Something happened in church yesterday on Easter. Call it an “aha” moment.
Hidden away in the first reading of Easter is a curious reference that draws no attention: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him…” [Acts of the Apostles 2:5]. Yesterday the “tree” shined like a diamond attracting full attention.
The reference to “a tree” seemed strange. This wasn’t a lynching in Mississippi – they hadn’t hanged him from a tree. It was a crucifixion. The Roman cross was made of wood, but why would Peter call it a tree? Unless, perhaps, the tree calls something else to mind, a reference point within Hebraic scripture and theology that puts the cross in the greater light of a tree. Like the stories of creation and fall in Genesis 1 and 2.
There are three references to a tree in the Genesis narrative.
The first is from the third day of creation:
“And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.” [Gen. 1:11-12]
The second reference juxtaposes two trees. One gives life. The other is the tree of death.
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” [Gen. 2:8-9]
The third reference describes the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the one tree that is forbidden in the garden:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Gen. 2:15)
It is always the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that gets us into trouble. It is the tree of divine presumption. Hubris. The tree that produces not life but death. It destroys, almost always in the name of goodness, and what goodness seeks to kill is evil. The knowledge of good and evil is beyond human capacity.
The Jesus who is hanged from this killing tree exposes the folly of the tree on which he hangs. As foe to the global imperial claims of the Roman Empire, his killing tree becomes for one and all the tree of life. On the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the crucified-risen One becomes the tree of life, “yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind; and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.”
Perhaps that’s the rich history, the diamond, that shines like a diamond in the Easter text from The Book of Acts. No one would know the juxtaposition better than Peter, the only disciple to deny knowing Jesus, and the only disciple specifically named in the instructions to the three women at the empty tomb: “Go and tell the disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him… [Gospel of Mark 16:7]
Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; The third day he was raised again from the dead” [Apostles’ Creed]. And by this fruit of creation restored is all creation blessed.
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 6, 2015