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“There is nothing less than Hell unknown to Jesus: Easter Sunday

April 21, 2019:
Isaiah 65:17-25
Acts of the Apostles 10:34-43
Luke 24:1-12

God of new creation,
from the womb of earth
you raised the Lord of life:
may we receive the word of the women
who were the first to receive the Good News
that Christ had broken the chains of death;
May we live with this new day’s joy,
so that love may never die;
though Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life. Amen.
Prayers for an Inclusive Church (2009) alt.

This Easter morning is a relief, a change, a breath of fresh (and drizzly) spring air compared to the Lenten season that preceded it, and especially the last week, where here we heard these long excerpts from the Gospels of Luke last week, and John on Good Friday. These accounts of the Passion read like Kafka-esque fever dreams of Jesus, the Suffering Servant, being pushed through a bureaucratic nightmare, we might call it a death machine.

Bounced like a ping pong ball from hearing to hearing, and trial to trial, paraded in front of crowds, verbally and physically abused, his clothes taken, mock robes thrown over him, stripped again, nailed to a cross, vinegary wine shakily held up to him by way of a stick… And eventually he breathes his last, and the fever dream ends.

And through this ordeal it’s easy to cling to the betrayals: the disciples falling asleep while Jesus agonizes in the garden; Judas who leads the mob to them; Peter follows, though at a distance, and eventually can’t summon the courage to admit his loyalty.

But there are glimmers of goodness along this rough road. In John’s account the other day we heard of a group standing at the foot of the cross: a group of women, among them Jesus’s mother, and beside her, the Beloved Disciple. And last Sunday, Luke’s Passion account reminds us that not everyone deserted Jesus: “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

And it’s from there that this morning’s story picks up. The faithful few are given names, at least some of them: “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women.” This group the gospel-writer holds up as the first to learn of the resurrection, and tasked with cluing in the apostles that all was not lost.

But this group of women who’d been part of Jesus’s travelling ministry, we heard how they went to the tomb, not expecting to find a risen Jesus, or an angel or two; but to anoint a dead body. “on the first day of the week [Sunday], at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” As they realize what’s happened, they’re “perplexed” and “terrified.” And the angels remind them: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words…”

But maybe that shouldn’t surprise us. And maybe it’s something so true that we can relate. That it’s one thing to be told something, to know something intellectually; but it’s something else entirely to know something in a way that you believe it in your gut. Not to file it up in the recesses of your head so that you can retrieve it in the event of it ever coming up on Jeopardy… but to hold to something that then becomes a part of you, and colours the way you see things, and shapes the way you make decisions. So that when we say “if it be possible, take this cup from me,” we find ourselves able to follow with “but not my will, but yours be done.”

Our celebration of Easter, and the faith that we proclaim when we say the Creed, I think that we’re not just talking about that head information, the bits stored away for game shows. But instead, as our motivation, our ultimate, heartfelt hope in a God that like an artist creates, and isn’t done creating; isn’t done with the world, and isn’t done with us. A God not done with us, and calls us — all of us, and all of us (the whole of us, our selves, our souls and bodies, not just our heads) — calls us to be part of this new thing that God’s doing, this new project that the women at the tomb are the first to get a glimpse of. This is a project: a tapestry, or quilt, or canvas that began in that tomb, but that continues into our own day, showing up in unexpected places.

There was one person, working in street ministry in New York City in the ‘60s, who saw West Side Story, and recognized Easter faith in that. The story of rival gangs competing for territory was exactly what he was dealing with every day; just that the movie, I guess had better dancing and less swearing. It resonated so much that it brought to mind an actual occurrence between two gangs where, in a fight over who got to use the community pool, a youth was killed. Whether accidental or intentional, I’m not sure.

But this youth was the sibling of the so-called ‘war counsellor’ for one of the gangs. The war counsellor, apparently was the governor, the strategist, the policy-maker. The brains. And confronted by this brutal death, the war counsellor sought out their counterpart in the rival gang. Without weapons, or advice, or preparation, they met, and gathered the leaders of the other neighbourhood gangs. And they faced the reality of the death that had taken place, and what it meant for those who were still living. And out of this council that developed, the epidemic of violence that had plagued that part of the city that year came to an end. One died, and many were reconciled.

“The Word of God — the same Word uttered and observed in the sanctuary — is hidden in the ordinary life of these boys in gang society and in the violence of the streets which is part of their everyday existence,” it would be written.* God’s project of reconciliation, and “the wolf and the lamb [feeding] together” wasn’t stuck in first century Jerusalem, but present there in 20th century Harlem. God there in the ordinary existence of street kids in New York City. Maybe not in as terrifying a way as the empty tomb on the first Easter morning, but in a small, mustard seed kind of way. Just as Jesus described the Reign of God, taking root and growing and blooming in the world around us. The resurrection of Jesus is part of that Reign, or Kingdom of God, that Jesus spent so much time talking about. The first bloom from the plant growing out of that tiny seed.

And these moments where we get glimpses of God’s project of new life, of resurrection and reconciliation, they’re there for all of us. At the empty tomb, in West Side Story, and in the gathering of gang leaders to work out a better way forward. Whether rich, or poor, or spiritual or scientific… For the teacher, the social worker, the one living with addiction, the doctor, the office worker, the Walmart greeter. Our faith in Jesus who endures Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday — our faith in the One who was crucified, died, and was buried, descended to the dead, but rose again — it tells us (and not just in our heads, but down in our guts) it tells us that “there is nothing less than Hell unknown to Jesus.”** Which is to say that the God who brought life out of death in Jesus is able to bring new life to us (in whatever way, in God’s wisdom, it’s deemed we need it most), provided our lives fall somewhere, anywhere on that spectrum between those perfect, sublime mountaintop moments where everything clicks (like that time on the mountaintop where Jesus is transfigured in front of his friends), that on one hand, and at the other end of the spectrum, being betrayed, abandoned, crucified, killed, and descending to hell. If your life falls anywhere between those two poles, Jesus understands — first hand — and can work with that.

The resurrection, then isn’t some quaint doctrine; not a comfort for the gullible. But the turning point in a story that begins with a God who creates. And raises up prophets to remind people that when things look lost, God will bring about something new. And Mary, mother of Jesus is part of this story, following in the ways of the prophets, when she sings: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [filling] the hungry with good things…” And Mary’s son begins his ministry, seemingly having learned from his mother:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
and has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
Sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

The resurrection of Jesus is the turning point in this ongoing story that’s still playing out. The witnesses to this turning point, according to Luke, are Mary of Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other unnamed women with them. They became part of that story, and brought the apostles back into it. “But these words seemed to them an idle tale,” we heard, “and they did not believe them.”

But Peter, as much as he had struggled in the days leading up to that point, as much as he did not believe them,” it seems he felt something in his gut. “Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

Maybe like Peter we can move beyond the idea that Easter is about something for our heads to think, or not think. And instead, ask if we’re willing to be part of God’s new creation. Ask if we can imagine ourselves as part of this ongoing story. And find in this story a purpose and a hope to live by.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* William Stringfellow, A Private and Public Faith (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1962, 1999), 61.

** Ibid., 63.