19 April 2009

Octave of Easter, Thursday Readings

Last Thursday there were two intriguing readings. The first is from the Acts of the Apostles where Peter stands up and castigates the Jews for what they did to Jesus, but also offers them a chance to accept a place in the new covenant. The second is from Luke and follows the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. In this lection they are explaining to other disciples how Jesus met them on the road and they recognized him in the breaking of the bread when suddenly he shows up in their midst. What is so striking is the degree of fear they experience. They are startled of course, but Luke makes clear that they are also terrified and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus has them touch him, shows them his hands and feet, allows them to know he is flesh and blood --- though not as they are used to given his capacity to appear and vanish at will --- and eats some baked fish.

Both readings mean to demonstrate that something astounding has happened, something which changes everything. Whatever this is, it gives courage to those who were hiding for fear of their own lives and allows them to speak about Jesus with a new kind of boldness (parrhesia). Peter, despite his own denials of Jesus is now a community leader and returns to his own people, the very ones who condemned and militated for the crucifixion of Jesus as a blasphemer and would certainly have condemned Peter and the others as well, to tell them about belief in a crucified messiah --- an incomprehensible combination of words until this point! What Peter knows is that the crucified messiah lives; he has been raised from godless death to new and eternal existence by his Father; he has been completely vindicated and the result is a new and everlasting covenant, a new and everlasting dialogical form of existence with God for all who will follow him and be baptized into his death. Awesome as this all is though, it is not enough, as the gospel reading makes plain.

It is not simply that Jesus has been raised to a new and eternal existence; he has been raised to a new and eternal BODILY existence, and this is something I think many of us miss when we think of resurrection. (Or we think of life after death as the real climax of the story when it is only the penultimate part of it.) Jesus moves between two worlds now; he moves between heaven and earth. In him these two realms interpenetrate one another in a way they had not before. The veil between sacred and profane has been truly torn asunder in the Christ Event. The life Jesus lives and offers to us is not simply life after death but a bodily existence in a remade world. When we speak of Christ as the new creation this is really what we are referring to --- to the fact that he has been remade by God to represent a new kind of bodily existence where heaven and earth interpenetrate one another in a new way and will do so more and more completely as Christians accept their own vocations to follow Christ until one day God is, in Paul's words, all-in-all.

I found the readings challenging in several ways. Once my immediate response to the lection from Acts would have been something like: "Oh, Peter, who do you think you are sermonizing in this way?" But today I see him as an image of the church with its commission to every Christian to proclaim the gospel with boldness in spite of past sinfulness, past betrayals and denials of Christ. Peter too has experienced the risen Christ, not least in the breaking of the bread just as we each do every day, and he has been transformed by the experience. And all the disciples have now had "the Scriptures opened to them" so that they may read older texts with news eyes and heart in light of their experience of Jesus' vindication by God. There is a new covenant, consistent with, but perfecting the older one, a new creation, consistent with but perfecting the older creation, a new Temple, a new Law rooted in Gospel, and in all this, a new hope for heaven and earth together.

The Gospel is especially challenging, not merely because it expects Jesus' disciples to put aside terror at something they were wholly unprepared for (THIS resurrection was NOT something they had foreseen really, nor was it something major versions of Judaism itself believed in per se), but because it expects us to accept that resurrection is a bodily reality, and that God's Kingdom will be realized here within space and time as eternity and spatio-temporality are allowed to more completely interpenetrate one another and God become all in all. We cannot simply hope for heaven and turn from efforts at building the Kingdom of God here on earth. We cannot simply relinquish a vocation to genuine holiness as something achieved elsewhere; instead God achieves it in our very midst, in the midst of space and time, in the midst of THIS life with these circumstances, weaknesses, and failings. Christ has obediently (responsively and openly) plumbed the depths of human existence, deeper than any of us will ever go ourselves (thank God!), and in so doing he has implicated God in every moment and mood of this existence.

He has made of us a new creation and asks us to bring it to completion in Him. So the good news of Jesus' resurrection is accompanied by a great commission issued to each of us. Proclaim the good news of a new creation with boldness. In me see with new eyes, love with a new heart, imagine with a new hope! In me make all things new! Resurrection, after all, is not simply life after death; it is a new bodily existence we already share in and owe to the world.