Running to joy

Wednesday

Luke 24

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Children running in the flower bed of Kashmir

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.

They are walking away from the community of disciples in Jerusalem. Are they walking away? Have they abandoned hope that Christ was the one? Are they leaving the fellowship, quitting church, so to speak?

Our assumption is that the followers of Jesus would be devastated by the outcome of events in Jerusalem. But in a world run by elites, where villagers from Nazareth and fishermen from Galilee have no power and little control, they would more likely respond with resignation. We hoped – but the world is as it is. We hoped – but the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We hoped – but the power of the mighty is too mighty.

Oh, there is grief for a friend. And there may be bitterness towards “the man.” But what did you really expect? It was nice to dream… Now it’s time to go home, to go back to work. People who are used to powerlessness know how to survive powerlessness.

But then there was this strange report by the women who went to the tomb.

Nevertheless, they are going home. In the addendum to John’s Gospel, chapter 21, Peter says, “I am going fishing.” It’s the same thing as turning towards Emmaus. It’s not therapy. It’s not recreation. It’s resignation. We hoped, but hope came to naught. Time to go home. Time to go back to the daily grind.

There are many who listen to the stories of Jesus and walk away saying, “It’s not the real world.” I had this argument with my stepfather when I was 16. Yes I was idealistic. Yes he was cynical, angry and probably frightened by the unrest that spawned the SDS, Black Panthers, and urban riots. But our argument was nevertheless about the “real world”.

Is the “real world” the “dog eat dog” world or the “love your neighbor” world? Is the “real world” the survival of the fittest or “the first shall be last and the last first”? Is the “real world” run by money or the Spirit of God? Are we prisoners of sin and death or Sons and Daughters of God?

Cleopas – short for Cleopatris, the masculine form of Cleopatra – bears a name we associate with the world of sex, money and power. He followed Jesus for a time, but the powers-that-be crushed Jesus with hardly a thought – and Cleopas doesn’t need anyone to explain to him the “real world.” He’s going home. It was a fool’s errand.

But then the real “real world” meets him. Then the risen Jesus comes. Then the word of God is opened. Then the bread is broken. Then Christ reveals himself, the truly real.

And then Cleopas is on his feet running back to Jerusalem, running to join the community that lives by the Spirit of this Jesus, running to join the community of joy, running to tell all they have seen and heard.

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In the presence of the risen Lord

Watching for the morning of May 4

Year A

The Third Sunday of Easter

Biarritz-Église_Sainte_Eugénie-Vitrail_SE-20120413.croppedWe suffer a little whiplash by this Sunday, going from Matthew (on Easter Sunday) to John (last Sunday) and now to Luke. But in this choir of voices we hear rich testimony to the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. In Luke the risen Jesus opens the scriptures to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus that they might see and understand how the scriptures point to all that has happened in his death and resurrection. Jesus causes a profound rereading of the Biblical witness. All those scattered references to God’s suffering servant, all those psalms of suffering, the references to the Son of God and the Son of Man, reassemble themselves into a new portrait of a redeeming God who comes to draw the whole earth under the reign of his Spirit. Jesus becomes the lens for a new reading of scripture. The Biblical record is not just Israel’s story, but the human story, and the new Jerusalem not a new capital of a righteous theocracy, but the marriage of heaven and earth.

Of this royal city we are citizens, walking already by the light of a new day, immersed in a new spirit, feasting at the king’s table in the presence of the risen Lord.

The Prayer for May 4, 2014

Gracious God,
as Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the breaking of the bread,
and opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
continue to reveal yourself to us
that we may live in the joy and freedom of your grace,
and bear witness to your redeeming love;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever,

The Texts for May 4, 2014

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-41
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” – Peter bears witness to the crowds at Pentecost, urging them to turn and show allegiance to Christ Jesus whom God has vindicated and revealed as Lord by his resurrection.

Psalmody: Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” – a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from a threat to his life.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23
“You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” –
a homily on baptism, here urging the believers to remain faithful to their new life.

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35
“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus.” – Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, opening to them the scriptures and revealing himself in the breaking of bread.

Glorious joy

Sunday Evening

1 Peter 1

File:A student from the Boys Training Center laughs while touring the seagoing buoy tender USCGC Oak (WLB 211) May 27, 2013, in Castries 130527-N-KL795-101.jpg8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.

“An indescribable and glorious joy,” a joy that cannot be captured by words. Some years ago our altar was near the back wall. To come for communion you had to go up three steps onto the chancel platform – and the altar was up a further step on which you knelt before an altar rail. There was a young child who, when leaving after communing, ran and jumped the three steps to the main floor.

It was the highlight of my morning. A child should be free to be a child in worship. Faith ought not suppress the spirit but free it. Indeed all of us should find in worship a welcome that liberates the heart. It is reasonable to think this child would have delighted in jumping any steps, but this particular jump always represented for me a small manifestation of that indescribable and glorious joy that is our proper response to God’s gift of himself.

Communion means many different things to us depending on our situation in life and our innate wiring. I see in children the profound importance of being a participant in the common life. I see in others the deeply moved piety of kneeling in the presence of the eternal. There have been times when that bit of bread was for me a lifeline, the one real thing in a year when everything seemed meaningless. There have been times it has been a profound grace, that I am welcome at God’s table. There have been times it has been a promise that I am not alone, that God is walking with me. There have been times it has been, as for the child, an experience of belonging, a participation in a common life. There have been times when I see Christ in the bread and times when I see and feel nothing and must take it on faith. What pulses through all of these is that remarkable declaration “for you.”

I do not commune myself, as in some traditions. I always step down and stand at the rail to receive as all others receive – at the hand of another, with the words spoken to me: “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” Such a promise we need to hear in our ears. Hearing your beloved say “I love you,” is much different than having to say to yourself “I know she (or he) loves me.” To be honest, communing yourself is more like putting your wedding ring back on after taking it off to do the dishes; it can be thoughtless or quite profound. If we are listening, the ring speaks. Still, I prefer to make visible that this is a gift given to me. And I think it is good for the congregation to see that at this table I stand with them.

I commune last because at the altar I stand in the place of Christ, speaking his promise to the community, and Christ came to serve not to be served. As a friend grumbled years ago when the servers were all being communed first: “What other banquet do you know where the kitchen staff eat before the invited guests?!”

When I step down to the rail, I try hard to carve out a few seconds when I am not the pastor, but a petitioner like all the rest. When I am not thinking about what is happening or should be happening in the worship service, but thinking only on this promise spoken to me.

There in my hand is the embodiment of God’s promise. There in my hand heaven’s speech is made visible. There is the promise of a perfect communion between God and ourselves. There is the promise of Eden fulfilled. There is the promise of the New Jerusalem. There is the promise of sins forgiven. There is the promise of a world gathered around a shared table. There is the promise of swords beaten into plowshares. There is the promise of the end of all sorrows and the perfect dawning of an “indescribable and glorious joy.”

My Lord and my God

Saturday

John 20

File:Santo Domingo de Silos Relief 092.jpg27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.

This translation “put your finger here” is perfectly fine, but I think it misses something sweet and important in the text. The Greek word is usually translated ‘carry’ or ‘bring’, suggesting something more like “Bring your finger here.” “Bring that here” can be no less a harsh command than “put it here”, but here the word ‘bring’ seems to involve the drawing near of the person, not just the object – it is Thomas who is being called to Jesus, not just his finger.

In the same way, Jesus doesn’t say, “reach out your hand” but “bring your hand and put it in my side.” Thomas is being drawn to Jesus; he is not being subjected to proofs. This encounter with Jesus is, after all, not an exercise in rational thought; it is a summons to trust.

It is a shame we translate the Greek words here as ‘doubt’ and ‘believe’. I cannot help but think our modern sense of those words distorts the message of the text. The word translated ‘doubt’ is the negative prefix ‘a’ with the word for faith. It works like the pair of words moral and amoral. The words here are ‘with faith’ and ‘without faith’, faithful and faithless. The issue is not whether God can raise the dead. The issue is whether the testimony of the disciples will be trusted – whether the voice of Jesus carried into the world by his followers will be trusted. Thomas didn’t trust it.

It is no small thing to refuse the message spoken from God through his agents. It is like the president of Botswana saying to the U.S. Ambassador, I won’t trust a thing you say unless your president shows up and tells me himself. Such a response is likely to antagonize the president. In the ancient world it would make the king your enemy. It is an affront, a curt rejection of the king’s appointed representative and so a rejection of the king.

But Jesus responds with grace, not wrath. He comes for Thomas, not to defend his pride. He comes to draw Thomas to himself, not to elevate himself. He comes that Thomas may ‘see’; see not just the scars, see not just that this Jesus is the same Jesus he had known, but to see the truth of Jesus. See like Nicodemus should have seen. See like the blind man or the woman at the well. See the divine glory present to the world. See the way and the truth and the life.

And through the word of Jesus Thomas does see, for he falls before Jesus declaring “My Lord and my God.”

These are not abstract concepts; they are personal. Thomas speaks not of ideas but a relationship: “My lord and my God.” He is no longer faithless; he is faithful.

Jesus does not come for each of us as he came for Thomas; we do not get to see the hands and the side. Yet still he comes. In the witness of the first believers. In the witness of the believing community. In narratives like this. Jesus comes. Jesus speaks. Jesus calls us into faithfulness – and as for Thomas so for us. His presence bears fruit. His word draws forth faith. And we acclaim “My Lord and my God.”

The end of all crucifying

Friday

John 20

File:Christ en croix cluny 2.jpg20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.

We should pause over these words. The one who stands before the disciples is the crucified one. The cross is not a sorrow suffered and forgotten. It is not a passing incident. It is not erased by his resurrection. It is his defining mark. Jesus is the crucified one.

It is, of course, necessary to the narrative for the author to make certain that the hearers of his gospel understand that the person the disciples encountered on that first Easter evening was not some other heavenly figure; it was the Jesus they knew, the one from Nazareth who had taught them and mediated God’s gifts of healing and life, the one who had been crucified and buried. If, as some had already begun to teach, a divine spirit, the ‘logos’, had entered into a human being named Jesus – possessed him, so to speak – in order to teach us divine truths and had then departed prior to the crucifixion, such a divine spirit, now appearing to the disciples, would bear no wounds. He would be untouched by suffering and death.  This idea was easier for many to believe, for how could the divine suffer? It is the very essence of divinity to transcend the aches and sighs of mortality. It is an argument that would trouble the church for hundreds of years.

From the beginning there were those who found it easier to think of Jesus as such a divine teacher. He comes to give us insight into life’s true meaning and purpose. He comes to provide the secret insights that free us from earthbound cares and place us among the angels. The Gospel of Thomas unearthed in Nag Hammadi is a string of sayings; it contains no narrative, no account of Jesus’ deeds, no account of his journey to Jerusalem, his last supper, his betrayal, arrest and dying. No account of his resurrection. The Jesus found there is a revealer not a healer, a bearer of secrets not a bearer of sins.

But the one Jesus’ followers encountered was wounded. It was the one who suffered who was raised; it was the one who died who lives. Or, to say it another way, the one who lives is the one who died. The eternal one is the mortal one. The divine suffered.

This is a truly challenging and transforming thought. God is not above and beyond life’s sorrows. He suffers the wounds of the world. He is the innocent child, raped and murdered. He is the men, women and children purged by ethnic cleansing. He is the hungry child with the distended abdomen. He is the young women kidnapped into what fate for attending school. He is the child in fear of family violence. He is the despised, the spit upon, the bearer of racial insults. He is the taunted. He is the abandoned. He is the rejected. He is the crucified.

He is the crucified, but he is not the defeated. These wounds are Christ in his glory. These wounds are the hidden wisdom of God. These wounds are the sign of perfect love, the truth at the heart of all things.

The one who bears these wounds does more than bear our sorrows; the wounds show that he is the way, the path, the road to God and to our true humanity. He is the path from fear to faith, from violence to healing, from alienation to compassion, from shame to glory, from darkness to light, from confusion to truth, from spiritual death to birth from above, from death into live.

The wounds are like permanent scars bearing eternal witness to what we humans have become – children of the night. But it also bears witness to what we shall be – children of the day. He is the crucified one, but he is the end of all crucifying. He has been born of Mary that we might be born of God. He has become perfect love that we might become perfect love.

Christ came to meet him

Thursday

John 20

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The risen Jesus appears to the eleven (with Thomas) on the eighth day

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

If the verse that Jesus came and stood among them and spoke peace is one of the sweetest verses in scripture, this is one of the saddest.  In the moment when Christ came, in the moment when he spoke peace, in the moment when he poured out his Spirit, in the moment when their lives were forever transformed, Thomas was not with them. He missed it.

There was a day my final year of seminary that I tried to cut chapel. I was taking a crushing load of classes and thought I desperately needed those 40 minutes to study. My apartment was one of the few on the hill among the main campus buildings. The students and faculty streamed past it everyday, down an alley towards the old gymnasium we were using as a chapel. This particular day I tried to sneak off from the crowd and slip into my building. But just as I opened the door, one of my professors yelled “Bonde! You coming to chapel?!” Caught, I turned and said, “I’m just putting my books down,” and joined the crowd.

I don’t remember who gave the sermon that day. I just remember that it spoke to me so profoundly I was in tears. Afterwards, I was somewhat shaken that for a few minutes of study I would have sold my birthright. I would have not been there when Jesus came.

It was the only sermon like that in the three years I was on campus. There were fine sermons; there were moments of grace; but no other day in which Christ met me as he did that day. And I would have missed it but for Professor Harrisville.

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

There is a very simple reason we gather together on Sunday. It is here that the risen Christ appears. If Thomas is not there, there is no encounter with the crucified and risen one. If Thomas is not there, there is no word that brings peace. If Thomas is not there, there is no breath of the Spirit, no empowering of a mission, no authority to speak the forgiveness of sins. If Thomas is not there, no faithfulness is created, no allegiance restored. If Thomas is not there, there is for him no bread of life, no living water, no light of the world.

We are not going to hear angels sing at every worship service. But Christ has promised to meet us. It is part of the work of worship for us to watch and listen with an open spirit – or, at least to pray that God will get through to us anyway. The expectation that God has something to say to us is the best preparation for worship.

I learned to listen from Mr. Lunde. I was a new intern; he was the assisting minister. I was worried about what I was supposed to do next in the service and leaned over to ask him a question. He ignored me completely. I tried to get his attention several times, but he didn’t even turn to shush me; he was busy listening to the sermon. Eventually I got the message: he expected Christ to meet him and wasn’t going to miss it. Its sad that after twenty-five years of church life and two years of Seminary I hadn’t yet learned this. But I am grateful for the lesson. Christ met me through Mr. Lunde that day.   But Professor Harrisville still had his call to make. We learn slowly.

Thomas was not with them. He missed it. But he was not catching up on his sleep or mowing the lawn or attending a soccer game the next week. And again Christ came to meet him.

Christ our peace

Wednesday

John 20

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Cattedrale di Monreale, Сhrist Pantocrator

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judean authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

This is one of the sweetest verses in the scriptures. Into these shattered and confused lives Christ comes bringing peace. The doors are locked in a society that didn’t lock doors, that didn’t even close doors. What happened in secret was shameful. Closed doors created suspicion. But the disciples are in fear. Fear, because no one stamps out a movement only by stamping out one leader, they go after all in the inner circle. Fear, because the tomb is empty and desecrating a tomb by stealing the body is a capital crime. If they are accused of stealing the body… Fear, because they don’t know what’s going on. Fear, because there is this report that Jesus is risen and they know not what to make of it. They don’t know what God is doing. They don’t know what the high priests are doing. They don’t know what the Romans are doing. They are not plotting anything in secrecy behind closed doors; they are just afraid.

And then Christ is there. Not a ghost.   Not an apparition. A living presence. With wounds. Saying “Peace.” Bringing peace.

Jesus comes. It is the character of God to come, to draw near, to visit, to abide with us. The God who walked through the garden in the cool of the evening is a God who dwells among the people in a tabernacle and in a temple. The God who rescued slaves dwelt among them. The Living God is born among us, and called Immanuel, “God with us”. It is God’s nature to draw near to us. It is God’s nature to come to us.

And the risen Christ who comes brings peace. He stills our panicking hearts. He calms the stormy sea. He stills the waves. He silences the demonic. In Jesus’ presence, the Gerasene demoniac is restored to his right mind, clothed, sitting at Jesus feet. He speaks peace. He breathes peace.

The one who calls Mary by name calls us by name. Like a lover who calms the beloved with his or her name. Like a parent who infuses a child in the chaos of a tantrum with his or her calm embrace, helping the child to breathe. Restoring us to sanity.

Peace. Peace to our hearts. Peace to our homes. Peace to our world. “Be still and know that I am God.”

Whatever the Romans may do, whatever the Jerusalem authorities may do, whatever life has brought or may yet bring, Christ is risen. Christ is with us. Christ is our peace.

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Seeing and believing

Watching for the morning of April 27

Year A

The Second Sunday of Easter

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Doubting Thomas Figure above the south door of St.Thomas’ church. Portland Stone carving showing St.Thomas kneeling to the risen Christ, by Philip Pape in 1956

Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear of Thomas – Thomas who was absent that first Easter evening and did not see; Thomas, for whom the witness of the others is unable to bring him to faithful allegiance; Thomas who, in his unbelief, nevertheless remains a part of the community, giving him the opportunity to see; Thomas whom the risen Christ sees; Thomas who comes to see.

This is not the only text to speak to us on Sunday. We hear a portion of Peter’s Pentecost message. We sing the psalm that Peter cites to bear witness to the resurrection. And we hear the opening of 1 Peter speak of our new birth and living hope. But Thomas is the gravitational center of the morning, for here is found the blessing upon us and every generation since that first: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Blessed, happy, honorable, at peace with God and the world, are those who have not seen (with their physical eyes) but yet truly see.

The Prayer for April 27, 2014

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faithfulness.
So come to us wherever we are in our doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit you live and reign,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for April 27, 2014

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 22-32
“This man… you crucified … But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” – Peter bears witness to the crowds at Pentecost who have been drawn by the sound of a mighty rushing wind.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“You do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.” – a hymn of praise and trust in which the first witnesses of the resurrection found a prophetic word pointing to Jesus’ resurrection.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” –
a rich, beautiful homily on baptism offering a word of encouragement to the Christian community.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faith.

The stone is rolled away

Sunday Evening

Matthew 28

Carl.Easter 2014.small.IMG_2835-S2An angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone.

I don’t know what it was like for the people in the congregation, but rolling that huge “stone” down the aisle and out the front door with the assistance of all the children in worship on Easter Sunday morning was fun. It was a delightful way to begin our Easter service. The “stone” blocked entirely our view of the altar – the table around which we gather with the risen Christ in the meal that remembers his death, declares his living presence among us, and anticipates the healing of all creation.

Hopefully the children – and adults – will remember the image that whatever stands between us and God, whatever stands between us and fellowship with one another, whatever stands between us and the true, eternal life God intends for us, has been rolled away.

The original stone was certainly not that big – but it had the same effect. The one they loved was gone. The light in his eyes, the sound of his voice, the joy of his laughter, the tenderness of his touch, the intensity of his passion, the depth of his peace – none of that was accessible to them. Their vital connection to the living God perished with his last breath. The stone sealed it. All they had was fading memory – and his puzzling statement that he would rise.

There is much that seems to shut the door between ourselves and the living God. Indeed, for many, I suspect, that door has never seemed open. They visit the altar like I visit my daughter’s grave – I talk, but she does not answer. I come to be close to her – yet it reminds me how far away she is.

But the stone has been rolled away. The barriers of sin and guilt are gone, if we will let them go with the stone. If we will let ourselves stand there as before the empty tomb. If we will let ourselves hear the voice call our name. If we will bow down to worship and serve. If we will let ourselves see that at the altar we stand at the edge of the dawning world where every debt is lifted.

Wherever life takes us in the week, that door remains open. Eternally open. The stone is rolled away. The light of the new day shines. And the living Christ is present.

Rejoice

Saturday

Matthew 28

File:Notre-Dame de Paris, relief of holy women.jpg

Relief of holy women in Notre-Dame de Paris

9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

The word ‘greetings’ could just as easily be translated ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’. I get a charge out of the idea of Jesus meeting these terrified, confused women, running from an encounter with angels and Roman soldiers, possessed of a message that the unthinkable has happened, with a “Yo!” or “Hey!” The Greek word is the customary greeting of the time.

But the word has a literal meaning: ‘rejoice’. We have forgotten that ‘goodbye’ comes from “God be with ye.” It no longer echoes with a sense of blessing. And perhaps this word here translated “greetings” is nothing more than that. But can it be that in the mouth of Jesus, in this first morning of the new world, it means no more than “Hello”?! Does it not require that we hear him say to us “Rejoice”? What other word will work on this day when the breach between heaven and earth is overcome, declaring once and for all that we were made for life and not death? What other word will work in this moment when every word and deed of Jesus, rejected by the world, has been vindicated by God? Can it mean anything less than “rejoice”?

Why should we who also live in the light of the resurrection settle for a mere “Hi” when we greet each other? It is tradition throughout the Easter season for the faithful to greet each other with the words “Christ is Risen.” “He is Risen indeed!” We rarely hear that now outside the formal context of the worship service, but it should be our greeting. Or, at the very least, “Rejoice!”

Imagine this message spreading like wildfire beginning that first Sunday morning as people went forth into their daily lives after the Sabbath. For fear of the authorities it was probably more of an excited whisper than a shout – but imagine the energy and excitement as the news spreads: “Christ is Risen!” And if the one greeted has already heard, then the response won’t be a mere “Yeah, I heard” for this is world shaking news. It can only be “He is risen!”

The word, the only word, is “Rejoice!” And we should live each day in the warmth of that joy.