Today in the Spirit: Easter Day B

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“Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” At no time is the thrill of shouting out this acclamation greater than on Easter Day. “Enter then, all of you, into the joy of your Master. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not, rejoice today” (from a sermon attributed to John Chrysostom). In Year B, the appointed Gospel reading is from Mark 16:1-8, the briefest account that leaves us only to ponder the actions of the three women at the tomb and their response to the angel who meets them with the news: He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him (7). 

The assigned OT reading from Isaiah 25:6-9, which, though part of a larger praise passage declaring the defeat of the enemies of Israel, focuses our attention on what has happened on the mountain, on Mount Zion, where the temple will be rebuilt and where God’s Messiah is raised to new life. The only time we ever repeat words in a psalm from one Sunday to the next is on Easter Day with the appointed Psalm 118:14-17,22-24. On both Palm Sunday and Easter Day, we cry out, This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it (24 BCP Coverdale), but how much more it means the second time.

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To celebrate Easter Day every year, the church assigns Colossians 3:1-4, one of the passages in Paul’s letters expressing his fully developed thinking on the believer’s entrance into the life and death of Jesus Christ (see also Rom. 6:1-7, Eph. 2:6-10). Immediately as we contemplate the resurrection of Christ, the church would have us consider also our own spiritual resurrection coming as a result: If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (1). 

The church would have us open the Book of Acts throughout the Easter season. The first in a series assigned all three years on Easter Day is Acts 10:34-43. We had meditated on the early part of this reading referring to our Lord’s baptism on Epiphany 1, but now we hear more of Peter’s testimony of how God raised him on the third day and made him to appear (40). In both options for a Collect on Easter Day, we pray into both the cosmic and earthly consequences of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and then, as always, plead for divine grace to be transformed personally and corporately into the people of God. 

The Collects

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may, by your life-giving Spirit, be delivered from sin and raised from death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

O God, who for our redemption gave your only begotten Son to die upon the Cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the devil and the power of death: Grant us grace to die daily to sin, that we may live with him in the joy of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen

On That Day (Isaiah 25:6-9)

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
7 And he will swallow up on this mountain
     the covering that is cast over all peoples,
     the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever;
    and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
    “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
    This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” 

Our passage is a section of what appears to be a longer song of praise taking up all of Isaiah 25 and sung in response to an announcement of a great event of earthly and cosmic judgment immediately before: On that day, the Lord will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth (see Is. 24:21-23). The often repeated phrase on that day in this section would have likely been a complete mystery to the prophet’s audience. Even for Christians, it is still somewhat mysterious. Is the great event of that day something that has happened (Jesus’ first coming), or will happen (his second coming), or both? 

On Easter Day, however, we followers of Christ put all questions aside and declare that Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the day when the opposing powers in heaven and on earth were utterly defeated, death was swallowed up forever, and we were saved. Hallelujah!

In our personal and corporate devotion, it is of the utmost importance that we put all doubts aside about the victory accomplished on the day the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was found empty. Let not your questions about how Christianity really works or your doubts arising from temporary setbacks in your personal life cloud your judgment on the triumph won on that day. Here are some verses by Gregory of Nanzianzus calling attention to the difference Resurrection  day makes:

Yesterday I was crucified with Christ;
   today I am glorified with him.
Yesterday I was dead with Christ;
   today I am sharing in his resurrection.
Yesterday I was buried with him;
   today I am waking with him from the sleep of death.

Today, Holy Spirit, fill my heart with your abounding joy and confidence in the new life Jesus won for us on the first Easter Day. Let every day begin for us as an Easter Day. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.     

This Is the LORD’s Doing (Psalm 118:14-17,22-24)

22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord‘s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

These are the three verses assigned in common from this psalm on Palm Sunday and Easter Day. On Easter, recalling how we said these verses a week earlier, we should discern a difference in intensity in how we speak them out from one Sunday to the next. Getting in the spirit of the people of Jerusalem in our Palm Sunday procession, we are celebrating the arrival of a great person into Jerusalem: This is the day that the Lord has made. On Easter, celebrating the resurrection of the Son of God from death, the prior sentiment fades from our memories: No, This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Repeating these words from one week to the next serves to ramp up our perspective as believers. We are permitted to significantly elevate our understanding of who Jesus is and what he is doing, of who God is and what he is doing: This [resurrection] is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes—over anything we have seen.

Today, in the Spirit, use the repetition of this part of Psalm 118 to take me on an upward journey in my spirit of a higher vision of God the Father and his Son Jesus.

Hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4)

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

We can connect the mature teaching of Paul about the incorporation of the believer’s life into Christ’s with that of other of his later letters (see, e.g., Rom. 6:1-7, Eph. 2:6-10). Here, we see how our spiritual death now is described as life being hidden with Christ in God, while our later appearing with him in glory (the opposite of being hidden) happens at his second coming. There is a parallel between Jesus’ incarnate life and ours: our Lord’s identity with the Father was hidden in the world during his incarnate life (even after the resurrection), so too, in our time on earth, our life in Christ is hidden from the world. The gospel seems to be a hard sell in the world under these circumstances.

Devotionally, however, we need to realize that the Father and the Son choose to reach the unsaved with the Good News in this disadvantaged state (being hidden with Christ in God). Even in the case of the incarnate  Jesus, it is not by the sight of blazing glory, like a superman, that the Father makes his witness, but through a new life obscured and becoming revealed. Yes, we have died with Christ, but the sinful nature is still dying in us in our mortal bodies, and it is the testimony of our humbly letting that happen that will lead others to repentance and faith. A beautiful red apple on a tree makes for an impressive sight, but the seeds gradually released to be wasted away produce an abundance of new fruit.

Lord, I look forward to the day I appear in glorious form with you. For now, today, with the help of your Holy Spirit, I pray for the gradual uncovering of what is still hidden within me so that others might be encouraged toward faith in you.   

Truly I Understand (Acts 10:34-43)

34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…

39 “And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (34-35,39-43)

This passage is often mined by commentators and preachers to excavate answers to significant questions of doctrine: like, what is an apostle or a prophet, or what are the essentials of baptism, what are the essence of Christ’s post-resurrection commands? That is all-important, but let’s not lose sight of what is happening in Luke’s narrative in Acts. This story is about a radical “conversion” in Peter’s heart and mind, a change to his very core about his purpose for living and the mission of the church he has been called to lead. Do not miss the emotion of Peter’s personal epiphany here: Truly, I understand (or, I most certainly understand now, NASB) that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. To see the Holy Spirit at work in this Gentile household has rocked his world.

There could be no greater gift at Easter for each of us than having our Lord change our minds radically, as he did Peter’s, concerning the universality of the gospel message—not doctrinally (we can all easily assent to the teaching that the Good News is for the world) but behaviorally, concerning the people where we live. 

Recently, I have watched with interest a Christian friend interacting with young people in our local gym. He engages them in three or four sentences of conversation, then asks, “Would you like to pray with me to trust in Jesus for your life?”—and, to my  astonishment, many say, “Yes.” Hardened inner-city young adults are praying to accept Christ with hardly any convincing. At first, I am ashamed to admit that I thought, “Oh, that will never stick,” only to find weeks later, these kids are talking to my friend and me about the Bible passages they are reading on their own and their struggles to put their faith into practice. Astounding! Now, I ask myself, “How can I get involved?” This is my latest “conversion” story–a conversion, not to Christ, but to Christ’s mission.

Today, Holy Spirit, this Easter, orchestrate for me, as you did for Peter, my own conversion of seeing the breadth of your mission in the world around me, that I might be moved to roll up my sleeves and press into the work. 

For They Were Afraid (Mark 16:1-8)

5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (5-8)

The portrait of pure fear in the faces of the women is unique to Mark’s telling of the resurrection narrative. In Matthew, Luke, and John, we find the women moving and breathing as they transition from fear to joy, but here, they remain still and breathless in terror. In the other Gospels, the women run to the disciples; in Mark, they just flee the scene: And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (8). (Note: The word astonishment (Gk. ekstasis), though the origin of the English word “ecstasy,” carries no sense of a positive reaction in the NT). Whether it is for fear of the Jewish authorities, of the angel, or both, there is no report in Mark (at least in the original manuscript) of any inclination on the women’s part to do as the angel commands. Afraid is the final word of the text. 

I wonder, devotionally, if there is a connection to be made between the quiet, direct movement of Mark’s crucifixion narrative (recalling my commentary on the Gospel passage last week) and his abrupt, fear-filled account of the empty tomb—hard sorrow followed by hard fear. God has died. God is alive. There is so little in Mark’s narrative to distract our attention from facing those two facts alone. At the risk of overstating, I will say that Mark’s writing especially demands that we look inside ourselves and come to grips with the challenge to any human worldview concerning life and death. The resurrection of Jesus demands we make a fearful transition.

Today, Holy Spirit, following the women in Mark from the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus, grant me understanding in their passing from deep sorrow to whole terror, that it might add to my faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God. 

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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