Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes for Easter Sunday. This week you will hear a story about a death-defying airplane trip that prompted me to ponder ultimate questions of life. This week’s readings answer some of the most important questions that humans have ever asked about eternal life. The first reading is a message from Saint Peter that explains the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection that has been provided for all humankind. The second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians provides the implications of what believing in Jesus looks like in the life of the believer. Then we conclude with the glorious story of Jesus’ resurrection from the Gospel of Saint John.
Before we move to the readings, my wife asked me this week as I was studying the readings for the Easter Sunday Mass, what does Jesus’ resurrection mean to me? I thought for a moment, and was about to give her an answer in “Christianese” like “because Jesus atoned for my sins.” However, I stopped myself and found that I could not answer her question. Instead, I told her that I would think about it and get back to her with the answer. I thought about her question over a period of several days, and spent time reading the conclusion of all four of the Gospels that chronicled Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. After much study, I came up with the answer. The resurrection means to me that I don’t have to be afraid of dying. I might not be thrilled with it, but I don’t have to live in constant fear of dying. (Hebrews 2:14-15 says: “he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery).
When I was younger, I didn’t really think much about dying. That changed one day when I was flying with my twin brother into an airport southwest of Indianapolis to make a fuel stop on our way to Houston. This was during a time in my life when I did not sense any sort of close communion with God even though I attended Mass each week. The weather this particular day was challenging and we had delayed our departure from my home airport in Pontiac, Michigan because of thunderstorms. After we left Pontiac, we were in an out of the clouds all the way down to Terre Haute. The stress of determining whether to fly, when to leave, and then flying under instrument flight procedures in the clouds without an autopilot on my first airplane left me feeling very frazzled as I approached the navigational fix at which I would commence the landing procedure. Complicating the matter was that the only instrument approach procedure that made sense that day because of the wind conditions was something known as a “back course” approach, meaning that the indicator needles in the navigation instruments had to be interpreted backwards from their normal readings. In other words, left was right and right was left. (In pilot talk it was a localizer back course approach). As we descended during the approach I was reaching the point of mental exhaustion when my brother suddenly screamed, “We seem to be awfully low Jim!” As I looked up from my instruments I realized that after I crossed the final approach fix I had continued to descend to a level which put us only about a hundred feet above the sequenced flashing landing lights (known as rabbits). I quickly realized my mistake, added power and climbed up to avoid descending further into the lights and terrain below. After this happened it hit me, we could have died! From that day forward, I began to think about dying and what was beyond my time on earth. Would I go to heaven or hell? How good did I have to be to get into heaven? How does a person get to heaven? We will answer those questions later in the study today.
Introduction to the First Reading:
The first reading this week is from Acts of the Apostles Chapter 10. The context of this section is Saint Peter’s address to Cornelius, the gentile Centurion from Caesarea. This happened a few days after Peter had seen a vision of a huge sheet lowered to the ground containing a variety of animals including ones that the Jews were forbidden from eating according to the Old Testament Law. God revealed to Peter that he was no longer bound by these dietary food laws, and by extrapolation, that the proclamation of the Gospel was being opened to the Gentiles. God told Peter, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15b-ff). After Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, had a vision in which an angel of God spoke to him, he sent messengers to Peter in Joppa with orders to bring him to his home in Caesarea. Afterwards, Peter agreed to travel to Cornelius’ home. When Peter arrived Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him, but Peter stopped him. Peter then said, “Stand up; I too am a man” (v. 26). He addressed the crowd that Cornelius had gathered by saying, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (v. 28). Then Cornelius explained that he had seen a vision of an angel who told him to send for Simon Peter at the home of one Simon the tanner who lived by the sea (v. 32). It was at this point that we join Peter’s address to Cornelius along with his relatives and close friends (Acts 10:24).
Read the text, noting that some of the omitted verses were included in order to provide the full context (as our readers know that we are prone to do).
34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. 36 The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all) -- 37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. 38 You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." (Acts 10:34-43)
Peter said quite an earful; his message encapsulated almost the entirety of the Gospel. He told the gentile Cornelius and his family the Good News regarding the forgiveness of sins offered to anyone who believes, Jew or Gentile alike (v. 34), through faith in Jesus Christ (v. 43). Peter, fresh from his vision of the animals coming down in the large sheet, affirmed that God was no respecter of persons; this salvation was available to everyone (vv.34 - 35). Peter provided a high-level narrative to Cornelius of his personal, eyewitness testimony concerning the events about Jesus Christ. He said Jesus was anointed by God with power (v.38), ministered to the people by healing and opposing the devil (v.39), was crucified by the Jews in Jerusalem (v.39b), was raised by God on the third day (v.40), was made visible to select witnesses after His resurrection (v.41), and provided the disciples with specific instructions regarding preaching the truth about Jesus being the divinely appointed Judge of the living and the dead (v.42). Peter confirmed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the testimony given by all of the Old Testament prophets. Finally, Peter announced the best news of all, that anyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of their sins (v.43).
Introduction to the Second Reading:
Understanding Peter’s testimony in the first reading that anyone who believes in Jesus receives the forgiveness of their sins provides a convenient gateway to the second reading where we see that humans cannot attain to God through their own efforts. This reading is from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, chapter 3. This Book is one of the biblical books known as the “Prison Epistles” named because Paul wrote them while he was in prison in Rome. The reading today opens with the word “therefore” in verse one. Any time we see that word (as you may have noted in previous editions of Mass Notes) we have to ask, “What is it the “therefore” there for?” The “therefore” in 3:1 refers to what Paul said in the previous chapters. In order to give the passage more context, we will explore this is much further detail below.
Stepping back to look at the big picture, Paul’s overall purpose in the Epistle was to correct some heresy that was being taught in the church. The heresy had four elements that Paul addressed in chapter 2. These false beliefs included the denial of the sufficiency and preeminence of Jesus Christ (2:8), the exaltation of Jewish ritualism (2:11, 16-17), the teaching of the extreme denial of the flesh as a way of getting closer to God (known as “asceticism,” 2:20-23), and the ungodly practice of worshiping angels (2:18). All four teaching are clearly contradicted by the Scriptures. Paul corrected their misunderstandings early in the second chapter by making some clear didactic statements. Paul said, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:8-9). This statement addressed elements of all four of the heresies that were being taught and practiced by certain members of the church.
With this context in mind, let’s read from Saint Paul’s Letter, keeping in mind the sufficiency that we as believers have through faith in Jesus Christ.
1 Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Paul said, “if you have been raised up with Christ. This has a threefold meaning. First, he meant this in the sense that if we have believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, then we are in a sense crucified with Him and therefore “raised up” on the cross with Him. Paul said in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Second, we have been “raised up” in the sense that, if we believe, we have been “born from above.” This is something that Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus (John 3:3), the man who evidently did later come to believe in Jesus since he came to help prepare Jesus’ body for burial after He was crucified (John 19:39). Jesus used a Greek word “anothen” which had a dual meaning, above and again. Jesus taught Nicodemus that he had to born from above spiritually, and that he had to be born a second time spiritually in a process distinct from his physical birth. The instant a person believes they are “born from above,” meaning that they received the gift of the Holy Spirit of God. The third meaning that Paul had in mind regarding being “raised up” with Christ is that in a spiritual sense after we die we will be “raised up” to a much greater authority in order to reign with Jesus Christ. Paul said, “If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12).
Here is another important insight from the reading. Paul said in verse 4, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Notice the repetition of the word “revealed.” We spoke about one aspect of Christ’s revelation last week in the Palm Sunday readings when we discussed His triumphal entry to Jerusalem. However, in this reading Paul wasn’t referring to Christ’s exaltation as King when he road into Jerusalem on a donkey. Rather, he was referring to Jesus’ Second Coming at which time He will return in glory to judge the world. As we said last week, Jesus came the first time as a humble, unblemished Lamb (Revelation 13:8). However, Jesus will return the second time as the glorious Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5). He will return as the Almighty Warrior on a white horse, not a donkey (Revelation 19:11). Jesus was revealed as the King of the Jews when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He was revealed as the King of the universe when he rose from the dead, this is what we are celebrating today. Finally, Jesus will be revealed when He comes again in glory with all of His believers in tow, that is us, His saints (Revelation 19:14, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Acts 9:13, Acts 9:32, Acts 26:10, Romans 16:2).
As we conclude the New Testament reading and discussion, it may be helpful to rephrase the flow of thought before the first few verses (in one very long, grammatically incorrect sentence). After the three verses of the reading, a capstone statement provides my personal summary of the reason why we must set our minds on things above:
THEREFORE, keeping in mind the correction given to us regarding the four theological heresies, since we have been crucified with Christ, have been born from above, will be exalted to participate in reigning with Jesus Christ, and since God has granted us all of these incalculable gifts from God, THEN let us “Set [our] minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For [we] have died and [our lives are] hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then [we] also will be revealed with Him in glory” (vv. 2-4). We are called by God to do the latter (vv. 2-4) because the teachers of the theological heresies were attempting to bring Jesus down to their level by falsely thinking they could reach up to heaven by practicing manmade religion.
How is that for a long sentence?! However, did you understand the importance of reading the context into the study of the verses from the reading? The big idea is that humans cannot attain fellowship with God in heaven through religious rituals, ascetic practices (like starving the body), or the worship of angels (see Luke 4:8, Matthew 4:10, and especially Revelation 22:8-9 where the practice is expressly forbidden). The only way that humans can attain eternal life and fellowship with God is through faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, believing that Jesus atoned for our sin (Romans 10:9-13).
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
As we move onto the Gospel reading from Saint John Chapter 20 we will see the “reason for the season” of Easter. Throughout the Lenten period we have looked forward to the celebration of this glorious day. Before you read, say a short prayer asking God to show you what the resurrection means to you.
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him." 3 So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. 4 The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; 5 and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. 6 And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. 9 For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. (John 20:1-9)
The narrative continued beyond what was covered in the reading:
10 So the disciples went away again to their own homes. 11 But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 And they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him." 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, "Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away." 16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (which means, Teacher). (John 20:10-16)
Mary Magdalene believed and was the first person to see the risen Lord alive. She received confirmation that since God raised Jesus from the dead, she would one day be raised herself. We can also have assurance of salvation which leads to eternal life by trusting in what the Scripture says about how a person does make it to heaven when they die. First, God says that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). God says that because of our sin the payment we will receive without some outside intervention is death, meaning eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23). In that same verse, God says that the outside intervention has been given as a free gift: Jesus’ died on the cross for the payment of our sins. This good news can also be found in the famous verse that is often seen printed on cardboard signs held up at sporting events. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Saint Paul said, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Does this sound like something that is simple to achieve? It is simple, but if it’s not necessarily easy. If it were easy then everyone in the world that ever heard the Gospel would become a believer. Peter said in Acts 2:38 that we must repent of (or turn away from) our sins. This means that we have to come to an agreement with God about our sins, and recognize them for what they are, deadly (Romans 6:21). The Bible says that even one single sin would keep us from entering heaven – forever (James 2:10). So repentance of sin, turning away from the destructive forces that once ruled our lives, is an on-going part of exercising faith in Jesus. One preacher said, “If your faith hasn’t changed you, it probably hasn’t saved you.” This is not to imply that works are necessary for salvation. But it is to say that true faith is manifested in our lives being oriented around the values that Christ had, because He is our life (Colossians 3:4). Jesus’ death and resurrection were given as a gift to all, to cover our sin and provide us with the right to be accepted into heaven. As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, keep in mind the simplicity of this Gospel message that Jesus gave to the world.
What about you? Have you acknowledged the forgiveness of your sins through the only method possible: faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead? Let’s pray to affirm our faith.
Dear God, I believe that I am a sinner, and that because of my sin I deserve death and eternal separation from You. I believe that Jesus died for my sins as payment of the penalty I owed. I believe that You raised Him from the dead and that He will come again in glory. I repent of my sins and ask You, in the name of Jesus, to empower me to set my sights on spiritual things above, not on my carnal desires that have separated me from You. I pray this in Jesus’ Holy name, Amen.
We pray that you have a very happy Easter celebration!
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
1. What difference does the resurrection of Jesus Christ make in your life?
2. Take a few quiet moments and ponder how you truly feel about dying. Are you afraid of death? Have you had a narrow escape with dying that changed you opinion about the eventuality of dying? In light of your response, write down some of the verses that we covered today which provide you with hope of eternal life when you die.