A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Easter’s Promised Land
April 5, 2018
Yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The day before he died, he delivered one of his most memorable sermons, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In it he declared that he had no fear of death, despite all the threats against his life, because he knew justice would finally prevail, whether he lived to see it or not. Like Moses, he said, he could see the promised land from afar, and for him that was enough. King’s confidence was rooted not in his own power or the powers of his colleagues, but in a deep faith that God’s purpose will finally prevail over all that destroys and harms.
Nothing declares God’s ultimate victory over all that is unrighteous more powerfully than Easter. In the Apostles’ Creed we confess that after his burial Jesus descended into hell, something inferred from Ephesians 4:7-10 and 1 Peter 3:18-20 . Even more cryptically, Jesus tells Mary on Easter morning that he is ascending to the Father – did he mean eventually he would ascend, or that he was ascending directly to get a fresh view from the mountaintop?
One of the most striking features of the very fragmentary stories of what Jesus said and did following Easter morning is how he responded to the doubts of his followers. He did not scold Thomas for doubting the reports of his resurrection, offering him the proof he needed. Luke says that in the days following Easter, Jesus offered many proofs to convince them he was raised from the dead. Yet as he prepared to leave them for good, some of them still doubted, and they continued to harbor the mistaken hope that he was preparing to restore autonomy to Israel.
He left them with a commission to change the world, despite their doubts and misunderstandings. Why? Perhaps he too had “been to the mountaintop” to see what lay ahead, whether or not he was physically present. The risen Lord had been to the depths and the heights, and knew that all would be well.
Dr. King’s death-defying confidence was not something he mustered on his own. It was not rooted in astute powers of prognostication. It was born and nurtured in him through his lifelong immersion in the story of the One whose resurrection assures that all shall be made well in the end. He had been to the mountaintop with Jesus.
Just as Jesus’ victory is not yet fully apparent in human affairs, so it is abundantly clear that Dr. King’s dream is not yet realized in our nation’s racial relations.
The conquest of the Promised Land that Moses saw from a distance was anything but a done deal. Contest over that land is still with us more than 3,000 years later. The vision from the mountaintop may take long to realize, but that ought not dissuade us from pursuing the reign of God in our world. Indeed, patience and perseverance mark the pathways of all who have been to the mountaintop. They never gave up. Nor should we.
Easter is God’s assurance that we shall indeed be made free from all that hurts and destroys. We do not yet see the final triumph of the risen Lord made visible in human affairs, but Easter faith declares that it will be made fully manifest one day. And thank God for those who have been to the mountaintop to remind us of that!
In that final epic sermon, Dr. King named some of those witnesses on whose shoulders he stood, from Moses on down, declaring in the end he would rather be here, today, than in company with them, glorious as their mountaintop perches may have been. Because today we are closer than ever to seeing God’s Promised Land. This certainty did not lead Dr. King to slack off, as though the inevitability of the coming kingdom gave license to relax.
Now, more than ever, we need to put our hands to the plow, we need to sing the songs of Zion, we need to proclaim the Good News to all who are lost, to all who are broken, to all who suffer: The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!
In Easter hope,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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