Monday, April 29, 2013
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
The Easter Season is seven weeks long, from Easter Day to Pentecost. All season we repeat that Jesus rose from the dead, in the flesh, both spiritually and bodily, a human being more spiritual but not less physical, not less human but more truly human, the Adam of the new humanity, the Adam of the new and improved humanity, the model of what we shall be and the first fruit of the harvest to come. In him our familiar fallen human nature has been raised to a loveliness and power we wonder at and aspire to.
He is a wonder and he is a sign. His new physical humanity is a sign of the future physical reality. He is the first-fruit of a new creation, a very-much this-worldly creation. He is the Eve of the new life of the world. We can imagine it, but it is hard. We are so used to a fallen world, we are used to reality as corrupted, we are used to nature as bent, we are used to life as broken. But we can imagine a real world, a this-world, made holy and righteous, we are invited to believe it and to hope for it and also represent it in our lives.
The Easter season counters the conventional take on Christianity that eternal life will leave this world behind in order to be up in heaven with the angels. Note that the vision of the Book of Revelation in our lesson goes the other way. The New Jerusalem comes down, and the dwelling of God is here with us, forever.
The vision of the Revelation confirms the message of the season of Easter that the resurrection of Jesus in the flesh is the sign that points to the ultimate reconciliation of heaven and earth and the transformation of heaven and earth, which means not the obliteration of the earth nor of natural reality but the reclamation and rehabilitation of this real world.
Which some people do not prefer. In seminary our most popular professor said that he hoped to spend eternity as a disembodied orb of conscious light. Well, okay, but I can’t see how that is Biblical. Children get closer to the Bible when they ask if there will be dogs in heaven. Well, if the vision is the reclamation of the real world, why not dogs, but not in heaven, rather in the renovated earth, the world transformed, as Jesus’s flesh was transformed in his resurrection.
He is also a sign that the power of the resurrection is for our transformation. From what to what? From dumb to smart? From flabby to buff? From nice to cool, or pretty to hot? From poor to rich? These aspects may well be secondary effects of resurrection transformation, but so also may be persecution, and martyrdom, and exclusion, like for Christians today in some parts of the world. The secondary effects will differ with when and where you live, but no matter where you live the transformation is always moral. It is called by such words as righteousness, and holiness, and goodness, and so if you are not afraid of such words in your life as goodness and holiness and righteousness, then this transformation is for you.
This is tough for me, because deep in my heart, I’d rather be cool than righteous. I’d rather be hot than holy. When I’m by myself, I’d rather be good-looking than good. I remain a vain sinner through and through. But here is the good news. The transformation is also in your confession. It’s not only in your possession of the good but also your confession of the not-good. It’s not in the absence of your sin but in the reconciliation of your sin. It’s both the reality of your new and the reconciliation of your old. It’s not in the absence of your old nature but the power of your new nature to manage the old nature still in you. Your transformation is not the absence of your old nature in your life, but the constant conversion of your old nature into your new nature. Your new nature needs your old nature to keep on loving it, just as God loves you while you are yet a sinner. Your new nature is distinguished not by innocence, nor by perfection, but by the love which you have for yourself, your vain self, your weak self, even your worst self.
I am connecting us to last week’s sermon, when I said that the power of the resurrection is the power of love, which I am now equating with the power of transformation in your life. And love loves even what is fallen. If you are scared by such words as goodness and holiness and righteousness, then think of them as attributes of love, God’s love, God’s love for the world, God’s love given form by us. It is a loving righteousness, a loving goodness, a loving holiness.
The night before Jesus died he commanded his disciples to love. And after his resurrection his disciples had gradually to discover what he meant by this new intensity of love, with its new power and patterns and expectations. Which Peter is learning in our first lesson. In his dream he had been challenged three times to take the unclean food and eat. Three times to deny his deep convictions, three times to deny, so not an easy dream for him, the denier. Should he not hold fast? I can imagine how he felt in his gut each time he woke up, his stomach still feeling the dream, and all that disgusting food. Well, it’s in your body where you finally have to face the issues of love, even of spiritual love, Christian love.
What did it mean, brother Peter, for you to love those Roman soldiers whose very job was to keep down the Jews? To eat their unclean food with them? Unclean not just ritually, but morally, because it’s meat and vegetables which the soldiers have taken from his people. Such love can not feel natural, it has to be empowered by something beyond us, it has to be from the new nature of humanity. To build a whole way of life of this kind of love is to imagine what life is like in the New Jerusalem.
What stops us? What did Peter have to reconcile? The disgust, and also disdain: They may be on top of us but we’re better than them. We may have less than them but we’re smarter than them. We don’t need them. Why should we love them? Also the feeling of fear: Look, I gag on rhubarb, so I can imagine the fear in Peter’s body. The fear in your body can hinder your love. You have constantly to reconcile that. Or the memory of pain, like when the Roman soldier beat you down to take the catch of fish that you were bringing to your family. And now you eat his food with him? Your suffering can keep you from love. Or your bitterness that these outsiders have taken over your land, that they have more success than you do. That they look down on you. And they make you feel ashamed. And you are poor compared to them, because there are no jobs in Galilee, and you think about your clothes and your shame and how can you love them when you’re embarrassed or ashamed?
What keeps you from love? What shame, what fear, what loss? What sin, what guilt? The point is not to deny these things but to recognize them, admit them to yourself, confess them to God and maybe to someone you can trust, and then love them, love these aspects of yourself. Because this resurrection love is not wasted on what is already lovable, but is practiced and proven precisely on the unlovely, on the fearful, on the guilty, and the losers. Just as God loves you, you who remain a vain sinner, so you can love others just as fallen as yourself, and that is the love that is transforming, the love which transforms them who receive it and transforms you who do it and transforms the world, this world, according to the model of the new Jerusalem.
This transformation is not magical and it is not supernatural but it is spiritual and ethical. You don’t have to do too much to get it, because God wants it for you, and as certainly as you come every week, and openly offer yourself to the words of Jesus, so certainly will this transformation take place in you, constantly, repeatedly, seasonally, in and out, with variations. It is as varied among us as our varied personalities and histories. Yours will not be the same as mine, except in this, that no matter what particular form the transformation of the resurrection takes in your life, it will be in a form of love. Not love as the world defines it, but love as Jesus defines it. Believe it on the basis of God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
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.
Friday, April 12, 2013
Saul was born a Jew, but he was born a Roman citizen. He was not some Galilean country boy like Peter, James, and Jesus. Saul was born in what is now Turkey, in the city of Tarsus, the citizens of which enjoyed the special status of citizenship of the city of Rome, with all its rights and privileges attaining thereto. Saul had the right of access to Roman power, prestige, and pleasure, but he had committed himself to the opposite, to a rigorous form of Judaism. He had joined the strictest group of Pharisees—who will have been thrilled to have him, this guy who was fluent in Greek and even Latin, who had the freedom of the Empire, and could stand up to other Romans.
Saul was impassioned for the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem in contrast to Capitol in Rome, for the purity of Jewish law against the laws of Rome, and for holding these tight until the Messiah would come and kick the Romans out and rule in Jerusalem once again. But these followers of Jesus were messing it up. They said the Messiah had come, and that he was ruling in heaven, not in Jerusalem. They infected the Temple with their heresies and prayers. They abused the Torah and did not keep kosher. They threatened the unity and purity of Israel and the sacred status of Jerusalem. Their movement had to be expunged for the survival of the whole.
Saul was that special sort of true believer whom we would call a fundamentalist. He saw himself as a very good guy who was so dedicated to the cause that he was not afraid to hurt people. It’s not that Saul did not love God. If Saul didn’t love God so much, he would not have persecuted him. You know the old saying: the opposite of love is not hatred, it is indifference. Hatred is not the opposite of love but the perversion of love, and it’s from perverted love that Saul is persecuting God. And why is his love perverted? Probably several reasons, including perhaps his motive of rejection, having been immersed in Rome, but what our lesson today suggests that it was his image of the God he loved.
Because he saw God a certain way, he thought he had to love that God a certain way, if even a way that was hurtful to others. Like Westboro Baptist, and let me recommend to you Jeff Chu’s book, because of his remarkable insight that what the Westboro people do is actually for love. We Christians have been doing this a long time in many ways, loving our image of God which causes hurt for other people. So have Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists. You can’t help but love God according to your image of God and how you see what God wants for the world. It’s a spiritual law that we become like what we worship. How you see God is how you see your neighbor and yourself. Saul saw himself as the dedicated one who would stop at nothing to defend the cause of the God he loved.
It’s similar with Simon Peter. Peter fancied himself as Jesus’ right hand man and bodyguard. He was the one who drew the sword to fight for Jesus at his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was one who did not run away, but followed from behind, and got himself into the courtyard of the high priest where Jesus was being tried, the only disciple there. And there, at the charcoal fire where the servants and soldiers were keeping warm, Peter, like some secret agent, denied that he knew him, and again a second time, but they did not believe him, and his cover was blown, and the third time he was vehement, only now to save his skin, and the cock crowed, and he was ashamed. He was the one who denied him because he was the only one who was there. If Peter hadn’t love Jesus so much he would not have denied him. Love can be so wrong. And Jesus has to convert his love. Which is what he does today at the charcoal fire on the beach.
It was the third week after Jesus’ resurrection, before his ascension, while Jesus is still bodily present on the earth, breathing its air and eating its food and accepting its gravity, but unbounded and unpredictable. Two times now they have seen the Lord. They believe he’s risen. But what does that mean? Now what? What’s next? We know the rest of the story, but those guys didn’t. So much for them is still uncertain. What did they imagine might be coming from the power of the resurrection?
Did they imagine that Jesus might be the new King David, trouncing the Roman Eagle and liberating the Promised Land, or a Jewish version of Alexander the Great, leading the armies of God across the world, as the companions of Mohammed would do six centuries later? I think Saul of Tarsus could have imagined that, and many Christians still want a modern version of this kind of thing—the expansion and prosperity and protection of Christian civilization in the world. That would be nice, but that is not the direction that Jesus shows them during these quiet weeks.
What you want depends on your vision of God. Do you picture God like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, muscular, majestic, and powerful, or do you picture God paradoxically like a lamb, a lamb on the throne, a bit more powerful and lordly than a chicken on the throne, but not much. And if the lamb has been already killed, then God does not need our protection, thank you very much. The kingdom of God does not need our defending, and we do not need to strengthen it or build it, it wins by its weakness, thank you very much, so all you have to do is love. Love when they don’t want your love, love when it is inadvisable, and when people think such love impinges on God’s holiness, but God can take care of God’s own holiness, thank you very much.
To be a Christian is to convert your love, to convert your loves according your beliefs. For some of you this conversion is sudden and dramatic, like the turning of an enemy, like Saul. For some of you, like Peter, who have been with Jesus all along, your conversion is gradual, more intimate, and probably more painful, because it makes its way slowly through your guilt and shame and disappointment. Peter was a man of feelings, so he had to smell it, the charcoal smoke and the memory of his denial and and his shame and his fear and how his fear perverted his love. Paul is a man of intellect, and so he is blinded, to go inside himself and review himself in terms of this new piece of information he’s received. There are different ways God uses to convert our love. But all of them involve some suffering. Not the suffering of punishment, but the pain of our own selves and the feeling of our shame and the guilt. And you must come to love yourself, your shameful self, your guilty self, so that you can love other people too and suffer them.
What is your image of the power of the resurrection? What is your image of God? Early in the morning, a man walks out onto the beach, and he sees in the sand the packs and the tracks of his friends, and he looks out over the water and he sees them in their boats, and he sits down for a bit and watches. Then he gets up and gathers wood, thinking about each one of those guys in turn, how well he knows them and what their personal stories are, and then he builds a fire, and while it’s burning down to coals he goes down to the water, and he catches some fish (and we are not told how he does it) but then he comes back up the beach and he cleans them and guts them (don’t you love it, the Lord God cleaning fish), and he arranges them on the coals, and then he calls out to the disciples, and as he gets them finally fishing right, he kneels back down to turn the fish on the coals. He so loves the world. He so loves his friends, even that poor Simon Peter. "We’re going to have to have our talk." Saul of Tarsus will learn to love a God who acts like this. You can love a God like this.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 06, 2013
Note: the movie is Tarkovsky's Mirror, the actor is Margarita Berekhova, and the scholar I quote is Debra Rienstra, from her blogpost for The 12. Thank you, Debra.
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:91-31
Last week I spoke in terms of the Story, the Doctrine, and the Vision. This week the Vision is Belief. You believe to be true what you cannot see. The Doctrines for this week are three. The first is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead—the doctrine we already got last week. The second is new today, which is the divinity of the Lord Jesus, that he actually is God, and the third is how we can believe in him.
So, in the Story, first, the disciples witnessed the Lord Jesus back from the dead, and they saw his scars, the sign that he was in his body, his same body, but his body transformed by a power beyond the ordinary boundaries of the world, the sign of which was the locked doors. Second, Thomas recognized him as God, as more than a resurrected man. Thomas was the first person ever to call Jesus "My Lord and my God," the titles of the God of Israel. Third, the story displays the complexity of belief, including skepticism, and reading the signs, and going beyond the signs, and making a leap, and converting your mind, and coming to terms with your own self.
Jesus does not judge Thomas as a doubter. He honors his request, and he invites him to verify the signs of the marks in his hands. In the original Greek, he doesn’t even use the word "doubt". He says, "Don’t keep unbelieving but believing." Thomas stands for all of us. We all have to keep converting our unbelief to belief, and doing that on the basis of not so many facts, and on facts which can always be contested, as I said last week.
What do you need in order to believe? What level of evidence, how certain the signs? We vary in our satisfaction-levels for belief. I find it easier to believe in the resurrection than my wife does, and certainly more than my son does. For Thomas the testimony of the disciples that they had seen the Lord was not enough—he wanted stronger signs. You might feel like Thomas did, that the testimony of the Bible that people had seen the Lord is not enough. Can we believe it simply on testimony of an ancient book? One scholar has written that "the stories in the gospel function as the signs for us. The stories are a mediation through which we can see a Jesus we have never seen, as Jesus himself is a mediation through which we can see a God we have never seen."
"So Thomas is not a counterexample for right belief, then, but a metaphor in his own way. He signals in his passionate insistence how we are to respond to these stories. See the nailmarks in these stories; put your finger in these words." And blessed are we who believe these stories, even when our belief is seasoned with the skepticism that comes from never having seen it for ourselves. We have to live by our vision of what we cannot see, and our vision is our belief. That it is this way has benefits: in what kind of a creature you become when you live by vision beyond mere sight, when you live by faith beyond your knowledge, and when you live for love beyond yourself.
Thomas leaps to a new belief about Jesus and thus a new belief about God. But when he looks at Jesus there’s also a change within himself and his vision of himself and what he can believe about himself.
In your own life, you came to know yourself by watching the faces of other people: the face of your mother (you couldn’t take your eyes off her), the face of your father, and then others you could recognize, and in learning them you were discovering yourself, measuring yourself, developing your awareness of yourself. In Tarkovsky’s great movie Mirror, the unseen narrator spends his life watching the face of his mother and his wife. She is played by a single actress, Margarita Berekhova. She is luminous, you can’t take your eyes off her, and she is the mirror in whom the narrator is always looking for himself.
In the wonderful new book which we will celebrate this afternoon, Jeff Chu tells the story of his pilgrimage in search of God, and his method is to tell the stories of how other people deal with God, but of course it is also a pilgrimage of his own self-discovery, for the people he meets with are more or less mirrors for himself—some distorted, some bright and clear, so that in looking for God by means of them he has to develop his vision for himself. What can he believe? What can he believe about God, and what can he believe about himself?
I have said before that belief is a combination of knowledge, imagination, and desire. The anchor of belief is knowledge of some fact, some event, some truth, some news, some sign. For Thomas the fact was a dead man now alive again, and the sign was the nail-prints. He could know that, but he also had to imagine that the impossible could be true, and stemming from that, to imagine even more: that the God of Israel was in this man with his hands held out, and to imagine that the God of Israel would come to this.
Having imagined it he desired it, and the sign of his desire is when he says, "My Lord and my God." Self-referential words, for self-discovery. How suddenly that desire rose within him, after the last whole week when he was standing firm on his demands. And now, not only is he able to believe what he did not think he could believe, he can even to desire it. He gives himself to his desire, and he will start to imagine his own life in ways he did not know before.
Here is the take-home for today. To believe in Jesus as the Son of God is how you can come to believe in yourself. To desire the Lord Jesus permits you to desire yourself. To imagine him directs you to imagine yourself. To know him is how to know yourself. This is a feature of the Christian faith which it offers you when you practice it. To come to know God is how to come to know yourself.
Now there are many ways beside the Christian faith to get knowledge of yourself. You can learn about yourself from reading literature, and doing therapy, and from how other people respond to you, both in confirmation and critique. I’m talking about yourself at your root, your deepest self, your naked soul, how you love yourself and desire yourself and imagine yourself and even believe in yourself as the beloved of the Lord.
I am not saying only Christians can know themselves, nor am I saying that Christians necessarily do. I was reading on the internet the comments on the reviews of Jeff Chu’s book, and many of them written by Christians are mean and hurtful. You can tell how these people must see Jesus, and what they desire from his Lordship, and you wonder at their self-knowledge. But Jesus does not force on us what he offers us, even though his offer is an obligation. The obligation is real and the offer is well-meant: to keep on digging your fingers into these stories of Jesus every week, from which to imagine yourself and desire the self that he envisions for you. He is the living God, the God of the universe, who bears the signs of nail-prints for the love of you.
When I sing out to you, "Alleluia, Christ is risen," I’m offering you the knowledge and I’m appealing to your imagination. And when you sing back, "The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia," you imagine it as well, and you signal your desire by the word "indeed." These words are the sign of the Holy Spirit within you, bearing witness to your soul that what Jesus offers you is true, and that you can give yourself permission to believe it, and that love wins. Love always makes the leap, the leap across the skepticism of your doubt, because the love is God’s own love in you.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Monday, April 01, 2013
Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12
(N.B., this sermon quotes from Lesslie Newbigin’s modern classic, Foolishness to the Greeks, pp. 62-64. For Jim Bratt.)
Welcome to Easter, welcome to the celebration of the resurrection of Our Lord. Members and friends, visitors and seekers, whatever your belief or unbelief, it’s good that you are here. Easter is a public day, Easter is not church property—it is but our privilege to host it for the world on God’s behalf.
We celebrate three things today: the story, the doctrine, and the vision—the story as in the gospel lesson by St. Luke, the doctrine as in the epistle lesson by St. Paul, and the vision as in the first lesson, by Isaiah, when it says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” The vision is projected by the doctrine, and the doctrine interprets the story.
When I say “story”, I don’t mean the kind that opens by saying, “Once a upon a time” (Barth), but a news story, with a date line, the kind of story that a journalist files with a periodical. Journalism comes closest to what the gospels do: blending facts and narratives and observations and interpretation, in the general interest. The gospel writers did not think of themselves as writing for spirituality and religion—they wrote for the general interest, and as much about politics as about spirituality. If St. Luke were writing today, I think he’d want to get published in The Atlantic Monthly. St. Mark would try for Mother Jones, and St. John for Vanity Fair. The apostles did not think in terms of starting another religion. They had a story to publish for the public interest.
When I say “doctrine”, I mean the summation of the story, as in the Nicene Creed, which we will soon recite, that “on the third day he rose again, in accordance with the scriptures.” There is a broader summation and a short analysis in our epistle, 1 Corinthians 15. The epistle is journalistic too, but in the manner of an op-ed piece. The doctrine interprets the implications of the story. And again, the implications are not merely spiritual but general. The doctrine is not just for personal religion, or for the church, but for the whole public. The doctrine is offered as public truth for public life.
When I say “vision”, I mean what the doctrine permits us to look for in the world, in both the future and the present. According to the Nicene Creed, the doctrine permits us to “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” That gives us a public vision for the world and the whole life of the world, from plants and animals to economics and politics—a view of the world, a world-view projected by the resurrection. It also gives you personal visions for yourself and your loved ones, a vision of your death, but also for a life beyond your death, and a vision of your body—your body so familiar and so mysterious—that your own poor body, your bones and your nerves and your feelings and emotions and all the memories you carry within you, can be so totally healed and reconstituted by God as to be physically fit to inhabit the world to come.
The vision requires the story to be true. And there are reasons to be skeptical. Skepticism is not an enemy of belief. Skepticism arises from belief. It’s because you believe some things that you are skeptical of others. And the ordinary public of Jesus’ day was just as skeptical about his bodily resurrection as anyone is today, because they believed, with good reason, that dead bodies do not come back to life. It was totally implausible, according to the plausibility structures of the worldview of their day, no less than by the plausibility structures of the worldview of our day.
The disciples were not watching at the tomb because they had given Jesus up for dead—dead as a door-nail, done for. When the women discovered the tomb was empty they were perplexed. They did not believe what they were told by the two men there in dazzling clothes. And when Peter noticed the linen clothing lying there (evidence that no Jew had carried his body out—not a naked dead body, certainly not on a holy day, so that maybe Jesus came out under his own steam), Peter still could not envision it until the living Lord confronted him, and even then it took him a couple weeks really to get it.
It’s remarkable that the Lord Jesus never tried to prove his resurrection to the public, and he never showed himself to his opponents—not to Pontius Pilate nor the chief priests and the scribes. God seems to have designed the facts of the story not to be the kind of facts which count for public proof within the plausibility structures of whatever the prevailing worldview is. St. Paul called the resurrection “foolishness to the Greeks,” and there is no way that the truth of the resurrection can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of the modern mind. God intends that we who believe the story and celebrate the doctrine must always give our “testimony in a trial where it is contested. The verdict as to what stands and what falls will only be given at the end. To desire some kind of rationally conclusive ‘proof’ of” the resurrection is to mistake the privilege of witness which God has given us. God invites us rather to offer and live out the ethics of an alternate worldview which arises from the doctrine. And our view of the world is part of our vision.
It is the vision of the life of the world to come, a world which is inhabited by persons who are resurrected from the dead. We get the first glimpse of the vision from the story, from those two men in dazzling clothes. St. Luke specifically calls them men, not angels, and they are wearing the same clothes as Jesus did at his transfiguration. These men two men are in the future, living in the world to come, but the women could see them because the resurrection of Jesus had broken through the boundary of death. The resurrection of Jesus is the gateway to another universe, a greater universe than ours, embracing ours, penetrating ours, expanding into ours, converting ours, a universe generated by the small bang of the resurrection, the new heavens and new earth.
This vision is so large and loving and inclusive that although the plausibilities of its alternate worldview allow us to be skeptical of all the pretensions and certainties of our common knowledge, at the same time the vision can acknowledge and cherish so much of the fruit and insight and achievements in the arts and sciences of the very culture which regards the resurrection as implausible. The relationship is asymmetrical, but not completely discontinuous. From the one side, this side, the other looks implausible, but from the other side there is a plausibility that embraces both. So if we believe in the resurrection we do not abandon the world and its culture but embrace it, and bless it and serve it and develop it for the sake of the Lord. Using our imaginations, just as God designed to leave the details of the Easter story to our imaginations.
I invite you to imagine your own life in terms of the life of the world to come. You are used to factoring death and sin and evil into your life, it’s hard to imagine real human life without those factors in, it’s hard to envision power without corruption, government without force, prosperity without consumption, aging without weakening, and physical bodies without breakdown. Our visions are only glimpses on this side of the boundary of death, and everything in our present lives is contested. Your own lives are mysterious mixtures of good and evil, which will not be sorted out until your death.
In the meantime, you can still look for the new world in your own life, but you cannot find it in the good things about yourself that you can specify with certainty. You can look for the providence of God the Father in your life, who is converting your every sin and pain and misery into the material of salvation. You can look for the grace of God the Son within your life and for the warmth of his body in the form of his community. You can look for the fruits of God the Holy Spirit in your life, real fruits, though as passing and temporary as fruits always are, as well as the love of the Spirit, whose love is so limitless and inclusive that God loves not only your good, but even your sin, your failures no less than your successes.
Which means that your primary expression of this vision has to be reconciliation, your reconciliation of yourself and of this world in the light of the world to come, and that your application of this doctrine is forgiveness, your forgiveness of yourself and your reality as well as your forgiveness of your neighbor as yourself, and that your insight from the story is the power of God’s love that you see expressed in it, the love of God for the human body, which includes yours, the love of God for humanity, which includes you, the love of God which goes through death to the other side, which will be yours. This vision is a love vision, this doctrine is a love doctrine, and this story is a love story.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.