It is Easter Sunday, a magnificent day celebrating resurrection, new life, and new beginning.
Speaker: Rev. Melanie Eyre
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Welcome on this beautiful day, a celebration of resurrection, new life, and new beginning. It is Easter Sunday, and is also the second day of Passover, which started on April 15 and continues through April 23. Both these holy festivals give us assurances of renewal, delivery from exile and death, transformation and hope. We are also in the midst of Ramadan, a holy period for Muslims worldwide. It is wonderful that the three Abrahamic faith traditions all observe this time as holy – what good energy must flow from that.
Perhaps as you did, I grew up learning that Jesus was very different from me and from all of us. I learned that he was born divine, lived a perfect life, was sacrificed on the cross for my sins, and was raised up to eternal life, guaranteeing me eternal life if I believed in him. The Jesus I learned about was the exception to the all-too-human experience that is, well, the rest of us.
Other than believe, I wasn’t sure what all there was for me to do. Jesus had done all the heavy lifting. In the traditional Easter hymn Christ the Lord is Risen today, what did Charles Wesley write? Love’s redeeming work is done. Fought the fight, the battle won.
Good news! The battle is won, and I didn’t have to do much. Actually, I didn’t have to do anything but believe.
However, I could look around and see there was a great deal left to do. We do that today; when we see the news it surely doesn’t appear that the battle has been won. This past year has shown us so starkly all the work that is left to do, to mend and heal a world so divided and in which so many suffer.
Back then, the same was true. Nothing looked like we could sit back and congratulate ourselves on a world we had put into such wonderful order. So I came to doubt the Easter story I learned. I wondered at an all-powerful God who would require the sacrifice of his son as a perfect offering . . . to himself. I didn’t understand a theology that elevated this death as a sacred atonement for sins somehow assigned to me, and to each of us. These teachings did not align with what I felt in my heart to be true – a God of love, and a creation that is good, including me.
So I put aside those Easter stories as relics of childhood.
However, I continued to read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Not as history, but as story, poetry, metaphor. I could feel the passion and wonder of so many writers as they tried to articulate the stories of God’s involvement in the developing life of the Jewish people. I read in the Christian scriptures stories of the life, teachings, works, and death of the mystic healer and revolutionary who was Jesus. I didn’t need to accept a literal understanding of these stories to be inspired by them. For me, the reverse was true – once I released the bonds of historicity, of literalism, there was no limit to where the scripture and the stories could take me.
When I learned to do that, the richness that is these scriptures opened up. They showed me how much the story of Jesus, including his death and resurrection, is so much more than a story of afterlife salvation. Instead, it is the story of a new, living covenant – an invitation to new relationship right now with God and with each other, which I increasingly suspect is the same thing. Indeed, Jesus is teaching us that this new covenant with God comes alive when we enter into a new covenant with each other. That, for me, is the invitation of Easter. We don’t have to wait for the kingdom of God. Actually, if we think we do, we risk walking right past it in the midst of our ordinary days.
To show you what I mean, let’s take a walk through holy week as Jesus might have lived it. For this research, in addition to reading the scriptures themselves, I relied on the work entitled The Last Week by Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crosson and the work Resurrection by Bishop John Shelby Spong.
So let’s go back. For centuries, since about 900 BCE, the temple was the center of Jewish worship and communal life. It was there, and nowhere else, that one went to be in the presence of God.
Jerusalem fell to Rome in 63 BCE, but the centrality of the Temple didn’t change. Because their empire was so far flung, Rome had a practice of ruling through local officials, making sure that tribute was paid but otherwise not exercising a particularly heavy hand unless necessary. In Jerusalem at the turn of the millenium, the local officials were the temple authorities, or as Mark called them, the “chief priests, the elders and the scribes.” These were prominent Jewish families who had come to power through their connection to Herod before his death shortly after Jesus’ birth. Religious practice and imperial authority were exercised through these officials.
The Jewish homeland in the years before Jesus and at his time was a place of increasing wealth for some and growing poverty for many others. Many peasants were forced off their lands through the operation of heavy taxes and temple duties. It was a time of political oppression and economic exploitation, all justified through collaboration of the temple authorities.
So this is the Jerusalem to which Jesus traveled for Passover week. It was a loaded week, a dangerous week. During that week, the Jewish people were going to gather by the thousands and celebrate their release from captivity in Egypt. According to scholars, at the time of Jesus Jerusalem had a population of about 20,000 to 30,000 people. But at Passover, the city’s population grew by perhaps another 150,000. Imperial authority would be on high alert.
So who was this Jesus who rode into Jerusalem? A mystic deeply connected to God, a healer, a teacher. One who had been traveling the countryside proclaiming that the kingdom of God was here, now – a kingdom of peace, justice, healing and compassion.
He used the word kingdom advisedly. It was a loaded word: Rome had the only kingdom that was allowed, and yet here was this peasant teaching about another, competing kingdom, right here and now. He was in your face, teaching a radical new way of living now. He spoke of a kingdom of peace, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness, as opposed to one of power, oppression, and want. A kingdom where the marginalized came first, not the wealthy and powerful.
Jesus lived and walked this new covenant, this new way of living the truth of God.
Now, how do we know that this was Jesus’ purpose? We look at what he did and what he said.
What was Jesus’ first act of the week? On Palm Sunday, he deliberately entered Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. In Mark 11 he told his followers, go ahead and find a colt tied up, and bring it back. This was what Borg and Crosson call a planned demonstration, using symbolism he was well aware of from the book of Zechariah in the Hebrew scriptures.
According to the prophet Zechariah in Chapter 9, a king would come to Jerusalem “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Why does this matter? Zechariah goes on to say:
“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.”
Jesus started off with a bold, unmistakable statement: “I am here to pronounce a kingdom of God’s peace and justice.” He taught and showed that God is found not in ritual temple sacrifice, but in those moments when we reach out and lift each other up. This is dangerous stuff. It is the power of an idea, a vision.
Jesus’ teachings threw the power structure into a panic. As chief priest Caiaphas said in Mark 11:
“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
Never underestimate the power of a vision.
The week continued to build toward the inevitable confrontation. Everything Jesus did and said continued to bring his message that the kingdom of God was one of inclusion, peace, dignity and compassion, for all.
On Monday Mark gave us what is traditionally called the cleansing of the temple. Make note of the fact that the “cleansing” didn’t happen the first time Jesus visited the temple that week. Mark 11 tells us that when he entered Jerusalem he went to the temple but it was “late” so he left.
He came back the next day, earlier in the day when it was busier and business was in progress. More of a crowd.
Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, drove out buyers and sellers, put a stop to the buying and selling of sacrificial doves. As he did this, he said,
“Is it not written my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
Jesus wasn’t cleansing the temple – he was shutting down this place of injustice, of collaboration with imperial authority that oppressed and impoverished the people. Focus on the term “den”: a den is not where the robbing occurs, but where robbers come back to hide when they’re done. The temple itself and the system it represented needed to be shut down, to be replaced by a system of shared resources, justice and mercy.
Mark’s gospel is not about Jesus’ travels to Jerusalem for the purpose of death and sacrifice. It’s about the love of God coming alive as we have the courage to love each other – not just with words, but with our actions. Jesus gave, and lived, a radical new paradigm of love and justice.
Look at how Jesus lived. Many of his followers were women – revolutionary for that time. The gospel writers gave them a prominence that generations of later teachings obscured – such a loss for so many who grew up believing the image of God didn’t include women.
The sharing of meals: he ate with the outcast, with sinners, with society’s marginalized and despised. He took food, necessary to life, and shared it with all. No boundaries, no one excluded, in a society with so many exclusions, so many rules.
Borg and Crosson say an analogy for our time would have been a religious leader in the American South in the 50’s or early 60’s holding public integrated meals, and declaring, “this is the kingdom of God – and the divided world you see around you is not.” Let’s fast forward to today and ask ourselves – what would that meal look like now? Who do we fail to invite to the table?
His very being made Jesus a threat. People could tell that Spirit filled him, motivated and sustained him. This spirit fueled his revolutionary message of compassion, forgiveness, and justice.
To make it worse, his crowds were growing. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the authorities to ignore him. The temple collaborators had a very delicate task – they had to exert enough authority to keep Rome calm, and at the same time manage not to upset the Jewish population. Jesus was disrupting that balance, and he had to be stopped.
So we come to Friday. Jesus was taken and crucified in an ignominious, shameful, criminal’s death. The message could not be clearer – the Torah labeled as accursed anyone who died hung to a tree. The power structure had won.
Or did it? We move to the question of the resurrection, the central event in the Christian tradition, the event millions celebrate today with stories of an empty tomb, a rock rolled away.
What happened? The resurrection.
Without the resurrection, Jesus would have been just another exemplary teacher and healer, perhaps fading into the mists of time.
Yet, we are transfixed by this event. Is it history? Is it metaphor? Was Jesus’ physical body literally resurrected? And does it matter?
Bishop Spong has spent many years trying to deliver the Bible from the literalism which he sees as the reason so many modern readers turn away from it. He has explored what he calls the “Easter Moment” extensively, and I’d like to explore how his understanding of that moment clarifies, for him, the central message of Jesus’ ministry that we’ve been talking about.
As a student of the Bible, Bishop Spong notes that the story of the physically risen Jesus was increasingly embellished as the gospels were written. The first New Testament writer was Paul, who wrote between 20 and 34 years after the crucifixion, and his writings contain no resurrection of a physical body from the dead. On the way to Damascus, he saw a flash of light, he heard a voice, and he believed Jesus appeared to him even though he documented no physical body.
As the Gospels proceed from the first written, that of Mark, through to John, the physicality of Jesus’s resurrection becomes more pronounced. In the Gospel of John he appears by the Sea of Galilee, he handles bread and fish, Thomas touches his hands and his side. The conclusion of many scholars is that this physical resurrection was a later addition to the story.
Bishop Spong’s greater point is that you don’t need to be a believer in a physical resurrection in order to grasp the profound truth that something transformational happened. Something happened that transformed a group of broken and defeated men into the absolutely fearless and committed advocates for a message which 2000 years later still inspires and sustains millions. Something had to have happened. He calls this transformational event the Easter moment – that moment of epiphany and clarity.
Here’s how he sees it.
After the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples are destroyed and demoralized. Imagine the scene – according to Mark, all the disciples “deserted him and fled.” They thought they had found the messiah; instead, they were left with a criminal hanging on a cross.
As far as the disciples knew, since being associated with that dangerous criminal Jesus, they were hunted criminals. They were in hiding, waiting for a knock on the door. So, remnants of the group gathered to talk about Jesus’s death, to figure out where they were going next, to try to determine what it all meant.
They remembered Jesus’s instructions at the final meal on Thursday night to break bread, to drink wine, and to do this in remembrance of him. By so instructing them, Jesus had, in Spong’s words, given them a clue that would “unlock both the meaning and the power of his life.” So that they would not miss the point, he told them to repeat that ritual, to see his life and his message under the symbols of broken bread and poured out wine.
Spong envisions that Peter led the ceremony. As he began to break the bread, he stopped, he was transfixed. The light broke and he understood, and in that moment his worldview changed.
He understood, he got what Jesus’s message was. It was that he was going to live out the meaning of the love of God in the face of every human distortion of that love. Jesus absorbed abuse and returned love, absorbed hate and returned forgiveness, absorbed misunderstanding and returned acceptance. He was betrayed, and he loved the betrayer. He was denied, and he loved the denier. He was abused, and he responded with love. To the soldiers he spoke words of forgiveness, to the thief words of assurance, to his mother words of caring.
Words are an insufficient medium to convey the power and transcendence of such a moment, such an understanding.
And because words were insufficient, the Gospel writers tried to give us imagery that described the magnitude of the moment:
There was darkness over the whole land.
The veil in the Temple was split from top to bottom.
There was an earthquake.
These are not literal, historical events. They are efforts to convey, in limited human language, an event, a truth, transcendent beyond words.
Peter understood that with his life and with his death, Jesus showed that death cannot win, that love will always overcome, even if it first appears otherwise. When we live the love of God with each other, when we pour ourselves out for each other, putting self aside, we are lifted up into the truth of that Easter moment.
The Easter story tells us that our call into covenant with God means that we are called into covenant with each other, to create the beloved community only our work can build. That is the radical message of this peasant mystic, this itinerant healer so extraordinarily connected to spirit. He knew that the love of God comes alive right now as we love each other.
But, you say, what do you mean that death cannot win? Don’t we still die? The truth is that yes, we die – our bodies are fragile and prone to age and breakage. Jesus’ message of love and resurrection was not a roadmap out of physical death. It was telling us how we live in our full humanity, and our full divinity, right now.
Jesus said I have come that you can have life and life abundantly. He meant life now. When we can live lives of love and compassion we experience the kingdom now, we open our hearts to life right now. I believe that is why he said, in the Gospel of Thomas, the kingdom of heaven is within you and around you. It’s right here, in the face right next to you.
I think Jesus was telling us how to step into life now, how to touch that depth of joy in ourselves right now. We can touch it, we can have it, we can walk into it when we let ourselves love each other, and love our neighbor, even if we will never meet that person and they live 6000 miles away. For me, his message is not about death to come. It’s about living fully right here.
This story tells us that nothing in our world, or in ourselves, limits the energy of love to heal and make whole, right here, in our world right now, and we are the agents of that. The Easter moment teaches us that we are heirs to abundance, power, and transcendence. As Jesus taught, we can use these gifts to heal, to teach, to make our world a place that truly reflects the love that created it.
About Rev. Melanie
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
This talk aired on April 17, 2022