When the day of Pentecost had come… [Peter] lifted up his voice and addressed the people, saying, …”This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed…But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…
Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:1, 14, 23-24, 36)
In recent decades I have frequently tried out an idea, fully expecting someone to contradict me, but no one ever has. I believe that if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, we would never have heard of him. In all these years I have not heard an argument to the contrary. The Romans crucified tens of thousands of people before the time of Christ, but as far as I know, we do not know the name of a single one of them. That was exactly what the Romans had in mind. Crucifixion was a particularly cruel, sadistic, and dehumanizing method of putting someone to death, and it was as public as the Romans could make it, always taking place along a main road where passersby could revile the horribly suffering victim. The message was clear: this object before you is not one of you, not fit to die like a human being, not part of the human community, no more than a beast or an insect, fit only to be discarded like trash and obliterated from human memory. (We might think of this when we read about the nameless corpses found dead from thirst in the deserts along our southwestern border.) The crucified person became a nobody, a nothing.
So when Peter, in the Book of Acts, says “God has made him both Lord and Christ (Messiah), this Jesus whom you crucified”…he is making a claim so extravagant as to be unique in the history of the world.
That’s the essential theme of this 625-page book that I’ve written. The very idea of worshipping a man who was put to death in the most dehumanizing way possible is so utterly preposterous on the face of it as to convince us of the truth of our faith…to convince us, that is, who have had our eyes and ears opened by the Holy Spirit of God. Why it does not convince everyone is a great mystery before which I can only fall silent.
I have been speaking and writing about the crucifixion for more than 20 years…for most of my life, in fact. Indeed, this past Lenten season I have been on my feet speaking nonstop about the crucifixion for six straight weeks. I am therefore truly overjoyed that this Mockingbird Conference is in the Easter season, the Great Fifty Days, and so I have a new opportunity. I’ve been saying for all these six weeks and for some years before that, our idea of the crucifixion has been too small. Now I am adding to that: our idea of the resurrection has been too small also.
I’m about to say something that does not apply to a single person in this room, and I am very glad of that because if it did apply to you, I’d lose most of you! For 79 years I have been in a pew somewhere on the day of Resurrection. (I’ve almost never been in the pulpit myself on that day.) Here’s my living testimony: some of the most disappointing sermons that I have heard in all my long life were on Easter Day. To say that they were utterly inadequate would be an understatement. However (to show you that I not quite as stuck on myself as I am reputed to be) I must admit that I am not too happy about my own Easter sermons either. I have come to believe that, just as the event of the resurrection itself transcends all categories, so also it transcends all human language about it. Many faithful interpreters have observed that the discrepancies in the Easter narratives of the four Gospels point to this difficulty in speaking about something that happened within history and yet belongs to the transhistorical dimension. So: preaching the resurrection presents unique problems.
In teaching preachers in recent years, I’ve drawn a distinction between a Jesus kerygma and a Christ kerygma. Some of you are familiar with this word kerygma; in ordinary Hellenistic Greek it meant simply “proclamation” or “announcement,” but in the apostolic era it quickly came to mean the proclamation of the gospel. So if it’s the kerygma, it’s the gospel, and if it’s not, it’s not. This immediately raises the question, What is the gospel anyway? And what are its counterfeits?
Many people in the churches would say that if it’s about Jesus, it’s the gospel. Well, yes and no. It all depends on who he is and what dimension he belongs to. I believe—this is controversial, to be sure—that the changes in the Episcopal prayer book and the lectionary forty years ago, combined with certain cultural and theological trends, have led us away from the gospel. We don’t hear the Christ kerygma (which created the church in the first place). Instead, we hear a Jesus kerygma. How so? Well, the sermon in the revised Episcopal liturgy occurs immediately after the solemn reading of the gospel, often from the center of the church with great solemnity. This means that the sermon is almost always from one of the Synoptic Gospels, rarely from John, and almost never from the Old Testament or the Epistles. This has led to an emphasis on what Jesus did and what Jesus said, or is supposed to have done and said—detached from the high Christology of the Evangelists and the apostles and the great church councils. So you get Jesus, but you don’t have Jesus Christ. We hear a great deal about Jesus’ table fellowship and his embrace of outcasts—which is very true and very important—but we don’t hear the climactic confession of Thomas the doubting disciple when he met the risen Christ and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God.” The Evangelist John builds his Gospel to come to a climax with that supreme confession.
In the terms I’m putting forward, it is fair to say that the Christ kerygma includes the Jesus kerygma, and acknowledges its significance. However, the Jesus kerygma does not include the Christ kerygma. I’d like to try to show you just a tiny bit of what that means by taking us through the beautiful story in the gospel of Luke about the encounter of Jesus with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
There’s a painting that I love in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome, by two lesser-known artists of the Renaissance. It’s called “Landscape with the Journey to Emmaus.” It’s ninety-eight percent landscape and two percent journey. Two disciples are seen with a third man on a barely visible path. All around them and into the far distance is a panoramic forested landscape, which the artist obviously enjoyed painting. There are a hundred and one pictures online of the journey on the road to Emmaus, but this one I couldn’t find. Nevertheless, it made an unforgettable impression on me. What struck me—what I remember—was the miniature size of the three human figures, almost lost in the midst of the enormous canvas. Here is the resurrected but still-disguised Lord Jesus, leading the most consequential Bible study in the history of the world, and the world takes no notice whatsoever.
Here’s what Luke says:
Two disciples of Jesus, one named Cleopas and one not named, had left Jerusalem on foot in the direction of a village called Emmaus, a distance of about seven miles. Only three days before, these disciples watched their beloved Master suffer an unspeakable public death by torture. They are obviously trying to come to terms with their feelings, as we might ourselves go for a long walk to try to recover from a profound, life-threatening shock. “While they were talking and discussing together,” writes Luke, “Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
Notice that passive construction: “their eyes were kept.” There is an external agency at work here. Their incomprehension, it seems, has a purpose, and that purpose is held in reserve by some power other than themselves.
And [so Jesus] said to them, “What is this conversation you’re having as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened?” And he said, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Now, this account of Jesus is the Jesus kerygma. These two disciples, who function in the story as representatives of the whole body of disciples in the story, did not know who Jesus was, so they do not know who he is, either. Their understanding of the man they followed, the man who was crucified, is not wrong, but it’s woefully incomplete. He was a prophet, yes; he was mighty in deed and word, yes; we hoped that he was the Redeemer of Israel, yes—but he ended up crucified. They’ve have heard an astonishing story that “some women of our company” went to the tomb early that same day and saw it empty, “but him they did not see.” They simply do not know what to make of this. They do not understand who the man they had followed really was. “They had hoped” that he was the redeemer of Israel, but hope is all they had, and now it has been irreparably destroyed. Such is the effect of a crucifixion. A crucified man is not only not a redeemer, he is a nonperson, a nothing. It would seem that these disciples have never heard a Christ kerygma. For them, the man they revered has become a thing of the irrecoverable past. Insofar as they are able to recall his sayings and doings, he has become “the historical Jesus,” and the more the days and weeks and month go by, the more he retreats into the undependable memories of those few who were close to him.
And [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ [the Messiah] should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. There was a time when this sort of Christocentric interpretation was considered medieval, or naïve, or fundamentalist, or some pernicious combination thereof. I’m going to take some advantage of my age here and tell you that I was trained in biblical studies at a time when the historical-critical, or “scientific,” method of studying the Bible was still dominant; however, its reign was coming to an end. When I came into seminary in 1972, we were still learning about the documentary hypothesis. When I graduated three years later, there was already a massive shift to pre-modern interpretation and what it has to teach us today (Paul Ricoeur has called this the second naïveté). Most of you here have long since escaped from the tyranny of J, E, P, D, Q, and proto-Luke. Thanks be to God! And yet, there are many who have devoted their lives to telling you that Jesus is essentially a historical figure with whom we can come to terms. The fact that these terms are typically our own culturally-conditioned terms does not seem to register. The rest of us, it is implied if not stated outright, are those left-behind primitives who, “looking sad,” said, “we had hoped…”
My friend Will Willimon likes to say that the whole “Jesus Seminar” project and its many satellites have one thing as their fundamental premise: Jesus is dead. Therefore the church is left as a memorial society, made up of the ones who “had hoped.” I remember and copied down a blurb for a book called The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, written by James Carse, a religion professor at NYU in the 80s (just a tad behind the times, one might say). This book was advertised with a blurb by the then director of the Jesus Seminar (Robert Funk), who wrote, “Dr. Carse has created a new gospel that breathes fresh life into the Jesus tradition. It may even bring the sage of Nazareth back to life.”
That’s the Jesus kerygma. It’s based on a dead Jesus. We can tell stories about what he said and what he did (“he was mighty in deed and word”) we can talk about his effect on us (“we had hoped…”), but if this is detached from the inner truth of the biblical witness, it’s all dependent on nothing more than human feeling and human insight. Trouble is, human feeling and human insight are notoriously undependable. And besides, more often than not, our human eyes “are kept from seeing.” We are presently locked into a world-view that simply has no place for a transcendent, trans-historical event. But when the Jesus kerygma becomes the Christ kerygma…well, let’s return to our story:
Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Is this a new theory of interpretation taught by a dead rabbi? Is this an outdated relic of how the Old Testament used to be understood by an ignorant pre-scientific population, unenlightened by improved contemporary knowledge? Well, it all depends on whether you think Jesus is a prisoner of history or not. “We had hoped…” but they crucified him.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”
Jesus Christ no longer belongs to the past. He is not a prisoner of what we make of his history. It is not possible to talk about the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” They are one and the same. “I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come…” (Revelation 1:8)
And so they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24)
Now all of this news of the resurrection, this explosive Christ kerygma, happened among a minuscule number of people in extremely obscure settings. It’s important for the church to remember this when we get discouraged. It all began in minuscule groups of obscure people: Peter and John racing to the tomb; the women with their spices; the fearful eleven gathered in a locked room. But the resurrection is indissolubly linked to a public event. The crucifixion happened in the sight of the whole Roman world, so to speak. As Paul says to Agrippa, “this was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). In the sight of Jews and Gentiles alike, the itinerant teacher from Galilee was deliberately squashed into nothing by edict of the great powers and, apparently, was erased from the human record.
And therefore St Paul was not long after soon to write (I Corinthians 1:27-8):
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, mere nothings, [in order] to bring to nothing the things that are.
What is a “nothing” if not a crucified man? And who is it who brings creation into being ex nihilo, out of nothing? As the original creation emerged by the wrath of God out of nothing, the Christ kerygma has emerged out of nothing. Paul again, to the Corinthians:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ—new creation! the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. (II Corinthians 5:16-17)
Let me ask you something. Does the greeting “Happy Easter!” work for you? Does that convey the message that created the movement that spread out from a bedraggled little group of defeated disciples to set the whole Mediterranean world afire within just a few decades? What is the kerygma that galvanized the apostles, that changed the message from “he did mighty works” and “he was a prophet” into “my Lord and my God”?
And so they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”
Cleopas and the other disciple who had been met by Jesus on the road to Emmaus got up immediately from their supper table and walked eight miles in the middle of the night to deliver their message. Did they say “Happy Easter”?
“This Jesus whom you crucified” is the kurios, the Lord. He is the living Word of God through whom all things were made—the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is before history, and beyond history, and the meaning of history, and in spite of what we may do to ourselves, God help us, he is the end and goal of history. “The Lord is risen indeed.”
I’m going to close with a story. It’s an old story, but I haven’t told it in a while. This seems like the right time and the right place to tell it again.
My first Easter Day in New York City was my first year at Grace Church just a few blocks from here. This was 1982. The New York Times habitually refers to New York in the 70s and 80s as “gritty.” That Easter Sunday, it certainly was gritty on lower Park Avenue and Lower Broadway as I came in off the FDR Drive from the suburbs. It was a cloudy, chilly day. Everything was closed. There were almost no people to be seen anywhere. Ugly dark metal gates were pulled down over the store windows. I passed Calvary Church; I am sorry to say that the door was shut and there was no sign of life. As a Virginian, I was accustomed to the glory of a blooming Southern spring; I was profoundly depressed by the lifeless streets and the dark, overcast skies. I wondered if I would be able to overcome these feelings. When I arrived at 12th Street, I noticed that there was parking available just ahead on the west side of the street opposite Grace Church, so I pulled into a spot. I looked across at the church. The door was wide open, and standing on the top step was an usher, David Crum (who now, forty years later, is still an usher in a church upstate). In honor of Easter Day he had on a very spiffy jacket and tie, and he wore a bright white carnation. I hollered across Broadway, “David! The Lord is risen!” and I promise you, without a second’s hesitation, he hollered back, “He is risen indeed!” Two disciples of Jesus in the midst of a dismal setting, telling each other the incomparable news. At that moment, as I sprinted across the street, I knew that Easter had truly come.
I admit that sometimes I feel that I have grown weary in the service of the Lord. But like those disciples who speed-walked all the way from Emmaus to Jerusalem in the middle of the night to tell their news, there is “no time for rest till glows the western sky/ and the long shadows o’er our pathway lie…” I hope to continue saying “the Lord is risen!” until my pitcher is broken at the fountain (Ecclesiastes 12:6). I close with this antiphon from the liturgy of the Great Fifty Days. You will recognize how it is taken from the story of Emmaus:
Abide with us, Alleluia.
For it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. Alleluia.
I was very touched that the first thing Paul Zahl did to open this conference was to read the collect from Evening Prayer which is taken almost word-for-word from the Emmaus story. You’ll also note how the hymn “Abide with me” is also based on Luke’s narrative. As my husband and I become aware that our own deaths may not be far away, this hymn and these words mean more and more to us: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;/ the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide;/ When earthly helpers fail and comforts flee,/ in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
Dear people of God:
Alleluia! The Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!