Our readings for celebrating both the 7th Sunday of Easter and Jesus's ascension to the Father: Ascension Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=45 AND: the 7th Sunday of Easter Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=46
Today we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension, where we remember Jesus’ final return to the Father in Heaven, as recounted in Acts 1:9 – an event further testified to in 1st Timothy and 1 Peter. Further on in Acts, Saint Peter, in one of his addresses, affirms that Jesus was ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (2:33), and uses this fact as confirmation that He has fulfilled the promises made regarding the Messiah in Psalm 110. Of course with the Church from very early on and across the world, we affirm this very thing in our shared profession during worship, of the Apostle’s Creed, which says that Jesus is now ‘seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead’.
So, it would seem that the Ascension is a vital part of Christian belief. Yet it’s rarely something we talk about in the Church. I would suggest this is for a couple of reasons. First, I think we’re uncomfortable with the idea of monarchy and power because, well, it’s often been experienced or described to us as a political order that has not only established order, but also enforced brutal and sometimes violent laws. So the language which describes Jesus as being enthroned next to the Father is often left to the side or simply absorbed into the resurrection discussion so we don’t have to deal with language we might find repellant.
Of course Scripture itself can give us warrant for doing this. The Ascension is seen as continuous with the Resurrection, something particularly noticeable in Saint John, who presents it as something both present and yet to come. This can be seen most clearly in Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene, where He says ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17). Even Saint Luke in the gospel and in Acts talks about the Ascension as both a current and a future event happening. So again, how tied is this Ascension of Jesus to God’s ‘right hand’, to the resurrection. Do we have to think of them as separate events? If so, why?
Saint Augustine seemed to share this view of the Ascension being continuous with the Resurrection, but he also affirmed its role as the seal of the whole process, as something without which the previous events would have had no effect. In a homily given on the Feast of the Ascension* he says:
‘This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together,
without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.’
What Saint Augustine says here resonates with the passage in Ephesians 4:10, where Saint Paul says that ‘He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ – i.e.; that by ascending into Heaven, and taking our very selves, our nature as human beings, up with Him into the heavenly places – had he not ‘gone up’ – something that required waiting, a separation out from his resurrection, we could not have been reconciled to God.
This is what we hear in our gospel reading from Luke: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Of course we know the disciples had been with Jesus from the beginning, watching the Scriptures being fulfilled. Only with the resurrection then, could they truly come to know what the Scriptures mean and how every single word of Scripture is fulfilled in his suffering, death and resurrection. But you see, this is important: it is not simply that the Scriptures were fulfilled, but that all of history was fulfilled in this moment; all the events of history are and will be fitted into those Scriptures, drawn into God himself in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
It is one thing to know this. But it is quite another to understand and then be moved to witness or testify to this fulfillment of the Scriptures; to the very person, the life, death and resurrection itself. It was essential for Jesus to return and be with the disciples again, to be present, to be with them, for them to see, hear, and put their fingers into him, to be able to proclaim this real event to those who would not be able to directly be with Christ, but who, as Jesus says to doubting Thomas, would have to come to Christ in and with persistent faith, not sight. And time, the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his ascension is a living embodiment of simultaneous waiting for God to act, and of persistent waiting in him, in faith. Waiting, without being able to touch, in literal terms, his cloak like he warned Mary not to do. “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet ascended.”
You must wait, my children, wait in faith, sometimes in suffering, sometimes in fear, sometimes with deep Peter or Thomas like doubt. Wait as we are stuck in a desert of serpents who bite at one another for power and control to quell our fears, wait with self-doubt, confusion, loss of purpose, broken love and years of facing its consequences, wait as a vulnerable babe borne in a manger in a world of uncertainty and possible threat, wait in a world filled with false hope, distorted purposes conditioned into us from birth; wait as our minds and bodies decline, looking back to see what trail of witness we have left in this world. Wait, not however, in despair, but knowing that the time of our waiting has actually been lived, taken on, and taken up when Christ is with us between his resurrection and ascension.
This time between his resurrection and ascension is critical to recognize because it is a sign to us, that God has been with us from the beginning, that he remains with us in our waiting, whatever form of good or bad unfolds in our lives, and that, as he says, to the disciples in Luke, that when he ascends, he will not depart from us but remain as the Holy Spirit draws us into him and unites us to the Father in heaven. In heaven and on earth we persist as his body. In our faithful witness and in our failures to do so, we are sanctified (stripped of false coverings, revealed more and more for who God made us), enabled to see how we are being drawn into his life if we’re willing to look not at ourselves alone, or ourselves in the constructions of our world, but ourselves as we are being moved by the Spirit and conformed to him.
Saint Augustine, in another homily on the Ascension, affirms this point:
‘He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven.
So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.’
When Jesus came into the world – which we celebrated at Christmas – he took on every part of us, our whole nature and ever peculiar aspect of who we are, he took with him all the brokenness of that nature to the Cross and when he was raised, he made for us new life. But it was with the Ascension that this union was completed, our humanity being forever joined to God through our baptism, so that, as Augustine says, ‘we by our union with him are the children of God’.
The Ascension is therefore truly a seal and guarantee of our redemption – the confirmation that He who entered into the depths of our experience has torn down the veil between God and human beings. This is the truth and the sure hope on which our faith can endure waiting. And as represented by Christ in the time between his resurrection and ascension, we are given the time to come to know his love for us. What would it mean to you to be loved unconditionally; where all the places in your life of shame, deep anguishing shame, of guilt, of fear, of loss, of regret, of worry, of hope, of joy, where all these places are met by the one who gave his life so that you might have life, forgiveness, and deep abiding love not contingent on your success at life, but merely your faith in opening up to receive this love? What would it mean to you? What would it mean for how you treat those around you? What would it mean about how you live your life, the things you hold of value, the things that you cling to, the things you’re willing to let go of? What would it mean for you to be set free from fear and despair, in the time that you have left, free to love as you have been loved by God in Christ? AMEN.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."
Have you ever heard the phrase: the ‘gospel’ is ‘good news?’ If you’ve heard it, what comes to mind for you? I guess the first thing you’d have to consider is: what is the gospel? This is my short answer. The gospel is God’s coming into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ (we call this God’s sending his Son), taking on human flesh (we call this the incarnation), being faithful to God his Father throughout his life on earth in how he interacts with people even to the point of death on the Cross (we call this obedience and perfect love returned to perfect love, the Father), wherein the sin that puts him on the cross (we call this an actual sin that grows from original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve), is overcome when Jesus rises/is raised from death (we call this the resurrection, where love given and love received, results in love poured out for all the things God has created): in him, Jesus, was life, and that life is the light of the world. Jesus puts it this way in our Gospel reading from John today: after I have been raised, I will ascend into heaven, “the world won’t see me, but you’ll see me, my friends.”
So what’s the ‘good news’ then? Well that life – Jesus’s own – brings the hope of life for all. That’s the basic reality: Jesus says: “you have seen my resurrected body (we know this by the Easter testimonies we have heard)” and in this way you can know that God has come for you and gathered you to him: “you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me by your baptisms. So then I will be in you.” In short Jesus declares: I am your evidence of your reconciled to life with God.
But of course we have this peculiar thing we call time! We often mark it by successive generations, you, your kids, your grandkids, you’re great grandkids. And so while the potential exists for each generation to be in Christ, a next generation needs to know that’s a reality for them, and they need to know why that potential is such great news. So Jesus gets at how that is going to happen because as he says in John’s Gospel today, “the world is no longer going to see me even though you folks do see me through your own worship and witness.” But the thing is, you need to show that to those who don’t know: to your kids and grandkids, to your neighbors, to your community because “the world cannot receive God because they simply aren’t going to open themselves to him if they don’t know him.”
So how is that going to work? Jesus says, “I’m not going to leave you orphaned and I’m not going to leave you without a guide as you proclaim my mission to your friends, family, and neighbors: “I’ll give you my Holy Spirit as guide.” He’s going to guide you as my people – the whole Church not just individuals - in following me, so that because I’m in the Father, and you are in me, you too will be in the Father. In other words, through me, as my Spirit guides you, you’re going to be a witness to God himself. And so that’s the key: we are made coheirs with Christ to the mission of God himself as he is drawing everyone to him.
Being a coheir though, means we have a task, a mission, a purpose as the Church, and each of us plays some particular role in that. But the Church’s mission, and each of our tasks in that is contingent or dependent upon one thing: obedience. Jesus says that our ability to be witnesses depends upon our willing conformance to his life. So just as he fulfilled the commandments to love God, neighbor and enemy, so he says of us: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” If we’re going to be successful in our vocation or job of being witnesses, we have to see and know the God who reveals himself to us, and we have to communicate that knowledge to others in all the things we say and do not just in our church services, but especially as we go out into ‘the world,’ our community.
We can see that even Jesus had to go about amongst his own people – the Jews of a particular generation – to tell them who he is, to show them that he is God, that God the Father is in him and that he is in the Father. So that what he says and does reveals the very will of his Father, of himself, of the Holy Spirit; of God himself, that is. And that’s what he goes from town to town doing. He shows how his words, his works, his miracles, his healings, his teachings, his very life all the way to his death and resurrection, are a fulfillment of God’s promises to the Israelites recorded in all their Scriptures. If you know God from your Scriptures and your teachings, Jesus says, you will see that I, your God, am here with you to gather you to me.
God has NOT abandoned us, even when – as the disciples first thought after his death, and as we probably often do in our own personal or social or work or cultural moments of darkness, our moments in the desert or in the valley of dry bones – God comes right into the middle of our lives, on a mission FOR US. He scours the fields, as we heard two weeks ago, even for one of us sheep that goes astray, that wanders off, that gets lost, that struggles with doubt or fear or frustration or anger or feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. God comes right smack into the middle of our lives and shows up, as we see Jesus do – in the most peculiar and particular of ways. So the good news is that Jesus’s life (as we hear it lived out with people) is fundamentally a mission that concerns drawing us and all people to him.
I have been talking to all of you over the last eight weeks of this pandemic social isolation. We’ve talked on the phone and I’ve heard a whole range of stories, events, worries, hopes, and coping mechanisms. I’ve not really talked much about how I’ve found this event with you, mostly because I want to listen to what you have to say. I think most of you are aware of this but being a priest really doesn’t give you a spiritual advantage in handling adversity. In fact, being a priest, and worse, being a theologian(!), can actually make grappling with who God is and what he might be doing and how to care for people and what the right Church/theological response ought to be, can add to the adversity rather than relieve it!
One of the things I’ve struggled a lot with is: what is God doing here? Because for me, that question must come before being able to determine how we should respond with respect to the ways we try to continue on as a worshipping community, and as Christian individuals. If you’re not already aware of this, there have been debates about doing ‘online services,’ about doing ‘online Eucharist,’ about how we should track or not track certain variables of interaction and church life. And all of this of course – as is the case for every single person – is having to be considered in the wake of an event of unprecedented universal/global shock at every possible level.
There’s of course the immediate threat of getting sick, or our loved ones getting sick. There are the lineups for food and basic supplies. There’s the economic impact that affects people’s savings, yours or your kid’s or grand kid’s jobs for years into the future. There’s the social distancing that for some, really is quite isolating. There’s the boredom. And out of some of this stuff I’ve heard people ask some deeper questions about life’s purpose, about whether one is really doing something valuable with their lives, about whether various things really matter at all, about whether they want to continue living or doing things the way they have been living.
Finally, I’ve heard Christians say things like, “I’ve had to stop and consider whether I have conformed God to my own desires, or whether I am waiting on God, listening to God, opening up to God and allowing God in to my life so that I can get on board this mission he’s on to gather people to him.”
You see this is really what our readings are driving at: we have been raised up with Jesus and we are being built into the house of God, as last week’s reading stated, so that we can go out and join him in his mission. There are rooms for all of us in this house, we heard last week. But the house isn’t for us to sort of sit around and watch TV in. The house is a place of comfort, of growing, of nourishment even where there is struggle in community. It’s a shelter where we find truth, even when it is sometimes hidden, and where we encounter love in many different dimensions from the perfection of God come to us in Christ, to the fragmented witness of those of us who try to follow, sometimes fail, confess and repent, knowing God is there for us, and out of that, learn how to love anew and so grow into the very life of Jesus to which he calls us.
So this is a house where we receive these things not to become complacent and set in our own comfort zones and ways. Nope. It’s a place where we are given the food and water of life, the very body and blood of Jesus, so that we can draw others into this House, which is Jesus’s own body. It is a place yes; it is also a Person, an abiding reality, that takes in billions of lives through time, where each one is nurtured into the fullness of who we are.
But that house we heard about last week is not for God but for us; a place of nourishment and care that enables us to ‘go out into the mission field of our community. The house/church is a place where we see God revealed in our Scriptures and worship; where we hear the good news that we have first been loved. I mean that. Not loved because we fit someone else’s definition of goodness or worth or value. Loved because God’s act of making us is love manifest in a particular life which Scripture and theologians refer to in various ways as an image or fragment or part of witness to the fullness of him. We are loved so deeply, despite the trials we face and the fears we have and the frustration and boredom we deal with now and in all our lives, all the way to our life’s end. If we just look at Jesus’s own life with his people in the Old and New Testament Scriptures, we will find in those people, ourselves before God, and then with God, in him, walking with him. If we can see this – if we can see the Father in Jesus’s words and acts through the Scriptures – we will see how much he longs for us, how much he desires us, and that he remains with us right to our end.
This, my friends, is good news that he wants us to share. So he gives us his Spirit, to keep us on track in following in Jesus’s own life. This is how people will see God. If we are willing to let go of the desire to control our lives, to control the boundaries on whom we let into our lives, to control with whom we are willing to share in worship and church life, to control everything so that we only get comfort, if we are willing to let go of these things and to instead seek, read, watch, listen, and go up to God with our hearts and minds open to God’s own life as he interacted with others, we will not be able to help but pour out this love to others. We will not be able to help but to open ourselves to others even when they worry us, don’t make us necessarily comfortable, or even annoy us! We will seek to live with them in the one house God has made in his Son, so that together, we can go out with Jesus in mission, to gather this community to him. AMEN
Click here for the readings for this Fourth Sunday in Easter
This last month I read a book suggested by a friend and colleague on facebook. The book is called “The Plague,” written by an Algerian-French philosopher named Albert Camus. In brief summary, the book traced the story and lives of a few key characters, as they confronted – very slowly – the resurfacing of ‘the plague’ in their town.
The story runs through a whole variety of responses to the plague: fear, anxiety, tension, the presumption of knowledge and certainty, people giving up on knowing, and the escapism so many folks turn to when they find their circumstances too difficult to face directly. Camus’s underlying point – he’s an atheist you see – is to attempt to show that despite the absurdity of suffering in general and in this case, specifically manifested in the plague, the right response isn’t to presume one has certain knowledge about something – for certain knowledge cannot protect, but nor should one despair, give up, or use escapism in an attempt to avoid suffering, loss, sickness, and even death.
Camus argues that in the light of what is – at least to us a confusion or lack of clarity or loss of purpose and meaning – the key to finding meaning in life is to persevere in living, in fighting to survive, in taking what one is given on any particular day or week or month or year, and to live that moment, that relationship, that event, to the fullest extent that one can. In this way, one neither succumbs to the overwhelming fear of the unknown, nor does one imagine that one has grasped full knowledge of all that is and all that matters. Either extreme squashes, so Camus seems to imply, the reality of receiving life as a gift, and living with what is given.
Camus’ insight about purpose and meaning in absurd circumstances seems quite appropriate for our reading today from John’s Gospel. Far too often Christians have associated the truth, or God, with their own sense of having certain knowledge: God has given me knowledge of this or of that in totality so now I know what to do. When suddenly however, people are thrust into the midst of chaotic circumstances, they, we, suddenly have to grapple with the fact that the things we have clung to as providing a sense of certainty, of meaning, of purpose, can simply disappear, come undone, or not come to fruition. Maybe it’s a relationship, or health, or a job, or a potential future. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the piercing of our tentative hold on life; the piercing of our imagined control over suffering and death.
We often think to ourselves, “I’m a good person or this person is good and so why should I or they suffer, get sick, die.” We’re a robust, capitalist culture, how can things suddenly shut down because of a virus that happened on the other side of the world? Why didn’t we have things in place to prevent this. Why didn’t we know, why don’t we know how long or how much, or when all of this will be back under our control. We expect to have knowledge which can provide us with a way of measuring that which we believe to be our purpose and our meaning in the world. But is knowledge, is knowing, a matter of obtaining proof, like one can prove 2+3=5?
Jesus says to his disciples as recorded in John’s Gospel: “when I came into the world, I transformed it so that you could see in me, the will and works of my Father, for I am in him and he is in me. And my sheep, my people, they “follow me because they know my voice.” And any shepherd who might lead my sheep, my people will follow for they will see in his words and works, my own life. They won’t follow a stranger, they’ll end up running from him because they don’t know his voice.” So if one knows the voice of the gatekeeper – God that is – one will follow it. That’s the basic claim.
But what does Jesus mean, by ‘knowing.’ Camus would seem to claim a sort of basic ignorance about our knowledge of the why and the what of life. This isn’t Jesus’s claim. Jesus comes into the world and says: “the purpose of life is really quite basic: it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and body, and the second is like it: to love your neighbor and your enemy as God has loved you.” This we know with certainty since it is revealed to us by the source and the end of everything and everyone that exists. So also then, God gives us our purposes. The real challenge for God’s sheep isn’t this basic reality. Life is not, as it is for Camus, absurd or seemingly meaningless. It is given perfect meaning in Jesus Christ’s life: that is, to love God and to love God is to love all of what he has made. The tricky part then is how that love is to be carried out when we cannot see, understand, or hold on to the fullness of how that love gets concretely lived out, especially when we go through all the difficult things that we do in life: relationships, jobs, family issues, diseases, conditions, and whole societal shut downs.
But where Camus’s direction meets the Christian life is, I think, just here: we don’t have to know how everything is going to turn out, or even if everything is going to be okay, to find meaning and purpose and value in life. To find these things is a matter of one thing: faith. Faith isn’t an emotion. Emotions are too fleeting to constitute faith. Faith isn’t a belief system where your own personally derived beliefs are affirmed by empirical evidence. No, faith is perseverance, holding course because doing so is an affirmation, a response, a giving back with interest, what one has been given as a gift.
For a Christian, faith is the knowledge that God came into the world for us in the Person of Jesus Christ; that he took our flesh and so also all humanity’s sin, and was hung on a Cross for doing so in faith to his Father; faith is acknowledging that act of God on our behalf, and then recognizing that his life, his ministry, was the very gate that has opened the way to relationship with God, the Gatekeeper, so that we might enter into God’s own sheepfold, his people. Knowledge then isn’t about our particular affirmation of some personally held ideals, or ideas, or preferences; knowledge is seeing God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s own life and jumping on board his mission i.e. following him.
Knowledge then isn’t cognitive affirmation; it isn’t just words, or ideas and getting these right. Knowledge is holding onto to Jesus, in the midst of “voices” – whether people or ideas – that make us feel uncertain, insecure, and fearful. It is holding to Jesus in faith and not succumbing to the way that fear and uncertainty can cause us to react toward others in the midst of trying circumstances. It is living into Jesus’s own life: a life of love, compassion, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, sometimes correction. It is not allowing the voice of the strangers to thwart our mission with Jesus, of receiving his grace and sharing it with those who, especially in these times, need it most.
Knowledge is asking, in the midst of these times of social distancing, ‘who are we as individuals and as a community; how are we serving God now with one another, how will we better serve God, as his flock, bound together with of his sheep, when this time of distancing ends?’ Will we live out of a desire for our own personal comfort, evading reality of finite life and resources, living into the escapism so ripe in our modern era; or will we be willing to take risks and perhaps allow ourselves to face uncomfortable circumstances to join with others in proclaiming the gospel to our community? What, if you were really to look at Jesus’s own life and follow his voice rather than your own or that of strangers, would God be calling us to do next? AMEN
Imagine for a moment, put yourself in the place of Mary Magdalene. Along with the other disciples, she’d been following Jesus, telling others of his deeds, tracing his steps, perhaps going about to tell her friends and neighbors of his time spent with her. While telling others about him, coming to know him more, drawing closer to him, seeing his works of healing, coming to see firsthand how the Scriptures she’d grown up with as a Jewish woman, were being knitted together, and fulfilled in this Jesus that she had come to know. Hearing of his promise and his testimony to be the Son of God, the Son of Man, the promised one, the Messiah. Can you imagine this? Can you imagine what it would be like to be with Jesus as he was fulfilling the testimony of the only faith, the only way of life you knew? Can you imagine what it would be like to love someone with all your heart and mind and soul and body? I bet you can.
And then like a thief in the night, to have that love filled with the hope of life, or fulfillment, of reconciliation to God, ripped out of your heart and soul and mind in the blink of an eye. Ripped away from you not as a slow passing, not with a readily apparent good life lived, leaving behind a big family, or wealth, or anything really. But ripped away from you as a relatively young man, the mission for which he was pressing so hard, seemingly, over, emptied of all effect, nailed to a cross like a common criminal, hanging there with a mere thief. And what had she heard? “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “It is finished.” “Into your hands O Father, do I commend my spirit.”
What must she have been thinking? I can hear a psalm of lament pour from her mouth now: “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Dry, dry bones, stripped again of flesh and spirit, of blood run dry as the desert; stripped of hope, of life (ps 31).
Have you ever been at this place in your life before? Where are you Lord? I am in distress, I have lost you and my eyes waste from grief, from your relief, from your water in the desert of my life, my soul and my body have been emptied. I am lost, he is gone, she is gone. I have lost my love. I have lost the one knitted to my soul. I have lost my husband, my wife, my son, my daughter, my mother, my father … Why O Lord, hast thou forsaken me? Haven’t we all been here before?
Maybe some of us are here now in the midst of a pandemic that has swept the earth, killed indiscriminately – all ages, races, Christian and non, conservative and liberal – death has no partiality we have had confirmed for us. Maybe our struggle isn’t life and death. Maybe it is simply isolation, loneliness, uncertainty where we wonder what’s next with fear: will I have a job, how will my finances be after this, can I get food and medication as I need it. In the midst of this – even simply the inability to gather together as a community – we might struggle with a sense of profound loss and disappointment. Where is God? Is He there? In whom have I believed all these years?
Remember the disciples Simon Peter and the other man. They ran to the tomb, went in and saw that it was empty. The Gospel tells us that they both believed, but what exactly did they believe? We’re not sure because all it says is that they returned home; presumably they figured that was it. Jesus had come to share some time with them and then what? We’re not really sure. What does it mean that they simply returned home? Was the mission over? Was something more to come? What were they making of their experience? Was it just a personal revelation to them or for them? Did they doubt? Were they confused? Were they in shock? We simply don’t know. And I daresay that many of us would respond just as they did: we would figuratively go home, walk out of the church, away from our mission, and go home. We’d maybe talk about ‘those years when’ which would prompt us to some momentary celebration that would eventually fade with time and die out before it reached a next generation. This would make sense because as the Scriptures tell us: they did not yet understand that he must rise from the dead. What good is a dead man returned to the dust? What hope of life with God, what promises of God does this fulfill for humanity?
But Mary, Mary doesn’t do this. She prays aloud the very words Jesus himself has just lived. “O Lord why have you forsaken me and all your followers, Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Where are you Lord, where are you O my Lord. And she remains at his grave. You see Mary’s hope was grounded in something deeper even than her love for Jesus.
Mary’s hope was grounded in the words of God heard in the Scriptures: I will come to you Ephraim, I will be with you Israel, I will be your God and you will be my people. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. And her hope was grounded also in God’s words to Abraham through the prophets: I will gather all things to myself, not just Israel but Jew and Gentile alike. I will gather all things and place them under my authority and I will be all in all (c.f. 1 Cor 15:28).
Mary’s hope, grounded in her love for Jesus caused her to bend low. She weeps at the magnitude of what she believed she’d lost: her Lord God. Life shattering moment of grief. She looks in at the tomb for a last glance. And sitting there are two angels. Remember back to our first Sunday in Lent, Satan’s words to Jesus, “jump from this tower Jesus, fall down, go down to your death, do this, the angels will raise you up, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” Remember Jesus’s reply, ‘it is said, do not put your Lord your God to the test. Not my will, not anyone else’s will, but yours be done, Jesus says to his Father.’
And while Mary first sees the angels, she then sees a man she does not recognize, she thinks maybe it’s the gardener and so and she says to him, “please, if you have taken him, let me have him and I will take him with me.” But the man says to her, “Mary, it is me, Jesus!” It is not the angels who have borne Jesus up; they merely testify to his rising from the dead. No, it is not, as Satan would have it, as our world would have it, that anyone raised Jesus, or moved his body from the tomb. It is Jesus himself who has risen, raised up by and as God himself.
Astonished, exhilarated perhaps, she shouts, “rabbouni” (teacher). It is you my Lord. She had apparently at least attempted to embrace him for he says to her, “Mary, do not yet hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Don’t hold onto me yet. It is not your time to go where I am going. I have work for you Mary, “go and tell my brothers that I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.” Now you are in me as I am in my Father, and you will be called my brothers and sisters.
Overwhelmed with joy Mary rushes off to tell the disciples, to testify to what she has seen. And as we know, she is one of the first to make this proclamation. This Jesus was not a great man by the world’s standards. Yet the life that he lived, he lived in perfect love for his Father. A love that led to the cross he bore for our sakes even to the end of his life, the cross that would bear the iniquity, the sin of us all; a love that would overcome the darkness, the death that is life without God; a love that would draw us up from the dead to be reconciled to God (c.f. Isaiah 53). This was the life of God that Mary recognized in Jesus’s coming to her, coming amongst the disciples, coming into the world to transform a fallen and broken creation.
Of course like Simon Peter, and the other disciple, and like Mary, so often we struggle to recognize Jesus’s presence in a world that so often appears to us violent, broken, painful, tiring, confusing, sometimes even full of emptiness; and now a world – an entire world of individuals all brought to our figurative knees by a virus. And we too wait with confusion, worry, exhaustion, emotional turmoil. Maybe some who look at the news, or who must bury a friend, or child, or grandparent, or parent, they weep. In the most profound sense, we weep not only literally, but as persons with hearts and minds that grow sad with Mary and Jesus when we look out with fear on a world so filled with uncertainty and often pain and suffering, we look out sometimes not just with a sense of sadness, but sometimes hopelessness, and helplessness. We cry out with Jesus, “O God why have you forsaken us, where are you.” Or perhaps it is in those moments where someone or something dear to us is lost: a child, a husband, a wife, a friend; or when things we’d hoped for fail to take place, marriage, health, a child’s flourishing, a grandchild’s well being; or when things fall apart, relationships, home life, our bodies, our minds. We don’t just weep, we cry out, in agony, in gut wrenching pain, ‘why O God have you forsaken me?’
These moments, Mary moments I sometimes call them, are inevitable. We are finite, mortal beings. This virus before us is nothing new to our history; countless generations across history have experienced this, and worse than this. It is a reminder that our earthly lives do not persist forever. But they are indeed a gift for a reason: so that like Mary, and like the disciples, we might have a life in which we can come to see the risen Christ in the midst of our own lives, over and over. We are given life in order that we might see God at work not just when things are going well, but so often in the midst of our greatest trials, in those moments where we are most vulnerable, most laid bare, most open to receiving the one who brings true life: Jesus Christ himself. So do not worry, little flock, God says to us, for I am with you. I will bear you up and bring you to me in the darkest moments, in the last moments. This is the promise Mary knows and goes to share, and it is ours if we are but willing to follow: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not, in him, also give us everything else? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.
When you click here, you will find our Gospel Reading for Good Friday captured in narrative form. Typically, we read this long Passion Narrative in parts for our service. Since we cannot do that this year, I thought the pictures that accompany this telling of the Passion will help you to enter into the story of Jesus’s betrayal, his arrest, his trial, his torture and his execution. In order to understand the profound gift that Jesus’s resurrection opens for us both now and for eternity that we’ll celebrate at Easter, we first need to journey with him today, Good Friday. We still recognize Good Friday rather than skipping it and going straight to Easter because we are a people who need to physically embody our faith. So here, as a people who truly are in a state of shock because of COVID, we are brought face-to-face with the stark judgment of the Cross: our finitude, our suffering, our uncertainty. With Peter and Judas we are confronted with the question of whose we are, shall we persevere through the Cross to find hope in the resurrection, or shall we stop and cut ourselves off from the living fountain of life, given in the resurrection? Shall we turn away from God in the things we say and allowing our secular world to pretend power and authority in dictating justice, righteousness, and goodness? Or shall we endure through the cockcrows in our own personal lives? This Good Friday, we are in the position – one unique to most of our lives – to ask deep questions about how we are responding to God. As you read through these passages and look at the accompanying pictures, please don’t rush. Take a moment, consider how you fit into the character of Paul, of Judas, of Pilate, of Jesus’s betrayers, of Jesus’s family, of his disciples? Maybe this stark removal from the normal rhythms of life has brought you to realize that you engage other people with fear of something, rather than in faith that you are loved, held, desired, and given purpose by someone far more powerful than today’s Pilate. Maybe it makes you realize that you run from things because you have been hurt by those who taunt, who betray, who misjudge or mischaracterize you. Is that running really serving you? Or has it left you in the place of Jesus’s people here and Pilate: unable to see truth, to be held in that truth in love, to forgive yourself, or others, and to move on with hope? There are so many ways we fit into all the figures we encounter in this Gospel reading. Take the time to enter into them. And once you’ve done that, take the time to pray to God to give you the capacity to endure the shock of a world turned upside down by COVID, by Good Friday, and the potential it opens to be transformed, pulled up from the grave where sin leaves you, into the Easter Hope we shall celebrate Sunday. AMEN.
Sermon: Palm Sunday 2020.
Our readings are Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11. They can be found online here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=29
One of the things I love about Palm Sunday is the way that it threads together the Old and New Testaments. The readings – the same stories each year – always show us that we are being ‘grafted’ (as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans) into the people of God through the one true tree of life: Jesus Christ. Why do I love that Palm Sunday does this? Well, I love the symbolic connections:
So this is why I love palm Sunday. It is filled with symbols, words, creatures, persons and events that weave together the Old and New testaments not just in these two passages, but across the Scriptures.
But this is an intellectual delight, an intellectual beauty that speaks to something more fundamental. And if it were not for this, that interweaving would be like that you find in any other well written story. No, the key here, at least for me is this. The reason it is so important that these passages have such interwoven fulfillment is because it proves to me that the God who claims to have made me, given me a purpose, a place, and a life – that he cannot and will not abandon me when things go horrifically wrong. We could have just read the Gospel lesson today and know that this man named Jesus is going to take a humble donkey ride while some folks lay down palm branches.
Nice story. Reminds me of many other legends and myths. And maybe this would give me some moments of refreshment or allow me to reset how I think about things. But I’ll tell you what, it would leave me with a sense of profound sadness about life. Why? Because it wouldn’t allow me to see who God is: that the one who made me from nothing – that rescued me from this profoundly messed up world where there is disease, suffering, brokenness, war, brutal violence, pandemics – is also the one who refuses to accept these things as dictating that I should succumb to brokenness, corruption, and evil in my life now. Although I may suffer and struggle – as all of us do and very much are to varying degrees through this pandemic – God has always been, always will be and so in the middle of this frightening, confusing, destructive, and uncertain time of pandemic, always is with us.
You see our story today, of Jesus taking the wise donkey of burden, carrying the God-man who has taken on my own and your burdens, allows me to see the world through a different light as the psalm puts it, or lens, as we might say today. If we look back through time in Scripture what we see is not just the events recorded in those scriptures. Instead we can see all of history and even our present right there in different parts of Scripture: we see wars, disease, corruption, violence, degradation and humiliation, aging, suffering, sickness, disease and death. And we see God present with us, his people. We see him not idly standing by, or standing above us shaking his head at us and our foolishness and our suffering. We see that he came into the world for us and walked a path that would lead to our redemption, our reconciliation and to life. A life offered to each of us not to live on our own, or in our own ways, but in relationship, following that path that God laid out for us in the life of Jesus. And we know that the gate came down with Jesus’s Cross and resurrection, so that we could walk the righteous path with him, we in him and him in us.
That my friends, is what allows me to truly live and give of myself when I am tired, scared, worried, stressed out, frustrated, confused, and profoundly uncertain. I am not alone even when no mere human knows my fear and anxiety, knows the deeds I must do and the things I must refrain from telling, or the ways in which relationships can scratch away the scabs or even old skin of scars from old fears abided, but never forgotten.
Today we begin holy week. In times past it has been a week of anticipation and of so much activity in the Church, times of gathering, preparing and worshipping. This week there will be no opportunity to gather together in person. This week is Holy Saturday. It is a time of collective exhaustion, of profound shock, sadness, worry, and maybe even for some of you (as I know it has been for many of my colleagues), of tears. My friends I say to you, let them flow. There is no shame in weeping, of wailing with lament and anguish. This is a world whose entire population is living a truth of human finitude: our Holy Saturday. It is okay to acknowledge this and allow yourself to remain there.
For we know something else. We know that The Son of God who goes down into the depths of Hell, that he rises. That he comes amongst us and that he remains with us, that he gives us His Spirit so that in these times, we can know that we are not alone. We are not standing outside the gates but we have the Holy of Holies inside us, deeper inside us that we are in ourselves (see Augustine). So as we are confined to our homes, uncertain of our futures, let us not forget that we are bound together, as were the Israelites, in and with Christ. From here, just where we are, we can reach out as we’ve been doing – in the hope and by the way of Christ – to talk on the phone, to write a letter or an email, to check in with one another, knowing that we have been given life, even through struggle and uncertainty, for the sake of one another as witnesses to this one in whom we find life. AMEN.
Lent 5 A Sermon for Sunday March 3, 2020
Our readings for the day: Old Testament: The Prophet Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Epistle: Paul’s epistle/letter to the Roman gathering of Christians 8:6-11; The Gospel of John 11:1-45 (see your Bible or the following link if you’re online: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=28)
My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,
This is the third Sunday since we last were together to hear the Word of God, of where he is at, of what he is doing in our lives. And it has been three Sundays since we have been able to come together to be renewed in fellowship with him and with one another by consuming his body and blood, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. I don’t know about you, but I know I have found this absence from you a sharp and stabbing reminder of our frailty, of the temporary nature of our lives – as our reading from Ezekiel puts it – a reminder that we are but dry bones without flesh or spirit without God’s sustaining presence with us.
To be quite honest, I often, and it would seem that most of us often forget our frailty and how temporary our lives are. Some of us certainly do have reminders. I am diabetic and relying on insulin to keep me alive does sometimes make me more aware of how vulnerable I am to other diseases and to death than perhaps is the case for many. I know several of you have had or have cancer, mental illnesses, chronic pain, severe headaches, etc. And yet these are certainly not situations or conditions that affect every human being on earth.
But now, now we are brought to the brink of our mortal existence – not just your or I, not in existential or abstract form – but concretely. The threat of one disease, COVID-19, has ground the culturally, nationally and linguistically diverse and geographically disbursed world’s economies to a halt. Here, as in most other places across the entire world, we have been asked to stay home, to stay inside, to stay away from one another for even unknowingly, we might carry a disease that affects the capacity for others to live. And as we have been asked to isolate, the things we take for granted – gathering for social events, for cultural events, for sporting events, even for worship, travelling, going to see friends and family near and far – have been halted. It is as if the world were covered by a flood that stopped all human enterprises of making families, of building and running businesses, of travelling to trade, of exploring of ladder climbing, of tower building (see Noah’s Ark, Genesis 7).
How does this make you feel? Fearful? Untethered? Uncertain? We are certainly not used to living with these things in the acute way they have occurred for us. We have no real immediate experience to compare this event to. Perhaps we’ve read history books and know about the plagues that killed millions throughout the centuries, about how towns and nations shut down at various times and places. We know, at least from a distance of time and experience, that what we are experiencing now, is not unheard of. But that’s just the point: we have no personal experience of the reality most people through history have lived with: physical, mental, emotional suffering and death, on a regular basis. We have medicines, hospitals, technologies, shelters, foodbanks, hospitals and senior’s homes in which the suffering and dying are removed from our immediate vision, from our homes, from our streets. But now that reality of human finitude is not just on our doorsteps but is being experienced in our physical bodies, in our hearts and minds.
And we might ask: where is God in all of this? Some pastors have claimed that this is God’s punishment of a way of life, or of one particular group or another. Is there truth in this claim? To be frank, I cannot say. One of the things that ought to be said, if you weren’t already aware of this, is that the events of plagues and diseases in Scripture which God caused or which he used, were interpreted ‘at a distance’ that is, often 2-500 years after they actually occurred. In other words, interpretation of God’s purposes and works is not only a retrospective (looking back at what occurred and what the longer range outcomes were), but also a communal and not an individual determination. So to imagine one can claim ‘what God is doing here’ with any certainty is, I think, the work of a true fool, not a fool formed in and by Christ.
Part of the reason we cannot say where God is in this is because we don’t yet know what this ‘break from our normal routines and ways and thinking’ will mean, of what it will change, of how it will change us, or those with whom we interact from the person who lives beside us to the person who lives over in Taiwan thousands of kilometers away from us. Another part of the reason we cannot say where God is in this is because I think we have for too long, imagined that God is somehow going to work consistently with what we think, believe, and desire, as if God is in our ‘employ.’ We imagine that “God with us,” means God “supports our way of life and thinking and doing and living.” We imagine that God’s judgment is something that only occurred in the past and that now we are set free to do as we please. But Scripture of course tells us that the ways that we as individuals and as a whole nation (by nation I mean the people of Israel and Church) live, are often inconsistent with what he desires of us.
So on the one hand, we must be open to the fact that whether God causes (I doubt this) or whether God uses the events that occur as a result of this virus (I think this is more likely), there may in fact be condemnation of aspects of how we live, of the presumptions we make, etc. What could these be? I think there’s a long list – destroying the created world God gave us to live on largely in greedy pursuit of land/homes, money and possessions, caring more about ourselves than fostering community and care for the most vulnerable, harming children through enslaving them, or neglecting them because we are too busy at work, hurting one another in relationships, concentrating most of the world’s wealth in the hands of a few while billions starve and live in their own feces, building suburbs and projects to amass more safe personal space for nuclear families while simultaneously creating the most lonely generation of people that has ever existed, failing to teach the Christian faith with specific Christ formed virtues, instead falsely presuming it to be coterminous with our nationalistic libertarianism – and the list goes on.
All of these things, along with everything else that we do and presume about who we are before God, all of these things I think we will need to individually and collectively question as we take them to God in prayer. Are they consistent with what God reveals throughout the whole Bible. What does it mean to be a steward of creation? Is the way we treat the earth we live on, the animals and plants we live with consistent with being the stewards God calls us? Is our constant material consumption of possession and food consistent with being God’s steward of his creation? What does God want of families? Why do they exist? What does he want of single people? What is their purpose? How does God call us to work? What is work for? What does it mean to return, through our work and through our families, to God these very things that God gave to us?
This morning the key theme of our reading is that it is God who judges wrong our sins by which we literally suffer and die. Psalm 130, verse 3 says, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand? Iniquities are failures to follow God’s will; they are sin. So who can stand if God is judge of human failure to follow him? Well we see who it is who stands. It is the one who himself alone is both human perfection and as God is perfect: Jesus Christ. It is the One who, when he raises Lazarus in the Gospel from John, foreshadows or lets us know that He alone has the power to raise us; for it is He alone who is raised and rises from the dead.
In Lazarus’s being raised from the dead, we can see ourselves, having been raised in our baptisms, from death by Jesus. For far too long we have taken this basic Christian claim for granted. We’ve taken it for granted so much that we’ve forgotten or cannot figure out how to explain it to people who don’t go to Church because socially, they don’t have to. And so our Churches – all of them – have emptied out. This is the most basic claim of the Christian faith. Through one man – Adam’s, sin – all fell (that means you and me both). But through one man’s faith – a Jesus Christ’s faith – all are made alive. It is the claim that makes us distinct from groups that just follow a good moral story, or self-help manuals, or a variety of Western secular morals.
Where is God in all of this? I don’t know for certain. Is it a form of judgment? I don’t know for certain. Will God use it as a form of judgment? Scriptural precedent seems to indicate that he will. He will call us out of our iniquity. But here’s the central part – that reassuring part I think we’re all looking for – he doesn’t stand far off as we struggle in the sort of uncertainty and fear and anxiety, and upheaval that Lazarus surely did before his death, or that the people of Israel – in the midst of their judgment – did when being addressed by Ezekiel. Nope. God does not stand far off. He doesn’t even leave it to us to somehow get to him. What does he do? Well first, he does give us time. And sometimes that time is spent in suffering the fate of sin: disorder, struggle, and pain, whether in literal terms, or in more figurative terms.
What does he say when he’s told Lazarus is dying? He waits. He actually stays two more days “in the place he was.” He doesn’t go immediately and stop Lazarus’s march toward death. In fact, he says that this movement toward death is going to glorify God. This would be a horrible thing to say, a monstrous thing unfitting a loving God, if Jesus didn’t have the power to raise him from death not just at the end of time, but back into the midst of his family and friends, to be a witness indeed, to the power of God right there and then. Jesus did not leave Lazarus, even if he didn’t respond when everyone wanted or expected him to. God does things in his own time and in a time only he knows.
By the time Jesus got to him, Lazarus stunk because he’d been dead for four days. Jesus commands him to come out and sure enough, out comes Lazarus not at the end of time, but right then and there four days later, back to his family and friends, back into his life in one way, and yet into an entirely new life given and experienced and known and so seen through the life of God that is the true light shed on all the events that take place in this world: “O dry bones hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And we see then that even though he did it in his own time and for a purpose we could not understand, God was never absent from Lazarus, not in life, and then we discover, not even in suffering, or death, and most certainly, not in the new life Jesus made happen.
This is what I think we can draw from this: even when we cannot see where God is, when we don’t understand what he could be doing, or why, even when we are faced with true, concrete fear, disease, suffering, anxiety, loneliness, we can be assured that God has not abandoned us. He has given us time. And in this time, potentially he will use this situation of having to face into the reality that we are mortal, that we are fallen sinners who are not living in accordance with his desire for us, as a kind of giant ‘reset button’ like that hit with the Flood and his Ark.
You see the Ark in our lives is the Ark in every human life: it is the Cross of Jesus Christ. That Cross casts judgment on the broken and sinful ways that we live. So when an event occurs that causes the kind of universal pause we have before us right here and now with COVID, as with the Flood, we are given time to ask what the Cross illumines in this world that is of God, and what it illumines that is not of God. And perhaps through this event, we can go to God with more humility and less anger, less presumption, less sense of control and autonomy, and ask: “O Lord, I wait for you, my soul waits and I cry out from the depths, hear my voice as I raise my questions to you, answer me Lord and give me direction.
In today’s gospel lesson, we hear a religious leader of the Jews named Nicodemus say to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus replies to Nicodemus: “no one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above.” Likely just as you and I would respond, with confusion and doubt, Nicodemus says, "How can these things be, we’ve already been born and grown up, how are we to enter our mother’s womb again?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? You have heard God’s word and know the signs and the disciples and I we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. You fail to recognize the signs God told you of manifest in my works, so how will you believe if I try to tell you about being born from above, about heavenly things that is?
Here is the sign spoken through God’s word: do you remember when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness? That was a sign of what is to come: and now the Son of Man, me, Jesus, must be lifted up on the cross so that your faith is not in vain but secured in my resurrection to life. I descended from heaven to the earth, all the way to Hell, and will ascend to heaven, so that the whole of creation might be transformed, and you might be reconciled to God, “that whoever believes in [me] may have eternal life.”
Now it’s important to understand something here: the signs that Jesus is doing, have been given already and we read about them in the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, we hear of Moses lifting the serpent so that anyone who looked at it would be cured of the venom of the serpent, literally, of the effects of sin. Recall it is a serpent who is spoken of in Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, so also is this Jesus’s tempter. Like this serpent lifted high by Moses, so Jesus Christ is raised on the Cross, and again raised from the dead, his faithfulness in enduring this, overcoming the effects of sin and granting life to those who believe, who have faith in God. We see similar signs in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his Son Isaac. But that his Son Isaac, is saved from death by God by Abraham’s faithfulness, God’s own faithfulness, and Isaac becomes the ancestor of the Messiah and so every gentile, all of us.
So Nicodemus has no excuse: as a teacher of the Israelites, he knows these signs well. So Jesus says to him: “look I am fulfilling all the signs you ought to know in the things I’m doing here day-to-day. Can you not see dear Nicodemus, that only God himself could fulfill these signs, do you not recognize who I am, Nicodemus? Are you still blind to God come into your midst? If you do not recognize me as the fulfillment of the signs you know as an Israelite, how hard will it be for you to hear of the heavenly things? If you were to recognize me, you would know that you must be born not simply from a mother and father on earth, but from the grace of God above.
Let us contrast Nicodemus for a moment with the woman who risks her life simply to grasp onto Jesus garments in faith that he is the power who will heal her. Hers is a recognition that she must be born from above. Or think about Mary who anoints Jesus feet with oil, spending likely most of what she has, not paying attention to the housecleaning and the social customs that must be done, for she has this one moment to invite Jesus into her life, recognizing him as God, she gives freely of everything she has in that moment. Or think of Mary when she trusts an angel of God, giving up her safety, and likely her life, even her future, to bear the Son of God solely by faith. Hers is the recognition that one must be born from above by risking a life bound to faith in God, not certainty of her own circumstances. Or think of Abraham and Noah who step out to sacrifice a Son and to spend years laboring to build an ark with only the word of God to motivate them.
All of these people are signs of what it looks like to recognize Jesus Christ as Lord of all, as God, and to be taken up in him and born anew in him, of the Holy Spirit. To see the kingdom of God – isn’t a moment of insight – but a lifetime spent following the one who is the very kingdom unfolded across time: Jesus himself. But there’s this catch, to see Jesus Christ’s life unfold, to see the kingdom of God encompassing all creation, well, this requires faith. To be born from above in the life of Christ is, in this world still not yet reconciled to God, not a matter of knowing with certainty, but trusting God and so following him in faith that he will bring about the reconciliation he has promised.
To put this in Scriptural terms, to see the kingdom of God one must be born out of the womb of God; from the nothingness to which sin returned us, to new life, by grace won for us in Jesus’s death and resurrection; and in new life, to receive this grace taking our first breath in faith that the air given by God might fill our lungs and make beat our hearts; and in following being made fit, our dry bones enfleshed, crawling in confession and repentance and prayer on our knees; and in following, so also receiving the Spirit who enables us to first step out into the kingdom, into the very life of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be born from above. It is the new life of faith that we receive by grace and mark in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Having been born from below already, as Nicodemus remarks, to be born from above is to step out from the safety of our lives into the uncertainty that comes, inevitably with faith in God whom we see now only through a glass darkly.
We like safety though; so as much as we’d like to think we would turn to God like Abraham or Job, or Ruth, or Mary, or Paul, we often end up like Peter denying Jesus three times at our circumstantial cockcrows; or like David and Solomon, given much only to make a huge error of judgment which drags us into disordered relationships that affect all around us, or maybe even like Judas, in willing betrayal of God, even knowing and having seen him as the fulfillment of all the signs God has scattered throughout our history.
Even having been born from above, born in Christ, sustained in him by the Spirit, so too do we often fall back into what Paul calls, the old life, the life of flesh; a life ordered simply to the things of this world, forgetting how the kingdom of God looks. Why? Well why does it happen for God’s people? Likely because faith is a mighty difficult thing to sustain in light of what a lot of us go through, big and small events. To offer ourselves to God in faith, to step out and follow him has become unnatural for us, enmeshed as we are in a world of sin and brokenness. We’re so often stung by our encounters in life, in sometimes horrific ways: disappointment, a lack of experienced love, the loss of relationships, fear of judgment, exclusion and rejection; disease; fear of violence, or economic failure.
Mostly though, I think that faith is difficult to sustain because we lose sight of how the events of our lives that seem our only reality, are taken up into God’s own life. Perhaps it is because we do not know the Scriptures – all of them, not just the parts that we like to read – and so we think God cannot handle the most twisted and trying events of our life. It is very hard to trust and have faith in the trials of life if we do not see how God has already taken our trials of life and death, birth, work, self doubt, abuse and persecution, destruction and falling apart, betrayal, confusion, loneliness, anxiety, fear and anger, how he has already taken these on himself. If we do not see this, how can we know we have been given a place on the ark, raised out of a watery grave, a place to live, to love, to share, to give, and to grow, where we are reminded of hope brought to us in the midst of the figurative floods of our own lives. How could we catch glimpses through our lives of the figurative olive branch carried by the dove, the Holy Spirit, that indicates the flood of our circumstances will subside, caught up in God’s own ordering of all things and our lives therein, to the good, to the dry land where we are secured by the olive tree of the Cross which brings about new life in his resurrection.
Faith can and often is in fact filled with a lifetime of painful realizations, of acts of letting go, of humiliation and of humility, of patience, endurance, courage, perseverance and confessing that whatever circumstances we come from, we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ. Only as we let go and go up to him again and again, can the most broken aspects of our lives be healed; for only in him is love poured out in perfection that provides a balm for our wounds, whatever they are. Only as we let go over a lifetime of following, can the pain we experience be soothed by the balm of his body and blood poured out for us; enfleshing our tired, cracked, dry bones and hearts chaffed raw by the trials of life. Only then can we come to see the kingdom of God; of our true birth from above; held in perfect love in the bosom of God himself. AMEN.
In the beginning our uncreated God created all things, including us, out of nothing. He created us to be images of him in the world he made and so to remain in relationship with him so that we could learn how to be like him and so a sign to others about who he is, as the particular people we are. God says to the two who represent humanity’s beginning, Adam and Eve, ‘I have given you everything you need to survive and to live well in relationship to me, fulfilling your vocation to be a created reflection or image of and because of this, living the most fulfilling life you could possibly have, since it is ordered to me, your creator.
But sure enough, Adam and Eve, like every human being, including Jesus Christ, are tempted to take their own path; to have autonomy and control over their own affairs, as if it were up to them to make of their life what they will. The serpent – who represents temptation either literally or figuratively, says to Eve, “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” And She answers honestly, “yes.” The serpent, perhaps sensing her vulnerability or knowing of the capacity of desire we all have, says, “you will not die if you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is trying to trick you into being a slave to him. He knows that when you eat of that tree, that you’re eyes will be opened and you’ll be like him, yourselves knowing good and evil. He’s trying to control you. Don’t let him. Take back the control and autonomy that’s rightfully yours.” And of course Adam and Eve both eat of the tree God has forbidden them to eat of.
In our Gospel this morning we hear of how Jesus is tempted by this Serpent we call Satan: “Jesus I know you’re starving from fasting in the desert 40 days and nights, so make bread out of stone for yourself. You have the capacity to choose do it, just as Adam and Eve had the capacity to choose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But unlike Adam and Eve, who, though they have the provision of all the food for survival and flourishing they need, still eat from the tree, Jesus rightly recognizes the temptation to satiate his own desire for asserting his autonomy and control, not simply as a human being, but as God himself, and he says to the temper: “it is said, one does not live by bread alone, but by the words that come from the mouth of God you hear in worship in your scriptures.”
He’s tempted by this fallen angel twice more: first he’s taken up to the pinnacle and told he should throw himself down to challenge God’s promise that he will bear his people in their sin and raise them up, that they will not suffer the inevitable injury and death that results from falling to a certain death, here both a literal reality of falling from height, and a figurative reality of falling from grace. Jesus implies something essential here, as the Son of God, God himself: “I could very well do this, but it is said, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Here he reverses Adam and Eve’s own presumption to fall to the temptation to put God to the test by asserting their own autonomy in their lives. And this of course foreshadows what it to come: take this cup from me Lord I do not wish to die on the cross, to suffer the death due to all humanity on account of sin; but your will be done. I willingly offer myself into your hands. Into your hands O Father, do I commend my spirit.
Finally, the tempter, Satan, takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “fall down and worship me and I will give all these into your command.” Jesus says, “Away with you Satan, for it is said, worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” This of course is Satan’s/the serpent’s/temptation not just to Adam and Eve, but to all of us, “follow your idols, follow your gods, and you will have control and autonomy not only over your own life, but over the whole world you live in because you can construct your life in the world however you wish, since you know what is good and what is evil. This is a stunning response to Satan because of course the Son of God who is God himself knows what is good and evil, of course he has control over everything he created, and yet God does not exercise what is in his power to do. Why?
This is the key question here. Why does he not do this? Because were he to fall to temptation here, he could not fulfill what he was sent into the world to do: to reconcile human beings to relationship with God; to change the very nature of a fallen world by fulfilling not only the commandments to love God and neighbor and enemy required of all human beings, but by fulfilling his promise to reconcile all human beings to himself. As God and man, Jesus Christ could do this only by doing the will of God: taking the final rejection of human beings, the final horrific act of self-autonomy and control in executing the Son of God and, as with Adam and Eve, overcoming the sin that separates every human being from God. That very act, of continuing his life to the Cross, of every human sin being nailed to the cross with Jesus, is the sole means by which the acts of each person past, present and future, do not lead to death.
Indeed we hear in Romans, “just as Adam and Eve’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so Jesus Christ’s righteousness, the act of a human being fulfilling the commandments of God, and the act of God in taking on all of humanity’s sin in his Son, leads to righteousness for all who receive this undeserved grace in faith.”
And here we come to look at our own lives. Each year in Lent, we look forward to the resurrection hope of Easter Sunday, where we celebrate our having been received into Christ through the Holy Spirit; into God’s own body, the Church, through our baptisms. In the Church we have been handed the faith, which we are to come to learn, to make our own as a community and as individuals.
But of course we stand with Adam and Eve, and so too with Jesus, as human beings tempted away from the faith, away from God. We are tempted so often by fear, by uncertainty that becomes manifest as the desire for autonomy and control over the affairs of our life. These temptations threaten to pull us away from God and in so doing, from finding peace in the provisions for life he has given to us. Lent is a time set aside in the Church to examine our motivations, our fears, our anxieties, our responses and behaviors and to offer these up to God; to ask that he might use, change or eliminate them so that he can shape and mold us into his image we find perfected in Jesus Christ. I don’t know what these things are for you; most of us know what these are, even if we struggle to admit and grapple with them. Take them to God this Lent in prayer. This offering, laying ourselves bear and recognizing our sole dependence on God is simultaneously what it means to love God, to offer ourselves to his service and to rely upon his provision alone, and to repent of those things we know and don’t know, that separate us from him, so that we might be cleansed, be made new, conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It is for this alone that we were made: that we might be the created reflection of God in the world. AMEN.
This week we celebrate Jesus’s transfiguration. Put simply, what we’re celebrating today is the revelation that Jesus Christ is God, not a mere prophet, or rabbi/teacher. Jesus is the truth of God’s love for us because he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to heal, restore, reconcile and recreate us in his image so that we can have life now, and eternally, with him. God comes to us in the Son, and by his Spirit, gathers us to the Father. That’s what this transfiguration is all about.
It’s also though, about a moment of recognition of this tremendous revelation by God. It’s a recognition by the disciples who say, ‘this Jesus we’ve been following, he really is God, let us keep him here on this mountain and build him a special dwelling place, sort of like a shrine. Jesus says, ‘nope’ I’m not a shrine to worship. If you want to love me, that is, if you want to worship me, first come to me, but then my friends, you need to go down from this mountain, you need to go out of this church and enact – live out – the love that I have given to you. To worship is to offer yourself to me, to come to know me, so that I can equip you to go and make more disciples by sharing my love with other people. So guess what? You’re going to need to be constantly seeking, and continually open to changing so that you can join me not on this mountain top for right now, but out in your homes, in your neighborhood, in your schools, your hospitals, your senior’s residences, your grocery stores, your friend’s houses. In other words my dear brothers and sisters: you’re going to need to grow from where you are now, so that you can become more like me, if you want to share me with others.
I’m not sure about you, but I do know that for me, and apparently (having read a lot of the literature), growth is about coming to flourish – that is to live into the person you were created to be. As for what would compel me to grow? That’s an easy one: safety, security, being loved, having purpose, mattering to someone. Here’s the thing – as most of us know – if we rely on transient, ever changing things or people (people who come and go, people who might for one reason or another leave our lives) for safety, security, being loved, and having purpose, at the end of the day, we’re not going to have a solid foundation for the seed we are, for our roots to spread, for our leaves to blossom, for us to weather the inevitable storms life throws at us. Why? Because things and people are, well finite, limited, they hurt us, they leave, they move, they get sick, they die. And as important as these relationships are – and they are exceptionally important for us – they are not the bedrock, the foundation, the cornerstone of our very lives. Your best friend, or your spouse – they might be an essential part of your life, of how you think of yourself (a best friend, a life long friend, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a mentor, an aunt or uncle), but these people did not bring you into existence, they do not define you completely, and they cannot be with you from cradle to grave, more inward to you than your very own self is to you.
What we all are seeking – however we might pursue it or speak of it – is an unbroken endurance of embrace: of physical, mental and emotional protection, of meaning and purpose, of being desirable and desired, of being desired for who we are even when we find ourselves twisted and broken and fragile in our own particular snaggled ways. Here’s the catch though. You often hear – usually in backlash to the sort of judgmentalism and exclusion that has too often been part of everyone’s experience – that we must love people, ‘just as they are.’
But true love, perfect love, cannot actually do this. Only imperfect love, love that is limited, itself fragile, and pulled in multiple directions without knowing fully the purpose for which it was made – only imperfect love can love people ‘just how they are.’ In contrast, perfect love, will embrace you indeed, and move you to the place, in accordance with the purpose for which that love made you. How do you feel about this? Does this make your neck hair stand on end? Does this sound coercive? Does this sound as if your freedom is being somehow suppressed? I have heard this said many times: I must be free to do as I please; if you love me, you will let me do what I want.
But is, ‘being free to do what we want, truly what we want?’ Think for a moment about those times you’ve been really hurt and you want to strike back at that person to get revenge. Have you ever actually done that? How’d that work out for you in the long run? I know several lost friendships, even marriages where someone was free and ‘did just what they wanted.’ The consequence turned out to be harmful to themselves and others. I’ve seen this with people who continue on with drugs and alcohol, or with sleeping around or open marriages. The root problems for why people did these things only ever being addressed when really serious consequences devastated them.
In contrast to freedom, unchecked, I have seen parents financially cut off and institutionalize their children who were addicted to drugs, who had eating disorders, who committed crimes. And in all these cases, wow, have I seen shame. Massive shame, anger, rage, embarrassment, fear, and desire for rebellion. How dare you strip me of my freedom to be me. How dare you judge me. How dare you try to correct me. How dare you try to redirect me. F- you. I want my freedom. Here’s the thing, while our collective human push for freedom has taken many shapes and forms, and our individual lives may have looked like some of these cases, or perhaps in far less drastic ways, one of the things that each one of us shares, are things that – when seen through the lens of perfect love – ought to bring us shame. This, my friends, is sin. Sin takes so many forms that I cannot possibly name the ways it is manifested in our own lives, in our own reasoning, in our relationships with others, in things we do or don’t do, in ways that are unknown to us (that others can often see when we can’t).
The thing is perfect love refuses, actually, to accept us just as we are because doing so would leave us without the capacity to go out and share God’s love with others. If perfect love just left us where we are – we would be left thinking, ‘hey, it’s okay to respond in this really nasty way,’ or, ‘it’s everyone else’s fault that I’m always angry or moody, or irritable,’ or, ‘I’m going to constantly criticize this person, never give them credit because I want them to be just like me and what I want, rather than grow into who they actually are.’ If perfect love did not shine light on the things we do out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, greed, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and lust, we would be left in a degenerate world where our meaning was solely about what power we could wield over ourselves and others.
Our reading today, about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – God’s revealing his presence, his power, his creation of us, his reconciliation of us, his love for us that reshapes how we even think of the good – this is fundamentally about the truth, not A TRUTH, but THE TRUTH, being unveiled. No longer can you and I live our lives as if the truth of God in Christ has been veiled to us so that we can’t see it. We have been baptized and adopted into God’s family. We are his children through Jesus Christ. In his Holy Spirit, the love he pours out that constitutes his very being, corrects, burns away, chastens, and reforms us into the image of his Son. This is why the disciples bow down in fear: they recognize the truth. God has come and because he is perfection fulfilled in Jesus’s own life, he enables us to see where our words and actions don’t live up to his own way of loving his neighbors and enemies; not always accepting as I said above, but when questioning, or critiquing, or challenging and correcting, doing it in a way that will enable a person to endure it and actually be transformed into Jesus’s own likeness too. AMEN.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during his childhood. He attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which he continues to do to this day.