When tragedy strikes, we have this innate need to know the facts. What happened? It is as if the facts about what happened can save us from the horrendous impact of the tragedy. Tell us the facts. Tell us what happened: where it happened? when it happened? how it happened? Give us the facts and we will be able to figure out why it happened. If we figure out why it happened we can make sense of the tragedy, we can put the colossal impact of the tragedy into context. Once we put the tragedy into context we can get some perspective on it and begin to manage it, so that we can move on from the tragedy.
So, what are the facts? Well, what happened is, they executed Jesus. When? close to 2000 years ago. How? They nailed him to a tree, trusting that the weight of his body would in time cause his body to shut down in the most horrendous way. These are the barest of facts. In the nearly 2000 years that have passed since the tragedy of one man’s execution at the hands of a cruel Empire, we have been given many more facts about this particular tragedy. Indeed, we have been given facts, stories, legends, myths, conjectures, creeds, rituals, testimonies, and sermons about this particular tragedy. Whole libraries exist full of books written over 20 centuries trying to make sense of this tragedy, trying to put the horrendous details into context, giving us all sorts of perspectives and still we cannot make sense of this tragedy, let alone move on from it. So, we gather together, and we ask ourselves, Why?
All over the world, people just like us, and not at all like us, gather today, to immerse ourselves in this tragedy. Some of us will argue over the facts. People do that when tragedy strikes, we argue over the facts as we struggle to make sense of the horror of it all. Some of us will deny the facts. Others of us, will marvel at the facts. Some of us will embellish the facts or bend the facts so as to ensure that the facts are interpreted in a particular way, a way that ensures that when we move on, we will walk in a particular way. It’s what we humans do so that we can cope with the tragic impact that death has upon us. So, for centuries, humans have gathered together and struggled with this particular tragedy, hoping that if we can make sense of this tragic death, perhaps it will help us to cope with all death. Because in the end, (pun intended), because in the end, isn’t that what all this fact finding, story-telling, ritualized remembering, hoping, and praying is all about? In the end, isn’t all really about us? Our death? The tragic reality that in the end, we too shall die. We too, each and every one of us will die.
So, give us the facts, tell us what happens, how it happens, why it happens, what happens? Why? Why? We need to know so that we can cope with the reality that death will come to us. Tell us…tell us…why? What? How? Where? Why? Why? Why?
The tragic reality of that execution nearly 2000 years ago continues to unnerve us. How after all these years does it continue to cause us to tremble, tremble, tremble….How shall we ever manage to move on from this tragedy?
Well, on days like today, it is left to people like me to try to help us make sense out of the tragic reality that they executed Jesus, that he suffered and died, and that eventually, one way or another, death will come to each and every one of us. Now I could resort to reciting all sorts of facts, or I could simply invite you into the story and do my best to make some sense of it in ways that offer some sort of comfort. Or I could deny some of the things that have been offered up as facts, emphasize some other facts, and tell the story in a way that would soften the blow. I could bend the story and tell it in ways that invite you to move along, just move along trusting that all will be well in the end. But on days like today, when the stark reality of the tragedy is on display, well it is as if the word WHY has transformed the instrument of Jesus torture and execution into a giant question mark. So, today in the shadow of that giant question mark let me just draw your attention to some aspects of this tragedy that we sometimes fail to see.
First of all, Jesus was human, like us. Human like us! Not just human, but human with all the glorious, wonderful, miraculous, splendid, beautiful, and yes flawed and incomplete and sometimes tragic and terrifying qualities that go along with the realities of being human. Jesus was not some sort of superhero, not perfect, not some other sort of being. For if Jesus was anything other than human, then his death would not be so tragic, nor would it shed much light upon our human reality. For if Jesus is other than we are, other than human, then how can we possibly hope to follow Jesus? The Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr writes that, “Christians believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time. But the best most of us could do was to see ourselves as only human and see Jesus as only divine. We thus miss the whole point, which was to put the two together and to discover the same MYSTERY in ourselves.”
We see ourselves as only human or just human. We see Jesus as the only human who was divine. Jesus points us to a new reality in which we understand ourselves as fully human and that means that we are also fully divine. Jesus’ life and teaching embodies a new way of being in the world a way that embraces all of who we are, both human and divine.
Jesus declared it over and over again in so very many ways. You are divine. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” “You are the light of the world!” “You are daughters and sons of God.” Jesus said, “Everything I have done, you can do.”
Jesus never invited us to worship him. Yet for centuries humans have been taught to worship Jesus as the only person who is divine. When Jesus said, “I and the Father are ONE.” We came to believe that meant just Jesus and the Father are ONE. But Jesus was saying we are all ONE. You and the Father, the Abba, the Divine MYSTERY that we call God, You and God are ONE. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.” Jesus did not say, “Worship me because I am the only person who is divine.” Jesus taught us that the ULTIMATE REALITY at the very heart of all that is, this ONE that we call God, Jesus taught us that this God is LOVE.
Jesus never invited anyone to worship him as the only person who is divine, Jesus invited us to follow him to walk through life the way he walked through life to follow his way of being in the world. Jesus followers weren’t known as “Christians” until the forces of Empire co-opted his followers into their way of being in the world. Jesus’ followers weren’t even known as Jesusians. Jesus followers were known as followers of the Way; a Way of being in the world that places LOVE at the center, trusting that LOVE is the Way to embody the fullness of our being, LOVE is the way to embody what it means to be both human and divine.
Jesus knew that there were people, and forces, and empires who wanted to put something other than LOVE at the center of everything. Jesus knew that his way of being in the world would bring him into conflict with those powers, those forces, and the very empire that in the end, wielded their power and put him to death. The tragedy is that Jesus way of being in the world got him killed. The tragedy is that in time Jesus executioners, the Romans, co-opted Jesus’ teachings for their own nefarious purposes and so many of the followers of Jesus became the worshippers of the cross and bowed down to the myth that Jesus was the only one who was divine, the only one who could put LOVE at the core of his being.
I have come to believe that the only way that the cross can be seen as any sort of symbol that points to the MYSTERY that we call God is if we can begin to see past the reality of the cross as an instrument of torture and death and begin to see the cross as the place where humanity meets divinity. If we can see Jesus’ life and death as the embodiment of the fullness of being, where humanity and divinity are realized then perhaps we too can begin to embody the fullness of who we are and live into Jesus’ dream of living life abundantly. “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.”
“I and the Abba are ONE.” I me, this incomplete being that stands before you, I and the MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of reality, I and the LOVE that we call God are ONE. YOU and the LOVE that we call God are ONE.
The cross is the place where our humanity meets our divinity and transformation, new life, resurrection is possible. But for today, we look upon the cross, and we know that just as Jesus died, we too shall die, we look upon the cross and we see that crucifixions continue to happen in oh so many ways, in oh so many places. And we tremble, tremble, tremble. But we also look upon the cross trusting that even death cannot destroy the reality that we are both human and divine, for we and the MYSTERY that we call God, we are ONE. And just as surely as Jesus embodied the LOVE that is God, we too can embody the LOVE that is God. Yes, it is dangerous. Yes, it might even get us killed. But not even death can conquer the LOVE that is God.
So, let us follow Jesus. Let us follow the Way that is LOVE. Let us live life in all life’s abundance. Let us be LOVE in the world. LOVE that not even death can destroy. LOVE that is ONE with the Source of All Being. Let us follow Jesus way of being fearlessly. For yes, we too shall die. But not even death can destroy the LOVE that is God. LOVE is more powerful than death! YOU and that LOVE are ONE. Now and forever. Amen.
I am indebted to Pastor Salvatore Sapienza whose excellent preaching reminded me of Richard Rohr’s work. Pastor Salvatore is a United Church of Christ pastor whose preaching is well worth checking out http://www.douglasucc.org/pastor