Saturday, April 22, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:91-31
St. John is very helpful when he tells us exactly why he wrote his gospel: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” In other words, the Apostle John wants you to have the new life that comes with the name of Jesus, and you get that new life by believing in Jesus as the Messiah—so here he is for your belief.
Believing in Jesus is what makes you a Christian. And then the combination of what things you believe about Jesus is what makes you one kind of a Christian or another. What we believe about Jesus is what we repeat every week, as part of our worship, when we recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed. Every week you say it—either “I believe” or “We believe.” It is worth noticing what we take for granted, that believing is central and even pivotal to the Christian faith.
It is less so for other religions. The ancient pagan religions were not about belief. The ancients believed in their gods and goddesses no more than you believe in the Internal Revenue Service or the Port Authority. Their gods were simply powers in the world to be both feared and satisfied.
Neither is Judaism based on belief, but on birth and observing the procedures, apart from whether you believe in God or not. All the disputes and divisions in Judaism are over the procedures, not God.
Nor is Islam based on belief, but on submission. Islam was spread in the world by military power and not by missionary appeal. If you were conquered, you submitted, whether you believed or not.
Islam is not congenial to a premium on belief, because belief implies freedom to believe or not. For Islam it is an insult to the majesty of God that God should be subject to our belief or not, that God should be judged by us in terms of credibility. The God of the Holy Koran would never offer himself to human subjectivity in the way that the Lord Jesus offers himself to Thomas. The gospel, with its premium on belief, elevates human beings relative to God to a level that Islam finds arrogant and offensive. Who do we think we are?
The premium on belief that distinguishes Christianity you can chalk up largely to the Apostle John. I did a word count on the verb “believe”. In the Gospel of Matthew, the verb “believe” occurs ten times. In the Gospel of Mark, it appears ten times. In the Gospel of Luke, nine times. In the Gospel of John, ninety-eight times, ten times as much. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is one theme among others, but in John, it’s the main theme. The author tells us as much. These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.
So the Apostle John is inviting us to believe. What’s more, he’s inviting us to believe without seeing, even though all of our human experience reinforces the cliche that seeing is believing.
In a courtroom trial, the jury wants to know what the witness saw, not what the witness believes. If the witness says what he believes the judge rules it out of order. It’s up to the jury to decide what they believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, and they base their belief not on what they saw for themselves, because they were not there, but on the testimony of the witnesses. Just so with the Christian faith. You may consider the Christian church to be one huge jury, sitting through the centuries, hearing and depending on the testimony of witnesses under cross-examination by advocates and adversaries in order to determine its belief or not. That it works this way is the legacy of the apostles to the church, and “Blessed are you who have not seen, but yet believe.”
The apostles are the witnesses. They were the original witnesses right after the fact, and ever after they remain the witnesses, by means of their testimonies written down for us. The apostles were first-hand believers because they actually saw it, and we are second-hand believers who believe what they testify they saw.
Thomas did not want to be a second-hand believer. In the week between the first and second appearances of Our Lord, the disciples told Thomas that they had seen him alive again. It was only because they had seen him that they believed, and Thomas wants nothing different for himself. What he’s asking for is nothing untoward, though I am not sure why he’s so adamant about it.
Then Thomas ends up making a great leap of faith, jumping out in front of the other disciples, and out of his mouth, not Peter’s, comes the claim which is the pointed climax of John’s Gospel, “My Lord and my God.” Nine years ago I preached about this intuitive leap by Thomas and its significance.
Today I want to stay with that response of Our Lord to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” He’s talking about us, you, the second-hand believers, who depend on the witnesses. Apparently we are blessed in a way that first-hand believers are not. To believe in what you have not seen requires more of you, it raises you to something, to a level of risk and initiative, to become a greater soul, and live at the level of hope instead of mere possession. Blessed are you who have not seen but yet believe.
Believing the witnesses is parallel to believing the promises, which also you cannot see, not yet. We Christians believe two kinds of things: witnesses and promises. We stand between the witnesses of the past and the promises of the future. From the witnesses you can believe something to be true about the past. And from the promises you can believe something to be true about the future. You believe the witnesses of his resurrection and you believe the promises of your own resurrection, and the one guarantees the other.
Our resurrected Lord is keeping our future inheritance safe with him in heaven until he comes again to rule the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the wonders of his love, into which we will be resurrected, soul and body, as he was. He holds the promise and he is the living witness. Both witness and promise are held together in him.
We have just now moved from the language of the Gospel of John to the language of the First Epistle of Peter, from the resurrected Jesus in the experience of the first-hand believers, there, in that room, to the resurrected Jesus in our experience as second-hand believers, removed from us in heaven but still present to us by his Word and Holy Spirit. Our relationship with him requires more of belief than was required of his disciples, because we do not see him, and we have to depend more on the promises, and even him we experience as a promise.
He is both the living witness and the living promise. And because he personally is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, so is your inheritance, the inheritance that you are promised. Not only is your inheritance imperishable, but St. Peter goes further to claim that the genuineness of your faith is imperishable, even when it’s tested and tried by suffering and opposition or your internal doubts and hesitations.
It’s imperishable because it’s grounded not in your own ability to believe, but in the objectivity of what happened to Jesus in history, as attested by witnesses. It’s imperishable because no matter how weak you might feel within your faith, the written testimony of the apostles does not change and the living testimony of the resurrected Jesus is undefiled and unfading.
The benefit of this, in the words of St. Peter, is the salvation of your souls. This terminology is easily misunderstood if you think of your soul as that ghost inside your physical body. The Greek word for soul can also be translated as “life,” your full life, your human life, and your fully real and human is what is being saved.
This is not a final escape, but the rescuing of your life right now, the rescuing of your life from frustration, from nothingness, from the shadow of death. It saves your actions in the world from emptiness, it rescues your witness in the world from nihilism, it saves your good deeds, your social witness, your service to the poor, your speaking up, your resisting violence, your marching in Washington, your reading books, your raising kids, your sacrifices of time and energy and money for the congregation you belong to, all that gets saved, it is not wasted, it does not get lost. That’s the promise, and of that you yourselves are witnesses.
And this is how you may feel the truth of that ecstasy of St. Peter’s epistle: “Although you have not seen him, you love him, and although you do not see him now, you believe in him, and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, April 14, 2017
Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18
When we were planning the music for this service, Aleeza told me that one possibility for Jeffrey Mandelbaum to sing was the Ebarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion. You just heard how simply beautiful it is—the interplay of violin and voice, the grief sustained in understatement. But how can this aria for Good Friday be appropriate on Easter?
Then I realized that Jeffrey could sing it for Mary Magdalene. Her weeping is central to the Easter story. Twice she gets asked it, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It was through her tears that she was the first person to see Jesus alive again.
I’m imagining the scene like from a movie by Tarkovsky (visually like Nostalgia but with the soundtrack from Sacrifice). You see an open garden in the dim light of early morning, and in the middle distance you notice a tomb. You watch different characters come into view and do different things and then leave again, and then one woman comes back, and she crumples down outside the tomb, and the camera patiently watches her. From the music you can tell that she is weeping, it’s the Erbarme dich by Bach. Woman, why are you weeping?
Woman of Syria, why are you weeping? Woman of South Sudan, why are you weeping? Mother of Trayvon, why are you weeping? Woman of Palestine, why are you weeping? Mother Eve, cast out of the garden, why are you weeping? Jesus, outside the tomb of Lazarus, why are you weeping? It’s usually a Good Friday question, but our gospel makes it an Easter question. Have any of you been weeping much of late?
I have, the last few months. Since October 8, when the Access Hollywood tape came out, and since then the sanctioning of violence all around as good and right and our prerogative, and the national enhancement of selfishness and fear. And not just here, around the world. Last Easter I was more optimistic than I am right now. I know the world is actually not that different than it was a year ago, but the future looks different than it did then, the future looks darker, drier, hotter, more aggressive, more fearful, defensive, divided, and devoid of hope.
So while Mary Magdalene was grieving the loss of her beloved teacher, she was also grieving the loss of the future she had seen in him, the future he said that he would bring. All the hopes and dreams of Israel he had personalized within himself—that he was the resurrection and he was the life and he was the light and with him the kingdom of God had come, and now that he was dead, there was nothing left over, all that was deadness too. Their whole relationship with God had died with him. God had forsaken him upon the cross, God forsook them all, and she was God-forsaken too.
You can weep with her that God is dead. You can weep with her a godless world. A world without God that has no need of God. Where the right is determined by those who take power, and order is the protection of their interests, and justice their enforcement. The world looked worse to Mary Magdalene than it had before he came. The best is resignation, or just go back to her old sins.
When she peers into the tomb, the angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Don’t they know why? Do they lack empathy, have angels no imaginations? Why don’t they tell her the good news why she does not have to weep? At least they don’t tell her not to. Maybe she has to, maybe her weeping is the proper welcome for the resurrection. Who needs a resurrection if everything is fine and dandy and you are satisfied and gratified with a lovely bourgeois life? Who needs hope? Do we need to let ourselves weep for ourselves and for the world rightly to welcome the resurrection?
Why does she obsess about the absence of his body? This certainly counters the philosophical interpretation of Easter that his rising again is only a metaphor for the spiritual uplift of the human soul that he inspired in them. But Jesus is not the Buddha, and the gospel was not written by Plato. The Bible is all about embodiment, the soul is for the body, not against it, the promises of God are all embodied promises, and if the body of Jesus is gone, then God does not remember them, God does not care. Then death and violence are more powerful than God, and so is absence, emptiness, deadness, nothingness. She wants his body to hold off the nothingness a little while.
Then she looks behind her at a man of course she wouldn’t recognize because she knows he’s dead. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” She doesn’t answer him—she assumes he already knows whom she is seeking. “Just tell me where you put him.” Then he calls her by name. And when she hears her name she recognizes him. He was seeking her! He found her in her God-forsakeness. He offers no explanation how he’s alive again. His answer to her abandonment is just to say her name.
Is that not what you want from God, less an analytical demonstration of the doctrines than to have some sense of the presence of God? For most of you the opposite of belief is not unbelief in the sense of logical dispute, but rather despair, discouragement, and existential doubt. It’s less there is no God than God is the great disappointment, the great abandonment, and since we can manage our lives without God anyway, why bother with God at all. Unless God calls you by your name. And that’s why you are here today. You can’t keep yourself away from God.
Jesus never explained how he rose. He never offered reasoning to make it more believable. What actually happened to Jesus between his death and his post-resurrection appearances to his witnesses the New Testament does not profess to know. It is simply called “raising the dead,” and raising the dead has no historical analogy in human experience, it has no verifiability. The only analogy the Bible ever offers to the raising of Jesus is the future resurrection of us all, and that will be verifiable only after the argument is settled! So what you are left with is a choice, and that not without risk!
What he did offer his witnesses was just the evidence of his living body. His real prior physical body, though somehow modified. Because the promises of God are all embodied promises. Your body is that piece of the real world that you are, and for which you are responsible. The corporeality of your body is your solidarity with the whole creation, the biosphere, the soil, the climate. The creation is groaning from all the evil that human sin has let loose in it, and for this we all should weep.
His evidence was also the allowance of her weeping, that weeping instead of stoicism is the right response to loss and death and suffering. That weeping instead of cynicism is the right response to violence and injustice. That you start with weeping before you move to action. You can fight back if you have been weeping first. Weeping acknowledges that things are not what they should be, that the world is good and that it’s not so is a grief. The alternative is to accept the world as cruel and bad, to which we must respond in fear and self-aggrandizement, and take what we want, and force ourselves on other men and force ourselves on women, and force ourselves upon the world. This is your choice, and if you take Easter as the pledge of God, than you can live by hope instead of fear and resignation. Not so much from optimism in humanity, but choosing for hope because of God.
Easter is most certainly a joyful day, a peppermint day, a hopeful day, with its promise of new life, the promise of eternal life, the victory of life over death. Yet Mary is allowed to weep today because this eternal life is hidden beneath its opposite, the eternal life of Jesus is not some ethereal, disembodied bliss, it is rather embodied and therefore hidden under trial, suffering, death, and sorrow.
But this negativity is also its latency, its ground, as with Bach’s Erbarme dich, when the violins rise and rise to heights of beauty upon the sustained plaintiveness of the human voice. Because the Christian hope is not bliss but love within suffering—that love has power to enter into suffering, and right within that suffering to generate greater love. This is the love that is stronger than death. In love he calls her name, Mary, in love she answers Rabbouni. The Easter gospel is a love story.
The witnesses to Our Lord’s resurrection have left for us their testimonies, and their testimonies are an invitation. The invitation is for you once again take the resurrection of Jesus as the pledge of God to you, the pledge that the peace of God is stronger than the violence of men; that generosity has more clout than fear; that though evil is strong, God’s love for the world is stronger than the world, so that your faithful actions are not in vain; and that though death is strong, God’s love for you is stronger than your death. In the words of Jeremiah, I am the Lord, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Take your tambourines. Go forth in the dance of the merrymakers! Christ is risen, Alleluia.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, April 01, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
It’s a wonderful story, but if you read the subsequent verses, you learn that the Judeans who did not believe in Jesus reported this miracle to the authorities, who responded by setting in motion the plot to arrest him and kill him. So the resurrection of Lazarus was the death of Jesus.
Our Lord had two best friends. One was the disciple John, the author of the story, and the other was Lazarus, so when Jesus wept, it was personal, and more than general grief for the human condition. And I wonder if he also grieved what he felt he’d had to do, his disturbing strategy of letting his dear friend die.
Yes, he had a miracle he was planning, but letting him die first in order to do it was close to an abuse of their friendship. Lazarus died believing that Jesus had abandoned him. When Our Lord got the message that Lazarus was ill–so please come quick, he must have thought to himself, “Good, maybe he’ll die, and then I can use that as an opportunity to demonstrate my final masterpiece.” To do this did he not have to stifle his natural emotions?
How much of a favor was it for Lazarus, to raise him, after having let him die? I mean the guy had crossed the finish line and now he had to come back and run his race all over again!
If he meant it as a favor to Martha and Mary, it would have been much kinder to come and heal him before he died, as the sisters were expecting. That he hadn’t done so had disturbed their relationship. When he finally shows up the first thing they let him know is that he failed them. They believe in him as Messiah but he had strained their trust in his personal love for them. He has to suffer the pain of this.
So when Mary joins him and they approach the tomb, it all comes out of him, and the author stresses the great emotional disturbance of Our Lord. So when Jesus wept, did he also grieve the loss within his natural friendships? And when Jesus wept, did he weep for himself?
He knew what his disciple Thomas knew, that doing this miracle would end up getting him killed. So Jesus felt in the death of his friend his own impending death, when he would exchange places with Lazarus, and, despite his own resurrection, lose his friendship with Lazarus forever. There could be no gain without some loss. Life for Lazarus was death for Jesus. This was his last miracle. Jesus wept.
The author is clear that the reason that Lord Jesus did this disturbing thing of using his friend was to instill belief. Eight times in the story the verb “believe” is used.
He did this so that his disciples would believe in him.
He did this so that Martha would believe he was the resurrection and the life, that she would believe that those who believe in him will live and never die, and that she would believe he was the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.
He did this so that if Martha believed, she would see the glory of God.
He did this so that the crowd would believe that his Father in heaven had sent him.
And he did this so that many Judeans who saw what he did would believe in him.
A complexity of belief in the interrelated aspects of who he was and what he did.
He did this to demonstrate in one consummate action the several things he had been teaching all along, that the Father had sent him to act as God in human flesh, that his human word was the very word of God, that in his human life was God’s life, that from his death would come eternal life, that he was the good shepherd, that his sheep would hear his voice, and that when he called them by name they would come out. All this he demonstrated when he shouted, “Lazarus, come out.”
He demonstrated the power of his word, and not even deadness could resist the command of his voice. It’s one thing to heal a body that is still alive with its own vitality, but even modern medicine, having conquered many fatal diseases, is powerless after death. Once life goes out it’s irretrievable, and Lazarus was very dead. But Jesus calls the putrefying corpse by name, and the voice of Jesus is answered by the corpse presenting itself, as if to say, “You called me, Lord!” Implicitly saying, “Here am I, hineini.” As you too will say. He has demonstrated something in the future of us all.
He demonstrated that the prophecy of Ezekiel was now come true in him, that the predicted resurrection of the nation of Israel would be at his beck and call. Those who saw what he did believed in him for this. So now they could hope that the resurrection of the nation of Israel would be soon.
It would be a narrowly national resurrection of every dead Israelite, nobody else, finally to live the promised good life in the Promised Land. Martha believed in that, and that her dear friend Jesus was just the Messiah to get the whole thing started, and soon enough her brother would rise again along with all the other Jews. Martha doesn’t cry, she’s come to terms with everything. But Jesus will disturb this too, and the national hope as well, by letting himself die, as he let Lazarus die. He had a global resurrection for all of humanity to set in motion.
He demonstrated his divinity, we would say, looking back. But that they did not yet believe. The dots were all there, but no one connected them till Thomas did it a week after Easter. It required the absolute shock of Good Friday and Easter to intuit what still unimaginable. But here it is enough to believe in his person and his promises, and he will open up himself in his own time.
When you believe in Jesus, you believe in him for more than you successfully grasp of him. He always is ahead of you. And what you ask of him he may well not answer when you call. “Lord, if you had been here, this would not have happened.”
Where were you, Lord? Why did you let us go through this?
Well, do you still believe I am the resurrection and the life?
I am not sure what that means.
I know you don’t, but do you believe in me? That you can trust me for whatever it might mean? Can you believe in those promises of God that I am delivering in my way and in my time?
You know, in wrestling with this story this week I was struck by the emotional disturbance that the Lord Jesus felt and the social disturbance in what he did, and how much belief in Christ is a disturbance, and is meant to be so. It means the disturbance of all your other beliefs, a shaking, a loosening, an unbinding from the cloths that bind you, and a letting go.
The Lord Jesus disturbs the laws of nature, he overturns the tables of biology, he interrupts the natural harmony of chemicals and the God-given cycle of life and death. He initiates a rupture in the world, a crack in the chain of being, a disturbance in the vibrations of the universe. Your belief in him disturbs your friendships and your family expectations.
Your belief in him disturbs your emotions and you find yourself weeping and you can’t tell whether it’s from grief or joy or both. Your belief in him disturbs your security, economic and political. Your belief in him is meant to disturb your loyalties, patriotic and theological and even ethical.
I’m thinking about the turmoil in our nation being generated from the White House and aggravated by the Congress. I’m thinking about the daily disruption of our domestic tranquility whether by intention or incompetence. I’m thinking about the detectable disturbance in our weather which gets met by denials of climate change and answered by frantic increases in fossil fuel extraction.
And we divert ourselves in entertainment and educated consumerism and soothe ourselves in dining and fine design. This is the American way of death. This Bible calls this “flesh,” the frantic chasing after life by any means. To set your mind on the flesh is death, but to set your mind on the Spirit is life.
This turmoil and this frantic disruption is what Our Lord disturbs when in grace and love he cries with a loud voice, “Come out.” Against the resistance of our fear and doubt, the resistance of dead matter and the hardness of rock, and into the darkness of the cave, he calls, “Come out.”
To believe him is life. You rise again. You are set free from the drag of the flesh to live in the breath of God’s Spirit, free from the turmoil to live in tranquility, free from the criticism of your family to say what you believe, free from the pressure of your friends to act on your belief, free from White House to live in open generosity, free from Congress to live creatively in peace, free from your own grief and fear to use your grief and fear for empathy and service and love.
It was for love that Jesus wept. His disturbance is the power of his love to break through the resistance of death and fear and your unbelief. I invite you to believe that God loves you and to answer when God calls you. Here I am.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.