The heart of the universe is calling our name

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This message was given on the Sunday after Easter.  The text was John 20:19-31, telling of Jesus’ appearance to his followers on Sunday evening and, because Thomas was absent and refused to accept the testimony of the others, Jesus’ appearance the subsequent Sunday evening when Thomas was present.  But the message also looks back to the reading from Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18, concerning the discovery of the empty tomb and Jesus’ encounter with Mary.

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Before I begin this morning, it’s important to say that it’s hard to talk about anything in John’s Gospel without talking about everything.  The themes of John’s Gospel weave in and out, forming an amazing tapestry. What happens at the end is connected to the beginning and flows through everything in between.  This is not a collection of stories about Jesus, but a single, large, wondrous canvas seeking to portray for us the face of the infinite.

The open door

The text we have before us this morning from the Gospel of John is the second half of the story we began to read last Sunday on Easter morning, so I want to go back a bit and talk about what has already happened.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is given a royal burial.  Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to take up the body of Jesus, and Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of a perfumed oil with which to anoint the body. Remember the small jar that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used to anoint Jesus’ feet?  It was worth a year’s wages.   Nicodemus has a hundred pounds!  This is a burial fit for a king!

So, Jesus receives a royal burial in a new tomb in a garden. (On Good Friday, we mentioned the significance of John calling this a ‘garden’, because the biblical story begins in a garden.)  This burial happens on Friday before sunset.  Now, at Sunday dawn, while everyone is still “in the dark” about Jesus, Mary comes to the tomb.  John wants us to just focus on Mary.  He has pared away all the other elements of the story.  She has not brought spices, there are no other women, there is just Mary and the open tomb.

There is something here we struggle to put into words.  John is always aware there is a surface meaning to his narrative and a deeper one; how shall we articulate that deeper reality this moment represents?  Mary is standing alone before the mystery at the heart of the universe: here where death reigns, a door stands open.  What does she see?

By stripping away all the other elements, John is placing each of us in that garden facing the majesty and mystery of the cosmos.  We each stand before that open door.  We each stand before the silence.  We each stand before the darkness of the tomb.  And what do we see?

Matthew, Mark and Luke all choose to say that the stone was ‘rolled’ away – and that is the way these tombs are built.  They carve out a cave and provide a small opening wih a large, wheel-shaped stone that rolls into a slot to seal the tomb.  John, however, says the stone was ‘lifted’.  No words are used casually in John, and this word ‘lifted’ is the word John used at the beginning of his Gospel when John the Baptist says of Jesus, Here is the Lamb of God who takes away (literally, ‘lifts away’)the sin of the world!

Something has been lifted off the back of human existence. The shame of all humanity has been lifted. The shroud of death is lifted. Our sins are lifted. The fierce grip of death has been broken.  The tears that define us are wiped away.  The new wine of the wedding feast stands ready.  The lame walk.  The blind see.

At the heart of the universe is Life.  God is the open door, the new creation, the font of grace, the imperishable Life.

Only the ordinary

Something happens as Mary stands there before the tomb.  Something happens as we stand there before the face of the eternal.

But then we are pulled back to the ordinary.  Mary doesn’t “see” what stands before her.  She doesn’t understand.  She runs to Peter and the beloved disciple saying: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  It is, for Mary, as it was for Nicodemus in the night.  When Nicodemus heard Jesus say that he must be born anew, he was stuck in the ordinary.  He could only imagine a physical birth.  He knew there was something deep and profound in Jesus, he was groping towards that truth, but then his mind pulled him back to earth.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  In the same way here, Mary falls back into the ordinary; the physical body of Jesus has been removed: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

John doesn’t tell us who she thinks has taken the body.  Presumably she thinks it is the leadership that arranged for Jesus’ death, but that information would lead us away from the mystery into the realm of the ordinary, so John doesn’t distract us with that information.  We just have Mary and the lifted stone and the mystery.

So Mary sees the stone lifted but falls back onto the ordinary.  She goes to Peter and the other disciple and they race to the tomb. The beloved disciple is portrayed as quicker afoot – and quicker to see and believe – but Peter is given his due as the first one into the empty tomb.  They find the linen wrappings, but John tells us they do not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.

“Why are you weeping?”

After the two men leave, Mary remains.  She is weeping.  The body is missing.  Jesus has been robbed of the possibility of resurrection on that final day when all the dead are raised.  The obligation to bury the dead is supreme in the ancient world because the bones provide the frame God uses for the resurrection.  Your bones retain your identity, your personality, your story. The idea of scattering the bones of your conquered enemy is to destroy them completely, so they cannot rise at the resurrection.  Without the bones there is no future.

Without the bones there is no future.  Mary is stuck in the ordinary.

Then Mary bends to look into the tomb and, through her tears, sees two angels who ask the penetrating question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Questions in John’s Gospel are meant to push us towards insight.  And this is a profound question: “Why are you weeping?”   It is not just a question posed to Mary; it is posed to us all.  It is not a question about the natural human emotion of grief.  It is an existential question about our understanding of the world.

Is Mary weeping because she has lost a friend and teacher?  Does she not understand who Jesus is?  Does she not understand that he is the embodiment of the eternal word? Does she does not understand that he is the source and goal of all life?  (He is “the way, the truth and the life.”)  Does she not understand that all things belong to Life?

Do we not understand the power of life that vibrates through all things?  Do we not understand that matter itself is, rather literally, vibrating energy.  All around us the universe pulses with life.  Go, stand outside, and look.  The grass, the ground beneath it, the trees above it, the air around it – it all vibrates with life.)

“All things came into being through him,”says John at the beginning of his Gospel, “and without him nothing was made.”  “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.”  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father.” 

Do we not see?

“What are you looking for?” 

Mary answers the angels in a very mundane way: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  She is stuck, like Nicodemus, on the surface of things.  And so she does not recognize Jesus until he calls her name.

She doesn’t realize the risen Christ is present.  She imagines she is talking to a gardener.  And Jesus asks the same double-edged question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”But then Jesus adds: “Whom are you looking for?”

This question takes us back to the beginning of John’s Gospel and the very first words Jesus speaks: two disciples of John the Baptist hear him say that Jesus is the Lamb of God, (the lamb of God who liftsaway the sin of the world) and they follow him.  Jesus turns and asks them: “what are you looking for?”

This is the fundamental human question.  “What do you seek?”  “What are you looking for?”  “Towards what is your life oriented?”  “What path are you following?”  And here, in the garden, Jesus changes the question to “Whom do you seek?”  It’s not a thing we need; it’s a person, a presence, a life.

But Mary is still stuck in the ordinary, and so she answers,“Sir, if you have carried him away [if you have liftedhim!], tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine a birth from above. She is stuck in the literal that cannot see how water is transformed into wine or tears into joy.  She is stuck in the literal that cannot understand a blind man seeing or a lame man walking. She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine that there is anything more in the feeding of the five thousand than five thousand full bellies.  She doesn’t see the bread of life and the healing of the world.

Outside the tomb, Mary knows only her grief, her loss, the cruelty of events, the limits of the ordinary, the finality of death.  She does not see the divine presence; she does not see a world radiant with life – until Jesus calls her name.

“Mary”

What is it that we hope happens in worship?   Why do we persist in reading these words and telling these stories and helping them connect with our lives?  Because the heart of the universe is calling our name.  We are here to see the divine presence; the power, the life that vibrates through all existence.  We want the world to see grace, to see mercy cast upon the world like a sower sowing seed. We want all creation to see the extravagance of God, to taste the bounty of God.  We want all existence to see, even in the darkest days, that we are immersed in light.

We come to hear God call our name.

This is not like school where we are shrinking down in our seats hoping not to get called upon. This is not like a parent calling for us to do some chore or account for some wrong.  This is the most gentle of kisses.  It is the calling of our name that brings us back into the arms of love. It is the calling of our name that fills our hearts with light and life.

“Mary,” says Jesus. Jesus speaks her name, and immediately she is drawn into Christ.

Thomas

So now it is evening and Jesus appears and shows himself.  He speaks peace.  He brings peace.  He conveys peace.  And he breathes out his Spirit upon his followers.  They are sent.  They are now in the world as the living presence of Jesus.  They are now light and life in the world.  They are grace and mercy.  They are truth and compassion.  They are fidelity and hope.

They are not an army sent to conquer the world.  They are the voice sent to speak every name.

But Thomas is not there. He did not see the hands.  He did not hear the word of peace.  He did not feel the breath of God.  He is bound in the realm of the ordinary.  And how can he show allegiance to light and life when he cannot see it.  How can he show allegiance to grace and peace when all he sees is the shame and sorrow of the cross? How can he show allegiance to loving one another when he sees only brutality and suffering?  How can he live the life that is eternal when he sees only death?

Thomas was not there. But Jesus does not leave him behind. Jesus comes again the next Sunday. He speaks the word of peace.  And then he turns to Thomas.  He offers his hands and his side.  He summons him to not be faithless, but faithful.  And Thomas hears his name.  He sees.  He yields his life.  He recognizes his risen lord and the face of the divine.

Us

We are here to see the wounded hands in the bread.  We are here to stand before the great mystery of existence.  We are here to bend and look into the empty tomb and answer the questions why we weep and what we seek.  We are here to see that all existence radiates with grace and life. We are here to hear the voice of the divine call our name.

Amen

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sagrada_Familia,_interior_(21)_(31130118082).jpgRichard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

We push on

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Saturday

John 20:19-31

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

Easter drives towards Pentecost.

Christmas drives towards Easter. The wonder of the incarnation pushes towards its destiny in Jerusalem. Every step along the way, the baptism of Jesus, the temptation, the opening of blind eyes, the rejection at Nazareth, the conflict with the Pharisees, the healing of the sick, the lifting of sins, it pushes towards the cross and resurrection.

The Lord of heaven and earth has come to dwell with us. But we are not ready. We are not ready for the world to be healed. We are not ready for the reign of the Spirit. We are not ready for the triumph of mercy. We are not ready to see all people as members of our own household. We are not ready for the love that kneels to wash feet. And so the incarnation ends where it had to end: in rejection, in violence, in the cross.

But that’s not where it ends for God. The incarnation pushes towards Easter. It drives towards the empty tomb, towards the risen Christ, towards the kneeling of Thomas, towards the breaking of bread at Emmaus.

But this is not the end of the matter. The reason God came to dwell among us was to dwell among us. Our rejection of the incarnation and God’s vindication of Jesus hasn’t yet resolved the matter of God dwelling with us. And so we push on towards Pentecost. We push on towards the outpouring of the Spirit. We push on to the mission of this community who have heard the words and seen the work of God in Christ, who have seen the witness to the reign of God, who have seen the cross and the risen Lord, who have seen Christ ascend and promise to come again to dwell among us. Indeed who dwells among us now, already, by the Spirit and in the community gathered.

We push on toward Pentecost. To the breath of God roaring like a mighty wind that gives witness in every language to all the earth. To the breath of God breathed upon the student/followers that makes them bold in witness and full of grace. Stephen dies at the hands of a mob, praying for God to forgive those throwing stones. And Paul, who holds the cloaks that day while the mob works its rage, will himself be counted dead by stoning yet rise again to continue his witness that God has reconciled all things.

It is Easter, but we push on toward Pentecost. We push on towards that day when the Spirit reigns in every heart and all are gathered at God’s table. We push on toward that day when the bridegroom comes and heaven and earth are wed – when at last we are ready for God to dwell among us and the holy city stands with gates wide open, filled with never-ending light.

We push on. And Sunday, on this 8th day since the empty tomb was discovered, we hear already of Pentecost, of the breathing out of God’s breath upon us, and the sending of God’s little community to bear witness to the new creation, the forgiving of every debt and healing of every heart.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APushing_van_together.jpg By Clear Path International (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An indescribable and glorious joy

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Friday

1 Peter 1:3-9

8Although 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, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This is a wonderful verse. But there are so many words in it that we hear differently in our time. This word ‘soul’ for example, is the Greek word ‘psyche’. For most of us, I suspect, the word ‘soul’ refers to the substance of the self that occupies the body such that, when the body dies, the soul continues. However we imagine this, the concept is that the me that is me continues somehow.

It’s not easy to pin down the meaning of this Greek word. It means, on the one hand, our life, our physical existence. In Matthew 2:2, when Jesus had been taken to Egypt for safety, the angel speaks of those “who were trying to take the child’s life.” It would sound weird to us to say they were trying to take the child’s soul. The same is true in Matthew 20:28 where Jesus says the Son of Man came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” It wouldn’t make sense to us to say he gave his soul.

But this ‘life’ is something more than biological existence. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus talks about those who can kill the body but not kill the ‘soul’. You can kill my body, but you cannot destroy my ‘life’. Or in 10:39, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” There is something in the word ‘psyche’ that is more than biological life. There is something that speaks of the mind, the heart, the spirit – yes, the ‘soul’ – of a person: their character, their being, their identity, their story – “who they are”.

What is being saved? I am being saved. Not my ‘soul’, but me. Me, who likes the color blue and chocolate chip ice cream. Me, who started in math but turned to medieval history in college. Me, who loved being father to my daughters. Me, who learned so much at my parish in Detroit. Me, who loves the woods and the high desert and good coffee. Me, who grieves my brother and my daughter and aches with all those with whom I have walked through the shadow of the valley of death. Me, who stands with open hands at the communion table and treasures the wonder of the gift given.

I am being saved.

And this word saved – it means to heal, to rescue, to make whole. I am being saved. I am being healed. I am being made whole. I am promised a place at the table when all things are made new and death is slain and all creation feasts in God’s abundance.

Whatever exactly all those metaphors mean of a banquet on Mt. Zion, a New Jerusalem, swords beaten into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb, they point to a making-whole of all life. They point to an end to fears and release from regrets. And this must, in some way, mean a healing of relationships and a restored bond to my brother and daughter and to the whole fabric of the human community.

And all of this is not just awaiting me in the future, but this healing, this saving, this making whole is begun even now. Even now as I hold out my hands at the table, and as I sing the songs of the angels, and as I hold those who are dear to me, and as I welcome those who are new to me – as I breathe the breath of the Spirit. All this is both then and now, future and present, promise and reality, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APorto_Covo_July_2011-6.jpg By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A fountain in my house

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Wednesday

1 Peter 1:3-9

“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.”

“Even if.”

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life.

I know this is easy for me to say. I have clean water from a fountain in my house (well, really it’s just a spigot in an apartment, but think about it: I have three rooms, a kitchen sink, two bathroom sinks, a bathtub and a shower). I have a refrigerator (however small) that keeps fresh foods cool and a freezer in which I can even make ice cubes. I have a continuous supply of electricity (less the interruptions from the occasional Pacific storm), and natural gas piped into my apartment to heat it if I get cold. I am, by all the standards of the world, living in luxury. I complain, of course. My neighbors make too much noise. I feel closed in with no garden to enjoy. I cannot keep a pet, use a barbecue, or light a candle. But I have fresh, potable, water and access to a grocery store with unimaginable abundance. So it’s pretty easy to talk about joy that transcends the trials of life. I have not fled violence. I do not occupy a refugee camp. I am not crushed by a collapsing pile of garbage. I do not have to search the garbage for sustenance. I do not watch my children perish from Sarin gas or hunger. I do not have to breathe air so thick you cannot see far beyond you. I am not the object of racial or ethnic hatred. I worship freely. I walk the streets freely. I am among the most privileged.

So who am I to speak of joy in trials?

There are some, of course. I am a human being. There are loved ones I grieve. There are people for whom I fear. There are aches and loneliness and the little cruelties humans inflict upon one another. But these hardly count compared to what others bear.

But I have seen others bear such trials. Deep, deep wounds. Great guilts and sorrows. Great fears and pains. Great tragedies. I have walked with many through the depths. And I seen in these others a joy that transcends their trials.

There is a joy that involves human connection. There is a laughter that still rings. There is a delight in a hug or the presence of a child’s hand in yours. And beyond all this there is a song that sings. A promise that rings. A truth proclaimed. A grave that is empty. A new creation coming. A grace abounding. A love immeasurable. A forgiveness unimaginable.

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASwann_Fountain-27527.jpg By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking deeply

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Watching for the morning of April 23

Year A

The Second Sunday of Easter

Thomas takes center stage every year on the Sunday after Easter. But before he appears, there is the risen Jesus speaking peace to his shaken community, and breathing on them his Holy Spirit.

Years and years of hearing the story of the resurrection makes it hard to remember how fearful those days were for the followers of Jesus. All hope had been shattered. And if the Romans crucified Jesus, they were certain to aim also at his inner circle. We think it was an easy transition from fear to joy, but it was not. It required the deep breath of the Spirit.

The Thomas narrative begins with Jesus bringing peace and filling his followers with his Spirit. Having missed that moment, who can blame Thomas? How could we expect otherwise, being the hard-headed realist he was. When Jesus decided to go to back to Judea at the death of Lazarus, it was Thomas who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

How can we expect anything other than disbelief for one who was not there to drink deeply of the Spirit? It is why Jesus declares as honorable those who show allegiance without seeing.

Sunday we hear Peter’s Pentecost message bearing witness to the resurrection. We hear the psalmist sing the prayer that echoes profoundly of Jesus: “you do not give me up to Sheol” and join in saying, “You show me the path of life.” And we savor the words at the opening of that wonderful exploration of baptism in 1 Peter where the author writes: “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, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”

With all these words, we hear the word of peace and breathe in this breath of God. And so we are made ready to see the risen Christ among us and show faithfulness to his task: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The Prayer for April 23, 2017

Gracious God,
in the night of his resurrection,
Jesus breathed your Holy Spirit upon his followers
and sent them into the world.
Renew in us your Holy Spirit
that, in the joy and freedom of Christ risen from the dead,
we may bear faithful witness to your truth and life;
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 April 23, 2017

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.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silos-Duda.jpg

Faithful

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Sunday Evening

John 20:19-31

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he 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.”

I wish it had not been translated “Do not doubt.” The Greek word uses the negative prefix ‘a’ (as we see in the word ‘apathetic’, ‘a-’, ‘without’, ‘pathos’, ‘compassion’) with the word for faith. “Do not be without faith but with faith.” Or, better, considering the relational content of the word ‘faith’: “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The issue here is not the modern, rational concern for what is possible within the laws of physics and human experience. The issue is Thomas’ allegiance to Jesus as the face of God, to Jesus as the bread of life, the living water, the new wine, the light of the world. Crucifixion seems to belie all that.

It is no small thing to show allegiance to someone who was crucified, condemned as the ancient equivalent of a terrorist. Would you show allegiance to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Remember what happened to his friends?

This is why the disciples are in hiding. It is why the women went to the tomb. For the men to go would have been an act of public allegiance to a condemned insurrectionist. But women could pass freely. It was risky for Peter to go to the tomb on Mary’s witness; the safe thing was to stay in hiding.

So Thomas needs something more than the disciples’ word about a shared vision if he is going to risk his life in a show of allegiance to this crucified Jesus. He needs his own encounter with the living Lord.

Thomas is not alone. We, too, need more than the apostolic witness. We need to see something of the risen Lord. We need to see something of his mercy. We need to see something of his love. We need to hear his voice. We need to experience his life.

The Biblical witness, the report of the first believers, is able to do this – but it is not done by the dry words on a page: it happens when the words of Jesus are lived and spoken to us.

The followers of Jesus are sent with a news that does goodness, that releases captives, opens eyes, heals lives, forgives sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

There are not sent with just words – they are sent with the Spirit and the authority to forgive. They are sent to do the message. They are sent to be the word of grace and mercy. They are sent to shine forth the light that darkness cannot overcome.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALight_in_darkness_foto_di_L._Galletti.JPG  By Galletti Luigi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Peace

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) - James Tissot.jpg

Saturday

John 20:19-31

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.”

The sanctuary was rich with the aroma of lilies this morning as the family gathered for a small private funeral. It was not the Easter of the crowded sanctuary and eager children. It was not the Easter of the organ and trumpet, bells and choir. It was the Easter of a family traveling the road towards Emmaus, from pain and confusion towards the presence of the risen Christ.

The first word out of Jesus’ mouth when he appears to his followers in John’s Gospel is the word of peace. It is also the second word he speaks. We don’t have the normal “Stop being afraid” that we get with a heavenly encounter; we have the dominical word that does not simply offer peace but brings it. “Peace to you.” It’s not a wish or a hope, but the gift of the risen Lord.

Peace eludes us. Not just in the face of death, but in all the stress and challenge of ordinary life. We are concerned for our children, concerned for our parents, concerned about work, concerned about finances, concerned about the care of the house, concerned for our health, our sleep, our future, our past.

And whether we recognize it or not, we are concerned about matters of the spirit. We often think we are seeking happiness, but we are seeking peace. Wholeness. Connection. Meaning. A sense of harmony within ourselves and with the world around us. We are seeking peace. Shalom.

Peace eludes us. But where we do not expect it, peace comes. In the breaking of bread. In the recognition of wounded hands. In the presence of the risen Christ. In the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Where we do not expect it, peace comes. In a quiet sanctuary and the scent of lilies and the paschal candle burning: Christ the risen one, Christ the light of the world, Christ the light in my darkness, Christ the wounded one, Christ the living one, Christ who gathers us into his peace.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Appearance_of_Christ_at_the_Cenacle_(Apparition_du_Christ_au_c%C3%A9nacle)_-_James_Tissot.jpg  James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you forgive

Looking back to Sunday

John 20:19-31

IMG_286923If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

Sometimes I start writing and the words take me in a different direction than I first expected. What started as a comment on this verse is now posted as “The sound of a hundred snakes” at my blog Jacob_Limping (Jacob, wounded by his wrestling with God and limping towards the promised land.)

There is a paragraph in that post that says:

Jesus has entrusted to us the authority – and the task – of declaring to the whole world that our debt to God has been erased. Forgiven. Blotted out. Washed away. Though your sins are as scarlet they shall be white as snow.” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

This is where I wanted to linger.

Jesus has entrusted to us the authority to speak forgiveness on his behalf. He binds himself to our words: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” And in another place: Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There is a shadow side to this authority. If we don’t speak it, who will? A therapist can help us accept and live with our past, but they cannot forgive it. A judge can assign a penalty, but when that penalty is paid it does not relieve us of guilt. Time and forgetfulness can sometimes help, but they bury wounds they don’t heal them.

Christians are a unique people on earth, authorized to speak on God’s behalf. Of course, we have this terrible habit of claiming to speak on God’s behalf on a wide range of topics from gun control to parenting to international politics that God has not authorized. It would be helpful if we would stick to the message we were given. But this is the point: we have been given a very specific task: to release people from the burden of their sins. No one else in life can do this. Family and friends can love us. They, themselves, can forgive us. But they cannot speak for God.

We can.

On this matter we can.

On this matter, we must.

Such an awesome authority and responsibility.

Such an amazing privilege.

And such a difficult task – for forgiveness isn’t cheap. Forgiveness is not permission. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that our words and actions haven’t harmed. Forgiveness doesn’t mean there aren’t wrongs to be righted. Such a message would be simple, but without power. The message with which we have been entrusted is that our debt towards God is lifted. The barrier between God and ourselves is torn down. New life stands before us if we will enter. The accusing voice of the law is silenced. Eyes shuttered against others by fear, greed and guilt are released. Closed ears are opened. Those crippled by shame or guilt are summoned to rise, take up their pallet and go home.

This is the ministry we are given. This is the life towards which we point.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

Such a mission is not simple. But the risen Christ has breathed his spirit upon us. And given us a wondrous promise: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

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.”