An Easter Cliffhanger

There is no more brilliant literary surprise, I think, in all of scripture than the shocking cliffhanger abruptness of Mark’s resurrection account. Literally inspired. Its stark brevity leaves the remainder of Year B Eastertide Sundays scrambling for resurrection narratives from Luke and John. But its pointed question hangs over them all, as it hangs over our own narratives: What will you do with the resurrection news?

In a sense, the Book of Acts is the early community’s answer to that very question. These Sunday readings therefrom work out some Easter implications pastorally, socially, economically, and politically. The answers we glimpse are as stunning as the question.


April 3, Easter

The Opening Door

Acts 10:34-43

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

The women disciples who have the nerve to stand by, eyes and hearts open at the foot of the cross, are also the ones with the nerve to attend the grave when the Sabbath is over. The legal unreliability of women as witnesses (so the culture had it) is often noted for its irony. (And ironically as evidence of historical veracity, on the premise that no church concocting testimony would begin with women witnesses: Notice, indeed, that Paul and Peter omit them utterly in today’s lections.)

The degree of their courage, however, is generally unaccounted. This movement has been targeted and ostensibly crushed. The shepherd has been struck so that the sheep will scatter. But the women hang in. They refuse to go quietly away. Their act of memory and mourning and the freedom of their continuing open association has been compared to the Mothers of the Disappeared standing watch in one plaza or another.

Isn’t the irony that in the stark reversal of Mark’s abrupt ending (verse 8) their fear should punctuate the entire narrative as a question mark? They fear neither men nor powers, but an empty tomb? The women fear God alone. Their knees buckle to imagine the transforming power that is here and now being unleashed. What next? A door opens before them at the end.

Thank God, even unacknowledged, Peter and Paul followed the women through that door. Moreover, as these texts have it, they recollect and recite the resurrection in moments of transformation, personal and social: Peter, in his monumental breakthrough to community with Gentiles; Paul, in a letter that summons the healing freedom required by a beloved community fracturing to bits. A door, they both testify, has opened....

The question remains: Will we now, in fear and trembling (not to mention utter joy), walk through?

April 10

Touching the Word

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

1 John 1:1-2:2

John 20:19-31

The doors were shut for fear of the authorities (John 20:19). The disciples have entombed themselves. The One who has broken out of death must now break in to bear them peace.

Thomas I like—perhaps because I know him too well, this twin of us all. Absent and wary. Does he hold shut the heart’s door for fear? For tough-mindedness? For the doubt that is his fame? What he does know is worth a stack of sermons: how to recognize Jesus. By his wounds, of course. As if to say again, you can’t see the Risen One unless you can see the Crucified. To look for, to touch the one is to touch the other—one and the same.

By conventional logic you would think the 1 John text would find a home in the Christmas lections, celebrating the feast of the incarnation. Thomas, no doubt, has beckoned it here. That which we have seen and heard and touched with our hands concerning the Word of Life....What have we touched to which we now testify in joy complete? Wounds of the Crucified? One another in the loving circle of community? Eucharist passed hand to hand? All this and more—reality itself transfigured?

The resurrection testimony of Acts 4 is not an incidental inclusion in a laundry list of communal acts. It is at the heart of a fundamental restructuring of the community’s commonlife. As though the core assumptions of how we now live and organize our lives had enjoyed a seismic or even cosmic shift. And the material reorganization is a testimony too. A resurrection economy. Something the poorest among them could sink their teeth into, or pass hand to hand around the circle, touching the Word of Life.

April 17

Recognizing Resurrection

Acts 3:12-19

Psalm 4

1 John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48

The recognition of the resurrected Jesus is once again at issue in Luke 24. The whole of the Emmaus road story is invoked in the opening line (verse 35), how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. Then, as if the wounds on his hands and feet were not enough, he eats a piece of fish.

A friend says if you can read the gospels without getting hungry you’re not paying attention. Jesus comes eating and drinking: So many feasts and feedings, table teachings and banquet parables, last suppers and Easter barbecues—one gets the feeling the kingdom was convened as a gigantic floating potluck, the poor being seated first. In the resurrection he can walk and talk with them, speak in their midst, but they’re not quite sure ’til, Look! He has bread or fish in his hand—it’s the Lord!

1 John offers the ominous comfort that the world doesn’t recognize us because it never recognized Christ (verse 1). It gives pause to imagine the form of resurrection recognizable in our own lives. What wounds? What bread? What freedom?

Peter says, Why do you stare at us? This healing is not by our piety or power (verse 12). Yes. True. But even so I might stare. Resurrection is here. Well, of course, Peter preaches it, a no-holds-barred accusation that this crowd didn’t know what they were looking at in Christ Jesus. But more than that, it’s in the freedom to preach in a place the authorities will quickly forbid. Temple cops are on the way. This is not the same Peter slinking away in fear at cockcrow. These are not the same disciples huddling in the dark behind closed doors. Well, they are the same and more. The Risen One is here. Has claimed them. Has brought them out from death.

It does not yet appear what we shall be, but you can bet your life it’ll look like Christ.

April 24

Wolves in the Window

Acts 4:5-12

Psalm 23

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

If today’s gospel calls up for you images of a familiar stained-glass window, the good shepherd with a lamb cuddled over the shoulder, then it’s probably best to envision it with a brick being thrown through. The tension of this reading is between the literally "pastoral" character—the tenderness of love for the flock—and the predatory violence of the beast. The stillness of waters and the rushing of the wolves.

The power of death (or as the famous Psalm puts it, the shadow of death) hovers just beyond the window’s frame. The work of the pastor (whose Latin root means shepherd or feeder as in pasturer) is to love, nourish, stand by, and lead, but finally to die for the flock. (Oughtn’t this come up at services of commissioning or ordination?) The hireling may "love in word and speech," but the shepherd loves in "deed and truth" (1 John 3:18).

The basis of pastoral work is here portrayed as love, but coupled with the freedom to die. No one takes my life, I lay it down of my own accord (John 10:18).

Peter’s testimony in Acts is a straightforward witness to the resurrection. Well enough as it stands. But, like a brick through the window, we realize this is courtroom testimony after a night in jail. The disciples will be threatened and sent away under injunction no longer to preach or teach in this name. They have the resurrection moxie to declare their freedom before going: "Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (4:19-20). Indeed, they will be back shortly in this courtroom.

It is probably best to recall the whole story of chapters 3 and 4, brick by brick (see "The Politics of Healing" in my Seasons of Faith and Conscience). Perhaps the most amazing element is the story of the one lame from birth. He is alluded present at trial. How? Also arrested, spending the night at hymns and prayers with Peter and John in jail? Subpoenaed by the authorities? I think not. They don’t want him there. He is the living evidence, a testimony they wish suppressed. They’d prefer him lame again.

Apparently he has simply walked in and presented himself, come to stand beside the disciples. This is a nervy witness: The real miracle is not just that he’s standing, but that he’s standing there. This new congregant in Peter’s pastoral care has caught his own case of resurrection freedom.

How the wolves must howl.

BILL WYLIE KELLERMANN, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a United Methodist pastor and the author of Seasons of Faith and Conscience (Orbis, 1991).

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