Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Blessing

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

May our God, who raised from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, grant you a joyous and holy Eastertide; and may the blessing of God -- + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- be with you now and remain with you always. Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Homily: Easter Vigil (22-23 March 2008)

Easter Vigil: 22-23 March 2008
(Acts 10:34-43/Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24/Colossians 3:1-17/John 20:1-18)
Lord and Messiah

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

God grant us ears to hear the rejoicing of all creation on this most holy night: the mountains and hills burst into song before our risen Lord and all the trees of the field clap their hands in praise of the One who was slain but who now lives again (Is 55:12).

God grant us ears to hear the rejoicing of all creation on this most holy night: the voices of many angels surrounding the throne, the voices of the living creatures and the elders, the voices of myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands resound with full praise,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!”

and every creature on heaven and earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them sing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!”

and the four living creatures say, “Amen!” and the elders fall down and worship (Rev 5:11-14).

God grant us ears to hear the rejoicing of all creation on this most holy night: the angel blows his trumpet and loud voices in heaven say,

“The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

God grant us ears to hear the rejoicing of all creation on this most holy night. And God grant that our voices might join theirs in this panoply of praise to God our Creator and Father, to Christ our Savior and Redeemer, and to the Holy Spirit, our Sanctifier and Advocate, to whom be all glory and honor now and unto the ages of ages! Amen.

And so we say again:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

God grant us minds to understand the meaning of this mystery of resurrection: ordained from the foundations of the world, hidden in ages past, but now revealed in these last days when God has poured out his Spirit upon all flesh – upon sons and daughters and young men and old men, on slaves, both men and women, and upon everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord (Act 2:17 ff).

God grant us minds to understand the meaning of this mystery of resurrection: not as the sons and daughters of this passing age understand it, not as those who hold a form of godliness but deny its power understand it, but as forgiven and restored and Spirit-filled Peter understood it and proclaimed it to devout Jews from every nation under heaven on Pentecost.

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:22-24, NRSV).

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36, NRSV).

God grant us minds to understand the meaning of this mystery of resurrection: Jesus is Lord and Messiah. Through the resurrection God the Father has vindicated his only-begotten Son Jesus – has declared him to be in the right – and has made him both Lord and Messiah. God grant that we are as clear in our understanding of this mystery as Peter was in his, and let me be clear in this moment. The meaning of the resurrection is not simply that there is life after death and that if we accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior – whatever we think that means – we will go to heaven to live forever with him when we die. Some of that is true, but it is not the meaning of the resurrection. I say again, with Peter, that the meaning of the resurrection is that God the Father has vindicated his only-begotten Son Jesus – has declared him to be in the right – and has made him both Lord and Messiah. And this means that the voices in heaven, the voices that spoke at the sound of the trumpet, proclaimed the great resurrection truth:

“The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

The kingdom of God that we pray for boldly as Christ our Savior taught us has indeed dawned in the resurrection. And we are to proclaim this meaning of the mystery of resurrection to all peoples and nations – not only with our lips but with our lives – calling all to baptism and holy obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, as he himself has commanded.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20, NRSV).

If Jesus is Lord and Messiah as the resurrection proclaims, then all the powers that claimed dominion and arrayed themselves against him were not: neither the political juggernaut of Rome wielding the power of the sword, nor the self-serving elite of the religious establishment and the zealous religious reformers – priest, Sadducee, scribe, and Pharisee – wielding the power of tradition and intimidation, nor the spiritual rulers and principalities of this fallen world – Satan himself – wielding the power of deception, temptation, and sin. In the resurrection Jesus triumphed over these and all other pretenders to his rightful authority – triumphed over them and shamed them – leading them captive in his victory procession from the tomb. If Jesus is Lord and Messiah as the resurrection proclaims, then death and hell have been defeated – though not yet destroyed – and must themselves bow before the one who was dead but now lives, before the one who harrowed hell and set free its prisoners.

If Jesus is Lord and Messiah as the resurrection proclaims, then all the powers that even now claim dominion and array themselves against him are not: political systems that wage wars of ideological and territorial aggression and that justify all manner of evil in the name of expediency; economic systems that disproportionately favor the wealthy – whether individual, corporate, or national – and that turn deaf ears to the cries of the poor – cries the Righteous Judge will surely hear; philosophical and educational systems that dismiss God as a quaint and embarrassing hypothesis for which they have no need; religious systems that oppress, brutalize, and terrorize – or that marginalize, vilify, or ignore – in the name of their god. To these pretenders to Jesus’s rightful authority – to these and to all others – we proclaim,

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Through his resurrection he has become both Lord and Messiah. Through his resurrection the kingdom of God has come not just within us as a personal, spiritual reality, but among us as a corporate, material, historical reality. And because of that, we have work to do.

Through his resurrection Christ launched this great kingdom venture, as only he could. Know this with certainty: the kingdom is – from start to finish – the work of God. We neither design it nor build it. But, following the blueprints left for us in scripture and sacrament and church, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we implement the victory of the resurrection and we build for the kingdom (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope). Thus our brother Paul writes at the end of his great resurrection discourse in 1 Corinthians 15, in view of the resurrection of Christ and our similar resurrection to come,

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).

Because of the resurrection we labor in the Lord. Because of the resurrection this labor is not in vain. If Christ rose again only to escape this material world into some disembodied, spiritual existence in heaven and if our only purpose is one day to follow him there then nothing in this life beyond personal faith and dogged obedience matters much at all. If this world is expendable – just a preparatory phase on the way to heaven or a failed experiment in material existence – then nothing in this life beyond personal faith and dogged obedience matters much at all. If people’s bodies are “base stuff,” mere empty shells that hold the true, spiritual spark of God – the soul – that longs to transcend the physical as a prisoner longs for escape from confinement, then nothing in this life beyond personal faith and dogged obedience matters very much. If this is true then, Paul notwithstanding, most all of our labor is in vain. But this is not what the church proclaims on this most holy night. This is not the historic faith of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church. No: this is a resurgence of the gnosticism that so bedeviled the early church and which now threatens to compromise our message – a Gnosticism found not only in new age expressions of our faith but in rapture-obsessed, fundamentalist expressions as well.

We will have none of this. We proclaim Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of man – truly and fully human and truly and fully divine. We proclaim that this same Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. We proclaim that he lived among us as one of us and revealed to us the fullness of God incarnate. We proclaim that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. We proclaim that he descended to the dead. And we proclaim that on the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures – rose again in full divinity and fully transformed humanity. We proclaim that he ascended into heaven as King of kings and Lord of lords and as our representative before God, his Father and our Father. We proclaim that in and through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection he has inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth and set us about implementing his victory and building for his kingdom. We proclaim that everything matters – that every act of justice and righteousness, every expression of compassion and mercy, every infusion of truth and beauty done in the name of the risen Lord builds for his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven and will stand in that last, great day when Christ returns and the new heaven and new earth are joined and God is all and in all. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Yes, Christ is risen and his resurrection proclaims him as both Lord and Messiah.

Yes, Christ is risen and his resurrection marks the advent of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.

Yes, Christ is risen and his resurrection is our commission to implement that resurrection and to build for that kingdom in acts of justice, righteousness, compassion, mercy, love, truth, and beauty. Know that, in the risen Christ, everything matters and no labor is in vain.

And, so again, with all the faithful in every time and place – saints in heaven and saints on earth – with myriads of myriads of angels and archangels, with apostles and martyrs, with cherubim and seraphim, with the elders and the living creatures around the throne, we take our place and raise our voices to proclaim,

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Homily: Maundy Thursday (20 March 2008)

Maundy Thursday: 20 March 2008
(Exodus 12:1-14/Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19/1 Corinthians 11:23-26/ John 13:1-17, 31b-35)
How Quaint

In the name of the one who came among us as one who came to serve,
even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

If someone knew nothing of the Gospel, nothing of the church, imagine how strange this Maundy Thursday service would appear. We publicly confess our sins to one another and then the greatest sinner of the group – the one called by all the others to speak to them on behalf of God – has the audacity to do just that and pronounces forgiveness in the name of Christ. We wash one another’s feet, not because they particularly need it – In fact, I’ll bet everyone was careful to have especially clean feet and trimmed toenails before coming to the service this evening! – we wash one another’s feet not because they need it but because Jesus did it and because we need to do it. And we celebrate a final feast, a last supper. We call it a feast, but it’s really just a pinch of bread and a sip of wine over which we intone some words about a broken body and shed blood. If someone knew nothing of the Gospel, nothing of the church, and witnessed this Maundy Thursday service, he or she might judge us quaint, at best, or maybe even foolish.

But we believe that these quaint, foolish things we do are signs of the in-breaking of God’s new creation. We believe that in them and through them we see God’s Holy Spirit hovering over the chaos of our fallen world whispering again the words “Let there be light and life.” And we believe that they are sacramental, that they are glimpses and instruments and channels of God’s life-giving and life-transforming grace unleashed into the world through his people and through the raw materials of old creation renewed: word and water, bread and wine.

Jesus started this foot washing business and if we did it for no other reason than to imitate our Master, that would be enough. But there’s more to it than that, more certainly than our uninformed observer might first suspect.

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. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him (John 13:1-2, NRSV).

So foot washing is all about love – about love expressed through the most humble of acts. We often look for the extravagant gesture, the grandiose symbol to show our love; but that misses the point that Mother Teresa learned through a life of foot washing: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” So Jesus stooped – literally – to the level and work of a slave to say, “All that I do, I do because I love you. All the horrors you will witness in the next agonizing hours, I accept freely and willingly because I love you. Now, you love one another in this way.”

Following fast upon his statement of love, John mentions that Judas was there, that his heart was filled with evil, and that he was even then engaged in a betrayal of Jesus and his love. Love like we see in the washing of feet doesn’t conquer all, as much as we might wish differently. In fact, it doesn’t conquer anyone at all. It doesn’t overpower; it offers. It doesn’t dominate; it submits. It doesn’t shout; it whispers. It can be ignored and rejected and it often is.

Peter tried to reject Jesus’s offer of love, but for vastly different reasons than Judas. As Jesus neared Peter with the basin and the towel Peter said to him,

“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean” (John 13:6b-11, NRSV).

I think I understand Peter, here: I may be all wrong, but I think I understand. Peter is making a point about love, too. But while Jesus’s statement of love is born of humility, Peter’s is born of arrogance and one-upmanship. “I love you more than the rest of these, far too much to let you wash my feet as they’ve let you wash theirs. Here, give me that towel; I’ll wash your feet, then everyone will see how much I love you.” But love doesn’t work that way, as Jesus makes clear. The humility of giving love must be met with the humility of receiving love for any true transformation to take place. Love is a dance; sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow, but the rhythmic give-and-take is everything.

Jesus also makes clear to Peter that love and forgiveness are well nigh inseparable – a lesson Peter is about to need more than he could imagine. This foot washing is about love, and love reaches its zenith in forgiveness, in a forgiveness that makes the other clean.

So we wash feet on a Thursday called Maundy. Jesus told us to.

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 wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should also do 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” (John 13:12-17, NRSV).

So we wash feet. It reminds us that Jesus loves us. It reminds us that Jesus has forgiven and continues to forgive us. And it reminds us to do likewise for one another and for the stranger, even for the enemy. We believe that doing the one here tonight might just empower us to do the other out there tomorrow. Maybe that’s quaint, maybe even foolish. But I don’t think so.

Excerpt from Pastor Richard Wurmbrand: Finishing the Race (Hieromonk Damascene, Again Magazine)

An Undying Love
When I was in jail I fell very, very ill. I had tuberculosis of the whole surface of both lungs, and four vertebrae were attacked by tuberculosis. I also had intestinal tuberculosis, diabetes, heart failure, jaundice, and other sicknesses I can’t even remember. I was near to death.
At my right hand was a priest by the name of Iscu. He was abbot of a monastery. This man, perhaps in his forties, had been so tortured he was near to death. But his face was serene. He spoke about his hope of heaven, about his love of Christ, about his faith. He radiated joy.
On my left side was the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest almost to death. He had been arrested by his own comrades. Don’t believe the newspapers when they say that the Communists only hate Christians or Jews—it’s not true. They simply hate. They hate everybody. They hate Jews, they hate Christians, they hate anti-Semites, they hate anti-Christians, they hate everybody. One Communist hates the other Communist. They quarrel among themselves, and when they quarrel one Communist with the other, they put the other one in jail and torture him just like a Christian, and they beat him.
And so it happened that the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest nearly to death had been tortured nearly to death by his comrades. And he was dying near me. His soul was in agony.
During the night he would awaken me, saying, “Pastor, please pray for me. I can’t die, I have committed such terrible crimes.”
Then I saw a miracle. I saw the agonized priest calling two other prisoners. And leaning on their shoulders, slowly, slowly he walked past my bed, sat on the bedside of this murderer, and caressed his head—I will never forget this gesture. I watched a murdered man caressing his murderer! That is love—he found a caress for him.
The priest said to the man, “You are young; you did not know what you were doing. I love you with all my heart.” But he did not just say the words. You can say “love,” and it’s just a word of four letters. But he really loved. “I love you with all my heart.”
Then he went on, “If I who am a sinner can love you so much, imagine Christ, who is Love Incarnate, how much He loves you! And all the Christians whom you have tortured, know that they forgive you, they love you, and Christ loves you. He wishes you to be saved much more than you wish to be saved. You wonder if your sins can be forgiven. He wishes to forgive your sins more than you wish your sins to be forgiven. He desires for you to be with Him in heaven much more than you wish to be in heaven with Him. He is Love. You only need to turn to Him and repent.”
In this prison cell in which there was no possibility of privacy, I overheard the confession of the murderer to the murdered. Life is more thrilling than a novel—no novelist has ever written such a thing. The murdered—near to death—received the confession of the murderer. The murdered gave absolution to his murderer.
They prayed together, embraced each other, and the priest went back to his bed. Both men died that same night. It was a Christmas Eve. But it was not a Christmas Eve in which we simply remembered that two thousand years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It was a Christmas Eve during which Jesus was born in the heart of a Communist murderer.
These are things which I have seen with my own eyes.

I wonder how many feet the priest had washed in his life.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Sermon: Palm/Passion Sunday (16 March 2008)

Palm/Passion Sunday: 16 March 2007
(Mt 21:1-11/Ps 118/Is 50:4-9a/Ps 31:9-16/Phil 2:5-11/Mt 26:14-27:66)
What Just Happened Here?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever seen a film that couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be: a comedy/drama, action/romance, “chick-flick”/thriller, musical/documentary, science fiction/biography? I’ve seen a few and I always leave the theater asking, What was that all about? I’m convinced that whoever writes those disorienting conglomerations was in charge of today’s liturgy. This is simply the most confused and confusing day in the entire liturgical calendar. Some days I like better than others, but this one – well, it’s in a category all its own. And the academy award for most perplexing liturgy goes to – and here there’s a dramatic pause as the envelope is opened – Palm/Passion Sunday! No great surprise there – it was really the only contender.

Just a look at the name – at least in the Revised Common Lectionary that we follow – shows the confusion: Palm/Passion Sunday. Well, which is it? The two events the day commemorates – the Triumphal Entry and the crucifixion – don’t really have much in common except a geographic location and some of the same, central players: that and they are both central events in the great drama of redemption. But they are separated by several days in time and by light-years in attitude and emotion.

We begin the liturgy with bold, triumphant proclamations:

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We read and re-member the Gospel account, wave our own palms, and march in procession singing Psalm 118 with a voice of triumph, a shout of deliverance.

On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! *
Lord, send us now success.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.

God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.

If we are paying careful attention – not letting the emotions of this exalted moment run away with us – that last verse might hint that all is not as it seems: form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar. Our parade with its waving palm branches is going somewhere; we are marching to the altar. That’s where something is sacrificed. That’s where something dies. This triumphal parade might end well for everyone else, but not for the Lamb. Caught up in the mob mentality of the moment we might miss that subtlety.

But the liturgy won’t allow that. It suddenly changes tone and rhythm, changes signaled by a prayer.

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us an example of great humility:
Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering,
and also share in his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

And before we know it we find ourselves shouting not “Hosannah!” anymore but “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Our triumphal procession has turned to death march in a matter of moments and the soft green of the palm branches has changed to the hard brown wood of a cross. The blessed King who came in the name of the Lord – those were our words, remember – is crowned with thorns and ascends his “throne” in the presence of his subjects – two petty criminal or failed insurrectionists: Hail, King of the Jews! Darkness comes, an earthquake shakes the hills, our King shudders out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” with his last breath, and dies. And we are left wondering, like his scattered disciples, how this all went so badly wrong so quickly. What just happened here?

It is all so quick in the liturgy – the timeframe so compressed from Triumphal Entry to Crucifixion – that I become disoriented. The emotions are so powerful, so raw, so mixed, that I’m left numb: what am I supposed to feel? It’s a case of overload.

So, why put all this together in a single liturgy on a single day? It is a concession to the priorities of modern life. We are no longer a society, no longer a people, whose hours and days and seasons are structured around the church and its observances, around the faith and its ancient ways. It’s difficult now to gather all the saints together several times in a single week – even during Holy Week. The liturgists were concerned that, if this Sunday were reserved exclusively for the Triumphal Entry and next Sunday for Easter, then all those good folk who could not attend the Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday would miss the church’s observance of the Crucifixion of our Lord. And that is to miss the Gospel, because the cross lies dead-center the Gospel, dead-center our faith. Better to risk this whiplash effect of Palm/Passion Sunday than to risk excluding the cross. And this compressed liturgy does have one saving grace, I think: It does force us to confront the centrality and scandal of the cross and to grapple with the question, What just happened here? How are we to understand the cross of Christ?

Faced with these questions, I start with a confession of total inadequacy. The cross is the great mystery of God revealed in these last days and anything I say about it will always be inadequate. I am simply not up to the task. But that does not excuse me from it – or you, for that matter. We must speak of the cross, we must grapple with it, we must bow before it, we must embrace it, and ultimately we must take it up and bear it ourselves – inadequately, yes, but necessarily, for ours is a cruciform faith. Even more, no matter what we say about the cross, it will always sound like foolishness; if it doesn’t, it is not cross we are proclaiming.

For the word of the cross is foolishness to the ones who are perishing, but to those of us being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and I will set aside the understanding of the intelligent.”
Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since the world through wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who believe. Jews ask signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim Jesus having been crucified – to Jews a scandal – a stumbling block – and to Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18-23).

What just happened here? God unleashed his power and wisdom into the world in the form of a God-forsaken man dying on a cross at the hands of a brutal empire and a corrupt religious establishment – in short, at the hands of sinful men like you and me. But to what purpose? What accomplishments can the cross boast? What meaning has the cross?

To the extent that we can understand the cross, we must center its meaning in Jesus’s own understanding of his death. And that understanding is not abstract but thoroughly storied – embedded in the central and formative story of God’s salvation of his people in the Passover. Jesus could have avoided his death by simply slipping out of Jerusalem as the plot closed in on him: escape to Galilee, keep a low profile, and all would be well. But he chose to accept his death – he even went so far as to provoke it – during the festival of Passover precisely because he wanted to establish his death as the fulfillment of Passover.

Every Eucharistic liturgy reminds of us of this. The raw materials of the Eucharist – bread and wine – are the symbols of Passover: unleavened bread and the cup of blessing. The fraction anthem said or sung when the bread is broken – a selection from the hymn Pascha Nostrum (Our Passover) penned by St Paul to the Corinthians – makes explicit the relationship.

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Jesus – and the earliest expression of the church – understood his sacrificial death as the fulfillment of the Passover. For Jesus – and the earliest expression of the church – the cross meant for the world what the Passover meant for Israel. And that is the most basic answer to the question, What just happened here? God provided, in and through the cross of Christ, a new Passover for the whole world, a new Passover which accomplished on a global, cosmic scale what the original Passover accomplished on a local, national scale: liberation, citizenship, worth, and relationship.

When in the Passover God acted with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm against Egypt, he liberated Israel from an oppressive and brutal regime, a regime that ultimately destroyed all those it first enslaved. He broke the bonds of oppression and set the prisoners free – something that God, and God alone, could do. God took these slaves, these “beasts” of toil and burden, and made of them a sovereign nation, a people of God, a kingdom of priests. God purchased Israel’s freedom with the currency of Egypt’s firstborn sons, death for life, and gave worth to every son and daughter of Israel: You, Israel, are now my firstborn son, says the LORD. And God brought his children into relationship with him; he made with them a covenant signed by law and sealed by circumcision: I will be your holy God and you will be my holy people. This was Passover to Israel: liberation, citizenship, worth, and relationship.

Now listen to St Paul as he describes the work of God for us in and through the cross of Christ.

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross (Col 1:13-14, 20, NRSV).

All the paschal elements are there in their fullness. When in the cross of Christ God acted with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm against sin and death, hell and the grave, and all the powers of darkness, he liberated us from their oppressive and brutal regime, a regime that ultimately destroys all those it first enslaves. He broke the bonds of that oppression and set all the prisoners free – something that God, and God alone, could do. God took us -- former slaves and worse still, enemies, objects of wrath – and made of us a sovereign nation, a people of his own choosing, a kingdom of priests to the glory of God the Father. God purchased our freedom with the currency of his only-begotten Son, death for life, and thereby gave inestimable worth to every father and mother, son and daughter, to every brother and sister of the Crucified One: You, beloved, are now my children, says the LORD. And God brought us, his children, into relationship with him; he made with us a new covenant signed by grace and sealed by the cup of the new covenant in the blood of Christ: I will be your holy God and you will be my holy people. This is the cross, the fulfillment of Passover to us: liberation, citizenship, worth, and relationship. Is it any wonder that St Paul, in his proclamation of the gospel, determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, a message of foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved the power of God.

Do not ask me why it had to be this way; I do not know. Do not ask me how the cross accomplished these things; it is a mystery. But ask me what just happened, and this I proclaim with all the faithful in every time and place, in heaven above and on earth below: Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast.


Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sermon: 5 Lent (9 March 2008)

5 Lent: 9 March 2008
(Ezekiel 37:1-14/Psalm 130/Romans 8:6-11/John 11:1-45)
The Last Word

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was dead as a door nail.
This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
-- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I’ve stood beside too many graves, carried too many bodies in silent procession to them. If the Lord tarries, and I do as well, I will stand there again. If the Lord tarries and I do not, someone will stand there by my grave, someone will bear my body. We Christians try to put a good face on all this, of course, to bear witness to the hope within us, as well we should. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (BCP 499). But, when the last Alleluia falls silent and we walk away, we know we have left something – someone, a part of us – behind. Though we make our song, in our bones we feel that death, at least for now, has the final word. And that word is silence.

So we understand Mary and Martha: their loss, their pain, their confusion at a friend who might have helped but chose not to. They are caught somewhere between reality and hope, where we all are at the grave: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” said Martha, yet, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” On the last day, maybe – but in the meantime death has the final word.

Lazarus was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The sisters knew it, the mourners knew it, the crowd knew it. The tomb had been sealed four days. Old Lazarus was dead as a door nail.
This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story that John is going to relate.

The wonderful – wonder-filled – story of Lazarus doesn’t begin at the sealed tomb, or four days earlier when he died, or even two days before that when news reached Jesus of his friend’s illness. It begins in the mists of pre-history, in a garden. It was there God spoke to Adam, spoke words of provision and warning: ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ But of course he did eat, he and the woman God had given him as companion. Then something quite unexpected happened, or rather didn’t happen. Adam didn’t die as God had warned. Not immediately, not on that day. Instead, Adam and Eve were exiled: from the Garden, from the tree of life, from the easy intimacy they had known with God and with one another. It is this exile which constitutes God’s faithfulness to his warning; it is this exile which constitutes Adam’s immediate death. Separated from the tree of life, from this life-sustaining sacrament of God’s grace, Adam spiraled downward into corruption, ending with his physical death: From dust he came and to dust he returned. It is no exaggeration to say that the harvest has begun the moment the seed has been planted. It is no exaggeration to say that Adam harvested the field of death the moment he planted the seed of disobedience. In the meantime, exile itself is seen as the immediate, visible sign of the death to come. In biblical literature exile and death are intimate companions, symbols one for another.

So it is that Ezekiel, writing in the 6th-century B.C., writing from exile in Babylon, envisions Israel as a valley of dry bones; Israel in exile is Israel as good as dead. The word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel, a word of resurrection, a word to end the exile.

“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Eze 37:4-6, NRSV).

And because the word of the LORD has power to create what it speaks, no sooner had Ezekiel uttered the prophecy than “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone,” and sinews formed and skin, also. But the newly formed bodies were yet lifeless, without breath, without spirit.

“Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Eze 37:9, NRSV).

And Ezekiel spoke and the breath came and the bodies stood on their feet, a vast multitude. You see bones, I see an army, says the Lord God.

Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD (Eze 37:12b-14, NRSV).

Then something quite unexpected happened, or rather didn’t happen. Israel’s exile didn’t end. They did return home to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. But the presence of God, the shekinah glory, did not return to inhabit the temple as in the days of Solomon. There were bones and sinews and skin all right, but no breath, no Spirit. Save for a few brief periods Israel was never again autonomous, never again sovereign. Pagans ruled the land: Syrians, Greeks, Romans. So it was that Israel remained in exile, dead and awaiting resurrection. So it was that death had the final word.

A notion developed in Israel to explain these unfulfilled promises and prophecies – a notion of the eschaton, the last days. One day, at the last day, Israel’s history would reach “ a great moment of climax, in which Israel herself would be saved from her enemies and through which the creator God, the covenant God, would at last bring his love and justice, his mercy and truth, to bear upon the whole world, bringing renewal and healing to all creation” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, p. 35). On this last day God himself would return to his kingdom, Israel. He would raise the righteous dead in a moment of national resurrection and the exile would end as the Spirit returned to the lifeless body of Israel. No longer would death have the last word.

“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha” (John 11:1): so begins the story of the raising of Lazarus. The sisters send an urgent message to Jesus who inexplicably – in their eyes and in the eyes of his disciples – delays until Lazarus dies. Only then does he make his way to Bethany.

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:17-24, NRSV).

And there it is – the hope of the eschaton, the hope of the last day. Martha knows that a great day is coming, a day when the Lord himself will return to deliver his people, to end the exile, to raise the righteous dead – the day Ezekiel saw in a vision and longed for. When the dead rise the exile will be over and God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. In the meantime, death has the final word.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this” (John 11:25-26, NRSV)?

With these words, amidst the tears and sorrow of a grieving family, Jesus proclaims the good news to Israel: the time has come, the last days have arrived, God is once again among his people, the breath of the Spirit is about to enter the lifeless body of Israel, and you will see the sign of this great and marvelous day of the Lord this very day, in this very place.

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out (John 11:39-44a, NRSV).

This is not just another in a long line of miracles. This is a sign: a sign that God has returned to his people in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a sign that the last day is about to dawn, a sign that the exile is over, a sign that at last the justice and mercy and righteousness of God are now at work putting to rights all that is wrong in all of creation. This is a sign that soon and very soon, death will no longer have the final word, a sign that the final word will be the loud voice of Jesus crying, “Come out!” and we will come out.

The raising of Lazarus was Jesus’s great act of defiance in the face of the great enemy death – a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down. Death has been stalking Jesus, bringing him ever nearer Jerusalem, ever nearer Gethsemane, ever nearer Golgotha, ever nearer the cross – so death thinks. But all this time it is Jesus who has been luring death to its destruction. And with the raising of Lazarus Jesus humiliates death. Come death, do your worst. Come death who from Adam’s first sin has had the final word and hear the Lord himself cry, “Come out!”

And then something quite unexpected happened, or rather didn’t happen. Jesus didn’t defeat death. Not long after releasing Lazarus from death’s bondage, Jesus surrendered himself to death. Jesus died and like Lazarus was placed in a tomb and sealed there. The Jews had the last word: “Crucify him!” The Romans had the last word: “The King of the Jews.” Death had the last word: silence. And the exile continued and no Spirit entered the lifeless body of Israel. And all creation prayed with the sweet Psalmist of Israel,

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the LORD
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him there is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities (Psalm 130:5-8, NRSV).

And on the third day, on the third day the final word was spoken: He is not here. He is risen as he said! Easter – the first day of the week – is the first day of the last days. The exile is over, God is among his people, new creation has dawned.

And then something quite unexpected happened, or rather didn’t happen. Rome didn’t crumble; Pilate just swept Jesus under the rug and went about business as usual. The Sanhedrin complimented themselves on a job well done – another heretic dispatched. The crowds who had followed Jesus dispersed. Nothing really changed. Sooner or later Lazarus died again and death pronounced the final word over him a second time. Or so it might seem.

But something quite unexpected had happened. In Jesus, God broke into the middle of history to inaugurate – to set in motion – that which Israel expected to see on the last day: the return of God; the end of exile; the establishment of God’s kingdom of righteousness, justice, and mercy; and the resurrection of the dead. And though it took time to understand it all, God did in and through and for Jesus – in the middle of history – what he will do for all creation on the last day. Jesus is the firstfruits of creation’s harvest to come. He is the power unto salvation and the sign of just what that means. Standing at the grave of Lazarus, his sisters were sure that death had the final word; and they were wrong. Standing at cross of Christ the Romans and the Jews and even Christ’s disciples were sure that death had the final word; and they were wrong. Standing at Auschwitz or Hiroshima or Rwanda or Darfur the world is sure that death has the final word; and they are wrong. Standing at the graves of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and husbands and wives and children we sometimes feel that death has the final word; and we are wrong. The final word was spoken to Lazarus: “Come forth.” The final word was spoken by the angel at the empty tomb: “He is not here. His is risen as he said.” The final word was spoken, is being spoken, and will be spoken over you, over all those in Christ Jesus.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you (Rom 8:11, NRSV).

The exile is over; man has been reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. The dead have been raised to new life in the Spirit – now – and someday our mortal bodies will also be raised to new life. God’s kingdom has come in the midst of those who follow Jesus – imperfectly, yes, but here nonetheless; it has come, it is coming, it will yet come in all its fullness.

Death is still an enemy who will one day pronounce a word over us; we can’t deny that. Death will pronounce a word – just not the last word. That’s reserved for Jesus. Amen.