First Fruits of God's Reign

Sermon Preached Easter Day
at Church of the Transfiguration
April 8, 2007

After walking together through Holy Week, I can think of nothing more anti-climactic than a sermon on Easter morning. Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. What more needs to be said? We are an Easter people, walking in the knowledge that Christ died for us and was raised from the dead, stripping death of all its power. Well, maybe not all of its power – at least not yet; but Paul writes to the church in Corinth that Christ’s resurrection is “the first fruits of those who have died”[1] The image of “first fruits” would have been quite familiar to those earliest Christians and, in some more agrarian cultures, it is an image that perhaps retains some meaning. But for those of us living in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, the reference is more likely to slip through our minds – in one ear, out the other.

The image of the first fruits comes from the Hebrew Scriptures and is used sometimes to refer to a firstborn – usually male – son[2] or firstborn livestock[3], but more typically refers to the first fruits gathered from the fields[4] – the first wheat and later, by extension, the first wine, the first oil, the first fleece from the sheep.[5] Regardless of the precise referent, the context is always the same – the first fruits are to be offered to God. In the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament - the Festival of Booths, arguably the most important early festival, is described as an occasion for offering the first fruits to God. The Festival of Booths serves as a reminder of our beginnings with God and as a reminder of our ongoing dependence on God for all that we have. It is a festival of thanksgiving and of promise. Just as God provided food, shelter, and water to the Israelites as they fled from their slavery in Egypt, so God continues to provide for our well-being.[6] The importance of this festival of remembrance, thanks, and promise is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy:
Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.[7]
It is interesting (at least to me) that the Old Testament prophets begin to turn this image around by refering to Israel as the “first fruits of [God’s] harvest”[8] – God’s chosen people, set apart. I point this out because the earliest writings in the New Testament –for example, Paul’s letters to the churches – pick up this thread of the tradition when referring to Christ as the first fruits. Implicit in this claim is that there is more to come. That first Easter morning is not the final word. In fact, it is only just the beginning of God’s reign breaking into our world. It is an invitation to each of us to share in the excitement of all that is to come.

Paul writes that Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”[9] In the first century, as today, God’s will for creation is not yet complete. All enemies – all of the “death-bringing powers – hatred, exclusion, destruction, marginalization . . . have not yet succumbed to God’s life.”[10] So, Paul’s words serve as an invitation to share in the excitement, in the anticipation of the future; but equally, or perhaps more importantly, they serve as an invitation to seek out ways in which we can share in the work that needs yet to be done – ways in which we can cooperate and co-create with God, to usher in God’s reign.

An article on the front page of this morning’s Chicago Tribune highlighted one way in which this invitation to be co-creators with God is being lived into by two communities in Wheaton. There, members of the Christian Sudanese Community Church join with a group of Sudanese Muslims to share in the most holy of days. Their gatherings include the sharing of meals on Christmas, Easter, and at the breaking of the fast of Ramadan.[11] This is particularly notable given the decades of ethnic and religious violence in Sudan – violence that has resulted in the loss of millions of lives and the displacement of even more from their homeland. The “death-bringing powers – hatred, exclusion, destruction, marginalization . . . have not yet succumbed to God’s life.”[12] And yet, a group of Christians and Muslims come together in Wheaton to mourn their shared losses and to celebrate their ever enlarging circle of friends across religious and ethnic lines. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. . . . But each in his own order.”[13]

That first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away – the first sign that Jesus had risen from the dead. The stone which entombed death had been rolled away revealing the power of God over death. And so we join together today to offer our thanks and praise to the God who offers us his son, Jesus Christ, to be the first fruits of the new creation. But we also join together to renew our commitment to join with God in bringing about the fullness and the richness of God’s new creation.

How is Transfiguration being called into this Easter invitation? How are you being called? What stones of hatred, exclusion, destruction, and marginalization are we being called to roll away so that life may abound?

Let us pray:

Great Resurrecting God,
may we see in the real lives of all people
the truth of your resurrection power and possibility.
May we roll back every stone
that continues to entomb any part of your creation.
May we invite you to re-create each one of us
until resurrection and liberation prevail for all.

[1] I Corinthians 15:20.
[2] Genesis 49:3.
[3] Exodus 34:19.
[4] Exodus 23:16.
[5] Deuteronomy 18:4.
[6] Kramer, Amy. “Sukkot: Festival of Booths.” Everything Jewish. Copyright © 1998-1999. Accessed online on April 7, 2007.
[7] Deuteronomy 8:17-18.
[8] Jeremiah 2:3.
[9] I Corinthians 15:25.
[10] Carter, Warren, Randall Bailey, and Christine Smith, “Easter Day, Year C: Witnesses to New Life,” Out in Scripture, accessed online on April 4, 2007.
[11] Working, Russell, “Bridging Sudanese Divine – in Wheaton: Congregation to Unite Muslims, Christians at Easter Service Focusing on Culture and Reconciliation,” Chicago Tribune Early Edition, Vol. 160 (98): April 8, 2007, 1, 20.
[12] Carter, Bailey, and Smith.
[13] I Corinthians 15:20, 23a.
[14] Adapted from Carter, Bailey and Smith.