Wednesday, April 25, 2012

After Easter (John 21)

The text before us this morning is another text about forgiveness and reconciliation. That is a common, if not predominant, theme in Jesus’ post-resurrection, post-Easter visits with his disciples. We have already called attention to this in last week’s homily where we noted that Jesus’ restoration of the disciples after they had deserted and denied him would assure that the church in its formative years, in the power of the Holy Spirit, would be formed into a community that, when it is true to its calling, will be easily recognizable as a place where people know by experience the radical importance of God’s forgiveness. The church, when it is true to its formative moment, is easily recognizable as a community that cherishes and lives by the truth that “God does not forgive us because we are good but makes us good by forgiving us”. And again this morning, here in this text (John 21), everything has to do with Jesus’ desire to help Peter face himself, his shame over his denial of Jesus, and his fears and uncertainty that led him to desert and deny. Peter had denied Jesus three times by a charcoal fire, as John has recorded it for us earlier in this gospel. Here, Jesus, also with a charcoal fire nearby, a literary nuance that John would not want us to miss, creates three exchanges with Peter that allows Peter to affirm three times his commitment to follow Jesus in mission, to care for God’s flock as a young leader in what will become Christ’s church - three affirmations, one for each of his earlier denials. I want to note two things about all of this that I hope will help us get our heads and hearts around what this passage might be saying to us this morning. First, Jesus suggests that Peter’s way forward to flourishing will be by taking responsibility to serve others in the way that Jesus has served him. Three times Peter says I love you, and three times Jesus says in so many words: “then love and care for my flock”. This is Jesus, in other words, reminding Peter of what he said to the disciples as he turned to face Jerusalem and the cross: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. What will hold Peter’s confession of love for Jesus in the future is not his will-power or his inherent goodness. What will hold Peter fast is his experience of Jesus’ restoration of him, reinforced and made solid through the discipline of pouring that same love into the lives of others. Peter, waking up each morning with a concern for the well being of God’s people and his neighbors, whoever they may be, will create the foundation from which he will not fall. So many times people will say to me, I don’t know how to deal with my doubts about my faith. I just feel like I can’t really commit to my faith because of all of these doubts I have. While it is important to face doubts genuinely and not feel ashamed or weak for having them, it is also important to not allow doubts to paralyze us from living in the flow of God’s love. In other words, what I think Jesus is saying to us, through Peter, is something like this: if you want to experience the authenticity of God’s love for you, then take responsibility for loving others as God has loved the world in Christ. Or, as the Carmelite Nun, Ruth Burrows puts it in an interview about her book, Love Unknown, “Many people think they have no faith because they feel they haven't. They do not realize that they must make a choice to believe, take the risk of believing, of committing themselves and setting themselves to live out the commitment. Never mind that they continue to feel that they do not believe. Under cover of being "authentic" we can spend our lives waiting for the kind of certainty we cannot have.” One thinks here of John’s words in 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” It would do us well as a church community, as we ponder this deep truth together, to note that there is very little in our socio-cultural setting to reinforce the truth that an authentic experience of God comes in a life of serving and loving others. There is so much in our advertising, in our consumerist mentalities, and in the spirit of free-wheeling hedonism that tempt us to think that a life well lived is a life where the bucket list is checked off - and the bucket list doesn’t seem to include a great deal of occasions of sacrifice for others. Contrary to our zeitgeist, the gospel says that a life well lived will conform to Jesus’ pattern of self-giving love. Interestingly, speaking of bucket lists, there is also here in this passage a remarkable reference to Peter’s death. Jesus says to him: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The tradition of the early church, going back to the early church historian, Eusebius, tells us that Peter was martyred (as also was Paul) in the persecution of the church at the hands of the Roman emperor, Nero, in about 62 AD. There is also a tradition of the early church going back to Origen that Peter insisted on being crucified upside, declaring that he was not worthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus. What is most significant, though, about Peter’s death is not that he was a heroic martyr but that the life that took him to martyrdom was a life poured out in love for others. The Peter who denied Jesus three times became the leader of the early church who, Luke tells us in Acts, when the governing authorities forbade him from preaching the gospel said to them: ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.* Finally, Peter tells us in his own words in the first of two epistles bearing his name what sort of life he found to be worth living. It was not a life of religious self-confidence, or intellectual certainty but a life marked by living in the flow of God’s love for people. For Peter, the purification of the soul came through obedience to Jesus’ self-giving love and produces a community known by that love. In Peter’s own words: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth* so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply* from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22) May God enlarge our faith and expand our imaginations so that we might understand how to order our lives so that we might live for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ and for the neighbor. 1. Do you find that sometimes you are guilty of the condition Burrows speaks to above? (i.e. “under cover of being authentic”, spending our lives waiting for a kind of certainty we cannot have. 2. What do you do when you struggle with doubt? Have you ever considered facing your doubts with action (e.g. taking responsibility to pour God’s love into others)? Assuming that most of us could be doing better with all manner of disciplines, what it would like for you to take a greater responsibility for pouring God’s love into others? 3. Does the exercise Jesus went through with Peter (three opportunities to affirm, one for each of the denials) make you think more deeply and imaginatively about the practice of confession of sin and affirmation/absolution? What comes to mind?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter 2012: Creation and New Creation

the recap below is in two parts, marked accordingly - the texts for Easter were Revelation 21:1-4; Romans 8:18-26; John 20:1-18

Part One: Before Communion

Our text before us from Romans 8 is a resurrection text that pictures the hope of the entire cosmos bound up in what God has promised to do for a new humanity destined to be raised in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Romans 8:19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”
pairs with verse 23, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Also, the same rich theology is found in the passage which serves as our regular assurance of forgiveness during preparation for communion: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17”).

We explored this passage at greater depth during the homily but before we received communion we took note that Paul gives us some important teaching regarding what one of our postures should be towards this great hope of cosmic redemption and our resurrection. The posture? Patience! This may seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, didn’t we just read that “the whole creation”, as one translation renders it, “stands on tiptoes” awaiting the resurrection of human beings? And what are we supposed to be in response to that mind-blowing news!? Patient?!

Why would Paul stop at that point to exhort us to patience? Because he wants Christians to be real about what it is like to experience the promise of redemption in the midst of the messiness of a world that is not yet fully redeemed; he wants us to be real about what it is like for us to experience God’s grace and then fall back into faithlessness; and there is a certain way that he wants us to wear this realism - and the way is patience.

I recently saw at a local coffee shop an ad for a math tutor In addition to listing his credentials as a mathematician and math educator he also included this line: I am patient. I thought that was genius marketing, for everyone who struggles with math anxiety needs a patient tutor.

What Paul is saying here is that we are to have a big-picture patience towards our fellow human beings, with a fallen world, and with ourselves. We need to have patience while we await in faith and hope the promise of the resurrection.

When you sin; when you become furiously frustrated with the seeming futility of your endeavors; or, when you feel paralyzed by doubt - St Paul exhorts you to be patient. He does not say pretend everything is OK or better than it actually is; he does not say become a hedonist or nihilist in the face of your angst; he does not say ignore your sins or your frustration. Instead, he says, in so many words, “be patient with them and with all else”. The question is begged at this point. Why should you be patient? Our answer is in two parts. (1) God is patient with us (2) you have an anchor that holds you to the promise of the world to come - the resurrected Jesus. So, in the meanwhile you can be patient with yourself and others, even if it is a restless patience - and it often is.

But you say you don’t my failure - how can God be patient with me? How can I be patient with myself in light of what I know about myself? Well, here is where it is important to remember that Good Friday and Easter are joined inextricably together. So, when we take a glance back at Good Friday we remember that it is precisely in what is perceived by human judgment to be failure that God heals the world. Jesus went to the cross a failure, a human failure; he disappointed all of the human expectations of who Messiah should be and what Messiah should don. So, he died alone! He was in the minds of even his followers, a failed Messiah.

Even though Jesus’ perceived human failure on the cross is not due to any defect on his part, it is vitally important that we comprehend the ramifications of the fact that he willingly put himself in the place of human shame and failure in order to identify with our shame so that we might be embraced by the Father’s love. In that moment of separation from God the Father, when Jesus had all of the evil and sin of the world taken into himself, that is the same moment that he claimed our failures, in order to take them through the purging fires of death and into the promise of resurrection. As St. Paul puts it in the 6th chapter of Romans, “if you have been united with him in a death like his you shall surely be united in a resurrection like his.”

Discussion Questions:

1. Can you think of occasions when you should have been more patient with the frailties and failures of those around you? What was going on in your mind and heart when you did not exercise patience?

2. Read the part of George Herbert’s poem and Ben Myers’ comment on it below. Then discuss the question that comes at the end of that.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd any thing.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Commenting on this poem, New Testament Prof Ben Myers wrote on his blog recently:

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but shame. "Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin" (George Herbert). Divine love is the abolition of shame. It is hospitality, welcome, the healing of the wounded gaze. "Love took my hand and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?" Shame stoops over, looking inward on the self. Quick-eyed love stands up straight, face to face with the beloved.” Ben Myers

In light of what Myers says above, do you think you should ever feel ashamed before God? What should it sound like to preach the gospel to yourself if and when you do feel ashamed before God?

3. In light of what we have talked about above, do you think some of these insights (e.g. Jesus’ deliberately taking a place of shame) might help you tell the gospel story a bit more robustly than you might have some time ago? Explain what you mean with examples.

Part Two: After Communion

When the tomb was discovered to be empty this was a mind-blowing experience for the early disciples; no one expected that Jesus would be raised from the dead. It is not as if his disciples went away from the events surrounding his crucifixion and said, as one theologian has put it: “that’s OK -God will raise him from the dead. No, emphatically no! No one expected a resurrection from the dead in this way (devout Jews expected a resurrection at the end of history but not one person, namely the Messiah, in the middle of history). But very early in the life of the church (and we saw it in our Romans text this morning), within not too many years of the disciples’ first experience of the resurrected Lord, they begin to incorporate the reality of the resurrection into their devotional theology; their theological imaginations are taken over by this staggering event and the resurrection of Jesus becomes another crucial lens through which to understand God’s love for this world.

It is this lens that makes it possible for Paul to say what he does in Romans 8, where he spells out the promises of individual salvation in the broader context of God’s creation and new creation. I submit to you that not enough importance is put on the importance of seeing our salvation as individual people within this broader story of what the creator God has always intended for his fallen creation.

Warp and woof is a lovely phrase that not many people use anymore; it is comes to us from the world of weaving. The warp threads, in a piece of woven fabric, run lengthwise while the woof threads run crosswise. I like to use this phrase when talking about creation and new-creation/redemption because creation and redemption taken together are the warp and the woof of God’s intentions for this world. He who created did not have to be coaxed to redeem; it was the same love that drove him to create a world - a world that would one day be in dire need of redemption - that drew Jesus to the cross to die on our behalf. Jesus Christ holds the weaving of creation and new creation together. The fall of humankind had cosmic ramifications and so the resurrection of humankind in Christ does as well. The same love that drew forth a world of divine image bearers is the same love that redeems the failures of divine image bearers

The English poet, John Donne, captures the important connections between creation, new creation, and resurrection in these lovely verses taken from his poem entitled, Hymn To God, My God, in My Sickness:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

What Donne expresses in this beautiful verse is what Paul implies in Romans 8: God’s intention in creation and redemption springs from the same love. Moreover, when we remember that creation and new creation are the warp and the woof of God’s creation-project, we are also provided with one of the reasons why we can trust the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, God, unlike us, has no other motive than love when he creates and when he redeems. The only motivation for creation was to make something beautiful; God did not need beauty. His desire to make beauty is sheerly gratuitous. Likewise, in his new creation, our redemption and resurrection, we recognize that he is also motivated by sheer generosity. Redemption and creation are gratuitous, free of charge, and both flow from the fount of God’s love.

Expanding on this idea - Rowan Williams in his book Tokens of Trust, in reflecting on the warp and the woof of creation and new creation puts it to us that we can trust God because his only motive is love; he has no private or hidden agenda. His agenda is for the sake of humankind, whom he created in his own image and in whose image, now known to us as the face of Jesus Christ, we are being redeemed. To illustrate his point, he offers this example from the healing of the man born blind in John 9.

“Jesus asks the blind man he’s just cured whether he believes in the Son of Man. He’s certainly not asking whether the man is of the opinion that the Son of Man exists; he wants to know whether the former blind man is ready to trust the Son of Man - that is Jesus in his role as representative of the human race before God. The man - naturally - wants to know who the ‘Son of Man’ is, and Jesus says that it is him; the man responds with the words, ‘I believe’.

He believes; he has confidence. That is, he doesn’t go off wondering whether the Son of Man is out to further his own ends and deceive him. He trusts Jesus to be working for him, not for any selfish goals and he believes that what he sees and hears when Jesus is around is the truth (Williams from Tokens of Trust, p.5)”.

Questions for discussion:

1. Rowan Williams, in the book mentioned above, observes that a great many people nowadays have a profound distrust of authority. Many, many people simply don’t trust that the authorities and institutions that they have dealings with are really are working for them. Do you agree with his suggestion? Give some examples based on whether you agree or disagree.

2. Can you put into your own words why it is important to see creation and new creation as the warp and the woof of God’s “creation-project”?

3. If someone were to ask you why they should believe in God or trust him, would you feel comfortable using the ideas put forward above, especially the thoughts of Williams around the healing of the blind man?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Palm Sunday 2012 - Missional Humility

It is a sobering thing to think that we might be guilty of making God in our image and acting as if we know our needs better than he does. This is of course what many of Jesus’ first century contemporaries had done with regard to the image they had drawn of what messiah should be for them.

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries wanted their messiah to come on a war horse and mount a successful revolt against the Romans. Before we think that too incredulous we must admit that such a sentiment would be an understandable desire for any group of people who were under the foot of Roman imperial power. However - and this is what we note each year on Palm Sunday, Jesus did not come on a war horse. He came on a humble beast of burden.

Ben Witherington (some of you have heard this before but it is worth repeating) has a nice summary of what many in the crowds of passover wanted:

“The cry Hosanna (see Ps. 118.25) seems to in fact be a plea in Hebrew meaning “Save Now!”. The crowds were crying out for a particular kind of political liberation it would appear on the spot, but Jesus had another idea in mind entirely of what made for peace, what made for pacification of our warring madness, what made for liberation and redemption. The real enemy was not Romans or Greeks, or foreigners in general. The real enemy lurked within the hearts of every fallen person—it is called sin.”

It should be arresting to realize that each of us is capable of making God in our own image and refusing to recognize him when he comes to us on his terms. It is a temptation that all of us deal with whether we are first century Israel of old wishing for the blood of Roman oppressors to run through the streets, or a nice upper middle class person who refuses to recognize his own sin but desires for God to exact some sort of vengeance on his work colleagues who slighted him at the last team building meeting.

Again, Witherington about Jesus on Palm Sunday: “Jesus did not come to meet either his earliest followers expectations or ours. He came to meet our needs.”

Jesus wants to deal with the deep needs of our heart in spite of our desire to hide them away from him. As we prepared to come to the communion table this past Sunday we encouraged one another to ask God to reveal to each of us the deep needs in our hearts, needs we must ask him to speak to through the Spirit. I remarked that perhaps there is something for which you and I need to ask God’s forgiveness but we have been too preoccupied by everything else to have the spiritual focus to repent. I suggested that perhaps you or I are so deeply angry with a friend or loved one that we have forgotten the basic call to love, forgive and seek to be the agent of reconciliation. We concluded the communion meditation with these words: whatever it is that you bring to God this morning you can rest assured of one thing - the one who came to his throne on a beast of burden comes to you in order to take your burdens and make them his own.

It is a commonplace to talk about Jesus’ humility on Palm Sunday and we have many times at Grace. But for many of us - when we think of humility we just tend to think of it as the opposite of pride. So far so good. Arrogance, self-importance, egoism and pride all come up as antonyms for humility and who wouldn’t rather be with someone who is the opposite of all those things? However, Jesus’ humility is much more than the opposite of pride, arrogance, self-importance and egoism. For Jesus, his humility was joined to his mission of giving his life away for the sake of others (Philippians 2:1-11). So, I submit that this is what is truly important to know about Jesus’ humility: it is not the sort of humility that is simply polite and good manners. You know what I mean - you are at a dinner party and someone compliments you on your accomplishments etc. and you respond by saying that you really can’t take credit for it because you have such good help and a wonderful team and what not. Funny enough..... many people may be impressed by that sort of humility and so impressed that they might tempt you to take pride in it - tricky business talking about humility, right?

Perhaps the best way to talk about Jesus’ humility is to recognize is as a missional humility. God is on a mission to reach all of humanity with his life changing love. Jesus came into the world to live a life of perfect self-giving love for the purpose of helping all people become alive to God’s way of being human. And all of this is so that we may begin to live now in the same way that we will live in God’s new world, the world to come. God’s new world is already alive in this world and becomes transparent to us whenever we respond to God’s love. When we respond to God’s love in Christ we pull back the veil and the world to come is alive in our presence. This is what theologians often refer to as the already and the not yet. In Jesus, human beings can already live by faith and repentance the life that will come in perfection when this world is joined to the world to come. Living like this is sort of like a leaning forward AND into the promises of God. Living like this is about having our life now framed not by the forces and pressures of this world but, instead, framed by the reality of God’s future. To reiterate, it is so that we may begin to live this way that Jesus came; it is his missional humility, the mission of his self-giving love.

So, if Jesus’ humility is a missional humility as we have just talked about it, then it follows pretty quickly that we need to figure out what it looks like to join him on mission.

For Jesus, so much of his mission seemed to boil down to treating people a certain kind of way and about telling them the truth about God’s forgiveness and his love. To build on that thought and what we said just a moment ago let me put it this way: God’s mission in Jesus is about opening people up to God’s future, about teaching people to see their present life circumstances in light of God’s promised world to come - a place where, as the 14th century English Christian mystic Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

In order to think with you a moment or two about following Jesus in mission with regard to treating people a certain kind of way and telling people the truth about God’s forgiveness and his love I read an account from the gospel of Luke, familiar to many of us but perhaps not from the angle I am presently proposing as a vantage point (Luke 7:36-50).

Let’s talk about treating people a certain way. When Jesus came across people who the religious power brokers of his day did not want near them (or him for that matter), Jesus treated them with dignity and respect - he honored them. For instance. the woman who barged in on the dinner party and began to wash Jesus’ feet with ointment - the important people around the room wanted her gone. Jesus honored her and made her act of hospitality an example to be emulated by them.

One way of testing ourselves to see if we are treating people the way Jesus would have us to is to ask ourselves the question: do we see people at the margins of society as people with whom we have a great deal in common? Here, of course, is what we have in common: a radical need for God to love us and supply all of our needs. However, the way the powers of society are set up, we are perpetually tempted to imagine that what is most important to our lives, material possessions, social position etc., gives us nothing of importance in common with the poor. Hence, we don’t see our connection to those at the margins and so we allow ourselves to be blocked from being able to treat them the way Jesus would have us to treat them. We, like the others at the dinner party in the gospel story, do not want the woman there showing her neediness. She makes them feel uncomfortable; she makes us feel uncomfortable.

I love one of the recent Allstate commercials.... a teenage driver driving an old beater rear ends one of his suburbanite neighbors who is older, established, and driving a late model luxury car. The teenager whips out his Allstate card and the older more established authority figure is dumbfounded: and I paraphrase from memory - “I thought you would have one of those cheap discount insurance plans but you have Allstate and we have the same agent” The teenager says, “yeah, we’re connected.” "No we’re not", says the older gentleman.” “Yes we are”, says the smiling teen....”yes we are”.

Well, that is a silly illustration I am leaning on to get you to wrap your imaginations around a very serious aspect of the gospel. I submit that we must see how much we have in common with the poor and those at the margins in order to treat people in the way that Jesus would have us. I would go so far as to say that our capacity to love all people and treat people as Jesus would have us is directly proportional to the degree to which we see how much we have in common with the poor and those at the margins, our mutual and radical need for God’s mercy and love.

So, as we said earlier, following Jesus in mission boils down not just to treating people a certain kind of way but also about telling people the truth about God’s forgiveness and his love. This is, of course, what Jesus does in this story from Luke, as he goes on to tell the woman in the presence of all that her sins are forgiven. What a gift to this woman and to anyone else who had ears to hear and eyes to see. Jesus framed the woman’s life in light of the gospel and the veil between this world and the world come was pulled back. God forgives those who come to him wanting a relationship and it matters not what others may think of them; all that matters is what God thinks of them.

Now, we are not Jesus and we are not about the business of directly announcing to people the forgiveness of their sins in the way Jesus did, For us sinners it is more about finding unique and imaginative ways to tell people the truth of our lives, which is that we depend on God’s forgiveness to keep us moving in the right direction in this fallen world. Much more can be said about that but if we simply ask God to give us the integrity to be honest with people about our need for God’s forgiveness and love so much of the rest just takes care of itself. May God give us the grace to treat people in a certain kind of way and to tell people the truth about our experience of God’s forgiveness in Christ.


1. When you think about “making God in your image” what comes to mind?

2. Do you find that you sometimes are preoccupied with wishing that God would punish people who have wronged you rather than praying for them, as “your enemies”?

3. Do you think that simply being a Christian with some means in the United States offers unique temptations to distort the image of God portrayed in Jesus? If not, why not? If so, how so?

4. Do you think that you should do a better job at seeing that you have a great deal in common with the poor and those who are at the margins of our society? Do you agree with the substance of the argument above? (Maybe think about this question in relationship to this specific teaching: Matthew 25:31-36.)

5. Do you think you share your story of experiencing God’s forgiveness as truly and often with others as you ought to? If not, how might you embark, for the sake of others, on a path of pulling the veil back on your experience of God’s forgiveness, and communicating to more people the story of your life in light of the gospel.