Monday, April 12, 2010

The Second Sunday of Easter [Year C] - April 11, 2010 (John 20:19-31)

A family in our congregation with two young children told me the story of a conversation that occurred over breakfast in their house one morning. This was late October, and the children’s placemats on the kitchen table were decorated with the ABC’s of Hallowe’en: skeletons, ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, and the like. The older of the two children, a second-grader, was apparently looking over the ABC’s one by one and eventually came to the letter “Z,” which stood for “zombie.” She could pronounce the word, but she had never heard of the term. Inquisitively, she asked, “Mommy, what’s a zombie?”
“Well,” said the mother, no doubt trying to come up with a definition that would be descriptive and direct, but also not too graphic. “Well, a zombie is a person who’s come back from the dead,” she said.

And then, without missing a beat, the three-year old chimed in and said, “Like Jesus!”

It has been tough getting a handle on Jesus’ resurrection from the start. We know that the risen Jesus is not a zombie—and to even breathe the words together seems like blasphemy—but what exactly did happen after the disciples went to the tomb and found his body was no longer there? What exactly was he? Was he something to be feared? Even his closest disciples were confronted with these very questions, and they don’t all at once make peace with them and know what the risen Christ is or means. We see them struggle not only with confusion and fright, but also with the lack of belief. And in their own experiences with the risen Jesus we see an example of the world coming to grips with the fact that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has done a radically new thing and broken death’s hold on creation.

On the evening of this astounding, unprecedented event, they are not found joyously dancing around in the streets, giving uproarious thanks for Jesus’ triumph over the grave. They are, rather, to be found locked inside their old meeting place because they were afraid—afraid because of how the leading religious authorities might persecute them with this information. While they are in seclusion, Jesus comes into the room via the locked doors and stands among them. Whether the doors are opened for him or whether he is able in his resurrected state to pass through them is not clear, but what is clear is that his disciples do not immediately seem to recognize him. He passes into the room seemingly unnoticed. It is not until he speaks his peace and shows them the scars in his hands and side that they realize he is with them. As it turns out, getting a handle on the resurrection was tough, even at the start. The risen Christ was not simply a person come back from the dead. He was himself, but somehow different. He was a new creation. The resurrection had changed him, but he was still noticeable by certain identifiable features.

Notice, for example, how things change once they see his wounds. They rejoice! In John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, joy does not enter the Easter picture until the marks of his death on the cross are shown. That which reveals Jesus as their Lord—and provides the occasion for joy—is nothing other than the tangible signs of his love for them. His risen body—while certainly a bit mysterious—is not a figment of their imagination, just as God’s desire to save and deliver from sin is no figment, either. The marks where the nails have been are what link him unmistakably to them and prove, in their eyes, that God’s new creation is real.

Then, since it seems like the disciples might not have gotten it the first time, Jesus repeats himself: “Peace be with you.” He bestows upon them the Holy Spirit, which will enable them to live as a tangible body in the world, working out the rigors of forgiveness and spreading the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But, as it turns out, there is still some work to be done in dealing with this astounding piece of news. Thomas was not there that first night. He did not see what the rest of them saw, and so he is not convinced. He must place his hands in those scars they probably tell him about. Then he will be convinced and have a better handle on who this risen Jesus is. Has God really broken the cycle of death and sin by raising up the one who was crucified? For Thomas, and for the others, faith in this will come by sight. When, a week later, Thomas has the opportunity to see his risen Lord he immediately proclaims him, “My Lord and my God!” It is the most profound pronouncement of Jesus’ identity made anywhere in John’s gospel and yet he still is known primarily as “Doubting Thomas.”

In her poem, “To Know Him Risen,” contemporary poet Luci Shaw asks a series of probing questions trying to understand how she might gain a handle on the resurrection. In fact, the entire poem is made up of nothing but a barrage of questions, one after another—questions anyone might ask about this singular event—and she doesn’t include a response of any type. She asks, for example,

“Can I touch him through the cliché crust
of lilies, stained glass, sunrise services?
…Must I be Thomas, belligerent in doubt,
hesitant, tentative, convinced, humbled, loved,
and there?
Must sight sustain belief?” (in Polishing the Petoskey Stone, Regent College Publishing, 1990, p92)

Shaw’s poem of questions underscores the fact knowing Jesus risen is something different from knowing him as a man stuck in history. We don’t need to be locked in that room with the disciples that first night to sense the confusion and doubt that lingers in the air regarding this stupendous claim. In fact, it may even be more difficult for us to sustain this faith because we lack the ability to plunge our hands into his scars. We don’t need to be reminded that we were not there. Like Thomas during that first week, we must base the majority of our faith on what others saw and heard and felt.

Let it be said that we have very good reason to trust all these accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: other, independent accounts of what happened those fateful three days in Jerusalem began to spread around the Mediterranean at about the same time, all with a remarkable degree of agreement. Furthermore, the astounding growth of the fledgling church in a philosophical and religious environment that was by all accounts hostile to it attests to the presence of the risen Christ and his Holy Spirit. Yet, at the same time, we do not see him risen in the same way those earliest apostles did. In some ways, it is more difficult to “get a handle” on him.

What I’ve always appreciated so much about this post-resurrection account in John is that it shows God’s gentleness with our struggles to grasp what has happened in Jesus. It shows God’s patience—at least for now—even with our unbelief. This story does not paint a picture of a bunch of disciples standing around afterwards with all the questions answered and all the definitions figured out. It reveals a community that hears something incredible has happened, but it doesn’t whitewash the part about the doubt. It shows their initial lack of belief, their grasping at the questions.

And then there’s the issue that we always pay so much attention to what they’re doing…even in this silly sermon. What about Jesus? What is Jesus doing in this story? Is he hammering his good news down their throats? Is he chastising or shaming those who are slow to come to faith? Does he ostracize Thomas for his resistance to believe? Is he coming up with pat answers to soothe their bewilderment? No. Rather, we see a Jesus who graciously offers himself, who repeats himself when necessary, who presents his wounds of love again and again. It is worth noting that nowhere does John tell us that Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds. It is simply Jesus’ offer for him to do so that leads Thomas from doubt to faith, and from faith to worship.

Which makes me wonder: how do we, as the community of the risen Lord, deal with lack of faith? How do we treat those who stand incredulous at the risen Jesus’ Lordship? Do we tend to look down on them because they haven’t arrived at the same conclusions about Jesus and God that we have, and in the same amount of time? Are they simple objects of our evangelism efforts, or people with whom we need to build loving relationship with so that faith may eventually enter the picture? Do we practice Jesus’ trademark peace and forgiveness, and then offer them the chance to touch their hands into our woundedness?

Do we allow questions, or do we stamp out any kind of dialogue that will open up a place for the Spirit to blow and bring faith? For it is often those, like Thomas, who struggle the most with incredulity, who eventually become the ones who praise Jesus most whole-heartedly.

We may not always have the exact words to articulate our experiences with the risen Lord, a descriptive and direct definition of what happened those first hours after the empty tomb. Truth be told, I bet most of us slide all along that Thomas-like continuum throughout our lives—where we doubt, then trust, then fall down in praise-filled faith. We may not always grasp the fullness of this mystery, but I do hope we always grasp its joy. Those wounds are for us, and by the by, we have come to trust the risen Jesus as Lord…that, as the psalmist declares, “there are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous. The right hand of the Lord has done valiantly!”

He has done many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. You know about some of them. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

(image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-02)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Thursday - April 1, 2010 (John 13:1-17; 31b-35)

“What kind of mark is it going to leave?”

It’s just one of the many questions we ask when, for example, we’re confronted with the injury from an accident or perhaps the incision from a surgical procedure.

“What kind of mark is it going to leave?” we wonder in horror as we view the elaborate crayon designs a child has scribble-scrabbled across the wall or the coffee table.

“What kind of mark is it going to leave?” we ask ourselves as we consider the ramifications of a heated argument, or the falling apart of a marriage, or the untimely death of a loved one. In our more clear-thinking moments we consider the possible long-range implications of any number of events—both good and bad—as they happen to and around us. Although the acute, immediate effects of an event may not linger very long—like the pain of an operation or the turmoil of a tragedy—we know there might also be long-term consequences, like the ripples that form as a pebble is dropped in a pond.

The question reaches further applying to far more than particular events. “What kind of mark am I going to leave?” becomes a question by which we might take stock of our whole lives. “What kind of mark will I make on this planet? On the lives of those who love me? On the lives of those who come after me?” In other words, “What about me will ‘stay on’ in some way after I’m gone?”

It surely seems to be something Jesus is considering as he gathers for his final meal with his disciples on the night before his death. He does not come right out and say that such a heavy question is on his mind, but why else would he get up from the meal, tie his robe around his waist like a slave, and stoop to wash his disciples’ feet? Why else would he disrupt the flow of the austere Passover Seder and illustrate his new commandment with such a profoundly humiliating act? Jesus full well knows that his hour has come to depart from this world and go to the Father. It is almost finished. He has loved his own right up until the end. He is no doubt wondering, “What kind of impression will I make—can I make—on this small gathering?”

It is an altogether appropriate choice of occasion for Jesus to be wondering about his mark. The Passover itself was a meal of a “mark.” The crimson blood of a freshly-slaughtered lamb marked on the door lintel of Jesus’ ancient ancestors in Egypt signaled them for deliverance from slavery. And the act of eating the Passover meal was, you could say, a mark. No other event or celebration defined Jesus’ Jewish people as a community more than the Passover did. For generations it was observed as a perpetual ordinance. “Who were these people?” the world would ask. What was their mark? They were the ones who gathered for this meal, a statement of God’s mighty act of redemption.

So, in the context of this sacred legacy-molding meal, Jesus stoops down to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. He is trying to leave a new mark on them—a new commandment for them—and, in the process, leave his own mark about who he is and what God’s love is like.

It’s not simply that foot-washing is a humbling act, dirty work in an age when society’s chief mode of transportation is barefoot walking on sandy streets. Foot-washing is a slave’s job. It is fit only for someone who really doesn’t have status in the household, or in all of society, for that matter. And so when Jesus, the Teacher and Lord stoops to perform it, then how more fitting is it for the Teacher and Lord’s disciples to take part in it? How more fitting is it for his followers to humble themselves before each other and tend to the acts of service that build up community? The acts of foot-washing are those that remind us not to take ourselves too seriously, not to exalt ourselves too high in relation to our neighbor. They are the tasks of love that bind the disciples together in humility. When they are willing to be acquainted with the gritty toe-jam of their fellow brothers and sisters, the world will take heed. There is an inherent witness involved when Jesus’ followers learn to remove their robes of distinction and learn to serve the basic needs of the neighbor. It all helps to illustrate this new commandment that they love one another the way he has loved them.

This is what will stay on after Jesus is crucified. This is the mark Jesus will leave on them. “Who are these people?” the world will sometimes ask. What will be their mark? They are the ones who love each other.

The dean of one of our ELCA seminaries tells of an experience she had not too long ago as a part of a delegation of the Lutheran World Federation to rural Africa. In reaching a very remote part of Africa, Lutheran World Federation workers spent time in a village where they brought medicine, drilled wells, improved sanitation, provided caring ministry, and helped people rebuild their lives after years of drought and disease. A couple of years later, this seminary dean was a part of another Lutheran World Federation delegation that made its way through the same area en route to an even more remote region. The villagers came and lined the road with cheers and celebration. The delegation workers were confused by the response. They got out of their caravan of trucks and greeted the people, wondering what was the reason for all this joy. The villagers thanked the workers for rescuing them earlier, for bringing new life to their village by tending to their most basic, human needs.

As the villagers expressed their thanks, the LWF delegation workers explained that they were not, in fact, the workers who had done the work in their area. One of the village leaders said, “Yes, you are the workers who were here.” The delegation leader insisted that not one of the current workers had ever been in that village to do anything. At that point, the village leader took a group of the workers to the side of one of the trucks and said, pointing to the Luther seal, with the cross in the center of the heart, “Yes, it was you. You are the people of the seal. You are the ones.”

People of the seal, people of his mark. Those who pass the cup and break his bread remember that they are engaged in loving each other, that they are committed to humble service. They are the ones who have Jesus’ love placed at the center of their hearts and, like their Master, stoop to place their hands at the feet of their brothers and sisters. I first heard this story as an example of the church’s love for others, but such a love can only be borne out of a community that has practiced true charity for each other. People will see and know.

Jesus’ mark of love and service, however, will not stop at foot-washing. As his response to Peter’s protest suggests, there is more to come. For this meal of deliverance, this commandment of love—these precious final hours establishing a new covenant—are really a build-up to the hours upon the cross. That is where Jesus will really claim his destiny and glory, and he’ll do it by laying it all aside. The cross is where Jesus will secure his place as king by dying as a nobody. The cross is where he stoops to the level of death to clean the ugly feet of the entire universe, and in the end, the marks for which Jesus will be better known will be the ugly marks our sins leave on his hands.

So, then, will this foot-washing-lesson turn out to amount to anything? Will the sharing of the bread and the wine have its intended effect? In the aftermath of such a tumultuous turn of events, what will be the mark that Jesus leaves behind—on us, on the tragedy-torn villages throughout the world.?

As it turns out, he is still leaving it. In a miracle that only God can explain, the meal that was to serve as his final chance to make his mark becomes the event that will allow him to continue washing, to continue feeding his people with forgiveness and deliverance. Whenever this community gathers to pass the cup and loaf, Jesus will not merely be remembered, as if as if that had been is the end, as if he had his one chance to “strut and fret his hour upon the stage and then [be] heard no more" (Macbeth, Act V, scene v).  No, he will be present with them. Risen, he will enter their lives once again, stoop to serve, and empower them to do so in his name. Risen, he will still be with them, bearing the marks of their sin.

No need to worry, then, about how he will “stay on” after he is gone, for he will never really be leaving. Therefore it will not be entirely up to us to carry on his legacy, because he will be with us. “Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found" (Latin hymn, 9th century, ELW #359) He is present with us, loving us right up to the end. And, thanks to Good Friday, beyond.

So, on this night of deliverance, as we take our Lord’s body and blood into our very hands, let us again ask ourselves: “What kind of mark are we going to make?” As our little caravan of gospel workers threads its way through the remote corners of each individual life, let us consider his living legacy being born again in us. And as we take the feet of each other, let the cross be at the center of our hearts, for we are people of the seal. We are people of his love.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.