What’s a Meta for? Musing on John 10

John chapter 10 causes me to remember Mrs. Tanner. I can still see her handwriting all over my carefully crafted compositions. Red ink everywhere as she constantly admonished me not to mix my metaphors. Clearly the writer of the Gospel of John never had the benefit of Mrs. Tanner’s guidance, or he would not have dared to record Jesus words the way he does in his long and rambling I AM passages.

Before we even get to chapter 10, we read that Jesus says:  “I AM the bread of life.”  and “I AM the light of the world.”  In chapter 10, we read, Jesus says, “I AM the gate,” “I AM the Good Shepherd.” Later we will read, that Jesus says, “I AM the Resurrection”, “I AM life.” “I AM the true vine.”  “I AM the way.” “I AM in God.” “I AM in you.”

But in the tenth chapter the writer of the Gospel of John goes all out and has Jesus using not just a metaphor but a mixed metaphor. For in chapter 10, we read that Jesus declared: “I AM the Gate. The gate through which the sheep must pass.” and then mixes it up by saying,  “I AM the Good Shepherd.”

Which is it? Gate or Shepherd, come on, I know your Jesus but I’m trying to understand how Jesus, who is after all, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is both the Gate and the Shepherd.

I wonder if Mrs. Tanner ever took her red pen to the Gospel of John? If she did, the letters MMX would have appeared all over this Gospel. MMX = mixed metaphor wrong!

Looking back, I know that Mrs Tanner was just trying to help us to be more careful about our ideas. But today I would have to ask of her, and indeed of the writer of the Gospel of John, “What’s a meta   for?”

The word metaphor comes from two ancient Greek words:  meta means beyond, phor comes from a verb that means to carry. A metaphor is a figure of speech that carries you beyond the actual meaning of the words. A mixed metaphor is a figure of speech that that includes a mixture of images.

English teachers don’t like mixed metaphors. It’s taken me years to understand why. You see you have to have great skill to get away with using a mixed metaphor. The average person simply sounds foolish when they mix their metaphors. So, you might well ask, “Is the writer of the Gospel of John skilled enough to use a mixed metaphor.

 Well in the words of the writer of the Gospel of John, let me say,  “Truly I tell you, this is no ordinary writer of metaphors.”  For the words of the writer of the Gospel of John carry us way beyond words to the Great I AM.

I AM, the very name of God.  YAHWEH, the name revealed by Moses in days of old.  I AM, WHO AM. The writer of this Gospel carries us beyond the WORD; the WORD that is Jesus the Christ, beyond the WORD to God’s very self.  Now that’s what a meta is for!

The problem is the writer of the Gospel of John was a little too clever for our own good. Sure, his second century audience would have understood his skillful use of metaphor. But down through the centuries the Christian church has mixed his metaphors to such a degree, that we don’t have much of a clue who Jesus was, let alone the great I AM to whom both Jesus and the writer of the Gospel of John are trying to carry us too.

We can’t seem to get the metaphor of Jesus as the Lamb of God out of our heads. In fact into every one of the great I AM metaphors we mix a little dab of the blood of the lamb and before you know it Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and unless you believe that Jesus blood was shed for you, you won’t ever be able to understand that you are washed by the blood of the lamb and you will never ever be able to pass through the gate, because Jesus is the only way.   MMX, MMX, MMX!

It’s not the writer of the Gospel of John who mixed the metaphors up it is the Christian Church. Somewhere along the way, the religious authorities forgot what a metaphor is for.

Instead of letting the words carry them beyond the literal meaning to the Great I AM, they slaughtered the lamb of God and killed the Word so that the wonders of the God who refuses to be pinned down by a name, the God who insists that YAHWEH is my name and will be for all generations.

 YAHWEH the inexpressible name that can be translated as I AM, or I AM WHO AM, or I AM WHO I AM or  I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.  The Great I AM.

That our God, the creator of universes of all that ever was and ever shall be should choose the verb “to be” as God’s own name, now there’s a metaphor. Talk about a word that carries you beyond the meaning of the word:  YAHWEH

I still think that the Hindu, Upanishads say it best when they say God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Our God is the very essence of being!

The writer of the Gospel of John and now doubt Jesus himself is the wisest of the wise when it comes to the use of metaphor. Too bad the church can’t seem to play in the big leagues. Too bad we have to reduce the beauty of the great I AM sayings down to one simple figure of speech.

 We are so hung up on Jesus as the Lamb of God that we can’t seem to see Jesus in any other way.  So we read a snippet of the gospel and we hear Jesus talking about a shepherd and we are carried away with thoughts of God as the great big shepherd. So, we slap Psalm 23, right there just incase the folks in the pew don’t make the connection themselves. And before you know it we’ve mixed the metaphor up and added a lamb, cause we remember all that other metaphor about the lost sheep, and then try as we might we just can’t help being carried away to the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Now we have a shepherd who does either one of two things. This shepherd either lets the lamb be sacrificed, or this shepherd does the sacrificing.  Now if you’re not confused yet, then I’m not doing my job correctly. Because what I wanted to do is point out the dangers of not appreciating the art of metaphor.

The writer of the Gospel of John was a master craftsman, skillfully weaving together the images of YAHWEH that his Jewish listeners would have understood in a heartbeat. They knew their own Scriptures and the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd would have carried them beyond the sheep in the field to the words of the Prophet of Ezekiel who echoed the promises of YAHWEH to the people of Israel. They would have heard YAHWEH instruct the prophet to speak out against the religious authorities, the shepherds who had lead the people into dangerous territory and allowed the flock to be scattered and lost.

They would have heard YAHWEH promising to send a proper shepherd, a good shepherd, who would gather the flocks, tend their wounds and restore them to good pastures. And they would have known that this Jesus was such a shepherd. And they would have rejoiced to have such a shepherd in their midst. And they would have understood perfectly why the religious authorities accused Jesus of being possessed.  For surely the religious authorities were the shepherds who had lead the sheep into dangers territory.

 After Jesus died the horrible death that he died, his followers struggled to understand what had happened and why it happened and they looked to their own Sacred Scriptures to try to make sense of it all. There were competing theories about why it happened and what it all meant. That Jesus was the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep was one theory. That Jesus was the Lamb who was sacrificed to atone for the sins of the world was another theory. Two competing metaphors that we all too often mix together and end up with at best an impotent God who stands by while and innocent lamb is slaughtered or at worse a vengeful God who demands a blood sacrifice. These are not metaphors that ought to be mixed.

            It is better to live with the mystery of divinity in our midst than it is to claim to have bottled divinity for easy consumption. When we bottle divinity and sell it like snake oil we do tremendous harm.  We need to learn to dance among the metaphors that carried our ancestors beyond the literal words so that they could begin to relate to our God WHO WILL BE WHO GOD WILL BE, I AM, WHO I AM.

YAHWEH is more than capable of being both shepherd and lamb. We only need to remember that these metaphors operate independently of one another and God is not the shepherd who let the lamb die, nor is God the shepherd that demanded a sacrifice. The beauty of a metaphor is that it doesn’t always carry you to the same place. Metaphors have a multitude of destinations. Each of us must have the courage to go beyond the literal word and explore the places that the word takes us. If we must mix metaphors, we must take care to remember whom it is who carries us beyond the beyond and beyond that also.    

Let the Mystery of God,  live and breath in you. Let abundant life flourish around you!  Enjoy the dance! Rejoice in God beyond all knowing: YAHWEH, Christ and Spirit One.

PRACTICING RESURRECTION – Sermon April 15 2012

This Sunday I tried something new: introducing a video clip into the sermon! You can view the video within the written text of the sermon below or listen to the audio version provided. I am indebted to the work of James Rowe Adams for much of the New Testament Scholarship in this sermon.

The Scripture texts were John chapter 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35

Audio Version of the Sermon click here

Practicing Resurrection

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

So, Christ is Risen!  So What???

What can it possibly mean to you and to me, that a rag-tag bunch of Jesus’ followers gathered together in an upper-room and talked about their experiences of Jesus and decided that not even death could extinguish the life that they experienced in Jesus? What difference does it make to you or to I that Christ is risen?

The truth is that it can make absolutely no difference what so ever. Now there are a whole lot of people who will tell you that the important thing about resurrection is that you believe it. Those same folks absolutely love the story of doubting Thomas. And so every year on the second Sunday of Easter we read the story of doubting Thomas as a kind of inoculation against Thomas’ disease.

I sometimes think that the designers of the lectionary were trying to build up our resistance to doubt. Having problems believing in resurrection, well don’t do what Thomas did, don’t doubt, because you’ll be proven wrong. Jesus is alive, the wounds in his hands proved that to Doubting Thomas, so have no doubt about it the resurrection happened!  Believe in the resurrection!

The trouble with believing in stuff is that it belief can make absolutely no difference what so ever. I can believe in justice for all, but unless I’m prepared to seek justice, to be fair, or to resist injustice, it makes absolutely no difference what so ever. You can shout, “Christ is risen!” all you want but unless you are willing to live it, the resurrection means very little at all.

In order to live the resurrection you have to begin practicing resurrection. In order to practice something, you have to know what it looks like, what it sounds like, or what it feels like.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to show you what resurrection looks like in the flesh. Then I remembered a video that’s been doing the rounds on the internet, so I want you to watch this modern miracle of resurrection.

WATCH THE VIDEO CLIP FROM:  Alive Inside

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

            2000 years ago a bunch of rag-tag Jesus followers were huddled together in fear. Their beloved leader had been brutally executed by the powers that be and they were terrified that they would be next. Paralyzed by their fear, hiding behind a locked door, something happened that gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world.

Ever since they began to practice resurrection, people have been trying to figure out exactly what happened; what could have changed these bumbling, terrified, betrayers, abandoners, who seemed to be always getting things wrong, into a bunch of leaders who began a movement that spread through out the Empire within their own life-times and then based on the power of their witness, spread throughout the world and continues to nourish and sustain millions of people from generation to generation?

Now there are those that insist that it was the power of Jesus having been physically resuscitated from the dead that motivated his followers to change their lives and the lives of millions who have come after them.  But we live in the 21st century and we have access to all sorts of information that the generations who have gone before us did not. Most of us, myself included, are not swayed by arguments about a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body. But I can tell you without a doubt that I do believe in resurrection and I know that Christ is risen and I also know that the same power that the early followers of Jesus used to change the world is available to you and to me.  And now more than ever the world needs us to start using that power. It’s long past time for us to start practicing resurrection.

So, if they weren’t talking about a physical resuscitation when they spoke of Jesus’ resurrection, what did the early followers of Jesus actually mean when they spoke of Jesus having been raised from the dead? During the first century many Jews had adopted a vision of the future that dealt with the prevailing question of the day:  “How could a just God allow his people to suffer endlessly at the hands of their enemies?” Or as Dom Crossan puts it:   When was God going to clean up the world so that justice could prevail?

An emotionally satisfying answer was found in a fantasy expressed in one of the visions attributed to the prophet Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  They say, ‘Our bones re dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God:  I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”

The idea that God would one day raise up the dead was not particularly popular with the priestly party in Jerusalem, perhaps because they had come to terms with the occupation forces of Rome, but it appealed strongly to some Pharisees who insisted that God would see to it that ultimately justice would prevail.

Biblical scholars suspect that Jesus and his followers shared the Pharisees’ hope for resurrection.  Each of the synoptic gospels tells a story about how members of the priestly, party known as the Sadducees, came to Jesus with a trick question that was intended to show the absurdity of the resurrection, but in each story Jesus cleverly avoids their trap.

That the editors of the first three gospels chose to include these stories, suggests that at least by the end of the first century resurrection imagery was important to the followers of Jesus. But exactly what they meant by resurrection is not clear. In the Christian writings, two Greek words are translated as “resurrection”. Each of these words evolved from a verb that translates into English as “raise”.

The first word, “anastasis” comes from the verb, which meant to stand up. The second word, ‘egersis” is from the verb that meant to wake up. When early Christian writers used these terms they may have been thinking like Pharisees and insisting that God would prove to be just.

Many New Testament scholars see the stories about the risen Christ as examples of hymns of praise or poetic expressions of the faithful whose lives had been transformed b their encounter with the Jesus story.

The apostle Paul never mentioned the empty tomb and his own description of his encounter with the risen Christ is one of a vision of Christ rather than an actual physical encounter. Paul uses the Greek verb for “appeared” when he describes both the apostles’ encounters and his own with the risen Christ.

But New Testament scholars can parse the words of the gospels forever and they are never going to be able to tell us exactly what the early followers of Jesus meant when they said that Jesus is risen.  What we can know about their understanding of resurrection can be found in the events that followed Jesus’ execution. Crucifixion was designed by the Romans to terrorize the nations they occupied. Corpses were left on display so that the people would understand that if they stepped out of line in any way, the horror or crucifixion was all they could hope for. The terrorizing of the population worked well for the Romans. For a while Jesus’ followers were terrified. But death could not contain the power of their experiences with Jesus. And it wasn’t long before they were living not as terrorized citizens of the Roman Empire, but as liberated followers of the way, banding together in communities of compassion, sharing their wealth, ensuring that none were needing among them.  Risking it all, for the sake of Jesus vision of God’s reign of justice and peace.

When I read the accounts of those early followers of the way who abandoned the tomb of the upper-room to gather together to build communities of compassion it is clear to me who was raised up by images of resurrection. The followers of Jesus were lifted up from a crouching or cowering position as they boldly proclaimed what they had learned from Jesus. The followers of Jesus stood up and got on with the business that was begun by Jesus. The followers of Jesus began to understand themselves in a whole new way.             The Apostle Paul wrote:  “We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

By merging the pharisaic image of resurrection with the image of the body of Christ the first Christians could declare with confidence that Christ is risen. When followers of Jesus in the first century and in the twenty-first century talk about the resurrection of Christ we are proclaiming that death did not have the last word in the Jesus story because his followers were raised up to be his now body.

When we say that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, we are proclaiming that no matter how dead someone may appear to be, new life is always possible. Practicing resurrection begins when we huddle together refusing to let our fears entomb us. Practicing resurrection happens when we gather together to build communities of compassion.

Our friend in the video came to life not through any power of his own, but through the compassion of his caregivers who struggled to reach him. Caregivers are empowered to do their work by the gathered community. Resurrection is not a solitary endeavour.             Practicing resurrection requires that we gather together sharing our gifts, talents and treasure for the good of all. Practicing resurrection happens when we build communities of compassion that live fully, love extravagantly and empower people to be all that they were created to be.

Let it be so among us. Let us be a community of compassion. Let us always seek ways to empower our neighbours and ourselves to live fully, love extravagantly be all that we were created to be. Let us practice resurrection here and now!

THE RESURRECTION OF MARY – An Idle Tale

St. Mary of Magdala the Apostle to the Apostles

As our Easter celebrations continue, the readings for this coming Sunday quickly move our attention to the story of Thomas.  Poor old doubting Thomas.  It’s the same every year.  Thomas’ doubts greet the faithful on “low Sunday”.  But before you let Thomas’ doubts capture Easter’s hope, consider exploring the resurrection of Mary.  Perhaps my not-so-long-ago encounter with a visiting New Testament scholar will entice you to follow Mary out of her tomb and beyond the streets to her place at the head of the fledgling community that became the church: 

He just said it for the third time! “Harlots!” He keeps calling them “harlots”, while I rack my brains to come up with one harlot. Then he points to the text and his charges become clearer, he says, “she is a “prostitute!”

My carefully reigned in anger is unleashed. “Where?  Where?  Where? Show me where it says this woman is a prostitute!”

As he refers to the Gospel text and insists that, “It is there, right there in the text”,

I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to wipe the bemused expression from his face. I want to rub his nose in the damned text. Instead, I begin the uneasy process of reigning in my anger. I slow my speech, I try to erase the tremor from my voice and I ask him to, “Show me, show me where it says this woman is a prostitute.”

He consults his text and says, “a woman in the city who was a sinner.”

“A sinner not a prostitute.”  I respond.

He insists, “Yes a prostitute.”

“Where?” I ask.

Again he insists, “A woman who was a sinner.”

I demanded to know, “Where does it say she was a prostitute?”

He insists, “The author means that she was a prostitute.”

I lose control, “How do you know?  What words does the author use to say that his woman was a prostitute? Show me in the text where it says she was a prostitute?”

He still doesn’t get it, “What do you mean? It is clear that this woman was a prostitute.”

Once again I push, “Show me.  Show me where?”

He continues to say, “She was a woman from the city who was a sinner.”

I know that the text says that, so I implore him to tell me, “The Greek… What does the Greek say?”

He replies, “amartolos”.

I push, “Does that mean prostitute?” We both know that it does not.

He replies, “Sinner. But the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute.”

Still pushing I ask him to “Show me.  Show me how the narrative says this woman was a prostitute. Show me where it says her sins were sexual.             Show me where it says so in the narrative.”

He says, “It’s clear.”

Clearly we disagree, so I try again, “Clear to you.  Show me. Show me!”

As he fumbles through the pages, I offer him a way out, “Okay.  Even if I concede the point that her sins were sexual, show me where it says that these sexual sins were nothing more than lust or adultery, show me where it says that she was a prostitute.  Show me!”

He couldn’t show me.  It’s simply not there.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it ever say in Greek or in English that Mary of Magdala is a prostitute.  But over and over again scholars, theologians, popes, preachers, and dramatists, have continued to cast Mary of Magdala as a prostitute.  

In the years that have transpired since than day in seminary, when a visiting New Testament scholar insisted that “the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute,” I’ve delighted in being able to participate in the phenomenon of Mary’s resurrection as the first Apostle.

I’ve gobbled up all the many books that have recently been written about the woman commonly known as Mary Magdalene. Some of them have been great scholarly texts like Jane Schaberg’s tome entitled “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene.” While others have been little more than a salacious romp like Dan Brown’s:  The Davinci Code. But whether its scholarly speculation on the nature of Mary’s leadership in the Early Church or scandalous speculation on her sexual exploits with none other than Jesus himself, what these books hold in common is their ability to touch an insatiable curiosity about this enigmatic biblical character whose feminine attributes have ruffled the cassocks of those patriarchs of the priestly persuasion for centuries.

The recent resurrection of Mary has offered up portraits of a character whose historical roots go all the way back to a relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. And that relationship situates Mary at Jesus’ right hand. Now you’d think that someone whom all four gospels declare to be so very close to Jesus, ought to be someone your hear about in the church all the time.  You’d think that someone who the gospels record as having supported Jesus fledgling ministry out of her own resources, someone who if the gospels are to be believed, followed Jesus all the way to the cross and to whom the risen Christ first appeared and who is the first to be sent by Christ to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, you’d think that such a someone would be heralded down through the centuries, from pulpit to pulpit across the length and breadth of Christendom as the First Apostle. For indeed the literal definition of apostle is “one who is sent”. And if the gospels are to be believed,  Mary was sent by none other than the Risen Christ, so you’d think she would be honored by the very church that professes to follow Christ.  

But there’s just something about Mary….  that has made priests and preachers down through the centuries abhor her.  That the historical evidence clearly points to Mary’s role as a leader, perhaps the foremost leader of the first, fledgling followers of Jesus Christ, has not seemed to help Mary’s case. Indeed, it may be that her leadership position as the Apostle to the Apostles, the first witness to the resurrection and the first to proclaim that Christ is alive, is the very thing that set the proverbial cat among the priestly pigeons.

Now I know that there are those who would say that the swirling conspiracy theories that abound around any discussion of Mary are little more than the rumblings of ill-advised detractors who seek to undermine the teaching authority of the church.  But the evidence is clear that dear old Pope Gregory the Great, whether it was by accident or design actually misrepresented the Scriptures when he pontificated in a way that only popes can, about a woman’s sexuality. That this particular woman happened to be a close confidant of the one his holiness Pope Gregory called, “Lord and Saviour” did not save her from falling (pardon the pun) falling prey to his holiness’s foibles as he confused Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery and made the perilously, presumptuous leap from adultery to prostitution.  And low and behold for 14 centuries after Gregory’s not so great condemnation, Mary has remained relegated to the ranks of those whose bodies are bought and sold for the sake of those who care little for the female gender. And despite biblical and historical evidence to the contrary, Mary has been denied the titles that befit her rank.

But if you want to believe that it is merely a coincidence that the denial of Mary’s rank coincides with the church’s adamant denial down through the centuries that women could ever hope to enter the ranks of the priesthood, well I’m sure that God will forgive you, I’m just not sure Mary or her sisters will.

So what do the scriptures tell us about the disciple whom Jesus loved?             Well for starters Mary was a woman whom Jesus healed.  The gospel according to Luke tells us that:

“With Jesus went the twelve, as well as some women he had healed of evil spirits and sickness;  Mary of Magdala, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; Suzanna; and many other women who were contributing to the support of Jesus and the Twelve with their own funds.”

Evil spirits and sickness; 7 demons, no mention of sex.  No mention of prostitution. Now I don’t know about you, but if a prostitute showed up at your church tongues would be wagging.  And whoever wrote the gospel of Luke was more than capable of passing on a sexual tidbit or two. In fact just before he tells us about the women who support Jesus’ ministry, the writers tells the tale of a woman caught in adultery. But the writer never mentions that Mary was a prostitute.

Now there are some who insist that Gregory the not so great was simply confused by this story and so we should understand that it was an easy mistake to make. But to accept this is to accept that adultery and prostitution are the same thing. Now I get that popes are not well versed in matters of sex, but sadly that’s never stopped them from pontificating.

What irks me more is that a 20th Century New Testament scholar, who ought to know better, could suggest that adultery and prostitution are the same thing or indeed that one woman is the same as the next.

Okay, I’ll admit that I have an ax to grind. Many women do. But can you blame us?

Gentlemen.  I know that I have the rare privilege of serving in ministry with the most enlightened generation of men any woman has had the privilege of serving. You guys are great! So, please don’t hear this as some sort of angry tirade against men. Because sadly, the attitudes that have confined Mary to walking the streets at night are not confined to men. The entire church culture is steeped in antiquated attitudes that will take all of us, women and men together, decades to recover from.

But recover we will.  We will recover the witness of St Mary of Magdala, whose dedicated faith in Jesus, helped her to follow Jesus, despite the fact that all of the Twelve Disciples abandoned him, Mary stayed and followed Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross and beyond. Even in her grief, while the disciples remained locked behind closed doors because they were afraid, Mary ventured out to perform with her ointments ready, not knowing how she would be able to roll the stone away, only knowing that they could not fail to do what she thought would be the last loving act for her beloved Jesus.

It is long past time for the church to celebrate the resurrection of Mary of Magdala, the Apostle to the Apostles. 

Mary faithfully ventured forth, not knowing how; only knowing that she must.  And it was Mary who recognized in the face of someone she thought was just a gardener; Mary recognized the face of Christ. In Mary Magdalene we see a woman whose love of Jesus pushed her to keep going in the face of torment and death. It was Mary’s love of Jesus that sent her into the garden alone. Even though she though that her beloved Jesus was dead and gone, her love helped push her forward and she discovered that everything old has been made new through love.

So, looking back to Mary, I wonder what it would take for us to proclaim, “I have seen Christ”?  Where can we find God in our lives and thereby find new life, new hope, new love?  Where can we find what Mary found; Mary who when she found this new thing, was able to go on to found a community of followers of Christ who endured despite the odds against them.  A community who although their writings were suppressed by the powers that be, they could not be kept silent. A community whose gospel lay buried for centuries, and whose restoration preserves the traditions if not the words of Mary who encourages us down through the centuries with these words:

“Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be troubled. For Christ’s grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise Christ’s greatness, for Christ has joined us together and made us true human beings.”(Gospel of Mary and no I won’t supply the exact reference, in the hope that you might just read the entire Gospel)

Mary saw the risen Christ in the face of a gardener. Were can we find the face of Christ? Can we begin to see the face of Christ in the human beings that surround us?  Perhaps when we begin to share Mary’s faith that the risen Christ can bee seen, we will begin to see the ace of Christ in those around us; in face of the stranger we meet on the road, in the face of the homeless man as we sit and share a meal with them, in the face of a child we reach out to lift up out of poverty, in face the woman upon whose shoulders we stand, in the face of our opponent as together we struggle for understanding, in the face of our enemy as we work for peace, in the face of our tormentors as we strive for justice, in the face of the sick as we seek healing, and in the face of the poor as we offer aid.

When we can look into the face of those we meet and see the face of Christ then perhaps we can follow in the footsteps of Mary and all the world will know by our love, that we too follow Christ.

St. Mary of Magdala, the first Apostle, the Apostle to the Apostle, the one in whom the Risen Christ entrusted the good news of eternal life.

May the power of Mary’s witness inspire you to see the face of Christ in the world.

GOOD FRIDAY – Jesus did not die for your sin!

Good Friday Lament

Good Friday 2012 Sermon audio – here

Good Friday Worship bulletin – download here to be printed double sided

MAUNDY THURSDAY – A STRANGE NIGHT

   

      This evening we will gather together to remember what we have been told about the night before Jesus died.  In our community we will begin with a ritualized washing of hands, then dine over a simple meal of soup, wine and bread.  Over the meal we will talk together about the events of Jesus’ life, paying special attention to what we have been told about the Last Supper and Jesus’ betrayal.  As the meal and the conversation comes to a close, we will take bread, give thanks bless it and give it to one another saying, “The bread of Christ given for you.”  Then we will take a glass of wine give thanks and pass it to one another saying, “Christ poured out for you.”   Then we will strip our sanctuary in preparation for what tomorrow brings.

         In this post I have included a copy of the worship bulletin that will guide us. It can be downloaded here. to be printed double-sided

         21st century minds often find it difficult to reconcile the gospel accounts of this evening with.  So, in place of the homily, we will discuss our struggles to understand the events of this evening in light of all that we have learned together.  

         For those of you who have asked, a copy of a previous Maundy Thursday homily is included here.  This homily was preached in 2007 and while I am tempted to make some changes to it in light my own struggles to come to terms with the gospel accounts, I offer it unaltered, trusting that others may see in it the early stirrings of my own desire to discover a more progressive Christianity.  At the time I had just completed reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s “The Last Week” and John Shelby Spong’s “Jesus for the Non-Religious” and their work permeates the homily.

 Maundy Thursday 2007:

          It’s a strange night.

            For several decades after the Resurrection, Jesus’ followers were known as the People of the Way, or the Followers of the Way. Almost 2000 years separate the first followers of Jesus from 21st century Christians.

            I wonder if the early People of the Way would have as much difficulty recognizing modern Christians as Jesus’ followers as we modern Christians have understanding the practices of the People of the Way.

            The People of the Way understood Jesus to be the embodiment of what can be seen of God. Jesus shows us who God is and Jesus shared with his followers his vision of God’s justice.

            The experience of Jesus followers is ongoing. But we 21st century Christians know Jesus through the writings of the People of the Way. The New Testament represents a picture of a developing tradition that speaks with two voices:  the voice of Jesus and the voice of the developing Christian community.

            Like the People of the Way, Jesus is for us 21st century Christians, the decisive revelation of what a life full of God looks like. Jesus is radically centered in God and filled with the Spirit, Jesus is the decisive disclosure of what can be seen of God embodied in a human life.  Jesus life incarnates the character of God. And so for us the details of that life take are important as we try to understand what can be known of God from those details.           

            So, tonight we gather to remember the night in which Jesus was betrayed. It’s a strange night. There’s so much to think about. And there are so many questions. There are a lot of strange customs that are sometimes difficult to understand. There’s a strange and yet familiar meal. There’s the washing of feet. There’s the new commandment. There’s the matter of the betrayal. And there’s the sacrifice that we know is coming.           

            Let’s begin with the strange and yet familiar meal, which is the Last Supper and also the beginning of a new kind of supper.

            Most of us are so familiar with the words of institution:

            “On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus had supper with his friends and at that meal Jesus took bread gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his followers saying take and eat this is my body, given for you do this for the remembrance of me.

            And when the supper was over, Jesus took a cup of wine, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, “Drink this all of you this cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.  Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”

            Week after week, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, millennium after millennium, followers of Jesus’ both ancient and modern have gathered around the table to proclaim Christ’s death until Christ comes again. Sometimes the meal has transforming power, nourishing power, restorative, profound power. At other times the meal is just one more religious ritual carried out by rote, experienced without feeling, or impact. And sometimes the meal seems foreign to us, almost alien, perhaps even barbaric.

            To peer back through the centuries that divide us from the meal itself is no easy task. We may have a faint understanding of the meal as some sort of reenactment of the Passover, when a blood sacrifice was used to ensure that God would pass over the first born of the chosen people. But what does that have to do with us? Surely we don’t need a blood sacrifice to save us from the power of God?

            Most 21st century dwellers have long since forgotten the Passover, and those who do remember have lost their appetite for a blood sacrifice. Unlike the vast majority of the Followers of the Way, we did not grow up in close contact with animals; our meat comes plastic-wrapped and there’s no need to even think about the fact that our life is sustained by the death of animals. So, simply describing Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose blood sets us free to be people of God, will not suffice. Besides, we 21st century Christians have a dismissal view of scapegoating. So, to simply describe Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, leaves a bad taste in our mouths as we try to understand the character of a God who would require a scapegoat to atone for our sin.

            The  Jewish festivals of  Passover and Atonement  may have provided useful images to explain the horrendous events of this Holy Week to the Followers of the Way, who would have been familiar with the ancient traditions of sacrifice. But such images leave we 21st century Christians with a picture of a cruel, judgmental bloodthirsty God. So, we have to peer beyond Passover lambs and scapegoats if we are to understand God’s grace. 

            Long before animal sacrifice was invented, human beings knew two rather basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another—the gift and the meal. The proffered gift and the shared meal are probably the most ancient forms of human interaction. To the ancients, it seemed only natural to create, maintain, or restore good relations with the divine by offering a gift or sharing a meal. And what better gift for an ancient than to sacrifice the most precious of possessions, the very best of the livestock.

            Indeed one of the meanings of the word sacrifice is gift. But, we’ve long since forgotten the meaning of the word sacrifice.  sacrum facere means little to us.

            The Latin is largely lost to us.  sacrum ……..Holy;              facere … to make; sacrum facere ….to make holy.

            That the ancients revered the life giving deaths of animals and sought to make those deaths holy by pouring the animal’s blood on the altar of God is a ritual that escapes us. To us sacrifice has become synonymous with suffering and substitution. And so we fail to understand that ancient offerers  never dreamed that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer. To sacrifice an animal was simply to emphasize one’s reverence for the gift; to sacrifice to make holy. 

            “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” …“My blood poured out for you.”

            At that strange and yet oh so familiar meal all those years ago, Jesus invited his followers to see the meal itself as a sacrifice in the true sense of the word. Jesus comes as pure gift. The gift of Jesus is made holy, sacrum facerum in the sharing. Jesus invites his followers to participate fully with him in what is about to transpire. And, Yes, the language of body and blood points to a violent death.

            When a person dies nonviolently we speak of a separation of body and soul. But when a person dies violently we speak of a separation of body and blood. It would never have been possible for the Followers of the Way to speak of Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice unless, first, it had been a violent execution. And as a blood sacrifice, the point is neither suffering nor substitution, but participation with Christ in the sacrifice.

Jesus gathers with his followers, the ones he’s been teaching for a long time. Although Jesus is their teacher, he humbles himself and performs the actions of a servant and washes his followers feet. Then Jesus and his followers sit down to eat the Passover meal, a meal that signifies an earlier attempt of God’s to free God’s chosen ones from the cycle of violence. And at the Passover meal Jesus makes it clear that one of his beloved disciples will betray him.

            Jesus knows exactly what will happen when he is handed over to the authorities, because his own cousin John the Baptist was handed over and within days John’s head was served up on a silver platter. We can only imagine the scene at Herod’s feast when John’s head arrived dripping with blood.  It’s as if Jesus says to his disciples, “Enough already, I know I’m about to be handed over, so here take this bread; let this bread be my body, let this bread satisfy your hunger for violence; and this wine let this wine be my blood, drink this wine, let this sacrifice be an end to it.”

            “Whenever you remember me, eat this bread and drink this wine, sacrifice no more bodies, spill no more blood.” It’s as if God uses our violence to save us.

            Whenever we eat the bread or drink the wine we do so in remembrance of Jesus’ willingness to live fully in our world and to offer himself up to violence in order to put an end to violence. Jesus’ love is so strong that Jesus is willing to submit to violence in order that his followers might see once and for all that violence is not the answer.  For in the face of violence Jesus refuses to employ violence but instead insists that God forgive us. We eat the bread and drink the wine to remember Christ’s willingness to sacrifice himself so that no more blood would be spilt and no more bodies destroyed for the sake of sin.

            I know that there are a lot of Christians who are content to say that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins; but this is the 21st century and I don’t know about you but I’m not willing to worship a God that demands the death of his beloved son to pay for my guilt. Violence is our disease. We are the ones caught up in an endless cycle of violence. God is LOVE. Jesus embodied that love.

            On the night that Jesus was betrayed, Jesus confronted the evil that constrains us from being the loving creatures that we were created to be. And so we cannot do justice to Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another unless we are prepared to confront the demons that lurk within. And so as we eat this bread and drink this wine we do so, confident of Christ’s promise that God is gracious and violence will not win.

            On this night so long ago, Jesus took the violence of blood sacrifice and substituted bread and wine and bid us to remember. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we like those gathered long ago share with Christ.

One with Christ we too are made holy, we too are sacrifice; and in Christ, we too shall die and rise again.

Jesus takes the sacrifice of his body and blood and turns it into the bread and wine that hold’s the promise that unites Christians everywhere in the hope of the resurrection to come and God’s promise of eternal life. 

This is the Good News!

The Good News of God’s grace!

I PLEAD GUILTY TO THE CHARGE of` DENYING THE RESURRECTION

BUT I AINT LEAVING!!!

             Blogging is new to me and I must say that I am overwhelmed by the responses to yesterday’s post about resurrection.  While many have emailed or posted their ardent “amens” others have been scathing and some hostile to my remarks.  I am grateful to everyone who has responded.  All of your comments help me as I continue to ponder the theological and practical implications of the Easter story.  For those of you who have suggested that I have no business calling myself a Christian or a pastor and have suggested that I ought to consider leaving the church, I offer the following.

            Last year, I got together with clergy colleagues to talk about the challenges of preaching during Holy Week. When the subject of the crucifixion and the resurrection came up, the conversation became very lively as the traditionalists challenged the progressives. Toward the end of our conversation, it became clear that because I was unwilling to concede to the notion that Jesus corpse was physically resuscitated; I stood accused of having denied the resurrection.

            Some colleagues rose to my defense and insisted that I wasn’t saying anything different than what we all learned in seminary. But they also insisted that most lay-people simply don’t want to hear it. So, I asked them if they were going to preach about what they had learned in seminary and beyond and the general consensus was that there are too many guests on Easter Sunday to tackle theology.

            Some said, they were simply too afraid of the fundamentalists in their congregations to ever even attempt to preach what they knew. A few confessed that they were working up to it; but not on Easter Sunday.

            The traditionalists in the group were disgusted. One colleague went so far as to insist that I had no business being in the church because my very presence puts the beliefs of the faithful at risk. He wondered aloud, “Why do you stay in the church if you don’t believe?   If the church’s theology no longer works for you, why don’t you just leave?”

            “Why do you stay?” is a question I am all too familiar with.

            Well, before I can answer that, I have to say, that I’ve taken a leaf out of Joan Chittister’s book. Chittister insists that we should all be asking ourselves why we stay.  She cautions that those of us who stay, need to respect those who decide to leave and those who leave must respect those who stay. Chittister also insists that while we continue to ask ourselves why we stay, we ought to remember that “if we go, we must not go quietly and if we stay we must not stay quietly”. We must speak out because the church needs us to speak out.

            I confess that I am constantly asking myself why I stay and there are days when I feel like leaving, days when I feel like staying quietly, and days when I am convinced that it is in the church where I must not only stay but echo the words of Luther with gusto:  for in here I stand!

            I stay, because I still believe that it is possible to change the church from within. I stay, despite the fact that each time I go out into the wider church, the traditions and traditionalists that I meet there often make me want to leave. But then I remember all of the people in the faithful community that I serve. I remember their wiliness to dwell in the questions of our faith. I remember their courage and their determination. I remember their thirst for knowledge. I remember the amazing ways they reach out to the people outside the walls of the church. I remember their faithfulness, their love,  and their keen sense of justice. I remember the image of Christ that I see in their faces and I know without a doubt that the church is where I belong, even though I know that as a community we will continue to ask ourselves,  “Why do we stay?”  And I know that if we stay we will not stay quietly. And if we should ever decide to leave, we will not leave quietly. I stay because in the church community that I serve, I have encountered the Body of Christ.

            Here in the church, I have seen the risen Christ reach out to our neighbours in need, fight for justice, and love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and yes with all our minds.  So, I stay surrounded by such a great crowd of witnesses.  But like so many before us, we must not stay quietly. Together we must continue to speak out for change in our church.  And together we must continue to explore what the best minds of this century have to teach us about the nature of our God.

            My desire to work together with others to move the church into the 21st century is precisely why I preach the sermons I preach on Good Friday and Easter Sunday mornings.  And for the most part, despite the dire warnings of some of my clergy colleagues, our visitors take it all very well. Indeed many are relieved to hear that there is more than one way to follow Christ.  But there was this one person last Easter Sunday, who on the way out the door, insisted that I had denied the resurrection.  This person was quite distressed and wondered aloud how a Christian could deny the resurrection and still call themselves a Christian.

            Now even though I assured this person that I do indeed believe in the resurrection, it was clear to me, what this person heard me say was not exactly the same as what I actually said.  So, let me make it clear. There is, and there has always been, from the very beginning disagreement among the followers of Christ as to the exact nature of the resurrection. And things aren’t any different today than they were in the first century. There is a distinct disagreement between the Christianity of biblical scholarship and the Christianity of fundamentalists.  And 21st century Christians can be found faithfully following Christ all along the spectrum of beliefs about the resurrection.

            Fundamentalists are quite sure of their truth.  On Easter the crucified Jesus, who was laid in the grave as a deceased man on Good Friday, was by the mighty act of God, restored to life on Easter. Jesus had broken the power of death for all people. If the body of Jesus was not physically restored to life, the fundamentalists claim, then Easter is fraudulent. There can be no compromise here. Those who waver on this foundational truth of Christianity have, according to this perspective, abandoned the essential core of their faith tradition.

            Well, to borrow the words from an old song and say, “”Tain’t necessarily so!” When you read the New Testament in the order in which these books were written, a fascinating progression is revealed.  Paul, for example, writing between the years 50 and 64 or some 20 to 34 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, never describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body resuscitated after death.  There is no hint in the Pauline corpus that one, who had died, later walked out of his grave clothes, emerged from the tomb and was seen by his disciples.

            What Paul does suggest is that Easter meant that God had acted to reverse the verdict that the world had pronounced on Jesus by raising Jesus from death into God. It was, therefore, out of God in a transforming kind of heavenly vision that this Jesus then appeared to certain chosen witnesses. Paul enumerates these witnesses and, in a telling detail, says that this was the same Jesus that Paul himself had seen. No one suggests that Paul ever saw a resuscitated body.

            The Pauline corpus later says, “If you then have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Remember, the story of the Ascension had not been written when these Pauline words were formed. Paul did not envision the Resurrection as Jesus being restored to life in this world but as Jesus being raised into God. It was not an event in time but a transcendent and transforming truth.

            Paul died, according to our best estimates, around the year 64 C.E. The first Gospel was not written until the early 70’s. Paul never had a chance to read the Easter story in any Gospel. The tragedy of later Christian history is that we read Paul through the lens of the Gospels.  So, we have both distorted Paul and also confused theology.

            When Mark, the first Gospel, was written the Risen Christ never appears. The last time Jesus is seen comes when his deceased body is taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Mark’s account of the Resurrection presents us with the narrative of mourning women confronting an empty tomb, meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised and asking these women to convey to the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark then concludes his Gospel with a picture of these women fleeing in fear, saying nothing to anyone.  So abrupt was this ending that people began to write new endings to what they thought was Mark’s incomplete story. Two of those endings are actually reproduced in the King James Version of the Bible as verses 9-20. But thankfully, these later creations have been removed from the text of Mark in recent Bibles and placed into footnotes.  The sure fact of New Testament scholarship is that Mark’s Gospel ended without the Risen Christ ever being seen by anyone.

            Both Matthew, who wrote between 80-85, and Luke, who wrote between 88-92, had Mark to guide their compositions. Both changed, heightened and expanded Mark. It is fascinating to lift those changes into consciousness and to ask what was it that motivated Matthew and Luke to transform Mark’s narrative. Did they have new sources of information? Had the story grown over the years in the retelling?

            The first thing to note is that Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. First, the messenger in Mark becomes a supernatural angel in Matthew’s story. Next Matthew says the women do see Jesus in the garden.             They grasp him by the feet and worship him. This is the first time in Christian history that the Resurrection is presented as physical resuscitation. It occurs in the 9th decade of the first century.  It should be noted that it took more than 50 years to begin to interpret the Easter experience as the resuscitated body of the deceased Jesus.

            I don’t have time to go into the details of the development of this interpretation. But you can trace its growth through the gospels of Matthew and Luke until finally at the end of the first century to the Gospel of John. And when you read these chronologically, you will see that the Easter story appears to have grown rather dramatically over the years.

            Something happened after the crucifixion of Jesus that convinced the disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was thus available to them as a living presence.   This experience was so profound that the disciples, who at his arrest had fled in fear, were now reconstituted and empowered even to die for the truth of their vision.  This experience had the power to force the Jewish disciples to redefine the God of the Jews so that Jesus could be seen as part of who God is. Finally this experience was so profound that it ultimately created, on the first day of the week, a new holy day that was quite different from the Sabbath, to enable Christians to mark this transforming moment with a liturgical act called “the breaking of bread.”

            When these biblical data are assembled and examined closely, two things become clear. First something of enormous power gripped the disciples following the crucifixion that transformed their lives. Second, it was some fifty years before that transforming experience was interpreted as the resuscitation of a three days dead Jesus to the life of the world. Our conversation about the meaning of Easter must begin where these two realities meet.

            As for those who condemn those of us who choose to follow the biblical strains of our resurrection theology as non-Christians, well there will always be those who will insist that it is their way or the highway.  As for the person who greeted me on the way out the door last Easter Sunday and questioned my ability to call myself a Christian, I would say, “Thank-you!”.  This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the resurrection, so please allow me to repeat myself. To those who have responded to my blogs, I say, “Thank-you!”  I thank-you for engaging me in the questions of our faith.  I thank-you because your questions make me a better follower and I trust that my questions will do the same for you.  Let us together be the church in our own time and place and have the courage to follow where-ever Christ leads.

            So, without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.  I deny the resurrection of Christ.  Theologian Peter Rollins puts it far better than I ever could, and with him, let me just say:

             “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor;  I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and the oppressed.

            Every time I do not serve my neighbour, every time I walk away from the poor.

            I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system.

            However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are.

            I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees,

            I affirm the resurrection when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out,

            I affirm the resurrection, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

            I affirm the resurrection each and every time I look into your eyes and see the face of Christ.”

             Christ has died. Christ has risen.  Christ will come again and again.

            This is the mystery of our faith.

            Christ is Risen!

            Christ is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

            Christ is risen in you and in me. 

            In the words of Martin Luther:

            “This is most certainly true!”

            Can I get an Amen?

           

 

 

RESURRECTION: Giving up the notion of a physical resuscitation.

             Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

             Let me follow that proclamation up with a good Lutheran question:“What does this mean?”  What does it mean that Christ is risen? What does resurrection mean?

            The truth is that there are about as many different explanations of Christ’s resurrection as there are Christians.  And that’s a good thing, because the question of the resurrection is a question that lies at the very heart of Christianity. So, is it any wonder that Christians have been struggling to come to terms with resurrection since the very first rumors that Christ had risen began to circulate. Over the centuries the various responses to the question of resurrection have divided Christians as various camps work out various responses.

            For many Christians and non-Christians alike Resurrection is the dividing line. But this is nothing new.  Indeed the drawing of that line can be seen in the earliest Christian writings that we have. The Apostle Paul himself, wrote to the community of followers at Corinth:

            “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless—and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless.”

            There are many believers and non-believers alike who point to these line’s in scripture and say,” Aha, there it is, either you believe in the resurrection or you don’t!”

            For atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body is simply out of the question because it lies beyond reason. For a whole lot of Christians, and I dare say many of you,   “believing in the resurrection” means believing in the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body. And there are a whole lot of other Christians who don’t believe that believing in the resurrection means that you have to believe in the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body.  And there are a great many Christians for whom the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body is a moot point; that the entire argument is simply irrelevant.

            So, on Easter morning, when we gather together to celebrate the resurrection, the question of whether or not we believe in the resurrection hangs in the air like an unwelcome smell.  A smell made all the more pungent by our 21st century sensibilities.

            Last year, an American polling group from the southern Bible-belt conducted a poll of North Americans that for once included, Mexicans, Canadians, and Americans. The results of that poll confirm that the issue of resurrection has lost its grip when it comes to Easter. When questioned about the significance of Easter, fewer than half of those polled even mentioned Jesus. It seems that for many, the Easter bunny is a more plausible character than Jesus.

            It is clear that Christianity’s preoccupation with the strange events that happened after Jesus’ death has become a stumbling block that prevents a great many people from ever hearing the actual teachings of Jesus. The idea that a dead man came back to life some 2000 years ago is simply too much for 21st century minds to accept.

            So, while a good many sermons will be preached this Easter morning that clearly declare that Jesus physically rose from the dead, the Bible itself is much less clear on the details of the resurrection.

            Mark, the oldest gospel, written at least 40 years after Jesus died, ends with the mystery of an empty tomb, with no appearances by Jesus. In the other gospels, we have various confusing and conflicting details about the resurrection appearances: in some Jesus is not recognized, even by his former disciples who spent years following Jesus under the most intimate of circumstances. In some of the appearance stories, Jesus takes on ghost-like qualities by suddenly appearing in and then disappearing from locked rooms.

            These scant, confusing and conflicting accounts, don’t give us much to go on, and yet without this strange experience of resurrection, whatever it actually was, we would not have Christianity as a religion.

            So, what are we 21st century followers of the teachings of Jesus to do?             Must we check our brains at the door?  Do we suspend reason and experience and simply accept, despite what we know of reality, that Jesus physically rose from the dead? Or, do we simply avoid the issue altogether?

            I must admit that I’m tempted to avoid the issue.  After all, on Easter Sunday, most worshippers have places to go and people to see.   On the whole, I suspect what most worshippers want from the worship service is some lovely uplifting music, and a short sermon, so that they can be on their way rejoicing. But if the issue of a physical resurrection is standing between 21st century minds and the teachings of Jesus, then surely we must not avoid the issue. Surely Easter is precisely the day when we ought to focus our attention on the resurrection.  I believe preachers must address the inconsistencies in the biblical witness together with the plethora of historical and theological information that has been made available by the writings of best-selling authors who have opened up the scholarship of the academies and seminaries to the average worshipper.

            So, here I offer my own notes about the resurrection as I prepare to lead worship and preach on this high feast of the church year. As always, I am indebted to those scholars who have moved me beyond the dogma and doctrines of my own tradition and echoes of their work permeate what follows:   John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Peter Rollins, Bernard Brandon Scott, Glynn Cardy and the members of my congregation.

             The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. Scholars tell us that the letter was written between the years 53 and 57. That’s at least 20 years before the Gospel according to Mark, 30 to 40 years before the gospels according to Matthew and Luke and probably nearly 50 years before the Gospel according to John.

           The writings of the Apostle Paul contain the earliest writings that we have on the subject of the Resurrection.  And the Apostle Paul’s understanding of resurrection was good enough for the early followers of the way.  Paul’s description of resurrection does not conflict with our 21st century inability to accept the suspension of the natural order of the universe.  You see, Paul never described Jesus’ resurrection as a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse.              Indeed in 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul denies that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual physical resurrection.

            Paul  writes:  “Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up?  What kind of body will they have?”  What a stupid question!  The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body God designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body.            Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another.  And a star differs from other stars in brightness.  So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.”

            As a Pharisee, Paul believed in the resurrection of the dead and certainly he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But as for our question about an actual physical body, Paul insists that this is simply a stupid question.  For heaven sake, when you sow a seed into the ground and it bursts forth into new life, that new life doesn’t come in the form of a seed, it comes to life as a plant! Not all bodies are the same! The Apostle Paul did not need there to be an actual physical resuscitation of a body in order to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead.

            To ask the question of whether the resurrection is true, and to mean by this that only a resuscitated corpse constitutes such proof, is to impose the standards of the modern mind upon a pre-scientific culture of myth and magic. The dualism of body and soul was a Greek idea, for the Jews there could be no resurrection without a resurrection of the body. After all, could one rise without a body to rise in?

            What we refer to as the soul was a foreign concept to first century Jews.  And so the question about the kind of body the risen Jesus had was, as Paul puts it, quite simply stupid. “There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies.” Not all bodies are the same.

            The question of a physical body makes no sense to the ancients. Christ was alive to those early followers. Paul insists that there are natural bodies, which he equates with earthly bodies what we would call physical bodies and there are spiritual bodies which Paul equates with heavenly bodies.

            According to Paul, the earthly body; they physical body must die in order for the heavenly or spiritual body to be born.  “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.”

            This spiritual resurrection that Paul describes gave birth to Christianity, within the Jewish context. It wasn’t until Christianity moved beyond Judaism that it came into direct conflict with the Greek understanding of reality, which insisted upon the dualism of body and soul. Faced with the task of communicating the gospel, the early followers of the risen Christ, began to articulate their experiences of the risen Christ in ways that the Greek influenced Roman Empire could understand. And the question of a physical resurrection arose (pardon the pun).

            However, the vision that Paul credits with having changed his view of Jesus is clearly that, a vision; a vision of a heavenly body. Some scholars argue that the resurrection was either a mass hallucination or that the stories were simply made up by Jesus’ followers after the death of the man they had believed to be their Messiah. But would hallucinations, or fictions have the power to sustain a movement that would become Christianity?

            Is it possible, that something our 21st century minds would describe as deeply spiritual happened, but that something was not a supernatural resuscitation of a corpse?  The supernatural resuscitation of a corpse  not only violates the laws of science,  it is also difficult to reconcile a physical resuscitation with the details that are recorded in the Scriptures.

            What if the experience of Jesus was one in which his followers truly saw the power of God within a man to an extent that they had never encountered before? If we see God as the ground of our being, then Jesus can be viewed as a unique, but human man in whom this ground was not a distant source of existence buried under layers of ego, but was the very center of his being.             Jesus life, his teachings, his compassion, his ministry of healing all radiated this power of the divine.

            Jesus opened up his disciples’ eyes to this power of God. After the human Jesus died, what if his followers still experienced the power of God that they had seen within Jesus, even though their teacher was no longer with them?

            In an age in which, what we would define as supernatural visions, were commonplace, this experience of the power of the divine that their teacher had opened them to could have been interpreted as if the spirit of their teacher had never died because the power of God never does die.

            I believe that the biblical accounts of the risen Christ, represent the powerful stories told by the first followers of Jesus. Stories not about the supernatural, but about the mystical experiences of the living power of God in the world. As these stories were told and interpreted over decades in a time that expected to encounter God in the world, these stories developed in which the resurrection is conveyed with bodily imagery. We need not take these stories literally, but we must take them seriously.

            When we examine the story of Jesus’ death and the mystical experience of resurrection in metaphorical terms,  we can see in the story of the crucifixion the very human nature of Jesus: we see suffering, pain, doubt, and death itself  —  the inevitable conditions of being human. Yet in the story of the resurrection, we learn that this human condition is not the conclusion — hope exists for all of us.             Behind the suffering of existence lies a power:  the power of existence itself that is eternal and infinite. This power thus “conquers death” because it is the source of existence and of life.

            The powerful message of Christianity  becomes one of light and hope:             just as Jesus was able to tap into this power and just as Jesus’ life was centered on the power of the divine and radiated it. We too can do the same. We can also experience the divine ground within ourselves and within all of creation.

            When Paul talks about the risen Christ he speaks of Jesus as the one who was raised up into the fullness of God.

            Being raised up into the fullness of God… Now that’s a resurrection I can hope for.

            Although Paul speaks about Jesus’ resurrection as God’s victory over death, the Resurrection isn’t some glorious taming of death, because in the end, we still die – death is still real for us … many of us know that only too well.             When Paul paraphrases the prophet Hosea: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul is not negating the reality of death – he is  reminding us that death and the grave are no longer to be feared.

            Paul insists that death and the grave are very much a part of the journey into the fullness of God’s love – the journey into the presence of the Living God – the journey into the heart and soul of the Living God.

            Resurrection reminds us that ultimately God and God’s love for us in Christ Jesus will bring life out of death.  And there is more good news about Easter. Easter is more than something that happened in the past. Easter is more than a day on the calendar. Easter is not just about the resurrection of Jesus or the hope that we to will be resurrected when our time on this mortal coil has ended. The good news about Easter is that resurrection is not limited to Jesus, nor is it limited to the end of our life. Resurrection is not limited to life after death. Resurrection happens throughout creation, over and over throughout our lifetimes. Resurrection can and does happen here and now.

            You see the miracle of Easter is not so much about the resurrection of Jesus as it is about our own resurrections. If the rumors about the empty tomb are to be believed, then we need not look for the living among the dead. Jesus has left the tomb, and if we are to follow Jesus then we too shall have to leave our tombs.

            To follow Jesus we will have to leave the old trappings behind like shabby grave clothes, if we are to live in the Light of Christ. The resurrection to which Easter calls us—is our own—and resurrection requires that we prepare to find God where God is by opening ourselves to the world around us with our eyes and ears open wide to new life.

            This means that we must be prepared to be surprised by God in strange places, in ways we never though we’d see and through the words of those we never thought we’d hear.

            We must allow others—even those whom we have until now refused to consider—for they too are in need of resurrection and we must open our hearts to things we do not want to hear.

            We must release the voice of God in everyone, everywhere.

            In Jesus, his followers heard the voice of God.

            In Jesus, his followers discovered the wisdom of God.

            In Jesus, his followers experienced the love of God.

            Those who followed and loved Jesus experienced life in ways that were so earth shattering, so mind-blowing, that their lives would never be the same again. The power of the love they experienced in their life with Jesus could not be constrained or ended by Jesus’ death.

            Long after they found the empty tomb, Jesus’ loved ones continued to experience his presence in very real ways. In the breaking of the bread, and in the meals they shared together; as they walked the pathways they had walked with Jesus, and fished the waters they had navigated with Jesus.

            There in those places they encountered the power of Jesus’ love that could not be limited by death.  That love had the power to raise them from their own tombs. And that love has the power to raise us from our tombs.

            Those dark caves that hold us captive and keep us from living.  By the power of LOVE we can leave behind the tattered grave-clothes that bind us so that we can follow Christ into the light.

            Christ is risen!

            Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

            Christ lives and breathes and has being, in with and through us!

            That dear sisters and brothers is the Good News on this Easter morning.

            Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

 

PALM SUNDAY SERMON – An Inconvenient Messiah

Palm Sunday Sermon Audio  here

Palm Sunday Worship Bulletin here  to be printed double-sided