Friday, May 22, 2020

May 24, Easter 7, Signs and Wonders #6: The Wonder of Glory

Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

For the nineteen years I’ve been with you I’ve been firm on having us repeat the Creed every week. Usually the Apostles Creed and during the Easter Season the Nicene Creed. You could say I’ve been rigid.

Many Protestant churches don’t repeat the Creed. Or they make up their own, or borrow one, which usually is easier for modern people to believe. But the real Creed is full of things that are hard to believe. And that’s the point. If something’s not hard to believe, it’s not worth having in a Creed. A Creed is a challenge as much as a comfort. And it reminds us that truth is a gift to us, and not our own. Designer religion is one reason I’ve been rigid about the Creed. But soon that all will be up to you.

The Ascension of Jesus is in both Creeds, and that tells us that it’s one of the essentials, and that we are expected to believe it, and that it’s hard to believe. The disciples who watched it were totally surprised. The Epistles claim it but never explain it. It’s not in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and St. Luke is the only one who depicts it. At the end of his Gospel he does so briefly, and he does it more fully at the beginning of The Acts. My sister-in-law suggested to me that St. Luke wants to make sure that we know that the Lord Jesus ascended not just as a spirit but in his body, and that even in heaven he remains in his body, his resurrected body, still with skin and bones and muscles.

His Ascension does not undo his Incarnation, although in a way it is the opposite. For thirty-three years he walked with us as the infinite God contained within a human being. And now, with this, he is a human being with the infinity of God. A human being now unconstrained by time and space. Still about five foot six or so, still ten fingers and ten toes, and how can this be true? Why should I invite you to believe such a thing? Why not a purely spiritual God, philosophically more sensible, no conflict with science or physics or biology, much easier to believe?

Touch your forehead. Feel your body. Skin and bone. There’s a body like yours in heaven. Touch your head where you were baptized. There’s a baptized person on the throne of God. Your body will die someday. There is a person who died at the center of the future of all things. Is this only metaphor? How literally do you want to take it? Well, how valuable is the physical reality of the world? How important should it be to God, with our plague and pandemic and suffering? Our world of skin and bone and muscle and blood?

How far shall we push the story by St. Luke? Did Jesus float up like Mary Poppins, minus the umbrella and a hat? How high up did he go? Up to the clouds, or did a cloud come down? How far away is heaven? Does heaven come down, or is it all around us, but closed to us, unless it opens up? This is a specialty of St. Luke. He says that on the night of Jesus’ birth, an angel stood among  the shepherds and their flocks, and the glory of God shone around them. He says that at Our Lord’s baptism “the heaven opened.” He says that at the Transfiguration Jesus lit up with glory and a cloud enveloped them, in which God spoke. So did heaven come down or was it just opened, or both?

You see it already in the Exodus, at Mount Sinai, when God spoke to the people from the cloud on the mountain. And God led the people in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire right up there in front of them. It’s technically called the Glory-cloud, capital G-Glory, with the Glory that belongs to God alone. The cloud both hides God and reveals God’s presence. But isn’t God everywhere? Well, yes, but the God who can be everywhere can also focus and concentrate particularly here or there—like in Jesus. Just so, heaven is immense and high and all around us, and when God wants it to, it opens up.

When Jesus is lifted up and enters the cloud, that is the sign of his enthronement. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.” He is seated at the right hand of God the Father. But hadn’t he always been there with his Father before all worlds? Well, yes, but this is new, now he’s also a skin-and-bones human being, one of us, and seated at the right hand of God of the Father.

The Bible doesn’t explain this theoretically, because probably it can’t, as it’s such a mystery and wonder, but it’s offered to us as being very good for human beings.

It means that someone with first-hand knowledge of being human is there with God to intercede for us.

And it means that he governs all things in the world for our good, which he knows first hand about.

And it means that he  limits God’s unlimited power in order to do only the sort of things a self-sacrificial human being would do, so no more plagues, for example, as punishment, or to teach a lesson.

And it means that a human as God is always with us, as one of our Deacons passionately reminded us on Monday night. Not just the general presence of a spiritual God, but the spiritual presence of an embodied God, the son of Mary, who is always with us.

Now, what about the two men in the story, robed in white? St. Luke calls them “men,” not angels, like the two men who just forty days earlier had met the women at the empty tomb and told them Christ had risen. I take these two as humans like us, but from the other side of death, and sent back from our future as messengers, as emissaries of the Life of the World to Come, when Jesus will come again, in glory.

This glory is ahead for us to share with Christ, as St. Peter says in his Epistle, which is to encourage us during the fiery trials that we suffer today. Apart from that I have only a vague idea about what it means for us to share that glory.

You know, in nineteen years I’ve never preached about Glory, even though it’s a big deal in the Bible. It’s hard to relate to in our lives, unless we’re watching the Olympics. But in church our language is full of it. By the end of our service today you’ll have used the word “glory” twenty times. We hardly notice it when we’re saying it. It’s abstract and disconnected. We might have things in our lives that are somewhat glorious, but the actual, singular, capital-G Glory of God is not in our experience, not like for people in the Bible. So we relegate it to a distant mystery, like a wonder to believe in but a wonder that’s far off from us.

So St. John makes this move in his Gospel. He reports the Lord Jesus saying that he will be glorified when he is lifted up—on the cross! For St. John, the cross was already Our Lord’s ascension. The Lord Jesus made his crucifixion his enthronement. From his shame he made his majesty, his curse his holiness, and his humiliation his glory. In the injustice against him he justified the world, the hatred against him he turned to love, and the malice around him he filled with grace.

So I think it’s grace that is your sign of glory. Glory is the wonder, and grace is the sign—the capital-G Grace that you live by, the grace that you practice, the grace that you extend. As Jonathan Edwards said, “Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.” The wonder and the sign.

Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected. That’s how the Lord Jesus, upon his throne, is now signifying glory—by grace. That’s the only glory the church has the right to, that we are held by grace. That’s the glory of your community of Jesus, that you are so gracious to each other and to the world. In God’s eyes you are robed in grace. Look it you. Did you know that you are like those two men, that just by your graciousness you are ambassadors of the Life of the World to Come!

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

May 17, Easter 6, Signs and Wonders #5: The Sign of Love

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

St. Paul is the intellect, St. Peter is courageous, and St. John is the lover. St. Paul is the Scarecrow, St. Peter is the Cowardly Lion, and St. John is the Tin Man. Yes, I know, that’s a out of order.

St. Paul is the Scarecrow who did have a brain. He loved philosophy. He was educated in both Greek and Hebrew literature. He was trained in rhetoric and argument. So when he gets to Athens he makes his case to the intellectual elite. He appeals to their religion and he quotes their authors. But the Book of Acts reports that his speech was unproductive.

Not that he shouldn’t have done it. We should “always be ready to make our defense to anyone who demands from us an accounting,” and the intellectual coherence of the Gospel deserves demonstration in the court of public opinion. But intellectual argument doesn’t win people over.

The Gospel did not compel the urban elites. The early church grew in the ghettos and villages among wives and servants and soldiers. And not by evangelistic crusades. The sociologist Rodney Stark has shown that the church grew slowly, one by one, by treating women better than their neighbors did, by rescuing unwanted babies who were thrown out on the rocks, and, during plagues, by taking in the sick whom their neighbors abandoned. They modeled a new kind of humanity, caring and compassionate. And gradually, over 200 yeas, their numbers were finally exponential. Against the power of the Empire they demonstrated the long, slow power of love, even during persecutions.

Imperial systems of power resist the rule of love. The persecutions were mild when St. Peter wrote his First Epistle, but already they were suffering. If you love, you will suffer. You suffer from doing wrong, and you suffer from doing right. They suffered from social dislocation and cultural exclusion. Maybe like gay folks have to endure, or a black man in a white suburb. Always the potential for exclusion or for harm.

So St. Peter’s question that opens our second lesson is not rhetorical but real. Let me translate it literally: “Now who is the one who will be harming you if you are zealous for the good?” Because you will be harmed. History is full of examples of those who do good getting harmed by the prevailing powers that preserve their power by doing harm.

St. Peter tells them, “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.” Well, he should know. St. Peter is the Cowardly Lion who did have c’ourage. After Easter and Pentecost he was the fearless leader of the church. And earlier, when the police arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was Peter who said, “Lemme at-em, lemme at-em,” and Jesus had to tell him to put his sword down.

But! Only hours later, he denied his Savior three times, from being intimidated by a serving-girl and fear for his own skin. And every Good Friday thereafter he’d have to remember his cowardice. He knows whereof he writes: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimated.”

Are you afraid of the world right now? I am. Do current events intimidate you? They do me. I’ve got abiding fear right now. Not just for my health, but whether I’m not up to this, that I’m afraid to do the good I should do. For other people, like the early church did. I could say that I’m over 65, with a history of asthma, so I should protect myself.

But my conscience says, “Really?” And what about you? What is your conscience asking you? About anything good you might be doing better?

The issue of conscience is what leads St. Peter to that strange passage that careens through some obscure Jewish mythology about spirits in prison in the time of Noah. In the legend these were the offspring of angels that had intercourse with human women. What St. Peter means by this, no one knows any more. He is mixing metaphors and jamming thoughts in the fluid and pulsing rabbinic style that you can still hear in synagogues in Brooklyn. But his main point is clear, which is to put you on the ark with Noah, with the Flood as your baptism, and your baptism is for your conscience.

Your baptism is your appeal to God for a good conscience when your conscience accuses you of not doing enough good, or having compromised. It’s for the Christian wife of a Roman husband, who had to compromise her faith. For the Christian slave of a pagan master, who had to do wrong things. For the Christian soldier in the Roman army, who had to break the Ten Commandments. For the parents protecting their babies during a plague and not taking in a dying pagan. Your conscience accuses you, but you can appeal to God on the merits of your baptism. Your baptism is your certificate, your birth certificate of being born again, your passport, your ticket for passage on the ark, even when you are an unclean animal.

Which brings us to St. John. He reports that Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What the Greek actually means is this: “If you love me, you will be keeping my commandments.” Jesus says it for your comfort, he is your Advocate, your Comforter. It’s a confidence-builder, it’s a conscience-clearer. Oh St. John, you’re the Tin Man, but you certainly have a heart.

St. John is the lover, the one whom Jesus loved, Our Lord’s best friend. All four gospels speak of love, but love is largest by far in St. John. And love is largest in the Christian faith among the world’s religions. In the novel The Life of Pi, the author says that compared to the real virtues of Hinduism and Islam, what Christianity offers is the bottomless love of Jesus. On Good Friday at our St. John’s Bluegrass Passion I noticed that those old gospel hymns are love songs. “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul.”

“They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” You keep his commandments just by loving him. “And those who love me will be loved by my Father.” You love Jesus just by being loved by his Father. “And I will love them, and reveal myself to them.” You just be open to God’s revelation of love in Jesus, and trust that love, and you’ll be loving God back, and doing God’s commandments, with your conscience clear. Does that sound too passive? But the Holy Spirit of God is doing the acting within you, and is your Advocate and Comforter.

That’s the sign, the community of love, like you, the sign for the world around you watching and needing and doubting. The sign of the resurrection is your community practicing the love of God as best you can in small and gradual terms on matters right in front of you, supporting each other and bearing each other in your inevitable compromises and even denials, but of which your conscience can be clear. It is not sentimental love, not hippy-dippy love, but God’s love, God’s divine and sovereign and sacrificial love among you. Your community of love is the sign of the wonder of God’s love among you and within you.

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

May 10, Easter 5, Signs and Wonders #4, Living Stones

Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

You are a people. Once you were individuals, but now you are a people. You were always persons, and you belonged to other people, and you still do, but now you are a people. You are more than members of a church, you are more than adherents of an institution, you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people.

And you know the way. You are a people who know the way. You know the way to the truth, and you know the way to the life. You are a people who know where to go for truth and where to get your life. You know his name, who is the way. The life in him is God’s life, and the truth in him is God’s faithfulness. You know him to be the way, and not a wall around the life and truth. His way has no walls along it, and his life and his truth spread out from his way, and all across the world.

You know the way to God the Father. There are many ways to God. Jews and Muslims know the same God we do, they pray to the same God we do. I have prayed in synagogues with Jews more times than I can count, and I can sing Avinu Malkeinu with gusto, but only occasionally do they call God “Father,” as one of many metaphors. I have prayed in mosques with Muslims, and I have felt their matchless devotion to the same God I pray to, but they never, ever call God “Father.” They have 99 names for God, and “Father” is not one of them. 

But you know the way to God as Father, because you go the way there with God’s Son, God’s only son. And only because of him is God a Father. The God of Jesus is not some general father of mankind or some uber-father of the world. The Romantics had it wrong, Schiller and Beethoven had it beautifully wrong, Michelangelo had it gloriously wrong; that way leads to all kinds of dangers, not least were World War 1, and then Fascism. That way is not to the truth of God the Father. To get to the truth and the life of God as Father you have go there in the way of Jesus.

In the way of Jesus it’s about intimacy, the intimacy of a little child with a parent, and of a parent with her child. It’s about safety and security, like you’re in your mother’s arms. It’s about God feeding you with God’s own life, like a mother nursing you with “pure spiritual milk,” as St. Peter dares you to imagine. It’s about the truth of God as faithfulness, like the passionate loyalty of a mother, and God’s care for you like the unshakable protection of a father. That’s the kind of God as Father that Jesus is the way to, and he takes you with him deep inside the intimate, inner life of God.

You are a people who know the way. And you know the way God comes to you. You know that God comes to you as your shepherd in the valley of the shadow of death. You know God comes to you in the oil on your head and in the breaking of the bread. In the mark of the nails in his hands you meet your Lord and God. You know these ways, and later this month, on Pentecost, you will remember how God comes to you in the Holy Spirit, and how the Spirit stays and dwells inside you.

You are God’s house. And in God’s house are many dwelling places, many rooms. How many rooms do you have today? How many of you have logged in? In your house for God are many rooms. There were rooms in the Temple in Jerusalem. Each rebuilding of the temple made more rooms. In those rooms you sat and ate your sacrifice with God. In the glorious and final temple of the vision of Ezekiel, there were 120 rooms, where even the Gentiles could come and eat with God. That’s what Jesus means, that the communion of his people is God’s new temple for all the world.

In the days of St. Peter’s First Epistle the only buildings the Christians had were their own homes. Their only altars were the tables they ate on. They had no images, no shrines, no priesthood, and the Romans condemned them as atheists, because they could see no signs of any gods among them. The Jews at least had a temple and a priesthood, and the Romans tolerated them as long as they kept their God to their own people. But these Christians were welcoming everybody in without regard, and all withdrawing from the service of the Roman gods, which put them in danger of the Empire.

How to deal with that danger is all through First Peter, but in our lesson for today St. Peter rises to affirmation. His rhetoric is unschooled and his metaphors mashed, but with power he tells them who they are: you are a people, you are a priesthood, you are a temple, you are a dwelling place for God, a house for God built of yourselves as living stones. Stones that live. An awkward metaphor.

Unless you are a structural engineer. Take our church building for example. Do you know much is going on within the stones of our building? With its arches and pinnacles and flying buttresses? Those stones are not just sitting there—they carry great forces of tension and compression.

The stones in our flying buttresses are living stones indeed. An engineer told me that if we took the pinnacles off the corners of the roof, the whole vaulting beneath them would eventually collapse! Those stones in our building are working stones, and you might call them stones that live.

You are a people, you are the living stones, and the wonder is that God dwells in you, that’s the wonder, and you are the sign. You are a sign for the world. The other signs we’ve looked at these last few weeks are signs for you, and for your faith and hope and comfort. But for the world the sign is you (as I said two weeks ago).

No, you are not the proof! There is no proof of God for the world, but the best sign to the world of the life and truth of God is nothing other than vital communities of believers, like you, quietly building each other up, and opening yourselves in welcome and service, to exhibit to the world God’s love. You are the sign, and God's presence in you is the wonder.

You know the way. You know the way from the world to God, and you are the way from God to the world. You are God’s way and you are God’s people. God loves you.

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, April 24, 2020

April 26, Easter 3, Signs and Wonders #2, The Breaking of the Bread

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

In our second lesson, Saint Peter is writing to the scattered little congregations of Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. He calls them “exiles”, even though they’re all from-there, and live at home. What makes them exiles is their Christian faith, so they’re not at home anymore within their native culture, as its values and ideals are celebrated with the gods and goddesses.

Although, if they are slaves or wives, they still have to participate in the culture, which the Apostles take into consideration, and so they allow them to “obey their masters and husbands as to the Lord.” (It's a strategy, not a principle.)

Especially for slaves and wives it’s often impossible to get to whatever house it is where the church is breaking bread that week, so eventually the deacons develop the practice of delivering fragments of the broken bread to whomever is forced to stay at home.

Do you feel isolated in your own home? Even exiled? Are you a slave to the internet and your computer? Are you cut off from your relatives and friends? How do you feel about the way we have to do Communion? Does it feel less sacred when you break the bread in your own home? But that is so much closer to the experience of the Christians that St. Peter was writing to. They would have found strange the way we celebrate it in our sanctuary, although it feels more sacred to us and is more welcoming to outsiders.

We are cut off from that, our congregation is scattered, fragmented, and broken apart. So it’s fitting that the breaking of bread is a symbol of the body of Christ, who was broken on the cross. And yet it’s also our sign in which to recognize the presence of the resurrected Jesus, as at Emmaus.

So it’s a wonder that a symbol of his death is the sign of his resurrected presence. Why not expect to recognize him as something like the other gods and goddesses—his superpowers, or his being more handsome than Apollo, his splendid musculature, and to be celebrated in a classic temple. It must have been a challenge for those early Christians to believe in a God whose presence looked so unlike a god, but maybe it was a comfort to them in their own experience of social brokenness and fragmentation.

In our Gospel lesson, St. Luke is specific in his terminology for the breaking of the bread, that Jesus “took, blessed, broke, and gave.” That specific formula of those four verbs appears eleven times in the gospels and St. Paul. 

At the feeding of the 5000, he took the bread, blessed it, broke the bread, and gave it, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (with one small variation).

At the feeding of the 4000, in Matthew and Mark, he took, blessed, broke, and gave.

At the Last Supper, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he took, blessed, broke, and gave.

On Easter evening, at Emmaus, he took, blessed, broke, and gave.

In First Corinthians, St. Paul says that he got it directly from the Lord, that he took, blessed, broke, and gave.

Eleven times. It is not a coincidence, it’s an important pattern, and a sign determined by Our Lord himself.

I was teaching this in seminary once, thirty years ago. The next week one of the students raised her hand and asked to speak. She said, “Dr. Meeter, I just want to tell you that your lecture last week changed my life.” Nice! “Not actually what you taught!” Oh.

She said, “I know why Jesus did that with the bread. Because that’s what he does with all of us. He takes us, and blesses us, and then breaks us, and then gives us. I didn’t understand that but now I do. After he first took me when I got saved, I got very blessed, and it was great. But then things happened and I was broken, and where was my blessing? I thought something was wrong with my faith. But now I see that God broke me in order to give me, which is what he’s doing now. If he hadn’t blessed before he broke me I would have given up, but I guess he had to break me in order to give me.”

The best thing in teaching is to learn from your students, and what she said I recognized as true for my life too. I’ve been blessed and broken, and being broken I’ve been given. How about you? Does it help you to make some sense of your experience? Yeah, we’d all like to be blessed all the time, but it’s God’s way to give us after God has broken us.

And this is true about the Lord Jesus himself. He took our humanity in his incarnation, he blessed it by the way he lived, he broke it on the cross, and he gives himself to us in his Holy Spirit. And every Sunday he gives himself to our community in the breaking of the bread, in which we recognize him.

And we recognize our congregation too. In our own recent experience we can see the pattern of take, bless, break, and give. A year ago, on Palm Sunday, God took us from our exile in the Lower Hall, and God blessed us on Easter in the sanctuary, and for months afterward. And now we’ve been broken by the virus, fragmented and scattered. So I wonder, is God giving us?

God did not send the virus. It is simply nature, or nature out of whack. God did not send it, and yet our Heidelberg Catechism (for a number of reasons) advises us to take our health and sickness as from God’s hand. So we accept our breaking as from the hand of God. Which means that our challenge now is to wonder how God is using this to give us, to give us in greater mission.

So if our being broken is the sign, then our being given is the wonder, and we wonder how God will give us and to whom. Already these last five weeks you’ve been wonderful in giving yourselves. How long can you keep this up?

Yes, we are right to want to return to our sanctuary, not only for its sacred beauty but also because of our mission to our neighborhood, but our next great challenge is to leverage what we’ve gained by being broken into new ways of giving our church in mission beyond ourselves. It is not for me to be a part of this. But already you’ve shown I do not need to be!

How will you know what to do? Just work the signs. The more you work the signs the more you get from them. Look for the signs, don’t look for proof. A proof settles, a sign opens. Be open to wonder and imagination. Recognize the blessing and do not fear the breaking. Don’t fear feeling like exiles. It’s in the signs of a stranger that the Lord Jesus comes to you.

But even as a stranger he does keep coming to you, and in ways that are not apart from you; he always comes in human ways and human actions and relationships. Indeed, it has always been true, from Saint Peter’s day till now, that the very best sign of the resurrection of Jesus, the best sign to the larger world, is the quiet vitality of congregations, of communities of Jesus, whose binding principle is simply to share the love of God.

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

April 19, Easter 2, Signs and Wonders #1: The Mark of the Nails

Acts 2L14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

For the Easter season my sermon series is called “Signs and Wonders.” The sign we get today is the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands. This sign leads Thomas to exclaim, “My Lord and my God.” This is the climax of the Gospel of John, that the author has been aiming at from chapter one, verse one.

Right after the climax comes the summation: “These things are written that you may believe.” That’s aimed at you. St. John wants you to believe. But don't think that "belief" is just a given.

Some believing is required by all religions, but only Christianity makes it central. Islam is about submitting, with submitting as a good thing. And Judaism can be practiced without believing in God at all. It is Christianity alone that has creeds beginning with “I believe” and “We believe.”

Can we attribute this to the Gospel of John? The verb for believing is used ten times by St. Matthew, ten times by St. Mark, nine times by St. Luke, but ninety-eight times by St. John. Believing is big in the Gospel of John. And what the Lord Jesus actually says to Thomas is not, “Do not doubt,” but “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”

The issue with Thomas was not doubt, but that he did not want to be a second-hand believer. I mean a second-hand believer like us. First-hand believers are witnesses with their own eyes. Like the other disciples who told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” The believing of first-hand believers is not so hard. But we second-hand believers have not seen with our own eyes, and we have to depend on the witness of the first-hand believers, which is more demanding, and takes a leap, and requires our imaginations.

I could say it this way. We second-hand believers have to learn our belief from the Community of Jesus, which Thomas did not want to do. He demanded the privilege of individual truth. This demand for individual truth is thought by some to be noble and even heroic but it isn’t blessed. The blessing comes with getting your truth through the Community of Jesus.

Well, as Thomas is one of the Twelve, with the job of being an eyewitness, he’s granted his demand. Jesus offers it to him freely. But then he doesn’t take it. He does not stick his finger into Jesus’ hands or his hand in Jesus’ side. Rather he says, “My Lord and my God.”

I think Thomas surprised himself. All he’d wanted was the physical proof of a dead man come alive again. But now he leaps past that, with the climax of John’s Gospel. No one has ever called Jesus this before. They’d called him “Son of God,” and “Messiah,” and even “Lord,” but never yet, “Lord and God,” the combination that is the highest title of divinity in the Jewish vocabulary. So then, what signs of God did Thomas see?

None of the normal signs. No fire, no glory, no cloud, no burning bush, no seraphim or cherubim. This was their guy, Jesus of Nazareth, yet not the same. By the marks on his hands he had the body of the one who died, but this person can pass through walls and doors. This person has no boundaries to limit him. His will and his action are the same, his intention is his execution, his desire is what is, and whatever is, is his desire. Like the God of Moses and Isaiah, no less. Does Thomas see all that in front of him, does he see the great “I am”?

I wonder, does Thomas recognize the grace, the grace that judges him without condemning him? Does he see in the marks on his hands the union of grace and truth, the grace that accepts him, in the truth that does not excuse him? The past is not undone when the past is reconciled, the scars are healed but the scars remain, for grace and truth!

Or, was it something else, some other insight that led him to exclaim “My Lord and my God?” We can only wonder at what he saw—we can’t see it directly, we are second-hand believers, but we can wonder and imagine, and even imagine more than Thomas imagined, in the signs that Thomas saw, which is why we are blessed. It was for second-hand believers like us that Jesus appeared to these first-hand believers. It is us whom Jesus wants to believe in him.

What would you look for in someone to see the living God in her? What signs would you be compelled by? If you imagine the mark of the nails, what signs would you see in them? For myself, I’d see the signs of faithfulness, absolute faithfulness, faithfulness unto death, and a faithfulness that is stronger then death. That kind of faithfulness is a work of love, and I would also read love in the mark of the nails, great love, self-giving love, abiding love, and that kind of love and faithfulness I would imagine to be the signs of God.

Did you know that the words “love” and “believe” are descended from the same Old Germanic root? It’s the root-word that means “to esteem, to hold dear, to trust.” You esteem and hold dear and trust when you love, and you esteem and hold dear and trust when you believe.

Well, of course, belief can simply be assent, just saying, “Okay, that’s true.” But belief is also what lovers give each other and parents give their children, when they say, “I believe in you.” In that level of belief is love, and in that kind of love is belief. This is the kind of believing that St. John has in mind in his summation. Relational belief. Self-investment. Not just that you believe that Jesus is somebody special, but that you can say with Thomas, My Lord and my God!

To say it that way is both belief and love. In fact, believing in Jesus is how you love him. That’s why St. Peter can say in his first epistle, “Although you have not seen him, you love him.” Which at first is a little off-putting because you probably don’t feel like you love Jesus. But this love is not a feeling. You can’t love Jesus like you love other people, he is too far away, and as much a stranger as familiar.

How you love him is by your faithfulness to him, and what your faithfulness requires of you. By believing in him is how you love him. That’s the kind of love he wants from you, always in terms of believing, and a belief that’s always expressed by loving.

And that’s why he designed it so that you have to get your belief from the community, instead of with the privilege of individual truth. That’s why you are blessed to be a second-hand believer and why you have to get your signs and wonders from the Community of Jesus, which is the community organized for your love. It’s because your believing has the works of love in it that you are blessed.

Believing as a form of love is why we can be rejoicing even as we suffer various trials. St. Peter wrote to small congregations, at distance from Jesus, who had no social benefits from their belief. He was telling them that their best benefits were for the future of the world, and thus were being kept on hold in trust for them, and that took some believing.

So too for us, especially right now as the world is turning to what we’ve never seen or even imagined. But if our loving each other in this community of Jesus means believing in each other, well, that’s still joyful. Whenever I believe in you it generates joy back to me. And a whole small culture of this is the indescribable joy that St. Peter writes about.

Dearly beloved, I have seen this joy developing among you as you’ve believed in each other these last few weeks. This joy that you have in each other is a sign and the wonder of the love of God that is alive in you.

Copyright © 2020, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

April 12, Easter, An Opening in the World

Jeremiah 31:1-6, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10.

This Easter is a gift. And it does not belong to us! “Easter is not church property.” I have said that every year in order to welcome the visitors not from our church and our friends not from our faith. This year it’s still true, and in a new way, because this Easter is not what any church would have chosen.

No organ, no choir, no trumpet, no glory, but quiet, as quiet as the original Easter in Matthew, when the followers of Jesus were alone, or in twos or threes. They had to face a new reality they had not prepared for, and come up with answers they did not know the questions for. The quiet was broken by only an earthquake, and this pandemic has been one long, slow shaking and rattling of everything we’ve always counted on. This Easter is manifestly not church property.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. So did I. This week I went to see Green-Wood Cemetery, as much for inspiration as for exercise. I made five trips and I varied my routes through it, but I always included the Old First graveyard, in the middle of Green-Wood.

Let me remind you that our old church cemetery was moved there, and our Dutch gravestones are the oldest in Green-Wood. It’s ironic. Our sanctuary may be closed but our graveyard is open; well, our graveyard is a sanctuary too. And it is unique in its design, like no other spot in Green-Wood that I have found.

I enter the Green-Wood gate at Prospect Park West. Here there stretches a wide open field, with the gravestones all in rows. This is the public area, with everyone the same, the general population without definition.

Then I walk up across an open ridge, and it’s breezy, and one grassy area has no gravestones. Are there bodies hidden underneath? I keep walking across the field and then I enter the woods.

This is not like other woods, because there is no undergrowth—because of the graves. There are no straight rows here. Everything twists and turns with the hills and valleys, and the avenues are a labyrinth. In the woods are the family plots, and monuments, and imposing tombs, some built into the hillsides and others like small temples.

I look for names I recognize and I read the inscriptions. The names are for remembrance and the inscriptions for hope, and in between remembrance and hope is silence, their past lives hidden beneath these stones. However important these people may have been before, the only importance they have now is that they are dead.

You know, the early church built no monuments to the apostles, nor even marked their tombs. Not even Jesus’ tomb was regarded with significance. It wasn’t till the Fourth Century that the so-called Holy Sepulcher was fabricated as a place of pilgrimage. It’s also notable that, apart from the death of  Jesus, the New Testament shows no interest in the deaths of its main characters.

I think I know why. Why talk about their deaths when they were already living in the resurrection? They were already raised with Christ, and that larger truth superseded the deaths they still must die. Where they were buried, was with Christ. Where their lives were hidden, was with Christ, in God. I am sure this was believed by many of those whose graves I pass.

In the center of Green-Wood, you turn left onto a path and cross a ridge, and opening below you is a spacious, level glade within the trees. It is the lovely circle of the Cedar Dell, and its rim is a gentle slope that lowers to an entrance. This is our Old First graveyard.

The surprise is that the stones are in a large circle, not in rows. So this is not the public undefined, nor a family plot, this is a congregation, gathered around its center, a community at rest, and yet open to the world around it.

In the center is no monument, but it doesn’t feel empty, with all the gravestones focused in on it. This is our own little Stonehenge. This circle is a communion of saints, its quiet rest is the forgiveness of sins, its hope is in the resurrection of the body, its sanctuary is the Holy Catholic Church, and at the center is the unseen air of the Holy Spirit.

This place is a gift. As a place of the dead it reminds me that I have died with Christ, as a place of remembrance it reminds me that my life is hidden with Christ in God, and as a place of hope it reminds me that already I have been raised with Christ.

One of you told me that you visited this place last week and you found it “fulfilling.” What I heard in your word “fulfilling” was also: satisfying, and encouraging, and inspiring, and that you can see the Kingdom of God. It lifts you up. Me too. I find the place uplifting. It’s wonderful how this piece of ground can “set your mind on things that are above, not things that are on earth,” as St. Paul says.

What St. Paul means by “things that are above” is not celestial space nor a static heaven, but the dynamic government of Our Resurrected Lord, who sits at the right hand of God, and the coming of his Kingdom on earth as it in heaven, both present and future.

This will be the restoration of all things, for which the resurrection of Jesus is the pledge, and already that includes you, even though you still must die, because you have been raised with Christ. Already it includes this earth, and your bodies, even our dead ones, and so this graveyard is quietly prophetic, when it is fulfilling and uplifting.

And it’s instructive. It offers us a message, for how to live our lives in the present and the future, we who need this pandemic to be done. We want to close it off, and get back to life as it was. That’s only natural. But the temptation is to close our future off, to go back to the same closed systems of power and possession, like back to the same destructive economy of endless consumption for material prosperity. We want to defend our way of life and repossess it!

But the resurrection calls us to lives of openness. Not to the undefined openness of the big public field at the entrance, but to the focused openness of this glade within the woods. Just so your open future centers on Our Lord and is defined by the rim of the Kingdom of God, and yet it has no walls and you can see into the woods around you. This sanctuary has no ceiling and heaven starts just above the ground and it’s heaven all the way up. Your choices are both open and defined. You are guided by the definitions of the Kingdom of God and you keep your center on the Lord Jesus.

You know, in St. Matthew’s telling of the story it’s not so much that the tomb is empty as that the tomb is open—the tomb is open to the world. The resurrection of Jesus has made an opening in the world, this world. When you are raised with him, you go through his opening out into this world, in love and hope and empathy into all its closed-off places. And notice that it was as Jesus went into the world that the women met him.

He was the same, but not the same. He was both familiar and a stranger, both their friend and someone they would worship. And if you have died with him and been raised with him, it’s also true of you within the world, that you too are something of an alien friend and familiar stranger. You’re even sometimes a stranger to yourself, and an alien to your instincts and your comfort.

When this unsettles you, take relief in knowing that your life is hidden even from yourself, with Christ, in God. You do not fully belong to yourself, for Christ has made an opening in you and in the closed-off parts of you. This will unnerve you, but (I’m hardly the first one to say it) that that’s how the light gets out of you.

Our church has been forced to open up. We always wanted people to come into our sanctuary, and now we’re going out into your homes. And just as the two Mary’s had to leave the tomb and go back home to meet Jesus on the way, so now we will expect him to keep his promise to meet you at your home in the breaking of the bread. And as the Resurrection has opened up the world, even a simple human action like breaking bread is open to the creative power of the Holy Spirit, and that extends to all the other daily actions that you do.

This sacrament in your apartment will be both strange and familiar, like Jesus, and it might feel awkward, though less so for those of you who live alone, but in your broken bread there is a miracle that is hidden with Christ in God. On this Sunday this sacrament is not church property, and we receive it as a strange and lovely gift.

The supper is for remembrance and for hope. By it we remember him, and in it we hope for the feast of love of which we shall partake when his kingdom has fully come. In between, in the meantime, we are not hidden from each other but alive to each other, one body, a temple, living stones, and we open ourselves to each other in this feast of love.

Copyright © 2020, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, March 27, 2020

March 29, Lent 5; When Jesus Wept

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

“Unbind him, let him go.” Mic drop. That’s it. No “Hello, Lazarus, dearest friend, and welcome back!” No joy, no laughter, no embracing. Does Jesus just turn away? “Look, I did it, what else do you want? You think I did this for me? Don’t you know how soon I’ll be losing him again?”

This story is the last of our Lenten dramas by St. John. It’s in three acts. You didn’t hear the third act because it was left off by the lectionary. The third act is the denouement, the aftereffect. It takes place in a council chamber in Jerusalem, where the Judean leaders decide they must get Jesus killed. The third act is crucial to the larger story, but we we’ll not get into that today.

Act One takes place outside of Judea, where Jesus is keeping safe with his disciples, across the border of the Jordan River. Act One sets up the issues that the second act develops. I won’t say more about Act One.

Act Two takes place four days later, back in Judea, near Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. It has three scenes: the Martha scene, the Mary scene, and the Lazarus scene. With each scene St. John gathers more characters on stage.

First, Martha meets Jesus, on the road outside of town, with his disciples in the background.

Second, Mary meets Jesus, at the same spot, plus the crowd of mourners right behind her, and the disciples.

Third, the whole lot go the tomb, and the last to make his entrance is the dead man, at the command of Jesus. Then, “Unbind him,” and the dead man comes alive. Lazarus, born again.

The three scenes are in tension. Martha, Mary, Lazarus. Belief, grief, relief. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Positive, negative, resolution. Discussion, emotion, release. The unbinding is less a triumph than a letting go. It’s not for jubilation but for vindication, for demonstration. Yes, it’s a miracle, it’s a wonder, but it’s only a sign, because Lazarus will die again someday. It’s a sign to demonstrate what Jesus says to Martha, and to vindicate what Martha says to Jesus.

The conversation of Martha and Jesus is the thesis. It goes: Martha, Jesus, Martha, Jesus, Martha. So, Martha: “If you’d been here.” Jesus: “He’ll rise again.” Martha: “I know he’ll rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 

Mind you, she did not mean the Christian vision of resurrection but the resurrection that the Judeans believed in. It’s not in the Torah. It got started with Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones. That prophecy was intended as metaphorical, for the revival of the Judean nation after the catastrophe of Babylon. But in the six centuries following it came to be taken more literally—that at the end of time, God would raise up every Jew who had ever lived, to live a second time around, this time with the blessed kind of life that God had always promised them. And it was for Jews.

Jesus answers her and changes it. He makes it universal, and for the present, not the end of time, and he makes it a claim about himself. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believe in me, though they die, they’ll live, and will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha confirms what he says in her own way: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

Well, Martha, there’s a faith-claim, the strongest one so far in John’s Gospel. Only Thomas will make one stronger, and only after Jesus’ resurrection. And to vindicate what she says and to demonstrate what he says is why Jesus uses the sign of Lazarus. The strong claims of the two of them are the thesis.

And just as strong is the antithesis, the Mary scene. From the positive to the negative, from the belief to the grief. I think that when Jesus weeps it is the strongest moment in the whole story, even stronger than the miracle. I assume that’s by design, by St. John’s dramatic and theological design.

When Jesus wept, a falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound.
When Jesus groaned a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.

This past week was the week of weeping. The previous week we were frantically adjusting—making plans, changing plans, taking stock, stocking up, getting ready. But last week you started crying. When you had to let employees go. When you got laid off. When you felt your isolation, when you felt how much you would be losing. Now, stuck at home, your feelings hit you and you wept. We have not yet wept for a death in our congregation, but we all have lots for us to grieve about.

And in our grief is anger too, which is often true of grief. An anger we can’t pin down. Notice that Our Lord was angry too. Twice it says that Jesus was “disturbed” and “greatly troubled.” Disturbed is putting it mildly. The Greek word has heat in it—groaning and growling. What is Jesus angry at? The whole situation. The power of death in the world. The resistance of unbelief. The mendacity of the leadership. How this situation is putting his own life at risk. He growls in his grief.

You hear people say that the weeping of Jesus shows how fully human he was. Okay, if that corrects our tendency to underplay his humanity when defending his divinity. But honestly, I think that gets it exactly wrong. I think it’s showing something about his divinity. St. John is telling us that God weeps. Indeed, it’s partly so that God could weep that God became incarnate. In Jesus God is one with us in all our grief and suffering. It was the grief of God when Jesus wept.

God grieves our mortal weaknesses and illnesses, even when they’re natural and morally neutral. This virus is just a weird form of life that is trying to maintain itself, as every life-form does. And as usual, God does not intervene. As Jesus let his best friend die. God does not intervene and yet God loves us and suffers with us, and God grieves our natural suffering, when Jesus wept.

But the anger in God’s grief is over the more grievous suffering that results from unbelief and sin. God grieves our violence and dehumanization, our pollution and desertification, our wanton destruction and our destruction of God’s image in us. This too God grieves, when Jesus wept.

And Jesus weeps for himself and his own death. He knows the price that he must pay, that the sign of Lazarus will be the death of him. He growls and groans for what he will lose, like his friendship with Lazarus. That’s why the mic drop, and why at the climax he turns away. To gain his friend he’ll lose it all, when he gets killed. His miracle of life does not cancel death, nor soften it. Where Jesus shines his light is in the valley of the shadow of death. The sign of Lazarus does not ameliorate our suffering nor soften death, rather it stands up in the midst of death and dramatically against it, and the mic drop is the angry NO of God to the proud pretensions of death in the world. For now.

But the mic drop is not the very last thing in Act Two. The last thing is that “many of the Judeans who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him.” That’s why he did all this—and he said so, that the crowd could believe that his Father in heaven had sent him, and that if Martha believed, she would see the glory of God. He did this demonstration and vindication that you too might believe, even you who are looking at your computer screens, even in this strange Lent enforced on us.

Who of us knew what we’d be giving up this Lent? That I’d be giving up my last Easter service in the sanctuary? That we’d be giving up Holy Communion, and the pipe organ? That you’d be giving up your social life, and employment, and income and security? Some of you have had to give up far more than I have, during this unexpectedly grievous Lent.

I have no good news to tell you about this pandemic. My good news is for your belief. My news is that your grief and anger are not the denial of your belief, but your proof of it. That your losses and your fear of greater loss are not the negation of your belief, but your reason for it. That this Lent enforced on you is not the repudiation of your Easter faith but your preparation for it. And that you can believe this kind of news is why you are watching your computer screens right now.

When Jesus wept, the crowd said, See how much he loved him. That is why God grieves and why God groans. Not because God is powerless, but because God is love, and God so loves the world. You are watching right now because you believe this and you want reminding of your belief, that in this trial of the world your belief in the love of God is what sustains you in your hope for the world.

Copyright © 2020, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.