Mourning, Mystery, Mission: Jesus Who?
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?
Easter Sunday: Now What?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 5, 2015
Isaiah 40:27-31, Luke 24:1-12
It all began on the roof of a drive-in theatre in Orange County, California. In the year of my birth, 1955, a little know minister named Robert Schuller, started preaching to people parked in their cars. Over the years he assumed the mantle of Norman Vincent Peale and built one of the nation’s first mega-churches, the Crystal Cathedral. However, as happens with most people I know Dr. Schuller began to grow older. As he entered his 80s he realized that he needed to pass on the church to someone else…and so he chose one of his sons. To put it mildly the transition did not go well. Attendance, membership and contributions fell. So Dr. Schuller removed his son and replaced them with his daughter. Things continued to decline. Fearing utter collapse, the board not only removed Dr. Schuller from the pastorate, but Dr. Schuller himself from the board. They then replaced the daughter with another one of Dr. Schuller’s sons…see the pattern. In the end it did not matter. The church declared bankruptcy and people realized that the Cathedral and the Hour of Power television ministry could not survive without its founder. It was a one man show.
We might imagine that this was the way the disciples felt. For three years they had followed Jesus everywhere. They had given up everything. They had risked everything. But it had been worth it. Following Jesus was an amazing adventure. He worked miracles. He healed people. He drive out demons. He taught with authority. He drew large crowds. And in their eyes he was the messiah who would restore Israel to its rightful place as God’s kingdom on earth. His sudden arrest, trial and death changed all of that. It ended a revolution that had begun with such promise. The disciples ran away. They hid. They went back home. No one could be Jesus. No one could do what he did. And so on the day after the Sabbath the women returned to the place of his burial filled with sadness and defeat. All of which poses the question, why are we here some 2,000 years later, if Jesus is not here with us. I know, you are all thinking, “Uh John, you know…the resurrection and all. Jesus was raised from the dead.” And I get that. The women would discover that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, but had been raised by the power of God. Again, I get that, but the reality is that Jesus is not around now. He came back and then left again, just as Schuller had done. So again, why are we here some 2,000 years later?
The answer I want to offer you is that we are here because the resurrection was not simply an event in one moment in time. For years this is how people talked about it…or argued about it. Did Jesus really rise? How did it happen? In a sense they were looking for some sort of proof that one moment Jesus was dead and the next he was alive. What I want to argue is that the resurrection was bigger than that. Yes, one moment Jesus was dead and another he was alive, but that was the initiation of something greater…the continuing expansion of the resurrection into the world. How many of you this morning are familiar with the Big Bang Theory…not the television show, but the actual Big Bang at the beginning of the universe? Well if you are not the best scientific observations take us back almost 14 billion years where there was a singularity which exploded in a massive event that created temperatures of almost 10 billion degrees. That even then sent matter flying throughout the universe in such a way as to create all that we see today…and it is not done. The universe continues to expand even as we sit here in this sanctuary.
This is for me the best picture of the resurrection. The resurrection begins as a singular event. It happens in real time, in an actual moment. But it is not contained in that moment. Through the power of the Spirit the resurrection’s impact moves first to the women, then the disciples and then to the church and the world. The power of the resurrection begins to change everything. It changes people. It changes communities. It changes empires. In a sense what the resurrection does is that it brings Isaiah’s words to life. The portion of Isaiah we read this morning was written to a people who had been defeated, carried into exile and were now returning home to a difficult and dangerous place. They had lost all hope. They wondered if their God had forgotten them. But Isaiah writes that not only had God not forgotten them but that God will give power to the faint and will strengthen the powerless. Even when the best and most in-shape fall down, those who wait on God; those who trust in God will mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint. This is what the power of the resurrection does. It offers to all people the possibility of new life and new power not simply in some future dimension of spiritual existence.
How does this work? I will tell you. A couple of weeks ago I went down to the Welcome Inn, where Jason Morgan works as director. The Welcome Inn is a day drop-in center for the homeless. It provides a warm place where people can come in off of the streets and get a meal and assistance in a variety of ways. I was there to get some video interviews of some of their guests. There stories were all poignant and fascinating. But there was one woman whose story touched me more deeply. She is in her mid-sixties, and had been living with her new fiancé, in his house, for a number of years. She had had a heart attack, had open heart surgery and was recovering when her fiancé had a massive heart attack of his own and died. The fiancé’s family forced her out of the house and on to the streets with nothing much more than the clothes on her back. When I heard her story I expected her to be bitter, but she was not. She said that through all of this she had not given up hope. I have to admit I wondered about that until when I was leaving I saw her holding the hands of a young man and praying that he too would find the hope that Jesus Christ can give.
That my friends is what the resurrection does. It is expanding like the universe, giving power and hope to all persons who are willing to take hold of it. In the best and worst of times, it changes us. It opens us to new possibilities. It gives us all we need to run and not be weary; to mount up with wings like eagles. The question is, will we do so; will we allow the ever expanding power of the resurrection to touch us as it is touching that woman at the Welcome Inn that we too might find the amazing hope that God offers. My challenge then is to ask, “How am I allowing the power of Jesus’ resurrection to give me the strength I need to soar?”
Halleluia (FPC Choir and Friends)