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.

The Enormity Of Easter

Our God is loquacious – that is, God creates through speech. And we call the Good News Good News because its’ something that is received from someone else. 

Preaching, then, is a uniquely wonderful task because it is always evangelical, it is always sharing the Good News with those living in a world drowning in bad news.

Easter is a challenge to preachers because it is not natural, it is not expected, and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. Easter is not like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, it is not the return of the deeply buried daffodils in the ground. Easter is about a man who was tortured to death by the powers and principalities, church and state working together, who died, and then 3 days later he came back!

How can preaching ever adequately reflect the enormity of Easter?

And yet, Easter Sunday is the day that makes all of our other Sundays intelligible. For, without Jesus’ resurrection, the whole of Christianity becomes a fool’s errand – unless Jesus is raised from the dead, then we shouldn’t teach our children to turn the other cheek, or go the extra mile for our neighbors, or pray for our enemies.

Therefore, as difficult as it may be to say something about Easter, we must say something on Easter. 

And perhaps that’s the actual beauty of it all. 

Some of us have no doubt seen/experienced miracles – we know someone who dropped a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a diagnosis. But none of us have ever seen 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!” 

Easter is world shattering, it is deeply disruptive, and it changes everything now and forever. Easter is the totality of the Good News. And without it, we have nothing to say at all.

Here are some instrumental tunes that can help get us ready for the unexpected Good News of Easter. I encourage you to sit back and let the music wash over you and, hopefully, you’ll discover something about who you are, and whose you are, along the way:

Explosions In The Sky is an instrumental post-rock band from Austin, Texas. All of their music explores textures and sounds rather than following typical song structures like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus. To me, “The Birth And The Death Of A Day” sounds like Easter.

Sufjan Steven’ incredibly long titled instrumental track from his album “Come On Feel The Illinoise” is a short and evocative track ripe with recorders, flutes, harmonizing chorus, and various percussive rat-a-ma-tats; it’s one of those songs where you are not the same having listened to it.

White Denim’s “Back At The Farm” is a blistering and raucous instrumental psychedelic rock song. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to listen to it without bashing my hands around in feeble attempts to “air-drum” along. If Easter really is a day of celebration, then White Denim is the kind of music I’ll be blaring after church!

Exhausted By Easter

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Easter Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including preparation, in-person worship, champagne, the already-but-not-yet, righteousness, the radical nature of belief, salvific hindsight, liturgical anxieties, Fleming Rutledge, and resurrected recognition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exhausted By Easter

A Hoped For Hope

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for Palm Sunday [B] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Mark 11.1-11). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church costumes, rejected stones, hosannas on repeat, political parodies, stretched imaginations, simple obedience, and meta-narratives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Hoped For Hope

Flesh and Bone

Psalm 34.19-22

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. 

John 19.31-37

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” 

I stood before the gathered church and began, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

“Lift up your hearts.”

“We lift them up to the Lord.”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

Countless times had I uttered the words. Innumerable Sundays marked by the words recalling the mighty acts of God’s salvation.

“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his friends and said: ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his friends, and said: ‘Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

I prayed for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all of us, and on the gifts of the bread and the cup, that they might be the body and blood of Christ for us, and they we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

I broke the bread.

I lifted the cup.

I invited the people of God to feast.

One by one they came with hands outstretched recognizing the gift being given. One by one they received the bread, they dipped it in the cup, and they put God in their mouths.

Until the final person in line stepped forward.

He was probably 12 years old, I had never seen him before, and his parents were nowhere to be found.

He said, “Can I ask you a question?” 

“Of course,” I replied.

“Did you really say that we get to eat his body and drink his blood?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Wow,” he said, “Church is way more rad than I thought it would be.”

And with that he feasted on the Lord.

Sometimes it takes a 12 year-old boy’s question to knock us out of our comfort with familiarity. How many times had I presided over the meal without thinking about what it might sound like to someone unfamiliar with church? How many times had I shared the bread and the cup with people who saw it merely as a routine? How many times had I myself feasted on the Lord without thinking about actually feasting on the Lord?

There’s a physicality to all of this. And by this I mean the church.

We stand, we sing, we bring our hands together. We eat, we breathe, we laugh, we cry.

It is good and right for us to experience the physicality of it all because God’s love has a physicality to it. It is not as obscure or as intangible as we might think.

God’s love can be felt, and seen, and tasted, and heard, and (probably even) smelled.

Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, God’s love for God’s people shows up as manna, a voice, through blood, a pillar of smoke, a raging fire.

And in its fullest expression, God’s love shows up as an actual person: Jesus.

Jesus is the Lord made flesh – God emptied God’s self, took the form of a slave being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, as Paul puts it in the letter to the church in Philippi. 

And yet, more often than not, church becomes some sort of ethereal, spiritual, or merely mystical manifestation. We spend time thinking about how, whatever we do in here, it connects with us only in ways that are intangible.

But Jesus is the Lord made flesh and skin and bone. 

Christianity, despite claims to the contrary, is inherently materialistic because God becomes material in Jesus.

God, to put it bluntly, becomes us.

We find Jesus in our scripture today on the other side of crucifixion. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put on trial before Pilate and the religious authorities, stripped, beaten, marched to Golgotha, nailed to the cross, left to die.

And then John tells us that, because it was the day of Preparation, that is the day before Passover, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the sabbath. In Deuteronomy the people of God are specifically commanded to not allow a corpse to remain all night upon a tree (Deuteronomy 21.23) and the conflation with the day of Preparation made the hanging bodies even worse. Therefore they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and their bodies removed.

Crucifixion was an explicitly horrific way to die. Not only were individuals hung for all to see, a reminder about what happens when you challenge the powers that be, but they eventually died because they could no longer support their bodies enough to breathe. Breaking legs was, strangely, an act of kindness that would bring death faster rather than letting it run its natural course.

The soldiers then came to break the legs of the crucified men but when they saw that Jesus was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers took a spear and ran it through Jesus’ rib cage and blood and water came spilling out.

Strange. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) don’t include these details shortly after Jesus’ death. And yet John lifts them up for those who wish to follow Jesus.

These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

In some way, John wants us to see that all of it, even the very death of Jesus and the treatment of his dead body, is part of God’s great salvific narrative. There are connections drawn from the cross back to the book of Exodus and to the Prayer Book of God’s people, the Psalms.

Jesus suffered and died on a cross because the cross is the way Rome made an example of those who asked too many questions, pushed too many buttons, and instilled too many fears.

And yet, if we were asked why Jesus suffered an died on a cross, we’re likely to say something like, “He died to make us right with God” or “It was Jesus’ way of forgiving us” or “He died so we could go heaven.”

Which, to be clear, aren’t necessarily wrong. The cross is a moment of reconciliation, Jesus does forgive all of us from the cross, and it is part and parcel with what salvation means.

But one of the things we often gloss over, something John really wants us to see and remember, is that Jesus died on the day of Preparation for Passover. 

And Passover isn’t about being right with God. The Lord didn’t look upon the misdeeds of the Hebrews in Egypt and say, “Okay, time to let bygones be bygones. I will wash away your sin.”

No.

God says, “I’m getting you out of Egypt! Let’s go!”

Passover is about freedom.

Back in Egypt God’s people were given specific instructions to follow in terms of their Exodus, their deliverance from oppression, and the connections with Jesus’ life and death are rampant:

Jesus is without sin and innocent of the charges lobbed again him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus is beaten to the point of death and pierced in the side, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast.

Jesus was hung high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the Passover lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

Perhaps we’ve always seen the connections, maybe John’s words are already obvious to us, but in case our vision has been on something else, the Bible is begging us to see that the cross is our exodus – it is our delivery out of captivity into something new.

The Psalms and the Exodus story contain these particular details about unbroken bones not as throwaway lines about God’s strange obsession with anatomy and rule-following, but because the transfiguration of the cosmos is something physical and tangible. They help us to see how even the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of the great sweeping narrative of how far God was willing to go for God’s people.

How far God was willing to go for you and for me.

“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”

We are, to use the language of the Psalm, rescued by the Lord on the cross, it is our exodus from death to resurrection. In the end of all things, in the resurrection of the dead, God keeps our bones and, as Ezekiel so vividly conveys it, will reknit us to be who we will be in the New Heaven and in the New Earth.

John the Baptist proclaims toward the beginning of the Gospel that Jesus was the Lamb of God. And John the Evangelist takes that proclamation to its beautiful conclusion: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

This story, as strange and tangible and difficult as it is, is like God saying to us, “You want to know what I’m like? You want to know what I’m up to? Look no further than the One hanging on the cross! You cannot break my bones! I am the Passover Lamb who comes to bring you the exodus you need more than you know!”

In many ways, even though it’s perplexing, this is an easy text to preach. For, all of us are all well aware of the innocent suffering that takes place in this world. 

A man walked into three massage parlors in Atlanta this week and murdered eight people because, as the law enforcement put it, he was having a bad day.

We just hit the one year no in-person worship because of the Coronavirus, a virus that has now been contracted by more than 121 million people across the globe, and is responsible for more than half a million deaths just here in the United States.

It doesn’t take that long to scroll through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, or to turn on the evening news so see exactly why God had to send his Son into the world.

Jesus is the only hope we have. 

And when he came to teach about the kingdom of God, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and lift up the last, least, lost, little, and dead, how did we respond? We hung him in a tree to die.

But that’s not the end of the story.

God did not leave God’s people in chains in Egypt, and God does not leave us stuck under the terrible tyranny of sin and death.

Jesus Christ, with bones unbroken, is our Passover Lamb and reminds us that God is in the business of deliverance.

Because Jesus did what Jesus did, because he mounted the hard wood of the cross, offered a decree of forgiveness, died, and was resurrected, we are no longer bound or defined by our mistakes or our sins or our shames. 

Jesus became sin who knew no sin, nailed them all to the cross, and left them there forever. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have already been forgiven, and we’ve been set  free.

What was done to us does not define us.

What we’ve done, and failed to do, is no longer kept in a ledger of God’s design.

Our scars and our wounds and our sins and our shames may be real, but so is our rescue.

Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that we’ll stay stuck exactly where we are doing to the same things over and over again.

Jesus says, “This is my body and this is my blood” so that all of us will walk in the light of grace knowing that just as God broke the chains in Egypt, our chains to sin and death are broken right here and right now.

Which is all just another way of saying, “Church is way more rad than we often think it is.” Amen. 

Psalm Sunday

Psalm 118.20-25

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Mark 11.9-11

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 

Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.

Like the year when the palm branches were delivered too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads on Sunday morning, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in coughing fits among the people of God.

Or, the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received the best comment of all time: “You’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.” Only the person used a different word for donkey…

Or, there was the one Palm Sunday when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches singing their “hosannas” only to begin smacking each other in the faces until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and then muttered a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these children.”

And I think preachers like me enjoy re-telling those stories because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather perplexing. 

To put it another way: It’s easier to tell a cute or funny little story than it is to come to grips with the Lord of lords entering into the city that will ultimately hang him on a cross.

Or still yet, to put it another way: We’d rather hear something about ourselves when Jesus crosses the threshold to the seat of empire instead of admitting that this story has little, if anything, to do with us.

Of course, it’s only natural to present Christianity as a way to help people obtain whatever it is they think that need to have in order to make their lives more livable. 

Feeling afraid? Come to our church and listen to our sermon series on handling anxiety.

Lonely? You’ll discover that we’re just the friendliest church in town.

Hurt by the church? Don’t worry, we practice open hearts, minds, and doors here!

All of that centers around attraction and it’s how we advertise the church. Just scroll through Facebook, or drive around town, and you are liable to see those very slogans adorning what we call God’s holy church.

And, to be clear, they are true.

There is something about the church that is designed to comfort the afflicted, to give us the words and phrases and images to make sense of so many senseless things.

There is something about the church that is designed to rid the world of the insipid disease of loneliness – we are a community of people who share one thing in common, namely Jesus Christ.

There is something about the church that is designed to rectify the wrongs of the past while casting visions of a new and a different future.

Those things are all true, but they’re only true to a point.

Because, when all is said and done, friendliness, peace, hospitality, they are not the chief reasons for the church.

The church is the body of Christ in motion. The Church is Jesus’ presence in the world. And Jesus belongs to himself, not to us.

Let me put it this way: We don’t lead the church – we follow Jesus.

Now, I don’t know what you know about Jesus, or how he’s met you along the road of life and opened your eyes to things you never saw before, or how he found you when you needed him most. But I do hope you know how much Jesus delights in calling losers and failures to be the instruments of his mercy and grace. 

The great gift of the church is that God in Christ makes our lives far more interesting than they deserve to be.

You see, Christianity is neither a religion nor a club nor a civic organization – Christianity is an adventure.

It gives us a story when we had no story, it breaks us free from the monotony of life, and, perhaps most importantly, it proclaims to us the truth:

At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Which in the end, is what makes church so exciting. Like with Jesus, we never know what’s going to happen next. The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, directing our attention toward that which we usually miss, kicking us into gear when the appointed time arrives. 

We are given a gift, the greatest gift in the history of the cosmos, completely and utterly for free – we have been freed from the chains of sin and death and we didn’t do anything to deserve it. 

The God we worship, the One who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist, is very loquacious – God creates and God reveals God’s self through speech.

And, notably in our text for today, Jesus (God in the flesh) says, well, nothing.

Put that on a banner and see how many people log-in for the online worship service!

Listen: 

Two of Jesus’ craftiest disciples procure a donkey for their Lord and he mounts the dirty animal in order to enter the holy city. 

The closer the crew get to Jerusalem, the larger the crowds become with people rushing forward to catch a glimpse of the Messiah, the Promised One, in the flesh.

On either side, both in front and behind, the people are shouting and singing, “Save us! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Save us here and now!”

Then Jesus, riding on the donkey, crosses into Jerusalem proper and goes to the temple. He takes a good gander at everything within his frame of vision, but, noticing the lateness of the hour, he departs for Bethany with his twelve disciples.

That’s it.

What started in Galilee is now coming to fruition in Jerusalem. 

A carpenter turned rabbi fished out some fishermen and conscripted them for kingdom work. He went about from town to town, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, all while telling the more bizarre and perplexing stories about scattered seeds, wayward sons, and never ending wedding feasts.

At first, Jesus didn’t look or sound much like a Messiah. Sure, he could do some incredible things and told some wonderful stories, but the predominant question among the crowds was, “Where did he get this authority?”

You see, there were messianic expectations. The Messiah was supposed to say and do certain things. And Jesus did and said some of them, even entering into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was part of what had been prophesied.

But there will always be a profound difference between what we expect of Jesus and what Jesus does for us.

By the time he hits the holy city with his parade of palm branch wavers, he’s become quite popular. Tell a bunch of people stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-political ladder that they will be first in the new kingdom and you’re liable to have a pretty sizable crowd show up.

But, perhaps part of Jesus popularity also came from being, shall we say, misunderstood.

After all, the last being first sounds nice, but who willingly signs up to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and pray for their enemies?

Who wants to hate their mother and father for the sake of God’s glory?

Who jumps on the bandwagon of carrying their own crosses, the very method used to murder enemies of the state?

People had, and people still have, their expectations of Jesus.

On that day by the outskirts of Jerusalem so long ago, the people with their palm branches had their own idea about who this Messiah was and what he was going to do. Consider: What are they shouting along the road? Hosanna! Which, if we’re not careful, just becomes another word muttered by Christian-types without proper reflection. 

Hosanna literally means “save us.”

Save us from what?

Jerusalem was occupied, the Roman garrison was entering the holy city on the other side, displaying their power, force, and empiric rule. The people of God were living as strangers in a strange land in the very land that God promised to them long ago. Forced to adopt customs and even use currency that ran counter to their faith. Forced to provide economic security for the very powers and principalities that threatened their lives.

And then comes Jesus, a new David, come to take back the power and give it to the people! No wonder the crowds called their “Hosannas!” when they saw him entering on a donkey! Jesus was going to put them back on top!

The crowds take from Psalm 118 the cry for deliverance, “Save us!” and they put that expectation squarely on Jesus. 

Perhaps, then, we should call Palm Sunday, Psalm Sunday…

But what happens when this Messiah doesn’t arm the common people with weapons to prepare for insurrection? What happens when this Messiah doesn’t even stop to address the people when he enters the city?

Well, by the end of the week, the people who started with “Hosannas” move to “Crucify.”

It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into roles of our own choosing. 

It’s like second nature to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.

We still would like to see him parade into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and our dreams and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He doesn’t enter Jerusalem to establish yet another political machine that results in one group lording it over everyone else.

Jesus comes to do for us and for the world what we could never do on our own.

Jesus, knowing full and well that we put our own expectations on him, still chooses to die and rise for us in spite of us.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, mounts the hard wood of the cross and pronounces a decree of forgiveness for people who deserve no mercy.

That is the central affirmation of the adventure we call Christianity. God, creator of all things, lays aside almightiness to comes to us, to dwell among us in the muck and the mire of life, to be one of us. 

God chooses to take on vulnerability and human frailty just to rectify all of our wrongs.

It’s one of the great ironies that despite the cross resting at the center of this adventure, we have such an aversion to it. Did you know that in some of the fastest growing churches in the country there are no crosses whatsoever?

The cross doesn’t sell. It’s a sign of death. Even though we hang them up in our living rooms and wear them around our necks – we often forget that a cross is something you die on.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, much like his ministry, is a parable. Parables, after all, are stories about who God is, and they are only secondarily about us. The palm waving crowds remind us of the wonderful foolishness by which God does what God does. The people that day play no role other than showing how they haven’t quite seen the whole picture. They shout, as we would, for Jesus to save them. 

And, here’s the Good News, that’s exactly what Jesus will do by the end of the week. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sola Gratia

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, shortsightedness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, instant gratification, divine subversion, geographic gathering, deadly trespasses, Nicodemus, and living in grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sola Gratia