“Easter Calls Us” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Easter is a message to us – of revelation, rebirth and opportunity. What message is Easter sending us this year?
A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing, including prayers, readings, and songs.
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“Easter Calls Us” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Prayer for Renewal and New Life
With open minds and hearts, may the God-in-us find generous and courageous expression in our words and actions as we endeavor to make the presence of God evident in our world. May we be renewed in this moment so that we may be healers, listeners, comforters. May we as one community find a way forward, and walk it together. Awaken us to our oneness and open our hearts to each other. In this season of renewal and new life, help us to carry this promise to all beings. May we be a blessing to all the families of the world.
An Easter Prayer
We are an Easter people! We believe that faith can move mountains, and that caterpillars can be transformed into butterflies. We trust that with your grace present, even the smallest act of kindness, the shortest practice of goodness, or the slightest gesture of generosity can have significance well beyond all expectations. With that faith, we rise. With that faith, we are resurrected into new life. With that faith, we give – freely and joyfully. And so now we give, out of what we have, to bless those who have not, in order to bear witness to, and to inspire, a spirit of resurrection – in ourselves, and in others. Let us rise and fly on the wings of spirit, bringing blessing, comfort and peace to our world. Amen
– By Bret Meyers, as adapted
“Easter Calls Us” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Welcome on this beautiful day, a celebration of resurrection, new life, and new beginning. It is Easter Sunday, and is also the last day of Passover, which started on March 27 and continues through sundown today. Both these holy festivals give us assurances of renewal, delivery from exile and death, transformation, and hope. After a year of lockdown, dislocation, fear, and too often illness and death, surely such a message is welcome. Exile ends, and new life returns. We have new appreciation for Easter and for Passover this year.
I have found in my life that every season and every holiday brings new insights and new lessons, even though the seasons may be familiar in their cycle. It’s not that the seasons change so much, but that I do. You may have found the same is true for you – as you grow and change, each new holiday, although familiar, arrives bearing new meaning. I’d like to share with you some thoughts I’ve had on the message of Easter this year, a year unlike any we’ve known before it.
The Message of Easter
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, not the example.
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. It didn’t seem to me that the fight was fought, the battle 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.
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, a creation that is good, including me.
So I put aside those Easter stories as relics of childhood, as part of a theology that I could not accept as any foundation of my own developing spirituality.
However, I continued to read the Hebrew bible and the Christian scripture. 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 have a literal understanding to 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.
The Invitation of Easter This Year: New Relationship, New Life
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. Indeed, Jesus is teaching us that this new covenant with God comes alive only when we enter into a new covenant with each other. That, for me, is the invitation of Easter this year. New relationship, new life.
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 had been the center of Jewish worship and communal life. It was there that one went to be in the presence of God.
The Dwelling Place of God On Earth
Not only was the temple the dwelling place of God on earth, but there were particular sins, and particular impurities, that could only be absolved through temple sacrifice. There was no other way to forgiveness, according to temple theology. The temple was critical.
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 millennium, 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. They collected taxes, paid tribute, and kept the peace, all on behalf of Rome.
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.
Who Was This Jesus Who Rode Into Jerusalem?
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 enters Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. In Mark 11 he tells 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.”
A Spirit-Filled Life Centers On Lifting Up Each Other
Jesus starts off with a bold, unmistakable statement that I am here to pronounce a kingdom of God’s peace and justice. He didn’t focus on worshipping God out there, but on lifting up each other. He taught and showed that a spirit-filled life centers on lifting up each other. 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.
In the midst of World War 2, Winston Churchill made his famous Blood, Sweat and Tears speech. In it he celebrated the power of an idea, in that case the idea of freedom. He said:
“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police . . . yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home – all the more powerful because forbidden – terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”
The same was true in first century Palestine. 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, especially when it rings true in the human heart.
The Kingdom of God Was One of Inclusion, Peace, Dignity, And Compassion
The week continues 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 gives 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 more crowded and business was in progress. More of a crowd.
Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers, drives out buyers and sellers, puts a stop to the buying and selling of sacrificial doves. As he does, he says “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.”
A Radical New Paradigm of Love and Justice
Jesus isn’t cleansing the temple – he was shutting it down. Jesus is not saying that the moneychangers are robbers – it was a perfectly legitimate activity. Purchasing sacrificial animals was fine – blood sacrifice was mandated in the Torah. However, the temple itself was a place of injustice, a place 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 when we have the courage to love each other. Mark talks about the road of following Jesus – what it takes, what it means, and the transformation at the end of it. 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. 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 many exclusions, 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 ask ourselves – what would that meal look like today? Who do we fail to invite to the table?
Jesus Was A Healer
What else did Jesus do that made him such a threat to the authorities? He was a healer. More healing stories are told about Jesus than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition.
He also healed ordinary people, not the rich and well born. Jesus healed a leper, an outcast, a paralyzed man, a woman in a crowd who had suffered decades of bleeding. If a person approached Jesus for healing, it was done.
It didn’t matter if it was the Sabbath – he healed even then. He turned the paradigm upside down when he said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
His very being made Jesus a threat. He was, as Borg put it, a man of spirit. He was filled with the energy of the presence of God. 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 must be stopped.
The Resurrection, the Central Event in the Christian Tradition
So we come to Friday. He is taken and crucified – 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. As Bishop John Shelby Spong says:
“The Moment of Easter is the watershed for Christians. The whole structure of the church, its faith, and its belief hangs here. If there is no eternal, unshakable, life giving truths behind the words that purport to describe that Moment of Easter, then Christianity collapses into a pious hope, a false dream, and even a cruel delusion.”
What happened? Without the resurrection, Jesus would have been another exemplary teacher and healer, perhaps fading into the mists of time. We are transfixed by this event – is it history? Is it metaphor? Was Jesus’ physical body literally resurrected? And does it matter?
The “Easter Moment”
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 share his vision of that moment with you.
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.
As the Gospels proceed from the first written, Mark, through to John, the physicality of Jesus’s resurrection becomes more pronounced. 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 absolutely miraculous had to happen.
He places the Easter moment within the context of the disciples’ breaking of bread following the crucifixion. As the 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. And so they did.
Unlock Both the Meaning and the Power of His Life
In his instruction to repeat the ritual, Jesus had given them a clue that would, in Spong’s words, “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.
Imagine these men: many of the group had fled; as far as they knew, they were hunted criminals, being associated with the dangerous criminal Jesus. They were in hiding, waiting for that knock on the door.
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.” He 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 the words of forgiveness, to the thief the words of assurance, to his mother the words of caring.
Words Are Insufficient
Here a dying form suspended from a cross lived out the freedom, the wholeness, the fullness of life that only one in touch with the meaning of God could possibly possess. God in us, God among us when we live out the truth of that love.
Words are an insufficient medium to convey the power and transcendence of such a moment. And because words are insufficient, the Gospel writers gave us imagery that tries to describe 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, a transcendent event beyond words. This event was not a onetime miracle, but an invitation to a way of life that is offered to us at every moment.
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 out ourselves for each other, we are lifted up into the truth of that Easter moment.
The Easter Story Tells Us . . . We Are Called into Covenant with Each Other
This truth carries a message of transformation. Jesus said “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” The message is one of living fully in the knowledge of our God-connection, as we walk into new truths about ourselves, each other, and the bonds that weave us together even when we don’t see them. This Easter message is a game changer, and it is not limited to one day, or one event.
In coming to this understanding, Peter realized his continuing experience of Jesus, who for him was resurrected as a continuing presence, and not as a memory.
The Easter story tells us that our call into covenant with God means that we are called into covenant with each other. It leads us to a new definition of worship – a call to heal, to lift up, to listen, to honor. That is the radical message of this peasant mystic, this itinerant healer so extraordinarily connected to spirit.
So that is Easter’s message for me, brought home more clearly by this year in which so many of our bonds have been tested. It raises us up into new relationship, deeper and more loving connection. How do we touch the holy and step into new life? When we reach out to each other. We don’t have to wait for resurrection – it is right here, right now.
“I Am Free I Am Unlimited” by Janet Bowser-Manning
“Amazing Things” by Jana Stanfield & Meg McDonough
This service originally aired on April 4, 2021.