Texts: Isaiah 43: 1-21, John 20: 19-2.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
When I think about God, I tend to want the biggest, grandest, most powerful God I can get: the God who is all powerful, all good, all knowing, unchanging, without parts; the God who is absolutely distinct from and superior to all of His creation; the God who is not subject to past, present, and future, but sees all in an instant.
This tendency of thought, if it gets out of hand, can find itself in tension with Christianity. This is brought out forcefully as we celebrate the events of Holy Week and Easter. Whatever God is, we celebrate that God came to Earth two thousand years ago, died a criminal’s death, and rose again on the third day. This can be hard to square with our favourite pictures and theories of an all-powerful God. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing such a God ought to do.
Now I don’t want to encourage throwing out the traditional idea of God. It is a vital part of Christianity. We’ve just said in the Apostle’s Creed “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” We have also heard God’s declaration in Isaiah that “I, I am the Lord and besides me there is no saviour … I am God, and also henceforth I am He; there is no one who can deliver from my hand; I work and who can hinder it?“
But Holy Week and Easter are a particularly good time to let our incomplete pictures of God be challenged by the radical acts of God in history. This, especially challenges our idea of God as beyond or ‘above’ time. Tonight, I’d like to share a way of thinking of Easter, derived from the work of the recently-deceased Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, that both challenges me at this time. I hope it will be useful to you as well.
Jenson’s thought has two emphases which fit perfectly with our two readings tonight: God as trinity and God as a maker of promises. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we are sent, as he is, in the name of the Father and then gives us the Spirit. In our reading from Isaiah, God’s promise making is front and centre.
Indeed, God’s making of promises is present throughout scripture. To Abraham, God promises that his descendants will be more than the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore; to the Israelites fleeing from Egypt, God promises a land of milk and honey; to the Judeans in exile in Babylon, God promises return and restoration.
It is this last promise that we have heard in our reading from Isaiah: “I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation” and “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”.
Now the promise-making God is one who lives in time and history. Promises concern the future. In fact, a promise can be thought of as the gift of a future. If I promise you something, then your future opens up with new possibilities for growth and change. Because, for instance, I promise that I will look after your dog, you can go away on holiday and return recharged. More serious promises offer a whole life as a gift (as in marriage vows or traditional monastic vows).
The God who makes promises is quite different from one who sets up, once and for all, a set of eternal patterns that things must always follow. Claimed gods of this sort cease to be believable when their “eternal patterns” break down. For instance, if a kingdom believes it was established forever by some god, and then the kingdom falls, their claimed god falls with them.
A promise, on the other hand, can be held on to even when everything seems to be falling apart. This is exactly because promises concerns the future and not the past. Israel began with a promise to Abraham before it possessed any kingdom or lands or status quo or set of laws. This meant, in turn, that even after both Israel and Judah fell, their God could still be present in promises for the future (“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing”).
Now, as Jenson understands it, in the death and resurrection of Jesus God makes an ultimate and final promise. And, unlike our own promises, all of which are unreliable to a greater or lesser degree, the promise made in and by Jesus is actually successful.
What usually goes wrong with promises is that they end up with conditions attached. We tend to turn gifts into obligations or laws. For instance: If you cover my next shift at work, then I’ll look after your dog; If you behave nicely, then you can have an ice cream; If you continue to be exciting to me, then I’ll stay with you.
We also tend to turn God’s promises into laws. If things don’t seem to be coming together as we think they ought to, perhaps we aren’t sufficiently fulfilling all the conditions that we ought to. This is the motivation for a lot of human activity.
Even if we don’t explicitly put obligations or demands on others, our attempts at promise-making still end up with conditions attached. I might promise to visit you in hospital, but the bridge I needed to drive across is blocked or perhaps I myself will fall ill. Tough luck. These things happen.
And no matter how much we attempt to avoid adding conditions to our promises, there’s one that we can’t get rid of: death. I can do everything in my power to gift you a future, but if I die, you’re out of luck. I’m taking your hopes with me.
To truly make a promise, then, death would have to be defeated. There would have to be something or someone who could be relied upon without fear that they might die and take our hopes for the future with them. A good thing, then, that Jesus Christ is risen.
In his life and resurrection, Jesus also short-circuits our attempts to turn God’s promises into laws. In his life, he constantly refused to place conditions for our worthiness to be part of his Kingdom. By overcoming death in his resurrection, he removes the last possible condition.
Ok, you might be saying to yourself, but what is the promise, already?
The answer is that what Jesus did in his life on Earth will continue into the future without limit. What did Jesus do? He lived his life entirely for others. Jesus’s life was perfect self-giving love. If Jesus is risen, then this self-giving love will go on without limit. And, as alive, we can expect him to surprise us just as any other living person does.
If Jesus’s life of self-giving love is without limit or condition. This means, for one thing, that we are met where we are with all of our hopes and aspirations for the future. If Jesus is risen, then somehow something will be made of them. Whatever they are, they will be interpreted by the love of Christ.
As Jenson puts it, “Jesus will speak the word of love, to all [people] and to every incident of their lives.”
This is a very practical point. It makes sense, for instance, of why Christians should do things like, as we engaged in recently, a day of prayer concerning Brexit. If Jesus is risen, then the whole mess of hopes and fears and conflicting interests thrown up by that issue will, in the fullness of time, be interpreted by love. This is a hope that is worth sharing which the Church, confident in the promise of Christ, can offer.
That the promise of Jesus can be held on to no matter what, is of great comfort. I don’t know about you, but in recent time I have frequently found myself waking up in the morning and squinting my eyes at my phone screen only to see some new horror in the world. This morning we heard the terrible news of more than one hundred dead in Sri Lanka, many of which were celebrating their own Easter Day mass.
If Christ is risen, then we have hope for all those who were lost today. Their lives also can rise again with Christ. But even more radically, if Christ is risen, the church bombers and mosque shooters of the world are not hopeless cases. Their hopes, however twisted, for justice or harmony or to be loved will be fulfilled (even if they would not recognise as they are now). Christ speaks to all of us in our individuality and where we are.
The universality of the promise made in Christ is present in what we have heard from Isaiah, where all of the nations assemble before God and where God promises to gather His people from the four corners of the world, and where even “the jackals and ostriches” will honour God. If Jesus is risen, then everything is part of the story of Easter.
The mystery of Easter is inexhaustible. It’s unlikely that any other event has been thought about in as much detail as the events of Easter. And yet there is always more to say and consider. One consequence of this is that it is hard to know when to stop talking!
I’ll conclude with something about our role in this story. In our short Gospel reading, Jesus says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. What Jesus is, we are to be too. We do this by allowing ourselves and our hopes to be transformed by the living love of Christ.
Our Gospel reading also suggests some of the means by which we can be transformed. In it, Jesus gives ‘the Spirit’ to his apostles. One thing this represents is an authority (to ‘forgive sins’ in our reading). This authority was passed on to their successors right up to the Church of the present day. In the life of the Church we both directly encounter the risen Christ in the sacraments and hear his word in scripture. (It is not an accident that we move straight from claims about the Spirit to claims about the Church in the creeds).
The Spirit will, as Jesus says earlier in John’s Gospel, “guide [us] into all … truth”. This is another promise, and, as such, directs out attention to the future: to what we will be. As Jenson understands it, the idea that God is trinity is an insistence that God acts in time. God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, ensures that the past (our origin with the Father) and future (our living in to the Spirit) hold together. For if Jesus touches all of us in our own situations, then what we have been (the past) will be turned by Jesus’s love into what we will be (the future).
The resurrection thus gives us a freedom to act in the world. Because Jesus is risen, we can live confidently in to the future no matter how hopeless things might appear. The love that Jesus showed in his life and death will transform us, and by virtue of that love, we will become ever more fully who we really are. The triune God ensures, as Jenson puts it, that the past and the future will ‘rhyme’. There is, for my money, no greater freedom than that.