the greatest power

a sermon, based on Matthew 28.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Easter Day: The Sunday of the Resurrection, April 16, 2017

Easter is about power. The greatest power in this world and the next. Power, to quote my namesake apostle, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[1] Power in the words of the song, “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”[2] Power over death. The power of love.

I behold this power in this morning’s gospel, perhaps paradoxically, not in God, who, save for “an angel of the Lord”, is absent. Nor in that angelic messenger who descends “like lightening with clothing white as snow.” Nor even in the risen Jesus who suddenly appears with words of comfort.

Where do I see it?

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb.”

There is power!

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Mary and Mary loved Jesus to the end. They believed in him and his impossible dream of the coming kingdom of God. They didn’t run away like the other disciples, the men. They stood by Jesus throughout his agonizing final hours. They hoped, fought against that unbeatable foe, death. They watched him die. They bore with savagely broken hearts their unbearable sorrow. Theirs was a love that endured all things.

Then, loving Jesus beyond the end, Mary and Mary went to the tomb. The entrance sealed with a large stone and guarded by Roman soldiers with little sympathy, verily, hostility for them. Theirs was a love that runs where the brave dare not go. Love that never leaves. Love that ever lives. Love that never dies. Love that raises the dead! For in their living love, Mary and Mary were the first to hear the Easter message, “He is risen!” and the first to see the risen Jesus.

Today, I pray we see that Mary and Mary could see Jesus because they, in their bearing-believing-hoping-enduring-all-things-love, mirrored and matched, embraced and embodied the love of a God who risks everything, even life itself, for our sake.

Today, I pray we, trusting that God’s love is already embodied in us by virtue of our creation –  whoever we are from wherever we come with whatever we believe – will see in the risen Jesus who we are by virtue of his salvation and, thus, that we are to be as he is, living incarnations of unconditional and universal love and justice in this world.

When we see, believe, know that, then not only can we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” but also we are risen, indeed! Alleluia!

 

Illustration: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the women peering into the tomb, which is empty save for the presence of “an angel of the Lord” clad in white, who tells them, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here,  for he has been raised”, bidding that they, “Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28.5, 6). (Although Matthew mentions that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, Tissot depicts three women. I believe his biblical reference is Matthew 27.56, speaking of the women who had followed Jesus and witnessed his death: Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.) Also, the soldiers Pontius Pilate had dispatched to keep watch at the tomb (see Matthew 27.62-66) are depicted having reacted to the appearance of the angel, as Matthew recounts, For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men (28.4).

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.7

[2] From The Impossible Dream from The Man from La Mancha; words by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh (1972)

in the mean (“in-between”) time

preaching a sermon, based on John 17.20-26 and Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day, May 8, 2016

Gail Sheehy, in her award-winning book, Passages in Caregiving,[1] shares her learnings from life with her husband, Clay Felker, founder and editor of New York magazine, after he was stricken with cancer. Nearing the closing stage of his life, she writes of their preparations for his death. One poignant moment among many. A physician, a palliative-care specialist, asked Clay whether he was afraid of dying. He nodded. The doctor then asked about his biggest fear. Clay answered, “Being alone.”

In nearly forty years of pastoral ministry, many times I have listened to the terminally ill acknowledge their fear of being alone at that last conscious moment on the inexorable journey toward death. I’ve heard caregivers speak of their fear of being left alone, left behind. I felt this fear when my brother died, then my father. I felt this fear in caring for my mother as Alzheimer’s disease voraciously consumed her personality. When she died, I felt this fear…I still feel it today, this second Mother’s Day since her death, for I live with a daily, ever-growing awareness that I am an orphan.

All who live know or will know the experience of the absence of presence and the presence of absence.

Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter. This past Thursday was Ascension Day when the church celebrated the creedal affirmation that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

The Ascension (L'Ascensione), 1305, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Next Sunday is the Day of Pentecost when the church celebrates the coming of God’s Spirit to empower Jesus’ disciples to continue his ministry.

Pentecost, Giotto, 1290-1299

Today, therefore, is “in-between” the absence of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit. An absence about which Jesus, on the night before he died, prayed to God that his disciples would be one in their ministry of sharing and receiving the gospel: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

I wonder what the disciples felt in the absence of Jesus. I wonder what I might have felt had I been there: responding to his call, “Follow me,” dropping everything for him, trailing after him all over Galilee, listening to his teaching, beholding his miracles, being fed from his hand and having him wash my feet at a supper I may or may not have known was the last, deserting him at his arrest and trial, grieving his crucifixion and death and the end of my dream of being with him, rejoicing when he again appeared (through walls and locked doors, no less!), being confused when he again departed, being told to go to Jerusalem to await the fulfillment of a promise of the coming of the Spirit.

If I had been there, especially traumatized by Jesus’ death, thrilled when he reappeared, troubled when he disappeared again, I might have felt a bit yo-yoed around, pulled here, pushed there. I think I wouldn’t have liked feeling yanked, jerked around. (Or, to borrow a word from this morning’s epistle reading,[2] for it speaks for me, although for different reasons than the Apostle Paul, I would have been “annoyed”![3])

Eventually, I believe (or I would like to believe) I would have figured out there was something for me to do. I couldn’t fill the absence of Jesus, but I could continue to follow him, being actively present, laboring through my life to bring to light in this world his gospel of love and justice.

This, I believe, is as fitting and faithful a course as any. For when I think about Revelation’s promise of the coming of Jesus, the last time I checked, it hasn’t happened. Jesus has not returned to claim those whom God has given him that they might be where he is.[4] Jesus has not returned with “reward…to repay according to everyone’s work.” Jesus has not returned to right all wrong, to bring an end to the long night of the world’s weeping over violence and evil, and to usher in a new morn of song.[5] Jesus has not returned. Yet. Until he does, we continue to live in the meantime, the in-between time of his absence.

Absence, according to an ancient poet, may make the heart grow fonder, hungering to be present with the absent one.[6] So the Book of Revelation comes to a resounding close with a profound cry of longing, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” In this meantime, this in-between time, it is our daily work to fulfill that petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, what will I, you, we do today to bring into the present, to make present the love and justice of Jesus where they are absent?

 

Illustrations:

The Ascension (L’Ascensione), 1305, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. The painting depicts the scene described in Acts 1.9-11. In the top half of the painting, Jesus ascending is the central figure; on either side, bands of heavenly hosts welcoming his return to heaven. In the lower half, there are eleven disciples; five on the left behind Mary, the mother of Jesus (who is mentioned in Acts 1.14) dressed in blue, the color of purity and tranquility, and six on the right. There are eleven, for Matthias, the successor to Judas Iscariot, was not yet chosen (until Acts 1.15-26). In the center, the two angels are shown speaking to the disciples and Mary, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1.11).

Pentecost, Giotto, 1290-1299. The painting depicts the scene described in Acts 2.1-4; though here, the Holy Spirit is shown not as fire, but rather a dove, which is consonant with the gospel accounts portrayal of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism (Matthew 3.16, Mark 1.10, Luke 3.22, and John 1.32).

Footnotes:

[1] Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence (Harper, 2010); Books for a Better Life “Lifetime Achievement Award” (2012)

[2] Acts 16.16-34

[3] Acts 16.18

[4] An allusion to John 17.24

[5] A reflection on the text of the hymn, The Church’s one foundation: “…and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song” (verse 4).

[6] The Roman poet, Sextus Propertius, in Elegies, wrote: “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows.”

now

preachinga sermon, based on John 14.23-29, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016

Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), 1615, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Words attributed to Teresa of Ávila,[1] the 16th century Spanish saint and mystic, are, for me, an Easter meditation on the life and labor of any Christian:

Christ has no body now but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Now, on earth, Jesus, crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven, has us. We’re it! A point driven home in this morning’s gospel passage.

Before exploring this point, for three reasons, I digress. First, note that our gospel, removed, uprooted from its context, begins rather oddly: “Jesus answered him…” Second, note that your bulletin insert reads, “Jesus said to Judas (not Iscariot)…” The replacement of the word “answered” with “said” and the identification of the person to whom Jesus spoke is necessary for purposes of reading and listening comprehension. Third, as a side note, Jesus had two disciples named Judas; Judas son of Simon Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, and this Judas son of James.[2]

Now, that Jesus answered Judas son of James begs the question: What did Judas son of James ask Jesus?

Our gospel passage takes us back to the night before Jesus’ arrest and trial, crucifixion and death. Jesus, knowing what is to come, prepares his disciples for life without him, teaching them many things; one being the connection between loyalty and love: “They who…keep my commandments are those who love me…and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”[3]

Now, Judas’ question: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus, is the revelation, your revelation of who you are only for us, your disciples, or for everyone? And if your revelation is for everyone how will it be revealed? Who will reveal it?

Now, let us revise Teresa’s words:

Christ has no body now but ours.

No hands, no feet on earth but ours.

Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world…

the feet with which he walks to do good…

the hands through which he blesses all the world.

Ours are the hands…the feet…the eyes, we are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but ours.

Big job? Yes. Immense! Impossible job? To reveal to the world the nature and wonder of God in Christ? Also yes. Then, have we been set up for failure? Blessedly, no. Though a cursory glance at the history of Christendom and the innumerable incidents of violence, duplicating the crucifixion, perpetrated by Christians against others, demonstrates there is plenty of failure to go around! But it ain’t Jesus’ fault, for “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name (and, for us, already has sent!), will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit, God’s indwelling[4] presence and power, inspires us, inspirits us, breathes in us the peace of Jesus; the shalom of God, that sense of wholeness, wellness, rightness with God that empowers us so that we are able (we now can) and willing (we now can choose) to speak and act as Jesus in this world.

The Easter season or Eastertide, also called The Great Fifty Days from Easter Day to the Day of Pentecost, offers an annual opportunity for Christians to deepen our understanding of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus; the central claim of Christianity without which there is no Christianity.

Christianity is an incarnational religion about God, who is Spirit, taking our human flesh to abide with and within us in time and space. Therefore, I believe it is essential for us as Christians to reflect on what it means for us to be Christ’s body, hands, feet, eyes. Now, paraphrasing Judas’ question to Jesus, I ask: How will you, how do you reveal Christ to others and to the world?

As I never ask you what I will not ask myself, I share with you my answer. As I read and interpret the gospel of Jesus, he is the embodiment of love and justice, unconditional benevolence and fairness for all. As I live, I am conscious of loving you and being fair with you, even and especially when we disagree or fail to fulfill our expectations of one another (and if none of this has happened between and among us yet, it will, for we are human). For by faith I trust the Spirit to revive in me the power to love and to be just so to forgive and to be forgiven and to try again.

That’s what it is for me. Now, what is it for you?

Christ has no body now but ours.

No hands, no feet on earth but ours.

Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world…

the feet with which he walks to do good…

the hands through which he blesses all the world.

Ours are the hands…the feet…the eyes, we are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but ours.

Illustration: Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), 1615, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Footnotes:

[1] Teresa of Ávila (March 28, 1515-October 4, 1582)

[2] See Luke 6.16 and Acts 1.13

[3] John 14.21a,c

[4] Regarding the nature of God’s empowering presence within us, I refer to Jesus’ testimony: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…(whom you know)…because he abides with you, and he will be in you (John 14.15-17a, c) (emphasis, mine).

what wondrous love is this?

preachinga sermon, based on John 13.31-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016. (The title, “what wondrous love is this?”, is a play on the words of the 19th century American folk hymn: What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul!)

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What kind of love is this that reveals to the world our relationship, our fellowship, our kinship with Jesus?

Is it the love of our oldest relations, our bonds formed by virtue of birth with our families? No.

Is it the freely chosen love of our friendships with like-minded, like-hearted folk with whom we share similar values and interests? No.

Is it the affectionate love rooted in our emotions that, aflame with passion, can ignite into romance? No.

These loves, as wondrously warm and welcoming as they can be, as they are when realized, are limited in scope and focus, origin and object. For everyone is not a family member, a friend or an intimate partner. In contrast, Jesus speaks of a universal love to be offered to all, for it shines with the Easter-light of his life and ministry, death and resurrection for the sake, for the salvation of all.

Our gospel takes us back to that night Jesus gathered with his disciples for a last supper when he also washed their dusty, dirty feet.[1] In that lowly, slavish act, Jesus demonstrated how far love stoops in service of another and gave them and us an example “that you should do as I have done for you.”[2]

Christ washing the apostles' feet, Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624)

Here, Jesus reveals what he means when he says, “As I have loved you, you should love one another.”

Even more, Jesus, knowing Judas son of Simon Iscariot would betray him,[3] declared to his disciples, “One of you will betray me,”[4] but did not point his finger, identifying Judas, did not command that his disciples seize him. And “when (Judas) had gone out” to carry out his dastardly disloyal deed, Jesus did not speak ill of Judas and did not launch into a mournful, self-absorbed monologue about the suffering that would befall him as a consequence of Judas’ infidelity. Rather, saying, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified”, Jesus spoke of his elevation on the cross of his death and, with deepest affection, offered consolation to his disciples, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

The Last Supper (La ultima Cena), Benjamin West, 1786

Here, Jesus, in his rejection of retaliation, in his concentration on the call of his destiny, even in the face of his fear, in his compassion, preparing his disciples for what would come, reveals what he means when he says, “As I have loved you, you should love one another.”

Still more, we, knowing the story, know what did come. Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, and he died.

Crucifixion, Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge, 1894

Here, Jesus, in fulfilling his word to his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”,[5] reveals what he means when he says, “As I have loved you, you should love one another.”

More still, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to his disciples, who, in his greatest, gravest hour of need, deserted him and fled, saying, “Peace, be with you.”[6] Jesus also appealed to Peter, who, in cowardice, three times denied knowing him, asking, “Do you love me?”[7]

Feed My Lambs (Pais mes brebis), James Tissot (1836-1902) ), Brooklyn Museum

Here, Jesus, breathing peace, not merely an absence of conflict or trouble, but reunion, reconciliation, overcame the estrangement of his disciples’ guilt and shame. Here, Jesus responding to Peter’s affirmation, “Yes, Lord, I love you!” recommissioned Peter, saying, “Feed my sheep” and re-called him into service, saying, “Follow me.” Here, Jesus reveals what he means when he says, “As I have loved you, you should love one another.”

To love as Jesus loves is to act – for this love in not an emotion, but an expression of the will, the power to choose – for the sake of others, all others from footwashing humble service to laying down life heroic sacrifice, if and when the occasion demands. To love as Jesus loves is to reject retaliation and revenge. To love as Jesus loves is to forgive, speaking a word, following the way of peace. To love as Jesus loves is to testify to the world that we are his disciples. To love as Jesus loves is to prove to the world that Easter is true.

 

Illustrations: Christ washing the apostles’ feet, Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624); The Last Supper (La ultima Cena), Benjamin West, 1786; Crucifixion, Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge, 1894; Feed My Lambs (Pais mes brebis), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnotes:

[1] John 13.4-5

[2] John 13.15

[3] John 13.11

[4] John 13.21

[5] John 15.13

[6] John 20.19, 26

[7] John 21.15-19

what?!

preachinga sermon, based on Revelation 7.9-17 and John 10.22-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016

Whenever I read the Book of Revelation, I oft have an immediate one-word reaction: What? It’s not because all of Revelation’s symbols are beyond the grasp of my comprehension or the reach of my imagination. Some are. At first and literal glance, it’s hard for me to conceive how a robe bathed in blood can come out white. But the primary image in today’s passage, “a great multitude…from every nation…all tribes and peoples and languages” enthralled in worship, is familiar in the realm of human experience.

The National Mall in Washington, DC, where I lived for nearly thirty years, is the site of countless gatherings of countless people from countless cultures, races, and creeds engaged in countless demonstrations of regard for some cause or issue, in praise or protest, or of respect for some notable person, whether while living or posthumously…

The various stadiums, whether there or anywhere are coliseums, cathedrals for multitudes across the human social spectrum to gather for the religion of sport; the cheering of the crowds, a human expression of Revelation’s angelic chorus of praise…

Closer in context and content, recalling the South African leg of my sabbatical journey some years ago, I bear an image in mind of vast crowds of Christians gathering on Sunday mornings to worship God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit; their impassioned songs of praise reaching, raising the rafters.

Revelation is distinctive, but not entirely strange, especially when we can find earthly, ordinary examples that reflect its rich imagery. And that’s the problem with Revelation. Its symbols, as symbols, point beyond themselves to a truth that is wholly otherworldly, which our commonplace examples, at best, only partially, imperfectly reflect.

For Revelation is a vision of existence after the end of time, following the calamitous culmination of human history. When the eternal “not yet” is now. When our creedal hope that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”, is fulfilled. When, in the words of the Beatitudes, all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, right relationship with God, are satisfied,[1] for they hunger and thirst no more. When the prophetic word, promising life eternal with the Lamb who also is our shepherd guiding us to springs of living water, is accomplished. When the eschatological gift of white-robed salvation through the sin-cleansing blood of the death and resurrection of Jesus is realized.

The Adoration of the Lamb (“at the center of the throne”, The Revelation of St. John, chapter 7.17), woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (c. 16th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This truth, this reality is beyond our experience, perhaps our imagination; leading me to ask not “What?”, but rather how does this happen for me, for you, for us so that Easter’s promise is a not yet fully realized, but a no less truly now reality?

In asking this question, I thank God for Jesus the Good Shepherd who leads us and guides us, who tells us how to follow him in this life and throughout eternity.

The good shepherd, Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

There are countless voices in the church and in the world that claim to speak in God’s Name, telling us how to be in relationship with God…

Some testify to the significance of religious experience; beholding heavenly visions, hearing angelic voices or, in the language of Rudolph Otto,[2] encountering God’s mysterium tremendum, God’s awesome mystery and overwhelming majesty…

Others require belief in right doctrine; holding with unquestioning certainty every assertion of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds…

Still others urge constant study and prayer to gain greater knowledge of God so to fulfill that exhortation of Ephesians that we “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”[3] (that is, that we know more about Jesus who is one with God[4] and we know what Jesus knows about God!)…

Still some others insist on the necessity of morality, where Christian belief is expressed in ethically virtuous behavior (or according to the song: “…your walk talks, and your talk talks, but your walk talks better than your talk talks”[5] or as my dear mentor Verna Dozier oft said, “Paul, do not tell me what you believe. Show me the difference it makes, the difference you make because you believe”[6]).

All of it, mystical experience, orthodoxy, knowledge, and orthopraxy, is important. Secondarily. For Jesus, only one thing is primary. That he is our Good Shepherd, meaning we are his sheep, meaning we belong to him, meaning we know who we are for we know whose we are.

In other words, our relationship with God doesn’t depend on our having the right experience, right belief, right knowledge, or right behavior. Yes, these things are important, but not first and foremost. Our relationship with God depends on what Jesus already has done in his life and ministry, death and resurrection. Because of that, we call it salvation, he is our Good Shepherd. Because of that, we belong to him. Because of that, he can assure us that “no one (not even we ourselves in our sins) will snatch (us) out of (his) hand.” Therefore, secure in his life and love, we are liberated from everything (our past failures and present fears, our self-righteous pretensions and stubborn prejudices) to live and love as he is and does, now and forever.

 

Illustrations: The Adoration of the Lamb (“at the center of the throne”, The Revelation of St. John, chapter 7.17), woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (c. 16th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The good shepherd, Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 5.6

[2] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian, described God’s mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy (1917).

[3] Ephesians 4.13

[4] See John 10.30

[5] From “Your Walk Talks” (altered), Mark Trammell Quartet (2014)

[6] Dr. Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), a noted Episcopal religious educator who focused on Bible study and claiming the authority of the laity, was one of my finest, fondest mentors.

 

movin’ on

preachinga sermon, based on John 21.1-19 and Acts 9.1-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

Easter Day has come and gone. Again. Sometimes life is this simple. We anticipate a great moment, joyfully greet its arrival, gently or not so gently feel letdown when it passes, then inevitably return to life as it was, as it is with all of its necessary ordinariness of regular, routinized, daily, sometimes drearily repetitive cycles and schedules.

What’s not simple is that great moments inherently bring together our highest hopes that something will be transformed, that we will be changed for the better and our deepest fears that nothing ever changes, that we always will be as we always have been. Years of Easters and of life in this world teach us, perhaps unintentionally, but no less truly, this lesson: Be skeptical of the potential for the lasting fulfillment of our expectations. Perchance, then, the best Easter can provide is a temporary rush, a transient thrill, then a return to that norm called “today.”

However, I believe, and this is good news, there’s more, which I euphemistically call “tomorrow.” So, how do we move on from today toward tomorrow? Looking at today’s gospel passage, the reactions of Jesus’ disciples to his post-resurrection appearances offer this ironic insight: Try to return to yesterday.

The disciples gather at the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus, raised from the dead, already has appeared to them twice before, gladdening their hearts that had been broken by his crucifixion and death. But gradually they realize he hasn’t returned to them, isn’t (and won’t be) with them the way he was before, the way they desire; day by day, talking, walking, preaching, teaching, healing, leading and guiding. So, now what? A reasonable, achievable course of action is for the disciples to do what they know how to do. Peter, a fisherman, announces, “I’m going fishing.” The rest of the disciples, equally at a loss and without a clue of what to do, leap at his recommendation: “We’ll go with you!”

Several years ago, when my brother, then my father died, I entered one of the most turbulent periods in my life. Already heartbroken in grief, I had to face the reality that into my trembling, ignorant hands was placed the responsibility of caring for my mother, who had begun her long sojourn in the shadows of Alzheimer’s disease. Fretfully, fearfully, and at a distance, she in St. Louis and I in Washington, DC, I searched for information, answers to advise my actions; never certain I was doing the right thing. I also threw myself more fully into my then work as rector of Trinity Church, DC. There I found the consolation of the familiar, something I knew how to do, when everything around and within me was chaos.

I think Peter and the disciples sought the comfort of returning to the life they knew. But, after a night of fishing, they had no success. (Truth be told, I also know the experience of being in a state of anguish or anxiety so severe when the familiar becomes foreign, when I struggle with little success to do what I’ve done countless times before.) Jesus appears, asking, “Do you have any fish?” Though prefaced with an affectionate “Children”, Jesus’ question must have irritated, infuriated those tired and frustrated disciples! (As I read the text, I “hear” the tone of exasperation in their answer, “No!”) Jesus gives good advice that nets a great catch of fish, then prepares breakfast, leading to one of the most poignant exchanges in scripture. Jesus thrice asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes.”

Christ Sharing Breakfast with the Apostles in Galilee, James Tissot (1886-1894). New York, Brooklyn Museum

Whenever I have denied something I said or did, which I should not have said or done or whenever I have betrayed a cherished belief or value through expediency or cowardice, the thing I most fear is a conversation, a confrontation with the person or persons I have wronged. Likewise, when I believe I have been wronged, the last thing I want to do is engage my offender.

Yet in this dialogue between Jesus and Peter, they painfully, courageously opened the tomb of the rotting bones of Peter’s triple denial of Jesus when he faced the cross of his crucifixion and death. Thus, they shared in the resurrection of reconciliation. In the encounter between Ananias and Saul, Ananias willingly followed the ostensibly insane directive, notwithstanding that it came in a vision from Jesus, to go to Saul who was on a mission to kill the followers of Jesus. Thus, they shared in the healing of reconciliation.

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul, Pietro De Cortana, 1631

These conversations can help us find a way to move on from today toward tomorrow. A way that involves our naked honesty and vulnerability about who and where we are. Jesus and Peter did not deny the mutual pain of Peter’s betrayal. And they, yearning to be liberated from the prison of the misery of that infidelity, held out the hope of reconciliation through their reaffirmation of love and the resurrection of trust; for Peter, expressed in the renewal of the call, “Follow me.” Ananias and Saul did not deny the record of Saul’s murderous persecution. And they, each following the voice of Jesus, Saul to go to Damascus and wait, Ananias to go to Saul, were reconciled; for Saul, expressed in that term of endearment, “Brother.”

I close with the words of Henri-Frédéric Amiel, a 19th century Swiss moral philosopher and poet: “Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”[1]

In the Easter-light of these words and given the acts of denial and betrayal done by and to me, I know that there are people (yes, some have died, yet some are still alive) with whom I need to have a conversation like Jesus had with Peter and Ananias with Saul. Intending no judgment of you, I would guess the same is true for you.

Will we take the risk of Easter and go to the tombs of the rotting bones of our broken relationships, daring to trust in the hope of resurrection?

 

Illustrations: Christ Sharing Breakfast with the Apostles in Galilee, James Tissot (1886-1894). New York, Brooklyn Museum; Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul, Pietro De Cortana, 1631

Footnote:

[1] Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881)

the word is “Yes!”

preachinga sermon preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day, March 27, 2016

Whatever we think of the resurrection of Jesus, its biological possibility, historical probability, or doctrinal orthodoxy, Easter is extraordinary because of what it says about hope. By hope, I do not mean our wishful thinking, our heartfelt desiring in the face of all things beyond our control, but rather our conviction that what God declares in Jesus will happen, indeed, has happened.

I don’t think hope is the first word that occurs to most people when thinking about Easter.

For many, the word is miracle. Jesus was killed and came back to life and in a body fully accessorized with supernatural powers; enabling him to appear in one place, disappear, and reappear some distance away, at times, walking through closed, locked doors.

Christ Rising,  Frederick Hart,  bronze statue, 1998

However a miraculous physical resuscitation doesn’t explain the great impact of Jesus’ resurrection in the centuries immediately after. During those days, stories of awakenings from death were common. Jesus rising from the dead wouldn’t have been news.

 

For some, the word is fantasy. Jesus died. His body, like all dead bodies, returned to dust. The empty tomb and the reports of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, at worst, were clever fictions to support their subsequent claims of his divinity and, at best, earnest attempts to reclaim his presence as a way of dealing with their grief at his death and their guilt in deserting him during his suffering and dying.

empty tomb. PRA 2016

However this doesn’t explain the self-denying, death-defying missionary zeal and success of the first disciples (verily, here we are two thousand years later talking about Jesus!). Grief and guilt, at best, short term motivators, couldn’t have carried them that far!

For others, the word is myth. Not something false, but rather something true, though not necessarily wholly factual. Jesus died and was resurrected, symbolically, but no less physically in the body of his followers, now two millennia old, called the church.

The descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost, signaling the founding of teh Church, El Greco (1541-1614)

However this doesn’t explain some very real historical experiences of very real and rational people who, throughout time, have testified and continue to testify to encountering the living presence of Jesus.

For still others, the word is immortality. Jesus was raised from death, so we will live forever.

The Phoenix, a symbol of immortality, F. J. Bertuch (1747–1822).

However what happened to Jesus doesn’t mean necessarily that the same will happen to us. According to the New Testament Jesus is completely, fully human and completely, fully divine, therefore, at the same time, essentially like and essentially unlike us. And even if Jesus’ rising does mean the same for us, immortality or living forever isn’t at all a pleasant prospect. Speaking for myself, this life as it is, in this world as it is, is not something I want to endure forever!

However immortality is wonderful, for it embraces an idea of a life and world where all is well, where love wins and justice triumphs.

However given this life in this world where little is ever well, where all is never well, where to the call, the cry for love and justice from the hearts and souls of the needy and oppressed the persistent reply from the lips of the powers and principalities of this world is “No!”, what’s the use of dreaming of a life and world other than this?

To ask this question is to see why Easter is extraordinary. Easter testifies that once in this life in this world the answer was “Yes!”

When Jesus inaugurated his ministry, he declared, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”[1] Jesus not only proclaimed it, he personified it, proved it. In him, people experienced love and justice so unconditional that they knew they had encountered no one less, no one else than God.

Then Jesus was killed. Wrong won. Love and justice lost.

Then “on the first day of the week, at early dawn”,[2] in this life in this world love and justice prevailed. To the world’s persistent “No!”, God answered with an indefatigable, unconquerable “Yes!”

Easter is extraordinary. Not as a miraculous story or a clever fantasy or a saga of a first century messiah living on through his body of believers or because of a promise of immortality. But because it proclaims God’s word: “Yes!”

If we dare confess the truth about the continuing brokenness of our world and our lives, where little is ever well and all is never well, if we dare hope that to every human “No!” there is a divine “Yes!”, if we dare believe that “Yes!”, which, as God’s first word at creation breathed life into being, also is God’s first word at the dawn of every day and will be God’s last word at the end time, then to the cry, “Alleluia! Christ is risen”, we will know how to say, “The Lord and we are risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

Illustrations: Christ Rising, bronze statue by Frederick Hart (1998), drawing, empty tomb, PRA (2016); The descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire (on the Day of Pentecost), signaling the founding of the Church, El Greco (1541-1614); The Phoenix, a symbol of immortality, F. J. Bertuch (1747–1822).

Footnotes:

[1] Mark 1.15

[2] Luke 24.1. Luke 24.1-12 is the gospel appointed for the day.