Note: I had no intention of posting this sermon, preached at the 9.00 a.m. service at All Saints’ Rehoboth yesterday, partly because so much blog material has already appeared around the Easter theme, and partly because I feel there is a great danger in presuming that people want to hear just anything I produce. I relented, however, because several parishoners presed me to publish it: so here it is.
The O.T. as part of Christian Bible
The Christian sacred writings from a very early date incorporated the Hebrew Scriptures. For the first generations of Christians, the writings of what we call the O.T. were their Bible: there was as yet no “N.T.”. By the time of the second century C.E., however, the presence of holy books of Judaism began to pose serious problems for the earliest Theologians, and, many would maintain, continue to do so. Yet, the decision to include the Jewish books was crucial, providing a context for the astonishing message of Judaism’s offshoot, the infant Christian movement.
The O.T. in the N.T.
So it is that our Christian Bible opens with a statement that God created the heavens and the earth, and goes on “the earth was formless and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep”. The Evangelists, steeped as they were, in the traditions of the OT, doubtless had this verse in mind when they produced the early accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus and wrote, “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land” (Mk. 15.33). Similarly, when Luke begins his account of the Resurrection of Jesus with the words, “On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women…came to the tomb” (Lk.24.1),” the continuation of the Genesis story is close to the surface: “God said, “Let there be light”. And God saw that the light was good…And there was evening and there was morning, the first day”. (Gen 1.4).
This kind of allusion to the OT is very common, and, in this case, the reference back to Genesis is found in other NT passages. For example Paul writes in II Cor. 5.17, “If any one is in Christ he or she is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come”. And the Evangelists in their more figurative way are telling us that as God created “in the beginning”, so now, on that first Easter, God is bringing into being a New Creation. Luke surely is telling us that without God all is chaos and darkness, but when God acts, light shines out, and all is new. The darkness of Good Friday was over shone by the decisive act of God that we call the resurrection; that is, perhaps, why the accounts note the visit to the tomb as the sun was rising and mention the bright light of the messengers’ presence.
It seems to me that that is about all that needs to be said on Easter morning, but it won’t surprise those of you who are regulars at All SS if I go on briefly to enlarge this central point.
Is it possible that the burning faith of that little band arose from the precise placing of a head-scarf which Peter is reported to have noticed? Is even the center of the Easter faith the story of the tomb found empty by the women on that Sunday morning? It is striking that our very earliest witness to the resurrection faith is St. Paul who wrote his letters to Corinth around 52 C.E. What is central for Paul is the meetings of the risen Jesus: he never mentions the empty tomb tradition. Helmut Thielicke, a great German Theologian of the second half of the 20th century puts this well:
“They (the disciples) could never have believed that the dead Jesus had risen from the dead if they had not believed his Word...A miracle has never brought anyone to faith since it is always open to other interpretations. The empty tomb did not bring the disciples to faith. Something very different happened”. He continues: “In the Easter light of [that first day of the week] they suddenly saw that all the words and acts of Jesus pointed to the fact that death could not hold Him. It was of those words and acts that they now had to think.” The Silence of God, 83. (Eerdmans,1962).
The center of the Easter Faith is not a empty tomb but meeting with the living Jesus, and it was those experiences, recounted in Paul and the Gospels that brought about the living faith of the first disciples: as they experienced the presence of Jesus, they became convinced that God had acted to overcome death, giving a whole new kind of life to Jesus which he, in turn, was to share with those who came to believe, and continue to come to believe No amount of historical investigation, no philosophical ingenuities about the nature of the natural order and the possibilities of miracle can give us certainty. The only certainty we have is that we are part of that Community of faith which has staked its life on faith in God’s love for humanity; faith that God in Christ acts to save us; faith that death and evil do not have the final word in this universe. And the only certainty we can have is in sharing this faith.
So we come to the very center, the very nucleus of all the gospel accounts, disparate, and even contradictory as they may be. Moreover, we come, as it were, to the fuse that ignited the explosion that was to shake the Roman Empire. We come to the burning centre, not only of the written gospel manuscripts, but of the Apostolic preaching of the Good News, the Gospel, that, in Paul’s words “God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself” (II Cor. 5.18) .
Life from Death in the O.T.
We began by noting how the gospel passion narratives resonate with the creation story of Genesis. If we go further into the OT and consider the broad sweep of its story, we note over and again how the authors speak of light dispelling darkness, life emerging from death: the father of the founder of Israel, Sarah’s child, was born to “one as good as dead” says the writer; the very survival of the sons of Jacob/Israel was a result of Joseph’s position in Egypt; the remnant of Israel after the captivity in Babylon is an almost unbelievable restoration, but it is well attested by what we know of Cyrus the new Persian ruler and it is eloquently presented to us in the poetry of Deutero Isaiah. The list goes on and on, and prepares us for the greatest of God’s acts on that first Easter.
From Sabbath to Sunday
All the accounts note that it was “early on the first day of the week”. We tend not to notice that little detail, but it high lights a sea change in religion. What might we suppose someone steeped in the Hebrew scriptures and used to Rabbinic methods of exegesis would think if you asked him what is important about the first day of the week? I suspect there would be a very good chance that he would reply, “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth...God said, ‘Let there be light, and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness….and there was evening and there was morning, the first day”. (Gen. 1.1-2) but, he would go, it is the seventh day that is paramount for us, for God rested on the Seventh Day, that is, the shabath. [Coming from Heb √, ‘to rest’]. This is the fulcrum of the week. So what you Christians call Saturday is the day of rest for all of Judaism.
But for the emerging Christian Community, the Sabbath was obsolete. For them it is the first day of the week, Sunday, that becomes the focus of the Christian week and, indeed Year, for everything is dated from Easter Sunday. So it is that on the first day of the week that we meet for Eucharist proclaiming again and again, that this is the day on which God has acted decisively in human affairs: “This is the Day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it”.