Easter Day: Let us Keep the Feast
Easter: Let us Keep the Feast
1 Corinthians 5:6b-8 & St. Mark 16:1-8
by William Klock
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome stood at the foot of the cross on Friday. They stood there in shock and in grief as Jesus was crucified, as the soldiers and the priests mocked him, as he cried out, “It is finished” and breathed his last. They were there when the clouds blotted out the sun and the earth shook and when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side and blood poured out—like a Passover lamb, slaughtered on the altar…as the wind scattered his blood and sprinkled it on them as if they were being purified. And the two Marys, along with Joseph of Arimathea, were in that party that took down Jesus from the cross, wrapped his body in linen, placed him in a tomb, and rolled a great stone in place to seal it up.
That Sabbath was the longest Sabbath any of them had ever known. They went to ground, hiding in the dark with doors locked and the shutters closed. Who knew if the authorities might come for them next. They sat in the dark and wept and were angry and then wept again. They knew Jesus was from God. They knew he was the Messiah. No one could do the things he did, no one could say the things he said if he were not from God. But then how could he be dead? How could they have been wrong? Or had they been wrong? They couldn’t have been wrong, but Jesus was dead so they must have been wrong. All that long Sabbath day they wept and they gnashed their teeth and they wondered and they wept some more. And when the Sabbath ended at sunset on Saturday, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome ventured out into the city to buy oil and spices to anoint Jesus’ body and in the grey light of early morning they made their way back to the tomb. I expect they were bundles of mixed emotions: angry and frustrated with Jesus that he’d let them down, but they were also grieving for their beloved friend and master. Because the Passover was coming, they’d had to bury him without the usual signs of care and respect. Now was their chance to make sure he was buried properly. Hopefully the soldiers or maybe a gardener would help them roll the stone away so that they could get into the tomb.
But when they got there, the tomb was already open. Had someone else had the same idea and got there first? Had the Romans or the priests decided to take Jesus’ body and to bury it somewhere else? Or what if the crucifixion wasn’t enough and they’d decided to add insult to injury by desecrating Jesus’ body. But no one was around and so they hurried to the open tomb and, to their surprise, sitting inside they found a young man dressed all in white. They were afraid. Everyone’s always afraid when they meet an angel. And then those famous first words of every angel ever: “Don’t be afraid.” He calmed them. “I know. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” And then the real shock, “He has been raised. He is not here. Look…right over there is the place they—that you—laid him.”
What went through their heads as the angel spoke? I suspect that those words “He has been raised,” probably went in one ear and out the other…at least at first. All their attention was on those words “He is not here”—because they could see that for themselves. I expect the conversation between the women and the angel was a bit more frantic and that there was a good bit more back and forth. Mark has given us the condensed version. “Of course he’s not here! We can see that for ourselves! Where is he?” I can just hear them asking. And the angel responds, “I told you, he's been raised!” And they said, “What do you mean ‘raised’?” Because, just like our word, their word could refer to someone, for example, rising from sleep. But they knew Jesus hadn’t been sleeping. They saw him breath his last. They saw the solider pierce his side. They held him as they took him down from the cross and wrapped him in linen. And he said, “As in ‘raised from the dead’!” And then it began to sink in.
Because no one expected that. Jesus had warned his friends that he was going to be killed. And he even told them he would be raised on the third day. But none of them had really understood. And the women were confused now, because even though most Jews not only believed in the resurrection of the dead and even looked forward in eager longing to the day when the dead would be raised, this was not how anyone thought it would happen. They didn’t all agree on how it would happen, but one thing they did agree on was that it wouldn’t be just one person—not even if that one person was the Messiah. And the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die anyway! No, they thought, when the time came the Lord would raise everybody…all at once and usher in the age to come, the kingdom, or however you wanted to describe it—his new world in which everything would finally be set to rights—it would come in all its fullness and God would be king and the wicked would be judged and the righteous would be rewarded and justice would finally reign. No one thought it would happen this way—just one person, even if he was the Messiah, and with the Romans still in charge and, well, everything else that was wrong with the world still seemingly wrong with it. No one expected that. And that’s one of the reasons we can know that Jesus’ disciples didn’t make all this up. If they’d made it up they would have told a very different story.
But it did happen this way and the women stood there in wonder and in fear as the angel told them—again, I suspect, probably more than once: He has been raised. Yes, from the dead. No, not like Lazarus who will get sick and die again. Jesus has been raised-raised, really raised. Death no longer has a hold on him. (Okay, that was actually St. Paul who wrote that last bit, but you get the point.) Because none of this would have computed easily for them. And so I think they finally took in the message that Jesus had been raised—that the resurrection of the dead that the Jews had hoped for had happened—or was beginning to happen—or something like that--just not, really not in the way anyone had expected. That was as good as the angel was going to get from them at that point and so, with that, he sends them off. “Go! Go tell Jesus’ disciples that he has been raised and that he’s already off on his way to Galilee and that he’ll meet you all there. And don’t forget to tell Peter, because he denied Jesus three times and he’s feeling the absolute worst of all and thinks Jesus will never want to see him again. Tell Peter and the others that Jesus will meet them in Galilee and you’ll see him just as he said you would. Just as he promised.”
And with that, Mary, Mary, and Salome ran. Mark says they were filled with trembling and astonishment. Matthew says they were filled with fear and great joy. They were thrilled that Jesus was alive and that they would see him again; they were in shock because no one—no one—had expected this. (Except, of course, Jesus.) And they were afraid, because they didn’t know what this meant. It was a game changer, but how? And so they ran and, Mark says, they told no one—meaning they didn’t stop to tell anyone along the way. They went running straight to Peter and the others to do what the angel had said and to tell them.
And, very suddenly, that’s the end of the story as Mark tells it. Or, at least, it’s the end of what we have of Mark. I suspect that there was a little more to Mark’s gospel originally. I think that, because over and over Mark tells us about the great lengths that Jesus took to help his disciples understand that he would be rejected, would suffer, would be killed, and would finally be raised from death. They never did really understand. They thought Jesus was talking in riddles…or they just didn’t understand at all. But Mark tells the story so that we do understand and so that when he gets to the end of it, we’re not surprised. Mark shows us Jesus as a real, bona fide prophet and over the course of the previous two chapters he’s shown us how what Jesus said about his rejection and suffering and death really did happen, so I don’t think Mark would leave off as he does—or as what we have left of his gospel does—without showing how in greater detail how Jesus was also speaking the truth about his resurrection. I think this is why people later tried to fill the gap, composing several different endings for Mark to wrap things up. Maybe the women and the angel at the empty tomb were enough for Mark. It is possible and I might be wrong. Maybe Mark expected that, in those first churches where his story was read out loud, the reader would get to the end, and then one of the people in the church—maybe even one of the disciples—would finish the story and recall what he’d seen on that first Easter and in the days that followed before Jesus’ ascension.
But I think Mark probably wrote a bit more. It wouldn’t have had to be much. Just another column on the scroll that, at some point, was accidentally torn off as the scroll was passed around and became worn. But a column where he told the story of how the disciples saw the empty tomb for themselves and then went on to meet Jesus in Galilee to see that he really was alive, but alive in a way no one had ever seen or experienced before—not all that different from what Matthew and Luke wrote. Because Mark’s Gospel as it now stands is a bit like the book of Exodus with everything up through the Passover and the Israelites packing their things to leave Egypt and then…that’s it. We’d hear the Lord’s promises and his instructions for the Passover and we’d see the Passover actually take place, and we’d know…or have a pretty clear sense…that, okay, Israel is now free…but we’d never really have the Exodus itself: the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the law given at Sinai and the tabernacle and the Lord’s presence in it. Because Mark makes sure we know the Lord’s promises to set his people and his creation to rights and he makes sure we know that Jesus will be the Passover lamb, and he makes sure we know that Jesus will be raised and that it will change everything—a new exodus, this time from sin and death. And then we see Jesus die, the Passover lamb, and we see here, so briefly, the empty tomb and hear the angel’s announcement that he was raised…but the women go off, happy yes, but confused, perplexed, and not really understanding. Has everything changed or not? And if everything has changed, what’s it look like for Jesus’ friends and for Israel and for the world?
If there was more to Mark, it may be entirely providential that it has been lost, because Mark’s rather abrupt ending forces us to ask, “What happened next?” What does the resurrection of Jesus mean for the disciples, and for the world, and for us. And so there’s a sense in which the rest of the New Testament is the missing ending of Mark’s gospel—these writings that tell us about the life of the early church and how they worked out the implications of Jesus resurrection from the scriptures and for themselves. The rest of the New Testament shows us the rest of the story of this new exodus—and it shows us what it means to live as the people of God in this new covenant.
We could turn from here to anywhere in the New Testament, but today the Church turns the page for us and puts 1Corinthians 5 in front of us and says, “This is what it means that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.” So let’s look again at what Paul writes there in verses 6-13:
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the [feast], not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Notice how you can never get very far away from this Passover theme. The Christians in Corinth were struggling to live in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus changed everything and they knew it, but in many ways they weren’t living it. They were sinful and selfish—and even prided themselves on some of it. And so Paul takes them back to the Exodus with this imagery. That’s what the leaven is about.
I ran across a short documentary this week. It was made in a bakery where Hasidic Jews bake unleavened bread for Passover. It was interesting, but one of the things they stressed was how quickly the bakers have to work. They have eighteen minutes to make each batch of bread. At some point someone determined that eighteen minutes is the shortest possible time it might take for ground grains to begin to ferment. And if the flour ferments the tiniest bit, then they can’t consider the bread unleavened anymore. So every batch has to be made in under eighteen minutes. And this evolved from, it goes back to the Passover, when the Lord told the Hebrews to bake bread without yeast, because they were going to have to leave Egypt in a hurry. And so leaven, in Jewish thought, became a metaphor for things that would corrupt or that would make something impure…even if it was small, it would work its way through and corrupt the whole. And Paul uses this imagery of leaven for the Christian life, because right from the start the first Christians saw that in Jesus a new Passover and a new exodus had happened. It wasn’t a coincidence that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead at Passover. He’d made the point himself at that last Passover meal he shared with his disciples when he held up the bread and the wine of that meal, the meal that was all about the Lord’s deliverance and creation of Israel as his people, that Jesus took the elements of that meal and said, “This is me. The bread is my body, which will be broken for you. The wine is my blood, which will be poured out for you.” As the Passover lambs were sacrificed in the temple and their blood painted on the doorposts of the Hebrews to identify them as the Lord’s redeemed people, Jesus was crucified and his blood poured out to redeem in a way almost no one had ever imagined and to create a new people of God marked out now by his blood.
Think about what that means, Brothers and Sisters. Our entire life as Christians is one great Passover. As Paul says, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.” There are some liturgies for the Lord’s Supper that incorporate this verse, but it then becomes misleading, because Paul isn’t just talking about the Lord’s Supper. Again, our whole life in Christ, in Jesus the Messiah, is a Passover. What we do here in the Lord’s Supper is emblematic of our whole life in him. By his death and resurrection, by his broken body and shed blood, Jesus has led us out of our old life, a life in slavery to sin and to death, and into a new life as his people—forgiven, purified, made holy, and filled with God’s own Spirit. And that makes every part of life, every thing we do an act of service and of worship to the God who has delivered us and made us his own, who through our baptism, has become our God and has made us his people.
And so Paul draws on that imagery of the original Passover and the way the Israelites purged their homes of leaven in preparation for the feast. For us, the problem isn’t literal leavening. Again, for Jewish people the association of leaven with the Passover meant that leaven became a metaphor for things that are impure and especially for impure thing that have a corrupting influence. Paul’s calling us to purge our lives of our old ways—the things we did and the way we lived when we were in bondage to sin, the way we lived in those days before Jesus marked us out with his blood and delivered us from that slavery.
What we need instead of the leaven of malice and wickedness, says Paul, is the unleavened bread of real life in Jesus. Now it’s interesting how he describes that, because we might think that in contrast to malice and wickedness, Paul might tell us we need things like goodness and holiness, but instead he tells us to celebrate our Passover with sincerity and truth. What does that mean? It would be easy for us to misunderstand what he means by sincerity, because so many people around us talk about that sort of thing, but they mean something different. People today talk about sincerity as if it doesn’t matter so much what you believe or what you do, so long as you’re sincere. Or people today like to talk about being “authentic” and they often mean something very similar. That’s not what Paul means. The Greek word he uses has the sense of being pure in our motives and that purity is what the Spirit gives us as he regenerates our hearts and renews our minds—as he fills our hearts with love for God and tunes our affections on what is good and holy. The other side of our unleavened bread is truth. Brothers and Sisters, we became enslaved to sin because we believed a lie. Jesus, who is himself the truth, has set us free from that lie.
Paul brings us back to the fact that by his death and resurrection, Jesus has changed everything. This is the great truth that would dawn on the disciples as they met the risen Jesus in Galilee, this is the great truth that would dawn on the two who walked with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus that first Easter day as Jesus walked them through the scriptures in light of his resurrection, this is the great truth that dawned on Paul when he was met by the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus. Jesus, risen from the dead, changed everything.
Again, for them and for Paul, it was all seen in light of the Passover and the covenant the Lord had made with his people. That first Passover and the exodus from Egypt changed everything for them. He gave them his torah—the way for them to be his people in return for his pledge to be their God, so that they could live in his presence and be a light to the nations. And the result was that literally every aspect of life—the little things, even the tiny things, up to the great big things, everything—like baking bread in eighteen minutes or less, lest leaven creep into it—was done with their relation with the Lord in mind; everything, big and small, done to honour him and to show that they belonged to him, and to show their commitment to him.
And now, Paul’s saying that something very much like that has happened in Jesus. Even as Jesus has freed his people from the old ways of the torah, the law of love and freedom and grace that the torah and the old Passover pointed to, that new law has been written in our hearts by God’s own Spirit. It marks us out as Jesus’ people and ought to shape every aspect of our lives in much the same way that torah shaped every aspect of life for the Hebrews. Paul will go on to describe that life to the Corinthians. It’s shaped and defined, not this time by diet or Sabbath or circumcision, but by our faith in Jesus and by a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Brothers and Sisters, Jesus has purified us and marked us out as his own with his blood, and now the Father has poured out his Spirit on us that we might know his promise: He is our God, and that we might be his people.
So come to the Table this morning and recall this great Passover in which Jesus the Messiah has given himself for us. Take part in this covenant renewal as we eat the bread and drink the wine, then go out knowing that Jesus’ resurrection has changed everything. Let your whole life be lived in light of this Passover, let it be full of sincerity and truth—filled and shaped by love for the God who gave his life for us and empowered and made new by the gift of his own Spirit.
Let’s pray: O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.