The heart of the universe is calling our name

File:Sagrada Familia, interior (21) (31130118082).jpg

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

An audacious challenge

File:Loews Protest - Against GOP Retreat.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 22, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

The shepherds of Israel are under attack in the first reading this Sunday. The priestly class are under indictment by the preaching of Peter and John. The governing elites judged Jesus a liar about God and a threat to the nation and sentenced him to death. Peter and John are saying that God voided that sentence and declared Jesus innocent. The year-long purgation of the rotting corpse that marked the removal of sin from our mortal bodies was unnecessary for Jesus. God raised him from the dead.

It might sound esoteric to our ears, but it was a direct confrontation in that day. Peter and John are saying this in the temple, in the home-court of the high priestly families. What’s more, the name of this Jesus is being used to heal the sick and lame. This Jesus is the rejected stone that God has made the cornerstone. This Jesus is the source of God’s healing and life. Healing won’t come from the rich and powerful house of Annas that possesses a firm hold on the high priestly office. Those who are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel are false shepherds who failed to recognize the true shepherd.

And so on Sunday we will join the psalmist to sing “The LORD is my shepherd.” And the Gospel of John will have Jesus say to us, “I am he good shepherd” – the true and noble who does not abandon the flock but lays down his life for them. And the words that seem so sweet and comforting will echo with an audacious challenge to all those rulers of the earth who claim authority but only fleece the sheep.

And in the presence of this bold challenge to the way of the world will come the urging of the author of 1 John: “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The Prayer for April 22, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
Christ Jesus our good shepherd laid down his life for our sake
that he might gather one flock from all the nations of the earth.
Be at work within us
that we might hear and respond to his voice,
and follow him in lives of service and love.

The Texts for April 22, 2018

First Reading: Acts 4:1-13 (appointed 5-12)
“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” – Peter and John are examined by the authorities after having been arrested for preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead (a message that invalidates the authority of the High Priestly leadership because it declares that God has reversed their judgment against Jesus.)

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – The famous song of trust in God that reverberates with social, political and religious meaning in a world where the king (or ruler) was regarded as the shepherd of the people.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
– The author encourages his community to remain faithful to God and one another despite the departure of a schismatic group from their community.

Gospel: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – The middle section of chapter 10 where Jesus employs metaphors drawn from shepherding. Here he identifies himself as the true shepherd who cares for the sheep, freely laying down his life for the people.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loews_Protest_-_Against_GOP_Retreat.jpg By Seth Goldstein [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Forward into life

File:Crepuscular ray sunset from telstra tower edit.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 15, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday of Easter

We have a resurrection appearance from Luke at the center of our readings this Sunday, and the elements are familiar: the sudden appearance, the fear, the word of peace, the revealing of the hands and feet. And eating. The risen Jesus eats. So much for imagining the life to come as if we were to be spirit beings rather than embodied ones.

There is much to think about in the fact that the risen Christ bears on his hands and feet the scars of his earthly life. The scars identify him, but the do not define him. He is the one who suffered this inhuman brutality – but he is not a victim. He is a life bringer. The life bringer.

This risen Jesus, this bringer of life, this bearer of heaven’s gifts, this source of healing and grace, lives. And he continues to be present to the world through his followers. They dispense the gifts that Christ dispensed. Peter and John are entering the temple when confronted by a lame man begging. They don’t have silver and gold to give; they have healing and life.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” Writes the author of 1 John. We are children of God now. What we will be in that day when the new creation dawns in full we cannot comprehend, but we are God’s children now. And as God’s children, we live God’s love.

The psalmist will pray for God to answer his plight – and immediately turn to rebuke those who “love vain words, and seek after lies.” He is able to “lie down and sleep in peace” because he knows God is the life-bringer. God is the faithful God who blesses the world with abundance and calls us forward into life.

The Prayer for April 15, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples
to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice,
we might walk with you in newness of 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 15, 2018

First Reading: Acts 3:1-21 (appointed 12-19)
“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” – By the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a lame beggar at the temple and then witness to the crowd that God has raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as Israel’s messiah, calling them to turn and show allegiance to God’s work of restoring the world in Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 4
“I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” – A individual petition for help from God. The author declares his confidence in God’s help and warns his opponents to choose God’s path.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-3 (appointed: 1 John 3:1-7)
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
– The author affirms that we are already members of God’s household, and though we do not understand the nature of resurrected life, we know that we will be “like him.” Since we are God’s children now, destined to be “like him”, we should live faithfully now.

Gospel: Luke 24:36-53 (appointed 36b-48)
“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening, opens their minds to understand the scripture, and commissions them as witnesses of what God has done and is doing in and through Christ.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crepuscular_ray_sunset_from_telstra_tower_edit.jpg fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The face of God

(A reflection published with the pictures used in our sanctuary from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday 2018)

The events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are seared into the memory of the first followers of Jesus – even as they are in the hearts of the whole Christian community. Jesus comes to Jerusalem in what appears to be a wave of public support, only to be crushed by the ruling elite in Jerusalem. He is betrayed by a member of his inner circle. His followers flee. His “rock,” Peter, publicly disavows that he knows him. He is shamed and degraded and impaled upon a cross, powerless before the might of Rome and the machinations of the temple authorities.

But here, says the Christian community, we see the face of God.

We keep ascribing power to God. And there is plenty of testimony in scripture to God’s mighty acts. But what remains unmistakable in the Biblical text are two much more important truths: the suffering of God and the work of God to do the unexpected and unimagined: to open closed doors, to make a path through the sea, to bring Israel home from Babylon, to open blind eyes and heal palsied limbs, to resurrect the dead. God makes a way when there is no way.

God suffers with and for God’s people. God suffers their faithlessness. God suffers the tragedies that befall them. No matter how justified are their self-inflicted wounds, God’s heart cries out and comes to their deliverance.

What happened to Jesus is the story of Israel: destroyed but brought back from the dead. It is also the promised story of the human race. God will not allow God’s creation to perish, but calls it back into fidelity and life. God will bring us to the New Jerusalem. God will set before all creation a table. God will restore the harmony of the world. Righteousness and peace shall kiss, the greeting of eternal friends. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares. The lion shall lie down with the lamb.

The resurrection is testimony to the truth of all Jesus said and did. It is testimony to God’s redemptive purpose in the world. And we who have heard the testimony of those who saw the empty tomb, who have heard the word of grace, who have experienced the healing power of God, who have tasted the Holy Spirit and the life of the age to come – we are those sent in wonder and joy to witness to this loving, suffering, redeeming God.

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Each day of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, the pictures in the sanctuary showed the larger arc of the story of the passion through to Mary speaking with the angels at the empty tomb – though the collection varied each day with images relating to that specific day.  For the Easter Vigil and Easter morning, the pictures portrayed people from the passion story – each representing differing responses to Jesus.  All the pictures used over these days are shown below.  (The days here reflect the day of the action in the picture, rather than the selections used that day in worship.)

Palm Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Lord Wept (Le Seigneur pleura) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus enters Jerusalem

Maundy Thursday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Washing of the Feet (Le lavement des pieds) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples

File:Brooklyn Museum - You Could Not Watch One Hour With Me (Vous n'avez pu veiller une heure avec moi) - James Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane

File:Judas and with Him a Great Multitude.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Kiss of Judas (Le baiser de Judas) - James Tissot.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss

File:Brooklyn Museum - Annas and Caiaphas (Anne et Caïphe) - James Tissot.jpg

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Sorrow of Saint Peter (La douleur de Saint Pierre) - James Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after denying Jesus (following the cockcrow)

Good Friday

File:Jesus Before Pilate, First Interview.jpg

Jesus before Pilate

File:Brooklyn Museum - Behold the Man (Ecce Homo) - James Tissot.jpg

“Behold the man!” Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd

File:Brooklyn Museum - Herod (Hérode) - James Tissot - overall.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod

File:Barabbas (James Tissot).jpg

The crowd asks for Barabbas to be released rather than Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - Jesus Meets His Mother (Jésus rencontre sa mère) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus bearing the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - The First Nail (Le premier clou) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - "I Thirst" The Vinegar Given to Jesus ("J'ai soif." Le vinaigre donné à Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Death of Jesus (La mort de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Confession of Saint Longinus (Confession de Saint Longin) - James Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God.”

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Holy Virgin Receives the Body of Jesus (La Sainte Vierge reçoit le corps de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial

File:Brooklyn Museum - Joseph of Arimathaea (Joseph d'Arimathie) - James Tissot.jpg

Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to bury Jesus

Easter Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb (Madeleine dans le tombeau interroge les anges) - James Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels

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Images:

Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Lord_Wept_(Le_Seigneur_pleura)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Washing_of_the_Feet_(Le_lavement_des_pieds)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_You_Could_Not_Watch_One_Hour_With_Me_(Vous_n%27avez_pu_veiller_une_heure_avec_moi)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judas_and_with_Him_a_Great_Multitude.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Kiss_of_Judas_(Le_baiser_de_Judas)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Annas_and_Caiaphas_(Anne_et_Ca%C3%AFphe)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after betraying Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus before Pilate: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_Before_Pilate,_First_Interview.jpg“Behold the man!”

Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Behold_the_Man_(Ecce_Homo)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Herod_(H%C3%A9rode)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg

Barabbas: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barabbas_(James_Tissot).jpg

Jesus bearing the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Meets_His_Mother_(J%C3%A9sus_rencontre_sa_m%C3%A8re)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_First_Nail_(Le_premier_clou)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_%22I_Thirst%22_The_Vinegar_Given_to_Jesus_(%22J%27ai_soif.%22_Le_vinaigre_donn%C3%A9_%C3%A0_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Death_of_Jesus_(La_mort_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Confession_of_Saint_Longinus_(Confession_de_Saint_Longin)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Mary_Magdalene_Questions_the_Angels_in_the_Tomb_(Madeleine_dans_le_tombeau_interroge_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Text: © David K. Bonde

Marching towards the new birth of the world

File:Aivazovsky - Descent of Noah from Ararat.jpg

Saturday

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAivazovsky_-_Descent_of_Noah_from_Ararat.jpg Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The gates of Hell (2)

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Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYuma_Territorial_Prison_cell_doors.jpg Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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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

Paradigm shift

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Watching for the Morning of April 3, 2016

Year C

The Second Sunday of Easter

The shock and awe of the first Easter morning gives way to celebration and even triumph as the apostles preach and John of Patmos exults in the risen Christ. The psalm celebrates the wondrous work of God: “This is the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” And the followers of Jesus proclaim his resurrection to Thomas.

But in the texts lies also the tension between faith and unbelief. The Jerusalem leaders seek to silence the apostolic witness, and Thomas will not trust the testimony of those who have seen and heard.

When you look carefully at the Biblical record there is a lot of uncertainty. The apostles in Luke don’t believe the women returning from the tomb (24:11). The disciples on the road to Emmaus are unable to comprehend what has happened (24:25). and when Jesus appears to the whole community there respond with a mix of joy and disbelief (24:41). At the climactic scene in Matthew when Jesus ascends into the heavens, the evangelist records: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (28:17). And, of course, Mark ends his Gospel with the women in fear and silence (16:8).

The Easter message is not a simple one. No one expected the story to go like this. It takes some time to get their minds around it. It takes some time to get their hearts around it. This is far more than a spectacular comeback from a nearly defeated team. This asks us to recognize a different narrative of God and the world. The story is not about a world ending in a general resurrection and judgment with the righteous blessed and the wicked condemned. The story is about the new creation invading this world of tears and summoning us to live that new creation now. It is not a story of God judging the world but healing it.

It’s not easy to change one’s picture of God and the world. It takes some time – and the breath of the Spirit – and some searching of scripture – a rereading of the Biblical story – but, in the end, there is Jesus showing us his wounds and inviting us to join the story.  Thomas Kuhn called it a paradigm shift.* When you recognize that the earth goes around the sun, the world will never look the same.

The Prayer for April 3, 2016

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 faith.
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 3, 2016

First Reading: Acts 5:21b-32 (appointed: 5:27-32)
“We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” – Having been arrested for saying that God had raised Jesus (and thus condemning the rulers for condemning him), the apostles are released from prison by an angel and told to return to the temple to preach. There they are arrested again and brought before the ruling council.

Psalmody: Psalm 118:14-16, 22-23, 26-27, 29 (appointed: Psalm 118:14-29)
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” – We continue in this foundational psalm that was so influential for the early Christian community in interpreting what happened to Jesus. The psalm celebrates the king, returning in triumph from an unexpected victory.

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4-8
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come… and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
– The opening salutation of the Book of Revelation (written in the form of a letter).

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“When 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.” – 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 faithfulness.

 

*Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASolar-system.png  By Dave Jarvis (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally made whole

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Wednesday

Philippians 3:17-4:1

21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

One of my early experiences in ministry was with a woman who died of cancer. I remember few details now, only that it eventually spread to her brain. She was a lovely young woman with children at the end of high school and beginning of college.

I watched as she slowly deteriorated, and knew that the end was drawing near. But the doctors in those days were all geared to keeping spirits up rather than telling the truth, and she slipped into a coma before her parents or children could make their goodbyes. I alone had that chance.

There have been children in my parish who struggled with cancer, an infant who died from a ruptured appendix, many who have struggled with deteriorating joints, failing hearts, livers and lungs. And then there are those who struggled with dementia and mental illness. I can still feel the distress of one woman in a nursing home who begged me to help her escape, certain she had been kidnapped, and others for whom the room swirled with voices.

Paul lives in a world without any of the benefits of modern medicine. The bones of archaeological digs show people suffering from numerous afflictions. Life was painful and short. But even though physicians can now do wondrous things, our bodies are frail, limited, failing.

It sounds fanciful, perhaps even delusional, to say that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” that our frail bodies, lying under the sentence of death, shall be transformed into resurrected bodies like that of Christ Jesus. But you cannot deny the power of such a hope.

We tend to settle for a kind death and an end to the pain. And/or we adopt the Greek notion of an immortal soul free from a body altogether. But Christian faith persists in the notion that the world was not intended to be suffering and sorrow and that the author of the universe will fulfill the promise of delivering his creation from death’s dominion. I cannot conceive what this means except by metaphor. It’s why I appreciate the remark by the elder in 1 John: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

I don’t know what we shall be, but I live in the light of the promise that the work is begun in us and shall be brought to completion, that we shall be like Christ risen: finally made whole, finally made fully and truly alive.

 

Photo: By Malene Thyssen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons