Archives For Easter

Bigger than Burning

Jason Micheli —  April 18, 2016 — 1 Comment

 

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_n     This weekend I preached on John’s Easter story as part of our ‘Building Lives’ capital campaign. For the first time since planting a church I preached with a screen and projector. Here’s the PDF of my manuscript with the slides included for those dying to see: Sermon with Slides

Attachment-1     Um, excuse me.

Eyes up here.

Look at you. Put a screen in front of your faces and you’re as glued to it as my kids do when they watch Game of Thrones.

Anyway-

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I figure a picture as sexy and impressive as this one has to be worth at least, what, three thousand words? In which case, thus endeth the sermon. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This picture was taken three weeks ago on Easter Sunday when, in my sermon, I noted how in Matthew’s resurrection story God’s angel doesn’t bother reassuring Caesar’s people to be not afraid. Maybe, I preached, for people like us, people like Caesar’s people- people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty darn well- the proper response to the news of resurrection is fear.

Maybe we should be scared, I concluded.

To which, one of you primped and seersuckered listeners, was later overheard from two tables down at River Bend Bistro excoriating my sermon, complaining that “his point was absurd and insensitive and he was even vulgar in getting to it.”

And while stabbing his breakfast sausages with feral glee, this Easter brunch begrudger was overheard griping “It was almost like he didn’t care whether his sermon hurt our feelings or not.”

Fair enough. Both my spouse and my Strength Finders report rank me low in the sensitivity department. Fine. Whatever.

But then, from across his two top bistro table, his wife, reportedly threw up her hands over her french toast and groused aloud: “Easter’s supposed to be comforting not upsetting.” And then, as if polling the brunch crowd, she asked: “What’s so scary about Easter?”

Obviously it didn’t take long for my post-cancer honeymoon to end and things to settle back to normal. Don’t worry, though, I’ve since reconciled with Dennis and Sharon and I got their permission to share that anecdote so no harm, no foul.

I’ll you tell though that question still sticks in my craw “What’s so scary about Easter?” because “Sharon” wasn’t the only one who asked me it on the way home Easter Sunday.

(It wasn’t Sharon, but it did happen.)

What’s so scary about Easter? Isn’t it obvious?

I mean, you don’t even have to turn to scripture to realize what’s so scary about Easter. Clearly, Exhibit A is the Easter Bunny. At least Santa lets you sit on his lap. Has anyone ever come across a single one of those little rodents who would let you hold them without nicking up your arms?

And as soon as my youngest began Family Life at school this spring, he started asking me where the Easter Bunny gets these eggs? Does she baby-snatch them? Is she in a close, committed relationship with a rooster? Is she even a she? He wondered while riding shotgun in my Bronco.

The Easter Bunny is creepy scary.

I mean-

Have you seen the 2001 film Donnie Darko?

Frank

In that movie the Easter Bunny managed to come across as even creepier than Patrick Swayze playing an oily self-help guru-

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That’s even more terrifying than Patrick Swayze singing “She’s like the Wind” all the way to the top of the charts in 1987.

That’s scary stuff. And as Bodhi says in Point Break:

     “Fear causes hesitation and hesitation causes even your worst fears to come true.”

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     And, we all know, nobody puts Bodhi in a corner.

It’s not just Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny that are flesh-crawling frightening.

     Mark and Matthew, Luke and John- the Gospels all agree: the very first reaction to news of the resurrection is fear.

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear.

The women, come to anoint the body, run away. Terrified.

The disciples lock the door and cower in the corner.

The first response to the news “Christ is Risen” is not “He is Risen indeed!”

It’s panic.

Fear.

Terror.

Why?

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Why are they so scared?

Are they afraid that what Caesar did Jesus might still be done to them?

Or do they fear the news that this particular Jesus has come back? This Jesus who harassed them for three years, who called them to abandon their family businesses and complicated their lives with talk of cross-bearing.

Are they afraid that they’re not finally rid of this Jesus after all? Is Jesus what’s so scary about the news “Jesus has been resurrected!”?

Or-

Is it the word itself that makes them white-knuckled afraid?

Was that word, resurrection, enough to provoke not just awe but frightened shock?

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Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in Daniel 12.

Not only was Daniel the last book added to the Hebrew Bible, it was the most popular scripture during the disciples’ day.

For their entire history up until Daniel’s time, the Jews had absolutely no concept of heaven. When you died, you were dead.

That was it, the Jews believed. You worshipped and obeyed God not for hope of heaven but because God, in and of himself, was worthy of our thanks and praise.

But then-

When Israel’s life turned dark and grim, when their Temple was razed and set ablaze, when their Promised Land was divided and conquered, and when they were carted off as exiles to a foreign land, the Jews began to long for a Day of God’s justice and judgement.

If not in this life, then in a life to come.

     And so the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection.

Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God.

But for those who’ve committed suffering, they might be on top now in this life but one day God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to everlasting shame and punishment.

So, in the only Bible those disciples knew, that word ‘resurrection’ was a hairy double-edged sword, even scarier than Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny. Resurrection wasn’t about lilies and cloud-wisped harps.

Resurrection was about the justice owed to the suffering and the judgment that belonged to God.

     In the disciples’ Bible, if you were long-suffering, resurrection was good news.

If you were good.

If you weren’t, resurrection was hellfire and damnation.

You can imagine, then, how those disciples heard that first Easter message. If God had raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was the only Righteous One, the only Faithful One, as St. Paul says, then that must mean God was about to judge the living and the dead.

The disciples are afraid of the Easter news not because they fail to understand resurrection but because they do understand. They knew their scripture, and they knew they’d abandoned Jesus.

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail, turned a blind eye, washed their hands of his blood. They’d scapegoated him into suffering, and stood silently by while others mocked him and taunted him.

They’d let the world sin all its sins into him and then left him forsaken on a cross.

For sinners like them, resurrection could only mean one thing: brimstone.

What’s so surprising about the Easter news isn’t just that the tomb is empty but that hell is empty too.

It’s shocking that the Risen Christ doesn’t encounter his disciples and indict them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me.

I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink.

I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending to know me not.

I was hungry for justice, wretched upon the cross, and I remained a stranger to you.

The shock of Easter isn’t just the empty grave it’s that God comes back from the it and doesn’t condemn the unrighteous ones who put him there.

All of them- while they were yet sinners, God comes back from the death they’d consigned him to and he doesn’t pay them the wages their sin had earned. He forgives their sin. He spares them the everlasting judgment and shame they had every reason from their Bibles to expect.

What should’ve been terrifying news becomes good news.

But-  pay attention now, that good news- that isn’t the Gospel.

     The Gospel is bigger than the forgiveness of our sin.

The Gospel is bigger than our being delivered from damnation; it’s bigger than burning.

Because when the Risen Christ slips behind our locked doors on Easter night, the first word he says to his disciples is “Peace.”

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And that word “Peace” it’s not the first century equivalent of “S’up.”

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Or, “Howdy.” Jesus isn’t like “Hey, how’s it going guys?”

John renders it into Greek, eiríni. It comes to us through the Latin, pax. Jesus would’ve spoken it in Aramaic, ܫܠܡ, which the disciples would’ve received from the Hebrew: שָׁלוֹם.

And in the Hebrew Bible, shalom doesn’t mean simply “peace.” It’s a thick, pregnant word that means health, prosperity, wholeness, restoration, and repair- all of it. Literally, shalom is “the state where nothing is broken and nothing is missing.”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

“Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Those are the last words of the Old World, and peace, shalom, is the First Word of the New World, and it’s not an incidental salutation. It’s the word that summarizes what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Practically everyone in the world can recite John 3.16 by heart.

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But even though Tim Tebow has plenty of time on his hands now he, like everyone else, forgets the very next verse:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that through him the world might be healed.”

     God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it but to heal the world, to repair the world, to restore the world, to shalom it. That’s what the Easter Gospels want you to see.

The judgement that word ‘resurrection’ signaled comes not to us but to our Judge, who was judged in our place and who comes back from death and forgives us.

And the life with God that word ‘resurrection’ promised is a life here, now and forever, where the Kingdom comes- just as he taught us to pray. The life promised by that word ‘resurrection’ isn’t an evacuation but a restoration.

It’s not about a new location; it’s about a new creation.

New Creation- that’s why John gives you the otherwise embarrassing detail that Mary took Jesus, wearing only his birthday suit, to be the gardener.

John wants you to see that Mary is right. He is the Gardener. He’s a New Adam for a New Creation. The Old World died with him in the Good Friday night- he put Sin to death- and now God walks in the garden not in the cool of the evening but in the dawn of a new day.

John wants you to see that just as the Old World had been born in a garden, on Easter a New World is inaugurated in a garden where Jesus, like a Second Adam, walks with another Eve, naked and unashamed.

You see- don’t you?

See that what John wants to show you through story is what Paul proclaims in his preaching:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the New Creation has come: the Old World has gone, the New World has arrived.”

“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself and Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

The ministry of restoration. The ministry of healing and repair. Of שָׁלוֹם.

It’s our work now- that’s what John shows you next, when a presumably still naked Jesus breathes on to them.

Weird- unless what John wants you to see is that just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, and breathes into it the breath of life and from it brings forth life, Jesus takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

He reconstitutes them. He shaloms them, as a new humanity, and then he gives to them his new creation work of makings things on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Gospel- the message we proclaim- isn’t that Christ died for you. No, that isn’t the Gospel because judgement is only one half the meaning of that word ‘resurrection.’

And our message isn’t that God loves you. I wish it were that easy, but the other half of that word, resurrection, asks so much more of us.

     The Gospel isn’t just that you’ve been saved from burning.

     The Gospel is that you’ve been saved for something.

שָׁלוֹם

If that’s the whole Gospel, if that’s both sides to that word “resurrection,” then the question we need to ask isn’t “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

The right question to ask is “Is anything keeping us from entering Christ’s New Creation work fully?

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our Easter commissioning?

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Perhaps you’ve heard already during this capital campaign that the debt we carry costs us about $22,000 per month.

You heard that right: $22,0000 every month. More than Aldersgate pays its pastors in a year, it gives to BB&T for a debt it has carried longer than it has had Dennis leading it.

So let me rephrase that Gospel question: could we fulfill more of our New Creation calling without that debt?

Before you answer, consider:

In 2012, we raised money for and we built a kitchen for an elementary school in Chikisis, Guatemala, a community where that school provides the only hot, healthy meal those hundreds of kids will eat during the day.

That kitchen cost us about $15,000 or about 3 weeks worth of debt payments.

In 2013, we raised money for and we built a clinic in the neighboring village of Chuicutama because those highland communities are too remote for easy access to medical care.

The clinic cost us about $35,000, a little more than what we pay out in 6 weeks to BB&T.

Next, we fundraised and we built a complete sanitation system for Chuicutama. We worked our tails off, and I got in all kinds of trouble with the bishop for using the word ‘toilet’ in church because when you’re lucky enough to take toilets for granted you’re lucky enough to judge the word toilet inappropriate

That project took 2 years and cost about $50,000. It was the biggest project we’ve ever done and it still only cost us 9 weeks of debt payments.

This summer we’re building a high school in that community and an irrigation well in Ft Apache, Arizona. The well costs less than a month’s worth of debt payments.

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our commissioning? You tell me.

Already this year Aldersgate helped a woman, with two young children, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer and unable to work for a few months.

We assisted a nurse whose teenage daughter was the victim of violent, physical abuse by her boy friend and unable to work.

We paid rent for a young mother whose husband had lost his job. They have a 3 month old boy, a 3 year old boy, and a 1 yr old daughter with Downs Syndrome.

And none of it comes close to what we give BB&T in a month.

On Sundays we make dinner, go into DC, turn on soul music, set out tables and chairs, and sit down for a meal with not for the homeless, treating them like people not charity cases, like they are the brothers and sisters that Jesus Christ has in fact made them to us.

And in a year we do that for less than we spend on 1 week’s worth of debt.

It’s not that buildings are bad. No, I taught confirmation in Shepherd Hall just last Sunday. It’s the space where we shape our kids’ character. It’s not that the building is bad; it’s that the debt is sinful.

Aldersgate is changing lives around the world and not too far from here.

But we could be doing so much more.

That Toilet Project- it’s so desperately needed in the surrounding communities in Guatemala we literally could build 1 sanitation system per year until I’m older than Bernie Sanders.

We could do so much more.

In our own neighborhood even. Just think- at Stratford Landing Elementary there are 200 kids living in poverty. 100 of the kids there have no father in their lives and all but 3 of them live in poverty too.

And, it’s not just about spending money. It’s about whether we want to keep expending so much of our church’s time and energy and so many of our most talented lay people on debt work instead of on Gospel work.

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You know-

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced I was wrong this Easter. What’s really frightening about Easter, scarier even than the Easter Bunny and Patrick Swayze, is the fact that the Risen Jesus believes we’re capable of more than we think we’re capable of.

It’s unnerving to think that Jesus thinks we can accomplish more significant things than the the status quo we settle for, that we’re capable not just of charity but his shalom.

When you think about Easter in those terms, you’ve got to wonder if, subconsciously at least, our debt isn’t like that locked door the disciples try to put between them and the Risen Christ.

Maybe it’s our way of keeping Easter at a comfortable remove from us.

If so, it should scare us that the Risen Jesus apparently has no trouble slipping past the doors we try to close against him.

 

 

 

 

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Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator envisions a bombing mission in reverse. Fires go out. Homes are repaired. Bombs that were dropped over towns and cities are raised back up through the sky into the bodies of the American planes. The bombers fly home backwards where they are taken apart rivet by rivet and, eventually, even the soldiers become babies.

Vonnegutt’s vision is one where the violence and death of war is undone. Original beauty is restored.

While Vonnegutt was himself one of the 20th century’s most articulate atheists, he might be chagrined to discover how thoroughly biblical was his version of hope. Slaughterhouse Five reads like it was ripped off of the prophet Isaiah (65) or St John (Revelation 21-22).

Of course, if God did not actually, literally, physically raise Jesus’ cold, dead body from the tomb, then it’s just what Vonnegutt took it to be: fiction.

Somewhere along the way I discovered that the most contentious, disputed doctrine among the every Sunday pew people isn’t homosexuality, abortion, or biblical authority.

It’s belief in the resurrection of the body.

The literal, physical, historic and material resurrection of Jesus from the tomb as the first fruits of our eventual literal, physical, historic and material resurrection from our tombs, caskets and urns.

I know many more Christians who cross their fingers during that part of the creed (‘…and the resurrection of the body…’) and who are willing to argue with me about it than I do Christians willing to debate the ‘social issues dividing the church.’

The (mainline at least) Christians get their panties in a bunch like no else when you suggest that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy.

Except…it is.

Don’t believe me read the Book of Acts. Every sermon of the first church revolves around the resurrection. Peel away your penal substitution prejudice and read Paul again- it’s resurrection through and through.

Times may change but you can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us).

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but- think about it- we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

If the resurrection is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

In other words- in John Howard Yoder‘s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality. 

If there’s no high Christology, there’s no intelligible ‘way’ of Jesus, and if there’s no Easter, there’s no Eschaton.

We’re only yet into Eastertide, the season where for 50 days Christians remind ourselves that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead once for all, is, despite the Church’s best efforts to render him otherwise, a Living Lord.

There’s no better time than the season of resurrection to wonder if the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can bear the weight of our Easter God.

For those of you who have not had to pledge allegiance to it for Methodist ordination exams, the Quadrilateral describes how Wesleyans conceive of the doctrine of revelation. Calling it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an anachronism but we can attribute it to him honorifically for Wesley did practice the methods of the Quadrilateral in his preaching and teaching. It’s popular to analogize the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to a three-legged bar stool, an ironic analogy for a people who once foisted tee-totaling upon America.

3-legged-stoolImagine Scripture as the seat of the stool, on which we/the church/the world (it’s never clear) rests. The three legs of the stool, which equally support and balance it, are Tradition, Reason, and Experience. In other words, we Wesleyans deploy the creedal tradition, our mental faculties, and our experience of the world to illumine the bible.

It’s common today to praise our particular Wesleyan approach to scripture as a perspective perfectly suited for the contemporary world; in that, it avoids the dangers of fundamentalism on the one hand and an unmoored mysticism about the bible on the other.

Having recently dipped back in to Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth, I’ve wondered what sort of theological Kung Fu Barth might wreak upon the Quadrilateral.

The tendency in United Methodism to remodel the stool so that Scripture becomes no longer the base but a fourth leg equivalent to Tradition, Reason, and Experience, underscores, I think, a latent deficiency in how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral treats scripture and, more importantly, the Living God who freely chooses to speak through it.

I expect Barth, whose massive Church Dogmatics are best understood as a theology of revelation, would object to our Wesleyan Quadrilateral on that specific ground. We Methodists, reared on Enlightenment liberalism, approach scripture not unlike archaeologists armed without excavation tools, Reason, Tradition and personal Experience, in order to extract some meaning or truth from the text. Such a posture, Barth would argue, unavoidably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense. We ask with Experience, Tradition, and Reason what the biblical text meant in its original context, what God said, and it’s up to us, using those same tools, to infer an application for today.

Contrary to the Quadrilateral, Barth insists that scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself. John Wesley was an Enlightenment era priest so it’s not surprising perhaps that the Quadrilateral attributed to him reflects the modernist tendency to begin with ourselves instead of God. If he was feeling punchy, I imagine Barth might imply that we Wesleyans with our Quadrilateral actually betray docetic tendencies with scripture. It only ‘seems’ like revelation but isn’t really to us for it requires us to yield any word.

Against us, Barth proclaims again and again that Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. And, I wouldn’t have admitted this when I applied for ordination, I think this is the view of revelation the contemporary world- or, at least the mainline church- needs today.

For Barth, Jesus is not only a Living Lord but he’s free. Our knowledge of God, our faith in God, is in God’s hands not ours.

Our Tradition, Reason, and Experience will deliver us nothing of God unless God so elects.

The word of God, for Barth, isn’t waiting in the pages of scripture, dead and dormant, waiting to be sought. You can only seek a god who is dead. The Living God seeks after us.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive and discovering us. Truth isn’t just sitting there in the pages of scripture waiting to mined by our lights; Truth is a resurrected person moving outside of scripture, encountering us, calling us, transforming us.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ.

Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

Christ is Risen.

He is Risen indeed.

And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity.

I marked this Holy Week by dipping again into the work of the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe. Here is an excerpt from his essay on Easter Vigil.

In it, McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.

Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments.

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“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.

It says something permanent about God:

not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.

The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.

If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.

The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.

Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).

‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’

Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.

Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.

The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.

On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.

It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.

It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.

Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.

So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us [through the sacraments] still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nLibby asked. Here’s the Easter sermon from this weekend. Texts: Matthew 27.15-28.10 1 Corinthians 15.12-17a

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there you can choose.

For example, there’s the Jesus on the cover of the sympathy card I received from one of you a year ago.

Jesus is depicted from the rear. His cloak is piled around his ankles falling on the tile of a bathroom floor. Someone- maybe his mother, Mary- is holding his long, dark hair back away from his face. He’s squatting.

You know it’s Jesus even from the rear because you can see his wounded feet tucked under his knees. And his pierced hands are gripping the sides of a toilet bowl with the lid up.

He’s about to hurl.

The speech balloon above Jesus’ head reads: ‘Don’t listen to my followers. I never said my Father won’t give you more than you can handle.’

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

I don’t think I realized how many until last year.

At the beginning of Lent last year, I learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, and incurable cancer. I’ll spare you the grisly, melodramatic details.

Easter is not a day to dwell on me sniffing Death and living again.

Suffice it to say, by this time last year I’d received hundreds of sympathy cards and emails, and I discovered just how many different Jesuses are available to us.

 

One came to me as a YouTube link to a music video titled ‘Cancer Jesus’ wherein a skinny, bald Jesus who looks either like Sinead O’Connor in the ‘Nothing Compares to You’ video or like a caucasian Fight Club Gandhi.

This Cancer Jesus is wearing a hospital gown and, to an electronica soundtrack, Cancer Jesus gatecrashes a concert and then proceeds to get medieval on a fictitious boy band who, I guess, must symbolically represent cancer.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

One card I received showed Jesus wearing not a crown of thorns but a stocking cap, crucified on two IV poles. ‘Feeling forsaken?’ this Jesus asks. ‘Remember, I’m with you always’ he goes on on the inside of the card.

There’s a lot of Jesuses to pick.

Like the pen and ink Jesus who stood in the middle of a card with sheep on one side of him and goats on the other side and above him were the redacted words from Matthew 25: ‘….I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and you fed me; I was in chemo and you gave me medicinal marijuana.’

That card came from a seminary student. An Episcopalian.

 

When it comes to Jesus, you have a lot of choices available to you- even if you don’t have cancer.

I mean-

If you want a Jesus who sounds more like a horny boyfriend than a Lord and Savior, you need only tune your radio to 91.9 FM.

If you want a Jesus who sounds more practical and helpful than a Vitamix, you can tune in to Joel Osteen after church this morning.

There’s lots of Jesuses to choose.

If you want a Jesus so good-looking he makes me question my own sexuality, then you just have to wait until August when Paulo from season three of Lost plays Jesus in the remake of Ben-Hur.

If you want a Jesus who leans forward towards all of your pet social justice issues then all you have to do is login to www.progressivechristianity.org or, I suppose even, www.umc.org.

Or, if you prefer your Jesus camouflaged in red, white, and blue then you can order the Duck Dynasty Faith Commander Bible (I’m not lying, such a thing exists) from Amazon for the hardcover price of only $21.14.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there.

 

There’s even more than one Jesus to choose right there in Matthew’s Gospel.

——————————

One of the things we forget in all our Easter piety is that there was always going to be three crucifixions on Good Friday.

There was always going to be a man in the middle named Jesus.

————————

If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think King Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could spiritualize your faith and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either terrorists or freedom fighters.

The real Barabbas was not like the suave, manscaped actor who played him last Sunday in Fox’s The Passion: Live. 

The real Barabbas was a Zealot, and the Gospel indicates that he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Or, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds.

Usually, Pilate chose both.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

And notice, here it is, according to the Gospel: they’re both named “Jesus.”

They both bear a name which means ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means (you don’t even have to know Hebrew to figure it) ‘son of the Father.’

The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. To be the Son of the Father, the Son of God, the Father.

In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.

They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.

They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be delivered.

Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two Jesuses.

‘Pick one’ Pilate asks.

You get your choice.

Between a Jesus who tells you to return hate with love, or a Jesus who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil.

You can choose between a Jesus who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a Jesus who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains.

 

A Jesus who promises to liberate the poor or a Jesus who becomes poor and invites you to do the same?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesuses.

Pick one, Pilate says.

Jesus Barabbas asks his people to take up arms, to make his country great again.

The other Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus.

But you know as well as I do, they didn’t have to try very hard.

The reason we hang crosses on walls is so we don’t lie to ourselves that we’d ever choose a different Jesus than the crowd chose.

————————

Of course, the promise and the threat, the good news and the bone-wracking, bad news of Easter is that we’re not the only ones who make a choice.

Even louder than we can cry crucify him, even before Jesus’ body is cold and buried in the ground, God announces his choice- by splitting rocks into shards, cracking open the graves of the dead, and quaking the earth itself.

God calls forth his entire creation- rocks, graves, tectonics- to witness that this is the Jesus God wants, this is is the savior God chooses.

That’s what resurrection meant for the first Christians: vindication.

Resurrection was about God declaring with the rumbling of the earth and the shock of zombies and a verdict as loud as an empty tomb that this Jesus is the life God intended for us from the very beginning.

 

For three years, this Jesus had taught a different kind of Kingdom than that other Jesus, a Kingdom where the poor are lifted up, where those who curse us are blessed, where strangers and aliens are welcomed not walled off, where those who have hungered for justice are filled with good things.

A Kingdom where cheeks are turned and enemies are prayed for, where trespasses are forgiven even when the trespassers know exactly what they’re doing.

He preached a Kingdom of mercy not might.

For three years, this Jesus had taught this kind of Kingdom, and on Friday we put all our chips on the kingdoms of this world and we bet on a president called Pilate to have the last word.

But then on the third day, God rocks the earth, pops open the grave and plucks this Jesus up from the dead and says ‘Yeah, my Kingdom is exactly like that.’

And just in case you’re deaf to the shaking of the foundations, God rolls away the stone from the tomb, a stone that bore King Caesar’s image, and God has his angel sit down on top of it.

God’s angel sits his butt right down on King Caesar’s face and says ‘This Jesus, he’s not here, he is risen.’

Don’t miss this. This is everything Easter-

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom. He doesn’t repay evil with evil on his way to Calvary. He turns the other cheek all the way to the cross and, from the cross, he forgives his enemies and even prays for them with his dying breath.

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom and the empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

The empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

God’s vindication of Jesus.

This Jesus is exactly what the sign above his head says he is: a King.

——————————-

Of course, the bad news is that a King requires not your opinion but your obedience.

A King demands not to be invited, subjectively, in to your wishy-washy heart.

A King demands your objective loyalty over all other allegiances.

Look-

I’m just like you. I’m fully invested in the kingdoms of this world. If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d prefer to think of Easter as a metaphor for springtime renewal- even though it’s winter in Israel now.

I’d prefer to imagine Easter as story about how our soul lives on after our body dies- even though that’s pagan not scripture.

I’d prefer to dismiss Easter as a primitive superstition- even though resurrection was no easier to swallow for the ancient Christians than it is for us.

If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d choose to think of Easter as a sign we’ll go to heaven after we die- even though Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in heaven.

I’m just like you. The kingdoms of this world have worked out pretty well for me so, if it were up to me, I’d pick a different sort of Easter.

I’d take tulips and bunnies over tremors and zombies. I’d choose an Easter where my soul flies away into the sweet bye and bye. I wouldn’t choose this quaking invasion by God that shakes loose any excuse I might have not to pick up my cross and follow.

I’d choose anything other than this Easter where God grabs creation by the collar, shakes away our obfuscations, and shouts with an empty grave: ‘What do I have to do to get your attention?! This is the way and the truth and the life I want from you.’

I’m with you.

I’d like to have Easter / and / have my world left alone.

My life is pretty good. Like most of you, I’ve got the right skin color, the right passport, and the right education to make the principalities and powers of this world work for me.

If I were to swap my citizenship to his Kingdom, it would rock my world to rubble.

It would feel like an unnatural disaster.

That’s what St. Paul is getting at when he says ‘If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile.’

If God has not resurrected this Jesus then we’re off the hook, you can take what Jesus taught or you can leave it. Allegiance not required.

If God has not resurrected this Jesus, then you can put his Kingdom teaching away in to a nice, gilded box and bring it out on Facebook when it suits you.

But-

If God has raised this Jesus from the dead, then we Christians-

We welcome strangers and aliens, we pray for our enemies, we forgive those who trespass against us, we show mercy to those who curse us and show compassion to the poor, we offer grace where it’s not deserved.

We do so not because we have a My Little Pony naiveté about the world, not even because it’s a strategy to make the world a better place. It probably doesn’t work.

But we do it simply because Jesus commanded us.

And God has raised this Jesus from the dead, so he’s not just our teacher.

He’s our Lord and King.

—————————-

Look, I’m no different than you.

I’m a nice guy. And I need to be needed. You can ask Dennis- they don’t let you become a United Methodist pastor unless you’re fundamentally risk-averse and narcissistic.

 

I want you to like me, especially you every Sunday types who pay my health insurance.

I wish it was my job to comfort you with any of those other versions of Easter that we’d prefer over this one.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t ordained to serve you. I was ordained to serve this Risen Lord. To herald this Easter announcement.

And just as much as you, I’d like to ignore this Easter. I’d rather choose another Jesus.

But I can’t because this Jesus…he’s alive.

He is. Trust me, after the year I’ve had- I know it.

——————————-

But I understand. It’s no wonder we put so many Jesuses out there to choose from because the Jesus God chooses- it would shake our world if we took him seriously enough to give him our obedience.

Our loyalty. Our pledge of allegiance.

Maybe (look again) that’s why the angel at the tomb doesn’t bother to tell Caesar’s guards ‘Do not be afraid.’

The angel tells the women with their spices not to be afraid, but the angel doesn’t say ‘do not to be afraid’ to Caesar’s people.

And, let’s be honest, here in 22308, that’s who most of us are in the story: Caesar’s people, people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty well.

Maybe for people like us, we should be afraid.

Maybe for people like us Easter shouldn’t be a comfort.

Maybe Easter should afflict us with the right kind of nightmares.

Maybe we should be afraid.

Because God has raised this Jesus from the dead, he’s alive- I know he is- and that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do.

 

 

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  March 26, 2016 — Leave a comment

descent     Here’s the Good Friday sermon. Texts were Mark 15.25-34 and Galatians 3.10-14.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. Or, you can download the free Tamed Cynic App.

     I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel one Lenten morning when I was a student at Princeton. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day- my teacher and Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra- drew an unnerving parallel between the death of Jesus upon the cross and the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay teenager who was beaten savagely and then tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die, humiliated and alone, in the Wyoming winter.

Matthew Shepard, one of his neighbors noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

It was Holy Week when I first heard that sermon. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked.

On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at what they took to be an ‘unreligious’ story getting equated with the Passion story. The preacher’s parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar, excrutiating pain entailed by crucifixion.

‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was gay so he definitely wasn’t without sin…’ I remember someone at the lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

My liberal colleagues, on the other hand, who typically had less enthusiasm for the cross, applauded the sermon that day, seeing the mere mention of a gay person from the pulpit as an important witness for social justice.

They saw both Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ as victims of oppression against which Christians called to minister.

Where conservatives saw Christ’s cross as unique, they saw it as symbolic of the unjust sacrifices humanity repeats endlessly.

Both groups of hearers- and I honestly can’t recall where I fell among them that day- received the preacher’s message according to the reified political and theological categories we had brought with us to chapel that morning and, in doing so, we unwittingly underscored St. Paul’s insistence that the message of the cross is deeply offensive to the religious and ill-fitting to the assumptions of the secular.

The religious, says Paul, will forever conspire to mute the cross’ offense while the secular will always prefer more palatable notions of justice, not to mention more charitable appraisals of humanity.

Only recently have I been able to grasp the word the preacher was likely attempting to proclaim that day in Holy Week in Miller Chapel.

The preacher was not announcing that Christ died a martyr’s death, a victim of injustice in solidarity with other persecuted victims. Nor was the preacher suggesting that Christ’s death was archetypal rather than absolutely singular.

The preacher was focusing, as we should do tonight, not on the fact of Christ’s death but on the manner of it.

The manner of Christ’s death, the impunity of it, is what proved to be a stumbling block to us students every bit as much as the Corinthians.

The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it.

The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.

Like Matthew Shepard, Jesus’ death was primarily one of degradation and abasement.

When we proclaim at Christmas that ‘God became human so that we might be with God’ we’re not telling the whole story or, even, the critical part of the story.

God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

No, God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.

To say that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death. But neither does supposing the point of the passion is the pain suffered.

It’s the manner of Christ’s death not merely the fact of it with which we must contend. The question Christians so often ask this week ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question- the right question- to ask is ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

Anything we say on this Good Friday must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.

When United Methodists actually open their bibles and try reading them, they’re often surprised to discover how spare the gospels are in narrating the grisly details of crucifixion. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t do what Tyler Perry did in The Passion: Live on Fox.

Little is said by the gospel writers about the cross because little needed to be said. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost not a painful means of torture but a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, an image every bit as irreligious as Matthew Shepard hanging like a sodden scarecrow on a barbed wire fence.

The one certainty the disciples don’t need to puzzle out on their walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus is the scandalous nature of Jesus’ end.

The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end, isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure.

No, they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.

The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

No one, in other words, expected a crucifixion. In no way did anyone in Israel expect the Messiah to meet with such a shameful death.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise on that first Good Friday, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment.

Consider this, one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai:

“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

– Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Paul takes up this commandment in his letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only this particular method of death, being nailed to a tree, do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

 

According to Jesus’ own scriptures:

“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”

Again, it’s not sufficient on Good Friday to ask why Jesus died.

Just as it would be offensively dismissive to say, blithely, that Matthew Shepard died from exposure, to take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law?

Why did God choose for Christ a manner of death that signaled to his own People the ultimate shame before God?

Why a manner of death that marked Jesus out under God as accursed?

It’s not enough tonight to ponder ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder: ‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’

Why a death that made him exactly what he cries out with anguish: forsaken?

You see-

Heard agains the backdrop of the Torah, Jesus’ cry of dereliction expresses not just his existential anguish or his physical pain. It narrates something objective that transpires upon the cross.

God puts God’s self voluntarily into the position of greatest accursedness on our behalf.

God forsakes God for us. In our place.

Which means-

Our enslavement to Sin, our unrighteousness before God, is such that it can only be rectified by God choosing the one manner of death singled out in the Old Testament as being degrading to the point of eliminating the sufferer’s humanity?

——————————-

Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism ‘we have been united in a death like his.’

His accursed, godforsaken death.

You can’t sit with a mystery like that for long before you start asking other troubling questions.

Does it mean that we, with Christ, are put in a position of grave accursedness? Does it mean we should identify ourselves not with someone like Matthew Shepherd, degraded and left to die a shameful scarecrow’s death, but that we should identify ourselves with those attackers who left him there?

Does it mean we’re more like the victimizers than we’d ever admit? Does it mean, as religious as we are, that we’re actually the ungodly?

And perhaps the most troubling question of all on this night when good and religious people like ourselves push God out of the world on a cross:

Is God’s ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ itself also God’s ‘No’ to us?

By getting so close to us, in the flesh, does God, in fact, reveal our distance from him?

I leave it to you, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Do Only Christians Sin?

Yes.

To describe oneself a sinner is not a lowest common denominator available to all irrespective of faith claims but it is an accomplishment made possible only through proclamation, baptism and discipleship.

Of course, this is not to argue that only Christians err, lie, commit violence or forsake the good for trivial goods. But sin, meaning as it does the rejection of God’s love and goodness as revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, is a vocabulary term available only to those who speak Christian.

Sin is not synonymous with the general human condition nor is it empirically verifiable apart from revelation. One must learn to know oneself as a sinner, and to know oneself as a sinner first requires knowing oneself as a forgiven sinner.

Only those who’ve experienced the embrace of the Father who declares ‘…we had to celebrate for what was lost has been found…’ can know the distance of the far country whence they came.

Just as no one can know God apart from God’s self-revelation, we cannot know ourselves as standing apart from God apart from the revelation of God in Christ.

In the same manner that cross and incarnation are only intelligible in light of the resurrection, the brokenness of sin only becomes comprehensible in light of the reconciliation made possible by Easter, in which Christ makes all things new.

The assurance of pardon then necessarily precedes, spiritually if not liturgically, the confession of sin.

‘…Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’ – Luke 15.23-24

Police Shooting Missouri

Over the past week I received not a few emails from the likes of you, dear readers, asking why I had not posted any reflections, missives or rhetorical theo-bombs over the shooting and ensuing violence in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Missouri.

One email asked (with- in my imagination- forked tongue) if I only cared about the poor and dispossessed in Guatemala.

A European subscriber asked if homosexuality was the only current ‘issue’ over which I could muster any passion.

More than several pressed me, wondering if my silence on Ferguson was actually reticence, fear to comment on a story on which my congregation would disagree.

On that point, let me just add here that I serve a largely military community that long ago learned how to integrate its ranks and to do it- comparatively- well, and that the soldiers in my community have sacrificed much so that we could be the kind of nation where OUR POLICE don’t walk the streets dressed like soldiers. 

Allow another aside: Our soldiers sacrifices are for naught if we’ve created a society where our police must walk our streets as soldiers. 

Back to the emailed interrogatories on my radio silence re: Ferguson-

Short Answer: I took a few days off to pass my kids off to their grandparents.

Long Answer: I’m not sure social media contributes anything meaningful to the media feeding frenzy. I don’t trust my own motives in posting, as it will surely just lead to ‘clickable’ post titles and tags. Race relations in America are owed more than 800 word thoughts. I’m not there. I, we, don’t know exactly what happened so better to wait than retract.Write what you know.

But then President Obama et al kept serving up a cliche I do feel warrants a (theological response):

‘Now is the time for calm and peace.’

This in the wake of the nightly looting and violence. In the wake of the shooting (6x) to an unarmed black boy: ‘Now is the time for calm and peace.’

You know our society has jumped the shark when Rand Paul offers the most prophetic word. I hardly condone base, mindless looting, but after living 10 years in DC I know that ‘now is the time for calm and peace’ translates roughly to:

‘Everyone- stop being so angry. Return to your normal lives and wait for change which you will quickly forget until the next Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.’

‘Now is the time for calm and peace’ means stop agitating in a way that a nearly all-white, militarized police force will be forced to retaliate. Instead, patiently wait for your do-nothing Congress to never deliver any meaningful change and wait for your press to likewise do nothing until the next headline-grabbing story.’

Even if necessary, even if offered by a black President ‘Now is the time for calm and peace’ is a prescription offered by someone who is not ill themselves. It’s the proposal from someone in power.

It’s the suggestion from the status quo to keep everyone’s status, quo.

My real quibble, however, is how President Obama and other pols and pundits mindlessly throw around ‘peace’ as though it’s their word to (mis)use at their pleasure.

Quibble isn’t really the right word.

I’m righteously angry that so many, for whom the status quo serves their status, use OUR word ‘peace’ to maintain the world the way it is- or was 5 minutes ago.

I’m angry because in both Testaments the word ‘‘peace” is shalom. What we hear with the English word ‘peace’ is only a partial definition of ‘shalom.’

It doesn’t mean the absence of violence.

 

Shalom means total well-being. 358x242-ferguson-smoke

Wholeness.

 

Shalom is when/where all things are reconciled.

Set right.

 

Shalom is the final product of God’s very first promise never to abandon God’s creation.

As Brian Zahnd points out, Hebrew-English dictionaries define shalom as the state where ‘nothing is missing and nothing is broken.’

Peace.

Shalom.

It’s the word that motivates the Word that breathes all things into existence.

It’s the word behind the words to the promise to Abraham to (re)bless the whole world.

It’s the word that sums up what God is doing in and through the Word, Jesus Christ.

 

Peace.

Shalom.

It’s the word ministry given to Jesus followers right before the Cross.

And it’s the first word ministry given to them right after Easter.

 

I don’t care how you parse the events in Ferguson over the past week or whose side you take in the altercation that led to the boy’s murder.

It doesn’t matter.

Because calm or not, returning to what was prior IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’

Even if Michael Brown had returned home unharmed, ‘peace’ is not what he would’ve enjoyed. Protesters ceasing and desisting and returning to their homes to scratch out meager wages in an unfair, segregated context IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’ Reporters moving on to the next feeding frenzy IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’ Affluent you and me returning to our normally scheduled TV programming, FB likes or Social Media postings IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’

Shalom.

 

Peace, according to God, according to the Easter Jesus, is when a black President can speak out on a racial issue without half the country reflexively chalking it up to being ‘racially motivated.’

Peace, according to Yahweh, is where there is no death row much less one where 9/10 are black and from neighborhoods even worse than Ferguson and sent there by jurors, judges and lawyers who look like me.

Biblical peace is when you ask someone in a city where is the white school and where is the black school and they have no  freaking idea what you’re talking about.

Biblical peace is where we- police and citizens- don’t fear the ‘other’ because we’ve pushed them and ostracized them and segregated them into hopeless neighborhoods, failing schools and dead-end futures.

Peace, Jesus’ kind of peace, is where America can finally repentantly confront that it is a nation whose prosperity was built upon the blood of slaves, a sin whose effects fester even today.

Peace is where we can confess that sin and seek reconciliation all the while without a need to justify ourselves.

There’s a lot more needed to even come close to that word ‘peace’ but I thought that’s a start.

At least, President Obama is right on one part of his sentence. Ever since Easter, ‘now’ IS the time.

 

 

 

 

  lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517   …and to the Way for which his Cross stands…’    

I remember my first day at my first church:

My secretary informed me that, as the new pastor in town, I was scheduled to preach the sermon at the annual, ecumenical Independence Day Service.

     ‘But Independence Day isn’t even a Christian holiday.’ 

My secretary just stared at me, saying nothing, as though she were a soothsayer foreseeing my self-destruction.

Independence Day Weekend is a time when a lot of churchgoers expect their pastors to preach about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things.

     But, in my denomination at least, the bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

     The bishop laid hands on me to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The Gospel isn’t Jesus is going to be Lord one day; the Gospel isn’t Jesus will be Lord after he returns to Earth to rapture us off to the great bye and bye.

The Gospel is that Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is Lord.

The Gospel isn’t that Jesus rules in heaven; the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rules the nations of the world from heaven.

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that something fundamental as changed in the world, something to which we’re invited to believe and around which we’re called to reorient our lives and for which, if necessary, we’re expected to sacrifice our lives.

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that at Easter God permanently replaced the way of Caesar, the way of the world with the way of Jesus, a way that blesses the poor, that comforts those who mourn, a way where righteousness is to hunger and thirst after justice and where the Kingdom belongs to those who wage…peace.

I was commissioned to preach the Gospel.

And the Gospel- the Gospel of Paul and Peter and James and John and Luke and Mark and Matthew- is that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And in their day the Gospel announcement had a counter-cultural correlative: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.

     And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative too.

     Jesus is Lord, and ‘We the people’ are not.

Jesus is Lord, and the Democratic Party is not.

Jesus is Lord, and the Republican Party is not.

Jesus is Lord, and America- though it’s deserving of our pride and our commitment and our gratitude- is not Lord.

As wonderful as this nation is, we are not God’s Beloved because Jesus Christ is God’s Beloved and his Body is spread through the world.

     Independence Day is as good a time as any for Christians to remember that as baptized Christians we carry 2 passports.

We have dual citizenship: 2nd to the US of A and 1st to the Kingdom of God.

Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians, our politics are not determined by Caesar or Rome or Washington. As baptized Christians, our politics- our way being in the world- are conformed to the one whom God raised from the dead.

Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that you can be a proud American. You can be thankful for your country. You can serve your country.

     But if you’re baptized, then you’ve pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and your ultimate citizenship is to his Kingdom.

     And even as we celebrate the 13 Colonies’ independence we shouldn’t forget that our primary calling as baptized Christians is to colonize the Earth with the way of Jesus Christ.

That’s what we pray when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come…’

     Through our baptism we leave the old world and we are liberated into God’s new creation; so that, as baptized Christians, we live eternity in the here and now.

     That’s what Jesus means by ‘eternal life.’

    That’s what Paul means when he says elsewhere that all the old national and political and ethnic distinctions do not matter because the baptized are now united in Christ.

     For Paul, baptism is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.

As baptized Christians, we are a People who carry 2 passports, who have dual citizenship but only 1 allegiance.

     I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our American identity; I am saying that our primary identity should come from the Lordship of Christ.

    (And in too many cases, it doesn’t.)

     I’m not saying our independence isn’t something to celebrate; I am saying that our dependence on God, which we’ve been liberated into by the resurrection of Christ, should be a greater cause for celebration.

     (And very often, it isn’t.)

     I’m not saying that the flag shouldn’t be a powerful symbol for us; I am saying that the Cross and the Bread and the Cup and the Water should be more powerful symbols.

     (And, let’s be honest, most of the time they’re not.)

Because as baptized Christians, we belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom that can’t be advanced by force or political parties or legislation or constitutional amendments- we belong to a Kingdom that can only be advanced the way it was advanced by Jesus Christ.

Through witness.

And service.

And sacrificial love.

 

 

Emmaus @ Bass Pro Shop

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2014 — 1 Comment

38_4495672_11I closed out Revolution of the Heart sermon series this weekend with a sermon Luke’s Emmaus story in chapter 24. You can listen to it below below or on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or download the free mobile app and listen that way. 

 

      1. Emmaus @ Bass Pro Shop

 

It was the third month since we’d last spoken or seen each other, leaving the most recent wounds to fester and scar.

I was one the road.

Heading towards Richmond.

And as I drove with the radio low, I tried to work out- out loud- just what had happened, why things had gone the way they did, how this was neither what we’d hoped for nor ever expected.

I talked all of it out aloud.

As though there were was someone alongside next to me in the car.

I stopped on the way even though there was no need. I just sat there, still, working over every slight like something stuck in the teeth.

I’d only been given an address, no name or destination.

‘It’s just off 95,’ she’d typed, ‘so it will be convenient for us both.’

The slightly nagging voice in my GPS told me to get off at Exit 89 in 1 mile, and after announcing my obedience every few hundred yards she told me my destination would be on the left.

___________________________________________

     Maybe it’s an Italian thing, but in my familia we’re good at fighting. Our arguments aren’t just episodes; they’re full blown productions- operas- with the winner going to whomever gives the most committed, dramatic performance.

 And our arguments are never original productions.

They’re always sequels where it’s like a voice offstage says ‘Previously on Lost’ and then we rehearse all the old episodes that brought us to this most recent installment.

(I’m sure no one can relate.)

Even in the most litigious, operatic of families, there comes a point where the juice is no longer worth the squeeze and you stop arguing.

But since fighting is all you know how to do, you stop talking altogether.

That’s the place my mom and I were at.

It was going on the third month when she sent me a message: ‘Let’s meet for dinner somewhere.’

I know I’m the ‘reverend.’ I’m the professional Christian. I’m the one with the bible knowledge in my head and the Holy Spirit in my heart.

But the meal wasn’t my initiative. The invitation came from her not me. I replied back to her: ‘Sure’ and I suggested a couple dates and asked for a destination. She sent back only an address. A seemingly random place along the road. I didn’t even try to find it on a map.

I replied again ‘Okay.’  And then with much sarcasm and equal parts cynicism, I entered the date in my iPhone Calendar along with the title: ‘Reconciliation Dinner.’

___________________________________________

     The day of- I typed the address into Google Maps and 100 miles later it announced that my destination was on my left.

I slowed the car and stared to the side and concluded that my mom must be punking me.

Because there on my left was the Bass Pro Shop.

It’s a manure-colored structure that stretches as far as the eye can see.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Bass Pro Shop is a shopping mall exclusively for hunting and fishing.

Imagine if Costco sold only those blueberry muffins and you have idea of the scale and specificity that is Bass Pro Shop.

Now some of you know me better than others so let me just clarify by saying that I’m not really a Bass Pro Shop kind of guy.

Not exactly in my element at the Bass Pro Shop.

I double-checked the address my mom had sent me.

I was afraid that to call and question the choice of meeting places would only provoke another argument so I got out of the car and walked the 2 miles through the parking lot to the store, all the while feeling like a contestant in the Hunger Games headed towards the Cornucopia.

Like a lumberjack of yore, I walked through the heavy, fake-timbered front doors and then pushed my waist through a turnstile.

     If Virginia is a red-leaning state, then I think it fair to say that the Bass Pro Shop in Richmond is like that spot on the planet Jupiter.

For example, after I walked through the turnstile, to my left, where you might expect a coat check at a swankier establishment, customers were checking their concealed handguns.

“Did you bring a weapon with you, sir?” the Walmart Greeter asked me. “Weapon? Uh, just these,” I said, holding up my 2 hands.

He kinked his eyebrow as though he was thinking there’s no way you could stand your ground with hands of such unimpressive caliber.

I stood there, staring back over at the gun check.

“Are you looking for something, sir?” the Walmart Greeter asked.

“Um, I was just wondering where I can tie up my horse” I joked.

He didn’t laugh. You could tell it struck him like a good idea.

I’d gotten there early. I had time to kill, and I still had birthday shopping to do for Gabriel so I wandered the store.

After a while, another employee asked me if she could help me.

‘Yeah, do you sell fishing poles here?’ (at the Bass Pro Shop)

She looked at me with the sort of empathy one reserves for stroke patients and pointed in the direction behind her.

I walked past ladies camouflage lingerie in the women’s section, Duck Dynasty onesies in the kids’ section and ‘Gun Control Means Using Two Hands’ outdoor thermostats in the home and garden section.

Finally I happened upon not simply a fishing section but an entire forest of fishing poles. And behind it, hidden like a high stakes baccarat table, was an entire fly fishing section.

I browsed, and every now and then I would let out a manly grunt like I knew what I was looking at. Eventually I let myself get taken advantage of and I bought Gabriel a boy’s fly rod and reel and then, checking the time, I hiked back to the front of the store to meet my mom.

I stood outside next to a steel deer-hunting stand and waited for her.  We said hi and walked inside and stepped through the turnstile.

“Do you have any weapons with you?” the same Walmart Greeter asked her.

“Just these two” I said again, and he rolled his eyes at me.

     It turns out that in addition to a 2 story waterfall and a day care center for your gun dogs, the Bass Pro Shop also has a full-service restaurant and bar in it.

Because… why would it not?

And we all know nothing goes better with hunting than a few appletinis.

___________________________________________

The restaurant was decorated like Applebees’ but with a swampy alligator theme. Captain Sig Hanson from Deadliest Catch was catching something on the flat screen over the bar.

The hostess sat us awkwardly in the middle of the dining room where we were surrounded by a busload of elderly ladies and a high school cheerleading squad.

At first we tested the temperature before we tiptoed too far into conversation: nice to see you, how are you, what’s new with you, how are the boys?

That sort of thing.

We must’ve looked like we were deep in conversation.

Because when the waitress came over to take our drink order she apologized for interrupting us.

As the waitress walked away, my mom said: ‘I’m sorry…for everything.’

‘Me too’ I said.

And then we got down to the brass tacks of what each of us was sorry for.

After a while, the waitress brought us the glasses of wine we’d ordered along with a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board.

Probably because it gave us something else to say, something safely rote and memorized, we said grace.

We didn’t hold hands or make a show of it or anything.

     We just quietly said grace.

     And having blessed the bread, I took it.

     And because the waitress forgot to leave us a knife, I broke the bread.

     Into two pieces.

     And I gave the bread to my mom.

___________________________________________

     If you read straight through Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end, one of the things you notice is how Jesus is always eating at someone’s house.

     In fact, some of Jesus’ most critical teachings come around a dinner table.

     “I’ve come not for good, righteous, religious people but for sinners.” Jesus says that after he’s poured another round at Levi’s house. Levi the tax collector.

“If you can’t admit that you have much to be forgiven for you can’t possibly show very much love.” Jesus serves that up before the appetizers are served at Simon the Pharisee’s house.

 

“You do plenty of bible studies but seldom do you do the bible.” Jesus says that as soon as he sits down at another Pharisee’s house when they notice he hasn’t washed up for supper.

 

“Make yourself low so as to raise someone else up. Like, when you have a dinner, treat your guest as if they were host” Jesus says when he’s a guest at the leader of the Pharisees’ house. “And whenever you have a dinner don’t just invite your friends, that’s not what my Kingdom’s like. Invite the poor and the lame. Invite the stranger and the estranged.”

 

“The Kingdom of God is about actively seeking out the lost not waiting around for the lost to find their way to you” Jesus says on the way to Zaccheus’ house.

 

When you read Luke’s Gospel straight through, one of the things you notice is how Jesus practically eats his way to the Cross.

 

Luke records 6 meals Jesus shares in the course of his ministry.

 

A seventh comes the night Jesus is betrayed, when Jesus deviates from the ancient script and, taking bread and wine, says “I’m the only way for you to pass-over from despair to new life, from sorrow to celebration, from bondage to freedom.”

“And just so you don’t forget that-

Whenever you break bread or pour out wine

Do it in remembrance of me.”

Luke tells you that Jesus celebrates 7 suppers on the way to the Cross.

     7- the Hebrew number for perfection, completion, for the sum total of creation.

     7 Suppers.

     Which makes this meal at Emmaus the 8th Supper.

The Resurrection is on the 8th Day. 1024px-Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix

In a 7 day week, the 8th Day is just the 1st Day all over again.

The Old Creation began on the 1st Day.

And the New Creation begins on the 8th Day.

The first meal of the Old Creation was when Adam and Eve broke God’s only command and, scripture says, “they ate and their eyes were opened” and they were ashamed of themselves and blamed each another and hid from God.

The first meal of the New Creation is when Cleopas and another- who’s probably his wife- they break bread and, scripture says, “they ate and their eyes were opened and they recognized” and they ran back reconciled and rejoicing about resurrection.”

     The numbers aren’t accidental.

     Luke wants you to see that this 8th Meal at Emmaus is the 1st Meal of the New Creation.

It’s Luke’s way of saying that this meal at Emmaus is the summation of all the ones that came before it, that everything Jesus said and did at those 7 other supper tables can be found here in this 8th one, the first one of the New Creation.

Which is why, I think, before they sit down for this 8th Meal, Luke points out how these 2 disciples – they know their bibles. They know everything there is to know about Jesus.

     They know the Christmas story, that Jesus is from Nazareth.

They know he preached like and performed deeds like the prophets of old.

They know he was righteous in a way like no else but Moses.

They know the Apostles Creed, how Jesus ‘was crucified under Pontius Pilate.’

They know he was to be the Messiah who would save his People from Sin.

They even know that the tomb is empty.

And that women have seen him raised from the dead.

      They know everything there is to know.

     Except what any of it could possibly mean for them. In their lives.

Before this 8th Meal, when Luke shows you how much they know but how little grasp, Luke wants you to recall those other meals.

Like the one at Simon’s house where Jesus praises a sinner over a Pharisee and makes the point that it’s not how much bible you know it’s much bible you do.

Luke wants you to see in this 8th Meal the other 7 before it.

That’s why, before this meal at Emmaus, Luke points out how even when this stranger opens up the disciples’ minds to the scriptures and their hearts are burning inside with them from the spiritual high, they still don’t recognize Jesus right there in front of them.

When Luke shows you how their spiritual high in their hearts doesn’t do anything to open their eyes, Luke wants you to remember those other meals.

Like the one at the Pharisee’s house, where Jesus says his Kingdom is not about your high. It’s about your low. It’s about humbling and lowering yourself for another.

Before this 1st Meal of the New Creation, these 2 disciples have everything there is to know about Jesus in their heads and they have spiritual fire in their hearts..

But Jesus is not made visible at this 8th Meal until they actually DO what Jesus said at those other 7 Meals.

Jesus is not made visible until they refuse to let this stranger remain a stranger.

They don’t let him slip away to the next town.

They don’t let a possible relationship go lost.

Because the Kingdom is about seeking after people.

They invite this stranger to dinner not just their friends.

And these 2 disciples- they humble themselves. They turn convention upside down and they treat this guest as though he were the host.

That’s why he’s the one who blesses and breaks the bread.

And don’t forget the biggest thing of all-

For all they know this scripture-quoting rabbi on the road, who’s playing dumb about the crucifixion, is a Pharisee.

This stranger certainly sounds like a Pharisee.

He talks like a Pharisee talks.

For all they know he’s an enemy who killed Jesus.

And so their invitation to dinner is itself a gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation.

 

These 2 disciples have everything there is to know about Jesus in their heads and they have spiritual fire in their hearts…

     But Jesus is not made visible at this 8th Meal until they actually DO

what Jesus said at those other 7 Meals.

 

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The waitress at the Bass Pro Shop brought us our glasses of wine along with a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board.

We offered a blessing.

And then I took it, the bread.

And I broke it.

And I gave it.

     And then suddenly right before our eyes…

No.

It doesn’t work that way.

It’s not like our eyes were suddenly opened or that Jesus appeared to us in front of the paper-mache alligator on the wall.

I think that misses what Luke’s trying to show us.

It’s not that Jesus was suddenly made visible to us.

It’s that everyone around us- the elderly ladies on their bus trip and the high school cheerleaders and the bartender in front of the flat screen and the waitress with the flair on her apron- if they knew our story and heard us seeking after what had been lost, refusing to let our estrangement make us strangers…if they knew our story and heard us offering forgiveness and saw us breaking bread- in remembrance- then they just might see Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

For some reason, Christians tend to celebrate Easter and then move on to preaching the Cross every Sunday, as though Jesus rose from the dead but then immediately disappeared into vapor. Somehow we forget the Risen Christ sticks around for more than a month. Teaching.

One such episode of the Risen Christ is the story of Doubting Thomas- poor Thomas- in John’s Gospel. Here’s a sermon from a few years ago on that passage.

thomas

Romans 8.1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is my favorite verse of scripture.”

Psalm 73.26 “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” is my most comforting verse.

The most challenging verse for me is Matthew 5.48, Jesus in the sermon on the mount: “Be perfect therefore as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” 

But I’d have to say the biblical verse that really ticks me, the scripture verse that irritates the crap out of me is John 20.30:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” 

     He left stuff out?

     Seriously?

     You mean there were other miracles Jesus performed, other lessons he taught, other questions he answered that John just decided…uh…not to include?

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”

     Of the four Gospel writers-

Matthew’s the one whose church I’d want to attend; he’s all about life application.

Mark’s the one who most unsettles me; his Jesus is a bit too wild-eyed, other-worldly, and urgent for me.

Luke is the evangelist I’d introduce to in-laws and unbelievers; he has the best stories with the most satisfying endings.

But John-

John is the Gospel writer I would most like to pimp-slap and dropkick to the floor.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, 

which are not written in this book.” 

What’s that about?

Did his first draft come back to him marked up with red ink?

Did he have a word limit?

Should our response today have been: “This is most of the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God”?

     Why would John leave anything out?

If the whole point of the Gospels is to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to prove to us that he is God-in-the-flesh and that he is Risen…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to explain to us why he came and why he died and what that means for us today…

Then why would he not include every detail?

Why would he not submit every possible piece of evidence?

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his discipleswhich are not written in this book.” 

But we weren’t there.

We weren’t there like John was. We weren’t there like Peter or Matthew or Andrew.

We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the things Jesus did.

We didn’t get hear with our own ears Jesus teach or prophesy.

      This whole faith business would be a lot easier if we had just been there ourselves.

Of course, Thomas was there with Jesus, every step of the way.

With his own two eyes, Thomas saw Jesus feed 5,000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish.

He saw for himself Jesus restore sight to a man who’d been blind since he was a baby.

Thomas was there and saw Jesus raise Lazarus up from the dead, called him out of the tomb.

Thomas heard with his own ears Jesus say:

“I am the living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of me will live forever.” 

Thomas heard Jesus say to his flock:

“I am the good shepherd who will lay his life down for his sheep.” 

Thomas heard for himself when Jesus told Martha, the grief-stricken sister of Lazarus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

But all the first-hand evidence and eyewitness proof wasn’t enough to convince Thomas.

Because on Easter night, when the disciples gather behind locked doors and the Risen Christ comes and stands among- just as he’d predicted he would- and says “Peace be with you,” Thomas wasn’t there.

The Gospel doesn’t give even an inkling of where he was. It just says “Thomas was not there with them when Jesus came.” 

‘Seeing is believing’ we say, but three years of seeing for himself wasn’t enough to convince Thomas that Jesus really was who he claimed he was.

Afterwards when the disciples tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t respond by saying:

All ten of you saw him? That’s good enough for me.

     Thomas says: ‘Unless.’ 

I will not believe unless.

Unless I see his hands and his feet, unless I can grab hold of him and touch his wounds.

I need proof.

I need evidence before I will believe.

 

Last week I was at the gym exercising this remarkable specimen of a body.

My head was covered in a bandana. I was wearing running shorts and a ratty old t-shirt and sneakers and looked, I thought, unrecognizable from the robed reverend I play up here on Sundays.

I was grunting and sweating and listening to the Black Keys when a man, not a lot older than me, came up, tapped me on the shoulder and asked: ‘Don’t I know you?’

I told him I didn’t think so.

Maybe it was my voice that placed me.

He told me he’d met me at a funeral service- the funeral I did for a boy in my confirmation class.

I put the weight in my hand down on the floor, wiped the sweat off on my shirt, and shook his hand.

And I suppose it was the mention of the boy’s name, his memory sneaking up on me like that, but neither one of us spoke for a few moments. We just stood there in the middle of the gym looking past each other, and probably we looked strange to anyone else might be looking at us.

‘I couldn’t do what you do’ he said, shaking his head like an insurance adjustor. 

     I assumed he meant funerals, couldn’t do funerals, couldn’t do funerals like that boy’s funeral.

‘Couldn’t do what?’ I asked.

‘Believe’ he said, ‘as much as I’d like to have faith I just can’t. I have too many doubts and questions.’

Thinking especially of the boy, I replied:

‘What makes you think I don’t have any doubts and questions?’

‘I guess I’m just someone who needs proof’ he said.

A week after Easter, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and this time Thomas is there.

 

Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 

     Here’s the thing-

We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds. Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands. Artists have always illustrated Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.

And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.

Yet, read it again, the text gives us no indication Thomas in fact touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands or his side. The passage never says Thomas actually touches him.

Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!” 

Jesus offers himself.

And Thomas confesses.

Thomas doesn’t need the proof he thinks belief requires.

He doesn’t need to hold the hard, tangible evidence for himself. He doesn’t need exhibits A and B of Jesus’ hands and side. He doesn’t need to have all his lingering doubts and questions resolved.

All he needs is to hear the promise that Jesus offers himself.

To worship this God is not to be certain. It’s not to understand or know. It’s not to have had something proven to you to the point where you can prove it to others.

To worship this God is simply to trust that he gives himself to you.

For you.

As much as it ticks me off and aggravates me, I think that’s why John does not bother mentioning “the many other signs” Jesus did in the presence of his disciples.

John doesn’t tell us more because he’s given us all we need to trust. To trust that in Jesus Christ God offers himself to us. He’s given us everything we need to say “My Lord and my God.”

And the surprising thing is..it is enough.

Take it from someone who never thought he’d be standing in a pulpit on a weekly basis: it’s enough to change your life forever.

We think we need proof.

Being a Christian- it’s not about being convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s not being able to prove that Jesus fed 5,000 hungry people. It’s not about being able to explain how God created, how Jesus undid Death or why someone like Jackson was taken from us.

     If being a Christian is about knowledge or facts or certainty then John should give us every detail he’s got.

     But if it’s about loving God, if it’s about trusting that God in Christ offers himself for us, offers us a way of life to follow ourselves, then John’s told us everything we need.

     Because it’s not that ‘seeing is believing,’ it’s that believing will give you a whole new way of seeing.

 

 

 

 

 

images-1My boys- they know how stories work.

I have two sons, Gabriel and Alexander, 6 and 9.

Over the past 5 years, by my conservative estimate, we’ve seen something like 120 movies in the theater together. I figured it out: that’s like $5,000 in movie tickets.

And when you factor in the cost of concessions, it comes out to like a bajillion dollars.

But my boys know how stories work.

My boys know that in every story, no matter the danger or difficulty, the hero lives, the guy gets the girl, and the villain will be defeated.

My boys know that in every story the hero will will suffer some trial, and it might make you wonder. It might make you clutch at your dad’s arm. It might make you hide behind your $40 bucket of popcorn, but in the end:

You know that Spiderman will rescue MJ.

You know that Marlin will find Nemo.

You know that Kirk and Spock will reconcile and save planet Earth.

Harry will survive Lord Voldemort.

Marty McFly will get back to 1984.

The force will prove stronger than the dark side.

And Mikey and the Goonies will escape the Fratelli’s and find One-Eyed Willie’s lost treasure.

No matter the danger or difficulty my boys know that in the end the hero will triumph, questions will be answered, loose ends will be resolved and everything will be happily ever after.

 

Because that’s how stories work.

This week the boys and I spent Spring Break hiking in the Blue Ridge, and one night we decided to go to the movies, to see the Hunger Games.

 

Now…if you’re thinking that a dystopian, post-apocalyptic story in which 24 impoverished teenagers fight to the death for a sadistic television audience…if you’re thinking that’s not the best movie for a Kindergartner, my wife agreed with you.

 

Vigorously.

 

And she made me promise to tell you that whenever I mention my parenting, I should add that it’s descriptive not prescriptive.

 

So there we were- in the dark theater, nearing the climax of the story where Katniss Everdeen’s life hangs in the balance, Gabriel was on my lap, nervously clutching at the seams of my jeans, when he announced louder than any of the characters:

‘Dad, I need to go to the bathroom.’

 

Naturally.

Because it wouldn’t be a movie with your kids without having to get up in the most exciting part of the movie and stumble in the darkness, trip over other people’s unaccommodating feet and step ‘accidentally’ in to their $50 bottomless bucket of popcorn.

In the little boys’ room, I waited by the sink while Gabriel did his business. And while he did, from behind the stall door, Gabriel announced confidently that Katniss, the heroine of the story, was going to survive.

 

‘Dad, I know she’s going to live because she’s the hero. If she didn’t that would be a terrible ending.’

 

My boys- they know how stories work.

 

Which makes it all the more irritating that St Mark does not.

 

Mark doesn’t seem to know how stories work.

 

Because what Mark gives us today for his Easter story is a terrible ending.

It sucks.

Jesus has been rejected and nailed to a cross. His friends have all betrayed him or denied him or abandoned him.

The next morning, now that the Sabbath is over, the women come to do what they didn’t have time for earlier- to anoint his body properly.

They come expecting to find a corpse.

When they get to the tomb, the body is gone.

A young man- maybe an angel- tells them that he’s not there. He’s risen, that he goes before them to Galilee, that they should go and tell the disciples to meet him there.

But the women run away with fear and trembling. They say nothing to anyone.

The End.

No one sees the Risen Christ. No one even knows to look for him because the women are too afraid to pass the message along.

That’s it. That’s where Mark stops. That’s how Mark ends his Gospel story.

     What kind of ending is that? 

It’s not the ending Mark has set us up to expect.

 

Three different times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has predicted that he would suffer and die and on the third day rise.

Fact is, the women should never have bothered buying the burial spices because they should’ve have already known his body would not be there.

They shouldn’t have run away from the empty tomb; they should’ve expected it. This isn’t the ending Mark as led us to expect.

Over and over again in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has told his disciples to keep who he is a secret until the right time.

And over and over again the disciples haven’t been able to keep their mouths shut.

But now, today, when it’s time finally to go and tell- now they keep their mouths shut. They don’t say a word.

 

What kind of ending is that?

It’s not the ending you all want on a day like today.

 

You all come on Easter for a word of triumph and victory.

You all come on Easter to hear that Christ is risen, a happy ending to Christ’s life- a happy ending that has the power the assure you of your own happy ending.

When you all come on Easter to hear the announcement that Christ is Risen, he’s Risen indeed, you don’t want that announcement to sound like it has a question mark on the end of it.

 

What kind of ending is this?

It’s not even an ending the ancient church could stomach.

The early Christians couldn’t abide the uncertainty, the lack of resolution, the loose-ends Mark leaves dangling.

The early Christians needed happiness. They needed victory. They needed triumph. What they needed was a few more verses.

So they added them.

They added them- you heard it here before you heard it from Dan Brown. Someone, sometime between 300-400 years after Jesus, added 12 more verses to Mark’s ending.

They gave Mark’s Gospel the kind of ending they thought Mark would have had Mark known what he was doing.

Those extra verses are included in most of your bibles, but they’re usually footnoted or italicized or bracketed-off as not being Mark’s original ending.

Mark’s Gospel ends with verse 8.

Mark’s Gospel ends with: …they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’

     But you can’t blame the ancient church for trying.

What kind of ending is that?

It’s not the ending the other Gospels give us.

Matthew ends his Gospel with the Risen Jesus meeting his disciples on a mountaintop and resolving all their doubts before he promises to be with them always until the end of the age. A good ending.

Luke gives us the Risen Christ sitting down to eat with his disciples and then promising to send the Holy Spirit before ascending into heaven. A good ending.

John gives proof positive of the resurrection in his Gospel ending. The Risen Christ has skin and bones and wounds that he invites Thomas to feel and touch. And John shows us Jesus forgiving Peter 3 times who had betrayed Jesus 3 times. A tender, hopeful ending.

But what Mark gives us….is a cliffhanger: ‘They fled from the empty tomb…and said nothing…’ 

     What kind of ending is that?

Can a Gospel even end this way and still be Gospel, good news?

It’s not a satisfying ending.

There’s no proof, no resolution, no closure.

It’s not even an ending, really.

Why does Mark end his Gospel this way?

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Someone from our congregation sent me an email a while back.

Dear Jason, 

    Something was mentioned about forgiveness in worship on Sunday. Something that made me want to share my story. 

     After my son graduated from high school, we discovered he’d been abused for years by someone close to our family. It tore us apart. 

     My son lashed out with anger and alcohol. I blamed myself for not knowing, not seeing it, not being able to stop it. 

     With a lot of help, he’s healing slowly and putting his life back together. When he was a boy, he was so happy. I could easily have shot the man when I first found out. 

     That’s not all. 

     My daughter married her high school sweetheart, whom, she did not discover until too late, was an alcoholic. He was a respectable-looking accountant who first just slapped her around a bit. When he finally really hit her, she left with our grandson but only after he’d spent all the money she’d saved.

     At first, I thought I shouldn’t pretend I’d forgiven those men for what they’d done. After all, God knew how I felt and I shouldn’t bother lying to God. God knew I didn’t want to forgive. I hated them. I thought nothing could ever change that.  

     This is what I wanted you know: for a long time I just assumed that this was the story I’d been dealt and the best I could do was accept it, cope with it, try to have faith. I figured that was how my story worked. 

     Then one day it struck me: we believe the tomb is empty. 

     God raised Jesus from the dead and that meant my story didn’t have to remain what it was. 

     Resurrection meant I had the power, by God’s grace, to finish my story; so that, what it would be was different from what it had been. 

     It’s not that I thought I had to forgive or that God wouldn’t love me if I didn’t forgive. It’s that I realized because of the Resurrection I could

     It’s been a long, slow, painful process. 

     But now, years later, I can truthfully say I’ve forgiven them and now I’m free that of hatred and bitterness. 

     Instead of a story of pain now mine is a story of healing. 

    Rather than a story of sadness and suffering mine is a story of overcoming, and it’s all been possible… because… He…is…Risen. 

 

I think Mark knew exactly what he was doing.

 

I think Mark refuses to resolve his story because if Jesus Christ is Risen there can be no ending. Because it’s up to us to finish the story.

 

Mark leaves the story unfinished because Mark wants you to finish the story of Resurrection in your life.

 

That’s why in Mark’s Easter story the Risen Jesus doesn’t appear anywhere on the page.

 

He doesn’t appear to the women. He doesn’t speak to or eat with his disciples. No one touches his wounded hands or feet as evidence of Easter.

 

Mark leaves the Risen Christ off the page because he wants you to realize that the only ‘proof’ there will ever be of Resurrection…is you.

 

Mark leaves the story open-ended so that you’ll realize Resurrection is about this world, this life. It’s about the here and now.

 

Easter is not simply the announcement that there’s life after death.

That wouldn’t have been a very novel announcement 2,000 years ago just as today it’s not a very unique or counter-cultural idea.

 

Easter is not the message that our soul lives on after death.

 

Easter is God’s vindication of Jesus’ way of life.

 

Easter is the announcement that mercy and love and forgiveness and hope- they are stronger than any sin and more permanent than the grave.

 

But the only proof of that…is you.

And how you finish the story.

How you finish your story.

My boys- they know how stories work.

They know no part of a story is more important than how it finishes.

Endings do things: gather together nagging loose ends, resolve conflicts, redeem what came before.

 

Some of you here for Easter I don’t know. I don’t know your story.

Maybe your life’s never measured up to your expectations.

Maybe you’ve never achieved what you thought you would.

Maybe you’ve disappointed your spouse or let your kids down.

Maybe you think that’s your story and always will be.

Or maybe you’re convinced you have too many doubts, there’s too much you question or don’t understand, for you to ever have faith, for God to ever use you. Maybe that’s your story and you think it will never change.

Or maybe you’re stuck in a relationship that just won’t heal, that won’t get from where you are now to where you both know you need to be.

Maybe you’ve done something for which you’re convinced you’ll never be forgiven.

Maybe you’ve been so wounded by someone else you’re certain you’ll never overcome it.

Maybe you’re not even sure you have a story and you can barely get yourself out of bed in the morning.

I don’t know. I don’t know your story.

But Mark wants you to know:

That the tomb- is empty.

He’s not there.

He is Risen.

And it’s up to you to finish the story.

What your story has been up till now isn’t what it has to be.

The ending hasn’t been written yet.

Because if Jesus Christ is Risen, your story is never over.

It’s always just ‘To Be Continued.’

Because if the tomb is empty, what you think is your story is never final, never finished, never set in stone.

It always instead comes with an ellipsis, with a …

Because, by the grace of God, you have the power to finish your story.

You have the power to let the old story die and trust that a new story will rise in its place.

You have the power to give your story a different ending.

Because that’s how the Resurrection story works.

 

Christ is Risen.

     Christ is Risen Indeed. 

 

Christ is Risen.

     Christ is Risen Indeed. 

 

Mark leaves it to you to prove it.