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Remembering MLK on this Easter

I’m reminded that on this day in 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated and it’s been something I’ve been sitting with over this Holy Week.

The excerpt you heard, often titled I Have Been to the Mountain Top, is his last public address given on April 3rd, 1968 in support of the Memphis sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and working conditions. In that speech he seems to anticipate his own death.

And that strikes me because in the 4 Gospels, Jesus knows his fate in Jerusalem.

Matthew 17 is an example

 Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.”

MLK anticipation is made clear

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?”

They did not take on their duty without an awareness of the threat of death which loomed around them even as they preached life abundant to their communities.  

The passion of Jesus makes us confront death in all its cruelty and absurdity even to the taunts Jesus faced while on the cross. Martin Luther King and his death reminds us that crucifixions still happen. When people are animated by fear, death surely follows.

It’s helpful for us to consider this; Rome feared Jesus. And many white people feared MLK. But what is striking is that MLK does not fear white people. “I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

Jesus likewise does not fear the Romans. He doesn’t fear Pontius Pilate, when he is captured at Gethsemane he doesn’t resist.

In John 18 Jesus says to Pontius Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I should not be captured; but my kingdom is not from here.”

What is their source of confidence in the face of death? A vision of God’s ultimate aim which is bigger than any one man. King uses an analogy from Moses who was able to go to the mountain to see the promised land of Israel, that his successor Joshua would lead the Israelites to.

King says “He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The promised land of racial justice and the dignity of the human person.

That kingdom is described in Luke 4 when Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Why does that vision, give courage to Jesus and to MLK? I think part of this is found in 1 John 2 “And the world and its desire[f] are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”

King says “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

Jesus continues in John 6 8 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.

The confidence comes in doing God’s will, which stands for ever more. We touch immortality in doing what God would have us do and be in this world.

And that tells us something about the resurrected life.

Because as I began this sermon, I could imagine folks going, look there is a big difference between Jesus and Martin Luther King. MLK would agree.

Afterall Jesus was resurrected. King was not. That would suggest that resurrection is a one-time event that happened far in the past to one man, which we celebrate today.

And that alone would make it worthwhile to do so. It would be a miracle. But according to the Apostle Paul something else, a bigger miracle, happened at the resurrection that makes it not a one-time event

In Colossians 2 we read:

12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

And Romans 6

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life

There resurrection for Paul is a fact of our existence, one that happens now at this time and place. We have all been raised. Not because we deny our mortality as human beings. Death is in fact real.

But rather because there is something of us that cannot be killed, the part that seeks to go God’s will. That is eternal, that can never be robbed of us.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, [n] be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

In Easter, we don’t simply celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we celebrate the resurrection life, the eternal life, which is our portion in this life, to be lived with in confidence in the work that God calls us to do.  And that confidence has an empirical basis.

The basis is found in the life of the church, that is in those, who responded to the life and ministry of Jesus throughout the ages.

MLK as a Christian minister and the black church which he came out of are expressions of that larger movement of the kingdom that Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated.  

The basis that King’s labors were not in vain is in the movement for racial justice we find now animating a whole generation of young people, to respond to the call for the dignity of persons of color. That too is an expression of the kingdom that Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated.

As the Catholic catechism puts it

“the risen Christ lives in the hearts of his faithful. In Christ, Christians “have tasted. . . the powers of the age to come” and their lives are swept up by Christ into the heart of divine life, so that they may “live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised”

That is what animates our work, that is what gives testimony and proof of the resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits, then the church, then God’s good aims is to become all in all.

That is why Paul is so invested in the churches he wrote to. They were proof of the resurrected life that God would have for us all. And we are too. Bethlehem Lutheran is proof of the resurrection.

And as we move to a post Covid world, the world will feel like it too has new life to live.

How Bethlehem, takes up the work in which is called to, will be evidence of the resufrection faith seeking to build life in our wider community.

I believe you with this blessing from Hebrews 13

20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings and vice minister at Bethlehem Lutheran in Billings MT

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