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 the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those few who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy address concerning the origins of Lent. For those here today who missed that, I will read just a brief excerpt: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
This explains why all three of today’s Bible readings deal in some way or other with the sacrament of Baptism. The first reading from Genesis gives us God’s covenant with the remnants of humankind, those who were saved from the Great Flood. As you may recall, God was disgusted with the sinfulness of his people, and he decided to “reboot the system.” He drowned all the creatures on Earth, with the exception of eight members of one family and the animals that they had collected into the ark. God then made a covenant with those eight survivors, and with their descendants, never to do such a thing again.
Now, if we take the story literally, it is horrific. Millions of people must have been drowned. But our ancestors in the faith, including St. Peter, sought a deeper, more spiritual meaning in this tale of mass destruction. And they accomplished this by reading the story of the Flood as a kind of allegory. The waters of the Flood were understood as symbolic of the waters of Baptism. In their understanding, the drowning of the Earth’s many sinners symbolically represented the drowning of our sins in the holy font. Noah’s ark of wood was understood as a symbol of either the wooden Cross of Christ or his salvific Church. Lastly, the covenant of the rainbow that we heard about in the first reading was seen as a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant.
Last week, the Gospel reading was about church discipline. Specifically, it dealt with how to handle someone who is causing trouble in the congregation. (Father Webber quite understandably opted to preach on the Epistle.) Today’s Gospel reading has to do with forgiving a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. In both cases, the common theme is how to get along with one another in a small, tight-knit community.
The Gospel reading starts out with Peter asking Jesus a question: How often do I have to forgive a fellow disciple who keeps on sinning against me? What a telling question! It tells me that things haven’t changed much in 2000 years. We still struggle to get along. We still struggle to forgive one another. If you have ever served on a parish committee, you know what kind of little sins can happen. Someone interrupts someone else, and the person who was interrupted feels that his or her opinion isn’t valued. Someone tends to talk a bit too long, and another church member makes a show of not listening. Someone is trying to get something done under a deadline, but someone else doesn’t want to rush into the wrong decision. In the course of community life, we inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. Now, these are all little slights, little sins. But they can disrupt the whole community!
Jesus’s answer to this problem is quite simple: forgiveness. Now, Peter imagines that he should forgive someone no more than seven times. That seems like a reasonable limit to him. But Jesus responds that we should forgive one another seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness has nothing to do at all with being reasonable.
Figuring that Peter won’t understand this teaching, Jesus tries to explain it with a parable, a short story about a rich king and his slaves. The king forgives a huge debt to a slave who cannot possibly repay what he owes. By rights, the king could sell the slave and all his family in order to recoup a tiny portion of the debt. But when the slave pleads for mercy, the king shows compassion and forgives the entire debt. Now, you have to realize just how large that debt was. Ten thousand talents is just under seven billion dollars! Unfortunately, the slave whose huge debt was erased does not himself learn forgiveness. He accosts a fellow slave who owes him around eleven thousand dollars and demands payment in full. When he doesn’t get it, he has that slave imprisoned!
Today is the Day of Pentecost, one of seven principal feasts in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar. It has been called the “birthday of the Church,” but this title is hotly disputed. In any case, all agree that it is a day to “pull out all the stops.” And so we will have incense at the Offertory.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us the story of that first Pentecost, when the disciples encounter wind and fire and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They miraculously find themselves able to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in languages that they do not know. The heart of their message to the crowd is found in the very last line of the reading: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So far as we know, this miraculous gift of tongues did not remain with the disciples, but even so, they were not left bereft of spiritual gifts.
As St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Church has at divers times received a variety of gifts: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, the proclamation of prophecy, the gift of healing, the discernment of spirits, and the working of all kinds of miracles. All of these have been useful to the building up of the Church, but later in that same letter Paul reminds us that the most important spiritual gifts are faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these three is love.
Since the Day of Pentecost completes the fifty days of Eastertide, we quite fittingly return to Easter Day in the Gospel reading from John, which takes place on the evening of the Resurrection.
Today’s Gospel reading is universally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I think it needs a better title. First, no one uses the word prodigal anymore. And second, the story isn’t primarily about that younger son. A more fitting title would be “The Parable of the Family that Behaved Outrageously.” Now, the outrageous behavior in this story may not be apparent at first glance. For one thing, social conventions were very different in first-century Palestine. For another, we have become inured to outrageous behavior; the Republican debates are a case in point.
The story begins with the younger of two sons telling his father that he can’t wait for his father to die to get his hands on his money. Clearly, this was an outrageous way for any son to behave. Common sense alone should have been enough to tell the father that the appropriate answer was “I don’t think so.” But if the father needed some guidance here, he could have relied on Judaism’s wisdom literature. Here is a typical teaching on the subject: “To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, in case you change your mind and must ask for it.” (Sir. 33:20–24). But the father in our story doesn’t take this sound advice. Instead, he divides all he owns between his two sons. An outrageous response to an outrageous request!
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.