Word and Deed | 6th of Easter

John 14:23-29

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me. 25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. 27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe. (CEB)

Word and Deed

The lyricist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem about words, and the first stanza says:

Ever the words of the gods resound;

But the porches of man’s ear

Seldom in this low life’s round

Are unsealed, that he may hear.[i]

Ultimately, this passage in John is about words. It is the story of the logos the Greek word, meaning, word or principle. The word of God has come to the human race in many ways. Sometimes people had epiphany-like experiences where God appeared to them, such as Moses with the burning bush, Jacob at Peniel when he contended with the Lord, or Abraham with the three visitors. Other times, the word of God came to individuals in a dream, or a vision to prophets who spoke that word to the people.

But the word that Jesus brought is much more direct. Jesus himself is the Word enfleshed. The words Jesus speaks to us are not his own words; they are the word of his Father who sent him.

At this point in the narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus is not revealing his word to the Apostles. He’s already done that. Jesus has come to the end of his journey, and here, encourages the Apostles to keep the word already spoken, already revealed in his earthly sojourn. In the same way, Jesus is encouraging all of us to keep his word.

Jesus’ word is a message of love and peace, a message of seeking the kingdom of God rather than chasing the vanities of the kingdoms of this earth, which are no more than a chasing after wind. The Holy Spirit is our teacher and helper along the journey of this life. The Holy Spirit is God ever-present among us.

An interesting fact of Hellenistic culture is the close association of the logos with the ergon the Word with the Deed. This feels less true today. In our own culture it’s common for people to say whatever they want and never act on anything they said. The Greeks understood better than we do that words and deeds go hand in hand. When words of instruction are spoken by a teacher, or the words of command are spoken by a parent or leader, or words of advice are spoken by a friend and counselor, those words can be heeded or unheeded, obeyed or disobeyed, acted upon or not. Deeds, whether done or left undone, are linked with words.

Jesus tells us that all who love him will keep his word. More than that, Jesus tells us that the Father will love those who keep Jesus’ word, and God will come to them and make his home with them. If we love Jesus Christ and keep his word, God will love us and actually make his home among us. The book of Revelation says, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3 CEB).

Jesus also leaves us his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV). What kind of peace does Jesus leave us, and what does he mean that he doesn’t give as the world gives? One of the bands I like is the heavy-metal band Metalica. On their black album, they have a song entitled Don’t Tread on Me, where one of the lyrics says, “To secure peace is to prepare for war.” This kind of peace is not the kind of peace Jesus is giving to us.

The peace of Jesus is not the kind of peace brought about by either of the World Wars, either of the conflicts in Southeast Asia, or either of the Iraq Wars, or the war in Afghanistan. In the history of warfare, war has only led to more war. There’s peace for a little while, and everything blows up again. War can’t bring Jesus’ kind of peace, because war never actually settles the issues that caused the conflict in the first place. War can’t bring Jesus’ peace because Jesus’ peace is the peace that God himself bestows upon God’s people.

John Wesley commented on John 14:27 in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament by saying that when Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you,” he is referring to: “Peace in general; peace with God and with your own consciences.” And when Jesus says: “My peace” I give to you, he means: “in particular; that peace which [Jesus] enjoys, and which [Jesus] creates.” When Jesus says: “I give,” he means that he gives: “At this instant.” And when Jesus says that he gives us this peace: “Not as the world giveth,” he means he does not give in a way that is: “Unsatisfying, unsettled, [or] transient; but filling the soul with constant, even tranquility.”

Wesley continues with a prayer:

“Lord, evermore give us this peace! How serenely may we pass through the most turbulent scenes of life, when all is quiet and harmonious within! Thou hast made peace through the blood of thy cross. May we give all diligence to preserve the inestimable gift inviolate, till it issue in everlasting peace!”

This is the peace that will endure for all eternity in the Kingdom of God. Yet, somehow, we can have that kind of peace among us even now as the People of God. This peace is a gift of Jesus Christ for us: now. This peace comes from keeping Jesus’ word.

What are the sources of disquiet, conflict, and anxiety in our own life?

Where do we need to find peace?

Do our finances cause you anxiety? What about our relationships with others? Does our spiritual life—or lack thereof—cause our soul to be disquieted within you? Of course, there are other areas in which we might need a good dose of peace, but money, relationships, and spirituality are three big ones, which is why I mention them.

What does the word of God say about the things that cause turmoil, stress, anxiety, conflict, and disquiet in our lives? Are we willing to listen to the word Jesus offers us and follow his teaching? Because, what the word of Jesus says and what the word of the world says are often quite different. But only the word of Jesus brings peace.

To which word will we listen? Upon which word will we act; that of the world, or that of the Lord who made heaven and earth; who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves? The peace of Jesus Christ comes from living out the word of Jesus in daily life.

Finally, Jesus reminds the Apostles that they have heard him say, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” (John 14:28 NRSV). Jesus then says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” The sentence construction of the Greek text assumes that the first part of the sentence, “If you loved me” is true; that it is fulfilled, and we really do love Jesus.

We do love Jesus, don’t we? (Just checking).

The second part of the sentence defines the result of that statement: “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” So, what Jesus said here is, because the Apostles loved Jesus they rejoiced that he was going to be with the Father. Because we love Jesus, we rejoice that he is with the Father. Jesus is once again glorified in the presence of the Father with the glory that he had before the world was begun. This is the same glory in which we can participate to a degree, now, and then fully when God comes to make God’s home among us when heaven and earth are made new.

Jesus offers us a starting place as followers. We who follow Jesus can live love by keeping his words, which ultimately come from God the Father who sent the incarnate Word to us in the first place. We are invited to make our faith incarnational by practicing it. By living it. And there’s a reason whey we call it the practice of faith. We don’t always get it right. It takes practice, and that includes learning from our mistakes, and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we do make mistakes.

Our actions—the practice of our faith—leads to the indwelling of God’s presence. The way we know and love God is by living the word of Jesus.

This coming Thursday the church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus. We celebrate that Jesus went away from the disciples, which was a source of grief to them. But we also know and celebrate that Jesus promised he’d come to them—and to us. In the absence of Jesus’ physical presence, our daily practice makes the living presence and love of God real and known among our faith community and among the world around us.

Until that day when Jesus comes in final victory, let us keep our deeds together with our words, so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled in us. For we have an advocate, the Holy Spirit—who is with us in our every day—to teach us and remind us of Jesus’ word, which is the word of the one who sent him. May our ears be open to the word and teaching of Jesus. May our hearts be open to the example of a life lived with love which we have in him. And may our deeds reflect the love and peace that Christ our Lord gives.

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

~Pastopher

[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Words of the Gods, in 1000 Quotable Poems: An Anthology of Modern Verse, Thomas Curtis Clark and Esther A. Gillespie, ed., (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1937), 310.

Home | 5th of Easter

Revelation 21:1-6

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. (CEB)

Home

This text is most often heard at funeral services, and we’ve had a few of those this week. While it is an appropriate text to hear and ponder as we experience grief a person’s death, there’s an aspect of Revelation that we don’t often consider. John’s vision does not merely point to the pie in the sky after we die, but also to God’s presence with us in the here and now.

We may forget, at times, that God is still at work. It isn’t the case that God redeemed the world with Jesus and went to the beach for a break until God decides to send Jesus back. We aren’t waiting for God to finish the glass of holy lemonade before God gets busy with us again. God has been working to redeem and save from the moment creation fell into sin. In fact, God has, is, and will continue to work for the restoration of the whole creation. Apocalyptic literature envisions newness through restoration and transformation, not annihilation or obliteration.

Earth has and continues to be the primary focus of God’s concern, activity, and care. God desires and is working for the healing of all creation. Paul wrote about that, too, how creation itself will be set free from the decay that we human beings subjected it to when we fell into sin. In fact, creation longs for that day. (C.f. Romans 8:18-22).

One thing the visions of Revelation definitely do not support is escapism. The idea of a rapture where all the good and faithful Christians get an emergency evacuation from earth to heaven before things get bad down here simply cannot be supported by the text or by the theology of this book. God created everything for the good of the human race, whom God created in God’s image. Why, then, would God want to get any of us out when this is the place God intends to be? God does not intend to abandon the earth. Rather, God intends to restore the earth and all of creation.

“I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:2-3 CEB).

Surely we realize that God has done this pattern before. God’s Son, Jesus, was sent to earth to be with us. God the Word came to Earth and, as John 1:14 put it, “the Word became flesh and made his home among us” (CEB). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and was poured out and passed around on all kinds of people. God has an already established pattern of coming to us. What John sees in his vision in Revelation 21, is not human beings going up to heaven to be with God. Rather, John sees a restored creation, a new city made by God, coming down out of heaven to be here with us and for us. This is a city where people live together. It’s a perfected embodiment of what human society and culture could be—indeed, what it’s supposed to be.

God has prepared a place for us, a home not made with human hands (Acts 7:48). God is making all things new. The old passes away, but God raises heaven and earth to new life: a new life where death no longer has a say because the sea is no more.

The sea is an important image in Revelation because it symbolizes chaos and disorder. This is no ordinary ocean. This is the sea of primordial chaos in Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea” (CEB). God’s act of creation brought order to the chaotic primordial sea. This sea is where Leviathan dwells. It’s where the dragon emerges in Revelation. This is what Isaiah saw in his own vision which says, “On that day, the LORD will take a great sword, harsh and mighty, and will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the writhing serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1 CEB).

Psalm 74:13-14 also speak of how God will split the sea and crush Leviathan’s heads. These symbols of chaos continually threaten God’s creation. So, when there’s no more sea, there’s no longer a threat.

It’s curious how the beginning of creation prefigures the end. Yet, also how Revelation speaks not of an end so much as a beginning. In much the same way, Paul used the first human beings as a prefiguration of Christ when he wrote, “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 CEB).

So, New Jerusalem is the place—the city—where the God we love and worship stands beside us and lives with us. This is the place God will call home, because it’s with us. God’s home is with us. It almost requires a re-orientation of our imagination, doesn’t it? People always talk about going to heaven, but the vision of Revelation is that God will bring heaven and earth together so there is no longer a barrier between the two. In fact, the two shall become one, like a bride and groom.

Admittedly, Revelation employs some troubling assumptions about women. If we’re going to read the Bible and take it seriously, then we need to be honest about what it says, suggests, and how it portrays things. Revelation only sees women in terms of their sexuality. Cities like Babylon are personified as women who experience sexual exploitation and violence: a prostitute who is burned and devoured by her clients (c.f. chapters 17-18). New Jerusalem is personified as the virginal bride of the Lamb (21:2, 9). The woman clothed with the sun is pregnant and gives birth (c.f. 12:1-17). A woman of Thyatira, whom John identifies as “…that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet…” whose teachings conflicted with John’s, is portrayed as a prostitute who will be thrown onto a sickbed and have her children struck dead (2:20-23).

We have to admit that there are problems with this kind of imagery. At the same time, we can’t ignore it. Lynn R. Huber argues that, I few do ignore it, then we lose the power this imagery conveys (c.f. Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258).

The bride, who is beautifully dressed, suggests her preparation for a transition to a new identity, which is revealed in faithfulness to Jesus Christ that rejects all forms of idolatry and exploitation of others. The bride’s modestly contrasts with Babylon’s opulence. Babylon (which is Imperial Rome) gained its luxury through conquest, exploitation, slavery, and violence. The bride (which is New Jerusalem) provides goodness, safety, and security for all people who call it home.

The imagery also reminds us that weddings are not endings. Weddings are new beginnings. A wedding creates a new family and a new home. This particular wedding creates these things, too, in a restored creation where chaos and sin and death no longer exist.

The bridal imagery should also remind us that our faith in Jesus Christ must be embodied. We have to live it. Our faith should become who we are. Wedding celebrations are full of revelry, food, drink, dancing, and pleasure. I don’t know why we have these stupidly ridiculous images of heaven where people are floating on clouds and strumming on little harps when the image Revelation gives us is a city with streets to walk, life-giving water to drink, and food to enjoy.

If you read farther in chapter 21, you find that the streets are paved with gold and the foundations are set with gemstones. And, there are two ways to look at that. One way is to say that this new city is so opulent that it’s decorated with riches that are almost beyond comprehension. The other way is to say that the things we value on earth are so worthless in the New Jerusalem that they use them as building materials to pave the streets and hold up the walls. Who needs gold and jewels when we have the Living God with us?

In this city, our new home, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death, and mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more because the former things, themselves, have passed away. In essence, death has died. We’re told in verses 7 and 8, which the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out, that those who conquer will inherit these things while sinners get tossed into the lake of fire and experience a second death.

Yet, there are also suggestions that God’s promise is incredibly inclusive. The nations walk in the illumination of God’s glory, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (21:23-24). The gates of the city remain open (21:25) so the nations can bring their glory and honor into the city (21:26). The tree of life bears fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (22:2).

As one scholar put it, “Dare we imagine that the saints’ victory accomplishes salvation for all peoples?” (G. Carey, in Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258). Dare we imagine that powerless believers can conquer the powers of this world through faithful witness? It’s a potent idea. Revelation strongly suggests that our faithfulness to God has consequences now as well as in the future, and that it has consequences for the nations. Can we imagine that? Can we imagine that our faithfulness—here and now—matters?

What have we to fear of faithful witness, whether it’s to people or powers? In the imagination of Revelation, death is hardly the worst thing that can happen to those who follow Jesus. God has already declared: “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6a CEB). God has already accomplished the victory for us even if we can’t see it yet. John’s vision reminds us to repent and to remain faithful.

To me, home—our true home where heaven and earth are reconciled and made new—it sounds pretty good.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Witnesses | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB).

Witnesses

Let’s be honest, resurrection is not an easy sell in our modern world. I’d imagine that a lot of us have a difficult time believing in such a thing. And, if we do believe the resurrection happened, many of us hold the assumption that the resurrection doesn’t really affect us right now, there’s no immediate resurrection-impact on our lives, because it’s something that won’t really come into play for us until after we die.

That’s kind of how Karl Marx viewed religion. The reason Marx called religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opium of the people” is because he thought religion promised oppressed and poor people a heaven that is denied them on earth. Thus, songs like The Preacher and the Slave became popular. Its refrain says: “You will eat [You will eat] bye and bye [bye and bye] in that glorious land above the sky. [Way up high]. Work and pray, [Work and pray], live on hay, [live on hay], you’ll get pie in the sky when you die. [That’s a lie!].”

What Marx and, I suspect, many Christians failed—and still fail—to recognize is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t about the future only. The resurrection is about now. The resurrection leads individuals and communities in the conversion of their hearts and minds now.

Part of our misunderstanding of the resurrection comes from the fact that we misunderstand the Gospels, themselves. We read the Gospels from beginning to end and assume that the resurrection is the miraculous happy ending to the story of Jesus. And, hopefully, we’ll get a miraculous happy ending, too when we die. I mean, we love happy endings, right? Even if we read a book or watch a movie where the ending isn’t happy, I at least feel some satisfaction if the bad guys face justice. I don’t like it when they get away with stuff. We want the happy ending that Jesus got.

What we forget—perhaps what we’ve never even noticed—is that the only reason the Gospels were written, the only reason we have the accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, and teaching at all—is because of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the precondition for the witness of the Gospel accounts. The resurrection is the basis for every account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Without the resurrection, we would not have the four Gospels, nor a New Testament, nor a Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to everything. That’s why Easter is the holiest day for Christian people. We all love Christmas, but Christmas only ranks #3 on the list of holiest days on the Christian calendar. Pentecost comes in at #2. Without Easter, without the resurrection, we wouldn’t have the other celebrations.

When Peter visited the house of Cornelius—a Gentile centurion—and preached this message to his household, the foundation of Peter’s witness to Cornelius was the resurrection. None of Jesus’ earlier activities could be understood without the resurrection. That fact is clear in the Gospel accounts. The disciples, themselves, understood nothing of Jesus’ teaching and ministry until after Jesus was raised from the dead.

Only in light of the resurrection did God’s revelation through Jesus Christ make sense. Only in light of the resurrection could Jesus Christ be claimed and affirmed as both divine and human. Only in light of the resurrection could the saving grace offered to us through the life, teaching, and death of Jesus be believed as God’s initiative to save us and be reconciled to us.

Without resurrection, we have nothing. That’s why Paul wrote, “So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection of the dead’? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless… …If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 16-18 CEB). The resurrection is central to everything we believe and everything for which we hope.

The resurrection is also central to a Christian understanding of peace, freedom, and impartiality. And I said, a Christian understanding because we can use those same words in a secular sense and have radically different meanings from the Christian sense.

Peter’s first line to Cornelius’s household is that he really is learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Think about how incredible that statement is coming from a Jew who had lived his entire life in the unquestioned certainty of God’s particularity. God chose the Jewish people, not the gentiles (which is everyone else). Yet, Peter comes to recognize, by God’s initiative, that God does not show partiality or favor. Rather, God offers restoration and inclusion in God’s plan of salvation to all people.

There are whispers of God’s universal love and care for all people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, the promise God made to Abraham included the words: “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you” (Genesis 12:3c CEB). God’s exclusive claim of Abraham’s descendants ended on a note of God’s radical inclusion of all the families of the earth.

The prophet Jonah was sent to a foreign city, Ninevah, so the people there could change their hearts and minds and find salvation in God. When Jonah got angry that God didn’t kill them all, God had to remind Jonah that God cared about those people and even their cattle, too.

We find that same theme in the New Testament, too. When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the angel said, “Look! I bring goods news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people” (Luke 2:10 CEB).

God took the initiative in changing and expanding Peter’s understanding of who is included in God’s plan of salvation. Peter experienced a conversion. His unquestioned assumptions about the particularity of Israel grew into a new insight of God’s expansive impartiality and inclusion of all peoples.

Another piece that we we desperately need to understand—just as Peter had to learn—is that salvation is not our plan. Salvation is not something we do. Salvation is neither ours to offer nor ours to withhold from others. Salvation belongs to God and is offered by God to all. God doesn’t show partiality to one group over another, which tells us that the church can and should become a community of radical reconciliation and peacemaking between women and men, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, between differing cultures and faiths and skin tones and languages.

It sounds nice, right? God loves everyone, and so should we. Yet, Peter’s new insight into God’s cosmopolitan impartiality should not make us feel particularly good about ourselves. We can’t pat ourselves on the back and feel good about the fact that we serve a God who knows and loves everyone. That’s not where this should lead.

Rather, Peter’s insight ought to chasten us because, while we’re called to love everyone, we don’t. Do we? I don’t.

God is the God of impartiality, so we’re supposed to be a people of impartiality, but we aren’t. Are we? I’m not.

God wants us to be in relationship with all kinds of people but we don’t often bother to build relationships with those who are different from us. We don’t have to look much further than the political rhetoric of the day to see how partial our thoughts can be. Much of the time, I act like God is partial, and I assume that God favors my way of doing things. Don’t we all do that?

Yet, the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands conversion. There’s some irony in the fact that Peter became the foundation for the Church’s own conversion in its earliest days. Peter’s name means rock. The image of a rock doesn’t lend itself much to change, yet Peter had his mind changed by God. When the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem questioned Peter about what he’d done, He convinced them that God had accepted even the Gentiles, and the whole church experienced a conversion. If God could change Peter’s mind, then God can change our minds, too.

Peter was a witness to the resurrected Jesus. Peter, along with other witnesses, ate and drank with Jesus after he was raised from the dead. And, it wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection that Peter and the other disciples began to understand the radical social implications of resurrection life.

What we proclaim on Easter is that Christ has been raised from the dead, and Jesus Christ really has taken away the sins of the world. Christ alone is appointed by God as the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Christ is Lord of all.

Christ has been raised from death. And, we are called to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection by living resurrection before the eyes of the world now, by living out God’s radical impartiality now. One of my seminary professors at Duke was fond of saying, “Show me your resurrection.” So, what does your resurrection look like? Like Peter, in what ways do we still need to experience conversion?

We don’t have to wait until we die before living a Resurrection life. We can live Resurrection now. We can live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and in the grace offered to us because of Christ’s work on our behalf now. Resurrection is where our faith begins and ends. The only reason any of us are here today is because Christ has been raised. Resurrection is the message of Easter. And Peter reminds us that everyone is invited to dine at the table of the Lord. Everyone is invited to live as members of God’s family. All of us, together, are the reason Christ came into the world and was raised from the dead.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Acceptable | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB)

Acceptable

It isn’t always easy to learn something new, especially if the new thing goes against what you’ve always known. I remember when I was first started playing guitar, my Grandpa taught me to play the G chord a certain way. And I got comfortable playing G that way. Sometime later, someone told me to try it with different fingers. They said it would be easier to transition to several other chords, and I could make the changes faster.

I didn’t like it. It was difficult, uncomfortable for my hand, and it made my pinky hurt. It wasn’t how my Grandpa taught me to play a G chord. The new way was messing with what I had always known. But, as I kept practicing, I realize the person was right. If I played G the other way, switches to other chords were faster because my hand barely had to move. Now, I can play a G chord in a lot of different ways.

Learning something new is even more difficult when it goes against something that’s deeply ingrained within us. Especially if the old thing is something we KNOW is right and the new thing is something we KNOW is wrong. We’re liable to put a lot of energy into fighting the new thing rather than giving it honest consideration. That’s what happened to the Jerusalem Council, the full assembly of Israel’s elders, when the apostles came along doing weird new things: preaching, teaching, and healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, suggested that the Council let the apostles go after they were arrested. If their new thing was of human origin, it would fail just like all the other failed movements. But, if this new thing originated with God, then no one would be able to stop it. Instead, the elders of Israel might find themselves fighting God. The Council let the apostles live but had them beaten and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. Most of them couldn’t accept the new thing God was doing.

Learning something new is what happened to Paul. You might remember that he was called Saul before he took the name Paul, and he used to hunt Christians down to arrest them. Acts 8:3 puts it this way: Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison” (CEB). Later, as he was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians and drag them as prisoners to Jerusalem, a vision of Jesus showed him that the new way was a God thing, and Saul needed to get on board with it. Within a few days, the man who had been breathing murderous threats against Christians was preaching the good news all over Damascus.

Peter had a lesson to learn, too. Now, note that this is the Christian-Peter; the leader-of-the-church-Peter; the Peter who was the reason people would set their sick friends and family members out in the streets in the hope that when Peter walked by, his shadow would touch them-Peter. This Peter still had a hard lesson to learn about the new thing God was doing.

You see, Peter was a faithful Jewish man, and he knew, to the core of his understanding of God’s ways, that salvation was for Jews. His Jewish faith also told him that Jews were not supposed to associate with Gentiles. He knew that as truth. Faithful living required that he have no association with Gentiles. But then, he had this weird vision. He was up on the roof of a house in Joppa when he saw heaven opened and a large linen sheet being lowered by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told him to get up, kill, and eat. But Peter said, “Absolutely not, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Then, the voice told him, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This scenario happened three times, and left Peter bewildered. Then, three Gentile men who had been sent by the Centurion, Cornelius, showed up at the gate looking for him, and God told Peter to go.

You know what the first thing Peter said to the crowd of Gentiles gathered inside Cornelius’s house was? “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28 CEB).

Now, at this point, it doesn’t seem like Peter was convinced of any new thing, any serious challenges to the certainty of what he already knew. The way Peter puts it, all he knew for sure was that God told him he couldn’t call the Gentiles dirty. He was obviously ill-at-ease, and it’s a racial-ethnic kind of ill-at-ease.

If God had not specifically told Peter to go, there is no chance that Peter would have gone to the house of an officer in the Roman Legion. Rome had conquered the independent Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom and occupied their homeland less than a hundred years prior. You can almost hear the reluctance and distaste dripping from Peter’s lips when he says, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders.” <Deep Sigh> “However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. For this reason, when you sent for me, I came without objection. I want to know, then, why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29 CEB).

Then, Cornelius told Peter his story, about an angel who visited him during his 3:00 prayers and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to him. Therefore, send someone to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter” (Acts 10:31-32a CEB). Cornelius told Peter that he sent for him immediately, and Peter was kind enough to come, and now, here they all were, ready to listen to what the Lord had directed Peter to say.

Peter’s message begins with himself. “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB). Before this moment, it was inconceivable to Peter that Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus. But there he stood, in a house full of Gentiles, ready to preach the good news of Jesus Christ because God had led him there and showed Peter that God was doing something new.

The message was this: God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone and overpowering the devil. The disciples bore witness to the things Jesus did in Judea and Jerusalem. Then, Jesus was killed by crucifixion on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen by those who knew him in life, who ate and drank with him on a daily basis. Jesus commanded the apostles to preach and testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. And, everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins.

Even though it was contrary to what Peter had always known and held as faithful truth, Peter learned the new thing that God was doing, that people in every nation who worship God and do good are acceptable to God, even those who have no previous experience with Jesus, the Jewish faith, or what makes Jesus significant within it. It was unheard of! It was unimaginable! Throughout the whole of Acts 10, Peter’s long-held assumptions get replaced by God’s new thing.

We all have long-held habits and assumptions that we know, to the fullness of our conviction, are sacred and holy and right. With the same conviction, we know that those on the other side of those lines are sinful, unholy, and wrong, just like Peter thought of Cornelius and those of his household. We might even have Scripture to back up our positions, just like Peter did. But, when God moves outside of our interpretations of Scripture, when God decides to do something different, something like Easter, that new thing can turn our convictions and Biblical interpretations upside-down. Even the Scriptures tell us that God confounds human wisdom, so why should we be surprised, or affronted, when God proves our holy certainties false?

Our assumptions need adjusting from time to time, because God is not a prisoner of our assumptions. God is not constrained by what we think is right and holy. God acts. And when God acts, we’re often surprised—if not scandalized—by the things God does.

God took on human flesh and was born of a poor young virgin from some backcountry town? Most people had different ideas about God, believing God was too holy and set apart to ever do something so icky as becoming a human being.

Even the disciples rejected the idea that God’s Son would be killed by being crucified on a tree. They wanted to follow a victorious Messiah to restore the Kingdom of Israel, not a failure who would be killed. You might remember that Peter took Jesus aside a chewed him out for suggesting it.

And this resurrection thing: a mangled body, full of holes and a back flayed raw, with a chest cavity and heart pierced by a spear got up and walked around for forty days? He spoke to people, ate and drank with them, appeared to people inside of locked rooms?

In a day when the church is confronted with divisions of all kinds: race, ethnicity, beliefs about gun laws, abortion, human sexuality, immigration, war in the Middle East, to name only a few, it’s important for us to hear that no matter how many ways we try to tear ourselves apart, divide and separate from each other, and draw lines in the sand over issues, God continues to find ways to put us back together again. Peter came to realize that Jesus is Lord of All, and that’s a lesson we need to learn, too.

The resurrection of Jesus threw the doors of the church open wide—probably wider than we’re comfortable with. Sometimes we try to wrench them closed just a little more. But we are recipients of God’s Kingdom, not its doorkeepers. Resurrection means that whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable.

Now, we can try to qualify what’s meant by “does what is right,” but the comments in the text about Cornelius suggest it’s quite simple. Cornelius loved God enough to pray, and he loved his neighbors enough to give generously to meet their needs. He loved God, and he loved his neighbors. He did works of justice, he loved mercy, and he walked humbly. That’s what God finds acceptable.

Resurrection means that anyone who believes, anyone who trusts in Jesus, receives forgiveness of sins. The question is, can we learn that lesson as well as Peter?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Shepherd and Guardian | 4th of Easter

1 Peter 2:19-25

19 Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. 20 But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God.

21 You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps. 22 He committed no sin, nor did he ever speak in ways meant to deceive. 23 When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed. 25 Though you were like straying sheep, you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives. (CEB)

Shepherd and Guardian

One of my seminary professors at Duke once said “Bible translators are spineless weenies who never let the Bible say what it actually says” He made the comment because, in his opinion, translators seemed to be too worried that people would read their translations and be scandalized if the actual meaning of certain texts came through. Like those places where Saint Paul suggests that certain people should go to hell. Apparently, the translators can’t have Saint Paul saying something so… harsh. Therefore, the translators lean toward Greek instead of English to water down the translation. Yes, the Greek might say, “let them be accursed,” but that isn’t how we speak in English. We don’t say, You know, you’re a real jerk. Be accursed. No. We typically tell them exactly where they can go, which is the English vernacular equivalent of what Paul was saying in Greek.

While I find the lectionary to be an invaluable tool for preachers and the congregations, the Consultation on Common Texts, which produced the Revised Common Lectionary, seems to have a similar penchant for displaying spineless weenie-ism. They often cut difficult texts out of the lectionary readings so they don’t get read. (Or, so pastors and congregations don’t have to deal with them). They do that with Psalm 139, for example. Everyone loves Psalm 139 with its intimate and flowy language.

“Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up… Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean, even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight… You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb… My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth…” (CEB).

Those are a few excerpts from the Psalm that the lectionary provides. Of the four times that the lectionary offers Psalm 139 as a reading, however, none of them include verses 19-22. You see, those verses get angry. Loud. Vicious. They are verses that say, If only, God, you would kill the wicked! Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too” (CEB). These verses are omitted as if there is no place for righteous anger, as if we cannot handle hearing them, as if preachers are not trusted enough to interpret them adequately.

Rather than ignore the difficult stuff, I think we should hear it, consider it, and wrestle with its interpretation. My reasoning is simple: the difficult parts are Holy Scripture, too, just as much as the easy-to-hear parts are Holy Scripture. We don’t get to ignore the hard stuff as if it doesn’t exist.

If you’ve ever read First Peter, you might recognize one glowering omission from the text I just read. Verse 18 is where the reading should actually begin, and it says this: “Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters with all respect. Do this not only to good and kind masters but also to those who are harsh” (CEB). This is where Biblical interpretation comes into play, and it’s incredibly important. We need to understand the context of those Christians who originally heard it. What did it mean to them? We also need to understand how it might have been used and abused throughout the centuries, and what it ought to mean to us.

It also begs the question: what do we do with texts from the Bible that have been used to harm people? Verse 18 is one of them. There was a time in American history when black slaves only heard sermons on 1 Peter 2:18 and a few other texts that talked about submission and accepting one’s lot. It was a way of keeping control over those they had enslaved. In fact, this was used against the abolitionist argument as Biblical justification for slavery. But that kind of interpretation is an abuse of the Biblical text. Any time the Scriptures are used to keep people down, shut people up, or makes us think better of ourselves and less of others, it’s an abuse. That’s called oppression, and God entire plan of salvation is one of liberation.

Despite how some have tried to twist these words through the centuries, Peter is not suggesting that suffering is the norm we should all accept for those who are belittled, abused, oppressed, or enslaved. Nor is Peter suggesting that those in positions of power are free to abuse, oppress, or enslave others. It is not God’s will that the oppressed should suffer. Even a cursory reading of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Gospels should make that clear.

Even if we leave verse 18 out, as the lectionary does, another incorrect interpretation would be to read this text as if it is praising suffering for the sake of suffering itself. It almost sounds like Peter is lifting suffering up as something that we should seek out for its own sake. There have been overzealous people throughout history who have done all manner of things like this so they could attain suffering: whipped themselves, frozen themselves in the snow, etc. As if you can get closer to God by smashing your thumb with a hammer. (Believe me, I’ve done it accidentally with my 20oz Estwing, and the words that spewed from my mouth did not bring me closer to God). That’s not what Peter is talking about.

He says, “But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:20b, CEB). In the 1980s there were refugees from El Salvador who sought shelter in the United States. These were people with written death threats and scars from torture from their own government. The response of the United States government was to send them back to El Salvador into the hands of their torturers and those who wanted them dead. The Carter and Regan administrations saw the government of El Salvador as an ally and refused to recognize the human rights violations against the people of El Salvador. So, some American citizens took those refugees in and hid them. Some of those American citizens were arrested and prosecuted for doing it because it was illegal. But it was also the kind of civil disobedience that was the right thing to do. That is what it means to suffer for doing what is right. They were willing to be arrested and prosecuted to save lives.

In the context of 1 Peter, the comment about suffering may have had to do with worship. If a household slave was ridiculed by their master for worshipping the God of Christianity rather than the gods of Rome, they were suffering for doing what was right. The thing is, suffering is something the early church leaders told their flock to expect. If the incarnation of God could experience suffering, even death, at the hands of God’s own creatures, then why should Christians expect anything else? In fact, later in 1 Peter, he writes, Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory – indeed, the Spirit of God – rests on you” (1 Peter 4:12-14 CEB).

That Greek word, hupogrammon (example), is only found here in the New Testament. For those of us who had chalkboards in our elementary school classrooms, do you remember the alphabet that was usually written across the top? That’s what a hupogrammon is. It’s the perfect example which we copy and copy and copy until we can write those letters perfectly. We are to follow the example of Jesus Christ and follow in his steps. We are to pattern our lives after the example of Jesus Christ.

That pattern includes suffering. Suffering is something we should expect, not something we should see as abnormal. It’s a bummer when it happens, but it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The possibility of suffering exists because of the transformed life we live as followers of Christ. It is counter-cultural to entrust ourselves to God; to not seek revenge and return abuse for abuse, but trust that God will make everything right in the end. It is counter-intuitive to love our enemies and pray for those who harass us. We have been healed by the wounds of Jesus Christ on the cross so that we can live in righteousness and free from sin; so that we can live for God.

Verse 25 serves as a reminder that there is a difference, a dichotomy, something irreconcilable from life before Christ and life in Christ. Before Christ, we were going astray like sheep without a shepherd. But in Christ, we have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls. One of the reasons the sheep-shepherd imagery is so predominant in Christianity is that sheep are utterly reliant upon the shepherd. Who defends the sheep from predators who would devour them? The shepherd. Who leads the sheep to good pasture land and sources of water? The shepherd. Sheep are not self-reliant creatures. They need a shepherd. And so do we.

The story of Christians who experience adversity for doing right is not new. It’s actually the backbone of apocalyptic theology, which expects that those who are allied with God will suffer at the hands of the world because the world loved darkness rather than light (c.f. John 3:19). We are to keep our eyes on the light, and trust that the shepherd and guardian of our souls is watching over us even when we are in the midst of our sufferings.

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

~Pastopher

I Have Seen the Lord | 1st of Easter

John 20:1-18

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her. (CEB)

I Have Seen the Lord

The resurrection story tells of an event that is foundational to our Christian faith. The very first sermon in Christendom was preached by a woman named Mary Magdalene who proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus by shouting, “I have seen the Lord!” To most of us, this story contains an element of holiness which draws us to this building and this community of people so we can hear, see, and maybe even touch or taste something of the divine. We know the story: Jesus was raised from death to a new kind of life. Yet, the story seems hard to believe. Perhaps the question lingering at the back of our minds is a simple longing to know: Is it true?

It’s an honest and fair question to ask when you consider what Mary Magdalene proclaimed here. Someone was raised from the dead? Seriously? We’re modern people who like to think we’re advanced beyond the primitive naivety of our ancestors, but the truth is that ancient peoples were not stupid. In Luke’s version of events, when the women told the apostles that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the men dismissed their words as nonsense (c.f. Luke 24:11). But, as it often is the case, the women were right and the men should have listened to them. Later, when Paul proclaimed the Easter story to the Athenians on Mars Hill, they laughed and ridiculed him when he mentioned Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (c.f. Acts 17:32). Stuff like this didn’t happen. They had seen people die and the dead never came back to life. They didn’t believe it any more than we might be expected to believe it.

So, what are we to make of this story? Kurt Vonnegut had the idea that all stories have shapes which you can draw on a graph by marking the highs and lows that the character experiences along the plotline. Some of you know that I write fantasy. Some of it’s historical fantasy. Some it’s high fantasy. Some of it’s fantasy with Sci-Fi elements. Most of my stories start in the middle, somewhere between life is horrible and life is amazing. Then, bad things happen and they drop low, with a few more ups and downs thrown in for good measure. Finally, good things happen and they end on a high note. Why? Because I’m the author and I like happy endings.

The resurrection story starts low on the scale due to the recent tragedy of Jesus’ death. Then, it rises on the scale to a happy ending. One of the curious things about this story from John’s Gospel is how strongly it resembles the format of ancient Greek comedy such as that of the great playwright, Menander. John crafted the resurrection story with all the comedic elements necessary for a great laugh. Seriously, William Shakespeare couldn’t have written a better short-story comedy. We’ve got the mystery of a missing body, confusion on the part of the mourners, a frantic race to the tomb, bewilderment from the witnesses, sudden appearances of heavenly beings who are not recognized as such, mistaken identity, sudden recognition of the formerly dead person as alive-and-well (that’s the comedic resolution), and a race back to share the good news that everything is better than it was before.

Mary Magdalene is the story’s hero with whom we, as the audience, identify. She’s the one who holds the story together. The plot begins and ends with her, and she has the last word. Mary goes to the tomb and finds the stone has been removed. She runs back and tells Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved that someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb and she doesn’t know where they have laid him. The disciples run and find the tomb empty and leave. We’re told that the disciple whom Jesus loved “believed” but we’re not told what he believed. Did he believe Mary’s account that Jesus’ body was missing? Did he believe in the resurrection? Or, did he believe Jesus had ascended, which is kind of the emphasis in John’s Gospel? We’re left as confused about what this disciple believed as the disciples were at the missing body.

Mary, who must have run back to the tomb with the two disciples, stays there, weeping. Finally, she bends down to look into the tomb but finds it is no longer empty. It’s the kind of surprise twist that was a hallmark of ancient comedy. One angel is sitting at the head and the other at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been. And, they ask her why she’s weeping. Mary is so distressed that she doesn’t freak out, which is also part of the comedy of it. Without missing a beat, she answers their question by saying, They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him” (John 20:13, CEB).

As soon as she says this, she turns around and sees a man who wasn’t there a moment ago. We’re let in on the secret. It’s Jesus, but Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize him yet. She supposes he’s the gardener. Disguise is another hallmark of ancient comedy. That’s why Shakespeare’s comedies had women disguising themselves as men and men disguising themselves as women all the time. Because it’s funny when the reveal comes and the disguised person says, Surprise! I’m a dude, not your wife, but thanks for thinking I’m pretty. The man whom she thinks is the gardener asks Mary the same question, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” After all, she’s peering into an empty tomb, or a tomb with two living people inside of it. What is there to cry about?

Mary’s only concern is finding the missing body of her Lord. She’s so desperate that it doesn’t matter if the gardener is the guilty party or not. But if he was the one who moved Jesus’ body, she begs him to tell her where he is so she may get him. The disguise falls away when Jesus speaks her name: “Mary.” In that moment of familiarity when she hears her name on her Lord’s lips again, as she so often had, she knows him, speaks to him, and reaches out to take hold of him before he manages to get away again.

We have to admit that there is something in this story that lends itself to doubtfulness by those who hear it. It sounds like nonsense precisely because it goes against every experience of death we have ever encountered. I have presided over a lot of funerals in my nearly 14 years as an appointed pastor, and I have never seen a dead person get up out of their casket and walk away.

Yet, something about this story touches the deepest parts of us and tugs on the strings of our hope and faith. It reaches into the recesses of our hearts and minds where doubt and faith mingle and vie for our attention. In fact, I would argue that the very doubts we have about this story speak to the scale and power of the Easter proclamation that God raised Jesus Christ from death. What we proclaim in this story is that God has given us a miracle of love and forgiveness on such a massive scale that it calls to our hopes, is worthy of our faith and is, thus, open to our doubt. The resurrection is so big, so powerful, such an unbelievable example of love and forgiveness that how can we not question it? How can we not wonder if God would really do such a thing for us and, at the same time, experience wonder that God would do such a thing for us?

Easter is so big of an idea that our imaginations almost require us to relegate it to fantasy. That’s part of the beauty of Easter and the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. The promise of Easter has, throughout history, stood the juncture of the greatest doubt and the deepest faith. I wonder if that’s the reason why churches are so full on this day. We come because we’re looking for the answer to that question, Is it true? Easter, with its proclamation of God’s victory over death so that we can live, might just be a story large enough to reveal God to us and the measure of God’s love for us.

At the end of this story, Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him, but to go and tell Jesus’ brothers and sisters that he is going up to his Father and their Father, to his God and their God. So, Mary lets go. She does as Jesus asked of her and declares, “I have seen the Lord!”

Ancient comedies often ended with a marriage, which is always the beginning of another story. We can ask, Is it true? We can also ask if we might see and believe, too. That’s actually the theme of the next passage in John’s Gospel. We know that Easter is a big Sunday. But every Sunday is a little Easter. Like any good story, the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the promises of Easter continues, and the journey between doubt and faith is what we wrestle with together as a community of faith called Church. Today, even amid our lingering doubts and questions, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen. It’s a claim big enough to be worthy of our faith. Especially when we know that the promise of Easter is that we, too, shall rise.

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

~Pastopher

The Faith of Thomas

John 20:19-31

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name. (CEB)

The Faith of Thomas

It always worried me when I was a kid in school. Whether it was gym class or recess, I hated the drama of it. The anxiety it caused in me and others, no matter if it was dodge ball, kickball, soccer, or baseball always made me hitch my breath. I worried about who would be the last one. You see, I was never considered by my peers to be significant enough to warrant an early draft pick. If I made the fifth round, I felt pretty good. It is not fun at all to be the last one picked, the one left out, the one chosen because I was the only piece of meat left standing there, waiting with baited breath, fear, and anticipation.

The thing is, I was good at dodge ball. There were several times in elementary and middle school where I was the last one standing. But I didn’t look like I was good. Physically, I fit the nerdy, scrawny profile. Of course, I may have been the last one standing because I was so skinny that I made for a difficult target. Advantage me, I guess. But I was still never picked in the top rounds. I was one of the little kids who got left out. So I know exactly how Thomas felt.

You have to understand Thomas. He was one of the Twelve. He was a disciple. He was the one who knew what would happen to Jesus before the others, and he accepted that fate without batting an eye. He loved Jesus so much that he just kind of accepted it with reckless abandon. Do you remember the story from John 11, when Jesus heard that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was ill? He waited a few days and told the Disciples he wanted to return to Judea again. But the Disciples were like, Whoa, Jesus. The Jewish opposition wants to stone you to death, and you want to go back?

Jesus told them that Lazarus was dead, and he was going. So, while the other Disciples were standing there trying to decide if they should go with Jesus or fake a sudden illness, Thomas says this: “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.” (John 11:16b, CEB).

It’s like Thomas is the Disciples’ little ray of encouraging sunshine. Come on, guys. You knew this was gonna happen sooner or later. This crazy dude was bound to get himself killed eventually. Why’re you acting so surprised? Are we gonna follow him or not? Let’s just go and die with him, already. He’s our friend, Lazarus was our friend. We’re all gonna die eventually. We may as well go out together like Thelma and Louise. (They probably didn’t see that movie, though). So they go, and a few chapters later, Jesus is dead.

Thomas got it. He knew. And he rolled with it.

Another thing about Thomas—and talk about being the guy who was left out—we don’t really know Thomas’s name. Thomas wasn’t actually his name. Nobody was named Thomas in the ancient world because it wasn’t a name. Thomas was applied to him as sort of a distinguisher. Like, if you have two people with the same name, but one has freckles and the other one doesn’t, after the hundredth time of saying, Hey, Jennifer, and having two girls turning around to say, “What?”, you might start to address the one with freckles like this: Hey, Freckles! (And just a disclaimer, I think freckles are exceedingly cute. So if you have freckles, chances are I think you’re cuter than the people who aren’t lucky enough to have them).

According to some traditions, Thomas’s given name was Judas. But he was called Thomas, which is the Aramaic word for twin in order to distinguish him from the other Judas. So every time someone called him Thomas they were saying, “Hey, Twin.” Can you imagine the other nicknames he would have had? Twain. Mirror-man. Double-vision. Double-mint (I mean they always had twins in the commercials), The Better Judas.

So, for posterity, we don’t even know the guy’s name for certain. He was one of the Disciples! Shouldn’t someone have written his name down? Poor Twin! Or, whatever his name was. He got left out in so many ways. And then, to add salt to the wound posterity has already given him, everyone knows this story. Everyone knows the name for this story. What do we call it? It’s the story of… Doubting Thomas! He’s labeled for all time as a doubter!

I mean, come on! Not even Judas got it that bad! We all know Judas Iscariot’s name. No one calls him Betraying Judas or Sell-out Judas. It’s just Judas Iscariot. No one calls Peter Denying Peter. But poor Doubting Twin didn’t even get his proper name written down. It stinks being the kid who is always left out, the kid whose name no one remembered. My nickname in elementary school was Chicken-legs. That’s how skinny I was. Thank goodness that one didn’t stick. People might be calling me Pastor Chicken-legs to this day. (And no. You’re not allowed to start calling me that).

I get Thomas. I get why he was upset. And that’s the thing. I think he was more upset than disbelieving. I think he felt more dejected than doubting. Because what happened? Mary Magdalene got to see Jesus, face-to-face. She came running back to the Disciples saying, “I’ve seen the Lord!” (John 20:18b, CEB). Then, the Disciples locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. And Jesus shows up in the midst of them, he shows them the wounds in his hands and his side. He makes them believe that it’s really him. It’s really Jesus who has been raised!

But Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas had gone outside, which just proves that he was the bravest disciple among them. The others were cowering in a locked room, but Thomas probably said, Guys, I’m hungry. I’m going out for Chinese. You want anything? They have these little carry-out boxes now.

You see, Thomas was the one Disciple—the ONE Disciple—who was NOT hiding in a locked room! He was the one with courage.

So, imagine how the Courageous Anonymous Twin felt when he got back and the other Disciples met him with joyous enthusiasm told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” (CEB). I bet he threw the Chinese take-out across the room. I mean, who among us wouldn’t have felt left out? Who among us wouldn’t have felt downright betrayed. Couldn’t Jesus have waited for them all to be together? Did Jesus leave him out on purpose? He had been willing to die for the Lord, he had been faithful, he had been the glue that held the group together when the others didn’t want to return to Judea, and Jesus showed up when he was gone?

I would have said it, too. I would have called bologna. I would have said, I deserve the same proofs you guys got! I deserve to see his wounds, too. I deserve to know for sure that it’s him. I followed him all this way, too, and he left me out! I deserve to see. So until I do, I won’t believe!

It makes Thomas sounds more like a child with hurt feelings than a doubter. And I imagine that’s exactly what he was. Hurt. Dejected. Offended. Annoyed. Betrayed. And belligerent enough because of it to simply refuse to acknowledge what his heart probably already knew to be true. And I’ll tell you in a second why I think Thomas already knew it.

Jesus made him wait a week. A week! Gosh, when I was a kid I hated it when my parents let me stew longer than a few hours, but a week! Ouch!

But I bet Jesus gave The Twin that amount of time because he needed it. When Thomas was ready, Jesus appeared again in the midst of the Disciples. He gave Thomas the same proofs he had given the others, but he gave Thomas something more. He showed his wounds to the others, but for Thomas he offered touch. He invited a kind of intimacy denied to the others. He told Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him. But he invited Thomas to come close. “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB).

Thomas’s response is why I think he really did believe, but refused only because he felt hurt and rejected. He answers Jesus’ invitation by uttering one of the most profound proclamations about Jesus in the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!” (CEB). Now, that is a statement of faith. That’s why I think Thomas really believed without seeing, but chose to cross his arms and pout in his hurt and anger because he knew who Jesus was. Jesus didn’t have to leave him out.

In that moment, I think Thomas recognized that Jesus understood him in ways no one else could. Jesus, too, had been rejected. He had been betrayed. He had been cast off. He knew Thomas’s wounds inside and out.

The thing is, everyone in our world seems to be searching for some connection to God or to some kind of divinity or spirituality beyond ourselves. We all want connection. We want to believe in something out there that transcends our struggle-filled lives and understands us. John’s Gospel tells us that we find connection to God in the wounded body of Jesus Christ. No one knows our wounds better. No one offers the kind of invitation to God that Jesus offers. No one has sought us so relentlessly as Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.

In the wounded body of Jesus, God takes the worst of human behavior and the worst of human experience into God’s own self and transforms it. God transforms brokenness into healing and wholeness in individuals, in entire communities, and—indeed—for the whole human race.

We may no longer see Jesus in the flesh, but we have the Holy Spirit to guide us and be our connection to God. We have a meal where we receive the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus into our own bodies and receive grace beyond measure. God has given us what we need to believe, even if we cannot see or touch as Thomas did. In the broken body of Jesus Christ, we have healing and wholeness, we have community and connection, we have belonging and we have an invitation to abundant life.

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