Power in the Blood – Easter Sunday

(Excerpt from Theology From Exile Vol. III, The Year of Mark by Sea Raven, D.Min.)

Acts 10:34-43; Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

For Christians who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B’s readings for Easter cherry-pick the words of Isaiah – the prophet of the exiled Jewish people – to proclaim the great feast on the mountain, celebrating “the Lord for whom we have waited.” That “Lord,” we are to understand, is not the liberating God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That “Lord” is Jesus. Paul’s argument with the community in Corinth has also been taken out of its context in order to serve the dogma that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Careless readers might think that means Jesus was predestined by God to die as retribution for our wrongdoing, as foreseen by ancient prophecy.

Perhaps because it is Year B – “the Year of Mark” – we have the bizarre original ending of Mark’s gospel. Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s mother Mary, and Salome encounter a young man in a white robe perched inside Jesus’s borrowed tomb. He says, “Don’t be scared. Jesus was raised and isn’t here. Go tell Rocky and the others that he will meet everybody back in Galilee.” The terrified women bolt out of there as fast as possible and “they didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone . . .” Mark’s obsession with secrecy seems counterproductive. Inquiring minds might want to know how anybody ever found out about it. But we have John 20:1-18, which is read every year, to counteract any ambiguity. The story of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection has been used to prove that God loves us, even when we don’t love ourselves. God forgives us because Jesus took the punishment we deserved. We are guilty from the beginning of causing Jesus’s crucifixion. But because God loved the world enough to crucify his own son instead of us, we are forgiven, and accepted into heaven in the next life. We feel humbled, yet confident, secure in the certainty of our own individual salvation from sin and death.

The story of Jesus’s death and resurrection carries far more power than that.

Start with the Apostle Paul, whose message is lost if all we pay attention to is the snippet we are allowed to consider on Easter Sunday. Paul’s message is founded on four principles: 1) sin lives in the law; 2) Christ crucified; 3) Christ resurrected; and 4) grace. When Paul talks about “sin,” he’s not talking about petty trespass. The “sin that lies dead apart from the law” (Romans 7:8b) is much deeper than individual wrongdoing. Paul is talking about what John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg call “the normalcy of civilization.” Whenever and wherever humanity organizes itself into a civilization, rules and regulations are developed. The result is personal, social, and political systems that by their very nature lead to injustice. That is the sin that arises from the law. When Paul talks about “Christ crucified” – or in this specific case, “Christ died for our sins” – he is talking about Jesus’s willingness to give up his life for the principles he taught. Those principles are radical fairness, radical inclusiveness, and the radical abandonment of self-interest. When Paul talks about “Christ resurrected” – or in the snippet for Easter Sunday, “he was raised on the third day” – he is talking about transformation. This transformation begins when the individual takes on the work begun by Jesus of restoring God’s justice to the world – although, Paul says, “it was not I but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10b). This “grace” is the free gift of the presence of God without requirement. “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). By the grace of God, then, in partnership with anyone willing to sign onto the work, the world itself is transformed. God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion – the “kingdom of God” – is established, here, now.

The Jews were not the first nor the only people to realize that their survival depends on justice. The argument for millennia has been whether justice that supports life is retributive (payback) or distributive (fairness); the theology of Empire (piety, war, victory) versus the theology of Covenant (nonviolence, justice-compassion, peace). Retributive justice systems are the hallmark of imperial power. But along with retributive justice come other social systems. We are born into the normalcy of civilizations that develop means of controlling individual behavior ostensibly for the common good, but which instead set traps and create victims: the poor, the elderly, the sick, the outsider, the marginalized, the disenfranchised for whatever reason. Under such conditions, most humans are happy to give up their freedom to any regime that promises salvation, whether it is liberation from injustice in this life, or deliverance from hell in the next. As many victims of these systems have learned, revenge is not enough to restore wholeness.

Neither the ancient world nor the globalized society of the postmodern twenty-first century has truly grasped the meaning of “love your enemies” – or kenosis – “the radical abandonment of self-interest.” The practice of kenotic love is embodied most clearly for Christians in Jesus, yet is perhaps not so rare as we might think: Nelson Mandela; The Amish Community’s response to the massacre of its children; the refusal of the Christian Peacemaker Teams to testify against their captors in Iraq; the Berrigan brothers and the Plowshares actions against the Vietnam War; Freedom Riders; Dorothy Day; the Union movement of the 1930s; the witnesses who stood against Senator Joseph McCarthy; the French Resistance; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Sojourner Truth.
The “cloud of witnesses” that signed onto Jesus’s Way is huge, mostly anonymous, and not exclusive to Christians.

The Easter season is permeated with ancient symbolism that still raises the short hairs on the back of our necks. It is neither through accident nor God’s intervention that the story of Jesus’s execution and resurrection became entwined with the Jewish Passover story of God’s action in the liberation of the Jewish people. The blood of the lambs was smeared around the doorways of the Hebrew people so that God’s Angel of Death would pass over those places and descend on the houses of the oppressors. In John’s gospel, Jesus was executed at the same time that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered. Blood poured out on ancient altars as an offering was a symbol of profound reconciliation between the failure of human systems and the perfection of God’s realm of justice-compassion. G.F. Handel combined that archetype with words from Revelation 5:12: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and has redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.”

There is still power in the blood. The power lies in the willingness to give up the well-being assured by imperial systems and act to overturn them. Jesus died doing that. So did Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Raoul Wallenberg. The blood of others will also be required before the kingdom is accomplished. That is not a prophecy of violent end-times that can only be escaped by those who believe in the Rapture. It is acknowledgment of the kind of commitment and risk that results in Isaiah’s Banquet on the Mountain.

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