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.
Today we hear about God’s power over death in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Think of today’s Gospel reading as a foretaste of Easter, a preview of something greater still.
Jesus is in a town called Bethany across the Jordan, when a messenger arrives from a town in Judea, also named Bethany. The messenger is sent from his friends Mary and Martha, asking him to come heal their brother Lazarus, who is seriously ill. Now, unbeknownst to all but Jesus, Lazarus is already dead. Considering the distance between the two Bethanies, it turns out that Lazarus must have died the same day the messenger was sent. Perhaps this explains why Jesus was in no great hurry to head out.
Now, in what is one heck of a prophetic double entendre, Jesus explains that “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The double meaning lies in the phrase “that the Son of God may be glorified.” On the one hand, it can simply mean that Jesus will receive honor. On the other hand, it can mean that he will be crucified; for throughout John’s Gospel, glorification is a code word for Jesus’ crucifixion. And indeed, later we’re told that the chief priests plot to kill Jesus precisely because of the stir he caused by raising Lazarus.
By the time Jesus and his entourage arrive at Bethany in Judea, Lazarus has been dead four days. This is significant, because according to popular Jewish belief, the soul stayed in the vicinity of the body for three days and then departed to its final destination. So, after four days, the expectation would be that the soul was irretrievable. Martha approaches Jesus and gently reprimands him for his late arrival. Even so, she declares her continuing belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ response is the poignant and profound statement that we hear proclaimed at just about every Christian burial: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
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.
We’re two full weeks away from Easter, yet already we get more than a glimpse of what resurrections means. All three readings today deal in some way with the subject of life coming out of death.
Ezekiel tells us of a vision in which he looks over an ancient battlefield strewn with the desiccated bones of Israelite soldiers. He is told to prophesy to the bones and bring them back to life. And he does! Helpfully, Ezekiel also tells us the meaning of his vision: the dispirited and subjugated people of Israel, exiled in Babylon, will be given a new spirit of life and will be returned to their homeland.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh, we are told, is no life at all, but living death. Now, when Paul speaks of “flesh” he is not speaking of our physical bodies or of the material world as such. He uses that word “flesh” as a sort of code word to speak of creation alienated from God, humanity focused on self-gratification. Life in the Spirit, on the other hand, yields peace in the present and eternal life at the Resurrection.
Finally, we come to that long, but fascinating, story of the raising of Lazarus (whose name appropriately means “God helps”). This story is not a vision, like Ezekiel’s, and it’s not a theological treatise, like Paul’s letter. It purports to be a historical account. But unlike a newspaper story, this account clearly has a theological and a pastoral purpose.