Archives For Easter

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.