Donald Juel, reflecting on the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark, once wrote that:
“[N]one of the Gospels can really end the story of Jesus. The whole point is that it continues–and that its significance continues.”1 Juel’s concise statement is a pretty fair summation of the meaning of Easter. Christ’s resurrection means that the story of Jesus is “to be continued” in you, and in me, and in every life that is touched by the power of the good news that, “He is risen.”
The logic of the “continuation” of the story is present already in Matthew’s account of the Easter good news. The two Marys approach the tomb, expecting to see the tomb–the final resting place of Christ, the last sad chapter in his once promising story, the closing scene in the saddest story ever told. Instead, a message greets them.
First, they feel a message–a great earthquake, that shakes the foundations. Then, they see a message–quite literally. They see a “messenger” (as is well known, the Greek term angelos, like the Hebrew term mal’ak, literally means a “messenger”–in this case the “angel” being a divine messenger), who descends and rolls away the stone.
Finally, they hear a message: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” But this original message about the good news is only the start of a chain of messages. The messenger commands, “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him this is my message for you.'”
As is also the case in the Gospel of Mark, the narrative does not actually let us listen in on the scene where the women fulfill the command and tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised. Matthew reports that they “ran to tell his disciples.” But Matthew does not actually describe the scene to us. Indeed, Matthew reports that while they were on their way to find the disciples to deliver the good news, Jesus himself appeared to them and repeated the command, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
But as is obvious, the women fulfilled their task and delivered the message, as Matthew reports in verse 16 that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee.” Thus, Matthew’s resurrection narrative is about the first announcement in what was to become a continuous chain of announcements, with one messenger repeating the message to the next, down through the ages that, “He has been raised from the dead.”
It is interesting that Matthew, like Mark, does not elaborate on the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. In an elegant act of narrative succinctness, the Gospel announces and does not explain: The good news of his resurrection is announced. The command is given to go and spread the word. This act of narrative brevity is fitting. To try at this point to explain the meaning of Christ’s resurrection would wreck the telling of the greatest story ever told. It would be like wrecking a great joke by explaining it. Or souring a great musical performance by describing the music while the performance is still taking place.
The reason for this is that no amount of explanation can adequately explain the meaning and significance of Easter. The Gospel of John famously ends by saying that all the books in the world could not fully describe all of the signs that Jesus did. In a similar vein, the Gospel of Matthew, perhaps aware that all of the words in the world could not explain the meaning of the resurrection, simply announces: He has been raised.
This isn’t a bad clue for preachers. Easter sermons are most likely not the moment to try to explain the meaning or significance or theology of the resurrection. Easter sermons are more likely the time to let the good news of Christ’s resurrection ring.
But for those who might want to hear just a little bit about the significance and meaning of Easter, let us turn again to the trustworthy words of Donald Juel. Juel is commenting here on the resurrection narrative in Mark, but what he says of Mark is equally true of Matthew:
Jesus is full of surprises. Old skins cannot contain the new wine. The world’s uneasiness in the presence of Jesus is fully justified. He will not be found by tradition that defines human life; even death has no final power over him. The end only marks a new beginning–a beginning of the good news that Jesus, the one who is the ultimate threat to our autonomy, now becomes our source of life.
It is only fitting that just as the tomb will not contain Jesus, neither can Mark’s story. Jesus is not bound by its ending; he continues into the future God has in store for the creation. In the meantime there is only the Word, the bread, and the wine, and the promise that “you will see him.” We walk by faith and not by sight. We can only trust that God will one day finish the story, as God has promised.2
1Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990) 234. 2 Ibid, 235.
Julia Foote (1823-1900) a nineteenth-century black female preacher wrote in her autobiography:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, for this wonderful salvation, that snatched me as a brand from the burning, even me, a poor, ignorant girl! And will he not do for all what he did for me? Yes, yes; God is no respecter of person.”1 The truth that God shows no favoritism gave hope to a black woman familiar with slavery’s dehumanization of the black race, the racism that prohibited her from receiving communion before all whites had been served, and the ecclesial dogma that declared that God did not call women to preach. In our text Peter’s proclamation that God is no respecter of persons is not a new truth. According to a literal translation of Exodus 10:18 in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), God does not marvel at the face (ou thaumazei prosopon, usually rendered “shows no partiality”) and God receives no gift (bribe). We find similar wording at Acts 10:38: “God is not a face-receiver” (prosopolemptes).
Both the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament have analogous grammatical constructions that are rendered “respecter of persons” or “favoritism” in English translations. God does not receive the face. God is not persuaded to act for good or evil based on the outward appearance that human beings see or receive when they encounter one another. The face refers to physical characteristics and to generally humanly determinable distinctions such as ethnicity, gender, age, and race. While God has always been known as a God who does not receive the face, God had to convince Peter of the relevancy of this truth for his ministry in a diverse world. It is easy, safe, and comfortable to hold abstract truths about inclusivity and justice absent the challenge of concretely practicing or incarnating such truths where we live, work, and minister.
The God who raised Jesus is a boundary-crossing God Cornelius was no ordinary Gentile; he was a Godfearer. He diligently prayed to God, contributed to the poor, and enjoyed a good reputation among the Jews (10:2, 22). Cornelius is not the first Godfearer we encounter in Acts. The Ethiopian eunuch is also a Godfearer. In chapter 8, the eunuch is returning from Jerusalem and is sitting in his carriage reading Isaiah when the Spirit tells Philip to join the eunuch. After discovering that the eunuch does not understand what he is reading, Philip explains to him the Christological meaning of the passage.
Instructively, Philip did not need a vision about favoritism prior to his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. This may be because their meeting takes place on a public road and not in the home of a Godfearer. Differently, Peter’s meeting with Cornelius took place in Cornelius’ home. It appears that God knew Peter would need more convincing to cross the boundary line that prohibited Jews from table fellowship with Gentiles, even Godfearing Gentiles. God sent Peter a vision, ostensibly about the traditional Jewish distinction made between clean and unclean animals and the prohibition against eating the unclean meats. Peter does not initially understand the meaning of the vision. But when Cornelius’ slaves show up at his door saying that a holy angel directed Cornelius to send for Peter, Peter gets up and goes with them (10:19-33).
It is not until Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home and hears his story that Peter understands his own dream and declares the Jesus is Lord of all (10:34). Something in Peter died that day and something in Peter resurrected. Inclusivity began to replace prejudice. God continues to act. God gives visions to Jews and Gentiles¬ (even Gentiles who have yet to hear and accept what God did in Jesus). And so Peter’s first line of testimony in Cornelius’ house is that God is no receiver of faces. The human face, no matter how rich or poor, light or dark, symmetrical or asymmetrical, ordinary or extraordinary receives no “brownie points” with God. And Peter’s second point is that God preached peace by Jesus (10:36).
God did not receive the face of Jesus Even though Jesus was a Jewish man who lived in Nazareth, it is neither his Jewishness nor his maleness that is crucial to his identity as the resurrected Jesus. What is significant is what God did through Jesus when he walked the earth: God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power. And in this power Jesus performed good acts including healing those whom the devil oppressed. God was with Jesus. God values most what God did in, through, and with Jesus. And it is this that God expects and respects (favors) in humanity. Thus in every nation God finds acceptable those who fear God and who work righteousness (10:35) because God is living and working in them. God’s raising of Jesus affirms that the life Jesus led on earth is worthy to be replicated. As believers in the resurrection, God calls us to imitate the Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus brought healing to the oppressed. We are to engender healing among the oppressed.
The God who raised Jesus forgives regardless of the face God does not forgive sins based on the face. All who believe in what God did in Jesus receive forgiveness. And it is because of the forgiveness of God that we do not have to fear the judgment of God. God consecrated Jesus to act as judge of the living and the dead. Judgment is not left to human beings who judge the face. Judgment has been given to Jesus. This work of judgment signifies Jesus’ intercession on our behalf. God through Jesus is still at work for and with us. As JoAnne Terrell writes “The empty cross is a symbol of God’s continuous empowerment…Not the resurrection but Christ’s intercession signals the end of the gospel story and the beginning of Christ’s significance for us, ‘on our behalf.'”2 And if God had not resurrected Jesus, we would have no intercessor.
1 Julia A. J. Foote, “A Brand Plucked from the Fire. An Autobiographical Sketch” in Sisters of the Spirit, edited by William L. Andrew (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986) 189. 2 JoAnne Marie Terrell, Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998) 125.
On Easter Sunday, the church proclaims, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1).
Jesus Christ is risen. And in Christ, we too shall rise. God’s steadfast love endures forever! The words of Psalm 118 have long been used to herald Easter. “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (118:24).
In its ancient Jewish context, Psalm 118 was most likely an entrance liturgy to the Temple, used at the festival of Passover. It proclaimed God’s deliverance from Egypt and, later on, from the Exile. The Psalm was a liturgical script, complete with speaking parts for leaders and congregation. One can hear the jubilant call and response in 118:2-4: “Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.'”
With this Psalm on their lips, the priests and people processed into the Temple. The approach to the Temple culminates in verse 19, “Open to me the gates of righteousness…” and the condition for entrance is given in verse 20, “The righteous shall enter through it.” Then the festival procession proceeds up to the altar, to adorn it with signs of victory (verse 27). The physical movement begins outside the Temple, progressing inside and all the way to the altar. The people express their faith that since God has saved them in the past, he can be trusted in the future (verse 25).1
The spiritual movement is just as dramatic. Biblical scholar Richard Clifford notes that “Christians will see in the movement from humiliation to exaltation a foreshadowing of Jesus… His rescue from death is a new exodus and a fresh sign that God’s steadfast love endures forever… His exaltation means [our] own. The Psalm is therefore a wonderful song for the Easter Season.”2 It recalls God’s deliverance of the people, and expresses their joy and gratitude.
Since New Testament times, Psalm 118 evokes for Christians the story of Easter.
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?” (118:5-6)
This confidence – what can mortals do to me? – anticipates Paul’s great resurrection chapter in 1 Corinthians 15. But instead of taunting mere mortals, Paul addresses death itself: “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54, 55)
New Testament writers used Psalm 118 “as a means of understanding and articulating the significance of Jesus.”3 (See Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7.) Christians have long read this Psalm with Jesus in mind.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118: 22-24).
The ancient church relied on the words of the New Testament writers, and during the Middle Ages, Psalm 118 continued to inspire Christian worship. For example, here are two hymns which appear in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Both are translated from the Latin and set to music worthy of choirs, trumpets and organ.
The first hymn is “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.”4
Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ our head and cornerstone, chosen of the Lord and precious, binding all the church in one.
In the second verse, the hymn echoes the Psalm’s original setting as Temple entrance liturgy.
To this temple, where we call you, come, O Lord of hosts, and stay. Come with all your loving-kindness, Hear your people as they pray And your fullest benediction Shed within these walls today.
A second hymn, “The day of resurrection!,” is explicitly an Easter hymn. Again the Psalm’s original Passover setting gets translated into Easter. Exodus, when God ‘brought the people over’ the Red Sea, becomes Resurrection, when Christ ‘brings us over’ from sin’s dominion.
The day of resurrection! Earth tell it out abroad, the passover of gladness, the passover of God. From death to life eternal, from sin’s dominion free, our Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory.5
Martin Luther made another strong connection with Psalm 118. While Luther had several favorite Psalms, he had a passion for 118. While in hiding in the Coburg Castle during 1530, he wrote (among other things) an extensive commentary on Psalm 118. On the wall of the room where he worked was written his personal motto: “I shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (118:17).6 This is the central message of the Psalm. It applies to Jesus and, through him, to all believers. “I shall not die but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” inspired Luther’s militant faith.
Of all people, Martin Luther certainly had cause to fear what mortals might do to him. Of this Psalm he wrote, “the dying live; the suffering rejoice; the fallen rise; the disgraced are honored. It is as Christ says, ‘He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.'” Luther further declared that whenever the scriptures “deal with God concerning comfort and help in their need, eternal life and the resurrection of the dead are involved.”7
Just as the Psalmist was delivered by God, so now Christ empowers us, comforts us, and snatches us out of the realm of death. All this is done, says Luther, so that we might proclaim the deeds of the Lord. Easter is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! (118:24).
1See New Interpreter’s Bible volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1153. 2Richard Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon), 208-209. 3NIB, 1156. 4Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #645. 5ELW, #361. 6James Limburg, Psalms, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 402; see also Luther’s Works 14:45 n. 4. 7Luther’s Works 14:86, 87.
Why do we tell the Easter story?
How is it more than simply the tale of something amazing that happened a long time ago–or a recounting of the mighty act of God in the past? We tell the story, of course, because we are confident that the story includes us, that we are somehow participants in Christ’s death and resurrection. Whatever else Christian faith is, it is the proclamation that what God has done in Christ, God has done in us.
Yet this central mystery of the faith compels us to dig deeper and think further. If we die and are raised with Christ, in Christ–how then ought we to live? Much of the letter to the Colossians is taken up with contemplating these questions. The author reminds his readers that the “earthly” way that they have lived is not adequate to their current existence in Christ. Examples of the old existence (e.g., Colossians 3:5–10) contrast sharply with doxologies such as this one, which celebrate the opportunities of the new life.
Commentators often note that this passage (3:1–4) begins the “exhortation” section of the letter to the Colossians. Up to this point, the tone of the letter has been primarily one of instruction, telling the believers in Colossae what they need to know–or, perhaps more to the point, reminding them of their former instruction in the light of conflicting teaching that they have recently received. Now, however, the tone shifts to a hortatory one. The verbs become imperatives, or other verb forms that carry imperatival force. Like other New Testament letters that contain a section of instruction followed by a section of exhortation, Colossians is a directive to its readers both to know and to do. Both are necessary in the Christian life.
Because it often takes several English words to translate accurately one word in Greek, an accurate English translation of this passage is necessarily more long and drawn-out than the Greek original; but some of the “punch” of the proclamation seems to get lost. A less accurate translation allows for fewer words, the better to sense the power of the pithy message:
Co-raised then with Christ, seek things above, Where Christ sits at God’s right hand. Consider what’s above, not on the earth; You died! And your life hides with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, Then you also with him will appear in glory. (au. trans.)
The compressed language probably incorporates phrases from early Christian liturgy, recalling (like the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2) words that the congregations spoke together in worship, confessions that were familiar to their ears. For example, “where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (verse 1) borrows from Psalm 110:1:
The LORD says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Interpreted messianically from early in the church’s history, the phrase describes the Christian belief in Christ’s exaltation.
Yet the belief in articles of faith, or the repetition of liturgical phrases, do not alone create the unity with Christ that this text proclaims. Using a rich combination of spatial and temporal imagery, along with phrases that recall the practice of baptism, the text reminds us that life in Christ is a unity with Christ that involves the focus of our whole beings on what is “above,” that is, the things of God. Interestingly, the proclamation that “you have been raised” (verse 1) precedes the reminder that “you have died” (verse 3). Believers are reminded that, like the Passion as seen from Easter, they recall their death with Christ from the perspective of their present risen state. Just as they have already passed through the waters of baptism, they have passed through death into life with Christ, and that life entails a renewal of the whole person to focus on the things of God.
Still, this is not a proclamation of realized eschatology, as the author’s rivals in Colossae would apparently have the congregation believe. If believers stand on the “positive” side of the oppositional pairs “dying/rising” and “things on earth/things above”, they still have not passed through “hiddenness” to reach “revelation in glory.” Their baptism has not produced a visible change in them. They do not yet fully comprehend what life in Christ will be, and very possibly they are not understood by outsiders to the Christian faith. The author reminds them that their present state is not one of deficiency. They do not “lack” full revelation; rather, their lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (verse 3), with rich connotations of divine protection:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1–2)
I have put my words in your mouth, and hidden you in the shadow of my hand, stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, “You are my people.” (Isaiah 51:16)
God hides those whom God loves, until the time for revelation has come. The believers in Colossae are reminded that they can trust confidently both in the revelation yet to come and the protection that will carry them through to that future revelation.
While the exhortation to Christians to live as “Easter people” may be so overused as to sound trite, it is the very core of the message here: the Easter event is not just a story to enjoy or a set of doctrines to recite. It is a way of living, a way that encompasses who we are and what we do every day of the week, every week of the year. We stand (again, trite, but true!) between the “already” and the “not yet”; our death to our former selves is behind us, our life is with Christ “above,” and God overshadows us with divine protection until the full glory of Christ is come, in which we as believers will share.