from three women walking in heaviness and confusion along a road in Jerusalem? /
No matter the era, the culture, the status, the gender of a human being, we were made for something more than answers to our questions. We were made to hear the words: “He is not here, for he is risen.” In the places where we work, raise families, support one another through trials, and bury our dead, we were made to know that God’s new world has begun and everything must change.
You see, Easter is only the threshold of God’s new creation. You don’t walk to a door to stand in the middle of the threshold. You cross a threshold to experience everything that’s on the other side. That’s why we pray the psalms with the risen Christ: ‘Open the gates of righteousness that we also may go through them and give thanks to the Lord.”
This is the Easter hope we carry, regardless of what we have suffered. Easter fills us with amazement, but the half has never been told. Everyone who professes ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ is the bearer of a great hope: we will receive a resurrected body that will never die. And in those resurrected bodies, we will go through the gates of righteousness and on the other side we will find ourselves in the New Jerusalem that has come down from heaven.
On this side of the gates of righteousness, we will not understand everything, but we do know that the New Jerusalem is what God is doing next. We will bear our sorrows and griefs with hope in this life, knowing that the New Jerusalem will swallow up the old Jerusalem. In that New Jerusalem, we will see children formerly disabled singing and dancing in the streets. We will see our fathers and mothers, who suffered from diseases of body, mind, and soul, laughing and leaping and praising God. We will walk the peaceable streets of that New Jerusalem, where violence and death and poverty are no more, and we will see the government on the shoulders of the Prince of Peace, crucified, risen, ascended and reigning forevermore. In that holy and eternal city, we will give thanks to the Lord in our resurrected bodies world without end.
So today let us celebrate Easter as we stand at the threshold of God’s new world. Let us celebrate Christ risen from the dead in this place. But celebrate with the sure and certain hope that there is more, always more, evermore beauty and glory in our God, whose Name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Image by Andrew Vorzimer (used by permission via Creative Commons).