Monday, April 30, 2018

Abiding, Take Two

Yesterday in John 15:1-8, we heard Jesus invite (command?) his disciples to abide in him. By abiding in him, they are enabled to bear much fruit. The bearing of fruit is the basis for judgment, but any who abide in him are the true disciples who, though pruned through hardship, bear much fruit. This coming Sunday, in John 15:9-17, we continue that theme and see how that abiding is lived out by Jesus' disciples. Easter 5 is an exploration of the abiding concept, but Easter 6 is an explication of abiding in practice.

Right at the beginning of Sunday's gospel lesson, we see how Jesus is going to transition from theory to application: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love." The key for disciples is to remain, dwell, linger, abide in love. More than abiding in Jesus, more than remaining connected to the vine, disciples are called to abide in Jesus' love. This, Jesus continues, is part of the reciprocal process of keeping his commandments: "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love." Jesus has kept the Father's commandments by abiding in the Father and the Father's love, and the disciples are called to do likewise.

But there's more.

What does the keeping of Jesus' commandments look like? Narrowing all of his teaching down to one simple but incomprehensibly difficult commandment, Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." There's that "lay down your life" commandment, again? Sound familiar? We've been exploring it for three weeks in the epistle lessons from 1 John.

God is love, John reminded us yesterday in 1 John 4. We are to love as we have been loved, he taught us two weeks ago in 1 John 3. And what does that look like? Back on 4 Easter, in 1 John 3:16-24, we heard John's words about this same thing: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" Jesus command, therefore, that his disciples should lay down their lives for one another is not abstract or metaphorical. It is literal. We give up our lives--our identity, our possessions, our self-interest, perhaps even our ability to draw breath--for the sake of the other just as Jesus has. How is this possible? By abiding in the love that Jesus has for us, the love that the Father and Son share, and the love that animates the Church.

This is a tall order. Finally, I'm preaching again. For the last two weeks, I've been wishing I had the chance to preach on the love commandment, and now it's my turn. We are to love one another as Jesus has loved us. I know from experience that we can't do that without that divine love abiding in us. But how do you tell someone that following Jesus means laying down one's life for the sake of others without preaching a false gospel of effort--one clearly rejected by the readings from Acts and 1 John as well as the collect for this Sunday? Maybe it's a good thing I've had a few weeks to think about this. I'm going to need it.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Baptism? Why Not?

When I was in college, I was part of a fraternity. During my freshman year, after rush was over, I spent a few months of joyful misery as a pledge. Although I was never hit with a paddle or made to do exercise until I dropped, I was hazed—lovingly? sadistically?—until I was formally initiated and told the secrets of the fraternity. Since then, both I and the undergraduate fraternity system in general have discovered the stupidity, pointlessness, inhumanity, and danger of hazing. Still, it continues.

One way that Greek institutions have combatted the pernicious pattern of hazing is to initiate pledges at the beginning of their education about the traditions of their fraternity or sorority. Once you tell all of the secrets to the pledge, there’s no reason for him or her to hang around while older members abuse them. Imagine that: an almost instant full initiation that is followed by inculcation. Sound familiar?

In Sunday’s reading from Acts 8, the Holy Spirit is at work in powerful ways. The Ethiopian eunuch, a powerful and prominent servant of the Queen, is on his way back to Ethiopia from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship the God of Israel. Led by the Spirit, Philip came up to the eunuch’s chariot and struck up a conversation. It just so happened (isn’t that how the Holy Spirit works?) that the eunuch was reading from the Hebrew Bible and was looking for someone to help him understand what he was reading. The passage he had been reading was from Isaiah: “Like a sheep, he was led to the slaughter, and, like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he opened not his mouth.” Philip proceeded to explain how this passage was connected with the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Overcome by the Spirit, the eunuch looked beside the road and saw some water and asked, “What is to prevent me from becoming baptized?” The answer, of course, was nothing, and, after the caravan had halted, Philip led the eunuch into the water, baptized him, and then disappeared (went away hurriedly?) by the Spirit’s power.

There are several remarkable things at work in this passage. For starters, there’s the Spirit-led connection between Philip and the eunuch and Isaiah and the water. It all falls together quite nicely. Beneath that, however, is the even more remarkable truth that an Ethiopian eunuch—an emasculated man of presumably non-Jewish ancestry whose gender-identity and race would count as two strikes against him in the Mosaic Law—was baptized into the body of Christ. As we read the passage, that may not stick out to us as much as the more-than-coincidental nature of the encounter, but, in the judgment of that day, it is only the Spirit-led connection that makes it clear to us that this is, indeed, the right course of action. There’s another post—perhaps tomorrow—and a sermon or two about the inclusion of gender-ambiguous or non-conforming people in the life of the church, but, today, I want to focus on the surprising nature of the baptism itself—unprepared, unscheduled, isolated from the Christian community, yet perfect.

I remember the first time a colleague asked me in a derisive tone why we were performing a baptism in church at a time other than one of the big five occasions encouraged in the rubrics of the prayer book (1 Epiphany, Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints’, and the bishop’s visitation). I was stunned. What do you mean? I asked with an equally derisive tone. Those big dates are fine, I told him, but sometimes a family and a church want to celebrate baptism in the middle of July because that’s when they can all get together for it. I understand that those days in the church year are “especially appropriate” for baptism, and I love it when it works out that we would have a baptism on those days. I also understand and share the deep desire for celebrating baptism at a time when the congregation can be present, which is to say not in a private baptism after church or on a weekday. If baptism is the full inclusion of a child of God in the body of Christ, then it makes sense that as many members of the body of Christ would be present to see it. Yes, there are probably more people in church at Pentecost or All Saints’ than on the Second Sunday of Easter, but there’s nothing wrong with the congregation coming together to celebrate a baptism on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. And, maybe, given the circumstances outlined in this reading from Acts, having a Saturday-afternoon baptism, before the out-of-town family of the baptismal candidate have left to go back home, isn’t entirely a bad idea either.

I also note with joy the rather impromptu nature of the eunuch’s baptism. Yes, he was familiar with the story of Israel. As one who had travelled to Jerusalem to worship, he was in some way already educated in the story of salvation revealed to God’s people. Nowadays, however, we are far more likely to ask an adult inquirer to come to a series of classes and jump through our appointed hoops before we bring her or him to the waters of baptism. A few years ago, on one of the big baptismal days, I preached a sermon about an “open font” and how, despite not being fond of altar calls, the Episcopal Church sees baptism (or reaffirmation of baptismal vows) as an opportunity for someone to commit (or recommit) her or his life to Christ. Before the service started, I prepared the font for a baptism even though one had not been scheduled. At the announcements, I asked if anyone wanted to be baptized. I showed the congregation that we were ready and that we would stop the service and celebrate a baptism if anyone felt so moved. Would there be appropriate catechetical instruction? Some might say now, but, given this story from Acts, were hearing the lessons and the sermon not enough?

What is to prevent someone from being baptized? That is the question the church must ask. If we believe that the work of transformation being enacted in a person, in the church, and in the world is God’s work, who are we to stand in the way? Baptism is not an opportunity for people to earn their salvation. It is a chance for us to proclaim the fullness of God’s transforming love in Jesus Christ. We cannot proclaim a commitment to God’s grace if the ministers of God’s church have made the process for initiation into that church burdensome. Let’s have an open font. Let’s preach gospel transformation. Let’s celebrate baptisms whenever and wherever and however the Spirit makes an opportunity for it. What happens if someone is initiated before she or he is fully inculcated into the faith? What happens if we reveal to someone all of the mysteries of our faith before we have hazed him or her? Good things.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

First John, Four, Seven and Eight!

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like to sing first thing in the morning and those who want to kill the kind of people who like to sing first thing in the morning. I am of the former group. Most of the members of my family belong to the latter. So far, I have managed to duck, dodge, and otherwise escape their murderous attempts, living to sing another day. This morning, while my daughter was eating breakfast, I read the lessons for this upcoming Sunday, and, when I got to the reading from 1 John 4, I couldn't help but sing:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He who loveth not [clap, clap, clap] knoweth not of God for God is love. Beloved, let us love one another. First John, four, seven and eight. 
I remember singing that as a child. I remember the words, which are the KJV of the first two verses of Sunday's lesson. Many kids songs went right over my head. I could remember the words and sing the notes, but the significance of it was lost on me. Not this song. I can not only remember singing the song but also how it felt to consider that God IS love and that anyone who doesn't love doesn't know who God is because God is love. I can remember how wonderfully tidy and logical and clear that felt. It still feels that way today.

"Beloved, let us love one another." John starts this idea--this exhortation to love--with an identification of love. By calling his readers beloved, he is inviting them to begin from a position of belovedness, which is where love ALWAYS begins. We love because we were first loved.

Why ought we love one another? Because love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. But what kind of love is this? It's the kind of love we heard about last week in 1 John 3, where the author told us that, just as Jesus laid down his life for us, we must lay down our lives for each other. Let that sink in. (And that's something I didn't get when I was a kid.) The ones whom John describes as "born of God" are not those who love their sweetie or those who love chocolate ice cream or those who love the company of friends. The kind of love that those who are born of God and know God show is the kind of love God shows for us--the kind of self-sacrificing, care-for-the-other, agape love.

Those who don't love like that--those who don't have agape in their lives and relationships--don't know God. You can't know God and not have that love. This isn't a test for Christians; it's a fact of the Christian life. To belong to God means unconditional love. It means loving "in truth and action" and "not just in word or speech." John isn't trying to convince someone how to become a Christian. He's trying to convince Christians how to live as Christians.

For the second week in a row, I am not preaching. And, for the second week in a row, if I were preaching, I would be preaching on 1 John. Our congregation is full of Christians. We are not on the front lines of evangelism. Instead, we are guarding the back door to make sure the flock doesn't fall away. These are the words John would say to them: "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us." All of us are looking for God. We want a deeper relationship with God. John reminds us that we find it--and God--by loving one another as we have been loved.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Believe or Abide?

"All you have to do is believe in Jesus. If you believe in him, you'll go to heaven."

That's what Christianity sounded like to me for my childhood and adolescence. I don't think I'd put it quite like that now, but it's not too different from the faith I hold. I do believe that faith in Jesus is how we are saved. I don't think people go to heaven because they're good, because they live by the golden rule, or because they try hard to make God happy. Effort and actions don't get us to heaven. Our faith in Jesus does. But what do we mean by that?

Sunday's gospel lesson (John 15:1-8) gives us a very different way of getting to heaven. Jesus said to his disciples, "Abide in me as I abide in you." I think we underemphasize the importance of abiding in Jesus. In these words, spoken during Jesus' last meal with his followers, Jesus encouraged them to remain connected to, grounded in, and nourished by him. Jesus used the image of a vine, branches, and fruit to drive this point home. What does it mean to abide in Jesus? "Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me." It is our abiding in Jesus that enables us to bear fruit--live lives--that are worthy of our calling. And bearing fruit is the basis for God's judgment of us and our lives.

Jesus said, "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." Although I don't think the fire where the discarded branches are burned is supposed to be an image of the fires of hell, Jesus makes it clear that those branches (people) who don't bear fruit are deemed empty and fruitless and set aside by God. On the other hand, and this is where the emphasis belongs, those who remain grafted in Jesus are those who bear much fruit.

Jesus did not say to his disciples, "Those who believe in me bear much fruit." Nor did he say, "Anyone who agrees with my teachings will go to heaven." The emphasis is on abiding, and maybe that's where we should place our emphasis, too. What does it mean to believe in Jesus in the life-changing, go-to-heaven sense? It means believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that God the Father has made him Lord of all, including our lives, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the only means by which we are set free from sin and death and reconciled to God so that we can participate fully in the reign of God here on earth. That's a lot more than "All you have to do is believe in Jesus." While it's true that all one must do is believe, that sense of believing is deeper than deciding in one's mind that Jesus is a pretty cool dude. It means believing that one's true hope belongs to him.

You can't get to heaven by bearing fruit, but believing in Jesus in the sense of abiding in him always leads to fruit-bearing. Yesterday's reading from 1 John 3 reminded us that we, too, should lay down our lives in love for one another, caring for one another and meeting one another's needs. One cannot belong to God in Jesus Christ without showing that love in outward ways. There's a careful balance here that the preacher needs to walk. We aren't preaching works-righteousness, but we are proclaiming a faith--a belief--that is more than a mental exercise. It is a life spent grounded in Jesus. It is abiding in him.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What Is Love?

In 1993, Haddaway asked a question that is still asked in dance clubs all over the world. What is love? This Sunday, in 1 John 3, we hear some of the answer.

What is love? John writes, "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us..." That is how we know love and what love is. Jesus' offering of himself for us is the defining demonstration. But that's not all. John isn't interested in simply telling us what love is. In face, he never uses that grammatical approach. Instead of defining love, he tells us what it means to love.

John writes, "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another." What does that mean? Does John mean that we should all die for each other? Maybe. But John goes on to show us what he has in mind: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" Love is sacrifice for the sake of the other--not just on the cross but in our daily life.

John exhorts us to love "not only in word or speech but in truth and action." Not only. In premarital counseling, I ask couples to consider their "love languages." I ask, "When you are filled to overflowing with love for your beloved, how do you express that love to him or her?" There are five defined love languages: words, actions, gifts, time, and touch. I want each of them to name the way that they most naturally express love. Similarly, I want them to name the way in which they most effectively and profoundly receive love. More important than the specific love language, I want them to recognize when their preferences are different. If one spouse pours his heart out with loving words over and over, but the other spouse needs loving gifts like flowers or candy to feel it, it might help to recognize that--at least the concept--going into a long-term relationship. John captures some of that in his letter. Don't love ONLY with word or speech but also in truth and action. If we are truly filled with love, we will give of ourselves to another--not just our marital spouse but everyone whom we love in Jesus' name.

Toward the end of Sunday's reading, John takes it a step further: "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us." Notice that "commandment" is in the singular, but the content of that one commandment is dual. Jesus has given us one commandment: to believe in him and love one another. That's the same thing. If you believe in him you love one another. They go together. They are inseparable. What it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a follower of Jesus, is to believe and love. "How can God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" It can't.

In many Christian traditions, 95% of the emphasis is placed on belief and 5% is placed on everything else. "Do you really, really, really believe unwaveringly and undoubtedly in Jesus?" they seem to ask without any mention of how that belief manifests itself in love. Maybe there are better ways to test our faith. We can't be good to others and earn our way to heaven. But we aren't a part of God's kingdom if love for others is not manifest in our hearts. How do you know that you believe in Jesus? Instead of unwavering intellectual assent, it looks like unwavering charitable service. I suspect that John and the other first Christians would be confused if they heard the way we talk about faith without also talking about love. I suspect that Jesus would wonder how so many of his followers have forgotten what following him really means.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dirty Job: A Shepherd

I've heard several sermons about sheep--how sheep are dumb animals, how sheep know the voice of their shepherd, how sheep will wander off unless they are tended. The point of the sermon seems to be that we, like sheep, get lost and need a shepherd to save us. But I can't remember hearing a sermon about shepherds. If I were preaching this Sunday on John 10:11-18, a text that is super-familiar to us, I think I might talk about shepherds.

The image of Jesus as a shepherd, more specifically the Good Shepherd, isn't surprising to us, and it wouldn't have been surprising to first-century Christians. David, the shepherd-become-king, was legendary. The gospel tradition makes the connection between Jesus and David as more than a casual association. In its identification of Jesus, there is a direct genealogical link. Jesus is David's son yet, as the riddle Jesus puts to the Pharisees in Matthew 22 implies, David would call him "Lord." By calling him the Good Shepherd, we not only identify Jesus as one who cares for the flock but also as one who follows (and perfects) the Davidic tradition.

David was king of Israel at a time when Israel's political, economic, and military might were at their zenith. Because of that, it was easy to remember David as the king whose heart unwaveringly belonged to God. But how did he get there? How did David become the greatest king in Israel's history? He started as a shepherd. Samuel came to Jesse's house in Bethlehem to anoint Saul's rival-successor, and all of Jesse's sons passed in front of him, but the Lord let Samuel know that none of them was the right one. Finally, David, the youngest, is brought in from the field, where he was keeping the sheep, and the Lord, who looks upon the heart, identified him as the next king of God's people. It was from the pasture that David went to the field of battle. He was too young and inexperienced to join his brothers in war, but, when he arrived with a care-package from his parents, he stepped into the role of soldier and killed Goliath. This is more than a story about a shepherd who becomes king. David's legacy is that of the unlikeliest individual becoming God's chosen leader. Isn't that part of what we say when we proclaim Jesus as the Good Shepherd?

The irony behind king-as-shepherd or messiah-as-shepherd has faded just as the stable-birth and manger-bed of Jesus have become commonplace. "Where else would Israel's true king be born except among livestock in the little town of Bethlehem?" we ask. But shepherds aren't heroes. They're outcasts. No one wants to spend time with a shepherd. They have lice. They stink. They are uncouth. Their table manners are abysmal. With only sheep to keep them company, their conversation skills are deeply lacking. This is the king of kings? Well, sort of.

When Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd in John 10, he is borrowing from the David story, but he's also challenging us to see how God is at work. God's power is not revealed in palaces but in pastures. God's plan is not revealed by authorized prophets but by renegade rabbis. When we call Jesus the Good Shepherd, the words should sound funny coming from our mouth--true but bizarre. How can it be that our savior would be a peasant? Given the story of salvation that stretches from creation through today, how could it be anyone else?

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Peace That Puts The Pieces Together

April 15, 2018 – Easter 3B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

“The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God…” We say those words at the end of the service as part of the blessing that is pronounced before we all go out into the world. They are beautiful words, comforting words, powerful words. Some preachers like to make up their own words to accompany the blessing, but I’ve always found the words in the prayer book to be more than sufficient. But I’ve also found them a little confusing—at least the order of those words.

Have you ever noticed the sequence of nouns in the blessing: “…keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God?” Notice the order: hearts and minds…knowledge and love. I remember when I was a newly ordained priest, trying to commit those words to memory, and I remember struggling because those pairs of words seemed to be out of order: hearts and minds…knowledge and love. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t hearts and love go together while minds and knowledge get paired up? Or maybe they are all jumbled together on purpose, and the point of the blessing is that the peace of God is what holds together heart and mind and knowledge and love in a way that transcends simple grammar, simple parallelism, and simple logic. Maybe salvation is something we experience less like a linear progression and more like a multi-layered transformation of understanding and experience.

Today’s gospel lesson from Luke 24 shows us how jumbled together salvation can be. We have switched gospel accounts again, so let me remind you how Luke tells the story of Easter. On the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus’ body was gone. Two men in dazzling clothes appeared to them and reminded the women how Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection. Then, they left the tomb, found the eleven apostles, and told them what had happened. Simon Peter got up, went to the tomb, and saw it for himself. Later that same afternoon, two disciples were walking to Emmaus, and the risen Jesus came among them and opened the scriptures to them, explaining why the Messiah had to suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him until he sat down at the table with them, took bread, and blessed and broke it, and then he vanished. As soon as they realized who it had been, they raced back to Jerusalem to find the other disciples, who were also celebrating that, in an unrecorded encounter, Jesus had shown himself to Peter. Finally, in the midst of that celebration, we come to today’s gospel lesson. Jesus came and stood among all of the disciples and said, “Peace be with you,” and they were…terrified.

Actually, Luke tells us that they were “startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Empty tomb, men dressed in dazzling white, walk to Emmaus, appearance to Simon, and the disciples still thought that they were seeing a ghost? We might expect Jesus to be frustrated, if not exasperated, by their reluctance to believe, but, instead, he patiently offered reassurance to his scared and bewildered followers. “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” he asked them. “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” If they needed proof, Jesus would give them proof.

My favorite line in this story is what Luke tells us next: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” What a beautiful collision of conflicting thoughts and emotions! Full of joy yet still in a state of disbelief and, at the same time, wondering with hope, the disciples stared at their risen master and tried to comprehend what it was that had happened, how it could be that the crucified one was standing before them. That’s what salvation feels like: a messy, beautiful jumble of joy and confusion, of faith and doubt, until finally everything comes together. Into that moment of hopeful uncertainty, Jesus offered yet another confirmation of his bodily resurrection, saying to them, “I’m hungry. Do y’all have any fish?” Dead men and ghosts, after all, don’t eat fish.

As they caught their breath and their heartrates began to return to normal, the disciples listened to Jesus explain yet again how his death and resurrection were the fulfillment of God’s long-promised plan of salvation. Citing the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand what they had seen with their eyes and felt in their hearts, linking their experience of the risen Jesus with the ancestral story of their people.

Isn’t that how salvation really works? Isn’t that how we come to understand who God is and what God is doing for us—not by reading the Bible or listening to a sermon or hearing a compelling testimony or even experiencing a moment of God’s power but by all of those things, coming together? We can’t grasp the fullness of salvation in a tiny glimpse. Even an encounter with the risen Christ isn’t enough. We need to see and hear and touch and know how all of the pieces of God’s salvation come together in our lives. We need to discover for ourselves that our story is a part of God’s great story. And that is what Jesus gives us.

That’s what Jesus means when he says, “Peace be with you.” That’s what we mean by “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” In Hebrew, the word “peace” is “shalom,” which means more than the absence of hostility or a tranquility of the mind. It means wholeness, completeness, perfection. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word “peace” is “eirene,” which has its roots in a Greek verb that means “to join or tie together into a whole.” In other words, the peace that Jesus offers us, the peace that God wills for us, the peace that we pray will guard our hearts and minds, is God’s gift of wholeness. And that is where we find salvation.

Have you ever received a piece of news that was so good that you couldn’t believe it? Have you ever encountered a love so pure and selfless that you couldn’t accept that it was meant for you? Salvation is the teenager who never expected her parents to love her in the midst of a terrible crisis. Salvation is the spouse who never thought his wife could love him once his deepest faults came to light. Salvation is the disciple who never thought that God’s love could shine once the Author of life had been killed on the cross. Salvation is the sinner who never thought that God would make a place for her at God’s banquet table. Love like that can’t be read or heard or seen. It’s too big to grasp all at once. It takes time with Jesus, and that’s why we are here. God’s saving love finally becomes real to us when all the pieces God’s story and our story are brought together and made one beautiful whole through the peace of God. That’s what Jesus gave the disciples when he came and met them. And that’s what he offers us as he meets us here today.

Our Discards, God's Treasure

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. Psalm 118:22

I don't remember the point I was attempting to make, but, before I went to seminary, I was invited to preach a sermon, and this was part of the lesson for that day. What I lacked in knowledge and experience I made up for in unbridled self-confidence. This Sunday, in the reading from Acts 4, we hear Peter, "filled with the Holy Spirit," use this quotation from Psalm 118 to demonstrate to his interrogators and, more directly, to us, the readers, how the authorities' rejection of Jesus has become the foundation of our faith. The use of the quotation itself isn't as remarkable as the theology behind it and how this central Jewish thought is carried over into Christian theology.

For starters, notice that Peter rather loosely quotes from Psalm 118: "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone." There is no second-person address in the original Hebrew psalm. In the original context, Psalm 118 is not an accusation, which Peter has made it in Acts 4. Instead, it is a celebration of how God's victory is manifest to God's people. Read the surrounding verses, and that theme becomes clear:
21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
This isn't an imprecatory psalm, in which the poet asks God to reverse the fortunes of his enemies. Instead, it is a statement of gratitude from the place of salvation. God has already saved the one who was lost. God has redeemed the one who was forsaken. God has chosen the one who was cast off. That's how God works. It's how God has been working since God called Abram.

This morning, as I read Acts 4, I noticed a tiny variation between the Greek text and the English translation that helped me focus on this difference. In the footnote to my electronic Bible, it is noted that the Greek doesn't restate the name "Jesus" when it introduces the cornerstone quotation. Instead, it reads, "This is the stone that was rejected by you..." Of course, the text means Jesus. That's what the text is discussing at that point. But even the simple omission of the specific name and the use of the overarching pronoun invited me to think of this in more general terms. This isn't simply a condemnation of Jesus' opponents. It's a statement of how God's pattern of salvation is manifest in the story of Jesus.

The whole act of rejecting Jesus, condemning him, and nailing him to the cross has been redeemed by God. It isn't just the physical body of Jesus that has been turned around (though it has). It's the entire story of Jesus' rejection. That which was cast off isn't merely the person Jesus. It was also the movement he represented, the teaching he offered, the company he kept, and the religion he practiced. Of course it was rejected! If it is truly the means for our salvation, the only way it could be found was if it were refused by the powers of this world. That's how God works. That's why Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, turns to Psalm 118.

This Sunday, as I hear the familiar line of the stone being rejected, I'm drawn not only to the reversal that the empty tomb represents for God's Son but also how that reversal transforms all of the things in this life that have been discarded by those in positions of power. God's great victory in Easter means true victory for those who have been forgotten, cast off, rejected. That's how God works. That's where salvation is to be found.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Seeing the Children of God

We had a family wedding this weekend, and I had the opportunity to spend time with members of our extended family. Now that my parents, aunts, and uncles have reached the age that their parents were when I knew them as my grandparents, I enjoy seeing the physical resemblances and characteristic behaviors that they have inherited from my grandparents. It reminds me of those who died years ago. My children did not know any of my grandparents. I am thankful that my wife got to know my mother's father so that she can join me in telling my children about their great-grandfather, but, for the most part, no one in our nuclear family other than me makes those connections with a previous generation.

In Sunday's epistle lesson, John writes, "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are." Because of Jesus, we are now identified as God's children, and, indeed, that is what we truly are. But John lets us know that our identity as God's children can be hard to see.

The world can't see it. This system (the Greek word is κόσμος) doesn't recognize who we are because, John writes, it did not know him, who is Jesus, the Son of God. To understand the pronoun "him," you have to go back to the previous chapter. In 1 John 2:24, the author exhorts his readers, writing, "Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father." This sense of abiding continues through the end of chapter 2 and into the beginning of chapter 3. Our abiding in him is enabled by Jesus himself, who, through God's love, makes us God's children not only in appearance but in substance. In the Greek text used to produce the NRSV and most other translations, that point is made emphatically: we are called God's children, and that is what we are! I notice, however, that the Interlinear Greek Bible doesn't include that second phrase. This morning, I am grateful that I kept my Nestle-Aland Greek NT out of storage when we moved offices because, when I get to the office, I'm going to pull it out and look at 1 John 3:1 and see what manuscript differences there are behind that variation. But I digress...

We are children of God, but the world cannot see it. Can we? John seems to anticipate that question as he continues, writing, "Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." In other words, we are already God's children, but what we will become--fully like him--is to be revealed in the resurrection, when the world finally and completely is transformed by the reign of God. In the meantime, he is encouraging us to see ourselves as we truly are--to look with proleptic sight and see what has not fully been revealed.

Most of the time, when I look at myself, I see what doesn't resemble God. The challenges, struggles, and sin present themselves so much more clearly than the God-made perfections. I suspect that's true for most of us. On this Third Sunday of Easter, John asks us to look at ourselves through resurrection eyes and see what the world cannot see. The only way we see it is by faith. We are children of God--daughters and sons of the Almighty. See what love the Father has for us. Let us see it in ourselves.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Dead Men Don't Eat Fish

This Sunday, in the Collect for the Third Sunday of Easter, we will pray, "O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work." In Year A (last year), we read the Easter story of the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24, where Jesus was revealed to two disciples when he broke bread with them. That seems to tie in well with the collect. In Year C (next year), we read from John 21, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples by the sea, tells them to cast their net to one side of the boat, which produces a huge haul of fish, and then gives them a breakfast of bread and fish. That isn't quite as clear a connection as in Emmaus, but at least there is bread in the story. This year, in Year B, we read from a later passage in Luke 24, when Jesus appeared suddenly to the disciples, offers them his peace, invites them to touch himself, and then sits down to a breakfast of fish. There isn't even any bread mentioned! But, in one sense, I'm thankful.

Every Sunday, whether I am conscious of it or not, I am grateful that the Lord's Supper involves only bread and wine and not fish. Can you imagine the oblation bearers coming forward with a loaf of bread, a flagon of wine, and a plate of herring? The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. The odor of Christ, the fish-stink of transformation. Yuck. I like fish, but rarely do I eat it before the 8:00 service is finished. In this passage from Luke, Jesus is made known to his disciples not in the breaking of bread but in the eating of fish, but I'm thankful that we remember him in a loaf rather than a fillet.

In this Sunday's gospel lesson, hear how Luke describes Jesus' offering of himself as proof of the resurrection: "While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, 'Have you anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence." The point Luke is making is that dead men don't eat fish, or, more accurately, ghosts don't eat fish. Only living, breathing people eat breakfast. Jesus appears to the disciples and speaks peace to them, yet they are terrified to see him. He offers them the opportunity to examine through sight and touch his resurrected body, but they respond with joy yet still disbelieving and wondering. What a marvelous combination of identity. They possess the joy of encountering their risen Lord, yet they are caught up in the unbelievability of it all. So Jesus gives them something else: a chance to watch him eat. And Luke makes the point that he ate "in their presence," showing us the purpose of that meal.

Even though we won't hear about bread in the gospel lesson, we will gather and break bread together in Jesus' name on Sunday morning. The collect, of course, doesn't have to point explicitly to the lessons but can also possess reflections of our worship. We know Jesus in the breaking of the bread. When I receive Communion, I usually try to make myself conscious of Jesus' death and the forgiveness it offers me. This past Sunday, I had the chance to worship from the pew instead of the chancel, and before the service I prayed that God would make me deeply sensible of Christ's sacrifice for me. What a remarkably Lenten mindset! It's written into my Protestant soul. This Sunday, when we gather at the Lord's Table, we are invited to remember the Lord's resurrection--to seek a revelation of the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps instead of saying, " this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving," we should say, " this in remembrance that Christ was raised for thee..." Dead men don't eat bread or fish, and Jesus followers break bread not only to remember Christ's death but also his resurrection. May the risen Lord be present with us as we gather at his table.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Supplemental Texts

As I've written here several times, Mark is my favorite account of the gospel. It's quick and raw and unpolished. The clearest example of Mark's peculiar approach to telling the good news of Jesus is his account of the resurrection. We did not read Mark 16 on Easter Day, but you'll remember how the empty tomb is recalled for us. The women go to the tomb to further prepare Jesus' body for burial, and, when they arrive, they see that the stone is rolled away. When they enter the tomb, they meet an angel who declares to them that Jesus has been raised. The angel commissions them to go and tell the disciples that the risen Lord will meet them in Galilee, and they flee in fear, telling no one what they had seen.

That's it. The end. There's the extra bit that someone tacked on later about drinking poison and handling serpents, but what we have of Mark's original account includes no first-person appearances of the resurrected Jesus. Mark doesn't recall for us any of the post-Easter moments when Jesus appears to his disciples. Instead, Mark invites our belief in the unwitnessed miracle of Easter. I love that appeal to mystery. Because I like Mark so much, Year B in the three-year lectionary cycle is my favorite. So, when I looked at this coming Sunday's gospel lesson and saw that it comes from Luke, I was confused and disappointed.

The story of Luke 24:36b-48 is a good one. Jesus appears to the disciples on a beach, proclaims peace to them, invites them to see and touch his risen body, and eats some fish with them. Dead men don't eat fish (or something like that). And the point is made. Luke wants us to know that Jesus really, really rose from the dead. But that seems to be the opposite of Mark. Reading from Luke now feels like sitting down to a nice Italian meal with an antipasta, a pasta, and a nice piece of veal, but finishing the meal with a piece of apple pie a la mode. It just doesn't fit.

Later this week, I'll write more about Sunday's gospel lesson and what it contributes to our celebration of Easter. First, since I was out of town for a wedding this weekend, I need to listen to my colleague's sermon and hear what he preached about Jesus' peace-proclaiming, touch-inviting appearance to the disciples in John 20. Before I can get to this Sunday's sermon, however, I need to let go of my Year B mindset and listen to the Easter story through Luke. A good piece of apple pie, after all, goes with almost anything.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Comfortable Words

During Lent, we use the Penitential Order to begin our worship. It isn't particularly penitential except that it begins with the recitation of the Ten Commandments and the Confession. In that way, it shifts our focus at the beginning of worship from praise to penitence, which feels fitting for Lent. At the early service, one of the hallmarks of the Easter season, therefore, is the restoration of the Comfortable Words--those sentences of scripture that follow the Confession and Absolution in the Rite I service and that are not used with the Penitential Order.

I love the Comfortable Words. I love all four of the sentences, and I say them all each week. My colleague only says one of them perhaps because he feels that saying only one makes the one he chooses more potent. The rubric says that "a Minister may say one or more of the following," but the 1928 prayer book, from which the Rite I liturgy is taken. assumes that all of them will be said. I think it's particularly comforting to hear the cadence of all four sentences of scripture. But I think it's worth noting how the fourth of those has changed AND how Sunday's reading from 1 John renders it.

In the NRSV, John 2:1-2 reads, "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." Actually, the sentence begins with a "but." John begins this line of thought by exhorting his readers NOT to sin. "But," he writes, "if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father..." Yet it's the end of verse 2 that is worth noting. The NRSV describes the sacrifice as "atoning" and declares that it is sufficient "for the sins of the whole world."

The word "atonement" is one of the few theological terms that has its origins in the English language. It isn't just clever for the preacher to say that it means "at-one-ment"; that's actually where the word comes from. The NRSV suggests to us that, even if we sin, Jesus Christ, our heavenly advocate, intercedes on our behalf through his sacrifice that reconciles us (i.e. makes us one) with God. And John makes it clear to his readers that the sacrifice of Jesus has the power to reconcile the whole world to God.

In the 1979 prayer book, after pronouncing the absolution, the minister says, "If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world." The prayer book uses "perfect offering" instead of "atoning sacrifice." Maybe that's to keep the blood out. Maybe that's because it's right before the offertory. Or maybe it's because of the Greek word John uses in his letter.

In the 1928 prayer book, the minister would say, "If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the Propitiation for our sins." That's it. First, it's worth noting that the comfortable word in the old prayer books leaves out the part about Jesus' sacrifice being sufficient for the sins of the whole world. Maybe that's because we don't want people to think that they can be forgiven unless they come to church. Or maybe it's because those of us in church want the smug superiority that universal forgiveness seems to deny. Or maybe it's simply because the unedited verses are pretty long and cumbersome. For whatever reason, though, the latter part is left off. The more interesting bit, however, is how the sacrifice is described.

The 1928 prayer book preserves the word "propitiation." That's what the KJV would have called it. During Holy Week, we used the CEB, which tries to strip away most of the theologically laden words so that anyone--even without the most basic theological education from a children's Sunday shcool class--could read the Bible and understand it. Naturally, it doesn't use that word. It tells us that Jesus is "God's way of dealing with our sins," which is what the word means and might actually be better than "atoning sacrifice," but it doesn't really get at the heart of the Greek word that John chose.

John uses ἱλασμός. That word has traditionally been translated as "propitiation." But that's not a word we use very often anymore. Unfortunately for us, it only occurs twice in the New Testament, both times in 1 John. It does occur in 2 Maccabees and in several of Plutarch's writings (see this website), and, in those cases, it is used to mean "expiatory sacrifice." The sense, therefore, is that sins are being forgiven, that anger is being appeased. The result of that might be at-one-ment, but the action itself implies a removal not a rejoining. The sin, the guilt, the anger are removed. The one-ness comes after that. Maybe, in that way, the "perfect offering" of the 1979 prayer book is a decent approximation, but I find that people don't just want to know that Jesus is the source of their reconciliation with God; they want to know how it happens. And the "propitiation" of Jesus Christ is the answer.

Sometimes routine loses its shine, and the Comfortable Words are one example. We are glad to have them back in our early service, but this Sunday's epistle lesson--even if it isn't mentioned by the preacher--is an extra chance to recapture their power by hearing the words a second time. Sometimes we need to strip down the comfortable English and get back to the awkward, rough words of the original language. Sometimes we need a theologically rich but difficult word like propitiation--not because it says everything we need to hear and not because it can stand without explanation but because it brings us deeper into the complicated thing that the Bible is saying to us. No, I don't want to change the 1979 version of this Comfortable Word, but I do want to dwell in its comfort even more fully than usual.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

All Things In Common

During the Easter season, we read from the Acts of the Apostles every Sunday, and, this week, we get a glimpse at my favorite part of Acts: the unity of the Christian community. In Acts 4, we read that "the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." That's Christian unity. Where did that kind of unity go?

Throughout history, there have been attempts to legislate common ownership. Political systems and religious cults have arisen around the theme of common property. The utopia of equality is appealing. Even reading Acts, I find myself wondering what it would take for a church community to look like that again. As far as I can tell, all of the individuals and groups who have tried to impose common ownership have all failed--failed at least in the sense that the property was really owned by all. Maybe that's because Acts 4 isn't a recipe for a unified Christian community. It's a description of it.

Actually, there are some communal Christian groups that work. Religious communities of monks and nuns continue to thrive in their own, isolated ways. I don't know the details, but I understand that individuals have their own rooms where they keep their own sentimental possessions but put everything of value at the disposal of the order. In order to become a member of a religious community, you must be debt free because otherwise any debt that you have would become the order's responsibility. When I went to monastery to see a spiritual director, I wrote a check to the individual director who met with me, but that money wasn't hers. It reflected her contribution to their common life. How does it work for present-day monks and nuns to live in a community that is remarkably similar to that described in Acts?

I, too, live in a Christian community where all things are held in common. It's called a family. We all share everything that we have. The peanut butter doesn't belong to any one of us, even if it is my favorite brand. When the milk runs out, no one accuses anyone else of stealing it. We just get more. Sure, there are arguments over what toy belongs to whom and who stole a piece of candy out of whose Easter basket, but, deep down, we all know that all things are held in common. We pass down underwear from one child to another, for Pete's sake! It feels less surprising that a family would figure out how to hold all things in common, but that's where the success lies.

A community is able to hold all things in common because it is truly united. That's the point of Acts 4. You can't create unity by forcing everyone to surrender her property. Sure, surrendering property will help reinforce unity. So many of the letters of the New Testament remind us that economic differences have a tendency to rip the community apart. But you can't magically unify a diverse group of people by making them give up private ownership of possessions. How is it possible for a community to be that unified? The Holy Spirit or, to put it another way, a community's complete and total dependence on the one principle that unites them all.

The Christian community in Acts is a group of believers who have lost their own individuality. Their needs, their concerns, their hopes, their dreams have all been folded into those of the group. They aren't being asked to forgo their identity. That would be artificial. That's what happens when communal property rules are enforced by a few. Instead, they voluntarily surrender that identity because, when they look at the group, they see their true identity. Their needs are the group's needs. Their dreams are the group's dreams. Unity like that works when we look around and see that our true identity already belongs to the group, and that's the kind of transformation that the gospel enables.

What does that mean for the preacher this week? Good question. I don't think it means a sermon about giving up more of your money in order to be unified. There's a place for that, but that's not the point of Acts 4. This week, it's time to preach the unifying power of God's victory over sin and death. If we believe that God has put to flight all that separates us from one another, then it is possible for us to become the community of Acts 4. As we pray in this week's collect, "Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith." Our aspiration is a community so united by the Holy Spirit that we become one body. We can't get there by forcing people to give up what they love. We get there by letting God teach us to love unity.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Blessing of Belief

This post is also in this week's newsletter from St. John's, Decatur. To learn more about what God is doing in and through St. John's, click here.

Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we remember Thomas. On the day of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, but, for some reason, Thomas was not there. Maybe he had gotten separated from the others when the soldiers stormed into the garden and had not found his way back to their company. Maybe he was so despondent after Jesus’ crucifixion that he had not found the spirit or strength to search for his friends. For whatever reason, Thomas did not see the risen Jesus for himself, and the result was a gift for future Christians.

When the disciples found Thomas, they told him that they had seen the Lord, but Thomas could not believe their good news. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told them. We are left to draw our own conclusions on the tone of Thomas’ statement. Was he defiant? Was he remorseful? Was he accusing the other disciples of making it up? Was he merely acknowledging what it would take for him to join in their belief? Although his words can be interpreted several different ways, we are preconditioned to hear them in a particular light.

The gospel identifies Thomas as “the Twin,” but we use a different moniker for him: Doubting Thomas. We fault him for his faithlessness. Two thousand years removed from the physical resurrection of Jesus, we believe without having seen the marks of the nails for ourselves. Why did Thomas find it so hard to accept? He had ten eye witnesses with whom he had spent several years of his life developing relationships of trust. If they said that they had seen the risen Lord, why wouldn’t Thomas believe? The answer, it seems, is that he doubted for our sake.

A week later, Jesus appeared to the disciples, and this time Thomas was with them. Without waiting for Thomas to address him, Jesus confronted the doubting disciple: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” As John recalls the scene for us, Thomas did not hesitate either. “My Lord and my God!” he proclaimed immediately. Then, Jesus made a proclamation that sounds like it was intended for us: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That is us. We are those who are blessed because, without seeing, we have come to believe.

Listen again to the invitation that Jesus gave to Thomas, but, this time, try hearing it with a sympathetic, compassionate tone rather than one of a chastising or confrontational nature: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe!” How we hear those words of Jesus makes all the difference. Instead of criticizing those who refuse to believe in his resurrection without first seeing physical proof, Jesus meets them in their doubt and grants them what they seek. “Do not doubt but believe!” With those words, Jesus wills us into faith and declares that those who come to belief are blessed.

Easter is not a litmus test for real Christians. It is an invitation to faith for all of us. After witnessing the crucifixion, none of the disciples expected Jesus to rise from the dead. So tragic was his execution that his closest followers all gave up on him. But Jesus met them, undeterred by their despair, and revealed himself to them, showing them the power of the victory God had won for them in his resurrection. Will he not do the same for us?

At times, we, too, find it hard to believe that there could possibly be a light at the end of the very long and dark tunnel in which we find ourselves. Sometimes everything feels stacked against us. Despite our best intentions and efforts, things fall apart. Thomas reminds us that God does not wait for us to find hope on our own. The story of Thomas shows us that God does not punish those who have doubts. Instead, God seeks them out and reveals himself to them. Easter may have happened on the third day, but it took Thomas a week before the resurrected Jesus found him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” Blessed are those who are found by the risen Lord.

Crucified Messiah?

You can't have Good Friday without Easter. We cannot proclaim the death of Jesus without also celebrating his resurrection. The world's rejection of God does not make sense as the last word. The only thing that makes our annual celebration of Good Friday bearable is our understanding that Easter will always come on the third day. But I also think we can flip that on its head and proclaim that you can't have Easter without Good Friday.

Yesterday, I read a piece on the Mockingbird website that quoted an article from Christianity Today by Wesley Hill about the "confluence of Easter and April Fools' Day." (It is the third part of the post that you can find here.) In it, Hill remarks that the real April Fools' joke isn't found in the fanciful story of the resurrection but in the unbelievable tragedy of the cross. How can God be at work in the death of Jesus? Hill shakes me to my core when he writes,
For instance, if someone tried to prank me by claiming that my deceased friend Chris had turned up at his favorite pub, I’d laugh and wink, but it wouldn’t necessarily undermine my fundamental convictions about how the world works if it turned out to be true. I’m prepared to meet God in the miraculous, in the glitter of the supernatural and in the joy of favors I’ve repeatedly prayed for. If, however, someone tried to convince me that God was “hiddenly” at work in the year that I collapsed in depression and had to take a hiatus from grad school or in the moment when I got the news that a beloved colleague was given six weeks to live, I’d frown in skepticism. “I don’t think you realize just how painful that was,” I’d say. “God couldn’t have been connected with those heartaches.”
There it is. That's the real miracle of Easter--not that someone should cheat death by rising from the tomb after three days but that God's Son would be utterly rejected and defeated by the powers of evil and then be vindicated by God's complete and total reversal of events. The miracle of Easter is that the cross doesn't represent the failure of God but God's greatest triumph.

Lots of people have been raised from the dead. Through the intercessions of Elijah, God raises the son of the widow of Zarephath. Similarly, Elisha raised the Shunnamite woman's son back from death. Jesus brings back the son of the widow of Cain, the daughter of Jairus, and, of course, his friend Lazarus. Peter brings back Dorcas. Paul brings back Eutychus. And I'm sure that other followers of Jesus in times ancient and modern have brought a surely-dead person back to life. As Hill writes, it isn't that far-fetched to think that God would show up in miraculous ways. But the cross? The shameful, tortuous execution of a rabbi who had crossed the powers of this world? Where is God in that?

In today's reading from Acts 2, Peter said to the multitude, "Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." We are told that, "when they heard this, they were cut to the heart." Compare that with the crowd's reaction whenever Jesus brought someone back from the dead. People were impressed. Some even became his followers. But the response is never described as the full conviction-repentance-belief cycle that we see here. That's what the cross and empty tomb together represent. This is not God's rejection of our failures but God's transformation of them. God is not absent in our worst. God is deeply present in a redemptive way.

Easter is not victory for the few--a miraculous gift for those who were personally touched by a resuscitation. It is God's vindication of all of our suffering, pain, and loss. The unfathomable consequence of Easter is God's transformational presence with those who are in their darkest hour. Just as Jesus proclaimed during his lifetime, God is not found with those who are blessed in the world's eyes. He is found with those on whom the world has turned its back. That is victory for us. Hallelujah! 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Day: Believe and Understand

April 1, 2018 – Easter Day, Year B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, the phone rang. I didn’t hear it ring. I was seven-years-old and sound asleep in my bed, which was nowhere near the phone. (Sometimes I miss those days.) My mother, who slept by the phone, woke up with a start and answered it. “Hello?” she said, half-wondering who would be calling her so early and half-worried at what that person might want. “Emily, this is Mrs. Malone, your neighbor across the street,” the person on the other end said. “I’m sorry to call you so early, but I just looked outside my window, and I saw a big package sitting on your doorstep. I thought you’d want to go and see what it is.”

I don’t really remember Mrs. Malone. Other than her phone call and the occasional plate of homemade divinity that she would give to me and my brothers, I didn’t have any contact with her. I just knew that she was the very nice, very old lady who lived across the street. I can remember enjoying the treats she that gave us, but I can’t picture her face in my mind. I’m not sure I ever actually saw her—just her house, right across from my parent’s back door.

My mother, still half-asleep, went to the door to find the package that Mrs. Malone had seen. But, when she got to the door, there was no package. She opened it, walked down the steps, and looked around, but there was nothing. Confused, my mother went back to the phone, and even before she had picked it up and held it to her ear, she could hear Mrs. Malone laughing on the other end. “April fool!” she called out. “Thank you,” my mother said—what else could she have said?—and hung up with Mrs. Malone still laughing.

Later that morning at the breakfast table, my mother told us the story of what had happened, and I was as confused as my mother initially had been. “You mean…there was no package?” I asked, disappointedly. My mother shook her head. “Well, then why did she call you?” I asked, growing increasingly upset. My mom tried to explain that it was April Fools’ Day and that this was what people did to unsuspecting friends on that day and that Mrs. Malone had meant it as a silly gesture of affection. I took my mother at her word, believing what she said, but I didn’t really understand what she meant. How could someone wake you up to play a joke on you and do it because she loved you? In fact, every year, Mrs. Malone pulled the same trick, though I think that she only managed to get my mother out of bed once more, and she kept it up until she died.

Today, not because it is April Fools’ Day but because it is Easter, I find myself wondering again how it is that we can believe something without understanding it.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away. Without stopping to look inside, she ran back into the city to find Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple and tell them that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. (Why else would the stone be rolled away?) At once, the two men ran toward the tomb. The Beloved Disciple got there first, and he bent down to look inside and saw that the grave clothes had been left behind. When Peter arrived, he went into the tomb to see for himself, and the Beloved Disciple went in behind him. Then, the gospel tells us that “he saw and believed.” But it doesn’t tell us what he believed.

It’s possible that the Beloved Disciple believed everything that Easter represents: Jesus’ resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the promise of everlasting life, God’s great vindication of Jesus, and God’s rejection of the powers that crucified him. But, if that’s the case, it’s pretty strange that the next sentence in the gospel tells us that “they didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” What does that mean? And, if the Beloved Disciple really believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, it seems pretty strange that he and Peter would shrug their shoulders and go back home without telling anyone else.

It’s also possible that he believed simply what Mary Magdalene had told them: that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. But, again, that seems pretty strange. Why would John, whose whole gospel account revolves around the significance of that word “believe,” bother to tell us that the Beloved Disciple went into the tomb, saw that Jesus’ body wasn’t there, and believed but only mean that he believed the body had been stolen? I think it’s more complicated than that. Just like anything worth believing in, I think it’s more complicated than that.

On Easter Day, when we peer through the eyes of those first disciples, we are invited to see and believe that the Lord is risen and then spend a lifetime pursuing an understanding of what the resurrection means in our lives. The empty tomb means more than a misplaced body. Not long after the disciples had gone away to ponder what it was that they had seen, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene. Overcome with grief, she could not even recognize the one standing in front of her. But then he called her name, and she recognized the risen Lord. That is the transformation that we seek. We aren’t just here to see that the stone has been rolled away and that the body is missing. We are here to encounter God’s victory over evil and sin and death, and to hear that victory speak our name and reveal itself to us. We want to experience the power of the resurrection two thousand years later yet feel it as new and fresh as if it were today.

God is breaking through the darkness. God is shattering the chains that imprison God’s people. That is what Easter means for us. Maybe the power of the resurrection is easy to see in your life. Maybe all around you old things are becoming new and things that had been cast down are being raised up. But maybe it’s not that easy. Maybe the empty tomb feels more like a story than a reality. Maybe the light of the resurrection seems to have gone into hiding behind a dark cloud. Maybe this feels more like an April Fools’ Day joke than a story you can bet your life on. If that’s the case, don’t worry. We are not here today to complete the work of the resurrection. We are here to see it get started. We are here to witness God’s victory over everything that stands in the way of the life that our loving God has in store for you, and it doesn’t matter if you can’t understand it yet. That’s why we follow Jesus—to discover the power of Easter as it unfolds over our lifetime.

So come to the tomb and see for yourself. Bend down. Go inside, and see what God has done. See for yourself that the tomb is empty and believe. Believe that God has done the impossible, that he has won for us a mighty victory. And, then, go forth from the tomb, seeking the fullness of the resurrection’s power in your life. Search for the power of Easter. Pursue its understanding, and trust that it will find you and speak your name.