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Introduction To The Scripture For Easter Sunday - Year A
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Easter Sunday - Year A
  

ACTS 10:34-43                 Peter's sermon to the household of Cornelius,
the Roman centurion in Caesarea, may seem a strange lesson to be read
instead of an Old Testament selection.  The thrust of Peter's message,
however, is the central theme of Easter.  The resurrection of Jesus
confirmed for all people and all time that he is Lord, not Caesar, whom the
centurion would have called by that title.  The setting, the people to whom
this Good News was proclaimed, and the linking of gospel and prophecy
underline the universality of Peter's message.


PSALM 118:1-2,14-24           This song of victory may have been composed
to celebrate some unknown military triumph.  In later Jewish rituals it
served as a special litany for festive occasions.  It was a favourite of
Martin Luther which he said had helped him out of grave distress.  These
prior uses make it appropriate as a hymn of Easter thanksgiving.  


COLOSSIANS 3:1-4              Paul's words open to us another dimension of
Easter.  Not only is it a celebration of Jesus' resurrection, but also of
our being raised to a new life with Christ.  More than an unequaled
demonstration of God's power, Easter shows that God lives in those who are
open to receive forgiveness of sin and life that bridges death.  For that
person, life is not a matter of conforming to external rules, but of being
transformed daily in our thinking, ethics and actions.


JOHN 20:1-18                  The Easter story always leaves us with more
questions than answers.  Note who it was that first found the stone rolled
away from the tomb.  Matthew also names Mary Magdalene as one of the two
women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection.  Doesn't that say
something about the importance of women in the early church?  Could Mary
Magdalene herself have been the original source for this report?


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

ACTS 10:34-43   Peter's sermon to the household of Cornelius, the Roman
centurion in Caesarea, may seem a strange lesson to be read instead of a
traditional  Old Testament selection.  The thrust of Peter's message,
however, is the central theme of Easter.  The resurrection of Jesus
confirmed for all people and for all time that he is Lord of all (vs. 38). 
The setting, the people to whom it was proclaimed, and the linking of
gospel and prophecy underline the universality of Peter's message.
          
Though Peter is the spokesperson and his sermon as succinct a summary of
the gospel as Acts provides, Cornelius occupies the centre stage in this
story.  As an upright and god-fearing Gentile well-spoken of by the whole
Jewish nation (vs. 22), he bridges the gap between Judaism and
Christianity.  He represents the new reality that the Christian gospel
introduced and yet maintained the rooting of the new in the seed-bed of the
old.  By seeking out of Peter, listening to Peter's sermon and accepting of
baptism with all his household, Cornelius symbolizes the distinctive
element of the Christian gospel: God intends Gentiles to receive the Holy
Spirit and the gift of eternal life on the same basis as Jews, through
faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not through obedience to the Law of Moses.
          
The Spirit, however, is no mere supporting actor in this drama.  The story
adds yet another piece of accumulating evidence that the book is really
about 'The Acts of the Spirit', rather than 'The Acts of the Apostles'.
Peter had already had a revelation in his dream in Joppa as to what the
Spirit was doing through the apostles witnessing to what they had seen and
heard (vss. 9-23).  Now his fellow Jews were astonished that the Spirit
came on the household of Cornelius while Peter was still speaking (vs. 45). 
Presumably those Jews administered the rite of baptism to the assembled
congregation on whom the Spirit fell in such dramatic fashion (vs. 47).
          
There is also a secondary purpose to this story: to show that Peter
established the universality of the new faith before Paul began his Gentile
mission.  In fact 11:1-18 goes on to tell how Peter had to withstand the
opposition of the Jerusalem church by repeating  all over again the story
of his dream in Joppa, his summons to Caesarea, and the gift of the Spirit
to the household of Cornelius.  The end result was that the Jerusalem
church, still regarded as the centre of apostolic authority, gave official
recognition to the new outreach among the Gentiles (11:18).  
     
At the heart of this outreach ministry was the resurrection story as the
essential ingredient of faith for people of every age.


PSALM 118:1-2,14-24   This song of victory may have been composed to
celebrate some unknown military triumph.  It has been suggested that it
referred to the lifting of the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib of Assyria
in 701 BCE during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-19). Vss. 17-18 any
also refer to Hezekiah's illness as told in 2 Kings 20.  In later Jewish
rituals it served as a special litany on festive occasions.  According to
the Mishnah, this psalm was especially appropriate for Succoth, the harvest
thanksgiving festival.  Vss. 19-24 are a prayer for the temple.  The psalm
ends with a striking benediction reiterating the praise of vs. 1.  

All these prior uses make it appropriate as a hymn of Easter thanksgiving. 
Obviously the apostolic church found in it plenty to remind them of the joy
they felt on realizing that Christ had indeed been raised from the dead. 
Martin Luther, the great German Reformer of the 16th century, said it had
frequently helped him out of grave distress.

Another ambivalent concern remains for the spiritually sensitive.  Why
should a military victory or recovery from illness be considered as
metaphors for the resurrection?  During the past decade, as Easter
celebrations were being prepared, rockets, bombs and shells were falling
indiscriminately on the people of an ethnically diverse European nation
like Serbia.  Bloody tribal conflicts plunged several parts of Africa into
brutal struggles for power in nation-states with boundaries imposed by
former colonial masters.  Small bands of terrorists and mighty national
armies have engaged in bloody conflicts in the name of God, religious
traditions and mistaken perceptions of the freedom, peace and justice God
requires of all peoples.  Our memories of war in the 20th century,
history's bloodiest, do not lead us to conclude that victory for any
faction or alliance can be assured.  Diseases once thought to be conquered
are returning with renewed immunity to antibiotic drugs.  Yet from the time
of Paul until now, Christian hymnody has seen the resurrection as a
victory.  (Rom. 8:35; 1 Cor. 15:54-55; Eph. 4:8; 'The strife is o'er, the
battle done'; 'Christ is in triumph now ascended'.) 

From time immemorial the greatest enemy of humanity has been death itself. 
Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew tradition could reach no further
beyond this life than a hopeless, shadowy existence in Sheol.  The great
hope which Christian faith introduced is nothing short of the overcoming of
death and the gift of eternal life in fellowship with God and Christ Jesus. 

Amid the ruins of World War II, the British historian, Arnold Toynbee
penned these eloquent words at the end of his summary of the universal
human search for a saviour: "At the final ordeal of death, few, even of
these would-be saviour gods, have dared to put their title to the test by
plunging into the icy river.  And now, as we stand and gaze with our eyes
fixed on the farther shore, a single figure rises from the flood and
straightway fills the whole horizon.  There is the Saviour; 'and the
pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see of the travail
of his soul and shall be satisfied,' (Isa. 53:10-11).


COLOSSIANS 3:1-4   Paul's words open to us another dimension of Easter.  It
is not only a celebration of Jesus' resurrection, but also of our having
been raised with Christ.
          
Behind this brief passage are two powerful elements of the apostolic
tradition, one of which Paul himself developed.  First is the metaphor of
baptism by immersion as a symbolic experience of dying and being raised
with Christ.  (Rom. 6:3-4; Col.2:12) The second is the narrative of the
ascension of the risen Christ to the right hand of God. (Luke 24:51; Acts
1:9)

As a former Pharisee, Paul was familiar with that tradition's expectation
that when the Messiah came, the dead would rise from their graves to share
the Messiah's glory.  The ancient cemetery spread across the western flank
of the Mount of Olives is so placed that all Jews buried there will be
ready for the messianic resurrection.  Today, ultra-orthodox Jews make sure
that every bone and piece of flesh from the victims of massacres are
carefully gathered and meticulously buried to await that glorious day.
          
Paul had transferred his Pharisaic convictions to his post-conversion
experience of the resurrection of Jesus.  The difference, however, lay in
the effect of his dramatic meeting the risen Christ on the road to
Damascus. (Acts 9:3-9; Gal. 1:13-16; Phil. 3:7-11)  How Paul's conversion
and subsequent spiritual discipline had transformed his life gave personal
authority to his counsel in this passage in Colossians.  Resurrection for
those who had come to know and put their trust in the risen Christ was not
a striving for self-righteous moral perfection, nor a far-off perfect and
eternal life.  For Paul life had become a daily walk in the presence of the
living Christ who was still very much alive in this mortal realm.  This had
life-changing spiritual and ethical dimensions that Paul himself had
discovered and now urged the Colossians to enter into.  As vs. 4 implies,
Christ *is* his life now and could be so for the Colossians.  
          
In his commentary on Colossians, Eduard Schweizer points out that "already
in the early church (this passage) is interpreted by means of the
distinction between a spiritual resurrection that has already occurred but
is not yet visible and a resurrection of the body or the flesh, apportioned
to everyone....  On this view, the first resurrection is at an early stage
understood in particular as an awakening to an ethically new way of life."
[Schweizer, Eduard.  *The Letter to the Colossians: A Commentary*,
Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982. p. 287.]
          
More than an unprecedented demonstration of divine power, the resurrection
shows that Christ now lives in those open to receive forgiveness of sin and
the gift of life than bridges death.  For that person, life is not a matter
of conforming to external rules, but of being transformed daily in our
thinking, our ethics and our actions.


JOHN 20:1-18   Like Matthew, John also names Mary Magdalene as one of the
women who first witnessed to the resurrection.  In John, however, Mary
plays a sole and primary role.  This says something about the importance
place of women in the early church.  In Jewish culture, no woman was ever
allowed to be a witness.
          
But why Mary and not one of the other women?  According to the tradition
reported Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2, Mary had been healed of some unspecified
sickness described in both instances as 'seven demons', which only
indicated the seriousness of her disease.  She was also a woman who had
significant relationships with other women, at least one of whom, Joanna,
had some stature as the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward.  She may also have
had some independent financial resources to share with the fellowship of
disciples, for she accompanied them from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Her
devotion to Jesus found expression in practical  service to the company
(Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:41).  She was present at the crucifixion and came
early to the tomb.  
          
All of this points to the probability that Mary's devotion went beyond
friendship to a deeper, more intimate love.  She was not the prostitute
identified in Luke 7:36-50, even though immediately after telling that
woman's story, Luke formally introduced Mary into his narrative.  Her love
for Jesus, however, was an expression of that kind of love of which Jesus
spoke in John 15:12-17.  Throughout that passage John explicitly used the
word which is the cognate verb of 'agap‚'.  
          
Is it not likely, therefore, that in writing for his own community at the
end of the 1st century, John would tell this tender story about this woman
whose love brought her to the tomb where she became the first witness to
the resurrection?  Note, however, that her first reaction was astonishment
and probably also fear which caused her to rush back to tell Peter and 'the
other disciple', the one whom Jesus loved? ('ephilei' in this instance)
that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. (20:1-2)
          
The rest of the story about Jesus meeting and identifying himself to Mary
in a special way which she instantly recognized surely shows that the
feelings between them were mutual.  Such speculations in the early 20th
century were the inspiration for a little known novel, *The Hidden Years",
by the English clergyman and poet, John Oxenham, which described the
relationship as an earlier romance between Mary and Jesus which both felt
inspired to sublimate to a higher call.  A very recent fictional thriller,
"The Da Vinci Code' by Dan Brown, makes the marriage of Jesus and Mary an
important aspect of its plot.
          
The Easter story leaves all of us with more questions than answers.  Even
Jesus' most intimate disciples, Peter and John, did not understand the full
significance of what they had seen.  In vss. 17-18, Mary was given the
commission of telling the disciples the meaning of what had happened that
morning when a new day dawned for all of them and for us: Jesus had not
only been raised from the dead, he is now and forever shall be sovereign
Lord and God.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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