Thursday, April 18, 2013

April 21, Easter 4, "No One Will Snatch Them"

The Good Shepherd Window at Old First, by Otto Heinigke, photo by Jane Barber.

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
The gospel lesson takes place in the Temple during the Festival of the Dedication, which is what we call Hanukkah. Hanukkah commemorates the military victory of the Maccabees 150 years before Christ. The Maccabees led the war of liberation from the empire of the Greeks, and then they set up an independent Jewish state, which lasted for a couple generations, until the Romans came and conquered them and that was that. But they remembered their independence with this holiday, their Independence Day, their Fourth of July, but sacred, and hoping for independence again, with the coming of the Messiah, when it would be permanent, and even eternal, and maybe many thousands of Jews who had died as martyrs would be resurrected back to life.

So of course the people want to know if Jesus claims to be the Messiah. They have to analyze the risks involved in following him or not, and calculate the costs either way. You know, sell off their stocks, buy gold, divorce that Gentile wife. And as it had cost many Jewish casualties for the Maccabees to win, if this Jesus is the Messiah, then everybody’s in for it, so it’s only fair that he declare himself, and they can make their preparations.

Jesus answers with Shepherd language, which was political language, royal language, going back to King David, the shepherd boy who became the Shepherd of his people, and therefore sounding like, yes, on this Independence Day, in the Temple, yes, he is the Messiah.

So you can understand, that after his resurrection, the great majority of Jews did not believe in him. Not only was there the reasonable doubt that a dead man should be alive again, and if he was, he should have shown himself to the chief priests at least, and shown some respect. But there was the further problem that say, okay, he did rise from the dead, what did he do with it? What difference did he make? Where was the power of his resurrection? Where was his Kingdom? Okay, maybe in the months that followed, after Pentecost, in Jerusalem, these five thousand believers were having a wonderful life together with their long-term love-in, but what about the political reality of Jerusalem and the economic burdens of the Judean poor and the Galilean sharecroppers? If he rose from the dead, why isn’t he here where we need him? The majority figured that even if his resurrection were true, it was irrelevant. So why believe in him?

Then things got worse. The long-term love-in of the believers suddenly ended with the stoning of Stephen and the persecution started and most of them got kicked out of Jerusalem, like Peter, who in our first lesson is living in exile for a while, over in Lydda. And yet the believers keep believing. They must have had a powerful experience of a new kind of life. Even in exile and persecution they felt a part of something new and different in the world, which gave them joy and did not disappoint their hope.

I expect that Dorcas was one of those who expressed the hope and contributed to the joy. You can tell by her two names, Hebrew and Greek, that she crossed the ethnic and religious boundaries in her relationships. She made her living as a seamstress, and she made extra clothes for the widows, who by definition tended toward poverty. Most people then had only one set of clothes to wear, and the poor did not have cash. She dressed them in clothing they delighted in. They valued Dorcas so much that when she died they asked the Apostle Peter to come and do the service. That’s why they called for him, not that they were expecting him to raise her again, but that her death should have the honor she deserved. They show off to him the clothes that made them proud. When Peter sees what she did, he senses a defining moment, he makes an apostolic decision, he takes a leap of faith, and asks God to resurrect her.

Why her? Why not Stephen the martyr, the fiery preacher, whose resurrection would have been such a vindication? Two reasons. First, it looks like Peter was making an apostolic decision about the values of the Kingdom and the priorities of the church, and those were not political victories in Jerusalem but the honor of widows in poverty. It’s not just that Dorcas made clothes, but custom clothing for the poor. That Dorcas will have taken each widow seriously, as an individual, measured her body, chose the fabric, selected the color, cut the cloth, stitched it, and dignified and honored this widow with a tunic to be proud of and rejoice in—such are the trophies of this kingdom and the proofs of the Messiah. Loveliness for elderly women. Such are the triumphs of his rule. Peter could see it, he was inspired. Oh yes, this is what we are about. These are the victories we’re after: Not welfare, but dignity and beauty for the poor and honor for the weak.

And second, why Dorcas and not Stephen, whose resurrection would have been a proof against the unbelievers, it is apparent, as I said on Easter, and apparently within God’s will, that we Christians, during this long time between "Christ is risen" and "Christ will come again," that we Christians are not so much conquerors of the world or leaders of the world or even teachers of the world as we are witnesses in the court room of the world, and we are witnesses who give our testimony in a trial where what we say is strongly contested. The verdict and the vindication will only be given at the end. No one has the privilege of resorting to some kind of conclusive "proof" right now, no one from one side or the other, belief or unbelief. So raising Stephen from the dead to prove the Lord to unbelievers, Dorcas is raised to encourage believers, especially the widows.

And you need the encouragement because the contest and the trial is also in your own mind. Not just out there in the world between belief and unbelief, but inside yourself, in the contest of your own faith and doubt. Not just why does the Lord Jesus allow all the evil and death to keep on going in the world, as we just saw in Boston, and as we don’t see in many other places in the world right now, with far worse prevalence and misery, so that you wonder what real difference does the resurrected Lord Jesus make in the world, but also in your own life, how your own life is not trending up right now, and if it’s not getting too much worse it’s only because you are working so hard to keep it close to level.

To be a Christian is not to not-ever be disappointed in God. Christians are as disappointed with God as anybody else. Don’t think that strong believers don’t have stronger doubts. And yet you are invited to live in hope and joy and you are invited to believe a promise, a promise we cannot prove, for the only proof is that God’s Spirit keeps you believing, which is circular and begs the question, I know.

You cannot prove to yourself your own belief. This of course will raise some doubts in you. Your own belief is a mystery to you, and why you believe when others don’t. So the comfort I can give you today is that your belief is the power of the resurrection working in you, and if at this point it is not much more than just the desire to believe, that it is the work of God in you, and God will not let you be snatched from his hand. Yes, God will certainly let your belief be wrestled by your doubt, and even pinned down by your doubt till you can shake it off, but you will never be snatched away from the hand of God which holds onto you even in your doubt.

The promise is circular, I know it, but the promise is that you believe that God is giving you your belief. The offer is that God is actively working in all your adversity and prosperity to preserve and protect your belief. The promise is that God keeps calling your name, and you just can’t stop paying attention when somebody calls your name. The Lord keeps calling you because he loves you. The only proofs and only vindications of the resurrection of the Messiah are those which are absolutely love.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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