Today is the third Sunday of Easter. And yes, even though you will no longer find chocolate bunnies for sale at Safeway, it’s still Easter! And it will continue to be Easter till we reach the feast of Pentecost on May 20. As you may have noticed, there are various ways that we mark this joyous season in our worship. We use vestments of white, which in Western culture are considered festive. We burn a very large white candle. We read the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Hebrew scriptures for the first reading. We include extra Alleluias at various places in the service. And finally, the Confession of Sin is optionally omitted. During this joyous season, we pause for 50 days to ponder a single day, the Day of Resurrection, and to consider its consequences for us as disciples of Jesus.
That explains why, for the third Sunday in a row, we hear a story from that first Easter Day. It’s kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character experiences the same day over and over again till he learns his lesson. Likewise, we will move on from Easter Day only when we have learned all that we need to learn from that eventful day.
You may have noticed that I did not read the last two sentences of the Gospel reading, as printed in the lectionary insert. It was not an accident due to Holy Week exhaustion; I omitted them because they are not, in fact, part of the canonical Bible. The original version of Mark’s Gospel ended with the words, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end! Now, the early Church didn’t like this abrupt cliffhanger of an ending, and two different appendices were proposed in order to give the Gospel a more satisfying ending: the so-called “shorter ending,” consisting of the two sentences in the insert that I didn’t read; and the “longer ending,” consisting of verses 9 through 20, as found in modern printed Bibles. Very early on, you see, the Church had decided to go with the longer ending, and those two sentences tacked on to the end of verse 8 were scrapped. Unfortunately, an editor at Church Publishing Incorporated seems not to have gotten the memo!
With that out of the way, let’s look a little closer at the eight verses that I did read. We are told that three women got up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to ready Jesus’ body for burial. He had been so hastily entombed that his body had not been washed and anointed with perfume, as was the custom. According to Jewish belief, the soul of the departed lingered for three days after death. So, they would have believed that Jesus’ spirit would have been aware of the fact that they were lovingly fulfilling their duty as members of his unofficial extended family.
The women clearly put some thought into what they would need. The story mentions how they went out and bought aromatic spices in order to perfume the body. But they forgot one rather important fact: the tomb was sealed with a very large and very heavy stone. It is only as they are walking to the tomb that they remember this little detail. They don’t have a team of strong men with them. They don’t even have a crow bar. And the chances of success are pretty minimal. Now, reasonable people would have turned back at this point and rounded up a work crew. But the three women do not, in fact, turn back. They just keep going. Were they being foolish? Or did they just have faith?
Today is unofficially known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because all but one of the readings make reference to shepherds. That one exception is the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. So let’s look at that first before we move on to animal husbandry.
The first line in today’s reading from Acts provides the Church with a spiritual rule of life. The earliest Christians, we are told, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Like them, we too are to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. We do this when we meditate on the New Testament. We do this when we listen to a sermon or attend a Bible study. We devote ourselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers when we attend the Eucharist and when we pray our daily devotions. But what about devoting ourselves to fellowship? Don’t we do that at every coffee hour? Yes and no. The Greek word translated here as “fellowship” is koinonia, and it has a wide range of meanings, such as sharing, participation, communion, and even communal ownership. The earliest Christians understood this kind of fellowship as requiring them to “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This is so much more than signing up to bring snacks to the Sunday coffee hour! Such fellowship as is commended to us in the Acts of the Apostles requires profound mutual commitment, up to and including financial support for the poor in our midst.
How many here remember the film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray? It was about a man who was cursed to relive the same day over and over again until he learned to love others more than himself. I feel like we are in that movie, reliving the same day. For it is now two weeks since Easter Day, and we are still hearing a Gospel reading that takes place on the evening of the Day of Resurrection. Maybe the editors of the lectionary think we still have a lesson to learn from that great day. And maybe they’re right!
Today’s Gospel reading is the familiar story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus. It’s so familiar that we are tempted not to pay close attention. But we should!
It is early evening on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, when two dispirited disciples decide to give up and head home. One disciple is a man named Cleopas. The other disciple is not named and could possibly be a woman. The two are discussing Jesus’ death when they are joined by a stranger. The Gospel says that their eyes were forcibly restrained, so that they might not recognize the stranger as Jesus. And unlike Mary Magdalene, neither do they recognize Jesus’ voice. We can only assume that Jesus was the source of this restraint. No reason for it is given. But I suspect Jesus’ plan was to open their minds and their hearts before opening their eyes.
Jesus inserts himself in their conversation, asking them what they are discussing. They go on to tell him, speaking of Jesus as a prophet who had been handed over by the Judean authorities and crucified. It is telling that they do not profess Jesus as the Son of God, but only as a prophet. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, sent from God to free Israel from Roman rule. They had hoped that he would be a great warrior-king. But now all their hopes are dashed. They go on to relate the story of how some women in their group claimed to have had a vision of angels, but it is clear that they think this but an idle tale.
Some 2000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, something happened that changed the world. On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a cross. On the first Holy Saturday, he was buried in a borrowed tomb. And then on the first Easter Day, he was raised from the dead, as a sign of God’s love for his Son—and for us. For we are told that if we have faith in God’s saving love, we too will be raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the Easter message.
But faith is such a tricky matter! If we watch the news coming out of Syria or Egypt or Russia or Sweden, it is ever so easy to believe in Good Friday. It is easy to believe that the world would torture and kill a gentle man whose only wrong was to teach God’s love. It is easy to believe the Holy Saturday message that this man of peace lay dead and buried. But it is harder to believe in the Easter message, that sin and death did not—and do not—get the last word.
We may imagine that ours is the first generation of doubters, but that just isn’t the case. St. John wrote the Gospel account of the Resurrection that we heard proclaimed today for one reason and one reason only: that doubters of every generation might know the truth about what God did on that first Easter Day and, believing that truth, might have eternal life. Of all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, John’s is the most vivid and detailed—and the most convincing! In the midst of the miraculous, we get real, believable portrayals of how various disciples of Jesus reacted both to his death and to the mystery of the empty tomb.
The two boys, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, upon hearing that Jesus’ body has gone missing from the tomb, compete in a footrace to see who will get there first. The Beloved Disciple wins, but then chickens out, letting Peter be the first to enter the empty tomb. The Beloved Disciple believes, even though he doesn’t understand, while Peter is just plain confused. The impatient boys head home. And because of their impatience, they miss out on a miracle.
In the early church, sermons given during Eastertide were mystagogical. That is to say, they were designed to lead the newly baptized deeper into the mystery of our faith. Typically, they dealt with the two great sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Well, this sermon won’t be a lesson primarily about the sacraments, but I hope that it does lead you further into the mystery of our faith.
In todays’ readings, we hear about two spiritual giants: St. Paul and St. Peter. First, we hear the story of the conversion of St. Paul, when he encounters the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It is one of three accounts of Paul’s conversion found in the Acts of the Apostles, an indication of the story’s importance to the early church. In the Gospel reading from John, we get a strange story about Peter and his companions breakfasting with the Risen Christ on a beach, followed by an equally strange conversation between Jesus and Peter.
St. Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, started out his career as a righteous (one might even say self-righteous) Pharisee and a self-appointed vigilante. He took it upon himself to go from town to town and root out Christians from the local synagogues. And to his great shame later in life, Paul participated, albeit peripherally, in the lynching of St. Stephen the Protomartyr.
Easter Service: Sun. March 27, 10 a.m. Incarnation Episcopal Church, 1750 29th Avenue, San Francisco
Easter Day is the greatest feast of the Christian Year. This is a time of great celebration as we rejoice in our redemption. Join us in the joyous celebration. The service includes special music followed by a festive reception.
Today is the third Sunday of Easter, and yes, it’s still Easter. It will continue to be Easter till we reach the feast of Pentecost on May 24th. There are various ways that we mark this joyous season. We use festive vestments of white. We read the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Hebrew scriptures. We include extra Alleluias. And finally, the Confession is optionally omitted. During this season, we pause for 50 days to experience the Day of Resurrection and to consider its consequences for us as disciples of Jesus. It’s kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character experiences the same day over and over again till he learns his lesson.
But this seasonal focus on one point in time, the Day of Resurrection, is belied somewhat by today’s first two readings. The first reading from Acts takes place some months later, after Pentecost, and mentions the Resurrection only in passing. And the second reading from First John takes place about 70 years after the Resurrection of Jesus and doesn’t mention the Resurrection at all. Only the Gospel reading actually takes place on that first Easter Sunday. Despite these disparities, all three readings do share common threads. So after a quick review of each of the readings, I’ll attempt to tease out two of those common threads.
Let’s start with the Gospel reading. This account from Luke tells his version of the appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples. It is basically the same story we heard last week, but with some differences in detail. For example, Luke spares Thomas the embarrassment of being the only doubting disciple. In today’s account, all the disciples display doubt at Jesus’ appearance in their midst. And Jesus invites them all to touch him, so as to verify that he is not a ghost. Then, as the final proof of his physicality, he asks for some food. Now as both a vegetarian and a preacher, I devoutly wish that the disciples had given him a loaf of bread. But what they gave him was a piece of broiled fish. Now, if he had shared bread with them, as he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I could expound at great length on the eucharistic symbolism of the broken bread. As it stands, I am at a loss to explain the religious significance of broiled fish!
Jesus proceeds to teach the disciples, opening their minds to understand the scriptures, with a particular focus on the fate of the Messiah. Jesus ends the class with a homework assignment: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.
The account of the Resurrection found in John’s Gospel holds a certain distinction. It is the only Gospel account that can be read at Easter in every year of our liturgical calendar. This Resurrection account is distinct in another way as well. It is by far the most vivid account of the events of that day, with details that distinguish it from the other three Gospels. Those details merit some attention. So, for the first part of this sermon, I would like to give a running commentary of the story that you just heard proclaimed, with a special focus on Mary Magdalene. Think of it as being like the director’s commentary you find on some DVDs.
Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb before the sun has even risen and finds the stone rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. She jumps to the conclusion that grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ corpse. She panics. Without even looking in the tomb, she runs to Peter to report.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple (who was with him at the time) race to the tomb. Like two children, they race. The Beloved Disciple gets there first, but then balks, cautiously peeking into the tomb but not entering. Peter, never one to give much thought before acting, barges right in. They find the tomb empty, except for the linen cloths that had been wrapped around the body of Jesus. We are told that at that moment the Beloved Disciple believes but does not understand. Evidently, Peter doesn’t know what to think. They both go home, one believing and one just perplexed.
At some point, Mary returns to the tomb. Perhaps she followed behind the two disciples during their footrace, unable to keep up with the boys. We find her standing desolate, weeping. She waits till Peter and the Beloved Disciple leave the scene before she dares to peek into the tomb herself. Instead of seeing the grave linens, she sees two angels sitting on the shelf where Jesus’ body had been laid. Everywhere else in the Bible, the appearance of angels causes fear and trembling. But Mary is so numb that the divine messengers don’t seem to make any impression on her at all. Speaking in unison, they ask why she weeps. (Although surely, they knew the answer.) She shares her fear that the body of her beloved teacher has been stolen.