Bible Study: Easter Day (C)

March 31, 2013

Susan Sevier, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:

Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;  Acts 10:34-43John 20:1-18

Isaiah 65:17-25

Our four readings from the lectionary for this Easter Day carry throughout the themes of victory, joy, gratitude and responsibility – all important lessons on this day when we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord, and the passage from Isaiah sets the tone for the day. The reading comes from what is often labeled the Third Book of Isaiah (Chapters 56-66) and is roughly placed in the early period after the return of some of the exiled Israelites from Babylon, probably during the first century of the rule of Persia in the land of Israel. Nothing on the ground is as they expected it; and yet the writer of Isaiah paints a glorious picture of the new Jerusalem that will be.

One interesting quality of this text is the ways in which it draws on pre-Exilic traditions. For example, in verse 17, when the author quotes God, saying, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” the Hebrew word for “create” (barah) is the same that is used in Genesis 1; in fact the same as the very first word of the Bible itself. The author could have used other words, such as “made” (asah), for example. Why was this an important word choice and what does it mean to start the description of this new world in Isaiah 65 just as the story of creation begins?

Everything about the Isaiah passage resonates with our Christian view of the Kingdom of Heaven, and in practice, much of the writing of Isaiah is often claimed as a foretelling of the coming of Jesus, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. However, keeping in mind the context in which our passage was written, what universal emotions does this passage evoke? Hope? Joy? What else do you see here that might bring comfort to the afflicted?

Again, the writings of Isaiah are often used as prophetic tellings about the coming of Jesus. But this passage in particular doesn’t talk about the coming of a person, it describes the coming of a new world. Jerusalem is a character in our story. Why Jerusalem? Take a minute and compare this text to the writing in Revelation 22; the important cultural symbolism of the city of Jerusalem is clearly shared by both Judaism and the Christian faith that sprang from it. What influence does this sacred view of Jerusalem have on us in our own time?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Our psalter for the day contains one of those often-quoted texts, the kind that even people who do not regularly study the Bible know: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (verse 24). The writer of Isaiah speaks the words of God, painting a beautiful picture of the new world to come through God’s grace and love, while the psalmist expresses the response of the receiver of that grace.

Psalm 118 is, in the liturgy of Passover, the last psalm sung. It is often called a song of deliverance (or thanksgiving), and in the days of the Temple was used as part of festival worship by the whole community on a day not unlike today in our own tradition. While the lectionary removes the verses recounting the troubles of the psalmist before their deliverance (verses 2-13), even these recitations are in the past tense, not an immediate cry for help.

What specific ways did the Lord deliver our psalmist in Psalm 118? How do those saving acts relate back to the promises in the Isaiah passage?

Take a look at the text and see if you can find the “liturgical” elements in our psalm. Imagine the text sung or repeated during a procession. What parts might be said outside the gate? Does any part of the psalm look like a song that might be sung on its own, like a doxology? Why would we as a Christians read this psalm today as part of our Easter worship?

Acts 10:34-43

We have heard the glories of the coming kingdom in our Isaiah passage; we have offered our praise and thanksgiving with a psalm; and now, in Acts, we learn of our responsibility to bear witness to this message: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (verse 42).

Some Easter services begin with the pastor proclaiming to the crowd: “Christ is risen!” And the congregation knows that the response to that proclamation is, “Christ is risen, indeed!” What does Peter tell us in this passage about the story that we, as disciples, are here to proclaim? Who is to receive this message? Who is to proclaim it? What it important about the message itself? What elements of Jesus’ life and ministry does Peter list as the important parts of that message?

Peter delivered this sermon in the home of one named Cornelius, a gentile, not a Jew. Why is that important to Peter’s message? What does that importance have to say to us today?

John 20:1-18

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear the promises of glory and joy; in the psalm we offer praises and thanksgiving for the deliverance that will bring us to glory and joy; in Acts we learn of our responsibility to others as receivers of that deliverance, and finally, in our gospel lesson, we have an opportunity to live that moment of deliverance, in all its confusion and fear and beauty. This is the moment of metanoia, or turning, that brings each of us in our lives to the kind of discipleship that makes it possible to understand our joy, our gratitude and our responsibility.

John’s account of this moment is different from that encountered in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). In each, the figures present at this moment are different, but it always begins with the women. As much as we might like to take that for a feminist statement on the part of the authors, it is simply a cultural one – it was the job of the female relatives to perform the rituals at the burial site.

Mary finds the tomb’s stone removed (verse 1). What other story in John’s gospel includes a stone rolled away (11:38-41)? And what about the burial clothes in each story? What do we see when we read these stories together?

Why does Mary weep? What happens that lets Mary recognize the figures she sees outside the tomb?

Our passage is all about the kind of confusion that many of us feel as we reach for a life of discipleship. Can I believe what is before my eyes? Why do I weep when the message of the grace and love of the Kingdom of Heaven has been told to me again and again? What must happen in our own lives so that we might truly understand the meaning of this Easter Day?

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