“The Easter Revolution” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on April 1st, 2018. (Readings for Easter: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-8)
The Lord is Risen! The Lord is risen Indeed. Alleluia!!
That simple greeting points towards the same mystery that Mark’s empty tomb points towards. It’s a mystery about a spiritual revolution that happened 2,000 years ago after Jesus of Nazareth, challenged the powers of death in his society and bore the full brunt of the humiliating death that they had designed for those who challenged the public order. But then, something completely unexpected happened. Where people had been taught to have contempt for those in whom they saw their own weakness, their own helplessness, which is why public lynchings were such an effective tool used to discourage those who did or might consider reforming society, people responded in an opposite way. Yes—they saw in Jesus one like them, one of the despised, one of the lowly, one of the humiliated, but they also saw God, a God who was one of the lowly, a God willing to be despised, a God willing to be humiliated, and somehow this tore down the walls that were keeping them from experiencing God’s love for them and knowing their inherent dignity and worth.
The concrete evidence of the resurrection is not the empty tomb, nor stories of angels or resurrected bodies that can pass through walls, rather it is the historical evidence of the transformation of Jesus’ disciples who, according to Mark’s account of them, may have been lovable but were also pretty thick headed, hard hearted, and unimaginative. People who Jesus complained had eyes but could not see, ears but could not hear, mouths but could not speak, hearts but could not love. That same group of people, following his death and resurrection, end up being like Jesus of Nazareth in terms of possessing his same vision and insight, his courage and passionate love for people and this world, and his incredible imagination. Where once the empire only had to contend with one Jesus of Nazareth—now it has to contend with ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand—going into every culture and nation of the world to take on the powers of death, the powers that hold people captive, the powers that delude some people into thinking they and their lives are of no worth, the powers that delude other people into thinking their lives are more worth than the lives of others, tearing down the gates of hell, bit by bit, slowly over time, even at a great personal cost. Christianity is the only world religion I know of whose founder was executed by the state, but it’s not just Jesus who was executed, but so many of those early disciples which tells you something about the kind of world changing work they were engaged in. I believe in one of the only Roman reports we have about Jesus of Nazareth, it is reported that he is stirring up trouble among the slaves in Rome. This was written decades after Jesus’ death, but the author apparently believes he is alive.
The great mystery of Easter is where, why, when, and how did this transformation of the disciples happen? It is a question we really need to understand for we are at a time in world history when, just when we are needing bold, courageous, imaginative, caring, moral leadership, we see common people, despairing of the possibility of democracy and self-rule, standing back as strong-men and the forces of corruption and brute force are moving in to thwart the hope of justice, peace, and equality and are stealing whatever wealth they can through governmental institutions. It seems evident to me that either humanity is going to experience some kind of new moral, spiritual, imaginative revival—or we are going to head much further into an incredible dark night of suffering that seems to have already begun.
So today, I want to make several points about what we can learn from this spiritual revolution we call Easter.
First, I’d like to emphasize how much imagination and creativity are essential to this revolution. At the heart of the life of the Holy Spirit is the kind of creativity and imagination that we see in Jesus and that we see bloom and blossom in the community that forms after his death. That community sought to live as a community of the beloved, not only through practicing loving one another through things like holding all things in common, but also in reaching out in love to those not in their community through feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and adopting orphaned babies and children and refusing to serve in the military. Let’s also note how unafraid and bold and creative early Christians were in using the stories and traditions of various cultures to try to communicate this mysterious revolution, whether it was by telling the Jesus story in terms of the cult of the Emperor Augustus, or relating Jesus birth to the birth of the sun, or seeing Jesus as an incarnation of the Goddess Sophia, or in naming his resurrection day for the Goddess Easter. It goes on and on. That willingness to go into every culture and make those kinds of connections says so much about the kind of world-overcoming faith they had and how it is so connected to creativity and imagination.
It is the same kind of imaginative creativity that we see in the spiritual revolution that happened around 1200 BC, over 3,000 years ago, when a group of former Egyptian slaves began to create a new society in the land that would become known as Israel.
That small band of people, who understood freedom to be an essential value, had the courage to imagine a society in which people refused to worship domination in any form: political, economic, or religious. Up until then, nations had been organized around military-temple states united to expand their power and wealth through the domination and exploitation of others and with religious systems that defined who was in and who was out, who was up and who was down. In contrast, this confederation, which came to be known as the Kingdom of God because it had no king but God, was to have no king, no religious hierarchy, no standing army and if they had to go to war, they were not allowed to profit from it in any way. Instead their life was to be organized around the principals of self-government, which are embodied in the covenant we call the ten commandments, and mutual aid.
That society only lasted two hundred years before a new generation looked enviously on the surrounding nations and decided they wanted to be like them and have a king. That society would go on to become a great empire, just like Egypt, before it was destroyed. But the legacy, challenge, and impact of those two hundred years of the Kingdom of God can be seen all the way through the prophets who kept that vision alive in the rural areas of Israel, through Jesus who took up and expanded this vision of the Kingdom of God, through to those movements and nations who two thousand years later would began to develop and expand the vision of democracy, through to the present where we may no longer worship kings and power over others and yet we hold onto various aspects of the paradigm of domination, even as its consequences are so evident in in terms of the impoverishment of the majority of people in our world and the ecological devastation it is causing to our planet. If the peoples of our world are going to be able to transcend the tradition, scripts and ideologies we’ve inherited that are causing such great harm—we need the kind of moral-spiritual revolution that will help people claim the authority they have simply by virtue of being human, and empower them to bring an end to what is death dealing and promote what is life giving—for the sake of all. This week is the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s murder and I hope to be exploring more about Dr. King in the coming weeks, but let me say not that King was assassinated precisely for trying to organize this kind of moral and spiritual revolution.
Secondly, it is striking that in the gospel story and from what we know from history, this kind of spiritual revolution is not dependent on numbers. It begins as a seed. It begins with one person willing to see in themselves the evil their world is contending with and to finding the antidote to that poison. It spreads to a small group of people. Slowly over time it keeps growing. Jesus says, “If you but had faith you could say to this mountain “Be taken up and cast into the sea” and it will be done.” In the context within which Jesus was speaking he was not talking about moving a physical mountain, he was talking about something much bigger—he was talking about the mountain of the military-temple state located on temple mount, he was talking about the Roman empire. He was talking about the kind of faith that, though it begins with a small group of people, can create a new kind of humanity and transform the whole world.
Third, the ability to experience this kind of spiritual power, vision, and creativity seems directly related to overthrowing the shame which keeps us living isolated, cut off from ourselves, cut off from God, cut off from one another. Shame internalized becomes self-contempt and self-contempt has everything to do with our silence in the face of injustice, our ability to speak with authority, our unwillingness to trust our creative imaginations. Part of the mystery of Easter is that the shame and contempt that the cross was meant to inflict, became for Jesus and his followers a way of overthrowing the dominion of shame, the disgrace that cast over all the peoples of the world, so that, in Isaiah’s words, people can enjoy the feast of life and the night of sadness and loneliness can come to an end.
Easter proclaims that we are no longer alone. The waters of forgiveness and loving kindness have freed us from shame and self-contempt. No longer having to hide from ourselves, or from one another, the result is an outpouring of a world overcoming love, a love that wells up within us flowing down like a mighty river. Sustained and sustaining others through this love, the past no longer controls our futures, we have the power to determine where and how we want to act to love and care for others, ourselves, and our world.
Lastly, the spiritual revolution of Easter challenges us with a vision of a whole new way of being human. Being human is no longer about looking better or worse than in the eyes of others. For so many religious folks religion is about wanting to consider ourselves better than others so we can view ourselves as among the saved. But rather than basing our identity on judging and separating ourselves from others, Jesus challenges us to understand ourselves within a vision of our shared common humanity, God with us, God with humanity. Jesus is not afraid of the impurity or weaknesses, or illnesses, of others. He embraces them in love. With this kind of love, this being in solidarity with others, even with those who frighten or repulse us, the differences that were so important to us become so much less important and the door is opened for transformation.
I’m struck by Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant in which the prophet becomes so indistinguishable from the people of Israel that in those texts you often cannot tell whether God is speaking to the prophet, or to the people, and in the end it doesn’t really seem to matter as through the prophet God acts to bless the people and transform their weakness into strength, their sadness into joy, their suffering and lostness into forgiveness and wisdom.
We see Jesus does something similar with his vision of “The Human One.” Sometimes when Jesus is talking about the Human One he seems to be talking about himself, other times he is talking about a way of being human that is being held up for all to follow. It’s a vision of a new resurrected humanity. It suggests that the glory of “I AM” is to be found less in the “I” and more in the birth of the “We.” How can we act to address whatever needs to be addressed?
One of the places where you see the full implications of this new vision is in the Maori translation of the Lord’s prayer which is found inThe New Zeeland Book of Common Prayer. Instead of saying “forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, which is commonly understood to mean I should forgive those who have hurt me, this translation says—“In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.” “In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.” It’s not about me versus you. It’s a vision of sin as a collective human problem that must be addressed collectively. This is not to say we don’t each have a role in either the ways we help perpetuate the rule of sin, or in helping to overthrow it, but it is so different than an approach that blames individuals, ourselves or others.
I think we have barely begun to understand what embracing our collective humanity means. For some it could be an excuse not to be differentiated, whereas we can see Jesus was very well differentiated, he knew who he was and who he wasn’t. But “being with” strikes at the heart of the foundations of the Imperial Self that always goes hand in hand with empires and the ideologies they perpetuate. To me it says that the river of understanding, creative, redemptive, good will is not just about something we need to let ourselves experience and show towards others, it is a river that is going to transform the very grounds on which we stand in terms of how we understand ourselves and our selves in relationship to each other and how we live together.
Mark’s gospel begins with the heavens cracked open and Jesus hearing the voice of God proclaim him beloved, “with you I am well pleased.” Mark’s gospel ends with a vision of an empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus calling the disciples back to Galilee. From there this same group of poor, uneducated, disciples, who for so long seemed so dense, will follow Jesus into all the world proclaiming not just a resurrected Jesus, but a resurrected humanity:
*human beings who no longer reject their humanity but embrace it as a divine gift,
*human beings who were forged in fear and shame but who are now reborn through love and grace and freedom,
*human beings not fleeing evil but walking towards it trying to understand how to overcome it,
*human beings who having experienced forgiveness, don’t use it as an excuse to tolerate oppression and injustice, but use it as the grounds to non-violently struggle with oppression and injustice,
* human beings not waiting for the world to change, but who understand that, in Paul’s words, all of creation is groaning for the birth of a new humanity, human beings who know the glory of the children of God because they are no longer enslaved to fear and shame,
*human beings who have so come to know and experience the love of God that they have come to believe that, in Paul’s words “we are more than conquerors” through the One who loves us” and that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39
May this Easter we open our hearts and minds to discover what it might mean for us and for our world if we came to live fully from this place and, overthrowing the rule of shame, claim the authority of the Human One and imagine and create the kind of society which honors all God’s children and God’s creation. For if we are willing God is able, and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen