Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter 2011: The Small Bang Theory

Rembrandt's Painting of Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

Welcome to Easter. I am glad that you are here. Members and friends, visitors, passers-by, whatever your belief or unbelief, Christian or not or something else, you are welcome here today. Easter is public, Easter is not church property, Easter is a gift of God to all of you, so it’s good for you to be here to receive this gift.

If Easter were church property we would have done it differently. We would have been keeping vigil at the tomb so we could witness the moment of his rising and watch him actually come out. We would have brought along some impartial witnesses and even some hostile witnesses, like those who were present at his crucifixion, who could substantiate our claims. We’d have him go show himself to the opposition, not just to his followers.

His followers did witness him alive again, and ate and drank with him, but they missed his actual rising, because none of them expected it. They didn’t believe it either, not at first. So I don’t blame you if you find it hard to believe. This belief at the center of the Christian faith is maybe the hardest to believe of our beliefs. And it raises questions which we cannot fully answer.

If Easter were church property we would have arranged it to answer the questions which it raises. We would have held on to him, like Mary Magdalene wanted to, and kept him close for observation. But he kept departing, and came back only for six Sundays, until forty days after his rising he ascended bodily into heaven. What does that mean? It’s not a problem if he’s purely a spirit, but his witnesses all claim that he rose again in his body, a real body, with real physicality. Well then, where in the real universe is his body now? What is he standing on? What does he eat? Who cuts his hair?

Such impossibilities have led some theologians to suspend their belief in his bodily resurrection, like suspending the writ of habeas corpus. They say that Jesus does live on, but spiritually, not bodily. Well, that’s just Plato. We didn’t need the gospels for that. That means that God did nothing really new and different in the world, and that there was no gift, just flowers and a card.

It takes some faith to receive this gift, to choose improbabilities, to choose a different wisdom than the wisdom of the world. It also requires your imagination: for you to imagine the new world generated by his resurrection, a new kind of life, a new kind of ethic, a new kind of wisdom, a new way of loving your enemies, a new way of imagining what God wants from you and what God wants for the world, a new way of imagining your own body and your soul.

When I say imagination I don’t mean like, “just my ’magination, runnin’ away with me.” I mean as the physicist Arno Penzias imagined the Big Bang from the background radiation picked up by his telescopes, as Albert Einstein imagined the theory of relativity from looking at the town clock in Zurich, as Copernicus imagined a heliocentric universe from the same celestial evidence that gave everyone else to believe the earth was at the center, and as our dancer today imagined a resurrection both spiritual and physical, with physical strength and physical speed. I mean that kind of imagination which leaps forward from the evidence to make real advances in the world.

We may imagine the resurrection as long as we do not presume to capture it. Some of our images are better than others. The gospels correct our images as much as they inspire them. That Mary Magdalene did not recognize him at first suggests there’s something new about him, but then she recognized his voice immediately, which suggests the same vocal cords. That evening he showed his followers the same hands and feet, with holes in them. So our images have to be of his having his very same body, but somehow transformed.

We’ve been trained to imagine him up there in heaven. This seems confirmed by our epistle, Colossians 3:1, which says, “Seek the things which are above, where Christ is.” But that word “above” in the original Greek is not υπερ but ανω. Which means above, not like straight up over us, but above the horizon, upward and forward, like the dawn, like the rising of the sun. Let yourself imagine Jesus in the future, already in the future. Imagine that his appearances to his followers on those six Sundays are his coming back from the future to enter into their time and space. The future he comes back from is the new heaven and earth, the new creation, which already is, a gift of God, a Promised Land, which waits for us.

If you watch the sky, it looks so obvious that the sun is moving through it over us. Copernicus had to imagine that the sun is still, and that our earth is turning toward it. Just so let yourself imagine the new creation as already there, where Jesus is, and that our time and history are turning toward it. We are approaching it because its light and energy are drawing us to it. That’s where Jesus is, already, in his resurrected body, the firstborn of the dead, not floating in the heavens, but standing on the pavement of the New Jerusalem, eating the food of the great celestial banquet. Imagine and believe that you too, when you die, will jump there forward, to join him in the final future, and join each other too, in the company of all those who have gone on before you, from death to enter into life.

This new creation started on that first Easter Sunday, inside the old creation, a new heaven and earth, within the old heaven and earth. This new creation was a small bang, not a big bang. It was only the size of a human body. Of course, even the Big Bang began quite small. Scientists suggest that the original singularity might have been no larger than a basketball, it just got very big very fast. We don’t know for sure, because no one was there to witness it. Arno Penzias had to imagine it from the extra radiation in the universe. If we had been there maybe we could answer many questions still outstanding, like the unsolved problems of dark matter and quantum gravity. Yet we believe in the Big Bang because we trust the scientists, and if it’s true it does explain a lot The resurrection is like that. You can believe in it, you can trust its witnesses, and if doesn’t explain everything it does explain a lot. Which questions are the ones that you want answered?

Easter is not church property. The gift was such a surprise to us because we did not see it as in our interest. We keep looking for confirmation of ourselves, and this gift offers transformation. We are bothered by guilt and fear and death, and we seek to be excused and preserved and kept alive. This gift does not excuse us, it rather judges us and forgives us and sets us free for love. This gift does not preserve us but it reconciles us and set us free for joy. This gift does not keep us alive, but it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.

That life is already born in you, a very small bang inside you. It comes from the future, here into your life right now, the future you that you will be, you can start already living here right now, in this world, living by the physics and the science and the laws of that new world. Already. Maybe you can’t see it directly, but you can sense the extra radiation in your life, the reverberations of reconciliation, the hints of healing, the counter-intuitive selflessness, the unfathomed forgiveness, the unlikely love, even in all the dark matter that remains. You can live your life right now by making the choices which anticipate the future that began on Easter. You cannot generate it on your own, it is a gift of God to you, but it will give you joy.

Dearly beloved, this gift is for you. I invite you to give your life to it and seek in it your transformation. I invite you to imagine your life as an example of its evidence and to make real on your images. I invite you to seek the signs of it in the people you deal with in the world around you. And I invite you, whatever your belief or doubt, simply to receive this gift for the joy of today, to take the pleasure of God’s love for you, to accept the privilege of God’s irrepressible and unfathomable love for you.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

April 10, Lent 5, Keys of the Kingdom: Opening Your Grave

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Martha told Jesus that she believed that Lazarus would rise again on the last day. Martha and Mary and many Jews back then (except the Sadducees), believed in a resurrection like in Ezekiel 37. This vision of Ezekiel is the first suggestion of resurrection in the Bible, and it comes late, from the time of the Exile, when the Jews had been carried into exile by the Babylonians.

The Old Testament has no interest in the afterlife. It rejects the fixation on immortality that it saw in Egypt, with its pyramids and mummies and treasure chambers for the dead. Not once does the Torah mention the immortality of the soul and not one prophet suggests that your soul goes to heaven after you die. The Israelites believed that when your body died, your soul did too, and then nothing but a passive shadow of yourself went down to Sheol, where it wasted away until the last of your loved ones died, and then even your shadow ceased existence altogether.

The hope of Israel was not for heaven, but for the Promised Land, the land, the land, the land. Not immortality in heaven, but generations of their descendants enjoying their inheritance, sitting under the fig trees they had planted, keeping their names alive throughout the generations. Not immortality in heaven, but to live in comfort and die in peace in the literal Kingdom of God.

So the exile to Babylon was a theological catastrophe. To be removed from the Promised Land was a contradiction of their faith in God. An answer to this catastrophic contradiction was the vision of Ezekiel. The vision was a metaphor of returning to the Promised Land and the restoration of the population in the Promised Land. But the metaphor was so graphic and so powerful that it took on added meaning by the time of Mary and Martha. They believed that one day in the future, every Jew who ever lived would rise again bodily from the dead, and finally get the life that they were promised in the Promised Land. Like being born again. That’s the resurrection that Martha believed in for her brother Lazarus. Some day.

But Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Here and now, when you listen to his voice. You live right now the life you hope to live some day. The Kingdom of God is here with him, right now. Listen to him, and be born again into it right now. Lazarus was dead, but listened to him, and was born again. Like the beggar born blind. Like the woman at the well.

His voice is the key. His voice unlocks the door of the grave. But even with the door unlocked, how can a dead corpse have the energy to hear the voice of Jesus and obey it? His voice conveys the power you need to listen to his voice. His voice is the key that ignites the life it opens up. We have his voice today. We hear it every week, right here, in different voices but a single voice. Just listen to that voice and let it generate new life in you. Listen to it even silently at home. The voice will come through, to open you and to energize the new life that is in you.

For the last few weeks I have been saying that there are two of you, that you simultaneously live two lives, your old nature and your new nature, the old you dying-away and the new you coming-to-life. Your two natures are as distinct as life and death but also are inseparable as life and death. They are both in everything you think and do. Your new you has to deal with your old you all the time. Much of the virtue of your new you is precisely in how you deal with your old you. Much of the joy of your new you is in dealing with the misery of your old you.

I am inviting you to believe that there is a new you rising in you by the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the old you still remains a part of you. You can’t just discard your old nature. You know the Bible never uses the metaphor of a butterfly for being born again, as if you leave the caterpillar behind and fly away. Your old nature remains a part of you, for your new nature to deal with, to process, and to forgive. Contending with your old nature is one of the good works of your new nature. Some Christians suggest that the new life in Christ is free and pure and happy and victorious. So when you feel your old self still so much in you, you start to doubt your faith, you doubt your salvation, you doubt the promises of God. You get cast down into the depths, like Psalm 130. What’s wrong with me, that my old self is still so strong in me?

One of the chief good works of your new nature is to keep on loving your old nature, even though it has to die away. It was for love that Jesus wept. The people saw him weep and said, “See how much he loved him.” Jesus wept for the death of Lazarus even though he knew that he would raise him from the dead. Jesus loved the old life of his friend, even though it had to die.

During the ten years of my ministry here I’ve made mistakes and done dumb things and hurt some people and had conflicts I should not have had. There are people who when I see them on the sidewalk, I feel myself turn red, and I think, boy did I blow that one. My old nature clings to me, and I often myself getting wrapped up in my grief and guilt.

And then I have to listen to the voice of Jesus when he says, Come out. I have to believe in my own resurrection, already, I have to believe in the new life that is in me. My new nature has to forgive my old nature, seven times, seventy times seven times, because of God forgiving me. Not excuse myself, not justify myself, but forgive myself in Jesus’ name, to unwrap myself from the negative power of what I’ve done, and to live within the positive power of the life which God is opening up to me. I have to believe in my new life in Christ. I don’t believe in my old life, and I do grieve it, but I can love it. Not to try to keep it alive, but as I love a dying relative.

I believe that part of the power of my new nature is for loving my old nature. Not liking it, but loving it. Not indulging it, not protecting it, but staying with it, working with it, engaging it. Sometimes it’s like there is a war in you, you have a lover’s quarrel going on inside you, but you still have to love the one that you are quarreling with. Faithfully dealing with your old nature is one of most important good works that your new nature does in the world.

Here’s a take home: One of the most important good works of your new life in Christ is to love the old and dying nature that lives on in you. Some of the most important forgiving that you do is to forgive the sin and guilt that lives on in you.

The fruit of this is that as you deal with your old nature, so you will deal with other people, so you will deal with all the pain and suffering and ugliness that is out there in the world. Also this: if you love it your old nature, you can let other people help you deal with it, you can let the Christian community help you unwrap yourself. Jesus told the community to unwrap Lazarus, it’s part of the sign, it’s an image of what the community of saints must do for each other. Your new life is not your life alone, it’s in community and for community. You don’t offer the community just your best self, just your new nature, you also offer it your old nature, not to be defended and preserved, but to be touched and loved and wept for and helped to die. And in return, to have to keep on forgiving the old natures of others in the community does not prevent your believing in their new natures too.

When at last you die, what dies is your old nature. Your new nature will live on. In the mind of God the new you is already living in the new heaven and new earth. The world of time and space may take some time to get there, but the mystery of the resurrection is that, in Christ, you are already there, where there are not two of you but one of you, simple and single, in body and soul, to live with integrity and internal harmony and love. It is be the victory of love, and we have that victory already.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, April 04, 2011

April 3, Lent 4, Keys of the Kingdom: Opening Your Eyes

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9
I have good news and bad news. Well, actually it’s good news and good news. It’s all good news, it’s bad news only if you don’t take the good news as good. That’s how it is with the judgment of God. The judgment of God is always good. There is a single judgment. God does not have one judgment which is merciful and another judgment which condemns. The single judgment of God is good if you accept it, but if you refuse it, then you condemn yourself by it. When we confess that Jesus, in heaven, judges the world, it’s not that he is approving this and condemning that, rewarding this and sending down some punishment for that, like Zeus or Jupiter. The judgment of Jesus is right down here with us, it is public and open and laid out clearly for us in the gospel. The gospel is the public judgment of the world, and as we read it and hear it and respond to it, we judge ourselves by it. It’s not just for the end, it’s for everyday. It’s not a final doom, it is a daily gift. As it judges us, it opens up to us the kingdom of God. If you accept the judgment, the gate swings open, and you enter the kingdom, and you look around and you see that you were in it all the time. If you don’t accept it, it means you can not see the kingdom of God. You’ve built a wall around yourself, a shell, a dome of hardness like the hardness of your heart, a fortress, and you look out through your periscope. Your vision is sharp, but narrow, and without perspective. All you see is what you’re looking for, and you miss the signs you are not looking for. The kingdom is closed to you if you don’t want it. Why wouldn’t anybody want it? Fear of exposure? Fear of looking weak? Fear of needing help? Fear of other people disappointing you and failing you, of the community not being a community of saints? Fear of admitting how helpless you are? How hard you’ve worked to get to where you are; you protect your achievements and accomplishments, your convictions and commitments, you protect the control you think you have. So you say, “No thanks, I’m fine. I don’t need it. I’ve got it.” I hear myself say that all the time. The advantage of the beggar was that he knew he needed help. The beggar knew that he was powerless to help himself. So, as helpless as a baby, he is being born again. Like a newborn, he is learning to see the world without control of what he’s looking at. Like a newborn, things happen to him; he doesn’t do things, but he learns to see from what is done to him. We watch him gain insight and perspective, and how to read the signs. He can see his parents now. He’s always known how his parents sound and smell, but he can see them now and he learns the signs of fear upon their faces, their fear of being tossed out of the synagogue. He watches the Pharisees. Their confidence in knowing what God wants, their vision of how to get the kingdom of God to come back, the hardness of their faces, and their judgment against this sign from Jesus, a sign of healing which points away from their vision of the world. He sees the anger of the Judean elders. They fear the synagogue’s disruption. They fear the insurgency of Jesus, like the insurgency of David which Samuel ignited against King Saul. The elders have worked it between Moses and the Romans, they saw it as the best that they could get, they saw themselves as realists, and their vision of the world was pessimistic and defensive. In anger and fear they judge against the sign of a new world in their midst. The beggar is thrown out. He’s been judged and condemned. He’s gained his sight but lost his place. He’s in a crisis now. (To be born again is not all peaches and cream.) And where is Jesus in all this? Out of sight, off stage. That is how it is with Jesus, in our lives as well. Whatever he might have done for you, you cannot prove that it was him. You can argue it away, what he does for us. Especially if his doing is beyond the scope of your expectation, outside the perspective of what you’re looking for. Your periscope is focused very sharp, but you cannot see around you or behind you. The beggar is cast out, we find him out back in the alley, downcast, tempted to prefer the old familiar darkness. Jesus comes to find him. Of course he isn’t recognized, the beggar hasn’t ever seen him yet. Jesus speaks to him, but with an unexpected question. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Why that question, why that specific title for himself? From the prophecy of Daniel 7, the vision of “one like a Son of Man,” lifted up to heaven to share with God the judgment of the nations and the government of the world. What does that heavenly and global vision have to do with this poor beggar here in the alley? The beggar says, “Who is he?” Jesus says, “You’re looking at him.” The beggar says, “I believe you.” That must make sense of everything, because he worships him, and Jesus accepts it. Who does Jesus think he is? Rather an exalted view of his own identity. It looks for all the world like he’s just another Jewish rabbi in an alley in Jerusalem, but the vision we’re offered is that the Kingdom of God has come, on earth as it is in heaven, and that the beggar is in it, and he can start to see it, and he can see the world around him in terms of the Messiah, the Son of Man. The irony is that the Pharisees and the elders of the synagogue are in the Kingdom too, but they choose not to see it and they are in the dark. They have made their judgments and they will keep them. They judged who was wrong and who was right, who was the sinner and who was not, who was at fault and who can be assigned the blame. That’s the way we judge each other all the time, in order to justify our own decisions and desired actions, to justify our preferences and prejudice and how we see the world. Jesus does not judge like this. He is not interested in who sinned, the beggar or his parents. His interest is in what we do with what we see. You will say, “That depends on what I see.” And because of our inclination to see only what we’re looking for, and because we need to own up to our helplessness, we need the good news to help us see the good news. Does that sound circular? How about this: You can see the world correctly if you see it in terms of Jesus as the Son of Man. I mean that you can see the world accurately if you look at it in terms of Jesus judging it. I mean that you can regard the world with hope if you see it in terms of Jesus calling it to where he wants to take it. I mean that you cannot see the world accurately unless you look at it in terms of Jesus as the Son of Man. You have constantly to correct your vision. You have always to look for signs of Jesus in the world. One reason you come to church is to learn the signs of Jesus here in order to discern the signs of Jesus in the world. You learn to see the world as God sees it. You could see the world as dangerous and fearful; it shows itself as painful and alienating, and it touches your own pain and alienation inside you, encased within the iron chest of your anger and your fear. Your own insides tell you that your vision of the world is sharp and accurate. But if you worship Jesus as the Son of Man, like a beggar, needing help, in the wisdom of your helplessness for your own life, his judgment of the world is the judgment of you, which is the key that opens up that iron box. He reaches in, and holds your pain in his hand, and on your angry alienation he puts his spit and mud to humble you and soften you. You hold your breath, and then you give in. You couldn’t see him do it, because it was inside you, but you can feel the signs of Jesus in your life, and you can look for the signs of Jesus in the world. Even when the world is dark, you can see into it, because the light you need to see it with is shining out from your own face, not a light you need to generate yourself, but the light of Christ reflected off your face. In his light you see light. And you can find his signs in the world. You can go out into the world, as it says in Ephesians 5:10, and “find what is pleasing to the Lord.” It’s like learning to see, it’s like being born again into the world. “Wake up, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.