In the Train of the Risen

The great New Testament theologian C.H. Dodd once noted that all the resurrection accounts included several features. In each Jesus greeted His followers with ‘Peace,’ ‘Shalom,’ as a result of which any doubts about his identity vanished. Then He sent them on a mission to all the nations of the earth. Both had to do with the Kingdom which had just dawned: the Prince of Peace had come and now He would gather the nations in His victorious train (see especially Daniel 7). What are the implications of these consistent themes? As we shall see, the first is personal and the second corporate.

We know the peace that comes into our hearts because on the ‘Yes’ spoken to us in Him. This experience is integral to our conversion, however it took place in each of us. But it is an experience of something deeper than the experiential. Look in John 20 about the assurance of the proclamation of the loosing of sins. This is given us come what may, and so we are reassured of it should be ‘feel it’ or not. (Martin Luther’s witness here makes this clear). This is peace as the world cannot give, since it is built on the ‘finished work’ of Christ confirmed in the resurrection.

Secondly, the mission to the Gentiles was a sign of the dawning of the Kingdom. (Compare Matthew 28 with Isaiah 2). So mission is not an optional programmatic activity but constitutive of living in the time and the train of the Risen. It is ‘baked in,’ which is what the popular phrase of a generation ago, ‘the mission of God,’ meant to say. The resurrection gives shape to our common life, though we sometimes fall asleep and need preaching to awaken us. May it be so this Eastertide.



Easter Vigil at St. Matthew's Cathedral

In eight and a half days, a rare solar eclipse will cut a path across Texas, with Dallas a good place to see it. Thousands of astronomical tourists and not a few scientists will make their way here. Public service announcement- make sure your glasses as legit, as there seem to be a black market in bogus knock offs.  It is strange to speak of seeing an eclipse since by its very nature it is a not seeing, of the sun, in whose light we see everything else.  An eclipse was to the ancients a portent of the activity of the divine. However, I admit that it may seem a particularly inapt example for an Easter sermon, for there is an eclipse in the story, only it occurs at the most terrible moment of human history, the death of Jesus, along with a crack in the Temple. It bespoke how very dark and bereft the world really is, however reluctant we are to look at it. Seemingly inappropriate, yes, but there are two reasons for the inability to see anything, either the , total lack of light, or else a flash so bright that it blinds us momentarily.

Let us think together of the second option, of a light so bright as to be dark to the ordinary eye. It has been described in many ways. Dionysius in the late fifth century spoke of that light ‘where the simple and pure and unchangeable mysteries of theology are revealed in the darkness, clearer than light, of that silence in which secret things are hidden; a darkness that shines brighter than light, that invisibly and intangibly illuminates with splendours of inconceivable beauty the soul that sees not.’    .Almost a millennium later, the anonymous English mystic wrote of a ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ as a way of describing God’s immediate presence.  In our own generation, the poet Christian Wiman, facing his own mortality, came to realize that God had drawn close to him in what he called a ‘bright abyss,’ which is also the name of a book of his I recommend. We should not be surprised, since the Bible worries that no human can see directly and live. The light is too great, and its being veiled is for our protection.

But of course this evening is not dedicated to mysticism in general, but to what occurred to Jesus the crucified. We are reminded of the peak at what was to come, the transfiguration, where the disciples saw the light of the glory of God, and then all they could see was Jesus alone. Easter also had to do with the glory, the Kavod, the unspeakable brightness, but in relation to this Jesus, the wake of whose transformation was a bright abyss. Before we go on, let us make a few things plain. The resurrection was a real event in the world, at least that. The tomb was empty. Jesus risen ate fish, and so has a body, though also different from ours, to be sure. It is not just in the minds of the beholders. But as an event it is beyond any we otherwise know, and so not only we, but the writers of the New Testament reach for words to point adequately toward it.

I am no astronomer, nor a mathematician, but that won’t stop me.  I think it’s true that if where your location is uncertain, triangulate by two points you do know. It is significant that the stories of the resurrection in the New Testament never actually show us the moment when he rose from the grave, the transit out of Hades, the slaying of the serpent. We see what went before, and after, but in between is a lacuna, a reverent silence, a light so bright as to be dark. Barth called it a crater where there had been a blinding explosion. But the point of the New Testament accounts, including this evening’s, is that we can triangulate from what we know of what came before, and of what we are promised of what will follow. We triangulate this evening from what Jesus in his life and death has shown us, and on the other hand of what we are promised up ahead.  Before- the inklings God gives. Us, and the clearer witness of Scripture leading up to the event; after: the promise of the Kingdom, described in divinely appointed images.

Listen first to what the Word of the prophets and apostles tells us. Our God will in the end remove the veil of death over the eyes of humankind, what Isaiah calls ‘the shroud that enfolds the people, the sheet that covers the nations.’ There is that deep intuition of ours that death was once something natural, falling asleep into God, but it is now for us what Paul calls the last enemy, before whom we ‘quail’, as Luther said. This is part of the great crack that runs through creation, and so us who are a part of it, a crack that includes sin, and explains how Paul can say that the wages of sin are death. We easily can see ourselves as a valley of bones, very dry, but we are also primed to hear the promise God makes in Ezekiel, that the Spirit of the Lord will breathe life into us anew. We balk at the news that it will not come from some spark of immortality within us, but from a new, mysterious act of God alone akin to creation itself.  God’s Word tonight tells us that this act has occurred, the well has sprung up in one very specific place, Jesus, the Messiah, and that only in the light of His summons back to life by the Spirit, can we make sense of the story of the world and ours. To this is added the news, surprising to the hearers of the Gospel, that his victory is enacted in his weakness, suffering, bearing the wrong of others, death overcome by a death. All this is the light shining from behind Jesus and upon him, one point of the triangle. As an aside, we can add that we humans sometimes have our inklings, such as in near death experiences, though on our own the great hall of light lacks the wounded lamb at its center. 

 And what of triangulation from that second point given, what lies ahead, though we ourselves can see it at best ‘through a glass darkly’ and here too need the help of God’s Word? Resurrection is more than resuscitation. Even Lazarus was raised only to die again.  Resurrection includes what we know of life restored, in the sense that it will be at least as real as the world we know, for it will include bodies and time and relationships, though we cannot make out how these will be. Remember how Paul in I Corinthians 15 speaks of ‘spiritual bodies,’ whatever that may be. And we know that God will bring this new world, as in the twinkling of an eye, and we will be graciously given a share of the God’s eye view.. Again it will resemble the act of creation itself, but now having crossed through death and living on the far side of it.  The Kingdom is understood as we apply a serious faith in the sovereignty of God not only to sin and death and hell, but, up ahead,  also to bodies and time and personhood. The resurrection we celebrate this(evening includes this element of unending wonder too, for it will truly be life higher up and further in than we can imagine.

So tonight let the light converge on you from both these sides, in its own kind of eclipse, so as to blind our fallen sight, an intimation of light too bright to see as we are, become an earnest of the light to come, visible now in this same Jesus, only changed, among us in a new mode. He has in his hands toe h keys of death and hell. These words are faithful and true, indeed clear, but also, seen as  blinding light.


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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.