Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

NO CROSS, NO CROWN

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?

O THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.

But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.

In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

NOW AND THEN

Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9

Jeff Davidson

Sometimes the lectionary suggests passages that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. We’re just a week after Easter. You would expect that we should still be in celebration mode, shouldn’t we? You would think that we should still be shouting “Alleluia!” and rejoicing in the risen Lord. You know, you’re right. We should be.

But instead we have Peter writing a letter about suffering and holding on to hope and waiting it out. That’s not very celebratory, is it? Holding on to hope is what Washington Capitals fans do when the team goes to yet another overtime against an eighth seed. It’s what you do when your candidate is losing the election but there’s still one or two states yet to come in. It’s also the reality of our world after Easter.

Peter’s writing to new believers. Not new Christians in and around Jerusalem, but new Christians all over the world. We didn’t read verse 1, but it says that the letter is from Peter “to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” This would be an area of around 300,000 square miles.

Richard Jensen suggests that 1 Peter was designed to be read at baptisms of new believers. If that’s true, and I genuinely don’t know if it is or not, but if it’s true then having this reading come right after Easter makes sense. Christianity is about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Until his resurrection, Jesus was no one’s savior. Lord – yes, rabbi – yes, teacher – as Jenn talked about last week – yes, but until the resurrection not a savior.

Once the resurrection happens, though, things change. Jesus isn’t just a small l “lord”; Jesus becomes our Lord. Jesus isn’t just another guy who said he was the Messiah; he proves he is the Messiah. He becomes our savior.

What changes is our relationship to the world. All of a sudden, the world is suddenly not such a welcoming place. All of a sudden, we don’t take our cues from popular culture or from political leaders or from “common sense,” which is just another name for the wisdom of the world. We take our cues from our risen Lord Jesus, and that means that we are going to be at odds with the world around us.

Not only are we going to be at odds with the world around us, the world is going to give us a hard time about it. Here in the United States some Christians think it is persecution if a department store decides to say “Happy Holidays” or if a private church school doesn’t get the same kind of government funding as a private secular school. There may be a measure of injustice in that last one, but that’s not persecution.

Persecution is what happens to Christians in Nigeria, where the EYN continues to face violence and where many of the Chibok girls are still missing. Persecution is what happens to Christians in Egypt, where Coptic churches have been bombed and believers killed. Persecution is what happens to Christians in many, many places that is beyond our own imagination as citizens and residents with the privileges that we have here in the United States.

Persecution is what those people Peter wrote to would face. Persecution, including torture and death, is what awaited many of them. Persecution, including torture and death, came to Peter himself at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero. 

That’s why Peter talks about holding on to hope. That’s why Peter talks about looking forward, looking ahead to a salvation that is going to be revealed. Our new birth is into a living hope. Our inheritance isn’t something that we receive right now this minute, but it is kept in heaven for us awaiting either our arrival there or Jesus’ return to earth.

There are times when looking forward in hope means looking backward. You see that in the Old Testament a lot. The Jewish people would be facing some enemy of some sort, and Moses would say, “Hey, remember when God brought you out of Egypt? God can do that kind of thing again!” Later, in Jesus’ time, the Jewish people would look back to King David’s time when God raised up a mighty king who led Israel to great success. That’s why we read Psalm 16 today, to think about David and how it was that he prospered personally and professionally besides his many sins and failings.

David writes that he has nothing good that is apart from God, that it’s not the wealthy or the wise, but the holy who are truly the ones who are noble. David recognizes that he must keep the Lord by his right hand if he is to thrive, and that in God’s presence he can rest secure.

That’s very similar to Peter’s message, although Peter doesn’t directly reference King David. Peter knew David’s story, though, and it’s very possible that he has David in mind when he writes that his readers “are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

We do that here at Washington City. Those of us who have been here a while think about and remember the example of people who came before us. Some folks think about Mike Byam or Warren Hoover. Others think back farther to Duane Ramsey. When I was at Woodbridge a woman there who had been a member here at Washington City talked about how much she learned from a previous pastor – I think it was DeWitt Miller, but don’t hold me to that.

All of us are a part of the history of this congregation. Some of us are a more recent part, and some of us have been here for many years, but all of us are a part of the story. All of us are here, in the present, but at the same time we have been a part of the past of this place and it’s ministry.

Some time someone is going to look back at the history of this congregation and talk about how much they appreciated Bob Hoffman and Dale Penner. Today is a day that we are taking some time to do that specifically after worship, but they’re a part of our history and always will be. The same is true for me, and for you. David is a part of Jesus’ story, and Jesus is part of Peter’s, and Peter is a part of the stories of those he is writing to, and it has all carried down to us today. Each of us individually, and all of us collectively.

The Kingdom of God is now. The Kingdom of God is also yet to come. The Kingdom is now, and the Kingdom is then. That’s a hard place for us to be sometimes. While we don’t face the kind of persecution the Christians that Peter was writing to did, and we don’t face the kind of persecution that Christians in other parts of the world do, we still face hardships and troubles. We still have doubts and fears. And although earlier I minimized the kinds of things that many Christians in the United States call persecution, that doesn’t mean that there is no persecution of Christians in the US. It’s not necessarily as overt as it is in other parts of the world, and it’s not typically as dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it may not be real – particularly for individual Christians at times that are particular to each of them.

Susan Skinner is the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. She wrote this poem last week, and it spoke to me about the resurrection as something that has happened and is yet to come, as something that is now but also something that also is then.

I saw resurrection late today
As I walked the dogs
And with every passing block
Got ever more drunk
On the rich purple lilacs
Flinging their perfume into the evening breeze

I saw resurrection on the lawn
Of the home of a man
Who is hated by his neighbors
He never speaks but to complain
About everything and everyone

Of all the tidy streets of curated and tended yards
His is the dry grass, and unkempt
Like a dream conceived, then withered
His the planters barren of any flower
His the tree slowest to bud and leaf in spring

But in that tree today
I—drunk on lilac—saw resurrection.

It was surely not his doing.
Resurrection never is.
God—a bird—had chosen his leafless tree
Out of all the lovely trees
In which to build a perfect nest,
A home in which to raise its young

I would not be surprised
If the grass now begins to green
And flowers blooming appear in the night
And people sit on the empty porch chairs.

Resurrection is like that—once begun
It has a way of catching on
And cannot be stopped;
For that let us be glad.

Indeed, let us be glad. Amen.

YEARNING FOR SUNDAY

John 20:1-18, Romans 6:1-14

Jenn Hosler

A Saturday Vignette

At the end of the meal, one of us stepped out. Judas was often heading in and out, so I assumed it was something with his duties as the keeper of the common purse. We didn’t think anything of it, I guess, but I wondered a little what would be so important that he needed to leave our Passover meal.

Our Teacher spoke to us after the meal, teachings that were both difficult and confusing. It seemed like something might happen but we didn’t know what. We women stayed behind to clean and then rest for the night, while the brothers went with teacher Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. We were woken in the middle of the night with news that the teacher was arrested. Brother Judas had arrived with the chief priests and the temple police. They were armed with clubs and swords, as if our teacher was a rebellion leader. Brother Peter started to fight as soon as they went to grab the teacher, madly swinging a sword and hitting a servant in the ear. The teacher stopped that, right away, and healed the servant’s ear. Then he went willingly: the temple leaders took our teacher, bound him, and arrested him.

Brother Judas—someone we’ve walked with, shared meals with, and learned from the teacher with—he has betrayed us and betrayed the Teacher. And for what? Now he is dead, he took his life after he was sick with his guilt. Maybe he didn’t mean for it to go that far. I don’t know what he intended. I can’t believe that he is dead too. Brother Judas.

Brother Peter’s wife told us that Peter and John had followed the Teacher to the high priest’s family home. Peter almost wasn’t let inside and when he was, people kept asking him, “Are you one of this Jesus’ followers?” “Aren’t you from Galilee? You’re with him, too?” and “Weren’t you in the garden last night?” And brother Peter was scared. Scared what they would do to him and his family. So, he said, “No. I don’t even know the man.”

The chief priests interrogated the Teacher and had him beaten. They asked if the Teacher was the Messiah or the Son of God, and he wouldn’t give them a straight answer. The answers he gave were enough, though, that the chief priests said it was blasphemy and beat him further. Then the temple leaders and priests dragged the Teacher off to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The chief priests told Pilate that the charge was blasphemy and that the Teacher was claiming to be king. The Romans wouldn’t deal with Jewish theological problems, normally, but claiming to be king—encroaching onto Caesar’s territory, threatening the occupation—that… will get you onto their radar and onto a cross. Pilate seemed skeptical but the chief priests started inciting the crowds to free Barabbas, the militant, instead. Pilate was keen to keep things from getting out of control, so he gave in and sentenced Jesus to death. What was one Jewish insurrectionist for a would-be Jewish King? Not much different, in his view.

They beat the Teacher. Flogged him with a whip. Pushed him around. Kicked him, tripped him. Twisted acacia branches into a thorny crown and jammed it on his head. Put a purple robe on him to mock him—King of the Jews. Then he went to his death. Not just any death. The Romans seem to be fond of the cruelest deaths. They think it will scare us into complacency about their rule. Obey the Romans, rejoice in your Roman Peace, and you won’t get nailed to a tree.

The Teacher, by now, had been beaten a few times and hadn’t eaten; he was in rough shape. The soldiers chose a person from the crowd to carry the crossbar that his arms would be tied to. And they walked outside the city.

By this time, a lot of us had gathered—me, Mary and Martha, Joanna, the Teacher’s mother Mary, and other women. Brother John was with us but the other 11 had scattered. We couldn’t believe that it had come to this. Hadn’t we just marched behind the Teacher on the way into Jerusalem? Instead of shouting hosanna, we wailed a lament and cried. We beat our chests like we would at a funeral.

The Teacher arrived at the spot, Golgotha, the place of the skull, and before we knew it, some screams, and there he was, raised up above us on the cross. Still so close but unbelievably far. And we waited. People in the crowds laughed and spit, mocked and cursed. The sign that Pilate had made, with the Teacher’s crime, said “King of the Jews.” Hours went by, mostly in silence. The teacher’s body was so exhausted. It was hard for him to breathe—you need to keep holding yourself up, lifting yourself up to take a breath. Teacher Jesus asked brother John to come closer with his mother, and I was with them. The Teacher asked brother John to take mother Mary as his mother. We knew it must be close. Teacher Jesus said that he was thirsty, and someone brought forward some sour wine. Then, the Teacher breathed out and cried out and he died.

It was only yesterday, barely more than a day. It all feels like a dream. A really horrible, painful nightmare. I just want to wake up and be in Galilee, be on a hillside, be listening to the Teacher, to see the Teacher heal a sick man, care for a child, break bread with us. But I need to realize that he is dead. Jesus of Nazareth—our teacher, our rabbi—is dead.

Brother Peter’s wife said that yesterday, her husband seemed like he was in a trance. Hopeless. Stunned. Ashamed. Unable to eat. I think the brothers will be gathering tomorrow, the eleven close ones, to talk about what happened, where we go from here. Several of us women went with brother Joseph to the tomb on Friday right before the Sabbath started, to see where it was. We are going in the morning to make it more of a proper burial. It will be hard. Normally preparing a body brings some closure. Anointing it, giving one last effort of love and beauty. I don’t think I can have closure with something like this, I don’t know what to think. The power of God was walking among us and now, where is it? Is God gone from among us? What was the point of all that goodness, all that healing, all that love and mercy, if we are only left with pain?

Reflection on the Saturday Vignette

In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t spend much time on Friday or Saturday in Holy Week. Our Love Feast is on Maundy Thursday. We commemorate the meal that Jesus had with his disciples. While the twelve are mentioned, there likely were other disciples in the room, potentially some of the women who came from Galilee to support and learn from Jesus. Perhaps they were reclining at another table or eating in the food preparation area, as women in many countries often eat in the kitchen and not at the table.

In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t typically have Good Friday services (though I often go to an Episcopal one) and don’t have Holy Saturday vigils. We move from Thursday to Sunday.

In college, Nate and I went to a church that encouraged us to linger on the emotions of Saturday. What would the disciples have felt? As I prepared for this sermon, I read all of the gospel passages where Jesus was crucified. I was struck by Luke’s description of the women disciples who followed behind Jesus on the way to the cross, beating their breasts and wailing. In every gospel passage, the women are there at the cross. And so, I tried to picture what it would have been like for one of those female disciples, Mary of Magdala, also known as Mary Magdalene (who, by the way, was not a sex worker; the woman described as being so in the gospels is never named as Mary Magdalene; somehow popular culture has called her a prostitute, but there is no biblical evidence for that. The main story of Mary Magdalene—what she should be famous for—is that she is at present at the cross and at the tomb in every gospel. Every gospel explicitly mentions her at the tomb. And as we see in our scripture, she is the first one to truly hear the Good News.

I think it is useful to spend time thinking about those Saturday feelings, those early Sunday morning feelings: how would I have felt waking up to say goodbye to my leader, my teacher, the One whom we thought was the Messiah, the One who had raised Lazarus and others from the dead? Now he was dead. How would I feel bringing the spices and oils to that tomb?

Hopeless. Destroyed. Despairing. And as I sat in these emotions, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this resignation and hopelessness and confusion what we are facing every day? When we hear of a family member taking his life, unable to find hope and healing. When our families are fighting and bitter. When we hear news of more cancer. When we are confronted with of massive bombs and endless wars. The darkness and hopelessness of death weighed down on the disciples of Jesus that Saturday—and they weigh down on us too.

A Sunday Vignette

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, I walked to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. I dropped my jar of perfume. I ran back the way I came and went to where brother Peter and brother John were staying. I told them, “They took the Teacher from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.”

Peter and John looked at each other and ran. I ran after them, back to the tomb. Out of breath, I stood back. Then it hit me again. He’s dead. He’s gone. His body’s even gone. The brothers looked at the grave linens and left, bewildered. I just broke down and cried. I made my way over and knelt down, crying and praying without words—and I looked inside the tomb. There were two people sitting there in white clothing and one spoke to me, “Lady, why are you crying?”

There’s always some ignorant person that you need to answer to when in your deepest distress. I looked up at them. “My Teacher was buried here and someone took him. I don’t know where he’s been moved to.” At that moment, I saw another person nearby, standing close. As I was wiping my eyes, I said, “Sir, if you took the body, can you please tell me where it is? I just want to dress it and care for it.”

The man replied, “Mary.” And it was him. Jesus. “My Teacher?” I stood up and walked over to him. It was the Teacher. Alive. Breathing. He told me to go and spread the news. He was alive. So, I went to the brothers and sisters and told them, “I saw the Teacher. He is alive.”

Reflection on the Sunday Vignette

The resurrection is unexpected, startling, confusing, and difficult to even recognize. It doesn’t make sense, it is so far out of the schema of expectation. The resurrection is an impossible thought—until Jesus calls Mary by her name in the early morning light of that resurrection Sunday. The gospel, the good news, is bewildering and confusing and sometimes so difficult to see in our world. But Jesus calls our names and makes clear to us what we should be seeing: that the power of God is bigger than the grave, that the miracle of the empty tomb and the resurrected body will someday spread to all the areas of our lives and of this world. All creation waits and groans for this to be revealed. When we can’t utter words, when we are trapped in hopelessness, the Spirit of God cries out on our behalf.

We are looking toward the day–yearning for the day—when that Sunday morning resurrection dawn will break through the darkness and touch our whole world, when the power of the Messiah’s resurrection will transform our hearts and our relationships and our lives and our bodies.

During our suffering and the world’s suffering, we walk with a crucified Lord who knows what it is to suffer, suffers with us, and promises us that the breaking dawn will come. No more death, no more sickness, no more war and violence, and hate. Jesus calls each of us by name for us to join him in the Sunday morning light, in newness of life now, and in hope for the glorious redemption that is to come. AMEN.

Benediction Prayer

Jesus, call us by our names and let us recognize your face. Share with us your resurrection, hope, freedom from sin. We yearn to experience the fullness of that Sunday morning, in our hearts, in our our bodies, in this whole world. AMEN.

WE HAVE SEEN THE LORD

John 20:19-31, Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8

Micah Bales

I’ve joked with Jenn and Nate that I feel like I tend to get some really tough lectionary readings on the Sundays that I’m asked to preach. Lots of passages about death, destruction, judgment, and Jesus’ command to give away all our possessions to the poor. I know it’s good for me to preach on passages that challenge my own lack of faith, but it can also be exhausting. It’s easy to feel like I’m a total failure as a Christian!

Today’s Scripture readings are a nice change of pace for me. They’re inspiring, challenging, and give me space to examine my own doubt without feeling like I’m completely doomed. After all, the apostles abandoned Jesus at his time of greatest need. And then, when Jesus rose from the dead, the male apostles wouldn’t believe the female apostles who were first to see the risen Lord.

And as if the people closest to Jesus hadn’t doubted enough, we’ve heard in our gospel reading this morning that, even after almost all of the male apostles had their close encounter of the third kind with Jesus, poor Thomas missed it, and he refused to believe their story. It made more sense to Thomas that his entire community must be lying than that Jesus could have possibly risen from the dead.

I can relate to Thomas’ predicament. When I first became a Christian, I wanted to be a follower of Jesus. I had read the Bible and was amazed at the power and authenticity of Jesus’ ministry. In the Quaker tradition, we believe that God can speak directly through ordinary men and women today. Literally. We believe that the Holy Spirit can and does move in our community and inspires prophetic ministry.

I had witnessed the truth of it myself. There were a number of occasions where individuals in the Quaker community had stood up and spoken in the power and authority of God. It was clear that they were not just speaking out of their own desires or opinions, but that Christ was addressing us directly and specifically, speaking to our condition in the present-tense. In this kind of environment, where prophetic ministry was expected to be a regular part of our life together, I learned to recognize when the power of truth was present in the words and deeds of those around me.

This really came in handy when I finally read the New Testament for myself. I was blown away by the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. It was clear to me that when Jesus spoke and acted, he did so in the same life and power that accompanied the truly inspired ministry that I had witnessed in Quaker gatherings. The Holy Spirit spoke so clearly through Jesus. I sensed in a visceral, gut-level way that his claims on my life were authentic. This was no mere human teacher addressing me. He spoke the very words of God.

It took me a while to embrace the label, but I eventually came to identify as a “Christian” when I realized that I could say with integrity that Jesus is my lord. For me, to call Jesus “lord” means that he is the governing authority in my life. I take my cues from him. He’s the one who shows me how to live. He’s the standard by which my character and choices can be judged.

So I considered myself a Christian now. But, although I was able to say that Jesus was my lord, I still had a really tough time with some of the more orthodox theology of the church. I didn’t really know what it meant for Jesus to be “the son of God”, and the idea of the bodily resurrection seemed like an obviously mythological story. It’s a great image of death and rebirth, sure; I could accept it on a metaphorical level. But taking the story literally seemed scientifically unfounded and silly. It felt impossible for me to embrace such a story without sacrificing my own rational faculties. I could no more accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus than I could force myself to believe that the sky is green. Such things do not happen.

Don’t get me wrong – I could really get into the story. My first Holy Week as a Christian was really impactful for me. I participated in a Love Feast at the local Church of the Brethren in Richmond, Indiana for Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday, I fasted and went down to the Salvation Army to watch a screening of the Passion of the Christ. I really connected with the crucifixion. Christ’s suffering was something that I could understand. It made sense to me that Jesus had to die because of the twistedness and evil of humanity. Like so many martyrs since – Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, the early Quaker prophets, and the brutalized early Anabaptists – Jesus exemplified the power of God in undeserved suffering. I could see that God’s love and sovereignty are made visible in weakness and submission to the point of death.

Easter is harder for me. I know this sounds weird. For most normal people, Easter is the easy part, the time when we get to celebrate and give thanks for the triumph of life over death, courage over fear, love over hatred. And I can definitely get on board with all of that on a conceptual level. Just as spring follows winter and death provides the seedbed for new life, it makes rational sense that the suffering and death of the saints would be instrumental in making space for new life to arise.

But the resurrection is more than new life. We’re not just talking about a new flower that grows in the manure of dead plants. We’re talking about a plant that grows out of its own death. This is a story of a flower that dies, only to be planted again and raised up – an incorruptible flower that will never wilt again. This is a flower that fundamentally breaks the cycle of life and death, triumphantly proclaiming that winter will never come again.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a flower like that.

The Christian claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is profoundly supernatural. It contradicts everything we know about how our world works. As C.S. Lewis once said of Christianity, “It is a religion that you could not have guessed.”

I remember my first Easter as a confessing Christian. I was at West Richmond Friends Meeting in Indiana, and everyone around me was proclaiming, “Christ is risen!” with the inevitable response, “He is risen indeed!” I was surrounded by people who were making a completely fantastic claim with a seeming casualness and lack of reflection that took my breath away. What do you MEAN “Christ is risen”? You think he literally rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples? You think he showed the apostles the wounds in his hands and feet and side? You think he ate fish with them beside the sea of Galilee weeks after his death on the cross?

I was incredulous. These were highly educated, cultured people, but they were making claims that seemed totally ridiculous to me. That’s not to say I didn’t want to believe. But how could I possibly make a decision to hold such a clearly impossible idea in my head? I was intrigued, but my common sense would not allow me to join in the Easter liturgy with those around me.

So you’ll understand when I say that I have a pretty easy time relating to the apostle Thomas. All of the other disciples were around me, declaring their faith in the resurrection of Jesus, but I needed proof. Not only did I need proof, I demanded it! I was positively furious with the idea that I should be expected to accept something so spectacular on blind faith. I needed evidence, not hearsay.

In a lot of Christian communities, my doubts would have been scandalous. For me to question the bodily resurrection of Jesus would be beyond the pale for many congregations. Sure, I could visit, but no one would accept me as a follower of Jesus. That kind of doubt is out of bounds.

I feel fortunate that, just like Thomas, I was part of a community that accepted me in my doubt. The other apostles didn’t chase Thomas away, shunning him as an unbeliever. It was a full week before he got his chance to encounter the risen Jesus face to face. That whole time, Thomas had been hanging around with the other ten, hearing their stories about Jesus – and probably arguing with them. “Show me the body, and I’ll believe you. Let me touch the wounds in his hands and side, and I’ll accept this impossible thing you are telling me.”

I found myself in a similar situation. I couldn’t accept what the community of believers around me was saying, and they couldn’t offer any proof that would satisfy me. Many of them had never seen the risen Jesus themselves, yet they believed based on the testimony of others, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. For me, this wasn’t enough. I believed that these brothers and sisters of mine were sincere in their faith, but that didn’t mean that I had what I needed to be convinced of the resurrection.

But I stayed with the community. I kept listening to the story as they retold it. I continued to read the Scriptures and open myself to God in prayer, willing to accept anything he would show me. I asked Jesus to reveal himself to me, to open my eyes to the reality of his resurrection. And, to my amazement, I found that he did.

I, too, have seen the Lord. In so many ways and on so many occasions, he has appeared in my life and the lives of those around me, to reveal his continuing presence and loving power. I have seen the way he gives power and courage to us when we walk with him and trust him as our present teacher and Lord. He has breathed his Spirit on me, and he has breathed on this community, liberating us to follow in his way of prophetic witness, battle with the powers, crucifixion, and resurrection into new life.

Having seen Jesus in his resurrection, we know that love triumphs over death, and that we have nothing to fear. Because of him, we are empowered to obey God rather than any human authority that would silence the prophetic voice and keep us and our neighbors captives to the power of falsehood, fear, and death. As witnesses to the resurrection, we are freed from the spirit of fear.

We are part of a new order, in which the coercive power of violence is overcome by the authority of love. We will stand before rulers and authorities, judges and politicians who have power to destroy our lives, just like Jesus and the apostles did. We will stand firm in the knowledge that our God and Father has given us the victory over all the powers of this world. Christ Jesus has overcome the power of death and determinism. We don’t have to be afraid.

On the contrary, we know that the only thing we should truly fear is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. His power is being revealed, and soon every eye will see Jesus, alive and at work in the world. Every single one of us will be witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ resurrected power. The only choice to make is whether we will be the ones rejoicing at his revealing, or whether we will wail with the nations who continue to rebel against his loving leadership.

Whether you are a faithful Mary, or a doubting Thomas (like me), I want you to know that you can trust God to give you what you need. If you need to touch the wounds and see him face-to-face, Jesus isn’t above it. He’ll come to you and reveal himself to you. But he also reminds us that the truly blessed are those who are able to receive faith without signs and miracles. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

THE LAST ENEMY

Luke 24:1-12, I Corinthians 15:19-26

Nathan Hosler

The “original” Easter happened once. This was long before Easter became a holiday and got associated with abnormally colored eggs or abnormal bunnies or abnormally colored chicks or perhaps most abnormal of all—little brightly colored chicks made of marshmallow. Of course the “original” Easter was in fact much more unusual than a commercialized packaging of an ostensibly Christian holiday with a few old-school pagan practices mixed in. The “original” Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus. A resurrection from the dead would be notable enough. A resurrection of anyone would be rather surprising. That it is Jesus brings a whole other level to this. For in the Gospel of John chapter 1 we read about Jesus as the “Word.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Centuries of theology have wrestled with what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God—to be the Word–To be God. But then God is killed on Friday but then God is raised (by God?) on Sunday. There were the haunting words “it is finished” as Jesus “gives up his spirit” on the cross. But then after days of sorrow and the beginning of decomposition something happens. We read, “But on the first day of the week,”

 “at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” They, meaning the women disciples, (they who, though disciples, are not typically number among the disciples, they who though were the first proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection are consistently pushed aside because they are women). They, the women disciples, came to the grave site crushed, deflated, filled with trauma and grief. Perhaps, though, there was still a thread of hope. He did speak of these sorts of things—if somewhat cryptically, or what was likely presumed to be metaphorically. They, the disciples who were women, however, went, at “early dawn.” Under the cover of dark…perhaps in fear but perhaps simply to get an early start on the day. Upon arriving”They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,” Presumably they knew there would be such a stone. If we went to a grave site today we would assume that it had been covered and that the body wouldn’t just be lying at the bottom of a hole.

So for some reason they were going to the tomb with things for the body, though they knew that it would be covered. But the stone was moved, and so they went in but “they did not find the body.” It continues, “While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified.”  They were naturally terrified. From the haggard emotional state of the grieving of death and displaced hope to being perplexed and confused by the empty grave to being suddenly confronted by men with dazzling cloths—yeah, terrified, shaken. Confronted by men in dazzling cloths. (dazzling? Really? Like sequins? Perhaps dazzling like—surprising or notable. My mother used to get us Easter outfits. One year when my young brother Phil was maybe 5 his outfit was this sort short pants (maybe called knickers) with tall white socks and suspenders. These may not have been properly dazzling but he thought them notable and was not at all pleased). So these sudden-appearing-men who were potentially wearing sequins or knickers pop in and ask a question that it’s hard not to feel is a bit smart-alecky.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Well, obviously they didn’t know he was living.

“He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” So they had heard this before. Heard it and forgot or heard it and when they saw the finality of death—the actual body—they realized that it was over.  It says, Then they remembered his words,

and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened” But Peter believed—or at least wanted to believe.

People have been describing and reflecting on this one-time event ever since it happened. In the book of Acts we see a bit of the preaching of the early church. In I Corinthians we see early more formal theological reflections—though this is still written in a church context for Christians. These and the innumerable writings since have posited what happened or didn’t happen—both physically with Jesus and spiritually with us. Arguing over what this does or does not mean for us. For followers of Jesus, for those who don’t follow Jesus. Considerations of how this relates to the Old Testament, particularly prophecies that point to a Messiah and the sacrificial system. People saying Jesus replaces the sacrifice but then the question arises did God cause this? Was it a legal or ethical requirement for the sin of humanity that punishment be meted out and that violence be used in this punishment? Does this simply reflect our assumptions about retribution and punishment and violence?

While I am not ready to attempt even an overview of views on what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean (and I imagine you may not be ready for such an exercise either) this is a big important question. The creeds were early concise statements of core theological assertions that one needed to affirm. These emerged out of theological reflection and then were often a common starting point for continued reflection. Brethren, however, did not go the way of the creeds. While not necessarily disagreeing with them they eschewed having them as a sort of entry pass and said “the New Testament is our creed.” And the New Testament is read in community. The New Testament, of course, is fairly long (compared to a creed) and contains several types of writings written in many different contexts for many different communities in many different situations. Additionally, the writers utilize images from both their culture as well as the Hebrew scriptures. In this context a concise statement of the meaning of the death and resurrection is a tricky thing to state. Even in the few short verses from chapter 15 of 1st Corinthians is loaded with potentials for consideration.

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

An Easter of sunshine and flowers may prompt us to try to get past the horror of the days before. Knowing the end of the story we can get through Good Friday and then Saturday. However, as Easter morning breaks, the palms waved on Palm Sunday and the marking of Jesus’ triumphal entry the week before lay drying and will eventually be burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday which will start us on Lent which is a reflection toward the coming suffering of Holy Week which brings to the triumph of the resurrection. It is in this resurrection that we read in 1 Corinthians that the “last enemy”—being death—was defeated. However, we will surely experience death in the coming year. If not closely then at least in hearing of it in the news—whether of an unarmed young black man or in a war zone far away, or in an insurgency, or on the border regions crossed by families fleeing violence or the inability to survive, or of a child who is too young to have such a disease or an old person who has built a lifetime of friendships. Indescribably this is the death—the last enemy—that Christ has defeated. I celebrate this. Yet I wonder what this means. Later in this chapter we would read,

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

This past year a refrain in my thinking, a repeated question, was—how do we think about or respond to the levels of crisis around the world? Though Christians affirm the words of victory over death in the resurrection of Jesus, we also struggle between despair and what may sound like an inane “God is good—everything will be fine.”

May we be dazzled by the telling of the resurrected one. May we be filled with the Spirit so that we can say “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” May we feel in our bones that Christ has defeated death. And may we proclaim this hope in our lives lived in the power of Easter morning.

58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.