Saturday, April 22, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:91-31
St. John is very helpful when he tells us exactly why he wrote his gospel: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” In other words, the Apostle John wants you to have the new life that comes with the name of Jesus, and you get that new life by believing in Jesus as the Messiah—so here he is for your belief.
Believing in Jesus is what makes you a Christian. And then the combination of what things you believe about Jesus is what makes you one kind of a Christian or another. What we believe about Jesus is what we repeat every week, as part of our worship, when we recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed. Every week you say it—either “I believe” or “We believe.” It is worth noticing what we take for granted, that believing is central and even pivotal to the Christian faith.
It is less so for other religions. The ancient pagan religions were not about belief. The ancients believed in their gods and goddesses no more than you believe in the Internal Revenue Service or the Port Authority. Their gods were simply powers in the world to be both feared and satisfied.
Neither is Judaism based on belief, but on birth and observing the procedures, apart from whether you believe in God or not. All the disputes and divisions in Judaism are over the procedures, not God.
Nor is Islam based on belief, but on submission. Islam was spread in the world by military power and not by missionary appeal. If you were conquered, you submitted, whether you believed or not.
Islam is not congenial to a premium on belief, because belief implies freedom to believe or not. For Islam it is an insult to the majesty of God that God should be subject to our belief or not, that God should be judged by us in terms of credibility. The God of the Holy Koran would never offer himself to human subjectivity in the way that the Lord Jesus offers himself to Thomas. The gospel, with its premium on belief, elevates human beings relative to God to a level that Islam finds arrogant and offensive. Who do we think we are?
The premium on belief that distinguishes Christianity you can chalk up largely to the Apostle John. I did a word count on the verb “believe”. In the Gospel of Matthew, the verb “believe” occurs ten times. In the Gospel of Mark, it appears ten times. In the Gospel of Luke, nine times. In the Gospel of John, ninety-eight times, ten times as much. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is one theme among others, but in John, it’s the main theme. The author tells us as much. These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.
So the Apostle John is inviting us to believe. What’s more, he’s inviting us to believe without seeing, even though all of our human experience reinforces the cliche that seeing is believing.
In a courtroom trial, the jury wants to know what the witness saw, not what the witness believes. If the witness says what he believes the judge rules it out of order. It’s up to the jury to decide what they believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, and they base their belief not on what they saw for themselves, because they were not there, but on the testimony of the witnesses. Just so with the Christian faith. You may consider the Christian church to be one huge jury, sitting through the centuries, hearing and depending on the testimony of witnesses under cross-examination by advocates and adversaries in order to determine its belief or not. That it works this way is the legacy of the apostles to the church, and “Blessed are you who have not seen, but yet believe.”
The apostles are the witnesses. They were the original witnesses right after the fact, and ever after they remain the witnesses, by means of their testimonies written down for us. The apostles were first-hand believers because they actually saw it, and we are second-hand believers who believe what they testify they saw.
Thomas did not want to be a second-hand believer. In the week between the first and second appearances of Our Lord, the disciples told Thomas that they had seen him alive again. It was only because they had seen him that they believed, and Thomas wants nothing different for himself. What he’s asking for is nothing untoward, though I am not sure why he’s so adamant about it.
Then Thomas ends up making a great leap of faith, jumping out in front of the other disciples, and out of his mouth, not Peter’s, comes the claim which is the pointed climax of John’s Gospel, “My Lord and my God.” Nine years ago I preached about this intuitive leap by Thomas and its significance.
Today I want to stay with that response of Our Lord to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” He’s talking about us, you, the second-hand believers, who depend on the witnesses. Apparently we are blessed in a way that first-hand believers are not. To believe in what you have not seen requires more of you, it raises you to something, to a level of risk and initiative, to become a greater soul, and live at the level of hope instead of mere possession. Blessed are you who have not seen but yet believe.
Believing the witnesses is parallel to believing the promises, which also you cannot see, not yet. We Christians believe two kinds of things: witnesses and promises. We stand between the witnesses of the past and the promises of the future. From the witnesses you can believe something to be true about the past. And from the promises you can believe something to be true about the future. You believe the witnesses of his resurrection and you believe the promises of your own resurrection, and the one guarantees the other.
Our resurrected Lord is keeping our future inheritance safe with him in heaven until he comes again to rule the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the wonders of his love, into which we will be resurrected, soul and body, as he was. He holds the promise and he is the living witness. Both witness and promise are held together in him.
We have just now moved from the language of the Gospel of John to the language of the First Epistle of Peter, from the resurrected Jesus in the experience of the first-hand believers, there, in that room, to the resurrected Jesus in our experience as second-hand believers, removed from us in heaven but still present to us by his Word and Holy Spirit. Our relationship with him requires more of belief than was required of his disciples, because we do not see him, and we have to depend more on the promises, and even him we experience as a promise.
He is both the living witness and the living promise. And because he personally is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, so is your inheritance, the inheritance that you are promised. Not only is your inheritance imperishable, but St. Peter goes further to claim that the genuineness of your faith is imperishable, even when it’s tested and tried by suffering and opposition or your internal doubts and hesitations.
It’s imperishable because it’s grounded not in your own ability to believe, but in the objectivity of what happened to Jesus in history, as attested by witnesses. It’s imperishable because no matter how weak you might feel within your faith, the written testimony of the apostles does not change and the living testimony of the resurrected Jesus is undefiled and unfading.
The benefit of this, in the words of St. Peter, is the salvation of your souls. This terminology is easily misunderstood if you think of your soul as that ghost inside your physical body. The Greek word for soul can also be translated as “life,” your full life, your human life, and your fully real and human is what is being saved.
This is not a final escape, but the rescuing of your life right now, the rescuing of your life from frustration, from nothingness, from the shadow of death. It saves your actions in the world from emptiness, it rescues your witness in the world from nihilism, it saves your good deeds, your social witness, your service to the poor, your speaking up, your resisting violence, your marching in Washington, your reading books, your raising kids, your sacrifices of time and energy and money for the congregation you belong to, all that gets saved, it is not wasted, it does not get lost. That’s the promise, and of that you yourselves are witnesses.
And this is how you may feel the truth of that ecstasy of St. Peter’s epistle: “Although you have not seen him, you love him, and although you do not see him now, you believe in him, and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, April 14, 2017
Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18
When we were planning the music for this service, Aleeza told me that one possibility for Jeffrey Mandelbaum to sing was the Ebarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion. You just heard how simply beautiful it is—the interplay of violin and voice, the grief sustained in understatement. But how can this aria for Good Friday be appropriate on Easter?
Then I realized that Jeffrey could sing it for Mary Magdalene. Her weeping is central to the Easter story. Twice she gets asked it, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It was through her tears that she was the first person to see Jesus alive again.
I’m imagining the scene like from a movie by Tarkovsky (visually like Nostalgia but with the soundtrack from Sacrifice). You see an open garden in the dim light of early morning, and in the middle distance you notice a tomb. You watch different characters come into view and do different things and then leave again, and then one woman comes back, and she crumples down outside the tomb, and the camera patiently watches her. From the music you can tell that she is weeping, it’s the Erbarme dich by Bach. Woman, why are you weeping?
Woman of Syria, why are you weeping? Woman of South Sudan, why are you weeping? Mother of Trayvon, why are you weeping? Woman of Palestine, why are you weeping? Mother Eve, cast out of the garden, why are you weeping? Jesus, outside the tomb of Lazarus, why are you weeping? It’s usually a Good Friday question, but our gospel makes it an Easter question. Have any of you been weeping much of late?
I have, the last few months. Since October 8, when the Access Hollywood tape came out, and since then the sanctioning of violence all around as good and right and our prerogative, and the national enhancement of selfishness and fear. And not just here, around the world. Last Easter I was more optimistic than I am right now. I know the world is actually not that different than it was a year ago, but the future looks different than it did then, the future looks darker, drier, hotter, more aggressive, more fearful, defensive, divided, and devoid of hope.
So while Mary Magdalene was grieving the loss of her beloved teacher, she was also grieving the loss of the future she had seen in him, the future he said that he would bring. All the hopes and dreams of Israel he had personalized within himself—that he was the resurrection and he was the life and he was the light and with him the kingdom of God had come, and now that he was dead, there was nothing left over, all that was deadness too. Their whole relationship with God had died with him. God had forsaken him upon the cross, God forsook them all, and she was God-forsaken too.
You can weep with her that God is dead. You can weep with her a godless world. A world without God that has no need of God. Where the right is determined by those who take power, and order is the protection of their interests, and justice their enforcement. The world looked worse to Mary Magdalene than it had before he came. The best is resignation, or just go back to her old sins.
When she peers into the tomb, the angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Don’t they know why? Do they lack empathy, have angels no imaginations? Why don’t they tell her the good news why she does not have to weep? At least they don’t tell her not to. Maybe she has to, maybe her weeping is the proper welcome for the resurrection. Who needs a resurrection if everything is fine and dandy and you are satisfied and gratified with a lovely bourgeois life? Who needs hope? Do we need to let ourselves weep for ourselves and for the world rightly to welcome the resurrection?
Why does she obsess about the absence of his body? This certainly counters the philosophical interpretation of Easter that his rising again is only a metaphor for the spiritual uplift of the human soul that he inspired in them. But Jesus is not the Buddha, and the gospel was not written by Plato. The Bible is all about embodiment, the soul is for the body, not against it, the promises of God are all embodied promises, and if the body of Jesus is gone, then God does not remember them, God does not care. Then death and violence are more powerful than God, and so is absence, emptiness, deadness, nothingness. She wants his body to hold off the nothingness a little while.
Then she looks behind her at a man of course she wouldn’t recognize because she knows he’s dead. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” She doesn’t answer him—she assumes he already knows whom she is seeking. “Just tell me where you put him.” Then he calls her by name. And when she hears her name she recognizes him. He was seeking her! He found her in her God-forsakeness. He offers no explanation how he’s alive again. His answer to her abandonment is just to say her name.
Is that not what you want from God, less an analytical demonstration of the doctrines than to have some sense of the presence of God? For most of you the opposite of belief is not unbelief in the sense of logical dispute, but rather despair, discouragement, and existential doubt. It’s less there is no God than God is the great disappointment, the great abandonment, and since we can manage our lives without God anyway, why bother with God at all. Unless God calls you by your name. And that’s why you are here today. You can’t keep yourself away from God.
Jesus never explained how he rose. He never offered reasoning to make it more believable. What actually happened to Jesus between his death and his post-resurrection appearances to his witnesses the New Testament does not profess to know. It is simply called “raising the dead,” and raising the dead has no historical analogy in human experience, it has no verifiability. The only analogy the Bible ever offers to the raising of Jesus is the future resurrection of us all, and that will be verifiable only after the argument is settled! So what you are left with is a choice, and that not without risk!
What he did offer his witnesses was just the evidence of his living body. His real prior physical body, though somehow modified. Because the promises of God are all embodied promises. Your body is that piece of the real world that you are, and for which you are responsible. The corporeality of your body is your solidarity with the whole creation, the biosphere, the soil, the climate. The creation is groaning from all the evil that human sin has let loose in it, and for this we all should weep.
His evidence was also the allowance of her weeping, that weeping instead of stoicism is the right response to loss and death and suffering. That weeping instead of cynicism is the right response to violence and injustice. That you start with weeping before you move to action. You can fight back if you have been weeping first. Weeping acknowledges that things are not what they should be, that the world is good and that it’s not so is a grief. The alternative is to accept the world as cruel and bad, to which we must respond in fear and self-aggrandizement, and take what we want, and force ourselves on other men and force ourselves on women, and force ourselves upon the world. This is your choice, and if you take Easter as the pledge of God, than you can live by hope instead of fear and resignation. Not so much from optimism in humanity, but choosing for hope because of God.
Easter is most certainly a joyful day, a peppermint day, a hopeful day, with its promise of new life, the promise of eternal life, the victory of life over death. Yet Mary is allowed to weep today because this eternal life is hidden beneath its opposite, the eternal life of Jesus is not some ethereal, disembodied bliss, it is rather embodied and therefore hidden under trial, suffering, death, and sorrow.
But this negativity is also its latency, its ground, as with Bach’s Erbarme dich, when the violins rise and rise to heights of beauty upon the sustained plaintiveness of the human voice. Because the Christian hope is not bliss but love within suffering—that love has power to enter into suffering, and right within that suffering to generate greater love. This is the love that is stronger than death. In love he calls her name, Mary, in love she answers Rabbouni. The Easter gospel is a love story.
The witnesses to Our Lord’s resurrection have left for us their testimonies, and their testimonies are an invitation. The invitation is for you once again take the resurrection of Jesus as the pledge of God to you, the pledge that the peace of God is stronger than the violence of men; that generosity has more clout than fear; that though evil is strong, God’s love for the world is stronger than the world, so that your faithful actions are not in vain; and that though death is strong, God’s love for you is stronger than your death. In the words of Jeremiah, I am the Lord, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Take your tambourines. Go forth in the dance of the merrymakers! Christ is risen, Alleluia.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 01, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
It’s a wonderful story, but if you read the subsequent verses, you learn that the Judeans who did not believe in Jesus reported this miracle to the authorities, who responded by setting in motion the plot to arrest him and kill him. So the resurrection of Lazarus was the death of Jesus.
Our Lord had two best friends. One was the disciple John, the author of the story, and the other was Lazarus, so when Jesus wept, it was personal, and more than general grief for the human condition. And I wonder if he also grieved what he felt he’d had to do, his disturbing strategy of letting his dear friend die.
Yes, he had a miracle he was planning, but letting him die first in order to do it was close to an abuse of their friendship. Lazarus died believing that Jesus had abandoned him. When Our Lord got the message that Lazarus was ill–so please come quick, he must have thought to himself, “Good, maybe he’ll die, and then I can use that as an opportunity to demonstrate my final masterpiece.” To do this did he not have to stifle his natural emotions?
How much of a favor was it for Lazarus, to raise him, after having let him die? I mean the guy had crossed the finish line and now he had to come back and run his race all over again!
If he meant it as a favor to Martha and Mary, it would have been much kinder to come and heal him before he died, as the sisters were expecting. That he hadn’t done so had disturbed their relationship. When he finally shows up the first thing they let him know is that he failed them. They believe in him as Messiah but he had strained their trust in his personal love for them. He has to suffer the pain of this.
So when Mary joins him and they approach the tomb, it all comes out of him, and the author stresses the great emotional disturbance of Our Lord. So when Jesus wept, did he also grieve the loss within his natural friendships? And when Jesus wept, did he weep for himself?
He knew what his disciple Thomas knew, that doing this miracle would end up getting him killed. So Jesus felt in the death of his friend his own impending death, when he would exchange places with Lazarus, and, despite his own resurrection, lose his friendship with Lazarus forever. There could be no gain without some loss. Life for Lazarus was death for Jesus. This was his last miracle. Jesus wept.
The author is clear that the reason that Lord Jesus did this disturbing thing of using his friend was to instill belief. Eight times in the story the verb “believe” is used.
He did this so that his disciples would believe in him.
He did this so that Martha would believe he was the resurrection and the life, that she would believe that those who believe in him will live and never die, and that she would believe he was the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.
He did this so that if Martha believed, she would see the glory of God.
He did this so that the crowd would believe that his Father in heaven had sent him.
And he did this so that many Judeans who saw what he did would believe in him.
A complexity of belief in the interrelated aspects of who he was and what he did.
He did this to demonstrate in one consummate action the several things he had been teaching all along, that the Father had sent him to act as God in human flesh, that his human word was the very word of God, that in his human life was God’s life, that from his death would come eternal life, that he was the good shepherd, that his sheep would hear his voice, and that when he called them by name they would come out. All this he demonstrated when he shouted, “Lazarus, come out.”
He demonstrated the power of his word, and not even deadness could resist the command of his voice. It’s one thing to heal a body that is still alive with its own vitality, but even modern medicine, having conquered many fatal diseases, is powerless after death. Once life goes out it’s irretrievable, and Lazarus was very dead. But Jesus calls the putrefying corpse by name, and the voice of Jesus is answered by the corpse presenting itself, as if to say, “You called me, Lord!” Implicitly saying, “Here am I, hineini.” As you too will say. He has demonstrated something in the future of us all.
He demonstrated that the prophecy of Ezekiel was now come true in him, that the predicted resurrection of the nation of Israel would be at his beck and call. Those who saw what he did believed in him for this. So now they could hope that the resurrection of the nation of Israel would be soon.
It would be a narrowly national resurrection of every dead Israelite, nobody else, finally to live the promised good life in the Promised Land. Martha believed in that, and that her dear friend Jesus was just the Messiah to get the whole thing started, and soon enough her brother would rise again along with all the other Jews. Martha doesn’t cry, she’s come to terms with everything. But Jesus will disturb this too, and the national hope as well, by letting himself die, as he let Lazarus die. He had a global resurrection for all of humanity to set in motion.
He demonstrated his divinity, we would say, looking back. But that they did not yet believe. The dots were all there, but no one connected them till Thomas did it a week after Easter. It required the absolute shock of Good Friday and Easter to intuit what still unimaginable. But here it is enough to believe in his person and his promises, and he will open up himself in his own time.
When you believe in Jesus, you believe in him for more than you successfully grasp of him. He always is ahead of you. And what you ask of him he may well not answer when you call. “Lord, if you had been here, this would not have happened.”
Where were you, Lord? Why did you let us go through this?
Well, do you still believe I am the resurrection and the life?
I am not sure what that means.
I know you don’t, but do you believe in me? That you can trust me for whatever it might mean? Can you believe in those promises of God that I am delivering in my way and in my time?
You know, in wrestling with this story this week I was struck by the emotional disturbance that the Lord Jesus felt and the social disturbance in what he did, and how much belief in Christ is a disturbance, and is meant to be so. It means the disturbance of all your other beliefs, a shaking, a loosening, an unbinding from the cloths that bind you, and a letting go.
The Lord Jesus disturbs the laws of nature, he overturns the tables of biology, he interrupts the natural harmony of chemicals and the God-given cycle of life and death. He initiates a rupture in the world, a crack in the chain of being, a disturbance in the vibrations of the universe. Your belief in him disturbs your friendships and your family expectations.
Your belief in him disturbs your emotions and you find yourself weeping and you can’t tell whether it’s from grief or joy or both. Your belief in him disturbs your security, economic and political. Your belief in him is meant to disturb your loyalties, patriotic and theological and even ethical.
I’m thinking about the turmoil in our nation being generated from the White House and aggravated by the Congress. I’m thinking about the daily disruption of our domestic tranquility whether by intention or incompetence. I’m thinking about the detectable disturbance in our weather which gets met by denials of climate change and answered by frantic increases in fossil fuel extraction.
And we divert ourselves in entertainment and educated consumerism and soothe ourselves in dining and fine design. This is the American way of death. This Bible calls this “flesh,” the frantic chasing after life by any means. To set your mind on the flesh is death, but to set your mind on the Spirit is life.
This turmoil and this frantic disruption is what Our Lord disturbs when in grace and love he cries with a loud voice, “Come out.” Against the resistance of our fear and doubt, the resistance of dead matter and the hardness of rock, and into the darkness of the cave, he calls, “Come out.”
To believe him is life. You rise again. You are set free from the drag of the flesh to live in the breath of God’s Spirit, free from the turmoil to live in tranquility, free from the criticism of your family to say what you believe, free from the pressure of your friends to act on your belief, free from White House to live in open generosity, free from Congress to live creatively in peace, free from your own grief and fear to use your grief and fear for empathy and service and love.
It was for love that Jesus wept. His disturbance is the power of his love to break through the resistance of death and fear and your unbelief. I invite you to believe that God loves you and to answer when God calls you. Here I am.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, March 17, 2017
“Woman, believe me,” says the Lord Jesus. Believe him as he turns the conversation to make a complex theological pronouncement about the hour having come, and true worship, and where salvation comes from, and do the Jews know better than the Samaritans, and about God being a spirit, and about spirit and truth. Got all that? If she believes all that, what does that do for her?
This pronouncement of Jesus alters the tone of their conversation, this most wonderful and subtle conversation between two characters in all the New Testament so far. Two single people, at a well, at noon-time—a time of day when no other women will be there. Not just any well—Jacob’s well, and Jacob was the patriarch who fell in love with a woman who showed up at a well. Moses met his wife at a well. In the Torah a well is a setting for romance. And here this stranger is asking this woman if she will have a drink with him. And then it’s not long before he makes a comment about her sex life. The potential for flirtation is noticed by the disciples when they show up, we are told, but they keep their mouths shut until she walks off.
The potential is there but Our Lord does not go there. And yet the conversation is direct and even intimate. After the opening exchange about water, which, as typical in St. John’s Gospel, plays on an initial misunderstanding of what the Lord Jesus says, the woman catches up to him, and she says emphatically, “Yes, give me this living water.” She’s getting it that the living water is prophetic.
That’s when the Lord Jesus tells her to fetch her husband, and she says she doesn’t have one and he says, you’ve had five and the one you’re with now is not. “Well, I can see you’re a prophet, let’s change the subject!” The woman is canny, and she deflects the attention from her love-life.
Which actually may have included lots of suffering. In that society, her husbands had the power of marriage and divorce. Five men had taken her and then divorced her. Now one man has offered her some minimal security. Or was it less brutal than that? She appears to be smart and engaging. Had she maybe had some discretion in her life, but looked for love in the wrong places? It’s hard to know how three-dimensional a picture we should try to make of her, without being anachronistic.
In any case she deflects the attention from her love-life with her question on theology, about the bitter doctrinal dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews. Under the surface of doctrine were issues of ethnic enmity, economic distress, and political hatred. Despite the nice conversation, Our Lord is still the enemy. But that’s just when he says, “Woman, believe me.” Believe that I have come to this dispute to be the solution that moves beyond the points of the dispute. “The hour is coming.”
She gets where he’s going. She recognizes the prophecies. She knows her stuff. She says, “I know the Messiah is coming.” But that’s strange for her to say. By rights she should have no interest in the Messiah, who being from the House of David would bring political victory to Jerusalem and be an enemy to the Samaritans. This woman doesn’t fit. She’s an outsider to her own people. But she says it, “When the Messiah comes, he will tell us everything,” and Jesus answers, “I am. I’m him talking to you.” “I am”—what the Lord God said to Moses from the burning bush. “I am.” It’s the climax of the story. There’s nothing further she needs to believe. It all comes down to him. Belief in him.
The spell breaks when the disciples arrive, and she departs for home. What does she mean when she tells her villagers to come see a man who told her everything she ever did? In that short conversation? What had he said that read her whole life as an open book, that she felt known by him, and also comprehensible to her own self? Could this be what the Messiah is like, and not our enemy but for us too, not the political savior of Jerusalem, but the savior of the world? And is this the result of belief in him, that in him you both recognize your God and you recognize yourself?
The appeal of this story is the close engagement of these two characters. He initiates, and she keeps responding, except for that one time when she initiates to change the subject. The appeal is how this is a picture of Christian belief, and how much of belief is a response to God’s initiative.
We have this cultural idea that belief is a free choice that humans make or not, upon their own initiative. But the story confirms our experience, that your belief is mostly your responding to the mysterious initiative of God that you just can’t shake, and at the same time you’re often just trying to hang on, your belief is just trying to stay in and keep making sense. Only occasionally can I say, “I know the Messiah is coming!” and feel a small triumph of confidence. Belief is like nursing. I mean, you the believer are the little baby and God is your mother and your belief is your attaching to her breast.
Drinking is the story’s metaphor. The woman’s believing is her drinking, and what Jesus is doing is pouring into her his life, he pours his Spirit into her.
Let me import the language of the Epistle to the Romans. I’ll repeat it for you because I love it so much: “Meanwhile, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I am saying that the Lord Jesus is pouring God’s love into her heart and she is drinking it by her belief. I am saying that belief is a two-directional engagement: you invest your belief in God, and God invests God’s own Spirit in you, right through the medium of your belief.
You need God to do this back to you, because of your suffering. The problem with suffering is what you see in our first lesson, from Exodus 17, with the Children of Israel thirsty in the desert.
Their suffering produced complaining, and complaining produced quarreling, and quarreling led to resistance, and they threatened their leaders. Years of slavery had trained them to expect the worst and resist authority. They were a people traumatized, and their exodus was traumatic too. They did not know how to live in the desert and they feared abandonment. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Their hopes were disappointed. They represent our natural condition. Every day we face this nature in us, and we quarrel and complain about our disappointed lives and we test the love of God.
What our lessons suggest to us today is that the opposite of belief is not unbelief, at least not for religious people. The opposite of belief is complaining and quarreling. And that’s what pushes love away. You believe in love, but testing pushes love away. Like you’re angry with someone you love, or even just disappointed—you test them, then you push them away, and then you give up trying, like the woman at the well. Gradually, slowly, you dry up, you get dry and hard, and you harden your hearts. You can confess it. It’s Lent.
Harden not your hearts. Soften your hearts. Just as Moses gets water from the rock, so the Lord Jesus pours his love into the heart of the woman at the well, and that softens her and gets her spirit flowing. She suffered her sequence of husbands, apparently, with endurance, and her endurance produced her character, yet hope still disappointed her, so now the Lord Jesus pours his love into her and gives her hope. You can see the fruit of her hope in her mission to her village, she is the very first evangelist in the Gospel of John. She overflows. And the story ends with everybody believing—it is a full harvest of belief and an overflowing fountain of life in his name.
Right now in our congregation we are interested in action. I get that. Political action, social action, which needs to happen among us; also action for the congregation, in the renovation of our sanctuary, and soon getting ready for our homeless shelter. Also we’re going to need two or three new teachers for Sunday School next year. All good works, and faith without works is dead. If you believe something, what good is your belief if you don’t act on it.
But today our lessons call you back from action to belief itself. It is, after all, the season of Lent. Come back to drink. Don’t take your belief for granted. Don’t stop drinking. You need to get filled up again, in order to keep your suffering turning the right way round towards hope.
The marvelous story calls for your belief. That’s all it requires but it does call for that. Not your strong belief but your thirsty belief—if only that there’s nothing else to believe in. I invite you to believe the promise that God’s love has been poured into your hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, March 09, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
This example I have used before: You know the game of Quidditch from Harry Potter. The young wizards ride their brooms and score points by tossing the Quaffle through the scoring ring, while trying not to get hit by the black spheres called the Bludgers. On each team one player is the Seeker, who only chases the Golden Snitch, and it’s the Golden Snitch that wins the game, no matter how many Quaffle points your team tallies up. It’s all or nothing with the Golden Snitch.
Quidditch nicely illustrates the conventional Christian logic of belief. Most of the players are like Roman Catholics, who gradually score points by the Quaffles of sacramental observance and good works, avoiding as best they can mortal sins–the Bludgers. Evangelicals are Seekers who ignore all that tedious teamwork and scoring, to go off on their own and just believe in Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and snatch the Golden Snitch of salvation. Just believe in Jesus and you win it all.
Or, don’t believe in Jesus and you lose it all. No matter how otherwise good or bad you are, God will not forgive your not believing, and you go to hell. Belief in Jesus is like an airline ticket, or a visa stamped on your passport, or a password for a webpage. If you believe, you’re admitted to eternal life. If you don’t believe, you lose, you perish. Doesn’t the gospel lesson say it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoso believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
What is this thing called “belief”? Belief is more important to Christianity than to any other faith. So today I begin an eight part series of sermons on Belief. I will ask the lessons every week to tell us about belief. I hope to develop a richer picture of belief than the conventional one, more like a journey than a game. More like The Hobbit than Harry Potter, ha!
Every human being is a believer. In something. Even atheists. Science depends on the belief in the general lawfulness of the universe. You can’t function as a human being without believing in many things, and belief is one of the things that distinguishes us among the animals.
I suspect it’s because we are the animals that speak. For speaking to work, the words we exchange with each other have to be trustworthy. We are the animals who say, “I give you my word,” and, “Believe you me.” Our use of language requires our exercise of belief simply as an anthropological necessity. Other species show evidences of love, but we are the species that can make promises, so we are the animals who believe.
That to be human is to believe is taught by the Bible right from the start, in the story of the Garden of Eden that we read last week. When God planted that special tree in the middle of the Garden, and told the man and the woman not to eat from it, that required their believing God, and so the tree was a gift to make them human beings. A normal animal would see the lovely fruit and just eat it. Animals live in unity with their appetites. But God gave Adam and Eve the gift of freedom from appetite, that they could keep choosing not to eat that fruit, and their continual choosing not to eat the fruit is what made them and kept them human beings. When they stopped believing that what God told them was the best, and ate the fruit, they fell from being fully human beings.
They began to die. Their dying was less a punishment than the natural result of their failure to keep believing, of losing their full humanity. When we don’t believe, we perish. The word “perish,” as used by Jesus with Nicodemus, you may take at face value—not as code for going to hell, which, as an immortality of terror, is the opposite of perishing. Jesus does not teach that not believing gets you immortality in hell, but that you fall out of the surpassingly abundant life of God.
Belief is access to life, abundant life, eternal life, to the surpassingly human life from the Holy Spirit that God intends for us. Not just for when we die, but for now. Belief is more like learning Chinese than getting a visa. It’s more like learning to skate than knowing a password. It’s rich and present and practical, and so for the next few weeks we’re going to consider what belief is like.
Have you have noticed in our weekly liturgy the two different ways that I introduce the Apostles Creed? Sometimes I ask you, “What do you believe?” and sometimes I ask you, “In whom do you believe?” The answer is the same, you cannot separate them. Belief that and belief in. In other words, what God has done is what gives God personal credibility, and you credit God for what God has done. “Credit” comes from credo, the Latin for “I believe.”
When St. Paul writes in our epistle that Abram believed God, it’s more the “what” than the “in whom.” I mean, Abram barely knew who this God was. This was the first time this God had ever talked to the man, and we have no evidence of any prior relationship. Yet the Bible treats it so matter of fact, as if believing what this God promises you is the most natural thing in the world. Which it is supposed to be.
That’s the point, that’s the core: God calls and God promises. What you do is you believe the call and you believe the promises. You answer the call, you desire the promises, and, like Abram, you act on your desire, you step out on the promises. That’s belief.
Then St. Paul says this surprising thing, that belief in the promises is how you “inherit the world.” Not inherit heaven, but the world. Belief is not a ticket out of the world but your rebirth to your original calling of being God’s agent and steward in the world, because God “so loved the world.” So believing in God’s promises is not to make you religious, it’s to make you more than a sophisticated primate. Believing the promises is not just to make you a Christian, it’s to make you a human being!
It’s not only the promises, it’s the promiser. The promises take you to the one who promises. The remarkable claim that the Lord Jesus makes before Nicodemus is that he is both the promise and the promiser. It’s shocking to Nicodemus, but to help him the Lord Jesus appeals to Moses: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever who believes in him may have eternal life.” There’s the “what,” the promise, and there’s the “whom,” the promiser within the promise, the Son of Man.
So here is a take home: If somebody asks you what you as a Christian believe, you could stand and recite the Apostles Creed, but I think a shorter answer is more useful: “I believe in the promises of God as delivered by Jesus.” What do Christians believe? You believe in the promises of God as delivered by Jesus. Okay, so then what do Christians do? We act upon those promises.
Finally, there is a further mystery inside this gospel lesson, and it’s a great one. There’s another “whom” and another “what” in which to believe. The “whom” is yourself and the “what” is that you were “born again.” When you believe in Jesus you may also believe in your new self and when you believe his promises you may believe in his promise about yourself: You are born again. There are two of you. There is new life inside you. A life that God keeps alive and will not let die.
It’s a great mistake but a common one that being born again is based on some decision you have made for Christ. To make rebirth depend on your own decision is totally to miss the metaphor. No baby has ever decided to be born. A baby is born because of the love between a woman and man. It was their love, physically expressed, that nine months later resulted in a baby being born, and the baby had no say in the matter, but suddenly crying “Here I am!”
You are born of water and the Spirit. It’s your own personal virgin birth. The Spirit of the Most High has overshadowed you and conceived in your old self your new self, fragile, vulnerable, childlike, sweet and clean, protected in your pouch like a baby kangaroo, and you are the mother who feeds and nourishes and teaches and loves your new self, who will live on after your old self dies.
Your old self you are painfully aware of. To know your new self requires your belief, your belief in the promise of God to you that it is your true self. I invite you to believe this about yourself, what you cannot know for sure in terms of abstract knowledge or even in emotional confidence, but you can believe it.
Believe that you have this small, clear space within yourself, believe that your desire to believe is the proof of your belief, no matter how small, weak, intermittent, or confused your belief may feel to you. Believe this about your belief because the power of your belief is not in yourself, but in the power of the Spirit of God, the power of God’s love, the Spirit of God who loves you.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Note: This blog is my own. What I post here is my own, and does not represent the opinion or position of the church I serve. I imagine there may be strong disagreement with what I write here. Good. A healthy democracy requires vigorous debate, and questions raised.
The 45th President of the United States has been promising a combination of full employment, restricted markets, and concentrated capitalism, all under the stern direction of the executive power of the national government. The closest historical comparison that I can think of is National Socialism. This, of course, should be troubling. Allow me to review the comparison, and then at the end to touch on the President’s privileging of a nationalistic version of Christianity, which is also troubling.
During his campaign and into his first weeks in office we have watched the 45th President appeal to the fearful middle class by promising to bring back jobs, especially in the industrial sectors. We heard him promise to restrict the freedom of the market by enacting tariffs and protections and by subsidizing corporations that are friendly to the White House (and bullying those that are not). We saw him prove his loyalty to capitalism by populating his economic team with Goldman Sachs executives. We hear him repeat “America First” and “Make America Great Again.” The combination of strong nationalism with centralized capitalism, controlled markets, and full employment was tried before in the National Socialism (Nazism) of Germany. It was advocated elsewhere, as in the Netherlands, which had its own National Socialist party, the NSB.
National Socialism was not typical socialism. Unlike true socialism, the Nazi version allowed the means of production to remain private, in the hands of capitalist corporations. But these were corporations with close ties to the government. The market was free for them but not for everyone. What made the system seem socialist was that workers were promised employment, free enterprise was limited, and the production of the economy was directed by the government towards its centralized goals. And these goals were extremely nationalistic, while true socialism is typically internationalist.
Notice that I am putting aside all those personal comparisons of the 45th President to Adolf Hitler, not to mention racist ideology. I’m also putting aside those perhaps more telling comparisons of the 45th President to Orban of Hungary or Erdogan of Turkey or even Berlusconi of Italy. I’m rather looking at a new political-economic paradigm for the United States. I’m also putting aside the question of whether there are sufficient legal, political, and structural economic constraints on the 45th President’s policies eventually to frustrate his intentions.
I have friends who are correspondents in the US for foreign newspapers. I read some of their reports after the election. What stood out in the German reports was that the 45th President threatens the breakdown of the economic and political structures that had served both Europe and North America so well since the end of the Second World War. I’m thinking of Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the IMF, and NATO. These political and economic structures have been considered essential for the unprecedented prosperity and relative peace of the North Atlantic world.
Of course these structures have evolved, of course these structures maintained and even caused great exploitation, injustice, oppression, and destruction in other parts of the world, and of course these structures were intended to oppose and exclude the Communist nations. When the Soviet Union cast off its Communism, it looked like Russia might participate in the structures along with the other former Warsaw Pact nations. But ultimately Russia has worked against them. Is this the mutual appeal of the 45th President and Vladimir Putin to each other—that they provide each other allies not only against ISIS and China, but also against the post-War order?
In this Putinesque new president’s inaugural speech, he talked about other countries stealing our jobs. This falsehood would be absurd if it were not designed to divert attention from the real culprit. At best it’s like blaming the mistress for the infidelity of the husband, or worse, blaming the victim for being raped. It was the executives of our own corporations who moved their production to other countries for purely free-market reasons. The iron hand is what caused the underemployment and economic malaise that Hillary Clinton seemed deaf to but which the winner exploited to get to the White House. But as National Socialism requires the connivance of big corporations, it’s best to blame a scapegoat.
Capitalists prefer free markets. But free markets are not absolutely necessary to capitalists, not if the sovereign state offers a crony-capitalism of the kind that was practiced by the Nazis. It can work if the government compensates for the loss of free enterprise, for example, by funding an increase in arms production alongside consumer goods, and if the required resources can continually be secured (which is one of the reasons the Germans felt forced to go to war).
Should Christians be loyal to the post-War economic system that is now breaking down? Not necessarily, although the Putinesque alternative might be worse. Is National Socialism worse than Free-Market Capitalism? For that we need some input from voices from the Global South who know about the cruel damage our system has done outside of Europe and North America. I’m assuming that we should be against National Socialism if it requires a great increase in armaments production, but let’s not be hypocritical about the armaments production we’ve been doing all along.
Is National Socialism intrinsically illiberal? Racist? Propagandist? Totalitarian? Or was that only Hitlerian circumstance? Does it automatically co-opt religion? Can it hide behind the American prosperity gospel so favored by the 45th President? It is remarkable how openly the President privileges Christianity as the true American religion, and how eagerly this is welcomed by so many Evangelicals. I am mindful of how the Protestant churches of Germany accepted the Nazi scheme of German Christianity. Will Christians who erect American flags as sacred symbols in their Sunday sanctuaries oppose new laws against free speech and free expression? What all comes along with National Socialism?
A month before the November election my wife and I had a strange experience. We had secured a home equity loan, and a notary came to our apartment to do the closing. His name was Russian and his accent suggested that he was a recent immigrant. He conversed with us during the very long process of signing the staggering pile of documents that are generated by real estate transactions in New York. It naturally came out that my wife and I are both employed as pastors.
When we had finished signing, the notary advised us—as pastors—to vote against Hillary Clinton, because, if she won, she would outlaw religion and leave us unemployed. We tried to answer back, and he was adamant. He said that he knew the reality of socialism and we didn’t. He had lived under it, and he knew first hand. He told us that in just a few years Mrs. Clinton would take away our freedom of religion. As he got more heated in his admonitions we invited him to leave.
Not all socialism is the same. My immigrant grandfather was a Calvinist socialist from Amsterdam who loved Abraham Kuyper but who also joined a labor union in Paterson, New Jersey. There are Christian Socialist parties in Europe. I don’t consider Bernie Sanders a socialist---I think it’s more accurate to call him a social democrat. The Canadian NDP is a social democratic party, and its strongest root is Christian. I suspect that the historic internationalism of classic socialism feels congenial to one kind of Christian, and National Socialism feels more congenial to another. The jury is out. But judging by all that was said at the inauguration about God and God’s special relationship to America, to this kind of Christian, at least, the National Socialism of the 45th President is not very good news.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
The word “Transfiguration” is from the Latin but the original Greek is metamorphosis. It means that the body of the Lord Jesus kept his identity but changed in appearance. Matthew reports it without explaining it. His interest is not the how but the what for; the physical phenomena are for their Biblical fulfillment, to show the recapitulation of ancient details from the times of Moses and Elijah.
Matthew reports with metaphors that Jesus’ face and body generated light, from inside him, through his clothing, thus not reflected. How was that possible, for the living tissues of a mammal to generate light? Fireflies do it, but he didn’t just glow, he shone like the sun, too bright to look at directly. Biologists wonder how electric eels are able to survive their own deadly voltage in the water. How could a human body shine far brighter than a burning bush, and be not consumed?
Matthew was not an eyewitness. Neither were the gospel writers Mark and Luke, though they report it too. The eyewitnesses were Peter, James, and John. Peter and James did not write gospels, they wrote epistles, and it’s the second epistle of Peter that uses the word “glory” for what they saw.
The word “glory,” in the Bible, is a technical term. In Greek it is doxa and in Hebrew it’s chabod. The chabod was unique to God. The chabod was the visible sign of God’s presence. Most of the time God’s presence is invisible and apparent only to our belief, but on a few occasions, God made God’s presence visible to human sight, when God was up to something and had something to say.
Sometimes the chabod was light and sometimes darkness, sometimes like a flame and sometime like a cloud. In our reading from Exodus it was the burning cloud upon Mount Sinai, like a volcano, huge and ominous, while earlier in Exodus it was as small and curious as a burning bush. The Biblical editors did not force consistency on the variations because no single visible phenomenon can capture God’s glory.
According to both Peter and Matthew, the glory was in two places at once at the Transfiguration, in two persons simultaneously. The glory was in the body of Jesus and also in the cloud that over-shadowed the group. You have the Old Testament chabod of God, both revealed and hidden in the cloud, the God whom Jesus called his Father, at the same time as the chabod shining from Jesus, whom God called his Son.
Matthew has offered us our first glimpse of the divinity of Jesus. He takes to a new level that old terminology of “Son of God,” which had been only an honorific for the rightful king of Israel of the House of David. Now it means that and more than that—some special identity on a par with God. This was beyond the disciples’ comprehension at this point.
But that’s where the third eyewitness eventually took it. John. When John wrote his gospel, that of Matthew was available, so John need not report the Transfiguration, but he evokes it right off in his first chapter, in the famous prologue that you hear on Christmas Eve, when “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The true light that enlightens every human was coming into the world. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.’”
And thus the Nicene Creed: “god from god, light from light, true god from true god.” Whatever else we say about the Transfiguration, it calls us to worship. “Glory be to you, Lord Jesus Christ. Glory, Glory. Glory.”
There’s more. It’s remarkable in Matthew that the Son of God is just three verses later called the Son of Man. For once, both titles for Jesus are in the same story. So the Transfiguration is both a vision of Our Lord’s divinity and a vision of his humanity. He is uniquely divine, and representationally human. He is the new model human, he shows us a humanity with the capacity to hold God’s glory.
He represents you. The story is about both him and you. You are intended by God for this glory, you are made to be enlightened so that God’s light shines through you. Not that you’re all electric eels, but you might well glow in the dark. Your Christian life is to develop your capacity.
In the Old Testament understanding, as I said, the glory is unique to God, and we who are in God’s image reflect that glory, like shining brass. The New Testament innovation is that God’s glory is inside you. In the New Testament, God’s glory is the expression of God’s Holy Spirit, and the glory inside you is the energy of God’s Holy Spirit. I am multiplying images and mixing metaphors, but what is promised us is a mystery and what’s expected of us is beyond precise comprehension.
I have said that you are finally a mystery even to yourself. Your Christian identity is not precisely comprehensible to yourself. It is a modern presumption to think that we can expertly understand ourselves, or even need to. Your best self-knowledge comes from enlightenment, that is, seeing yourself within God’s light and listening to what God says to you, as God said to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Your self-knowledge comes from what God tells you about God’s relationship to you, and that is the light that illuminates all of your insides.
So here is my main message today, and the summation of this sermon series on righteousness: The active expression of God’s glory in you is your righteousness. As I’ve been saying, your righteousness is God’s righteousness manifest through you. Your glory, your chabod, is an ethical one. The glory of Jesus was both ethical and ontological, and he is unique. Yours is ontological only as derivative, in that you are in Christ, but it is ethical in your own reality. How you live each day by loving God and your neighbor as yourself is the manifestation that God is present in you.
God is up to something in the world in the way that you do righteousness. God is doing something in the world by means of the choices that you make, your judgment calls, your guesses, your getting it close, your just missing it and even botching it, your repairing it and making it back, your making peace, your going a second mile for your enemy, your taking a hit, your apologizing, your reconciling, your bearing burdens, your speaking up, your speaking out, your shouting, your chanting, your song, your prayer, your praise and glory back to God. In the words of Psalm 99, O Lord, “O lover of justice, you have established equity, you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” God executes justice and righteousness in you. That is your sharing in God’s glory.
Of course your light flickers. Of course your glory is stained, and your image of God is dirty. So there’s wisdom that the Transfiguration is the last Sunday before Lent. This week is Ash Wednesday. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You have to die, and your light go out.
Even Jesus, full of glory, knew he had to die. He ordered the disciples, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” His real glory came after his rising from the dead. His death was not an obstacle, an interruption, but the necessary means, the fuel, the tree that burns but is not consumed. His ethical self-sacrifice is the inexhaustible fuel of his ontological glory.
Just so the glory of your righteousness is not other than you dealing with your sin. Your faults and your flaws are not the opposite of righteousness but the charcoal and kindling of your glory, when you accept the forgiveness of God in your repentance and reconciliation. It is your desire for God’s righteousness by which you receive the Kingdom of Heaven, not your success. And even if your light is flickering, let it shine, you don’t need much light to offer hope within the darkness.
You prayed this in our collect today: “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Changed into his likeness will be Easter, and bearing your cross is Lent. The doorway into Lent is the Transfiguration, which both knocks you down and picks you up. The God who is hidden in the cloud says, “Listen to Jesus,” and the first thing Jesus says to you is, “Rise up, do not be afraid.” I’m with you now before you have arrived. I shine my light in you. You are transparent to my mercy, you are translucent with my love. This is the color of the light that is shining in you, it is the color of God’s love.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.