You are witnesses

       I struggled all week on how to start this sermon.  I just didn’t know what it would feel like to step into this pulpit for the first time in fifty-eight Sundays and see people sitting in the pews.  As I wrote this on Thursday, I still had no idea, but goodness does it feel ___________________.  It has been way too long.  While I can’t say I’ve missed the five am alarm clock, I have certainly missed you, my Christ Church family, and I look forward to May 2nd, when, God willing, we’ll be able to restart our 10 o’clock service as well.  The prospect of returning to Church in the Pews this week has been an opportunity for me to look back over the last 13 months and to think about what we’ve learned, how it’s felt, and what we might take with us into the future.  Surprisingly to me, I’ve found myself feeling profoundly grateful for the experience of the last year-plus, and wondering if maybe you’re feeling some of that as well?  I’m grateful that our girls got to be kids for most of 2020, riding their scooters, jumping on the trampoline, and using their imaginations as the world around them shut down.  I’m grateful for flexible work schedules, for polo shirts, and for strong WIFI.  I’m grateful for amazing teammates in our staff and parish leaders who have worked harder than you can imagine making sure Christ Church continued to live into its mission despite all kinds of hardship.  I’m grateful for each of you; for your patience, your support, and your witness to what God is up to even in the midst of unprecedented challenges.  In doing so, you have lived into the commission that Jesus gave to his disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning, serving as witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ for a world that desperately needs it.

       We might be two weeks out from Easter, but our lesson this morning takes place still on that first Easter day.  In Luke’s account, it has already been a loooooooong day.  It started just before dawn, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women gathered to prepare the spices and ointments to give Jesus a proper burial after he was hastily laid in a tomb on Friday afternoon.  At sunup, they found the stone rolled away from the now empty tomb, and were met by two men in white who asked one of the most profound questions in all of Scripture, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He has risen.”  Quickly, the women departed and returned to the upper room, where they found the eleven remaining Apostles, who, apart from Peter, dismissed the word of the women as an idle tale.  Peter, however, ran to the tomb, found it empty, and somehow decided to just go home.  At some point, we find out later, Jesus appeared to Peter, maybe over his morning cup of coffee as he scrolled mindlessly through his Facebook feed.  At least two of the disciples were so dismayed by the events of those three days that they decided to give up, go home, and see if they could get their jobs back in Emmaus.

       Just before our lesson for today, is the well-worn story of Jesus meeting those disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  Downtrodden, they plodded along the seven-mile journey, discussing with sadness all that had transpired.  “We thought, we really thought, he would be the one to redeem Israel.  He was a prophet, mighty in word and deed, and God was with him, but they killed him, and now his body is gone, and hope is lost.”  Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures and how all that had been written by Moses and the Prophets had led straight to the cross, but it wasn’t until they sat down at the table together and Jesus broke bread with them that he opened their eyes to see him, in his resurrection body, their Rabbi, Messiah, and Lord, before he disappeared from before their very eyes.  The two of them took off back to Jerusalem, where the rest of the eleven and a cadre of women were still in the upper room, sharing stories of the day, and wondering what it all meant.  “We’ve seen him!” the two exclaimed.  “So has Peter!” the crowd responded, and just then, Jesus entered the room.

       “Shalom.”  “Peace be with you,” he said to the small crowd that was nothing close to peaceful.  Luke tells us they were startled and terrified.  It’s the same root word Luke used to describe the shepherds watching their flocks by night on that first Christmas.  Jesus speaks peace into the midst of chaos and passes the standard tests to prove one wasn’t a ghost in antiquity, at least according to Union Lutheran Seminary Professor Mark Vitalis Hoffman.  First, they checked for extremities, where bones would be obvious – hands and feet – and saw them, intact, though scarred.  Next, the disciples made sure Jesus wasn’t Caspering around, and that his feet were touching the ground, which they were.  Finally, everyone knows ghosts don’t eat food, so when Jesus asked for and ate a piece of broiled fish, he passed the final test.  What they were witnessing wasn’t a group hallucination or a hopeful vision built upon stress and grief, but the actual flesh and blood of Jesus who had been crucified and died three days earlier.[1]  Even as they grew joyful that this was, in fact, Jesus in their midst, they were still amazed and in disbelief that it could all be true.

       For the second time that first Easter Day, Jesus opened up the scriptures to remind them, yet again, that the Messiah, HE, would die and rise again, that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed for the whole world in his name, and he commissioned them as his witnesses to all these things.  They were empowered to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ despite the hardship of the previous three days.  As inheritors of that Apostolic Tradition, you and I are still called to be witnesses of the ongoing work of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world today.

       As such, our work is two-fold: proclaiming the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus of Christ and proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The first task is summed up in First Peter 3, “If someone asks you about your hope, always be ready to explain it.”  This past year has been a difficult one for us all, but from where I stand, I’ve seen amazing signs of hope all along the way.  That so many of you continued to give to the mission of this congregation was a sign of hope, that someday, we’d be back together to do the work God is calling us to do.  That so many of you signed on to Zoom calls, Facebook Live, YouTube, and podcasts was a sign of hope that despite the hardships, you are committed to deepening your faith for the days to come.  That so many of you sent notes, emails, and text messages of encouragement and prayer was a sign of hope that we are connected, even when we are apart.  There are stories of hope to be told, no matter how crummy the last 13 months have been, and as Christians, we are all called to share them.

       The second task isn’t quite as easy.  Proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sin means calling sin, sin; both in our own lives and in the world in which we live, and then trusting in God’s forgiveness.  To take our calling seriously, we must be willing to take stock of the places in our own lives where relationships are broken, both with God and with our fellow human beings.  In the wider world, as Christians, commissioned by Jesus Christ to preach repentance, we must be willing to call out systems of oppression like gun violence, xenophobia, white supremacy, and police brutality, which keep the Kingdom of God from being fully realized here on earth.  God is eager to forgive, but we must be willing to repent, to change course, and move toward wholeness.

       Your witness over this last year has been a gift.  As we move into this next phase of pandemic life, I invite you to consider how you might proclaim repentance, forgiveness, and the Good News of the resurrection of our Lord to a world that still desperately needs it.  It’s been a long road, but our work is just getting started.  I look forward to the journey.  Amen.



Seeing Jesus – a sermon

You can listen to the sermon here, or read it below.

I’ve always loved a good optical illusion.  The classics are my favorite.

longer line

Is the top line or bottom line longer?


Do you see a vase or two faces?

the dress

Is this dress white and gold or black and blue?

The Dress that Broke the Internet brought the human eye into sharp focus for about a week earlier this year.  The whole world became obsessed with how the eye works, and we all realized, yet again, that you can’t always believe what you see.  Of course, this is nothing new.  In fact, the Gospel lessons over the last two weeks have been a reminder that for the disciples, even seeing wasn’t believing.

Last week it was John’s account of that first Easter Day.  Ten of the eleven remaining disciples were huddled together in the upper room, locked away from the outside world for fear of the Jews.  Out of thin air, Jesus appeared in their midst. He offered them his peace.  He tried to give them the Holy Spirit.  The disciples were quick to tell Thomas about their encounter with Jesus, but as Keith reminded us in his sermon last week, the fact that the disciples saw Jesus certainly didn’t mean that they believed what he told them.  A week later there they were, still frozen in fear, closed up in that upper room.  This week we have what seems like the same story.  This time we get Luke’s version of the first Easter.  Our story begins at evening, but it has been a very full day.

It began at sunrise when the women found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.  Two men appeared and said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”  The women ran to tell the others what they had seen with their eyes and heard with their ears, that Jesus had rose from the dead, but the men did not believe them.  Luke tells us they thought it “an idle tale,” a polite way of saying they thought the women were full of bull… Bologna.  Something in the story of the women gnawed at Peter, however, and eventually he got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself.  He found the stone rolled away, and all he saw inside were his friend’s burial clothes lying by themselves.  Even after seeing the empty tomb, Peter was still confused, and he went home wondering about what he had seen.

Meanwhile, others found it all too much to handle.  Two of the disciples, Cleopas and a companion, set off for their hometown of Emmaus feeling totally lost and confused at what had transpired over the last seventy-two hours.  As they approached the end of their seven mile journey, a stranger joined them and asked them about their sad conversation.  As it was late, they invited the stranger to dinner.  He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them and immediately their eyes were opened and they recognized the stranger as none other than Jesus, their Lord, their Rabbi, and their friend, risen from the grave.  Jesus disappeared, and the two disciples took off running, seven miles back to Jerusalem, to tell the others what they had seen.

The room was buzzing with excitement over everything that had happened that day when Jesus appeared right in front of them.  With all they had seen and heard that day, you’d think they’d be overjoyed at his appearance, but their reaction isn’t one of joy and gladness, but of terror and fright.  With all they had heard and all they had seen, they still couldn’t believe their eyes; they thought they were seeing a ghost.  I love Jesus’ reaction at this point.  It’s late, and I’m sure he’s pretty tired, what with having been dead when the day started, and so he says to them, “What is there to be scared of?!?  Why do you doubt that it is me?!?  Look at me!  I’ve got holes in my hands and my feet for crying out loud!  Who else would it be?  Go ahead, touch me if you have to, but when you’re done, give me a piece of fish; I’m starving to death over here.”  So they touch him, and they give him some fish, and they are filled with joy, and doubt, and wonder, unable to fully believe what was happening right in front of them.

Yet, even in their disbelief, Jesus has work for them to do.  They are to go and to proclaim what they have seen, for they are witnesses.  Even as their eyes fail them, even as their brains doubt, even as their hearts question what is really happening, they are witnesses to the resurrected Christ called to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God: release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favor to the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, and that through repentance comes the forgiveness of sins for the whole world.

You might think that I’m making too much of the disciples inability to really see what was happening, but I think it is because of their bad eyesight that we too have the opportunity to be witnesses of the risen Christ.  The fact that they couldn’t even see what was right in front of their faces means that we, who don’t have the chance to see for ourselves, can be witnesses as well.  We may not be able to see Jesus standing in our midst.  We may not be able to touch his hands and feet or put our hands in his side.  We may not be able to share a piece of broiled fish with him, but we can still be witnesses to the risen Christ through the ongoing work of God in the world around us.

John’s Gospel has the disciples still stuck in that upper room a week later.  Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, has them there for fifty days.  There they are, still huddled in Jerusalem waiting, unsure of what to do next.  Jesus commissions them as witnesses called to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and 50 days later, it has yet to come to fruition.  Even having seen and heard and touched Jesus, come Pentecost Day, the disciples are still filled with a mix of joy and fear and doubt when the Holy Spirit comes with power and might, bursting forth from that safe room and running wild in the world.  From there the Good News spread like wildfire to the ends of earth.

We are inheritors of the story.  We know what the disciples saw, but just reading these old stories in a book doesn’t make us witnesses.  Our eyes are opened to see God’s hand at work in the world around us because we are inheritors of the very same Spirit of God that propelled the disciples out into the world.  The Spirit opens our eyes so that we too can be witnesses to the ongoing work of re-creation and restoration that takes place through the Church, the Body of Christ, to this day.  We are able to proclaim not only what the disciples saw, but with God’s help we can proclaim what we see as well; God’s redeeming love at work all around us.

Seeing isn’t always believing, whether it is the length of a line, the color of a dress, or the risen savior eating a piece of fish right in front of you.  Still, we are all called to be witnesses, to open our eyes and really see what God is doing in the world around us.  Through the breaking of the bread here on Sunday, through your prayers, through the reading of Scripture, and through works of compassion and mercy, every one of us has the potential, with God’s help, to be witnesses to the risen Christ as God continues to reveal his plan of salvation for the whole world.  And so we pray [and we sing] “Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus.”  Amen.

Proclamation and Witness

In Tuesday’s post, I argued that we should give serious consideration to Jesus’ less-quoted commission to preach both repentance and forgiveness to the world at large.  The Greek verb for proclaiming or preaching is kerusso from which we get the much more familiar noun kerygma.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins in earnest with a proclamation in the Synagogue at Nazareth.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,  and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)

His ministry ends with a commissioning for those who would follow him, “to proclaim to all nations repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.”  Jesus does not stop there, however.  He goes on to add one more identifying marker to his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.”  The Apostles, literally those who are sent are to proclaim what they have seen and heard and even touched.  They are witnesses, or in Greek martyrs, of the risen Lord.

The possibility of being a witness to the risen Lord has a short shelf-life.  It only takes a generation before those who actually walked with Jesus are no longer walking the earth.  As time went by, it became clear that what had been told, first-hand, needed to be written down so that the generations that followed might too be able to hear the proclamation of the Good News.  Yet we who walk the path of discipleship some 2,000 years later aren’t stuck holding only an old story book.  We too have the opportunity to be witnesses, not to Jesus appearing in front of us and asking for a piece of fish, but to the ongoing work of God in the world around us.

Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples are still huddled in Jerusalem.  Jesus’ Commission to proclaim has yet to come to fruition when the Holy Spirit comes with power and might, bursting forth from that safe room and running wild in the world.  Just as we are inheritors of the kerygma, we are also inheritors of the Spirit that allows us to have our eyes opened to see God’s hand a work in the world around us.  We too are witnesses to the ongoing work of re-creation and restoration that takes place through the Church, the Body of Christ, seeking God’s will in the world.  We are able to proclaim no only what the disciples saw, but what we see as well; God’s redeeming love at work all around us.

The less quoted Commission

I am thrilled that in the tens of millions of dollars it took to build the Chapel for the Ages (I hope they aren’t still calling it that) at my alma mater, Virginia Theological Seminary, they made sure to give a few nods to the old Immanuel Chapel, especially this one.

Photo by The Rev. Loren Lasch (VTS ’08)

Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel is the unofficial motto of VTS, which has always seen itself as a seminary called to equip missionaries.  For many years, the men who graduated from VTS (when they were only men) took that call quite seriously and spent their first few years of ministry in far off lands.  More often these days, the women and men who graduate find themselves in the missionary territory that is post-Christendom America.  Whether it is in a downtown metropolitan area or a yoked ministry of three or more tiny rural congregations, ordained life these days is much less comfy than it was 60 years ago, but it certainly is a rich vocation.

Of course, Matthew’s version seems fairly safe, sugar-coated even, when compared with Luke’s account of Jesus commissioning his disciples.  Luke’s Great Commission isn’t the stuff of former mainline seminary chapels.  Jesus instructed his disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  There seems to be a reluctance on both sides of the theological spectrum to live into the fullness of Luke’s Great Commission.  The right focuses its attention on the repentance piece, while the left is much more comfortable with forgiveness.

There cannot be grace without conviction, and conviction isn’t redeemed without grace.  In our hesitancy to live into this less oft quoted Commission, we’ve cut off half the Gospel message, and half a gospel is no good news at all.  As we approach the final resurrection encounter in Eastertide Year B, it would behoove us to remember that Good Friday and Easter Day are one in the same event.  Neither makes sense without the other, and both are necessary for God’s salvific work to be accomplished.  As we leave our congregations on Sunday, called to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” we would do well to remember that that service includes both the call to repentance and the proclamation of forgiveness, no matter how uncomfortable one or the other of those might make us feel.

Joy and Disbelief

The Easter story is a story of perplexing dichotomies.  On Easter Day we heard the story of the resurrection from Mark’s Gospel which ends in a very ominous tone, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  On Easter 2 we found ourselves in John’s Gospel with the well worn story of Thomas and his disbelief, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  By Easter 3, you’d think everyone would be on board with the fact that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, but here in Luke’s Gospel we find the disciples with their hands on the wounds of Jesus filled with a mixture of joy and disbelief.  The aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is delightfully perplexing.

There is a tendency in the Church to idealize the apostolic age.  In liturgics, we look to it as if there was some sort of monolithic Apostles’ Book of Common Prayer to which we all should subscribe, but alas, it doesn’t exist.  In theology, we look to the Apostles, especially Paul, as the preeminent theologians, those whose theologies should never be questioned.  Even in faith, we tend to ignore the failings of Peter and the persecution by Paul and, to some extent, even the doubting of Thomas and assume that from the very beginning everyone was on board with this whole resurrection business, which is why, I think, the Lectionary spends three weeks reminding us that Jesus rising from the grave was not what the disciples thought was going to happen.

When doubts creep in, and they do for all of us, it is helpful to remember that even the Apostles struggled with faith.  When the world seems dark and gray, when the idea that Jesus triumphed over evil seems impossible to believe, when doubt seems a whole lot easier than faith, it is good to know that we are in good company.  Once we find solidarity with the Apostles, then it seems a bit easier to move back toward faith, to read the great stories of their Acts, to hear of their perseverance, to listen to their witness, and to know that even in the chaos and the darkness, the light of Christ remains.

The life of faith is perhaps best summed up in Luke’s Gospel as a life joy and disbelief.  The Good News is that God is in present in both.