Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon for Easter Day 2013

RCL Year C: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18

Fear. Terror. Heart-wrenching grief. 

I’m willing to bet that those are not words we normally associate with Easter. But they aptly summarize part of the action in today’s Gospel reading. 

Think about it. Let’s say that just two days ago, you buried a family member or a friend. And early in the morning, in the wee hours before sunrise, you went out to the cemetery to put flowers on the grave. But when you arrived, you discovered that the grave had been dug up, the coffin is open, and there’s no body inside. It’s a horrifying thought. 

So just imagine how Mary Magdalene must have felt when, in the darkness of early morning, she discovered that Jesus’ tomb was open and his body missing. No wonder John tells us that “she ran” to the disciples (John 20:2). She was scared! And no wonder, after returning, she sat outside the empty tomb weeping. Grief had been piled on top of her grief. 

Of course, the story changes from fear and anguish to joy when Mary encounters and finally recognizes the risen Jesus and he commissions her, as the first eyewitness of the resurrection, to go and preach the gospel to the disciples. “I have seen the Lord!” she exclaims. “Jesus is risen!” But the joy of that proclamation doesn’t change the fact that Jesus’ resurrection initially elicits fear. 

Odd as it may seem, fear is an understandable initial response to the resurrection because resurrection defies everything we thought we knew about the immutable laws that govern reality. And that's because resurrection means bodily life after bodily death. And that challenges everything we think we know about the world and how it works. Just as the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun displaces humanity from the center of the universe, Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead displaces human reason as the supreme authority and sufficient arbiter of truth. That was true even in the world of 1st Century Palestine. Nobody, including especially Jesus’ disciples, was expecting anything like this to happen. 

This is not a matter of rocket science, but of universally available common sense. Dead people stay dead. Dead bodies decay. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and that’s it. End of story. And everyone has always known this. 

Death is like the law of gravity: it always works the same way. But the resurrection of Jesus fundamentally alters the law of death. 

You see, the resurrection of Jesus is not about the resuscitation of Jesus’ body. Jesus didn’t just appear to die and then get revived by a team of divine paramedics. No, Jesus really and completely died. So the New Testament’s claim that Jesus was raised to bodily life again after bodily death is nothing short of a revolution. 

Little wonder, then, that the New Testament teaches that the resurrection is the beginning of “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And the risen Jesus is the “first fruits” of this new creation (1 Corinthians 15:20). 

It’s a creation continuous in many ways with the world as we know it. But it’s also a creation that differs in unexpected and even radical ways from what we take for granted as reality. 

That’s why, in the Gospels’ post-resurrection accounts, Jesus walks, talks, and eats. You can reach out and touch him. He’s not a ghost or a phantom. The risen Jesus is a real flesh-and-blood person. But the risen Jesus is also different than he was before he died. He can suddenly appear and disappear. He’s not always recognizable, even to his closest friends. And according to John, he can even walk through a locked door. 

Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that God’s new creation is underway.  In this new creation, might no longer makes right. The powerful are no longer the movers and shakers of history. Fear and despair give way to joy. Death is no longer the end. And so the threat of death – which is the last weapon of tyrants – can no longer be used to intimidate or silence the truth. And a crucified Jewish peasant from Nazareth who proclaimed the way of crucified love as the way of life and peace has been revealed as the true Lord of the world. 

It turns out that the Virgin Mary was more right than she could have known when, in the Magnificat, she sang about God casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (cf. Luke 1:52). For in lifting up the lowly Jesus on the cross, and then raising him from the dead, God reveals that a Power greater than the combined powers of Nature and Empire has been unleashed into this world. 

By conquering death and turning the powers-that-be in this world upside down, the resurrection of Jesus opens wide the gateway of everlasting life and gives us a foretaste of God’s intention to heal and transform the whole world. 

And so, on Easter Day, we discover the startlingly good news that our prayers that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven are being answered. Because Jesus is risen, God’s new world has begun. Because Jesus is risen, this broken, sinful world has been redeemed.  Because Jesus is risen, we are freed from bondage to sin and from the fear of death. And because Jesus is risen, all who have been baptized into his death and resurrection have a job to do. As one Anglican bishop has put it, that job is “to bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality" (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, p. 293).

We bring the life of heaven to birth right here, right now whenever we gather for worship, for the breaking of bread, and for the prayers. 

We do it whenever we resist the evil in our world and we repent of our sins. 

The life of heaven is born on earth every time we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. 

 Heaven becomes real on earth whenever we seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves. 

And any time we do justice and make peace, we are acting as citizens of a kingdom in which the needs of all persons are met, love overcomes violence and strife, pain and sorrow are no more, and abundant life swallows up death forever. 

It all starts with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It continues with you and me as members of the risen Christ’s Body the Church in everything we do to express the love of Jesus. And it will find its consummation on the last great day when, by the power of God, all who have died in Christ will be raised to life eternal, and the entire cosmos will sing, “Alleluia, alleluia!"

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Justin Welby's Gethsemane Prayer

In this interview excerpt, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby shares a moment of 'Gethsemane prayer' from the day his daughter died.  In the midst of tragedy, this is powerful testimony to Archbishop Welby's faith in Jesus. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St. Silouan the Athonite: "Understand two thoughts, and fear them"

"Understand two thoughts, and fear them.  One says, 'You are a saint,' the other, 'You won't be saved.'  Both of these thoughts are from the enemy, and there is no truth in them.  But think this way: I am a great sinner, but the Lord is merciful.  He loves people very much, and He will forgive my sins."

Friday, March 15, 2013

St. Patrick's Bad Analogies for the Trinity

The problem with using analogies to explain the Holy Trinity is that you always end up confessing some ancient heresy.

Let the patron saint of the Irish show you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Episcopal Diocese of Virginia Promotes John Dominic Crossan

In the Prayer Book's "Invitation to a Holy Lent" in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, Christians are invited to practice fasting and self-denial.  Apparently, for some this includes fasting from core orthodox tenets of the Christian faith by calling those tenets into question and/or jettisoning them.

Such appears to be the case with the recent lecture by Jesus Seminar luminary John Dominic Crossan at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia.  Crossan is well known for denying Jesus' divinity and his bodily resurrection from the dead, among other orthodox teachings.  But apparently, such denials of the dogmatic core of the Christian faith pose no problems for promoting Crossan's views among Episcopalians.

Writing at Juicy Ecumenism, Jeffrey Walton shares key moments of Crossan's lecture on "The Last Week of Jesus."

First, Crossan dismisses the resurrection and the life of the world to come:

Arguing that the first century idea of Resurrection was significantly different than now, Crossan charged that scripture up to the book of Daniel took for granted that there was no afterlife. Claiming that afterlife was dismissed as a “typical pagan impertinence” by Jews familiar with the concept from surrounding cultures, the idea of an afterlife, Crossan asserted, was folded into Jewish belief during religious persecutions perpetrated by Syrians.

“Where is the justice of God when looking at the bodies of martyrs?” Crossan asked. The answer of some Jews was that there must be a great public vindication of the martyrs when God “cleans up the mess of the world.” Crossan jokingly referred to this eschatology as “Extreme Makeover: Cosmic Edition.”

Crossan stated that he would not attempt to dissuade a person from belief in the afterlife. But “if you’ve spent your whole life with Christ, why should it [afterlife] matter?” The retired professor from Chicago’s DePaul University recounted a conversation in which Sojourners President Jim Wallis defended the physical resurrection of Christ by explaining “no one dies for a metaphor,” and Crossan retorted “that’s the only thing they die for.”
Then Crossan aimed his guns at the belief that the Kingdom of God actually refers to an event in which (as the Prayer Book puts it) "the completion of God's purpose for the world" is fulfilled and Christ "make[s] all things new" (BCP, pp. 861, 862):

The past Jesus Seminar president also repudiated the Kingdom of God as an eternal rule at a moment of time, instead proposing that it was a “process” and dismissing writings credited to the Apostle Paul about the idea of Christ coming soon, appraising that the writer “isn’t Paul.”

“Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was already here, insofar as you enter into it,” Crossan said. “Jesus probably didn’t self-proclaim that he was the messiah.”

Crossan continued by completely discounting anything unique about Jesus and his mission, noting that the only differences between our Lord and figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks come down to the historical contingencies of "time and place":

Asked what difference there was between Jesus and Ghandi, Crossan was succinct. 
“The difference is two things: time and place,” Crossan answered. “There are windows of opportunity within which certain things can happen. Jesus could have done everything that happened to Jesus – including resurrection taken as literally as you want – and this could have all died out in the villages of Galilee in the 66-74 war.”
Adding that “Rosa Parks didn’t do anything other civil rights figures couldn’t have done,” the DePaul University Religious Studies professor recalled Jesus similarly, as part of a river pushing against a logjam, with it breaking through due to several variables at the time of Jesus’ ministry.
“But the river didn’t arrive at that moment,” Crossan asserted. “What happened was a breakthrough, and the breakthrough has a lot to do with time and place. Jesus is not really dropped down from heaven and happens to land in Galilee when he could have landed in Galway [Ireland] and been much different.”

Writing at Stand Firm, David Fischler offers these summary comments:

We have a “biblical scholar” who claims to be a Christian, and who at the same time dismisses every significant teaching of Scripture and every significant belief of historic Christianity. He represents a strain of religion that is best embodied in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, where skepticism of any form of Christian faith or belief is the norm, and even speaking of “God” (except as metaphor, of course) is discouraged. This is the “biblical scholar” whose anti-Christian blather was presented to Virginia Episcopalians as a viable approach to the Faith, and whose “dialogue” with the clergy of the diocese was hosted by the allegedly “orthodox” Bishop of Virginia.

The only word that comes readily to mind is “shameful.”

Sadly, David gets it right.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Questions Jesus Asks

It's been said that the best leaders are not necessarily the ones with all of the right answers, but the ones who know how to ask the right questions.  When it comes to asking the right questions, Jesus embodies great leadership.  Taking all four of the Gospels into account, Jesus asks well over 300 questions, many of which cut straight to the heart of what is most important.  And in keeping with the principle that the Bible is "a book uniquely inspired by God and addressed to each of the faithful personally," it is appropriate and challenging to receive those questions as though Jesus were addressing them to each one of us.

I like the way Monsignor Charles Pope puts it in a posting entitled "100 Questions Jesus Asked and You Ought to Answer":

One of the bigger mistakes people make in reading Scripture is that they read it as a spectator. For them Scripture is a collection of stories and events that took place thousands of years ago. True enough, we are reading historical accounts. 
But, truth be told these ancient stories are our stories. We are in the narrative. You are Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Jeremiah, Ruth, Peter, Paul, Magdalene, Mother Mary, and, if you are prepared to accept it, you are also Jesus. As the narrative we read unfolds, we are in the story. We cannot simply watch what others say or do or answer. For what Peter and Magdalene and others did, we do. Peter denied and ran. So do we. Magdalene loved and never gave up, should should we. Magdalene had a sinful past and a promising future, so do we. Peter was passionate and had a temper so do we. But Peter also loved the Lord and ultimately gave his life for the Lord. So can we. Jesus suffered and died but rose again and ascended to glory. So have we and so will we.

The scriptures are our own story. We are in it. To read scripture as a mere spectator looking on is to miss the keynote. Scripture is our story.

In the light of this keynote there emerges another very important and powerful key to unlocking the text. The key is simply this: Answer the Question! Among the many things Jesus did, he asked a lot of questions! And whenever you read the Gospels and Jesus asks a question, answer it! Do not wait to see what Peter or Magdalene, or the Pharisees or the crowd say for an answer. You answer the question, in your own words. This brings Scripture powerfully alive.

In another posting entitled "135 Questions Jesus Asked," Pastor Eric von Atzigen offers the following insightful observation about why Jesus asked so many questions:

I have been amazed by how masterfully our Lord uses questions to teach vital spiritual truths.  Jesus never asked a question because he needed to know the answer.  He used questions the way a surgeon uses a scalpel, to delicately cut into a new level of understanding. ... I find myself amazed at the power of these questions to cut into my soul.

I had never really thought about it in quite this way before, but Pastor Eric is right: Jesus' questions are powerful!  And they can open up places in our hearts and souls to receive the healing grace of God.  

In a book entitled 99 Questions Jesus Asked, youth pastor Jason Ostrander notes the significance of question asking in Jesus' teaching ministry:

There are three things that make Jesus’ teaching style of “question asking” so powerful. First, if you ask a question, you’re displaying a genuine interest in the person. Everything that Jesus said was perfect and timely (because he was the Son of God), and he wasn’t asking questions to get answers necessarily—rather, he was relating to the people on a very deep level. Just because he might have known the answer already doesn’t mean he was being disingenuous; instead, he was using questions to illuminate what he knew were the real issues in people’s lives. 
Second, by leaving a legacy of questions rather than a list of answers (or to-do’s), Jesus was communicating how important it was to think as a Christian. For Jesus it was more important that he teach us how to think than to tell us what to think!  
Finally, the fact that Jesus asked so many questions helps us know that we have a role in this whole Christian life. Most world religions have, at their core, leaders who make statement after statement about how their followers should live their lives, which would require an almost robot-like response disconnected from the leader. But Jesus’ approach with his followers was to put them in the game by seeking their responses and working with their answers right on the spot!

The postings already cited will give you more of Jesus' questions.  I share just a few of them below.  Use them for your own prayerful meditation and reflection.  You can look each one of them up for the context, but perhaps it's best to follow Msgr. Pope's counsel:

Just let the question meet you where you are right now. The question may mean something for you that is very different than its original context.  But that is OK.  Just pick a question, read it, consider it and answer it, by talking to the Lord.

Questions Jesus Asks

"Why are you afraid?" (Mark 4:40)

"What do you want me to do for you?" (Mark 10:51)

"Do you believe that I am able to do this?" (Matthew 9:28)

"Are you asleep?" (Mark 14:37)

"Where is your faith?" (Luke 8:25)

"Why do you think evil in your hearts?" (Matthew 9:4)

"Why did you doubt?" (Matthew 14:31)

"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16:13)

"Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15)

"Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?" (John 18:34)

"Why do you ask me about what is good?" (Matthew 19:17)

"Why do you involve me?" (John 2:4)

"If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?" (John 3:12)

"Do you want to be made well?" (John 5:6)

"Does this offend you?" (John 6:61)

"Did I not choose you?" (John 6:70)

"Why do you not understand what I say?" (John 8:43)

"Do you understand what I have done for you?" (John 13:12)

"What shall we say the Kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?" (Mark 4:30)

"Are you so dull?" (Mark 7:18)

"Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord', and do not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)

"What is written in the law?  How do you read it?" (Luke 10:26)

"Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (Luke 12:25)

"So if you have not been trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?" (Luke 16:11)

"When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8)

"Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?" (Luke 24:38)

"You do not want to leave too, do you?" (John 6:67)

"Why are you trying to kill me?" (John 7:19)

"Do you love me?" (John 21:17)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

N. T. Wright: "The Bible is breathed out by God"

The Bible is far more ... than what some people used to say a generation or so ago: that it was simply the (or a) "record of the revelation," as though God revealed himself by some quite other means and the Bible was simply what people wrote down to remind themselves of what had happened.  The Bible offers itself, and has normally been treated in the church, as part of God's revelation, not simply a witness or echo of it.  Part of the problem is the assumption that what's required is after all simply "revelation," the communication of some kind of true information.  The Bible does indeed offer plenty of information, but what it offers in a more primary way is energy for the task to which God is calling his people.  Talking about inspiration of the Bible is one way of saying that that energy comes from the work of God's Spirit.

It helps, in all this, to remind ourselves constantly what the Bible is given to us for.  One of the most famous statements of "inspiration" in the Bible itself puts it like this: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Equipped for every good work; there's the point.  The Bible is breathed out by God (the word for "inspired" in this case is theopneustos - literally, "God-breathed") so that it can fashion and form God's people to do his work in the world.  

In other words, the Bible isn't there simply to be an accurate reference point for people who want to look things up and be sure they've got them right.  It is there to equip God's people to carry forward his purposes of new covenant and new creation.  It is there to enable people to work for justice, to sustain their spirituality as they do so, to create and enhance relationships at every level, and to produce that new creation which will have about it something of the beauty of God himself.  The Bible isn't like an accurate description of how a car is made.  It's more like the mechanic who helps you fix it, the garage attendant who refuels it, and the guide who tells you how to get where you're going.  And where you're going is to make God's new creation happen in his world, not simply to find your own way unscathed through the old creation.

~ N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: