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.


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.

A Curious Question

Jesus has many titles: Emmanuel, Son of God, and King of Kings; just to name a few, but the most often overlooked nickname for Jesus is “King of the Non Sequitur.”  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus confounds and befuddles by answering questions with questions or responding to challenges via parable, or just plain making no sense.  In the end, it works for Jesus because of the complete otherness of what Jesus is trying to convey.  To put words to God is to create heresy, in most cases, and at the very least, it will put God in a box that is much too small to contain him. (The immediately preceding male pronoun being a prefect example)

It wasn’t much of a surprise to me, then, to read in Sunday’s Gospel lesson a very curious question from Jesus.

“Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

In the scheme of the story, it seems to make no sense, and the explanation he offers doesn’t help.  Still, despite the seeming disconnect with the larger story, the question, curious as it is, is a helpful one.  As Dean (Bishop) Alexander said in class yesterday regarding the spoken Great Litany, “I’ll compete with you on depravity any day, but I’ve never been that sinful.”

I’ll compete with you on depravity any day, and I am ever so grateful for the forgiveness offered to me in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Some have sinned a whole lot more than me.  Some have lived lives a whole lot purer than me.  Either way, we share a thankfulness for the cancellation of our debt.  The non sequitur from Jesus is a curious one, but it is worth pondering in our hearts as we come to the altar: forgiven, restored, and renewed; and are sent forth empowered to do the work of ministry.

A Break in the Space Time Continuum

Jesus doesn’t care what Doc Brown says, he’s willing to step out of space and time to speak directly to us.

For two lectionary cycles in a row, David Lose has argued (here and here) for a very cosmic, almost Back to the Future reading of Jesus’ upper-room encounter with Thomas the week after his resurrection.  This makes sense, on some level, as John is very much interested in how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus fits into the larger, cosmic story of God’s work in creation.  It all starts with that great prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  It culminates in the profession of the Thomasian Creed, “My Lord and my God.”  At several key places in the middle, we see characters fade away such that it seems as though Jesus is speaking beyond the book itself, to John’s readers, certainly, but also to us.  The story of Nicodemus (John 3) is a prime example, as is the High Priestly Prayer (John 17).

In this Sunday’s lesson, the same sort of thing happens as Jesus responds to Thomas’ confession by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  I’ll let David Lose say it,

“And so here, near the very end, John turns his attention fully to us, as through Jesus’ words he invites, persuades, even cajoles us toward faith in Christ.  But more than that, here near the end, Jesus — through John’s gospel — blesses us, and so establishes us in faith.  What would it be like for your hearers to understand themselves as addressed directly by Jesus in this passage, to feel themselves blessed by the Lord?  What would it be like, that is, if the words John records Jesus speaking nearly two thousand years ago leapt [sic] up off the page, reached across the centuries, to touch and transform us?”

Indeed.  What if?

how to preach Christology

Clearly, something was going on in Luke’s community.  Some sort of controversy involving the bodily resurrection of Jesus was afoot as Luke put the finishing touches on his Gospel account.  You can’t read Luke 24:36b-48 and not see that there was an argument brewing under the surface.  Why else would Luke spend so much time proving to us that Jesus, though appearing out of thin air, was a living, breathing, wounded, corporal resurrected body on that first Easter evening.

While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

As my rector says, “dead men don’t eat fish.”  This story from Luke is one of the first pieces of Christology we have.  It begins to navigate the path that will lead to the Council of Nicea in 325.  It helps to open the mind to the possibility that Jesus was fully God and fully man from Zygote to Resurrection and (and this is vitally important in the early 2nd century) EVERYWHERE IN BETWEEN!  It is good theology, good to chew on, good seminary lunch table conversation, even good Bible Study fodder, but how does one preach it?  What are the ramifications of these incarnational details on the everyday life of a 21st century disciple?  How do you preach Christology?

I don’t necessarily have an answer, other than to say that the whole thing hinges on the Incarnation.  If Jesus is just a human, then he’s a liar and a crackpot.  If Jesus is just a hologram, on par with Tupac, then his suffering wasn’t real and it is all a mirage.  But if Jesus is fully God and fully human, as the incarnation points toward and orthodoxy would eventually settle upon, then his life, death, and resurrection make all the difference in the world.  And that, I’m guessing, will preach.

The “Messianic Secret”

In 1901 a German Lutheran Theologian named William Wrede posited that the author of Mark had added, for effect, Jesus’ continual attempts to keep his true identity a secret.  According that great source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the Messianic Secret, as theorized by Wrede was all but defunct by the 1970s, but the term is still alive and well in Biblical circles of various shapes and sizes.

In 2005 a Presbyterian New Testament Scholar named John Yieh taught me the term “Messianic Secret” as a Motif in Mark that lead the reader on toward the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus.  No one could know or understand Christ’s status as Messiah until this full work was done.

We have the luxury of reading Mark’s Gospel knowing the whole story.  We have the luxury of reading Mark’s Gospel knowing also the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.  We have the luxury of 2000 years of systematic theology.  And for most of us, we don’t care too much about whether a text is really Jesus or really Mark as we take the Canonical approach.  So really, for the most part, I’ve spent the last three paragraphs wasting your time.  Except to say this.

Our Gospel lesson for Sunday is the first instance of the Messianic Secret in Mark.  We find Jesus snorting at the leper to tell no one but to go to the priest to be readmitted to the community.  The now clean man doesn’t follow directions.  He tells everyone he can find about this miracle worker.  Jesus finds himself as a societal outcast.  No longer able to even enter towns because of the crowds in need of healing.  His message has been over run by the medium.  His works, thanks to one man’s story, have been isolated from the Good News.  Jesus will spend the rest of Mark trying to reattach the two.  His works only make sense if they are attached to Good News.

Maybe that’s why John, written several decades later, is so careful to tie his 7 signs with a clear proclamation of the Gospel.  Maybe that’s why Luke in his second book, Acts, always has the miraculous following the Good News.  Maybe it is a good reminder for Church leaders, so desperately in search of the next big thing to grow their churches.  It isn’t about wow, sparkle, pizzazz or the miraculous.  It is about Christ and him Crucified.

When we know that secret, the rest will fall into place.