Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 - link to the NRSV text
“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Easter is a strange day in the life of the church. On one hand, it is the day that the church stands up and makes the most audacious, stupefying, counter-cultural and ridiculous claim of its entire history, the very claim on which it lays it foundation of being: “He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!”
And yet, while the world watches us with puzzlement and confusion, the church gathers to celebrate the Resurrection with an almost nonchalant malaise. We show up in our suits and Easter dresses, we sing the great Easter hymns like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” or “The Day of Resurrection,” we read the Gospel stories, we hear the Easter sermon, then we go home for what is often the real event: Easter dinner.
Now, I know that this isn’t the case for everyone. Many Christians who come to church on Easter are sincere, really do come to celebrate this highest of holy days of the Christian faith. But in a lot of ways we’re numb to its mystery, its power; part of the reason we celebrate is because we supposed to celebrate on Easter. But the reality is that we know the story, we know the ending, and so we know what to expect when we walk through the doors on Easter morning.
This wasn’t the case that first Easter. The reality is, not one of Jesus’ disciples or followers expected this. Not Peter. Not Andrew. Not James or John or Matthew or any of the others. And especially not Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to the tomb the morning following the Sabbath.
People have tried to explain what happened to these followers after Jesus’ crucifixion. Mass hallucination. Altered states of consciousness experiences. They made it up. We do not have scientific proof, a security video or photograph, that denies or verifies what these followers claim they experienced in the days and weeks following Jesus’ death at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the Temple authorities: that when these women showed up that Sunday morning, the stone was rolled away and there was no body, just the linens in which it had been wrapped. They spoke of a messenger of some sort, and an experience with the risen Jesus.
Following that, there were other accounts: the disciples gathered in the upper room; the disciples on the road to Emmaus; Paul records an appearance to Peter all alone, and an otherwise unrecorded appearance to five hundred at one time. The disciples and followers of Jesus witnessed to a transformational experience with a resurrection Jesus, a resurrection that they claimed proved he was the promised Messiah and had come to turn everything on its head.
I’m not attempting to “prove” the Resurrection; but something happened, something motivated these disparaged and downtrodden and defeated followers of an executed Jewish leader to march out into the Greco-Roman world proclaiming that this same leader had been raised from the dead by the power of God. And further they claimed that this shamed, rejected leader had become the way through which God is reconciling us back to God’s self.
Five times in the New Testament, verse 22 from Psalm 118 is cited as a witness to God’s work in Jesus, that the “stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (cf. Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7). And it’s easy to see why Psalm 118 would be one that the early church would gravitate towards to make sense of God’s new work in Jesus.
In our lection from the psalm, vv. 14-24, the petitioner sums up what the Lord has done for them with the statement that the Lord has become their salvation (v. 14). This is followed by thanksgiving, the “songs of victory” and the chorus about the right hand of the Lord, or what the Lord has done. Because of what the Lord has done, the petitioner gives praise and confidently declares the difference between life with God versus what would have happened except for the Lord’s actions: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (v. 17).
The rest of the reading can be understood as a liturgical action. Some parts are clearly the petitioner, while others are the response of the assembly; verses 19-21 follow this pattern, with the petitioner asking for access to the sanctuary through the “gates of righteousness” in order to give thanks (v. 19). The assembly then vindicates the petitioner, affirming that they can enter (v. 20), followed by the thanksgiving that was promised back in verse 19.
Verses 22-24 are unclear about who is speaking; verses 22-23 could be the petitioner alone, or it could be the whole assembly. Regardless, these verses are a celebration of the Lord’s vindication of the petitioner, symbolized by the rejected stone made into the cornerstone (v. 22). This is interpreted as the Lord’s doing, and that this day of vindication and victory is a day made by the Lord that the assembly is called to rejoice and be glad in response.
For the early Christians, whose Easter experience was a movement from defeat and despair to victory and celebration, the figure of the rejected stone that is vindicated by the Lord is easily connected with the resurrected Jesus, a Messiah rejected by the leaders of the world and of his people and put to death. In his resurrection, God vindicates Jesus and opens to him the gates of righteousness.
The early church also saw their own hope in this psalm. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the gates of righteousness are open to us as well, and we can confess “I shall not die, but I shall live…This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (v. 17, 23).
The celebratory tone, the rejoicing in the deliverance from death, the confidence in God’s mighty works: all of these themes and images are appropriate for Easter, and are entry points for how we in the modern church might recapture the passion of those first Easter experiences. Easter is not a celebration of how we escape from this life and will go on to heaven in the next life, but that this life is transformed through God’s mighty works in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The powers of this world that dominate us, sin and fear and doubt, like the power of Rome before them, are conquered and overturned. The power of death, which looms over all human beings and shadows all that we do, is shattered. God, in and through Jesus, has become our salvation, our deliverance, and our hope.
Therefore, with confidence and hope, we can sing in celebration alongside the psalmist,
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
PS: Please comment!