Sunday, April 27, 2014

Alive Without a Doubt

All of us have done things of which we are less than proud. If we are lucky, we don't get tagged with a nickname that will follow us all of our life. "Doubting Thomas" has not been so fortunate. We don't know that he was called that in his lifetime but he is known by that name throughout the church. It's not fair.

We don't speak of "Doubting Peter", though he and the other disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene and the other women at first. We don't speak of "Doubting James", though he did not believe that his brother was the Messiah until the risen Jesus appeared to him. However, their conversion from doubt to faith is not depicted as dramatically as Thomas'.

To be fair, Thomas was not with the others the first time Jesus appeared to the remnants of the Twelve. Why not? Is there any clue as to why Thomas was not holed up with the other disciples after Jesus' execution?

The first time we hear Thomas speak up is when Jesus has announced he is going to return to Judea to raise Lazarus. The other disciples are concerned that this will put Jesus in danger of falling into the hands of the religious leaders. But Jesus seems determined to go. And in John 11:16 we read, “Then Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, 'Let us go too, that we may die with him.'”

That doesn't sound like someone who is quick to abandon faith in Christ but someone who is so devoted to him that he is willing to lose his life for him. That raises a question that we will look at in a minute.

The second time we hear from Thomas is at the Last Supper. Jesus has announced that he is going away and that the disciples will not be able to follow. In John 13:36 and following, Peter asks where he is going and Jesus says, “You are not able to follow me now where I am going, but you shall follow me afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I tell you: the rooster will not crow until you have denied me 3 times.” Jesus goes on to say that he will prepare a place for the disciples in his Father's house and then return to them so that they may be where he is. Jesus ends with, “And where I am going, you know the way.” Understandably, though, Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by me.”

Notice 2 things. First, Peter asks basically the same question as Thomas: Where are you going? The disciples are not thinking about this metaphorically. They are thinking that Jesus, surrounded by enemies and anticipating a betrayal from within the Twelve, may be going somewhere to get out of harm's way. None of them think Jesus is talking about his death.

Secondly, notice that Thomas was the first to talk about dying with Jesus, back when they were going to Lazarus' grave. Here Peter says he will lay down his life for Jesus. And we all know how that turned out.

And now we might have enough to work out the answer to 2 questions which arise from what Thomas said and did. When it became clear that Jesus was going to the tomb of his friend despite the danger, Thomas said, “'Let us go too, that we may die with him.” Which raises the first question: why didn't Thomas die or do something risky when Jesus was arrested? Peter at least drew his sword and wounded a man. We don't hear anything about what Thomas did. He just ran away with all the others.

We know the grief and shame that Peter felt about denying Jesus. Wouldn't Thomas feel ashamed for running out on Christ? Maybe even more so than Peter. He was the first to offer to die for Jesus. And when the opportunity came, he not only didn't die, he didn't even fight. He ran. Which might answer the other question that arises. Why wasn't Thomas with the other disciples in the upstairs room?

We are told that the disciples were behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. As supporters of Jesus, they knew they were also at risk of being arrested and crucified. Jesus was executed officially for claiming to be the King of the Jews, which was treason against Caesar. His followers would certainly be seen as traitors to Rome. It's not a great leap of logic that the religious leaders might turn them over to Pilate for the same punishment. So their hiding makes sense.

Thomas' not hiding doesn't make sense logically. But it does make sense psychologically. Out in the open, he was a sitting duck for any Pharisee or scribe or priest who recognized him as part of Jesus' inner circle. And maybe that was what he wanted. He didn't defend Jesus when he had the chance. He didn't let himself be captured and executed along with his Lord. Maybe, consciously or unconsciously, Thomas was hoping to get recognized and arrested. Jesus was dead as far as he knew. This way Thomas could belatedly fulfill his words and die for Christ.

So it is in this state of mind that we find Thomas when the other disciples seek him out to tell him the great news: Jesus is alive! Why doesn't Thomas believe?

Would you? Let's say someone very important and close to you died. And a few days later some friends came and told you that they have seen that person walking around alive again. How would you react? You would think that they were crazy. Or that they were playing a very cruel trick on you. Your first thought would not be, “Oh, goody, he is no longer dead.” And if your friends persisted, saying, “No, really. He is alive again,” you'd probably say, “I'd have to see him for myself.” Thomas' reaction is in fact normal.

Thomas goes further, though. He says, “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.” Why is he being so graphic?

Thomas, like every person living under Roman occupation, knows what crucifixion is like. The Romans meant for people to see what happened to those who opposed them. To have a close friend killed like that was horrible. But along with Jesus, Thomas' hope for the kingdom of God died. Everything Jesus said, everything Thomas lived for during those 3 and half years of ministry, was for nothing. It was over. Gone. Thomas was in despair. And he is saying in the strongest way possible that he just can't trust someone like that again. Worse than being hopeless is being tempted by false hope. Thomas will not make that mistake again. The only thing that will convince him is actually touching the person he has lost and making absolutely sure it is not a trick or an imposter. Nothing else will do for someone as disappointed, dejected, and depressed as Thomas.

Which brings us to the events of today's gospel reading. Somehow the other disciples have persuaded Thomas to abandon his suicidal public mourning. They have gotten him to join them in the upper room. And suddenly Jesus is in their midst.

Imagine how this struck Thomas. He knew Jesus had died. He either saw him on the cross or was told about Christ's last hours by eyewitnesses. How else would he know about the wound in Jesus' side, something done by a soldier on the spur of the moment to confirm that he was already dead and didn't need his legs broken? The one thing Thomas didn't doubt was Jesus' death. Yet here he was, bigger than life. Now Thomas goes from doubting the resurrection to doubting everything he assumed he knew about reality.

Jesus addresses Thomas. He says, in effect, “Go ahead. Touch me. Touch my wounds. Leave your doubts behind and trust your senses.” But Thomas makes no move to do so. He can only stand and gape. Before this, he doubted that the man on the cross was alive again; now he is not even sure that Jesus can be called a mere man. Thomas saw Jesus raise the dead. But now Jesus himself has been raised from the dead. This is beyond what any prophet has ever done. Thomas is thinking that Jesus is way beyond a prophet. Jesus called himself the Son of God. If the son of a human is a human, then what is the Son of God? When he finds his voice, all Thomas can say is, “My Lord and my God!” 

Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” He is speaking about us. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh. Unlike the first generation of Christians, we don't even know someone who has seen him. It is easier for people today to doubt and many do.

A recent study has concluded that at least half of the decline in people being affiliated with a religion is due to 3 things: a drop in the number of people who have had no religious upbringing, the increase in the number of people with college-level education and the increase in the use of the internet. To take them in reverse order: the increase in the use of the internet is possibly keeping people from associating with a religion for at least 3 reasons. First, people are able to look up answers or discuss questions they might have asked their clergy about life, the universe and God. And it's even more convenient than going to the library and reading books about such things. Unfortunately, the answers you find on the internet never had to pass muster with an editor or be good enough to find a publisher. There is a lot of information out there that is badly researched or just plain made up. And if you don't like one answer there are literally dozens of answers out there you can browse until you find one that pleases you. People tend to chose answers they want to hear, regardless of whether they are true or not.

Secondly, the internet is a great distraction from the big questions about life. Have you ever searched for something on the internet and found yourself an hour later having read a whole bunch of interesting articles and watched a lot of videos instead of getting the answer you were looking for? In C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, the fictitious senior devil tells his nephew, a junior tempter, that they really don't want people to think clearly about whether stuff is true or false, right or wrong; they want to muddle human thinking and distract us if possible. The internet is designed to do just that. And because you read snippets from so many interesting points of view, it can lull you into thinking you know a lot more about certain issues and in greater depth than you really do.

Thirdly, the internet is just one of the many things in this 24/7 world that compete with worship. It used to be that there wasn't much to do on Sunday mornings than sleep in or go to church. There were only a handful of TV channels and they were running boring public service shows like Meet the Press. You couldn't go to the movies, at least not on Sunday morning. Today you can be entertained endlessly even on a Sunday morning. You may even have been up very late on the internet and find getting up for church on 4 or 5 hours sleep very difficult. Today we have so many options that have to do with pleasing ourselves, which most people find more attractive than pleasing God.

The rise in the number of college educated people cuts both ways. Oddly enough, college educated people are more likely to be religious than less educated people. But having a college education can also make you think you know it all. Having knowledge is not the same as having wisdom. It is not hard to find highly educated fools.

Some college professors certainly feel that religion is a dangerous relic of our savage past or that it is impossible to be both a person of faith and someone who understands science. Kids in college want to be thought of as smart and “up to date” in their thinking, especially in the eyes of popular professors. They uncritically adopt these attitudes, never wondering how so many great thinkers and scientists managed to be both ground-breaking thinkers and people of faith. Isaac Newton is considered one of the greatest of all scientists, if not the greatest scientist of all time. He also wrote voluminously about theology. Not even Richard Dawkins would dare say Newton was therefore not a good scientist. Yet a lot of people take away from college the idea that faith somehow destroys the ability to think critically and clearly.

Also college is a time when young people get away from their parents and their parents' rules and experiment with alcohol, drugs and sex. That makes it hard for them to pray to God or face people in church. They can either give up these new and popular pleasures or they can give up going to church. Guess which one they choose?

But the key thing that has caused a drop in religious membership has got to be the simultaneous drop in people being brought up in a religion. A lot of Baby Boomer and Millennial parents have said, “I want to give my children the chance to choose what they want to believe.” The problem is you have to offer them something to choose from. If you never take them to any religious gathering, much less a whole range of churches, synagogues, mosques and ashrams, how are they to know whether a faith has anything to offer them? It's like never voting nor encouraging your kids to get engaged on important issues but somehow expecting your children to be active citizens who will uphold our democratic process. Some kids will rebel against your apathy but most will merely imitate it. The same goes with religion. And if you are worried about them being damaged by religious extremism, don't take them to such churches! Take them to churches which emphasize God's wisdom and love for us and our duty to love one another and to fight injustice and to work for peace. Even so, when they grow up, they may choose another church. But at least they will realize that there is a spiritual dimension of life, essential moral values and someone greater than themselves.

Just because we haven't physically seen Jesus doesn't mean we cannot put our trust in him. People who never saw or met Plato or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln can nevertheless find themselves drawn to their words and their lives. How much more do people find God speaking to them through the words and life of Jesus! As it says in 1 John 4:12-13, “No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is completed in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: he has given us a share of his Spirit.” Just like the wind, we may not see the Holy Spirit but we can feel his effect on us. God's Spirit communicates his love and power to us. We feel his life taking root in us, growing in us, transforming us. And feeling Jesus' life active in us assures us of his reality more that touching his wounds ever could.

Monday, April 21, 2014

In a New Light

It all starts in the dark. In the beginning there was no light until God called it into existence.

The Exodus took place in the dark of night. While the children of Israel hastily ate unleavened bread, death passed over them. Pharaoh rose in the night and called for Moses and Aaron and told them to leave that very night.

Christianity started in the dark of a tomb. The women started for the tomb while it was still dark and came upon it just as day was dawning only to find that the tomb was empty.

We all start in the dark. There is no light in the womb and we are pushed down a tunnel until we emerge into the light and a different kind of life.

We spend roughly half of each day in the dark. So why do we fear it?

The dark hides things. It hides what is familiar. In the dark, a room you've been in a thousand times becomes an obstacle course where objects and furniture will trip you or cause you to bang your shins or stub your toe. In the dark the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

The dark also hides danger. Predatory animals and humans do their worst under cover of darkness. The owl swoops down on the mouse. The burglar slips through the unlatched door. And as we said, even the mundane can be dangerous when shrowded in shadows.

By hiding both the desirable and the undesirable the dark also cloaks the world with uncertainty. Am I groping towards the door or a dead end? Is that sound the house settling or has an animal gotten in? Is that click the key of my spouse getting home late or a serial killer picking the lock?

Small wonder most of us fear the dark. And I don't mean night illumined by streetlights, houselights, high beams or even night lights; I mean total darkness. I was on a tour of a cave when the guide had us stop and then turned off all of the lights in the cave. You could see nothing; not your hand, not your neighbor, not the chasm you realized was just beyond the footpath. There was a chorus of gasps as we were plunged into the inky blackness that reigns beneath the earth. They pulled the same trick when I was on a ghost tour of Edinburgh. We were below the city in a space that poor people in the past crawled into to escape the plague. And they doused the lights. And my hair stood on end.

A night illumined by the full moon is beautiful. A night without a moon is ominous. Darkness is only tolerable when there is some light. Which is why, as soon as they invented LEDs, they started putting them on every electronic device and even on Swiss Army knives. Now you need never be caught in total darkness. Except that night when I was in the jail and the lights failed. I can't take anything electronic down into the jail. So even though I know that the jail is not nearly as scary a place as they paint it in movies and TV, I was still a bit creeped out as I waited for what seemed like a minute but which was probably mere seconds before the generator kicked in and the lights came back on.
And then with a couple of relieved laughs, the inmate and I resumed talking about God.

God's Word talks about light a lot. The word “light” appears more than 270 times in scripture. The Bible frequently uses light for imagery. Light is the first thing created. And as soon as light came to be, God set about sorting out the chaos that thrived in the darkness.

Light is a common symbol of goodness while darkness usually symbolizes evil. Job speaks of “those who rebel against the light” and stray from its paths. (Job 24:13) Jesus says, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (John 3:20) On the other hand, Jesus says to us, “You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14 a, 16) Paul says, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12)

Our light does not originate in ourselves. It comes from God, a gift from his grace. Psalm 97 says, “Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” (Psalm 97:11) Job recalls “when his lamp shone upon my head, and by his light I walked through darkness.” (Job 29:3) And because light enables us to see things as they are, light is used as a symbol for truth. Darkness hides and disguises things; light exposes everything so we can see it clearly.

Light is seen as life. We know now that light is physically important to life. Sunlight is important in helping our bodies make vitamin D and morning light has been shown to literally lighten our moods. In contrast, death is often pictured as darkness. Psalm 49 says that when those who think their wealth can redeem them die, “they will never see light again. A man with valuable possessions but without understanding is like the animals that perish.” (Psalm 49:20) Job 33 says that being brought back from the grave is to “see the light of life.” (Job 33:20)

And of course, light is used as a metaphor for God. Isaiah says, “...the Lord will be your everlasting light.” (Isaiah 60:20) 1 John 1:5 says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Psalm 104 pictures God as covering himself with “light as with a garment.” And Paul describes God as one who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (1 Timothy 6:16)

The light imagery is also applied to Jesus, God's son, the Messiah. Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) John 1:9 says that Christ is “the true light which enlightens every person who comes into the world.” Jesus himself says he is “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and says, “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)

Nearly 2000 years ago, a bunch of women, who probably hadn't slept very well, got up well before dawn, got their things together and set out through the pre-dawn darkness. They lugged spices and a jar of olive oil through the silent streets of Jerusalem. They walked out through the city gates, passed the place where Jesus bled and died and wove their ways through the graves till they got to the tomb. And in the first light of dawn, they saw the stone door had been rolled away. And they saw a being of light, a messenger from God, perhaps one of those who announced his birth, who now told them that Jesus was alive again. And they ran like rabbits, fueled by fear and giddy with the slowly awakening hope that perhaps, just perhaps, the blazing angel spoke the truth.

The light of this truth was slow to dawn on the disciples. Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Lord. Next, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, the earliest account of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve, and then to 500 Christians, most of whom were still alive as of that writing. And then Jesus appeared to James, his brother, and then to all the disciples. He ate with them and shed light upon how the scriptures spoke about him.

Lastly, as Saul went to Damascus to arrest the Christians there, Jesus appeared to him in a vision so dazzling that Saul went blind even as he saw the light. A follower of Jesus laid hands on the former enemy of Christ and he received his physical sight back. And Saul, which means “asked of God,” became Paul, which means “little,” the self-proclaimed last and least of the apostles, who most fully understood the grace of God in Christ.

The formerly blinded Paul wrote in Ephesians, “For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” (Ephesians 5:8, 9) He reminds them of how light exposes everything. “Therefore it says, 'Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'” (Ephesians 5:14)

Light in all these instances is a metaphor, a word-picture to help us understand a God who cannot be completely comprehended. But it is a particularly powerful metaphor, one which illuminates certain key aspects of God. Let's look at a few.

If God is somehow light, it means that what is secret or hidden or done furtively does not sit well with him. Light exposes the things that like the darkness. When you flick on the lights, the cockroaches don't come out to greet you. They scurry for the shadows. And nothing godly hides from the light. Crooks don't publish their balance sheets and honest men don't have secret affairs. If we are children of the light, we need to live in the light.

Light is not private either. You can't hide light. You can try but it escapes through every crack and opening. Jesus spoke of the stupidity of putting a lamp under a bushel. Light is meant to be shared. So let us not try to hide the gospel. In this dark world, we need the light of God's glad tidings. It's not ours to hog. Put it on the lamp stand; build it on a hill so all can see the light and benefit by it.

Light is tough on the impermanent. Light can fade, yellow, and make brittle those things which are not meant to last. If you have any of those resin chairs out on your patio, you know what I mean. If something in your life does not stand up to the light of day, don't try to build on it. If it fades each time you revisit it, don't base your life on it. Stick with stuff that loves the light and flourishes in it.

Light also brings out the true colors in things. Ever had an item of clothing which could be either dark grey or black under your house lighting and you had to take it out into the sunlight to see what it really was? There are people and schemes who use the darkness to hide what they really are. Only in the light of day, do you see their true colors. If things change their colors when in the spotlight, don't trust them.

Light invites scrutiny. Everything Jesus did and said has been laid out for us to see. It is remarkable how many skeptics have gone over the gospels with a magnifying glass and fine tooth comb and come away believers. C.S. Lewis was an atheist trained in logic by an atheist when he read the gospels in the original Greek. An expert on literary myths, he found them to not be “good enough" or well-crafted enough to be myths. They struck him as reporting. He became a Christian. Lee Strobel was an atheist, lawyer and journalist when his wife became a Christian. He decided to get to the bottom of these fairy tales called the gospels. The more he looked, the more reliable they turned out to be. He became a Christian. Albert Henry Ross was a professional writer who was skeptical about the resurrection of Jesus. The more he investigated it the more convinced he became that it was true. The research he put in his book Who Moved the Stone?, written under the pen name Frank Morrison, has been bringing people to Christ ever since.

The truth of Jesus' resurrection has held up not only under the examination of modern investigators but the first inquirers as well. Jesus' disciples were skeptical at first. They disbelieved the women. Even when they first saw Jesus they thought he was a ghost. They all started out doubting his resurrection; they ended up declaring it till their deaths.
Jesus' opponents should have had the trump card. They could have produced the body had he not been raised. They did resort to saying the disciples stole it, though they never explained how they would have gotten past the armed guards. Nor could they explain why the disciples were willing to be whipped, imprisoned and executed to protect such a profitless fraud. Why didn't the authorities press their advantage if the resurrection was a lie? Unless they were afraid it was true—that a man who could raise the dead could himself come back from the dead. They wouldn't want to highlight that possibility. Better to ignore it and hope it would fade away.

But Jesus' resurrection wasn't one of those things that faded in the light; it grew! 20 years later, Paul essentially writes that if people don't believe him about Jesus being raised from the dead, there were nearly 500 witnesses they could ask about it. Pretty bold claim—unless it was the truth.

That first Easter morning casts our lives in a different light. If Jesus was raised from the dead, how should we then live? If the darkness of death has been dispersed by the risen Son, what change does that make in the path we take?

A few weeks ago I referenced Hamlet's speech about how the fear of death makes “cowards of us all.” Fear makes us cautious and conservative in what we do. Take the fear of death off the table and what would we dare to do for Jesus? He said “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If we need not worry about being caught in the crossfire of people in conflict, how much more courageous can we be as peacemakers? Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” If we need not worry about grave injustices done to us, how much more bravely could we pursue justice for others? Jesus said that if anyone wants to go after him, they must disown themselves, take up their cross and follow him. If we know that the cross is not the end, how much more fearlessly could we turn the other cheek, walk the second mile and give to those who ask in his name? Jesus said to love one another as he has loved us. If his self-sacrifice led to resurrection, how much more heroically could we love even our enemies?

On Easter the sun rose and the Son rose and there dawned a new world, one where the rules changed. The biggest change was in the rule that seemed least able to be altered: that dead is dead. But Jesus showed that's not even true. The truth is that the God of the living is stronger than death. For the God who created the universe out of nothing, bringing life out of death is easy. If death can be reversed, if death is not permanent, but life can be, what else has changed? What in this dark world needs to be changed? In the light of God's love and power displayed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, what can possibly stop us who walk in his light? The night is over. Let the nightmare of death and disease and destruction be ended. 'Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'” Put on the armor of light and walk as children of the light, bearing the fruit of the light which is found in all that is good and right and true.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: Where?

When I was a kid, my whole family became big James Bond fans just after the release of Goldfinger. And I remember when Thunderball came out and we went to see it at the Sunset Cinema. It was the first time we had to stand in a real long line that stretched the equivalent of an entire block just to get tickets to see a movie. It was the first big summer blockbuster I ever went to. I was also amazed that people showed up so early and waited so long. And there were no smartphones or iPods or even the Walkman to keep you entertained while you stood in the sun waiting for the line to inch slowly around the corner and then up to the ticket window. There were no multiplexes with 6 or more theatres so if a showing was sold out, you had to wait 2 hours till the next showing. There were no video games in the lobby. I had not yet begun bringing a book with me everywhere in case I had to wait. Unmitigated waiting in unrelieved anticipation was all you could do. But we knew it was going to be worth it.

Today people camp out for days to see movies or buy the latest electronic gadget or be among the first to enter Target for a holiday sale. But they want entering eternity to live with the God of love to be as easy as clicking “Like” on Facebook. They are willing to go without a shower or decent sleep for the better part of a week to get the newest iteration of iPhone but they aren't willing to do without their favorite things to possess the spiritual riches we have in Christ.

We have been talking about evangelism as inviting people to Christ's wedding feast, the big banquet which was one of Jesus' favorite metaphors for the kingdom of God. But what is the feast? If you are going to try to persuade people to try something, you have to know what it is you are offering.

What will will do in just a few minutes, the Eucharist, is hardly a feast. The early Christians apparently celebrated communion as part of something called the love feast. This made sense because Jesus initiated the sacrament in the middle of a Passover meal. It sounds however as if everybody brought their own meal to eat. At some point in the midst of it they would introduce the bread and wine as Christ's body and blood. But apparently it got out of hand. Some people were going hungry and others were getting drunk. And so Paul tells them in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 that people should eat at home first. He stripped away the actual meal from the Lord's Supper so that its true significance was not obscured. Whenever we eat the bread and drink the wine we are proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. It is serious enough and sacred enough that to partake for the wrong reason or in the wrong frame of mind (ie, this is just food) is, Paul says, a sin.

Our churches take this to mean that this is more than just a memorial. How can botching a mere memorial be such a grave sin? We take Jesus' words that the bread is his body and the wine his blood seriously. We believe Christ is really present in the Eucharist in a way we do not really attempt to define. In John 6:54, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.” So this is obviously something we need to do. Why?

The word “companion” is typically used as a synonym for “friend.” It literally means “a person with whom one shares bread.” We don't usually eat with enemies. When we do, it signals a change in the relationship to one of friendship. Participating in the Lord's Supper signifies our reconciliation with God. Since we are at peace with him, we enjoy fellowship with God, as well as our fellowship with other members of the body of Christ, as Luther pointed out. So one reason for communion is to connect with our creator through parts of his creation he designated to be channels of his grace.

And how was that peace with God accomplished? Through Jesus' self-sacrifice. He died to take away the sins of the world and make possible our peace with God. That is an amazingly selfless act on his part. Think about it: we have a problem with God, it's our fault but God himself painfully fixes the breach between us through his voluntary death. Which is why our meal with him is in essence his body and his blood.

By freeing us from our sin, Jesus enables us to live with God. The feast he was sharing with his disciples commemorated another time God liberated his people. When the Hebrews were literally slaves in Egypt, God broke their chains, led them out of Egypt and into the promised land. He made a covenant with them, a promise to prosper them if they followed him. In the Eucharist, Jesus does for the whole world what God did for the Israelites but he doesn't merely liberate them from an oppressive political power but from the power of sin, of our self-destructive attitudes and habits that limit us and keep us from finding peace with God, with others and within ourselves. Jesus takes the theme of the blood of the lamb (which told the angel of death to pass over his people), the unleavened bread (which meant freedom would be too swift to wait for the dough to rise), and the wine (which meant the joy of freedom in God) and endows them with new meanings. His blood saves us from death. The bread on which we subsist is his torn flesh. The wine which lifts our hearts is his shed blood. Jesus repurposed Passover.

But the Lord's Supper doesn't just point to the past, or to what Jesus was doing in his present with the Twelve. It also points to the future. In Isaiah 25, the prophet envisions a future Zion and says, “On this mountain the Lord will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations. He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces...” This is echoed and expanded upon in Revelation 21.

A lot of people think the pleasures of this world are all the sweeter because of death, because it will all go away. I for one have never found myself qualifying my enjoyment of something because of how long I can enjoy it. Thinking about its briefness can actually take you out of the moment, out of the enjoying the present, which is the closest thing to eternity in our current experience. When you are really enjoying something, doesn't time seem to slow down or stop? Don't you feel it could last forever? When it doesn't, you don't continue enjoying it; you mourn it. At best enjoying something that is fleeting is bittersweet.

But that feeling that comes while you are lost in the moment, that it could and should last forever, is actually a glimpse of what God meant our lives, this creation, to be. It is also a sneak peek at what it will be one day: a new creation, freed from the limitations and the pain and suffering this one is subject to. And the great glimpse we get of that is Jesus himself, whose resurrected body is not hindered by distance or doors or doubts. And scripture assures us that we will be like him. What better excuse for a party!

Which brings me back to how the anticipation of a big event can be an exquisite kind of suffering, rather like waiting for a loved one to arrive. You feel you can't wait but the anticipation is itself exhilarating. We see that also reflected in the Bible. In Romans 8:18-23, Paul says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” You know what that groan sounds like? Like the groan of a child told that Christmas is still a day away.

At the end of the book of Revelation, we get “And the Spirit and the bride says, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!'...He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming quickly.' Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” That should be our attitude in this life: looking forward to Jesus' coming and the party to end all parties, in which we will have a prime place because as the church, we are his bride, his beloved.

And we should want to invite everyone we can to this feast, a feast for the eyes and the senses and the spirit. The nature you love restored to what it could and should be. Our bodies restored to what they could and should be. Our relationships restored to what they could and should be. That's the good ending that the good news is leading us to. Which means it needs to be part of our sharing of the gospel. People today don't feel that the salvation of their soul is all that compelling. But what about the restoration of all things, the transformation of us and creation into what God originally intended it to be, and everlasting communion with God in a world without suffering? Isn't that something to commit to and hope for?

That's the ultimate payoff. That the goal of this life. That's God's plan. And it's where we will go if we follow Jesus. And we will be a part of it, of the new creation where death and mourning and crying and pain are no more. Where life is a banquet. And Jesus is our gracious host, who washes our feet and gives us the bread of heaven to feed on and the cup of blessing to drink, provided at the greatest of costs and with the greatest of love.

Monday, April 14, 2014

To Die For

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show Thursday and the subject of the first hour was the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. One of the guests brought up the fact that President Johnson knew that passing this law would lose the solid South that the Democrats had controlled since the Civil War. He was in effect committing political suicide as was his party. And for what? For a moral principle. The same was true of the Speaker of the House, a Republican from the same district as today's Speaker, John Boehner. He wanted the passing of the law to be bipartisan and having achieved it, he lost his speakership the next year. And the guest said, “Call you imagine a politician today doing the same?”

Sacrifice is one of those things we like when it is done by someone else. We like others making sacrifices that benefit us. But when it is our time to make a sacrifice, we often balk, at least if the sacrifice is more than a few minutes of our time or a few extra cents per product or a minimal amount of effort. And certainly we would object to anything that makes a permanent negative change in our lifestyle or income or position or power.

Now if there is a threat to someone we really love, we might be willing to make a sacrifice. Parents may sacrifice themselves for their children. True parenthood is a form of sacrifice: you give up sleep, you give up a lot of your time and your money for your children. Not every parent does, however. In fact, there are people who give up their children in deference to their spouse or lover. My wife and I briefly took in a teenage girl whose mother chose her boyfriend over her daughter when the 2 came into conflict. And men often sacrifice their time with their children for the sake of their job or for a new relationship. In my work at the jail I have seen parents burn out on bailing out their offspring repeatedly and just give up on them. We expect parents to make sacrifices for their kids but in the real world that is not always a given.

A person may sacrifice him or herself for a spouse or lover. A woman may give up her dreams, her preferred career, her friends, her family, her hopes of having children for a man. It can work the other way as well. Some sacrifice in the form of compromise is necessary in a relationship. But it can be one-sided. Again as a chaplain I have seen people go to jail for a lover.

Would you be willing to give up your life, though? For your children? For your lover? Would you die for them? Would you take a bullet? Would you give up a limb? Soldiers sacrifice themselves for their country though most hope, as Patton said, to make enemy soldiers die for their country.

Outside of war, giving up your life voluntarily and rationally to save another is rare. So much so that when someone like Sgt. 1st Class Danny Ferguson dies using his body to wedge a door shut against the shooter at Ft. Hood, thereby saving a room full of his colleagues, everyone takes notice. That is not ordinary behavior. It is normal to run and hide. Most people in a crisis are either victims or victimizers. Unlike the movies, the cops and EMTs usually don't arrive in time to stop the disaster or even mitigate it but later, to help the survivors, clean up the aftermath, and figure out what happened.

9 times out of 10 when a person sacrifices himself in order to save others it is a split second decision. It's not like they knew what was coming and deliberately put themselves in harm's way. But Jesus did. Whether he foresaw it because he knew that anyone upsetting the status quo was likely to end up on a cross, or because the Spirit let him know in no uncertain terms, Jesus saw what was coming. And he could have stopped it. He could have had the other disciples seize Judas before he slipped out of the upper room. He could have hightailed it to Bethany, 2 miles away from Jerusalem, where Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived. They would have hidden him or gotten him out of Judea. Jesus could have disarmed the accusations leveled against him, denied who he was and toed the party line. Heck, he told Peter that he could have called legions of angels to save him. But he didn't do any of those things. Something more important was at stake.

In a movie, if a character sacrifices himself, it is for someone he loves. Usually just one person. Movie people rarely die merely to save millions or for a principle. Too abstract. We like to keep it simple and relatable. If Hollywood were writing the story of Jesus, he would die primarily for one person, his true love. And he wouldn't be crucified, he'd go down fighting. Actually Hollywood did make that Jesus film; it's called The Matrix.

Hollywood understands that dying for the whole world is hard to make immediate and emotional. And they're right. In the 3rd movie, when Neo, the Christ figure, dies to reconcile humans and robots, there is no emotional catharsis as there was in the first. Neo has no relationship with all of humanity and all the robots. How could he? He's just one human being. Instead of the big emotional ending, we get dialogue between 2 sentient programs on a bench, explaining what just happened.

In straightforward Jesus movies, the emphasis is on the physical suffering, not his atonement for the sins of the world. Because they can show the physical stuff. But how do you show Jesus dying for everyone in the world, past, present and future? You really can't.

But he did. He died for all of us which means he died for each of us. But how is that possible?

A human being really can't have any kind of meaningful relationship with more than 150 individuals. That goes back to when we lived in tribes and extended families. It is still a psychological limit. You may have a larger group of people in your school or company or town with whom you occasionally interact but they are neither family nor friends nor acquaintances you could recognize on sight or with whom you would ever chat. There's a reason for this. Where would you find the time to get to know hundreds or thousands of folks?

But God lives outside of time. He inhabits eternity and has, so to speak, all the time in the world to devote to each person. He can study each person, listen to each thought, hear each word, observe each action. He can hear every prayer and communicate with each individual, if that person is receptive. So in his pre-existent state Christ made and knew and loved every person who ever existed. To him, his mission to save the whole world was personal, done to save his beloved but in a way it could never be for someone who is only human.

Every slice of the whip, every blow from the mocking soldiers, every prick from the thorny crown, every stumbling step made under the weight of the crossbar, every scraped knee from a fall, every blow from the hammer driving home the nail, every shooting pain as he was raised into place, every shudder as the cross fell into its slot, every agonized gasp for air he endured for you. Each and every one of you. And, yes, me as well.

Jesus suffered for every cruel thought we ever had, every cutting or untruthful word we ever uttered, every selfish or harmful act we ever made, every time when we said or did nothing when someone needed to speak up or step up and help or protect someone. Every awful thing we did to others we did to him. Every supportive and comforting thing we withheld from others we withheld from him. It should have been each of us who was made to carry our cross through the jeering crowds to Golgotha. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole and by his bruises are we healed.

You may say, “I have never done anything that merits crucifixion.” Not knowingly perhaps. You may not know the damage your childhood insults about the fat kid in class did to his or her fragile psyche later in life. You may not know what further terrible thing happened to the young woman whose black eye and bruises you chose to ignore. You may not know how your not contributing to that church disaster fund affected people in that devastated country. You may not know how your indifference to a politician's badly thought-out policies hurt real people. You may not know that the food you eat or the electronics you buy are supporting virtual or actual slavery in the third world country that produces them. We know we are responsible for the evil we do. But are we automatically absolved from the evil done on our behalf or the good we do not do? Isn't that rather too close to the excuse of the low-level Nazis who said, “I was just a small cog in the system?”

Small things can have a very big impact. The eating of a monkey in the Congo in the early part of the 20th century led to the AIDS epidemic 60 years later. If a tiny virus can initiate a cascade of biological events that sickens millions, might not the cumulative effects of all the tiny evils we do or decline to stop contribute to the moral disease affecting our world? Didn't we see in 2008 how interdependent the whole world is, so that the financial sins of a few destroyed the jobs and pensions and home-ownership of millions? The human race is one family, all sharing the mitochondrial DNA of one African woman and the Y chromosomes of one African man, both of whom lived more than 100,000 years ago. If we share a common biology, why not a common morality? If our shared physical makeup allows us to pass on physical contagion, why can't our shared spiritual nature allow us to pass on spiritual corruption?

In Jesus' day half of all children died before their fifth birthday. Vaccines have drastically reduced and even eliminated some diseases that used to kill great numbers of people. Sadly some of these childhood diseases are reemerging because of misinformed people not vaccinating their kids and those children are spreading these germs to others.

Can it work the other way? C.S. Lewis spoke of Christianity being a good infection, spiritual healing spread by getting and maintaining close contact with Jesus. He is patient zero and the good infection of his Spirit first spreads to the twelve and spills out of Jerusalem at Pentecost to pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. Everywhere they go there is a breakout of the good news. The apostles spread faith in Jesus as far as they can. In 300 years Christianity takes over the Empire. The pagan Germanic tribes conquer Rome but faith in Jesus conquers them. It spreads to the New World, to the East and the global South. And while some mutations arise, the original code of the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen God teaching love and forgiveness reasserts itself whenever we get too far from the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

And it all starts on the cross. Which seems unnecessarily messy. But so is physical birth. So is life-saving surgery. The body is penetrated; blood is spilled; there are scars. And the paradox is that out of this messy painful process comes miraculous new life. We feel it shouldn't but it does. The God of love comes to earth and we do the unforgivable: we kill him. That should be our damnation as a species but God turns it into our salvation. He forgives us. He nullifies the evil done to him and then that nullification gets spread to us and the evils we do to others and ourselves. All it requires is embracing Jesus and letting the good infection inside. Let him rewrite your spiritual code. Let it manifest itself in how you think, how you speak, and how you act. And then carry this good infection to others. It means you will have to get close to others. It may get emotionally messy. There may be pain. It will take sacrifices. But that gives way to real health, a mending of body, mind and spirit. 

If one new life only comes through painful labor, what did the new lives of a whole world cost God? A world of pain. But he thinks it was worth it. To save you. Each and every one of you. And even me. 

Thank God.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: When?

When I was a kid I fell for one of those “make money in your spare time” schemes. An entire page of one of my comic books told me how easy it was to make money selling greetings cards. So I sent for my boxes of cards to sell. The deal was you had to send so much money back to the company before you got to keep any for yourself, which meant you had to sell an awful lot of boxes of cards. I dutifully went door to door but really couldn't sell many boxes. People may be charmed by a child but that's not always enough to make a sale. Truth be told, most of the cards were bought by my parents and relatives. Even then I sold just enough to pay off the company. I did not reorder.

Salesmen are supposed to close the deal. They are hired not only to persuade people that what they are selling is good and that it is what the consumer needs and desires but they should also get them to place an order, sign on the dotted line and hand over a check or their credit card. It is a talent that not everybody has. It requires the ability to push people to do things even when they are reluctant. So closers can be insensitive to the feelings which make others hesitant to commit themselves. I worked with one salesperson who was very successful at selling radio ads. Then I would write them and call the client to read the copy to them and get their approval. In doing so I found that a lot of clients signed her contracts not because they wanted the ads but just to get her to leave their stores!

Some closers might really be convinced that what they are doing is for the client's good. There were times when, as a nurse, I could get a patient to agree that following the doctor's orders were a good thing in theory but was unable to get them to actually comply with treatment. That was frustrating because no one can cure you if you don't work with them. I wished I could have closed them.

But most of the time closing is done for the profit of the seller, and for the survival of the salesman's job, and not necessarily for the benefit of the buyer. One of things I liked about being a copywriter for radio was that you don't have to close the sale. You present what the sponsor has to offer, show its benefits, and give an address or phone number. We just made the audience aware of the product or service and tried to fan their desire for it. The rest was up to the listener.

There are methods of evangelism that emphasize closing. Usually they try to get the person to say the so-called Sinner's Prayer, in which one acknowledges one's sin, asks for God's forgiveness on the basis of Christ's sacrifice on the cross and asks Jesus to come into one's heart. At the Billy Graham Crusades, they would have an altar call, asking those who wish to commit their lives to Christ to come forward.

Sometimes it works. Barbara Brown Taylor became a Christian in college through a girl in her dorm who knocked on her door and used Campus Crusade's Four Spiritual Laws tract. The girl got Taylor to say the Sinner's Prayer and then left. Fortunately, Taylor did the follow up herself, wanting to learn more about this faith she had just adopted. She went on to became one of the best preachers of the second half of the 20th century. I would encourage anyone to get her books. So, yeah, sometimes closing works.

But often it leads to a superficial and possibly spurious “conversion” where the person thinks they are a Christian simply because they said a magic prayer. But did they truly repent, that is, turn their lives around, change their way of thinking and behaving? And by inviting Jesus into their heart did they understand that to mean he is in charge of their lives from then on and they are to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus? I do like the fact that, at the Billy Graham crusades at least, people from local churches were recruited to meet with and disciple the new converts. Because Jesus said we were not merely to tell people the good news and baptize them but also to make disciples. And the best way to do that is by joining a group of others who are learning about and following Jesus.

To that end, I do think that telling people the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ should be followed up by an invitation to come to church. And you can invite them even if no closing or conversion was involved. Most people in fact need to know a lot more than the 4 Spiritual Laws or any other summary of the gospel before they become followers of Jesus. And one of the advantages of a liturgical church is that one will hear the basics of the gospel in the course of the worship service. Every service we read the Bible, often 4 selections from it; someone who has made a long and deep study of the scriptures then explains them and applies them to our lives; we recite a creed; we confess our sins and receive assurance of God's forgiveness; we recall the events of the first Lord's Supper and share Christ's Body and Blood as members of Christ's body on earth; and we commit ourselves to go out into the world proclaiming the gospel not only with our lips but with our lives. If one simply pays attention, it is all there. It may need further exploration and explanation but the essentials are all there.

So when is the best time to tell people the good news and/or invite them to church?

Any time can be good but certain times might get a better response. Special occasions are times when people might be open to discussing God's place in our lives and/or coming to church. Holidays, for instance. Christmas is when God makes the surprising move into our neighborhood, so to speak. He visits us; why not visit his church? Passion or Palm Sunday is God's more shocking move in letting evil do its worst to him in the person his Son Jesus. Maundy Thursday with its display of Jesus' humility and his offering of his Body and Blood is a moving service. Easter celebrates God's startling triumph over evil and death and the foundation our hope in the risen Christ.

Any time you or someone in the church celebrates one of the rites of passage in life is a good time to talk about the place of God in our lives and to invite people to come to church. People rarely refuse invitations to baptisms, and the explanation of the Sacrament and implications of entering God's kingdom are spelled out beautifully in the liturgy and, one hopes, the sermon. Along that line, confirmations are all about a person publicly declaring themselves a disciple or follower of Jesus. People will usually come to weddings and if they pay attention much is said about the parallel between the love of God for us and the love of husband and wife.

Funerals are another time when people are open to talk of God, life and death and coming to church. I just want to offer a few caveats, though. When talking with the bereaved, it is best to let them lead and direct the discussion. The person is vulnerable and emotionally raw. They may not want to talk about God. Or they may be confused about why God let this happen to their loved one. They may even be angry with God. DO NOT TRY TO DEFEND GOD! Do not say the person's death was God's will! Do not say God needed that person to be with him! Do not tell children that the angels came and took their daddy or mama or grandpa or grandma! It's not comforting. I know of a guy who developed a real hatred for angels because he was told that.

This is one of those times when the best way to proclaim God's love is to shut up and simply be there for the person. Let them vent. Be a sympathetic ear. Be a shoulder to cry on. Be a practical help to them, by cooking for them, babysitting for them, driving them, helping them with all those terribly important tasks that they must do at a time when they are barely capable of thinking or getting through the ordinary activities of the day.

But do not try to give the death of their loved one a meaning. That is one of the tasks of grieving they must accomplish. If and only if they say something about the person being in a better place or being free of their pain or the like, should you express similar sentiments. And then you may be able to sensitively share how God/prayer/the church helped you through some equally dire situation.

It's the same with any painful time in life or any loss, such as divorce, or unemployment or serious illness of the person or a close relative of theirs. Don't justify God to them. Be the embodiment of God's love for them. If they broach the subject of God, then you can sensitively share your experience.

While times of crisis are times when people might be more open to God, it is also a time when they are quite vulnerable. It is not a time for us to fall upon them like predators. Emotionally coercing someone or taking advantage of a person at a moment of fragility is not a loving action. What we can do is offer help. We can offer them hope. They are free to accept or reject it. We do not need to close the deal.

Jesus and Paul speak of spreading the gospel as sowing or planting seeds. Someone else may water them and another someone may reap the harvest. We needn't do it all. And that includes our family members and closest friends. In fact while we do influence those closest to us, often in ways we'd never imagine, they are the hardest people to bring all the way to Christ. We must pray that others will be used by God to bring them home.

We must never get discouraged or worry about the progress we are making in spreading the word. God doesn't depend on anyone accepting the gospel. He will not cease to exist like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan if we cease to believe in him. He is a fact, like the universe. He existed before we did and will after our mortal bodies are dust. It's our existence that depends on him.

And to return to the central metaphor of this series, he is the host of the banquet, the wedding supper of the Lamb. That will take place no matter how many accept the invitation. And it will be a joyful event. And that's what we have to remember when we are inviting people to Jesus. It is ultimately a good and joyful experience. It is good news. We have a loving God who is inviting everyone to come to a party that will never end. No one who really wants to come will be refused. The only way to miss out is to decline or to get so involved in other stuff that you let them divert you. So you have to prioritize it above everything else.

What exactly is the nature of the feast? That is what we will explore in our last installment of this series next week on Maundy Thursday. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Total Resurrection

“To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pang of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.”

In this soliloquy, Shakespeare's Hamlet is thinking of taking action against his uncle the new king. But that could prove fatal and Hamlet concludes that people do not take risks because of the fear of death. But it is not the fear of nonexistence but of an afterlife that bothers him. If death is merely sleep, that's OK. But what if that sleep has the equivalent of nightmares?

Though this is often cited as a very deep meditation on life and death, Hamlet's worry is not that of most people. Few people fret about an unpleasant afterlife. They are more troubled by the idea that there may be no afterlife. Hamlet sees death at best as sleep but for most people the snuffing out of the flame of life is not a good thing. We struggle to live and stay alive. We want to survive death. And indeed the earliest indication of the belief in an afterlife is in the burial of Neanderthals, 50,000 years ago, complete with flowers, tools and food left with the bodies. Is this merely a vain hope or an ancient spiritual insight?

The oldest recorded religion, that of the Egyptians, posited an elaborate afterlife for those who had sin-free hearts, were properly mummified and knew all the passwords in the Book of the Dead. In contrast, in the early parts of the Old Testament, there is little said about the fate of the dead. When the afterlife is referred to at all it is called Sheol, which literally means “pit” or “grave.” In the few pictures we get of it, it's depicted as a gray half-life where people are weak and do not praise God. Often leaders and kings are said to be “gathered to their people” or to “sleep with their fathers” but there is reason to believe these are just traditional euphemisms for the death of the great.

The exceptions to these gloomy glimpses of the afterlife are the unique fates of Enoch who walked with God and then is taken by him and Elijah who is taken to heaven by a fiery chariot and a whirlwind. We also have references in Psalms 16, 45 and 73 to some kind of continued communion with God. In addition there are a few references to resurrection. Most, like our passage from Ezekiel 37, use resurrection as a metaphor for the revival of the nation of Judah after their exile. But a few do seem to refer to individuals being resurrected. Isaiah 26:19 says, “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth shall give birth to those long dead.” Daniel 12:2 reads, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However these resurrection references are not developed further.

As God's revelation unfolds in the New Testament, we get a clearer and more detailed picture of the afterlife. For instance, without an afterlife, there is no justice in this world. People do not treat others as they wish to be treated. Good people do not get rewarded as they should; evil people too often get away with the damage they inflict on others. But in God's universe such things will not stand forever. The justice denied in this life is redressed in the next. The unrepentent wicked receive punishment. Jesus calls that “Gehenna,” literally the valley of Hinnom on the southern edge of Jerusalem. During the last dark days of the kingdom of Judah before the exile, this was the site of pagan worship, where parents and Jewish kings sacrificed their children to Molech by fire. In Jesus' day it was the city garbage dump where trash was burned day and night. That was Jesus' metaphor for hell.

For those who realize how far from God's glory they have fallen and who turn to Him, their fate is to be in the presence of God, immediately after death. It is difficult to say whether the individuals are conscious or not. 9 times Paul speaks of believers who died as having “fallen asleep.” Yet, as we see in our gospel, this may be a convention of speech like our “passed away” because when facing execution Paul says being in Christ's presence is better than this earthly life.

If this sounds rather vague for a description of our final state, you're right. If this were our final state. But it's not. Jesus' resurrection was not only a validation of who he was; it is also the pattern for the afterlife proper. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks of the discomfort of being “unclothed” in the intermediate state right after death and desiring to be better clothed. He speaks of our present bodies being like a tent, a temporary habitat, as opposed to the permanent house made for us by God. Being incorporeal is unnatural and temporary. The reason this intermediate time is not better described is the same reason why travel brochures don't say much about waiting lounges. That's not the destination.

Contrary to popular belief, our final state is not to be disembodied spirits in heaven. We are created as body-spirit unities; our destiny is to be whole beings once again. God will not abandon his creation, nor give up on creatures created in his image. He intends to restore us to what we were intended to be. Unlike the angels who are spirits or animals who are physical, we were created to be amphibians, as C. S. Lewis put it, creatures who are at home both in the spiritual and the physical realms. So our restoration means we must be embodied.

Notice that in our gospel passage (John 11) Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is the origin of the process, the source of resurrection, and the channel of new life. In John 1:3 it says, “All things were created through him...” His signature, so to speak, is on everything. And God plans that all things will be re-created through Jesus. 

Everything in creation ends or dies. It either stops working or something or someone else stops it from working. The troops that crucified Jesus stopped his body from working in the most painful, gruesome way possible. But then he rose from the dead. The source of life and resurrection re-entered the world, better than ever. He set the pattern for our resurrection.

Not only is Jesus' resurrection a pattern for our own but it is a pattern for the whole of creation. Some people, including some Christians, think that God just wants to end the world. But that's not what the Bible says. God created this world and pronounced its component parts good and the entirety very good. But in Genesis 6:11, it says, “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence.” In 6 short chapters we turn God's earthly paradise into hell on earth. What is God's response? Start over, which means clearing away what's gone bad, what's been corrupted and infected and keeping what's good. That's the essence of the Noah story. God is giving creation a clean start. He reboots it and returns it to the manufacturer's original settings, as it were.

And that's what we see at the climax of the Book of Revelation. The earth is cleansed from all evil including death and pain and grief. And Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away...” In other words God resurrects creation from the ashes of the old one, the way he raised the pierced, scourged and ravaged body of Jesus from the dead and transformed his body so that it no longer had the limitations our bodies do. In the same way he will raise us, giving us new bodies, while retaining the essence of who we are. Or to paraphrase physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, God will install our same software, debugged, into new hardware.

We see the opposite all the time. We see the loving bright child turn into the distant burnout thinking only of the next fix. We seen the hopeful young person turn into the bitter angry adult through the insults of a hard life. We see soldiers return from the hell of war and their families and friends slowly realize they are not the same person, but an angry, depressed and self-destructive version of what they were. We see how negative transformation works, how the stuff that people have seen and have done and what was done to them can make them shells of who they were. God wants to transform us too, but positively; and not into what we once were, but into what he always intended us to be.

Resurrection is, in essence, transformation, taking what no longer works and making it over, improving and perfecting it. When they starting remaking the longest running science fiction series Doctor Who, they retained what worked—the eccentric time traveler and his human companions fighting evil, human or alien, anywhere in time and space—and changed what didn't—25 minute episodes with storylines that ran for 4 to 6 weeks, main characters with no emotional depth or personal history, rubber monsters with visible zippers and special effects not much improved over that of the original Star Trek. And the show grew from a cult classic known chiefly to Brits and a few thousand fans outside the UK into an international hit. But it had to have worth originally, even in its less than ideal state.

God takes us, in our less than ideal state and transforms us into what he had in mind for us all along. But that doesn't mean frozen in some kind static perfection. Eastern Orthodox theology does not see humanity, even in its unfallen state, as everything God fully intended us to be. Even in paradise we were not to remain exactly as we were when first created but we were to grow spiritually and become more than what we started as. When we sinned, we arrested our upward progress and not only regressed but devolved into less than we were at the point of our creation. When we surrender to Jesus, we start to progress once more. In this life we are mostly just making up what we lost. But in our new life, we will be restored to what should have been our starting point—complete harmony and unity with God—and then go on from there. Never forget: we are intended to mirror an infinitely wise and loving God. As finite creatures that adventure will never end. We will always be going further up and further into the endless love that is our Triune God.

Resurrection is also a validation of us as God's creations. Our moral flaws we may regret but not the individual characteristics he gave us. Again since we are to mirror an incomprehensibly large and multi-faceted God, it will take each of us with our particular talents and quirks and insights and gifts and skills and perspectives and creativity and ability to make connections to do that. We are like pieces of a vast living mosaic portrait of the Mind that made all. Each of us must be of the proper shape and size and hue, perfectly polished, and in the right relationship to each other, to reflect the rainbow of his radiance. Our task is to let him use us how and where he wants us to be.

As for the shape of the new creation and the description in Revelation of the new Jerusalem, with its crystal clear walls and its streets of gold and its bejeweled foundation and its gates of pearl—if it seems too hard to imagine, well, that's the point. It is a vision of the indescribable, overwhelming the power of words to capture anything so wonderful. Whatever the reality, it is more rather than less than how it was pictured.

The same can be said for our new post-resurrection state. As it says in 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is.” Like children our mature appearance is as yet unknown, except that we will be like our Father, and we will at the last see him as he is, a beatific vision beyond our current state of knowledge. As 2 Corinthians 2:9 says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” Through his word and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been given glimpses of what is to come. And if all of those reveal only a fraction of how wonderful it will be, we have a lot of growing to do before we will be able to take it all in.