Gracious God, stir up in your Church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth, through Jesus Christ, raised in glory. Amen.
When our youngest son was born, he arrived rather suddenly. We knew that second babies often come early, but still we were shocked when he came a couple weeks ahead of his due date. In the middle of the night Kateri turned to me and said, essentially, “it’s time.” I called our friends Sara and Noah, and Sara came to stay with our older son as we raced off to the hospital. We hurried into the birth center as quickly as we could, and once we were ushered into the birthing room B arrived within minutes. When we texted Sara to let her know, she replied a few hours later that when she woke up G some time later to tell him he had a baby brother, his immediate response was, “that’s just what I wanted!” (Needless to say these guys, like all siblings, don’t always feel that way…) Our whole lives had been stirred up by what the collect called “that spirit of adoption.” We had had several months to prepare, which particularly for families who adopt or are foster parents, may well not be the case. Nonetheless suddenly, abruptly, there we were: a family of four. That’s just what we wanted. And oh my goodness, it was only the beginning of the new life God was stirring us into. Every single day—however our lives of chosen and given family may be configured – God surprises us, interrupts us, calls us to embrace the paschal mystery, newness of life here and now even as well as at the end of all things.
The resurrection story we just heard from the Gospel of Mark is filled with shock, sudden momentum shift, and invitation to share newness of life. Mark’s version is the earliest of the four gospels and is characteristically pared down, even abrupt. When it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, the tone is jolting, not what you might expect for such a joyous event. In parallel with other resurrection accounts, women play a key role in this pivotal moment. As those whose role it was to anoint the body with spices, they were the first to encounter the shocking good news of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome had lost Jesus, their teacher, the Messiah their community expected to triumph in restoring the kingdom of David, not to be killed at the hands of the Roman empire. In their grief they were focused, as is often helpful in the first days after the death of a loved one, on the practical. How on earth would they be able to move that massive stone? But when they arrived the stone was rolled away and the tomb unnervingly opened. No body was in sight except a young stranger dressed in white, sitting on the tomb’s right side. As Mark tells it, this stranger could perceive the women’s alarm. And if perhaps they wondered whether they’d somehow gone to the wrong tomb, he preemptively says, they are looking for Jesus who was crucified, laid in this tomb right there, yes? “He has been raised. He is not here” (Mk 16:6). The women are understandably confused beyond the telling. The stranger also doesn’t give them any time to process his message. Instead he presses them, “go, tell” the others that Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Mk 16:7). Their grief-stricken momentum has been completely interrupted. They could only flee in terror and amazement without time even to stop and say to one another, “what just happened?” Amazingly, scholars have long agreed, this marks the original ending of Mark’s gospel. In shock, we are sent out with the women, our own spirits stirred by news so unfathomably good that we can barely begin to take it in.
In a sense the Apostle Paul picks up this stirring where Mark leaves off. To be clear, Paul’s letter writing historically precedes Mark’s account (1 Corinthians was written in the 50s C.E. whereas the Gospel of Mark was composed around 70 C.E.). As it so happens, Paul’s account of the resurrection is actually its earliest description in all the New Testament writings.His list of the events we have so carefully contemplated over Holy Week can sound almost sterile: Christ’s death, burial and resurrection followed by his appearance to groups of increasing sizes. To be fair, Paul lists things in this specific way to underline their reality and their importance. But then his own specific relationship to it all emerges. “Last of all, as if to one untimely born” the risen Jesus appeared to him, Paul says, calling himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor 15:8). Untimely born? The least? Now, if you’re at all familiar with Paul you’ll know he is not immune to hyperbole. But Paul had a reason for this self-deprecation. He had never known Jesus prior to his death. And when he learned about Jesus and his followers he didn’t just consider them irrelevant or simply disagree with their proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. Paul had actively sought to undermine and even persecute the earliest community of Jesus’ followers (1 Cor 15:9). As a result, the early followers were very leery of him. No one was more surprised than Paul when, on his way to Damascus, as is relayed in a passage from the Acts of the Apostles not among our readings today, Paul was suddenly blinded and knocked over by a light from above and confronted by a voice he could not escape. The voice didn’t try to sweet talk him into conversion. It confronted him. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”When Paul asked who was speaking, the voice explained itself as Jesus, “the one you are persecuting.” “But get up,” the voice quickly continued with urgency much like the white robed stranger at the tomb, “and enter the city and you will be told what to do.” So Paul got up, went into the city, was prayerfully healed of his induced blindness by another of Jesus’ followers, and then basically jumped into the fray. Paul went on to become one of, if not the,most influential people to share Jesus’ story and to grow the movement that was then known simply as “the Way.” Jesus’ story was not simply a breathtaking event, but had a profound impact upon his own life. I shouldn’t be the one telling this story, he essentially says, but it reached me, it knocked me over, it confronted me and then picked me up and moved me into new life. “By the grace of God,” he says, “I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10). Paul’s transformation is deeply connected to the story of Jesus’ resurrection. His life was transformed, his way of seeing the world reshaped. From being one whose actions tore at the fabric of the earliest communities of Jesus’ followers, he became one of the most influential early builders of Christian community.
Truly Paul was stirred up by that spirit of adoption, to use the language of the prayer with which I opened. In fact, Paul is the originator of that phrase. In a passage from his letter to the Romans he speaks of how the “Spirit of the one who raised Christ from the dead” (Romans 8:11a) inspires and infuses us here and now, as well as on the other side of our own mortality. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,” Paul says, but particularly through the sacrament of baptism “you have received a spirit of adoption.” In baptism we are plunged into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. We become God’s children, adopted into God’s family. When we emerge from the baptismal waters, Paul describes, it is as if we are being born, crying out in disorientation and longing. And in that moment, Paul says, the Holy Spirit joins our cries, “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” that we belong, that Christ’s resurrection opens the way of our own newness of life, our own transformation (Romans 8:15-16). At baptism, in response to God’s planting of the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection into our very hearts, we pledge to practice lives marked by Christ’s life and ministry, his death and resurrection. This is why at several points during the Church year we renew our baptismal covenant, particularly at Easter. We promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil; to proclaim the Good News in word and example; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.These promises requires us to be stirred not just once but again and again, to awaken afresh to the interruptions of the resurrected Christ, to be turned in new directions, to embrace our adoption as an ever-expansive family of God in all that we do.
The assurance of resurrection life is a bedrock of our faith that can sustain us in the worst of times. And in the midst of so much pain and fear in the world, so much up-building of walls and undermining of human dignity, we need to be grounded in this mystery of resurrection life more than ever. We need to open ourselves again and again to the imprint of resurrection patterning and shaping our lives, to look for the interruptions of God here and now, stirring up our lives, prompting us into deeper fellowship and communion far beyond the familiar lanes of our everyday lives. The mystery of resurrection makes us new, reshapes us as community, splices us into new forms of family through the spirit of adoption. Sometimes that newness of life will shock us into speechlessness. Sometimes we might instinctively run in the opposite direction. And sometimes in response we are able to declare in its full-throated embrace, “that’s just what I wanted.” May the unbounded love of God, Creator and Parent, the bond-bursting power of the risen Christ, and communion of the Holy Spirit be with us, sustain us, and stir us this Easter morning and ever more.
The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (HarperCollins, 2000), Mark.
Acts 9:4+, also referenced in Galatians 1:13-17.
Book of Common Prayer, 304-5