The Third Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
In the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli, there is a non-biblical character named Zerah. He is a Sadducee, a temple official who is most anxious to get rid of the troublesome leader from Galilee. After all, Jesus’ followers blasphemously claimed that he was the Messiah. And so Zerah pushes for Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion.
Zerah has also heard the boasts that Jesus would rise from the dead. He knows that the disciples might even go so far as to stage the resurrection by stealing the body, and then create God knows what kind of public ruckus after that. So Zerah sees to it that the tomb is sealed with a boulder and guarded by Roman soldiers.
But on the third day Zerah hears troubling news. There are reports that Jesus has risen from the dead. Zerah rushes to the tomb, and gazes despairingly into the empty space. He laments: “Now it begins. It all begins.”
Zerah was right. Everything changed with the resurrection. Before, the disciples had been a timid, confused, and unreliable bunch. But then the resurrection happened. In the gospel today, we heard about their first encounter. At first, naturally, they couldn’t believe it. Who would? But with a bite of fish and a few words, the impossibly risen Christ opened their minds to the impossible.
The disciples woke up to a new reality, and the past three years flashed before them in a completely different light. Jesus was the Messiah; his miracles were real; the scriptures had been fulfilled. Knowing this, they would never be the same. They would now live with a new boldness - to love as Jesus loved, to trust God as he trusted, to be as generous and free as he was. They would even lose their fear of death.
Now it would begin. It would all begin. And so Jesus told them to go out and “proclaim repentance,” which means simply to turn direction. So he wanted his friends to create situations where others would experience what they had - to see everything in a new light, turn to God, and change their lives.
Which is exactly what Peter and John did in our first lesson. They healed a paralyzed man at the temple gate in Jerusalem. The people gaped in astonishment as the man stood up and walked. And Peter said “Well, what did you expect, after Jesus’ resurrection? Everything is different now. Anything is possible. Repent therefore, turn to God; change your life.”
So this is the pattern: an encounter with God has the effect of waking one up to a new and deeper understanding of reality. Things are seen in a completely different light. There is nothing to do but turn, change, and start a different kind of life.
I wonder if you have had such an encounter. Some of you might have woken from a kind of sleep because of a vivid awareness of your mortality. You had a close brush with death, or the life of someone you love became fragile and uncertain. Knowing this, really knowing it, things begin to look different. With this knowledge, what shall you now do? How shall you live?
Others of you might have come at one point to a hard realization, long ignored, of some central fact. You fell in love with someone of your own gender, and guess what? You’re gay! Or you’re an alcoholic. Or you’re unhappy in your marriage, in the work you do. You have been living a lie, and now you have come to the truth. Knowing this, really knowing it, nothing will ever be the same. What then shall you do?
This can also happen as life unfolds naturally over time. At some point a father wakes up and realizes he is a father. He sees himself, his relationships, his responsibilities, his whole lifestyle in a new light. How shall he now live?
In each of these situations it is a new understanding of ourselves that changes everything. We see things differently, and we can’t help but be different.
We frequently think of those moments that motivate us to repent, to turn, as requiring a decision and will power. We finally get to the point where we say “Enough! I’m going to make myself the kind of person I know I should be!” But this approach is never very effective. Anyone who has tried to diet knows this. Anyone who tries to make themselves holy knows this.
Neither is fear a good motivator. We may say to ourselves “Oh no! I’m in deep trouble! I’d better get it together, quick!” But when the fear subsides, we wipe our brow and thank God we’ve dodged that bullet, and go on with life as usual.
What truly heads us in a new direction is an experience that gives us a clear understanding of the way things are. For instance, if we really get it, in the depths of our heart, that we are going to die, we will be affected. We may then make different choices about how we spend our time, what is worth worrying about, and how we love. If we hit bottom and face the inescapable knowledge that we are not what we have pretended to be, then we have begun a new journey.
And if, as people of faith, we have discovered that that God is real, that the Spirit dwells within us, we see ourselves in a new light. Then we naturally live as one who is beloved, at peace, empowered by a wisdom beyond our own knowing. We are naturally more able to trust, to listen, and to be guided.
What is true for us individually is also true for society. I don’t see us becoming motivated to turn from the path of global warming because we have become frightened by the disastrous scenarios that every reputable scientist is telling us. I don’t see us turning from war as a means of resolving our conflicts because we have finally decided it is the right thing to do. As a people, we will only repent from environmental destruction, violence, and indifference to the underprivileged because we come to truly understand ourselves differently - namely, that we are all one.
We are one with the whole planet, the whole universe. Nothing is separate; everything affects everything else. Our actions harm or benefit plants, oceans, and the atmosphere, and they benefit us. We are one with every other person, no matter what race or nation or creed. How the goods I consume are produced, how I vote, whether I care that people are homeless or without adequate education or medical care, even how I think and feel about people that are different from me - all this affects people who are my sisters and brothers in God. We are one.
If, and only if, we as a society can evolve to the point where we let ourselves experience this, and by that experience gain an understanding of the way things really are - and I have my doubts that we will, at least anytime soon - we will repent. We will change naturally, not because we fear, and not because we think we should, but because we see things differently, and we cannot help but live differently.
You and I cannot steer the massive ship of society towards a more evolved understanding. But we can wake up within our own lives, and help others to wake up, as well. And because we are all one, we affect the world around us.
We can take seriously that shock of our mortality, that awareness of God’s presence, those times of complete honesty or of hitting bottom, or those moments when we know that all of life is one sacred organism. We can receive the gift of seeing things as they are, and let this knowledge change us.
We do not know where this understanding will take us. A journey into new life begins without being able to see the destination, or even the twists and turns of the road ahead. All we know is what we know here and now, and that we shall now turn, trust, and walk. As John put it in the second reading today “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”
In our moments of realization, we are the same as the disciples after Easter. They saw the resurrected Christ, and nothing was ever the same. At times we are given clarity and deep understanding. If we take the time, if we take the risk to allow this new vision to affect us, we are changed. We repent, we turn down a new road, and now it begins. It all begins.