The Resurrection of the Body

Luke 24:36b-48

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.[1]

 This is the beginning of the Gospel of Luke.  It is, in his own words, an orderly account.  He is reporting what has been told to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”  Luke wants you to know that he investigated everything carefully. So if Luke tells you that shepherds watching their flocks at night heard angels singing and that an angel told them to go to Bethlehem to see a baby in a manger, Luke wants you to know that he is reporting the story exactly as it was told to him by at least one reliable person.

Luke likes details.  Luke locates the story of Jesus in history.  It began when Tiberius was emperor.  When Quirinius was governor of Syria.  When that first census was taken—you know the one everyone hated so much, the one that stuck us with that annual tax of one denarius per person.  

Luke keeps things physical and human.  This gospel doesn’t spiritualize practical or justice issues.  It’s “Blessed are the poor,” not “blessed are the poor in spirit” for Luke.  Yes, Luke does emphasize the presence and work of the Holy Spirit–Jesus is conceived by the Spirit (1:35), and anointed with the Spirit (3:22; 4:1, 14, 18),  

people are filled with the Spirit (1:15, 41, 67) and inspired by the Spirit (2:25–27), 

God gives the Holy Spirit to all who ask(11:13), and Jesus promises the disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high”(24:49)—but for all that, the Spirit seems more practical than ethereal in Luke.

And then there’s the eating. 

Luke’s gospel seems to have an unusual interest in food.

In the Magnificat, Mary sings that the poor will be fed and in Luke’s telling of the Beatitudes, Jesus says those who hunger will be fed.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus talks about table etiquette three times. There are five banquet parables.  Jesus is present at nineteen meals.  Five times he is criticized for eating too much and with the wrong people.   But it is after the resurrection that food plays its most important role in this very pragmatic gospel.

On the afternoon of the resurrection, the risen Jesus joins a couple of heartbroken travelers who are returning to their home in Emmaus from Jerusalem.  These two, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, are two people who know Jesus well.  In fact, if Cleopas is the same person as Clopas mentioned in John 19, then these two Emmaus travelers might be Jesus’ aunt and uncle.  So they know him,  but they aren’t aware of who he is as he walks with them and talks with them.  It’s not until he sits down with them and breaks bread that they recognize him.   Breaking bread, food, becomes the sign of recognition.

Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples huddled in the upper room about their encounter with Jesus.  But just as they started to tell their story, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  

And here is where Luke, the realist, the reporter, is at his best.  He tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”  Well you would be, wouldn’t you.  Startled. And terrified.  If you had seen someone killed in a brutal and horrific way, and then seen them buried, but suddenly that person was was standing right in front of you, you would think you were seeing a ghost.  Or maybe you would question your own sanity.  

Before their minds could be blown too much or wander too far into the fog of speculation, Jesus brought them sharply to the reality of the moment.  “He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  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.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.”  

Once again Luke puts emphasis on the physical.  Touch me and see.  A ghost does not have flesh and bones.  Luke is making a point. 

Naturally the friends of Jesus when suddenly confronted with his unexpected, risen presence feel a jumble of emotions.  And once again, Luke is the realistic reporter.  He tells us they were joyful and disbelieving and wondering all at the same time.  So Jesus asks for something to eat and they give him a piece of broiled fish.  This is the physical proof that seals the deal and silences all doubts.  Ghosts don’t eat.

The realism is important here.  This is not merely a “spiritual” resurrection.  This is not some metaphor for springtime.  This is flesh and bones Jesus returned to life. Luke wants us to make it absolutely clear that Jesus is physically, bodily raised from the dead. 

Why does Luke make such a point of this and why does it matter for us?

In the original ending of Mark’s gospel, there are no resurrection encounters.  There is an empty tomb and the cryptic message that he has gone ahead of you.  It has been suggested that the empty tomb in Mark symbolizes that ultimate love in our lives, the love of God, cannot be crucified or killed.  

Well okay.  That’s not a bad message as far as it goes.  It’s an easy idea to carry in your head.  It sounds somewhat sophisticated and enlightened.  But does it move your heart?  Can that symbolic interpretation carry the full weight of your hopes and fears when you’re faced with a real crisis?

We are called to share the Good News of Christ risen, Christ alive, Christ with us, Christ at work in the world.   We are called to bring hope.  We are called to bring a real hope that speaks to the real needs of the real people who live in real crisis in our real world.  Does “the empty tomb is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering” do that?

And again, that’s not a bad message.  It is part of our message.  But is it enough?

Seven years ago when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer I found myself rethinking my mortality, especially since both my mom and my dad died of cancer.  My surgeon assured me that my chances of coming through the journey okay were probably good.  Don’t you love the language doctors use once the “C” word has been spoken?  You hear the word “probably” a lot.  The point is, once the word “Cancer” has been spoken, it sharpens your focus.  Things that had been theoretical either become the life raft you cling to or they get discarded.  I realized during that time that, while I’m willing to entertain and discuss all kinds of ideas and theories about resurrection, for me personally a psychological or philosophical understanding isn’t enough to carry the weight of my hopes and fears.  I need something with some bones in it, some skin on it.  And I’m not alone in that.

I have seen a lot of death in my decades as a pastor.  I have accompanied people up to death’s door and held their hand as they crossed the threshold.  I will tell you right now that the ones who have gone most easily, most readily, and most willingly have been those who believed in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus.

I will also tell you that those I’ve known who can proclaim their faith most convincingly have also usually been those who have believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus.  Though I’ve read his words many times, Frederick Buechner’s words of faith still move me:

I can tell you this: that what I believe happened and what in faith and with great joy I proclaim to you here is that he somehow got up, with life in him again, and the glory upon him. And I speak very plainly here, very un-fancifully, even though I do not understand well my own language. I was not there to see it any more than I was awake to see the sun rise this morning, but I affirm it as surely as I do that by God’s grace the sun did rise this morning because that is why the world is flooded with light.

The testimony of faithful people is a good and powerful reason to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  That’s why Luke, at the beginning of his gospel, makes it clear that he is reporting events  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  

But there is also another good reason to trust the accounts of the physical resurrection of Jesus, a reason that’s both practical and theological.

Jesus was a real physical person who was tortured to death in a first-century lynching.  The state and the religious authority colluded to crucify him, to physically destroy him and in so doing to destroy his opposition to their power.  His crucifixion was a political statement.  What they failed to see and understand, though, was that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” as it says in Colossians.  There was a power and authority in him that dwarfed any power and authority they imagined they had over him.

For that reason,  nothing less than a bodily resurrection would do to nullify their violence and call their power into question.  It was his physical body they killed.  It would have to be his physical body that would proclaim their work undone.  

The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that violence will not have the last word.  Pain will not have the last word.  Fear will not have the last word.  Anger will not have the last word. Disease will not have the last word.  Suffering will not have the last word.  Death will not have the last word.

The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that love, grace, forgiveness, hope and faith—these things will have the last word.  The resurrection was God affirming that Life will have the last word.  

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


[1] Luke 1:1-4 NRSV

Take a Breath

John 20:19-31

It was just over a year ago that we all went inside and closed our doors.  We locked ourselves in for safety because of the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish Flu.  Businesses closed.  Jobs were lost.  The economy took a nosedive.  Streets were empty and cities became ghost towns as we hid away from a virus that could kill us, our friends, our family—a virus that can be spread with a sneeze, a cough, or a breath.  We all withdrew from the places of our togetherness—from stores, from workplaces, from restaurants, from schools, from church.  

We did our best to stay connected and active with our computers and our phones and our tablets. But as the months dragged on and the statistics kept telling us that the world outside our doors was still dangerous, lethargy set in.  Psychologists are calling it Covid burnout and estimating that 75% of us are affected by it–  a feeling of low-grade stress.  Malaise.  Low energy. Lack of enthusiasm and purpose.  Fatigue.  Lack of focus.  Faulty memory.  

Productivity and creativity are down.  Weight is up.  The AMA says that the average pandemic weight gain is 29 pounds.  The prolonged worry, stress and anxiety of the pandemic has left millions of us living in a mental fog.  When we locked down our buildings, we locked down our psyches, too. 

We are grieving.  But we haven’t called it that.  

What we’ve been feeling must be similar to what the disciples were feeling after the crucifixion.  They were grieving.  Their hopes for change, for a better world and a brighter life had died with Jesus on the cross.  They felt betrayed by one of their companions, someone they had trusted.  They were ashamed of their own cowardice in deserting Jesus.  And they were afraid.  They didn’t want to be seen.  They didn’t want to expose themselves.  

They didn’t know what to do.  They didn’t know where to go.  They didn’t know what would happen next.  So they stayed locked inside the only place where they felt at all safe.  Emotionally, they were burned out.

And then Jesus came and stood among them.  Behind their locked door.  Jesus came to them where they were huddled in their fear and spoke peace to them.  He spoke to their anxiety.  He spoke to their fear.  He spoke to their loss of focus.  He spoke shalom.  Composure.  Stillness.  Peace. 

And then he showed them his hands and his feet.  He showed them his wounds not only so they would know it was really him, but to acknowledge the reality of what they had all been through.  It was his ways of silently saying, “Yes, there was real trauma.  There is a reason you feel this way. Here it is.  I carry it in my body.  You do, too, just in a different way.  Here I am.  Let my visible wounds speak for your invisible ones.”

When they realized it was really him, they were ecstatic, so he spoke peace to them again, this time maybe to calm them down, before he gave them a mission:  “The Father sent me, now I am sending you.” Imagine their surprise when he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins they stay forgiven.  If you hold on to anyone’s sins, they remain unforgiven.”

And then suddenly it was all over.  Just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone.

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there for this brief reunion with the risen Jesus, but it shouldn’t surprise us that he didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him about it.  I imagine some of them were having trouble believing it themselves, even though they had experienced it.  We’ve all had that experience, haven’t we, where you see something extraordinary and ask yourself, “Did I really just see that?  Did that just happen?”  Of course Thomas doubted.  There is no shame or sin in that. 

What is a little surprising, though, is that a week later they’re all still locked in that room.  Think about it.  Jesus has appeared to them and told them he is sending them out.  He has given them the Holy Spirit with his own breath which should equip them for the mission.  He has given them the authority to forgive sins or retain them.  And one week later they’re still hiding behind that locked door.

Why?

Well, maybe they weren’t sure what to do next.  Maybe they, themselves, didn’t entirely trust their experience with Jesus.  Maybe they were still afraid.

So Jesus shows up again.  He speaks peace again.  He invites Thomas to touch his wounds.  And Thomas falls at his feet and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

Even that second appearance didn’t really kickstart their mission.  Jesus had to appear to them again before they really got started.  In chapter 21, the epilogue of John’s gospel, we read that they had gone back to fishing in Galilee.  Jesus met them on the shore and cooked them breakfast, and basically told them it was time to get moving.

It took the disciples a long time to get over crucifixion shock.  Crucifixion fatigue.  The Post-Traumatic Shock of all they had seen and been through.  They were real people who had witnessed a real horror, and even seeing Christ risen didn’t erase that overnight.  It would take a refreshing and renewing breath of the Holy Spirit—Pentecost—to reenergize them completely and set their mission in motion.

They began to share their story, the story of Jesus crucified and risen, anywhere they could with anyone who would listen.  When they could, they would share it in the synagogues.  When they couldn’t share it there, they shared it in caves or in private homes or in open fields.  Little by little their numbers grew.  Then came Paul, the adversary who became their greatest evangelist after he encountered the risen Christ, and their ecclesia, their church began to take root in places they had never imagined.

All this took time.  And imagination.  And creativity.  And love.  And caution.

Jesus is still sending us out to proclaim the kin-dom of God.  Like those first disciples, we are stumped about what comes next.  And we’ve lost some momentum while we’ve been locked behind closed doors.

As we contemplate opening those doors, we’re not sure what to do next or how to do it.  We know it’s not enough just to get all of us back together behind another set of doors, even if they’re our doors in our building.  Jesus is calling us, as always, to go out there with the good news of God’s love and grace and kindness.  And it’s daunting.  Not only has Covid stymied the normal way we do things, but how do we overcome the energy-sapping pain of declining numbers and increasing cultural indifference to religion in general and ours in particular?

We are like those first disciples.  We don’t know how to proceed with safety and enthusiasm.  We’re not sure where to go next.  We don’t know what to do next and how to do it.  

What we do know is this:  The risen Christ has stood among us and spoken peace to us.  He has breathed on us with the Holy Spirit.  He has given us the authority to forgive.  And he has told us to go.

And we know that Pentecost is coming.  

We don’t have to figure it all out before we step out.  The disciples didn’t.  They went out in faith and followed the guidance of the Spirit as they went.  We can do that, too.  The Spirit will guide us and strengthen us and propel us into the future Christ is leading us to.  

If we are faithful, there will be changes.  God is always doing a new thing.

It’s not our job to know in advance what will change, just that Christ is the architect of the changes that are coming.  Our job right now is to pray for the Holy Spirit to fall on us and light us up in a big way so that we are brave enough and healed enough to unlock the door and go out.

So take a breath.  Breathe in the Spirit that Christ is breathing out on us.  And then go…to make disciples of all people.  For the sake of the kin-dom of God.

In Jesus’ name.

He Is Going Ahead Of Us

Martin Luther once spent three days in a deeply gloomy mood because of something that had gone wrong.  On the third day his wife, Katie, came downstairs dressed in mourning clothes.  “Who died?” asked Martin.  “God,” replied Katie.  Luther rebuked her, saying, “What do you mean, God is dead? God cannot die.” “Well,” she replied, “the way you’ve been acting I was sure he had!”

The thing is, God did die once, and Martin Luther would be the first to tell you that.  God, in Jesus the Christ, was crucified, died and was buried.  And on the third day rose again.  That’s what we’re celebrating this morning:  the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The four gospels each tell the story of the resurrection a little differently.  Those differences really shouldn’t bother us too much.  Each writer was writing to a different audience and relying on different sources.  On the main points, though, they are remarkably consistent.  Jesus was crucified.  He was thoroughly and decidedly dead.  His body was not properly prepared for burial when he was laid in the tomb because the Sabbath did not allow enough time for that.  The tomb was sealed with a large stone.  On the third day the women of his company came to prepare his body and found the stone removed and the tomb empty.  They were addressed by an ethereal messenger (or two?) who informed them that Jesus had risen as he told them he would.  On these things all the gospels agree.

The Gospel of Matthew’s resurrection account is the most theatrical.  There’s an earthquake and an angel comes down to roll the stone away from the tomb which is already empty.  The angel then sits on the stone.  Matthew says that the soldiers guarding the tomb “shook and became like dead men.” The astonished women who had come to prepare the body of Jesus witness all this and later encounter the risen Jesus as they rush to tell the disciples what they have seen.  

Luke’s description of the resurrection is more subdued, but the story continues beyond the empty tomb to describe encounters with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room where the disciples have been laying low.  

John’s account is probably the best known and best loved with its touching description of the encounter between Mary and Jesus when she mistakes him for the gardener then realizes who he is when he speaks her name.  

It’s not surprising that in years when the Gospel of Mark comes up in the lectionary cycle, most preachers opt to go with the Gospel of John instead. The resurrection account in Mark is so haunting.  So uncomfortable.  The angel—or young man dressed in a white robe—is there in the empty tomb.  He makes the announcement we expect to hear: “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.”  And then he adds, “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 far so good.  But it’s the ending that leaves us off balance. 

“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 the original ending of the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark, in fact, it’s the original end of the whole gospel.  

That ending is so disconcerting that by the late 3rd or early 4th century someone decided to add on a section.  These unknown editors wanted the ending of Mark, the oldest and earliest of the gospels, to be more consistent with the other three gospels and, frankly, happier.

But Mark had his reasons for ending the resurrection account and the gospel the way he did.  

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, has come to proclaim that the kingdom of God is beginning, that it is time for it to become a reality and not just a dream of the prophets.  In his teaching, in his sermons, in his healings and his exorcisms, he teaches his followers to confront the social structures, political structures, the religious structure that oppress and exclude people.  More than that he invites his disciples to begin to build an alternative way of life built on inclusiveness, generosity and equality.

When Jesus is crucified, it looks like all this has come to an end.  But now an empty tomb leaves questions hanging in the air.

It’s as if Mark is saying, “Christ is risen!  What are you going to do about it?  What are you going to do with that news?”

He has gone ahead of you to Galilee.  Back to where all this began.  Are you willing to go meet him where he is?  Are you willing to go back to the beginning?  Are you willing to start over?  Are you committed to building the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?

N.T. Wright wrote, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.  The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”  

One of the important themes in the Gospel of Mark is “let those who have eyes, see.”  Jesus, in Mark, is forever trying to get his disciples to understand what they are seeing him do and hearing him say.  Now he wants them and us to understand what it means that he has been resurrected.

If death cannot hold Christ, then it cannot hold you, either.  Not forever.  God is, by nature, eternal.  We were created in the image of God, so we share in that divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  God is love (1 John 4:16), and the Holy Spirit has planted the love of God in our hearts (Romans 5:5, 8:9).  Christ is in, with, and under every fiber of our lives.  Life is eternal, love is immortal.  Because Christ rose, we, too shall rise.  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5).”  That is  what his resurrection means for us.

We have all been through a year like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.  Because of the pandemic, we’ve faced trials and challenges no one anticipated.  Our way of life was radically changed.  We have laid dear friends and family into the hope that springs eternal, trusting in this promise of resurrection.

Now, with the vaccines and the virus numbers going in the right direction, people are talking about getting “back to normal.”  But wouldn’t it be better for us to be talking about resurrection?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to talk—not about resuming our old life—but about new life, and what that will look like and be like, and how we will do it, and how it will be different?

Jesus rose to new life.  We are being invited to rise to new life, too. He is going ahead of us, back to the starting point and inviting us to follow, and to join him in the continuing work of building the kingdom of God.  

Christ is risen!  We have a chance to start over!  What are you going to do about it?

In Jesus’ name.

In, With, and Under

It’s a simple thing.  You take a bit of bread and a taste of wine.  But it’s not just bread and wine.  You are told that Christ is in these things.  You are taking Christ into yourself.  In that bit of bread and that taste of wine you are drawn back to that original supper that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed.  In that bit of bread and taste of wine you are also being drawn into tomorrow.  You are being equipped to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears, to speak Christ’s love and forgiveness and grace.  In that bit of bread and taste of wine you are united as one with all the others who have shared in this sacrament in every age.

This is the eucharist, literally “the good gift,” the sacrament of communion.  This is the sacrament that signifies our unity as followers of Jesus.  And ironically, sadly, it has been the pivot point of many of Christianity’s most intense  disagreements. 

Over the centuries church leaders and theologians have excommunicated each other over their different understandings of just exactly how Jesus is present or if Jesus is present in that bit of bread and taste of wine.  Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer said that Christ isn’t really present.  The sacrament, he said, is only a “remembrance.”  Martin Luther insisted that Christ truly is present “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine.  Legend says he was so adamant about this that while arguing with Zwingli he carved it into a table top: “corpus meum est”—“this is my body.”   Luther and Zwingli excommunicated each other.  And the Pope excommunicated them both.  Calvin later said that Christ is present, but only spiritually.  No one was quite sure what to do with that.

And I think all of this makes Jesus weep.

One of the very first social boundaries that Jesus crossed was the boundary of table fellowship.  The Pharisees criticized him roundly for it.  In their day, who you ate with was important.  Table fellowship determined your social status.  It had implications beyond that.  In a culture where the ideas of “clean” and “unclean” or “acceptable” and “unacceptable” were important social constructs that could have serious implications for how your life was going to go,  who you shared a table with and who invited you to their table was a huge thing.  Dining with the right people could open doors and make your reputation.  Dining with the wrong people could close those doors and besmirch your name even if you had done nothing wrong.  So when the Pharisees talk about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, it’s not a compliment.  But Jesus did it to make a point.  In the kingdom of God everyone is welcome at the table.  In the kingdom of God everyone is “acceptable.”  Everyone.

On the night he was betrayed, even Judas was at the table.  Even his betrayer received the bread and wine.  Levi the tax collector was there.  So was Simon Peter the Galilean fisherman and Simon the Zealot.  They’re not mentioned by name, but it’s probably safe to assume that Mary Magdalene was there, and Joanna, and Mary, his mother.  The point is, there were people gathered around that table who we know would not have been acceptable in the “polite” company of the Pharisees.

When Jesus breaks the bread and begins to pass it around the table, I can’t help but wonder if he is looking at the faces of his friends as he says, “this is my body.”   Is he, maybe, thinking, “You—this eclectic group who would never in a million years have come together on your own, you all together, each of whom would be an outcast somewhere—you, this companionship, is my body.  You people sharing this bread are the ones who will carry on my Christ-ness, my Christ presence in the world.  Take me into yourselves the way you take in the bread and the wine.  My teaching, my way of being, my love, my grace, my way of seeing—swallow me whole so you can be my hands and feet and voice, so I will still be present in the world.”

Grains of wheat or barley are crushed and ground.  They change in form to become flour, which changes in form again when bound with water then baked to become bread.  

Individuals who learn the Way of Jesus together and work together in the work of Christ are changed in form.  Their habits, impulses and priorities change.  They are infused with the Holy Spirit. They’re bound together in the water of baptism, then baked into a community through life and service together. 

This is my body.  For you.

That same night, we’re told in John’s gospel,  Jesus had washed their feet.  “You call me Teacher and Master,” he said.  “And you’re right, I am.  But if I, your Master and Teacher have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.  And in case you’re a little slow on the uptake, what I’ve just done was to give you an example.  I want you to serve each other.  More than that, I want you to love each other.  I’m giving you a new commandment: you must love one another just as I have loved you.  That’s how people will know you’re my disciples—if you have love for one another.”

And these things, too, are in that bit of bread and that taste of wine.  

The call to serve is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.   

Love is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.  

Grace and forgiveness are there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.  

The Word of Creation is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.  

Christ is there, in, with, and under the bread and wine—the way Christ is present in all of Creation.

All of that in a bit of bread and a taste of wine if you open your heart to take it in.

We Would See Jesus

John 12:20-33

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Some Greeks had come to the week-long festival of the Passover in Jerusalem and were hovering at the back of the crowd thronging around Jesus. This was just days after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and only one day after he had entered Jerusalem in the chaotic procession of Palm Sunday.  In John’s text, this was right after the Pharisees said to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”  That’s when, right on cue, these Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

It makes sense that they would come to Philip.  Philip is a Greek name.  They probably overheard him speaking to someone in Greek, which would come naturally to him since he was from Bethsaida, a Hellenized town on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  Philip consulted with Andrew, another Greek name, incidentally, also from Bethsaida, and the two of them went to tell Jesus.

Andrew and Philip are among the earliest disciples named in John’s gospel and they are the first two disciples who bring others to Jesus.  Andrew, having just met Jesus, himself, ran to find his brother, Simon Peter and blurted out, “We have found the Messiah!”  Jesus invited Philip to follow him, and Philip immediately went to find his friend Nathanael and bring him to meet Jesus, too.  And now, very nearly at the end of the gospel, Philip and Andrew are once again bringing people to see Jesus, but this time it’s because they have asked to meet him. 

So.  Philip and Andrew are good models for us.  They bring people to meet Jesus.  There’s a clue in there about effective evangelism, I think.  They didn’t invite people to join their discipleship group.  They brought them to meet Jesus.  

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” We don’t know anything about the Greeks who make this request. Are they Greek-speaking diaspora Jews who have come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to complete the obligations of Torah?  Are they Gentile proselytes preparing to convert to Judaism?  Are they Gentile tourists in town to see the temple, one of the wonders of the world during the time of one of its great festivals?  Have they heard about his miracles and are maybe hoping to see one for themselves?  Have they come to offer themselves as disciples?  We don’t really know anything about them or their motives.  But we surely can understand their request. 

We would like to see Jesus.  I would like to see Jesus. Wouldn’t you?  Oh, I know I see him all the time in a Matthew 25 way.  I see him in people in need.  I see him in people enduring injustice.  I see him in people pushed to the margins.  I see him.  I do.  And I see him in a 1 Corinthians 12, Body-of-Christ way.  I see him in the kindness of friends and strangers.  I see him in the ways we support each other and lift each other up and work together to dial up the love and grace and dial down the anger and fear and hate.  I see Jesus in you.  I see Jesus in you and that keeps me going.

But sometimes I would like to see Jesus the way Philip and Andrew got to see him, face to face. Debi Thomas put it this way:

 I know what it’s like to want Jesus in earnest — to want his presence, his guidance, his example, and his companionship.  I know what it’s like to want — not him, but things from him: safety, health, immunity, ease.  I know what it’s like to want a confrontation — a no-holds-barred opportunity to express my disappointment, my sorrow, my anger, and my bewilderment at who Jesus is compared to who I want him to be.[1]  

It stings to read that, but it’s so honest.  “I know what it’s like to want—not him, but things fromhim.”  It reminds me of that African American spiritual we sing sometimes, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.  “I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

I want to see Jesus.  That, right there, is a pivot point of spiritual growth.  Why do I want to see Jesus?  How do I want to see Jesus?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want something from him?  Do I want to see Jesus because my faith is wavering?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want to surrender to him?  Do I want to see Jesus just to sit in his presence?

Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves when we feel that powerful yearning to see Jesus.  And let’s be clear.  There are no wrong answers here except dishonest answers.  

We don’t know why those Greeks at the Festival wanted to see Jesus.  What we do know is that as soon as Philip and Andrew came to Jesus with their request, Jesus began to talk about the cost of discipleship and about his own coming death.  We might be singing “I want Jesus to walk with me,” but Jesus responds with, “Fine.  This is where I’m going.  You might not like it.”

Peter and Andrew told Jesus that the Greek visitors wanted to meet him.  “Jesus answered, ‘Time’s up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”[2]  That’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message Bible.  Time’s up. 

The time for sightseeing is over.  The time for spectator discipleship is over.  Now the Human One will be glorified.  Glorified.  As in martyred.  

“Listen carefully,” he says. “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”[3]   

Jesus is once again telling his disciples, then and now, a message that disciples are always reluctant to hear.  If you hold on to life just as it is, you will destroy it.  If you let go of it in reckless love, you’ll have it forever.  Reckless love of God, yourself, and others is eternal. 

“If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me,” said Jesus. “Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.”[4]

I want to see Jesus.  Yes.  But there’s that question again:  Do I want him—or do I want something  from him?  And have I given any thought to an even more important question: what does he want from me?

Do I want to see him so I can serve him?  Do I want to see him so I can learn to be a better follower?  Am I willing to be that seed that is buried?  

The language that Jesus uses here as he talks to the Greek visitors and his disciples and the crowd is all imagery and metaphor.  The time has come to be glorified. When a seed is planted.  When I am lifted up.  But all that poetic language is euphemism for a horrifying reality.

Beginning next Sunday we will observe again the events of Holy Week, a week that ends in the brutal torture and crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday.  Attendance at worship on Good Friday is always low.  We want to see Jesus…but we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross.  We don’t want to see Jesus die, especially not in such an ugly, helpless, brutal way.

We don’t want to see Jesus willingly take the hatred, the contempt, the violence, even the sheer indifference of this world into his own body.  We want to see Jesus, but we don’t want to see Jesus there.  Like that.  We want to see Jesus in a hundred other ways—muscular super-hero Jesus, miracle-worker Jesus, wisdom Jesus, justice radical Jesus, social worker Jesus.  But Jesus on the cross?

That’s where reckless love takes Jesus.  That’s what he is saying in all the poetic language.  The seed will be buried and dead to the world.

If I want to see Jesus, really see Jesus, I need to look to the cross… where, in reckless love, he opens his heart and his arms to you.  And me.  And the whole world.


[1] Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, 14 March 2021

[2] The Message, John 12:23

[3] The Message, John 12:24-25

[4] The Message, John 12:26

Pardon Our Disruption

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Such an interesting story in the Book of Numbers.  The people of Israel are on the road between Mt. Hor and the Gulf of Aqaba.  They’re complaining.  Again.  They’re not happy with the food.  It’s always something.  Anyway, the people grumbled, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them, and many Israelites were bitten and died.  That’s how the Israelites tell the story.

Nobody ever tells the story from the snakes’ point of view.  The way they see it, they were all just hanging about, minding their own snaky business in Snake Land when suddenly the whole nation of Israel showed up with all their noisy grumbling and complaints and pitched camp right on top of them, driving tent pegs down into their dens, breaking their eggs, chasing them with sticks, throwing rocks at them, hacking at them with swords… So yeah, they bit a few of them.  They were just trying to defend themselves.  They weren’t trying to kill anybody.  Why would they?  The Israelites were too big to eat…at least for those kinds of snakes.  

Moses prayed to the Lord to make the snakes go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes asked the Lord to make the people go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes suggested that the Lord could tell Moses to put a big bronze snake up on a pole to remind the people that they were in snake territory, and that the snakes were there first thank you very much, so they should be careful where they were poking around and pitching their tents.  

Well, that’s not the way we get the story in the Book of Numbers, but then snakes never were any good at public relations, and they don’t come off too well in the Bible as a rule.  Still, it’s interesting that in this particular instance, even in the Moses version of the story, God is using the snakes to accomplish God’s business and that includes healing cranky, ungrateful people from snakebite… which they wouldn’t have got bit in the first place if they hadn’t been cranky and ungrateful and gone poking about looking for something else to eat when there wasn’t anything kosher out there anyway.

So, the moral of that story is be grateful for what you have, even if you’re a little tired of it.  And leave the snakes alone.  

Many, many, many, many, many years later, this story would come up again when Jesus sat down one night with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand some very basic things about living in the love of God.  This was difficult for Nicodemus because he was a very smart and knowledgeable person, a teacher, in fact.  He knew the sacred writings of Israel backwards and forwards and upside down, but the things Jesus was saying mystified him.  He had a lot to unlearn.  The way he understood things got in the way of him comprehending things…if you grasp what I’m saying.  

Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus learn how to see and enter and experience the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus was trying to just get his head around it when he needed to put his whole heart into it.  

Nicodemus needed another pathway into the mystery.

It’s like this, said Jesus.  Remember when Moses lifted up that bronze snake in the wilderness?  It’s like that.  The Human One will also be lifted up.  And in the same way that people were healed when they looked to that bronze snake gleaming in the sun,  they’ll be healed when they look to the Human One, only they’ll be healed of something much more deadly than snake venom.

Have you ever wondered what kind of magic was at work in that bronze snake on that pole in the desert.  It was a powerful magic, stronger than any other.  When people looked at that snake on the pole, the light flashing off of it pierced their hearts and reminded them that they had complained against Moses and against God.  They had been in a desert, in a land of no food and no water, and God had provided for them.  But they were ungrateful.  There was poison in their hearts and it came out in their words.  The snakes biting them was a kind of metaphor for the way they had been treating each other.  And Moses.  And God.

When they looked at that bronze snake glinting in the desert sun, they could see a very unflattering image of themselves.  They could taste the bitterness of their ingratitude and the venom of their complaining.  So they repented.  And they were healed.  Because they also saw that God loved them enough to transform them.  They could stop being snakes, metaphorical or otherwise.  The magic, the power that emanated from that snake on the pole was God’s forgiveness and God’s love.  

And now the whole world is snakebit, Nicodemus.  People believe they are walking always and everywhere under the dark night of God’s judgment.  They don’t see that they have been always and everywhere in the bright light of God’s love.  They’re perishing.  Their souls are dying because they can’t let themselves believe they are loved.

Listen, Nicodemus.  God loves the world so much that God has given God’s only Son so that whoever believes him won’t perish, won’t fade into an everlasting death and nothingness, but will instead live forever in the light of God’s love.  

You think God is about judgment?   I’ll tell you about judgment.  God wants to bring everyone and everything, even the snakes, into the light of God’s love.  But some don’t want to come.  Some want to stay in the dark.  Some want to keep living in the deep shadows of hatred and fear, and us versus them.  Some have a greedy hunger in them that wouldn’t be satisfied if they swallowed the whole earth.  Some think they are the whole earth and don’t have room in their hearts for anyone or anything else.  They think they’re all that and a bag of chips.  Some, many really, want to keep judging others, because it’s the only way they can make themselves feel like they have any value, so they just keep living in the shadow of judgment…and the shadow of their own fears.

But the Son of God is not here to judge.  The Son came to heal.  To save.  To lead people out of the shadows.

The world has forgotten how lovely it is.  The Son of God has come to help the world remember, to relearn its beauty and its kindness.  

The world has forgotten that when God created everything God said it was good.  All of it.  Everyone.  Even the snakes.

The Son of God has come to help people remember Original Goodness.[1]

When they see the Human One lifted up, they will be reminded of all the ugly things that happen in a snakebit world, they will be reminded of how the venom in their own hearts and souls can wound and kill.  And then they will remember they weren’t made that way.  Then they will see the love of God.  They will see that the Son came out of love, not out of need.  And the love of God will transform them.  They will step back into the light of God’s love.

All of that is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to  understand.  And us.  It’s what he would like us to understand, too.

When you think about it, all of this is about disruption. 

The Israelites disrupt the generally sleepy life of the snakes when they pitch camp in their territory. The snakes disrupt the grumbly and quarrelsome life of the Israelites when they start biting them.  God and Moses disrupt the poisonous dynamics of fear and dissatisfaction when they set up the snake on a pole.  Nicodemus disrupts Jesus’ quiet evening when he drops by at night for a private interview.  In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus disrupts our understanding of theology and the scriptures, especially our understanding of how judgment works.  

God works through disruptions to transform things and people.

This week we observed the anniversary of two significant disruptions.  

Wednesday, March 10, was the 88th anniversary of the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.  Between 115 to 120 people were killed.  Damage was estimated at $40 million.  That would be more than $800 million today.  Two hundred thirty school buildings were either destroyed or declared unsafe for use.  Out of that disruption, though, came new standards for building safety, including specific codes for school buildings.  New methods of government assistance for disaster response and reconstruction were instituted, too, as people realized that these kinds of resources were needed when damage was too widespread or extensive to expect a city to be able to recover and rebuild on its own.  Essentially, we found new ways to take care of each other.  To love each other.

The other anniversary is one we’re all too aware of.  It’s been one year since we were all in church together, worshipping in our sanctuary.  Our building.  But we’ve never stopped being church.  The disruption of this pandemic has made being church more difficult in some ways, but it has also transformed us in some important ways, too.  Like all disruptions, it has taught us more about who we are and invited us to think about who we want to be, who we are called to be, as we move forward.

The Israelites weren’t the same people when they left the land of the snakes.  They complained less and were more grateful.  Life-as-usual had been disrupted.

Nicodemus wasn’t the same person when the sun rose the next morning as he was when he had sat down with Jesus in the dark of night before.  He had begun to understand both God’s love and God’s judgment differently.  Everything he knew, everything he understood had been disrupted. You might say he was being reborn.

We aren’t the same people we were a year ago.  All the patterns of our lives have been disrupted.  In a time when need and circumstances required us to stay physically apart you would think we would have made every effort to find ways to pull together, but all too often, as a nation at least, we let the polarity of our dysfunctional politics pull us farther apart.  We have seen the damage caused by the venom of our fears and anger.  But we have also heard the voice of Christ calling us together and helping us relearn our loveliness,  reminding us of our Original Goodness. 

We have seen the serpent lifted up in the desert.  But also the cross lifted at calvary.  Through earthquake or pandemic, polar vortex or politics…even snakes…  God’s love still flows to carry us through it all.  Together.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Genesis 1:31

When God Says Stop

John 2:13-22

I have a verse tattooed on the inside of my right forearm: James 1:19-20.  If you look it up, you’ll read this: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;  for your human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”  

Human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  But sometimes God’s righteousness produces anger.   “We boil at different degrees,” said Clint Eastwood, and apparently Jesus reached his boiling point in the temple’s outer courtyard, the Courtyard of the Gentiles, as he moved among the moneychangers and people selling livestock for sacrifices, and all kinds of other things.  He made a whip of cords and drove the cattle and sheep out of the temple courtyard.  He told those selling doves, the offering for poor people, to take them away.   He turned over the tables of the moneychangers.  And as he did all this he yelled, “Stop!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It can’t have been a surprise to Jesus that all this commercial enterprise was happening at the temple.  Animals were needed for the sacrifices and it was impractical to expect pilgrims traveling from far places to bring their own with them.  Salt, oil and wine were also needed.  Torah required these things.

A large open space like the Courtyard of the Gentiles would have seemed like a perfectly logical place to set up a marketplace to provide the things necessary for the rites of the temple, and as long as you’re selling those things, why not sell other things, too? 

In fact, it was well known throughout Palestine that the temple was in business for business.  There was nothing unusual about that.  It was the same at every temple in the ancient world.  Between supplying the needs of the sacrifice system and catering to the pilgrims who thronged there, the Jerusalem temple provided employment for a wide variety of people including curtain makers, barbers, incense manufacturers, goldsmiths, trench diggers, animal handlers, and dung removers.  And nobody seemed too bothered by it because the people in the ancient world didn’t make the same distinctions between secular and sacred that we make.  

So why is Jesus so upset?  Is it because all this commerce is somehow tarnishing the holiness of the temple?  Or was there something else going on?

Remember that for Jesus, the real concern in any situation is always first and foremost people.  It’s hard to imagine that he really cares all that much about the temple per se, but you can bet he cares a lot about the people who come to that building to worship and pray.

All this commotion happens in the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the one place in the temple grounds where Gentiles are allowed to be.  This is where they can catch a glimpse of some of the beauty that lies deeper inside.  This is where they can have instruction from rabbis and learn about Israel’s God and God’s Torah.  This is where they can become proselytes or converts.  This is where they can pray.  But it’s hard to do any of that in the noise and crowd of a marketplace with sheep and goats bleating and bulls bellowing and people dickering over prices or exchange rates.

So Jesus is probably concerned for the Gentiles who are being squeezed out of the one place designated for them.  But he’s also concerned about something else.  He’s concerned that the whole system is bleeding the life out of every day Judeans and Galileans and pilgrims from the diaspora who come to the temple out of obligation as the law commands.  He’s concerned because they’re the victims of racketeering and price-fixing.

Many of the commercial interests being conducted at the temple belonged to the family of Anas, the high priest.  Josephus, the first-century historian, called Anas “the great procurer.”  What Anas and his family don’t own directly, they license, driving up the prices of every item or animal sold.

And then there are the moneychangers, the ancient equivalent of bankers.  Not only did they exchange Greek or Roman money for Jewish or Tyrian coins, the only kind that were acceptable in the temple, they also dealt in general currency transactions and secured notes for properties.  These temple moneychangers were street level representatives of powerful banking institutions whose interests, in many cases, went far beyond Jerusalem.  You could think of these tables that Jesus overturns as little marketplace kiosks for Chase, or Wells Fargo or B of A.  

We like to think of this angry episode as Jesus displaying a surprising moment of religious zeal. Certainly there is an element of that and we’re steered in that direction in John’s gospel by the disciples remembering the words of Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house consumes me.”  However much we might want to think of this as a religious or spiritual act, however, the fact remains that Jesus is making a powerful political and economic statement with his actions.  He is hitting the power structure of the temple right in the pocketbook, a structure that is allied with the political structure of Jerusalem.  The temple is good business and Rome won’t like this disruption any more than Anas.  This action will have consequences.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said, anger is only one letter away from danger.

When Jesus said, “Stop!”  he was in perfect alignment with the prophets who had been saying the same thing for centuries.  Isaiah said it as he stood before the doors of the temple more than 700 years before: 

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood. 

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good;

seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”[1]

Micah repeats the same message:

“With what shall I come before the LORD,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil? 

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?[2]

The prophet Hosea was even more pointed in his condemnation of Israel’s failed stewards of authority:

Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house.

I will love them no more; all their officials are rebels.[3]

All of these words of the prophets were surely in Jesus’ mind as he cleared the market out of the temple.  They were surely in the minds of the rabbis, priests and scribes, too, which might be one reason why they didn’t arrest  him on the spot.   Instead they asked for a sign.  He was speaking and acting like a prophet.  And prophets perform signs.  It didn’t occur to them that they  had just seen a sign that was perfectly in keeping with the prophetic tradition.  Still, Jesus gave them another sign. An enigmatic sign.  Tear down this temple, he said, and in three days I will raise it up again.

Bede Jarrett, the Dominican Friar and author once said, “The world needs anger.  The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.”  Sometimes I think that’s right, but as Aristotle said, “Anybody can become angry.  That is easy.  But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and it is not easy.”

Jesus was angry.  But he was angry in the right way at the right time and for the right reasons.  And, well… he’s Jesus.  When he said “Stop!” it was the voice of God saying it.

Jesus was trying to stop a religious, political and economic triumvirate that was reinforcing ethnic, caste and class divisions and squeezing the poor into perpetual poverty.  God had been speaking to that system for centuries, telling them a day of reckoning was coming.  In the year 70 that reckoning finally arrived and the Romans destroyed the temple. 

From time to time, God says to those who know how to listen, “Stop.”  Stop.  Look at what you’re doing in my name and how you’re doing it.  Look at how you’re living.  Listen to what you’re saying.  Listen to how you’re saying it.  Listen to the words you’re putting in my mouth.  Stop.

Sometimes God says it through angry prophets.  Sometimes God says it through the sweeping movement of politics as the Babylons and Assyrias and Romes of history sweep across God’s people.  

Sometimes God says it with a whip made of cords while driving poor, dumb animals out of the temple courtyard and pouring out the money on the ground.    

And I can’t help but wonder if God hasn’t said it to us… with a pandemic.

Jesus, in the aftermath of his anger was still trying to teach.  

Tear down this building, he said.  The Holy One is not in the lovely building.  The Holy One is in the people who gather, in a body, a building that forever rebuilds itself.  The acceptable sacrifice is not the poor dumb animals or the bread and wine, it is justice and equity.  It is food for the hungry.  It is a people who care for each other.  It is kindness.  

Maybe this past year has been God’s way of telling us to Stop… to leave our house of worship where we hope and expect Christ will come to us, so we can more fully embody Christ and follow Jesus out into the world.


[1] Isaiah 1:11-15

[2] Micah 6:6-8

[3] Hosea 9:15

Faith=Trust

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16;  Romans 4:13-25;  Mark 8:31-38

On May 20, 1927, when an unknown airmail pilot taxied his Ryan monoplane down the muddy runway at Roosevelt field on Long Island, some of those watching wondered if that fragile, fabric-covered aircraft,  heavy with fuel, would even clear the powerlines at the end of the field.  Just the year before, French flying ace René Fronk’s Sikorsky had crashed on takeoff on that same runway.  Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster had been killed while testing their plane at Langley Field in Virginia just a month before.  And only twelve days earlier, on May 8, the French aviators and war heroes Charles Nugesser and François Colis had disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic in their seaplane.

The odds were not in favor of Charles Lindbergh as he taxied down that muddy runway.  But despite the weight of 450 gallons of fuel, he coaxed The Spirit of St. Louis into the air and out over the ocean.  Thirty-three and a half hours and 3600 miles later, he landed at Le Bourget airfield outside of Paris, completing the first solo transatlantic flight in history.  And changing the world.

Lindbergh had faith that he would succeed.  He trusted his abilities as a pilot.  He had faith in his stamina.  He had faith in his team.  He trusted his plane.  This quiet and complex man from Minnesota also had a quiet and complex faith in God.  In later years when he flew combat missions in the Pacific theater during WWII, he would carry a New Testament with him.  Still later, after surveying the damage done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, he wrote a book that warned against the advancement of technology when divorced from the ethical guidance of Jesus and other spiritual teachers.  His tombstone in the small graveyard beside Palapala Ho’omau Congregational Church on Maui contains these words from Psalm 139:  “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…” 

“Faith equals trust,” said Martin Luther.  Lindbergh trusted that even on the wings of the morning, over the uttermost parts of the sea he wasn’t alone.  God was with him.

In today’s first reading we are reminded of the covenant, the trust agreement, that God made with Abraham that he would become the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  Even though Abraham was 99 years old at the time, we’re told that he trusted that God could make it happen.  Sarah, you may recall, was a little more skeptical.  She laughed.  She knew that both she and her husband were well past child-bearing years.  But the Lord had the last laugh.  And when Sarah had a baby boy about nine months later, they named him Isaac, which means “laughter.”

St. Paul lifts up Abraham as a model of faith and tells us that his faith—his trust in God’s promise—was reckoned to him as righteousness.  He was regarded as righteous because he trusted God and believed God’s promise.  Frankly, I think Sarah deserves more than a few righteousness points here, too, even if she did laugh.  After all, she’s the one who had to get pregnant and give birth.  She did all the heavy lifting.  Abraham may have trusted God in his head and in his heart, but Sarah was invested in the deal with her whole self, body and soul.

Faith equals trust.  And trusting God is accounted as righteousness.  

That’s a nice, clear theological formula.  Unfortunately, clear and simple theological statements don’t always play out so cleanly and simply in real life.  Because we’re human.  And as with so many other things, what looks clear and simple can turn out to be less so when the rubber hits the road.  Sometimes we get it most wrong when we think we’re getting it most right.

That’s what’s happening with Peter as he rebukes Jesus on the outskirts of Caesarea Phillipi.  

Peter has great faith in Jesus.  Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah and has said so.  But Peter’s faith is more in the Jesus of his hopes and dreams and aspirations than in the Jesus who is right in front of him.  Peter believes deeply in who he thinks Jesus could be and who he thinks Jesus should be.  He has profound faith in what he thinks Jesus can do and what he thinks Jesus should do. 

But now Jesus has told Peter what he is actually going to do.  What is actually  going to happen.  And the events that Jesus describes crash headlong into Peter’s imagined scenario of triumph and conquest.  All this time as they have travelled together, Jesus has talked about the basilea, the kingdom of God drawing near, being within reach.  But now Peter is realizing that his vision of what that means and how it is accomplished are apparently radically different from what Jesus has had in mind.  Being rejected by the elders, priests and scribes,  being killed—how could that accomplish anything?  And that part about rising again after 3 days—what does that even mean?   

Peter doesn’t like what Jesus is saying.  So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.

A friend of mine, also a pastor, told us about a man in his parish who came to up to him after he had preached on Matthew 25:31-46, the passage where Jesus says, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was hungry and you fed me…as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  The man was really upset.  He accused my colleague of being political and preaching socialism.  “The implication of what you were saying,” the man said, “is that it’s our job to feed everybody and make sure everybody has clothing and a roof over  their head and medical care.”  “I’m not the one saying it,” said my friend.  “Jesus is saying it.”  “Yeah,” said the man, “well I don’t like what Jesus is saying.”

From the very beginning of Christianity, followers of Jesus have sometimes not wanted to hear what Jesus is saying, not wanted to follow where Jesus is leading.  They have had deep and profound faith… in the Jesus in their heads, and maybe in the Jesus in their hearts, but not always in the Jesus who is right in front of them heading down the road they do not want to take and asking if they will follow.

Peter doesn’t like what Jesus is saying.  So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.

Mark writes that Jesus turns and looks at his disciples as he responds to Peter.  I think we’re supposed to have the sense that what Jesus says to Peter he is saying to all his disciples, and by extension that means he’s saying it to all of us.  “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”   

Ouch.  Even if you remind yourself that “Satan” can simply mean “opponent,” that stings.  “Get behind me.  Get behind where followers belong.  You’re setting your mind on your goals for me, not my goals for you.  You’re looking at your plans, not God’s plans.  That makes you the opposition.  That makes you one more obstacle to get past instead of part of the team that will make the kingdom take off and fly.”

Jesus spelled it out for the crowd and he spells it out for us.  “If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself.  Carry your cross, and follow me.  If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it.  Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your soul? Of course not!  There is nothing you can give to regain your soul, your deepest self.  If you are ashamed of me and of my teaching in this godless and wicked day, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”   

Jesus was telling them, and us, that he was looking for followers who were willing to give up everything, even life, even their souls, even their own fevered dreams of how Christ should do things, for the sake of making God’s reign a reality on earth as in heaven.  That talk about the cross was not hyperbole or metaphor. The people he was talking to had seen real crosses with real people hanging on them many times.  The Romans used crucifixion frequently and ruthlessly to put down political unrest and to discourage banditry.  It was their tool for keeping people in line.  Jesus was telling the crowd following him that if they were serious about being his disciples, they could end up being those poor, tortured, unfortunate wretches dying at the side of the road or the top of the hill, dying because they had stepped out of line.  He was telling them, and telling us, that there are consequences for doing things his way.  And some people don’t like to hear that.

In his book, What Is Wrong with the World, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult; and left untried.”  I think that’s why fairly early on the discipline of following Jesus in his Way of compassionate love and nonviolence somehow was transformed into a religion with rites and rituals and a hierarchy to perform them properly.  Baptism and the eucharist, the subversive sacramental actions for creating and sustaining community, became symbolic gateways for inclusion within or exclusion from the embrace of holiness in our togetherness.  It was easier for us to have faith in those things we could see and do than in the Christ who speaks to us through the gospels.  

Faith is a powerful force.  With faith we can move mountains or cross oceans.  With faith we can change the world.  But when our faith is misdirected or invested in the wrong things, it can lead us in the wrong direction.

“Get behind me, Satan,” said Jesus when Peter rebuked him for not sounding like the Jesus of his hopes, the messiah of his imagination.  Get behind me.

In the end, Peter did get behind Jesus.  He was behind him all the way.  And there, behind Jesus, Peter was finally able to trust—to have faith in– the Jesus who was right in front of him instead of the imaginary messiah in his head. 

Lent is a good time to ask yourself: Which Jesus do you have faith in?  The one in your head, or even the one in your heart?  Or the one who speaks to you  from the gospels—even if he says things you don’t particularly like?

With Beasts and Angels

Mark 1:9-15

The first time I ever slept out under the stars I was in Cub Scouts.  Scouts go camping.  It’s what they do.  So when our little Cub den was still brand new, it was decided that the dads and the boys should go on a campout.  I think the moms were the ones who decided that.  And so it came to pass that one Friday afternoon in mid May a gaggle of excited boys and their job-frazzled dads made their way to O’Neill Regional Park in the wild foothills of Orange County.  

The dads, in their wisdom, had decided that, since it was May and there was no rain in the forecast, tents were not necessary.  So when it was time for bed we simply rolled out our sleeping bags on top of tarps and climbed in.  The boys, of course, were sent to bed before the dads who stayed up for quite a while, talking and smoking around the campfire.  

I remember lying there in my bag looking up through twisted oak branches into the night sky.  It was a clear night, moonless, vast and deep, with no clouds between us and the stars, and as I lay there, bundled in my bag, I became uncomfortably aware that there was no roof above me and no walls around me.  What had seemed like a fun idea when we were just talking about it was turning out to be a little bit scary.  Not that I would ever admit that.

I could hear the dads talking quietly over by the campfire.  But I could hear other things, too.  Things rustling in the trees and the scrub.  I knew I was supposed to be sleeping, but I was wide awake with worries and questions too big and too frightening for my eight-year-old mind under that deep, moonless sky. 

Finally, I heard the conversation at the campfire breaking up and the dads saying goodnight.  And then my dad was climbing into his bag next to mine.  “Dad?”  I said.  

“Are you still awake?” he asked.  

“Yeah.  Dad, can I ask you something?” 

“What?”  

“Are there wild animals here?” 

There was a long pause and I was about to ask him again but he quietly said, “Um hm.  Yep.”

“Well like…what kind?”

“Oh… coyotes, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, racoons, possums, skunks.”

“Coyotes, bears and mountain lions?”

“Look, you don’t need to worry about bears or coyotes or mountain lions.  They don’t like to get too close to people in groups.  We’re okay.  They won’t bother us.  Okay?”

“Okay.”  

“Now make sure you tuck in that corner of your sleeping bag.  You don’t want a snake or a scorpion crawling in with you in the middle of the night.  Now goodnight.  Go to sleep.”

Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.  I wonder what kind of noises he heard in the night.

When Jesus rises out of the waters of the Jordan at his baptism, he is a new person.  Not merely a new person, but a new kind of person.  The Spirit has descended into him—that’s what it says in Greek, into him—so he is possessed by the Spirit.  The voice of the Holy One has declared his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  From this moment on, Jesus is a new kind of human, a new creation.  From this moment on in Mark’s gospel, he will refer to himself as the Human One, or as we used to translate it, the Son of Man.  

St. Paul described Jesus as the first-born of a new humanity.  In 1 Corinthians 15, he refers to Jesus as the “last Adam.”  In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul made it clear that inclusion in this new humanity is extended to all of us who are baptized into Christ.  He writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The identity declared to Jesus in his baptism is extended to you and to me in our baptism.  When we are baptized, the Spirit is imparted to us and we, too, hear the words, “You are God’s child.  You are beloved. God is pleased with you.”  And in that word and by that Spirit we are made a new creation.

So if I’m new, why is it that on so many days I feel so old?

Well, I think it’s because of what comes next.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.”  

The Spirit immediately threw him out into the wilderness where he was tested by the Adversary. The opposition.  

The word that’s translated as “tempted,” peirazō, can also be translated as “tested.”  Tested and tempted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  A temptation may be a test, but a test doesn’t have to be a temptation.  Testing may be done to try to learn the nature of someone or something.  To assess their character.  To take their measure. Temptation is an effort to lead someone into sin.  It’s true that in Matthew and Luke he is clearly being tempted.  But here in Mark I get the sense that something more subtle is going on, which is why I think Mark doesn’t go into details.

Mark says he was tested by Satan.  Satan as a Hebrew noun means “adversary.”  As a verb it means “to oppose” or “to be hostile.”  So Jesus, the New Human, fresh from his baptism, was thrown into the wilderness by the Spirit to be challenged by the opposition.  I don’t think we need to dwell too much on how that opposition appeared to him, because I think sometimes we face it, too.

Forty days is a long time to be in the wilderness.  Forty days is a long time to be alone with your thoughts.   I think we can imagine at least some of the voices Jesus may have heard because we hear them too.  You know the ones.  The ones that catch you off guard when you’re tired and vulnerable. The ones that sneak in between  your thoughts.  The ones that ask, “Are you really a child of God?  Are you really beloved?  If God is so well-pleased with you, why are you having such a rough time here?”

There’s nothing you can do with those voices except confront them.  Don’t try to debate them.  Whenever Martin Luther was challenged by these voices, which was apparently fairly often, he would just make the sign of the cross over himself and simply state, “I am a baptized child of God.”  Sometimes he would add, “Now go away and leave me alone.”  One time he did throw an ink pot at the shadow bedeviling him, but that makes a huge mess, so I don’t recommend it.

After you come to terms with those voices that challenge your identity as a child of God, after you’ve anchored that piece of your self-understanding in quiet confidence, the Adversary may come at you with the big, hanging question.  “Okay.  You really are a child of God.  You really are beloved.  So now what?  What are you going to do about it?”

I think that might have been the thing that tested Jesus most during those 40 days: the Now What question, thinking about how he was going to live out his identity as the Human One, thinking about how and when and where he was going to exercise his power so that his work opposing power didn’t become all about power. 

Sometimes, like Jesus, we find ourselves thrown into the wilderness.  Most often we don’t choose to be there.  Stuff happens.  Opposition happens.  Pain happens.  Illness happens.  Accidents happen.  Death happens.  Pandemics happen.  Suddenly, we’re in the wilderness and we hear wild beasts in the night.

But the wilderness can be where we learn what it really means to be God’s children.  Sometimes the hard, flinty places of life are where we realize that being loved by God doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll always be comfortable.  These are the places where we learn to trust.  But learning to trust takes time.  It takes practice, learning to sit through the night wrapped in love you can’t feel from a God you can’t see providing a kind of protection you don’t understand. 

You can only learn that when you feel vulnerable.  You can only learn that in the wilderness.  You can only learn that where the wild beasts are, real and metaphorical.

Mark is the only one of the gospel writers who notes that Jesus “was with the wild beasts.”  I’ve read interesting interpretations of that line.  Some think it’s a reference to the book of Daniel where the kings of the nations are represented as wild beasts.  So maybe this line suggests that Jesus was considering how to confront political authority. Could be.  Some have wondered if Mark is suggesting that Jesus was having an experience something like a Native American vision quest.  

These are interesting ideas and they have their merits.  But I wonder if it isn’t just that there really were wild beasts.

Even today there are still leopards and hyenas in the Judean wilderness.  In Jesus’ day there were also lions, bears and cheetahs.  So in addition to confronting The Adversary in whatever form The Adversary happened to take, maybe Jesus was also coming to terms with the predatory creatures of the wilderness.  Perhaps Jesus in the wilderness was finding some kind of relationship with those beasts, reminding them and himself that they shared a connection with God and that they had no reason to fear each other.

Howard Thurman said it this way in Disciplines of the Spirit: “To Jesus, God was Creator of life and the living substance, the Living Stream upon which all things moved, the Mind containing time, space, and all their multitudinous offspring. And beyond all these, He was Friend and Father.”  Perhaps, like Saint Francis, Jesus saw these wild beasts as brothers and sisters.

I remember one night lying in a tent in Ngorongoro Preserve in Tanzania.  I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I was a little nervous, because I knew that outside the tent there were wild animals.  I knew they were there because I had seen them as we drove through the Preserve that day.  Elephants. Leopards.  Baboons.  Lions.  Wildebeest.  Hyenas.  It didn’t help my nervousness any that I could hear the gibbering of a pack of hyenas not too far from our camp.  And, of course, as I was lying there thinking of the thousand and one ways to die by animal, I realized that nature was calling in a more personal way and I really needed to go to the latrine. Which was at the other end of our camp.  Well, I put on my shoes, and left the tent and did what needed doing, praying all the way.

When I got back to my tent, I stopped and stood outside, looking out into the African night, and listening.  The hyenas were still gibbering, but it didn’t sound as menacing.  It really did sound kind of like laughter.  I could hear the soft rumbling and shuffling from a small family of elephants about a hundred yards away from us.  It was an almost friendly sound.  Somehow, as I had prayed my way to the latrine and back, my anxiety about the wild beasts in the dark had disappeared.

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned to see one of our guides sitting on duffle bags in the back of the supply truck with a rifle resting across his lap.  He smiled and waved, then pointed at me and laid his face against the back of his folded hands in the universal gesture for sleep.  “Go back to bed,” he said without words. “I got this.”

“And the angels waited on him.”  There were angels with Jesus in the wilderness.  There always are.   Even in the valley of shadows, in the places with wild beasts, in the times and places of hunger and anxiety—even in the wilderness,  God’s messengers show up.  They come in all kinds of different ways and in unexpected forms.  And we don’t always recognize them.  But they come.

Do you recognize your angels?  Do you know them when they minister to you, when they show up bearing the love of God in some tangible form?  Do you recognize them when they remind you that you are God’s beloved child and that you are not alone in the time of testing, in the night full of wild beasts? 

Throughout our journey of Lent and beyond, may we walk with Christ.  May these 40 days remind us of what it means to be a new creation.  May we realize that God is also present in the wilderness of our challenges—when the Adversary in whatever form opposes us, may we remember that we, too, have been filled with the Spirit and heard the voice that proclaims us beloved.  When we hear the sounds of wild things all around us, may we remember that they, too, are created by God and loved by God.  And when we need it most, may we be waited on by angels.

In Jesus’ name.

A Season of Fasting

One year when I was serving in the Church Relations Office at California Lutheran University we decided to put together a Lenten devotional that could be emailed in daily installments to students, faculty, staff, and patrons.  Most of the feedback was positive.  One student, however, wrote us a rather heated letter.  He was not only opposed to our Lenten devotional, he was opposed to Lent.  “There is nothing in the Bible about Lent,” he wrote.  “It is a thing made up by the church.  If it is not in the Bible, we should not do it.” 

I wrote back what I hope was a gentle letter explaining that the practice of setting aside a time for fasting and preparation before the celebration of Easter was, in fact, one of the earliest practices of the church.  I also explained that it was the Church that gathered and assembled the books into the sacred library we call the Bible, but that there was nothing like an official agreement on which books were included and which were excluded until the Council of Rome in 382 CE.  So, even though the individual books of the Bible might be older, I explained, the followers of Jesus have been practicing Lent longer than they’ve had a Bible.  

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent.  There are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, but the season of Lent is only 40 days.  That’s because the six Sundays are not included in the fasting of Lent.  They are, though, included in the liturgical observation of the season.  We don’t sing the Gloria or the Alleluia during Lent.  In some traditions, the Alleluia is symbolically buried in a casket under the altar during this season and is “resurrected” for the celebration of Easter.

We begin our observance of Lent by marking ourselves with ashes.  Ashes have been a symbol since ancient times of grief and sorrow.  They also serve as a sign  of humility, or of repentance.  On Ash Wednesday we stand humbly before God and remember that we are both sinful and mortal.  

In Genesis, when God is escorting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and into a life of difficulty, God says to them, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19)

Later in Genesis when Abraham is bargaining with God and trying to keep God from destroying Sodom, Abraham says, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (18:27)  These are the words we quote as we mark ourselves with ashes.

Job, after his trials and tribulations, finally sees God’s majesty revealed and says, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Jeremiah, when he’s calling the people of Judah to repent and warning them of the destruction that is coming upon them, cries out, O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

In the book of Daniel, when Daniel is preparing to ask God to intervene and show mercy for his people, he writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”

Ashes continued to be used as a sign of contrition in the early church.  Tertullian (c. 160-225) included sackcloth and ashes in the rite of repentance.  Around the year 800, those who had committed serious sins were covered in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes before they were allowed to receive Holy Communion at Easter.  Sometime around the year 1000, as Lent came to be viewed as a season of penance, the practice of strewing ashes on the head was extended to the entire congregation.

Ashes remind us that because we are mortal, our life, our strength and our help come from God.  They open the doorway into Lent,  a time when we reflect on the way of Jesus and follow his path and listen to him more closely.

Lent is a time when we renew our practice of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting. 

There are a variety of ways to fast.  The traditional practice of many has been to give up meat during this time.  It has been the practice of some to have two small meals during the day then break the fast after sunset.  Some people simply give up something they’re attached to for the 40 days:  chocolate, television, podcasts, Facebook.  You can fast from anything that’s a daily part of your life.  The idea is to set that thing aside and give its space to Christ.  For instance, if you’re giving up lunch for the 40 days, then during that lunch hour you can spend time in prayer or meditation.  

On Sundays and Feast Days we get a break from fasting.  So if you’re giving up red meat for Lent, you can still have a bite of corned beef on the Feast of St. Patrick!

This time of fasting and preparation before Easter may have originated in the preparation for baptism.  The Didcache, a Syrian manual of church practice that dates to about the year 100, instructs that both those who are being baptized and those who are baptizing should fast for one or two days before the baptism.

At some point early on baptisms became tied to Easter.  Lent, then, became a time to prepare for baptism.  The practice of this, though, was far from uniform.  In Alexandria, Athanasius required his catechumens to prepare for 40 days, studying for 3 hours each day.  In other places, though, the preparation might be as little as a a week. 

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, in addition to establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, several important matters of church order and practice were standardized.  One of the things that was decided was how the date of Easter should be determined.  While they were at it, the bishops also agreed that Lent should be 40 days leading up to Easter.  

They didn’t call it Lent, by the way.  That’s our English word from the Old English word Lencten,  for Spring.  The Eastern bishops called it Tessarakosti and the Western bishops called it Quadragesima.  Both mean 40 days.

So why 40 days?

Though the Bible as such had not been assembled yet, the bishops at Nicaea were very familiar with the texts that would eventually be included in it.  They knew that the number 40 in these sacred texts represented a period of testing, trial, judgment, or probation.  In particular they were mindful of Jesus being tested in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry.

The number 40 occurs 146 times in the scriptures.  Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in Midian before God called him to lead his people out of slavery.  He stayed on Mount Sinai with God and fasted for 40 days.  The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.

Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights walking to Mount Horeb.  Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh gave them 40 days to repent or be destroyed.

Forty days may seem like a long time to fast, but there was also a practical reason for it.  In the days before refrigeration and food preservation, and in times when it wasn’t easy or inexpensive to ship food from other places, this would be the time of year when supplies of some foods, especially grains, vegetables and fruits would start to run low.  Fasting for an extended period could help to stretch these supplies until the new crops, especially the early grains, began to produce.

So are you planning to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent?  Are you thinking about praying more?  Meditating more?  Giving more?  Reading a devotional?   Here’s a suggestion:  Practice the discipline of kindness.  Be kind.  Practice having a generous spirit.  

Are you thinking of fasting?  It’s a worthwhile discipline and you can learn a lot about yourself by doing it.  But if giving up chocolate or television or meat or anything like that seems like it might be too much of a challenge, let me pass along this list of Suggestions for Fasting During Lent from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

This is a good time to listen.  

Listen to the message of the ashes.  The message of our mortality doesn’t have to be bad news.  God has breathed life into dust and ashes.  

Listen to our history.  We are part of a very long story that is still unfolding.  

Listen to Jesus.  He has called us to renew the world…and to be renewed ourselves.