The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. This is a month to explore truth-telling. With Easter providing the median of these five weeks, we travel in utter darkness and then on to the brightest light of salvation. The worst of human nature and the best of human love are revealed along the way.
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In these readings, the awe of the mystical Johannine gospel and letters meets the justice in the prophetic words of Jeremiah and Isaiah and in the unified, egalitarian early church community of Acts. Ultimately, the mystical and the prophetic form one unifying truth in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus in John 20 and Luke 24.
The whole truth? In contemporary America, we have a silent compact that we will not challenge the constant barrage of untruthful or less-than-truthful things that we are told each day. Are we awash in official secrets and corporate deceptions? These scriptures remind us that the redemptive power of the good news remains covered up a lot of the time, too.
Two groups populate these passages. Religious leaders (and sometimes apostles) put a sheen of religiosity and rhetoric over lethal conniving and cover-ups. The chief priests look for a way to arrest Jesus “by stealth” and to kill him (Mark 14:1-2). Meanwhile, prophets and preachers—and the Son of the Blessed One—reveal both unseemly secrets as well as truths that illuminate the way to salvation for all.
Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.
In Death, Life
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Although 69-year-old Sister Ardeth Platte was liberated from the Danbury Federal Correctional Institute in late December, she had been free throughout her 41-month sentence. Platte had long since given her life into the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, and accepted in return life eternal. The Dominican was convicted in 2003 of damaging government property and “obstructing national defense,” by pouring her own blood onto a Minuteman III nuclear missile silo.
How far would Platte go to point to the horrors of nuclear weapons and the necessity of peace? She is willing to die behind bars if necessary. She sees this kind of dying as a redemptive dying. Such a death could save countless lives.
The prophet Jeremiah jeopardizes his priestly class credential for others, that God might put God’s “law within them...on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). Platte’s witness flows from God’s law, written on her heart. Wherever she is, she is free.
Jeremiah sees that the kingdom of Judah will have to fall to resurrect the people of Israel. Similarly, Jesus prophesies that God’s people, he himself, and future disciples will bring the fullness of life to others by entrusting their lives to God: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain...” (John 12:24).
Our Hebrews passage understands Jesus’ suffering with loud cries and tears as an obedience that will save all.
Jesus’ judgment that “the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31) today echoes in Ardeth’s affirmation that she “came out of prison much stronger,” having desired to “awaken people.” She has, across the globe.
The Messiah, Indeed
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
Well-educated Freudian slips or lethally theatrical ironies? Throughout this vast Markan reading (see also the alternate reading Mark 11:1-11), the high priest, chief priests, elders, and the scribes mockingly call Jesus “the Messiah,” “the Son of the Blessed One,” “the King of the Jews,” and “the King of Israel.” Pretty accurate, guys.
More sincere expressions are heard before and after these unintended sacred namings. The woman with costly ointment treats Jesus royally in chapter 14, and in the next chapter the centurion proclaims that “truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).
We are fearful, as a people and as a culture, that one day all will be in allegiance to Jesus, the one who will change that to which we cling. So we hold on to things as they are, lest “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord...” (Philippians 2:10-11). Why? Jesus is the Prince of Peace and the friend of the poor.
Peter’s denials and Judas’ betrayal foreshadow the reactionary horror to come: “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (Mark 14:1). Impure and simple. Evil of this magnitude requires what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called “psychic numbing.”
This long gospel narrative reveals interior mixed motives and external political strivings. We, too, must find the courage to overcome “numbing” and challenge a culture that jokes about the cross on one TV channel while on another a broadcast evangelist declares that God destroys poor black people with a hurricane.
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
You noticed this long ago, but let’s review: a woman preaches the first Easter sermon. A kairos moment begins and ends this way:
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb...” (John 20:1). Mary Magdalene then went and announced to the disciples, “‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20:18).
Before Mary’s brief homily, the resurrected Christ sees her compassionate weeping at the tomb. He says “Mary!” She says “Rabbouni!” (teacher). He asks her to “not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended...” (John 20:17).
Fast forward to the early church—the resurrection church—circa Acts 10. Now Peter is preaching: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). Understandably, the spread of this gospel of peace begins in Galilee, where Jesus has heralded God’s inclusive reign in the face of state power, temple hierarchies, and economic stratification.
Mary and Peter continue a chorus sung by the psalmist. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). Mary Magdalene’s role at the resurrection is secure. So is her role-modeling for marginalized women of faith around the world.
These women speak the truth daily and are poised to transform history. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recently became Liberia’s—and Africa’s!—first woman president. From Vietnam to Bangladesh, from Brazil to Indonesia, most microloans are going to women. Through their persistent organizing, they announce economic and environmental resurrection, village by village.
From Unity, Balance
Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
At best, sharing common enemies provides people with a temporary bond and the false security of pseudo-intimacy. It depends on the self-righteousness of continually projecting our own dis-ease and hostility on the enemy. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
False teachers feed this self-deception, which is why the Johannine tradition sounds such an alarm. These Johannine letters promote the true unity that comes from the shared bonds of love and the core truths common to believers. This kind of bond is why, in Acts, “those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32).
Remembering the itinerant groups that had followed Jesus, watch what this kind of unity brings to these earliest Christians in Jerusalem: “...no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Authentic community brings that economic and emotional homeostasis we call justice.
Jesus breathes on the disciples (John 20:22), empowering them to forgive sins and bring balance to the community and society. Sharing lands and houses, the early church unifies their love for one another; there is “not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
The current land redistribution campaign of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could lead to a situation that looks like that described in Acts, by granting the rural poor expanded loans, rights, and land once controlled by the rich. Caution: If it is merely ordered from the presidential office and does not emerge from the unity of the people, it will not be spiritually radical. Nor will it last.
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48
Before the second Iraq war began, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) attempted unsuccessfully to continue weapons inspections and forestall hostilities. Let us determine the “on the ground” situation, said ElBaradei, for too many lives are at stake to simply rely on “intelligence” rumors.
Arrogance prevailed. Death rained from the sky. No weapons were found. Last October ElBaradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Their real-world work against nuclear proliferation and for peace was described as “of incalculable importance.”
Of “incalculable importance” in this Easter season is an awareness that the ascension is away from this world while resurrection is potently and gloriously in it. Ascension is safe. We can discuss other-worldly theology. Resurrection isn’t so safe—the disciples are so “startled and terrified” because Jesus is in their midst. He says “peace be with you” (Luke 24:36), shows them his hands and feet, invites their touch, and eats broiled fish with them.
Resurrection calls us out into the world with Christ. We must feed the hungry, work for peace, and search for weapons. What happens “on the ground” is of eternal significance.
Ascension comes later. For now, it is time to get to work as Easter people, with actions and truth-telling that proclaim “repentance and forgiveness...to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).