we (yes, we!) are apostles

a sermon, based on John 20.19-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Pentecost. The word means “fiftieth”. For Christians,[1] the fiftieth day after Easter Day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples,[2] those he called to follow him to learn from him so to become apostles sent out by him to preach and teach his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

Today, as we reflect on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, rather than focus on the stirring, spellbinding scene in Acts with its sudden, violent heaven-sent wind, tongues of fire, disciples filled with the Spirit proclaiming in manifold languages God’s deeds of power,[3] I bid we take the proverbial “road less traveled” and look at John’s gospel.

It is the evening of the first Easter Day.[4] The disciples, grieving the death of Jesus and fearing for their lives, are in hiding. The resurrected Jesus appears…

The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

He proclaims peace; not freedom from tribulation (for this is the peace of One who was crucified; thus, if nothing else, bearing bloody witness that life in this world is not free from trial!), but rather that greatest comfort of eternal union with him.

He entrusts them with his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Knowing they need power to fulfill that mission, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then he defines their mission, and, by extension, ours: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What? Who among us, including the first disciples, as human and honestly confessing our subjection to the temptation of the abuse of authority, would want to wield that kind of power over anyone (or anyone over us!)? Not I? As a priest, when I pronounce the absolution of sin, thank goodness, it is neither on my merit, which there is little, nor in my name, which is wholly lacking, that I proclaim it, but alway only by the grace and mercy of God! Now, I will concede that sometimes I have difficulty forgiving those who hurt me. And I do not believe I’m alone! So, it seems that we humans, at some visceral level, like the notion of releasing and retaining the sins of others!

Nevertheless, God forbid, I don’t think Jesus aims to appoint us as judges of humanity. Rather, we are to do something else in relation to sin.

(In over forty years as a daily Bible student, what I am about to share never has occurred to me, thus, as it hath come to me, for whatever reasons beyond my knowing, I consider it a Spirit-given revelation!)

By “sin”, I do not mean our human, innate moral frailty and failure of virtue leading us into temptation. Nor our acts of commission and omission in disobedience to God’s commandments. Yes, these are definitions of sin, yet, in John’s gospel, the chiefest sin is unbelief; not believing in God as revealed in Jesus.[5]

Therefore, for a disciple of Jesus to retain the sins of any is to refuse to be an apostle, to refuse to share with others the good news of Jesus. To forgive the sins of any is to strive to liberate others from their unbelief by witnessing to the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore, this Day of Pentecost, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is, in the words of the hymn, to “claim the high calling angels cannot share – to young and old the Gospel gladness bear!”[6]

Jesus breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” commissioning us as apostles sent out to share with others, through the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

 

Illustration: The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers in the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper exposing his glowing wounds as the disciples, in the foreground, and the servants, in the background, look on in wonder.

Footnotes:

[1] Pentecost first was and is a Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot; referred to as the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34.22 and Deuteronomy 16.10), the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23.16), and the Day of First Fruits (Numbers 28.26). As Shavuot is the fiftieth day after the Day of Passover (the annual celebration of the emancipation of the Hebrew captives from bondage in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land, and, according to Jewish tradition, commemorating God’s giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai as a sign of new, liberated life), Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost. This historical Jewish antecedent of Passover-Pentecost enlightens Christian understanding. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the signification of resurrected life in Jesus freed from captivity to sin and death so to journey to the Promised Land of eternal life.

[2] See John 14.15-17, 25

[3] See the Book of Acts 2.1-21

[4] The New Testament witness of the coming of the Holy Spirit gives evidence of more than one tradition, for, according to the Book of Acts, the event is located on the Day of Pentecost and, via the Gospel of John, on Easter Day evening. To explain the latter, for John the evangelist, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14.15-17, 26) is tied to his glorification (his crucifixion, death, and resurrection).

[5] I arrive at this view given my interpretation of Jesus’ prayerful definition of eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3). In a recent sermon, Easter People (May 28, 2017), I said, in part: “Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.” Believing this to be true, I define “sin” (that spiritual and existential state of separation or estrangement from God), from a Johannine point of view, as an active non-knowing of (an active not being in relationship with) God.

I think, too, of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9.1-41), especially his scathing critique of those who, though beholding his saving work, were what I term “the sighted blind”, for they refused to believe that was the Messiah: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (John 9.39-41).

Further, I think of Jesus’ testimony to his disciples prior to his departure from them about the work of the Holy Spirit, one aspect of which is in regard to the indelible linkage between sin and unbelief: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16.5-11; my emphases). Note: The phrase “prove the world wrong” (John 16.8) also can be translated from the Greek “convict the world of”, which is to say that the Holy Spirit corrects the world’s viewpoint, say, of the nature and substance of sin, thus clarifying what it is, that is, unbelief.

[6] From the hymn, Come, labor on; words by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)

Easter people

a sermon, based on John 17.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

Jesus looked up to heaven and said…[1]

On the night before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death, he gathers with his disciples for a last supper. Following John the evangelist’s narrative of that night, Jesus washes their feet, giving them an example of self-sacrificial, slavish service that he bids they imitate.[2] He tells them again and again who he is in relation to them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”[3] and “I am the true vine, you are the branches.”[4] In preparing to depart, in preparing them for his departure from them, he gives them his final instructions, chiefly his one and only commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,”[5] his promise of his abiding presence with them, within them in the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,[6] and his warning of their coming sufferings for his sake.[7]

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…

Here, Jesus prays to God not in some faraway place, not on a mountaintop, not in a garden not apart and away from his disciples, but right there, at table with them, in their presence, in their hearing. And there, in prayer, Jesus defines for them and for us the heart, the point, the greatest gift of Easter: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.

And what, Who is the God Jesus makes known? Following the revelations unfolded in the Gospel of John…

God is divine logos, Word; the animating power of the universe. The Word that became our flesh and dwelled among us in Jesus, no longer to be far off, but ever near.[8]

Jesus who went to a wedding feast and changed limpid, life-giving water into vibrant, soul-stirring wine, revealing that God wills to be at the center of our times of joy as well as our moments of sorrow.[9]

Jesus who met with Nicodemus[10] and the Samaritan woman,[11] speaking to both of spiritual things, revealing that God reaches out to all people, the high and the low, the greatest and the least.

Jesus who healed those with broken bodies,[12] fed those with hunger-bloated bellies,[13] forgave the woman caught in adultery, saying, “sin no more”,[14] raised Lazarus from the dead,[15] revealing that God wills all be restored to wholeness and righteousness.

Jesus who promised another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to abide with us, within us,[16] revealing God’s presence and power to continue Jesus’ ministry of love and justice.

Jesus who prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There is an ancient legend of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. All the heavenly hosts, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, greet his arrival, welcoming him home. The angel Gabriel asks, “O Son of God, what have you done to continue your work on earth?” Jesus answers, “I have disciples whom I called to learn from me. Now, as apostles, I have sent them into the world to teach.” Gabriel, alert to a potentially serious, perhaps fatal flaw in the plan, frowns, asking, “O Son of God, what if they, frail and fearful, forget and fail? What then?” Jesus answers, “I have no other plan.”

We are Easter people. We know God and Jesus. We have eternal life. Therefore, we, in this world, in this day, in this time, in our generation, with God at the center of our lives at all times, are to reach out to all people with hands and hearts that heal and feed and forgive and give life to the dead.

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 17.1

[2] John 13.1-15

[3] John 14.6

[4] John 15.5

[5] John 13.34, 15.12, 17

[6] John 14.16-17, 26

[7] John 15.18-21, 16.2

[8] John 1.1-4, 14

[9] John 2.1-11

[10] John 3.1-17

[11] John 4.7-42

[12] John 5.1-9, 9.1-7

[13] John 6.1-13

[14] John 8.1-11

[15] John 11.1-44

[16] John 14.16, 26

love, the only…

a sermon, based on John 14.15-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments…They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

In this Easter season, as we continue to contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, we are invited to consider the immediate, incarnate, in-the-flesh-of-our-daily-living connection between loving Jesus and being obedient to Jesus. Thus, it is important to ask, “What commandments?” And Jesus reminds that it is easy to remember, for there is only one: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[1] Lest we miss the point, he tells us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[2]

Love – and though we’ve said and shared this many times before, let us recall that by “love” we are not talking about our feelings about others or our affections for others, but rather the power to act in benevolent regard on behalf of others – is the only commandment of Jesus…

Love is the only measure of obedience to Jesus…

Therefore, at the proverbial end and beginning and middle of every day, there is only one question that a disciple, a follower, a lover of Jesus need ask: How did I love and (given our human weakness, unable always to fulfill our best intentions, and our human waywardness, able always to follow our self-interest) how did I not love?

To ask and answer this question, honestly, confessionally, especially the “not” part, is to open ourselves to judgment. Yet, praise God, this judgment is not that often most debilitating human disapproval of us by others or, at times, even worse, ourselves! No! This is the judgment of Jesus. The One who loves us unconditionally! The One who died for us self-sacrificially! The One who was raised from the dead for us that we have life eternally![3] And whenever Jesus points a judging finger at us it is always to help us see more clearly who we are, where we are in relation to him, all so that he can call us to come closer to him. How close? Abidingly, abundantly, inseparably, interminably close: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…(who) abides with you, and…will be in you.”[4]

“Advocate”, from the Greek parakletos, variously translated comforter, counselor, teacher, testifier, and, literally, one who comes alongside. Jesus, the Word of God in flesh,[5] was, is our first Advocate. Because of Easter, because of the resurrection of Jesus, he promised to send and has sent another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will commemorate two Sundays from now on the Day of Pentecost, who, as God’s presence and power, abides within us.

It is by, for, in, through, with (pick any preposition, the truth is the same!) the Holy Spirit that we can love Jesus and can keep his commandments and can ask ourselves that critical question “How have I loved and how have I not loved today?” and can place ourselves under his judgment and all that we can believe, can know that we are loved by God now through eternity.

Because of the everlasting Easter-love of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, let us in gratitude declare again, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 13.34-35

[2] John 15.12-13

[3] Here, I have in mind the Apostle Paul’s grand declaration that the One who can (is able to) condemn us is the same One who has saved us, thus, we need not, need never fear: If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?…I am convinced that…(nothing) in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31b-35a, 38a, 39b, abridged and amended).

[4] My emphasis

[5] See John 1.1, 14a: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

 

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On politics, religion, and presidential elections (subtitle: fill in the blank; sub-subtitle: WWJD?[1])

The American socio-political climate is as sizzling and sweltering as a South Carolina spring morning when long before noon the temperature and humidity climb to the high-80s (or higher!). The unrest, characteristic of the 2016 presidential campaign (which was, I think, in part, a bitter fruit of the rising, roiling ideological conservative-liberal tensions of the prior decade), pestilentially persists. Those who voted for _______,[2] some of whom rather would have voted for _______,[3] with the election of Donald Trump, are _______, _______, and _______ .[4]

In the light of this heat, here, in the South, I hear political speech with religious undertones (or is it religious speech with political overtones?). To wit (with each successive declarative or interrogative statement, from whatever side of the political spectrum, uttered with increasing certainty and stridency):

“Jesus would have voted for _______.”

“Jesus told me to vote for _______.”

“How in God’s name could you vote for _______?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for _______?”

I am a Christian. I love and follow Jesus. I strive, praying the strength of the Holy Spirit, to obey his one commandment: to love unconditionally.[5] Daily, I try. Daily, I fail. Daily, I pray the Spirit’s presence and guidance to try again.

Given my existential and spiritual orientation, at first, I was taken aback by what I deem unabashed and unbridled hypercritical politico-religio language.[6] Then, catching myself (or, rather, the Spirit catching me) falling prey to judging others, I stepped back from the precipice of that pit so to look and to listen with the eyes and ears of love. What or rather who I see and hear are my sisters and brothers, some of whose expressions correspond with mine and some not. Yet my agreement or disagreement does not, must not affect my ability and willingness to tolerate, even more, to accept, and still more, to honor their thoughts and feelings, their wants and needs, their hopes and fears that are the ground, the heart from which spring their words. And in that tolerance, acceptance, verily, reverence for their God-given human dignity, I can “lay down my life” – my preferences and prejudices – for their sake.

 

Footnotes:

[1] What would Jesus do?

[2] Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

[3] In the case of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or, in the case of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobbly Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or, with the choice of voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, did not vote.

[4] happy, hopeful, and compliant or sorrowful, fearful, and defiant

[5] Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13).

[6] During my many years of living and laboring in and around Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where the lingua franca is über-partisan, self-authenticating, other-vilifying speech, I do not recall hearing anything like this.

Easter means…

a sermon, based on Acts 7.55-60 and John 14.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

Continuing our Easter season celebration at length and contemplation at depth of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, I offer one word: home. Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home.

Stephen, before stoned to death, beheld a vision of “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” His dying testimony anticipated our creedal affirmation that Jesus “came down from heaven…became incarnate…was crucified…suffered death…was buried…rose again…ascended into heaven…seated at the right hand of (God).”[1]

Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari

Easter means that Jesus found his way back home.

Now, if Easter is all and only about Jesus, then we have little reason to celebrate. Blessedly, there’s more! Jesus declares that finding home is about us. On the night before he died, Jesus bid his disciples be not troubled by his departure, promising that he would welcome them into God’s infinitely roomy house. So also testifies our creed: “(Jesus) will come again in glory…and his kingdom will have no end.”

Easter means that we go home to God.

Where is this home? Stephen “gazed into heaven.” Presuming a first century cosmology of a spherical earth suspended in space at the center of a series of concentric heavens, Stephen looked up. Yet I think God’s “many dwelling places” is not a description of celestial space or heavenly architecture. The question, therefore, is not where, but rather what is home? As we’re talking about the realm of God, indeed, God’s being and nature, “many dwelling places” is a symbol of the infinite capaciousness of God’s Love.

Easter means we always are at home in God, Who, as Love, allows nothing to keep us apart, not even we ourselves.

George Herbert[2] understood this. In his enchanting poem, Love Bade Me Welcome,[3] he writes of God who, as Love, unconditionally bids him come…

Yet he, aware of his mortality and iniquity, resists…

Love perceiving his hesitancy, draws closer; swift to erase any distance, to ease any dis-ease between them…

Herbert, desiring to be a worthy guest, honestly confesses that he is not…

Love replies in future tense, “you shall be”; for Herbert’s sense of his present unworthiness does not, cannot prevent Love from loving…

Herbert, perhaps disbelieving for joy, counters with specificity, naming his chiefest sins, unkindness and thanklessness; his guilt so great that he dares not look at God…

Love draws closer still, taking Herbert’s hand, smiling, speaking Self-referentially that the Creator of the eye best can decide whose eyes shall see God…

Herbert presses the point, declaring his shame in misusing the gift of sight; begging to be given what he deserves: the punishment of banishment from God’s presence…

Ah, says Love, shame, Herbert’s and ours, already has been embraced and embodied in Jesus; God, our Lover, living with us as we live and die, being in us for all time and beyond time…

Herbert, persuaded, agrees to come to table as Love’s servant…

Ah, no, says Love, it alway is I who serves…

Herbert, all of his protests overcome, finally accepts Love’s welcome; sitting with Love, supping, partaking of Love.

Easter means we become Who we receive: Love.

In our Anglican ethos, scripture, tradition, and reason proclaim God’s existence. Yet it is my life’s experience that proves God’s Love. Herbert’s experience is my experience! I have known moments of painful glory when unconditional love welcomed me. When others (and I’m not talking about people who didn’t and don’t know me, but rather people who knew and know me well, very well; knowing things about me that I despise and wouldn’t want them or anyone to know!) embraced me without regard or reserve, overcoming every obstacle of my sense of my unworthiness, calling me to accept, to love myself just as I am. Though never a constant state (indeed, what is?), I have known moments of being so loved that I love.

In my pastoral ministry, listening to, loving others, I also know that everyone has not had moments of this pained glory when, in spite of their poor self-esteem, indeed, in some cases, self-loathing, the love of others bade them welcome. I have grieved with those who, in their experiences of judgment and rejection, largely only know pain and no glory.

Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home. Easter means we are called to rise in new life here on earth, being and becoming, and giving what we have received that all will know God’s Love.

If Easter ain’t about that, then Easter ain’t about anything!

 

Illustration: Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Footnotes:

[1] From the Nicene Creed. The full text:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[2] George Herbert, Portrait by Robert White (1674), National Portrait Gallery George Herbert (1593-1633), Welsh-born Anglican priest, orator, and poet (Portrait by Robert White, 1674, National Portrait Gallery)

 

[3] Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guiltie of dust and sinne.

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 unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,

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, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

 

this psalm, our song

Psalm 23 (2)a sermon, based on Psalm 23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017

Jesus the Good Shepherd, James Tissot (1836-1902)

The theme of the Fourth Sunday of Easter always is Jesus the Good Shepherd.[1] So appropriate in this season of the resurrection as we continue to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” in gratitude for the One who, through his dying and rising, leads and guides us, shepherds us from the wasteland of sin and death to the realm of life eternal.

So appropriate that we read one of the most, if not the most beloved and well-known of the psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Three observations…

This song embraces the rhythm and flow of life. Therefore, it is a truthful observation about the way things are, the way we are. Our lives are characterized by constant movement. Any notion that we ever are motionless is an illusion. Even when standing still, we, bound to this Earth, are moving at hundreds of miles an hour. And our perpetual motion, in thought and feeling, intention and action, at times, perhaps largely, is by our choosing in accord with our beliefs and values and, at other times, at the compulsion of chance and circumstance beyond our control. Point is, we always are being led and guided by something.

This song encompasses deeply comforting images and the starkest, darkest realities. Therefore, it is an honest commentary on our experience of life in this world. Our life as a journey is replete with the poetic joys of verdant, not barren pastures, calm, not raging waters, and right, not crooked pathways and the proverbial sorrows of valleys overshadowed by death and enemies, appearing in the presence of problematic people and times of trial and tribulation.

This song echoes, resounds with confidence in God. Therefore, it is a believer’s testament, and, for us, as Christians, a disciple’s witness to a life of faithful pilgrimage with the One we follow, Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Let us then, as human and Christian, pray this psalm as the song of our lives. And when we reach our earthly end, “the house of the Lord”, it is God’s goodness and mercy that “follow” (the Hebrew literally translates “pursue”![2]) us. For as we, in this life, ever are on the move, we, in the fullness of eternity, forever will be on the move. Therefore, any notion that at death we are at rest is also an illusion!

One of the petitions in our Burial Office captures the mystery and beauty of our continual becoming in the presence of God: Grant (Almighty God) that, increasing in knowledge and love of Thee, (we) may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in Thy heavenly kingdom.[3]

We, in our journeying through this world, draw ever closer to that inexorable moment when we cross the threshold to the next. We, even now, by faith, delighting in the foretaste of eternal life, then, by sight, will partake of its fullness of the presence of Love, Who is God.[4]

Geneva Watkins

This past Wednesday, we buried my mother-in-law, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins. “Theodosia” means “gift of God”. And that, surely, Geneva was…is! For she, for me, personified the heart, the soul of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is, that we are to be as he is – the Word, the Spirit of God in flesh; enfleshed in our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions. I experienced this embodiment of the being and nature of God in Geneva’s unconditional love and kindness and in her unstinting forgiveness. No finer person and woman have I known. And I believe, I know that Geneva, pursued by God’s goodness and mercy, dwells in the house of the Lord forever, going from strength to strength in her life in the perfect service of God’s praise.

And as she knew in this life and now knows in the fullness of God’s glory, I pray we, too, know every time we sing this psalm of our lives that “The Lord” – only God Almighty in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit; not anyone or anything else! – “is our shepherd!”

 

Illustration: Jesus the Good Shepherd, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Photograph: Geneva Watkins standing at the flowered cross, Jamestown Road Church of God, Bishopville, SC, Easter Day, March 27, 2016.

Footnotes:

[1] John 10.1-10 is the day’s appointed gospel.

[2] I find this – the conception that God’s goodness and mercy, as a zealous hunter chases prey, pursue us; though not to harm us, but rather and only to have and to hold us in loving, eternal embrace – an endearing, enduring idea!

[3] The Burial of the Dead: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 481

[4] A reference to 2 Corinthians 5.1-7 (my emphasis): For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling; if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.

recognizing the risen Jesus

a sermon, based on Luke 24.13-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, April 30, 20017

It is the evening of that first Easter Day. Cleopas and a companion, dispirited disciples of the crucified, dead Jesus, leave Jerusalem, walking slowly toward the town of Emmaus. Their only consolation, a sorrowful recount of the past few days. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people, believing him to be the long expected Messiah, crying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and strewing palm branches of welcome along his path.[1] His righteous indignation in driving the merchants from the temple.[2] The mounting opposition of the religious leaders. Their escalating conspiracy to kill him.[3] His intensified predictions of his death.[4]

Cleopas and his friend repeatedly, emotionally recite these details; as I imagine them, engaging in a broken-hearted mind game of sympathetic self-delusion, conjuring up a different outcome, yet always coming to the same frightfully, tragically speedy end: Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death. Even the astonishing tale told by some women of an empty tomb does nothing to assuage their grief.

The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road (Les pèlerins d'Emmaüs en chemin) (1884), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus joins them, but they don’t recognize him. “What’s up?” he asks. They retell their sad story, concluding, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped.” With this classic cry, this melancholy chorus in the timeless song of disconsolation Cleopas and his friend speak for anyone, speak for us in times of disappointment and loss.

Yet as the risen Jesus joined them, so I believe he walks with us on our roads to Emmaus, asking, “What’s up?”

And, today, I ask what’s different for us for whom Easter Day has come and gone again? What’s different for us who have proclaimed, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” again? If we answer, “Not much, really” (and I suspect for all of us, at least in some aspects of our lives at least some of the time, that’s true), then I invite us to enter this Easter story to look for the risen Jesus. How do we recognize him; a recognition that can make a difference, make us different today?

Cleopas and his friend didn’t recognize Jesus. They were in good company.

On that first Easter morn, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus standing near the empty tomb. She thought he was a gardener. When he called her by name, then she knew who he was.[5] The disciples, even after Jesus first appeared to them, not knowing what else to do, went fishing. They didn’t recognize him standing on the beach, even in the light of day. When he gave them successful advice on where to catch fish, then they knew who he was.[6] In both cases, a familiar word or action evoked the response of recognition.

Perhaps Cleopas and his friend couldn’t recognize Jesus because they were looking for the redeemer of Israel who would rescue them from Roman oppression and make things right.  They weren’t looking for one who, like them, suffers and dies. Yet when Jesus broke the bread, a familiar action, yet also an unmistakable symbol of his body broken on the cross, then they knew who he was.

The Supper at Emmaus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

So for us. Weekly, we, in familiar fashion, in holy habit gather in community at this altar to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood. I pray that we can, that we will behold and honor, love and respect the risen Jesus.

Where?

Not where, but rather in whom!

In one another and in the reflections we behold in our mirrors!

How?

In the weakness of our human fragility. There is the risen Jesus!

In the sureness of our subjection to death. There is the risen Jesus!

And most assuredly in our hopefulness of eternal life. There is the risen Jesus!

As we see and recognize in one another and in ourselves the risen Jesus, Easter dawns for us in all of its real-life, resurrected-living present possibility. Easter is not back then, over there, up there, out there, for the risen Jesus is with us, the risen Jesus is in us here and now.

 

Illustrations:

The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road (Les pèlerins d’Emmaüs en chemin) (1884), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Supper at Emmaus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Note: Caravaggio captures Cleopas and his companion at the moment “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24.31). The artist also included himself in the painting as the servant standing to the right of Jesus.

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 19.29-40

[2] See Luke 19.45-46

[3] See Luke 19.39, 47; 20.1-2, 19-20, 22.1

[4] See Luke 20.9-16 (especially verses 13-15), 20.17-18, 22.21-22

[5] John 20.15-16

[6] John 21.1-7