Sunday, May 11, 2014

A World Turned Downside Up

Frightening omens had shaken the heavens and earth in Jerusalem. For three hours the sun turned dark at noon. There were earthquakes in the evening and the morning. Were the foundations of the earth giving way? Were the mountains about to slip into the heart of the sea?
Reports of the resurrection of Jesus began to spread quickly throughout the city. Even stranger tales were spreading. Resurrection rumors were everywhere. Many saints were raised from the sleep of death and left their tombs to walk the streets of the Holy City, appearing to many (Matt 27:52–53). Jesus himself was seen by over five hundred witnesses at once (1 Cor 15:6). What did these reports mean? Was death itself a phantom? Had a door been torn open in the impassible boundary between life and death? A report circulated that the veil of the temple was torn in two. That veil marked the sacred boundary of holiness between God and man. It was death to trespass this veil. Was the way to life and to the presence of God now opened to man without fear of death? The followers of Jesus heard that Mary Magdalene had seen a vision of angels at the tomb of Jesus that recalled the ancient Holy of Holies (John 20:12). Could a woman now see into the most sacred precincts? Could someone once so defiled by demons have a holy vision? Did it no longer matter that only men and priests in former times could peer into these sacred mysteries. Has the priesthood now jumped the gender line to include women, too?
Soon thereafter the Holy Spirit descended upon the Jewish pilgrims who had come from many nations to the temple in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Language barriers suddenly disappeared. Everyone heard the gospel in his own tongue (Acts 2:6). At last a vision was given to Peter challenging him to see that all nations have been made clean (Acts 10:15). All his life Peter had kept strictly to kosher law. Did the deep divisions between clean and unclean now no longer matter? God showed Peter that no man should be called unholy or unclean (Acts 10:28). Is there no distinction any longer between the circumcised and the uncircumcised? If ritual barriers have dissolved, do racial divisions matter any longer? Does God accept an Ethiopian eunuch and a Roman centurion in the same way he accepts a Jew? Have national borders been set aside so that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, or even Scythian? Will God respect no difference in class any longer, dissolving the deep resentments separating bond slaves and freemen? The people begin to sell their possessions to distribute to any who have a need. Is there to be no scarcity any longer? Are rich and poor, who constitute the great civic divide, now brought together by some new reality in the spiritual world?
All the customary and ancient boundaries and borders seem to pass away. How can we orient ourselves any longer to these new and startling realities of a world where death itself has been made to die?
Jesus taught us to expect something like this. He said so many things that defined the kingdom of heaven as nothing less than a complete upheaval. He said that we should sell all we have in this world to secure riches in heaven. He said the first would be last and the last first. He said the greatest in the kingdom was the servant of all. He gave thanks that the kingdom was revealed to babes and not to the wise of this world. He admonished us to lose our lives in order to find them. He taught that the meek rather than the strong would inherit the earth. He said we should count ourselves blessed when men revile and persecute us; we should rejoice when all manner of evil is spoken against us. He said that persecution on earth means great treasures in heaven. He even said we should love our enemies. In sum, he was teaching us new ways to dream. He was instructing us in the imagination of resurrection power. In this strange new world publicans become evangelists (Matt 9:9), whores become virgins (Luke 7:36–50), thieves become alms-givers (Eph 4:28), and the chief of sinners becomes the chief apostle to the nations (1 Tim 1:15).
So vivid were these new realities that people began to do most unaccustomed things. In fact many did sell everything they owned and laid it at the feet of the apostles to distribute to those who had need. To have no fear of death or any recognition of scarcity was new to everyone. Somehow it was like a return to the world before the fall of man in the garden. These new horizons recalled the time when the earth brought forth abundantly for all and death was as yet unknown. It was like the Garden of Eden when God and man walked together in intimacy and joyful delight.
The law of Moses foresaw these days. Moses gave land allotments to all the tribes of Israel except the priestly tribe of Levi. He gave them no inheritance because the Lord’s priesthood was their better portion (Josh 18:7). There was a Levite in the early church named Barnabas. This man had bought and owned a piece of property that he sold and laid the money at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36–37). The Levite Barnabas had become a Levite indeed. But Barnabas was not the only one selling his property. Many were doing so in light of the new age that had dawned. It was as though all of God’s people were priests. Everyone was satisfied that the Lord was his portion. And just as Moses had wished that all the people of God might share in the spirit (Numb 11:29), even so now the Holy Spirit of God descended on all and filled everyone (Acts 2:4). Now all of God’s people were prophets, even as Moses had wished.
What was this new and radically democratic world where distinctions of ritual sacrament and race and sex and sanctity and national identity seemed no longer to matter? What had happened to cause the very foundations of Jerusalem to tremble? All social and civil and sacred and class boundaries were suddenly dismantled and disassembled. A new community began to form where all shared the same simple supper. Whether from east or west, all ate the same bread and drank the same cup. It was a supper that expressed the equality of all those who needed the Savior. The cross, it seemed, was the great leveler of men.
What could possibly cause such upheavals? Was all of this because someone had come back from the grave and many, too many to deny, had seen him? Who could have imagined such a new world?
But then even stranger things began to happen. The believers began to understand that signs and wonders were not supernatural but altogether natural to God’s world. All that in former times had been thought to be natural was in fact subnatural.
The apostles of Jesus first showed the way to the new world. They began to do the miraculous works of signs and wonders. They healed the lame. They cured the demonically oppressed. They even raised the dead. The power of the risen Jesus was working through his apostles in resurrection power.
The wonders were so glorious that suffering itself was recalculated. The same opposition Jesus encountered was raised again against his disciples. Peter and John were arrested by the Council and beaten for speaking openly in the name of Jesus. But the apostles left the Council rejoicing. They rejoiced that they were given the grace to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. What was this power by which they rejoiced in suffering, embracing the shame of their suffering like Jesus?
Likewise, Paul and Silas came to Philippi, where they too were arrested and severely beaten and left with bloody wounds. Afterwards they were taken to a dungeon and pinioned in wooden stocks. But in the midst of their cruciform suffering, they prayed and sang praises to the Lord (Acts 16:19–34). The bleeding apostles sang for joy. Even until midnight they praised God. What was the power that caused these men to rejoice in such suffering? Who could believe such things? Paul and Silas knew that God always takes suffering and brings forth glory. It was the way they who had died to their own lives were now living in Christ. It was Christ living through them. So they praised God in anticipation of the glorious deliverance he would work. They knew he would intervene to save them by resurrection power.
So at midnight God sent an earthquake. The chains fell off. The prison doors all opened (Acts 16:26). But no one moved from his place. God was calling the prisoners of Philippi to constitute a new community of faith. Even the jailer asked what he should do to be saved. Only the Lord God of resurrection would begin his church in Philippi with prisoners in a dungeon who had come to know a new life of liberty in Christ. The witness of suffering always led to glory. Christians by their increasing thousands were ready to embrace the cross and suffer even unto death that others might thereby come to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. They understood that by much tribulation we enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14:22). They learned to recalculate suffering in view of the gospel glory that was promised thereafter. They embraced imprisonments, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, cold, and exposure, danger in the wilderness, danger in the sea, danger in the city, and all manner of toil and hardship (2 Cor 11:23–28) and called it all “momentary light affliction” unworthy to be compared to the “eternal weight of glory” prepared for them (2 Cor 4:17). It was redemption’s comic turn. Death lost its sting. The grave lost its victory. Redemption brought forth joyful singing. Lamentation gave way to laughter.

As the Savior had taught, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). And the wheat fields of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world, were now white for the harvest. The apostles of Jesus went forth as sowers of seed. These faithful ones went forth weeping and bearing precious seed. But according to the resurrection promise, they understood they would surely return with shouts of joy, bearing their seed with them.1

1.  Gage, W. A. (2011). Return from Emmaus: The Resurrection Theme in Scripture (pp. 86–89). Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Warren A. Gage.

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