Isaiah 25:6-0, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8
Preached in the synagogue sanctuary of Congregation Beth Elohim, where Old First Reformed Church had gathered for Easter (the Old First sanctuary being closed for repairs). Note: Rabbi Gould read the Isaiah in English and chanted it in Hebrew, and Cantor Breitzer chanted and sang Psalm 118 in Hebrew, and chanted the Aaronic Benediction in Hebrew before I gave it in English.
Welcome to Easter. I am glad you are here. Members and friends, Christians and Jews, visitors, passers-by, whatever your belief or unbelief, it’s great that you are here. Easter is public, Easter is not church property. I say that every year, but this year it’s especially obvious!
This 358th Easter at Old First is a very special one, thanks to Congregation Beth Elohim. Rabbi Bachman and I are always looking for new forms of collaboration between our congregations, but I’m telling you we are not so devious as to force it by taking turns in knocking down our ceilings. I’m also telling you that we accept our mutual disasters as mysteries of God’s providence. This synagogue is receiving that providence by loving your neighbors as yourselves, and this church is receiving that providence by blessing the God of Israel.
We bless God for the gift of Congregation Beth Elohim. Its hospitality today is typical of its constant hospitality to our whole community. It’s regarded as inclusive, but the deeper point is a hospitality which is so generous because it’s based in a deep trust in the love of God and a deep trust in the power of the Torah and the Prophets. This congregation acts like you have nothing to fear, and your hospitality expresses that.
We bless God because you have allowed us Gentiles to worship at the center of your most holy place. The walls within the temple are broken down by you. You welcome us to share in your inheritance. You allow us to call ourselves the children of Abraham and Sarah. We are so only by adoption, and we have been greedy interlopers, and cruel to you, and even murderous, and yet today you treat us like brothers and sisters. We bless God for your gift of reconciliation.
We bless God because you not only let us in here, but you set for us a table of rich gifts. You gave us today the gift of Isaiah, in the words that Jesus would have known them. You gave us the music of the prophecy, which we Christians don’t know how to make. You gave us the gift of Psalm 118, again in the words that Jesus knew, but in music we have never heard before. Every Sunday at Old First we enjoy the rich food of the Torah and the Prophets and the Psalms, all of which we got from you. Your greatest gift to us is the knowledge of God, the Lord God, Adonai, who was your God first, the God of Israel (when our ancestors were worshiping demons in the woods). We bless you in the Name of God.
We bless God for the gift of the Passover which we got from you. The Feast of Freedom. Of liberation, of salvation, of freedom for the sake of service, of liberation not for license but for obedience, for claiming our full humanity. “Let my people go.” It has inspired civil rights throughout the world. It’s the story of light in the darkness, of hope in despair, of life out of death. Our Christian version of Passover is Easter: the feast of freedom from the power of guilt and death. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast, Alleluia.”
We bless God for your gift to us of Jesus, controversial as this gift may be. We take him as the Messiah, and of course you don’t, but we got him from you, and it’s because of him that we are even here to receive your hospitality. Where he worshiped God was not in church, of course, but in the temple or in his own home synagogue. It’s in his name that we are here today. I will boldly presume upon your hospitality to thank you for the one whom we call “Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We bless God for the gift of the resurrection. We got from you the whole idea of resurrection, “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” That was not our invention, we got that from your rabbis and your scribes and Pharisees, as has been brilliantly established by the Jewish scholar at Harvard, Jon D. Levenson. In different forms we share a common hope: the hope for resurrection is our common hope, and today especially we thank you for this gift to us.
You know there are two lines in the Nicene Creed which Jews can say as well as Christians. The first line and the last. And not much in between, except for the line about Pontius Pilate. The first line says, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.” And the last line says, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” We can say that line together because that’s the gift we got from you, the gift of the hope of a general resurrection at the end of time and the renewal of the world.
The particular resurrection of Jesus is the rub. Why was he resurrected early, and all by himself? His friends were not expecting it, they had not planned on it, and they did not believe at the start. It did not fit with their Jewish hope for resurrection. They didn’t see it as “according to the scriptures,” not at first. And the synagogue still does not, which is our basic disagreement, so that we end up reading the same scriptures differently. And there’s another disagreement. As some Jewish scholars have said, even if he did rise from the dead, he seems to have wasted his resurrection. Where is the Messianic age? Why are the rest of us still dying?
We’re not going to settle that today. But the apostles taught that Christ is the first-fruit, and the general resurrection of the rest of us is still to come, and there’s good reasons for this time in between, for us to live within the hope of resurrection even though we still must die. Think of it: after you have died, when you are on the other side of death, of course you won’t fear death. But to be on this side of death and not to submit to the power of the fear it is the point. To not let your behavior be determined by the fear of death, to not let your heart be hardened by the fear of pain or your love constricted by the fear of loss, that’s already the power of the resurrection, though we still must die.
Think of it: it’s one thing to love your neighbor when the golden age has come and everyone is lovely, but to love your neighbor as the world is now, when there still is sin and suffering and your neighbor is a part of it, that’s the greater love, that’s the miracle of love, and we are called to be workers of this miracle. To develop the capacity for working this miracle and to evolve a new humanity that constantly performs such miracles is one of the reasons that God has allowed us to have this time of unfulfillment when we live by the hope of resurrection though we still must die.
God doesn’t want you to be a feast of raw food, but a feast of cooked food, which means you have to get through cutting and breaking and beating and heating first. If we didn’t have to suffer first, we’d just be nice and natural grape juice, but our patience in our suffering is what turns us into well-aged wines, and the resistance we have to deal with in our loving serves to strain our natural impurities, so that our souls pour out with purity and clarity. The resurrection is a challenge as much as it is a comfort to us. The resurrection of Jesus is the proof that it works.
Finally, we bless God for the gift of the Jewish hope for resurrection, because it means “tikkun olam,” the healing of the world. It’s not the pagan hope of flying off to astral immortality, which means abandoning the earth. The pagan hope has misdirected many Christians, and we need to receive again the Jewish hope of tikkun olam. We bless God for the healing and renewal of creation which the resurrection signifies. Christ has been raised in the body — a body transformed, but still a body. It’s an affirmation of creation, of plants and animals, of gravity and groundedness. It’s a very rich feast which God intends to set out for us, a feast too rich for heaven, too heavy, too thick, too schmaltzy, too schmeery, too fatty, too bouncy, too sexy, too sweaty, too smelly, too many dogs and cats for heaven, and after the feast, cigars, I hope, and for the ladies too. A feast of richness without greed, of love without lust, of power without corruption, of a righteousness of joy, of God’s will for creation, vindicated by the resurrection.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the cosmos, who gives us the first-fruits of the new creation in the resurrection of Jesus, and who gives the power of the Holy Spirit to live according to that resurrection in the very middle of the world today. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, for calling us to hope, and in that hope to love, and in that love to find our joy.
Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.