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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.