Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus asks that "those will believe in me through (the disciples') word" "may all be one." He asks that we may also "be in us" (Jesus and the Father) as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, "so that the world may believe" that the Father sent Jesus.

That seems like a very tall order indeed, doesn't it? It may seem especially so in these days of headlines about schism and ecclesial invasions and traded accusations of heresy. Some use Jesus' words from this Sunday's gospel as a finger-wagging warning -- "Jesus said we were to be 'completely one,' so who are you to step out of line?" I know that when this passage is read, some will sigh. How could Jesus' motley and feuding followers around the world not sigh when thinking about the distance between Jesus' words here and what we see around us?

We forget amidst those sighs that the words of this Sunday's gospel come not as marching orders delivered by Jesus to disciples, but as a prayer of Jesus to the Father. In other words, the unity -- the communion -- that we share is God's gift. Jesus asks God to grant it, not us to create it. If we doubt our own abilities to achieve unity with one another in Christ -- and well we should -- we can be confident that God will answer Jesus' prayer. Unity in Christ is not a medal to be won, nor is it a negotiated settlement achieved by some at the expense of others. It is a gift flowing freely to and through us out of God's grace.

In other words, this is GOOD news, word at which our hearts can leap all the more with wonder when we recognize how deep the brokenness is that God is healing and reconciling in Christ. It's a word that is Good News not just for "my side" or my tribe, but for everyone.

Not that it initially appears that way to everyone. We were born into a complicated network of relationships in a broken world, and by action and inaction we continue on as if anything of importance was a zero-sum game: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Good survives and thrives only when evildoers are punished or killed. The news that the oppressed will be liberated can only be bad news for the oppressors; the actors switch roles, but the script stays the same.

In that world, a slave girl's freedom from the powers that enslaved her is bad news for those who benefitted from her enslavement. They demand that Paul and Silas be jailed for "disturbing our city" -- as indeed the two missionaries were doing. What God did through Paul and Silas upended the relationships of slave and master, socially as well as spiritually. But what if the slaveowners had received this change as a gift? What Good News might they have experienced had they received this disruption of the old relationship of slave and master as an opportunity and an invitation to experience a new kind of relationship -- indeed, a new kind of freedom? Paul's and Silas' jailer did, and the night of an earthquake and a prison break became the night that he and his family became sisters and brothers with the former prisoners, breaking bread and rejoicing.

It's a powerful set of stories from Acts we read this Sunday, in which injustice and imprisonment give way to healing, reconciliation, and joy. These came as God's gifts, given freely, as all God's gifts are. Paul and Silas responded to grace by extending grace, freeing the slave girl, singing in their cell, and, when their jailer appeared to be ready to respond to grace as well, receiving him as a brother. Along the way, we witness powerful signs: miraculous liberation from spiritual and literal imprisonment, Baptism, the breaking of bread.

It's a pattern that repeats itself around the world as the Spirit moves among communities: God's grace in healing and reconciling moves a grateful receiver of God's gift to extend that grace to others in turn. We celebrate that grace, remembering God's work among God's people and embracing the identity that is ours in Baptism: one Body of Christ, called to Christ's ministry. God's mission of reconciliation, of making visible and tangible the unity God has given Christ's Body and is giving the world God created, is not something we engage as reluctant employees who grimaced when we got the memo; it is the natural response of those already made sisters and brothers by God's work in Christ.

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

And thanks be to God!

May 17, 2007 in Acts, Easter, John, Reconciliation, Revelation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

John 14:23-29

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That's the collect we pray this Sunday. We ask God to "pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire." It's language of abundance -- such abundance that it can't help but overflow, and powerfully.

It reminds me of the story of the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Poor fishers who were haunted each day by a single question -- Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family and myself? -- meet Jesus, and catch such an abundance of fish that it actually threatens to swamp the boat. In a moment, the guiding question in these fishers' lives has changed from "Will I catch enough fish to survive?" to "Can I gather enough people to help take in this abundance?" That's what it means that in becoming disciples, they became "fishers of people." There is such abundance in God's love for us and God's blessings in our lives that once we see it and begin to understand its limitlessness, our priorities shift quite naturally. If we know Jesus, we know that there is enough of everything we really need -- enough love, enough blessing, enough courage and joy and peace -- that we can't actually take it in if we're stuck in a model of competing with others for the goods; we understand that these overwhelming blessings can only be taken in if we call in everyone whom God calls -- and who isn't in that number?

Luke has this story at the start of Jesus' public ministry; it explains what Jesus' earliest followers experienced that made them not just willing, but eager to leave everything to follow him. John places his version of this story after Jesus' resurrection (John 21:1-19), and this Easter season, it strikes me as an appropriate place to tell it. In Jesus' ministry in Galilee, powerful things were accomplished; the blind saw, those oppressed by powers were freed, the poor received Good News, and the rich were challenged to join in solidarity with these outcasts to experience God's healing, reconciliation, and liberation.

And at this point, I'm reminded of the Passover song: Dayenu, "It would have been sufficient." Jesus' ministry prior to his crucifixion was powerful, astonishing, liberating. When I pause to take in all that meant, I want to say, "It would have been enough." But it was more. Everything sinful about humankind put Jesus on a Roman cross, and even as he suffered that, he was speaking words of forgiveness and blessing. It would have been enough.

But the glory of the Easter season is that this wasn't the end, or anywhere near it. The God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead and set him at God's right hand; we know now that the Jesus who showed us such immeasurable love and forgiveness is the one who will judge us -- and if that isn't a liberating word, I don't know what is. It would have been enough.

And yet there's more, another astonishing, miraculous, immeasurable abundance of blessing to come. Jesus is sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, as an ongoing presence to teach us all things. No human being could be such a tutor, but God's Spirit walking with us is, teaching us both to recognize how Jesus gives -- not "as the world," but with limitless generosity, limitless love, and with limitless blessings to impart -- and to empower us to give more and more as Jesus does.

You may have heard the old joke: "She lives for others. You can tell who the others are by the hunted expression on their faces." I've seen something like that a great deal in churches especially -- people who are in pain that they take as a call to martyrdom. They minister out of their pain in ways that spread it; they take the misery they feel as confirmation that they're on the right path, and the misery that others experience as a result (and often send back in the form of anger) as the inevitable persecution of the righteous. But look at the kind of dynamic in our readings for this Sunday.

Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth -- the imperial color, rare and very expensive -- may have thought she was rich before she knew Jesus. God opens her heart, and she knows how rich she really is and what it's for; she "prevails upon" her brothers and sisters in Christ to enjoy her hospitality.

Jesus' Revelation to John gives a vision of the holy city of God's redemption. By conventional reckonings, it would be the poorest of cities -- no temple, no gates keeping invaders out, no aqueducts, no lamps. It is the poorest of cities by conventional measures because those measures are utterly irrelevant in the economy of God's kingdom. God's presence and God's light are everywhere; people bring in not weapons but glory and honor; the very water of life flows from God's throne and from the Lamb through the city.

That's the dynamic of abundance we are called to take in this Sunday, and every day in the life God gives us. When Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," it's not a whiny attempt to guilt people into doing something that they ought to do because there's no joy in the task to motivate them. He is expressing that dynamic of God's abundance: not, "those who love me ought to keep my word, or I'll be really cross and you'll feel even worse," but a declarative statement of how it is to live in Christ: when we love Jesus, we DO keep his word -- and it's worth underscoring that his word, especially in John, is to love one another.

It is, of course more than that -- much more. But the "more" isn't the 'catch' of what otherwise would be an appealing offer; it's the "more" of God's abundance. The journey we're on to learn about that, to take it increasingly in and live it increasingly out, will stretch us. We need to be stretched, as finite creatures learning to live into God's infinite love. I'm not saying that it's all fun and games; such a process of stretching can be painful. But in the light of God's abundant love, that pain is transformed; it becomes the ache one feels after waking up in darkness, barely knowing where you are, and opening the curtains to see that you're in the most gorgeous surroundings and witnessing in a moment the most indescribably gorgeous of sunrises -- something so exquisite that you gasp. Do you know what I mean?

The aches of the world in the context of God's love -- and please believe me, I've felt them -- can become something of astonishing beauty in the context of God's love. That aching moment is a moment of glimpsing redemption -- all the more beautiful for knowing that it is a moment of transformation, not eternal, but showing something of the Eternal nonetheless.

That's the feeling I have when I gasp at a sunrise. It's a feeling I get when I see a moment of transformation in a human life -- of someone who was told by too many for too long that she is worthless finding her voice, her power, and a sense that she is of more worth than human beings can measure; of someone who was told that having made this mistake, he would forever be outside community and beyond grace find his feet and seeking in honest humility to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It's the feeling I have when I look at another human being -- even when I use the imagination and compassion God gave me to put faces and names to statistics in the newspaper -- and am willing to see their suffering and to care about it with God's love, which goes far beyond my ability or even my comprehension.

In those moments, I understand a little more what an Advocate is; I know a little more of the one who walks with me as I seek to follow Jesus. It's such a gift that I can't help but feel grateful, and I can't help but pray to be an instrument of that grace I experience. It's love. It's peace. It's freedom. It's power. And it comes in such abundance that I wonder even now who I could invite that I'm missing, how I could gather community to take in even the smallest fraction of that limitless grace, love, and peace. It seems too much -- but I have an Advocate to help me on the journey.

Thanks be to God!

May 10, 2007 in Acts, Call Narratives, Discipleship, Easter, Holy Spirit, John, Love, Luke, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 9:36-43 - link to NRSV text
Revelation 7:9-17
- link to NRSV text
John 10:22-30
- link to NRSV test

"I give (my sheep) eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can ever snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
    -- John 10:28-30

John 10:30 -- "The Father and I are one" -- gets quoted in isolation from its context a great deal -- and not just by Sunday Schoolers looking for another short verse to memorize after "Jesus wept" (John 11:5). Ripped out of its context in John, "the Father and I are one" gets used in lots of contexts that make it sound like a dogmatic formula on something like a pre-flight checklist for those who want to go to heaven. But really, it's Good News.

Think of it this way, as I'd wager John's earliest readers did: Jesus' saying "the Father and I are one" is saying that if you want to know what God is doing in the world, look at what Jesus does. If you want to know how God treats sinners and outcasts, look at how Jesus treats them.

There is one more dimension to what John is saying in John 10:30, and it's a rather difficult one. I often find reading John uncomfortable. It was written by a community that was experiencing serious and sometimes life-threatening persecution, and it seeks to comfort those who were cast out by their communities, with the cost not only of feeling of alienation, but with the loss of honor and of community itself that left many members of the Johannine community destitute -- if not fearing for their lives from those who would turn them in to to Roman authorities as disturbing the peace. Such circumstances make for a "circle the wagons" mentality -- which makes indications in the Gospel According to John of concern for "the world" all the more remarkable for their rarity.

In other words, something that I think needs to be kept in mind in reading nearly any chapter of the Gospel According to John is that this is the testimony of a community under the pressure of persecution. And under these circumstances in particular, "the Father and I are one" is crucial testimony to the community under persecution -- persecution for behaving as Jesus did -- that they are received by God with grace, love, and rich blessing, even as "the world" tells them that they are abominations behaving abominably.

In other words, we cannot read John 10 without the context of John 9 and John 11.

James Allison has written eloquently about the ways in which John 9's healing of the man born blind shows the Johannine community's revelation of Jesus as one who redefines what it means to be sinful, to be born in sin, or to be marginalized as one assumed to be particularly tainted with sin. What the priestly tradition in scripture condemned as being unworthy to be received in God's presence, the prophetic tradition in scripture affirmed by Jesus proclaims as the beloved recipient of an uncontainable God's grace.

John 11 is about to give us an even stronger image of just how strong, how unyielding God's gift of life in Christ Jesus is -- how it radiates even into the grace. It's an image worth citing now, as the memory of the tragedy of blood shed at Virginia Tech is still fresh in our minds, as we're still asking ourselves where God is in the midst of the loss of innocent life.

Please remember that this question, the question on the hearts of so many after this loss as after so many and so great losses, was live on the minds of those early Christians who wrote what we read today.

Their friends were carted away. Their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers lost their lives. And still, as our rites of burial call on us to join, they sing even from the grave:


Alleluia. For the Lord is present and the God who created the universe is at work then, and now, and in countless moments to come, as one woman or man or one community of women and men does what Jesus did and declares what Jesus declared.

And while there are religious people in religious attire who will religiously declare that this person, this place, or this situation is beyond God's redemption, God's people will yet sing:


Alleluia -- God is bringing life to every desolate place.

Alleluia -- God calls as prophets even those who would seek to flee over the seas from God's call.

Alleluia -- in the midst of senseless death, on the road to the grave before which Jesus wept, Jesus tells us a truth that should give those of us who hope in him inexhaustible hope, courage, and life:

Jesus and the Father are one.

In other words, the Father -- the God who created the universe, the ultimate patriarch of those who value patriarchal authority as well as the ultimate love of the ultimately loving, motherly presence, is as Jesus is, is doing as Jesus is doing, is bound as Jesus is bound, and liberates as Jesus liberates.

Oh God, may your Church realize the destiny to which that faithful declaration leads!

The Father, the creator of the universe, and Jesus of Nazareth are one. Those who would measure humanity by the measure of God now must now wonder in the utter vulnerability of the Christ who exhorts us all to measure God by the life of God's Christ, God's anointed -- Jesus of Nazareth, who spat in the mud, wept for his friend, forgave the adulteress and pointed to the absence yet did not demand punishment for the adulterer. Jesus of Nazareth, who, to all canonical reports, never in his life refused to break bread with anyone -- prostitute or Pharisee, doubter or stumbling disciple, inquirer or persecutor.

Jesus, who brings new life to those who are dead as well as those who are dying.

Jesus, who will gather multitudes and cleanse them at the last day.

Jesus, from whom no evil force can snatch those who are beloved.

And please, if you are listening and are in any doubt, listen to this:

Jesus and the Father, the God who created the universe, are one.

Jesus, who is one with that God, is calling you and loves you.

There may be people who say that the world isn't made for people like you and is stacked against you. Those people are full of what the King James translators rendered as "manure."

If Jesus and God are one, than God is every bit as indiscriminately loving as Jesus was. Fundamentalists might wave bibles at you all the time. Fine. Read it! Jesus broke bread with, healed, and loved people who were at least as much on the 'outs' in their culture as you are in ours.

If Jesus and God are one, than God doesn't give any more of a rodent's posterior than Jesus did who you parents were, how pure you are, are how well you're esteemed in any number of other measures of a person's worth that our culture might offer.

Jesus cares about something else. God cares about something else.

God, like Jesus, cares about YOU. God, through Christ, has given you gifts through which you can participate in the ultimate destiny of the world -- the saving of the world through the love of God in God's anointed.

God, like Jesus, through Jesus, in Jesus, invites you, anoints you, offers you a life that is part and parcel of the new life of a risen world in the Risen Christ.

Dorcas, God's servant, received it. John, God's visionary, foresaw it. You, God's beloved, can experience it.

Thanks be to God!

April 28, 2007 in Acts, Conversion, Current Events, Easter, John, Redemption, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Sunday of Easter, Year C

Just another reminder that, as I posted about last week, my reflections for the second and third Sundays of Easter this year (2007) can be found in the April 3 print issue of the Christian Century.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

April 16, 2007 in Easter | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day principal service, Year C

There's a Franciscan fourfold blessing that I have long loved, the fourth blessing of which is this:

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

I think often of that blessing when I'm preaching, especially on texts like the Beatitudes and other difficult passages in the "Sermon on the Mount." Who really lives that way? Who honors the poor more than the rich? Who honors those who are reviled in society above the respectable people who judge them? Which of our parishes or other communities have shared our resources one another freely so that no one is "anxious about tomorrow"? Whom among us really cares for others' children as we do our own, as we would if we took seriously Jesus' saying that his family consists of not of those related by blood or marriage, but of those who "hear the word of God and do it"?

I remember one man in particular at one parish where I preached regularly who particularly enjoyed my sermons, but who almost always had a bit of a wry grin as he shook my hand to say so. When I asked him about the grin, he usually grinned a little wider, shook his head gently, and said with some affection something like, "What you say is very inspiring. But you're talking about how things are going to be in heaven, and we've got to be realistic here on earth." When pressed for more, he'd talk about how one can't really have a policy of turning the other cheek or forgiving others as God forgives us as long as there are criminals and terrorists around. He'd say that there wasn't much point in trying to address extreme poverty in Africa until all governments there were free of corruption. There was always a long list of things that would have to happen first on earth before we could live as Jesus lived and taught his followers to live -- a list that added up to, "Sure, we'll do all of that -- in God's kingdom. Until we're there, living this way would be foolish in the extreme."

I imagine that there were some folks inclined toward a similar kind of 'realism' among Jesus' earliest followers. I imagine that among the crowds at Jesus' sermons, there were many who heard what he said with great joy, but who almost without thinking laid assumptions around the message:

"Yes, that's how it will be -- once we rid the land of Roman oppressors."

"Absolutely -- when a son of David rules again from David's throne in Jerusalem, he'll make sure the poor are fed."

"I long for that day -- our enemies will be defeated once and for all, and then we can live in peace."

"I believe that all nations will know and worship God, once the evildoers are gone and the rest have embraced the whole Torah."

And what a glorious day, the Day of the Lord, when all of God's promises to God's people can be fulfilled, when God answers the prayer that Jesus taught us: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"!

The Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the liturgical year, I think, in part because of the way its journey through salvation history, through God's creating, loving, and redeeming God's people, renews my hope and anticipation of God's answering fully and finally that prayer. What a vision!

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
(Isaiah 55:1-11)

That's one of my favorite passages in scripture, expressing longings that I think we experience in the twenty-first century with as much intensity as God's people did in the sixth century BCE.

Everyone has the basic necessities of bread and milk and even the wine for celebration; none need be anxious, and all are satisfied.

There are no enemies to fear among the nations. I don't know if you sometimes have the feeling I do just before I pick up a newspaper -- that distant feeling of "what now?" dread -- but that feeling has become a distant memory, as people of all nations rush to embrace, not to attack.

I love the opportunity the Great Vigil gives us to spend time rolling texts like this over our tongues to take in their richness, to close our eyes for a moment to enter into the prophets' vision of the world's redemption. There is no better preparation to receive the Good News of Easter that God has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.

Especially in cultures as individualistic as mine, I think it's often too easy to miss the ways in which this Easter message is Good News for the whole world. The Good News of Easter is not just "Jesus rose from the dead, so we too can live after we die," as numerous mystery religions of the Roman world promised through their gods. And it's worth remembering that Jesus' resurrection isn't the first resurrection in the gospels; God's power raised others, such as Lazarus, before.

But Jesus' resurrection is different. It's not different only because Jesus won't die again, as Lazarus will. The way St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15 is that Jesus' resurrection is "the first fruits" of Creation's end, or telos. "End" can mean quite different things in English, as telos can in Greek. It can mean a final stopping. It can mean death. And when we use the phrase "the end of the world," that's usually the kind of "end" we have in mind -- we're talking about destruction and death. But that's not what Paul is talking about when he talks about Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits" of a harvest that includes "the end." Paul is talking about the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, as Christ fully and finally delivers the kingdom, putting an end to every oppressive power and principality, everything that held the world back from its telos of joy, love, peace, and freedom.

Jesus' ministry up to his death on the Cross -- his healing, forgiving, teaching, breaking bread with any who would eat with him, and gathering a community who would continue these practices in remembrance of him -- was a series of early installments of the telos of the world that God promises -- God's kingdom, where Isaiah's vision is fulfilled, come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus was crucified, dying a death considered shameful, nearly all who heard of it would have thought of it as putting an end to Jesus, to his movement, to hope in him as the Christ. Nearly all would have seen it as proof positive that Jesus was wrong about what God wanted from humanity, wrong in saying that his gathering and blessing the impure and outcast was God's action, wrong about all of those outrageous teachings that preachers today try to explain away.

But then the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of the righteous that some expected at the end has started NOW, and everything that Jesus said about and did to bring about God's kingdom has been affirmed by the righteous judgment of the God who raised him.

As R.E.M. would say, it's the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine. Creation's telos -- the love, joy, peace, and freedom for which the world was made -- starts NOW. Perhaps my friend is right that Jesus' way of life can only be lived by the rest of us in God's kingdom, but in Jesus' ministry -- now the ministry of the Risen Christ -- God's kingdom starts NOW. It starts among us. It starts wherever two or three gather in Jesus' name to live into the reality of Jesus' work in the world.

Of course, I'm not saying that everything that's going to happen to bring Creation to its telos has already happened. A person could figure that much out with a newspaper, if Paul's letters weren't at hand. But the Good News of Easter is reason enough to toss our list of things that have to happen before we can experience God's kingdom among us -- before we can live into the way of Jesus -- and invest the energy we formerly devoted to making such lists to look for the Risen Christ and his work in the world. As Paul wrote:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
(Romans 6:3-11)

God has raised Jesus from the dead, and NOW -- not in some distant future or in some other world -- those of us Baptized into Christ's Body have been freed from slavery to sin, and are free to live with Christ in the way of Christ. The first fruits have been gathered in, and a more plentiful harvest is ripening. Tell everyone the Good News -- as St. Francis would say, using words if necessary. We have the opportunity to participate in the spread of God's kingdom in ways more powerful than words -- in doing justice, in proclaiming peace, in embracing the outcast, in treating the most vulnerable among God's children with the care we'd give our own flesh and blood. God has in Easter given us all the proof we need that the time has come:

Christ is risen!

Alleluia! And thanks be to God!

April 6, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Easter, Eschatology, Inclusion, Isaiah, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Resurrection, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

heads-up: Palm Sunday, Easter 2, and Easter 3

Dear All,

I plan to post my Palm Sunday blog tomorrow (Wednesday) and my Maundy Thursday blog the day after tomorrow (Thursday).

I'd like to give y'all an early heads-up for the second and third Sundays of Easter, though (April 15 and 22). I've written reflections for those Sundays, and they're published in the April 3 print issue of the Christian Century -- a magazine I've long been a fan of, and am honored to contribute to. Not all of the content from their print magazine is published on their website; while you can see previous years' lectionary reflections online, the current year's can be found only in print. So please do subscribe or pick up a newsstand copy of the Christian Century, and if you want to see something from me online on the Easter 2 and Easter 3 texts, don't forget about my previous blog entries and sermons dealing with them:

"Touching the Wounded Body of Christ in the World" (a Year A sermon on the same gospel passage)
Second Sunday of Easter, Year C (a lectionary blog entry from 2004)
Day of Pentecost, Year B (a lectionary blog entry dealing in part with John 20:19-23)
Christ the King, Year B (a lectionary blog entry dealing in part with Revelation 1:1-8)

I hope these are helpful -- and that you find the Christian Century pieces helpful as well.

March 27, 2007 in Administrivia, Easter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Sorry about the delay posting this week -- I had more technological misadventures, but the VERY, very good news of the day is that my beloved PowerBook is at long last back in my hands! I'm no longer reliant on borrowed computers, which should make many things go MUCH more smoothly in the weeks to come.

Acts 11:19-30 - link to NRSV text
1 John 4:7-21 - link to NRSV text
John 15:9-17 - link to NRSV text

Remember the "Friends & Family" plan for long-distance telephone service? It was a pretty smart marketing idea -- so smart, in fact, that it's now standard in a variety of other kinds of services, like my cell phone's "In-Network" plan. When I use my cell phone, minutes get counted with most calls; I've bought a certain number of minutes, and that's what I get. But if someone is calling me or I'm calling someone "in-network" -- someone whose service comes from the same company as mine -- the minutes don't get counted, and I don't have to pay for them.

Our readings for this Sunday just might be the earliest recorded "Friends & Family" plan, though it covers far more than cell phone minutes. Some of the most shallow Christian theology makes God sound like the ultimate bean-counter. In this view, God sits in heaven tallying accounts obsessively to make sure that every petty offense is bought and paid for, and when the bill is due, he (God the Heavenly Bean-Counter is invariably presented as male by adherents) will collect the last penny -- even if he has to take it from his own son, and even if doing that will cost his son's life in the worst of ways to lose it. The important thing -- the only thing, really -- in Heavenly Bean-Counter theology is that those books kept with perfect meticulousness balance in the end.

At best, Bean-Counter theology can have an almost paradoxical effect: by dwelling on just how much we'd be shown to owe God if it were measured, we might gain an appreciation of how beyond measure is the grace we experience in Christ, and that in turn might inspire us to cut our neighbors some slack when we're tempted to tally their balance of sins and righteous acts.

Sadly, though, Bean-Counter theology almost never seems to have this effect on its adherents -- in more cases than not, people I've met who most strongly emphasize that each of us have done things that, were there no such thing as redemption, would bring death upon us have not been inspired to say "... and if God can give me the gifts of God's love, of the Spirit, of eternal and joyous life that I don't deserve, surely God's grace will extend to whatever my neighbor does or fails to do," or even "God's the one keeping accounts here, and doesn't need or want me to presume to keep them"; they have rather been inspired to keep more careful accounts than ever of what they perceive as their neighbors' transgressions.

I'll never forget a conversation I had in the office elevator with a co-worker at a tech company. He was a devout Christian who was outraged that Disney would offer health insurance to same-sex domestic partners of employees, and he'd been boycotting Disney because of it. I didn't try to argue with him about the morality of same-sex unions, but I did want to challenge him regarding his assumption that he was doing God's will by trying to force companies to allocate benefits at least in part according to perceived righteousness. "I wish that everyone had health care," I said, "and I don't see how anything Jesus said or did could suggest that we ought to take health care away from someone because we think they're sinning. If anything, it sounds to me like Disney is, however inadvertently or incompletely, serving Jesus, who said that those who care for the sick are caring for him."

I think also of a conversation I imagined the evening of September 11, 2001. I imagined President Bush stepping to the podium to make a statement to the press: "During my campaign for this office, a lot of people chuckled when I said that my favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I was serious about that, though. As an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' death paid the price for all sin -- for all people, and for all time. And so I believe that Jesus' blood paid the price for the blood shed today, and for that reason I cannot say that today's attacks, as terrible and evil as they were, call for  more bloodshed. God bless our enemies as well as our friends, and God bless America."

The conversation with my co-worker happened and changed his mind about punishing Disney; that imaginary press conference didn't happen, and would have provoked outrage if it had. But I still think about it -- how can someone hold that Jesus loves us so much as to pay the price for our sin, and yet still say that evildoers must pay -- especially with blood -- for what they've done?

It happens a lot, though. I know that orthodox Christian belief would see Jesus as sharing the character of God the Father, and I know that there are views of 'substitutionary atonement' that aren't shallow as this 'Bean-Counter' version, but we're talking about a particular and particularly shallow branch of popular theology here that presents God the Father as literally out for blood, while God the Son is happy to give blood but doesn't need it himself. And when we see God the Father as being driven mostly or entirely by the need to "balance the books," it seems almost psychologically inevitable that we would try to imitate our bean-counting deity on that point. I suspect that's one reason we have televangelists on the airwaves after every natural disaster trying to pinpoint just whose and which sins made God decide to play Godzilla (a metaphor I find particularly apt in light of the ways in which Godzilla often appears in films as the way that nuclear weapons or messing up the environment come back to bite us in the proverbial butt).

But that's not the kind of God Jesus proclaims. "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love," Jesus says. Jesus' relationship with God the Creator was not one that included score-keeping. There are no tit-for-tat deals between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity, no bills sent or payments made. One of my favorite theological words is perichoresis -- a word describing relationships of Persons of the Trinity that means 'enveloping,' a whole, completely free and completely full interchange. When Jesus says "as the Father has loved me," that's the kind of relationship he's talking about.

The rest of the sentence -- "I have loved you; abide in my love" -- is an invitation to us to share that very quality of relationship in our relationship with him. And that's on reason that Jesus command to "love one another as I have loved you" is so astonishing. We are called and empowered to share with one another the very kind of love that envelops the life of the Trinity.

"Love" is a word that's so often overused and misused in our culture. "I love a good margarita" is, for example, a perfectly fine thing to say. And then there are the ways the word "love" is misused with reference to God. "God loves you" is said all too often in conjunction with the image of the Heavenly Bean-Counter to say that God's "love" looks something like a stalker's -- God really loathes us enough to want to kill us, but has deluded himself into seeing only his son when he looks at us, and therefore has decided to watch us constantly and nag us frequently so we do what he wants. Those who believe that God is like this just might resort to the same mixture of nagging and force on their neighbors that they think God uses on them.

But God's love isn't like that at all. God's love is free, full, powerful, and gentle. Jesus invites us to experience that kind of love through him -- and then we are invited to see all of our relationships transformed in the image of that love -- a love in which no one is anonymous or dispensable, no one is cast aside as irredeemable, and everyone exercises the kind of relaxed and joyful generosity that happens when nobody is keeping score in any arena. That's why the believers in Acts share with fellow Christians on the other side of the world as freely as they'd share with their own mother or daughter. Knowledge of that love demonstrated in caring for one another in this way is the test proposed in 1 John for whether we know God. And Jesus' lengthy "farewell discourse" in the Gospel According to John urges Jesus' followers to abide in that love repeatedly.

It's a love that changed Jesus' followers forever. It's a love that changes us day by day. And it's a love that could change the world, making real Isaiah's vision of peace and plenty. That's Jesus' gift -- and like all true gifts, it's given freely.

Thanks be to God!

May 19, 2006 in 1 John, Acts, Easter, Inclusion, John, Justice, Love, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Deuternomy 4:32-40 - link to NRSV text
Acts 8:26-40 - link to NRSV text
1 John 3:(14-17)18-24 - link to NRSV text
John 14:15-21 - link to NRSV text

The Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip a very brave question: "What is there to prevent me from being Baptized?" It seems a reasonable question in many ways. He was in his chariot studying Isaiah (as one does -- don't you?) when he happened upon Philip. Philip tells him that the redemption Isaiah anticipates has come in Jesus. And then they happen upon a convenient water source! What is to prevent him from being Baptized?

I still say it's a brave question. Anyone who asks that question today of a leader just might be greeted with a list: Well, do you REALLY understand what's going on in the Eucharist? What's your attitude on the authority of scripture, or on human sexuality? Do you still plan to work in that den of vice they call a court in Ethiopia? And then there's that delicate matter of your operation. You understand that it renders you unfit to enter the Temple, right? It's so important for people to know their place, and yours is, well ... not the same as ours. We need to have a few decades of dialogue about your place -- you can wait over there.

It reminds me of the very funny and very, very effective ad the UCC has created called "Ejector Pew." (Watch it if you haven't seen it -- brilliant!) But that's not the response the eunuch got from Philip. Philip baptized him, and he went on his way rejoicing.

A lot of sermons pretty much end there. It's the happy ending -- God loves you. You're in! Rejoice and skip into the sunset. But let's not end there. Ending there leaves us all wondering what's next. When we don't explore that question together, we often end up filling in the blanks with whatever our culture says is good. Rejoice and go on your way -- oh, and work hard and play by the rules, go to church every Sunday, be generous, don't do drugs, and make sure to send flowers on Mother's Day. Amen.

But have you ever noticed that in the "Great Commission" in Matthew, the passage most often pointed to as warrant for evangelism, that Jesus does NOT say "go and make converts," let alone "go and make churchgoers." The "Great Commission" is to make disciples, Baptizing them AND teaching them to obey Jesus' commands. This Sunday's gospel has a similar exhortation from Jesus: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

"Commandments" has a serious ring to it -- it gives the sentence a kind of James Earl Jones-gravitas. It's a favorite word of the Morals Police who want to add some teeth to those "work hard and play by the rules" commandments of our culture. "This," they say, rubbing their hands, is where we get down to business." They're often disappointed when they take a closer look at just what Jesus says is his commandment in John 15:12: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

"Oh good!" some folks would say, "I was afraid he was going to say something heavy. I just LOVE love, though. All you need is love! Love lifts up where we belong! Who could be against that? We're pretty much back to the skipping into the sunset rejoicing plan."

We're going to hear more about this next week, when our gospel passage includes John 15:12 -- and the next verse, which has quite a kicker that the romantic love of Moulin Rouge wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. But we've got a good introduction to the concept in this week's reading from 1 John (and it's short enough -- why on earth would anyone go with the shorter version of it?):

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Jesus loved us such that he gave his life, his very self, for us, holding nothing back. As I've said before, that doesn't indicate that Jesus was a creature like the lemmings of Disney myth, flinging himself off a cliff for no reason other than to encourage others to do the same. Jesus is at work in the family business, and so Jesus' love functions as does his Father's: calling out a motley assortment of slaves judged of no account by the powerful, and gathering them as a community to become a people. I think that's worth keeping in mind when thinking about this week's reading from Deuteronomy.

Would it be Good News, would it be the family business of God and God's people if the Israelites were called out of Egypt just to become another kingdom with another Pharoah and another set of people condemned to slavery by rulers' military might? As St. Paul would say, by no means! God calls us -- especially those of us judged to be losers of no account in the world's scheme of things -- to freedom from this world's Pharoahs not so we can form our own domineering hierarchy with the "right" people on top, but so we can do things differently. We don't replace one Pharoah with another; God is our king, and any other applicants for the job can forget it.

That's radical -- so radical, in fact, that it remained controversial within Israel for centuries. How are we supposed to hold our own against hostile powers around us if we're not prepared to kick butt on their terms -- with armies, led by a kickass king? But what Jesus proposes might be even more radical -- and I'd give, well, a LOT to see if anyone picks this up for preaching this Mother's Day. Jesus' calling out of motley individuals to form God's people doesn't just say that having God as our king defines the nation, and therefore we don't need any human monarchs; it says that with God as our Father we are truly one family as beloved children of God, and that is to be the sole claim on family allegiance.

As far as our culture is concerned, that is CRAZY. That's bad. Does this story report the behavior of a good son, by conventional reckonings?

A crowd was sitting around him: and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother"
(Mark 3:32-35)

It reminds me of the game improvisational comedy troupes play (yup, I was in one once) called "World's Worst," in which comics are given a category of "the world's worst ..." and have to supply entries for it. I'd enter this one in the category of "World's Worst Message for a Mother's Day Card."

It's just not our culture's way of reckoning things. We appreciate our mothers, and I do think that we tend not to appreciate them anywhere near enough. But every Mother's Day, I think also of all my friends, acquaintances, and fellow or former parishioners who feel judged as a failure by everyone around them because they don't have our culture's ideal: a lawfully married spouse (or at least a life partner) and kids, preferably living in a well-kept house the adults own. The floral-industrial complex -- and far too many Mother's Day sermons -- leave them out entirely.

And then I think about some other mothers who won't be getting flowers, breakfast in bed, or ice cream cakes this Sunday. I think about mothers in Darfur facing agonizing decisions about which of their children to feed. I think about a mother in Zimbabwe I read about recently in the newspaper who wonders who will care for her children once the menengitis she's suffering from -- a treatable condition, but she can't afford the treatment -- takes her from them. And as much as I want to love and appreciate and honor the women in my community who give of themselves to love and nurture the children I see playing in the aisles of the church during the Eucharist on Sunday morning, I want to pose the question that seems unthinkable in our culture, and especially on this Sunday:

What if we saw every mama as our own mother or sister? What if we welcomed and nourished and stood up for every child as if each one was our very own flesh? Jesus' love -- the love we have received, and therefore are equipped to live out and pass along to our world -- is such that he said, "I will not leave you orphaned"; instead, he gave us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth. And this week particularly, my heart breaks for all of those children who will be orphaned today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and Sunday.

This is a situation that is within our power to change. Clean water, a mosquito net, a phone call made or a vote cast to stop subsidizing violence -- a critical mass of small, simple things like that could give life to so many mothers and their children. So this Sunday, by all means give flowers, and ice cream cakes, and breakfasts in bed. Give all the love you've got to give to the women in your life. And because love -- especially God's love, Jesus' love -- is not a limited good, a finite pie we have less to give when we give some away, give a moment of your time, a second of your imagination, to other children's mothers, and to orphaned children. Pray for the capacity to receive God's love the way Jesus did, the way that overflows for the world. And please take a moment after ordering the flowers and signing the cards to send to stop by someplace like the ONE Campaign to find out what one person, one family, one moment can do to help create a world in which every mother can see each of her children get clean water, good food, an education, a chance.

Thanks be to God!

May 11, 2006 in 1 John, Easter, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Leadership, Love, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:(23-31)32-37 - link to NRSV text
OR Ezekiel 34:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 23 - link to BCP text
John 10:11-16 - link to NRSV text

On Acts 4, please see my article in The Witness, "The Missing FOR and the Risen Life." There's a fun and illuminating exegetical issue in that passage that the article dicusses: The passage says, "With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, FOR there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold." The NRSV, like most English translations, leaves out that "for," obscuring what for Luke-Acts is a point made repeatedly: that there is a direct causal connection between making sure that no one is needy and the other characteristics of Christ-centered community the passage raises.

In other words, we experience the presence and the power of God's Spirit most fully and we testify to Jesus' resurrection most powerfully when we are caring for the poor such that no one is left in need. That connection isn't intuitive for many of us, especially in the individualistic and introspective West, where we're inclined to see "spiritual" as a word describing an interior and emotional experience rather than as a way of being in the world. But that connection is absolutely core to Jesus' message and God's mission.

Jesus makes that clear as he presents his own "mission statement" in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

And there's another FOR, a "because" we shouldn't miss. Luke reveals that Jesus himself saw his experience of the Spirit as a product of the mission -- God's mission -- for which he was anointed, and it is a mission which leaves no one out. The poor shunted to the margins by their poverty, the prisoners shut out of our communities, the blind left to beg at literal and figurative city gates, are all to be brought safely in to the center of our life together, fully incorporated in community and empowered for ministry and mission.

That mission -- God's mission, for which Jesus was anointed -- is about nothing less than changing the world. So whatever you else you might do with Jesus' message, I beg you not to take it as pious words of comfort for you and your family, a message about working hard and playing by the rules to sleep secure in the knowledge that God loves you as long as you work hard and play by the rules. God wants so much more for us than that!

I've blogged and preached a number of times before about an image that's central to my sense of vocation, one that came up in my parish discernment committee for the ordination process in Los Angeles: namely that of a washing machine. Washing machines don't work if the load is stagnant; without motion, there's no transformation. So the washing machines that I grew up with had something at their center that bounced around to push what's at the center out to the margins and bring what's at the margins in to the center such that the whole load could be transformed.

We call that thing at the center of the washing machine an 'agitator,' and I can think of no better word for what the Spirit does for us. The call of God's Spirit pushes those of us at the center of our world's all-too-concentrated power and wealth out to the margins to welcome the marginalized to the center. If we stay where we are and let the rest of the world stay as it is, we're not fully experiencing the presence and work of the Spirit, and we won't benefit as fully from the transformation that the Spirit is bringing.

That's why Jesus says in Luke, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." But that's Luke. John's gospel is often preached as if its whole message could be boiled down to this: Jesus said that he is God's Son. Everyone who doesn't acknowledge that is going to hell. You need to do two things in response: a) tell God that you understand Jesus to be God's Son and that you want Jesus to save you from hell; and b) tell everyone else that Jesus is God's Son, and if they don't tell God that they accept that proposition, they're going to hell.

That's a serious misreading of John for more reasons than I can sketch in a single lectionary blog entry. What I want to emphasize this week is that John doesn't present Jesus' message and mission as being just about what goes on inside one's head or heart any more than the other canonical gospels do (now the Gospel of Thomas is another story, presenting Jesus' message as being almost entirely about his own spiritual status and the importance of realizing it for one's own spiritual status -- but I digress). This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point.

Jesus' saying "I am the good shepherd" tends to evoke for 21st-century urban and suburban folk an idealized, bucolic scene of rolling green hills and lush meadows, over which the fluffy (and remarkably clean) sheep roam with their serene (if slightly bored) shepherd. It would have evoked a different scene and mood in the first-century Mediterranean world.

For starters, the scene evoked among Jesus' hearers or John's by a reference to shepherding would be less about serenity than about survival. Shepherds had a hard life. To make sure that their sheep had enough food and water, they had to roam far from home, and they paid a heavy price for it. They were exposed to the elements, and suffered from heat during the day and cold during long, sleepless nights guarding the flock from human and animal predators. Their mothers, wives, and daughters were in turn more vulnerable to predators, and that's a major reason that shepherds were generally thought of as dishonorable characters, leaving their families so exposed. If after all that a shepherd lost too many sheep to illness, injury, starvation, or dehydration, the whole family would perish -- the flock's welfare really was the shepherd's own.

And so it might be said that Jesus' metaphor of "the good shepherd" differs from the "washing machine" metaphor primarily in underscoring three things:

  1. What was at stake: Laundry isn't a matter of life and death, but the shepherd's whole family and community depends on the shepherd's journey to pastures and back home.
  2. How far that motion from the center to the margins should go: In a washing machine, we're talking about a radius of a couple of feet; for the shepherd, the family's survival depends on journeying as far as it takes to feed the sheep and get home with resources to feed the family.
  3. What that journey might cost: I suppose I could trip on the basement stairs headed down to the washing machine and sprain my ankle, but a shepherd might literally lay down his life for the sheep when threatened by a thief or a wolf.

I wish that congregations were going to read both Acts 4 and Ezekiel 34 this Sunday. Acts 4 makes the causal connection between caring for the poor and experiencing the Spirit's presence and power that we need to hear, but Ezekiel 34 is a scathing indictment of the extent to which we who claim to follow "the good shepherd" have been doing the opposite of what a good shepherd does:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.

We live in a world that discourages real contact between the rich (by which I mean people like me -- my annual pre-tax income of $28,200 makes me among the top 10% of wage earners worldwide, according to the Global Rich List) and the poor, and so it becomes tempting for me to sit at home -- my home with solid walls and roof, running water, and electricity -- and actually think I'm poor because I don't have every luxury I want. The cities I live and work in divide rich from poor by neighborhood and school such that the vast majority of people I speak with on any given day have similar levels of education as I do and are from a similar social class. And for the most part, the churches in which I worship and work are far less diverse economically, socially, and racially than the zip codes in which they get mail.

Jesus, the good shepherd, calls me out of that comfortable home, away from living off of the fat available to me right here and out to the margins, so all might eat good food, drink clean water, and enjoy the privileges I have that give me access to markets and schools and the power that comes with them. He doesn't promise that it will be easy, but he promises that the journey is the way to abundant life. And I know that I will hear the good shepherd's voice and see his face most clearly when I'm living world that lives out the connection all of God's prophets proclaim, and all of God's beloved children can sing with the psalmist, not in hopeful expectation but in celebration of a present reality:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

Thanks be to God!

May 4, 2006 in Acts, Easter, Ezekiel, John, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:5-12 - link to NRSV text
OR Micah 4:1-5 - link to NRSV text
1 John 1:1-2:2 - link to NRSV text
OR Acts 4:5-12
Luke 24:36b-48 - link to NRSV text

Jesus was well known -- perhaps even best known, at least in some circles -- for his proclamation of the kingdom of God. "Kingdom" isn't a word that necessarily means all that much, or all that much that's relevant, to those of us who don't live in a monarchy, but I think Jesus himself provided a pretty good translation for that phrase even for us in the prayer he taught his followers, "your kingdom come, [that is,] your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Our imaginations could run wild on that one. What kind of a catalog can you come up with for things that would be different if God's kingdom had come, if God's will were being done on earth as it is in heaven? Heck, what would NOT be different?

Jesus' earliest followers were exposed to a lot of speculation on that point. It was, as far as we know about first-century Judaism, a pretty popular point upon which to exercise imagination -- as one would expect for any not ground into utter despair in occupied territory, when the vast majority of people were shut out of citizenship, out of literacy, out of social mobility. And then there were the people who were shut out even further on account of their illnesses, their dishonored relations, or their honorable family's disowning them. They were lucky if they still felt included enough in any kingdom to dream of God's kingdom.

And so they dreamed. What would be different -- or better yet, what would NOT be different -- if God's kingdom really had broken through to this world?

When Jesus began his ministry of proclaiming God's kingdom, and more vividly and dangerously yet, living that out as reality in healings, exorcisms (driving out the powers of darkness with God's power is bound to get people's hopes up about driving out ALL oppressive powers with God's power), drawing together and building up God's people for the new world dawning. Small wonder that his disciples, given the kinds of hopes Jesus raised, seem often surprised at how much seems NOT to have changed despite Jesus' coming and proclaiming God's kingdom come.

A lot did change, to be sure. Lives changed when people were healed of diseases or freed from spirits that had shut them out of community. Women and men cast out by their families found a new family in the community of Jesus' "mother and sisters and brothers" who heard the word of God and strove to live it out together. And to be fair, eschatology -- speculation about what the end of the old era of injustice and the dawning of God's kingdom -- for many Jews in Jesus' time was focused on the time of the resurrection, when those who were martyred for righteousness were restored to live out the lives so unjustly cut short.

However, a few might have understood how Jesus could proclaim God's kingdom and still anyone could see that so many oppressive forces remained seemingly in power by seeing Jesus' message as being about what God would do in the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Many would have fled -- and did flee -- at Jesus' crucifixion; if they thought that before Jesus' death he would one of these days jump into some first-century equivalent of a phone booth and fly out in a suit with a huge 'M' on his chest (the 'M' being for 'Messiah' -- and props to Scott Bartchy for the image), that hope was dashed when Jesus died. But some might have clung to hope, thinking that at least on the day of resurrection, Jesus would be vindicated, and woe to his enemies on that day! Jesus would come back like Arnold Schwarzeneggar's unstoppable cyborg in The Terminator -- a 'Christinator' before whom all enemies would flee, and then, if not before, NOTHING would be the same.

Well, this Sunday, we see what happens when the first light of the great day of resurrection appears, when God's chosen is vindicated, and here's what the glorious resurrected Son of God does:

He proclaims peace. He tells his followers not to fear. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to his followers, whom he commissions to proclaim freedom from sin and debt. Oh, and he eats some fish.

In other words, as far as people expecting some grand and explosive special effects moment, this is a transformation as anticlimactic as that of Princess Fiona in Shrek. The orchestral score swelled and has gone silent, that blinding burst of light came and went, and the world is still looking like a troll by any conventional reckoning.

And you know, that's why Shrek is still one of my favorite movies about the kingdom of God.

Because it's not about conventional reckoning at all. It never was.

A reader who's been paying careful attention will notice that Luke portrays the risen Jesus as doing precisely what the pre-crucifixion Jesus did. He eats with people. He proclaims peace, even (or especially!) to those caught up in spirals of violence they reckon to be inescapable. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to those who will hear -- precisely as he did at the very beginning of his public ministry in Luke 4.

On this glorious day of Easter (the whole season is Easter, folks -- like the whole twelve days of Christmas are Christmas!), it's worth recalling that from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry among us, he has been proclaiming that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," today is the day in which God's kingdom breaks through to this world, today is the day of the new life we've been waiting for. The people who thought that the "today" of Luke 4 was some kind of funky metaphorical time (much like the stuff people repeat about the various Greek words for time and the very, very special and absolutely distinct dimensions of meaning for each) probably continued to think that Jesus was spouting some kind of barely sensible metaphor or just plain kidding around when he said stuff like, "if it is by God's finger that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).

But what if Jesus wasn't kidding?

What if Jesus really meant that TODAY is the day of salvation, the glorious day of the Lord, the day of resurrection, the day of the coming of God's kingdom?

I think sometimes that this is half the point of the accounts in the canonical gospels of the risen Jesus' appearances to his followers (or, in the case of Paul, to someone he was calling to be his follower). The day of resurrection, life in the kingdom of God itself, the glorious day we've all been waiting for looks a great deal like any day at all breaking bread with Jesus.

That's not to say that we have nothing left to hope for. Not at all. It's to say that if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that the God of Israel -- of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebeccah, and Leah, of Rahab and of Mary -- the Creator of the world, has raised this same Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and the way he lived among us as finally, ultimately righteous, if Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Christ of God, the anointed agent inaugurating God's kingdom, then we have to believe that the life of the kingdom of God is like Jesus' life:

Healing and freeing the outcast, eating fish with out-of-work fishers and breaking bread with women of any or no reputation or name. Speaking peace, of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks, because weapons have no use at all in a world in which all are called to bless their persecutors and minister to their enemies. The writer of 1 John wasn't kidding when he said that he spoke of what was said and heard "from the beginning"; for this the world was made, and this is the life Jesus lived, the life Jesus birthed in community with any who would care for it, from the beginning. This was the life Jesus lived to the ending, even to death on a cross from which he did what he always did -- speaking peace to his fearful followers and his tormentors alike with his last breath.

Why should we be surprised, all told, that this is what the risen Jesus does? And for those of us who have experienced even the slightest whiff of the messianic banquet in the fellowship Jesus welcomes us to -- with sinners and saints, with the joyous and the grieving and the bewildered -- why should we be surprised when Jesus' table in the messianic kingdom looks a great deal like the table Jesus set for his followers from the beginning, on the night before he died, on his first days after God raised him from the dead?

And for any who hunger or thirst for a new life, a different world, a peaceable kingdom in which each one of us is welcomed for the beloved child of God we are and is growing into the person in Christ we were meant to be, what kind of sign are you waiting for? There is bread and wine, there are people to journey with, and the life of the risen Christ, of the new world, is here among us, if you're willing to seek it where Jesus did.

Today is the day of resurrection, of the inbreaking of God's kingdom, and no regrets of yesterday or anxieties about tomorrow should keep you from it.

Thanks be to God!

April 27, 2006 in 1 John, Acts, Easter, Eschatology, Luke, Resurrection, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack