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Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Resurrection of Justice - A Sermon (Luke 24: 13 - 35)

The world around us has already moved on. They celebrated Easter with chocolates, and bunnies and then moved on to other things – but in the church we are still in Easter. The world outside is already gearing up for graduations and summer vacations – but in the church we are still in Easter. Our scriptural reading for today (Luke 24: 13 – 35), like last week’s reading (John 20: 19 – 31) takes place “that very same day” (Luke 24: 13 New Jerusalem Bible) Easter Sunday. We take our time here; we linger in this, the “Lord’s Day.” The world may have already moved on to the next shopping holiday – but in the church we are abiding for a while in this resurrection day.

“Now that very same day, two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. And it happened that as they were talking together and discussing it, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side.” (Luke 24: 13 – 15)

These two disciples – Cleopas and another unnamed disciple (in later tradition, named Simon) (Maclean 422) – may not have recognized Jesus as their risen Lord and master, their eyes may have been supernaturally blinded against seeing him for who he was, but the risen Jesus did not want them to remain in the darkness of ignorance. As they walked those seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus he walked them through the scriptures, “starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.” (Luke 24: 27)

We cannot know what passages Jesus explained to them on that dusty road, but let’s take our own little trip through the scriptures, through Moses and the prophets, and try to understand the resurrection a little better.

The first thing that we should understand – and this may help us to understand why the Cleopas and ‘Simon’ were so disappointed that day – in the Hebrew Bible / Old testament, especially the earliest parts of it, there is little that speaks about a resurrection.

The idea of a resurrection of the dead “does not appear except in texts that are rare, obscure with regard to their precise meaning, and late” (Martin-Achard 680). In the Old Testament there is no concept of resurrection, life after death, or rewards or punishments in the afterlife. In the Old Testament, the dead, all of them –the good, the bad, and the ugly- go to the grave, the pit, to sheol. And that’s it. Sheol, the place of the dead, was a place of no return. No one came back from there. No one gets out alive.

“A cloud dissolves and is gone,
so no one who goes down to Sheol ever comes up again,
ever comes home again,
and his house knows that person no more.” (Job 7: 9 – 10)

The road to Sheol was a “road of no return. (Job 16: 22). For the Jewish people, the grave was an inescapable prison.

But this thought caused a sort of crisis of faith for them. IF God is good, and IF the world belongs to him and is under his sovereign control – then why, they asked, do the righteous sometimes die horrible, painful deaths at the hands of powerful and wicked men? IF God is good, and IF the world belongs to him, then there must be justice for the righteous – if not in this life, then … perhaps in the next.

And so, slowly, over time, an idea developed among them that in the later days, in the time of the end, everything would be made right; the righteous dead would be rewarded and wicked, powerful men would receive the punishment due to them. And there would be, they began to understand, a resurrection of the dead.

In the book of Daniel (written during a time of intense persecution and struggle, during the Maccabean wars against the tyrannical Antiochus Epiphanes) we find this newly developing hope expressed: “Of those who are sleeping in the Land of Dust, many will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity.” (Daniel 12: 2 – 3)

The origins of Jewish belief in a resurrection after death are unclear (Nickelsburg 685). But by the time of Jesus, many (but not all) Jews accepted the idea of a life after death; the Sadducees did not accept this new and still developing theological point, and they argued with Jesus (and presumably with others who believed in the coming resurrection).

But the idea of resurrection was, at its foundation, about justice.

So, while Cleopas and ‘Simon’ may have believed in, and hoped for the resurrection of the dead, they still grieved the great injustice that had been done to their Teacher, their master, Jesus – the one that they had hoped would be the one to set Israel free (Luke 24: 21) And, while Cleopas and ‘Simon’ may have believed in, and hoped for the resurrection of the dead, they did not expect Jesus to be raised from the dead.

They thought of the resurrection of the dead as a great and general event all at once, at the time of the end. They did not expect a dying Messiah, and they did not expect his singular resurrection. As the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright has said, “Nobody expected the Messiah to be raised from the dead, for the simple reason that nobody in Judaism at the time expected a Messiah who would die, especially one who would die shamefully and violently” (Wright 19). And no one expected the Messiah (or anyone else for that matter) to be raised up in resurrection before the general resurrection at the end.

But as they walked those seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, with their eyes still blinded and their understanding still darkened, Jesus walked them through the scriptures again, explaining how Moses and all the prophets pointed to him and to the justice that his resurrection promised.

And this is what the resurrection is really about; this is what we must understand. The resurrection is about Justice. “The resurrection stories in the Gospels do not say Jesus is raised, therefore we’re all going to heaven, or therefore we’re going to be raised.” The resurrection stories in the Gospels are not there to give us a rosy hope for justice someday. The resurrection stories are there to say that the Kingdom of God – which is the kingdom of life, the kingdom of the living, the kingdom of the resurrected – has broken into this world of death and is bringing life and justice with it. The stories of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels say that “Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new creation has begun and we’ve got a job to do” (Wright 21).

The hope and promise of our resurrection is not (not merely) the hope of life after death someday – but life after life, and of renewed life and full life in this world now.

We cannot begin to answer the question of how did the resurrection happen – the resurrection of Jesus is a supernatural event, outside the realm of observation and quantification. But we can answer the question of why. Why is there a resurrection? Why is Jesus resurrected? Why does he promise this resurrection to us, his followers? For Justice. For Righteousness. For the renewal of all creation. Jesus is resurrected and we’ve got a job to do.

I’m always disappointed when I hear people say - and when I hear Christians especially say with a sigh and resignation, “well… that’s just the way things are.” Or “that’s just the way the world is.” No. I do not accept that. If we do not believe in change, the possibility and the necessity of making change for the good in this world, then why do we bother to speak of the resurrection of Jesus? Look again at the scriptures that Jesus opened for Cleopas and ‘Simon’ – the Law and the Prophets – passages of Holy Scripture concerning justice for the poor and the oppressed. The resurrection of Jesus may not be about our politics – but it doesn’t change our political belief, why bother to believe in the resurrection at all? “A deeply orthodox theology about the resurrection… is the proper seedbed of radical politics” (Wright 23).

Further, I may not agree with the conclusions of John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament Scholar who believes that the resurrection of Jesus was not a ‘real’ event[i], but I fully embrace his conclusion that while we might disagree over whether or not Jesus’s resurrection was a real event, a literal, physical, bodily et cetera… resurrection, what really matters is what we do as the result of our belief in Jesus’ resurrection; “I want really to know how we are going to take back God’s world from the thugs” (Crossan 29).

This is what the resurrection means. This is why we linger here in Resurrection Sunday two weeks after Easter. In his letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote at length about the nature Jesus’ resurrection and concluded by saying, “Thank God, then, for giving us the victory [over sin and death] through Jesus Christ our Lord. So, my dear brothers, keep firm and immovable, always abounding in energy for the Lord's work, being sure that in the Lord none of your labors is wasted.” (1 Corinthians 15: 57 – 58). 

The resurrection of Jesus (and the promise of our resurrection) does not mean we sit back and hope for that ‘pie in the sky, by and by’ – but that we are to be at work in this world, in the here and now, creating the justice and righteousness that is the character of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ victory over sin and death does not mean we kick back and relax until we are raptured away, but that we get to work, that we make things better for our neighbors, for the immigrant, for the sick, and the poor. He arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign” (Lowry). And this is what is to believe in his victory over the dark domain of death, to believe in the resurrection – to reign with him in this world by working for justice.We have a hope and a mission in this world because Jesus’ resurrection (and the promise of our own) is about Justice.


Lowry, Robert. “Up from the Grave He Arose (Low in the Grave He Lay)” 

MacLean, Gilmour S. “The Gospel According to Luke: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume 8. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1952. Print.

Martin-Achard, Robert. “Resurrection (OT)” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 5. New York. NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

Nickelsburg, George W. E. “Resurrection (Early Judaism and Christianity)” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 5. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

Wright, N.T. and John Dominic Crossan, “The Resurrection: Historical Event or Theological Explanation? – A Dialogue.” The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue. Ed. Robert. B. Stewart. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press. 2006. Print.

[i]  …though we do have to be careful about that word “real.” “The word real is one of the slipperiest ones in modern English…” (Wright 32)

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