Tag Archives: Bible

A Homily: Why Our Suffering is Meaningless (And Why That’s Really Good News)

Job 38:1-7

You know Job’s story. He has suffered great loss—loss his personal fortune, his health, even his own children. All of this through no fault of his own, but as the result of some strange cosmic pissing contest between God and the devil, which we the readers are privy to, but which Job knows nothing of. He suffers, like the rest of us, in the dark—searching for answers, for the meaning in his pain.

And here, in the passage I just read to you, God enters the conversation for the very first time. He comes with perhaps an unexpected agenda. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” he asks Job. In other words: Who the hell do you think you are, Job, to question me? “Dress for action like a man, and I will question you.”

And question him, God does: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

Are you picking up the sarcasm? I hope so, because he’s laying it on pretty thick. And God doesn’t let up after these seven verses we read this morning. No, it goes on like this for almost four chapters.

  • Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
  • Have you commanded the morning, Job…and caused the dawn to know its place?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?
  • What is the way to the place where the light is distributed?
  • And who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?
  • Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
  • Is it by your understanding, Job, that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?

If I’m honest, I find these verses more than a little distasteful. Maybe you do too? I mean, Job is at the end of his rope here. He’s poor, mourning the death of his children, scratching the boils on his skin with broken pottery in hopes of a moment’s relief. Now God shows up? And just to give Job the third degree? If we read these chapters by themselves God comes across as a pitiless bully who just wants to kick Job while he’s down.

But hold on just one minute. It was, after all, Job himself who asked for this trial—back in chapter 31. After rattling off a litany of his innocence:

  •  He’s always shared what he had with the poor.
  • Never said a bad word about anyone.
  • He’s been honest.
  • Faithful to his wife.
  • Why, Job’s never even looked upon another woman lust in his heart.

Then he cries out, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:

Oh, if only someone would give me a hearing! I’ve signed my name to my defense—let the Almighty One answer! I want to see my indictment in writing. Anyone’s welcome to read my defense; I’ll write it on a poster and carry it around town. I’m prepared to account for every move I’ve ever made—to anyone and everyone, prince or pauper.

God is just giving Job the trial he had asked for. But you see, therein lies Job’s problem, and, I would argue, the reason for God’s unorthodox interrogation. Both Job and his so-called friends have, throughout the book, been assuming the law of reciprocity: suffering properly comes to the wicked, while the righteous should prosper.

What goes around, comes around.

You reap what you sow.

We may call it karma. Or, if you grew up in a certain corner of Pentecostalism, perhaps the health and wealth gospel: if only you have enough faith God will make you rich and prosperous.

So Job’s friends keep trying to convince him that he’s done something wrong, and that’s why God is punishing him.

But Job maintains his innocence. He’s done nothing wrong, and he certainly doesn’t deserve this. That’s why Job calls God to the carpet: He’s being treated unfairly, according to the law of reciprocity, and he wants some answers.

But maybe God’s not bullying Job. Maybe instead he’s showing Job just how little he understands the way the world works.

Have you commanded the morning…and caused the dawn to know its place?

Maybe God is pushing back against Job’s unquestioned assumption of the law of reciprocity.

But before we write off this naive worldview, consider how often you and I think like Job and his friends. It might be easy to see how we’re not thinking like them—we have long since given up the notion of reciprocity. Sure, there are folks like Pat Robertson who are always quick to blame every natural disaster on Wiccans or homosexuals or whatever group happens to be on the chopping block that week. But most of us, on our better days, don’t really believe that good things come only to those who do good, or that only the wicked suffer. We have seen too many good people stricken with cancer. Too many good parents cradle dead babies in their arms. Too many tsunami waves crash indiscriminately upon the righteous and the wicked alike. Yet, still, we search, sometimes frantically, for some purpose to our pain, some narrative that will explain why we suffer.

A friend of mine once told me about an essay he had read in an evangelical magazine. The author—whose name I can no longer remember—was trying to answer that age old question, why we suffer. His story was tame. Some hooligan had thrown a rock through his windshield. So he called AAA, had the window repaired, and then told the repairman about Jesus. Then he had an epiphany!  This, this is the reason God allowed his window to be broken—so he could tell another soul about Jesus!

Then he had another epiphany: this is the reason for all sorts of suffering in this world. Now, think about that. In essence, this author is declaring that God kills the children of his followers, strikes wives and husbands with cancer, destroys cities in earthquakes, and wreaks general havoc with human lives…

…so that believers can tell non-believers about Jesus?

That’s it? That’s the meaning of suffering?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it.

Are we really to believe that broken car windows and broken lives are the same thing—all a part of God’s plan for evangelism?

But this author is not alone. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard explaining that God allows human suffering to teach us patience or humility or to make us ready to help others through times of suffering.

This is the same thing Job’s friends were doing. They came to help Job, to comfort him, to endure his trial with him.  But they ended up blaming him for his suffering.  Well-intended though they may be—Job’s friends, the preachers we’ve all heard over the years, the author of that essay about the windshield—each claims a wisdom no one really has, the wisdom to explain this world’s inscrutable ways.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky resisted similar consolations. Ivan, an atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, refused to accept the notion that suffering serves any purpose whatsoever.  And if it does, it’s a cruel purpose.

“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one [innocent child] . . . would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

Ivan’s protest is powerful because he does not dally in the realm of the inconvenient—the realm of shattered car windows—but goes to the heart of the real question: murder, abuse, torture, the gratuitous suffering of children.  Did God allow the Russian nobleman in Dostoevsky’s story to set his dogs upon an eight-year old boy so that the boy could later testify to the love of Jesus?

Well, the boy died.

Did he do it so the mother could—the mother who was forced to watch?

The fact of the matter is that these answers just won’t work for Christian theology.

Christian theology has always held that evil has no being of its own, but is merely parasitic on God’s creation. Think of evil like a hole in a shirt. A hole in your favorite shirt can be a pretty terrible thing. But when you think about it, it’s really no-thing at all. It’s just a big, gaping nothingness, where there should be fabric. So, the technical language for this is: evil is “a privation of the good.” Evil, according to Christian theology, is literally nothingness, a corruption of God’s good creation, a perversion of God’s purposes. So, according to classic Christian theology, we can never know why there is evil in the world, because there is no why. Evil, at its core, is chaotic, arbitrary, nothingness. I want to repeat that—and I’d like for us to let it soak in—because this is the frightening reality that many of us have spent a lifetime trying to escape:

Our suffering is utterly meaningless…

But now let me alleviate the tension a little bit. I want to suggest that this notion—that our suffering is not a part of God’s plan and purposes—it right near the heart of the gospel, the good news.

It really is good news, I think, that we don’t have look upon the devastation wreaked by the latest natural disaster and console ourselves with sentimental drivel about how God works in mysterious ways, or assure ourselves that there is some ultimate meaning or purpose in such misery. It is good news that we are permitted to hate death and evil and suffering with the kind of perfect hatred that they deserve.

It really is good news that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy. That is why, at the end of the story, God vindicates Job’s complaint and says that his friends have spoken ill of God. For God does not permit human suffering to punish sin—nor for any reason.

It’s good news because the Christian gospel is a story of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come. The whole creation, Paul says, groans with the pains of childbirth in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. And the incarnate God enters this world, not to teach us how God works mysteriously through human suffering, but to break wide open the bonds of suffering and sin and death, and to redeem creation to its original beauty. God will not, in the end, show us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the kingdom. No, God will raise her up and wipe away the tears from her eyes.

And there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Amen.

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What does the bible say about homosexuality?

Well…

nothing.

At least that’s what Bo Sanders says:

Homosexuality was a medical term invented in the 19th century. It was in contrast to heterosexuality (notice the binary).  The Bible…is not talking about homosexuality. It didn’t exist. The Bible is not talking about the same thing we are debating. It can no more be addressing homosexuality than it can be talking about Television. There was no such thing. Our contemporary talk about sexual identity and sexual orientation is not on the Bible’s radar…Sexual identity/orientation is something we have to talk about in light of scripture’s teaching, but we can’t simply import our English words and concepts into the original text and assume that it is addressing the same things we are wrestling with.

Bo thinks that we’d be in a better position to have the conversation about same-sex marriage and the Bible if we cleared up this and two other misunderstandings right from the beginning. I think Bo is right about this. Of course, talking about sexual orientation “in light of scripture’s teaching” is still no small task. But it’s certainly not helpful simply to import modern concepts into a ancient text.

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How the Church Grows: Or, Is the Kingdom of God a Nuisance?

Intro: Why Parables?

Our gospel text for today consists of two parables—these strange little stories Jesus was always telling. They’re farming parables about how the kingdom of God grows. But before we get to the actual text, let’s consider for just a moment why Jesus used parables so often, because it seems like people were always getting confused or upset when Jesus told stories. So why tell them at all? Why not just say what he meant?

A good clue comes in the previous chapter of this Gospel. Mark says that Jesus spoke to his followers “in parables and riddles.” Riddles, now there’s something we know about. We don’t quite understand parables, because no one talks about them except in church. Now parables are not exactly the same as modern riddles, but it might be a good starting point to understand what parables are all about. The similarity is this: you can’t tell yourself a good riddle. Go ahead, try it. Riddles and parables are what we call collaborative discourse—they require an audience.

So don’t imagine that Jesus ever told these parables in exactly the way they are recorded for us in the text. What we have is the edited version. The made for TV version. The longest parables in the gospels, as they are recorded, would take at most three minutes to read. Give Jesus more time than that. Give him thirty minutes to fill out the details, maybe even acts parts out dramatically. And don’t imagine his audience sitting there politely, like you people. Imagine them interrupting Jesus. Asking questions. Heckling. Shouting “Amen!” Getting angry. Disagreeing with Jesus. Disagreeing with each other.  And that’s exactly what parables are meat to do: they are stories specifically designed to spark debate, to annoy you, to get under your skin.

If at the end of a parable the crowd files out in a nice orderly line waiting to shake Jesus’ hand and say, “Great Parable this morning, Rabbi, I really enjoyed it!” then Jesus knows he missed the mark. He needs to get a new parable, or move on to a new audience. And this is where parables differ from riddles: the idea is not to “get it’;” the idea is that the parable is supposed to get you.

Okay, so now lets get on with it.

The First Parable: It’s Not What You Think

The first parable is about a farmer who plants some corn or some other kind of grain. He wakes up one morning and shoots have popped up out of the ground. A bit later he goes to bed again and when he gets up the ears have begun to grow. Then the corn swelling inside the ears. And the farmer doesn’t know how this is happening. Months ago he planted tiny little seeds in the ground, and now he has full grown corn.

Simple enough, right? The farmer plants the seed; the corn grows. But, of course, it’s not about the corn. It’s a parable about how the kingdom of God grows. And, like every other parable, it’s meant to be provocative, maybe even a bit annoying. So lets look at some of the cultural context that the first audience of the parable would have shared.

Start at the end. The last line in the parable: “but when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”—that’s a quote from the prophet Joel. It comes at the end of his short little book that is all about the coming Day of the Lord in which God would restore Israel’s fortunes, pronounce judgment on evil and on the violent oppressors who besieged them from surrounding nations, and would establish a kingdom of righteousness and peace. (On a side note: I’ve said it here before, but I just want to reiterate that the kingdom of God, is NOT some place we float off to when we die to get away from the world. The kingdom of God is about God’s wise and righteous governance right here on earth. That why our Lord taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Those two lines mean exactly the same thing. God’s kingdom come is God’s will being done right here on earth, just as it is done currently in heaven).  And that was the great hope to which all of Israel was looking forward. But they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around how it was going to come about, like the farmer who couldn’t understand how his corn was growing.

Of course, the corn was doing the same thing the farmer was doing. He kept going to sleep and then getting up. In the same way, the corn was resting in a cool Springtime ground, and then getting up with the heat of the Summer sun. The word that Jesus used for getting up—egeirō—was a common word used for resurrection, which, by the first century, was part of this great kingdom hope. Many believed that once dead saints would be resurrected to join in the fun of God’s new kingdom. (This, by the way, is the reason that the early followers of Jesus had this strange belief that the kingdom of God was already at hand, despite all the evidence to the contrary: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was proof that the long awaited kingdom had, in fact, been inaugurated).

In this parable, Jesus is saying, “Yes! The long awaited kingdom is coming.” But here’s the kicker: “It’s not going to come how you’ve expected it to.”

There was lots of disagreement in the first century over how the kingdom would come about. One group, called the Zealots, thought that they should build an army and stage a coo against the Roman occupation so they could cleanse the Temple of that gentile filth. Then and only then God would establish his kingdom. The Essenes thought: “No, we don’t have to cleanse the Temple—it’s too far gone. We just have to separate ourselves from this wicked society, live in caves and set up our own little righteous sect, and then God’s kingdom will come. The Pharisees said, “You’re both wrong. It’s about being faithful to the Torah. If we can just get everyone to obey the law, right down to the letter, then God’s kingdom will come.”

But no matter what the disagreement, there’s an underlying theme here. Did you catch it? If we cleanse the Temple, then the kingdom will come. If we retreat… If we obey… If weif weif we…. They thought it was about them! If we build it, God will come.

But in this parable Jesus is saying: “You’re the farmer! Like it or not, you’ve fallen asleep, and the kingdom of God is growing right under your noses.” We may till the soil; we may plant the seeds; we may water the shoots. But when it comes right down to it, this corn is growing while we’re sound asleep. And that’s as mysterious and as annoying to us today as it was to that farmer, and to those first century Jews. Because somehow we’ve gotten the idea that the world can’t turn without us. That’s why we find it so hard to take a day off, or to get a full night’s sleep. That’s why the decree to Sabbath rest seemed so radical. How will things possibly get done without us? Well, the great and terrifying news of Jesus’ parable here is that in the kingdom of God we’re not the ones who get stuff done. The corn grows without the farmer. And the kingdom of God is God’s business. It’s not about you! It’s a frightening parable, because it makes us powerless…welcome to Christianity!

So I want to address for just a second, if I may, the Bishop’s letter, which Pastor read to us two weeks ago. The Bishop sites some pretty startling statistics:

  • A 20% decline of mainline congregations in America over the last 40 years, when our population more than doubled over that same period.
  • Our own synod has seen nearly a 40% decline over the last 25 years.

But what I don’t want—and this is not what the Bishop was saying, either. So I’m not disagreeing with him here, just clarifying something—What I don’t want is for us to get the idea that this relative dip in church attendance in recent years is something we can “fix” if only we’d work a little harder. As if we could just hone our gardening skills a bit and voilà, we’d see a full crop of new members growing up around us. As if this kingdom-of-God-thing were about us.

And while these statistics are startling, and they do matter, the really startling fact is not who’s not here, but that you and I are here.

Think about this. Two millennia ago and half way around the world, Jesus was setting around a campfire with his followers and he when he asks them this question: “Who do you say that I am?” And one of them, Simon, jumps right up and say, “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Well, Jesus must have liked this answer, because he says, “Simon, you didn’t come up with this on you own. God revealed this to you.” In fact it’s such big news, that as a result Jesus changes Simon’s name. He says “Simon, from now on you will be called Petros.”—in English, Peter. It means pebble, little stone you can hold in your hand. So Jesus says, “From now on, Simon, you will be called Petros, little stone. And on this petra”—on this massive boulder. So Jesus is talking here about the statement that Simon had made: that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Simon is the petros, the small stone. The statement is the petra, the big boulder.—“From now on, Simon, you will be called Petros, and on this Petra I will build my Church.” And here we are in Beckley, West Virginia in 2012. Two thousand years later, and some five thousand miles away, we gather to proclaim along with the Apostle Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Now that’s startling.

I will build my Church.

That’s good news! The kingdom of God is something far larger than we. We’re invited to be a part of it, but we don’t have to keep it going.

Martin Luther came to understand this when he was locked up in the basement of Warburg castle trying to avoid being imprisoned or killed after he had been formally deposed by the Catholic Church. He thought the Reformation would smolder out while he was in there, but instead it caught on like a wildfire. Reflecting on the experience later, Luther said, famously, “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I drank Wittenberg beer with my friends…the Word [did the work of the Reformation]. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

Let me says this. I believe in evangelism. Lets tell the good new of Jesus to everyone we meet. But if you’re afraid that the Church in America is in decline because we’ve somehow let the Church down, I’ve got good news for you friend: we were never holding it up. This is God’s kingdom, and God will build it.

The Second Parable: So How Does God’s Kingdom Grow?

So if the kingdom is not going to grow in the way that anyone had expected, how does it grow?

The second parable is about a mustard seed, which, though it is the smallest of seeds, grows up to be a large shrub.

Now we’ve all heard sermons about how the mustard seed starts from humble beginnings but grows into something much larger. But there’s more going on here. Jews valued order, and they had lots of rules about how to keep a tidy garden. One of the tips was to keep out mustard plants. In fact, there are laws in the Talmud which prohibit growing mustard in your garden. Because mustard is like a weed that spreads and takes over neatly trimmed vegetables. When people heard this parable probably chuckled, or told Jesus to hush before he got himself into trouble speaking so flippantly about the kingdom of God

Many people would have cheered a more traditional image of the kingdom as the great and tall cedars of Lebanon, as we sang in the Paslter this morning. But Jesus’ parable mocks this triumphal image. After all, even fully grown mustard plants stand only a few feet high—it’s a modest shrub. Apparently Jesus wasn’t imagining that his kingdom would grow by upstaging the world, with better music, more charismatic leaders and more advanced PowerPoint presentations.

Rather, the Jesus revolution was to be a subtle contagion that grows slowly, but with annoying persistence…like a weed taking over a garden, or like leaven working its way through a loaf of bread…One person at a time.

One cup of coffee with a friend, during which you share how you’ve seen Christ at work in the world…

One neighbor helping out another…

One child guided lovingly and patiently…

One cool cloth on the head of someone who’s sick…

One coat offered with someone who doesn’t have one…

One meal shared with the hungry…

…Until the love of Christ takes over the world.

Once again, as he so often does in his parables, this is Jesus turning the power structure of the world on its head. So don’t worry, either, if it seems that the Church in America is in the situation that it’s in right now because for the first time in a while Christianity is no longer the assumed narrative of broader culture. If it looks for the first time in a while like we’re no longer a great and mighty cedar, but merely a weed, a plague and an annoyance on the culture. And don’t play into the hand of the American religious sentimentality that says “woe is us—we’re being persecuted. Or, we’re losing our power of persuasion or our cultural relevance and we need to fight to get it back.” For this culture shift that we’re experiencing may just be the best thing that’s ever happened to the Church in America.

Mustard’s incredible medicinal properties and its tangy bite as a spice only become effective when it’s crushed…ground…persecuted, you might say.

And isn’t this the great and wonderful mystery that we proclaim? Jesus told Pilate, “If my kingdom were like the kingdoms of this world, my followers would be in here fighting to get me out.” But they didn’t. Rather, Jesus submitted himself to the world’s persecution. No one had to take Jesus’ life; he laid it down. Rome thought they had finally rooted out this annoying weed, but Paul say that “we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The secret that the rules of the age didn’t understand was that—just like the mustard seed, which becomes potent only when crushed—crucifying the Lord of Glory only unleashed his power. From the death of Christ the power of life springs forth.  For “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed.”

And this is the great mystery we celebrate also at the table this morning. As we partake of the bread, broken for us, and of the wine, poured out for the forgiveness of sins, it nourishes us body and soul, and send us forth to be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.

One last thing about the mustard seed parable. Jesus says that when the mustard plant has grown up “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” His audience would have been familiar with this from the cedars of Lebanon images, but the word Jesus used was not the word for the great eagles who would normally perch in the cedars. It was the word for scavengers who feast on the carcasses—the kind of birds farmers tried to keep out of their gardens. It was meant to convey a vision of Israel as a safe and hospitable home for Gentiles and outsiders—a vision which many in Jesus’ day had lost.

It seems that if the Church is going to grow it will do so by being a sanctuary—in the nest sense of that word—for outsiders and social cast offs…

…for people who don’t look like us.

…for people who don’t smell like us.

…for people whose sexual orientation might make us uncomfortable.

…for rambunctious children.

…for the poor.

…for the lazy.

God will grow his Church, in the mysterious, persistent, annoying way that he does, by making a creating a home for sinners like you and me who come to hear those wonderful words “I absolve you of your sins.” And then sending us forth to preach that frightening and beautiful good news to the world.

Amen.

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Jesus says to buy a sword?

Bo Sanders has a great post on the (seemingly) conflicting sword passages in the New Testament over at Homebrewed Christianity, which, by the way, is the world’s best theology podcast. For instance, check out any of these selected episodes:

Back to Bo’s post. Most interesting is the third part in which he explores that curious passage in Luke 22 in which Jesus actually commands his disciples to buy swords.

35He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?”

They said, “No, not a thing.”

36He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.37For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”

38They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

Bo offers two interesting and instructive readings of this passage. The first one is his:

It takes strength to turn the other cheek. If you don’t have the ability to retaliate … it is just being a doormat or victim?  That is how I have always thought about it.

In that perspective, I have read Jesus’ odd command with Peter in mind. I see that fateful night where Jesus tells him to ‘put away your sword’ and later tells the authorities ‘if my kingdom was of this world my followers would fight.’ The implication is that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world and so his followers don’t fight.

The sword for the disciple, then, is…a powerful option to be resisted in favor of a preferable option that is less obvious because it is less forceful.

The second is from Ben Witherington:

What is the meaning of this little story, taking into account the larger context of Jesus’ teaching? Vs. 37 is the key where Jesus quotes Is. 53.12—“he was numbered with the transgressors”. Jesus is saying to the disciples—you must fulfill your role as transgressors of what I have taught you!!! They must play the part of those who do exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught them in the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples become transgressors by seeking out weapons and then seeking to use them. This much is perfectly clear from the context for the disciples then go on to say “look Lord here is two swords”. They already have such weapons and Jesus responds in disgust to the fact that they are already transgressing his principles of non-violence by responding “that’s enough” (of this nonsense).

You can read the entire post here.

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Easter Realism: A Homily

Our gospel lesson starts with new beginnings.

John points out that it is “the first day of the week.” That’s not just a time signature. “The first day of the week” is technical language in John’s gospel. It means the first day of the New Creation. Remember that John’s gospel is a re-telling of the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2. That’s why he starts with: “In the beginning was the Word…”—it’s meant to remind us of the first beginning in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created…” So when John says it’s “the first day of the week,” he’s trying to say that with the resurrection of Jesus there began a radical renewal of creation.

Our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers have a beautiful way of talking about this. “On Easter,” they say, “we celebrate the eighth day of the week.” Easter has a way of shocking us out of our ordinary way of moving through time into a brand new day, which has continuity with the old; yet it is unlike any day that has come before it.

It is the eighth day.

“Morning has broken” sings Cat Stevens, “like the first morning.”

It is the first day of a new the week.

But why? What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with creation?

Well, first century Jews—the first hearers of the gospel—believed that the original creation had fallen into disrepair.  Our first parents had rebelled against the Creator and shirked their responsibility to cultivate the land. So the world that God had once declared “very good,” now was characterized by injustice, violence and oppression, by sin, sickness and death. They also believed that one day God was going to proclaim judgment upon all this evil and renew the creation to its original glory—even beyond it.

One strange feature of this hope—going back to Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones—is that they believed the renewal of creation would be accompanied by the resurrection of once dead saints. Take care not to over-spiritualize here. They literally believed this!  Many first century Jews fully expected, when the creation was renewed, to bump into their once dead ancestors in the street or at the market. So the resurrection of Jesus was what Paul called “the first fruits” of the New Creation. Jesus is the signal—right here in the middle of history—that the end is upon us. The old world, with all of its sin and violence and oppression, is coming to a close and the New Creation has begun.

It is the first day of the week.

But Jesus’ disciples had not yet got word that their teacher had been raised from the dead, so they were still living with old-world-fear. They were cowered together behind locked doors trying to hide from the religious authorities who had had Jesus put to death.

By the way, the translation in your bulletin says that they were afraid of “the Jews.” But that’s technical language in John’s gospel that probably should be translated “the religious leaders of Israel.” And if you know much about the history of first century Palestine, then you know that these are just kind of old-world-leaders who oppress through the use of coercion and deceit. So anytime you see the phrase “the Jews” in John’s gospel, mark it out and write in “religious leaders.” If we get that straight we can avoid some anti-Semitic readings, which the Church has at times been guilty of.

So the disciples were there barricading themselves off from religious leaders, when all of a sudden Jesus shows up among them. Immediately they understand. Not only has their teacher been raised from the dead, but that also means that the New Creation has begun. That’s why today they’re hiding behind locked doors, but in a few short months they’ll be the ones being dragged to public execution sites for proclaiming to the powers of the old word that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. They have come in contact with a new reality. They’ve been given eyes to see.

Then Jesus does something strange.

He breathes on them. Does that remind you of anything? It should. Remember, John’s gospel is a re-telling of the creation narrative. Just like God breaths into the lumps he has formed out of the clay to create human life, so now Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them “receive the Holy Spirit.”

Now that Jesus has been raised they don’t have to settle any longer for old-world-lives of sin and fear and death. The can have New Creation life.

Resurrection life.

Then, after Jesus does something strange, he says something strange: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Seems like quite a heavy responsibility to place on the shoulders of human beings, doesn’t it?—to forgive sins. It is! Notice again that it is a recapitulation of the original creation story in Genesis, in which humans are given the grave responsibility of ruling over and caring for all that God has made. Only in the new creation story that John is telling we are given responsibility, not over the physical world, but over spiritual things like sin and forgiveness.

In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus says it this way: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Because the resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the New Creation right here on earth, what you and I do in this world does not die with us; it bears weight in the kingdom of heaven.

The theological term for this New-Creation-responsibility to forgive sins is “the power of the keys.” In synoptics Jesus gives the power of the keys specifically to the Apostle Peter, which is why, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, a priest has the power to absolve a penitent of her sins. The power of the keys has been passed down from the Apostle Peter through an unbroken succession of bishops and priests, so that when any priest looses a penitent from her sins here on earth, they are loosed also in heaven. This is one point at which Martin Luther basically agreed with the Catholic Church, except that Luther said when Jesus spoke those words to Peter he was giving the power of the keys to all believers. That’s what Protestants means when we talk about “the priesthood of all believers.”

So this morning when we confessed our sins and Pastor Wanda declared “I forgive you of all your sins,” she did so on behalf of Christ himself, with the power of the keys. Therefore, you have no right to leave this place feeling guilty for your sins, or frightened of God’s judgment. When another believer speaks the words of absolution over you, God himself declares that you are forgiven—believe him!

Well there was one disciple who was not here for this exchange. Thomas showed up late for Easter.

You know, I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap. He’s known to history as “Doubting Thomas,” because when the other disciples told him about their experience with the risen Christ, he refused to believe them. We reprimand Thomas for his failure to believe. But I don’t think Thomas was a doubter, really. I think he was just a realist, an analytic—the kind of guy who would evaluate the evidence and draw a conclusion based on the facts. I can empathize with a guy like that.

Thomas looked at the world around him and saw no evidence that the New Creation had begun. Quote to the contrary, Caesar was still on his throne oppressing God’s people with coercion and violence. All around him sin and sickness and death still seemed to reign supreme. How was Thomas—the realist—to believe that resurrection could take place in a world like this?

The world that Thomas saw all around him was not so unlike our world…

…A world in which, as my Sunday School class has been learning, some 13 million children around the world are held in slavery, forced to do grueling labor for 12-15 hours a day until they can pay off their parents’ or grandparents’ debt. Many of these debts, even though they are as little as 25 US dollars, will never be paid off.

…It’s a world in which men exploit women, and parents talk unkindly to their children.

…In which, given enough time and space for Lenten reflection, each of us find that our own lives are marked with pride or greed, maliciousness or indifference.

…A world in which people suffer from incurable diseases, and find relief only in death.

How could we possibly believe this is the promised New Creation? How can we believe in resurrection in a world like this?

Well, Thomas, for one, wasn’t going to be taken for a fool. He’s a realist, after all. He knows that there’s nothing worse than getting your hopes up only to have then dashed again. Ask any woman whose abusive husband has ever told her that this time he really has changed. Any long-time cancer patient whose doctor wants to try just one more trial drug.

Thomas was jaded…

…by a thousand failed messiahs and a thousand shattered hopes for a renewed creation.

…by a thousand promises of hope and change.

And this time he wasn’t going to believe it…

…not until he saw it with his own two eyes…

…felt it with his own two hands.

That’s when Jesus came by for another visit.

Jesus doesn’t reprimand Thomas for his unbelief. Gently, humbly, he invites Thomas just to come and see. “Stick your hand in my side,” he says. “It’s really me!” But Thomas doesn’t need any more proof. “My Lord and my God!” he cries. He has beheld the risen Christ and now he knows that its true—not only that Jesus is raised, but that that means the New Creation has begun. It must have been like waking up on the first day of Spring and realizing that the whole world has changed right under your nose, if only you had been awake to see it.

Now I want you to notice something. Thomas’ doubt may have disappeared in this encounter, but not his realism. Thomas’ newfound belief is part of his pragmatism. He’s still a realist—he’s just been awakened to a new reality. It’s not Thomas the doubter who has been changed, you see. Reality itself has changed. The New Creation had sprung up around him—he just didn’t have eyes to see it.

The good news of Easter is that, because you and I have been joined to the Risen One in baptism, we can participate in his resurrection life now…

…We can stand up for the oppressed and pray for the oppressor.

…We can speak kindly to one another.

…Give out of our abundance to those in need.

…We can visit the sick and comfort the dying.

…We can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

The good news is that the New Creation is all around us. It is breathed in us. And it is coming one day to its full and final consummation.

If only we have eyes to see.

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