The Firstfruits that Taste of the Harvest – Easter

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep … But each one in his own order: Christ the Firstfruit, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.  [ I Corinthians 15:20,23]

There are three “firstfruit” celebrations to be found in Israel’s calendar, which were commanded by God at Mount Sinai.  Perhaps the most familiar is the day of Pentecost, the second occurs at the Festival of Booths, but the third probably isn’t very well known outside of Jewish circles.

On Pentecost, at the end of the wheat harvest, the firstfruit celebration is a kind of catch-all harvest festival.  Israel brings to the temple “the Seven Species” of the Promised Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates [Deuteronomy 8:8], and then the worshippers recount how Jacob was a homeless wanderer, how the People went into exile in Egypt, and how God redeemed them and brought them to this good Land of Promise [Deuteronomy 26:1-10].  The occasion is also a celebration of the birthday of the nation of God’s People, Israel, as they stood at the foot of Mt Sinai [Exodus 19]; and as well, it is the birthday of the new nation of God’s People, the Christians [I Peter 2:9].

The second firstfruit celebration is called “the Festival of the Ingathering,” which might be described as the celebration of the beauty of the Land, since it not only includes the fruit tree harvest, but one also gathers branches from palm trees, leafy trees and willows.  It is celebrated jointly with the Festival of Booths, itself a remarkable celebration as each family lives in stable-like shed for seven days, and are visited each night by one of “the seven shepherds of Israel.”  Not only does it rehearse what we will see in Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth, Zechariah [14:16] foretells of when all nations “shall go up from year to year to worship the King, Jehovah of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.”  It seems that this festival celebrates not just the first time God comes to “tent” among humans, but also in the book of Revelation where His trademark will be that He again “tents” among His People.

It is easy to see that these two celebrations are not just merely thanksgiving days, there is a lot of meaning packed into their ritual.  But what of the third celebration?  This one marks a transition between the barley harvest, which is ending, and the beginning of the wheat harvest which will end in fifty days at Pentecost.  According to Leviticus [23:14], the farmers are not allowed to eat of the grain during the harvest until this festival is celebrated, but afterwards, they can taste of the good things that their harvest brings.  Reading a couple of verses earlier in Leviticus, we discover that this celebration falls the day after Passover – it is the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, it is the day of the Resurrection.

Why had God set this festival’s date to this day?  After all, the more that we look at all the celebrations and what they include, the more we are conscious that God had far more in mind than simply a list of holidays.  When He originally set this particular Firstfruit celebration date, He knew that this would be the day of Jesus’ Resurrection.

Perhaps a clue comes when Paul describes Jesus as “the Firstfruits.”  We realize that our Savior is the harbinger or forerunner of the resurrection which will come on the Last Day.  Truly, as Jesus has risen from the dead, the resurrection is, you might say, set in stone – or, at least, in a now very empty stone tomb.  We have a firm guarantee that the resurrection not only can happen, but will, and will happen to us.  We also will be given a risen body as He has, along with all the other benefits of the resurrection that will be ours forever.

But even though all this is true, this Firstfruit celebration does not deal with a final harvest – in fact, it is right in the middle of a harvesting that is going on; actually it spans the ending of one harvest and the beginning of another, reflecting the ending of the age of Israel and the beginning of the age of Christianity, or in different words, the ending of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New.  But most significantly, it speaks of being able to enjoy the benefits of the harvest already, right now.

Perhaps that is what is so significant about the story of the two disciples from Emmaus.  After watching Jesus die, it is a rough three days for the disciples, and now to these two, it just seems that hysteria has taken over as some babble about Jesus being alive.  These Emmaus disciples are disappointed, discouraged, disheartened and all the other words you could apply and it seems just useless to stay around – they might as well just go home.

On the way, they are joined by a third Person to Whom they give a catalogue of their dashed hopes and then talk of their uneasiness with those who claim to have seen Jesus alive.  You might call these two, “distracted hikers,” because they are so busy with the puzzle in their minds that they just do not notice anything else, they just do not realize Who this Person is Who has joined them.  Jesus, of course, is not surprised.  In fact, this is why He comes to them.  They need Him, they need to understand that the resurrection is not just for the far distant future.

It is the same problem Jesus encounters when He comes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead.  When Martha meets Him, she says that had He been there, her brother would not have died.  Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”  She answers, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” – in terms of the firstfruits, she has no problem with the final harvest.  But Jesus directs her attention to the right now, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, yet he shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
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Although she replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is to come into the world,” there still is a sense that she really does not expect much more than what would happen only at the final harvest.  There really is not much for the right now – in fact, when Jesus wants the stone rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, she is quick to say that is not a good idea since the smell would be pretty bad.  No, there is no expectation of anything happening in the mid-harvest, although she does take comfort in that Jesus has at least come to pay His respects.

As with Martha, the Emmaus disciples really do appreciate how the Stranger opens up the Old Testament and confirms that Jesus does hold the power of the resurrection after all.  With every step, their confidence is strengthened, their hope is made firm.  Indeed, when the final harvest will come, Jesus will indeed be there to make it all happen.  It is quite a comfort to have this under their belt.  They feel better even though they know that they still face the process of grief.

As they reach Emmaus, they persuade the Stranger to stay the night with them.  For the seven days following Passover, the Jews are to only eat unleavened bread, so Jesus took the Matzoth bread, the flat bread that is pierced and striped, the bread that was broken at the Last Supper, and He blesses it, breaks it and gives it to those disciples.   Suddenly now they recognize Him.

But more than that, they become aware that the Resurrection is not just for the end times, it is something for right now.  As is demonstrated to Martha in the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is not something just for the End Times.  In terms of the Firstfruit festival on this day, they realize that, yes, the final harvest is coming, but already right now one can taste of the good things that the harvest brings.

But when we talk about tasting the Resurrection already now, are we talking about raising people from the dead like Jesus did to Lazarus?  Well, there are instances in the book of Acts, although rare, of the disciples doing just that.  Yet that is not the most important way to discover the good things we already receive in the harvest of the Resurrection.

Actually, one of the best results of the Resurrection is very simple: the empty tomb means that God keeps His promises, even the most demanding and hardest.  Easter is the capstone of all the ways that God has kept His promises – from Christmas, with its impossibility of God neutralizing His own nature to become a man, and actually dwelling in our kind of lives and in our world; to the Cross, with its impossibility of God dying and yet as Jesus dies, this is God the Son dying; and then the impossibility of Easter, where Jesus had promised to raise Himself – and so He actually does.

He keeps His promises, and that is important news for as we face each day, so that we can have confidence and hope, because we know that the Jesus Who demonstrates interest and involvement in our lives has not changed.  Indeed just as He comes back even just for the sake of two unknown disciples on the road to Emmaus, we know that He will never leave us nor forsake us – just as He promised.

Wait, there is more! The Emmaus disciples identify that they recognized Jesus in “the Breaking of Bread” [Luke 23:30-31, 35] and it is no coincidence that the early Church choose to refer to Holy Communion this way.  Here at the altar we participate in what Paul declares is the “Firstfruits” of the Resurrection, the very presence of Jesus, and we partake of all that He is eternally.  This is more than just forgiveness of sins, this is all the very Life of God to be found in a piece of bread and a sip of wine, what Jesus has now made to be His Body and His Blood.

We look around and discover that this Body, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, is all around us, because the Church is His Body.  Jesus comes to us now, like He does to those Emmaus disciples, so that we can discover the benefits of His presence among us, His strength, His hope, His power at work.  Again looking at His Body, we realize that the unity we have in Him reaches far beyond what we can imagine.  In fact, the reunion we expect in the final harvest is to be tasted here.  In Jesus, we touch other believers around the world, in all ages, and especially we discover that those whom we have loved, knowing that now even death can no longer separate us.  Through Jesus, here in His Sacrament, indeed we get to taste now all that harvest of the final resurrection will be about.

So come, and meet the Resurrection and the Life, come and meet Jesus in “the Breaking of Bread” – come and experience the taste of the final harvest when we get to enjoy all the good things that the Lord has for us forever.

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