The Gospel Reading for Easter Day is John 20.1-18
The reading for this day, obviously, is about the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord speaking to Mary Magdalene and enabling her faith to develop.
I feel compelled by circumstances to focus on one particular verse in this beautiful story. Verse 9 tells us something powerful about the moment the beloved disciple and Peter first look into the empty tomb: “…as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
We are told that the beloved disciple looked and believed, in spite of not understanding. Peter took a while, and Mary Magdalene, about whom we know nothing other than that she had been there at the Cross, had to help him and all the other disciples. Of course, the Holy Spirit did the heavy lifting.
So, there we have a crucial lesson of Easter: God has done something new. Jesus rises, and we must “rise with the occasion.” Because of our Lord’s resurrection, we must, and we can, think and act anew!
I feel compelled to take a close look at the import of this verse in John’s Easter story because of a controversy in our denomination about the Eucharist in the time of the pandemic. With our people staying at home in order to “flatten the curve” of the spread of the coronavirus, we have had to resort to meeting up online—either during live or recorded streaming video. The question is this, “Do we violate our beliefs and doctrines regarding the Eucharist if we are to allow people at home to go so far as to partake of wine and bread as the body and blood of Christ?” Is such a move legitimate?
Jesus once famously answered the complaints from some of his critics that he and his followers were not fasting. “The Baptist is calling people to repentance, and his followers appropriately fast, as our traditions say we should in such a time.” Jesus answered, “…no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins (Mark 2.22 and its parallels).” I’m not sure if this is great practical advice. I’m sure most people could not afford to limit new wine to fresh skins. But it is a very wise metaphor and observation. If we keep applying old answers to new questions, we will surely become impotent.
We must also remember the many ways the prophets of old encouraged believers to move beyond a sad, nostalgic, and impotent longing for the past “good old days” when God really did things. The prophets proclaimed that there would be a new creation, a new exodus, a new covenant. And they pointed the way toward a new commandment and a new Jerusalem—see Isaiah 65 and many other passages.
On December 1, 1862—in the midst of the Civil War—an even greater calamity than pandemic for this nation—Abraham Lincoln gave his annual message to the Congress. Lincoln worked hard on this message. He was moving, in his mind, toward the emancipation of the slaves, something that could not have been conceived of by any President only months before. Aaron Copeland, in his stirring “Lincoln Portrait” wisely excerpted these words from Lincoln’s speech. As Copeland prefaces it, “This is what Abraham Lincoln said,”
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.
God was indeed giving us a new heaven and a new earth, a new covenant, a new everything, in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The disciples went into the empty tomb without a clue, because they did not understand the Scripture. If they had tried to put this new wine into the old wineskins of inadequate interpretations of Scripture–into “the old dogmas of their quiet past–” they would have come away empty. If they had not let the Spirit open them to Mary Magdalene’s unbelievable message, “I have seen the Lord,” they would have forfeited their roles as leaders of the church. In fact, they did not exactly “disenthrall” themselves—but their Easter experience did it for them. They were liberated to think and act anew.
Martin Luther, over 500 year ago, helped the people of Bohemia think anew about the Eucharist. They had been put under interdict by the Pope. Their priests were forbidden to perform the Mass for them. Luther reminded these people that their baptismal covenant with God gave even laypersons the authority, in extraordinary times, to handle the Word of God. Luther believed in good order; but, if priests won’t do it, any layperson, equipped by the Word, can forgive sins, baptize, and even officiate at the Eucharist.
Friends, we today have our own “stormy present.” Our occasion is certainly “piled high with difficulty.” It is a great act of re-creation that we are seeing all around us, both in church, and among the hosts of people of other faiths, and indeed among the searchers and “un-affiliated.” In God’s mysterious ways we are being taught by pandemic to love one another in new ways. Indeed, to commune in new ways: banging pots, singing songs, ZOOMING, Facetiming, etc.
This Easter is certainly a time for the church and all believers in Christ to likewise disenthrall ourselves, and think and act anew. The Eucharist is just one place to start, but it’s a particularly good one. The active ingredients of this sacrament are the Word of gospel promise and the love we have for one another. A video screen may be a poor substitute for the real thing, when we can touch and feel one another. But it IS a substitute! And it is one that the first disciples, and the makers of our doctrines could not begin to dream of.
And who knows, perhaps if we not only celebrate Jesus’ rising from the dead this Easter, but rise with him to meet this new occasion, we will signal miraculous new life for God’s church. Perhaps we will work with God to save our country and our world.
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