Thursday, March 31, 2016

They Got It All Wrong

My favorite mysteries are the ones that, when the detective explains what really happened, make you look at the whole story differently. There are just a handful like that: The Sixth Sense, The Conversation, The Usual Suspects, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and a few others. At the end of each, you immediately want to rewatch or reread the whole thing to see if there were clues you missed and to see if the solution makes sense.

The disciples saw that happen, not in a detective story but in real life. When Jesus was executed, they were, of course, despondent. Their hopes were dashed. His death on the cross showed that Jesus was not the Messiah.

Then he rose from the dead and appeared to them in solid flesh and they had to rethink what they thought God's plan was. They thought the Christ would be a holy warrior who would lead an army against the Romans, defeat and drive them out of the land and establish a physical kingdom of God. The present evil age would end and the Messianic age would begin.

When Jesus was crucified, they thought they had followed the wrong man. When the resurrected Christ came to them, he explained that they had the right man; they had gotten God's plan wrong. God never intended merely to save his people and to do so by subjecting the world to another war by another king. God wanted to save all people and the real enemy of that was our own evil: our arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy and overindulgence, our self-destructive ways, our hatred of those different from us and our indifference to those who suffer. Jesus wasn't going to shed the blood of others to conquer them and forcibly make them subjects of his kingdom as other monarchs do. He let others shed his blood and made citizenship in his kingdom open to all who come to him. Jesus took the brunt of all the evil we have unleashed on God's creation, absorbed it and then through his Spirit transforms all who turn to him out of love and trust. And as God chose to work through the 12 tribes of Israel to prepare the world for his coming, Jesus chose 12 apostles to spread the good news of God's offer of forgiveness and new life to the whole world. Because ultimately he wants to reclaim all of what he created and pronounce it good once more.

In our reading from Luke 24 we are told, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures...” He recounted the story and pointed out the clues and suddenly it all made sense. God didn't want to get rid of his enemies by killing them all. That's what human beings do. God wants to get rid of his enemies by turning them into his friends. That's what Jesus did. And that's what he wants us to do as well.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The End is the Beginning

I love to read biographies. I love to read about people who have done great and interesting things in their lives. But I always get sad at the end. Because I have to read about their death. It doesn't matter what they accomplished; it doesn't matter if they enriched the lived of many; it doesn't matter if they saved the lives of others. In the end they die. Good or bad, whether they deserved it or not, they all die. As do we.

That's one of the ways in which the gospels differ from biographies. The gospels record the death of Jesus, of course. But they end with his resurrection, with new life, a new beginning, really. And that's why they are still read by people all over the world.

Why else would we still read about a carpenter who had a brief ministry and then was executed in the most horrible way? No one else wrote about Jesus during his lifetime. He is mentioned by contemporary sources in connection with his followers. But he wouldn't even have had any followers had he been just another wannabe messiah who was killed by Rome. If they escaped being executed along with their leader, such followers either went back to their old quiet life or latched onto the next would-be savior. They never remained loyal to their old deceased leader. What good is a dead messiah?

To be fair Jesus' disciples felt the same way. The two going to Emmaus despairingly say of Jesus, “...we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They couldn't go back to John the Baptist because he was dead, too. Most of them probably would have returned to being fishermen. They would have lived out full lives and died of natural causes. They would have had normal, possibly pleasant lives. Nobody in the wider world would have known about them because nobody would have written about Jesus or them.

So the question is, why didn't they choose to live those ordinary, safer lives? Why did they instead choose to venture out of the room they had locked against the authorities, face the very people who had arrested Jesus and eventually suffer awful deaths themselves? It makes no sense. Unless Jesus rose from the dead.

The world reckons death to be the worst thing that can happen to anyone. That's why countries threaten each other with war. That's why dictatorships threaten dissidents with execution. That's why terrorists have an impact way beyond their numbers or public support. People fear death. And that gives evil people great power over others.

But what if you take death off the table? What if you knew for certain that God raised Jesus from the dead? What if you knew that God will do the same for all who trust and follow Jesus faithfully no matter what? What could you do if death were not a consideration?

That's what turned the disciples, cowering behind that locked door immediately after Jesus' death, into courageous apostles proclaiming that the crucified Jesus is Lord of all. They faced people who had the power of death over them armed only with the gospel, the good news of what God is doing in Christ. It's because on this day the resurrected Jesus appeared to them. They knew that he had broken the power of death and evil that ruled the world. They knew that even if they died in his service, they would live. They knew that even if this world and all of creation came to an end, God would resurrect it as a new heaven and a new earth. Because God is a God of life. Death cannot stop him but he can turn death into a gateway to new life.

Before Easter, everyone knew that death was the end. After Jesus walked out of that tomb, everything changed. The end became the beginning of something unimaginable. The old rules that enslaved mankind were over. Anything was possible. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If you are in Christ, that applies to you, too. What's stopping you? 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Most Awkward Supper

I am still recovering from my accident. I am in a nursing home, doing physical and occupational therapy and waiting till my bones are strong enough for me to relearn how to walk. The chaplain here graciously asked if I would do a Maundy Thursday service in our dining room. So here is the homily I gave from my wheelchair at the Eucharist. 

We associate holidays with family dinners. And they are supposed to be joyous occasions. But every family has that one person who can make it anything but. Aunt Clara who won't forgive her sister for getting the ring that she swore mother said she left to her. Or Uncle Bill who can't stop going on and on about his conspiracy theories that border on racist and make everyone uncomfortable. Or the nephew who knows everyone's sore points and just keeps pushing buttons until someone gets upset. Many holiday dinners are really awkward because most of us are trying not to trigger heated discussions of old gripes and grudges.

Imagine how Jesus felt at the last supper. He knows he's going to die tomorrow. And he knows who is going to betray him to the authorities. And that guy is right there at the last meal Jesus is going to have with everyone he loves before his execution. So what does Jesus do? He washes Judas' feet.

Footwashing was one of the worst jobs a slave might have. Everything ended up in the streets: garbage, animal waste, run off from businesses. And people wore not boots but sandals. So cleaning someone's feet when they came indoors was a practical necessity as well as a sign of hospitality. And it was relegated to the lowest of slaves.

And Jesus decides to do this for his disciples. Including Judas. Why? To show the humility that comes with real love. For instance, nobody likes poopy diapers but when you are a parent, if you love that baby, you buckle down and change those poopy diapers. Love is not full of itself, to paraphrase part of 1 Corinthians 13:4. Love gets its hands dirty if that is what's necessary for the person or persons you love.

Jesus was showing his love for all of the disciples, even Judas. Did Jesus love Judas? Yes. Did he like what he knew Judas was going to do? No. And it's become popular these days to denigrate the saying, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” But that's what you do when someone you love is doing something destructive or self-destructive. Unless you think that the parents and spouses and children of thieves, swindlers and murderers have to be fans of their crimes and be indifferent to their victims. The alternative is that you love such people despite the fact that you hate what they are doing to themselves or others. People are complicated and so are relationships. If it were easy, there wouldn't be so many broken relationships. Or broken people.

We don't know why Judas decided to turn Jesus over to his enemies. Was he disillusioned with the kind of Messiah Jesus was turning out to be: a healer and forgiver rather than a holy warrior, bent on overthrowing the pagan Roman occupation of Judea? Did he think he could galvanize Jesus by putting him in a situation when he would need to issue a battle-cry if he was to survive?

We don't know. John tells us that the devil had entered into Judas. The devil doesn't do that uninvited. But surely Judas wasn't like a comic book villain, embracing evil for evil's sake. He must have thought he had a good motive for what he did. In fact he thought he knew better than Jesus what was the right thing to do. Which reminds me of another disciple who thought the same thing. 

Back in Mark 8, right after Peter tells Jesus he is the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus begins telling the disciples how he is going to be condemned and killed by the authorities. And Peter turns around and tells the man he just called the son of God that he was wrong. And Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are setting your mind not on God's interests but on men's.” In human reckoning your leader must always be a winner. You certainly don't want him to die, especially in an ignominious fashion like being nailed naked to a cross by a public road, like a slave or a traitor. But Jesus says that is precisely what his followers must be prepared for. He says, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” To the world that sounds like the recipe to become a loser. Only in the light of resurrection, of eternal life, does that make any kind of sense.

Judas did not tell Jesus what his beef was nor did he discuss it with his fellow disciples. He secretly contacted Jesus' enemies and offered to lead them to him after hours when Jesus wasn't surrounded by the crowds. Despite all of his self-justification, he must have known that what he was doing so furtively could not be right. But he did it anyway. Just like us when we know that what we are about to do will not pass muster in God's eyes. That's the essence of sin--thinking we know better than God and ignoring that still small voice that says we're wrong, that we are going to do harm to ourselves, to others, to our relationships, and especially our relationship with our loving heavenly Father. Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. It's that certainty that we know and understand things better than God that allows us to do terrible things in his name.

Jesus' response to all this was to wash Judas' feet. What was going on in Judas' mind at that point? Did he miss the point? You don't destroy a person just because you disagree with him or don't always understand him. You don't stab people in the back. You love them. You help them. You serve them. You wash them. You don't think about how right you are. You don't think about yourself at all. You think about them. What do they need? What can you do about it? And then you strip, and tie a towel around your waist and you get to work.