Copyright, Yellow Tavern, 2011
Not to be copied for publication, in part or in whole, without proper acknowledgement.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Living As Easter People: Walking in the Light

1 John 1:1-2:2   
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But 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.

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God! ”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It’s usually hard for we 21st Century Americans who live on the outskirts of a city to grasp what a first Century writer meant when he used images of light and darkness.  Until about seventy years ago, when the sun went down, the world changed.  Candles and oil lamps and other forms of artificial light were expensive and not very bright, so they were used only for emergencies or long enough to get people to bed.  Work happened in the daylight, which was abundant and free; the night was dark indeed, and was the time when crime and evil reigned.  When a first Century writer like John talked about living in the light, he meant to live as we live in the daytime, when all can see who we are and what we do.  To live in the darkness meant to embrace secrecy and evil.
Like virtually every letter in the New Testament, the first letter of John addresses a problem in the infant church.  No one who seriously reads the Bible can be under any delusions that back in the good old days -- whether before Jesus or after Jesus – people of faith lived in trouble-free relationships with each other or that theology and ethics were unblemished.  Romans is written to a church divided between Gentiles and Jews, the Corinthian letters are addressed to a church imploding from spiritual pride, Galatians is sent to a church arguing about the relationship between faith and works.  In this first letter of John, which we will be looking at for the next several weeks, there has already been a split in the church and people have left.  Imagine that!  The particular issue here concerns the humanity of Jesus.  There’s no problem with Jesus as the Son of God – the whole Johannine church understands that Jesus was divinity come to earth.  Some in the congregation, on the other hand, insisted that Jesus wasn’t really human in the same way that you and I are flesh and blood.  He only seemed to be human, they said, like a really good actor playing a part.  The fancy theological name for this belief is docetism – from the Greek word for to seem.
Now, docetism is alive and well two millennia later, mostly within the Christian church.  We see it every time someone is talking about how Jesus struggled with temptation and doubt and grief and loneliness and pain and the full range of human experience, and someone else says yes, but that was Jesus.  In other words, it wasn’t the same for Jesus as it was for us, because he wasn’t human in the same way you and I are.  That’s docetism:  Jesus only seemed human in the way you and I are human.  Jesus was more like Superman, because, after all, he was God.
What’s the problem with Jesus being more divine than human?  (By the way, when you think of Jesus being both divine and human, it’s not 50/50 – half human, half God.  That’s what leads to docetism.  Jesus is fully human and  fully divine:  100/100.  Yes, Jesus is 200%.  How can that be?  That’s called  the mystery of the incarnation, that Jesus is completely human and also completely God.  But more about that later.)  The problem with Jesus being more divine than human is that if Jesus isn’t fully human, then his life really doesn’t apply to how you and I live our lives.  If Jesus is primarily spiritual, then what he did and what is said is about spiritual, non-material reality, not about how we treat each other and how we live in a very physical and real world.  So, when Jesus says that we shouldn’t lay up treasure on earth, he means that in a spiritual sense:  you can accumulate all the stuff you want, as long as you aren’t spiritually attached to it.  Or when Jesus says that to follow him means taking up our crosses and dying, that means we should be spiritually free, but Jesus doesn’t really expect us to literally suffer for our faith.  Do you begin to see how docetism is alive and well in us?
John’s answer to the people who have left the church because they insisted that Jesus was a matter of spiritual but not physical truth is that he and the other disciples had literally heard and seen and touched Jesus.  In this morning’s gospel lesson, Thomas says he won’t believe this resurrection nonsense until he has touched the physical body of Jesus.  The Gospel of John is addressed to people like the troublemakers in the Johannine church, who saw physicality as evil and incompatible with true spirituality.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth the Gospel of John begins.  At the end of the Gospel, Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds and Jesus eats breakfast by the Sea of Galillee.  Following Jesus isn’t just about what we do in our heads and hearts – it’s about what we do with our hands and mouths and feet and time and money.  When Jesus tells Peter, at the end of the Gospel, to feed his sheep, he’s not just talking about sharing esoteric spiritual truths:  he is telling Peter to fill people’s stomachs.
The false believers in John’s church insisted that what they did with their bodies was irrelevant to following Jesus, as long as their minds and hearts were pure.  They had no sin to confess, because their spirits were right with God.  That, John said, was like people who lived honest lives in the daylight, but who robbed and murdered and raped under the cover of darkness.  If we are going to follow Jesus, the first requirement is for us to be honest – honest with God, honest with others, and honest with ourselves.  Honesty is bringing everything into the light, not hiding anything in the dark.  To be honest is to be one whole person, not two, just as Jesus is one whole person, wholly God, wholly human.  To be faithful, said Martin Luther, is to tell it like it is.
If we’re going to be honest, we need to confess the division between light and darkness in who we are.  Even though we now live in a world where it’s difficult to ever find a place with no lights shining in the dark, we’ve developed sophisticated ways of creating our own darkness.  I recently changed the internet browser I use on my computer to Google Chrome.  I discovered that Chrome has something called an Incognito Window, where you can visit websites and not be tracked.  I’ll leave it to your imagination what kind of websites might be visited anonymously.  People can establish completely false identities in chat rooms and on social networking sites.  Hardly a day goes by without us hearing lurid tales of predators luring victims under false pretenses.  But darkness doesn’t require a computer:  some politicians campaigning for office will say anything to win votes, making impossible promises.  Our taxes are due on Tuesday:  how many of us have been really honest about everything we’ve spent and earned? 
How many of us will live our faith in the light this week?  When a neighbor is in need, or when the weak are being picked on, or when a classmate or co-worker attacks God or faith, will we stand up for Jesus?  How much of our time this week will be spent talking with others about sports or television or politics, and how much will be spent talking about God?  We need to pay for the new building we built, and this week we learned we’re going to have to do some significant work on the twenty year old HVAC system for the fellowship hall: does following Jesus a matter of our hearts, or our wallets?  As the political campaigns shift into high gear, will we ask questions about how a policy affects the poor, the children, and the elderly, or will we worry more about ourselves?  We need you to step forward to teach our children and our youth in Sunday School, to advise our youth program, to staff our nursery.  Are you going to pray for someone else to do it, or are you going to put your time, and your energies, and your bodies on the line?
God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  To walk in the light means putting our faith on the line, openly, publicly, without shame and without compromise.  If Jesus was 100% human, then the only way to follow him is with 100% of our humanity.   John says there will be no forgiveness without living that way.
We need you.  The world needs you.  Stop hiding in the darkness:  come, live in the light.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Did Jesus Really Rise?

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”


Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


That’s it.  That’s how Mark, in the most ancient manuscripts, ends the story.  Later, scholars think, as the original manuscript of Mark was copied over hundreds of years, the last twelve verses were added, telling about encounters by Mary Magdalene, and then two disciples, and then the eleven with the risen Jesus.  But the stronger evidence is that Mark’s gospel ended as I’ve just read – with an empty tomb, instructions to head north, and three very confused women.  The story has an open ending.
There are some very good stories that end that way.  Gone With The Wind ends with Scarlett’s skirts waving in the breeze as she stands under a tree at Tara, gazing into the sunset.  Or is it a sunrise?  Will Rhett ever come back?  Will she keep Tara, or turn it into a subdivision?  In the 1990’s Alexandra Ripley tried to answer those questions with her widely panned sequel, Scarlett.  It didn’t work, because there’s a reason why some stories have open endings.
The book and movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles, has two – or, depending how you count, three – endings.  The TV show Seinfeld ended its nine-year run with Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer in a jail cell having been found guilty of criminal indifference, which was the point of the whole series.  What happened to them from there?  And, the most recent case of an open-ended story was the finale of The Sopranos on HBO, where the mobster Tony Soprano, whom everyone expected to be rubbed out in the last episode, is seen eating onion rings with his wife and son in a New Jersey restaurant.  No machine guns, no concrete overshoes.  Just onion rings.
Why would an author, especially the author of a gospel, leave the ending of this story open?  Scholars generally agree that Mark’s gospel was the first one written – wouldn’t it have been more helpful for him to put forth evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead? For two thousand years, Christians have argued proofs for the resurrection – that neither the Romans nor the Sanhedrin produced a body; that believers don’t die for things they know to be untrue; that the tomb was guarded; that the disciples are transformed from frightened sheep to great lions of God.  Believers in the shroud of Turin say that the image of the crucified man on the cloth could only have been produced by a brilliant light from within him “photo-copying” onto the fabric.  Why wouldn’t Mark leave us with something besides terrified women fleeing the scene?
Fred Craddock, who has been the great model for preaching for the last generation, delivers a sermon the way Mark wrote his gospel.  The first time I head Fred preach was at Minister’s Convocation at Blackstone.  Fred was weaving together a story about a trout stream in the mountains of North Georgia with the story of Abraham and Sarah looking for the Promised Land.  He drew us deeper and deeper into the stories, and I found myself literally sitting on the edge of my seat in the balcony as the sermon rose to its climax.  Just at the point where a run-of-the-mill preacher like me would say, “Now, this is what all this means, and this is what you need to do,” Fred turned from the pulpit and sat down.  I almost fell off the front of my seat.  I turned to my neighbor and said, “WHAT?”  But Fred wants the congregation to work out for themselves, with fear and trembling, what they’re supposed to do.  Because, Fred says, what he believes God is saying to him might not be the same thing God is saying to me, or to you.  He believes that the gospel story is so powerful, and the work of the Holy Spirit in that story so moving, that if we listen with open hearts, then God will help us find our place in that story.
Maybe that’s what Mark’s doing, too, with this story about women running from the tomb in terror.  He wants us to figure out for ourselves what the empty tomb means for us.  Sure, he could tell us about the road to Emmaus, or about Thomas doubting, or about Jesus cooking breakfast on the seashore like Matthew, Luke, and John do.  Mark knew those stories, too, as did the scribes who added them in verses 9 through 20.  But the proof that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning isn’t there.  There is proof, but it’s somewhere else.
A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a man who is not a Christian about what I believed.  His belief system, he admits, revolves around himself:  everything he believes comes from within his heart and mind.  He believes that religion is about ideas and spirit, not about anything physical.  I said that, as a Christian, I didn’t believe in a disembodied spirituality – that we couldn’t separate body and soul and spirit, which is why when Jesus rose from the dead, people could touch him, he carried his wounds, and he cooked and ate fish by the Sea of Galilee.  “So,” this man said, “do you believe God has a body?”  I thought a moment before answering, “Yes.”  He raised his eyebrows and asked, “Do you mean, a physical body that you can touch?”  Without hesitation, I replied, “Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  And I’ve touched, and been touched by it, many, many times.”  “Well,” he responded, “that’s very interesting.”  And that was the end of the conversation.
I never explained to him what I meant by that.  But Mark’s open ending to the Easter story tells me that the proof for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead isn’t in a shroud in Italy or in a missing body or in arguments about the placement of grave cloths.  The proof for the living Body of Christ is all around us this morning.  Hold the hand of the person next to you:  we are the Body of Christ.  Like Jesus, we are scarred, we are damaged, we are broken and weak.  But this Body has outlived every nation in history, it has outlasted every political and economic philosophy, it has survived every attempt to kill it and to mangle it and to render it irrelevant and useless.  It continues to work miracles of bringing dead hearts and minds to life, it feeds the hungry and heals the sick, it gives speech to the speechless, sight to the blind, and helps the lame rise and walk.  It loves the unlovable, forgives the unforgiveable, cures the incurable, gives hope to the hopeless, and life to the dead.  Did Jesus rise from the dead?  Look around you. 
Do I believe that somehow, by the power of God, the crucified carpenter of Nazareth came back to life on Easter morning, appeared to his disciples, walked to Emmaus, cooked breakfast by the lake, ascended into heaven, and appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus? Absolutely.  But the proof, for me, and, I would suggest, for the world, isn’t in the gospel stories.  It’s the other way around:  the proof for the gospel stories is in the very much risen and living Body of Christ that we touch every time we hold each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other, eat with each other, work with each other, study and pray and sing and sacrifice with each other.  The proof is that for all our scars and brokenness, the world has been transformed more by that one solitary life living through us, than by all the kings and queens and soldiers and politicians and teachers and philosophers and athletes and actors who have ever lived.
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  The world is hungering to know.  Look around you – there’s the answer.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Did Jesus Have to Die?

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

"Mythbusters," on the Discovery Channel, features two ex-Hollywood stunt men and their team of helpers, who every week test the truth of urban legends, popular beliefs, internet rumors, or other myths.  They've tested whether using a cell phone will cause an explosion at the gas pump, whether someone with a tongue piercing is more likely to be struck by lightning, and whether you can actually find a needle in a haystack.  One episode tested a story about a driver who left the cement in his cement truck sit too long and it hardened.  The driver supposedly loosened the cement by throwing a stick of dynamite in the drum.  Mythbusters proved a stick of dynamite wouldn't do the job, but they kept increasing the explosives until they completely demolished the truck.  Cement left in the truck is useless:  it's only good when it's poured out.
The highest price ever paid for a bottle of drinkable wine was for a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild bordeaux:  $ 114,000.  The most ever paid for a bottle of any wine was $ 160,000 for a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite bordeaux that is certainly vinegar now, but the bottle was from Thomas Jefferson's wine cellar and had his initials scratched on the glass.  No matter how old the vintage, wine is only good if it's poured out.
Hetty Green only owned one dress and wore it every day until it wore out.  She never turned on the heat and never used hot water.  She did not wash her hands and mostly ate pies that cost fifteen cents.  When her son, Ned, broke his leg as a child, she took him to a charity hospital.  When the hospital staff recognized her and refused to treat him as a charity case, she took Ned home and vowed to treat him herself.  The boy's leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated.  When Hetty died in 1916, her estate was valued, in today's dollars, at approximately three billion dollars.  All the money in the world is of no use unless it's poured out.
Jesus had it all.  He was adored by the common people, he could raise the dead, heal the sick, feed the hungry, change water into wine.  The nation was looking for a king and wanted to make him that ruler.  More than that, before his birth, he had been enthroned in heaven at God's side.  He had been present at the birth of the cosmos, he was surrounded by angels to do his bidding, he enjoyed unbroken fellowship with his Father, he existed in glory and honor and majesty.  Literally, he had it all.
But, like billions in a bank account, like cement stuck in a mixer, like wine on the shelf, it made no difference.  What does the glory of God mean when God's Creation struggles, suffers, and dies?  Jesus needed to be poured out.
So, says St. Paul to the church in Philippi, Jesus pours himself out.  Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be held on to.  Instead, he emptied himself -- poured himself out -- taking the form not of a master but of a slave, born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he lowered -- humbled -- himself, and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.
Jesus is poured out into a manger in Bethlehem, born among the poor of the world.  He is poured out into the streets of Nazareth and Capernaum and Tyre.  He is poured out weeping for his friend Lazarus, poured out restoring dead children to life, healing lepers and paralytics, exorcising demons, feeding thousands of people.  He is poured out explaining the love of God to people who cannot understand what he means.  Jesus empties himself, over and over and over.
That's a crazy way to live.  Life is supposed to be about gathering in, not pouring out.  We go to school so we can gather knowledge, so we can go to work and gather money, so we can go to the store and gather food and furniture and clothes and toys.  We accumulate friends, we acquire property, we increase in fame and reputation.  Yes, we are willing to part with some of our accumulated money and knowledge and time, but only so we can trade it for something else we'd rather have.  Even our time is traded for something else that we want, probably something that promises, in the long run, to save us more time.  We work hard now so we can retire earlier and better, and have more time.  We save and invest now so we will have more later. 
It's all a matter of balance, we like to preach to each other.  Balance your time, your energy, your money, your desire, your gifts.  Don't spend more money, time, or energy than you get in return.  Don't empty yourself.  Keep the wine in the bottle, the cement in the mixer, the money in the bank.
Jesus, it seems to me, lives an utterly unbalanced life.  He is always giving away infinitely more than he receives.  And today, Palm Sunday, begins the final draft on Jesus' life, taking it down far past bankruptcy.  This week Jesus will pour it all out, in the Temple, in the Upper Room, in Pilate's palace, in the court of the Sanhedrin, and, finally, on a cross.  There's nothing balanced about this week.  Jesus' blood flows like an overturned bottle of wine, and his life is demolished like an exploded cement mixer.  By three o'clock Friday, there's nothing left.  There's no glory, no peace, no praise, and no breath.  Jesus is empty.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Paul writes, who, though he was in the form of God, did not hold on to his equality with God, but emptied himself. 
Agnes Bojaxhiu was a young Albanian girl who felt called to become a nun.  She went to Ireland to learn English, so she could then teach in India.  After teaching in Calcutta for seventeen years, she went on a retreat in Darjeeling, and was overwhelmed by a call from God to serve the dying poor.  Begging in the streets, she raised money to found a hospice.  Beginning with 13 nuns, by the time of her death the Missionaries of Charity numbered 4,000 nuns operating hospitals, schools, and refugee centers.  Agnes poured herself out into the streets of Calcutta:  you probably know her by another name:  Mother Theresa.
Butch Nottingham is a farmer on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  In 1982 his pastor invited him to hear a program on responsible lifestyles and hunger issues.  When the leader of the program said that millions of pounds of food were being thrown away and could be used to feed hungry people, Butch questioned the figures.  Butch told the leader that if he got a group of people together with bags, they could walk behind his potato harvester and have all the potatoes they wanted.  Ray Buchanan, the leader, took Butch's bet, and they gleaned behind Butch's tractor that fall.  In the twenty-seven years since the Society of Saint Andrew began their gleaning network, 400,000 volunteers have gleaned over 152 million pounds of food to be distributed to the poor.  All it took was one farmer willing to give away what was left behind his tractor.
All the glory in heaven cannot save the world from its sin.  But Christ surrenders his heavenly glory to be born and to live among the poor and forgotten people of the earth.  He pours out his life, emptying it on the hill of Calvary.  And, not from his glory and power and equality with God, but from his emptied life, come love and hope and resurrection.  His Lordship comes not from his authority but from his servanthood.  His power comes from his obedience.  His life comes from his death.  His fullness comes from his emptying.
Hetty Green, who died with billions in the bank, is remembered only for her eccentricity; Mother Theresa, who died a pauper, changed the world.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on undrunk wine make headlines; food rescued from behind tractors feeds millions.  Cement left in a mixer gets dynamited; lives poured out for God and for neighbors build the New Jerusalem. 
Like wine, money, and cement, life is meant to be poured out. Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . who emptied himself.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: What Happens When I Die?

1 Corinthians 15:1-27, 35-57

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 22:23-33

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.

Our Wednesday morning Bible Study group was talking this week about one of the strange phenomena of our time – that, according to newspaper death notices, no one dies any more. People pass; they claim the promise of the resurrection; they went to be with the Lord. I want to ask people who use those terms whether all of us who haven’t passed are failing; or where the Lord was before they died. I claimed the promise of the resurrection at my baptism. When the garbage truck runs over me while I’m riding my bike, I want you to say I died. It’s a perfectly good word.

The constant use of euphemisms usually indicates discomfort or outright denial. Years ago, we didn’t talk about sex -- we had dozens of euphemisms for that, too. Women didn’t get pregnant – they were in a family way. The sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther said that a bad theologian calls things true that are not true, but a faithful theologian tells it like it is. Christians ought to get used to death and everything about it, because the Apostles’ Creed says we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. We’ve got pass through dead to get to life everlasting.

What does the Bible teach us about what happens when we die? The Old Testament isn’t much help: it doesn’t talk very much about the afterlife. The Psalms talk about going down to Sheol, which was a kind of shadowy place where people went when they died. Mostly, the Hebrew Bible says that when people died, they slept with their ancestors. Ezekiel has a vision of the valley of dry bones coming back to life, but that’s more about the restoration of the nation of Israel than it is about individuals reviving in eternity.

Jesus talks about the afterlife mostly in parables: the great banquet, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, the rich man and Lazarus. In the Gospel of John, he tells the disciples he is leaving them to prepare a place for them, and that in his Father’s house there are many rooms. I remember a woman who didn’t like that translation – she preferred the King James Version, because she said she didn’t want a room, she wanted a mansion.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the Sadducees, who were the rich and conservative religious elite who only believed in the first five books of the Bible and therefore didn’t believe in an afterlife, try to trap Jesus by asking him a question about a woman who had been married seven times. “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” they ask. Jesus’ response tells us volumes about what happens in eternity. Eternity is not an extension of mortal life and mortal relationships. All of us who are hoping for perfect golf fairways or golden bicycle paths or sparkling beaches or even – dare I say it – immaculate baseball diamonds are going to be sorely disappointed. Human relationships – marriage, family, friendship – are parables of intimacy, dependence, and friendship with God and God’s people. They are like appetizers preparing us for the main course. Further, Jesus says, the dead are like angels. Note the wording: like. You and I are never going to be angels. Angels are not dead people – they are part of God’s heavenly court, and surround the throne of God singing eternal praise. In the Book of Revelation, heaven is one forever symphony of praise and thanksgiving. That’s why worship here is so important – like angels, worship is what we’re going to be doing forever, so we’d better learn to do it well now. Years ago at Annual Conference, after a long morning of argument over some issue, the bishop stopped the debate so we could have our mid-day worship service. As we creaked to our feet for the opening hymn, I said to my seatmate, best friend, and singing partner Jim Hewitt, I certainly hope heaven is not like THIS! Jim turned and said to me, I wouldn’t mind spending eternity singing next to you. And I crawled under my chair. But Jim was right – eternity is going to be about worship. If you don’t like it here – well, think about what that means for your future.

In the first letter to Corinth, St. Paul gets more explicit. Jesus is the model for us both in life and in death. Jesus died – he didn’t pass or go to be with the Lord. Then God raised Jesus to a new life. He wasn’t a ghost or an angel. He had a body. The disciples could touch him, he asked Mary not to hold on to him in the garden, and he cooked and ate fish with the disciples on the beach. He bore the scars of his crucifixion. But, he came and went through locked doors. He wasn’t recognized by two disciples on their way to Emmaus until he broke bread with them, and then he disappeared. He ascended up – and out – forty days after Easter, but then appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. So, Paul says in this morning’s lesson, who and how we are in this life resembles what is to come, in the same way that the mortal Jesus resembles, but is not identical to, the resurrected Jesus. It’s not clear what we’ll be, Paul says, except that we will be like Jesus. And that ought to be good enough for us.

It seems more and more to me that we don’t do ourselves, or others, or God any favors by talking about pearly gates or streets of gold or angel wings or beaches or golf courses. If, as St. Paul says, eternity is being like Jesus, what does that mean? Jesus is one with his Father. Jesus surrenders his will to the will of the Father. Jesus pours himself out in love for God and for the world. Jesus forgives all who have hurt him. Jesus lives to glorify his Father in everything he does and says and is. So, after death, it looks like Jesus. It looks like never having to think or worry about what I want, what I need, what I prefer. It looks like never ever thinking about what anyone else thinks about me. It looks like surrendering completely to love, to praise, to adoration, to God. It looks like never using the word “I” again. The closer I get to God, the more tired I get of me. To spend eternity in love, never thinking about myself, sounds pretty heavenly to me.

The Scottish-American Presbyterian clergyman Peter Marshall once told a story about falling asleep as a child in the living room of his house, and, when he woke up the next morning, found himself in his bed in his pajamas. He couldn’t figure out how he had gotten there, but then he realized that while he was asleep, without his knowing or remembering the in-between, his father had picked him up, carried him to his room, changed his clothes, and put him to bed, where he woke up in a new day, in new clothes, refreshed. That’s what will happen when we fall into that sleep. When we wake up, it will be in a new world, on a new day, and we will be wearing new bodies that look like Jesus’. Then, without any thought about ourselves, we’ll gather around the throne with all the new Creation to sing well and loud.

And we’ll all clap on two and four.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Can I Be Forgiven?

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Luke 23:32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


When we were getting ready to build the new addition at Franktown Church – a project that we knew was going to be bigger and more expensive than anything the church had ever done before – I invited Peter Vaughn, then the Director of Development for all the United Methodist Churches in Virginia, to come and talk to us about how to do such a thing. One of the first things we needed to do, Peter told us, was conduct a strategic analysis of the giving patterns of the congregation, so we’d know how much money we could raise. As Peter explained how to do this, he talked about how, on the average, American churches give according to a consistent formula – such and such a percentage of the congregation gives the top twenty percent of money, another percentage gives the next twenty percent, and so on. After peter had laid out the pattern, the chair of the church Trustees, who was also the retired Superintendent of the County Schools, literally snorted and said, “Well, Reverend, that might be the average elsewhere, but that’s not what’s it’s like on the Eastern Shore, and it’s certainly not the percentages in this church.” Peter, without blinking, said, “Well, maybe not, but that’s pretty consistent pattern across all churches in this country.” We turned to the Financial Secretary and asked him to do an analysis of the giving patterns of our church. A few weeks later he brought us the report, and it was, to the decimal, exactly what Peter had told us the national average was.

As a part of that process, I also took the church leadership to two workshops, featuring nationally famous church consultants, about how to grow from a small church to a middle sized church. The consultants talked about the struggles involved in changing the thinking and patterns and culture of a small church, and how church members react to the stresses of that change. During the first break, my church leaders turned en masse to me and said, “Did you talk to him before this meeting? Everything he’s said that people in the church say is exactly what we’ve heard our church members say. You talked to him, didn’t you?” I answered, “You keep thinking you’re unlike everyone else in the world, but I keep trying to tell you that what we’re going through is what every church in our situation goes through. So, if we have the same issues as other churches, do you think that the way they solved their issues might work for us, too?” That was a breakthrough for Franktown Church. The Eastern Shore thinks it’s unlike anywhere else in the world, and the rules elsewhere don’t apply to them. But the Shore has the same issues every rural area has. Small churches have similar issues, middle size churches have similar issues, big churches have similar issues. We all thing we’re exceptional – that no one else in the world is just like us. But the hard truth is that when we get down to talking about what’s really going on in the depths of our lives and our hearts, we’re not exceptional at all. Our hurts, our shames, our fears, our hopes, our loves aren’t exceptional – we share far more than we differ.

One of those phony exceptions we cherish about ourselves is our ability to be forgiven. Every one of us here believes that, in theory and principle, God forgives. That’s God’s job, after all. God forgives you and you and you and you. And God forgives a whole lot of the rotten stuff I’ve done, too. Except. Except that – well, you know. That’s different. I’ve asked God to forgive me, and I guess God has, But I really can’t forgive myself. Because it’s – well, you know. It’s – different. And that’s just something I have to live – and die – with. I guess I’ll just have to settle that with God when I die, because, well, that’s different.

That’s not the way God works, says the writer to the Ephesians. You were all once dead because of our selfishness. We were cut off from God. But even when we were dead because of our self-centeredness, God did an amazing thing: he made us alive with Christ. When Christ died, he entered into our deaths from sin and selfishness. But God took that sin-death, and, just as God did at Creation, made life out of nothing. So, when Jesus rose from the death of sin on Easter morning, he carried us with him. This has absolutely nothing to do with your own goodness or anything else we do, Ephesians says. It has nothing to do with our ability to forgive ourselves for – you know. This is God’s action, and we are saved by God’s gracious gift. All we have to do is receive it, trusting that God can do something we can’t do for ourselves.

Yes, I heard someone just say, that’s true for everything except – you know. I’m exceptional. Really? Look at the gospel lesson. Jesus is dying on the cross, bracketed by two criminals. The religious folks have framed him, the Romans have crucified him out of expediency to placate the mobs, his disciples have deserted him, and the crowd is mocking him. And what is Jesus’ response to this horrible thing that all these people are doing to him? Father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing. This horrible, excruciating, unjust murder is taking place, and the victim forgives everyone involved, and even offers redemption to the criminal at his side.

Now, I don’t know what you’ve done. I don’t know what eats at your soul. I don’t know what anger you hold against someone else, what terrible thing you did to someone else or to yourself, I don’t know what failure of nerve or character or faith or life you’ve committed that makes you say, Yes, I know God forgives, except . . .

Is there anything you have ever done, or could ever do, that tops killing the Son of God? Tell me your big bad secret that trumps that one. You’re Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin or Pol Pot and you killed millions of people. You cheated on your spouse. You betrayed your friend. You cursed God. You had an abortion no one knew about. You have an addiction. You stole. Tell me, great criminal of the universe, what have you done that’s worse than killing Jesus? What is the monstrous thing you’ve said or been or done or not said or been or done that is so terrible that Jesus’ prayer, Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing doesn’t apply to you? Who do you think you are?

We’re not exceptional, no matter what Mommy told us. Our sins are not exceptional, and neither is our ability to be healed and reborn and forgiven. If you can’t be forgiven, then your sin is bigger than God. And not only is that impossible, it’s just stupid. Get over yourself.

By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Your sin is not exceptional. Neither is God’s grace.