The First And Last Word

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 4.32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1.1-2.2, John 20.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including hymnody, getting burned, newlywed Christianity, radical belief, first things, faith failures, reconciliation, the condition of our condition, and doubting Tommy. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The First And Last Word

Unexpected

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb. 

Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.

And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It happened on a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.

And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.

He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now, go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

Easter.

It really doesn’t get better than this for the church. Out of death, life!

And fear.

I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.

However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.

That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”

Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.

If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind. 

Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.

He is not here. He is Risen.

God is the One doing the things that get done. 

The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear. 

And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.

The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.

But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.

All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.

Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down. 

Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state. 

Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.

The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible. 

The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.

No wonder they were afraid. 

Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. 

Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.

But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.

Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.

And all it took were three words: He is risen!

I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now. 

Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.

The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.

No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen. 

Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt. 

Easter is about what God does for us.

In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.

And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.

Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.

Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.

If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen – we can’t raise Jesus, or ourselves, from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.

The promise of Easter for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death. It is a way out simply by remaining in. It is everything for nothing! Hallelujah. 

He is risen.

He is risen indeed. Amen. 

By Thine Own Rejected

Psalm 22.1-5

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

Mark 15.25-39

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aa! You who would destroy the temple and built it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn  in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It was early in the morning when they crucified Jesus. 

The night before he was breaking bread with his friends and sharing wine. He was washing feet and talking about the command to love.

But then he was betrayed and one by one his disciples deserted him and denied him.

He went on trial before the powers and principalities, accused of crimes uncommitted, and ultimately sentenced to death.

He was paraded through the city to mocking crowds. His weakness was such that someone was commanded to help him carry his cross, his instrument of death, all the way to Golgotha.

And in the early morning light, they crucified him.

Nailed his hands and feet to the wood, and lifted him high for all eyes to see.

One by one they came to see this “King of the Jews” and the mocked him. 

“You said you would destroy the temple and build it in three days! Good luck doing all that from up there!”

“You’ve saved others, let’s see if you can save yourself.”

“Come down from that cross you soon-to-be-dead-king, and we will believe you.”

Even those who were themselves hanging on crosses next to him lifted up their own taunts.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land and it lasted for three hours. And then, around three o’clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” and he died.

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

I have thought about those words for a long time.

I can remember sitting in a dimly lit sanctuary as a teenager hearing those words proclaimed from a rather portly-looking Jesus in a dramatic re-enactment.

I can remember coming across them in college and wondering why in the world Matthew and Mark decided to include them in their versions of the Gospel.

I have read all sorts of commentaries and listened to all sorts of sermons just on this one sentence and, frankly, not one of them have left me satisfied.

I have been unsatisfied with so many thoughts on these words because they so often try to avoid what it is that Jesus said – they try to avoid the words that we, for millennia, have proclaimed in faith.

When I was in seminary, we debated this verse in a class. My professor wanted us to explain to him why Jesus used these words as his last. And so we competed with one another – “Well, surely Jesus meant to quote the entirety of Psalm 22nd but died before he could finish.” “Naturally, Jesus intended his disciples to understand that he didn’t really mean what he said.” And on and on we went.

That is, until my professor slammed his hands on the podium and declared, “This is one of the most important verses in the Bible! You cannot explain it away. Look at the words! Jesus has taken on our sin and he is abandoned!”

There is no good way to talk about this text. This is not a passage that leaves us walking with our heads held high. This is the depth of our depravity held high for all eyes to see.

This is, to put it bluntly, our sin.

In order for us to come to grips with the Cross of Christ, we are called to consider the gravity of sin. And I don’t just mean the little choices we make every day that we shouldn’t, or the things we avoid doing that we should do. I mean them plus all of the horrific examples that you only need a moment to scroll through Twitter to find.

“None is righteous. No, not one.” St. Paul says.

And he’s right.

Had we been there in Jerusalem all those years ago, we, like the crowds, would’ve started the week with “Hosanna” and ended it with “Crucify!”

Even his most faithful disciples abandoned him in the end.

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

Why did he say it?

The moment of Jesus’ death is total hideousness. In that moment Jesus experienced separation for the Father for the first and only time.

Paul puts it this way: He became sin who knew known sin. 

The condemnation that we deserved was absorbed by Jesus in totality.

Consider the strange new world of the Bible – God looked upon us and our sin and what did God do? God did not remain above and far removed from our struggle. Instead, God chose to come right down into the muck and mire of our existence. God looked upon us and our sins and God entered into our very condition, birthed as a baby to a virgin in a manger.

That baby grew to proclaim the Good News for a world drowning in bad news. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He befriended the lonely. And when he entered the Holy City we nailed him to a cross.

And in so doing, God removed the condemnation we rightly deserved.

This will no doubt cause us to wince, or simply to dismiss it because, surely, we don’t deserve condemnation. Maybe someone else like those people we saw on TV or the people who voted for the other candidate or for the person who keeps insisting on posting such reprehensible things, but definitely not us.

But we, all of us, are sinners without a hope in the world unless (unless!) we have something that can save us.

Something had to be done about Sin otherwise we would be doomed.

Something had to be done to get us from where we were to where we could be.

And that something is actually a someone – his name is Jesus.

In the Cross, justice is served. But it is also an injustice. It is an injustice because Jesus paid the price for the sins of the world. 

All of our versions of justice in this life can certainly make things better and, at the very least, bring comfort to those wronged. But it will never be true justice because the specter of sin raises its ugly head over and over again.

But divine justice is altogether different. 

We do not deserve God’s love, and yet God’s reigning attribute is love for us.

There is victory that begins on the cross (and comes to fruition in the empty tomb) in which the old word of Sin and Death is destroyed. That is our proclamation. It is, to put it simply, the Good News.

And yet, we sit in the shadow of the cross.

It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries and hang them up in our living rooms and even tattoo them on our skin – not just as a symbol of our faith, but a reminder about what we did and what has been done for us.

We lift high the cross because the Gospels remind us over and over again the bitterest of ironies – the only person who can touch us and heal and forgives and make us whole is dead. Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there. Amen. 

To The End

Psalm 41.4-10

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish. And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad. All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me. They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them. 

John 13.1, 12-20

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should so as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speak of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

I have no idea how many people are joining us for worship tonight, or how many will watch or listen to this service later. Chances are, there aren’t that many.

And that’s fine. It’s fine because there weren’t a lot of people at the first Maundy Thursday service either. 

So we can rest in that strange and good knowledge tonight because we are where we should be. We, like those first disciples, have been gathered by God to be here, to hear what God has to say, and to be forever changed.

We call this Maundy Thursday. And the name comes to us from our the Gospel according to John when Jesus last feasted with his disciples before the crucifixion: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”

In Latin, a new commandment is mandatum novum. “Maundy” is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.

We are therefore mandated to do what we are doing tonight.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything.

Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions, of “you must do this and you must do that.”

All of the “musts” don’t must up to a very lively faith.

When the exhortative mode of Christianity becomes the predominant way we understand our faith, then the Church merely joins the long list of other social endeavors seeking to make people better people – it tells us what we have to do, instead of proclaiming what Jesus already did, for us.

The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) treat us to the scene of Jesus’ final evening with his friends as they sit around a table sharing bread and wine.

John, however, takes the scene a little bit further. 

While eating at the table, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer rob, and ties a towel around himself. He begins washing all of the disciples’ feet and wipes them off with the towel around his waist. 

Peter, of course, objects to the humble (read: humiliating) act of his Lord, but Jesus hits him hard with, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Only after every disciples’ feet are washed does Jesus arise, and begins to teach:

“Listen, you call me Teacher and Lord which is good and fine because that is who I am. But check this out: If I, your Lord and Teacher, am willing to get down on the floor to wash your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about – the first being last and the last being first. Things are getting flipped upside down right here and right now. And I do and say all of this knowing that one of you will betray me, it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’”

Shortly thereafter, Judas leaves and sets in motion the world turned upside down. In mere hours the guards will arrive in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

The foot washing has always been a little strange and a little weird to the people called church. For one, as mentioned, the other Gospels don’t include it, and for another, it reveals the heart of God in a way that feels uncomfortable. 

Not only does Jesus, God in the flesh, get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of the disciples, one of whom will shortly betray him, another will deny him, and the rest will leave him hanging to die on a cross, but then Jesus has the gall to command us to do the same for one another. 

And yet, in a way, more than being told what we are supposed to do, the whole message of this final moment is, again, about what Jesus does for us

We, however, can’t help ourselves from reasserting the narrative to make it about what we have to do but whatever we do in response is only possible because of what Jesus does first. 

We always want to know what we have to do to get saved when, in fact, this story is a ringing reminder that the Gospel tell us how Jesus saves us.

Or, as Philip Cary puts it, “The gospel doesn’t tell us to believe, it gives us Christ to believe in.”

In the foot washing, Jesus repeats in himself the great lengths to which God was willing to go for a people undeserving – how far God was willing to go to wash us clean from our transgressions.

This moment, one that might make us cringe or, at the very least, furrow our brows, it reveals to the disciples and to us that the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is about to suffer and die just to rid us of the stench and dirt of sin and death that latches onto us.

Therefore, before we jump to any commandments, to any thoughts on what we must do, we do well to rest in the bewildering knowledge that the foot washing is a parable of God’s humiliation. Jesus lays down his garments just like he will lay down his life, Jesus offers grace to his betrayer just like he will extend forgiveness even from the cross.

And, notably, this is the final act of Jesus toward his disciples before Easter and, as John so wonderfully notes, Jesus loved his disciples to the end.

Including Judas.

Do you see what this means? Even the worst stinker in the world, even the one who betrayed his Lord to death, is someone for whom Christ died.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus, bewilderingly, loves us to the end, loves us so much that he was willing to take our sin upon himself, mount the hard wood of the cross, and leave them there forever.

But we can save the cross for tomorrow. For now, we are tasked with the challenge of coming to grips with the fact that none of us are any better or any worse than the disciples were on that first Maundy Thursday. 

Which is just another way of saying: Each and every one of us in need of cleansing. And, thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Christ offers us, because he loves us to the end. Amen.