Easter

the ravine of blackest shadow

If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms.  Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of.  But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version.  (People often request this psalm for funerals.  For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)

One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.”  That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful.  It’s not as artistic.  The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.”  Friends, that’s pretty dark!

1 ps

Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm.  That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.

However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow.  And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!

A quick lesson in Hebrew might help.  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants.  The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later.  Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words.  Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.”  Same consonants, different vowels.

Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand.  Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read.  A dot might be misplaced.  That could change the pronunciation and the meaning.  It’s possible that happened here.

The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i).  With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.”  In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.

We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place.  We are on a journey, and we are not alone.  The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else.  Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us.  And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.

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So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship.  I used a funeral service as a case in point.  I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically.  Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm.  But all that stuff isn’t enough.  We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.

Again, on the point of funerals.  I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier.  She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month.  She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.

She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks.  After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back.  Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.

I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up.  She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.

Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.

What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host?  What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack?  And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies?  What response does it encourage or require?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction.  “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light” (5:8).  If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).

Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative.  They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile.  Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.

Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies.  Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!”[1]  It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!

But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.”  In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given?  I have security through advanced firepower?  Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?

3 psOr maybe is it “for you are with me”?  Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability.  Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”

It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God.  It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6).  By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.”[2]  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this.  But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God?  Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”?  There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms.  The Lord could be vindicating his servant.

And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word.  The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.”  The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23).  It’s almost always used in a military context.  Someone is being hunted down.

One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14).  I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.

I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful.  I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking.  And I haven’t lifted a finger to help.  I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide.  I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven.  I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.

Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  He has a fitting thought for the Easter season.  “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past.  There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death.  Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.”[3]

Here’s a question.  What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave?  What about that?  What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?

That leads to another question.  When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that?  What is an entirely different order?  I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.

Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.”[4]  When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised.  Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves.  That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit.  We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.

Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper.  “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.”  I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be.  When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.

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When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God.  We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death.  We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/article/you-prepare-a-table-for-me-psalms-23/

[2] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981), 199.

[3] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004), 23.

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


blessed release

I’ve sometimes thought to myself, “everything is possible at night.”  That thought has occurred to me when I’ve been up very late, and it seems like the whole world is asleep.  The most incredible plans, the wildest ideas, all seem to be quite capable of being accomplished.  There’s the sudden, “Yes!  Why didn’t I think of that before?”  And then when sleep comes, it seems like everything is figured out.  All is right with God and the world.

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And then the cold light of morning forces open eyelids that aren’t quite ready to be opened.  The mental cobwebs disappear, and a sudden realization takes hold.  What a stupid idea that was!  What in the world was I thinking?  What seemed so clear and so true and so sensible now seems so unclear and so wrong and so ridiculous.

I wonder if the disciples had any similar thoughts.  Jesus had, after all, on occasion made strange statements about being risen from the grave.  What on earth could that mean?  Did they understand him correctly?  Is it possible in those dark, lonely, sorrowful hours before dawn that any of them dared to entertain such notions?

John 20 points us to Mary Magdalene, who ventured out to the tomb of Jesus before sunrise.  The other gospels say she wasn’t alone.  She was accompanied by other women, including Mary the mother of James.  According to the Jewish burial custom, they intended to anoint the body of Jesus.  Still, I wonder what thoughts filled their minds during that terrible and heart-breaking evening.

Mary Magdalene has received a lot of bad press throughout the centuries.  It’s been claimed she had formerly been a prostitute, an allegation stated nowhere in the Bible.  (Though, even if it were true, wouldn’t it be a good thing if she had left that life?)  What is stated is that she had been demon possessed (Lk 8:2).  Some people have said she’s the sinful woman of Luke 8 who washes the feet of Jesus with her hair (vv. 36-50) or that she’s the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (vv. 1-11).

In her blog, “Here’s a Story,” Ashley Buenger takes Biblical characters and events and infuses them with her vision and imagination, bringing them to life.  Here’s an excerpt from her story about Mary and her struggle with demons.[1]

{I have altered the spacing of some of the sentences.}

“I scramble to the jar [I just threw], it’s shattered.  Perfect, I think.  No, wait.  Whose jar is this?  Why have I broken it?  I pick up a shard and I scrape it along the top of my foot.  I see the red beads of blood glisten and I’m delighted.  I’m bleeding.  So beautiful, I stare at it.  Then I take a sharp edge to my palm.

“Stop it.  I say to them.  But they never listen.  They never give heed to what I want.  Get out of here.  I say to them but they laugh at me and snarl.  I can see their teeth in my head.  Oh, Mary.  They taunt me.  Silly Mary. You’re ours.  We won’t leave.

“I pick up another piece of pottery and put it between my teeth.  I chomp down on it as hard as I can.  I wince as I feel a tooth break.  They laugh and place another piece in my mouth.  It’s getting worse.  I push, they push back, I push again, they push back again.  Sometimes I win.  But not often and not lately.  It’s been too long.  I’m too tired to fight.  They have taken over this body.  I’m no longer Mary…  I don’t know half the things I do.

“Look what you’ve done to me, I say to them.  We’ve made you better, they say and laugh, we’ve made you prettier.  They take me to a booth where a man is selling mirrors.  See?  They say.  Gorgeous.  I am horrified.  My face is sunk and my eyes are empty, there are deep wounds on my cheeks.  Chunks of my hair are missing.  What is left hangs limp and dirty around my face.  I don’t even recognize myself…

2 jn

“The air shifts and the hair on my neck tingles, I stand up straight and look around.  Someone is coming.  Someone important.  The demons are stirred.  I stumble to the wall and then back and to the wall again.

“There he is, that’s him.  Who is he?…  ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they yell from my mouth.  ‘We know who you are.  The son of the Most High God.’

“‘Come out of her.’  Jesus says.  ‘Now.’

“My body shakes and they shriek as they leave.  It smells like burning flesh for a moment and then they are gone.  There were seven of them.

“I look up and into the face of my healer.  He stands before me with his hand out to me.  I take it, wincing at the pain of the gashes in my palm.  ‘Hi Mary.’  He says to me.  And I stare at him.  My name from his lips is like a song.  The most beautiful melody that I had ever heard.  It is a song of freedom.

“I am Mary again.”

Mary is given a blessed release.

By the way, I sent a comment to Ashley saying, “I love your portrait of the demons as spiteful little punks.”  At the end of the day, that’s really what they are.

The scripture reading of that first Easter morning describes the event that earned Mary Magdalene the name “apostle to the apostles,” no longer the Mary with seven devils.  She peeks into the tomb, even while she’s crying tears of sorrow.  She’s greeted by two angels who ask her why she’s crying.  Mary’s answer shows how confused she is as to how all this can be happening.

3 jnNo sooner has she answered their question than she turns and sees Jesus himself.  Says G. H. C. Macgregor, “There follows the greatest recognition scene in all literature—and one told in two words!”[2]  (Jesus says, “Mary.”  She says, “Rabbouni,” meaning teacher.)  “The greatest recognition scene in all literature.”  (Why doesn’t he tell us how he really feels?)

She sees him, but she doesn’t recognize him.  Thinking he’s the gardener, Mary figures he can explain the missing body of Jesus.

Why doesn’t Mary recognize him?  One suggestion is it was still too dark, but that doesn’t seem very likely.  After all, the disciples on the road to Emmaus spend a long time with Jesus before realizing who he is (Lk 24:13-35).  It’s not until Jesus speaks her name that the veil over Mary’s mind is lifted.

Nadia Bolz-Weber has her own take on this recognition scene.[3]

“See, when Mary Magdalene, this imperfect woman, stood at the tomb, she didn’t encounter some perfected radiant glowing Jesus that morning.  Seriously, no offense to gardeners but Jesus couldn’t have been looking all that tidy and impressive if she mistook him for a gardener.  And here’s the thing: I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”

4 jnThat really speaks volumes about the incarnation.  In Jesus, we have God appearing on earth in flesh, God appearing as matter—this earthly, dirty stuff.  No angel, no vision, but the physical body and blood of Jesus.  In a few moments, we will eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (That’s the Greek word appearing many times in the New Testament which means “giving thanks.”)

How can we describe the intensity of the moment that follows?  In what must have been a flood of shock and joy, Mary cries out to the one she dearly loved.  There are other writings from the early church, besides the New Testament, that speak of the relationship that existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  They speak of a relationship, one of intimate friendship.  Some even go so far as to suggest a romantic bond.

The scripture presents her as turning twice.  In verse 14, she “turns” and sees Jesus, though as mentioned before, she doesn’t recognize him.  In verse 16, upon hearing her name spoken, she “turns” and speaks to Jesus with unbounded wonder.  She turns from grief to hope.  She turns from sorrow to joy.

Though the Bible doesn’t use that word, she turns—she returns—and brings the good news to the others.  Of course, they don’t take her word for it.  Sometimes even an apostle to the apostles isn’t believed!

Mary Magdalene is a fitting picture for Easter, for resurrection.  She, in effect, has been raised from the dead.  She has been freed from her demons.  She once was blind, but now she sees.

It’s been said that it’s “possible for Jesus to be present, and yet for [us] not to recognise him until his word goes home to [us].”[4]

“Until his word goes home.”  It’s not enough to hear about Christ or to be taught the meaning of the resurrection.  We can learn ways to understand the scriptures; we can learn the doctrines of the church—and these are important.  But hearing about Jesus won’t produce belief.  We must hear from Jesus.  And hearing from Jesus Christ means hearing the good news of his love.  That is the word that goes home.

And that is the word spoken to Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her by name.  It’s like those three-dimensional pictures that are hidden in the midst of a bewildering array of other images.  You have to let your eyes remain unfocused.  Straining to find the 3-D picture won’t do any good.  And it can be maddening.  You’re looking right at it, but you can’t see it!

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When Jesus speaks his word, he no longer is a gardener.  He no longer is a traveler on the Emmaus road.  When he speaks his word, he can be seen as the risen Lord who comes to us even now, in every moment of life.

So the next time you find yourself awake in the midst of the darkest of nights, think to yourself that anything is possible at night—even the impossible.  For it was before the sun had yet shown its face that the light of the world emerged from the darkness of the tomb.

 

[1] ashleybuenger.substack.com/p/mary-magdalene?s=r

[2] G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel of John (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 358.

[3] thecorners.substack.com/p/its-actually-pretty-easy-to-mistake?s=r

[4] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 686.


embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

3 ac

[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

5 ac

My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

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[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.


invisible light

“It is universally agreed that the Emmaus story is a gem of literary art.”[1]  That’s a quote from Bogdan Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”  (He teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.)

I think I would tend to agree with that.  Actually, the gospel of Luke itself is filled with gems of literary art.  There’s the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, in chapter 1 (vv. 46-55).  We have the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (10:29-37 and 15:11-32).  We could come up with some other gemstones.

A couple of weeks ago on Easter Sunday, I said the celebration of it this year is muted.  This is certainly an Easter like none other.  Is it possible to miss some of the majesty?  The thing about majesty is sometimes it sneaks up right behind you.  The two disciples on their way to Emmaus find that out—though they don’t realize the majesty at first.

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{"The Walk to Emmaus" by Rowan LeCompte and Irene Matz LeCompte}

About that couple, they’re usually portrayed as two men.  Not everyone sees it that way.  Apparently, they live in the same house; it seems just as likely we’re dealing with a husband and wife.  In fact, in his gospel, John says “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas [also spelled as Cleopas], and Mary Magdalene” (19:25).

Maybe I’m mistaken.  Seriously, there’s no way someone’s wife would be written out of the story!  Perish the thought!

If it’s possible for us to miss the majesty, to not glimpse the glory, the same is true of our couple.  The scripture says, “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15-16).  There’s more on this point of not being able to recognize, not being able to see, but we’ll look at that in a moment.

The two of them are downcast, and Jesus wants to know why.  They’re surprised he hasn’t heard the bad news.  Cleopas says they’re dismayed because Jesus has been crucified.  They had such high expectations.  “But,” as verse 21 says, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped he would set Israel free.  We had hoped.

Jesus chides them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (v. 25).  We’re told, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

That word for “interpreted” (διερμηνευω, diermēneuō) means more than to simply explain.  What Jesus does is to reframe, to re-imagine.  He takes the scriptures and pulls out deeper meanings.

An example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Someone asks Jesus how to achieve eternal life.  Jesus speaks of loving God and loving neighbor.  “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (10:29).  Thus, we have the parable.  A poor fellow is robbed and beaten and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite see him and pass right by.  When the Samaritan sees him, he goes out of his way to care for him.  Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36).

Jesus reframes, he re-imagines, the word “neighbor.”  A neighbor isn’t just a certain person.  You can make anyone a neighbor.  It’s a way of treating someone.

Returning to the idea of recognition, of perception, I imagine we’ve all failed to see something right in front of us.  When I was a kid and looking for a certain item that was hidden in plain sight, my mom would often say to me, “If it was a snake, it woulda bit you!”

2 lkIt’s hard to blame this couple for not seeing what (or who) is right in front of them.  Remember, the Bible says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).  There are all kinds of theories as to what that means.  Was there divine interference?  Were they not ready to see that level of glory, that level of (to use the word again) majesty?

Our friend Bogdan (who I mentioned at the beginning) says something like that about them.  As long as they think of Jesus as a prophet who failed to liberate Israel, “they remain unable to bear the brilliance of his glory.”[2]  They still need a transformation by the Spirit.  It’s the glory of the Lord that prevents them from seeing the glory of the Lord!  They are, in effect, blinded by the light.

Still, we can’t ignore what was going on within them.  This isn’t a walk in the park.  Their world has collapsed.  The bottom has dropped out.  Despair is threatening to overwhelm them.  Sadness has dulled their vision.

Maybe we can relate.  When we feel depressed, when it feels like the walls are closing in, our senses can become dulled.  It can be hard to see beauty.  It becomes difficult to have creative vision.  It might even be the case that smells aren’t as pleasant.  Maybe food doesn’t taste as good.

That can be true of us in this time.  Being cooped up in our houses, not being able to sit down in a restaurant, having to wear masks at the grocery store, the kids not attending school—it can be enough to drive anyone up the wall.  It can be enough to leave us dispirited.

So maybe we can relate to our friends on the road to Emmaus.

As they draw near their destination, Jesus is continuing on.  The day is nearly done, so they invite him to stay with them.  They offer him their hospitality.  “Please, come and join us for dinner.  We want you to spend the night.  You can continue your journey in the morning.”

He agrees.  And what happens at mealtime?  “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30).  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The only thing missing is, “This is my body, broken for you.”

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What happens next is truly amazing and baffling.  “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (v. 31).  Their eyes are opened.  They recognize him.  Then he disappears.  That’s quite a miraculous act!  It’s in the breaking of the bread when the lights come on.  They realize who is dining with them.  They understand that they’re sitting at the table with their Lord.

That might be a tad difficult to understand, but it’s nothing compared with what’s coming up.  He vanished from their sight.  Wait.  What?

There are those who say Jesus was agile and quick enough to slip out without being noticed.  It seems that a resurrection body is quite athletic.  Maybe he diverted the disciples’ attention: something like, “Hey, what’s that over there?”  He points, then takes off.

He didn’t even ask to be excused from the dinner table!

The word for “vanished” or “disappeared” is an interesting one.[3]  Its root meaning is “made invisible.”  William Loader picks up on this when he speaks of the “surreality of the invisible man.”[4]  And we go back to the title of Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”

So, after Jesus’ disappearing act, the pair engage in reflection.  Here’s another place where Luke displays his use of powerful, poetic language.  “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” (v. 32).  Were not our hearts burning within us?  The Revised English Bible reads, “Were not our hearts on fire?”

What an awesome experience.

Cleopas (and possibly Mary?) decide to make an evening journey back to Jerusalem.  They go to see the other disciples, who are already overjoyed, since they also know that the Lord has risen from the dead.  “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35).

From ancient times, the breaking of bread has been a time of welcoming, an act of hospitality.  It is a sign of community.  On the flip side, the refusal to share a meal with someone is seen as an insult.  It is inhospitable; it is a rejection of community.

Earlier, I suggested Jesus’ breaking of the bread is reminiscent of what we do in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  It also is an act of welcoming, of hospitality; it is a sign of community.  This fits with our understanding of the sacrament.  Our Book of Order says this about it: “When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place.  We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God” (W-3.0409).

We are united.  We are joined.  It truly is a holy communion.

As it was with those early disciples, so it is today.  In the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the cup, Jesus is made known.  There is that invisible light, that invisible energy, that Spirit of love who unites us.

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Sometimes we miss the majesty, the glory.  We need the scriptures to be opened.  We need our minds to be opened.  We need our hearts to burn.  We need them to be on fire.  We need the Lord to be revealed to us—to be revealed to us again and again.

May the invisible light of Christ guide us on our resurrection journey.

 

[1] Bogdan Bucur, “Blinded by Invisible Light: Revisiting the Emmaus Story (Luke 13:13-35)” Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses, 90:4 (Dec 2014) 685.

[2] Bucur, 694.

[3] αφαντος, aphantos

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtEaster3.htm


rich wounds, yet visible above

As you might have guessed, I have taken my title from the hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  It’s part of the line, “Crown him with many crowns / Behold his hands and side / Rich wounds, yet visible above / In beauty glorified.”  That hymn isn’t usually sung on Easter, but there’s no law saying we can’t!

We’ll get to those rich wounds in a moment.

Our celebration of Easter this year is somewhat muted.  For many it is a great deal muted.  I’ve heard of some churches who plan to wait on celebrating Easter until they can return to their sanctuaries.  I suppose I would remind us that every Sunday, being the Lord’s Day, is a “little Easter.”  There are Christians all over the world who don’t have the luxury of a building on any Sunday.  My guess is they are celebrating the resurrection of our Lord today.

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[He Qi, "Easter Morning"]

And unfortunately, there are still some churches who are doing business as usual.  Of course, if they keep doing that, my prediction is they will very soon not be doing any business at all!

Having said all that, I am well aware of how we, and the rest of the human race, are exploring uncharted territory, to use a considerable understatement.

And sadly, the coronavirus has struck our church family.

If the planet Earth itself was ever in need of resurrection, this is the time.

Jesus is risen from the dead.  Matthew tells us, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (28:1).  They were in for the surprise of their lives.

There is the utter disbelief of his friends, not to mention his enemies.  Seriously, it was just too insane.  Still, the women were quicker to accept it than the men were.  In his version, Luke tells us the men’s reaction to the women’s report.  “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).

I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad that men disbelieving women is a thing of the past!

To quickly summarize Matthew 28: the women find the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away.  The guards are quaking in their boots.  An angel tells the women to go and report what they saw, but on the way, Jesus appears to them.  When the priests hear the story, they engineer a coverup.  The disciples go to Galilee and meet the risen Jesus.  He gives them what has come to be known as the Great Commission.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vv. 18-20).

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A scripture passage often used for funerals is 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s chapter on the resurrection.  A question that gets him started is this: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (v. 12).  Later he deals with the questions, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 35).

How do we describe the resurrection body?  Paul says that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (v. 53).  I’ll be honest: that really doesn’t help me much!  I have trouble envisioning what that looks like.

Someone who could probably identify with that is Thomas, the so-called “doubting Thomas.”  He wasn’t there when the risen Jesus appeared to his friends.  They say he showed them his hands and side—the hands and side pierced with nail and spear.  He doesn’t believe them, but a week later he does.  Jesus again appears to them, and he shows Thomas that he is real.

Through the ages, people have painted Thomas, not so much as a bad guy, but one who needs a major faith adjustment!  Is it possible that the idea of a resurrected body (as difficult as that is to swallow) still bearing wounds is even more of a stretch?  Here’s where we return to that “rich wounds, yet visible above” business.

The resurrection body of Jesus, who defeated death and the grave, still has scars!  I find that remarkable.  At first thought, we might expect his body, risen from the dead, to be in immaculate condition.  Does God do things by half-measures?  Why not have complete healing?

Perhaps the resurrection body of Jesus models what it means to be scarred.  Maybe it was a way of showing the disciples that it really was him.  They weren’t encountering a ghost; they weren’t having a vision.  So his wounds were a method of identification.

But surely it was much more than that.  In fact, the scriptures give testimony to that.  In 1 Peter 2, we are told, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (v. 24).  By his wounds you have been healed.  Jesus heals by taking on our infirmity.

Back to the idea of an immaculate, a flawless body—God not employing half-measures.  What better way to identify with we humans, to be plunged into human flesh, than to honor it?  Jesus, more than anyone else, understood what it meant to be “the man of sorrows.”  By retaining the scars, Jesus honors the depth of what it means to be human.  After all, he was human!

There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.

Maybe you’ve seen images from around the world what the reduced use of pollution-causing activities has done.  I saw a report on how, in northern India, the reduction of pollution has enabled residents to see the Himalayas, 200 kilometers away (about 125 miles).[1]  Someone commented, “We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs.  And not just that, stars are visible at night.  I have never seen anything like this in recent times.”

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And it’s only taken a worldwide disaster to get it done!

Shelly Rambo, who teaches at Boston University School of Theology, has written extensively on trauma.  Something she says about trauma is that it marks “a ‘new normal’ in that there is no possibility of the person returning to who they were before.  A radical break has occurred between the old self and the new one.”[2]  The challenge for one who’s undergone trauma is how to “[integrate] the experience into their life.”  That’s true for us all.  That’s true for us as the church.

We see many reactions to this unwelcome viral visitor, just as we do with other calamities.  One of the most common is one I think we all have had, in one way or another.  We believe God has sent the disease or the storm or the accident or whatever.  Is it God’s will?  Is it a test?  Is it a punishment?  Is it a cruel cosmic joke?

(For what it’s worth, I don’t believe any of those things.  However, I do believe we can choose to believe those things.)

Regardless of what we believe, perhaps the more important point is asking how that belief affects us.  How does it affect our behavior?  How does it affect our faith?  Rambo says we can see Jesus’ wounds as “not only as marks of death but as ways of marking life forward.”

Our scars do not define us.  We all bear scars, be they visible or invisible.

Yes, the scars can be visible.  They might be scars from accidents or surgery.  Maybe we’ve been harmed by others.  Maybe we have harmed ourselves.

And yes, the scars can be invisible.  They might be the result of a constant drumbeat of insults, of ridicule.  Maybe we’ve been rejected because of the way we were born.  Scars can be left—left because of self-deprecation, self-doubt, self-hatred.

4 mtBut that takes us back to the glorious nature of this day.  Rich wounds, yet visible above—in all the ways “above” can mean.  In beauty glorified.  Jesus Christ looks at us, and he sees in our wounds something beautiful.  Our scars are beautiful.

[Even this guy’s scars are beautiful?]

The good news of this Resurrection Day is that the Holy Spirit empowers us as we mark our life forward.  We testify today we as the body of Christ, though wounded we may be, are empowered to say the devil, the grave, that which would harm us, does not have the last word.  Our risen Lord journeys with us as we declare with a holy boldness:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 15:54-55, 57).

 

[1] www.sbs.com.au/language/english/audio/himalayas-visible-for-first-time-in-30-years-as-pollution-levels-in-india-drop

[2] www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/how-christian-theology-and-practice-are-being-shaped-trauma-studies


vital virus?

“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (Leviticus 25:3-5)

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It seems that, with caring for the earth, there was a guarantee it would still produce what people needed for life.  “You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath.”  Such was the sabbatical year.  Leviticus 25:8-55 outlines an early version of land reform.  It was the year of jubilee.  It was the sabbath after the fiftieth year (7 years times 7 years).  Debts were to be forgiven.  Slaves were to be freed.  And most of all, land that was sold was to revert back to the original owners.

In her article, “When Earth Demands Sabbath: Learning from the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Leah Schade notes, “In the 50th year they were commanded to take care of each other.  No interest charged on debts. No price-gouging. ‘If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them,’ (25:35).  The working poor are to be released from their debts.  Everyone is set free, including the very Earth itself.”

What is the justification for this reordering of priorities?  “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (v. 23).  Here is God’s message to us:  The land belongs to me.  The earth belongs to me.  You are the caretakers.

3 blogIn my Old Testament classes at Bible college and seminary, when the year of jubilee was discussed, there seemed to be a consensus that it was never observed.  Maybe it was felt that God couldn’t be trusted.  Maybe there was a fear about what it would do to the economy!

It’s interesting that this month marks the 50th year after the inauguration of Earth Day in 1970.  What kind of jubilee could it be?

The coronavirus is forcing an economic slowdown.  This slowdown has had dire effects, leaving millions around the world jobless.  And yet, it is not without any beneficial qualities.  It’s been observed that, in some places, pollution levels are falling.

For a long time, I’ve wondered about the measure of economic health as being growth of the economy.  A faster rate of growth is better than a slower one.  What is “growth”?  Is it increasing our use of the earth’s resources?  Is it, contrary to the vision of the sabbatical year, not allowing the land to recover—not allowing it to breathe?

2 blogSchade reflects on this mania of growth.  “In the human body, cells that grow without rest, consume all surrounding resources, and take over the system are called ‘malignant’ because they lead to death.  The kind of growth envisioned by our consumerist culture is, indeed, leading to death.  Whether it’s a microscopic virus that erupts when humans refuse to respect the wildness of land or creatures, or monster storms super-pumped by global warming that churn across the land, the results are catastrophic in biblical proportions.”  Runaway growth of human cells is called cancer.

4 blogWe are literally sickening our planet.  We have given it scars.  It’s almost like we need life to emerge from death!

A lesson from the Easter event is that the one who is the resurrection still bears scars.  As the hymn says, “Rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.”  Scars do not prevent thriving—and thriving in a way never believed possible.

The year of jubilee is about healing.  Does it take a virus to bring it about?


more than yes

I’ve sometimes said something that even I think is strange.  It has to do with being sick.  It’s happened when I’ve heard people talk about weight loss as a result of an illness.  Understand, I’m not referring to serious, life-threatening weight loss; I’m not talking about wasting away.  It’s just a question of taking off some pounds.  I’ve remarked (jokingly) a good way to trim the fat is to get sick.  Although, I add, it’s not the preferred method!

Another quirky comment deals with an almost abnormal (okay, let’s call it abnormal) satisfaction.  It’s possible in a weird way to enjoy being sick, or at least, not to hate it too much.  Again, I’m not talking about anything severe or really painful.  It’s simply that when one is under the weather, it’s possible to appreciate the days off.  And depending on how big a baby one is, it’s nice if you have someone to wait on you.  (Not that I would know anything about that!)

1 jn 5Of course, there can be many problems with that, aside from being unnecessarily needy on said person!  One big problem would be getting used to being sick or injured.  A problem would be allowing it to define us.  You know, being the survivor of brain cancer who takes anti-seizure medication, whose condition is exacerbated by lack of sleep.  (Again, not that I would know anything about that!)

[Speaking of brain cancer survivors, there’s a woman named Joan Reilly who has her own quirky story.  She had the same kind of cancer as mine, oligodendroglioma.  Part of her story is told in her dry-wit cartoon, “What My Brain Tumor Taught Me about Anxiety.”[1]]

Considering the questionable appreciation of—or reliance on—sickness, there’s a fellow some might say is the embodiment of it.  But first, we need to set the stage.

The gospel reading in John 5 begins by saying, “After this.”  We’re starting right after Jesus has healed the son of a royal official, a son who was at death’s door.  Now we see Jesus entering Jerusalem, during “a festival of the Jews” (v. 1).  It’s not clear which festival is intended.

I want to digress for a moment on something that has led to oppression and death: which is the use of the word “Jews” in the gospel of John.  Without going into great detail, the context of John’s gospel is very important.  “Jews” can refer to the Jewish officials, and/or possibly to the Jewish people who were at that time persecuting the church.

A grievous misunderstanding of the word’s use has had a horrific effect down through the centuries.  Christians have inflicted all manner of cruelty against Jews.  It’s even led to the hateful nickname, “Christ killers.”  Friends, that is not the way to read the gospel according to St. John!

Moving on, we come to a pool known for its healing qualities called Beth-zatha, or Bethesda.  (Of course, we know Bethesda, Maryland as the home of the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.)  This pool attracts people with all manner of illnesses.  One wonders if there aren’t those with an entrepreneurial spirit traveling though the villages selling containers filled with the therapeutic elixir of Bethesda!

2 jn 5What is the source of the water’s power?  Legend has it that an angel now and then goes and stirs up the water, and the first one in gets healed.  Anyway, that’s what part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 say.  But there’s almost universal consensus those words were added on later.

Okay, the stage is set.  The first actor, Jesus, is already present.  The other actor, a poor soul who we’re told has been sick for thirty-eight years, is found lying on the ground among some other unfortunate ones.  Thirty-eight years is a massive chunk of someone’s life.  When you figure in life expectancy in those days, it’s likely this fellow has known nothing but sickness.

When Jesus sees the man, he asks him a question that, on the face of it, seems to have an obvious answer.  It’s almost like asking, “Is the sky blue?”  He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?”  Do you no longer want to be sick?  Are you tired of lying around here?

We might expect the sick man to respond, “Yes, yes, yes!”  What does he say?  He begins, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”  And because of that, “while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (v. 7).  It’s not the straight answer we might imagine.  And as you might also imagine, there have been quite a few takes on his reply.

A common viewpoint goes back to what I said earlier about a reliance (and even appreciation, if possible?) on being sick.

Raymond Brown is somewhat less than charitable in his assessment.  He notes about the man, “His crotchety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.”[2]  He says our poor fellow demonstrates a quality of “real dullness.”

Without hurling insults at the sick man, can we get a sense of him saying something like, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”

I think I can understand his reluctance.  He’s lived with this illness for a very long time.  As I suggested earlier, is it possible he’s let it define him?

In this congregation, we are blessed to have several people who, in one way or another, have experience in the medical field.  Maybe I’m the only one who’s ever heard this, but I have heard comments (not very positive ones!) about people being referred to as “the appendectomy in room 203,” or “the head trauma in 315.”  Again, I don’t know if anyone here has encountered that.  I’m sure it’s a necessary shorthand, so to speak.  It would be a bit of a mouthful to say, “James Moore, the fellow in 203 who had an appendectomy.”  But maybe we can see just a tiny example of being identified with one’s ailment.

So maybe our friend at Bethesda has in some way become comfortable with his condition.  Now he has the opportunity to leave his comfort zone.

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I wonder, how often has Jesus asked me to leave my comfort zone?  How many times have I said, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”  How many times have all of us decided against leaving our comfort zone?  I suppose there’s a good reason for it to be called our “comfort zone”!

Leaving our comfort zone forces us to move forward and be responsible in a way like never before.

In his article, “Courage to be Whole,” Kyle Childress includes the quote, “if it is hell to be guilty, it’s certainly scarier to be responsible—response-able—able to respond to God’s call, able to respond to the word and love of Jesus.”[3]  I’ve found it’s easy to talk about something, but not as easy to actually do it.

He adds, “We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation.  No more isolation.  No more living my own private life where no one bothers me.  To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved.”

So far, we’ve looked at the fellow as reluctant to receive healing.  Still, as I said, there’s more than one way to consider his answer to Jesus.  Remember, he says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool.”  I have no one.  Is that his plaintive cry?

Brian Stoffregen speaks of an alternate idea of healing.  It has to do with cultural and social connection.  “The man in our text has no one to put him in the water when it is stirring.  He has no friends.  He has no family.  There is no one to help him.”[4]  It looks like he’s been shunted aside, basically forgotten.  For him, healing would not only be physical, but it would help restore those social connections without which one might exist, but not really live.

It’s somewhat analogous to people who live on the street.  When we lived in Philadelphia, it was a not uncommon event to encounter them.  Even here in Auburn, there are more homeless people than we might imagine.

After all that, what does Jesus do?  He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (v. 8).  And that’s what the sick man does.  Jesus simply tells the man what to do.

It’s been about twenty years since the movie, The Matrix, came out.  For those who’ve never seen the movie, very quickly it’s about a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) who learns about the nature of his reality, which is that he’s living in an illusion generated by sentient and malicious computer programs.  A group of people led by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) help him break free of the illusion and see the world as it really is.

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They teach him to live in the real world, part of which involves training in various fighting techniques.  They do this in a simulation.  Neo is not making any progress.  An exasperated Morpheus scolds him, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

I mention this because sometimes we get trapped in our thinking.  (Actually, it’s much more than “sometimes.”)  I wonder if something like that is going on with Jesus and the sick man.  What are you waiting for?  Jesus wants to cut through the man’s explanations—and even his misfortunes—and just tell him, and show him, what to do.  Jesus lets him know he needs more than yes.  Just do it.  (And again, am I saying something without actually doing it?)

At the end of verse 9, a new paragraph begins with the words, “Now that day was a sabbath.”  We’re moving on to the story at large, which is Jesus’ violation of the sabbath rules.  That is, the rules the religious leaders follow and teach the people.  The point isn’t his healing of the man but his command to take his mat and carry it.  Carrying his mat on the sabbath constitutes working on the sabbath.  It is forbidden!

Verse 10 says, “the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’”  (Remember what I said earlier about the use of the word “Jews.”)

With their use of the understanding of sabbath they would hinder the man.  They would hinder him from experiencing God, from experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit.  Elsewhere, Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27).  The sabbath was made for us; we were not made for the sabbath.

I wonder: what rules, what guidelines do we have—what do we impose—that hinders others (and ourselves) from fully experiencing God?  What walls do we build in the attempt to prevent the saving and empowering grace of Jesus Christ from reaching certain others?  How often do we mimic the prophet Jonah’s attitude toward the people of Nineveh, saying, “I don’t want them forgiven!”

We are nearing the end of the Easter season.  Is there anything in us that has died and needs resurrection?  Or at least, is there anything in us that needs healing?  I think I’m safe in saying yes to both of those.  But we are not alone.  We have a Lord who directs us—who carries us, if need be—into those stirring, healing waters.

5 jn 5

And guess what?  That healing doesn’t come to us all by our lonesome.  It comes in the connection that is community.  It comes in the connection that is this congregation.  It comes in the connection that sends us beyond these walls.  It comes in the connection that bids us to “go forth in peace,” to be the peace and to share the peace.  It bids us “to love and serve the Lord,” to love our neighbor more than any rules that would hinder.  We serve the Lord, who reminds us there’s plenty of water in the healing, life-giving pool.

 

[1] medium.com/spiralbound/what-my-brain-tumor-taught-me-about-anxiety-513113356d68

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 209.

[3] www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2010/05/courage-to-be-whole

[4] www.crossmarks.com/brian/john5x1.htm


crafting another way

When Banu and I were at seminary, there were three floors in the main building set aside for residence.  We lived on the third floor (mind you, in separate rooms before getting married!).  Up on the fourth floor, there were a number of students from India.  Constantly emanating from the community kitchen was the unmistakable scent of curry.  I think the aroma had seeped into every counter and shelf.  That strong smell would waft up and down the hallway.

Ac 1

When you live with people from all over the world, you learn about a lot of different cultures.  And that could mean learning to appreciate—or at least to tolerate—the smell of curry, whether you like it or not!  (By the way, I do like curry—just not a whole lot of it at once!)

Try not to salivate too much, because I’ll be returning to the subject of food in a few minutes!

Speaking of different cultures, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, mentions a variety of them, as he and his friends travel around the Roman Empire.

In today’s reading, we hear about Tabitha, who lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv).  He calls her “a disciple” (v. 36).  It’s the only time in the Bible that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (μαθητρια, mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while the apostle Peter is in Lydda, a nearby town.  While he’s there, Tabitha dies.  Knowing that he’s in the neighborhood, some people send word, giving him the sad news.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas).  Luke’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile.  He has life experience in bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile.

Ac 2

[“St. Tabitha” by reinkat]

Tabitha might be the same way.  One idea is that this woman with two names has, in her ministry, worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds.  She’s a “cultural hybrid.”  She’s at home in her own culture, but also in the cultures of the people around her.[1]

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity.  She can relate to many different people.  And she has done this in a loving way.  That’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter shows up, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

We’re told that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside and knelt down and prayed.  He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’  Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up” (v. 40).

As you can see, the lectionary appoints this text for the season of Easter.  (Which makes sense, with all of this rising from the dead business.)  Because of that, it’s been said “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.”[2]  In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting another way, a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately.  It speaks to the sense of art and beauty that we see.  Tabitha crafted wonderful garments to share with others who both admired and needed them.

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  That wouldn’t be a bad name!  The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure.  The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but even more importantly, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that is her life—and also in ours.

Ac 3Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from various backgrounds demonstrates in their life together.  Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”[3]

Why is that?  “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life.  If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life…”  [The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.]

“That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich.  And that is their message to us as well.”

One of the amazing things about the Holy Spirit is that there is always more than enough.  Can we trust that?  Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be a Pentecost community?  So often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do.  We miss out on abundance of Spirit, generosity of Spirit.  We miss out on celebration of Spirit.

Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage.  I like the way he closes the chapter.  After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin.  Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”  For sure, that’s a cause for celebration.  Do we honestly think he’s talking about a bunch of folks with long, grim faces?

Ac 4Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke ends the chapter by tossing this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43).  What’s going on with that?  Why should we care about his lodging accommodations?  Did his trip advisor screw up the itinerary?  Maybe a one-star rating is in order!

No, I think we can see a bit of another, a new direction of ministry.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work.  That’s “unclean” in a literal sense.  Handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky.  I imagine some of you know more about tanning than I do—which isn’t much!  It’s likely he would also be ritually unclean.  That is, he would be ritually impure, unable to worship in a proper, acceptable way.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random.  Peter, quite knowingly, stays in an unclean place.  Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job.  But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ.  It hasn’t been an easy transition.  To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

And it’s while he’s staying with Simon that he has a vision of God ringing the dinner bell, saying, “Come and get it!”  (I told you I’d get back to food.)  Hmm, so what’s on the menu?  Critters that fly around; critters that are creepy and crawly; critters that root around in the dirt.  In other words: delicious.  But then we have that ritually unclean business.

So Peter’s going nuts, breaking laws right and left.  But some laws should be broken.

It’s probably easy for us to dismiss ritual purity laws when it comes to stuff like food.  What about rules that say you can’t associate with certain kinds of people?  And you better not stay at their house!  Seriously people, in today’s society, we have to be vigilant against the transmission of cooties.  There’s a good reason for these guidelines.

Ac 5

In reality, there can be a real problem with codes of purity.  The way they exclude and separate people becomes unjust and hard-hearted.  And in the book of Acts, that painful truth slowly dawns on Peter and his friends.  In the next chapter, when he is called to visit Cornelius, the centurion, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).

What purity codes do we enforce?  In what ways do set up rules to keep people away?  How do we shun people, thinking that in doing so, we are serving God, even defending God?

Banu has noted, “I am always amazed about the churches where the main mission statement lists these words—‘Welcoming, friendly congregation…’  Then one wonders why nobody really pays any attention to the words.”  I’ve wondered about that myself.  Are they welcoming, regardless of socio-economic, sexual, racial, political, athletic, culinary orientation?

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them.  They are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it.  Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit.  We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized.  At times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome.  And if we learn anything from Peter staying with Simon the tanner, it might even be stinky!

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, again, it’s not a good idea to rush the job.  When we hinder or resist the movement of the Spirit in our lives and among each other, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

Ac 6

We are crafted to face the truth about ourselves, no matter how beautiful that might be!

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1625

[2] www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Living-Power-John-Holbert-04-15-2013.html

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1983), 131.


in the dark and light of that day

One of Banu’s observations (and complaints) about movies that take place in the future, especially those of an alleged post-apocalyptic nature, is that they tend to be too dark.  They’re too dark—not only in theme, but sometimes literally too dark.  There’s not enough light to see what’s going on!

Hollywood would have fun with Zephaniah.  Talk about dark!  There’s enough gloom and graphic violence to make Alien and Predator look like Beauty and the Beast!  Of course, the Hollywood definition of “apocalypse” seems to always focus on terror and torment, as opposed to the actual biblical sense, which is “revealing” or “uncovering.”

1 zp

With the prophet Zephaniah, we have a man who, in many ways, might seem to fit the misunderstanding of apocalypse as death and destruction.  There is good reason for that to be the case: his almost single-minded focus on the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord.  He doesn’t invent the idea—it goes back centuries, maybe as far back as the so-called holy wars of Joshua.

The day of the Lord came to be seen as the moment when God would intervene on behalf of Israel, defeating all their enemies.  As the centuries went on, and bigger boys like the Assyrians and Babylonians started throwing their weight around, this was a day more and more people yearned for.

A century before Zephaniah, in a case of “be careful what you wish for,” the prophet Amos warns those “who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).  Don’t be so smug, Amos says.  Don’t assume that day will only be bad news for your enemies.  As corrupt as you are, do you think you’ll escape unscathed?

Eventually, the day of the Lord became infused with messianic expectation.  That’s one big reason why so many became disillusioned with Jesus.  They thought he would lead them in getting rid of the biggest boys yet, the Romans.

Zephaniah says some things that, to our ears, probably sound quite strange.  For example, in verse 8, the prophet criticizes government officials “and all who dress themselves in foreign attire,” “clothed with foreign apparel.”  [I guess he wouldn’t be impressed by Versace.]

Zephaniah doesn’t intend that to be a fashion statement.  He isn’t imitating the “Best and Worst Dressed” at the Oscars!  Elizabeth Achtemeier points out that “as a vassal [a puppet state] of Assyria, the leaders of Judah have accommodated their ways to those of a foreign culture…  Assyria’s ways have become Judah’s ways, and Assyria’s customs hers.”[1]

Verse 9 has something that sounds equally bizarre.  There is a promise to “punish all who leap over the threshold.”  Again, Zephaniah isn’t interested in auditions for “Dancing with the Stars.”  It’s about superstition concerning evil spirits who dwell in doorways and must be avoided.

3 zp (I wonder if that particular idea didn’t survive down through the ages with the practice of carrying a bride over the threshold!)

Anyway, with these comments, the prophet isn’t criticizing foreign ways simply because they are foreign.  The problem is that—as it seems every generation must learn—serving God isn’t just about following certain procedures in worship.

Zephaniah reminds the people that their God is an ethical God.  That is, serving their God requires that they chose between right and wrong, that how they treat each other makes all the difference.  That’s why he gets on their case about all the “violence and fraud” (v. 9).

One of these days, says the prophet, it’s all going to catch up with you.  It’s later than you think!  Verse 14 says: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast.”  In verses 15 to 18, he reels off a laundry list of gruesome things on the way.  Verse 17 is especially lovely.  For those who “have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (NKJV).  That last word[2] is literally translated as “dung.”

Nobody can accuse him of trying to sugar coat his message!

Still, as with other prophets, Zephaniah isn’t all doom and gloom.  The bad news is followed by good news.  The discipline of the Lord means a lead to restoration.  We hear in chapter 2: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (v. 3).

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There’s a common misperception about what’s called the wrath of God.  It’s not some “arbitrary outburst, like the unpredictable anger of a parent who lashes out at his children.”  Far from it, says Dan Clendenin.  “Divine judgment is equitable and even merciful in that, like a loving parent, it demonstrates that God has not given up on me, that [God] is not done with me.”[3]

With the day of the Lord, Zephaniah and the other prophets are doing something revolutionary.  Klaus Koch says, “For the first time [ever], human beings dared to make hope the foundation of their…theology.  The prophets therefore brought a futuristic turn into the thinking of following centuries.”[4]  People started to believe that God’s actions are by necessity pointing toward the future.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

And that fits perfectly into the Easter season.  We have gone from Good Friday, the crucifixion (when all hope is lost) to the resurrection (when hope against hope is reborn).  We have gone from dark to light.  It comes in the most unusual of ways.

In Terry Hershey’s book, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life, he tells a story of going to Atlanta for a meeting of Spiritual Directors International.

Having some spare time, he goes to get a haircut.  He engages in small talk with Sharon, the hairdresser.  It progresses a little further, and he talks about his father, who survived cancer.  She tells him that, like his father, she also is a cancer survivor.

4 zpHershey says he told her “I’m sorry.”  He asked, “‘When did you learn about the cancer, and what kind of treatment did you go through?’  ‘I had the whole nine yards.’  She laughs.  ‘Surgery.  And then more surgery and then chemo.’  We are quiet, except for the sound of scissors.  ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,’ she adds…[5]

“‘It has made me softer,’ she tells me.  ‘And now, I love different.’”[6]

He concludes, “After the conference someone asked me, ‘What did you do there?’  Well, I got a haircut.  And I felt my heart soften just a little.”[7]

I imagine some of you have had similar experiences.  I mentioned during the discussion of the book that, with my own experience of cancer, I (humorously) divided my life into BC and AD: “before cancer” and “after diagnosis.”  And I think I can agree with Sharon to some extent.  It’s probably not the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but it is right up there.  It opened to me a new world of understanding about people with physical, mental, and emotional ailments.

It is indeed a question of going from the dark into the light.  Perhaps it’s having hope shape the future.

We’re so used to the idea of hope—be it hope fulfilled or hope denied—that we don’t understand what a leap in the evolution of human thought it is.  With the day of the Lord, and the messianic dream it inspired, people began to believe that the world itself could be transformed into something new.  And not only the world, but people themselves could be transformed.

5 zp

Is it possible we’ve forgotten how to have that hope—or possibly to recognize it when it knocks on our door?  How much are we like those poor souls Zephaniah speaks of?  You know, the confident and self-satisfied ones, “those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (v. 12).

In The Message, Eugene Peterson put his own spin on verse 12.  On the day of the Lord, there’s a promise to “punish those who are sitting it out, fat and lazy, amusing themselves and taking it easy, Who think, ‘God doesn’t do anything, good or bad.  He isn’t involved, so neither are we.’”

Is there anything that we, in fact, might be too confident about?  What might the day of the Lord be calling us to?

Perhaps we all have our “day of wrath”… our “day of clouds and thick darkness”… our “day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (vv. 15-16).  Still, the day of the Lord calls us to not abandon hope.  Hope is calling our name and leading us on.  Though we travel through darkness and gloom, the glory of the sun will yet break forth.  Zephaniah ends his book on, well, a lighter note!

“On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:16-17).

The darkness of that day gives way to light.

6 zp

[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 68.

[2] גּּלֶל (gelel)

[3] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20081110JJ.shtml

[4] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1982), 163.

[5] Terry Hershey, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Chapter 2, section 3, paragraph 7.

[6] Hershey, 2.3.10

[7] Hershey, 2.3.18


remove the shroud

The Lord “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (vv. 7-8a).  I sometimes use that scripture from Isaiah 25 in funeral services.  I just love that imagery.  The Lord will rip the shroud of doom and despair off and tear it into little pieces.  (Or maybe it can be reworked and turned into fine clothing!)

1 easter

That picture of death and life is so fitting for today—that is, this very day and also these days.

We can compare that shroud to the funeral pall which is often placed on coffins.  On a side note, our Book of Common Worship says this about funerals, “When the body is present, the coffin should be closed before the service begins.  It may be covered with a white funeral pall.”[1]  That’s in the section called, “The Funeral: A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”  For a Christian, oddly (or appropriately) enough, the ultimate focus isn’t on the departed, but on the risen One.  That’s the theology behind it.

And isn’t that the story of Easter itself?  It’s no longer the departed, but the resurrected.

Still, we need to back up.  We can’t have all of that shredding of shrouds without knowing where the deathly despair came from in the first place.  At the start of the chapter, the prophet is praising the Lord, saying, “you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt” (v. 2).  The Lord has come to their rescue.  The city symbolizing their enemies has been destroyed.  Throughout so much of the Old Testament, that city is Babylon.

In its day, Babylon was a true superpower.  It was unparalleled in economic and military might.  It was the icon of beauty.  It was the envy of all people, both near and far.  It was the city.  Reflecting on its collapse, one writer puts it this way: “The World Capital Falls.”[2]  Throughout history, many world capitals have risen and fallen.

2 easterThe tide turns in dramatic fashion.  Now “strong peoples will glorify [God]; cities of ruthless nations will fear [the Lord]” (v. 3).  Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “Superpowers will see it and honor you, brutal oppressors bow in worshipful reverence.”  The Lord has protected the poor from rain of tempest and reign of terror.

The scales are balanced, and all nations are invited to the mountain of God.  A dinner bell like none other is being rung.  Everyone receives the RSVP to the banquet of the ages.  Again, Peterson: “A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts” (v. 6).

And then, there’s the main event.  The shroud, the sheet, the veil that has blanketed the world with devastation and desolation is torn away.  Tears of anguish and agony are wiped away.  Death is forever defeated.  It is time for resurrection.  It’s time to remove the shroud.

Remember Jesus with Lazarus.  Jesus summons him to come out of the cave which is his tomb.  Amid the gasping of onlookers, Jesus directs them to the grave clothes of Lazarus.  He tells them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn 11:44).  Remove the shroud.

Can we think of ways in which nations and populations today exist under that sheet, that blanket of gloom and darkness?  Can we think of veils that need to be removed?

How about we as individuals?  Can we imagine our own coverings, our own curtains that need to be pulled?

I asked Banu if she had a death shroud which needed to be removed.  She didn’t take very long in answering.  She said it was her need to control.  I wondered how that could be called death for her.  Her response was, “It raises my blood pressure!”  There are several layers of meaning in that!

What about me?  What death shroud do I need to have removed?  Probably quite a few!  One thing I definitely can put my finger on is my tendency to too often be indecisive.  I need more facts; I need to explore more avenues to follow.  It really can be a shroud, a veil, something that obscures.

I tell you, I know how to overcome it; although, I’m not sure how to proceed!

Half-joking aside, we can see the shroud, the veil covering the nations, as something that blinds faith.  It prevents us from seeing through the eyes of faith.  When we look upon our world, seeing through the eyes of faith doesn’t seem to make sense.  It seems like we’re believing in fairy tales.  We’re not dealing with the hard facts of the day.  And this resurrection business: it’s just a load of hogwash.  When someone or something is dead, it’s just dead.  Case closed.

3 easter

“Not so fast!” says St. Paul.

So we come to chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians—the chapter on resurrection.  He issues a reminder to them.  And here it is.  “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain” (vv. 1-2).

They, and we, can be blinded by faltering faith.

Having said that, I need to interject something.  It is normal to doubt.  The faith we are called to is not blind faith.  In Mark 12:30, Jesus tells us to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  To love God with all our mind can’t be done with a closed mind.  It is fine—and necessary—to ask questions.  It’s necessary to ask hard questions.

Now, having said that, Paul reminds the church how they stand in the gospel, in the good news.

I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “Standing on the Promises.”  Here’s the first verse: “Standing on the promises of Christ my King, / Thro’ eternal ages let His praises ring; / Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing, / Standing on the promises of God.”

And now the refrain: “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior / Standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”

When we are standing, when we take our stand, we have a firm foundation.  We rely on the one who, as we saw earlier, protects in the midst of “rain of tempest and reign of terror.”

What is the promise in which they stand?  Paul hands on what he has received, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (vv. 4-5).  That is the gospel in miniature, the gospel in a nutshell.  He is encouraging them in a faith that brings light, that opens eyes, that removes the veil.

What is the death shroud the apostle needs to remove?  He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he does point out his need for self-effacement, his need to move past self-promotion.  And he seems to take that pretty seriously, because he refers to himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle” (v. 9).

It’s really important for him to acknowledge his past, to not look for excuses or say someone else made him do it.  Paul admits he went ballistic in tormenting the church.  He “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [committing] them to prison” (Ac 8:3).  He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1).

He was on his way to Damascus to nab some more disciples on that fateful day when a light from heaven changed his life.  That light took away his vision for three days.  When the disciple Ananias prayed for him, the shroud was lifted.  Paul had been blind—blind in so many ways.

At the beginning, I mentioned the picture of death and life and how it’s fitting for today.  In many ways, we as a culture worship death.  We ignore calls for justice; we pollute God’s good creation; we choose war over peace; we hold grudges, choking the life we could share; we fail to give those struggling with their demons the good news that they are forgiven—they are forgiven by God, through Jesus Christ.  I’ll grant you, that’s not the most affirming laundry list we could come up with!

In the life of faith, the shroud of gloom and doom and death is lifted.  In his vision, Isaiah powerfully speaks of how it covers the whole earth, that is, until God rips it apart!  We think of how we as individuals fit in.  The apostle Paul demonstrates his own life from death.

4 easter

Then there is the crowning glory of Easter, its very meaning: the shroud of death which no longer binds Jesus.  The light of Easter chases away the darkness, and we are called to be Easter people.  Our prayer is, “Remove the shroud.”  So I ask again, what coverings, what death shrouds, do we need removed?  With the power of the resurrection, the deathless one, Jesus the Messiah, yanks that sucker off.

 

[1] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 911.

[2] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 196.