Promise in the Midst of Pain

 

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Gen. 21:8-21; Rom. 6:1b-11

In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood penned the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Recently adapted into a TV series on Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in near-future New England, following the overthrow of the United States Government and the formation of a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. The novel focuses particularly on the social status of the women in the newly-formed society, known as the Republic of Gilead, a society based upon Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism. In the Republic of Gilead, human rights are severely limited and women’s rights are so curtailed they are forbidden even to read.

The main character is a woman whose name, prior to the revolution, was June, but who is now called “Offred”—literally, “Of Fred,” because Fred is the name of the man who now owns her. Offred is a Handmaid, a special caste of women who are subjugated by the ruling class for reproductive purposes in an era of declining births due to sterility caused by pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. Offred had been separated from her child, taken from her husband, indoctrinated through torture into accepting her new role in the new society, and given to the family of a Commander in the new theocracy. Her job—her role in society—is to bear children on behalf of the ruling men and their barren wives. Every month, during what was called “the ceremony,” Handmaids are raped by the husband while the wife watches and holds her down. Handmaids are taught that this is a high and noble calling, and it is considered a great blessing from God if she then becomes pregnant, though the child will belong to the husband and wife, not to the Handmaid, and after serving for a few months as the child’s wet nurse, she will be separated from her child and moved along to another family to begin the horrifying process all over again.

It is a horrifying scenario, and while I have not yet read the book, I can tell you that the TV series is difficult to watch. While it may be difficult to imagine the United States falling into fundamentalist Christian theocracy, it’s no stretch at all to understand how an author might be inspired by the religious rhetoric of men intent on curtailing the personal agency of women where reproduction is concerned.

Hagar is a slave woman, and the handmaid of Sarah. An Egyptian by birth, Hagar is a triply marginalized person in Abraham’s society—a culture in which men are commanders, the enslavement of foreigners is commonplace, and women are used by other women in order to overcome infertility problems and fulfill their dreams of progeny. The authors of Genesis pass no judgment upon Abraham and Sarah for their decision to use their enslaved handmaid Hagar to solve their infertility problem. In fact, everywhere in scripture, even as late as the New Testament book of Hebrews, Abraham is praised for his surpassing righteousness. This is one of the earliest scriptural examples of why reading the Bible as if it were “God’s little instruction book” for life is deeply problematic. Ancient tribal social conventions are no basis for a modern society. To believe otherwise is to argue that humanity has learned nothing—that civilization has not meaningfully advanced—in some 5,000 years.

There is potential here for a crisis of faith, and that should be addressed. In 2014, Peter Enns, the Abram S. Clemends Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids Pennsylvania (and who has also taught courses at both Harvard University, and the Princeton and Fuller Theological Seminaries), published a book titled The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In the first chapter, Enns states the problem:

“Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual—follow the directions and our pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.

“If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved.

“That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag—fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

“What I discovered… is that this view of the Bible does not come from the Bible but from an anxiety over protecting the Bible and so regulating the faith of those who read it.

“Why do I say this? The Bible tells me so.”[1]

As a preacher, it is challenging to read and proclaim God’s Word when the lectionary gives us the Biblical equivalent of The Handmaid’s Tale. The concept of Biblical inerrancy—a brand-new idea in the life of the Church, historically speaking—causes the Bible itself to become a stumbling block to faith, not a source of it. It is necessary, then, for us to read Hagar’s story not as an instruction manual for how to treat foreigners, how to own and use slaves, or how to treat women, but as a word about God’s care for those marginalized by Abraham’s undiagnosed moral failings.

Hagar’s child—Ishmael—grows up as Abraham’s pride and joy, elevating Hagar’s status in their camp, and driving Sarah to deep bitterness. This, too, is a theme explored in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s Commander, is, in turns, resentfully abusive of Offred and protective of her because of the hope that she represents for Serena Joy’s family. In time, Sarah’s bitterness becomes too much for her to bear, and she orders Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the camp.

We might give Abraham partial credit for being distressed by this, but his distress is not enough to overrule his angry wife. In consolation to Abraham (around whom this whole saga really turns, the women being only minor characters), God promises that Ishmael, too, will become a great nation.

The point of view then turns to Hagar herself who, having been driven from her home, wanders into the inhospitable Middle Eastern wilderness where she is forced to leave her son to die of dehydration and exposure. Sitting down some distance way, she cries out in grief. God, hearing her son crying, says to her, “Don’t be afraid. God has heard your son’s cries. Go and get him; I will make of him a great nation.” (I’m troubled, I must confess, by the fact that God does not respond to her despondency, but rather to the cries of her son. Again, the author’s choice of words reveals much about a culture in which it is apparently presumed that even God doesn’t care about the feelings of a slave woman.) God opened her eyes and she saw a well where she could refill her water flask and give Ishmael a drink. God’s presence remained with the boy, who grew up in the desert and became an expert archer, eventually marrying an Egyptian woman.

Given the cultural difficulties of this story, what word from God might be found here? God does nothing to intervene in Ishmael’s and Hagar’s being cast out into the wilderness. God doesn’t even seem to regard her emotional suffering as worthy of his consideration. But what consolation does exist here may be found in the character of God’s own actions: God keeps God’s covenant with Abraham by acknowledging that while the covenant whereby all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) would be fulfilled through the offspring of Isaac, not Ishmael, Ishmael would nevertheless thrive and be the father of a great nation. God didn’t just toss a second-rate blessing at the kid and move on; Genesis tells us that “God remained with the boy.” God had a special regard for Ishmael. Perhaps Sarah and Abraham were willing to abandon the child—perhaps their tribal society allowed for this to happen—but God did not abandon him. Ishmael is the ancient Biblical patriarch of the Islamic faith—they, too, are children of Abraham.

God keeps God’s promises. He keeps his promise to Abraham through the birth of Isaac in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age. He keeps this promise not because of, but in spite of the fearful conniving by which Ishmael was born. He keeps his promise despite the way they treat Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. He cares for Hagar and Ishmael despite their marginalized status—and perhaps because of their marginalization. Although they are cast out, God meets them in the wilderness and in their despondency and provides them with both immediate care and hope for the future.

It is entirely possible (and understandable, and arguably even commendable) to read the Bible and find some of its contents distasteful, tragic, or even faith-challenging. Why would God allow such a society to exist, where slavery is an acceptable institution, and women may be handed ‘round like property? Ought not God to have taught us better? Ought not God to refuse to countenance man’s inhumanity toward man?

The thing is, whenever I ask such questions of God, what I hear in response is, “I was going to ask you the same thing. Why would humanity allow such a society to exist? That’s not the fellowship for which I created you. Didn’t I teach you better? Oughtn’t you to refuse to countenance man’s inhumanity toward man?”

The Bible is the story of humanity’s slow and unsteady awakening to the character of the God in whose image we are created. If we were to continue reading beyond this morning’s lectionary passage from Genesis, we would find that our understanding of God’s will for us gets much worse before it gets any better. But scripture does have an historical trajectory. If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is right, and “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then it is perhaps because the arc of our relationship with God is long, but it bends toward reconciliation.

We wonder why God would allow suffering in the world, and particularly why God would allow human beings to hurt and abuse their fellow human beings. But we ask this question in ignorance of God’s revealed character. For when God saw our hurt and our abusiveness—when God heard the cries of our children left for dead in the wilderness—God took on flesh, and received in his own body all the pain and abuse and torture that humanity could muster. Hagar named God “El Roi” (Gen. 16:13), the God who sees. God continues to see how we allow the marginalized to be victimized; how we allow the downtrodden to be further exploited. When people are hurting God not only sees, God shows up. But he shows up not in displays coercive power, but in the healing, helping presence of our hands and feet.

An internet meme quotes Pope Francis as saying, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” The Pope, to the best of my knowledge, did not say exactly that; it is, rather, a summary of what the Pope has said, which is this:

In our Christian life too, dear brothers and sisters, may prayer and action always be deeply united. A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, a brother in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer. But, in the same way, when ecclesial service is attentive only to doing… we forget the centrality of Christ. When time is not set aside for dialogue with him in prayer, we risk serving ourselves and not God present in our needy brother and sister. St Benedict sums up the kind of life that indicated for his monks in two words: ora et labora, pray and work. It is from contemplation, from a strong friendship with the Lord that the capacity is born in us to live and to bring the love of God, his mercy, his tenderness, to others. And also our work with brothers in need, our charitable works of mercy, lead us to the Lord, because it is in the needy brother and sister that we see the Lord himself.

The fellowship for which God created us in God’s own image is God’s promise in the midst of pain. We are God’s promise in the midst of pain, insofar as we are called to care, always and relentlessly, for the needs of others, even as our own needs are met in the same way. That is the society toward which the moral arc of the universe bends, and the fellowship toward which our relationship with God bends. Call it justice; call it reconciliation. Whatever you call it, it is God’s promise to us, even in the midst of our pain. All that is missing is our participation in that promise’s fulfillment.

 

[1] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 3-4.

Someone to Watch Over Me

 

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1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-16

The image of Jesus as a shepherd is perhaps one of the most beloved in Christian history. Through music, visual artistry, poetry and more, we are assured—and teach our children—that we are cradled in the arms of the Good Shepherd who willingly laid down his life for his sheep. We know this, of course, because Jesus said so himself. But Jesus himself was borrowing some imagery from the Hebrew Bible, where the prophet Isaiah said that the Messiah would “gather the lambs with his arm” (Isa. 40:11).

But this passage from John is both rich and, frankly, perplexing. Before Jesus ever gets to the “I am the Good Shepherd” bit that we all want to hear, he declares, “I am the gate.” He also mentions a gate keeper, who decides whether or not to let the Good Shepherd into the fold. This parable has several “moving parts,” and Jesus himself claims to be at least two of them. Who could blame his listeners for being confused initially?

In order to wrap our own heads around this text, we need to back up. Several weeks ago, our lectionary text was the whole of chapter 9, in which Jesus’ healing of a man born blind led to considerable controversy. The chapter closes with Jesus lecturing the Pharisees.

Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains (John 9:40-41).

Now we learn that he wasn’t done speaking with them.

“I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying (John 10:1-6).

Because our Bibles all have chapter and verse numbers in them, we imagine that because we’ve moved from chapter 9 to chapter 10, Jesus has now moved on to another subject. But in making that assumption, we miss the point. Jesus is still talking to the same Pharisees to whom he said, “Because you claim to see, your sin remains.” The Pharisees, in Jesus’ new parable, are the thieves and bandits who attempt steal their way into the sheep pen in order to lead the sheep astray. They may think they’re shepherds of the people, but Jesus assures them that they’re not. Real shepherds enter by the gate, and the sheep follow them out of the pen because they know the sound of their shepherd’s voice.

“I am the gate,” Jesus said. That’s… not where we might expect Jesus to place himself in his analogy, is it? In fact, there’s both a shepherd and a gatekeeper in this analogy, and either of those could, arguably, be Jesus. But Jesus gave his listeners the interpretation of his own parable, and according to him, Jesus is the gate.

Before we move on to more familiar territory (like resting comfortably in the arms of the Good Shepherd), we need to sit right here. Gates bring to mind something that separates those from the inside from those on the outside. But while some in the Church have spent the last two thousand years suggesting that this gate creates an exclusive community, declaring that the only way into the sheep pen is through Jesus (and quoting Jesus in chapter 14, where he says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me), Jesus here makes it clear that his goal is not to invite more and more sheep into the protection of his pen, but to lead his sheep out of the pen! The sheep on the inside are not all safe, Jesus-y sheep. Some of them appear to belong to others, and some of them appear to be stolen. This, too, is an indictment against the Pharisees who, rather than care for the man and rejoice with him over this miracle, have just thrown out of the synagogue the many born blind! Being a sheep in this fold is not a safe position! As the Gate, Jesus opens to allow his own to leave the pen in search of the green pastures and still waters that comprise the abundant life that God has in mind for His children! His leading the man born blind to an abundant life is this Gospel’s most recent proof that what Jesus says about himself is true. Just like the sheep in Jesus’ analogy will not follow a stranger because they do not know his voice, so the man born blind refused to listen to the Pharisees, but turned to Jesus, an illustration of the sheep who recognize the voice of the real Shepherd.

It is the Gatekeeper who determines the circumstances of the Gate’s opening. Much as Jesus would say in his final discourse that he is the vine and his Father is the Vine Grower, here, Jesus is the Gate and—it seems clear enough—his Father is the Gatekeeper. The Gate opens by the Gatekeeper’s initiative. If the Gatekeeper didn’t think the sheep ought to have an abundant life, he wouldn’t have opened the Gate.

Let’s tarry here just a moment longer and make an even more pointed observation. If God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the Gatekeeper, then you’re not. I’m not. The Church is not. It is the history of the Scottish Church, Presbyterianism generally, and even that of my current congregation (not currently, I stress, but historically), to act as gatekeepers where, for instance, access to the Lord’s Table is concerned. I was once given the gift of a little oval coin, dated 1838, from the Scottish Church of Monzie, Perthshire, Scotland, just like the one pictured here:

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This coin is a communion token, required by all good Presbyterians in order to be granted admittance to the Lord’s Table. These tokens were bestowed upon the worthy faithful, following examination by the Elders of the church to ensure moral and doctrinal uprightness. They were for members of that particular congregation only. Non-members were eligible neither to receive these tokens, nor the sacrament to which they afforded admittance.

By contrast, many denominations today celebrate what they call “open communion,” inviting non-members to participate at the Lord’s Table, the only caveat being that those participating be baptized Christians. This has been the official stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for many years, and it is the reason for my saying at each invitation to the Lord’s table, “This is not a Presbyterian table, it is the Lord’s Table, and he invites all those who trust in him to enjoy the feast which he has prepared.”

Our denomination’s presbyteries lately have been voting on a proposed amendment to our Book of Order that would make our open invitation to the Lord’s Table even more open. Out of the 100 Presbyteries that have voted so far, ninety-seven of them have voted yes, and the amendment has therefore already crossed the necessary threshold for passage. It changes our stance from admitting all baptized Christians to participate in the Lord’s Supper to admitting all who feel led to participate, whether they’ve previously been baptized or not. In short, we have come to acknowledge that we are not the Gatekeeper—God is. The striking hypothetical is this: what if it is in the act of Christ’s radical hospitality and service to sinners, acted out in the Lord’s Supper, that someone encounters the Living Christ and subsequently becomes a disciple? Is discipleship a prerequisite for table fellowship, or might table fellowship lead to discipleship? Our denomination will, from now on, claim the latter.

Finally, we do, indeed, come to Jesus’ “second effort” at his analogy. Having first called himself the Gate through which the Shepherd enters the fold and leads his sheep out to pastures of abundance, now he says, “I AM the Good Shepherd.” The sheep of his flock know his voice, and follow him, because he is a trustworthy and sheltering leader. Jesus is a shepherd not merely in the spirit of his ancestor David, but as God’s Word and Will incarnate. His disciples listen to his voice and recognize him as the one who will bring them no harm and protect them as he leads them to the source of abundant life.

While Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd may, to us, sound like a benign claim of leadership and devoted protection, his listeners would have understood his reference to the prophets (especially Ezekiel) where God declares that God will be the Shepherd for his people, over against the “shepherds” or leaders who have heretofore led the people astray. At the very least, then, Jesus would be making a Messianic statement; but in the Gospel of John, Jesus is known to make even stronger statements by which he identifies with God, claiming his own divinity.

Jesus goes on to say he has other sheep that are not found in this particular fold. This statement is, again, a direct confrontation of the teachings of the Pharisees to whom he is speaking. They claimed that God’s people were the children of Abraham, those faithful to the tradition of Moses. But Jesus didn’t come to save the Jews—he came to save the world. Not all of his sheep were to be found in the Jewish fold—some were to be found elsewhere; and they, too, would follow the sound of their shepherd’s voice when they heard it. We in the Church need to take to heart Jesus words as well. Since we are neither the Gatekeeper nor the Shepherd, we are not the arbiters of who is a sheep of Christ’s flock and who is not.

In this chapter, we are given assurance that by following the sound of Jesus’ voice—by following where he leads us—we enter into a life of abundance and shelter. I’ve read that there is a saying in India, “The tree does not stand far from the apple.” We’re used to hearing, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” meaning that we tend not to stray far from the social systems from which we spring. But the Indian phrase is different. “The tree does not stand far from the apple” gives agency not to the apple, but to the tree. The apple is sheltered by the tree, whether it falls or not. Some apples cling to the tree, some fall in a storm or a prevailing wind, a few may be carried away. Surely some apples wouldn’t mind exercising a little of their own agency and roll away—to be sure, we Americans tend to venerate self-made individuals! But apples aren’t self-made. They’re produced by the tree; and assuming that they fall at all, the tree nevertheless stands near to them, continuing to shelter them under its boughs.

So it is with the sheep of the Good Shepherd’s fold. Sure, a few stubborn or careless sheep may occasionally wander away from the flock, but the Shepherd keeps a constant count and offers the guidance of his own voice in leading us to green pastures and still waters. We don’t wander through this life alone. We have someone who watches over us, who guides and guards us, and who even willingly lays down his life for ours.

And nothing and no one can take us away.

Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)

 

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John 20:19-31

In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.

The author of the Gospel According to John explains, at the end of this reading, why he has written his gospel: “These things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.” In order to really understand what John is suggesting, however, we need to do a flyover of his entire gospel.

John takes us all the way back to the Big Bang: it was through the Word—who is with God and who is God—that all things came into being. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and that’s where things get interesting. It’s in people’s encounters with the living Christ that lives are transformed, and faith is professed. In chapter one, John the Baptist testifies to his own disciples that Jesus is “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and then declares, “I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son” (1:34). In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.

As Jesus gathered his inner circle of disciples, they needed only to meet him once to begin declaring to one another, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41) and even, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel” (1:49). In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.

Nicodemus stole away to meet with Jesus in the dark of night, because while he was obviously intrigued by Jesus’ teachings, he didn’t want his fellow members of the Sanhedrin to know that he was a student of Jesus. They talked about what it means to be born of the Spirit, rather than of the flesh. Later, Nicodemus would defend Jesus’ legal rights before the Sanhedrin. And finally, following Jesus’ death, it was Nicodemus who provided the spices that were to be used in preparing his body for burial. In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.

Jesus strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman he had no business speaking with, and she immediately becomes an apostle to her entire town (4:39). Jesus offered a long-distance healing to the son of a certain royal official, causing him and his entire household to believe (4:53). He heals a man born blind, and an entire city is in an uproar. He raises Lazarus from the dead, and a conspiracy to kill them both is immediately hatched.

Everywhere that Jesus went, transformation followed—sometimes it looked like belief, sometimes it looked like stubborn incredulity, but in every case, when people encountered the living Christ, their lives were altered.

Which brings us to the events of the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It wasn’t a part of this scripture reading, but we cannot ignore what John has to say about Easter morning, if we are to appreciate what we have read today. Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb, and immediately runs to the disciples. Peter and the Beloved Disciple rush to the tomb to see for themselves, and—sure enough—find it empty and walk away in puzzlement.

It was then that Mary encountered the living Christ. She stood weeping, distraught not only over Jesus’ death, but at the heinous insult of having his body either moved or stolen. Suddenly, Jesus was standing right next to her, though sufficiently changed that she didn’t recognize him right away. After a brief but powerful exchange, Mary left and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Now, John doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to this news, but Luke reports that “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women” (Luke 24:11). John does report that later that evening, Jesus suddenly and inexplicably appeared in the locked room where they were hiding from the authorities. And what did he do on that occasion? The details are important! He said, “Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy” (John 20:19b-20).

It just so happened that Thomas hadn’t been there at the time. Later, his friends declared to him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” These are the very same words that Mary Magdalene had used to describe her encounter in the cemetery—the report that the men had refused to believe. Now here they were, declaring the same thing: “We’ve seen the Lord!” And just like them, Thomas didn’t believe it. Why should he? Jesus was more than three days dead. And so his response to his fellow disciples was exactly the same as their response had been to Mary Magdalene: Seeing is believing.

Thomas did not ask for anything that his fellow disciples had not also received. When Jesus appeared also to Thomas, he volunteered both the same benediction, “Peace be with you,” and the same evidence that he had volunteered to the others: “Put your finger here; put your hand there. No more disbelief!”

And Thomas responded, as Nathaniel, and Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman, and the royal courtier, and the man born blind, and Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdalene, and so many others had also responded: “My Lord and my God!” In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.

Jesus’ final remark has sometimes been interpreted as a rebuke of Thomas, leading to his becoming known as “Doubting Thomas.” But Thomas was not singled out by Jesus for doubting; and calling him “Doubting Thomas” is wildly unfair. I prefer to understand Jesus’ final comment as remarking on how fortunate all of the disciples were in having lived, walked, and worked alongside Jesus in the flesh, while future generations of believers would be required to live, walk, and work with Jesus in a very different way. Turning away from Thomas to look directly into the camera, Jesus says to those of us watching, “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

This story isn’t just about Thomas. It’s about how the entire world reacts to the gospel. Mary found an empty tomb and cried; the disciples heard Mary’s report of her encounter with the risen Christ and scoffed; Thomas heard his friend’s testimony and doubted. These are people who saw more than we see, knew more than we know. But no matter what they were told, they remained skeptical until they’d had their own encounter with the living Christ.

So I ask you: who are we in this story? Because we—I assume, and perhaps I shouldn’t—because we have encountered Christ and now believe because of it, are we not the ten disciples? We might—and I say might—be willing to say to a neighbor, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But I ask you to look again at this reading: did the women saying, “We’ve seen the Lord!” change the hearts and minds of the disciples? Did the disciples’ saying, “We’ve seen the Lord!” change the heart and mind of Thomas? No! Because, in order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.

In a work of true literary beauty and mastery, John, by the final words of Jesus in his gospel, returns his readers to some of Jesus’ first words in the gospel. When he first met Nathaniel, who is skeptical of Jesus’ credentials at first, but believes after Jesus tells him where he’d been—sitting under a fig tree far from their meeting place—suddenly explains that Jesus is God’s Son, and the King of Israel. To this, Jesus responds, “Do you believe because of what I told you? You will see greater things than these!”

And what would Nathaniel see? What did Thomas see? What do we see? How do we have encounters with the living Christ?

Frankly, I find it remarkably difficult to believe that anyone is a Christian for no other reason than that they believed their Sunday School teacher when they shared Bible stories about Jesus. In order to have a life of faith, surely we must first have encountered the living Christ.

But if we (the church) are the other 10 disciples, then this story points out the limits of the effectiveness of our witness: an effectiveness that is further hampered by our testifying poorly. First Peter says, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it” (1 Pet. 3:15).

My congregation and I are Presbyterian, and so “testifying” doesn’t come naturally to us. What does come naturally to Presbyterians is living our lives in a way that seeks justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly. And that’s okay! We might as well play to our strengths, right? And besides, Jesus, in the Gospel of John, had something very specific to say even about this kind of witness: “I give you a new mandate: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).

Here’s where being a follower of Jesus gets trippy. Yes, we’re one of the eleven disciples (or twelve, if you—like me—include Mary Magdalene), and we all have our own hang-ups and shortcomings. Peter was rather thick-headed, James and John were hot-headed, Nathaniel was a smart-alec, Matthew was nobody’s favorite person, and Thomas was a skeptic. Each of us can probably relate to one of the disciples in their humanity. But in addition to being a flawed disciple of Jesus, each of us is also a member of the Body of Christ. By that token, the world around us comes to know Jesus through our actions (or, more correctly, through Jesus’ actions through us). In order to have a life of faith, the world must encounter the living Christ—through our participation in his ministry of reconciliation. As Thomas, who was skeptical until he had touched Jesus’ hands with his own, and then traveled farther than any other Apostle in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world (traveling, according to tradition, as far away as India), so we who have encountered the living Christ must ourselves, as Diana Ross once sang, “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand; make this world a better place if we can.”

Like Thomas, we all depend upon disciples and gospel writers and pastors and fellow believers to bear witness to the news that brings life. Jesus has both mandated and empowered that witness. So, whether it is Mary telling the disciples that first morning; Peter joyfully telling Thomas what happened to them when he was absent; the preacher in your life; or you describing your joy to a friend at work, or to a stranger in the checkout line, or without a single word, as you hand a plate of hot food to a hungry soul in at the local rescue mission; we all have been given the message and the mandate to invite people into the reign of God, delivering the Good News of reconciliation. How we comport ourselves—as individuals, and as a worshiping community—is of the utmost importance, because as far as the rest of the world is concerned, seeing is believing.

He Has Become My Salvation

 

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John 20:1-18; Ps. 118:1-2, 14-24

I want to tell you the 100% true story of a conversation I had with my (then) seven-year-old son. For reasons that my wife and I couldn’t explain, he had a fear of dying. Yes, I know that sounds completely reasonable, but this isn’t the usual sort of being afraid to die that many of us have, in that he wasn’t afraid of pain or process; it was more like… a fear of no longer existing; a nihilistic, existential crisis. I discovered that he had a very clinical, thoroughly biological understanding of death: that when we die, we are henceforth no longer functional. The reason he feared death was that he believed he would no longer be able to do the things he loved to do, or see the people he loved to see. “If I die,” he’s day, “I won’t be able to see you and mommy anymore.” Death meant no longer being able to see. While our son could conceptualize no longer being alive, he equated it with no longer existing, reaching the logical conclusion that death was infinitely worse than life.

This is precisely the kind of fear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ best addresses. I told him that it’s only our bodies that die; that our essential selves continue to commune with God, and that the Bible tells us that someday God will give us our bodies back. We’re not just gone forever; we continue to live, we continue to love, we continue to see.

I opened a Bible—or, to be more precise, I opened a Bible app on my iPad—and turned to the book of Revelation. From there, I read,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humanity. He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’” (Rev. 21:1-4, CEB).

“Do you understand what this means?” I asked my son. He shook his head. “This means that God is promising us that even after we die, we continue to live with God; and where God is, no one ever dies, or feels pain, or cries about anything.”

As I watched him weigh this information for its truth, I asked him, “Do you know what happened on Easter? Do you know why we celebrate Easter?” Again, he shook his head. “Well, Jesus died on a Friday—we call it Good Friday—but then on Sunday, he came back to life; and after a while he went to live with God. And because he came back to life, that’s how we know that God’s promise that we’ll come back to life is true.”

“God always keeps his promises,” he said matter-of-factly, having been assured of this before.

“Yes he does,” I said, “and we know his promise is true, because it has already happened to Jesus.”

Finally, we talked about how we can thank God for this wonderful promise when we pray, and by being good people in the way that Jesus taught his followers to be good.

Psalm 118 is a psalm that seems tailor-made for Easter Sunday. It includes the most exultant of lines: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Could any other phrase in the book of Psalms better capture the pure joy of that first Easter morning? As I read the psalm, I thought of my conversation with the young boy, who was afraid of death until he heard about God’s promise. “I shall not die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done… I thank you because you answered me, and have become my salvation.”

Psalm 118 is actually the lectionary Psalm for both Palm Sunday and Easter, since it also includes the words “Hosanna” (or “save us” in English) and “blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!” In other words, as the crowd waved palm branches at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, they were singing Psalm 118. This is not surprising, since it happens to be one of the psalms traditionally sung during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Martin Luther said that this was his favorite psalm, and that it had helped him out of messes through which all the kings horses and all the kings men could never have helped him. (Those are my words, not his.)

In its original context, the psalm recalls God’s saving help, and was used by pilgrims flocking to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, because it evokes God’s saving help of his people during their flight from Egypt. It opens with the point of the whole psalm: “Give thank to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” Then the king describes his circumstances: he was distressed, and God responded. He was surrounded by enemies, but in the strength of the Lord, those enemies were defeated. “The Lord is my strength and my might,” he declares. “He has become my salvation.” Now the king has come to God’s holy temple in order to give thanks. “Open to me the gates of the temple, that I may go in and give thanks to the Lord!”

But the priests interject: “This is the gate of the Lord, only the righteous can enter through it.” Apparently, this didn’t stop the king; he goes on extolling the Lord. But what is most striking is what he says while extolling the Lord. “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.”

Reading this psalm in the context of Easter, it takes on an added weight. For on Easter, we remember that the greatest enemy of humankind is death itself and its effort permanently to separate us from God’s love. As the psalmist writes, “I was attacked so fiercely I nearly died, but the Lord helped me. The Lord was my strength and protection; he has become my salvation… I will not die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done. Yes, the Lord definitely disciplined me, but he didn’t hand me over to death.”

“I will not die—no, I will live.” The psalmist declares something truly amazing here! God did not simply save him, he became his salvation. Salvation is not something that God has done; salvation is something that God has become. This is never more evident—there is no greater proof that this is true—than in Jesus Christ, who has become our salvation. Therefore, we will not die—no, we will live.

 

The psalm offers us a model for testifying about what God has done for us. The preacher tells of the marvelous deeds of the Lord as they relate to God’s Word; that is, in essence, the task of preaching. We witness something, and then we bear witness to it by telling others about it.

This is the thrust of the Easter narrative. While the scripture describes the amazing fact of Jesus’ resurrection, the narrative tells a story of witnesses witnessing. Mary Magdalene finds that the stone has been rolled away from Jesus’ tomb, and immediately runs to Peter and the Beloved Disciple to tell them. They, in turn, run to the tomb to see for themselves, and, entering the tomb, find more evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, though still failing to comprehend.

It is telling that by various signals, the truth of Christ’s resurrection was gradually revealed to the disciples, but they were slow to accept such a possibility (though really, who can blame them)? Mary found an empty tomb and ran to tell her friends. Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to verify Mary’s account, and found everything as she had described, but it continued to make little sense to them. Mary then spoke to a man she didn’t recognize, who turned out to be the Lord himself! Once again she found herself in a position to share what she knew with others. Just as she was the first to find the empty tomb, Mary was also the first to encounter the resurrected Jesus. He tells her, “Go and tell…,” making Mary Magdalene not only the first apostle, but the apostle to the apostles! Go and tell. Mary went and told. It was pointed out to me recently that for a few brief moments on the day of resurrection, Mary Magdalen was the entirety of the Christian Church—she was the world’s only Christian! She announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord,” and then she told them what he’d said to her. Mary witnessed the risen Christ, and then was sent to bear witness to the living Christ. Go and tell.

 

A story appeared in the news on June 25, 1939, recounting the story of a Navy submarine that had been accidentally struck by another ship and was stuck on the bottom of a harbor in New York. All systems had failed; it had no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. The U.S. Navy sent a ship equipped with Navy divers to the spot. The trapped sailors heard the heavy metal boots of a diver land on the conning tower of their submarine. In the darkness they tapped in Morse code, “Is there any hope?” The diver on the outside, hearing the tapping and recognizing the message, signaled by banging on the exterior of the sub, “Yes, there is hope.”

We live in a world full of people who feel increasingly hopeless. International tensions are rising; famine rears its head in Africa once again; and terrorism has led some to forget altogether the better angels of their nature, to scapegoat others for their misfortune, and to demand that we care only for ourselves, rejecting responsibility for the common good. In short, ours is a world in need of good news, where people sit in darkness, banging desperately on the hull, “Is there any hope?”

If you have encountered the love of God—if you believe that our risen Lord is proof that God’s promise of reconciliation and eternal communion is true—Go. And tell. “Yes, there is still hope.” Go. And tell.

The psalmist says, “I will not die; I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” Even in that most famous of phrases from this psalm, we hear both a call and a response: This is the day that the Lord has made… let us rejoice and be glad in it! We are instructed to rejoice and be glad in response to the day that the Lord has made. And while we gladly use this call and response not just on Easter, but throughout the liturgical year, is there any day more marvelous than this one, whereupon Jesus our Savior climbed down off of a funereal shelf and walked right out of his tomb? As Psalm 118 also says, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!”

And what makes it so marvelous? It’s like I told my son: in raising Jesus from the dead, in Jesus’ climbing down off that grave shelf and walking away after being dead for three days, God proved that his promises are true and entirely dependable. Because Jesus lives, we also shall live. “Yes, there is still hope.” The Lord is our strength and our protection; he has become our salvation.

Go. And tell.

Community Dinner

 

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Exod. 12:1-4, 11-14; John 13:1–17

This week, I was proud to read and then share on social media an article published by The Business Journal titled, “’Live New Wilmington’ Unites Town with Events.” I was proud, of course, because all of the people quoted or mentioned in the article are members of this congregation: Katanya Cathcart, Wendy Farmerie, and Nicole Hunter. Of the various “First Friday” events mentioned in the article, perhaps the most novel one is the Community Dinner that takes place on Market Street. Or maybe I should say it happens in Market Street, since the giant banquet table that is spread out for any and all to come and enjoy literally stretches right down the centerline of Market Street, which is closed to traffic for the event. As Katanya explains in the article:

“We shut down a big section of Market Street and it really gives it a different ambience. People, for whatever reason, think it’s really fun to sit at a table in the middle of the street,” Cathcart says with a laugh. “They think it’s this brilliant thing.”

In those events, Cathcart and Hunter saw the area’s populations mix. Residents from Shenango on the Green, an assisted living center near Westminster College, interacted with kids during the Kids Carnival. Students from Westminster College ate with downtown business owners during the Community Dinner.

“All of these events are quirky and Katanya and Wendy [Farmerie, owner of The Silk Road] planned that on purpose. Quirk is what gets people talking, which is what this was all about,” Hunter says. “It’s contagious. Their joy is contagious when everyone’s together, especially with kids around.”

Ultimately, the goal of Live New Wilmington is getting people together, not always easy given the increasingly diverse segments of the population.

The Gospel according to John is always prepared to disrupt our understanding. Three synoptic gospels’-worth of similarities leave us with the assumption that we know what tonight is about: that as we gather around the Lord’s Table, we do so in remembrance of Jesus. Surely, this was the tradition of the Apostle Paul, handed on to us in the word of institution that Pastor John and I will speak in just a few minutes. But the author of John’s gospel is distinctly and uniquely disinterested in all that. He fails to mention bread; the disciples share no common cup. Either because the other gospels had already sufficiently covered that ground or because it was, in John’s opinion, not the point of the meal, John recounts the circumstances rather differently.

John sets the scene by stating from the outset, “Now before the festival of the Passover….” As Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Randall C. Zachman, points out,

“By framing the coming of the hour in this way, John seems to invite the reader to think of the dramatically different ways the love of God is manifested in the exodus, compared to the way the love of God is said to be completely expressed in the death of Jesus. The love of God is revealed to Israel by the way God sees the misery of God’s people in Egypt, hears their cry in their afflictions, knows their sufferings, and comes down to deliver them, to bring them to the land of promise, where they are to dwell in peace (Exod. 3:7-10). In the process, God hands over to death the enemies of God’s own people who oppress and afflict them (Exod. 15:21). Because the Israelites know that the love of God acts in this way, they can call on God in their own afflictions, confident that God will see their affliction, hear their cry, know their suffering, and come down to deliver them from death by handing those who oppress them over to death (Ps. 57:3). The faithful know that God loves them when they are freed from death and look [down] in triumph on those who oppressed them (Ps. 59:10).”

Indeed, we see this very attitude expressed by Jesus’ own disciples throughout the gospels, as they assume that Jesus’ being the messiah means that he will rise in power to overthrow their Roman oppressors. Even as late as this evening’s reading, Peter refuses the self-giving service of Jesus at table, saying, “You will never wash my feet!” because it is scandalous to him that the one who soon will be King of all he surveys should condescend to such a servile task. But Jesus explains to Peter (though Peter continues not to understand properly) that unless Peter can accept the kind of service Jesus is offering, Peter will have no place in what is coming. As Dr. Zachman continues to explain:

“The works Jesus does leading up to the hour of his death seem to express the love of God according to the pattern of the Exodus, culminating in the raising of Lazarus from the power of death, the last sign Jesus performs before entering Jerusalem. The raising of Lazarus would be an understandable expression of God’s love as it was known to the Jews from the exodus. It therefore comes as a complete and horrifying surprise, both to the disciples and to us, that Jesus in fact has a radically different understanding of love, one that does not deliver its own from the power of death, but rather one that freely, voluntarily, and completely offers itself to death….[1]

In short, the Gospel of John, in typical fashion, tells the story of the last supper differently because for him the point of the supper is different. The Synoptic gospels emphasize the identification of Jesus as the Pascal lamb whose sacrifice will cause God’s wrath to pass over God’s people, as it had at the time of the exodus. Just as the Passover Seder is a ritualized meal that causes participants to remember the exodus, the Lord’s Supper is, in the view of the Synoptics, cause to remember Jesus’ own Pascal sacrifice. But according to John, the last supper served a different purpose. It was an occasion for Jesus to teach his disciples—through the clearest teaching and example he would ever offer—what he had been sent to do.

“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done for you?’” That is the question that John asks us this evening: do we know what Jesus has done for us? And before you mentally answer that question, allow me to remind you that when Jesus asked this question, he was still as much as 18 hours away from his crucifixion. In other words, whatever it was that Jesus was referring to, it wasn’t his death.

As I heard Dr. Andrew Purves, Jean and Nancy Davis Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, state in a lecture in 2015, “Atonement is not the amelioration of broken laws [which Purves calls the great Western heresy]; it is the restoration of a broken relationship.” The Eastern Church — that is, the various Eastern Orthodox communions — understand this in a way that we Westerners have rather completely defaced in our rationalist pursuit of God. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and internationally celebrated author of many books of theological reflection, most recently authored The Divine Dance. Rohr outlines how Western philosophy and theology are founded on Aristotle’s notion of substance being the highest quality of being. The Western Church objectified God and sought to understand God substantially. Meanwhile, the Eastern Church understands God relationally. This relational understanding of God is not a Christian invention—it is inherited from our Jewish spiritual forbears, who do not rely upon “systematic theologies” to rationalize their faith, but relate to God, rather than seek to understand or explain God.

Richard Rohr’s plea is that the Western Church move past its obsession with defining God’s objective substance (an obsession over which wars have been fought, to say nothing of the abhorrently schismatic attitudes of Western Christians for at least the last 500 years), and recover a theology of relationship.

We speak regularly about humanity being created in the image of God; and precisely what is meant by this is a favorite topic of conversation around seminary lunch tables. But it has only been in the last five years or so that it has dawned on me that I have always conceptualized this all wrong. When we talk about God, we don’t actually think about it. God means “the Man Upstairs,” “the distant and vaguely threatening Deity up there somewhere.”

What a pitiful theology! How far removed that is from the God revealed to us in, through, and as Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit! We are not created in the image of the man upstairs! We are created in the image of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a God whose very essence (dare I say “substance”?) is relational. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in eternal relationship, One God. We, then, are created in this image; we are created as relational beings and for the express purpose of being in eternal and transcendent communion with the Trinity and with one another!

And that—that—is what Jesus refers to, when he asks his disciples, “Do you know what I have done for you?” The saving work of Christ, what Jesus has done and continues to do for us, is not about the cross; it is about the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Relationship,” Rohr writes in his book. While humanity has broken its relationship with God and, consequently, broken our ability to be in right relationship to one another, God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ served to restore God’s relationship to humanity—to offer us, anew, a seat at the table. And so Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another; as I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The foot washing of which they have all been recipients is an object lesson, a model of the kind of self-giving love God wants amongst God’s children, even as God has modeled that very self-giving love in sending his only begotten Son to be for us the Resurrection (of relationship) and the Life (in relationship).

My favorite Eastern icon is also one of the best-known in the world: Andrei Rublev’s icon called The Hospitality of Abraham, also known simply as The Trinity (see above). Seeming on the surface to depict the three strangers to whom Abraham offered hospitality in the book of Genesis, but which the author identifies as “the Lord,” Rublev seizes on the notion that God manifested as three figures, painting the three Persons of the Trinity sitting at a table. The Father, clothed in gold, and the Son, clothed in blue, gaze at one another while the Holy Spirit, clothed in green, looks to—and even gestures toward—the open space at the table: the space that the observer occupies as he or she stands in prayer before the icon. The message is clear: God invites the viewer to the table—to relationship with the God whose very essence is relationship!

But there’s even more. See the little rectangular “hole” that is painted in the front of the table? Richard Rohr reports that according to art historians,

“the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table! … This might have been Rublev’s final design flourish. Or maybe it was added later—we’re not sure. But can you imagine what its meaning might be? It’s stunning when you think about it—there was room at this table for a fourth. The observer.

“You.”[2]

The Eastern church has a word for the relational nature of God: perichoresis. Choreo means “to dance,” and it’s where we get the word “choreography.” The prefix “peri” means “around.” When asked to describe the nature of God, a Western Christian says, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen… We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father… We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son….” In other words, the Western Christian tries to be rational—he tries to explain the math of how one plus one plus one equals one.

But if you ask an Eastern Christian to describe the nature of God, they use the word perichoresis. The Trinity dances around! They dance around each other like a swirling electron cloud, eternally joyful in their singular presence.

And yet.

And yet this Triunity doesn’t like to eat alone. We are invited to share in the bounty of God’s Table, and to join in the perichoresis—the divine “dancing around!” This is the nature of what our ancient forbears called “salvation.”

So come. Let us respond to God’s invitation knowing that he does not invite us to a memorial service, but to a community dinner. He has stretched the banquet table down the centerline of the very golden street that leads all in the Kingdom into God’s holy presence.

Come and eat! Come and drink! Come and dance!

 

 

[1] Randall C. Zachman, “John 13:1-17, 31b-35; Holy Thursday, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 273-4.

[2] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 2016), 30-1.

Jesus, Son of the Father

Matt. 26:57-27:54

Be advised: this sermon takes the form of a first person narrative.

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I thought it had to be a mistake. A case of mistaken identity or something. The crowd loved me, of course, because I was one of them. I was a Jew who had made a strong case for resistance to Roman authority. I had attracted a crowd of followers, and in the end, I was betrayed by a friend and imprisoned on charges of sedition.

The Roman guard approached my cell and removed my chains. “Follow me,” he said, and I was sure I was being led away to my death. Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing in a balcony overlooking a large crowd of people, next to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and some other fellow I didn’t know.

Pilate raised his hands to quiet the crowd. When there was silence, he spoke to the people, his voice ringing out in a courtyard that had been built to amplify his voice. “It is your custom that a prisoner be released in honor of your Passover holiday,” he said. I found this odd. I had never heard of this custom before, and I was wondering what he was playing at. “I present you with a choice,” he continued. “Whom shall I pardon? Jesus, the Son of the Father, or Jesus, your so-called Messiah?”

He was asking the wrong question; it was bound to cause confusion! Even I didn’t know who he was talking about! My name is Jesus, that much is true, and because I was a leader who preached resistance to the Roman establishment, I had been declared the Messiah by some of my followers. That was why I was arrested. But the mistaken identity concerned my last name. See, I was known as Jesus Bar-Abbas, which in Hebrew means “Jesus, Son of the Father.” So was I the messiah Pilate mentioned, or was I the son of the father? I gathered that the man standing beside Pilate was the other Jesus, but I never talked to him, so I didn’t get his story.

In retrospect, I don’t think Pilate wanted the other Jesus killed at all. First of all, he tried to talk the crowd out of it. When he first asked the question, “Which Jesus do you want?” the crowd seemed confused. “Do you want the Son of the Father, or do you want the Messiah?” I know I was confused. It seemed to me that I was both. As we stood there, a messenger came with word from Pilate’s wife that he should steer clear of the righteous man, because she’d had some kind of dream about him. Now, if you ask me, I would call myself a righteous man. I wasn’t a violent criminal or anything—I was just trying to win Israel’s independence from Rome. But I knew Pilate’s wife meant the other Jesus. The Romans were pretty clear about what they thought of insurrectionists like me, and she’d never have described me as righteous!

While this was going on, I noticed members of the Sanhedrin working the crowd. Pharisees, temple priests… those sorts. I don’t know what they were telling the people, but the crowd got worked up about something. The crowd, in their confusion, hadn’t given Pilate an answer yet, and I suspect that the members of the Sanhedrin were coaching them on their response. After dismissing the messenger, Pilate turned back to the crowd and shouted, “Well? Which will it be?”

And the crowd shouted back, “Give us the Son of the Father!” The other fellow looked relieved, which only made me more confused. Was this guy also a messiah, or were there two guys named Jesus Bar-Abbas in Jerusalem? If he was a messiah, I had never heard of him. But why the crowd’s asking for Bar-Abbas would make him feel relieved is beyond me unless that was his name, too.

This apparently wasn’t the answer Pilate wanted to hear, which only added to my confusion. Pilate wanted me dead, no doubt about that. The crowd had asked that Jesus Son of the Father be released. I took it from Pilate’s hesitance that they meant me, and that Pilate wasn’t happy about their decision. But then, that meant the other Jesus was the messiah who would be killed. That should have been great news for me… so why did the other Jesus look relieved? Was he as confused as I?

“Then what should I do with the Jesus you call the messiah?” Pilate asked.

Everyone said, “Let him be crucified!”

“Why?” Pilate asked. “He hasn’t done anything!”

“We don’t care!” the crowd responded. “Just give us the Son of the Father!” The crowd started pressing in on the palace a little then. There were plenty of guards surrounding the grounds, but you could just feel the energy of the throng of people, and I was becoming nervous that things could get nasty.

Pilate stalked into the antechamber inside, and then reemerged with a bowl of water. Making sure that every eye in the courtyard could see what he was doing, he washed his hands in the bowl and wiped them with a towel. “You’re not going to pin your messiah’s death on me!” he shouted. “I wash my hands of the whole affair!”

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“Fine!” the people shouted. “The messiah’s blood will be on us and our children!” I started feeling panicky, my palms were sweating, my heart was racing. I looked over at the other Jesus, and he was just standing there, looking calm, though he seemed to have tears in his eyes. I… I think he thought he was about to be released—after all, hadn’t they just condemned me, the Jesus known as a messiah?

Pilate muttered something to the guard standing behind him; I didn’t catch what it was. But then the most shocking thing happened. The guard approached me, unlocked my shackles, and led me down to the courtyard below, where I was released.

The confusion continued. My friends and followers were clapping me on the back, all smiles, but there were many in the crowd who looked mortified, as if some terribly wrong had just occurred. They kept looking from me to the other fellow, still in the balcony. They seemed to realize the wrong man had been released! As for me, what did I care? I’d just had my death sentence commuted—I was saved!

When I turned and looked up at the balcony, it was empty. Pilate and the other Jesus had disappeared. Word spread that he’d been taken to the back of the palace to be flogged. I should have left; I should have been rejoicing with rich foods and fine wines! But I felt sick to my stomach, and I followed the crowd, who had begun moving around the building to watch the goings-on.

We got around to the back, and there was the other Jesus, tied to a post, being whipped by guards. I jumped with every crack of the whip, and I had to stop watching long before they’d finished. And to think, it should have been me tied to that post. It should have been me being whipped. I was the one who had broken the law, not that guy!

They finally finished beating him, and they dragged him back inside. When they came back out again, Jesus was dragging a huge cross, and they headed out toward Skull Hill. I couldn’t watch as they nailed him down to the wooden cross and then hoisted him up into a hanging position, but I heard the hammer and the sound of his screams as they drove the nails. When they were finished, I wandered closer to look. They had stripped him; I don’t know what happened to his clothes. It didn’t take long for him to die—a few hours, maybe. Honestly, that’s a mercy. A lot of people hang for a long time before they die; it’s part of the fun for the Romans. As they started pulling his cross back down, and wrenching the nails out of his arms and legs to be reused on another day, I broke down in tears. There was his mother, and some other woman, and a man whose name I didn’t catch. They had been standing there the whole time, talking to Jesus and trying to reassure him as he hung there. I’m amazed they had the stomach for it. When they claimed his body, they treated it with such reverence, such love. I have loyal followers, but none of them love me as these folks loved him.

Long after it was over, and the crowd had gone home, I continued to be haunted by the look on Jesus’ face when the crowd asked for Bar-Abbas. I still think there was some confusion—certainly the crowd seemed angry when I was released instead of the other Jesus! I was the criminal; I was the wanted man; I was the one who had transgressed the law. According to the law, I deserved death for what I had done. But that other Jesus died on the cross that had been reserved for me. He didn’t protest, didn’t put up a fight, didn’t point out to Pilate that there must be some mistake! He just sighed and looked at me as I was led away and given my freedom.

 

Some time later, I heard a fellow preaching in the courtyard of the temple, and talking about a crucified Jesus. This caught my attention, and I stood close and listened as he taught that Jesus had been crucified to glorify God and as a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the world. This Jesus had died in the place of sinners, the preacher said. “He died for you, and he died for you, and he died for you, so that you might be forgiven for your sins and be reconciled to his Heavenly Father.”

His Father! He’d called himself “the Son” all the time, and referred to God as his Father! Then all my worst fears were true! The wrong man had been released! The crowd had been calling for him, and not me! I remembered the words of the crowds as they rejected the so-called messiah, “Fine! The messiah’s blood will be on us and our children!” They were assuming responsibility for what they thought would be the crucifixion of a criminal… but then I’d been released. I thought of what the preacher said: that it was by his sacrifice that the people’s sins were forgiven. They had no idea the truth of what they said, when they shouted, “His blood will be on us!”

As the preacher continued to speak about Jesus as the messiah foretold in scripture—even foretold by David himself—I called out to the man, “Brother, what then should we do?”

The preacher looked at me and said, “Repent and be baptized in Jesus’ name, so that you may receive the Holy Spirit. He died for your sins, brother.” I looked at him in stunned silence, and then, as I stumbled away and began to weep, all I could say was, “You have no idea.”

The Resurrection IS the Life

 

Ezek. 37:1-14John 11:1-45

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This week’s gospel reading is, in one sense, the climax of the gospel according to John. I know the final act is not yet played: the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion, the resurrection. I know that the story of Jesus isn’t even close to finished, and that the greatest miracle is yet to come. And yet, somehow the raising of Lazarus is a climax all its own.

I say this for two reasons. First of all, the raising of Lazarus is, according to John, the reason the Jewish leadership decided that Jesus had to die. Right after Jesus raised Lazarus, a group of witnesses ran to the Pharisees to report what had happened. A council meeting was convened, and it was decided that in order to stop Jesus’ miracle-working from bringing unwanted attention from Rome, Jesus would have to die. It was also decided that Lazarus would have to be captured and killed, since he had become such an attraction and so many Jews had begun to believe in Jesus because of him.

But there is also a second reason why the raising of Lazarus is a kind of climax to the Jesus story. In spiritual terms, this is the story in which faith finally becomes more important than miracles—or, as John consistently calls them, “signs.” It’s ironic that on the occasion of Jesus’ greatest sign—the raising of a man who had been dead four days—the emphasis of the story is not on Lazarus, but on Martha.

It was Martha who met Jesus on the road to Bethany and chastised him for taking so long: “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus said.

“Yeah, yeah. He’ll rise on the last day; I get it. In the meantime, he’s dead.”

“Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though the die, will live. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? This isn’t just Jesus asking Martha. It’s also John asking us. In previous stories, people came to have faith in Jesus because they saw him perform signs. The recurring question throughout these stories has been that people will believe in miracles, but will they believe in Jesus? His first disciples believed in him because they knew he had turned water into wine in Cana. The Samaritan woman believed in him, because he was able to tell her everything she had ever done. The man born blind confessed that Jesus was the Son of Man, because he had been healed. But Martha has not witnessed these miracles, and Jesus showed up too late to help her family. Jesus had not come, and her brother had died. She had likely lost everything—a woman without a man to protect her was vulnerable in those days and in that culture. If anyone in John’s gospel had a legitimate reason to turn her back on Jesus, Martha did. “If you had been here,” she said, “my brother wouldn’t have died.”

Then, in the midst of her grief, her pain, her disappointment, Jesus asked her an impossible question: Do you believe?

“Believe?” she might have said. “Believe? I believed you could help when I sent messengers to find you six days ago! I believed you would show up in time to save your friend! Now he’s four days dead! In what, exactly, am I supposed to believe, now?”

But if such thoughts raced through her mind, if such doubts raised angry storm clouds in her spirit, she never said so. I imagine there was a long pause. I imagine that Martha stood in the road, staring at Jesus for a long time, before her anger gave way to the truth that she saw before her. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

She had no reason to think that confessing faith in Jesus Christ was going to save her brother. He was four days dead, and nothing was going to change that. As far as she was concerned, Jesus had screwed up. If there was anything Jesus could have done, he should have done it at least four days ago. And yet she believed in Jesus. No miracles. No hope of a miracle. Just faith.

In this way, Martha showed greater faith than the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-42), more faith than the blind man who was given his sight (John 9). They experienced Jesus at his best—a great teacher, a great healer. Martha, who had already been friends with Jesus, and who might have been justified in expecting a little urgency on his part when she’d sent for him, had received nothing from Jesus—no great teaching; no miraculous healing for her brother. Yet she believed.

Of course, Lazarus was raised, though Martha didn’t see that coming. It wasn’t a resurrection like Jesus’. Lazarus would still grow old, perhaps get sick, and certainly die again. One has to wonder what this experience would have been like for Lazarus. We know that Lazarus had been sick—sick enough to die, in fact. Are we sure he wanted to be raised? What if, in death, Lazarus had finally found the rest he’d longed for? He had found himself in blessed communion with the Creator—the very thing promised to all of us! Wouldn’t being raised have been an unwelcome interruption of his eternal rest?

What would being raised from death have meant for Lazarus? We hear people say that because they didn’t die when they probably should have, they felt like God was giving them a second chance in life. Near death experiences are often occasions of religious awakening, as people seek to make sense of why they are alive when they should be dead. Well, no one had more cause to speculate about this than Lazarus, who had been dead so long he was starting to rot, when suddenly he heard his name being called. There is evidence that Lazarus continued to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. A couple of chapters later, Jesus is seen eating dinner at Lazarus and Martha’s house. Some scholars have argued—somewhat convincingly, in fact—that Lazarus was the character known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or, “The Beloved Disciple” for short. That’s a subject for another occasion, but it certainly alludes to the idea that Lazarus’ “second life” was long and storied.

Lazarus might have been quite a confused soul. He was still palling around with the other disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, and despite the fact that local officials wanted Lazarus dead, rumors were going around that Lazarus couldn’t die. But most confusing of all—the most heartbreaking part of Lazarus’ story—is that he was the reason Jesus was killed. Jesus had literally laid down his life for Lazarus, setting in motion the official action that would lead to his crucifixion, and all because Jesus loved him.

Maybe everyone at the table knew what Jesus meant when he said, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). For Lazarus, taking up his life was in some strange way also a laying down of it. Surely he could not have gone back to “business as usual” after this! Surely knowing he had been the cause of Jesus’ death, however unintentionally, placed a burden of responsibility on him that he could not easily have shaken! What little evidence history gives us indicates that Lazarus went on to become a bishop in the early church, so he certainly remained a man of faith and of calling. How could he have done anything else?

I am reminded of the movie Saving Private Ryan. The movie opens with an older gentleman and his family searching a military graveyard for the marker of Captain John Miller. Upon finding it, Private Ryan recalls the mission that Captain Miller and his men undertook in order to rescue Ryan from behind enemy lines. As the climactic battle reaches its end, and although reinforcements have arrived that will ensure victory, nearly all of the American soldiers sent to save Private Ryan have been killed, and Captain Miller, himself mortally wounded, beckons Private Ryan close, saying, “Earn this. Earn it.”

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The retired Private, weeping in the graveyard some 60 years later, turns to his family and stammers, “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man!”

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I have to think that Lazarus would have felt much the same way. Jesus was hunted down and arrested, because he raised Lazarus from death. His life, from that moment on, had to be lived in a way that made such a sacrifice meaningful.

The old Wesleyan hymn “And Can It Be” is allegorical and deeply personal, and yet it also seems to be written from the perspective of none other than Lazarus himself:

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—for me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

One of the most formative teachings to my pastoral identity and my understanding of Christian ministry is what Dr. Andrew Purves calls “the crucifixion of ministry”—that is, putting to death the idea that ministry is ours, and instead thinking of ourselves as participants in Christ’s ministry, seeking to do his will rather than our own. More to the point, we must be willing to lay down that which we cherish, in order to embrace what the Lord cherishes. The follow up to the crucifixion of ministry, then, is the resurrection of ministry. For Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” As Lazarus could surely tell us, the resurrection is the life!

The resurrection is the life in that without Christ’s redemptive, resurrection ministry we have no life, no light, no hope! We are dead and in the grave—food for the worms, just as Lazarus was—if not for Christ’s ministry of resurrection. Just as Wesley’s beautiful hymn describes, and just as Martha learned while speaking with Jesus on the road to Bethany, the resurrection is more than just a future hope: “I know that he will rise again on the last day.”

“No, Martha. I am the resurrection, I am the life!”

“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

The resurrection is the life. When we die to ourselves and live for Jesus Christ, when we are enjoined to Christ by the power of the Spirit, the old life has gone and a new life has begun! We are raised from sin and death to live in the light. As Christ gave his life in order to raise Lazarus, so he has done the same to give us new life, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. That isn’t a teaching to give us hope for what will happen to us after we die—it is the promise that in Christ we participate in the eternal “Hallelujah!” that is the communion of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When your recline at the table of the Lord in worship, remember that he has freely given his life for ours, and that he has secured for us a mystical union with God’s eternal and holy presence. It is a gift unmerited, unearned, and irrevocable.

That said, I also choose to live as though Jesus has said to me, as Captain Miller once said to Private Ryan, “Earn this. Earn it.”