Monday, March 28, 2016

Christ the First Fruits

I can’t be the only one to detect a hint of friendly rivalry in this morning’s Gospel reading.  The whole thing begins with a desperate footrace between Peter and another disciple—the “disciple whom Jesus loved” we are told—the one usually identified as John, the author of the gospel. Here is where the rivalry becomes apparent for he includes the detail, “but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first!” Just in case you were wondering who was faster! It seems a little unfair for John to rib Peter so, after all John was certainly the much younger of the two! Maybe I am reading into the text, but it always makes me chuckle.

Perhaps there is a more spiritual meaning in this race, however. The great Scottish preacher, Samuel Rutherford, ruminating on this text once said, 

“Among the children of God all of them have not a like speed. Some of them get a sight of Christ before others. But whoever they be that have the life of God in them, and so are running on towards Him, they shall, either first or last, meet with Him without doubt.”

Maybe it was the love of Christ that put the extra wind at John’s back and maybe it was the sense of guilt for his own denial of Christ that weighed Peter down.
Neither of them as yet understood the scriptures that Jesus must rise from the dead, but mark the different temperaments of the two disciples. Some believers have a simple faith. They believe and receive the gospel with joy without needing to understand or to ask, “Why?” Others are more cautious and hesitant. They are the more critical and analytical sort. They need to investigate and understand the implications of a thing before they allow themselves to accept it.

 John may have reached the tomb first, but he stopped there, dumbfounded at the door. Peter, with his characteristic boldness, charged ahead needing to understand.  He puzzles over the details of the scene, how the head covering is folded in a place apart. It is easy to imagine the questions swirling in Peter’s brain. Could it be that Jesus actually rose? What would that even mean?  John, however, sees and believes.  

Which type are you? For my own part, I’m a Peter. I need to understand why. Which is why I am thankful for Saint Paul, who in our Epistle reading does more than just announce that Jesus is risen; he takes us into the theology of the thing. He addresses some of the questions that Jesus’ resurrection raises. As modern westerners, you probably have questions about how the resurrection can be justified scientifically, but Paul’s questions are different. As a rabbi he already believes in the resurrection of the dead, but this is highly irregular. The resurrection is supposed to be something that happens to all the righteous at the end of the world, but here one man, the messiah, has been raised right in the middle of history. No one expected that. How can we make sense of this according to God’s law, the Holy Scriptures?

If you were here on Thursday night for our Maundy Thursday service, you will remember just a few days before these events Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. At that meal he identified himself with the Passover sacrifice and made the startling claim that he was the lamb whose blood would save the people from their sins. That first Easter Sunday was the first Sunday after the Passover which according to Jewish custom is kept as the Feast of the First Fruits. God’s law required that the first fruits of every harvest be offered to him, whether plant or animal. On the Feast of the First Fruits the offering would be brought to the temple where the priest would present it before the altar with a burnt offering producing a pleasing aroma to be accepted by the Lord. This was called the wave offering. So what does any of this have to do with Jesus’ resurrection?

Saint Paul calls Jesus, “the first fruits of those who have died.” He is the wave offering of the great harvest of souls in the resurrection of the dead, the first glimpse of the new creation, of the long promised redemption of the world.

 He is like that lonely crocus that pokes its head up from the ground in the middle of March in the midst of snow flurries or like that robin that suddenly appears in your back yard.  They are a promise that spring is coming! It will soon be here! Likewise Jesus burst fourth from his tomb in the midst of our dying world oppressed by the long winter of sin. His resurrection is a promise of a new creation.

Elsewhere Jesus is called the “firstborn from the dead.” He is the first among many brothers and sisters. Where he goes we will follow.  There is a sequence of events as Paul describes, Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to him, and then the final consummation where all creation will be made new. This was the testimony of Holy Scripture that Peter and John did not yet understand.

Later that morning, when our risen Lord first appeared to Mary, in her grief, she did not yet recognize him, but thought he was the gardener. She was of course mistaken, but in another sense Jesus really is a gardener. He is a gardener in the sense that Adam was a gardener when he was made a steward of God’s creation in the Garden of Eden.  Jesus is the steward of a new and better creation. He is a new Adam, a fresh start for the human race.  Paul writes, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Brothers and sisters, let us have the same thirst to know and understand these things that Peter had. Let us not be hindered by the weight of our guilt but go with him into the empty tomb to see for ourselves the new creation. But than like John, let us see and believe, and like Mary go and tell the world, “I have seen the Lord! He is Risen!”

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