Monday, April 24, 2017

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter

Thomas knew Jesus was dead. And a large chunk of Thomas had died with him. Jesus had inspired Thomas. Jesus had set Thomas’ heart on fire. But that fire was extinguished on the cross. And his heart is left cold as ashes.

Jesus was dead. No wonder he was reluctant to believe the others. Wouldn’t you be? No wonder he wanted to see for himself. Not just see, but feel. “I want to poke my finger in the holes in his hands before I’ll believe.” Thomas has been known ever since as “Doubting Thomas”. But, while it is important to recognize the reality of doubt (see Little Floaty Things That Say "No"), I am not sure it is fair to say that that the guy whose commitment to Jesus was so strong he was prepared to die with him (see John11:16). Thomas had put all his faith and hope in Jesus. Now, Jesus was dead. Thomas had hoped much and that hope had died. It was not going to be resurrected by hearsay.

Then it happened. Jesus appeared to Thomas. He offered to let him feel the wounds. It doesn’t say whether Thomas actually did, but it doesn’t matter. His faith and hope were rekindled and he was changed forever – “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus, whose absence he had felt so keenly, was present. Thomas and the others had sensed and believed that Jesus was special before. But you get the feeling in the resurrection stories that they were encountering something new, something so awesome, they could barely speak of it. In some versions, they don’t. Encountering the Risen Lord changed them and changed them and how they understood God and the world

But Thomas and the others got to see it for themselves. What about us? We weren’t there to witness the resurrection appearances. We can’t touch the wounds. We have the records of the appearances in the Bible, exciting and somewhat confused, as you’d expect under the circumstances. We can be grateful for them. We can read them and allow the Holy Spirit to nourish our spirits through them. We can study them and try to figure out if it happened this way or that. But sometimes it feels long ago and far away.

Still, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Why? Why are we blessed. We who believe in the Resurrection though we have not seen like Thomas and the others?

Because, the Resurrection is not, primarily, about something that happened 2,000 years and half a world away. It is about the presence of the Risen One in our lives and in our world here and now. It is about the promise of resurrection in our lives here and now. And it is about the promise of that final Resurrection of which Easter is but the foretaste.

The Risen Christ is present here and now. Christ has become present to us in a new way through the Holy Spirit and we can know that Presence. Jesus is risen and is now present in every area of our lives; in our work and our play as well as our worship and our prayer. His presence means that the division of life into the sacred and the secular is a false division. Everything everywhere is filled with the presence of the Risen Christ.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.” It is the promise of the presence of resurrection in our lives here and now. Because we believe he rose, we dare to hope for resurrection. To believe in resurrection is to believe no situation is hopeless, no relationship is beyond redemption, no just cause is ultimately lost. It is to believe that our lost hopes and dreams are never really lost. Because they are now filled with the presence of the Risen Christ, every disappointment, every discouragement, every loss can become a reminder of the promise of resurrection by which we can start again. Each is a sort of death from which we can rise to new life through Christ. And the ashes in our hearts become fire again.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.” Christ’s resurrection is the promise and foretaste of the final resurrection. That promise is the foundation of our hope for the future. We have a glimpse of how the story is going to end and that opens the future to us. We have the assurance that, all evidence to the contrary, the world will not end in doom and gloom. On Easter, Jesus Christ defeated doom and gloom. The story of creation ends in resurrection, the kingdom of God when there will be love, peace, and joy, healing, harmony and wholeness.

When I was a child, I remember sometimes at family gatherings after things had settled down but people were not ready to leave, we would watch television. We often watched “Lassie.” Remember Lassie, the show about a clever dog that regularly saved the day? I remember there would always come a point in the story where lassie was in such a fix you could see how she was going to get out of this one. Then there would be a commercial break. At that point, my Uncle LaVonne, who like most uncles enjoyed teasing his nieces and nephews would say, I don’t know, but it doesn’t look good for Lassie. I don’t think she’s going to get out of this one. I think Lassie is done for this time. This is probably the last episode of Lassie.” We youngsters would then be distraught as we contemplated the doom of Lassie. As we got older we began to catch on; no matter how bad things looked or how dire my uncle’s predictions, we knew that after the commercial break Lassie would find a way to save the day and all would be well. Once we knew that, it did not matter how bad things got for Lassie, we always knew how the story would end.

The resurrection of Jesus is the foretaste of the final restoration of all things when all will be well. The story is not over yet. The story of the world and our stories will take many turns and involve some close calls, some too close. Indeed, each of our stories will lead to our own deaths. But, death is like a commercial break – we die trusting that the story will resume and in the end all will be well.

Through it all, the Risen One is present with us. And because we believe God raised Jesus from the dead, we anticipate the consummation of that work in the final Resurrection of all creation. As theologian Helmut Thielicke said,
This means a completely new attitude toward the future; no longer is the future a befogged landscape into which I peer anxiously because all kinds of obscure perils are brewing there for me. No, everything has changed: we do not know what is coming, but we know who is coming. And the one who possesses the last hour no longer needs to fear the next minute.

The one who possesses the last hour no longer needs to fear the next minute. That is the promise of resurrection. In the end, we who have not seen yet have come to believe will stand in the presence of the Risen Christ and be able to join Thomas without any doubt and say, “My Lord and my God!”

Saturday, April 15, 2017

No More Sacrifices – the God of Easter and the Death of Death

"If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:1-3)

You have died. You have been raised. with Christ. Your life is hidden with Christ. You are thus dead to Death and its power. You are free. Free from fear. 

In the death and resurrection of Jesus, Death itself was mortally wounded. Jesus’ death is the death of Death. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen, wrote a book called The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. I would not agree with everything Owen wrote in his book, but I love the title. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the power of Death has been emptied. Death has been emptied of its power over us. St Athansius, in On the Incarnation wrote, "by Christ death was destroyed". The great Anglican priest and poet, John Donne, wrote in his meditation Death Be Not Proud a summary of how Christians now live (or should) in the light of death because death no longer has power over us. He wrote,
Death be not proud. Though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow die not, poor death. Nor yet canst thou kill me.
Donne ends with,
One short sleep past, we awake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.

Because we are united with Christ’s death, we too are dead to the power of Death and we are free. Because we know that our life is hidden in the one whose Life is more powerful than Death, we are free. Because we know that Christ has hold of us – and Christ will not let go – we are free. We are free from the power of Death. It has no ultimate claim on us.

And so, we need not live and act in fear of Death. And we need not try to appease the powers of Death, as humans have all too often done, sacrificing others for our own sense of security.

The idea of sacrificing to appease Death has a powerful hold on the human imagination. We see it in mythology in the idea that if you sacrifice someone else the gods will be appeased and let you live. But it’s not just mythology. It has been acted out in history. In the Old Testament, time and again God tells Israel, “Do not sacrifice your children the way your neighbors do." The ancient Carthaginians tossed their children into the sacred fire, hoping that in doing so they might appease the gods and buy some time against the Romans. The ancient Aztecs carved out the hearts of their sacrificial victims to feed the gods and to buy themselves some security.

But we need to beware lest we pat ourselves on the back and say, “We don’t sacrifice people. We don’t carve out their hearts on some sacrificial altar or toss people into the fire.” If we are honest with ourselves, we need to acknowledge that  we have indeed offered up sacrificial victims for our own security and way of life, hoping to stave off the power of Death.

We sacrifice young people when we send them off as soldiers to offer life and limb in battle on our behalf.

We sacrifice innocent people who are killed in our wars. It is estimated that in our current war(s) some 50 to 100 thousand innocent Iraqis, Afghans, and others who just happened to get in the way of our sense of insecurity have been killed by our bombs. We call it collateral damage. But, it is human sacrifice for our security.

We sacrifice criminals, hoping that if we kill the killers we might feel a bit more safe. If that worked, Texas would be the safest state in the Union. Even if it worked, we would have to ask ourselves if that is the kind of sacrifice we want to offer – especially given the evidence that many truly innocent people have ended up on death row.

We sacrifice refugees and other unwelcome "intruders" preferring that they suffer rather than risking the possibility that we might suffer on their behalf.

We sacrifice the unwelcome intruder of the womb, collateral damage of another kind.

The cult of the gun that insists that anyone and everyone who wants to should have access to guns designed to kill humans is another way we bow to Death. Never mind if it means accepting gun violence in our society unparalleled anywhere except actual war zones. And while many are sacrificed, the proliferation of guns has not made us feel more safe.

More subtly, we sacrifice others in an economic system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and whole parts of the world suffer so our way of life can be maintained.

The list could go on. There are many ways we sacrifice the lives and well-being of others so we can feel safer, so we can be more comfortable, so our wealth is not threatened. All because we fear Death more than we trust the God of Easter.

The sacrifice of Jesus was in one sense just another example of the sinful, selfish, sacrificial bargain humans have made with Death. On Good Friday, humanity sacrificed Jesus as we have always been willing to sacrifice some other(s) for the people rather than risk the possibility that we might perish (cf. John 11:50). But its deeper meaning was different. The sacrifice of Jesus was not a sacrifice to appease God, let alone Death. Rather, God in Christ, offered himself freely as a self-sacrifice to undo the hold Sin and Death have on us and our imaginations and to absorb and transform our death-dealing sinfulness. The resurrection of Jesus has demonstrated that the old way of the world in which violence and the sacrificing of others are seen as necessary is a dead end. The resurrection opens a new way and inaugurates the New Creation in which there is restoration, reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, and peace.

Recourse to violence against others or ourselves is a false sacrifice and it participates in the way of this world which is death and not the Spirit of Jesus Christ which is life and peace (Romans 8:6). But, if Christ has made the one sufficient sacrifice, then we can take shelter at the foot of his cross and lay down our hammer and nails and live in the light of his resurrection. And we can learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13). Christians who know that the death of Christ was indeed the death of Death are freed from the fear of Death and the myriad ways we are tempted to appease its power at the expense of others.

Perhaps this does not mean we must embrace complete non-violence (though that is the direction the New Testament points). But, at the very least, Christians should be much more wary than we often are of allowing others to suffer so we can remain comfortable and of justifying violence for our own security. And we should never celebrate the deaths of others, even our enemies.

We worship the crucified and risen Lord in whose Life our life is hid. Because we know that Christ, crucified and risen, has defeated the power of Death, we need not fear death. We need not sacrifice the lives of others to protect our own. The death of Christ was the death of Death. Now, the only sacrifice we need to offer is our own broken, contrite hearts and the living sacrifice of love for one another in thanksgiving to God for what he has done for us. Our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. And we are free to live without fear in his Life and Peace.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!