Easter Day 2019
I find wondering to be a fruitful way to explore religious and spiritual meaning. Wondering is open-minded exploration with a strong sense of awe and respect. So today I wonder why people respond differently to reports of the resurrection. Secondly, I wonder whether there is a difference between the resurrected Christ and the human Jesus, and what that means for our experience of death and life beyond death.
As I wonder why people have differing responses to news of the resurrection, I look for clues in our Scripture readings today. The reading from Acts 10 gives us a powerful personal witness about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This is Peter preaching to the Gentile Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort in Caesarea. In other words, a powerful representative of the Roman army that executed Jesus is listening to one of the key leaders continuing the work of Jesus, surely a risky encounter on both sides. We don’t see the response of Cornelius in our reading today, but if we went on into the next 5 verses, we would see that the Holy Spirit descends on all who heard the word, and the Gentiles speak in tongues and extol the Lord. Peter goes on to baptize them. Not only is this a transformative experience for this Gentile household, but also for the circumcised believers present, and for Peter himself; they are swept out of their comfort zone of ethnic and religious exclusiveness into a wide open world where all are beloved of God, and all can experience the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in the transformation of their lives.
In our gospel reading from Luke we have a more cynical response from the male disciples to the first report of the resurrection which comes to them. Why would they be disbelieving at first? The report comes from the women who visited the tomb and found it empty and were told by angels that Jesus was risen. When the apostles were told of this experience, Luke said “But these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe it.” To me, that verse has a parallel in our society where many people are dismissive of the report of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s as if there is a barrier created partly by preconceptions about reality, and partly by prejudging those who deliver the message. I wonder how a Gentile centurion can respond whole heartedly to a report of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, while the apostles, who had been taught by Jesus that resurrection would come, dismiss the first reports of it as an idle tale and don’t believe? Cultural prejudice that rejects the witness of women is at play in the doubting response of the apostles, but ethnic and religious prejudice could easily have been a barrier in the interaction between Peter and Cornelius, not to mention anger or defensiveness over the death of Jesus. We see that a religious barrier towards Gentiles is present for Peter in his initial reaction to the dream he had about rejecting food offered from heaven. For Peter his conditioned religious response of rejecting what he believed was unclean was at first too strong to allow him to accept what God was symbolically offering him. Yet the Holy Spirit opens Peter’s mind and heart to the transformation required of him by God, so that he can witness to the Gentiles, accepting them for who they are and not requiring them to adopt the food restrictions of Judaism before they can be Christian. The Holy Spirit working with the earnest spiritual seeking of Cornelius has prepared the way for him to invite Peter to come and speak at the same time that Peter is made ready to answer that request. Transformation often comes from the conjunction of the right people at the right time, but the new way of life has many risks and challenges. I wonder if Cornelius realized how his profession and identity might be affected when he and his household were baptized. Being a Christian and a centurion in the Roman army might have been an uncomfortable and risky combination. The conversion of Cornelius the centurion to Christianity is as remarkable as Saul the persecutor of the early Christians becoming Paul the great Christian evangelist.
These transformations in the lives of Peter, Paul and Cornelius are evidence of the resurrected Christ at work in the world. If Christians see ourselves as the body of Christ, we are truly part of his resurrected being. This brings me to wonder who the resurrected Christ is. The accounts of the appearances of the resurrected Christ suggest that on first encounter people who knew Jesus well do not recognize him, yet later they perceive who he is. In the story that follows today’s gospel, the two on the road to Emmaus walk and talk with the stranger for some time and invite him in when they get home. They only recognize the risen Christ when he breaks bread with them, and then he disappears. Mary by the empty tomb in the garden thinks he is the gardener who might have taken away Jesus’ body, but recognizes Jesus when he calls her by name. He appears and disappears despite locked doors and distance. All this suggests to me that the risen Christ includes the identity of Jesus but goes beyond it. The risen Christ has a physical presence that eats and is touchable, but he appears to transcend the limitations of space-time as we know it. As I wonder about how this might be, I speculate that energy and matter are combined in a different way in the resurrection. Some theologians say that spirit is energy: the risen Christ seems to have a higher component of spiritual energy, while still appearing in a physical form that bears the marks of his experience. The wounds of the cross are still there on the risen Jesus, a mark of his identity.
As we wonder about what life after death might mean, perhaps we get some clues from these appearances of the risen Christ, who seems to be in a different relation to space, time and physical form to that before death, but who still relates to those close to him in ways that they can recognize, once they accept the strangeness of it. Does God’s kingdom partly coexist with our reality and partly go beyond it? Does our experience of the love and spiritual energy of God’s kingdom here prepare us to delight in what lies beyond? If we haven’t invested much of ourselves in love and spirit here, will we feel alienated there, and have to learn who we really are and how to relate to the God of love? Yet any love we experience in this life will help bring us into relationship with a loving God, whose Son shared our human suffering and death in order to connect with us and bring us home. I wonder if our relationship to the risen Christ is what enables us to feel at home in the life beyond death. That loving connection is present from God to us always, waiting for the mutuality of our response. We can reciprocate consciously or instinctively, living out the joy of our response for some time in this life, or offering our response at the moment of death, or even beyond, I believe. Jesus promises that he goes before us to prepare a place for us. I believe that there we will find room to be ourselves, still connected in all our relationships of love, underpinned by the love of God.
~ Barb Messner