Rev. Amy Morgan
May 17, 2015
Psalm 1, John 21:1-19
“I’m just blessed – I can’t explain it right now.” Those were the words of Malcolm Butler, cornerback for the New England Patriots after his win-clinching interception in this year’s Super Bowl. In interviews after the big game, Butler declared his belief in God, saying he had been praying all week and had a vision that he would make a big play. This miraculous catch for a man who just a few years ago was working in a fast food restaurant was not just a game-changer, but a life-changer.
The rookie defensive player is now a sports-world superstar, gracing the cover of magazines, gobbling up endorsements, negotiating for a higher salary. He’s suddenly got more fame and fortune than he can handle, admitting to one news source that “being in the spotlight does take a toll on you.”
But doesn’t this just affirm the words of the very first Psalm, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…in all that they do, they prosper…the LORD watches over the way of the righteous.” Through prayer and faithfulness, Malcolm Butler was blessed with a miraculous catch.
Just like those disciples. They followed Jesus and did what they were supposed to do, and here at the end of the gospel of John, they, too, are blessed with a miraculous catch…of fish, of course.
Our church has been blessed, too, with a kind of miraculous catch. Today as we confirm 11 young people into the membership of our church, we are blessed with their gifts and energy and faith and joy. Just like Malcolm Butler, and just like those disciples, we must be doing something right.
Because that’s how Christianity works, right? You do the right thing – you believe in Jesus, you trust in him – and good things happen to you – like a miraculous catch. This gospel of prosperity fills football stadiums with believers and is broadcast internationally.
But this isn’t the gospel shared by our Confirmation students in their faith statements. They talked about Christianity as service to others and being together in community. They spoke of Christianity as a personal identity, a way of love and hope, and a path to forgiveness, grace, and affirmation. The Confirmands also described their faith as a means of breaking down the wall between God and humankind, as a source of strength and support in challenging times, and lens for seeing our challenges as opportunities for God to make us better people and the world a better place. Not one of them mentioned being good so that God would bless them.
And that’s why I know God is doing something right. Because our culture would tell these young people, and all of us, that we must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that “God helps those who help themselves,” that faith is between you and God, that God blesses us for our efforts, and these young people have resisted those ideas. They’ve heard a different message about Christianity.
And I think they got it right.
Because the disciples were not blessed with a miraculous catch because they followed Jesus and did what they were supposed to do. In fact, they were acting like total slackers. Let’s start with Peter, the ringleader, the one who is supposed to be the rock upon which Christ will build his church. He is the one who, after Jesus was arrested, denied knowing him three times. And is he on his knees, asking for forgiveness? Is he rejoicing in the resurrection? Leading the disciples out to spread the good news? Doing good works in the name of Jesus? No, Peter decides to go fishing. He doesn’t even invite the others to come. He just says, “I’m going fishing. I’m going right back to where I came from. I’m going to pretend nothing has happened and nothing has changed.”
And the rest of the disciples follow along. They listen to Peter’s terrible suggestion and fish all night long and don’t catch a thing. Their faith is completely bankrupt. And this is right after the resurrection, people! What is going on?
I’ll tell you what’s going on – the disciples are dumbfounded, and probably a little terrified. They have, for the most part, been pretty awful disciples. Not a one of them understands what’s been going on from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. None of them did a great job of standing by Jesus through his crucifixion. And they all find the resurrection entirely incomprehensible. These are not the “righteous” ones blessed by God in the first Psalm. These are men who are completely lost and overwhelmed and have no idea what to do next.
And after their fruitless all-night fishing adventure, we can’t even give the disciples credit for listening to Jesus and casting their net on the other side of the boat. Because they had no idea that the man whose instructions they were following was Jesus. As far as they are concerned, Jesus could have been an expert fisherman or just some guy on the shore trying to mess with them after a long night. “Throw your net over there! Now throw it over there! Now haul it in the boat and wrap yourselves up in it!” They didn’t know who he is. They weren’t trying to follow Jesus and do the right thing. They were humoring this guy. Why not? They’ve been out fishing ALL NIGHT LONG. There are no more fish on one side of the boat than on the other. But if this stranger on the beach wants to watch them throw their net out one more time, fine.
After their net is filled with fish, one of the disciples recognizes Jesus, and one of the disciples responds by jumping out of the boat and swimming to him. If you’re doing the math, that’s two out of seven who are in any way faithful to Jesus. But they all get to split 153 fish.
And if this grace wasn’t enough, Jesus then takes Peter aside and asks him three times if he loves him. Now, this may not seem like grace, but think about it. Peter denied Jesus three times after his arrest. That would leave a person with a fair burden of guilt to carry around, especially if that person died shortly after the betrayal. But imagine if that person then came back to life, and you actually had to face up to them. Now that’s a whole other level of guilt.
But here on the beach, Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to bring his dark secret out into the open and transform his denial into a declaration of love. This is even better than forgiveness. Peter doesn’t say, “I’m sorry,” and Jesus says, “it’s okay, no big deal.” Jesus gives Peter the chance to say what he’s wanted to say since he heard the cock crow on that fateful morning. He gets to say, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” That is grace.
Our Confirmands expressed experiences of this grace, too. They shared how they see God transforming hurtful behaviors in themselves and others. They have felt God’s love through their family and Covenant Partners and classmates on this Confirmation journey. They have articulated a theology of God’s activity in Jesus Christ making a way for sinful humanity to say, “I love you, God, more than anything.”
And in those words of love is a commitment to love and care for others. “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to Peter. Our Confirmation class fed people experiencing homelessness in Chicago, taught Sunday school for younger children, and shared their faith with their friends. They have loved and cared for pets, and seen in that experience a metaphor for God’s love for humanity. They have cared for the earth and befriended those in need of a friend. They are feeding God’s sheep, physically and spiritually. They are those ones the first Psalm refers to when it says that “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” They are producing fruit. They are feeding sheep.
At the end of this story, Jesus predicts that Peter will suffer and die to glorify God. For those who would believe that Christianity is about being good and getting blessed for it, this is bad news. Christianity, at its core, is dangerous. It recognizes a higher authority than any earthly authority, which tends to make earthly authorities uneasy. It challenges comfortable systems of oppression. It doesn’t conform to social norms of acquisition, achievement, and appearance.
Who in their right mind would want to join this movement? You don’t get credit for being good, and bad things happen to you anyway. Sounds like a party.
And here we have eleven 8th and 9th graders ready to sign up for this. Why? Because they are no strangers to suffering. They have experienced divorce and death, betrayal and broken hearts. They have been let down and disappointed, and they’ve messed up and fallen down. They have even stood out in the freezing cold waiting for a bus, and they have gotten totally lost on rerouted L trains.
And so they know that God is with them in their suffering, just as Jesus was with the clueless disciples, standing on the beach, guiding and directing them, even before they knew it. They know that suffering is part of life, but that it doesn’t have to define your life. A life defined by grace and love and service is a life that is blessed, no matter what we do, no matter what happens to us.
The last thing Jesus says to Peter in this story is “follow me.” We know Peter can’t physically follow him much longer as Jesus ascends into heaven shortly after this episode. Jesus’ invitation is to follow his way, his ministry, his movement. It’s an invitation to suffering and sacrifice, and an invitation to miraculous catches and life out of death. It’s an invitation to love and service and grace and peace.
I am grateful today for a miraculous catch, for a group of young people willing to follow the way of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We are blessed, not because of our goodness or righteousness, but because of God’s grace. We’re just blessed. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 10, 2015
Psalm 22:25-31, John 20:19-23
The memo read: “Dear Mr. President, I think that it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a highly secret matter. I mentioned it to you shortly after you took office but have not urged it since the account of the pressure you have been under. It, however, has such a bearing on our present foreign relations and has such an important effect upon all my thinking in this field that I think you ought to know about it without much further delay. Faithfully yours, Henry E. Stinson, Secretary of War.” So what was this important matter? It was the atomic bomb. Harry Truman had been Vice-President for 82 days when President Roosevelt died. The two had only met privately twice and nothing of substance was discussed. Then in the midst of the tragedy of Roosevelt’s death and the Second World War, raging around the globe, Truman was told that he and his nation now wielded the most powerful weapon ever made; the atomic bomb. And, more importantly, it would be up to Truman alone to decide whether or not to use it. He had to decide if it was a power for good or for evil.
In some ways this is always the way it is with power. People have to examine the power they have been given and make decisions as to its use. Will they use it for good or for evil? Parents have power. That power can be used for the good by giving order and structure to the lives of children in hopes that their children will ultimately choose a right path. That same power can also be used to diminish children, through abuse and fear. Supervisors or business owners have power. They can use that power to create a safe, nurturing environment in which people are encouraged and empowered to do their best; to be creative and caring. Supervisors or bosses can also use that power in the opposite manner, terrorizing their employees, causing them to live in fear. Politicians have power. They can use it to faithfully serve those who elected them, as well as those who did not. Or they can choose to use that power to enrich themselves and their families. Power in and of itself is not evil. Power is simply a tool.
My purpose in offering up these images this morning is to set the stage for what happens in our Jesus story; and that is the giving of power to the disciples. I realize that this may not be all that obvious in the story itself. If, however, we look at this story in the overall context of the Gospel, it becomes apparent. Here is how it works. First God has all the power. We know this because the opening of the Gospel of John draws us back to the creation account with the words, in the beginning. Second God share this power with Jesus. In the Gospel we hear things such as whatever the Father has, has been given to the Son, and even as the Father is working, the son is working. They share power. Now in the upper room Jesus is giving that same power to the disciples. This is evident when Jesus says, “Even as the Father has sent me, now I send you” and then gives them the Spirit. This is John’s Pentecost moment when the disciples are given the power mentioned last week by Jesus to his followers. The extent of this power becomes clear when Jesus tells them that they have the power to forgive or not to forgive…a power which at one point only belonged to God and then to Jesus.
The disciples, like Harry Truman, have been give immense power. The power to forgive or not to forgive is one that can either create life or take it away. The question would be, how would the disciples, and after them, the church, use this power? Unfortunately for the church, and in some cases the world, the church did not use this power for the good. As with all power, it tends to corrupt. The church, while beginning well, quickly saw this power to forgive or not to forgive as one that could give them control; control not only over the religious life of individuals but over their political and economic lives as well. It became a weapon to humble kings, princes and paupers. It became a source of revenue by selling it. It became one of the central weapons used to insure the power of the church. And even after the Reformation, Protestant churches used it as well to exclude those that they believed had not lived up to the religious expectations of their peers. In some ways, this checkered past makes those of us here loathe to take up this power. We want to find some way to avoid seeing ourselves as those who possess this kind of power. Like a proverbial hot potato, we want to toss it back to God. Yet, we cannot. It is ours. It is the church’s.
What I would like us to do this morning then, is to take a second look at this text and perhaps see it through a new lens. Here is how I propose we do it. We see this gift of power, the power of the Spirit and the power to forgive, as a test. Jesus has finished his mission. He has died and then been raised and now he turns to the disciples and says, here is your final exam. Will you forgive or not. That being the case, then let’s remember what the disciples had been taught about forgiveness. They were to forgive seventy times seventy times. They were to forgive as they had been forgiven. They were to forgive others so that they might be forgiven. They knew that on the cross Jesus had forgiven those who had crucified him. They knew that Jesus had not only forgiven Peter for betraying him, but had given him a mission of great importance after he had been restored. In some ways I believe that Jesus is saying, you know what to do, now go and do it.
The same is true for us. We as the church have been given the power to speak forgiveness into the world. We have been given the power to offer forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ. We have been given this power and the question is, will we use it. I ask, because forgiveness is the power to restore. It is the power to break the chains of hate, anger and dysfunction. It is the power to free; to set people free from their past and bring them back into right relationship with God and others. Forgiveness is in some ways the greatest power in the world.
Many of you who have been here for the past couple of years will remember me talking about my friend Suzanne. She was one of the many “mothers” I had in my last congregation. I would have been about the age of their children, so they adopted me. Suzanne had grown up on a dairy farm south of San Antonio. She and her five siblings had worked hard and given all that they could to help their parents. When their second parent died, and the will was read, five of the siblings got ten acres of land. The sixth sibling, the oldest son got everything else; most of the farm land, the house, its contents, the farming equipment and the cash that went with it. Needless to say, Suzanne and her other siblings were stunned. But Suzanne, being who she is, went to her brother and told him that there was only one thing she wanted from the house, a picture that her mother had promised her. Her brother told her to get off of his land. Everything was his and he was keeping it. Years later, following a sermon of mine about forgiveness, she decided that she would go make amends. She found out where he lived…he had sold the farm for a great price…and went to see him. The upshot was he told her to leave and if she ever showed up again he could call the police. Fast forward ten years. About a month ago Suzanne’s only remaining sibling, outside of her brother, died. Two days before the funeral, Suzanne’s phone rang. It was her brother. He first asked if he could come to the funeral. It was free country, Suzanne replied. Then her brother asked for forgiveness for what he had done and how he had treated her. In that moment Suzanne held the power. She could forgive or not forgive. It was up to her. And she forgave. Since that time they have spoken on the phone on numerous occasions and are making plans to get together. This is the power of forgiveness used for the good; to give life.
You and I, both individually and collectively hold the power of forgiveness. The question is then, how will we use it? My challenge to you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I wielding the power for forgiveness, for the good? How am I passing the test that Jesus has given me?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 3, 2015
Luke 24:36-49, Genesis 1:26-31
All she could do was roll her eyes and sigh. The “she” in this story is my children’s high school tennis coach, Coach Sam. When our son Andy made the varsity tennis team I decided that it was time for me to take up tennis again so that I could at least hit with him and help him practice. When Coach Sam found out she asked if I would like some pointers. With great certainty that I knew exactly what I was doing, having played in Middle School, I said sure. So one day after the tennis team had finished practice, I showed up with my racket and hit and few balls with her. It was in that moment that she sighed and said, “John, show me how you are holding the racket.” OK, so let’s just say that by the end of that that short session Coach Sam had shown me how I was doing everything, and I mean pretty much everything wrong. Now she was very nice about it, but she realized that I needed to go back to the basics. I needed to relearn the fundamentals of the game if I was ever to be good at it.
Back to the basics has become one of those often overused and abused terms. It has been used by school districts to emphasize a small part of the curriculum over other parts which don’t seem as basic. At least in Texas it is the basis of driver reeducation courses. When you have received a ticket you can remove the ticket from your record if you take a course that reminds you of the basics of good driving. Back to the basics is used as the basis for helping couples reestablish their relationships…they are taught to go back to the basics of good communication. And in some ways it is used in the life of the church. We in the Christian faith have always believed that there are certain basic understandings that all Jesus’ followers ought to understand and that ought to guide our thoughts and actions. We see this lived out every time we conduct a baptism as we recite the Apostle’s Creed. The Creed contains the most basic elements of our faith about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as well as certain beliefs about the church and the age to come.
Where this back to the basics idea ties in with our story this morning is that I believe this is what we are getting in these closing verses of the Gospel of Luke. The writer wants his readers to be sure that they know what the basics of the resurrection are before Jesus leaves the scene. And the surest way to do this is to focus on what was surely a very small portion of the conversations that Jesus had with this followers after his resurrection. And in these closing verses I believe we see the three basic beliefs that form the foundation for how we are to understand what the resurrection is all about.
The first basic believe is that life wins. When Jesus appears to the disciples, they are afraid that he is a ghost, a spirit. Jesus wants to disabuse them of this belief and so he does two things. First he asks them to touch, knowing that spirits have no physical substance. Second he asks for something to eat, again knowing that spirits or ghosts don’t eat. By so doing he let them know that life has defeated death; and by life I do not mean the eternal existence of the spirit or soul. What I mean is that physical life, the life God created in the beginning and declared to be good, has won over death which robs us of that life. What this means for Jesus’ followers is that they are to care about this world and all the people in it because they matter to God. They matter so much that God raised Jesus back into this physical world.
The second basic belief is that love wins. Jesus explains to the disciples that his death was not a tragedy but was part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. That when Jesus went to the cross and gave his life, it was not an accident of history or merely the outworking of an oppressive political process, but was the love of God at work. It was the love of God at work transforming the creation; reshaping the creation back into the good place that God had created it to be. Thus the love of God for humanity wins out over all of the powers of evil which would rob of us of our potential to become fully alive as those made in God’s image.
The third basic belief was that the world wins. After Jesus has proved that he is more than a spirit and has explained that his death was part of God’s plan, he then commands the disciples to go into all of the world, telling everyone about basics number one and two. This is remarkable because it says that Jesus was not simply the Jewish messiah, but that he was the world’s messiah; that all people are invited to find forgiveness and new life; that all people are now invited into God’s family of faith in which they can rediscover what it means to be fully human and fully alive.
I realize that in traditional Christian practice these are not the kind of basics we are used to. Instead we are accustomed, as I said earlier, to doctrinal statements about aspects of our faith. Yet I believe that these three basics, life wins, love wins and the world wins, underlie all the other particularities of doctrine because they are rooted in all of scripture from the creation in Genesis to the re-creation in Revelation. They are God’s story. They are our story. My challenge for you on this day then, is first to see these three basics here at the communion table, and second to ask yourselves, how these basics are shaping who I am and what I believe, say and do.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 26, 2015
Psalm 23, Luke 24:13-35
She looked so familiar. I was in Beaumont hospital about two weeks or so ago and was hurrying through the food court in the South Tower. As I did, there was a woman eating something at one of the small tables. She was not in a position where I could clearly make out who she was. But to myself I said, “Boy that sure looks like Judy.” At the same time though I knew it could not be her. Though her husband had been in Beaumont recently, he had been transferred out to a rehab facility elsewhere in the city. Continuing on my journey I wondered if I should have stopped but, not being sure of her identity I thought it would be a bit creepy for me to go up to a stranger and say, “Oh, you looked like someone I know.” It was only later that day, when I received an email about Judy’s husband, that he had indeed gone back to Beaumont, that I realized it had been her in the food court. Have you ever had that kind of experience when you see someone out of context and think, that can’t be so and so, only to realize later that it was? Well, if you did then you were not experiencing whatever those disciples experienced.
Over the years people have tried a variety of ways to explain how the disciples, who had been with Jesus for three years, could fail to recognize him. The usual one is the one I just described…seeing someone out of context and not realizing it is them. However, let’s be honest, if I had actually stopped and said hello to the woman in the food court I would have instantly realized that it was Judy, just as the disciples would have recognized Jesus. A second explanation is what I call the similar but different, or the Gandalf the Grey theory. For those of you who do not know Gandalf, he was a wizard in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. At one point in the book he sacrifices his life in order that his friends could live. He does so by being cast into a proverbial fiery hell. Later in the books he reappears transformed from Grey to White; a transformation that happens when he defeats evil and “rises from the dead.” Yes a Jesus metaphor to be sure. Anyway, at first his friends don’t recognize him because even though he is similar to his old self, he is different at the same time. Yet they soon recognize him, just as the disciples, in other resurrection accounts, recognize Jesus when they see the nail marks in his hands. This is a nice try but it still can’t explain this story.
There are other theories offered including the “Jesus blinded them until he was ready to disclose himself” theory. But somehow I believe all of these are, pardon the irony, looking at the story and not seeing what Luke was trying to tell us. In other words we look at the story and miss the point because we are attempting to deal with the physics of the event and not with the narrative itself. And, my friends, let’s be honest here, there are many things in the scriptures, including the resurrection, which physics cannot explain. So what then is Luke really trying to tell us? What I believe is going on here is that Luke wants us to understand that the disciples did not recognize Jesus because they never really knew him at all.
Yes, I know that Jesus and the disciples hung out and travelled together for three years. Yet in the end, if we listen carefully to the conversation on the road we will see that the disciples had no idea who this Jesus was. And we see this in one often overlooked sentence. One of them says, “…but we hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” In other words what they had been looking for, even after three years of Jesus’ teaching was a new Moses. They were looking for the reenactment of the Exodus story. Regardless of Jesus’ stories about love, forgiveness and a very different kind of Kingdom, it had not registered at all. This new-Moses narrative was in fact so powerful that even when the women had returned from the tomb with the news that Jesus was alive, it could not register with the other disciples because Jesus was still just one more dead messianic pretender. He had been the one who was supposed to stop the suffering of Israel, rather than suffer himself. In the end then, these two disciples hadn’t a clue as to who Jesus was and why he had come. Little wonder that they were not able to see him.
If Jesus is going to open their eyes then it will take more than a physical appearing. It will take reeducation. In order to accomplish this, Jesus takes them through the entire Old Testament in order that they see more clearly who he is and why he had come. In verse 27, Luke tells us that Jesus began with Moses and all of the prophets and interpreted to the disciples the things about himself in all of scripture. This action has often been portrayed as Jesus going back and pointing to specific scriptures and saying, “See, there’s Jesus,” in sort of a Where’s Jesus Game. What I believe is that Jesus is doing more than that here. He is in fact retelling the entire story of Israel in such a way that the disciples will begin to recognize that, as NT Wright puts it, rather than saving Israel from suffering, that the messiah was supposed to save Israel through suffering. Let me say that again. Jesus wanted to show them that the messiah was not supposed to save Israel from suffering by being a new Moses, but was supposed to save Israel through suffering like the suffering servant of Isaiah. The true test of Jesus’ re-teaching comes when they all stop for the night.
When the disciples stop for the night they ask Jesus to stay with them. This invitation also extended to the sharing of their bread, which they allowed Jesus to bless and break. When Jesus does this, blesses and breaks, their eyes were opened and they knew him. They knew him in that moment because finally the broken bread made sense. It was an intentional reference to Jesus’ willingness to suffer for Israel and for the world. Now they got it. Now they knew him. Now they were able to see fully why he had gone the cross, and had been raised. Jesus’ remedial work had been successful. We also know that his teaching succeeded because of the kind of community those disciples created. When they returned they did not do so in a politically triumphal manner, but in a way that led to the creation of a non-violent, self-sacrificing community. They discovered who Jesus was to the extent that they followed his lead.
The problem with which we are faced is that most of us, like the disciples, have found ourselves drawn to and holding tightly to a particular image of Jesus. These images might be Jesus as a CEO, an insurance salesman or perhaps a great trainer of individuals. They might be the pietistic images of Jesus as the guy we are supposed to be going steady with or the Santa Jesus who is supposed to give us everything. While each of these images carry with them a kernel of truth, they all fall short of the complex nature of the one who was the suffering servant; of the one whose body was broken and shed blood; of the one who was willing to lay down his life for the world; of the one who would suffer for us. The challenge for each of us then is whether or not we are willing to see a Jesus different from the one to which we hold tightly; whether or not we are willing to have our eyes opened to the one discovered by those two disciples.
My challenge then for all of you is this, to ask yourselves, am I willing to see Jesus in a new way; a way that might call me to a life which reflects that of the servant who gave his life for all?
Rev. Amy Morgan
April 19, 2015
Psalm 4, Matthew 28:11-15
It was all a hoax. The iconic planting of the American flag on lunar soil was filmed in Hollywood and distributed by the U.S. Government to convince the world of American superiority in space during the Cold War. At least, that’s what some Americans still believe. Evidence supporting this claim ranges from photographic analysis to hidden messages in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “The Shining.”
Conspiracy theories – from JFK’s assassination to revisionist histories of the Holocaust – allow us to dispel difficult realities and give us a simpler, more comfortable explanation of things that are hard to comprehend.
But, says Dan Kahan of Yale University, conspiracy theories also help us to know where we belong. While conspiracy theorists may develop all kinds of evidence to prove their point, belief matters more than proof, and beliefs are based more in identity than reason. Studies have shown that even among the highly educated, scientific knowledge is used to reinforce the beliefs we already have, and those beliefs are shaped and reinforced by our social connections.
For example, the majority of the world’s scientists agree that human activity is contributing to global climate change, but those who seek out dissenting opinions are tied to groups who are like-minded in their skepticism. Scientific opinion won’t sway their views as strongly as their personal connections will. When we say what we believe about climate change or lunar landings, or any belief, scientific or otherwise, we’re telling people who we are and to which tribe we belong.
This is the reality we face with the resurrection as well. We have accounts of the empty tomb, attested to by women and soldiers alike. Among the disciples, the story that comes to be believed, as unlikely as it may be, is that God raised Jesus from the dead, destroying the power of death and giving us hope for eternal life. Among other groups, the story that comes to be believed is this expensive and seemingly dangerous cover-up perpetrated by the leaders of the synagogue. When Matthew refers here to “the Jews,” it is the first time he is distancing Jesus and his followers from their community of origin. He is placing people in two camps: those who believe in the resurrection and those who believe the conspiracy theory.
We could wish for scientific evidence, desiring, like Thomas, to see the holes in Jesus’ hands and touch the wound in his side. But the truth is, scientific evidence would not necessarily change our beliefs. Because our beliefs are so strongly tied to our belonging. Facts don’t change our beliefs. Relationships do.
The women confronted with the empty tomb and the risen Christ could look to one another and say, “people like us believe that God can do this miraculous thing. People like us believe that Jesus is the Son of God with the power to overcome even humanity’s greatest enemy: death itself.” And so they believe. Together. And they go, together, to tell the disciples what they have seen.
Meanwhile, the soldiers confronted with the empty tomb and perhaps even a sighting of the man walking out of it look at one another and say, “we aren’t people who believe in this sort of thing. What are we going to do with what we just saw?”
Now, earlier in the gospel of Matthew, there is this odd little scene where the chief priests and elders go to Pilate and say, “this Jesus guy has been talking about dying and being raised up in three days. We don’t want his disciples coming in after he’s dead and stealing the body and making people believe this actually happened.” So they ask Pilate for some additional security measures around Jesus’ tomb. Pilate gives them a contingent of soldiers and orders and extra-large rock to seal the entrance to the tomb.
So now these soldiers, who belong to the Roman government, are working for the chief priests. These are men with no authority of their own. They know how to take orders. They believe in hierarchy. So they take their story to the bosses and report to the chief priests what they have seen. And when the money dangles in front of them, they are more than happy to continue belonging to that group of people who don’t believe in the Son of God and a resurrection.
Finally we have the chief priests themselves. They hear the report of the guards and look at one another and say, “people like us believe those disciples planned to steal the body from the tomb all along.” So they discredit the story. Together. They create a vehicle for their version of events to get disseminated.
Everyone in this story has the same set of facts, more or less. And they all make different decisions about how to handle those facts based on their sense of belonging. If one of the Marys had said, “I think we’re all hallucinating,” she would have certainly been left behind as the rest of the women and later the disciples went about celebrating and preaching the good news. If one of the soldiers had publicly declared faith in Jesus as the Son of God risen from the dead, he most certainly would have lost his job, his social standing, and possibly his life. If one of the chief priests had been inclined to believe the story the soldiers told, his days of power in the community would be over. Believing differently from your tribe has consequences and more often than not leads to social isolation.
Someone who has struggled with this personally is Dr. Francis Collins, the geneticist behind the Human Genome Project, an international research project working to map the entire sequence of human DNA. He holds what some would call the most prestigious job in science, and he is also a professing Christian. Though he was raised in a Christian home, when Collins entered college, his peers, his tribe, held the attitude that all religion was a useless superstition, and so that is what he decided to believe as well. This view continued to be reinforced by the scientific community he was immersed in through graduate studies and medical school. But when he finally concluded that he needed to apply the same method of inquiry to the knowledge of God as he did to the knowledge of science, he discovered the writings of C.S. Lewis, which led him to conclude, as Lewis did, that the existence of God was not only a rational possibility but a plausibility. Collins experienced both an intellectual and emotional conversion to Christianity and has since founded the BioLogos Foundation for fostering discussion about Christianity and science. But at the beginning, he was hesitant to share his beliefs with those in the scientific community, fearing his tribe would not accept him. With BioLogos, Collins has created a tribe of his own, a tribe of people interested in fruitful and vibrant discussion of the intersection of the natural and supernatural, the measurable and the inexplicable.
Our text today leaves us with a difficult decision. To which tribe will we belong? Because that, more than any amount of physical evidence, will determine what we believe about the empty tomb. Are we those people who believe that there is a God who is capable of conquering death and who desires to love us and give us eternal life? Or are we those people who rely on authority to tell us what to do and believe, even if it means deceiving others and betraying our own truth? Or are we those people who are set on discrediting what we can’t explain or covering up truths that challenge our worldview?
If we are looking for proof of the resurrection, we won’t find it in the empty tomb.
What we know from sources outside the Bible is that the followers of Jesus proclaimed a message that was hopeful and dangerous, a message of self-sacrificing love. They endured hardships and were excluded from their tribes of family and friends, and society in general, in order to believe and proclaim the love and forgiveness and hope of their risen Lord, Jesus Christ.
In the weeks before his death, Jesus’ disciples were clearly hoping Jesus would be a military king, a zealot who would overthrow the Roman government and restore the kingdom of God through any means necessary, including violence. The disciples who emerge after the crucifixion are men of a different stripe. They preach and heal and encourage. They pray together and live together and care for the poor together. And they create a movement that has lasted far longer than it ever should have. They created a tribe that exists to this day, here in this place.
So the greatest proof of the resurrection is you and I, all of us gathered here. Something transformed those disciples and gave them the strength and courage to leave their tribes of origin and, like Francis Collins, establish a new tribe. This tribe that we are now a part of shapes and reinforces our belief in the risen Christ, in the hope and joy of the resurrection.
This belief is sometimes difficult and dangerous. There are explanations that are simpler and less costly. But this belief shapes us into people of hope and compassion. This belief connects us to one another and to a deeper and truer reality than what we can measure and explain. This belief is a rational possibility and an enormous leap of faith. But this belief is part of who we are, as individuals and as a community. We are those people. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 12, 2015
Psalm 133, Mark 16:9-18
Here in this bag I have some poisonous snakes, some poison and out in the hallway there are some Linda Blair-like people who are demon possessed. So who wants to go first? Who wants to handle the snakes, drink the poison, cast out a few demons or speak in tongues? None of you? Well me neither. What is interesting though is that there are people who do indeed do all of these things. There are groups of Christians that handle poisonous snakes, drink poison, cast out demons…note that the Roman church has exorcists…and speak in tongues. They take all of this literally and seriously. Yet, as mainstream Protestants, we generally don’t. Most of the time we have simply jettisoned this part of the Gospel. We argue, rightly so, that it is a very late addition to Mark, meaning all of the earliest copies of Mark that we possess do not have this section…as Rev. Joanne pointed out at the Easter sunrise service. Therefore we can ignore it. Or we just find it so odd, that it is easier to ignore than deal with. But if we do so; if we put it aside I believe we do a disservice to both those to whom it was first written and to ourselves.
In order to understand this we need to once again jump in our Biblical time machine and take a trip back to the time of those who wrote and first read this text. By the time this portion of Mark is written, the church has been outlawed in the Roman Empire. In 64 CE Nero fashioned a law that made Christianity and its practice illegal. Christians could be imprisoned or executed. Thus the first people reading this section of Mark were those who needed to know, with certainty what they were dying for. They needed to be sure that this Jesus they were following was the one who lived, died and rose again; thus assuring them of resurrection if they were to give their lives for their faith. The writer of this portion of Mark assures them in two ways. First he offers the three witness accounts of the resurrection; first the women, then the disciples on the road to Emmaus and then to the entire group of disciples. Second he offers proof of Jesus’ resurrection power given to Jesus’ followers as exhibited by the list of the miraculous activities mentioned at the end of the section; which by the way are taken directly from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. The bottom line then is that these persecuted people could be sure of the one for whom they might give their life. He was Jesus the resurrected one.
As I mentioned before, if we jettison this text we also do ourselves a disservice and we do so for two reasons. First because this text gives us our identity; that we are resurrection people. We are here because Jesus, the one who lived and died is also the one who rose. What this means is that we are not followers of just a great teacher, like the followers of Buddha or Confucius. Even though Jesus was a great teacher we follow him because he was the one who lived, died and rose again. It means that we are not the followers of just a prophet such as Isaiah or Mohammed. Even though Jesus was a prophet, we follow him because he was the one who lived, who died and rose again. This is why the writer of this portion of Mark takes the time to tell three different stories which witness to Jesus’ resurrection. The writer wants us to be certain of our identity, and even though we are not faced with the kind of persecution faced by those in the first century there are others who are, such as those Christian students in Kenya who when faced with death at the hands of Al Shabab terrorists two weeks ago, chose to claim their identity as resurrection people; an identity which led to their deaths. This unknown author gives us our identity. We are resurrection people.
Second because this passage gives us our mission. We are those who are to tell the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. I realize that even the term, Good News, comes loaded with a lot of baggage and is in many ways a very “churchy” term. For many people it means trying to convert others; trying to convince them that they need to believe in Jesus to be saved. Rather than seeing the Good News in that fashion, I want us to see it as truly news that is good. The good news of Jesus is that there is a God who loves not just one small part of the world but all of creation; a God who was willing to be enfleshed in such a way to show us what that love looked like. The good news of Jesus is that the power of death and sin have lost and that forgiveness and life have won. This means we do not have to spend our lives worrying about what happens when we take our last breath. We do not have to spend our lives feeling shame, but instead know that we have been forgiven. It means that in God and Christ there are always new possibilities for our lives. The good news of Jesus is that people can find reconciliation. People can live together because we are bound together by the love of God in Jesus Christ; a love which spans race, creed, gender and sexual orientation. All of this is the good news that we get to offer as those whose identity is shaped by the resurrected Christ.
What should we do with all of that other stuff; the snakes and poison? Well that is up to you. If you want to try all of those things, go for it. But for me I will look for signs of the power of Jesus’ resurrection elsewhere. I will look for it in changed lives and communities. My challenge then for you is this, and it is twofold, to ask yourselves, How am I living as a resurrection person and how am I sharing the Good News with those around me?