Text: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-181.
Jesus is risen; what now? What are we to do about it? Peter tells us to believe and to testify, which sounds simple enough, but Paul’s words in the second reading seem more demanding, especially when we consider their context. This reading is one of two options for the second reading today, and while preparing this reflection, I sometimes wished I’d asked for the more usual one from the letter to the Colossians2 instead.
Paul is expanding on his judgment on the sins of a member of the church at Corinth, whom he says should be expelled from the community.3 Paul says of him that “with the power of our Lord Jesus he is to be handed over to Satan so that his sensual body may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord,”4 and then goes on to say that the community must purify itself by, as we heard, getting rid of the old yeast of malice and evil.5 Taken at face value, this sounds rather harsh; if even a little of this old, sinful yeast is enough to make one unfit for the community, I don’t feel very secure! Surely, in this most joyful moment of Jesus’ return from the grave, there is a less grim message?
Let’s listen again to that judgment of Paul’s. “To be handed over to Satan so that his sensual body may be destroyed.” Wait a minute, isn’t this just what Jesus endured on Friday, being killed? And Jesus rises up today, the “day of the Lord.” Maybe there’s hope yet, as Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans when he says that we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.6
Peter tells us that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name. To gain that forgiveness, we need only believe.7 Belief, though, is a matter of the will, not just of the intellect. What we believe is what we live; we testify to our beliefs in our every word and action. The body’s lusts and lethargies, the mind’s machinations and cruelties, the emotions’ rages and depressions, may be temptations to sin, but we do not sin unless our will submits to them instead of choosing to follow Jesus’ way of love. Many of you have fasted in some way during Lent; this is one way in which we can exercise our wills, just as an athlete exercises muscles, by resisting what would push it to act in a certain way. Building up that capacity to choose freely in the face of temptation is crucial to living as Jesus’ disciples: even the word disciple shares its root with the word discipline!
Even so, I fear that I don’t always do so well in resisting these urges, which is why Peter emphasizes forgiveness. In every moment, we can purify ourselves by renouncing sin and returning to Jesus. Whenever we do, we find that the price we would otherwise have to pay has already been covered by Jesus, crucified, died, and risen. Our purification isn’t a one-time event, but a continuous process of returning to God, cleaning away vestiges of sin before they have a chance to reshape our lives8 and the lives of those around us.
Paul is afraid that the weaker members of the church at Corinth will be drawn to sin or repulsed from the church by the sins of its members, and therefore urges them to cast out the sinner. Jesus, though, showed us a different way: on Thursday, he knowingly ate with—and even washed the feet of—his betrayer, Judas.9 This is a wonderful illustration of the difference between the church as a worldly entity and the Church as the catholic, all-embracing body of Christ: the worldly church may cast someone out, but Jesus only sadly watches them leave10 and waits for their return with open arms. In this love is the answer to the disciples’ question of how anyone could be saved: “For humankind, this is impossible; for God, everything is possible.”11
When we choose to return, and, through God’s boundless forgiveness, free ourselves of the old yeast of evil, we are ready for something else: Jesus spoke of the yeast of the kingdom of heaven, which begins almost unnoticed but leavens a whole batch of flour.12 It is not that God wants us to be empty forever, but rather that we cannot be filled with God’s love if we are already full of our own sin.
On this day of the Lord, Jesus is risen with this new yeast, firstborn from the dead. May we be drawn to live as he lived, testifying in all we do, so that we will rise as he rises, into God’s eternal and perfect love.
1: The Gospel at this liturgy is introduced with verses 1, 11-12a, and then given in song as the angels’ proclamation that “He is not here, he is risen!”
2: Colossians 3:1-4
3: 1 Corinthians 5:1-2
4: 1 Corinthians 5:4b-5
5: 1 Corinthians 5:8
6: Romans 6:3-4, especially in context of the whole chapter.
7: Acts 10:43
8: Cf. John 13:10a, versions of which read, “Jesus said, ‘No one who has taken a bath needs washing, except for the feet, he is clean all over.’”
9: John 13:11
10: Cf. Matthew 26:25, Mark 14:21, Luke 22:22
11: Matthew 20:25-26
12: Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21