A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday.

That’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church.

Last week we presented the triumph of the church year.

We announced to the world the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us.

And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom.

Ouch.

Was it something we said?

It may well have been. Continue reading

Easter Day: Back to Galilee

“He is risen! Alleluia! Now get back to work!”

That seems to be the message from the angel in the Gospel of Matthew text that we read today.

There are a great many shocking things happening in this story—an angel, an earthquake, the guards collapsing comatose in fear and astonishment.

But the angel has a very straightforward and pragmatic message along with the stunning news that Jesus has been raised from the dead. “Return to Galilee.”

What does that mean?

Well, we have a choice as to what it means.

It means, first of all, to return to where it all began.

Galilee was where the disciples lived when Jesus called them.

It is where Jesus began his ministry.

The reality is that the disciples have to return to Galilee no matter what. But they have a choice as to what it means for them.

Are they returning to Galilee because Jesus’ life and ministry ended with his death?

Will they give up and go home?

Will they leave this part of their lives behind them and go back to normal, responsible family and community life?

If they disavow Jesus, they could probably get their old jobs back.

They could pick up their fishing nets, embittered, cynical, and angry at Jesus, who promised them everything and then got himself killed, but secure and comfortable in the old, familiar ways.

Or they could accept and experience the Resurrection. Continue reading

Friday: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is the cry of Jesus from the Cross.

He is broken, abandoned, devoid of any and all hope or strength.

He is at the farthest extreme of his ability to withstand suffering, his mind and body tormented almost beyond what he can bear.

And worst of all, he can no longer feel the loving presence of his Father that has sustained him for his thirty-three years on this earth.

But the remarkable thing is that he is not the first person to have spoken these words from the valley of the shadow of death.

Jesus is actually quoting Psalm 22.

The psalmist cried out from his own suffering, uncounted generations before Jesus arrived on earth, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This imbues Jesus’ voice from the Cross with even deeper significance.

These words are the cry of his tradition, the cry of his people, and also the cry of his barren heart.

All to whom he sought to give himself have deserted him, until finally he cannot even feel the Father.

This was no doubt the most wretched and almost involuntary cry of the human side of Jesus, truly feeling like he was alone and God had forsaken him.

But consider what Jesus in his divinity might also have been doing purposefully.

These words are verse 1 of Psalm 22. The Jews gathered around the Cross, Mary, John, and the others, would have known the verses that followed.

In fact, those verses would have leapt immediately to their minds.

And Peter and the others who had run away would no doubt hear the story later, that Jesus said these words from the Cross moments before his death.

What if these words were, along with the truthful convulsion of his spirit in pain, also a message from Jesus to his followers, and thereby to us? Continue reading

Thursday: The Cock Crows

Jesus predicts it in three different ways. It happens three times. And Jesus spends three days in the tomb because of it.

Peter’s denial of Jesus.

It’s a pivotally important moment that sometimes we lose track of in the accelerating cascade of events following the Last Supper that leads to Calvary.

But it contains such spiritual riches for us, even though it forces us to confront our own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Let’s begin by reflecting on Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial. The accounts in Matthew and Mark are almost identical but for one or two words. Here’s how Mark relates it:

“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.”

John’s account is briefer, albeit with a haunting rhetorical question from Jesus:

“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

And then we have Luke, one of the synoptics but oddly the outlier in how he portrays this incident:

“‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’”

They vary in their details, but the painful crux of the matter remains the same: Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows.

Peter cannot fathom it.

Hasn’t he been faithful to Jesus these three long years?

Didn’t he leave his home and family and livelihood for Jesus?

Hasn’t he stuck by Jesus when they were hungry and homeless on the road? When the crowds crushed them and demanded to be healed, fed, taught, long after Jesus and the twelve were completely exhausted?

Hasn’t Peter been faithful even now, when the religious authorities are closing in?

Why would Peter abandon him now—Peter, who was the one to proclaim Jesus the Messiah and was called the Rock of the Church for it? Continue reading

Wednesday: For the Sake of the Joy

The remarkable truth about Holy Week that we find so hard to grasp is the fact that everything and everyone is redeemable.

There is no tragedy so great, no action so unjust, no person so evil that he or she cannot be redeemed by the saving work of Jesus Christ.

We say we believe that, but most of the time we are carrying around grudges and shame and wounds that we, in our heart of hearts, don’t think Jesus can heal.

Because why would he want to? Why would he bother with redeeming our sins when he could just sweep in on a white horse and carry us off to heaven?

Well, Jesus doesn’t work that way, and we’re never going to understand his work on the Cross if we don’t understand what redemption is.

Sometimes people think that redemption is erasure of bad things.

It’s just gone, like it never happened.

But that is not redemption.

God is not doing a retroactive censorship of our lives, blacking out the parts that we’d rather not remember.

Redemption is a threefold process. It consists of forgiveness, illumination, and healing.

Erasure, elimination, forgetting and cutting out the deeds of sin and pain does not happen at all in redemption.

They’re still there. But they are fundamentally changed.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Tuesday: We Need Each Other to Find Jesus

There two groups of people in our readings for today, Jews and Greeks.

The first important thing to realize here is that these words are only superficially referring to ethnic groups.

For both John and Paul, “Jews” and “Greeks” are not people of Jewish heritage or people who were born in Greece.

Jews and Greeks are people of two different spiritual personalities.

Consider our texts about Jews and Greeks for Tuesday in Holy Week. We have a story and a theological description.

The story comes from the Gospel of John: “Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”

It’s actually an unfinished story. We don’t know if the Greeks actually met Jesus or not.

They probably did, and heard Jesus’ teaching on the grain of wheat falling into the earth. But let’s come back to this in a moment.

Our other description of Jews and Greeks comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Here we have Paul describing these two types of spiritual personalities.

What can we learn from these two passages? Continue reading

Monday: Jesus Gathers Strength

“Continue your loving kindness to those who know you, and your favor to those who are true of heart.”

These are words from our psalm for today, and they are words about you.

“Those who know you,” and “those who are true of heart.” Those are words about anyone who is faithfully reaching out to God, but they are particularly true of anyone who made it to church on Monday of Holy Week.

For some of you, attending church every day of Holy Week may be a long-established practice that is a cornerstone of your faith life.

For others, it may be the first year you’ve tried to do it, and don’t worry, Jesus loves you even if you don’t make it to every service!

But what is common to everyone in this room is that you have set aside this time to say, “What happens this week is important. What Jesus is doing in these days matters to me. And I am willing to be open to the intensity of sharing with him the last week of his life.”

That is a bold spiritual commitment, and I’m so glad we’re making it together.

I’m so glad we’re taking this journey as a community.

Frankly I doubt any of us could make it to Sunday if we tried to do it alone.

These are the days in which the world is changed, and we survive them by living together as a Body, supporting and upholding each other as we struggle to face the reality of what will happen on Friday.

This is what Jesus is facing as well.

He has returned to the little house in Bethany, where he can spend some time with his oldest and dearest friends.

He, too, is gathering strength from his community.

He may not know exactly how quickly his death is approaching, but he can feel the noose beginning to tighten.

Just yesterday the crowds surged around him in adulation, but it was only a cover for the forces of darkness that are gathering around him.

And so he goes to his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Did they know this was goodbye? Continue reading

Palm Sunday: Triumph, Need and Betrayal Laid on the Altar

It all begins today.

Today is the first day of Holy Week, the beginning of our journey in real time with Jesus from the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem all the way to the Cross on Calvary.

How do we get from one to the other?

What happens between now and then for everything to go so terribly wrong?

What happens to us to drive us from hailing him as our matchless king with the crowds on Palm Sunday, to crying “Crucify him!” with those same crowds on Good Friday?

Let’s start from the beginning.

We open our worship today with the Palm Gospel, Matthew 21:1-11, which tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt, with the crowds spreading their cloaks on the ground in his path, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

This is the proclamation of Jesus as the King of the Jews, his primary identity in Matthew.

This is his “election by acclamation,” so to speak, his people and his nation recognizing him as the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to prayer.

But as we know, the crowd’s love will not last. Why?

There were probably a number of reasons.

Some people were furious when Jesus failed to usher in an armed revolution against the hated oppressor, Rome.

Some took issue with his public affirmation of his identity as the Son of God, calling it blasphemous.

Others probably simply got caught up in the lust for violence that can be hair-trigger in a crowd of people, not to mention one already under the pressure of political subjugation.

I think we who comfortably go about our calm and civilized lives vastly underestimate our own capacity for violence in a large, anonymizing group of people.

And it does not take very sophisticated manipulation to turn a crowd into a mob.

What was in Jesus’ heart as he heard the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”?

Did he truly feel welcomed and loved?

Or did he already know that this outpouring of passionate devotion by so many was a vain and hollow farce?

Did those words “hosanna” and “blessed” form a bitter echo of the words the angels and his mother spoke at his birth?

I picture his face, and I do see happiness. But it cannot cover up an underlying grief.

The question of Palm Sunday is a deep and painful one, and we must reckon with it honestly if we seek to enter Easter Sunday with any integrity.

It is the reality of our own faithlessness.

Can we face the truth that we are the ones who betray Jesus? Continue reading

The Consequences of Waiting Upon the Lord

The story of Lazarus—it’s one of the most fascinating in the Bible.

I love this story for so many reasons.

I love it for its place in the unfolding of the tender and devoted friendship between Jesus and the siblings of Bethany.

Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha—we might call them the Fantastic Four!

We know there were many more encounters between them that we don’t see recorded in the gospels for the level of friendship they express for each other to be as real and deep as it appears.

After all, the message from the sisters to Jesus about Lazarus’ illness was, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

That is not a reference to a casual acquaintance.

No doubt there were occasions of Lazarus and Jesus out roaming across the hills, talking of spiritual topics for hours, while Mary and Martha prepared the feast they would enjoy together later at home.

Or perhaps vice versa—maybe Jesus and Lazarus took their turn in the kitchen as well!

Late night dinners, hours of conversation, thinking and praying together about God’s work in the world—they were intimate spiritual companions.

They might even have been friends before Jesus began his ministry, or at the very least, from very early on in it.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus grow into his ministry.

As he has ranged farther and farther afield to heal and teach, still the little house in Bethany remains a home base, where he returns for his own healing and renewal.

Drained by his work, he can always recharge with his three dear friends.

Because while they are his followers, they are always first and foremost his friends.

In fact, their friendship is so well-known among the disciples and other followers of Jesus that the whole community is aware that Jesus would want to hear of Lazarus being gravely ill.

The message from Martha and Mary reaches him quickly, and here we have the first jarring note in the story. Continue reading

The Aftermath of a Miracle (Is Harder Than You Think)

What do you do in the aftermath of a miracle?

We all think about what kind of miracle we’d like to see happen in our lives—a winning lottery ticket, our team going all the way to the Final Four in March Madness, our political discourse regaining civility and sense. (I’ll give you three guesses as to which one of those is the farthest-fetched).

Many times our longing for a miracle is far more serious—for a loved one’s cancer to go into remission, for a job to come through after months of fruitless interviews, for an estranged child to come home for the holidays.

There are times God does do miracles this big in our lives—most of us can think of an example in our own lives or someone we know.

Sometimes the miracles are as simple as escaping a close call in traffic.

But it’s also really important to think about miracles far more broadly than actual supernatural events.

Sometimes we don’t get the miracle we prayed for, but we get the miracle we need.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed was for the cancer to go into remission, but the miracle we received was entering into an incredible new depth of relationship with our loved one through the process of caregiving as his or her health declined.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed for was for that job interview to pan out, but the miracle we received was a new understanding of our family’s ability to pull together in tough economic times.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed for was a reunion with an estranged child, but the miracle we received was a new ministry of intercessory prayer, as our faithful and sometimes anguished prayers for this lost and wandering loved one expand into a vocation of praying for all those who are lonely and in pain.

The first question to ask is this: where you need a miracle in your life?

And the second question to ask is this: where in your life is God giving you the miracle you need rather than the miracle you want? Take some time to pray about that this week.

But the real question I want to tackle in this sermon is this: what do you do in the aftermath of a miracle?

I think we often picture miracles as creating happily-ever-after scenarios where everyone rides off into the sunset together holding hands and singing Kum-Bah-Yah.

But the reality is quite different, as we see vividly illustrated in our gospel story.

For the man born blind whom Jesus heals in our gospel today, his miracle brings him nothing but trouble. Continue reading

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