555 North Commercial Road #1Palm Springs, CA 92262 • 760-778-8950 • Every Sunday: Sung Mass 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
April 21, 2019 10:30 AM
Acts 10:34A;37-42 | Psalm 118:1-2;16-17;22-23
Colossians 3:1-4 | John 20:1-9
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
When I was a kid, Easter was an important holiday for me. It always comes in the spring, sometimes early, sometimes late, (this year, it’s almost as late as it can be), and spring, of course, means warmer weather is on the way. Anyone who knows me knows that I really prefer hot weather to cold weather, which is one of the reasons I live here in Palm Springs. The warm weather brings new life. Flowers bloom, baby animals are born, and in much of the country, barren trees sprout green leaves. In the tradition of the church, Easter is traditionally a time to celebrate baptism, when we die to sin and arise to new life in Christ Jesus.
Here at Saint Cecilia’s, we have an icon showing Mary Magdalene holding an egg. We associate eggs with the origin of life. Today’s Gospel has Mary encountering the risen Lord and telling the other disciples that his is risen. The message of that icon is that Easter celebrates life itself. Now you know why we have Easter eggs. Don’t forget that Mary Magdalene was the Apostle the Apostles, the first person to announce the Risen Lord.
People ask me all the time whether or not I believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus, in other words, do I think Jesus actually got up and walked out of his tomb? The answer is I am not sure. I was not there. Certainly, I am not aware of anyone who has either claimed to have seen Jesus arise from death, or claimed to have found the earthly body of Jesus. The empty tomb makes at least possible that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, just as we sing in the Creeds. But an actual, physical resurrection is not essential to the utility of the concept of Resurrection.
Like many other things in scripture, Easter is not just an event, but a symbol, something that points to something else. The Resurrection points us to everlasting life. That’s the core message of Easter, everlasting life. In his Resurrection, Jesus demonstrated what everlasting life looked like. Jesus showed us that we exchange the limited existence of our earthly bodies for everlasting spiritual bodies.
Easter was the most important event in the life of Jesus.Easter is the total glorification of Jesus, touching upon the scope and the nature of his Mission. In John’s Gospel, Jesus presented himself, as “the resurrection and the life.” Without the Resurrection, the preaching and the faith of the Church is irrelevant. So here at Saint Cecilia’s, our Easter celebration is the “Feast of Feasts.”
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, debate about whether or not people are ever resurrected after death goes back thousands of years into Old Testament times. The Torah, or the first five books of the Bible, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, are foundational documents for both Christians and Jews, but those books are somewhat ambiguous about life after physical death.
At first glance, the Torah appears to emphasize immediate, concrete, physical rewards and punishments rather than abstract future ones. However, there is clear evidence in the Torah of the existence of life after death. The Torah tells us that the righteous will be reunited with their loved ones after death, speaking of several noteworthy individuals being “gathered to their people,” for example: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. This so-called “gathering” is described as a separate event from the physical death of the body or the burial.
As we heard at Easter Vigil last night, the Jewish prophet Ezekiel talked about God breathing life into dry bones. Ezekiel prophesied an earthquake, in which the bones came together, and then flesh and skin came on them. Ezekiel proclaimed, “There was no breath” in the bones, so God made those dead bones rise to life by giving the bones God’s life-giving breath. In the Second Book of Maccabees, which is a story of the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple after it was profaned during the intertestamental period, one of seven brothers put to death for refusing to disobey Jewish dietary laws told his torturers that God will raise him from the dead. So the notion of resurrection finds at least some support in the Jewish tradition before the time of Jesus.
Now, fast-forward to Jesus. Contemporaneous with Jesus, a group of Jewish scholars known as the Pharisees came up with the idea that the Torah does in fact support the notion of eternal life. You’ve all heard of the Pharisees. Many preachers talk about them in a negative way. But who exactly are they, and is that negative picture deserved? I don’t think so. At the time of Jesus, there were four main groups of Jews: the Sadducees, who were the temple priests, the guys who wanted Pontius Pilate to put Jesus to death; the Essenes, who were mystics; the Zealots, who wanted to lead a revolutionary war against the Roman Empire, and, last, but not least, the Pharisees. Now despite the negative image the Pharisees have with many Christians, they are not terrible people. Some scholars think Jesus himself was a Pharisee, and we know from his epistles that Saint Paul was a Pharisee.
The Pharisees were the forerunner of today’s rabbis. They were the group who kept Judaism alive after the Roman Empire ransacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple in seventy A-D. What distinguished the Pharisees from the Sadducees were two things: the Pharisees were forever discussing the intent of the law and how to apply it in a humane way, in contrast to the Sadducees, the law-and-order people who “went by the book,” and the Pharisees, who believed in an afterlife, whereas the Sadducees did not.
So it’s entirely predictable that Saint Paul, who was an admitted Pharisee, wrote extensively about the spiritual meaning of the Resurrection in letters to the Corinthians, Romans, and elsewhere. Thus, thoughts about an afterlife that began in the Jewish tradition found their way into Christianity and came into full flower with the Resurrection of Jesus and our celebration of Easter.
In the early days of Christianity, there was a debate about whether Jesus was divine or human, or both divine and human. Ultimately, the Church settled on what’s called the Chalcedonian Definition, which is that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Yet, the Church still has an ongoing debate as to whether to emphasize, in its worship and theology, the divinity or humanity of Jesus, often known as the controversy over high and low Christology, a fancy word for studying who Jesus really is. There’s evidence throughout the New Testament for both views. On a practical level for the Church, the question is should we emphasize Easter or Christmas in our worship and theology?
For me, the answer is that they are equally important. You do not get to Easter without Christmas, yet without Easter, Jesus is just another person, nothing really special. While other religions contain mythic stories of virgin births and gods becoming human, the Resurrection of Jesus is what makes Christianity truly unique. Some pagan religions do, in fact, have a resurrection story similar to that of Jesus, but those stories did not appear until centuries after Jesus lived.
With contemporary science theoretically able to concoct a virgin birth by cloning a human embryo which could be implanted for gestation in a virgin woman, that is, one who has not yet engaged in sex, no one has yet figured out how to revive a body which has been dead for three days. Resurrection, therefore, remains something only God could bring about. Therefore, in the Resurrection, Jesus unequivocally demonstrates his divine nature, and from that divine nature, Jesus offers us eternal life. The Resurrection demonstrated eternal life by Jesus conquering the single characteristic that distinguishes humanity from divinity: the certainty of life eternal replaces the certainty of human mortality. Life eternal enables us to achieve life with God.
What is eternal life? It is not being alive forever as a human person in the flesh. Rather, it is everlasting life. It is not something that happens in the future. It is here and now, but continues forever.Just as Jesus had an earthly body that was here for a time, and a spiritual body that lives forever, we too have a physical body, but also a soul that lives forever. For Christians, the ultimate destination of our soul is with God. We meet God through Jesus in our lives by developing our relationship with Jesus, a relationship that lasts into eternity.
And what must we do to earn eternal life? The answer is you cannot earn it or demand it. You can only receive it. You will recall from the Gospels the dialogues wherein the Pharisees asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied that salvation was not just about living a good life, but blind faith, blind trust in God. Saint Paul expanded on this notion, by taking the question of law a step beyond that of the Pharisees. Saint Paul tells us, over and over again in his letters to the Romans and Galatians, that arguments about legal issues were pointless. What matters is God’s unconditional love for us. From God’s unconditional love, God offers us eternal life.
Eternal life is not conditioned on who we are or how we behave. It is not dependent on obeying a whole cadre of laws. It is freely offered. All we have to do, and all we can do, is accept it. We demonstrate our acceptance of eternal life through faith. What is faith? It is not assent to an idea. Rather, it is loyalty. To believe in someone is to be loyal to that person. That’s what Jesus asks of us to have everlasting life by inviting us to what I call, “knowing loyalty. “
Jesus invites us to get to know Him in our experience of Him in several ways.
First, we experience Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar as we receive Holy Communion.
Second, we experience Jesus in other people with whom we live in community.
Third, we experience Jesus in the scriptures.
Fourth, and most important, we experience Jesus through prayer. Jesus is described in the tradition of the Church as our mediator and advocate, is our gateway to God in prayer. You’ve probably heard Jesus described as, “our great high priest.” What do priests do? Yes, they offer sacrifices, but that’s not all. A priest is a gateway to God. To quote theologian William Countryman, priests “live on the border of the holy,” mediating between God and humanity. That’s what Jesus does for us, and that’s what Jesus calls us to do for each other in His capacity as our Great High Priest. All of us, not just ordained clergy, are called to be gateways to God for others we encounter. We do that here at Saint Cecilia’s every time we welcome a stranger, every time we support each other through the tribulations of life, and every time we speak up about injustice in the world around us.
The Resurrection demonstrates the pattern of our future, when humanity will participate in the divinity of God, not actually becoming God, but in a sense, become like God. God, unlike humanity, always was, and always will be. God, before all else, is eternal life. God pre-existed us without beginning and will exist without end. While Christ has destroyed the powers of sin, death, and evil once and for all, this victory must be appropriated by each person in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Each person is called to join with the life-giving and liberating Spirit in realizing the fullness of human life in communion with God, not only in worship, but in our homes, workplaces and elsewhere as well.
Humanity’s quest for everlasting life began long ago, before Jesus was born as a human person. Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover by much of its symbolism, as well as by its position in the calendar. In most European languages, the feast called Easter in English is similar to the word for Passover in those languages. In Spanish, the word for Easter is Pascua. In Greek and Latin, it is Pascha, with similar spellings in other Latin-root languages.
The precursor to everlasting life is found in the feast of Passover commemorating freedom from slavery, when Moses led the Jewish people through the parted Red Sea from slavery in Eqypt. The Jewish people were treated in truly inhuman ways as they labored in Egypt. They suffered hard lives to make the lives of the Egyptians easy. But the Egyptians didn’t even give the basic nourishment, let alone a day’s pay. God, acting through Moses, freed them. If you were at Easter Vigil last night, you would have heard. the story of how the Red Sea waves were held back so that Israelites could escape the pursuing Egyptian army which was then drowned once the Israelites had safely passed. I like that story because it’s a positive manifestation of God’s power.
In His Resurrection, Jesus continued the work of Moses, the work of authoring freedom. Jesus frees us to attain everlasting life, just like Moses freed the Israelites from the Egyptians. The Resurrection frees us from the bondage of sin and death. Sin and death hold us back from life with God. The freedom to which Jesus calls us is freedom from gloom and darkness, freedom from the gloom of sin. Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus means we are no longer enslaved to sin.
In the Resurrection, we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. On Easter Day, we celebrate the defeat of death, as neither death itself nor the power of the grave could hold our Savior captive. The glorious and resplendent light emanating from the empty Tomb will dispel the darkness. Christ, risen from the dead, cracks the fortress of death, and takes captivity captive.
The Resurrection of Jesus constitutes the most radical and decisive deliverance of humankind. Death is swallowed up in victory and life is liberated. Easter is the dawn of the new and unending day. In the Resurrection, we received eternal life. Today all creation is glad and rejoices, for Christ has risen!
I shall close with a quotation from the Pascha Sermon of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the Fourth Century. Our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers read it in its entirety at their Divine Liturgy at Easter.
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.” AMEN.