Saturday, 19 April 2014

Resurrection: Jesus emerges from the Holy of Holies

The story of the resurrection of Jesus as it comes to us in John’s gospel is one we may have heard a hundred times, more even!  Yet even to remember how the story goes can be difficult before we begin to pick away at the layers that lie beneath it.

This morning I want to just begin picking away at those layers just a little bit to get us contemplating the depth of what John is trying to get across to us in this story.

What I want us to begin to understand is how radical and consistent this move of God is with the God’s nature as loving.  So much does God love us that God wishes to share eternity life with us!

This ‘eternity life’ is not something that is necessarily restricted to what happens after you and I die but is about life lived now with God.

Now the scene that we have just retold and then heard from John’s gospel is part of a bigger drama.  John parallels his telling of the passion with the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur.

This day was a day in which the Israelites experienced through their liturgical rites God’s decision to reach out towards them in mercy.

The theologian James Alison has provided helpful insight for me into the relationship between the two stories.  It is not my intention to give you a lengthy session on ancient ritual but merely to focus on a few points that may challenge the way you might think about the resurrection.

Firstly, to suggest that what occurred on the cross was not only about the demand that we human beings make of God and one another for vengeance to assuage our wrath.  But also that in response to God’s decision to make us in God’s image and to invite us into relationship is met with the greatest refusal possible – we nail God in Jesus to the cross.  This is a story about atonement and anger but it is not God who has the anger issues.

Secondly, to suggest that because the story in John’s gospel is over layed with the liturgical drama of the Day or Atonement everything is symbolic.  When Mary sees two angels in the tomb at either end of where Jesus had been laid there is an inference that here is the mercy seat.  The mercy seat was a related part of Ark of the Covenant and was found in the Temple, behind the Holy of Holies.

John, writing nearly 60 years after the event, appears to be adding meaning to the moment so it is clear what is occurring. The tomb of Jesus is itself the Holy of Holies and where Jesus lay was where the covenant lay.  Jeremiah had written “I will write the law on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.”  In Jesus the covenant and the law was enfleshed and the angels standing where his head and feet were are a strong sign that what was occurring in this moment was occurring in relationship to how the Jewish people understood God’s relationship to the world.

Which brings me to the third point: the stone was rolled away.  In John’s gospel, unlike Mark’s, there is no report of the Temple Curtain being torn in two because that event is being signified here.

Jesus Tomb is the Holy of Holies and now there is no barrier between the perceived dwelling place of God and the creation.  The enormity of this event is difficult to fathom.  Turning again to James Alison, he says, "The Holy of Holies was the place that symbolized 'before the first day' - which meant, of course, before time, before creation was brought into being." (James Alison in Stricken by God p. 169)

Alison goes on to describe the liturgy, "The priest emerged from there and came through the Temple veil.  This was made of very rich material, representing the material world, that which was created.  At this point, the high priest would don a robe made of the same material as the veil, to demonstrate that what he was acting out was God coming forth and entering the world of creation so as to make atonement, to undo the way humans had snarled up the creation.” (James Alison in Stricken by God p. 169)

As Jesus emerges from the Tomb, the very dwelling place of God, before the first day, the Tomb remains opened!  The God whom we human beings had sought to destroy through our desire for sacrifice and fear of God, is not held back even by death and comes to us saying “Peace be with you!”  “I have loved you with an everlasting love!” “I will be your God and you will be my people!”  This is far more than a demand it is God’s promise and it is God’s nature, utterly, completely, wholly – LOVE!

And in this love God determines to share his life with ours.  Jesus had promised the disciples saying “I have come to bring you life and life in all its fullness.”  The fullness of life shared with God.

The ancient Fathers of the church knew this and the great teacher Athanasius declared the mystery of the incarnation: “He became human in order that we might become God with him.”

This is why sharing the bread and wine of communion takes on so much significance for we are sharing in a taste of the heavenly banquet where Jesus, our High Priest, offers us to share in his own life, symbolised in bread and wine.

Everything has changed for us in these moments: our understanding of life and death; of conception of grace and mercy; and our relationship of God and the creation which flows freely around us.

John was seeking to communicate a deep and wondrous mystery as he retold the story of Jesus resurrection.  He was theologising it – he put God into the story so that no one could miss the enormity of God’s desire to express love and mercy towards we whom God had created and loved from the beginning until the end.

The full implications of the resurrection remain as elusive and confusing for us as they did for the first disciples.  Yet on this Easter day I wish for all you a sense of the wonder of this moment where God defeating death continues to move towards us, coming out from the Holy of Holies, leaving the stone rolled away, and inviting us to share in God’s own life!

May you indeed have a happy and a holy Easter!

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