Mythos and Logos – the language of Truth

Luke 18:1-8         Sunday School Skit – You just had to be there.

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.         Nicene Creed, Article 2

 

And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.

If even an unscrupulous judge – who acts solely out of his own self-interest – accidentally enacts justice for a widow, how much more then will God – who is, well, God – pay attention to, and honor our creaturely needs and rights?

Matthew and Luke share this theme. Jesus teaches about God’s love for us by holding a mirror to our own behavior. “Who among you, if your son asks for a fish would give him a snake, or if your daughter asks for Æbleskiver would instead give her a flat pancake? If you, who are wily, imperfect, arrogant, self-centered, at times mean spirited, hateful and proud, nevertheless, act out of compassion, empathy, goodness, kindness, courage, love – then why would you expect anything less from God? This is your trust, your sure and certain hope, that God who is love, loves; that God who creates, will creatively provide.

As the kid’s parable demonstrates, the gospels show Jesus to be the Explainer of God, the face of God, the living skin of God, the breath of the Holy Spirit, the word, wisdom, lover of God, the fire, passion, pathway and eternal being of God. In short, God.

And, although it might be hard to see it, that is what the creed is trying to express, as well.

The purpose of the creeds is to provide a statement of correct belief or orthodoxy, to describe the work of the three persons of the Trinity. The Christian creeds had been drawn up at times of conflict about doctrine: acceptance or rejection of a creed served to distinguish believers and deniers of a particular point or set of doctrines – the divinity of Jesus, for example, was a big one.

And it still is, I think, at least in ways.

The rubbing points for many people in reciting the creeds are in the particulars, perhaps, more than the concepts. The one I hear more than anything else is: Do we need to accept a virgin birth in order to believe that Jesus is of, from, in God as a Son to a Father? As waffle and Æbleskiver are of the same substance? I think it is a very good question.

The gospel of Mark doesn’t mention Jesus’ origins, and John’s gospel places them before all things in the Christ who became incarnate in Jesus without any explanation of the how or when. His mother is never given a name in the John’s gospel. Has the Christmas story of Matthew and Luke – as much as we love them at Christmas – become a stumbling point when made into doctrine?

Language has two characters: mythos and logos. Both of them tell the truth, but understand truth in different realms. Mythos is myth, poetry, transformational story language that helps us see ourselves and big concepts like faithfulness, honesty, heroism, bravery. Jesus used it in telling parables. We might describe the bonding, the joy of hard communal work, the way in which the scent of Æbleskiver and medisterpølse trailed out of the Hall after each of us last night and followed us, bringing that communal memory into our individual homes. That is mythos language.

Logos is a rational truth-telling language. The statistics of how many meal tickets were sold, how much the raffle items earned, how the bake sale contributed, how the hot water held up, how much fruit soup is left over compared to other years – this is the language of logos.

I suspect that those who have a hard time reciting the creeds because they can’t, with integrity, proclaim belief in the virgin birth, or the third day resurrection might do better with it if we had a better grasp of mythos, if we accorded mythos equal stature to the facts and reproducible, objective language of post-enlightenment logos.

Because the creeds, like scripture itself, are intended to promote faith, not block it. The gospel writers used the language, social structures, world view of their intended audiences to convince people in the Greco-Roman world that there is one God, not a pantheon of gods mostly interested in messing with humanity and fighting among themselves, and that Jesus is that God in person; that Jesus returns to God, as will all believers after death. Mythology was part of that world view, the language of mythos, poetry, imagination fills ancient literature as well as Hebrew and Christian scripture.

Having recently read John’s gospel, the language used there regarding Jesus is familiar  – eternally begotten – God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father; through him all things were made…the creed mirrors John’s mythos language in these images of Jesus’ identity and mission. It is telling the truth, but not in facts and figures. So there is no reason to shift into logos language when we get to the particulars. And there is no reason not to. Meaning, that we are allowed to use whichever realm of truth leads to and supports our individual faith in the communal truth of God in Jesus.

The creed is the gospel in shorthand. It was especially intended for teaching the faith to converts and those who wished to be baptized. This is the faith they are entering.  Recited in Sunday worship, the creeds are a reminder of the promise of the “abiding” presence God, not a confining abstract speculation or roadblock. They are an invitation to experience the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as mythos and logos – a saving and comforting presence in the midst of our day-to-day world seeking truth even in mystery.

The Mystery of all that is, seen and unseen

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you… ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener – whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”        John 14:19-ff

Every month, on the second Thursday, a group of area pastors get together for a conference meeting. We begin with fellowship as a buffer allowing time for GPS signals to track down some of the better hidden churches. Shortly after 10, we move into the sanctuary for worship led by the hosting pastor. We have a short business meeting, a program of some sort, and lunch.

I hosted the event in April. Last week’s reflections offered by Christy, Molly and Claire (a sermon in 4 acts) came from that conference worship service. From Chris’s opening notes on the piano, through the unconventional sermon, to the last bit of dessert served by Barb and Mike, it’s a fair claim to say that those pastors were impressed by the gifts of this congregation. So am I, by the way. Very.

One of the things that I’ve been impressed with in attending other monthly conference worship services is the incredible speed with which many pastors recite the Apostle’s Creed. It’s like there is a contest to see if you can say it all in one breath, or perhaps a small prize for finishing first without stumbling. I can do it in 19.85 seconds and three short gasps. I can… but I don’t.

While the race of words is run, I intentionally say the creed quietly, slowly, in protest as though these particular words have meaning. I quit when everyone else does even though I’m barely beyond “I believe in Jesus.”

But when I’m the host, I have a microphone and I can slow them all down. And I did. Because words do have meaning. If one is going to say, “I believe,” then the content that follows should be said with integrity and intentionality.

The thing is, for some of us, that’s hard to do. The words of these ancient formulas – the Apostles and Nicene Creeds – don’t necessarily express our beliefs. For some – maybe many of us – the creed becomes almost a stumbling block to faith, not a cloak of comfort and cohesion uniting us with believers from all times and places, as was intended. Maybe that’s why some pastors race though them, so no one has time to take offense or be embarrassed, so there’s no time to get lost wondering about the disparity between one’s personal beliefs and this archaic condensation of 66 biblical books into three statements one can recite by rote in 19.85 seconds. Maybe saying them when you are ambivalent about the content, like skimming over thin ice, is safer the faster you go.

To be fair, I don’t think my fellow pastors are conflicted by the creed. But I am, in ways. And I know that some of you are.

So, you might want to turn to pages 104 and 105 in the front of the hymnal and mark the page. For the next few weeks we’re going to think about these words slowly, taking a chance with thin ice and heresy. I hope you will talk about them at fellowship – about what might be your particular stumbling point, or what is the rock upon which you stand?  I want to do this little series now, while we still have language from the gospel of John in our heads, because I think that context, that poetic, symbolic, swirling imagery might help.

The history of the creeds is interesting, discouraging, disheartening because of the politics of church and state involved in their formation, the divisiveness between Eastern and Western Christianity; because of the decades of theological struggle – even deaths – that came in the formulation, in the precision of words. An historical perspective might offer a new appreciation of the creeds…  but I don’t want to start there.

I want to start with Mystery.

Most of you know I like mystery – especially BBC murder mysteries.… I like that a number of them have vicars, monks, theologians, or elderly women involved in sleuthing. I like that they bumble along at a nice slow pace. I don’t have to sit on the edge of my chair. I can be carried along by the author’s imagination and twists in the storyline without anxiety.

I try to offer God the same artistic license.

I also like that within an hour or two the mystery is solved, the loose ends are all collected, the villains – who thought they were so clever – are brought to justice. I am embarrassingly impatient with God.

Murder mysteries tidy everything up on a Sunday night. My prayer life, my engagement, and dealings with God are not as neat or quick or decided.

Mysteries train us to consider all that is, all the options. So do the creeds.

Article 1 from the Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

One God, the maker of all that is both seen and unseen? Or…

One God of all that is;

One God, seen and unseen.

I also like the ambiguity of grammatical clauses.

My theology, my understanding of God and God’s ways, thrives on the unseen. Maybe this creedal statement is saying we believe in a God who is revealed and hidden in all created things, a God who shows up in our lives in unexpected, inexplicable ways now and then – a God who is always there but willing to be overshadowed, made invisible by the gifts of this world created for us.

A God who is seen and unseen fits my theological world view – my faith’s “on again, off again, hopeful, but wondering” pathway.

I think preaching for a month on the creeds could be quite dreadful. But a month of considering the ground of our faith – the landscapes and pathways – the content of the creeds and how we process and experience the trinity …  that could be a worthwhile use of a few Sundays.

The seen and unseen nature of God allows an expansive view of faith. Modern American Christianity  – the way it is represented in the headlines or by the loudest voices today – is actually a very small rivulet of the stream of Christian faith that has flowed through the centuries.  This, too, gives me hope. When we recite the creed, we step into this flow of water. There is depth and breadth within history. From the gospel evangelists, to the desert Fathers and Mothers, from martyrs to heretics, from mystics to reformers, from rationalists to confessors – every age has struggled with, and gloried in, the seen and unseen nature of God and what it means to confess, “I believe in God… near at hand and unknowable, sought after, revealed, incarnate, silent, inspiring.

We might think we know too much of life to maintain the innocence of faith. We’ve seen too much of the world’s sorrow and hardship; our blessed assurance has wilted. We need re-crisping, like wilted greens brought in from the garden and vivified by standing their stems in a glass of cool water or tucking them into a crisping drawer. Our knowledge of “all that is” has exploded since these creeds were devised. We have pitted science and rationalism against faith as though we have to choose one or the other, as though there is only one way of knowing, a single narrative. We need to be reawakened to the mystery of God, whom we have allowed to become too small and stodgy, or who we feel must be protected from challenge and change. We would do well to make room for the not-knowingness, the hypothesis of faith.

At their best, creeds help us make a connection with a deeply grounded, personal, and communally tended spiritual life. They are an open door through which we walk into the marvelous space of life with God. Please talk about this when you have the comfort of a coffee cup in your hand. What does it mean to believe in God, the Father; the Almighty? God the creator of heaven and earth? God the giver and source of mystery? Is God your scaffolding…the structure and support of your life? Does the language of ‘all things, seen and unseen’ create enough space for questions and rubbing points?

This is a somewhat awkward, unedifying end to a sermon, but I do want you to think about these questions, so I leave you in peace for a few moments of reflection.

Sermon in four acts

Linda

Some months ago, Jan and Peter and I went on a cross-cultural trip. We went to the land of MOA (otherwise known as the Mall of America). We went on a walkabout to see the sights and eventually came into the capital of this make-believe land, Nordstroms. It sounds Scandinavian, but it’s not humble enough to be Danish.

Anyway, I was in a good mood, having spent an hour under the sparkly, decorative lights of the mall, breathing in that slightly intoxicating smell of chlorine from the water park – a scent that makes everything seem clean and pure.   We had no business at Nordstroms, but wandered in anyway. Once we left the escalator, I quickly came upon a really lovely dress. Simple lines, quality linen/fine wool blend, black with a pale pink yoke. I liked it a lot. I accidentally found the price while looking for the fabric content. $1685. Peter pointed out a little navy woven top – $1265. We agreed not to touch anything, but had gotten spun into the web. We circled the wonders on display.

On a golden pillar with glass shelves sized for a single magic slipper and spaced for artful emphasis, I saw the most perfect shoe. I hate to call it a shoe. The fabled glass slipper had nothing on this one. It was deep blue like the ocean – deep, brilliant, evocative blue like the sky just after sunset – fine grained suede, 3 1/2 inch stiletto heel. A golden clasp held the ankle strap. Perfect. Balanced, elegant, gorgeous. Givenchy. $1400 (maybe just for that one shoe!). I circled the area but kept being drawn back to that perfect blue shoe sitting like a jewel on a golden pillar. The boys and I noted that blue was a practical color – so many colors would set it off – it was just the right shade of blue. I began to imagine the places that shoe would be worn, the admiration it would draw, the elegant rooms it would enter on the foot of a tall, thin woman.

In the midst of these pleasant imaginings I turned and saw myself in a mirror. Full length. Of course I was wearing my hiking boots because I can walk all day in them. Of course I had on my favorite baggy brown sweater, and gray coat. Nothing matched. My hair was….well, much like it is now – which is to say, not the hairstyle one would wear with Givenchy.

You have to know I never actually considered buying the perfect shoe. I didn’t really imagine myself wearing it, I just imagined it in the life the shoe would inhabit… and imagining that, I felt the need to accessorize my life to match the shoe’s worldview. That’s the spell of Nordstroms.

In unexpectedly seeing my reflection alongside The Shoe I felt the farce of being there, the cinders of my little, plain life and how impossibly absurd my fascination with this $1400 shoe.  In that one glance in a mirror I felt ugly, stupid, conspicuous, a failure.

But in the next moment – before I could turn away from the mirror of my sad reality, Jan and Peter passed behind me. I saw them reflected there for just a moment. I couldn’t have loved them or needed their grinning faces more than in that fleeting glance. Because somehow I had taken it all personally – the strings of sparkling lights filling in the domed sky, the exalted land of Nordstrom, the perfection of a blue shoe.

The contrast to my own life had become a critique of me. I had been so taken in by the marketing of this contrived land that I lost my way.

The grace of that moment was in seeing the ridiculous world of Givenchy shoes in the same mirror as my sons… and hearing them call my name.

What does all of this have to do with resurrection, with the fourth Sunday of Easter? I find that I can’t say much about Resurrection with a capital R. It is a mystery. But I think there are glimpses, small events that get us ready – moments of grace, of seeing a different reality, of opening ourselves to a resurrection vision.

The magic mirror at Nordstrom’s shoe department stripped away my false images and imagination and revealed me as I am – messed up, maybe, poorer in spirit, of lower estate than how we would like to imagine ourselves, but possessing all we need – the love and truth, simply, of who we are before God.

The moments when we know that, accept it, rest back in it, are little resurrections, raising us to new life in this same old familiar life. Like Lazarus, like Mary, like Thomas – we hear Christ call us out of grief and fear and disbelief – calling us by name and giving us cause to tell someone else of this rise-up-my love-and-follow-me love of Christ.

Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the empty tomb in which Jesus had been laid… She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was him. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned, “Rabbouni!” 

And Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”…              ~ John 20

Musical interlude

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain them, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

So the other imrs.phpdisciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Christy

At our house, pot roast is a winter food. We had pot roast this past week and it was yet another sure sign that spring has indeed not come. For us in the north this year, the idea that spring will come is more a point of faith than an evidence-based fact – is it too late to add it to the Apostles’ Creed?

We’re all so busily looking for signs of spring these days it’s turned us into amateur phenologists. Phenology is one of my favorite sciences: literally “the study of appearances,” it’s the systematic observation of seasonal natural phenomena. Ice-out dates, the dates the woods green up, lilacs leafing out and blooming, bird migrations, the first redwing blackbird sighting in Luck, WI…believe it or not these appearances are meticulously tracked by scientists to understand climate patterns.

Generations of farmers and gardeners have also, year after year, noticed patterns of appearances and collected them into phenological dicta, essential for life on the land. “Look for morels when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.” “It’s safe to plant tomatoes when the lily-of-the-valley are flowering.” “When the thistles are in bloom, the apple maggots are out–take protective measures.” And here’s my favorite: “You know you should start tapping your maple trees when you smell the first skunk roadkill.”

So the disciples gather together in the confusing days after Jesus’ death-and-whispered- resurrection, and Jesus appears to them in their frightened upper conference room. The first time he comes he gets a jump on Pentecost by breathing his spirit into his disciples. It’s much more intimate than Pentecost will be: instead of tongues of fire, Jesus crowds them in close and exhales a long, warm breath into their faces.

When next he appears to the disciples, it’s his body he shares with them (thank you, Thomas, for asking what we were all thinking). He again crowds them in closely and asks them to touch his wounded body–hand touching hand, hand touching body. The disciples become intimately aware that Christ has indeed risen. They have smelled his breath, and touched his living skin.

Pay attention, Jesus says. These are the signs that I’m alive. Look for them. Get out of your little upper room of fear; go out on the lake and go fishing. Keep looking for me.

And still today we look for God in the world, but sometimes, I think, we look in the wrong places. We ignore that breath of wind tossing the bare trees–what if it were the breath of God, the spirit of God hovering over the waters, melting the ice, and it means he’s alive today, breathing warmly on our faces? You might begin to smell the lilacs blooming, the unfurling of their sweet scent on the breeze–and what if it were the fragrance of burial spices, wafting out of an empty tomb? Wouldn’t you breathe it in to the deepest part of your lungs, and treasure it there?

And what about those coarse, needy people in your life, crowding in uncomfortably close, breathing onto you, reaching out their wounded hands to you, to touch and be touched? Wouldn’t the only proper response to them be joy? Hallelujah, Jesus is risen?

What if both the annual running of the maple sap and the skunks coming out of their dens after hibernation were images-1signs of God’s presence in the world, Christ’s continuing resurrection? And if that redwing blackbird you hear were the voice of Christ, how would that change the way you listened? Do we ignore the sound of birdsong to our
peril? And what about that bread you taste at supper, alongside the pot roast, what if it were his body?

Don’t miss the signs, Jesus says. Pay attention. Because the spring we wait for has already come. And will keep on coming, forever.

Musical interlude

     After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

     Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

  When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

 Molly

How messy this breakfast story is. How deeply beautiful. The disciples, lost again for what to do with themselves, return to what they know, fishing. And they fish all night – and catch nothing. Not until dawn when they take the fish_bbq250advice of someone on shore and cast on the right side the boat. Nearly overwhelmed with fish and Peter overwhelmed with recognizing that shoreline someone is Jesus, they go to shore. And Jesus invites these tired, stinky, physically and emotionally wandering disciples to breakfast. Most of them are naked and probably thoroughly smelly – with sweat and fish. And Peter shows up drenched with his clothes on.

“Bring some of the fish you have just caught” Jesus calls, “Come have breakfast!”

If this isn’t the essence of hospitality, I don’t know what is. Jesus invites the disciples and feeds them– -right now! shows them they have something to offer — right now, in their unsightliness, in their lostness, “Come, Eat, and Bring some of those fish you have, we need them!!”

The disciples don’t seem to know how to tend themselves. But, oh, how Jesus loves them. Loves them and knows the love that lives inside them. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Love Jesus–that great giver of hospitality to all – untouchables and mistake makers, stinky wanderers. “Do you love me?” “Feed my lambs”, “tend my sheep”, “feed my sheep”. How? What does this look like? I don’t know. Probably like a lot of different things; a lot of small everyday occurrences. This week I’ve been thinking about what it looks like to literally feed people.

One year I was working in the kitchen at Holden Village, a retreat center in the North Cascades of Washington, and a woman named Marsha came on teaching staff for a week. Now Marsha couldn’t eat certain foods – gluten I think was one of them. Located in the remote mountains, the village dining hall was the only place to get food for many miles (and hours of traveling) around. One morning I was in charge of finding something Marsha could eat for breakfast. As an entirely volunteer staff — some of us having little experience in kitchens — certainly commercial kitchens — we tried our best and learned as we went. But sometimes we fell short. I think we had been coming up short for Marsha. This day, at the end of the week, she came to the front counter and asked, in not too bright a tone, what there was for her for breakfast. Oh, we not been feeding Marsha well —she was not being filled and I was not feeling good about what we had made. That day, like the previous days, the de-facto option was the same, Cream of Rice. I was ashamed at the kitchen’s shortcomings. My shortcomings. I worried b/c I needed to be the one with the answers—I was in charge—and I didn’t have the answer— didn’t know what she would want or what I was really capable of making. But here she was. And her need was palpable.

“We have cream of Rice”, I said, “but we could make you something else—whatever you’d like!” And began listing off theoretical options. Eggs! A brightening relief spread over Marsha’s face. “How would like them?” I asked. Sunny side up? O dear! I had never made sunny side up eggs. In my emptiness, I told her this, but that I would try my best — How did she usually go about making them? Tenderly, she explained and I unhitched a frying pan from above the counter, and set tremulously to work. Nervously I brought the cooked eggs to the table where Marsha sat sipping coffee, and set them before her. She looked at them and then at me and said, “they look beautiful!”

We are not called to single handedly divine what the sheep require and deliver it to them. We’d probably get it wrong anyway. We are asked to be the broken tending the broken. (even Jesus bears nail holes and a pierced side) Every day it’s easy to hear voices telling us we aren’t enough or don’t know enough to do useful work. We are too young or too old or too broken or make too many bad decisions. But Jesus says, I love you. You are good enough just as you are. To be loved, to love the sheep. All you need to do is show up to hear and learn from one another. I lambs-wool-lamb-imagewas supposed to feed Marsha, but she fed me just as much. Really, we made breakfast together. It is in the feeding, we are together filled, together made whole.

Musical interlude

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.

Claire

I love Thomas. He needed proof he could touch and see before he could say ‘my Lord and my God.’ He just says it right out, and he is granted those proofs. Lucky, lucky man.

I’ve gone around needing proofs just like Thomas. I wasn’t bold enough to say it aloud, not even to myself, but that is what I’ve been looking for all my life. It’s made all the difference to have found the joyful Danes and West Denmark where questions are welcome and searching and learning are a way of life.

Thomas’s story has set me to thinking about the proofs I’ve been given, about where I see and touch God in my life. I’ve come up with a list I’d like to share with you.

God made me an introvert and a Romantic so He meets me in those places.

I love quiet and stillness and the story of Samuel listening for God’s voice. When I sit quietly God is right there in the quiet waiting.

I love color, somehow it plays me like a guitar, and I feel God in those glorious vibrations as color strikes my eyes. Colors, especially the red/blue ones swallow me up in a velvet sea of God’s glory.

I love sound, birdsong, water, rain, sung harmony, D major chords on my piano, spring peepers, waterfalls and windblown grass. When I get to heaven I’ll be able to sing harmony by ear and resonate with the energy of the universe.

I feel God’s spirit when I’m in community, especially here with all of you. That’s why I have so much fun passing the peace. Working together physically as a church family gives me strength and joy.

Singing together at family camp feels like a foretaste of heaven.

Most of all I meet God in nature….rich beyond imagining life before my eyes. Connecting across species is my greatest joy. It really does feel like meeting God, doing God, representing God, receiving God.

Thank you Pastor Linda for asking for reflections this Easter season. I’ve learned so much from sorting through my thoughts and beliefs and hearing from other writers. And thank you, Thomas, for your plain speaking. Now I can say “My Lord and My God” with you.

Æbleskiver Dinner! Saturday, May 5th! Why fish when you can ‘skiver’?

The most delicious Breakfast-for-dinner Dinner you’ll ever enjoy!

Serving from 3:30 until 7 pm at the West Denmark Parish Hall. 2492 170th Street (1 mile West on N,  South on 170th street until you smell the skivers!)

All the Æbleskiver you can eat, plus Medisterpølse (Danish sausage), Sødsuppe (Sweet soup), and Æblekage (Applecake) or Lemon fluff for dessert.

Tickets sold at the door $10/plate.

Raffle items and baked goods for sale, too!Unknown-1

Rise, O Church, like Christ Arisen

“Mary!”

She turned, “Rabbouni!” (which means beloved teacher).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”   

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them what he had said to her.

carravagio-doubting-thomas

 

 

 

 

That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. 

The first thing I notice is that the disciples have regrouped. Three nights before, at Jesus’ arrest and trial, they scattered like quail in the face of danger. But by Sunday evening they are back together. No texting or tweets, those who loved Jesus just knew to go back to the last place, go back to the house to question and compare stories and grieve. Jesus created a new family at the foot of the cross in his mother and the beloved disciple, but his love and the disciples’ loyalty seem to be formative here, too, in sharing tears and fears and food even while hiding behind closed doors.

 He said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.  Again Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you hang onto them, they are retained.”

That’s a heady thing to tell this group hiding in fear for their lives. I bet they were taking mental notes, forming a list of who belonged on the retaining list. Who were their enemies, who garnered the most fear? Who would they most want condemned?

In church talk, this responsibility to retain and release is called the power of the keys and is conferred in ordination. I prefer it in the realm of fishing. It has seemed to me to be the most frightening thing about ordination… During confession and absolution at the beginning of the service the pastor will say something along the lines of, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

I don’t spend any time wondering about retaining sins.  I’m not that decisive or certain. I don’t know enough to condemn or judge.

But, by the same token, I wonder about pronouncing a blanket forgiveness over all our sins. What does that mean?  I have no idea about all your sins. Is it right for me to release them without questioning you? And I wonder, during the silence for confession, how many of us are actually considering the category.

Is sin a listing of un-repented wrongs you have done?

Is sin failure to follow a moral/ethical code of behavior – Old Testament law stuff?

Is sin failure to live fully out of love for self and neighbor – loving as we have been loved – as commanded by Jesus?

In John’s gospel sin is unbelief, the refusal to see that God is acting in and through the person of Jesus… the refusal to trust that Jesus is the person of God, the incarnate Word.

Some days are more Thomassy than others, for me…Some days the wounds of the world or ourselves would swallow us whole, and believing in the goodness and power of God’s love is difficult. Some days I would dearly love a little solid proof, a little less mystery, less reason to wonder.

Thomas, the twin, the one called Didymus, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The others told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”  But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Doubting Thomas. The Greek word is not “doubt,” actually, but “unbelieving.” Unbelieving Thomas doesn’t have the same zing, and the words might seem to be synonymous, but, at least for the author of John, they are not.

To believe in Jesus is not to say you believe in the truth of the story. To believe in Jesus is to say, “I abide in you, my Lord and my God, and you abide in me.” It affirms an on-going, whole body, mind and spirit relationship between Jesus and you as the believer.

Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is for Mary in the garden. She runs back to the disciples saying, “I have seen the Lord!” But they don’t say “What?! That’s fantastic! All he said is becoming clear!” Instead, Jesus finds them huddled with the doors locked for fear that they too would be thrown out of the synagogue, that perhaps they, too, would be crucified or stoned.

Jesus appears to them and they rejoice when they see the Lord. The disciples repeat Mary’s exact words to Thomas when he comes, “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas also requires a personal encounter.

Actually, we all do. That’s how faith happens. When the Samaritan woman left her water jug and ran back to her townspeople telling of her meeting at the well, they go to Jesus and “abide” with him, saying to her, “It is no longer because of what you said, but now we have heard for ourselves.” This isn’t a slight against her. Believing in Jesus is not about believing in someone else’s experience, belief is in having your own encounter with the Word made flesh. It makes sense if incarnation and God’s love of this world are taken seriously. Belief is not aimed at eternity, but begins with fullness of life and grace here, now: An actual experience, an epiphany of God in your own life.

Because the resurrection is not just the resurrection. Jesus said, “I AM the Resurrection and the life.” Belief and life are synonyms in this Gospel, and together form the groundwork for a relationship that sustains and sends out disciples of all times and places and styles.

After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”…Michelangelo Merisi (or Amerighi) da Caravaggio's painting of Jesus showing and letting Thomas touch

 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.
No more disbelief. Believe!”

Thomas wanted to touch the wounds; to see and feel, and experience for himself.

But, have you ever wondered why Jesus would still have wounds?

It doesn’t seem to occur to Thomas and the others that the risen Lord should now be made perfect, whole, unblemished.  That’s interesting. Unlike his other signs and healings characterized by restoration and wholeness, the resurrected Jesus is not pristine. He still bears the marks of death.

It is this wounded Savior, then, who is the standard for the coming kingdom of God, not those other blessed, healed, perfected ones. Through Thomas we witness the wounds of the body of Christ.  Indeed, they are all around us.

Too often, in our real lives, we don’t want to see them, we don’t want to touch them. We don’t want to get that involved, or be that vulnerable.  We usually try to ensure that marks of imperfection and pain be kept covered, as if such “not seeing” will help in some way, will preserve one’s dignity or prevent embarrassment at being seen for who we are. Neither do we want to be reminded of our scars and holes and raw edges by seeing them in others.

But if Jesus is raised with wounds, maybe that – and not perfection – is what God prefers to work with; maybe our wounded-ness is where transformation and transcendence can take root – like a seed falling on soft, broken ground.

Jesus’ bodily appearance is full of mystery, but we see in this story the tender compassion of the living word of God. Jesus knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them peace. He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes the Spirit into their flagging hearts. He knows they have lost their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation. He knows they can hardly believe their eyes, that he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—so he shows them his wounds. He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the next week to make sure the Twin is not left out. He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination or judgment, but grants them the kingdom.

It is not surprising then, that in the presence of such immense tenderness, the reading says (in what has to be one of the biggest understatements of the Bible) the disciples rejoiced.

Easter, in these terms, is the breaking-in of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, restoration and love like this, for all the wounded and broken, for the afraid, believing, skeptical, strong, and faithful – for all. It is ours to practice this living, to become Easter people, rising anew and going out into the world with great joy and good news and our visible wounds.

Christ is risen. Alleluia

Easter ~ In the Beginning…

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran… and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 

Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,  and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 

Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  

Then the disciples returned to their homes. 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;  and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni!” (which means beloved Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

In the beginning was the Word.

“Woman why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”

In the beginning was the Word.

“Mary.”

In the beginning when darkness covered the face of the earth and the world was a formless void…. The word of God brought light into the darkness and life out of emptiness.

In the beginning there was a garden, and on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went there in grief.

John presents us with a narrative that, in its end, circles back to its beginning – that circles back to creation, to incarnation, to the coming of God in Jesus to bring light to our darkest days and life to the emptiest places and love into the void of despair.

We know this story. We watch as Mary discovers Jesus’ tomb – the tomb that should be filled to overflowing with death and burial spices and linen shrouds and grief, the tomb that should be sealed in cold, dark, stone – is open…is empty. We see Peter and the other disciple run to see that what the woman has told them is indeed the case. John tells us that the beloved disciple “saw and believed.” But, he saw nothing – no angels, no body, so what did he believe? Perhaps simply that Mary was correct — that someone had stolen the body of their crucified teacher, that the tomb was empty.

Peter discovers the linen burial wrappings and notices the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head has been rolled up and lies in a place apart, by itself. These are not yet clues to the greatest masterpiece of all mysteries. They are simply the facts. The tomb is empty.

Having felt this void, this kind of darkness and hurt in our own lives, we understand their confusion and anger, their disappointment and doubt. Why is this tomb empty? Who would do this? Why would they do this?  Why is this new burden added to our defeat?

Where there is no body, there is no closure; where there is no body there can be none of the comfort that can gained from the certainty of death, when there is an empty grave there is no location for our grief to dwell.

Unenlightened, the two of them go home.

The Three Marys at the Tomb by Mikołaj Haberschrack, 15th centuryThe Three Marys at the Tomb by Mikołaj Haberschrack, 15th centuryOur focus returns to Mary. Neither Peter nor the other disciple have offered her words of comfort or encouragement. They have not persuaded Mary to return home with them. So she stays.

Weeping, she looks into the cave. She hears an echo from within the tomb and from behind her – from the place of death and endings and shame, and from the garden of new life … “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Really? Well, let me count the ways; let us repeat the litany of grief, guilt, and heartbreak that fills our human frames, that marks our earthly days. Death, betrayal, abandonment, failure, fear… how’s that for a start?

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”

“What are you looking for?” were the first words Jesus spoke in this gospel, way back in the beginning, when a few of John the baptist’s disciples followed him.  “What do you want?” Jesus asked them, and then invited, “Come and see.”

Jesus asks Mary the same question, “Whom are you looking for?”

Well, what – or whom – are you looking for? You’ve come here for a reason – – presumably for more than breakfast. Whom do you seek? What is it you hope to find here – need to find – and hope it might be found here?

There is work here that needs to be done… you probably didn’t come looking for work.

There is sickness and death and birth and growth and friendship; there is fellowship among the saints; good food is shared here, peace is shared, stories are shared and heard; there are a few noisy children underfoot when we’re lucky; there’s curiosity, and laughter, and prayer, a bit of sarcasm now and then; there is encouragement and nurture, a concern about injustice and the future of the planet; there is music for our souls; there are your various vocations being lived out in important, intentional, and earnest ways; there are memories to hold, traditions to build on, and a future to imagine our way into. These are some of our assets.

Did you come seeking them? If so, you’re welcome to them. Come and stay.

What – or whom – are you looking for?

I can’t promise that you’ll find God here, or that you will be warmed or enlightened by the Holy Spirit, that here you will find the One in whom your soul finds its rest and goal. I can promise you welcome at Christ’s table of grace and bounteous mercy. I can promise you an opportunity to search your conscience, offer confession, and receive release for the burdens you bear. I can promise that whether or not you find God, you are known – fully, truly, and forgiven and loved by this gardener God, this Savior, this Christ among the crocuses. And I can promise you that it is good news of great joy for you.

With a word, Mary realizes her mistake. This is not a gardener, nor a thief.  “Rabbouni,” she says –  a term of endearment for a much loved teacher. She might as well have called him Good Shepherd, for she turns at the sound of her name. She turns toward Jesus in a moment of recognition that encapsulates all of the joy, all the expectancy, all the incredulity of resurrection.

In the beginning was the Word.

“Woman why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”

In the beginning was the Word.

“Mary.”

In the beginning when darkness covered the face of the earth and the world was a formless void…. The word of God brought light into the darkness and life out of emptiness, and even now, the darkness has not overcome it.

In the beginning there was a garden, out of which God sent Eve and Adam to know death and grief, to work and toil, to live – not in the absence of God, but estranged and apart.

In the beginning there was a garden, and on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went there in grief. We know that garden, that pre-dawn chill of darkness.

But from this Easter garden Mary Magdalene is sent out rejoicing.

This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Life wins. God reigns… rains down mercy, sprinkles down hope, pours out possibilities…where none seem to exist. The Word has spoken through the ages, spoken through the dark night, has broken through the stone wall – the Word has spoken…. a name –  your name, my name, and has turned our death into life.

Jesus, who was crucified, who was buried, has been raised.  Alleluia!

Pastor Linda

Good Friday

John 19:28-42good friday 2018 edited copy

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, “I thirst.”  A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.  (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

The gospel of John narrates Jesus’ death with simplicity, dignity, solemnity. Here there is none of the turmoil or violence of the other gospels – no jeering crowds at the trial before Pilate, Jesus carries his cross bar by himself to Golgotha and without the crowd looking on. There is no conversation with crucified criminals or mocking by soldiers. Jesus does not cry out to God or make a loud cry at the end – in fact, the Synoptic gospel’s quotation from psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a theological impossibility for Jesus of this gospel. He and God are one from the beginning, united in work and in love. Their unity is strengthened, not broken, at Jesus’ death. The natural world perhaps pauses, waiting – but does not shake or moan or give in to the darkness.

There is poignancy and sadness at this scene, but there is not despair, not abandonment. Jesus is the mystical, incarnate Son of God, the one sent by God into the world to save the world by revealing God’s love. And this is Jesus, the man who dies on a cross, bleeding from his wounds and pierced side, wrapped in linen cloths and laid to rest in a garden tomb. In his death, Jesus completes the life for which he was born and into which he was sent by bearing ultimate witness to the truth: that through him we are given what is most precious – true incorporation (being brought bodily into) the love of God.

The abundance of scriptural references normally annoys me, because it makes the story seem so scripted – which is not how we experience our lives or believe God would be with us. However, their purpose is to confirm that this death is part of God’s plan for salvation from the beginning.

His unbroken legs lead us to the psalter, his pierced side to Zechariah, but they also prove that he is truly dead… “and at once blood and water came out.” The emphasis on the eye witness is to confirm to readers that this actually happened…. and it is physiologically accurate of a chest wound from crucifixion.

But the significance of water and blood is only in part for proof. The context from Zechariah is both mourning and hope. In the midst of death God pours out “ a spirit of compassion and supplication to the house of David, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps for a firstborn.”  In citing this passage, John both implicates the “Jews” (John’s name for all in opposition to Jesus) who remain blind to the presence of God, and offer hope, that even in death, when we look on the one who was pierced we see God’s only child, the firstborn of creation, who transforms death in love into life.

Jesus was the source of living water – life flows from Jesus’ death from his wounded side; his blood – linked to the original Passover – is not for forgiveness of sin, but is shed to provide life – as it saved the Israelites from the final plague of death.

Hope is a strange thing to be talking about on Good Friday, but it is true for this gospel and is perhaps why it’s called Good. I’m not sure about that. I’ve been using Advent hymns in Lent because they are appropriate for this gospel’s telling. Here’s another one: “All earth is hopeful, the Savior comes at last, furrows lie open for God’s creative task; this, the labor of people who struggle to see how God’s truth and justice set everybody free.”

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are the characters of this struggle. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court – and a secret disciple of Jesus. He represents those who fear losing political power and influence within the synagogue and community if they confessed openly their belief in Jesus. At Jesus’ death, however, Joseph is emboldened by the truth he now believes and makes public. He embodies the risk and openly claims discipleship. This was a hugely significant challenge for John’s original audience – and the cost could involve being shunned, stoned, and killed as we know from the apostle Paul’s story and Stephen’s stoning.

The willingness to bury Jesus is seen by John as a confession of faith. Nicodemus first came to Jesus at night and left very much in the dark about Jesus’ identity. He later stood up for Jesus on the basis of fairness in hearing him out in a discussion among the pharisees, but here, Nicodemus abandons neutrality and secrecy and acts out of love and with great reverence.

The prodigious amount of burial spices – 100 pounds – could be again seen as a proof offering – it would be enough to keep Jesus pinned down … but consider its fragrance.  100 pounds of myrtle, of myrrh, of sweet aloes. That fragrance would have filled and overpowered and out-flowed this newly carved cave like the excess of pure nard that Mary poured over his feet, anointing them with her hair. This is an act of utter devotion and all-in love.

Joseph, Nicodemus, and Mary prove themselves to be true disciples as they live out of love. Jesus’ body is handled with care and dignity in it’s preparation. John makes note that it is the Day of Preparation – on one level it is the day before sabbath begins at sundown, on another level, it is the day Jesus is prepared for glory. Linen burial cloth is normally accorded only to those of wealth and high standing, the pristine condition of the garden tomb adds to the dignity and beauty of their treatment of Jesus’ body.

The scent of burial spices, the scent of newly opened earth, fresh clay, the garden setting pull us back to the beginning. “In the beginning, when the world was a formless void…” pull us back to the beginning -“In the beginning was the Word….and the Word was with God, in the beginning and through him all things were made… In him was life…

How are we to live in this love? There is no single or simple answer.

But there is this story of Jesus’ life and death, and the characters who fill it, who, in one form or another live within us. To this story we come back again and again in words of worship and song and faith. Through the story of God’s love for the world – often hostile and apathetic – Jesus’ love comes as a glimmer of what it means to be community, what it means to be beloved, what it means to know God in the midst of life and struggle, pain and death.

From his fullness we have all received… grace upon grace.”

Maundy Thursday

John 19:23-30

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”  And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”  Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.  

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I thirst.”  A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished…

John is a theological, not historical gospel. In it, Jesus goes willingly to his death, knowing it to be the completion of his hour, the time of his exaltation and glory in the Father.  The other gospels don’t make this the claim of crucifixion. They wait for Easter and the resurrection to talk about God’s glory. In them, his death is a painful tragedy, final proof of the unrequited love of God for the world. But for this author, the incarnation is the beginning and crucifixion the completion of Jesus’ mission.  He tells his disciples, “What should I say – Father, save me from this hour? No, It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Death by crucifixion is not defeat in John’s gospel, but is terrible, costly, beautiful love – a part of God’s plan of salvation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” Those are the opening lines, and it is a summary given in advance of what we are to experience as the gospel unfolds; that’s the interpretive lens of this author. And from chapter 3: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved though him. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…”

The author of John keeps the whole arch in mind as each episode plays out, using Jesus’ death as the focusing receptacle for making meaning of the coming of God in Jesus.

at-the-foot-of-the-cross-2“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  Four women to counter the four soldiers. Four women to indicate the kind of servant-led community that Jesus established. Not the powerful, not the noteable, not the expected, not ones who had any station or ability to lord it over another, but four women and an unnamed, beloved disciple who watched and listened, who loved and grieved, who experienced this death personally.

Jesus’ mother bookends his ministry in earthliness, in mothering awareness, holding the incarnation before us. There were thoughts in the early church that Jesus wasn’t really human. That God assumed humanity as a disguise, as a teaching point of contact without really being human or suffering human death (because how could God suffer and die – God was immutable). Mary stands at the cross to have us behold her suffering, human son, and to see it through.

She was the first to believe in Jesus, back at the wedding in Cana, leaning in to say to him, “They have no more wine,” and to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” This scene at the cross is a refraction of the first of Jesus’ signs. There at Cana he turned water into the finest wine. The steward noted this, that the inferior was served first, the really good stuff appearing last. At the wedding, wine served as a return to Eden, a sign of unreasonable abundance, celebration of life and the creative union of man and woman in one. Through it, God’s glory shone.

On the cross, Jesus says, “I thirst.” Sour wine is lifted for him to drink. He takes the inferior wine, saying, “It is finished.” And we are left to wonder at the finest of wines he will receive in paradise in union with God, a foretaste of which we participate in as his blood shed for us.

There is another union though, and it’s interesting. “Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”  Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” 

Jesus has created a new family from the first person who believed and the last to be mentioned, but not named. We know from the other gospels and writings of Paul that Jesus had brothers.  As the first born, he would be the one expected to provide for his widowed mother. This responsibility would fall to the next oldest brother upon his death. So John is telling us this on purpose – to indicate something unusual they experienced in life after the resurrection.

A new family had formed. Back to the prologue: “…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God.” No longer was it through obligation of the law that the needs of widows and orphans and sojourners were met.  Jesus suffers so that we can belong to each other. Jesus gives himself away to us so that we might give ourselves to each other. Jesus unites all people as he gathers us to himself. In the language of this Gospel, Jesus makes us all someone’s mother and someone’s son. Outsiders are welcomed in, outcasts are seen, cared for, included, widows become mothers, individuals become a community. “No more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home,” my favorite hymn says. That is the new community of Christ – one that transforms and binds together in the contradiction of abiding love and servanthood.

“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

The unique intent of this gospel shows itself again here. In John, there is no conversation with the others crucified on each side, there is no earthquake or thunder or darkening sky in this gospel, the temple curtain is not torn in half. That would be a return to chaos. Here Jesus maintains his dignity and his initiative, his control of this final hour.

Jesus’ hour has come and God’s work though him is accomplished. It is a moment of confidence, an expression of Jesus’ love for his own and his love for God. He bowed his head and gave up his spirit; an active agent to the very end, the crucifixion did not take it away from him, but he offered it up. When we feel most vulnerable, most broken, most hopeless, the promise of the incarnation is that Jesus – dying a death like ours, also reveals the abundant life of union with God that transcends death.

Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus told his disciples – “that he will lay down his life for a friend.” Jesus lays down his life for all – friends and enemies alike.

The story does not trivialize the part of the opposition, the Jews as they or as we are called. It’s not that they were corrupt or ignorant or greedy. They probably were those things, but that’s not their role here. They are part of a world that is cut off from the truth. They do not hear Jesus’ voice. They do not see the glory of God in flesh and blood, or wine and water. They are not moved by the Spirit’s nudging. When we are at our most broken, wounded, confused, lost – we, too are separated,  are on a self-imposed exile from belief that Jesus can or will do anything about it. If there is to be any hope for such people and for such a world, it will not be because we can try harder, or believe better, or testify to our experience of Christ with more conviction. Hope for the world survives these 2000 years, and will last, because God will always find a way to break through what seems to human minds and hearts to be an ending, a death, a completion.

The incarnation ended with Jesus’ last breath, but the impulse of incarnation – of God entering human life, abiding with us through sin and sorrow and celebration and uncertainty does not die on the cross. It comes to birth through the new family of Christ, “born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Tonight we leave in darkness. But this 4th gospel would not have us leave in despair.