Thursday, April 28, 2016
Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29
Our three lessons this morning differ so much in tone and style and literary effect.
The first lesson, from Acts, reads like journalism, like some travel writing in a magazine.
The second lesson, from the Revelation, is a fantastic vision, in a graphic and cosmic genre that no one writes in today except artificially.
And then the gospel lesson is intensely conversational, but with John's unique tone that is simultaneously intimate and distant, at once appealing and evasive, both comforting and confusing. "How can we find ourselves in what you are telling us? Is there any room in what you say for me?"
One of the things I love about the Bible is the variety of voices within the various genres of its literature. Compared to other scriptures of the world, the Bible feels complex and messy and even contradictory.
The Holy Qur‘an is an extended unitary recitation in a single voice. This generates an Islam that is unitary and efficient, even in its schisms. This expresses its vision of a unitary God, singular, absolutely absolute, the exaltation of oneness. And in that unitary singleness is their peace.
But the Bible generates a religion which is messy and complex, not unitary but a field, a room, and it plays across the boundaries of logic and essence. This expresses our vision of God, who is a unity but also an eternal interplay of persons in relationship, and in that interplay is love. That love makes space, and God moves into that space that God's love creates, and in that space is our peace.
The Bible claims that God loves to come and dwell in us, not merely in the world, but inside us, inside us human creatures. That is something no Muslim would ever want to say. God would never dwell in such a mess. In their view, God does not play like that. God does not play at being God.
We Christians treasure this interplay. And this morning we have the interplay of these three divergent lessons. When you try to bind them together they don't compact, they push against each other, they make a space between them, a room, and in that space you find the flowing of faith and love, two energies also in interplay. What I feel in these three lessons is the dynamic relationship of faith and love, both of which you want, and what you want to be able to do well. That's one reason you came here today, to practice your faith and your love, and to find yourself within this room.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus says that if you love him, himself, Jesus, then God comes into you and dwells in you, and not just part of God, but, strangely, the whole of God, as Father and Son and Holy Spirit. We thought God was supposed to dwell in heaven, but Jesus says that God's dwelling is inside human beings, any human being, and in many human beings at once.
How much is this metaphor? How much is this real? Or is it both reality and metaphor? This all could say so much as to end up meaningless, which is why the Christian church developed the careful doctrine of the Holy Trinity, in order to not say foolish things. So we would say that God still does dwell in heaven, but yet also in you, by means of God's Spirit. And what our Gospel lesson says is that how God moves into you is through the hallway of your love for Jesus.
The lesson from the Revelation says it differently. The angel shows John the city of God coming down into the world, so that the dwelling of God will be among the peoples of the earth. Not inside us but among us, at the center, uniting the nations all together. So the terms are different.
The vision speaks to the landscape of the earth, of streets and a river and a tree, and of the glory and honor of the nations, which means our cultures and societies, our musics and arts and histories and languages and economies. Of course the vision is a metaphor, but how else shall you speak of a new reality? The vision expands into all the world. The earth will be full of the glory of God.
But, again, the gospel's conversation is about the inner space of the human soul. That's personal and smaller. But just how small? Rather, how vast is the inner landscape of your human soul. Your human brain (Marilynne Robinson) is the most complex organism that we know of in the universe. Your complex brain supports your expansive inner life. There is plenty of room inside you for God.
As God dwells in you, God inhabits your musings and your memories and the tunes you hum and all your remembered conversations with your friends and relatives. To love Jesus is to welcome God in, and you love Jesus somewhat with your feelings, yes, but I think mostly in your mind.
And now, from the Acts, again the terms are different. God is moving in to dwell in the house of Lydia. We read that God opened her heart to listen eagerly to the message of Paul, and then she opened her home, which was also her place of business, to be the house of God within the city of Philippi.
That was a big deal, because Philippi was a colonia, a Roman military city, specially dedicated to the Roman gods of Mars and Julius Caesar, and therefore intolerant of any other gods within the walls. That's why the women had to pray to the God of Israel outside of town.
That's why it wasn't a given that Paul could absolutely trust in Lydia to be faithful. Her business was selling purple garments to the upper class men of Philippi, who wore the purple as a sign of their power and prestige. But when she got baptized into the sovereignty of Jesus she put herself in tension with the loyalties of her clients to the sovereignty of Caesar.
Could she keep faithful? Did Paul believe that she knew what she was doing when she got baptized? Could he trust her? Could he have faith in her? She believed that she could be faithful to herself. Blessed Lydia, who was faithful to herself and called on Paul to honor that. And so his faith in her-faith-in-Jesus was the hallway through which the reign of God was entering into her household and God was dwelling in Philippi.
Faith. Faithful. Trust. Trustworthy. Fidelity. These words all relate to love. The feeling of love, yes, but more the practice of love. As Jesus says in the gospel, "Those who love me will keep my words." He's talking about your fidelity as the expression of your love.
Your love and your faith are how you cross the gaps between us as individuals, your love and your faith are how you maintain your relationships across the spaces between us, your love and your faith are how we hold together across the differences that would force us apart. Your faith in me allows me to love you back. Your love to me calls me to be faithful to you. I believe in you, and you believe in me.
That's how we keep crossing the space between us. We want some room between us, we don't want to collapse into each other, we don't want to become unitary, we value the wonderful dancing of our differences, and so our unity is of community, just as the One God is a Trinity. There is room in here for you.
Jesus said these things, on the night before he died, to his friends whom he knew would desert him. How could he say to them, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." How could he be at peace? If not in his feelings, at least in his mind—that he had to trust in the long-term faithfulness of God his Father, that God would keep those resurrection promises, and he had to believe that God would love him to the end, and through the end and past the end to the new beginning.
I am inviting you today into this same peace, which you can believe in, and which will get you through your nights of trial and suffering. I am inviting you to love Jesus with your mind, to believe in him as the faithful medium of God's promises, for precisely in and through your believing God makes a spacious home in you, and you become a dwelling place of the love of God for all the world.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
Our Gospel lesson takes place the night before Jesus died, in the Upper Room. When Judas Iscariot scuttles off-stage, the spotlight is on this intimate conversation between Jesus and the eleven disciples. This is the calm and quiet scene before the drama gets all tragic and ugly.
Jesus says this little speech that is contradictory—that in his death he will be glorified, and then it is circular—that in his being glorified he will glorify God, and God will glorify Godself in him, and God will glorify him. And then he calls them into love. This language is too rich for them, and they cannot understand it, not yet, not till after the resurrection, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit, and even then it will take a few years, at least, for the Apostles to work it out.
The Apostle Peter is a case in point. Here is a man who has to learn the love of God, who has to convert his love. Earlier in the gospels you can see how much Peter loved Jesus, and how he swore to lay down his life for him, and when Jesus was arrested it was his love for his Lord that led him into that dark place that he could not handle when he ended up denying him. After the resurrection, at that breakfast on the beach, the Lord challenged him to keep on loving, but to convert his love.
In our lesson from Acts, Peter gives an account of what you could call a conversion of his love. He is having to defend himself before a special council of the Apostles and the brethren. He had done a controversial thing without their prior consent. He had welcomed and affirmed some Roman soldiers. Who were not circumcised. Without requiring them to get circumcised. He just quick baptized them and broke the bread with them—which means Holy Communion. He had welcomed them into the full communion of the church, against the rules.
What rules? The rules in the Bible, the only Bible the early church had as yet, the same Bible as the synagogue, the Torah and the prophets. And the Torah was very clear, that no one could share the sacred meal who was not circumcised. So if the soldiers were uncircumcised they were unclean, they were unkosher, just as unkosher as all the Gentile food they ate. Pork. Reptiles. Shellfish. Calamari. Disgusting, enough to make one wretch. And with unwashed hands. Did Jesus die for this?
Peter defends himself by saying that hadn’t been his own idea, that it was God’s idea, and God set it up, and there was no getting around it. The Holy Spirit had come down upon these Roman soldiers just as it had come down on them. This was the doing of the Lord Jesus. Whom the Lord Jesus considers clean, we should not call unclean. Whomever the Lord Jesus has welcomed and affirmed, we should welcome and affirm.
Welcome is one thing, but affirm is another. When I say affirm, I’m saying that Peter did not ask those soldiers to change. He not only did not ask them to get circumcised, he did not ask them to stop being Roman soldiers, and to stop participating in the heavy occupation of the Jewish homeland. These weren’t just any Gentiles, they were the oppressors of his people. They were the ones who took at will their produce and fish, who made them carry their baggage, who could flog them and beat them as needed, and who could take their daughters for their pleasure with impunity. Even if these soldiers were all good guys, it can’t have been easy to have baptized them.
So it’s not only these soldiers who are converted—Simon Peter had to be converted in his love. And no doubt in his feelings and his very body. Consider his vision of unkosher food. If you’ve been conditioned your whole life against certain foods, you find those foods literally “dis-gusting”. Emotionally, physically, even when it’s other people you see eating them.
Consider what it was like for Simon Peter, in his body, being surrounded in a room by Roman soldiers. Not where any Galilean Jew would ever like to be. A place of physical risk and vulnerability. And then, to baptize them, he’s got to touch them, and I’ll bet he’d never dared touch a Roman soldier before. And then he had to sit among them, and after blessing and breaking the bread he will be offered food he’s been conditioned his whole life to avoid. Oysters! “Uh, no thanks, I’ll pass.”
I’m talking about the conversion of your love. Love begins in your childhood as a feeling, that’s natural, and even the most exalted and selfless love, I think, must have has some feeling in it. But while the love of Christ embraces human feeling, it is not grounded in your feelings and can even be counter to your feelings. Especially your feelings of dislike, and often your feelings of disgust, and most of all your feelings of fear.
You cannot do this with a natural human love that just tries harder, you have to convert your natural love into resurrection love, that love that comes from God, the love that God has within God’s self, among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and now pours out into you in power of the Spirit. If God so loved those Roman soldiers as to inhabit them, how can Simon Peter refuse to love them too? And so Peter has to convert his feelings into the love of God.
So does the church. At that special council the other Apostles and brethren had to get converted too. And it takes a long time for the church to convert. Consider the implications of what Peter had done. If you do away with circumcision, then there is no longer any sacramental distinction between men and women. I don’t know if anyone in that special council could foresee it, but what Peter had done implicitly gave women equal status in the church to men. It has taken two thousand years for the church to begin to work this out, and much of the church still resists it.
And if you do away with circumcision, you are removing the sign and seal of sacred genealogy, you are removing the symbol that fathering children is your sacred mission. If you work that out, it’s a threat to traditional marriage, because traditional marriage has always been an agreement between two men in order to keep legitimate the offspring of their sons. If anyone in that special council could have foreseen it, they would have opposed Peter with a “Defense of Marriage Act.”
Do you find my interpretations tendentious? Do you think I’m leading the witness? When the lesson from the Revelation says, “See, I am making all things new,” how inclusive is “all things”? How much is up, how much is open, how much is free? How deep into the world does the Holy City come, and how far into the fullness of human experience? We are not done yet, we are still working out the implications, we are still exploring the wideness and the power of the love of God.
These lessons today are both for challenge and for encouragement. We are challenged to love because it’s only within the dynamic of uncomfortable relationships that your love gets converted. And let me encourage you in your love, because God is ahead of us, the Holy Spirit is ahead of us.
If God is calling you to cross the boundary of discomfort, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be there ahead of you. If God is calling you to relationships beyond your boundary of fear, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be in that relationship already. You may be comforted that the love that the Lord is commanding you to love with, is the love of God that is already there, and what you are doing is stepping into the spotlight of the love of God.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, April 15, 2016
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday. The metaphor of the shepherd is one the Lord Jesus applies to himself, and we can assume that the Lord Jesus intended all of its associations and implications.
There is the implication of his divinity, for example. If you refer to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” meaning the Lord God of Israel, and if Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd” and claims that “he and the Father are one,” then he’s implying his own divinity, which, of course, was unthinkable to his audience, even to his disciples, until after the resurrection.
The associations of the Good Shepherd metaphor are of safety and security, and the metaphor speaks to children. Some years ago, at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, a chaplain observed his young patients continually returning to this metaphor.
So the chaplain built a worship pattern around the metaphor. That developed into the curriculum called Young Children in Worship, which we have been doing here at Old First for a good twenty years. My wife Melody has been leading it and training practitioners in it for thirty years, in the US, Canada, and even Hungary.
I was trained in it myself, over four straight days, in Holland, Michigan, and it was very intense. On the second day, I think it was, we were learning the parable of the Good Shepherd, and I had to put my little cut-out sheep behind a cut-out of a big, dark rock, as if I were hidden. Then the Good Shepherd came out to find his sheep. And I had a sudden emotional reaction, opposite to safety and security. I was afraid of the Good Shepherd. I was afraid he would be mad at me. I was afraid he would be mad at me when he found me. Here I was, a grown-up, a preacher, in my forties, and I was crying. The story opened up my childhood fears, and touched my deep anxieties.
I can remember my father, a preacher, in a state of anxiety when he would fear that he was not saved. Not me. I have never been anxious of my salvation. I’ve never been afraid of hell. My parents always emphasized a loving God, and I don’t remember them ever speaking of hell, as if it were a threat. From an early age I stopped believing that there even was a hell, or that the Bible actually taught it. (Indeed, the whole hell thing is a magnificent mistake of the Christian tradition.)
And yet I did have great anxiety of soul, even in my childhood. What gave me great anxiety was the thought of eternal life. It used to keep me awake at night—eternal life, oh no!
I shared a bedroom with my brother Hank. My mother would come in and say our bedtime prayers with us, and talk to us. I have this memory of her telling us about eternal life—that after we died, we would live forever. And I can remember being terrified.
I didn’t tell my mother, because I must have assumed it was wrong to be terrified about such a good thing. But I used lie awake at night afraid of it, and get stomach aches from it: the thought of living forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, endlessly existing, endlessly existing, never ever coming to an end. I can remember praying this repeatedly: “Dear God, that’s all right, Hanky can live forever, just not me please. Please just let me die when I die. Please, please.”
It scares me still. Even in recent years I have lain awake, sweating, my pulse racing and my heart pounding. You’d think I’d just walk away from the Christian faith, but I could never get myself to not believe. And I never wanted to, because there’s so much else about the Christian faith that I love. Or you’d think I might join up with some liberal, modern Christianity evolved beyond such ancient myths as resurrection. But, as a scholar, I know that the whole New Testament collapses if you try to remove the resurrection. And once you have resurrection, then, as day follows night, you have “the life everlasting, the life of the world to come.” That’s the historic Christian faith, and it is not for me to change the historic Christian faith to suit my own personal anxieties. It’s not about me.
You can imagine that over the years I’ve expended a lot of mental energy trying to conceptualize an eternal life of less anxiety. How about if we will have no experience of time—that eternal life will seem like one, single eternal moment, without before and after, without the feeling of endless extension. Well, maybe—some theologians actually teach that.
But then I read in one of my favorite theologians (Hendrikus Berkhof) that time is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and that time makes possible bodily life, and if the life of the world to come is both a new heaven and a new earth, that means not the cancellation of time but the renewal of time. He convinced me, so my anxiety remains.
How about if we will be like the elves in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t mean to be funny, and I don’t mean the horrible movies, and I don’t mean pointy ears and stringy hair, and I don’t mean fantasy and sword and sorcery, but The Lord of the Rings as a piece of serious literature.
Tolkien intended his elves as humanity unfallen, what humans might be like if Adam and Eve had not sinned. So his elves are immortal, undying, and not in heaven, but on earth, enjoying the earth as one great garden, even when that garden has cities within it. Well, fine, but that is no help, because I’ve still got the same problem at the end, never-ending consciousness, never any final rest.
Maybe that’s my problem: my unrelenting consciousness, my excessive self-awareness, my own mind always turning in upon itself. Maybe in eternal life we will not be self-aware, we will not be self-conscious, maybe we will be like the birds. But that won’t do. Self-awareness is another gift of God to us, it’s basic to being human, it’s implied by how Adam names the animals in Genesis. So self-awareness will be included in eternal life. And my anxiety remains.
I could go on with my other attempts at solutions. But I will tell you where I’ve come to, and that only recently. As for me, I accept eternal life as a matter of obedience. “O God, even if I do not want it, you have given it to us, and I know how good you are, O Lord, so I will accept it. I will have to trust you, O God, with this fearful gift of eternal life, and I will follow you into it.”
It’s a case of the sheep following the shepherd. It’s a case of the sheep hearing the sound of the shepherd’s voice and following the shepherd out of the safe and familiar sheepfold and out into the unknown pasture, out into the space of my anxiety. I will follow you into this eternal life, O Lord, and it’s only because I’m following you that I dare go there.
“When I tread the verge of Jordan, you bid my anxious fears subside. Death of death and hell’s destruction, you land me safe on Canaan’s side.” Safe, safe from myself, safe from my own mind, safe from my anxieties. I want to be able to give you “songs of praises, songs of praises.” I will do that singing even now, as an earnest, as an act of trust and humble obedience. “I will follow you into this, O Lord.”
So in a real sense, it’s not about me. It’s not about me figuring out a notion of eternal life that is fully attractive. It’s not about me, it’s about my Lord, and trusting in him. But at the same time, it is about me, because he calls me by my name, that name that was given to me at my baptism.
It’s about Alexandra Jane Pope, whose name we gave her last Sunday. It’s about Dorcas, Tabitha, and Simon the Tanner, and it’s about you. Because this eternal life of the Good Shepherd is not the Hindu version of ultimate self-negation, as when a drop of water loses its identity forever in the ocean, no, it is about you, your name is precious to God, your unique identity, and God will never let you perish.
That’s the promise. It’s not for you to solve, but it is for you to accept and enjoy, even if it’s only by obedience, and the reason it is about you is because it’s grounded in God loving you. That might be what I can’t imagine now, existing in such boundless love, I don’t think any of us can rightly imagine it now, but that’s the promise that I depend on and that I pass along to you, the promise that I offer you, the promise of the boundless and bottomless and endless love of God for you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 09, 2016
Acts 9::1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
This is the story of the rehabilitation of Simon Peter. It’s two weeks after the resurrection, but how the disciples should respond to this great, new amazing fact they do not know.
So Peter goes back to what he does know. Except he can’t catch any fish. Then, when Peter recognizes Jesus, he acts all guilty and confused. He covers his nakedness, and he jumps into the water with his clothes on, and then he brings the fish in all by himself, which is over-compensation. Peter, stop trying so hard.
That breakfast on the beach will have been lovely for the six other disciples, but for Peter it will have been very uncomfortable. That charcoal fire, and the smell of it, the same smell as seventeen days ago, the night before Jesus died, when Peter stood at the charcoal fire outside the palace of the high priest, and there three times denied his Lord.
Peter hadn’t intended to deny him; at first he was just trying to be a secret agent man, hiding his own identity. Give this to him, at least he was there, while the other disciples didn’t even dare follow Jesus. But then when his cover wasn’t working, he got scared, and his further denials stemmed from fear. And then the rooster crowed and judged him.
Why is Jesus so hard on Simon Peter? Why does he make him smell the charcoal fire of his guilt and shame? Why doesn’t he discuss the denial with Peter at a rational level, why does he go through his nose and under his brain? Is it because of the nature of his guilt, that it’s emotional? Peter is not guilty any more in terms of God, because Jesus has forgiven him. But even though it’s all forgiven it’s like Jesus wants to push him back into it. It’s not for forgiveness, it’s for rehabilitation. It’s for reconstruction. And for that to happen you have to face your failure and go right through it.
“Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” It would have been nicer if Jesus had just asked it once, and let Peter answer once, and have been satisfied. But Jesus drives it in, three times, until it hurts. I’ve told you before, just because Jesus loves you that doesn’t mean he won’t hurt your feelings!
Repeatedly Peter has to answer.
Yes, in my misery I love you.
Yes, in my shame I love you.
I wanted to love you in my success, but I love you in my failure.
I wanted to love you in my loyalty, but I love you in my denial.
Peter is feeling the depths of his own miserable love. It’s painful but Jesus is doing him a favor, he’s opening up his capacity for love, a capacity he did not know he had. You yourself have this capacity, but you cannot expand your love into your full capacity except by entering it through your suffering and even your misery.
Then Jesus adds insult to injury by telling Peter how he will grow old and weak, and how he will die. What a strange ending for the Gospel of John, with the prediction that Peter must die. Jesus predicts this powerful disciple will end his life in weakness, and that this natural leader will be led around, on a leash, like an animal. Now Peter’s got nothing left, not even his pride.
Do you see what Jesus is up to? It’s not only Peter’s shame that has been troubling him, it’s also his pride. I don’t know which is worse, which is harder to deal with, maybe they’re two sides of the same coin, but for Peter to be free of his shame he also has to be free of his pride. Jesus is hard on him, and Peter begins to die his death already here. But it’s a gift that Jesus gives him, for the dying-away of the old self has to happen for the new self to come-to-life. That’s true repentance, that’s true conversion, that’s rehabilitation.
As Peter fully feels his denial, as he fully feels his failure, as he enters again his guilt and shame, Jesus is already bringing him out of it. “I entrust you with my sheep. I give you charge of my lambs. I put my flock in your care. I trust you. I have work for you to do. I want you to take over for me in my absence. As far as I’m concerned, we are reconciled. Follow me.”
“I know you followed me, after my arrest, seventeen days ago, you followed me to the palace of the high priest, but that was in your strength and pride, and so you followed me in secret. But now you have nothing left to lose. So you can follow me openly. And you do not have to try so hard. You don’t have to prove anything, you don’t have to defend anything, you don’t have to conquer anything, you don’t have to win anything. You don’t have to win the world for Christ. I have already won the world. Just start working out of the love that I have given you.
“Do you love me?” How difficult loving is. That part in your life where you love is where you experience the most frustration and failure and hurt. Love is what you want the most and what you are least successful at. Jesus did not ask, “Peter, do you believe in me?” Belief is not the goal, it is the means, loving is the goal. Loving is the hardest, it’s where you are most wounded, and where you’re most at fault. It’s where our pride and shame do us most damage, and get most in the way.
And yet you certainly you do have the capacity for God’s love. You, right now, already you have the capacity, even in your weakness and your failures and your unbelief. Your capacity is distinct and individual, as will be the way that you express God’s love, but you do have the capacity. Let me encourage you, this promise is more trustworthy than your internal doubts and whisperings.
But yet you are called, as a Christian, not just to love, but to convert your love. That’s my first take-home. You are called to not just love but to convert your love. Everybody loves, everybody wants to love, but you can love with converting love, love that has scars on it and holes in it and wounds on it, love passes through your misery and suffering. God converts your love by various means. But all of them involve some suffering. Not the suffering of punishment, but the pain of your own self and the persistent odor of your shame and guilt. God is not afraid to hurt your feelings. But if you keep believing in that suffering, God uses it to convert your love.
My second take-home is simply the reminder that you must love yourself, as God loves you. And I mean not just your good self or your best self but your shameful self, your guilty self. You love yourself with that love of God for you. And in loving yourself with God’s love, you practice loving other people too and you can suffer even them. For you to be rehabilitated as a human being is to be your own vessel of God’s love and your own peculiar instrument of the love of God.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 02, 2016
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
Thomas was the last to believe that Christ arose from the dead and the first to believe that Christ was Lord and God. Why Thomas? Why was he the first to see it all?
Why wasn’t it Simon Peter who jumped to the daring conclusion, Simon on whom the Lord would build his church? Why wasn’t it the disciple John, the beloved one of Jesus, to intuit what no one had dared yet think, or even James, the third one of the inner circle, but Thomas, a disciple of the second rank, Thomas of whom we know so little, and who has come up only twice before in the story. It is none of these others, who first makes the audacious claim that Jesus is not just the Messiah, but Lord and God. Why Thomas?
As my wife Melody said to me yesterday, the gospels are short, but not simple. They never lose their capacity to surprise us. Here is a character we might have overlooked, and suddenly we see him in a new light. He comes out of the shadows and for the first time takes center stage and says his lines and then he steps aside and the Bible does not speak of him again. As pieces of literature, the gospels are short, and economical, but not simple, and always challenging our expectations.
Why Thomas? It’s not because he was a doubter. It’s too bad that the tradition has given him that title: “Doubting Thomas.” He is not called that by the Bible, and in this story it is a poor translation of the Greek to use that word. The Lord Jesus did not say to him what your English translation says he said to him.
What Jesus said to him, in the Greek, was something like this: “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.” Or, “Don’t exist unfaithful but faithful.” What Jesus says to him is terse and almost philosophical, with some wordplay in it, it’s epigrammatic, it’s meant for all of humanity, and it’s not a choice between doubt and belief but between unfaith and faith, infidelity and fidelity, unbelief and belief. It has little to do with doubt, you can doubt and still believe. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. One person has written that “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”
What little we know about Thomas is that he was a realist, at least according to John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, when Jesus and the disciples were staying over the Jordan River, outside of Judea, to keep from getting arrested, but then when Jesus decided to go back into Judea because of the death of his friend Lazarus, it was Thomas, the Realist, who drily said, “Let’s all go along, and let’s all die too.” And then, on the night before Jesus died, in the Upper Room, when Jesus was making his final speech to the disciples, and he told them, “You know the way where I am going,” it was Thomas, the Realist, who said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Just sayin’. To which the Lord Jesus gave one of his great answers: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s like Thomas is the set-up guy, the hand-off guy, in the Gospel of John.
Thomas the Realist. And then in this morning’s lesson it was that very realism that allowed him to see what the other disciples had not yet seen, and to make the leap in his belief beyond where the other disciples had yet believed. What the other disciples saw was that their Messiah was alive again. What Thomas saw was that their Messiah was their Lord and God. He suddenly saw the full reality of Jesus. Or I should say, he suddenly saw the full reality of God. He suddenly saw the full reality of everything that had just taken place. “Oh my God!” Yes, exactly. This was the real deal.
I haven’t figured out this story completely. I haven’t figured out the full combination of what it was about Jesus that he finally saw, what it was about the sight of his scars and his wounds or what it was in the sound of his invitation to Thomas that triggered that very first human recognition that this Jesus was somehow God, that this man descended from Abraham was impossibly the God of Abraham, that this particular Jew from Nazareth was the Lord God of Israel, and even more impossibly, the Creator of the world. Maybe it’s not for us to figure out how he suddenly saw it.
But I suspect it was connected with the gift that Jesus gave him, and in the stance in which Jesus addressed him. The stance of peace, of absolute forgiveness. I don’t mean peace as the absence of conflict, but peace as the positive reconstruction of the world, I mean peace as the active energy of welcome and embrace, I mean peace as active hospitality, peace as active invitation. And absolute forgiveness. So absolute as not even having to say it. Assuming it, not counting it, not holding some things as forgiven and some things as not, not holding against Thomas what he had said, not judging his attitude of realism but actually meeting him there, even welcoming it, “Yes, Thomas, I accept your conditions, try me.”
Within that gift and stance of Jesus. Thomas must have recognized himself, and saw himself as both judged and graciously justified, indeed, as seen, as fully seen, so that this one who had so fully seen him and yet welcomed him must be his Lord and his God.
I mean that’s how you come to God, right? And why. You want to be both rightly judged by God but also graciously justified. You want to be seen by God and welcomed by God. You want to be forgiven, and be at peace, but it’s more than that, you want to be understood by God. You want the understanding that comes with love. That’s a God you can believe in. Even when you cannot see. So this Thomas is for all of you. This is what your belief is like, constantly dealing with your unbelief, your constant choosing to believe again instead of giving up to unbelief.
What might help you and encourage you in this is that your belief is not the opposite of realism. As if by being a believer you are less realistic about the world. As if you are less realistic about the difficulty of peace, or less realistic about the very great risk you take in forgiving sins. You know these as realistically as any unbelievers do. But you are no less realistic about the alternatives. Belief is the next step up in realism, belief is how you see the full reality of the human soul, the full reality of evil in the world, the full reality of loss and grief, of scars in the hands and feet, and of gaping, unhealed wounds in peoples’ chests, yes, these are all true, and even these we must embrace in the courage of peace and with all the force of love.
This is the stance in which God addresses us and this is the gift which Jesus gave to Thomas and the gift which he breathed upon his disciples, this gift which has been breathed down mouth to mouth across the centuries and body to body to us right here to keep on giving to the world. This is the breath of life, a breathing uninterrupted in the church from that day until now, and from now into the future, and this is the life that you believe is real, because this is the life that smells of peace and has the fragrance of God’s love.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
The Empty Tomb, by Virgilio Tojetti, in the Sanctuary at Old First
Isaiah 65:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
On this most glorious day of days, would you allow me to start off on the wrong foot, and speak of Donald Trump . . . and Bernie Sanders? The pundits have noted their common appeal in being anti-institutional. But to my mind their more powerful appeal is that they are the visionaries in this campaign.
Sanders offers a vision of society, a society of equality and equity and social justice.
What Donald Trump offers is a vision of himself, an Übermensch, a man who is powerful and totally free, free from policy, free from veracity, free from consistency, and free from courtesy and decency—in his freedom is his consistency.
Both of them are visionaries. That the two of them have dominated the debates in this campaign tells you how important vision is to us as human beings.
Other animals might well have visions. We know they do have dreams. But human beings are the visionary animals. We humans live our lives ahead of where we are, we are the animals with far-away eyes, we gaze into the future in order to live today. We are the animals who convert our visions into reality, and we do this by our creativity, artistry, invention, and culture. We are those animals who change the world, for better and for worse. People without vision perish.
The mother of vision is imagination. Allow me to shift here. Imagination, for human beings, is a matter of life and death, especially for children. I may tell you that nurturing the imaginations of our children is a governing value of our wonderful Sunday School teachers here at Old First.
Just last Sunday, the primary class was studying the resurrection, and the kids were invited to respond to it by coloring the wings of butterflies. One eight-year-old covered his butterfly with mathematical equations and math problems with answers. The teacher asked him about it, and he said that the resurrection is both the question and the answer! Creative imagination expressing remarkable insight.
It’s true. The resurrection of Jesus is an answer that poses its own new questions. It answers questions no one thought to ask, and it does not answer questions you might have. It was certainly not the answer his disciples were expecting. His bodily resurrection was of no use to them. It was not in their apparent interest and it did not solve the problems they were looking at. If they were expecting him to rise again, or even hoped for it, they would have kept vigil at the tomb, or at least believed the women who told them it had happened.
So it isn’t merely a case of man-splaining that Peter went to check it out. He had to go see this thing which had come pass but made no sense, he had to face this great surprise, and if only from what it left behind, he tried to catch a glimpse of it.
I think of Galileo peering through his primitive telescope and seeing the moons of Jupiter, and extrapolating therefrom a whole new cosmology of the universe. He looked through a lens with an aperture of less than an inch, and in that glimpse he imagined the world in a whole new way. He had been looking through his telescope for answers to questions he had. His questions were regarded as illegitimate by everybody else, but by now we’ve all accepted his questions and his answers.
As often in science it goes the other way. We recently got all those photographs of Pluto, full of absolute surprises, and astronomers suddenly had answers they did not know the questions for!
And then, in the case of quantum physics, you can only discern the existence of an elementary particle from its tracks, from what it leaves behind! The scientist has to work out the implications of its absence, and for that she must employ her imagination, no less than our eight-year-old Sunday School student. No less than Peter would have to do in the weeks and months and years after his visit to the empty tomb. He and the other apostles would have to imagine the reality of a whole new heaven and earth on the basis of its tracks inside this old one, on that resurrection morning.
The women got a better glimpse of it than Peter did. They were at the tomb much earlier, and they got to see and even converse with those two mysterious men in dazzling clothes. In Luke’s account they are not angels—they are human beings, earthlings, but of the new earth.
They are people from the future, from the other side of death, they are already-resurrected human beings, they are citizens of the kingdom of God as that kingdom is unmixed, unsullied, fully come on earth, untainted, no longer only partial and passing, no longer compromised by death. The women get to see it. And in those two dazzling humans they glimpse what they will be themselves, on the other side of death. A glimpse of a reality though still a mystery.
Easter offers you no proof; what it offers is an invitation. Easter invites you to be a Galileo of your own, Easter invites you to extrapolate from your glimpses in order to envision your whole world differently, already, in these centuries of overlap between the dying of the old world and the springing of the new. To make your reality out of your visions is natural to you as a human being, and so by your creativity, or your artistry, your invention, and by your culture you will change the world toward what you see. The message of Easter is an invitation to your part in its transformation.
Of course it’s not only your glimpses that you do this from. You also factor in the images and stories of the Bible. It’s always difficult to know when they’re meant to be literal or not, and very often they are not literal. Like in Isaiah, the wolf and the lamb living in peace, and the lion eating straw like an ox. A lion doesn’t have the teeth for it, nor the multiple stomachs. But still you get the point. You can easily imagine life within the city that Isaiah envisions. And you can even imagine the vision of First Corinthians, of life in a world where death is destroyed, although that is more difficult when you try to imagine that life as embodied, as physical, as cultural—but you can.
Yes, these visions leave us with questions, because the resurrection is an answer that raises its own questions. But these are good questions, questions to make you reconsider all the dominant opinions in the world right now, about power and success and how to ensure your future. These visions question the reigning political and economic certainties that do not solve but only exacerbate the misery and violence and planetary destruction of our global dance with death today.
You envision a society which is described by the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in his positive interpretations of the Torah and the prophets. He said “blessed are the poor and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” But weren’t we hoping instead that everybody would be rich, equally rich, and everybody could be proud and stand up for themselves? Well, how about if everyone were equally poor, but as poor as birds, as poor as elephants, as poor as whales, and just as satisfied with life. Imagine yourself as meek as an oak tree, and just as selfless and as strong. You can envision such a society, and you can fashion signs and specimens of it.
You will have company with your visions, and not only among Christians (and maybe not all Christians!), but also among other believers and even among humanists. But if your vision is through the telescope of Our Lord’s resurrection, then you’ll envision a society of praise and worship. You will want to offer praise, praise without self-consciousness, and that may challenge your imagination. You will need some converting fully to enjoy that life. But isn’t that what you want anyway, some transformation?
You are invited to a vision of the world, a vision of society, and finally to a vision of yourself. As free! But not as free from policy, veracity, consistency, courtesy and decency, rather free from death, because you’re on the other side of death. Frankly I don’t know what that all means, to be free from death, I have so many questions still unanswered, but I believe it, because I believe in him.
So I invite you to envision your soul and body free from death. I invite you to transform your own life now so that, despite that you must still die, you live your life as free from the power and shadow and curse of death, free from the shadow of shame and guilt, free from payback and revenge, free from the binding of fear, especially the fear of other people and their judgment.
Don’t worry about coloring your butterfly outside the lines, because of the reconciliation of the cross, which is the guarantee that your death is not your end nor are your mistakes or your fumbles your binding chains. The crucified one is the one who is resurrected, and you too, dying one, so there is your comfort and your freedom too. Freedom is the fruit of love, and comfort is its flower, and new life is the root of love. So, finally, what we glimpse today is the love of God, and we only begin to imagine how vast and expansive is the love of God for the world, and the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
"I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that I may attain somehow the resurrection from the dead."
This story happens the night before Palm Sunday. The next day, Jesus will ride into Jerusalem, declare himself, and set the events in motion from which there was no turning back. In seven days he will be dead. So this is the next-to-Last Supper. This is the foot-washing before the foot-washing.
Jesus can feel what’s coming. He knows what he must do, and he can foresee the opposition. He is doing his Messiah-thing in an unexpected way—not taking up weapons, refusing to fight, hoping that he might somehow attain the resurrection from the dead. But to gain that resurrection he has to lose some lovely things, like nice dinner parties, like hanging out with friends, like being touched. He had a real life he was losing. He was gaining God’s goal, but he was losing the life he loved.
This is in the house of his best friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus sits next to him because they were so close. When Lazarus had died, Jesus cried. When Jesus raised his friend from the dead, that sealed his own death-warrant. So he’ll be losing Lazarus again, but this time by his own death. He’ll be losing Mary and Martha too.
This is their last meal for him. They had always been good to him. They supported him; he often took refuge in their house. He let down his hair with them. They, unlike the disciples, wanted nothing from him. So tonight, before his impending ordeal, he accepts the lavish love that Mary pours on him. It comforts him that she wants him in her hair.
Mary violates propriety by letting down her hair. This is reckless potential sexuality. It will have been electric, everybody watches. The room is filled with fragrant sensuality. Should Jesus allow this? She is a wealthy woman, she could have a servant wash his feet. And why not use a towel—why her hair? When she wipes the lotion off his feet, the dirt and his sweat come into her hair. Why does she want to wear the smell of him? Yes, it is love, even physical love, but this physical love isn’t sexual, it’s grief. She can feel she’s losing him, she wants to hang on to him, she wants a part of him.
The perfume was the same stuff she had recently used on her brother’s body when she washed him for burial. And now, as the two men sit together, she intuits the link between the living of her brother and the dying of her Lord. If she could have foreseen that getting Lazarus back would cost her Jesus, would she have stopped him from raising him? What a choice. And so her grief is great. She had just learned to know him as the resurrection and the life. She had heard his voice command the dead to come forth. If they kill him, if they silence that voice, then who will raise the dead?
Mary is reckless, but Judas is tight. Mary is open and indiscreet, and Judas is closed off and duplicitous. He is a disappointed man. He used to admire Jesus; here was the Messiah, who should restore the nation of Israel. But by now, Judas thinks that Jesus has lost it altogether. He’s angry at his leader, and he’s turning against him. He’s faking it, and he’s doing little acts of sabotage along the way. Even when what he says is true, like about the poor, it’s really an indirect attack. He’s really saying, “How can you let this happen to yourself? How can you throw this all away?”
Don’t think of Judas as a monster; he is a frustrated idealist. He represents a part of all of us, our frustration at the way that God does things. Especially at the losses in our lives in spite of our belief in God. Like when you thought that God was leading you but things did not turn out. Like when you had rejoiced in something as a gain, that turned out as a loss. The new job you got that turned out worse than the job you had left it for. Your vision that proved to be only a mirage. The dream that had inspired you has been deferred, and “dried up like a raisin in the sun.” What are you embittered at? How do you vent? How do you transfer it on to others? What do you hold against God? In this case repentance means this: Shall you nurture your frustration, or can you give it up to God?
Judas is like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. His anger will lead him to the destruction of both Jesus and himself. But not just yet. He still has a choice. He isn’t playing out a script. Jesus’ rebuke is also an invitation. Judas can still surrender to this Messiah, even if he’s not the kind of Messiah he was hoping for. He can stop being double, and own up to his anger and his unbelief.
He’ll have to make his confession. But of course that will feel like a loss. It will be a grief; there’s grief in every letting go, even in letting go what’s troubling you. There’s always grief in giving in to God, accepting the world the way God runs it; there’s grief in giving up the feeling of empowerment that anger gives. There’s grief in surrendering your frustrations, and giving up the justice that you deserve. There’s grief in just having been so wrong. Can Judas go down to grief along with Mary?
All of you have both Mary and Judas inside you. Lent is the season that reminds you to admit to your Judas, and submit to your Mary. And if the only perfume that your Judas has to put on Jesus’ feet is your anger or frustration or disappointment or your unbelief, God takes that as well. I give you permission to be mad at God. It’s better than faking it. God can take it, God works with it.
What God does not work with is our refusal to work it. We may not say it’s not that bad. We may not say he did not need to die for us. What we may not do with Jesus is keep him only as an inspired leader or teacher or example, disavowing the necessity of his death, and avoiding his hope in his resurrection. You can’t know Christ without the desperate side, without the sharing of his sufferings. You can’t know Christ without the perfume of his death and resurrection. But you can know Christ by letting your Judas die with him, and by clinging like Mary to the power of his resurrection.
I have three take-aways for you. First, the Christian faith has an impractical side, like Mary with the perfume. That has to be a part of your worship. You should not expect that all you do here in the liturgy is practical. Much of what you do, you do because it’s fitting for God, it’s the service of God, not yourselves. The worship service is an end in itself, and it’s hard to explain this to people who are not driven by a love of God or a desire for God. It looks like a “royal waste of time” (Marva Dawn). But it is worship. It’s perfume on Jesus’ feet. Let yourself be Mary.
It’s a fair question to ask how can we spend money on renovating our sanctuary and our pipe organ when we could give that money to the poor. But let me tell you—in all my work with the poor, I have never heard a poor person speak resentfully of a sacred sanctuary or beautiful music. Indeed, the opposite—it is poor people who appreciate these things more than prosperous people do. So if people ask you how we serve this community, you can answer that we offer worship! Not an answer they expect, or even accept, but you can rest in that answer for yourself.
Second is the importance of the poor for us as Christians. Not from a stance of philanthropy, like Judas, but a stance of solidarity and identity. Not only that we help them, but that we include them. The poor need justice and the poor need money. Where you begin is first to be with the poor. Eat with them. Sit with them. Wash their clothes. Wash their feet. Pray with them. Worship with them. Accept their love. What Jesus says to Judas is a parable: In order to know Christ, serve the poor. And knowing Christ is the key to loving God and loving your neighbor.
Third, if you struggle with this whole thing of the importance and meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, don’t do it logically but symbolically and emotionally. Let yourself be Judas and Mary. Let yourself be Judas, meditate on Judas, explore his feelings, what he represents about humanity and yourself. Go down with him and join him in being a “miserable offender.” And then also be Mary. Meditate on her, explore her feelings, what she represents for the hopes of humanity and yourself. Judas for death, Mary for life.
In our liturgy which follows today, be Judas in the prayer of confession. This is for grief and letting go. And then at communion be Mary—touch the body of Christ, put it in your mouth. I’m going to put some perfumed oil on the bread. Don’t worry, it’s completely edible. The bread is for life and the perfume is for love. Take the perfumed bread into your mouth, into your body, as the sign and seal of God’s great love for you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.