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.
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.
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
I once had the, let’s say privilege, to drive with two pensioners: one is deaf, and the other never listens. They had a conversation that was not at all hampered by, say, being about the same topic, or being coherent in any way, shape or form.
I always remember the pensioners’ conversation when I read this part in John 3. Nicodemus and Jesus were having two very different conversations. On the one hand, Nicodemus was trying to stick to the protocol: he kicks off their discussion with flattery. But Jesus wasn’t interested in protocol. He was there to talk Kingdom business.
Part of my Lenten practice this year is spending more time in prayer, specifically in intercession. And what I’m discovering as I settle down each day to pray is that I’m still very interested in protocol. Like Nicodemus, I feel I need to dot my i’s and cross my t’s before I’m “allowed” into Jesus’ presence. In “Jesus speak”, this attitude is “flesh giving birth to flesh”. It shows that some part of me, however small, does not know which way the wind blows, so to speak.
People gravitate to the details of being a reborn Christian. Should churches baptise at birth or at conversion? Is a water baptism different from being baptised in the Holy Spirit? And so on. But I wonder if these details aren’t variations of trying to crawl back into the womb; trying to understand, essentially, what defies explanation, logic or reason.
It isn’t logical. God loving the world so much that he came to earth wholly prepared to die for fallen humanity isn’t logical. Love isn’t logical. In this case, it isn’t even really perspicuous. This is indeed why we need that moment of metanoia: our previous understanding no longer applies. When we accept Jesus, the rules change, we change, the world changes.
Lent forces us to confront the reality we’ve been saved to and the one we choose to live in on a day-to-day basis. Do we live lives where the Spirit births spirit? Or do we persist in the flesh, still hopeful that it will somehow give birth to spirit? Our conversation with Jesus needs to move away from protocol, from crossed i’s and dotted t’s, to Kingdom talk and Kingdom business.
24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
I find it telling that Jesus’ personification of wealth as an evil master is retained by using the Aramaic word “Mammon” in the Greek text of Matthew. This part of Jesus’ discourse presents wealth and its attendant worries as a unified issue. Jesus thus draws an interesting parallel between worldly worry (over self-centred, earthly concerns) and idolatry.
Worry does share many characteristics with “pagan” or law-based idolatry: we pay worry nervous attention, we fearfully structure our thoughts and lives around it, we worship it with spillover emotions like anger, frustration and fear, we seek to appease it with constant mental and emotional fidgeting, we become agitated when we cannot indulge it.
This provides an interesting contrast to the Kingdom life Jesus has been expounding from the start of Matthew chapter five: a life marked with peace amid persecution, blessing amid difficulties, care and attention in an indifferent world, personal and communal responsibility as opposed to “the done thing” and skew societal norms.
In presenting these two masters, Jesus is obliquely and gently showing us which one it would be better to be devoted to to the hatred of the other. If serving Mammon with worry, fear and anxiety is so terrible – and it is, for neither worry not idolatry changes anything or threatens the Truth – then surely it’s better to serve your Father and be in service of his kingdom?
That’s the challenge to tackle in our Epiphany 8A sermons, blog posts, devotionals and ruminations: how fundamentally different God’s Kingdom is from the world, and how desperately the world needs God’s Kingdom reality.