Monday, April 25, 2011

Impossible Faith

I can't read the words of John 20:19-23 without thinking of this blog post by my friend and fellow pastor, Jeremy Scott.  While I'll repeat some of the same ideas in this post, his post is worth reading in its entirety.

In this passage, we are given a picture of the disciples on the evening of the same day in which Mary Magdalene discovered Jesus' tomb to be empty.  Peter and the beloved disciple have seen the empty tomb as well.  Mary Magdalene has even seen and spoken with the risen Christ himself and reported this conversation to the other disciples.  In spite of that, John tells us that the doors were locked where the disciples were "for fear of the Jews".

This is a confused and scared group of people.  They don't yet know what to make of their friend and teacher's death, much less of these reports about the empty tomb and of Mary speaking with him.  An empty tomb could mean a lot of things, least likely of all Jesus being alive.  And could Mary's report really be trusted?  After all, women weren't considered to be reliable witnesses for legal purposes in the ancient world.  And besides, Jesus had delivered Mary from demon possession.  Maybe now that Jesus was dead that demon had come back to her and caused this hallucination.  Either way, there simply wasn't enough evidence to suggest that it was safe to be openly milling about in the streets or the markets.  The same people who had crucified Jesus might decide it was a good idea to get rid of his closest followers too, especially if rumors started to spread about Jesus being a live again.  So the disciples lock themselves in a room "for fear of the Jews".

Then Jesus appears in the midst of that fear-filled, locked up prison of a room and says to the disciples "Peace be with you."  On one level, this is exactly what any good Jew would expect.  Peace, shalom was and often still is a customary Jewish greeting.  It was so customary that Paul uses it along with "grace" in everyone of his letters.  Perhaps, we are also to imagine that it was so customary that the disciples may not have even noticed it, simply dismissed it as a "hello" or "hey guys".

"When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet."   I imagine at this point in their encounter with Jesus, the disciples would be like a parent reunited with a kidnapped child.  The first reaction is "Oh, thank God you are OK." or in this case "I can't believe it, Jesus.  You are really alive."  But that thought of thankfulness for safety would quickly to turn to the anger and revenge of "Now lets punish the monsters who did this to you."  As the disciples, observed the wounds of their Lord and savior, their thoughts would have naturally turned to the pain and rejection he had experienced.  As Jeremy so aptly says in his post:
Again, let’s pretend we’re the disciples. We’re fearful and angry that our savior has been killed. And he shows up, alive, breathing, right in front of us. He has risen from the dead, conquered death. This guy’s alive and now I definitely know that nothing can take him down! What’s my response?!?
…Let’s go find Pilate.
…Let’s go find the chief priests.
…Let’s go find the guys that held the hammer and spear.
We’ve got something to settle. Let’s go get ‘em.
But before that thought can go any further Jesus says again "Peace be with you." as if to say "Hang on, my greeting was more than a greeting.  It's your mission.  I'm not just wishing you peace and well-being.  I am bestowing the very shalom of God upon you and you are to live it out in everything you do."  As if to hammer this point of mission home, Jesus continues "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you."  Then Jesus breathes on them and says "Receive the Holy Spirit."  The God whose breath gave life to the first man and woman, the God whose breath raised up an army of an audience from a valley of dry bones, now fills these disciples with new life, with a new Spirit so that they might carry out the radical mission that Jesus has given them.  And just so we don't miss the point, Jesus says "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."  In other words, this new Spirit that resides among the disciples empowers them to forgive the Pilates, the chief priests, those who seem to be unforgivable.  Jesus has not been resurrected to revenge.  He has been resurrected to bestow on these disciples a Spirit of peace and forgiveness so that they might carry out the mission of Jesus in the world.

In v. 24-31, we find that Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, was not present when Jesus appeared this first time.  The other disciples reported to Thomas "We have seen the Lord".  But Thomas responds to them "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."  As a result, most have come to know this disciple as "doubting Thomas".

But what if that's an unfair moniker for Thomas?   We often hear Thomas's words as a willful refusal, a rejection of the other disciples' report without evidence.  We see Thomas as the rigid empiricist who won't accept anything without proof.  But what if we are hearing him incorrectly? Maybe these words from Thomas aren't so much refusal as they are confession; more admission of weakness than demand of evidence.  Perhaps they are like the man in Mark 9 who says "I believe.  Lord, help my unbelief!"  Perhaps Thomas isn't saying "I won't believe" but "I want to believe but this is simply too much for me to handle.  Not only am I supposed to believe that a crucified man was raised from the dead but also that he now wants us to forgive the people who did that to him?!.  That is humanely impossible!  I can't possibly believe that, much less be faithful to that belief unless I encounter the living Jesus myself!"

If that is indeed what Thomas is saying, then he could not have uttered a more correct understanding of himself and the whole human predicament.  We can not possibly believe, we can not possibly forgive the unforgivable, we can not possibly be faithful to the mission of radical peace that God has called us to in this world, if we have not had an encounter with the risen and living Jesus.  It is simply too difficult.  It is simply too much to ask of mere human beings to live out this kind of peace and forgiveness...unless....unless the resurrected Jesus shows up among us in the midst of our fear-filled and locked-door prisons where we have barricaded ourselves in to shield us from all the pain and dissapointment of life and he breathes new life into us and gives us his Spirit and allows us to see that the crucified Lord who still bears the mark of his torture and death is alive, is victorious, and will reign in us if we will only let him.  Eight days later, Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the faith that he knew he couldn't possibly muster up for himself and Thomas answers with what is probably the greatest and most accurate confession of faith in the entire Gospel of John, "My Lord and My God!"

But it doesn't end there.  Jesus says to Thomas "Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."  So often we hear this as a reprimand of Thomas as if Jesus were saying that Thomas should have had enough faith to just believe without seeing Jesus.  But I don't think that is what Jesus is saying here.  I think Jesus is saying that encounters with him didn't stop with those who could see him in his physical body.  Jesus is saying that it is still possible for us to come to know him in all of his life and fullness, to receive that same Spirit which was breathed on the first disciples, even though we can not see Jesus as Thomas did.  We can still encounter the living Christ.  And just to make sure we don't miss the point, John, the writer of this gospel, inserts himself into the story in v.30-31 and says the same thing.  John interrupts the narrative flow of his literary masterpiece to make sure we can't miss this point.  He says all of this was written "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."  Through the presence of the Spirit and the scripture that witnesses to Jesus, we can still have an encounter with the risen Lord and have this impossible faith and have life in his name.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

He Still Calls Our Name

I'll be preaching from John 20:1-18 this week.  As I've read over this passage this week, I've been surprised by the number of possible connections with other stories in the Gospel of John.  Allusions to other parts of John's Gospel seem to run throughout this resurrection narrative.  But perhaps the most compelling of these comes from the very first chapter of John.

In John 1:35-42, we hear of Jesus' first disciples beginning to follow him.  These two disciples heard John the baptist's testimony that Jesus was the Lamb of God and they began to follow Jesus as a result.  However, upon beginning to follow him, Jesus asks them a question:  "What are you seeking?".  To which they reply "Rabbi, where are you staying?".

Often in the Gospel of John, conversations take place on two different levels simultaneously.  Usually, there is one very literal level for the characters within the story itself.  The other is often a more metaphorical/theological level in which the character's words carry a sort of double meaning which is instructive for John's audience concerning Jesus' identity and what it means to be his disciple.  The classic example of this is John 3 where Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born from above but Nicodemus hears Jesus saying that he must be born again.  (The Greek word anothen can mean either "again" or "from above".)  On one level within the story Nicodemus is confused because he can not understand how a person can literally be born again from his mother's womb a second time.  On another level, Jesus word's are instructive for John's audience.  Those hearing John's gospel understand what Nicodemus does not; that Jesus is speaking about a completely new source of life within this life.

The conversation in John 1:35-42 works similarly.  On one level, the disciples are simply asking Jesus where he is staying.  Jesus tells them to come and see and they stay with him for the night.  On another level, the disciples are making a much more serious request.  They are asking to abide with Jesus.  Later in John 15, Jesus will use this same term, abide (meno in Greek), to describe the character of his true disciples.  In John 15:5, Jesus says "I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."  To abide with Jesus is to be his disciple.  Therefore, when the disciples answer Jesus' question "What are you seeking?" with "Rabbi, where are you staying?" they are doing more than just answering a question with what seems to be an odd and unrelated question.  In fact, they have given precisely the right answer to Jesus' question.  John is giving us a model of what it means to truly be a disciple of Jesus.  It doesn't mean seeking something from Jesus.  It means we seek to abide with him, to follow him wherever he leads.  These two disciples follow Jesus to where he abides and then they go and invite others to abide with him as well.

In John 20, Mary Magdalene, a woman about whom the gospels tell us very little, is making her way to the tomb of Jesus.  Presumably she goes to anoint the body of Jesus with spices.  We should recognize the act of love that this is on Mary's part.  John tells us that she went early while it was still dark.  She is eager to care for the body of this one that she called teacher and Lord.  She had loved Jesus, she had followed Jesus, she had abided with Jesus.  But now Jesus' body abides in a tomb and she will go there to abide with him, to care for him one last time.

However, when she arrives she finds that the stone covering the entrance of the tomb has been moved away.  She doesn't even look into the tomb to see what has happened.  She doesn't need to.  After all, there is only one logical explanation here.  Someone has stolen Jesus' body.  It wasn't enough that he died the most shameful death of crucifixion, those who hated him did not even want him to have the dignity of a proper burial.  Mary enlists the help of Peter and the beloved disciple.  They find the tomb empty as well.  However, they notice the linen cloths in which Jesus was buried have been left behind; an odd thing for grave robbers to leave behind.

The disciples head back to their homes but Mary is still at the tomb weeping.  As she is weeping, she looks into the tomb and sees two angels sitting where Jesus' body had been.  Even then, Mary still has no thoughts that something extraordinary has happened here.  When the angels ask her why she is weeping she repeats "They have taken away my Lord, and I do no know where they have laid him.  Then Jesus himself appears and asks Mary the same questions he asked those first disciples in John 1;  "Whom are you seeking?"  But even face to face with Jesus, Mary can not see what has happened here.  Her vision is too clouded by the harsh reality of crucifixion she witnessed just days earlier.  Her world is one filled with death and disappointment.  In one sense Mary would love nothing more than to answer Jesus' question as those first disciples did.  Mary desperately wants to abide with Jesus.  "Where is Jesus?" is the very question she has been asking through this entire passage.  Even now, supposing he is the gardener, she asks Jesus himself "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away."  Mary is desperately seeking to abide with Jesus in the only way she knows how but she is exasperated and grief-stricken by her search because she seeks to abide with Jesus as though he were dead when, in fact, he is alive.  It is only when the Word of God made flesh speaks her name, "Mary", that she recognizes the voice of her shepherd and responds with the same response as those first disciples "Rabboni!".  And just as those first disciples recruited more disciples, Mary goes and announces Jesus' resurrection to his disciples.

Mary is a picture of so many of us, of so much of the Church.  I think if most of us were asked in church "Whom do you seek?" we would answer "Jesus."  And I don't think it would be a disingenuous or pretentious answer.  Like Mary, most of us really do love Jesus.  We know that Jesus changed us somehow and that we owe everything to him.  In fact, we long to abide with Jesus, so much so that we get up early on the first day of the week and come looking for him.

But I also think that, like Mary, despite all of our love for Jesus, we sometimes go about seeking him as if he were dead.  We come to church, we pay our tithe, we study our Bibles and say our prayers and we do all of these things because we genuinely love Jesus.  But we also do them not expecting anything to change, not expecting anyone, including ourselves to be transformed.  In fact, we'd probably rather things not change because at least things are comfortable the way they are now.  At least, this way we know what to expect.  And its not that we are bad or unloving people.  Its just that, like Mary, we've been hurt.  We've experience more intense pain than we could ever have imagined.  We've seen our hopes and dreams crucified, our beliefs about what God could do in this world nailed to a cross.  But we remain faithful.  Even in the midst of all that, we still love Jesus, we still want to abide with him.  We've just come to doubt that he can actually change anything.  And so all of our genuine acts of love for Jesus become nothing more than spices prepared for his buried and decaying body and our church begins to feel more like an empty tomb than a place of resurrection.

But, like Mary, even as we seek Jesus among the dead, the risen Lord continues to call to us.  Even when the empty tomb and grave cloths are not enough to cause us to look elsewhere, even when angels can not change our perception of what is possible with God, even when our pain and confusion so cloud our vision that we can not even see Jesus right in front of us, the risen Lord still speaks.  He still calls our name. And that is enough to allow us to abide with him in all his resurrected glory.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Discipleship: More Than Palm Waving

Scholars debate who it is that is speaking in Isaiah 50:4-9 and the rest of the so called "suffering servant" passages.  Is this Isaiah speaking? Is it a prophetic successor of Isaiah?  Should we understand this as the collective voice of Israel as a nation that suffers as God's servant?  Is this a prophecy about the coming Messiah, about Jesus?

Obviously, for those of us who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, it is easy to jump to that last option.  So many of the images found in Isaiah 49-53 seem to fit Jesus so well.  While I am not convinced that Isaiah (or the disciple of his who wrote these words) had Jesus in mind, I am convinced that Jesus must have often had these words in mind throughout his life and ministry, especially as he drew nearer to the cross.  In other words, I don't think it is so much that Jesus perfectly fulfilled some pre-existing expectation of what it meant to be Messiah (in fact, I am quite certain he was constantly exploding the pre-existing notions of Messiah) as much as he found his understanding of who he was as the Messiah in places where no one else was looking.  While others were looking for Moses, Elijah, and David all rolled into one, Jesus found his Father calling him to stand in the line of rejected prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

It is fitting then that Isaiah 50 is one of the texts for Palm Sunday.  Those waving their palm branches welcome Jesus into Jerusalem as that Moses/Elijah/David figure.  But this celebration only lasts as long as the crowd fails to see Jesus as he sees himself, as long as they see him as one who has come to save by power when, in fact, he has come to save by suffering and weakness.  It takes less than a week for the chants of "Hosanna" to become chants of "Crucify him".

The role of prophet and disciple as described in Isaiah 50 and as modeled by Jesus in his journey to the cross serves as a sharp contrast to the fickle crowds of Palm Sunday.  The crowds celebrate only as long as things are going their way.  In contrast, the prophet/disciple has a face set like flint, a determination that can be compared only to the solid, steadfastness, and unwavering nature of rock.  The prophet/disciple is certain that the Lord is his present helper even when he is struck and spit on.  The prophet/disciple is confident that he will be vindicated even as everyone goes against him because he hears and is sustained by word of the Lord every morning.