I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” and they asked for answers to their query. Hundreds of individuals responded with hundreds of examples. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”
There are many versions of Christianity in the world. And not just the different denominations you can find throughout your neighborhood like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, etc. Even within “one” church like the United Methodist Church there is a great diversity of opinion about what it means to be a United Methodist.
But the one thing that might unite all churches, even more than our commitment to baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.
All you need to do is check a church website, or a front lawn marquee, and you can find a self-imposed description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church.
In the UMC we like to say that we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.
What a righteous slogan.
The only problem is the fact that we regularly close off our affections toward certain people, we are clearly cemented in “the ways things were” rather than the way things can be, and more often than not the doors to the church are locked.
Inclusivity is the buzzword among most, if not all, churches these days. Though, we are not altogether clear about what it really means to be inclusive. True inclusivity, after all, is not just a matter of having different kinds of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; true inclusivity means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us: love.
I know that might sound strange: the impossibility of love in the church. But it is, in fact, against our nature. We can’t, or at the very least don’t, love everyone.
It’s like those churches with signs on the front lawn proudly claiming: “Hate Has No Place Here.”
That’s a worthy hope, but it isn’t true.
All of us have hate in us whether we like to admit it or not. And, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in church affirms that the church hates people who hate!
It is true that we are commanded, by God, to love one another just as Christ loved us. And yet, sometimes, I fear we confuse the two. That is: we assume that we have to love one another in order to get God to love us. When, in fact, the opposite is true: God loves us, and when we come to grips with how strange it is to be loved by God, we are then freed to love one another with the same reckless abandon that God loves us.
Notably, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another (as Jesus loves them) right after the foot washing. It’s this remarkable moment that encapsulates the humility (read: humanity) of God). And then, shortly thereafter, the disciples betray, deny, and abandon God to the cross.
If the story ended with the cross, none of us would have ever heard about Jesus. But the cross is just the beginning because three days later Jesus is raised from the dead. And not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he returns to the same disciples who failed to respond to the commandment of love!
We worship an odd God. Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of unloving disciples to be the people through whom the world is turned upside down. In short: there is nothing that can ever stop God from loving us.
Therefore, if there is anything truly inclusive about the church it is not our love for one another, but God’s love for us. It is the triune God who opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. It is the triune God who opens up our eyes to view others in ways we never have before. It is God who opens up the doors of the church to be a new community where strangers now are friends.
The proclamation of the Gospel is that God loves us even though we are what’s wrong with the world. But, at the same time, the Gospel is an adventure in which God’s love actually changes us so that we might begin to love one another.
Years ago I was asked to preside over the funeral for a man who drove me crazy. He was older than dirt and he treated people like dirt and just about once a week someone from the church would wander into my office in tears because of what the man had said to them.
And then he died.
In the days leading up to his service of death and resurrection I lamented the fact that hardly anyone would be coming. Even though he pushed all my buttons, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.
And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church in my robe ready to begin the service for a small scattering of people when, all the sudden, cars started streaming into the parking lot. One by one church members who had been so wronged by the man during his life paraded into the sanctuary for worship.
The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the now-dead man’s insults and I grabbed her by the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him.”
To which she replied, “Preacher, don’t we worship the God who commands us to love our enemies? Didn’t you say, just last week, that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died? Don’t the scriptures remind us there is nothing that can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus? Then so be it!”
And with that she marched right into the sanctuary for worship.
Love one another just as I have loved you – easier said than done. But without love, we have nothing.
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.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every living creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
“Were you crying during the first hymn?”
She asked me with a raised eyebrow out on the front lawn two weeks ago.
We worshiped the Lord with glory and splendor. The lilies surrounded the altar, the pews were packed, Easter! And then a stranger walked up and wanted to know whether or not I cried.
The truth? I did cry. In fact, I cried a lot. So much so I had to take my glasses off for fear that the tears would smudge my lenses and I wouldn’t be able to read the sermon.
But I couldn’t tell from her tone what she was trying to get at with her question. Had I been too emotional for her liking? Was she embarrassed to see such a handsome pastor blubbering up at the front?
I smiled and considered how I might respond. And then she interjected with a whisper, “It’s okay, I did too.”
John the Revelator sees a vision, and what a vision it is. Myriads of thousands, singing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb!”
John shares his sights with a dispirited and anxiety ridden church. Easter has come and gone. The tomb is empty, the Lord is risen, but what happens next? The people called church run afoul of the powers and the principalities because they now know where real power can be found. They are persecuted, forsaken, punished.
And what does God have to say and show to the people called church?
A song that spreads wider and wider until the entirety of the cosmos sings praise to the One who is, who was, and who is to come.
Most of Revelation is music. As a book it is quoted among our hymnody and liturgy more than any other part of scripture. And for good reason. It is filled with such wild and wondrous images, it literally talks of music and singing over and over again.
And, if you spend enough time among the people called Methodist, you start to think in hymns/music.
Listen to this: My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought. My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.
That’s the faith we sing, in one verse.
And so it has been since the beginning. The earliest disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, the singing of songs, and the sharing of scripture.
We are the songs we sing.
The Gospel lection for today, the one that is meant to be paired with our text from Revelation, finds Jesus broiling up some fish along the sea with Peter. The infamous tripartite questioning, “Do you love me?”
Peter is questioned three times, just as Peter denied Jesus three times. Do you love me?
In some sense, it doesn’t matter how Peter answers because Jesus loves Peter whether or not the love is returned. Its grace, all of it. Jesus will remain steadfast whether Peter does or not. Whether we do or not.
Love, in the Christian context, means to be possessed by something else. We love only in the sense that we are beckoned, compelled, drawn to the Lamb who was slaughtered and is therefore the one worthy to receiving power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.
It is a strange love.
Like the cross, the love of God is both a reminder of what God does and what we do to God.
That is, the cross is our salvation and is also a proclamation of our complicity in the death of Christ.
Love, therefore, is our freedom, and also a declaration about our unworthiness of that very freedom.
And yet God loves us anyway.
To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, doing exactly what we’re doing right now – gathering week after week with people we love, people who drive us crazy, and even people we hate because God in Christ calls us his friends.
To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, even when we’ve sung these songs ten thousand times and feasted on the bread and cup ten thousand more, that we are still overwhelmed by the God who is love and loves us.
Revelation, and in particular this bit in chapter 5, is all about worship. We come to the altar of God to be met by the One who makes a way where there is no way. We worship the only way we know how – we sing, we read, we preach, we offer, we receive. This is worship and it is who we are.
We come to this place in this way with the conviction that we are in the presence of God. Every week there is an air of excitement, or at least there should be, in which we gather here thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what God is going to do next?”
And yet, to those outside, what we do here is indeed very strange.
They see people singing unpopular songs, someone who reads from an old dusty book, someone else making remarks about the book that may or may not interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions of bread and juice.
Worship IS strange and worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.
A prayer is offered that strikes us to the center of our hearts and we know that we can never be what we once were. A sermon is delivered and we receive it as if it was written for me and me alone. And still yet other times its less clear what it is that happens, but we leave not the same as we arrived.
And sometimes we are changed in spite of worship.
C.S. came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letters during what he described as “one very boring sermon.”
I myself learned of the beauty of the Bible because I grew disinterested in parts of worship when I was a child, and I reached for the old book attached to the pew ahead of me to pass the time.
More than a few of you have shared stories about sermons you heard that brought you not to the throne of God, but to the realization that you needed to join a different church!
At its best, and I mean at its very best, worship reminds us, and begs us to realize, that we, even us, we are included in the myriads of the thousands in John’s vision. Worship tells us over and over again that there is nothing we can do for good or ill that can stop God from getting what God wants.
Worship gives us Jesus.
There’s a story of an old seminary professor who used to interview candidates for the ministry, and in all the interviews he did over the years he would always as the same question, “Why should I join your church?”
Candidates would wax lyrical about the value of community, and the professor would say, “I’m in AA and I have all the community support I need.”
Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. And the professor would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”
And then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. And the professor would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”
For years and years he recruited for the seminary and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything specially about Jesus.
The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all the musical prodigies. We may have some of those gifts, to be sure, but if we’re serious about really being the church then we only have one thing to offer at all: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We don’t have to have impeccable fellowship gatherings, or world transforming service opportunities, or even perfectly pitched singers because what we do here is already the difference that makes all the difference in the world. And that difference has a name: Jesus.
Here’s the shortest version of the longest story: Jesus the one whom we tried to push out of our world by hanging him on a cross, shall reign, and shall gather every living creature in, the last, least, lost, little, and dead, and even we ourselves will rejoice with the myriads. We will sup at the meal that goes on without end and we shall worship with song and voice.
Singing is who we are and what we do. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, the Angels, Jesus, Paul, all of them sing in the strange new world of the Bible.
John Wesley was transfigured by the singing chorus of a group of Moravians. His brother Charles wrote the songs that we, and a whole bunch of other churches, sing all the time.
And that is why we sing even now. We sing when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. We sing.
The last word in worship is “Amen.” Every living creature in heaven and earth sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And we all say, “Amen!”
Amen means “Yes.” It is our decisive declaration about who we are, what we are doing, and what is being done to us.
We respond to God’s great Amen with our own.
A few years ago I was in Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip with a group of youth from the church I was serving. We were tasked with helping out at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help in the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and generally enjoy one another’s company. And yet, when we arrived, we discovered that the Activity Center was, perhaps, misnamed.
The residents sat in abject silence day after day.
We pulled out the bingo cards, but we didn’t get any takers. The youth put together a workout routine to a Michael Jackson song, that receive not even a toe tap. No matter what we did, it was as if we weren’t even there.
I remember one of the employees saying, “Don’t worry about it. The residents are always like this.”
And then, one morning, one of the girls found a dusty hymnal in the corner, she flipped to a familiar hymn, and started humming the melody.
It was Amazing Grace.
Without giving it much thought, all of our youth surrounded her and started singing together:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.
All the eyes in the room, previously locked onto the walls and the floor, turned toward the center where the youth stood surrounding the hymnal.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.
The residents started perking up in their wheel chairs, and some of them started mouthing the words.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
Aides and employees started gathering in the doorways, witnessing this strange and wondrous sight, and more than a few of them joined in:
The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.
Everyone in the room was now singing or humming along, even residents who were labeled as non-communicative were making a joyful noise:
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.
With tears streaming and voices ringing, we all joined for the final verse:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright singing as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including seminary salutations, campus ministries, silent retreats, the call of Saul, humbling humility, praying the psalms, divine anger, hand motions, nooma, the eschaton, choral singing, good worship, and texts for tweenagers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Trading My Sorrows
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-9, John 20.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange intros, short sermons, eating in Eastertide, Raymond Brown, good trouble, Stanley Hauerwas, codas, timelessness, the firstborn of the dead, real peace, and the gift of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: It’s Better Than You Think It Is
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what happened.
Here we are for the strange and bewildering day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown our Bibles away a long time ago.
If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.
Easter is the one day when all the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Some of you are here because you can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you desperately want and need to hear Good News amidst a world drowning in bad news. Some of you were dragged here against your will.
So, no matter who you are or even why you’re here, hear the Good News: He is risen! Hallelujah!
No one saw the resurrection of Jesus.
There’s plenty of art and films and even songs that attempt to describe the event that we are here to celebrate, but the strange new world of the Bible tells us, in all four gospels, that no one saw it. Not Peter, not Mary Magdalene, not anyone.
Jesus was already gone from the tomb when the stone was rolled away.
And perhaps, oddly enough, that’s a good thing. For the resurrection is beyond our ability to understand or comprehend – it comes to us from an entirely different sphere of reality.
It breaks all the rules.
The women wake up on the third day knowing full and well what to expect. They travel to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They’ve run out of tears since Friday, perhaps they even travel in silence, the real and terrible sound of grief. But when they arrive the stone is moved and the body is gone.
And behold two men in dazzling clothes appear and the women fall to the ground in fear and reverence. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They say, “He is not here, he is risen!”
Their rebuke reverberates through the centuries. To this day we still look for new life in all the wrong places, hoping to gain control over something that is fundamentally out of our control.
We still set our minds on earthly things, we seek the living among the dead, but we rarely notice it. We cling to various things in life because life is so uncertain – tomorrow is never promised. So we hold desperately to those things we think give us life. Our jobs, spouses, children, on and on. But things largely stay the same.
So we flip through the never-ending abyss of Netflix searching for a momentary reprieve in a life of monotony, we listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed because we don’t feel like we have enough time between all of our timely events, all while we go from day to day knowing not what we are doing or why we are evening doing it.
We know longer no what it means to be surprised.
And then BAM Easter!
Easter is the great disruption, the exodus for the rest of us, the beginning of a strange new world.
Kurt Vonnegut said that most good stories occur when a character gets unstuck in time. Our lives, therefore, only really become interesting when the time of our lives is disrupted and unstuck from its normalcy.
The women in Luke’s gospel travel to the tomb with predictable expectations – the dead stay dead. They knew that everything was out of their control, until they heard the announcement that Christians have been shouting throughout the centuries: He’s not here, he’s risen!
No wonder the story ends so strangely – the women just go home, amazed. Easter sets them, and us, on a course from which we leave provoked, unsettled, disoriented. Life will not, and cannot, be the same. But how can we possibly respond to the most unexpected thing in the world?
The tomb was empty, the body was gone. He is risen.
This is the proclamation of Easter and yet, proclaiming the resurrection is so difficult and so challenging because the resurrection cannot be made into a metaphor; it cannot be reduced into a charming story.
Easter is not the celebration of spring, it is not new life shooting up from the soil. It is not a quaint little tale of how love is stronger than death. It is, instead, something completely unlooked for, something without any precedent, and something that leaves us truly amazed.
Easter proclaims that God is the Lord of disruption. It is among the roads of life, the traveling among the dead while looking for the dead, that Jesus shows up, becomes time itself for us, takes our time, and transforms the cosmos.
All these centuries later, with our sanctuaries and our lilies and our songs and our sermons, it can all feel like Easter is just one more thing that happens to Jesus. But that’s not right. Easter is the happening of Jesus to all things. Jesus doesn’t change on Easter – everything is changed because of him.
Any attempt, therefore, to find a way to make Easter relevant or new or relatable is a fool’s errand because Easter is unlike anything else and the best we can ever hope to do is point toward it.
The proclamation of Holy Week, the entry into the city, the meal on Thursday, the cross on Friday, the empty tomb on Sunday, they run counter to just about everything else in life – they don’t give us ways to be better human beings, they aren’t commandments about how to make the world more bearable. They are not about what we do, but are instead about what is done to us. And that what has a name: Jesus Christ.
The amazing part of Easter is that we don’t have to do anything for it to happen.
Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing Jesus to the cross. And, three days later, God gives him back to us.
You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.
Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.
Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.
We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we’re in church on Easter after all, we might’ve thought the story was over – that the shadow of the cross was the final word.
But in the strange new world made possible by God, only Jesus gets the final word because he, himself, is the Word incarnate.
On Easter God took the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it the means of life.
The promise of the resurrection is that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, not even death. Jesus’ pronouncement from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing” frees us from all of our sins, past, present, and future. Easter means that one day we too will rise to join in the feast at the supper of the Lamb.
Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?
The first disciples were amazed by what they saw and heard that first Easter morning.
We still are.
The promise of the resurrection 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.
It is, to put it simply, amazing.
Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.
He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought 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 not he 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.
I hid in the tomb for what felt like hours but was only 30 minutes. It was Easter Sunday half of my life ago, and I had been volunteered to participate in the sunrise service. Out on the front lawn was a fake tomb and a fake stone that we set up every year. The idea was that, on Holy Saturday, you would drive by and see the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb and then, on Easter Sunday, you would arrive at church to see the stone rolled away like all those centuries ago.
But this particular year the associate pastor had a plan to give the people an Easter they’d never forget. He conscripted me to arrive before everyone else, don an angelic costume, and wait inside the tomb with a fog machine until the perfect moment to proclaim the resurrection.
So I sat crumpled up in the corner with my cherubic wings folding in on themselves. Neither of us had anticipated how cramped the space would be, not did we think about how difficult it would be to hear my cue from inside the tomb.
Therefore, after the congregation arrived, and the service began, and I heard what I thought was my first cue, I turned on the fog machine and waited to make my dramatic entrance.
But the space filled with the smoke very quickly and I couldn’t see or hear anything.
I began coughing in the tight space and tried my best to stay hidden until I could no longer stand it and I kicked down the papermache stone and stumbled onto the front lawn.
As the smoke dissipated, I took in the scene around me. Genteel Christian folks were arranged in a semi-circle of fold up camping chairs, the pastor was standing by a podium no doubt only halfway through his sermon, and everyone was starring at me.
I don’t know quite what I looked like, but I certainly looked more like someone who accidentally slept in the tomb overnight than I did an angelic messenger of the Lord.
For the briefest of moments I panicked, unsure of what to say or do. I had memorized a monologue to proclaim but it completely evaporated from my mind. Instead, I shouted “The Lord is risen!” And I ran for my life.
To this day I don’t know what everyone made of that moment. We tacitly agreed to never speak of it, though I’m sure more than a few walked away that Easter afraid.
Much has been made about the women fleeing from the tomb in fear that first Easter morn. Some say that Mark did not intend to end the gospel in such a way, that perhaps he died mid sentence, or the earliest manuscript was torn in that exact spot, on and on the speculations run wild.
We don’t why Mark ends the Gospel this way, only that the first of us to experience the resurrection walked, actually ran, away from it with fear.
I’ve always found that detail to be rather staggering every time the liturgical calendar comes around. For, in a few hours, most of us will be inside our actual churches with lilies, and pastel–coloroutfits, and peppyhymns, and smilingcongregants.
Nothing about Easter screams fear.
Except for the strange new world of the Bible.
It is good and right for us to be here in worship in a cemetery. It’s the same kind of place where the first Easter happened, and it reminds us of the stark promise of salvation. That is, no one ever goes to a cemetery expecting to encounter a resurrection.
We go to cemeteries to commune among the dead.
It’s also good to be here this early, because Easter, resurrection, it happened in the dark.
New life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.
In addition to the dead, and the darkness, I think the other reason is is good to be afraid on Easter is because it has little, if anything to do with us.
We aren’t the ones who makes Easter possible.God is the one who makes a way where there is no way, God is the God of impossible possibility, God is the God of resurrection.
It’s why we can call the Good News good.
But if the Good News is in fact, good news, then why do the women run in fear?
All life ends in death, the bell will toll for us all. How else, then, could anyone respond if the one certainty in life was no longer certain?
Easter confronts us with the scary reality that we aren’t in control, because God is.
That’s a frightening thing to accept because God truth means our obsession with earthly things really amount to nothing. All of the things we fret over most, life, beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, property, even our families cannot hold a flame to the promise of the resurrection.
Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing God to the cross. And, three days later, he is resurrected.
You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.
Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.
Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.
The promise of the resurrection 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 it, it is everything for nothing.
And it just might scare the living daylights out of us.
Easter isn’t perfect. For some it creates more questions than answers. For the women at the tomb it was scary and astonishing. For the church folk gathered when I bumbled out of the fake tomb it was strange and a bit bizarre. Easter can both excite and terrify. And thats because is shatter all of our expectations about how the world is supposed to work. Easter means everything is changed forever.
The end of Mark’s gospel, this weird and wonderful detail about the women running away in fear, it’s no ending at all. It is the great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women at the tomb, all of us in this cemetery, we are now caught up in God’s great story of salvation. We are here not because of what we’ve done or left undone, but because something was done to us. That something has a name: Jesus Christ.
Hear the Good News: The end has no end.
He is risen. Hallelujah! He is risen indeed! Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Resurrection of the Lord [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.19-26, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including McDonalds, Easter songs, champagne, ecclesial delight, the super psalm, good verbs, lectionary podcasts, Adam’s helpless race, commandment keeping, the destruction of death, All Things Beautiful, skepticism, and brevity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Ellipsis
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. 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! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.
Like the year when the palm branches were delivered way too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads in worship, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in sneezing and 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 that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received perhaps the greatest Sunday morning comment of all time: “You know, you’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.”
Only they used a different word for donkey.
Or the time when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches and lifting up their hosannas only to begin smacking one another in the face with their aforementioned palms until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and mutter, a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these kids!”
And I think the reason preachers like me like to tell a cute or funny little story about Palm Sunday is because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather confounding.
Put another way: Palm Sunday is perhaps the strangest Sunday of the year.
For, it begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It starts with “Hosanna” but it finishes with “Crucify.” It begins with life and it ends with death.
At they are approaching Jerusalem Jesus sends two of his disciples to procure a colt for his entry into the holy city. He rides in a cartoonish way, with his feet nearly dragging on the ground on either side of the animal, and the people of Jerusalem comes out in droves to see the would-be Messiah. They are overcome with reverence, so much so that they begin to take their own clothing, and spread it on on the road only to be trampled upon by the colt. They make a royal carpet as they worship the King of kings.
They take leafy branches from the fields and they wave them to and fro and they shout, “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!”
Hosanna. I’ve always loved that word. It’s such a churchy word. It makes me think of my own childhood and parading around the sanctuary. It makes me things of the musical masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar and the crowds singing, “Hey sanna Hosanna, sanna sanna Hey, sanna ho sanna hey sanna.”
Hosanna is a wonderful word. And, every Palm Sunday, we reach into the vault of churchy words, we dust off this old familiar declaration, and we proudly put it on display. We shout it in our hymns, we put the word on the lips of our children, we hear it read in the scriptures. And then, at the conclusion of worship, we wrap it up and place it back into the church vault with our other special words only to come back one year from now.
We are familiar with this word. It conjures memories and songs. Churches everywhere will join us in our shouts of Hosanna today.
But do we know what it means?
It is a declaratory pleading. It is an emphatic demand.
Save us. Now!
That’s a word you don’t hear much in churches like ours. We’re Methodists. We sing and we eat and we sing some more. We try to love each other. Really, we do.
Love, peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Those are our words.
How many got saved on Sunday? We don’t talk like that.
We might make fun of those other types of church that talk in such a way.
I remember someone once asking me if I was saved, and I said something like, I suppose so, and he said he’d been saved no less than 9 times.
Hosanna! Save us!
Well, perhaps we should go look in the Bible for this word, where else does it appear besides Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city that will kill him?
There’s a woman, suffering from a hemorrhage for 7 years. She’s among the crowd one day and she says to herself, “If I but touch the hem of his garment I will be saved.”
Well, in our Bible’s it says, “made well.”
But it’s the same word for saved. The same word the crowds cry out as Jesus’ enters Jerusalem.
And she suffers from more than just her bleeding. She’s isolated, outcast, thrown away by the likes of her family and her friends. She is a nobody with no hope in the world. Until the hope of the world walks past one day and she reaches out. She’s got nothing until she gets saved.
There’s a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. Like the woman he is unseen by all because of his inability to see. Forgotten and abandoned. And when the Lord walks by he shouts out, “Son of David have mercy on me.” The disciples are quick to shut him up. The Lord has more important things to do than to waste his time on you.
But the Lord comes anyway and says, “What do you want me to do?”
I want to see.
And Jesus says, “You faith has saved you.”
He has nothing to show for anything. He’s desperate. And in a moments notice, he is in the parade of the faith. Dancing and shouting for joy.
There’s a rich man, well to do, Mr. Z they call him behind his back. While his fellows get poorer and poorer he gets wealthier and wealthier. He’s a tax collector. One day he climbs a tree to see Jesus. And the Lord calls him down and says, “Got any plans for lunch?”
They go to Zacchaeus’ house and the crowds are incensed. How dare the Lord go to eat with that sinner! What do they talk about over lunch? We don’t know. We only know that as they leave the house the tax collector is changed. He says, “I will give back everything that I have taken with interest.”
“Salvation” Jesus says, “has come to this house.”
It’s no wonder the crowds grew and grew and grew. It’s no wonder the strange new world of the Bible talks of people leaves their plows in the field and their bread in the oven when the Messiah shows up.
Because the Messiah is the one who saves.
And there’s no such things as being a little bit saved, or partially saved. It means a total and complete salvation.
So when they wave their palm branches, when they place their cloaks on the road, they scream for salvation from the only one who can bring it.
Hosanna! Save us Jesus!
Save us, from what?
Jerusalem is occupied, the Roman garrison enters the holy city on the other side. Pontius Pilate comes riding in on a war course while Jesus enters on a donkey. The people of God, therefore, are living as strangers in a strange land in the very land God had promised. Their way of life is fracturing, their faith is under scrutiny, they have no bright hope for tomorrow.
And here comes the Messiah! The one who makes everything right! He’s saved others and now he’s going to save us. He’s going to give us our city back. He’s going to bring back our way of life. He’s the new king!
The crowds grow and grow, and the shouts of Hosanna echo through the city streets, until they see the cross.
It is strange and not so strange to know that those same people who shouted Hosanna at the beginning of the week were shouting crucify by the end.
It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into role of our own choosing.
It’s all too easy for us to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.
We would still like to see him parade around into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and dreams, to disrupt and frustrate the plans of our enemies.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.
Jesus comes to save us.
He doesn’t enter the holy city to establish yet another political machine that result in one group lording it over everyone else.
He doesn’t pass out swords and shields to storm the temple walls.
He doesn’t even offer programs of personal morality that will make the world a better place.
One of the craziest parts of Palm Sunday is that, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus doesn’t say anything.
He merely rides into the city that will kill him.
But it’s Palm Sunday. We don’t want to have to think about Friday yet. We like the images and the sounds of our children waving palm branches high in the air. But there is no jumping from today to Easter Sunday.
Put another way, we do well to remember there is no resurrection without crucifixion.
It’s in our hymns and in our creeds and even in our prayers, but we try to stay away from the crucifixion as much as possible. And for good reason – it is the sign of our total and utmost depravity. But it’s also the heart of God.
God, the creator of the cosmos, lays aside almightiness to come and dwell among us in the muck and mire of life, to be one of us.
God becomes vulnerable for us.
And how do we return the favor?
Why? Because we want salvation on our own terms. We want to take matters into our own hands. We want to save ourselves.
We don’t want to be saved in our sins, we’d rather lord it over other sinners who are worse than us. The only problem with that is, according to the kingdom of God, none of us is righteous, no, not one.
You see, we crucified Jesus not because he was God, but because he was God and then failed to come up to our standards in doing so. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t the one we were looking for.
We’re fine with being saved only so long as it fits neatly into our expectations of what it means to be saved.
The crowds wave their branches and they shout their hosannas. Save us Jesus, save us! And, by the end of the week, that’s exactly what he does, whether we deserve it or not, whether we like it or not.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including record breakers, timelessness, keeping Easter in Lent, Makoto Fujimura, laughing in church, terrible testimonies, tremendous transformation, clarity (or the lack thereof), authorial soliloquies, and John Daker. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Narding Out