Easter is many things. Enriching, captivating, solemn, joyous, troublesome, a relief, a challenge. Easter is toil and contemplation and awakening. For church staff and congregants alike it’s the longest week in the Christian calendar, rapid-fire emotional, spiritual and intellectual experiences squeezed into a single week, usually with multiple services throughout. So while Easter is a blessing, it is also utterly exhausting.
Then comes Easter 2A, with Doubting Thomas’ question forming the core of this rapid-fire reading: peace, the Holy Spirit, witness, Messiah. For overwrought Easter nerves, it might feel a bit like an onslaught. Perhaps this is something we share with Jesus’ original disciples: like we want to lock ourselves in a room just to get a moment to absorb it all, to talk it over, to share quietly. Maybe, like Thomas, we want to go missing in action, to try to find a way to come to grips with the events of the past few days: Jesus’ trial, death, and then his apparent resurrection.
It is at this moment that Jesus steps in, steps into our rooms and says, “Peace be with you” before breathing the peace and power of the Holy Spirit onto us.
In the Bible, breath is often associated with God (as Bruce Epperly writes). God breathed the universe into existence. He breathed humanity into life. He breathed life into dry bones. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, and as Jesus breathes her over the disciples, she breathes life back into them. A week before it had been Jesus’ turn; now it was his disciples’ turn!
If you read the text you’ll notice that Thomas apparently misses out on the deliverance of the Holy Spirit – he isn’t in the room when Jesus breathes her out on the others. But then Jesus does something extraordinary: he allows Thomas to physically touch the wounds in his hand and side. This would have put him within breathing distance. So perhaps when Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” it’s not so much the physical evidence that he finds compelling as the life-giving faith of indwelling by the Holy Spirit.
On Easter we get to preach the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death; on the second Sunday, we get to preach on our own resurrection and continual life through the Holy Spirit. The excitement (trepidation, frustration) of Easter inevitably gives way to this: a peace that transcends all understanding.
The lectionary for Easter A has two possible readings: John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10. Personally, I’m tempted to use the Matthew reading because it’s the more streamlined account, thin on John’s pointed self-insertion and apparent vendetta against Peter. But for this post, I’ll be discussing both in broad terms.
Reading Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:1-18 is an interesting exercise in comparison. Both the authors of Matthew and John were writing many years after Jesus’ resurrection when the first Christian communities had already sprung up. We can extrapolate a few things from the texts about the authors and their communities:
1. Both Matthew and John’s communities were facing “fake news” about the resurrection of Jesus. It’s why they go to such pains to emphasise that Jesus’ body wasn’t merely stolen, squirrelled off by unscrupulous disciples. In Matthew, this takes two forms. The first is that of the angel rolling away the stone. Nothing but an act of God, Matthew is saying, could have opened that tomb and left it empty. The second is the mention of the frightened imperial guards. In Matthew 27:62-66 we see the Pharisees applying to Pilate for guards to be posted at the tomb, and in Matthew 28:11-15 they bribe those same guards into lying about what happened.
John focuses on the burial clothing: had Jesus’ body merely been stolen, they wouldn’t have undressed it first; and if they had, the material would have been strewn about, not folded up neatly. The picture he suggests is of Jesus undressing himself from the tatters of burial and folding it up neatly as he did. The burial clothes change into angels by the time Mary looks into the tomb after Peter and John have come and gone.
2. The empty tomb is immediately linked to Jesus’ own prophecies about his purpose and resurrection. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see Jesus’ disciples apparently remain impervious to Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. John’s account has them make an about turn in John 16:19: “Yes, now you are speaking plainly!” But later in John, we find the disciples locked in a room, and then later still, fishing! Without Jesus’ guidance and knowledge of the Scriptures, and frightened and maybe ashamed by his terrifying death, the disciples didn’t draw the conclusion we find so obvious today: that Jesus had died as he’d foretold and that he’d risen from death. The gospel authors nail down these points, perhaps pointedly against divergent narratives being told at that time.
3. Jesus’ first appearance is to Mary Magdalene. This is significant for a few reasons. In the first place, Mary was a woman. Had Jesus’ resurrection merely been a story, why locate Mary as the first witness to the risen Christ? Women’s testimonies weren’t well received in patriarchal first-century Palestine. They were considered to be unreliable witnesses. Yet, in Mary’s being the first to see the risen Christ, we see an echo of Jesus’ earlier revelation of his being the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus didn’t treat women as the patriarchy around them did, so his appearance to Mary is in character for him.
In the second place, appearing to Mary Magdalene placed Mary fully in disciple territory. Sadly there are still people who don’t view the women who travelled with Jesus as his disciples. They usually justify this by saying that none of the twelve was female. But the twelve were chosen for two reasons: to show that Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, who required a minimum of twelve students to be considered such; and to represent the tribes of Israel. We see that Jesus’ inner circle actually consisted of Peter, John and James and arguably Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that he had many other disciples besides. That the gospels don’t explicitly name any female disciples may be for the most simple reason: they didn’t need to. The women in service to Jesus were numbered among his disciples.
In any case, the fact that Mary Magdalene and the other women remained to witness Jesus’ crucifixion, which must have been horrible – and unsafe – to see, demonstrate more loyalty than the scattered twelve, and so they become the first witnesses to Jesus, risen. It’s a furthering of the great reversal: the king of the world is revealed to those most often discounted and marginalised. The Good News is first and foremost theirs.
How, then, do we preach this text? There really is only the one way to do it, I think: to proclaim it as the good news it is. Our responsibility in preaching and proclaiming the Easter narrative is to preach it to everyone marginalised by sin…and who marginalise in sin.
The Easter story is subversive: a man born a Jewish peasant who proclaimed himself the Son of God and spoke of himself as the promised Saviour spent his ministry healing, providing for, teaching and interacting with people from all spheres of society. This man was then crucified as “The King of the Jews”; he was killed in the worst way possible, in a way reserved for traitors to the Roman empire, and delivered to this death by the elite of his own people. It was the worst they could do to him…and it didn’t take. Jesus threw off death and rose to be the Christ for the fallen world. In this equation subversiveness = Good News, because Christ always subverts corrupt power with the redemption and restoration of grace. Hopefully our sermons, writings and ponderings will underscore this subversiveness.
Texts: Matthew 21:1-11 (Palm); Matthew 27:11-54 (Passion)
Matthew 21 (NIV)
Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King
21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 27 (NIV)
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
You can’t separate Palm and Passion Sunday. You can’t separate the Jesus welcomed as “Son of David” to shouts of “Hosanna” from the man crucified as the “King of the Jews” alongside criminals. They are the same man, the same God, and part of the task of Easter is finding comfort in this duality and leading those who listen to your sermons or your podcasts or who read your blog or your devotions, or the people you share a breakfast or dinner table with to find comfort and meaning in this apparent dichotomy.
In fact, I would say the main task is coming to a realisation that there is no dichotomy at all, but that this is merely the reality of a suffering servant king, glorified.
For years Jesus’ ministry led him to this point: entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, bringing to bear the words prophesied by Zechariah (in Zechariah 9:9): “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, on the foal of a donkey.” Jesus enters the city near the time of the Passover; perhaps even at the same moment that, on the west side of Jerusalem the governor Pilate and his detachment of soldiers are entering with great pomp and fanfare in a show of power meant to cow the Jews during their most important religious festival, a festival commemorating their liberation from an oppressive power.
The contrast couldn’t have carried more of a kick had Jesus employed a skywriter to spell it out: Jesus, the Son of David, the Messiah, was different, and so was the Kingdom he had been proclaiming. Jesus was the new liberator, and this time he would lead the whole world in an exodus from sin and death and oppression, into a chosen land of grace, inclusion and service.
The people who had been travelling with Jesus knew this already; the majority of whom were probably poor peasants and social outcasts. They were the ones who spread garments and fronds over Jesus’ path, as one would for a king. This perplexed the Jerusalemites, the ones living in the seat of their nation’s wealth and power and who probably constituted the religious and economic top brass. Who was this man riding in on a donkey? “A prophet,” they heard, “from Nazareth in Galilee.”
These weren’t impressive credentials by any stretch of the imagination. Galilee was an area heavily populated with Gentiles, and so considered a sort of Jewish backwater. Nobody bragged about being from Galilee… Except for Jesus. Galilee – a poor area with frequent revolts against the Roman oppressors – represented exactly the people and the oppression Jesus had come to lever his Kingdom against.
We find ourselves, two thousand years on, still needing to ask this most fundamental question: who was this man riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey? We ask it on Palm/Passion Sunday so that during passion week we can rediscover the answer: he was a king and a prisoner; a servant and an offering and a sacrifice; he was the Christ. There are no contradictions in his character because his character is love.
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The Pharisees Investigate the Healing
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.
17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”
18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”
20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
Irony is a bitch. Just ask the Pharisees in Lent 4A’s reading.
Similar to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, John tells one story while the subtext tells another. On a textual level, John relates the healing a man born blind received. This healing “happened” to take place on a Sabbath and the religious leaders took issue with that, using it as an opportunity to investigate Jesus and those interested in following him.
But on the subtextual level John tells a deeply ironic story about sin and deservingness.
It begins with the disciples’ assumption that the blind man’s condition was a result of sin – either his or his parents’. This was a common enough belief at the time. Righteousness was deeply steeped in law-keeping, which in turn was steeped in the religious life of Jerusalem. In other words, righteousness as people like the Pharisees understood it was largely the purview of the upper classes (who only made up about 10% of the total population at the time) because, through their own machinations, only they could afford to keep the letter of the law.
Being the 10% on top of a very oppressed and at time volatile 90% is a tenuous situation at best. Combine that with the fact that the Jerusalem elite were invariably in cahoots with Palestine’s Roman oppressors and we begin to understand why the religious leaders would go to furious lengths to keep the scales balanced in their favour.
Scales that Jesus were proving to be fraudulent.
The primary way the religious leaders kept things working to their benefit was by using religion, and holiness and cleanliness, to control and oppress the 90% mostly peasant population. So many laws had been added to “the law” that no one outside certain economic classes would have the means or opportunity to be “truly holy”. They were defiled and unclean and needed the religious leaders to make them presentable to God.
Enter a man blind from birth who had been reduced to begging on the streets. He was exactly the kind of person the religious leaders would say had sinned in some way to deserve his blindness, and deserved continued judgment for it – he was still blind, after all.
Enter Jesus and his healing.
The Pharisees’ anger was never about the Sabbath (though the fact that this healing took place on the Sabbath wasn’t coincidental). They were angry that their propaganda about sin and deservingness was being challenged, and by a Galilean peasant at that! Jesus showed anyone who cared to see that the religious leaders’ claims about their own deservingness and the deservingness of others were faulty; that their rendition of God was warped.
In healing a man born blind – in using spit and dirt to do it – Jesus turned the whole corrupt socio-economic and religious system on its head.
The man born blind knew it too. When the very people who, through their self-serving actions and beliefs had rendered his life worthless, interrogated him, he used their own prejudice against them. “You’re always saying God doesn’t listen to sinners,” he told them, “so by your own logic, Jesus can’t be a sinner – he has to be from God!”
Little wonder they threw him out!
The question to ask this week may well be: What? Are we blind too?
Certainly, the modern church generally has more in common with the outraged Pharisees than the blind man who received his sight. We can be relentless about the deservingness of those we assume to be “in sin”, adding all sorts of terms and conditions to salvation that don’t exist outside our own “addendums”.
We pretend these addendums are about the other person: a way to “love the sinner but hate the sin”. Ironically the religious leaders of Jesus’ day probably thought that of their own actions too.
But invariably our behaviour is about us and our privilege. We feel threatened when people whose “sins” we don’t personally approve of try to enter our sanctuaries and claim the same love, grace and mercy that we receive because it inevitably reminds us that we too are sinners, that nothing separates our sin from other sins and that we don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to sin.
So perhaps this is a good week to be reminded that we were once blind, but saw; and though we’ve become blind again, we will be healed again too.
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
31 Meanwhile, his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.
42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
It’s ironic that this encounter – transgressive from the get-go – is generally interpreted in a cliched way. As David Lose points out (and please, if you haven’t already, read his article), absolutely nothing in Lent 3A’s reading suggests that this is a loose woman we’re dealing with other than years of casually misogynistic assumptions from (mostly) male preachers and theologians.
But here’s the thing: if we want to encounter Jesus, we must transgress assumption.
The Merriam-Webster defines “transgress” as “to violate a command or law ” and “to go beyond a boundary or limit”. When Jesus initiated a conversation with the Samaritan woman he violated several boundaries: between the Samaritans and the Jews, the Jew and Gentile in general, between unwed women and men, between genders generally, between the sacred and the profane, life and death, the haves and the have-nots, and finally, between insider and outsider.
And we harp on about her five husbands, but I digress!
This isn’t transgression for its own sake. These binaries are the lines along which the abuse of power typically falls. Think colonialism, gendered violence, the material divide, patriarchy, empire-centred religion, racism, xenophobia. In striking up a conversation with an unnamed Samaritan woman, Jesus laid to waste “power over” attitudes and practices. He stepped into the very messy centre of these practices in action and neutralised them.
In Lose’s article, he talks about the fact that the Samaritan woman might very well have been living with a male relative because her widowhood left her in destitution; a common enough occurrence at the time. She was someone attached to the household but not in any privileged capacity. This would have left her entirely at the mercy of her benefactor. Certainly, hers wasn’t an enviable position.
In more mainline interpretations, the hour (noon) of her visit to the well is taken as evidence that the other women from Sychar shunned her for her promiscious ways – the habit being to gather water at dawn when it was coolest, and to prepare for the day’s work. But who’s the say that this was the first time that day that she’d visited the well? It’s just as easy to imagine her being tasked with the further collection of water over, say, the “lady of the house”: the higher-ups in the social structure where she was an outcast. Or perhaps, considering her position (a scornful one by societal standards) she avoided the well out of shame. Either interpretation is viable.
It’s into this situation that Jesus speaks when he engages her in conversation.
Read this way, it’s not difficult to see that Jesus is reaching out in a spirit of deep compassion and not correction, as commonly assumed. He speaks life – living water, a blessing in those days – into this woman’s life, acknowledging her pain and present circumstances and promising her the existence and availability of God’s love, care, and justice. It’s not strange then that in John’s gospel the Samaritan woman is the first to hear that Jesus is the promised Messiah. And fittingly, she of low estate proclaims Jesus as Christ to others.
In the same way that Jesus transgressed the oppressive boundaries of the Samaritan woman’s life, he transgresses the oppressive boundaries of sin and death in our lives. But it doesn’t stop there: he expects us to transgress oppressive boundaries, to help make ways for the living water to flow, so to speak. It would be a shame if we – who have benefitted from Jesus’ transgressiveness – abided by the status quo of the injust boundaries in proliferation all around us.