A Sermon that was NOT preached at the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas,
in the regional municipality of Apokoronas, on the island of Crete, in Greece
on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2020, 11:00 am
because of the Great Pandemic of 2020.
The readings I would have used are: Zephaniah 3.14-20, Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17,
Acts 2:14a,36-41, and Luke 24:13-35
Resurrection, Sheol, and the Temple
I am reading a fascinating book I picked up years ago but never got around to reading. It is Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (New Haven CT & London UK: Yale University Press, 2008) and is coauthored by Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levinson, who are both professors at Harvard Divinity School (“HDS”). What is interesting about this book is that Madigan is a Christian and a professor of Christian history, whereas Levinson is a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Midrash. I regret that I did not study with either of them when I was at HDS for a quick one year Master of Theology back in 2002-2003.
HDS is a strange place. It is interdenominational and interfaith, and so I studied with Jews, Buddhists, Later Day Saints, Episcopalians/ Anglicans, Methodists, Muslims, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Unitarians, and many other varieties of religion. Many of the students are preparing for ordination, but not all. HDS is also a graduate centre for the study of religion, and does not require any faith commitment from its students. Thus, many were examining the various world religions from a purely sociological or historical perspective, and were quite sceptical or agnostic about the claims of various faiths. That said, I found is fascinating to have this interfaith context, and to study Christian texts and history besides people from Buddhism and Judaism.
In Resurrection Madigan and Levinson examine the Jewish roots of resurrection. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, but many of us forget that this event was unusual and unexpected. What was weird about the resurrection of Jesus was that it was just a single person. In the Judaisms of Jesus’s day most Jews believed in the Resurrection of the Dead, but understood it as something that would happen to all people of Israel at one time (as suggested in Ezekiel 37), or to the whole of humanity, followed by judgment by God (as in Daniel 12); the resurrection of a single person, as was the case with Jesus, was unexpected.
Madigan and Levinson discuss the older Jewish understanding and belief of שְׁאוֹל Šəʾōl Sheol. Sheol was a kind of shadowy after-life that came to those whose life was cut off early. In Sheol one was cut off from kith and kin, and one was not even able to raise the praise of God. Interestingly, the dividing line between life and Sheol was not so much death, but rather the beginning of a grave illness from which one does not usually recover, a kind of death in the midst of life. Our psalm today describes this situation; the word translated as “grave” here is, in fact, Sheol:
2 The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.
3 Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: *
“O Lord, I pray you, save my life.” Psalm 116.2-3
What is the opposite of Sheol? The natural response for us today would probably be “heaven”, but this is a retroprojection of later ideas of heaven and hell on the Hebrew Bible understanding of Sheol. The Tanakh is vague on who goes to Sheol; some passages suggest everybody ends up in that shadowy existence, but more often it describes it as the fate of those who died early in life, or those who are gravely ill or wounded. Madigan and Levinson point out that Moses is not described as going to Sheol, and nor are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, or Solomon. Rather, they are “gathered to their ancestors”, and most of them, like Jacob/Israel, get to see their children’s children. A full life with many children would seem to be the opposite of Sheol. Of course, on occasion there are some particular individuals who are taken into the presence of God in the sky – Enoch and Elijah, being most prominent – but they are the exception.
Levinson and Madigan argue that the opposite (or antipode, in their language) of Sheol is a full life, and nowhere is that life more full than at the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus the psalm for today concludes,
14 O Lord, I am your servant; *
I am your servant and the child of your handmaid;
you have freed me from my bonds.
15 I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and call upon the Name of the Lord.
16 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord *
in the presence of all his people,
17 In the courts of the Lord‘s house, *
in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.
Hallelujah! Psalm 116.14-17
The Temple in Jerusalem is an intimation of immortality. This explains a line in Psalm 84:
1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God. . . .
10 For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere. Psalm 84.1-2, 10
The Temple was a place of sacrifice and the release of sins, feasting and of singing praise. It was where the people of God gathered, and where victory was celebrated. The courts of the Temple included gardens and trees, and it was intended to be an echo of Paradise, a recreation of Eden, and the closest thing to heaven on earth.
The Breaking of Bread
Where do we as Christians encounter the risen Jesus? When do we have our intimations of immortality, and receive our promises of heaven on earth? Our gospel reading today tells us:
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
We encounter Jesus when we gather, when the scriptures are opened to us, and he is made known to us in the breaking of bread. This is what we do in the Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Mass, the Liturgy, the Lord’s Supper). We do not have a Temple, but wherever we join together for the Eucharist, Christ is with us. It may be a home, it may be a field, it is perhaps in a cave, but more often it is in a building set aside for God’s people. And there we encounter the risen Christ, and there we have an echo of Paradise, a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
Of course, here in Crete we of St Thomas’s have the Tabernacle – a permanent tent over a patio, with views of gardens, olive trees, and mountains beyond, with the bleating of sheep and goats not far away. It is perhaps one of the loveliest places on Earth, a reminder of the Garden of Eden. It is here we normally gather and where Jesus is made known to us in the breaking of the bread.
This is one reason (among many) why this time is so difficult for us. We are separated from the Body of Christ, the Church, even though we can talk to each other by phone and see each other over the internet. But that cannot replace the reality of being in the presence of each other, which allows us to know the presence of Jesus. We are cut off from the sacrament, a kind of fasting from the Divine. We might know Jesus through the scriptures and in prayer on our own, but it is not the same. It feels like we are in some kind of shadowy existence, closer to Sheol than the Temple.
This will end. We do not know when, and we do not know how. Things will not be exactly the same. My hope and prayer is that, when we gather again, we will experience the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, that our hearts will burn within us, and we will say, “Praise God – Hallelu Yah!”
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A hopeful sermon which must resonate with so many people. Yes, it will end and so,
“We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield…….May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you”. (Psalm 33)