Living the Question

Sermon on Job 12:7-10 & Luke 24:36-48 for the 3rd Sunday in Easter B, April 19, 2015, Earth Day Sunday

Job 12:7-10The Earth is the Lords
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.

Luke 24:36-48
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

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I love to listen to people talk about scientific discoveries. Recently I heard a scientist say that there are more genetic similarities between us humans and our fellow primates, the baboons than there are between African and Asian varieties of elephants. But despite the similarities there are two things you will never see a baboon do that humans take for granted. You will never see two baboons carry a log together. They simply do not know how valuable cooperation is.

Nor will they every pass anything they have learned onto the next generation. Every baboon has to start from scratch and discover the world for themselves. They learn by observation and imitation, but then cannot pass down knowledge. They do not have language. The are not capable of telling stories around the campfire. They have no mythologies, no histories, no written records.

We are living during a knowledge explosion. The BBC regularly reports on 10 things we did not know last week, like that male mice sing love songs to attract females. Who knew?

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But the more we learn, the more questions we have. The more we know, the more we know how much we do not know. Are the principles of mathematics out there to be discovered or do we generate them ourselves? Is there a cure for cancer?

The hardest questions are the ones about the future, and the ones that start with “Why?” Will global temperatures continue to rise at the current rate? Will the polar ice caps and glaciers continue to melt, causing sea levels to rise to the point that massive migration away from current coast lands will be necessary (- not an idle question for a coastal community such as we are)? Will it happen in my generation? Future-questions are hard.

“Why?” questions are even harder. Why are we here? Why should we care? Why is it that our beliefs are so influenced by the groups we identify with instead of by evidence? Why is it so hard to change our minds once we have formed opinions? Why do people do evil, even when they know it causes suffering?

Here is one more that puzzles me: why is it that the church has been known as a place where questions were disallowed? The bible is full of questions. Jesus was full of questions.

Earth Day Questions

We started today, on this Sunday closest to Earth Day with a direct call for questions from the poetry of the book of Job.

“ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?

Ask creation, it will sing back one song:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Ps. 24:1)

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Jesus asked a lot of questions. Among my favorites are:

“What good will it be for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeits their soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

To the lame man at the pool, he asked:

Do you want to get well?(John 5:6)

Today we heard Jesus ask a question in our reading from Luke’s version of the Jesus-story:

“Have you anything here to eat?”

The setting is Easter evening. This is called a “resurrection appearance scene.” In the scene just before this moment, the risen Jesus has just been made known to those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and now he is mysteriously back, appearing with the whole group of disciples in Jerusalem.

No matter how you think of the resurrected Jesus, he did not need to eat. There is a lot more going on here than a surface level trivial detail about an appetite.

People say that the answer is often in the question. This is not the first food question Jesus asks in the gospel tradition. In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 from Mark, Jesus looks at his disciples and asks,

“How many loaves have you? Go and see.” (Mark 6:38)

Jesus’ question provoked them to ask the same question. They did the research and came back with the answer:

“When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”

Jesus immediately took the loaves, blessed, broke and gave them to the people – the very verbs that define the Eucharist in which bread is taken, blessed, broken and given to everyone.

Jesus has just come from the house near Emmaus, where Luke tells us,

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

Now, the question on the lips of the risen Jesus to the people who will form the nucleus of the church is: Have you anything to eat – at all?

They did; they had fish. Now they do what he did; they give the food to a hungry person.

So the answer to Jesus’ question “Have you anything here to eat?” was “yes.” Not much, but “yes.”

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Let us ask this question: How does the church, which experiences the risen Christ as we break bread together live, as witnesses to the present power of resurrection? The answer is that we share our food with the the hungry.

This is exactly what the early church did. In the book of Acts, Luke’s part B of the story we are reading, he tells us how one of the first organized actions of the church was a distribution of bread to hungry people: to widows (Acts 6)

When we hear the question, “Have you anything here to eat?” it provokes us, who have an abundance of food to eat, to ask our own questions. Who does not have anything to eat? Who is “food insecure” as they call it? The answer we all know well is that many people are, including children, even in this country.

We go from the easy questions to the harder ones: why is there still food insecurity in our country? What are the root causes? How can we be involved in solutions?

As Christians who believe in a Creator God, not a tribal God, we are unafraid of the larger questions: where, around the world are people hungry? Why are people hungry? What can we do as Global citizens that would bear witness to our faith in the risen Christ whose Spirit is still at work in us to keep doing what he did: feeding the hungry?

Peter Rollins says it so starkly. When asked, “Do I denies the resurrection?”, he says, “Yes, I deny the resurrection every time I see people in need and turn away.”

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There are more questions which Jesus’ question evokes. If the answer to “Have you anything here to eat?” is yes, the question is why?

Where did it come from? Where was it grown or raised? Who were the farmers who raised it? Who picked it? What were they paid?

How was it transported? What were the conditions on the farm? What chemicals were involved? How was the land treated?

How were the animals treated? What condition was the water left in?

From the fields and farms we move to even broader questions. Are the parts of our lives that are not directly connected to food having an impact on our planet’s ability to keep feeding us and others?

We are not baboons; we know very well that the answer is yes. We know all about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. We have seen how quickly a massive oil spill in the Gulf can happen.

We are not baboons in other, important respects as well. We know how to cooperate to get things done. We know how to hand on information and learn from past mistakes. We know how to “repent” in biblical language – to have another look at how we have been living and to make changes. We have the capacity to change our lifestyles, our habits, our systems.

When I was a child, Lake Erie was so polluted everyone thought it was dead. It was dangerous to swim in it or eat the fish from it. But then the EPA was created. regulations kept pollution out of the water. We learned from past mistakes, and made an enormous difference. We are neither baboons who cannot learn nor are we unable to imagine cooperation to achieve positive results.

We can invent catalytic converters – remember what came out of our cars before? And we can create far more fuel-efficient vehicles. We can even learn to combine trips and drive less.

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We are here to celebrate God’s good earth today. To step back and to wonder at creation. To marvel at this fertile garden God has given us to live in. We are here to delight in the mystery of life, from the oysters and turtles to the next generation of baby humans to whom we will leave this planet.

We are here to respond to our Creator and Redeemer with the praise of our lips and the witness of our lives. We are here to take bread, to bless it, to break it, and to give it away, so that all may be satisfied.

In our personal lifestyles this will mean implementing the famous three R’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. In our public lives it will mean supporting policies that ensure sustainable agricultural, industrial practices and fair trade policies. It will mean being the advocates for those who have no voice or whose voice is unheard; the silent animals and plants, and the farm workers from whose labor we live.

After our baptisms, the one act that we do that constitutes us as a Christian community is gathering around a table at which we share bread together. Let that action symbolize our embrace of our Lord’s will, that everyone be fed with clean, healthy food from a blessed and bountiful earth.

 

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The Forgiving Community of the Forgiven

Sermon on John 20:19-31 for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B, April 12, 2015

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A week ago Thursday, our Maundy Thursday service was wonderful.  We were all IMG_4900together, people from both services who do not see each other that much.  We reflected on the miraculous nature of us, the church; one community made of people who were strangers to each other, the first time we entered these doors.  But strangers have become family, and that is what we are.

This week, at our Wednesday supper and program we watched a short video then had an engaging discussion.  The theme was a new perspective on so called “Doubting Thomas.”  We talked about doubt, which we all experience.

But we also reflected on the fact that Christ found Thomas, despite his doubt, and that  Christ comes to each of us, despite all of the barriers we have put up; our locked doors, our fearful hiding from the truth, our doubts.  Christ finds us.

The Passed Over Line about Forgiveness

So, since we already processed that part of this story, I would like to focus on one line that we did not look at much yet.  It is a line that gets missed, since it goes by so quickly in this dream-like, deeply symbolic resurrection-appearance story.

It is the line Jesus says, when he first appears to the disciples in that locked room, before Thomas is present.  Jesus said,

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Gallons of ink have been spilled on this, but I think most of it has been wasted.  I think it is one of the simplest truths you can tell.  And also one of the hardest.  It is simply the truth that sins that we forgive go away, and sins we do not forgive stay.  Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 7.23.17 PM

Sins that we forgive are like balloons with the air let out; they lie lifeless on the floor.  Sins that we do not forgive are like  poisoned wells we keep drinking from, and stay sick on account of.   As Ann Lamont says, un-forgiveness is like drinking the poison and waiting for the rats to die.

Forgiveness: the Heart of Christianity

Forgiveness is the heart of Christianity.  Or, it should be.  It is what Jesus wanted to be the heart of Christianity.  It is so weird that it has been turned upside down.  For so many, Christianity has been all about guilt and shame; fear of punishment, judgmentalism and condemnation; it’s quite bizarre, really.

No one would disagree that Jesus’ cross was the defining moment, and though people disagree about the details of how to understand it, every Christian believes the same thing: it is all about forgiveness.

Though his enemies were killing him there, Jesus said, “Father forgive them.”  Instead of retaliating with violence, Jesus absorbed it.  He stopped the cycle of violence.

The Story Context: forgiveness

The whole context of this gospel story repeats the same thing: Jesus shows up in a room full of the people who abandoned him in his darkest hour, the ones he has the most reason to resent, the ones who “threw him under the bus” as they say, and what does he do?

He says, “Shalom” – in his language.  “Peace.”  No retribution.  Not even a reprimand.  No groveling required.  No penance.   No promises to be better.  In other words, with complete forgiveness to the ones who hurt him.

This should not have surprised anyone.  He was the one who said “turn the other cheek, and go the second mile.”   You can only turn the other cheek after someone strikes you once; you only go the second mile after being forced, against your will, to go the first one.  These are the actions of forgiveness.  This is at the heart of Christianity.

Knowing is not Doing

But there is a problem here.  Just because Jesus said it, and even if we agree that forgiveness is recommended, it does not mean we can do it.

Jesus is the one who taught us to pray “forgive us our debts… as we forgive our debtors.”  So, it is crucial that we forgive, which is what we assert, every time we pray that prayer.  But who among us finds it easy?  Who even finds it possible?

And yet, forgiveness is indeed crucial, for many reasons.   Some of them are personal,  some of them are public.

Personally, forgiveness is all about pain.  If we never felt pain inflicted by others, we would have nothing to forgive.  And the rule is, as Richard Rohr says, pain not transformed is transmitted.  Un-transformed pain, in other words, unhealed, unforgiven hurts, get transmitted, both internally and externally.   Internally, the pain becomes anger, resentment, bitterness, even depression.

Externally, unless there is healing, damaged people damage other people.  Victims become victimizers.  The abused become abusers.  There is a broad range for all of these behaviors – from the people who are simply consumed with anger or depression to the short tempered who are unpleasant to be around, all the way to the violent and abusive.  Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 12.39.52 PM

How?  Self-work: Spiritual Practices

So if it is crucial that the cycle stops, if forgiveness is so important, what do we do to get from our natural resentment and revenge-reactions to Jesus-likeness? To forgiveness?

It begins with self-work.  It has to.   This is what the spiritual practices are all about.  So we spend time each day in spiritual reading, in prayer and meditation, perhaps yoga, and in honest self-evaluation.

There is just no such thing as a person who is able to forgive naturally or automatically.  We are all too prone to living out of our false-selves, our egos, our small-selves or whatever you want to call it.

That self that gets all wrapped up in its own importance, it’s needs, its status, its expectations of how the world “should” go and how it needs to be treated.  This is the part of ourselves that gets insulted, that gets our feelings hurt, that needs to have the last word.

The small self never forgives.  The small self stews.  The small self looks for chances to settle the score.  The small self is an expert in self-justification.  It demonizes the other.

And as Greg Boyle recently pointed out, demonizing the other is not only morally bankrupt it is always false, it is never the truth.  Why not?  Because people are not demons or monsters.  They are just people, imperfect, wounded people.

Believe me, I’ve been to death row where the people there are called monsters.  There are people there who did very bad things; but there are no monsters.  Some are quite mentally ill.  Some have been utterly redeemed and transformed.

So the first step in forgiveness is the self-work of spiritual practices.  In spiritual practices, we connect with the Spirit of the God who loves us, who made us, and who made us to be grace-filled participants of communities of mutuality; communities who practice the spirituality of forgiveness.

We do not deny our pain when we forgive.  We simply take the power away from our wounds to keep wounding us, or to wound others.

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I mentioned Greg Boyle.  I just heard him interviewed in “On Being with Krista Tippett.”  Greg is a Jesuit priest who, for 25 years, has worked in Los Angeles in the most gang-infested and violent place in our nation.  He has buried close to 200 people who have died violent deaths in that time.  And yet, he has found paths to redemption; perhaps we should call them resurrections.  Greg is the founder of Home Boy Industries which you may have heard of, which employees former gang members in productive work.

He told the story of a young man he called José, whose mother, at age six, told him he should just kill himself, he was such a burden.  At age nine she abandoned him at an orphanage where he stayed for several months before his grandmother finally found him.  He was often beaten severely.  He used to have to wear multiple t-shirts to school, to disguise his open wounds, of which he was ashamed.

But after his own pain was transmitted to himself, through addiction, and to others, in ways that led him to prison, José found Greg, and Christ’s love, and redemption; a new start.  And as he was telling his story, he let his hands touch his wounds – now scars – and said that he has now made friends of his wounds.  “How could I help other wounded people if I did not make friends of my wounds?” – he asked?

Pain that is not transformed is transmitted; internally and externally.  But pain transformed by forgiveness can transmit healing and hope.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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That is what Jesus did as he came into that locked room: he forgave them, saying “peace.”  And he breathed his Spirit on them.  All of this symbolizes in these dreamlike images the powerful truths of our faith.  We have been forgiven.  We are a community of the forgiven.  And we can walk and live and breath in the Spirit of the risen Christ, as we live as a forgiven, forgiving community.

Just to be clear; forgiveness does not mean what happened to us was OK, or excusable.  Forgiveness is not about pretending what is not true.  It is not about forgetting what happened (though it may eventually lead to some forgetting).

Rather, forgiveness is simply not wishing for revenge.  Forgiveness is wishing for the redemption and healing of those who wronged us.  Forgiveness is the refusal to wish suffering and harm on the ones who may seem, to us, to deserve to suffer for what they did, as if their suffering would relieve ours (it never does).

Forgiveness is coming to terms with the pastness of the past, and letting go of its pain, so that we can live an unburdened, open-hearted present.

Forgiveness comes from a mature place of recognizing that a lot of people carry their pain in unhelpful and un-transformed ways.  Forgiveness means we do not judge the way they carry it; we simply hope, pray for them, and  we will do what we can, when invited, to be there for them.

Greg Boyle said

“The measure of the health of the community is how much people can stand in awe of the things that the other members have to carry, instead of standing in judgment about how they carry it.”

We do not know the burdens each other are carrying.  You came into this room today with a history most of us have no idea about.  If we did know, we may stand in awe of the weight that some of us have had to bear.  But we do know what we ourselves have had to bear, and that knowing should give us ample reason to treasure each other and forgive each other.

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We are a community of spiritual practices, and therefore, a community of forgiveness.  What does it look like to be a community that practices forgiveness?  It means we practice forgiveness wherever there is hurt in our lives.

Some time ago I heard a person speak of the necessity of forgiving God.  It sounded scandalous at first.  How could God have wronged us such that we need to forgive God?  Of course, I later realized that what he meant was forgiving ourselves for having made an idol out of our own wants and desires, needs and hopes that we were holding God responsible for meeting.  Perhaps that is where forgiveness starts.

We forgive ourselves for being fallible human beings, for getting it wrong, for living out of our small selves.

We forgive the world for not being fair, not being convenient, not being as we would like it.  The older we live, the more we need to forgive the world for changing.

But most of all, we forgive each other, drawing a wide enough circle of compassion and forgiveness, that finally, no one is standing outside it.

Greg Boyle sums it up like this:

“All that we are asked to do and be in the world is what God is.”  Forgiving. 

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Leaving Linens, Letting Go, and Affirming Resurrection

Leaving Linens, Letting Go, and Affirming Resurrection

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 on Mark 16:1-8 and John 20:1-18

Mark 16:1-8
16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 10.28.52 AM4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But 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. 7But 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.” 8So 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.
John 20:1-18
20Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast recently on the theme of ideas that were generally believed to be true, but which the experts knowScreen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.34.42 AM are not true, and need to go away.  For example, a world class oncologist said we need to stop doing cancer research on mice.  She said, after all these years, it is now clear that mice and people are different, when it comes to cancer.

Another idea that has to die, which was sad for me because it was one of my favorite factoids.  It is the idea that  there is a dramatic difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain that correspond to left-handedness and right-handedness.

The studies on people with brain injuries that left their two brain hemispheres unable to communicate led to those old ideas that one half of the brain was more creative, the other half more analytical.  But fMRI brains scans, that scientists can do now, show that both halves of our brains are always at work.

Some old ideas need to be left behind, like the linens that wrapped up a body in an empty tomb.  We are going to be looking at some of those ideas today.  And that brings us to our gospel readings.

The Gospels and the Linens of Literalism

We just heard two of the four gospels’ versions of Easter morning.  My question is, what did the gospel writers think they were Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.38.48 AMdoing when they wrote their stories of Jesus?  Mark wrote first, within thirty or forty years after Jesus walked the earth.  John was at least another thirty years after that, or more, according to the overwhelming scholarly consensus.

Both of them wrote from faith communities and to faith communities.  In other words, the gospel stories were written by Christians and for Christians, or possibly for people interested in Christianity.

So, these stories were written by people and for people to whom Jesus was important.  In fact, to communities of people who would testify that Jesus was radically and profoundly important to them; even transformatively important.

Most of the Christians in these communities had never seen Jesus nor heard him in person.  And yet, Jesus was a present reality to them and for them.  Jesus was not dead to them.  They lived and proclaimed the resurrection which many of them  had come to know about first, in the words of the gospels.

Gospel Differences

But clearly Mark and John tell the Easter story differently.  There are trivial differences and substantial differences.  In Mark, Mary goes with two other women to the tomb and they see one man in white, presumably, an angel.  In John Mary goes alone and sees two beings, specifically identified as angels, sitting where Jesus’ body had been.

In Mark, the women are told to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has gone ahead of them into Galilee, where his ministry started.  But they are too fearful, so they tell no one anything, Mark tells us.  In John, however, the first thing Mary does is tell Peter and the other disciple that,  as she understands it,  someone has removed the body of Jesus.  The tomb has no body; only linen wrappings, which are oddly referred to three times.

In Mark, no one sees Jesus in risen form; Jesus never “appears” to anyone.  In John, Mary sees him but mistakes him for a gardener until he calls her name.  Then she apparently tries to do what Jesus must tell her not to do, namely cling to him.  He explains that he has not yet ascended to God the Father.  Again, Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the Lord.

We could go to Matthew and Luke and multiply the differences.  Suffice it to say that no two gospels share any of the appearance stories in common, as they do many of the other stories of Jesus.  Each gospel in which Jesus makes appearances after his death tells unique, separate accounts.

What to do?

I guess we have two choices here.  We can either think that the differences constitute contradictions that clearly show that some, or maybe all the gospels, are getting the facts wrong.

But the problem with that view is that scholars know that Mark came first and that Matthew and Luke both used a copy of Mark as the basis for their versions, adding to, deleting from and editing Mark’s version purposefully.  They were not making sloppy, mindless errors.  But they were telling the stories with glaring differences.

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Why?  What did the gospel writers think they were doing when they wrote their stories of Jesus?  Clearly writing literal history the way we hope our news reporters are trying to do, or the way serious historians do, was not their goal.

In fact the assumption that is so prevalent today, that the gospels were, in fact, attempting to write literal history, is simply a bad idea that needs to finally go away.  It just is not true, and it does not stand up even to five minutes of serious investigation.

There are a lot of bad ideas that need to die, and this literalism is one of them.  Literalism is like that pile of linens in the tomb.  It is an empty approach; it doesn’t have any life-breath in it.

Rather, as people who had been personally transformed by Jesus, the gospel writers  wanted to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that communicated how he continued to be a living reality for them.

The Stories as Parables

So they told their stories differently, purposefully.   We should look at them like we look at the parables of Jesus.  They are stories that present us with powerful truths that we need to hear as we, like those early Christians, try to work out what it means to be people of faith.

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Mark tells a story we need to hear.  It is a resurrection story.  But it is a complicated one.  As complicated as real life is.  It is a story of Christians who show up on Easter, but who are faced with the exact opposite of certainty.  Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome see nothing that constitutes proof of anything.

The stone is rolled away.  A man is sitting in an otherwise empty tomb.  He has a message for them, but there is no Jesus there to be seen.  They apparently are not convinced at all.  They turn and run in bewildered confusion.

What could Mark have meant by writing a gospel this way to a group of Christians who gather to tell and celebrate the stories of Jesus that continue to transform them?  Simply that it is hard, not easy.  There is no proof.  We do not have certainty.  The idea that the life of faith rests on certainty, that there is no room for doubt is another idea that needs to die and leave its linens behind in the tomb.

We did not read the Matthew story, but I love it for its realism about doubt.  In Matthew’s parable of the last resurrection appearance, where Jesus is on the mountain in Galilee with the disciples, he says,

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (28:17).  

John’s gospel has the famous “doubting Thomas” scenes.

The point is that Christians, like us, even we who have been transformed by Jesus, struggle with doubt.  It sometimes paralyzes us.  It shuts us up and makes us turn tail and run the opposite way.

Why do we doubt?  We experience pain and suffering.  We loose people we love – some of them despite loads of sincere prayer.  We know unfairness and even abuse.  We are not blind to injustice.  And to top it off, we live in the world that witnessed the Holocaust and the Killing Fields.  We practically watched the Srebrenica and Rwanda massacres on TV.  We see what ISIS does to fellow Christians and wonder if the faith we believe makes any sense in the real world or not?

What is even more depressing, is that God does not even seem to be able to stop people who call themselves Christians from practicing open, deliberate discrimination against gay people.  They want to pass laws that make their right to discriminate legally protected, as if they were not obligated to love their neighbors!

So we need a gospel like Mark’s in which a community of faith and Christian practices admits that there is no certainty, and there are many challenges.

And yet, we also need to hear again the hope-filled message the mysterious “man” in the empty tomb told the women: Jesus is waiting to meet you back home.  Go home.  You will find him there.  He will continue to meet you, not as a flesh and blood body, but as the Spirit of God, present to you, non-judgmentally, in all your fearful doubting.

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We need the gospel of John’s resurrection parables too.  We need to read that story of Mary and Jesus meeting face to face.  We need to be reminded that this life of faith is personal.  God calls our names.  In fact it is when we come to trust that we have been called, named by God, that God relates to us personally, that, like Mary hearing her name called, we can trust that God is present.

And we need John’s gospel to see Mary wishing to cling to a flesh and blood Jesus, so that we can hear him say that is not the way he will be held onto.  To hold onto Jesus, after Easter, is to hold on to everything his life meant, not to his flesh and blood.

Now, after Easter, to hold on to Jesus, is to affirm that the first way we encounter the risen Christ is by encountering the Spirit of Christ.  John calls the Spirit the Comforter, the Counselor.  In John we read of the mystical oneness that we can experience with the risen Christ in the Spirit.  Only in John, Jesus speaks mystically of us, dwelling in God, and God dwelling in us; of Jesus dwelling in God and in us, and of how all of us, Jesus and God and each other are somehow mystically one.

To encounter Christ in this way is to know that Jesus is a figure of the present, not just the past.  That the risen Christ is not limited to one particular place or time, like the physical Jesus was in the body, but that the Christ life is available everywhere and always.

That is why, in John’s parable, Jesus meets Mary in a Garden on the first day of the week and mistakes him for the Gardner: it is like the Creation story of the garden of Eden on the first day for the newly made humans.  Encountering the risen Christ spiritually is like a new creation, bursting with hope and new life.

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We only read two gospels, but in truth we need all of the parables of the risen Christ.  We need Mathew to tell us that Christ can be found now in “the least of these.”  Christ is found in the person who is hungry whom we share food with, in the thirsty who need clean water, in the homeless whom we house, and the prisoners who rot away in conditions we would never put our pets in.

Needing Luke’s Eucharistic Moment

We need Luke’s story of the risen Jesus who meets the depressed disciples on the road to Emmaus.   Jesus is there, where only two are gathered, but unknown by them until they gather at table where he is the host.  When the bread is broken, their eyes are opened and they get it; the risen Christ is encountered in community, at the sacral meal, when the bread is broken.  And of course then he disappears, because that is the point; he is seen in the breaking of the bread, not in a body.

So we too will come together around a table, where we will break bread and affirm the resurrection.  Christ will be present to us as we gather, the way families do, around a table for a common meal.

The meal we share will strengthen us to trust: to leave behind a lot of old linens, to let go of ideas that need to die. We can leave behind that old God of wrath and judgment that needed sacrificial blood; that idea needed to die.

We can leave behind the morally suspect idea that God used Jesus as his victim so he would not need to victimize us.  We can leave behind Greek, Roman and medieval concepts of hell and torturing demons, and a God who is okay with eternal conscious suffering.

Instead, we hear the risen Christ commission us to go in to all the world and to proclaim the good news, as Paul summed it up:

“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

This is what it means to affirm resurrection: that in Christ, God and the world are reconciled.  So now we live as the reconciled, full of a trust that God is present with us, the risen Christ is present, by the Spirit, guiding us, walking with us, and filling us with love and compassion for every person on this planet, indeed, for every life form on this planet, up to and including the planet itself.

Affirming resurrection means that we leave those linens behind, and embrace Christ as our living Lord,

“in whom we live and move and have our being.”

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