Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“The first thing you say and the last thing you say matter far more than everything in between.” So spoke one of my preaching professors in seminary and his advice is applicable for preachers and non-preachers alike. It is a great challenge in our frenetic and fast-paced world to hold anyone’s attention. Therefore, we must be particularly mindful of the first thing we say, and the last thing we say, in any conversation.
I have had a long-standing habit of starting Sunday worship with the same words every week: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I also use those words to start every congregational letter, every pastor’s pen, and a handful of other communications.
I do so because, as my professor noted, first things matter. And I also do so because Paul begins his letters to the various churches in the first century with a similar salutation!
Which is just another way of saying: we begin with grace.
What is grace? Grace is one of those grace churchy words that we throw around all the time and it’s not altogether clear we know what we mean when we say it.
Robert Farrar Capon defined grace as “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding on every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner described grace thusly: “Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.”
Whatever grace is, it is a gift given to us by God. And, a crucial eccentricity of our faith is that we are saved by grace.
It’s not an easy thing to admit, particularly with the way that our wider culture emphasizes meritocracy at all times, but there is nothing we can do or accomplish in this life that can make us worthy of standing as justified in God’s sight. We, to use the language of the old Prayer Book, are miserable offenders. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Even the best of our good works, whatever they may be, are tainted with self-interest, pride, and a whole host of other problems.
God is perfect; we are not.
God is holy; we are not.
We can’t earn our righteousness or save ourselves. It is by grace, and only by grace, that we are saved by God.
And, thankfully, grace is God’s first word toward us. Grace is the fuel that makes possible and intelligible the gift that is the church. Grace is what beckons us to the table with the bread and the cup. Grace is co-mingled with the waters of our baptisms. Grace is the reminder that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Grace is the beginning and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ And, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
“A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.”
The Mennonite Central Committee came up with that slogan many years ago and started printing the words on posters. My former professor Stanley Hauerwas was quite taken by the sentiment of the poster, and hung one on his office door more than twenty years ago.
He also hung it up because he likes to stir up controversy whenever possible.
For, over the last twenty years, countless students (and professors) knocked on his door with anger and frustration. Each of them, in their own way, would barge into his office and declare, “Your sign makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”
And Hauerwas would reply the same way every single time: “The Mennonites called it a modest proposal – we’ve got to start somewhere.”
The disciples were walking by the temple, like a bunch of tourists with their eyes in the sky, taking in the beauty, and the large stones, and the gifts dedicated to God. And Jesus said to them, “The days are coming when not one of these stone will be left upon another.”
And, of course, the rag-tag group of would-be followers follow Jesus’ proclamation with a question, “How will we know this is taking place? What signs should we look for?”
It’s easy to knock the disciples for their hard-headedness. They’ve had the benefit of hearing and seeing and witnessing Jesus day after day for three years and they still can’t get it through their thick skulls what he’s all about.
But we’re no better.
We’re still obsessed with signs that will clue us in so that we might catch a peek behind the curtain of the cosmos.
The ever-enduring “next thing” demands our attention and allegiance. The next politician. The next prophet. The next program. We hope that one day, the next big thing will finally get it right and set things right. We pour our trust into these fleeting and flawed figures and we are disappointed time and time again. And, worse, we are led astray.
And Jesus warned us this would happen!
Listen – Many will come in my name, Jesus says, and they will lead you away from the kingdom of God. They will tell you that the end is near. Do not listen to them. Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and famines, and pestilence, terror, and great signs from heaven.
We well-meaning Methodists are not necessarily familiar with this type of language, at least in the church. We can hear all about it on the news at night. But here, on a Sunday morning, no thank you. We’re accustomed to hearing about God’s love and the need to be a little kinder toward our neighbors. We’re used to hearing about the relative comfort of the present, rather than being concerned with the terror of the future.
But Jesus, when asked about the possibilities for the future, was upfront about the end. Stones will be thrown down, wars will be waged, famines and plagues. It’s right there in the Bible, and it’s on our televisions, and it’s in our doom scrolling on Twitter.
And we can’t look away.
Paul Zimmer was 19 when the US Army sent him to Camp Desert Rock in 1955 to do something he was totally unprepared for. He wrote about his experience with these words:
“I’d seen pictures of Hiroshima, I knew it was bad, but I thought getting to watch atomic explosions would be kind of cool, a story to interest girls. I had no special training and the first time I had no idea what to expect. We traveled by bus at night out into the desert, chain smoking until we were ordered into the trenches. We wore steel helmets, and our fatigues, but nothing else. I did not become fearful until the countdown was broadcast.
And I only became terrified when I saw the flash; a flash so bright that, even with my eyes closed, I could see the bones of my hands over my eyes. A shockwave crashed over us, and we were ordered out of the trenches. We saw the mushroom cloud, glowing purple and changing colors, rising and rising. I saw 8 atomic blasts in total. Some from the air, some from underground. Some created such massive shockwaves that we were buried in our tenches and we had to claw our way out from our own graves. When clearance was radio’d over, were were ordered to march forward into the blast area and bear witness. As far as I could tell, bearing witness was the only reason we were there. Ozone hung in the air. Maimed animals in every direction. Houses were splintered and scattered. Total devastation. We never had to write reports, nor did anyone ask us what we saw. Because, it turns out, they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men reacted to an atomic blast. Lately, I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last people living in America to have actually experienced close up explosions of Atomic bombs. Now, in my old age, when I can conjure that brief and surreal period of my youth I try in vain to make sense of it. It has become my responsibility to share how that great flash and blast permanently reached into my young mind and heart. How the sounds still ring in my ears even today. I feel it my duty to tell of the reckless absurdity of it all. We keep threatening to use these weapons, and I am sure that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, I have not.”
I heard Zimmer’s story years ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. To have experienced what he did, to turn on the news like we do every night with nothing but bad news, it’s easy to feel like the end is near.
And yet, it isn’t.
The end isn’t near, it’s already here. Our faith is predicated on the notion that we have already seen “the end,” that the world has come to a decisive crisis in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In Jesus’ death we believe that the whole history of the cosmos reached a turning point. At that moment, as the sky turned black, as the temple curtain tore in two, as he was nailed to the cross, the conflict between life and death, good and evil, was resolved in favor of Jesus’ lordship over everything.
We know the end because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. We read the last chapter before the introduction. We heard the postlude before the anthem.
God establishes a new kingdom through the cross and it is not dependent on us getting everything solved, or by getting the right person elected, or by finally making the world a better place.
Do you know what the mission of the church is? Our denomination says we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That’s fine. But it betrays the central claim of the Gospel. God has already transformed the world in the person of Jesus Christ!
The kingdom we live in is based upon what God has done and is doing for us, rather than upon what we do.
The church doesn’t have a mission – we are the mission. Our being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses first and foremost to Christ who is the difference that makes all the difference. We bear the marks of his life that gives life to us and others. Jesus has already made us different.
We, then, don’t exist to make changes, but living in the world made possible by the cross will, naturally, lead to transformation. It will lead to transformation because we embody the joy that comes from being part of Jesus’ body. It will lead to transformation because we can’t rest easy while the world is flushed down the toilet. It will lead to transformation because we know the truth (his name is Jesus) and that peace comes through weakness, not violence.
Paul Zimmer was commanded to bear witness to the power of our self-made destruction. We spend our days bearing witness to the brokenness of the world around us. And yet, more often than not, we dare not question why things are the way they are!
Jesus tells the disciples they will be hated because of his name. I don’t know if any of us here today have ever felt hated because of our discipleship. But I can assure you, the world will hate us if we call into question the powers and the principalities. To question our wanton disregard of the environment, or our obsession with weapons of mass destruction, or our never ending political industrial complex, will put us at odds with the world.
Put another way, in order to bring it a little closer to home, Thanksgiving is coming up, that hallowed occasion to gather with family and friends over a shared meal. Imagine, while seated at the table, when you are up to your elbows in mashed potatoes, what would happen if you said, “Can we have a conversation about our nuclear arsenal?”
I don’t know if you will be hated, per se, but you might not be invited back next year. And yet, to raise such a subject would be, at the very least, faithful!
Hear the Good News: the power of Jesus’ love is such that, even though we will be hated, we will be carried by his love through life. Even in distress we can trust, even in times of fear we can rejoice, because Jesus Christ is Lord.
I heard someone on the news a few weeks ago who expressed a total lack of hope for the future. They waxed lyrical about how politicians keep failing to live up to their promises, how we spend so much money on our military might all while kids go to bed hungry at night, how we willfully ignore the devastation we are wreaking on the environment, on and on.
And I thought, “No wonder they don’t have hope.” They could only imagine their hope being in us, in our ability to make things right. Let me tell you, we are hopeless. We’ve known, for longer than we care to admit, what we should and shouldn’t do, and yet we still continue to do things we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should!
We don’t have a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes to dwell among us. Which is exactly what Jesus did.
Jesus says we will be hated because of his name. And yet, we should rejoice because in those moments we will be given opportunities to testify, to bear witness. Which, in the end, is nothing more than living according to the world made new in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord.
The old hymn is right and true: Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock upon which we stand, and all other ground is sinking sand.
Wars and rumors of wars will come. Churches will be built, and churches will crumble. Families will grow, and they will fall apart. And even though the world will change, we can hold fast to the truth, we can tell the truth, because we know how the story ends.
When Christ shall come with trumpet sound, O may we then in him we will be found, dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne… On christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen.
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
My favorite theologian Karl Barth was known for saying, “Preachers ought to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” At least, that’s what people like to say that he said. When, in fact, what he actually said was, “Read your Bibles and read your newspapers, but interpret newspapers from your Bibles.”
Things happen in the world and the church responds by casting the light of the gospel on the events of the world. To gather in this place in this way week after week as if everything that happens out there doesn’t affect what we do here is a denial of reality. But, as Christians, we know that what we do here actually shapes how we behave out there.
And yet, the work of the church is risky business. It is risky business because violence has a way of making a mockery of words.
We say, “Never again,” and then it happens again.
We say, “This is not who we are,” even though it usually is exactly who we are.
We say, “The time has come for change,” but things often stay the same.
What then can we, or for that matter I, say in a time riddled with violence?
What does it say about us, as a people, that our moral leaders are not those who stand in pulpits, or even those who sit in a pew, but those who host late night talk shows and moderate debates on cable news networks?
Have we, the church, not something to say?
“See, I am coming soon” says the Lord, “I am the A and the Z, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
This Bible, the strange new world it opens up for us, gives life and life abundant when we have scripturally shaped imaginations and live accordingly in a world that scripture produces.
Week after week, year after year, we sit before the throne of the Lord and we read God’s words. The Bible is stained with the cost of God’s love. Though we have it here on the table without blemish, currently turned to the final page, it is very much a living witness to the confounding reality of God. We read these words over and over and over again because our lives depend on them.
I don’t know about you, but for me, this week, I needed desperately to cling to the promises of God in this book. This book that points to the living God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. I needed hope because things feel so very hopeless.
On Monday morning, sitting with my family at the table with our breakfast, my 6 year old son casually asked, “Dad, what were your lockdown drills like in school?”
And I said, “Buddy, we didn’t have lock down drills when I was in school.”
It’s not as if the world of my youth was better or safer than the world today, but something has changed. And not for the better.
The next day 19 children didn’t come home from school in Texas, and neither did 2 teachers.
Blessed are those who weep with those who weep and who mourn with those who mourn. Jesus says, “I am the root and the descent of David, the bright morning star.” And the Spirit and the church say, “Come.”
Why do we beckon for the Lord?
Because we need all the help we can get.
All is not as it should be.
Jesus is the A and the Z, and every letter in between. As the divine Word of God Jesus is present in our letters and our words and our speech. Jesus speaks when we no longer know what to say.
On Wednesday afternoon, Eric Anderson and I took chairs from our children’s Sunday school classrooms, and we placed them on the front lawn, just on the other side of those doors. We did so as a witness to the 19 children whose chairs are now empty at school, and to the 2 adults who no longer teach.
When I came back into the sanctuary, I looked over my shoulder at those empty chairs and I burst into tears. And I prayed for Jesus to come.
Come Lord Jesus, rend open our hardened hearts. Come Lord Jesus and guide us in the way of justice and truth. Come Lord Jesus and rectify our wrongs.
And yet, just as I, and even we, pray for Jesus to come, the Lord calls for us to gather at the altar. It’s why churches regardless of denominational affiliation or theological posturing have altars in their sanctuaries – it is a place of holiness where we can kneel before the Lord.
God beckons us to the altar so that we might be altered. We are invited not because we are good, or virtuous, or even right. We are brought before the throne of the Lord because we are not as we should be, and God has a habit of making something of our nothing.
Judgment comes first for the household of God, Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist as a shining star for the rest of the world to follow, we don’t scoff at the world in all of its trespasses. Instead, we exist to confess the condition of our condition, we gather to the the truth.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That’s our prayer before we receive communion. It it the recognition of who we are and why we so desperately need to put something holy into us that we might become who God is calling us to be. Because if that work is up to us alone, then it will never ever happen.
Confession is often used as another way to say repentance. Before we come to the altar, before we come to the throne, we confess or repent of our wrongs. But repentance is not simply feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty about what we’ve done or left undone.
Guilt and shame don’t produce change.
In fact, more often than not, guilt and shame usually lead to more guilt and more shame.
Change comes when we discover, oddly enough, that the God we expected to clobber us with guilt instead clobbers us with grace. God does not need to destroy us in order to deliver us. God’s love really is so powerful and so strange that it is the difference that makes all the difference.
Put another way: when we come to grips with the confounding nature of God’s love for people even like us, we can’t help but live differently.
Therefore, we don’t fall to our knees in order to get God to do something. We fall to our knees because God has already done the something we need.
Karl Barth once said that only Christians are sinners. That is: only those who know how much they are loved can ever understand how much they have betrayed that love.
In other words: it is only in the light of grace that we can become strong enough to admit that we can be wrong, and then try to take steps in a direction of discipleship.
Contrary to how it might feel, or even be said in church, God is not done with us. That’s why the psalmist can cry out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” The psalmist knows that our hearts are indeed, unclean. We need something done to us. And that something has a name: Jesus.
There’s this story from Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, about his experience in a Nazi death camp, and I can’t get it out of my head:
“One evening, when we were already resting not he floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister cloud glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey hud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
When we do this, when we gather for worship, and meet at the altar, and sing these songs, and pray these prayers, its like the beauty of the sunset reflecting in the puddles of a hopeless gray death camp. God’s grace is a thing of immense and overwhelming beauty shining on a world of sin and pain and loss.
But what we do and what we experience here does not merely console us or offer us a brief reprieve from the world with the beauty of God’s grace. It also awakens within us a holy impatience, as Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, a faithful sense of outrage, and awareness of how beautiful the world could be, but is not.
At least, not yet.
Grace isn’t expensive, nor is it cheap, grace is free. But discipleship comes with a cost. Following the Lord means considering how God in Christ knew the deep pain and brokenness of life, that we creatures are cruel and disappointing, that things don’t often work out quite the way we want them to. And yet our God does not stand aloof from human suffering while offering trite platitudes about the beyond. Instead, God comes to us, right down in the muck and mire of life, and says “Follow me.”
Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.
This is the end of the strange new world of the Bible. These are literally the end of words. All that needs to be said is said and scripture concludes with a call for the Lord to come!
Come Lord Jesus, from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee!
Come Lord Jesus! Show us how beautiful the world could be if we were only willing to take steps into your kingdom rather than the kingdoms of our own making.
Come Lord Jesus! Fill us with the grace of holy impatience because something needs to change! Amen.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?”
That’s how James Lipton ended every interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio. Famous actors would sit before a large audience, answering all sorts of questions about the art and craft of movie-making, and then, at the end, each of them would mull over that last lingering query and have to say something.
George Clooney: “Welcome, c’mon in. Rosemary’s singing, Nat Cole’s on the keys, Buddy Rich is behind the kit, and they’re playing Always.”
Halle Berry: “Your Dad will be so excited to see you.”
Robert Redford: “You’re too early.”
Robin Williams: “Hahahahahahahahahaha.”
And James Lipton, himself, once answered the question this way: “James, you were wrong. I do exist. But you may come in anyway.”
It’s a great equalizer, that question. Most of us spend most of our time doing everything we can to not think about the end. And then, these superstars get real for a moment, and they open up in a way that runs counter to their entire profession.
Well, a few years back, some friends and I started recording conversations with theologians and pastors and regular ‘ol Christians for the podcast called Crackers and Grape Juice. And, because nothing original ever happens in the church, we decided to end the episodes with Lipton’s ten questions from Inside The Actor’s Studio. Some of the other questions include, “What’s your favorite sound?” And “What profession would you not like to attempt?” And “What’s your favorite curse word?”
I love that last one. There’s nothing quite like listening to a somewhat famous Christian shift around back and forth deciding whether to tell the truth, or pick a word like “shucks!”
And, like with Lipton, we end with the infamous, “What would you like to hear God say at the Pearly Gates?”
Most, of course, answer with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
It’s nice knowing Christians can quote the Bible, but that answer is so boring.
We’ve had only a handful of really striking answers to that question, but perhaps the best of all came from Bishop Will Willimon. Will and I went to church together when I lived in Durham, he was one of my professors when I was in seminary, I’ve got a bunch of his books on the shelves in my office.
Prior to having him on the pod, he had become quite vocal in his denouncements of modern politics in general and the Trump Administration in particular. He wrote op-eds, he rebuked the former President from the pulpit, on and on.
And then when we asked him the question, this is how he answered: “Welcome Will, it’s about time. We’re so happy to have you here. But before you get too settled, the Trump family is over here and they would like to have a word…”
In theological speak: that is a rather robust understanding of the Eschaton.
In church speak: we do well to remember that Heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners.
In normal speak: If grace really is as amazing as we sing it is, then we are going to be surprised by some of the people we discover in Heaven.
Imagine, if you can, a sermon that doesn’t start with some sort of punchy anecdote, though I do enjoy the one I just shared. Imagine you come to church, you sit down in these pews, and someone gets up here and says: “Blessed are those of you who are poor, who are hungry, who are unemployed, who are going through marital separation, who are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, who are failing in parenting, and who are going through any ordeals.”
You might wonder if the pastor lost his or her marbles.
How could any of those people be blessed?
If a pastor started a sermon in such a radical way, there’s no telling if anyone would still be listening by the end.
But here’s the rub: In the kingdom of the world, the kingdom we think pulls all the strings, if you are poor you are treated like a curse. If your marriage is falling apart, then you are cut off from your friends. If you’re failing in your parenting, then your children go off the rails and the birthday party invitations stop coming in. If you’re going through any type of ordeal, you’re largely left to your own devices.
There’s nothing blessed about going through an ordeal.
At least, not according to the world.
But sermons, and all of worship for that matter, they are not about the kingdom of the World. If they are about anything, they are about Jesus and his kingdom.
The kingdom of God.
And yet, we are so embedded in the world’s way of existence, that we live in constant kingdom confusion.
We can only act within a world, or a kingdom, we can see. What we do in church, through our singing and our praying and our listening and our responding, it’s all about painting a picture.
I know that, at times, church can feel like a program for betterness. That, all things considered, we’re a bunch of good people getting good-er all the time. A sermon can end with a call to social action, or the announcements can pull at our hearts strings in terms of being better paragons of virtue in the community.
But the truth is a harder pill to swallow. We are not a collection of nice people getting nicer, we’re actually a bunch of bad people who gather with other bad people so that we can cope with our inability to be good.
Therefore the church, properly considered, exists to open our eyes, that we might see, glimpses of truth, Thou hast for me.
The church is not the world and the world is not the church. The world will always tell us that the most important things are first, best, found, big, and alive. But the church stands as a stark contrast with the reminder that Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Which, whether we like it or not, eventually includes each and everyone of us.
Jesus can say, in his sermon on the mount, blessed are the poor, and those who mourn, and those who thirst not because he is describing a program for what makes the world a better place. Instead, Jesus uses such striking language to push our vision to the limits so that we might see something so new, so different from everything else have ever seen, and begin to realize that we cannot rely on our older images of what is and what is not.
Put another way: The strange new world of the Bible doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do. Instead, it paints a picture of who God is.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
John the Revelator sees what we, more often than not, cannot.
The great multitude in the Eschaton, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They sing and the worship together forever and ever. But, oddly, John does not know who they are. And the elder has to answer his question, and ours: they are those who have gone through the great ordeal.
John catches a glimpse of what Jesus’ promises. In the last days, it is by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we shall rejoice at the Supper of the Lamb. No amount of suffering can stop God from getting what God wants. Each and every one of us will experience ordeals in this life because we live on this side of the end. But, in the same way, there is no amount of good works or repentance that can earn us anything in the resurrection of the dead. In the kingdom of heaven it is by the blood of the Lamb that the sins of the world are taken away.
Contrary to the often-used joke about St. Peter’s manning the gates to Heaven, there is no bouncer checking the IDs of our goodness before we are swept up into the party. Actually, there might be a bouncer. But if there is a bouncer, his name is Jesus, and he has torn town all the barriers that would ever prevent us from getting in.
Here’s the promise, the promise of God and the promise of scripture and the promise of faith – we will hunger no more, we will thirst no more, the sun will not strike us nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb will be our shepherd.
This is our comfort and our hope. And there is good reason for us to hear this promise today. It is good for us today because some of us are hungry right now. We hunger for literal food and we hunger for righteousness. Some of us are thirsty for clean water to drink just as others thirst for the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and whose we are.
On and on John speaks of his vision into our lives realities here and now.
But what does the vision mean? We can’t help ourselves from such a question, earthly creatures that we are. I long for the days when images and visions are enough on their own without us having to probe for every little meaning. But, perhaps today, we can at least answer the question with this:
John’s vision reminds us that not all is as it should be right now.
There’s a sentiment we sometimes share with one another, particularly when we don’t know what else to say: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
And, though its true, we often offer it as a denial of the truth of the world. There are plenty of things to frighten us. We know the depths of pain and the banality of evil. We sit in a sanctuary that is decorated with a cross!
We, therefore, tell the truth of what is happening among the powers and principalities in the world not as denial of their presence, but as a reminder that though they exist, they don’t get the final word.
God gets the first, and the last word. And that word is Jesus.
All of the multitudes gathered in John’s vision are there only because of the last word. We now see what John’s sees because it gives us the strength to live in a world such as ours.
Consider: The robes are made clean by the blood of the Lamb. We can’t make ourselves clean. We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
As the old prayer book put it, we are miserableoffenders.
We can absolutely try to make the world less of a mess for ourselves and others, we can even come with ideas on how to make it more bearable. But any programs for progress or better strategies for better behavior will fail to do what we really need. It those things worked, we would’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now and no one would ever go through an ordeal.
What we really need is a Savior – we need someone to save us. And that’s exactly what God does for us in Christ Jesus.
Salvation is a gift offered by the only one who can give it: God in Christ. When we know that this gift is given, that it cannot be taken away, it starts to change everything else. Living in the light of grace compels us to be graceful toward ourselves and others.
John helps us to see that, in the end, when all is said and done, when the forces that sometimes cause us to suffer and weep and mourn are vanquished, the once crucified Lamb shall reign at the center of the throne. Every tear will be wiped away not because we have made it so, but because we worship God who reigns above and below.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
There’s a moment that happens every single Sunday without fail. It doesn’t matter what the context is, or what music is offered, or even what scripture is read.
It happens right before I stand right here.
There’s a silence.
An eerie silence.
Perhaps it sounds different to me than it does to all of you. Your experience of the strange silence might be born out of discomfort or awkwardness.
But as far as I can tell that moment happens every week and its special; there is true attention and silence. And in that silence there is hope.
People like you and me hope, even for but a moment, that this time we will hear an answer to the question: Is it true?
Sadly, more often than not, that hoped for question isn’t even addressed. And if it is, it is only done so indirectly. There’s an assumption that, just by being here, we all assume all of it to be true.
But that’s not right. I think we’re all here, the tall and the small, the first and the last, the believer, half-believers, and unbelievers, because we want to have our question answered.
Is it true?
Today is the second Sunday of the season we call Eastertide. It stretches all the way from Easter Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday, its the great 50 days. Every Sunday in this season is a little Easter in which we re-celebrate the most amazing thing ever to take place in the cosmos.
And let me tell you: you all are a special bunch. There is something remarkable about those in worship for the second Sunday of Easter. You’re here because you know that following the Lord is more than just being present for the big moments. You’re clued in to what takes place behind the curtain of the cosmos. You’ve experienced the Lord in such a way that you can’t imagine being anywhere else doing anything else.
But, we must confess, we of the second Sunday of Easter crowd, that the promises of Easter are not yet fully realized.
We need only turn on the television, or scroll through Twitter, to be reminded that not all is as it should be.
I, myself, riding the incredible wave of Palm Sunday worship was deeply grieved to receive a phonemail the Monday of Holy Week that my oldest friend in the world took his own life the night before.
We sang some good old gospel hymns down in Memorial Hall on Maundy Thursday, we shared the body and the blood of our Lord, and my family and I had to jump in the car to drive up to Alexandria so that I could speak at my friend’s service of death and resurrection the next day.
Not all is as it should be.
Easter Sunday, exactly one week ago, it was remarkable! First sunrise service in 100 years, the First Light Band had the whole sanctuary clapping, even our children shouted out the Good News in song and shakers.
All told we had more than 300 people in worship last Sunday! Truly remarkable.
And, I’m no mathematician, but I don’t see 300 today.
Why is that? Why are there those who only darken the doors of the church twice a year?
Much has been made of the so-called Chreasters, the C and E crowd. They come because of familial obligation, or guilt, or tradition. There’s a hope, even if people like me refuse to admit it, that one year they will actually all return the next Sunday.
But the longer I do this, the more I understand that the church swells at Christmas and Easter because those who don’t normally attend know they have a better than good chance of hearing nothing but Good News: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” and “Christ the Lord is risen today!”
Part of the challenge is that we always proclaim the joy of the resurrection, in song, sacrament, and sermon, to people who, admittedly, feel like those two on the road to Emmaus. We know something has happened, but life beckons us elsewhere.
It is true?
John the Revelator certainly seems to think so.
I don’t know what you know of John of Patmos and his epistle of Revelation. It is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible and yet, at the same time, the most important. It, like the concluding chapter of any good book, ties everything together. But to drop in at the very end, without knowing the beginning or the middle is a recipe for disaster.
There are some wild bits to this book, some that we will encounter over the next few weeks, but, as GK Chesterton noted, “John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a creature so wild as those who try to explain it all.”
John, whoever John was, wrote for a people living in a time in-between. They were stuck squarely between the already but the not yet, planted in the time before the end time.
You know, people just like us.
Easter people, while all is not as it should be.
Oddly enough, even with its bizarre images and confounding cassations, Revelation is an odyssey of encouragement. It tells us who we are, who God is, and what is the world is going on in the world.
To put it simply, it tells us the truth.
John begins, rather abruptly, with the decisive declaration that Jesus is Lord and King of the cosmos. He was, he is, and he will be.
Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who remains steadfast even when we don’t, he points to the real things that matter in this life, and he is committed to doing so no matter what.
Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, he is the one who, by death and resurrection, makes possible an impossibility, that in our deaths we are raised to new life.
Jesus Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth, he is the one in charge.
I wonder though, if we actually believe that, or if we trust that to be true. I think, all things considered, it’s not difficult to affirm that Jesus is faithful, and that Jesus is risen. If it looks like Good News and it sounds like Good News. But Jesus being the ruler of the kings of the earth?
Its like a church meeting I remember attending long ago, certainly not something that would ever happen here, where we gathered for an important conversation, debate, decision making, and as we gathered voices were raised, accusations were made, and when finally came to the end of our appointed time, fists clenched, no wiser than we were when we stared, someone present had the audacity to ask if we might end our time in prayer.
I thought, “What for? We certainly didn’t behave like God was in the room, why invite the Lord in now?”
You see, when Jesus is in charge everything changes. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets better. Have you read about the stuff he got up to the in the backwater towns of Galilee?
Are we sure we want Jesus to be in charge?
From the very beginning he predicted that those in power would reject him, and they did. I would say that’s strike one. Jesus has the gall to call all kinds of people who have no business being in the kingdom business. I mean, fishermen for disciples? Tax collectors for apostles? What’s next, bankers for Sunday school teachers? Lawyers on the mission committee?
Jesus is risky and foolish, spending all of his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. If we ever want to make the world a better place, we need a leader who’s going to spend time with the first, the best, the found, the big, and the lively.
What kind of leader forgives betrayers? What kind of ruler leaves ninety-nine behind to find the one who is lost? What kind of king hosts a banquet and invites everybody to attend?
John reminds us, across the centuries, through the power of words that Jesus is the one in charge, and in his infinite and confounding wisdom, he loves us, he has freed us from our very worst mistakes, and he has made us into a new people who will always feel like strangers in a stranger land.
And, to be clear, being in charge doesn’t mean being in control. If God in Christ is the author of every war, cancer diagnosis, and car crash then God isn’t worthy of our worship. But as the one in charge it means that God in Christ is the one we follow. He leads the way.
It is to Jesus, John says, that we owe our allegiance because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves – he makes a way where there is no way. He, himself, is Easter for us.
The key according to the Revelator, the important truth that will be brought up again and again, is that it’s all up to Jesus. We can absolutely respond to what Jesus has done, we can even take up our crosses to follow, but he’s the one in charge, he gets all the good verbs. He, to put it plainly, is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z.
Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life for people like you and me, the good and the bad and the ugly.
The message of Revelation, of the one who is, and was, and is to come, is that it isn’t over yet. Easter is still happening. Until we all feast at the Supper of the Lamb, we will live in the in-between – the place where we vacillate between mourning and dancing, crying and laughing.
Every Easter we make the same declaration – Christ is risen! But that’s a little deceptive. It is true, but we have more to say: Christ is risen, and he’s in charge. Amen.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed it’s own body. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus is is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
A United Methodist Bishop received a chain saw one Christmas and quickly went to work with it. And then, on New Year’s Eve, the chainsaw slipped, grabbed ahold of his sleeve, threw him to the ground, and in a matter of seconds did some serious damage and he was rushed to the emergency room.
The bishop later reflected that, while riding in the back of the ambulance and the sirens were ringing, if he died because of blood loss, he hoped that his wife would be smart enough to tell everyone that he died chopping firewood for poor orphans.
While in reality he was really just trimming some hedges that weren’t yet in need of trimming.
However, he didn’t die.
Though at moments he wished he did.
He went through serious surgery and was stuck in the hospital for quite some time while he recovered.
And, it was during this time that a well intentioned chaplain entered the room and offered “pastoral presence.” The bishop had enough pastoral presence in his life, but he motioned for the young man to come in. The chaplain looked over the bandage wrapped around his arm and asked, “Are you a Christian?”
The bishop replied, “Sometimes.”
“Well then,” the chaplain intoned, “I suppose your accident caused you to do a lot of praying?”
And that’s when the bishop realized that throughout his whole ordeal he hadn’t felt moved to prayer in the slightest. He shared, later, that his lack of prayer was not due to a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. The bishop was quick to note that there are scores of healing stories in scripture, that Paul considered healing a sign of God’s active grace, that the book of Acts points to the power of Christ working to heal through the disciples, and that even James the brother of Jesus calls for the people called church to pray of the sick that they might be healed.
Why then was he, a bishop in the church, so reluctant to pray?
At first he wondered if his lack of prayer could be attributed to the fact that God had better things to do with more people in need than his little chainsaw accident. But the more he thought about it, the more he thought about his aversion to the regular prayer requests he had received countless time before throughout his ministry.
That is, he was sick and tired of everyone being sick and tired in their prayers.
We’re at the tail end of what we call the season after Epiphany. Transfiguration is coming. Ash Wednesday is coming. Lent is coming. We will shortly make the journey inward to confront the condition of our own condition leading up to the cross on Good Friday, and yet, we’re still dealing with the shock of the incarnation.
Sure, most of us have packed away all the Christmas decorations weeks ago. Though, if you drive around the neighborhood around the church, you’re still likely to catch quite a few Christmas lights dangling from gutters.
But the proclamation of Christmas is one that lingers even when we move through different liturgical seasons. God, bewilderingly, refused to stay above and instead got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, and moved in next door, as it were.
Jesus, fully God and fully human, chose to be a people, a family, what we now call church.
We are the body of Christ in the world.
And how is our body faring?
Some of us we are tracking our calories constantly, or our exercising doesn’t count unless we can post it somewhere on social media. Some of us are struggling to fall asleep at night as we run through the list of things that terrify us. Some of us are making plans for the next degree, or the next job, or (heaven forbid) the next spouse.
We’re obsessed with our bodies and our physical well being. It dominates our prayers to the degree that if we ever ask someone to pray for us there’s a better than good chance that our request has to do with our, or someone else’s, body.
It dominates our waking, and sleeping life, so much so that many of us have devices strapped to our wrist that not only tell us if we move enough during the day but also if we’re getting the right kind of sleep at night.
And for those of you keeping score at home, I’m wearing one of them right now!
Our health and well being, or lack thereof, is constantly being reinforced through commercials designed to sell us on bodies that we will never have and beauty magazines that will only ever make us feel ugly.
And here’s the Christian message in the midst of all of it: it’s not up to you.
Your salvation isn’t up to you.
You can’t earn it through perfect church attendance on Sunday mornings.
You can’t earn it by giving more through the offering plate than the person next to you.
You can’t earn it from developing an 18 pack of abs.
You can’t earn your salvation because it is a gift given by the only One who can: God.
And yet, the gift of salvation, our very resurrection from the dead, means that our bodies matter today. It means that, once we come to grips with what God did and does, our being in the world changes.
The Corinthians to whom Paul writes his epistles, the Christians he derides for their foolishness, were living as if their bodies no longer mattered – they were giving in to their desires to such a degree that it was harming themselves as individuals and as a community. They were getting drunk on the wine from communion, they were trading bedfellows, they were letting their flesh and blood dictate everything about who they were.
And Paul says, “No! Listen: we’re not there yet. We’re still in our bodies in this mortal life, but the resurrected life is coming.”
Our bodies are important. As I’ve noted before – Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one. It’s why we baptize with water, and we share bread and cup. It’s why we take seriously the needs of the hungry, and the poor, and the outcasts. And it’s why we are bold to pray for the health and well being of ourselves and others.
But all of that is a long cry from the obsessiveness that we have with our own bodies today.
None of us have the body that we really wish we had. And if we do, we resent how much work it takes to make our bodies look and feel that way. And the older we get, the more we discover that our bodies are not as trustworthy as we thought they once were.
Certain foods don’t sit like they used to. It’s harder to lose the holiday weight. No amount of lotions and creams can make our wrinkles disappear. And that’s not even mentioning the inability of our bodies to ward away sickness.
The bodies we are in can’t be, and won’t be, perfect.
Paul puts it this way: the flesh is weak.
That’s why he admonishes the Corinthians to not give in to each and every little desire while, at the same time, he reminds them (and us) that we need not beat ourselves up over whether or not we look and feel like we want to look and feel.
Certainly, there are moments during Jesus ministry when he healed those in need, but those moments are remarkably ambiguous. He didn’t heal every sick person in Judea, and even when he did heal he often told people to not tell anyone about it.
Whatever Jesus’ mission was, it was about more than physical restoration.
Consider: Each and every person that Jesus did heal eventually died.
Even Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again.
Outside of scripture we should note that churches were the location for, and eventually created some of, the very first hospitals because taking care of the last, least, lost, little, and dead is part of the work of God.
But only recently has our obsession with our bodies come to dominate just about every aspect of life.
Including our prayers.
That’s not how Jesus prayed, nor it is how Jesus taught us to pray. Bread and trespasses are mentioned in the Lord’s prayer, but our illness and discomfort are not. I have heard prayers and I myself have prayed prayers about every medical diagnosis you can imagine, but I rarely pray for God’s strength to help me love my enemies, I’m not often asked to pray for someone to have the courage to actually forgive the person that harmed them.
Prayer is, and must be, more than bringing our wish lists to Jesus, asking him for occasional help when our bodies are no longer functioning the way they are supposed to.
Prayer, instead, is the risky attempt to let Jesus speak.
That bishop, the one who nearly cut his arm off, the one who didn’t pray in the hospital, he said he was ultimately reluctant to clasp his hands together in petition because the last thing he wanted was to risk a visit from Jesus, who usually shows up making our lives harder and not easier.
The bishop also said that one of the joys of following Jesus (and he used joy sarcastically) is that Jesus usually shows up even when we don’t pray, and sometimes because we don’t pray.
He experienced Jesus in learning how to be dependent on someone else in his healing, something that most of us avoid at all costs – we never want to be a burden.
He experienced Jesus in the reminder of his own fragility, and his destiny to return to the dirt from which he was created.
He experienced Jesus as the only hope in the world he really had, because were his salvation up to himself, he really would be a lost cause.
There was a time when health didn’t mean just freedom from pain and physical discomfort – health meant wholeness, even holiness. And sometimes holiness is nothing more than coming to the realization that what makes the Good News good is that it isn’t up to us – it’s up to God.
Which is foolishness according to the world. The world bangs us over the head every chance it gets about the need for us to be self-made creatures, to make our own destinies, to pull ourselves up by our boot straps.
Grace, from that perspective, is complete foolishness. It is everything for nothing. It is a divine lark in the midst of overwhelming frustration. It is the only thing we need and the only thing we don’t deserve.
Our bodies will fail us, but God won’t. Maybe some of us will be fortunate enough to experience some divine healing in this life, but all of us have already received the greatest healing of all – the gift of salvation.
In the end, the only thing we have to do is trust God. And when we do that, well, then we’re living in grace and by grace.
No matter what happens to us in the course of that trust – no matter how many things we do or leave undone – if we can trust that God, by death and resurrection, has made all things new, then we can rest in our gift and relax.
The whole diorama of all our mediocre performances (which is all we can ever really offer anyway) can’t stop the Love that refuses to let us go. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our works were rotten, then he certainly isn’t going to flunk us if our bodies aren’t perfect.
Do you see? That means we can fail again and again and still live in the life of grace.
Because, at the very worst, all we can be is dead and for the One who is Alpha and Omega, that’s no trouble at all. Amen.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And wended have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The first church I served after seminary had a preschool and I made it a point to be at the doors every morning welcoming the children, and their parents, to the building. I would teach a “chapel time” lessons once a week in the sanctuary, helping to convey stories from the Bible to a group of kids, many of whom had never heard of the Bible in the first place.
It was awesome.
It’s awesome teaching kids about scripture because they enter into the strange new world of the Bible with wonder and delight. They ask all the questions that adults are too afraid to ask, and they rest in the bewildering rather than dismissing it away.
Over the years I served that church I got to know a lot of those preschool families and would run into people all over the community. There’s nothing quite like walking down the aisle in a grocery store and hearing a 4 year old scream, “Pastor Taylor! What are you doing here?”
As if I wasn’t allowed out of the church or something.
Anyway. One morning, while I stood by the doors to the preschool, one of the moms approached me with mascara streaming down her face and her daughter completely oblivious.
The mom ushered the girl into the school and then asked if we had a moment to talk. We retreated into the reading room outside of earshot from everyone else and she said, “My husband died yesterday, and I don’t know how to tell our daughter. Will you tell her for me?”
Death is the one thing that guaranteed for each of us, and it also happens to be the one thing most of us deny all the time. It’s why all the ads we come across online, or the commercials we watch on tv, are all designed at selling us the idea that we get to stick around forever.
Take this pill and you’ll lose the weight you never really meant to gain.
Wear these clothes and you’ll appear like you did in high school.
Go to this vacation destination and you can look like the models in these images enjoying their time on the beach.
But the heart of the matter is this: The bell will toll for us all. We know not when, only that it will happen.
Some of us get to live good long lives. Some of us don’t. Some of us make it to the end of our days with no regrets. Some of us won’t.
When we’re dead, we’re dead.
Which is why the language of death and dying is so important, whether you’re talking to a preschooler or not.
We say things like, “so and so passed away.”
What does that mean? Where did they pass to? What does that mean about their body?
We say things like, “God just wanted another angel in heaven.”
Which makes God into a monster and the author of all suffering in the world.
After the mother retreated to her car, I walked into the sanctuary and prayed for a good long while before I went back into the preschool. I waited until they went out onto the playground and I called the little girl over to talk.
I said, “Your mom and I talked this morning and,”
“My daddy died” she interrupted.
“Yeah… but she told me you didn’t know…”
“He was sick, and he told me he was going to die. And now he’s dead.”
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I’m sad, I think. But it’s okay. Daddy told me that when he died he was going to be with Jesus, the guy you talk about all the time. So, it’s okay. But I am sad.”
Christian truths are delivered in Scripture through images and stories. Most of us, however, are literalists. We want clarity above all else. But that doesn’t stop us from consuming all sorts of media designed to keep us guessing. Because for as much as we might we addicted to certainty, the world, and the kingdom of heaven for that matter, run on mystery.
What happens in the end? The strange new world of the Bible has all sorts of answers about life after death, some of which we will explore shortly, but let me tell you this: that little preschool girl proclaimed the one thing we can say with certainty about death. When we die, we are with Jesus.
Everything else is a mystery.
And yet, if we’re asked to imagine what heaven is like, we will conjure in our minds all sorts of ideas and images that, frankly, come from Hallmark more than they come from scripture.
St. Peter hanging by the pearly gates discerning who makes it in or not is the center point of a good many jokes, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.
Gobs of folks clothed in robes relaxing on puffy clouds might show up in movies and television shows, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.
Among the many images for the kingdom of heaven in scripture, one of the most predominant is that heaven will be like a never ending worship service. Which, to some people, probably sounds more like hell than it does heaven.
So other than being with Jesus at the end, what else can we say about it?
What’s at stake in our two scriptures today is that the resurrection of the dead is precisely that, the bodily resurrection, the reconstitution of our bodies after our deaths. And that our experience of it will be immediate – hence Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: today you will be with me in Paradise.
Our bodies are good gifts given to us by God and they aren’t just vessels for our souls during earthly life. This proclamation is important for the ways we experience our bodies here and now and how we treat others.
Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one.
It’s why we baptize with water and we break bread and share from the cup.
When scripture talks about the new heaven and the new earth, they are not replacements for the old ones. We are not beamed away from here to go somewhere else. The strange new world of the Bible says that, in the eschaton, God transfigures what we have and what we are. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken. God doesn’t look at us and all we’ve done and say, “meh, it wasn’t good enough.” Instead God will take the created order, all of it, and raise it in glory.
And for us, in our deaths, we go to be with the Lord. Our dead bodies will be cremated or buried in the ground, but our experience of it is such that, when the bell tolls, we arise.
There’s no waiting room for the kingdom of heaven with an endless supply of People magazines from the 1990’s. We don’t pull off a tab and wait for our turn like we do at the DMV.
Today, Jesus says, today you will be with me in paradise.
Robert Farrar Capon used to tell this story about how, for years, his local fire house would run the siren at exactly five minutes to 5 pm every Friday afternoon. For a while he thought it must be part of the weekly test of the system, but it was a rather odd time to do so. And then, one day, it dawned on him – rather than run the risk that the festivity of the weekend be delayed even one minute beyond the drudgery of the work week, some gracious soul had decided to proclaim the party of the weekend from the top of the fire house, five minutes ahead of schedule.
That, Capon says, is heaven.
Heaven is the party of the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon. Heaven is when all the dead beats and all the success stories, all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who finally give up on winning, simply waltz over to the judgment seat called the Kingdom of God, with nothing to show for their lives except an eternal invitation from the host of the party that goes on forever.
Heaven is a bash that has happened, that insists on happening, and will happen forever and ever.
And the celebration is so good and so loud and so fun that it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.
Which is why we should take seriously the words we say week after week in the Lord’s Prayer – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s also why the sharing of the Good News is really the most important thing we can ever do. Being a part of the community called church means living into the reality that we have a role to play in making people experience heaven on earth rather than hell. It’s why we sing the songs we sing and pray the prayers we pray. We received the witness and the testimony of the end, which frees us to live fully now in anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb.
We can do all sorts of wild and wonderful things right here and right now because the end has no end.
Heaven, in short, is fun.
What is, of course, the question at hand today, but the question of who is just as important. Lots of people, even Christians, think that only good people make it to heaven, whatever heaven may be. But, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, it’s important for us to remember that the only people in heaven are forgiven sinners. You don’t go to hell for being bad, or not being good enough. You go to heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness.
Now, does that mean that we have permission here and now to be bad? If you want to stick you hand in a meat grinder you are free to do so, but the only thing it accomplishes is making your life into one heck of a mess.
God doesn’t run the universe as a system of punishment or reward.
God has consigned all to disobedience that God might be merciful to all.
In the end, our ends aren’t up to us. That’s reason enough to rejoice because it frees us to freely live here and now. Jesus came not to reform the reformable, or teach the teachable, or fix the fixable. Jesus came to raise the dead.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent [C] (Jeremiah 33.14-16, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the new year, Advent 1 recommendations, mandolins, Vince Guaraldi, Die Hard, divine promises, sacramental arrivals, sins, keeping the cross in Christmas, bullying, incarnational prayers, apocalyptic anticipation, and the end of the beginning. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The End Of The World (As We Know It)
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?
Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith!
So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?
Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.
We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject.
And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.
The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.”
We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?
Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”
And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”
But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”
But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”
This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school.
Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.
A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.
Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.
To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident.
Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.
Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna.
Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again.
That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps.
We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.
It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now.
And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna.
It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.
One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.
Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners.
That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.
Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!
Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.
Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.
The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.
And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.
Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins.
Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.
Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.
Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.
We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.
The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.
But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do.
But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.
All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition.
Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.
In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.
Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.
Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.
That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.
Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.
Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen.
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.
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.