Matthew 28:1-10; Colossians 3:1-4
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
23 March 2008
Today I stand here proclaiming to you that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave.
A man came from Nazareth named Jesus, just one of the simple people of Israel.
Since 63 B. C. E., the Jews had been governed by the Romans. The reign of Caesar Augustus and his immediate successors had instituted an era known as the Pax Romana. Unlike the centuries before, which had been torn apart by major wars, the period of the Pax Romana saw no major wars engulf the Mediterranean. The only conflicts were reserved for the outer reaches of the Empire. This was also a time of great prosperity, but only for a few. The Pax Romana had its dark side. It was a false peace imposed upon the Mediterranean and Europe by an autocratic, imperial government. The Roman historian Tacitus described it this way: "they make a desolation and call it peace."
One group of people who clearly suffered was Jewish peasants. In his monumental book The Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan argues that in this period life suddenly became worse for the simple people. The Jewish peasant was heavily taxed by the Roman government, the Herodian kings, and the Jewish religious authorities, which explains the hatred for tax collectors that is recorded in the New Testament.
Taxation wasn't the only problem; the peasants were also falling deeply into debt. Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus' parables deal with situations of debt? The debt of the peasantry was actually a result of the prosperity of the upper class. The wealthy now had excess capital which they could loan. Though charging interest had been forbidden in Jewish religious law, the great Pharisee rabbi Hillel had reformed this understanding of the Torah. These reforms occurred about the time Jesus was born. So, it was now possible for money to be loaned to the peasants in a way previously forbidden. Jewish law had also dictated that every seven years debts were to be forgiven. The debt reforms also allowed this regulation to be bypassed. Understanding Jesus' views on the debt reform explains some of Jesus' anger at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who were upholding parts of the Jewish law but allowing exceptions to other parts, exceptions which disadvantaged the peasant class.
The peasants would borrow money but in most cases would be unable to pay it back because of the high cost of living and the high tax burden. The peasant's property or land, which had been given as collateral, was then seized. The peasant then became a servant or sharecropper on the land he had once owned. Land that had been promised to him by God at Mt. Sinai in the Exodus. Land that had been promised to him as part of Israel's return from exile in Babylon. The loss of land was a theological as well as an economic issue. It got at the root of who they were as the people of God.
Yet the sell of the promised land did not solve the problem, because the debt wasn't forgiven; instead it continued to grow. Eventually the peasant would be so deeply into debt that the creditor would seize him and his family and sell them into slavery. Thus reversing God's great act of liberation in the Exodus.
So government, religious authorities, the courts, and the economic forces all conspired in a system that led to the further degradation of the lowest classes of Jewish society. And the powers-that-be remained in power through intimidation and violence.
For example, during the time of Jesus, Pilate, the Roman governor, caused an uproar among the people when he seized their offerings to the Temple and used them to build an aqueduct. A large crowd of people assembled to protest. Pilate infiltrated the crowd with soldiers disguised in civilian clothing. At his signal they attacked the assembled crowd slaughtering many. Pilate was so violent in his handling of the people that eventually even the Emperor could no longer tolerate it and recalled Pilate to Rome.
What was the result of all this economic and militaristic oppression? Growing unrest. In this period there were five revolts whose leaders claimed to be Messiah. These rebellions, insurgencies, and messianic movements eventually led to the Jewish War of the sixties and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in the year 70. The last great messianic rebellion occurred in the year 132 and caused the Second Jewish War and the ultimate destruction of the entire province of Judea.
It was in this climate that Jesus of Nazareth appeared proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand. He goes out into the wilderness and participates in the baptism of John. This is a reenactment of the Exodus. Just as the economic system has overturned the promises of the Exodus, these wilderness prophets come preaching a new exodus that will liberate the people from the chains that bind them and once again give them the opportunity to become the community of God. God's reign is at hand and will be ushered in by a radical new community committed to the way of God.
Jesus then proceeds to give glimpses of the reign of God.
One glimpse is when he heals those who are suffering physically.
Another glimpse is when he includes those who are mentally ill.
There's the glimpse of the kingdom that comes when we touches lepers – those outcasts of his society.
Or when he says about the woman taken in adultery – "the one who is without sin, cast the first stone."
Or when he welcomes all to the table.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who come as children.
To those willing to give to the poor.
To those who have ministered unto the least of these.
Blessed are the peacemakers, he says.
From Nazareth comes this young man, an outcast of his own people, who viewed him as a bastard because of his questionable birth. God's reign, which he proclaims, is a complete reversal of the status quo. It is an assault upon the religious, political, and economic authorities. This outcast says that God's reign is fulfilled in him, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.
What does it mean for a first century Jew to lay claim to the title Messiah or Christ? Messiah or Christ means "anointed one." For the first century Jew, the Messiah was the long-awaited instrument of God. Historian N. T. Wright describes it this way – the messiah was "the focal point of [Israel's] long history, the one through whom Israel's God would at last deal with its exile and sin and bring about its longed-for redemption."
The popular image at the time held that this Messiah would lead a great military victory that would overthrow the people's oppressors and reinstitute a way of life governed by God's law. Therefore, there were many militant revolutionaries who claimed the messiahship.
We know that Jesus held an even more revolutionary concept of the messiah. His view was rooted within a longstanding tradition that the messiah would not be a military hero but would rather be the suffering servant described by the prophet Isaiah. Even if not a military title, "Messiah" was still a political title. To use it meant that God's reign was about to begin and that those in power were about to lose that power. Thus, the political, economic, and religious authorities who had vested interest in the status quo would perceive any messiah movement as a threat.
What about the phrase "Son of God"? In the Old Testament, the phrase is used in a variety of settings to refer to angels, all the Children of Israel, or King David. Later Jewish writings use the title to describe just or righteous persons. The Talmud describes various rabbis to be "sons of God," including one Rabbi Hanina who was known as a miracle worker and who was able to fight with demons. There is no evidence, from what I understand, to suggest that the phrase "Son of God" had previously been connected to the title of Messiah.
Beyond the Jewish context "Son of God" was a title used by the Roman emperors to announce their own divinity. When sovereignty over the Roman Empire was granted to Octavian, along with it came a number of titles, including "Augustus," which means "honored or revered." He was chief of magistrates, leader of the Senate, chief priest of the Roman religion, and commander of the armies. Augustus also styled himself the First Citizen of the Republic; in other words, he claimed to be the ideal human. During his lifetime, Augustus built one temple to himself, as did his successor Tiberias. Caligula did the most to further worship of the emperor, though most subsequent emperors didn't make bold claims of divinity during their life; the usual practice was for them to be declared a "Son of God" at their death.
What is inescapable is that the Jesus movement has profound political implications. The peasantry are drawing together to listen to and follow this one who is announcing that God's reign has begun. This one who claims to be God's anointed one and is challenging the power of the Caesars.
Finally, Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and is welcomed by the people like the political radical that he is. He cleanses the temple, announcing that this is to be a house of prayer for all nations and not a den of thieves. Jesus wasn't just casting out moneychangers. He was upsetting the way the temple functioned. What were being sold were the animals used to make sacrifices. The money being exchanged was the temple tax. The thieves aren't simply the folk sitting at the booths; Jesus is targeting the religious authorities. They are the ones who have turned God's house into a den of thieves; they are the thieves. It is at this point in the story that they seek to kill him.
The authorities understand that the message and ministry of Jesus is a radically transformed society that will upend the normal religious and political system. The authorities do fully understand the consequences of what Jesus is teaching. But what they don't see is that Jesus is God's agent. They don't see God at work here. They see a political, economic, and religious threat, and they respond to it with their customary violence.
Why do they not see God at work? Because, they only see what they want to see. Their understanding is blocked; they are unwilling to accept what they observe happening in Jesus. So the Roman authorities arrest this radical from Nazareth and crucify him.
The powers-that-be continue to be blind to the radical, transformative work of God.
This is the simple truth of the crucifixion -- it was the result of a life lived according to the way of God. As the way of God confronts a violent world -- that violent world will often crucify the messenger of God.
In this moment the sin of the world was revealed. Sin is not a set a rules, a purity code of correct behaviours, as many of us were taught – don't drink, smoke, or cuss, or go with girls that do.
Sin is something deeper. There have been efforts to name the root sin – pride, exclusion, alienation, anxiety, violence. All of these efforts reveal that sin is fundamentally about relationship.
Sin is relational, not simply a set of rules. Sin breaks relationships. It ruptures the creation. It alienates us from ourselves, from God, from other people, or from the wider creation.
So, it isn't that drinking is a sin, but if when you drink you become offensive, abusive, or violent to yourself or others, then that is sin.
The other thing we've learned about sin in recent theology is that it is structural and institutional. Recent theology has recovered the ancient notion that sin isn't so much about individual choices and actions but is about the corrupted institutions and structures of human society – governments, corporations, etc. These were intended for good, to be bring order and stability to life, but they are corrupted and fallen. These are the powers and principalities. According to this understanding, sin includes things like poverty, slavery, patriarchy, colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Structural aspects of human society that break relationships, thereby defiling God's will for creation. We all participate in sin even when we do not intend to, simply as participants in the social system.
What this teaches us is that sin is much larger than our own individual actions – it is a condition of the creation. God desires for creation to be like God. The Triune God is a communion of self-giving love, this is God's will for creation. All creation is to live in loving, peaceful communion.
The crucifixion of Jesus reveals completely the fallen creation. Crucifixion is among the cruelest, most inhumane, most evil practices that human beings have ever inflicted upon each other. The crucifixion of Christ is a scandal, a stumbling-block, a tragedy, an evil. The crucifixion is the freely chosen path of a social radical committed to nonviolence in order to end the cycle of violence and oppression and create an new opportunity for God's people to live together in community. Jesus went willingly to the cross because he believed in a nonviolent, loving, joyful, peaceful life in communion with others, a life that directly confronts and rebukes our violent world, a life of hopefully courageous faith, a life of radical inclusion, extravagant grace, and relentless compassion.
That could have been the end of the story. Another noble young radical cut down in his prime. The complete discrediting of his view of the world and his chance for genuine community. But that is not where it ended.
There was a great earthquake and a messenger descended from heaven, rolling back the grave stone, and proclaiming "Do not fear. He is not here; for he has been raised."
The resurrection is the vindication of this bastard from Nazareth and the life he lived. In this moment the creator of the universe declares that Jesus, the lover of the outcast, truly is the Son of God.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, it was the defeat of the powers and principalities. They were put on notice that their attempts to divide, exclude, and violently oppress would be judged by the creator of the universe. The resurrection heals the ripped open creation and restores it to God's intention. In the resurrection we are ransomed from the power that this violent world has over us; no matter what anyone may do to us, we are alive in Christ.
Whereas the goodness and the beauty of creation have been spoiled by violence and evil, the resurrection signifies that God will recreate this fallen, perishable world into an imperishable manifestation of God's power and glory.
This is the opportunity for spiritual renewal, an awakening of new insight. Our lives will be transformed. Once we have seen the risen Lord, like Mary Magdalene, we are never the same again. We have a new vision. We now look at the world with the eyes of hope. And the eyes of hope give us power and courage that we wouldn't have without hope. With this new vision we can go into the world, proclaiming the way of God, despite the obstacles of violence, suffering, sin, and evil.
The resurrection also signifies a new physical creation occurring in human history. Repeatedly the New Testament insists that the resurrection is in the body. Our actual physical existence is recreated. The resurrection means liberation and freedom for our bodily existence. This is a powerful message for those of us whose bodies are oppressed, including women, laborers, the disabled, gays and lesbians, and transgender people. God has promised us that our bodies will be transformed by God's own glory!
With the resurrection, the cross is reappropriated. What was a symbol of affliction becomes a symbol of new life. It is this moment that reveals to us with absolute certainty who God is and what is God's will.
In this Easter moment, God proclaims that God's way is the way of
inclusion of the outcast
freedom for the oppressed
justice for the poor
healing for the suffering
humility and self-giving
compassion for all in a
community based upon forgiveness and reconciliation
and peace in a world of violence.
In this Easter moment God gave notice to the powers-that-be that their way is not God's way. That whenever they act against compassion, inclusion, and grace that they are acting against the power of God. That whenever they divide, exclude, or violently oppress that they are judged by the slaughtered and risen Lamb.
Yet, the powers-that-be continue to challenge the way of God in this world. They continue to sow darkness, doubt, and injury. They continue to preach that the way of God is division, exclusion, and violent oppression of those different from themselves. The Risen One stands to rebuke them. This is not the way of God. It is the way of Caesar. It is the way of sin. It is the path to hell.
We will not be thwarted by their failed philosophies and false doctrines, because we share in the power of the Risen One. We too have been raised with Christ.
St. Paul tells us that we are to set our minds on the things of God. We can now live a nonviolent, loving, joyful, peaceful life in communion with others, a life that directly confronts and rebukes our violent world, a life of hopefully courageous faith, a life of radical inclusion, extravagant grace, and relentless compassion. When we do, we shall receive a spiritual awakening and our lives will be transformed. When we live as Jesus lived, then we participate in the very life of the risen Christ, sharing in the glory of God.
Let us make a habit then of ourselves
including the outcast
liberating the oppressed
seeking justice for the poor
healing the suffering
giving of ourselves with humility
being compassionate toward all in a
community based upon forgiveness and reconciliation
and being the instruments of God's peace in a world of violence.
For when we do these things, we are assured that we are living according to the will of God.
It is with passionate faith that today I stand here and proclaim to you that when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave that God raised you up to a new life.
With courage and hope let us go forth and bear witness that we are alive!