Archives For Easter Encounters

2007_resurrection_iconThis week I’ve tried to give as much attention to the themes of Easter and Resurrection as we normally give to Holy Week and Crucifixion. The focus reminded me of this reflection I wrote on 1 Corinthians 15 several, gosh more like 5 1/2, years ago. As we went through the process of adopting our second son, Alexander, who was then 4 years old, the agency required us to answer questions on their Statement of Faith. One of those questions had to do with the resurrection.

Question: Explain your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how it informs your life.

On Friday night two Fridays ago, I left dinner warming in the oven and I drove to the Gables on Route One to be with a church member and his family as he died. By the time I arrived his eyes were almost empty. His hands were clenched tightly against his chest, and his breathing was rough and shallow.

For a while I just listened as his wife and son and told me stories that made them smile through their tears. While they shared, my eyes wandered around the room and took in the evidence left by a marriage nearly sixty years old: photos and cards from grandchildren, trinkets collected from travels round the world, and elegant black and white photos taken back when their love was still new and the adventure of their life together had only begun.

After the conversation tapered off into silence, I asked if I could pray. With my hand on his head I prayed into his still-listening ear but loud enough for his family to hear.

And in my prayer I did my best to gather up all the gratitude I’d just heard shared and to give that gratitude back to God, and I closed with the affirmation that nothing he had done in this life and nothing Death brought could separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. I said ‘Amen’ and his family said ‘Thank you.’

     But…if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then they should have said: ‘You’re a liar.’

Because if Christ has not been raised, then I have no idea what can/cannot separate us from God’s love.

On the Saturday following I met here at the church with a youth about to leave for college. She was anxious with all the questions you might expect:

‘What am I supposed to do with my life? Who am I meant to become? Whose voice am I supposed to listen to?’

And she was even more anxious because Christians like you all had convinced her that maybe the answer wasn’t as simple as ‘What do I want?’

Sitting there in my office, with the Saturday band warming up in the sanctuary, I told her all the things her parents don’t necessarily want me to say but you all pay me to say:

‘It’s not about success. Don’t just do what your parents want. Money won’t make you happy. The only way to happiness is by finding a way to serve others; your heart will always be restless until you give it to something bigger than yourself.

‘Jesus said,’ I said, ‘the only way to find your life is by losing it.’

     Of course, if Christ is not raised from the dead then that’s about the worst advice I could give anyone. Because if he’s not Risen then that means Jesus lost his life and he never got it back it again.

Earn. Succeed. Enjoy yourself, I should’ve said. You’ve only got this life to live.

On Sunday morning, in between worship services, a parishioner here at Aldersgate lit into me, complaining about my sermon from the week previous.

‘That was just irresponsible,’ he groused, ‘and caustic and rude. Maybe nobody else caught what you were implying but I heard it. I can’t believe you’d preach a sermon like that! Who said we’re not loving?!’

And I replied, in love: ‘Gosh, I don’t know why God would use my words to speak that particular Word to you.’ He glared at me and walked away.

But, you know, if Christ has not been raised then I could’ve just said:

‘Look, what’s the big deal? They’re just my words. Ignore them. Forget about them. It’s not like we’re dealing with a Living Christ who might be trying to use me to speak to you.’

That Sunday evening I received a phone call at home from a church member. She was upset and hurt by how she’d been treated by other church members. She expected more from a church, she said. She expected Christians to act better than that.

I listened and apologized and said:

‘That’s not always the case, and it’s unfortunate we can act that way because our community is supposed to be a sign of the Kingdom to come.’

Then again, if Good Friday is the last this world ever heard from Jesus then that Kingdom isn’t coming. And I would’ve been better off saying:

‘Yeah, churches are made up of people- what do you expect?

We’re no different than anybody else.’

On Monday morning I walked all around this building during Vacation Bible School, and I watched and listened as volunteers taught 260 little children be-attitudes from scripture.

All told it was a successful week.

Unless, of course, Christ is not alive, in which case the week was, at best, a waste of time, and, at worst, cruel. After all, such beatitudes, that way of living, will only get them killed.

Just look at Jesus. He was crucified, died and was buried…and that’s it.

     Later that Monday afternoon, a woman knocked on my door. Her voice was defeated and her face was splotchy sad. And in between tears and trying to catch her breath, she told me how her marriage was coming apart at the seams and that there was nothing she could about it.

‘There’s no hope,’ she told me.

‘On the other hand,’ I said, ‘it’s just when you think there’s no hope that there is. That’s what we believe here. That there’s never no hope.’

On the other hand, if Christ is not risen then I am nothing but a glib fool, and I would have done better to say:

‘you’re right it sounds hopeless’ and given her the number of a good lawyer.

Tuesday morning came and so did a man needing what the church calls an assurance of pardon. He came to my office and, sitting nervously in one of my red chairs, he confessed to me the kind of father he’d been: angry and absent, violent and abusive in every way but physical.

And he told me how that was some time ago, how he’d tried to make amends, to reconcile, to change.

‘I’ve prayed about it countless times,’ he told me, ‘but I need to know if I’m forgiven.’

I assured him that if his heart was sincerely penitent then, yes.

‘That’s what the Cross means,’ I said.

     Yet, if Christ has not been raised, if the empty tomb isn’t and never was, then I don’t have a clue whether or not the Cross is good enough for God. And I can’t assure you of anything.

On Wednesday afternoon I received an email. It was from a church member. The subject line told me the message was about our budget shortfall at Aldersgate and the challenge that might pose for our Mission and Outreach efforts.

The message was short and to the point. Maybe it was typed on a Blackberry. It said only:

‘If Jesus wants to bless our ministries to the poor, then he will give us everything we need to do so.’

That’s true, I thought…as long as Jesus is a Living Lord. Otherwise, forget about it.

If Christ has not been raised…then on Thursday when I stood in the sanctuary for that man’s funeral and when I looked in to his grandchildren’s numb eyes and when I told them that their life with him and their love for him was not lost but would one day be made new again…

If Christ has not been raised, then I was just talking out of my a@#.

Because apart from the Risen Christ, I don’t know into what oblivion any of us will pass.

And that Thursday evening, I sat in the living room of an Aldersgate family, a family shocked and scared by the sudden intrusion of cancer into their lives. And, holding their hands, I prayed that Jesus would heal and I prayed that Jesus would comfort and I prayed that Jesus would strengthen.

And my words might have been what they needed to hear. My words might have uplifted them. My prayers might have given them the strength they needed to face the next day or the day after that or, maybe, even the day after that.

     But if Christ has not been raised, if Death has not been defeated, then all my words were nothing more than pious-sounding placebos.

     And like all placebos, sooner or later…they won’t work. 

If Christ has not been raised…

And on Friday I received an email from Katherine, one of our missionaries in Cambodia, describing to me her work there, what she calls her ‘small steps towards God’s New Creation.’

And on Saturday I stood behind the altar table and I broke bread and blessed a cup of wine.

And on Sunday I stood in this pulpit and presumed to preach.

And just the other day I sat on the playground here at church with my son and we watched the sun begin to set in the sky. And both of us thought it was beautiful…

     But all of it, if Christ is not raised from the dead/if the message isn’t true/if the tomb isn’t empty/if he’s not alive forevermore then all of it is, in some way, a lie.

     If our hope turns out to be anchored to nothing more than this life then all of it is, in some way, pitiful.

Question: Explain your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how it informs your life.

About a month ago, our adoption agency asked Ali and I if we would consider adopting a five year old boy who needed a placement. His name is Alexander. Like Gabriel, he’s from Guatemala. And he needs a family, they told us. 539808_4152239606532_1566826576_n

For several weeks now, we have been considering it and praying about it and recently we decided to say yes. This has all happened very fast, our lives have changed very fast and, chances are, he will be with us very soon.

Our adoption agency is a Christian agency.

     In addition to the endless legal documents and forms we must fill out, the agency also requires the two of us to complete a Statement of Faith form.

They want to know not just that we’re fit to parent a child; they want to know what beliefs and convictions inform our parenting. And they don’t mess around.

     The very first question on the form was that one about resurrection.

I began to fill out that form this week. As I did so, I thought about the kind of life I’d want to show Alexander, and I thought about my life here- not because this is my job but because this is my church.

I’m part of a church, I wrote.

Every Saturday we gather around a Table sure that Jesus is there too and sure that Jesus can use a simple meal of bread and wine to grow us in his image.

Every Sunday we open up an old book and read from it because we believe the Risen Christ can use old words to speak to us like new.

I’m part of a church, a place of prayer- not just mental wish-lists or sentimentality- but people genuinely interceding with the Living Christ for one another.

I’m part of a community. And, yes, much of the time we’re imperfect or impatient with one another or unkind. But I’m part of a community that nonetheless tries to be a sign of New Creation.

I’m part of a church. It’s a place where forgiveness is sought and given. It’s a place where Democrats are friends with Republicans and where soldiers pray for peace and pacifists pray for soldiers. How does that happen apart from resurrection?

I’m part of a church. It’s a place where volunteers give time that they don’t have to children that aren’t theirs to form them in a way of life that makes no sense if Christ isn’t risen from the grave.

I’m part of a church that works all over the world on behalf of the poor and the forgotten. Not because it makes them feel good. Not because it’s charity.

But because these people believe their work is a down payment on a Kingdom world Christ will one day deliver.

     I can’t prove resurrection, but I’m part of a church. 

    And from where I sit, Jesus rises from the grave nearly every day. 

 

‘On that same day,’ Luke says of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. eucharistwallpaper1024

Meaning Sunday, the very first Easter day.

It’s that same day and these two disciples have left Jerusalem.

They’re going home.

The morning, of that same day, the women, who’d gone to Jesus’ tomb to mourn and to clean his wounds and to wrap and anoint his body, they came running back with filled fear and joy to report that the tomb was empty.

     No sooner do they hear this Easter news, Luke says, than these two disciples are already on their way out of town.

It’s not that they don’t know. It’s not that they don’t have enough information.

They know all about Jesus’ words and deeds.

They know how Jesus was betrayed and handed over and killed on a cross- just as he’d prophesied. They know he was dead and they know his tomb is now empty, that he’s not there, that he’s gone.

They even know the angel’s message that Jesus is alive.

And yet, Luke says, that same day, that very Sunday morning, having heard the Easter news, they turn and head back home.

These two disciples- they know everything you’d want a disciple to know. And so far as we can tell, they even believe. They don’t disbelieve that the tomb is empty; they don’t doubt that Jesus is risen.

It’s just that knowing and believing aren’t enough to keep them from heading right back to the life they already had without Jesus.

It’s only when Jesus takes bread and blesses it and breaks it and gives it to them- it’s only then that a spark is lit in their hearts.

Or put the other way around: if they hadn’t eaten the bread blessed and broken by Jesus, then they would’ve known about Jesus, they might’ve believed in Jesus, but they wouldn’t have known he was right there with them.

In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner distinguishes Judaism and Christianity by saying Judaism is a physical, embodied religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with belief, with spiritual dogma and doctrine.

Probably, when you hear Christianity defined that way, you’re tempted to agree. To the extent that’s true, however, it’s true because that’s what we’ve done with the faith Jesus gave us.

     It’s not that that’s the faith as Jesus gave it to us.

I mean- the night before he dies Jesus doesn’t sit his twelve disciples down and say: remember these three principles after I’m gone, this is the spiritual essence of my teaching, these are the beliefs I want to make sure you understand, this is how the atonement works.

No, he says: here’s bread, here’s wine.

Eat. Drink. Do this.  emmaus-road-stainedglass

Do this and I’ll be with you. Do this and I’ll open eyes and set hearts on fire.

Bread and wine. Body and blood.

     This is irrational and it can’t be explained and it can’t argued with.

     And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe it has to be that way.

Every day we reason our way away from Jesus:

surely we can’t forgive that person, it would be irresponsible to forgive that sin, he doesn’t mean welcome those people, he doesn’t really expect us to turn the cheek in this situation…he’s talking about life in the Kingdom not in this world, he’s talking about what he does not what we must do…

Maybe Jesus knows that without bread and wine, we would forever think and ponder and consider the claims he makes on us as a way of keeping him from us.

Maybe Jesus knows we’re like those two disciples on the way to Emmaus:

who’ve heard all the stories

who know all the beliefs

who can recite the Easter Gospel

and yet who have no intention of doing a damn thing about it, quite content to say ‘isn’t that interesting’ and not have it change the direction of their lives. 

 

Maybe Jesus gives us bread and wine not so we can get close to him. 

     Maybe Jesus gives us bread and wine because it’s the only way he can get close to us. 

In the Middle Ages, religious bureaucrats like me got a hold of this meal and messed it up. They tried to turn over and open it up and explain how it works.

But the first Christians were content to call it a sacrament, a ‘mystery.’ They didn’t need to explain how. They just knew that Jesus uses this bread and this cup to somehow get to us.

 

prison_bars.250w.tnThe first Easter sermon I ever preached was behind bars, in a prison in New Jersey where I was a chaplain.

It was a morning service, and it was held in the prison gymnasium. For an altar table, I had an old, metal teacher’s desk, and instead of candles on either side of the table there were two rusting electric fans.

No one wore their Easter best in that congregation. The men all had on their state-issued beige jumpsuits. Sister Rose, the nun who was the chaplain supervisor, wore the plain gray pants and plain white shirt she always wore. No one wore their Easter best that morning. Except for me.

I didn’t wear a robe because I wasn’t an official minister yet- I was still in school. So, I wore a suit…with a pink shirt and purple, flowery tie. My wife that morning had said I looked ‘handsome,’ but when the inmates saw me- they said I looked ‘pretty.’

‘Do we have two lady preachers this Easter?’ one of the men asked.

Sister Rose tried to begin the worship service with singing. I say tried because the music was played on a cassette player and because Sister Rose was one of those worship leaders who mistakenly thought that adding hand motions to the singing would somehow make the songs more ‘contemporary.’

Sister Rose insisted that we all do what looked like jazz-hands as we mumbled our way through ‘Trading My Sorrows’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’ The hispanic inmates all pretended, suddenly, not to know a word of english. The others all stone-walled Sister Rose. No one was about to participate in the “worship.”

No one except for me, who had no choice.

My sermon was simple. I just unpacked the Easter Gospel for them.

 

‘Because he lives,’ I said, ‘so will you live…forever’

And someone replied: ‘Amen.’ 

You might have 5 months or 5 years, you might have LIFE in here- but because he lives you have a lot more LIFE to look forward to.

You have more future with Christ than you have time to serve in here, more time ahead of you than days to measure behind bars.

And some sitting in the plastic chairs started to rock and respond: ‘Come on, come on now.’ 

 

It’s not just anybody God raises.

God didn’t choose at random to raise from the dead.

God chose Jesus.

The Jesus who was:

Hassled by the authorities.

Accused by the rich and the powerful.

Beaten and Sentenced and Sent Away to be Forgotten.

‘That’s right’ some of them shouted out.

God raised Jesus. The Jesus who:

Doubted he had the strength to get through the trials that lay ahead of him.

Promised Paradise to the convict next to him.

God chose him. God chose someone like you.

And the ‘Amens’ grew louder.

 

As soon as he’s out of the tomb, what does he do?

He goes to his friends. The same ones who lied to him, turned their backs on him, broke their promises to him.

And what does he do?

He sits down and eats with them. He embraces them. He forgives them.

I looked at them as I said it, knowing that everyone of them had lied and denied and broken promises to land where they were that morning.

Easter, I said, means you’re forgiven.

Many of them were up on their feet, with their hands in the air, saying ‘Praise Him.’ 

And if you needed one word to describe how the Easter Gospel hit them

one word heard in their praise’s inflections

one word seen in their eyes

If you needed one word it was: Joy.

Except-

Sticking out like a sore thumb, sitting in the second row was an inmate named Victor. I had seen him around. I’d talked to him in the laundry room.

That Easter morning you could tell from his eyes and his clenched hands and the way he was sitting when everyone was standing with their arms in the air: he looked terrified.

In the midst of all that joy there was also fear.

     Easter begins with fear.

At least that’s the way Mark tells it.

Early in the morning three women approach the tomb, carrying herbs and expensive oils. They come that morning to comb the tangles out of Jesus’ matted hair, to sponge away the dried blood and to massage myrrh in to his bruised and broken skin.

They come that morning to anoint him, to perform the ritual cleansing before the tomb is sealed for good. Only, when they get there the tomb is empty.

And then, an angel tells them the news.

And they’re struck with fear.

They’re so terrified they run away, so scared they don’t breathe a word of what they’ve seen or heard.

     “Jesus has been raised; he is not here…he’s gone ahead of you to Galilee.” 

The Easter message, the good news, it fills them with fear.

     But fear is not what we associate with Easter.

When we think of Easter, we think about springtime renewal or life after death or how love is stronger than the grave. But we don’t think of Easter as being something that could strike terror- that’s what Mark calls it- terror into our hearts.

How is fear any way to conclude the greatest story ever told?

The fact is the four Gospels are all a bit different in how they tell the Easter story. You can almost feel the writers wrestling with how to reduce the mystery of resurrection into words.

They’re all different.

Except for the fear.

I’ve heard my skeptic friends say the empty tomb was just invented the by the disciples. But that doesn’t make any sense because the one thing the Gospels all agree on is that the disciples- none of them- wanted a resurrection. They’d all gone back to their lives, back to fishing and to their families.

They didn’t want a resurrection and when they first hear news of it they’re struck with fear.

The first time I ever baptized someone- it was at that same Easter service in the prison.

When I finished my sermon, Sister Rose led another hymn. For most of the singing Victor sat in his chair, looking scared, until he came up to me.

His jumpsuit was starched and unwrinkled and buttoned neatly all the way up to his collar. His long black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail.

While the others sang, Victor bent in towards me and he told me he wanted to be baptized.

You mean, like today? I asked.

And he said: Yes, right now.

Well, I’m not really supposed to do that sort of thing, I said. I’m just a student. I don’t have the proper credentials. I could get in trouble.

It was then I realized the hymn was over and everyone was watching us.

Your bishop would never even know, Sister Rose giggled.

Okay, I said.

You know how, right? Victor asked me.

Sure. I mean, I’ve read about it.

You’ll need water, Sister Rose pointed out.

Right water- can you get us some water? I asked one of the guards.

And a bowl, Sister Rose said.

The guard was gone for a moment or two and then came back with a styrofoam soup bowl and a dripping water bottle. I poured the water into the bowl.

Sister Rose reminded me that usually the minister prayed first so I did that. When I finished the prayer, Victor asked me:

Can I say something?

Sure, testify. Give your testimony.

Some in the crowd started mocking him, expecting another jailhouse conversion kind of story. But he ignored them and in his quiet Spanish accent he said:

Jesus Christ appeared to me two months ago in my cell.

I know it sounds crazy but he was as alive as any of you.

I haven’t told anyone about it until now.

It scared me to death and it still does.

Because if Jesus is really real then he could upset my whole life.

He turned back towards me. Are you ready? I asked. No, he said, but go ahead anyway.

And I baptized him.

     Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! 

How can that scare anyone?

What about the Easter Gospel could make you run from here, never to come back and never to tell a word of it?

Would it scare you to discover that God is out there? On the loose.

Would it frighten you suddenly to believe that God isn’t in this sanctuary or up in the clouds or in our hearts but out there, in the world, waiting for you to show up?

    You should be scared.

Because this isn’t a God who comes back from the dead to tell that when you die you will be with him in heaven. No, he doesn’t say anything like that, and he doesn’t even wait by the empty tomb for his disciples.

He goes to Galilee.

     Galilee.

Where Jesus first proclaimed good news to the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed.

Where Jesus cured those the righteous wouldn’t dare touch.

Where Jesus stood on a hill and told the crowd to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies.

Galilee.

Where he ate with sinners and forgave sin and stilled storms and told his disciples that with just a tiny bit of faith they could the same and even move mountains.

You see-

If the story ended at the Cross, then the disciples can mourn him. They can remember the good times, and they can go back to their lives.

But if he’s risen then they must go out. They must do and teach and preach and serve. Because the angel says he’s in Galilee and that means it’s all starting all over again.

If he’s risen, if he’s waiting down the road in Galilee for us, then you can bet he has plans for us.

If he’s risen then there’s a good chance he’ll mess up our lives just like he messed up theirs.

If he’s not cold on the slab, if he is raised, then there’s a good chance he’ll ask us to march out into the world to make some kind of difference for him.

And maybe that’s what’s scary about Easter. Because when you get down to it, we really don’t want God to interfere with us, to make demands on us, to cost us anything.

We prefer a God who is safely inside this sanctuary or up in the clouds or locked away in our hearts.

We don’t want a God who is wandering around the broken places of our world, tapping his foot and impatiently waiting for us to show up.

     That sort of Living God could scare a person to death.