Easter A, 2011/2017
A Liturgy is also available
KILLING JESUS, SAVING JESUS...
Easter Day, today, is traditionally regarded as the most important day
in the liturgical life of the church.
Its stories are passionately told every year.
Today we have heard a story from a bloke we call Matthew.
So what is his special take on all this,
as we unpack his story seriously, rather than literally.
To do so I have titled my sermon ‘Killing Jesus, saving Jesus’.
Each so-called Easter morning story has its own distinctive slant on things.
Matthew’s story alone recounts an earthquake.
Only Matthew’s story has an angel rolling the stone away and then sitting on it.
And Matthew has a most distinctive story element: fear.
Out of ‘fear’ the guards become lifeless, and run scared to the authorities.
The angel tells the women not to ‘fear’.
After an encounter the women leave quickly ‘with fear’.
Jesus says to the women: ‘Do not fear… go tell’.
Four occasions where Matthew says the dominate emotion was ‘fear’.
We too live today in a culture often dominated by fear,
and nurtured by media headlines and graphic film footage.
Gene Robinson is (I think recently retired) Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire in the United States.
You may recall he was the first openly gay man
to be elected and consecrated a bishop, in a so-called 'mainline' church.
In a very moving 2005 article, he tells of the preparations
that were going on around him prior to his consecration as Bishop, and of
the fear some had, if his consecration went ahead…
“I was getting a lot of death threats. Preparations were being made for the consecration security, and I was asked for my blood type, so that preparations could be made for immediately beginning medical treatment on the way to the hospital, should something violent take place.
“I remember saying to our two grown daughters, who were worried and anxious about my well-being, ‘You know, there are worse things than death. Some people actually never live - and that is the worst death of all. If something does happen, remember that the God who has loved me my whole life, will still be loving me, and I will have died doing something I believe in with my whole heart’.
“As I strapped on my bulletproof vest just before the service, I remember feeling blessedly calm about whatever might happen. Not because I am brave, but because God is good and because God has overcome death, so that I never have to be afraid again. That is the power of the resurrection. Not in what happens after death, but what the knowledge of our resurrection does for our lives… before death.” (Robinson. www.thewitness.org/)(2008).
Matthew’s story slant is important.
There is much ‘fear’ around and within the Easter story.
As there is much ‘fear’ in our world today.
Jesus’ death was primarily the result of ‘fear’.
The fear of one insecure and unstable Roman Prefect.
The fear of religious and community leaders as to what might happen
should political trouble break out.
Over the years the early Jesus followers sought to make sense of his death.
Now modern scholarship in our time has identified at least three ways
these followers interpreted what happened:
(i) as victim of Roman power,
(ii) as martyr for the Empire of God, and
(iii) as sacrifice that bound together a new community
One scholar who’s work I find very convincing, is Stephen Patterson.
Let me quote from one of his articles. It’s a bit long so again I ask you to listen carefully.
“I have become convinced that in each of these ways of interpreting Jesus' death, the followers of Jesus were in fact drawing attention
to his life. His death mattered to them because his life had mattered to them. They spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life, and
reaffirmed their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds. To the followers and friends
of Jesus, his death was important in its particularity - as the fate of him who said and did certain things, who stood for something so important to him that he was willing to give his life for it. That something was the vision of life he called the Empire of God. They too believed in this vision of a new empire. And if this vision was indeed God's Empire, then the bearer of this vision was not dead. No executioner could kill what he was. To kill Jesus, you would have to kill the vision. This is what the cross could not do.” (Patterson 2007:77)
Patterson is taking the so-called Easter stories seriously, not literally.
And that is what we are invited to do
every time we hear biblical stories.
For many of us today who have been brought up
in the traditional or so-called orthodox teachings of the church,
Jesus’ death has been separated from, indeed lost all connection to,
the real human events of his life which brought about his death.
As Stephen Patterson has also said:
“Jesus’ death has become… a mythic event connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life.” (Patterson 2007:78)
Traditionally this has been given the lofty name of ‘The Theory of Substitutionary Atonement'.
This theory is expressed well in the propaganda from my local fundamentalist Coast Life Church.
In their Easter advertisement they write:
"... the message of Easter says He made you good enough through His sacrifice and resurrection. He knew our shortfalls in advance and out of love paid the price with His life. He didn't want humanity to live with condemnation or fear or a cycle of sin-shame-forgiveness-sin-shame-forgiveness over and over. So the Father gave His son Jesus to pay a permanent price in advance".
They then go on to say it is like post-paid verses pre-paid credit on one's mobile phone.
"Option 1, post-paid, is to accumulate a debt and try to pay for it later. Option 2, pre-paid, is to have the credit to pay for it always available. All we need to do is look to Jesus and what He has already done".
Without apology, this is theological rubbish!
Such a ‘theory’ is an absolute disaster for the church.
A ‘theory’ which has no concern whatsoever for Jesus’ life
or what he said or did or stood for.
In the words of John Prine, lyricist: "Jesus was a good guy he didn't need this shit!" (Prine)
All that - what Jesus said or did or stood for - has been diminished.
Now we have all the elements of a cosmic drama,
enshrined in fossilised creeds and the heavy-handed traditionalism
of sin, guilt and forgiveness – He came to die for our sins!
I am reminded of the words of well-known scholar Matthew Fox, who
when commenting on the title of the ‘Living the Questions’ DVD study called “Saving Jesus”, said:
“Of course saving Jesus is important. It’s an interesting title. Saving Jesus from whom? I guess from the church… We have to break our tea-cup talk about Jesus…” (Saving Jesus DVD/LtQ)
Back then, Jesus was killed because of what he said and for what he stood for.
The problem now is we, the church generally,
are trying to kill him all over again.
His humanness has been killed off!
Jesus has been described as a secular sage or a prophet.
Either way, both earned their living by what they said and did.
But for most today, raised within traditional or fundamentalist Christianity,
“his words and deeds mean little to us, if anything at all. We do not look to Jesus for a way of life, but for salvation. ‘He died that we might live’…” (Patterson 2007:80)
We need to end this 'tea-cup talk' - to quote Matthew Fox.
And end it by sound, scholarly, biblical theology.
So whatever it might mean to say today, ‘Jesus is alive in our midst’,
“it must above all else mean that he somehow still offers us the vision of a new Empire, into which we are still invited in a real way… a real invitation into a way of life we can see reflected in his own life. When the life of Jesus no longer matters to those who would claim him as Lord and Savio[u]r, then the life that changed the lives of many finally will have come to an end.” (Patterson 2007:80)
Not in what happens after death, but what the knowledge of the
words and deeds and the way of the one we call Jesus,
does for our lives… before death.
Patterson, S. J. “Killing Jesus” in (ed) R. J. Miller. The Future of the Christian Tradition. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2007.
John Prine. "Jesus: The missing years". <www.lyricsfreak.com/> Accessed 22/4/2011.