Thursday, April 23, 2015

April 26, Easter 4: This Is the Life #1

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

The Easter Season is eight Sundays long, from Easter morning through to Pentecost. That’s an ancient tradition with its roots in Bible times. It’s only a recent tradition that the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, but that’s the theme of our gospel lesson today. It’s the second half of a longer speech by Jesus, where he repeats several times, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Our section of it begins at verse 11, but just one verse before it, in verse 10, Jesus says this: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

What is this life, this abundant life, that Jesus gives us? How is it different from the life we have already and that we share with other creatures like dogs and sheep? Don’t bugs and bacteria have life abundantly? And why does Jesus say that he lays down his life? Why give us life just for us to lay it down? What does life mean in the Bible?

Today I’m starting a sermon series on Life. Twelve sermons. This first one is theological, so be patient for the later ones which are more practical. I’ve never preached on Life before. We all take life for granted, right, as if we all know what it means, but I dare you to define it.

Even modern scientists don’t agree on a definition of life. One definition says that “life is the popular name for the activity peculiar to protoplasm,” but that leads to circular explanations. You could say that life is when the elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur form compounds. That’s what astronomers look for in their search for extra-terrestrial life. But what if alternative lives were based on silicon instead of carbon, like the Horta in that Star Trek episode.

A complication is that those five elements occur together in substances that are no longer living. Bones. We say that a bone is dead because it lived once, while a stone never lived so it is not dead. A stone is essentially immortal. At our cottage we have stones that are 3.96 billion years old. That’s older than our church. A stone may be immortal but it does not have eternal life. Eternal life and immortality are not the same.

When the New Testament was being written the whole question of life was big in the popular science of the day. Is life an energy? Is life a force? Are the stars and planets alive? Is fire alive? Did life arise out of fire? So said Heraklitus. Or out of the air? So said Anaximines. Or out of water? So said Thales.

Modern science basically goes with Thales, with our image of the primitive planet’s primordial soup, in which some chemical compounds somehow came to life. We don’t know how to replicate it in the laboratory, nor why it doesn’t happen in nature anymore. “As far as known at present all living substance arises from already existing living substance.” A living thing has to get its life from something already alive.

Look at your hand, and the life that’s in your hand. That life, which you got from your parents, goes unbroken and uninterrupted all the way back through some pre-historic primates to some primitive sea-creatures to those primordial protozoans who first came alive. Is it really possible that all plants and animals alive today share a common stream of life that got started three billion years ago from one common source? We assume so but we have no direct scientific proof and we are no more absolutely certain of it than they were in Bible times.

In the midst of these uncertainties we Christians make a claim that the ultimate source of life on earth is the Holy Spirit. We say that in the Nicene Creed, when we say that “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” That’s not a scientific claim, we don’t mean that, but it was certainly always meant as a philosophical claim. We’re not just talking about spiritual life, we’re talking about life on earth, that marvelous stream of life that we share with plants and animals.

We mean that this stream of life has its source in God’s own self, in God’s own inner life, which God shares as a gift to all the creatures of the world from bacteria to bugs to birds to us. We mean this natural life is not just the platform for our Christian faith, it is the target and the interest of our Christian faith. We mean that we are saved in order to live this life, not leave it.

The resurrection of Jesus is an affirmation of this life. Yes, it’s also a judgment on this life, but it’s not a rejection. It’s a saving of what we were ruining and losing by our own designs. The Lord Jesus was resurrected for the life of the world. This is why we celebrate Easter for eight weeks long, to give it time to enter into our lives, because the resurrection of Jesus is not just a one-off, hip-hip-hooray and let’s all go to heaven now, but rather that Easter begins a new reality that enters into the life of the world and into its time and space, and that it takes its time to do its patient and comprehensive transformation of our present lives into the “life of the world to come.”

Now here’s a complication. We use the English word “life” for three different Greek words in the Bible. There is βιος (bios), from which we get biology, ζωη (zoë), from which we get zoology, and ψυχη (psyche), from which we get psychology. The three words overlap, and two of the words have other meanings too, so it’s a tricky business. But when the Lord Jesus speaks of "abundant life" and "eternal life," it’s always zoë, that greatest and broadest stream and energy of life which the Holy Spirit gives to the world from its source in God’s own life. We will watch for this in coming weeks.

When Jesus speaks of "laying down his life," then it’s psyche, which is more personal. Your psyche is your personal life-force, located in your breathing, and it also means your soul, your natural life, which you share with other breathing creatures. What Jesus says in the gospel is expanded in our epistle, in the first sentence, that we too ought to lay down our lives for each other.

But the very next sentence uses the third word for life, bios, but it’s hidden behind that English paraphrase, “the world’s goods.” How did they get that from a word for life? Well, life in the sense of making a living, your livelihood, what you do for a living. I wish they had left it literal, and stronger: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has a life and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

It’s not about the world’s goods. It’s about your power, your purpose, your health, your energy, your momentum, your career, your trajectory, your course of life. Your living and your livelihood are what get saved by the power of the resurrection, your purpose and power and energy are confirmed and convicted and converted and transformed by the power of God’s love, so that you can invest your power and your momentum in the lives of others who may need it. As God does.

Don’t misunderstand what it means to lay-down your life. It does not mean surrender. It is not necessarily dying. It’s more like investing or depositing. Like laying down some cash on the table, or putting down some chips in a card game. Jesus did that with his life. He was investing in us, depositing his life in our living history, putting himself into our sin and grief and judgment, laying his life down within our death, yes, and losing it as you might lose your investment, or lose your chips in your card game, but then he won it back again.

That’s what Peter was doing before the Sanhedrin. He was laying his life out in front of people who had the power to punish him. These are the very same rulers whom Peter was afraid of on the night before Jesus died, which is why he had three times denied him. Now these rulers didn’t know Peter from Adam, so they didn’t know about Peter’s guilty conscience which had condemned him and then how the forgiveness and peace of Jesus had reassured him. So Peter has his second chance and now, because he’s not afraid for his life, he puts himself out there, he lays out his life to them and appeals to them to believe like him and get forgiven and saved like him. He’s loving them.

This is what Life looks like. One scientist has identified life as the reversal of entropy, the reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that instead of everything always breaking down to simple states of equilibrium, life is what builds, gathers, grows, risks, adds complexity, adds color, adds music, shares itself, feeds, nourishes, hopes, dreams. You invest your own life in the possibilities of others beyond you.

So this suggests that the source of life is not water nor fire nor earth, but love, and not just any love, and not determined by philosophy, but the love which God demonstrates to us in action, in the action of Jesus laying down his life for us, and in the constant investment of God in you as your Good Shepherd. You know you’re alive when you know this love in your life.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

April 5, Easter 2015: Women's Work

(This is the painting that graces the reredos of our sanctuary, The Empty Tomb, by Virgilio Tojetti. In St. Mark's account the young man is seated inside.)

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-7

This was women’s work, what they were doing, these three women, early at the tomb, taking care of things after the men were all done. Like after the church suppers of my childhood. Like on an ancient battlefield—the losers retreat, the victors chase them, and then the women come out to tend the wounded and the dying and the dead. The disciples of Jesus had fled and were in hiding. Did the women buy their spices in the dark because they feared the danger all around them?

A corpse begins to stink in just a few hours, and it was long past that. They wanted the spices to cover the smell so they could dress his body. These women were the ones who had been providing for him all along, and had seen to his necessities, so even his corpse was precious to them. In this way they were closer to him then his disciples were, these women who had birthed and nursed and held and swaddled and cleaned and fed and dressed the bodies of others—women’s work. So one last time they come to dress him and hold him and grieve for him whom they have loved and lost.

And when they get there, even his body is lost to them. The tomb is empty, except for the young man, who is described but not explained. Was he expecting them? Is he an angel? He acts like angels do in his disregard for human feeling. When the women are alarmed he says, “Don’t be alarmed.” How helpful is that! He matter-of-factly gives them instructions, which they do not carry out. They flee in fear, they don’t tell nothing to nobody.

And that’s how the Gospel of Mark concludes, with their terror, their amazement, and their fear. End of story. What? Don’t they meet up with Jesus, like in the other gospels? Like in Matthew, Luke, and John, where they encounter him fully alive, robust, and powerful, and his disciples walk and talk with him and even eat and drink with him? Not in the Gospel of Mark, at least according to our most ancient manuscripts. The later manuscripts offer a couple of longer endings, like the extra verse we did not read this morning, which provide more conventional conclusions. Because, like, how could St. Mark end his Gospel this way?

It’s not to discount those post-resurrection appearances that were already reported in the earlier writings of St. Paul and St. Matthew. St. Mark is not denying them, he rather assumes we know of them, but he wants to convey his own literary emphasis. In the Gospel of Mark, the miracles of Jesus are met with emotions that are strong and unpredictable and often negative. When Jesus walks on water his disciples are terrified. When Jesus is transfigured they are terrified. And all three times that Jesus directly predicts his resurrection his disciples speak against it from the fear of it.

The Gospel of Mark is always wonderful but never comfortable. The good news is always good but not always nice. The salvation shakes you up. The good news of salvation is so drastic that it is fearful. The choice before you is so total that it’s a whole new world in the midst of this one, and that means everything you thought was certain and dependable is shaking loose with instability.

In the reality of our world—and the women knew this as well as we do—it is just not possible that a corpse already stinking should come back to life. And if it did, who knew what it would be like? A walking dead? A zombie? Of course the women are terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

We don’t like terror. We have a war on Terror. In recent years the word “terror” has come to have a technical political meaning. Every morning we read another report of some act of terror somewhere. When an airplane is smashed into an Alpine mountainside and 148 people are killed, the first thing asked is, Was it Terrorism? And after the investigation we can say No, it wasn’t Terrorism.

But of course it was. In the larger sense. That great sense of grievance, whether personal in the case of the pilot, or corporate in the case of Al Qaeda. “We have been wronged, the world has done us wrong, America has done us wrong, the West has done us wrong, we have been wronged and we will make them pay.” Suicide bombers give evidence that often it’s less about wanting to win as wanting to make us pay. It’s revenge. It’s an anger that claims to be justified, to be righteous anger, seeking justice in revenge. We regard them as terrorists. They regard themselves as aggrieved.

And here is an end to all our grievances. The tomb is empty. You came here to grieve. He is not here. You came here with preservatives, to hang on a little longer to what you lost. One more loss in a life of constant losing, one more death in a culture that kills the innocent, cutting down your best and brightest in its jealousy.

You came here in your grievances, you came looking for the one who was crucified, but he is not here any more. He’s done with that. He has left behind your grievances. He has gone on ahead of you, and you must go there too. Where? Into what strange new world? Of course it is fearful, and you have to fear it before you can receive it. You have first to fear the loss of your life in order to receive the gift of your new life. It might not be nice news but it’s good news.

Now that I’ve spoken about terrorism, let me speak about my marriage. I would say that over the six decades of my life, the greatest fact in my life, the greatest gift, has been the love of my wife Melody. The thing about her love is that I cannot control it, it’s outside of my control. As she reminds me, I cannot see inside her head, I cannot read her thoughts. She habitually disagrees with me on certain things and I can’t convince her. Her love for me is real, a real force in my life, again every day, and yet I can’t explain it. I have learned that her love for me does not depend on me. Her love of me is independent of me. I live in it but I never really possess it. I admit I’m a little afraid of it. You know: if I can’t control her love, then can I count on it? I have to believe in her. I have to faith in her. Well, she is more than deserving of my faith.

I offer this to you as a metaphor for the resurrection life of Christ. It is something so good for you and yet so independent of you and outside of your control that it’s no wonder that you fear it. It is a reality which is also such a mystery that of course you find it alarming. You cannot make it fit. It will not fit. To want it explained is to want to posses it. The Bible never tries to prove it, because it can’t be made to fit inside your current categories, it rather challenges your categories. The only way to choose this life is to receive it as a gift, and to receive it every day again.

The resurrection of Jesus is not the solution the disciples would have chosen for their problems. The resurrection of Jesus is not the answer the children of Israel would choose for their grievances. The resurrection of Jesus is not what any philosopher would have proposed to solve the greatest problems of the world. As the solution to your personal problems you would not choose the rising again of Jesus. But it’s what God offers us.

The personal problem that St. Mark addresses is the problem of your fear. It’s in fear that he ends his part of the story so that it’s in your fear that you take up your part of the story. It’s one of your besetting problems. Your fear for your future, your fear that your needs will not be met, that your place will not be kept, your losses not paid for, your interests discredited, your story discounted, your grievances disregarded. You fear that this resurrection story might not be true and that all things will just get worse and never better.

There, in your fear, is where you must start, but your fear does not predict the solution to your fear. Your fear does not determine its own resolution, and you must not let your fear control how it gets answered. Let your honest fear be judged and die with Christ in order to receive God’s answer and plant your identity upon God’s promises.

You came looking for the one who was crucified so you could grieve your losses. You won’t find him here. He’s gone ahead of you. He has gone beyond your grievances. He doesn’t make your life so far add up. He doesn’t give you that satisfaction. If anything, when you look back on your life, he shows you how much more you have to repent of then you knew of. But that repentance is not required for you to receive the gift he gives you. The only thing you need to receive the gift he offers you is that you want that love, that love that you cannot possess, that love that you cannot deserve but still receive, that love for you which does not depend on you.

So all of you are doing women’s work today. Whatever your grief and grievances you did come here for love, because even deeper than your fear in you is your desire to love. And I know you want his kind of love, you want to believe in his kind of self-giving love. That kind of love is doubted and feared and even hated but it is vindicated by the resurrection and offered for your desire and belief. And just in your believing it begins to work its power in the world. You can believe it. When I say “Christ is risen,” it is your desire that the universe be run by love that lets you answer, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia.”

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.