In the one truly ecumenical (i.e., worldwide) Christian creed, that is, the Nicene Creed, the church confesses that “on the third day [Jesus] rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.” The “Scriptures” referred to here can be none other than what Christians call the “Old Testament,” as there were no other Scriptures at the time of the first Easter. The Creed is claiming that Christ’s resurrection had been in the works, so to speak, for a very long time. Specifically, it is somehow essential for Christians to agree that the Old Testament has something to say about how we understand what was going on in the life, death, and life of Jesus.
Yet you would never know it from the Bible readings that many churches use during the Easter season. Ever since the liturgical reforms that grew out of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1960s and the concurrent liturgical renewal in many Protestant churches, the lectionary, or prescribed set of readings for Sunday worship, has belied what the Creed claims to be so important. For Lutherans, the relevant reforms were driven by the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) in the late 1960s and included the development of a three-year series of readings, centered largely on the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to replace the one-year cycle that had prevailed heretofore. In many respects, this change was, in my fallible opinion, a wholesome one. It exposed the “person in the pew” to a much larger portion of the Bible than was possible with a one-year series. But I have always taken strong exception to one major decision: during the Easter season (that is, Easter through Pentecost, fifty days later) readings from the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles are designated as the “First Reading,” replacing what is, for the rest of the year, a selection from the Old Testament. That is, during Christianity’s holiest and most celebratory season, the Old Testament is discretely pushed aside.
This decision was not without reason. Those who designed the three-year lectionary were trying to make the point that Easter marks a decisive moment in the dealings of God with humanity. If Easter be considered a rock dropped in the pond of human history, then the subsequent development of the church as ripples in human affairs is best considered a direct consequence of Easter’s transformation of Death’s wall into a door to fuller Life. This story is most fully told, at least within the Christian Bible, in the book of Acts.
But still I think it was a mistake. First, it can only contribute to an ongoing Christian problem, known by the fifty-cent term “supersessionism,” that is, the idea that, in the plan of God, Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. The horrific history of the treatment of Jews over the centuries of Christian predominance in the West need not be spelled out, I trust. Moreover, supersessionism is not even a necessary element of either biblical teaching or the Christian faith. See Romans 9-11 and the decree of the Second Vatican Council Nostra Aetate for details.
But secondly and arguably even worse, the omission of Old Testament readings from the Easter season ignores the claims of the core Christian creed, as noted above. Christians who confess the Nicene Creed without a second thought really need to ask, in what sense was Jesus’s resurrection “in accordance with the [Old Testament] Scriptures”? It’s not an easy question to answer. Nowhere does the Old Testament explicitly state that the Messiah (or Christ) will be killed OR be raised on the third day. Rather, living with the biblical witness over a lifetime, as I have been privileged to do, can lead one to a realization that, over the history of his people, Israel, God developed a modus operandi—a way of operating—that consistently leads to God’s bringing greater good out of evil than would have happened without the evil (see Genesis 50:20), indeed, that it is God’s habit to bring life out of death.
That is at least the claim that I am making in a five-week series of adult education conversations that I shall be leading during the present Easter season. Given present realities, those conversations are happening via ZOOM meetings, hosted by the president of Feast of Victory Lutheran Church in Acme, Michigan, where I am a member and my wife serves as pastor. Last Sunday, we talked about “Easter as Exodus,” with a focus on Exodus 14-15. This coming Sunday, we’ll look at “Easter in Jonah” (see Matthew 12:38-42 for why). If you’re interested in participating, send your name and e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You’re welcome.