Practicing Resurrection: Forgiveness – John 20.19-31

April 27, 2014 – 2nd Sunday of Easter

Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, we heard the first half of John chapter 20. This morning we hear the second half of John chapter 20. Part of it takes place on the evening of the day when Mary Magdalene and the other disciples discover the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed a few days earlier is unexpectedly empty. And part of it takes place a week later.

READ John 20.19-31

After v. 29: I don’t think that’s criticism of Thomas. I think that’s the writer of John explaining his context: the late first century church that has heard the stories of Jesus from those who actually knew him and now they struggle to know how to go on without Jesus being with them as he was after the resurrection. //

So the writer of this gospel says to the people for whom Jesus is not there physically: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Unlike our Easter celebration last Sunday, the first Easter observance is not one of joy and exuberance. It is unexpected and confusing and by evening the disciples are afraid. Not just the eleven but the faith community that followed Jesus.[1] They are afraid of the religious authorities who have announced that anyone who acknowledged Jesus to be the Christ–the Messiah–would be expelled from the synagogue. (9.22) You might remember hearing that in the story of the man born blind back in chapter 9.

Jesus appears in the room even though the doors are locked and says, “Peace be with you.” It’s an ordinary greeting but now it has added meaning. Back in chapter 14, Jesus promised the disciples his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” he said. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” Jesus said to them (14.27) when he was preparing them for his departure. And now as promised he gives them peace.

Then he commissioned the gathered disciples for their ministry. “As God has sent me, so I send you.” I want to say, “Jesus, do you really know what you are doing??” All through John’s gospel, the writer makes clear that God has given all things to Jesus and that everything that Jesus does is what God does. Jesus came from God to do the will and work of God and to make God known to the world. Now Jesus sends the community of disciples to continue the work God sent Jesus to do. That’s a lot of responsibility! And I have a bad feeling about how it’s going to go for the disciples. I don’t think they’re going to do it very well. But back in chapter 14 when Jesus is talking with them about what it will be like when he leaves them, he says, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (14.12) And here he is trusting them to do just that.

Commissioning this band of disciples, Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit (this is Pentecost in John’s gospel)–the community of disciples will not be doing the work of God on their own–they will do it through the power of the Holy Spirit. And then Jesus gives them the ministry of forgiveness.

Now this statement of Jesus “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” has been used in crazy ways to prop up church leaders throughout history as being the only ones who can absolve people of their sins.

I want to say this commission from God to forgive sin is the work of all of us–every single member of the community of followers of Jesus–but not because we have some greater power to grant (or withhold) forgiveness. You and I are called to live a life of forgiveness because that’s part of how we love one another as Jesus loves us. Do you remember the conversation of Jesus with the disciples when he washes their feet? “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13.24). And forgiveness is an essential part of love.

This sermon is titled “Practicing Resurrection.” Too often we think everything hinges on belief. That we have to believe certain things as followers of Jesus. But believing is not the whole deal. In fact, sometimes it is not even the most important part.

I read an article recently by a guy named Jon Sweeney who wrote about growing up in “the traditional Protestant way”—a tradition many of us grew up in—which taught us to believe that “believing, all by itself, was transformative.” That believing the right thoughts–and probably saying them out loud in confirmation class or at some other point in our lives–would save us.[2] Now, as Jon Sweeney writes about his life, instead of putting all the emphasis on his mind believing certain propositions, he looks more at his life and how his religious tradition shapes him. He’s a practicing Catholic and says, “Even when I can’t explain precisely why, I kneel as I enter and leave church.”[3] “If I want to understand someone’s religious life, I don’t ask them what they believe [I ask them] what they do.”[4]

That’s what seems to matter about resurrection. Is it something we believe–and then what it is we’re supposed to believe–or is it something that transforms our lives and changes us? Even if we can’t exactly explain how or why. That’s not to say don’t think about things or that thinking doesn’t matter. One of the things I like about being Presbyterian is we have a long history of cultivating the life of the mind. But that’s not the whole story.

Because if it all stays up in our heads, who cares? If it doesn’t transform our lives, what’s the point?

The last line of one of the hymns we sang last Sunday has stayed with me this week. We sang, “Christ is risen, Christ is present / making us what he has been: / evidence of transformation / in which God is known and seen.”[5]

So we practice resurrection. We practice living in the way of the One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” How do we practice? One writer says, “By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love…The faith community’s mission, therefore, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong,” handing out forgiveness depending on who’s worthy of it, “but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus.”[6] That’s how we practice resurrection.

Now that sounds great as long as love is a happy feeling and no one steps on your toes in your happy parade. But Jesus’ charge to us is to forgive–that’s how we bear witness to the love of God in Jesus. By forgiving. Which is fine until it is you who gets hurt, wronged, betrayed, lied to, mistreated, abused, slandered or maligned. You get what I’m saying?

Forgiveness. It is one of the hardest things we are called upon to do. And it is a practice of resurrection. A sign of abundant life. We don’t do it on our own power. God gives us the Holy Spirit so we might be able to forgiven. And it still isn’t easy.

Let me say that forgiveness is not about saying harm you have suffered doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay” to someone who has betrayed you. Forgiveness is not saving someone who has wronged you from experiencing the consequences of their actions. Forgiveness is also not something that someone else can make you do. It cannot be coerced. Forgiveness is not a panacea. It is not a magic bullet.

Forgiveness can take a long time.

Forgiveness is giving life another chance and forgiveness can save your life.

Forgiveness is letting go. Letting go of the anger, the depression, the hopelessness eating you from the inside. You may have heard me quote author Anne Lamott before who says, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rats to die.”

Forgiveness can be between two people. Forgiveness can be between communities or nations.

Twenty years ago 500,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi and Hutu Rwandans were murdered by fellow Hutu Rwandans. Approximately 20% of the Rwandan population was murdered and 70% of the Tutsi living in Rwanda.[7] These days, Rwandans are trying to come to terms with their communal trauma. Forgiveness and collective responsibility as well as justice for those who participated in the massacre are part of how the people of Rwanda are healing.

Their journey to forgiveness and reconciliation comes, in part, from the example of the people of South Africa who followed the brutal legacy of apartheid with concerted work not to simply follow one repressive regime with the next one.

“Forgiveness is not just personally rewarding” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is what “allowed South Africans to imagine a new beginning–one based on honesty, peace, and compassion…For our nation to heal and become a more human place, we had to embrace our enemies as well as our friends. The same is true the world over. True enduring peace–between countries, within a country, within a community, within a family–requires real reconciliation between former enemies and even between loved ones who have struggled with one another.”[8]

Sometimes forgiveness does not involve the person who has wronged you. Maybe they have died or will never admit their part in hurting you or is a person with whom there is no possibility of reconciliation. Still you can extend forgiveness–even if the other person never knows it or will never accept it–forgiveness frees you to let go of the pain. We don’t do this because we are strong enough. We do it because Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.

Jesus teaches us that forgiveness is an essential expression of love. It is not easy. But it is necessary. We cannot love without forgiveness and it is the first thing Jesus commissions his followers to carry on about his work. Forgive.

That is the hard work–but also the joy–of imagining a new beginning; of giving life another chance; of practicing resurrection.

* * *

[1] Gail O’Day, p846.
[2] Jon M. Sweeney, “What’s in a religious identity? Being and doing.” Christian Century, November 13, 2013, p31.
[3] Ibid., p32.
[4] Ibid., p31.
[5] “Christ is Risen” text by John L. Bell and Graham Maule, (c) WGRG, Iona community, 1988.
[6] O’Day, p848.
[7]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rwandan_Genocide, accessed April 26, 2014.
[8]http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/truth_and_reconciliation, accessed April 26, 2014.

Do You Know What I Have Done For You? – John 13.1-35

April 17, 2014 – Maundy Thursday

A reminder that in John’s gospel, Jesus calls God “Father.” He doesn’t use it as a title of patriarchal domination. In the crafting of John’s gospel, “Father” highlights “the theological possibilities of intimacy and love that rest at the heart of God.”[1] It’s the relationship between a beloved child and a beloved parent. Intimacy and love between God and Jesus and the disciples is at the heart of tonight’s gospel reading. So I invite you to hear this name for God as it is intended: a term of intimacy and love.

READ John 13.1-35

Do you know / what I have done for you? Jesus asks.

In John’s gospel, Jesus knows a lot.   Jesus knew that his hour had come. Jesus knew that God had given all things into his hands. Jesus knew who would betray him.

John has the highest Christology of the four gospels. That is, in John, it is clear that Jesus comes from God and is with God from the very beginning of time. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” begins John’s gospel and that Word became flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The other three gospels begin with the story of Jesus of Nazareth and move toward the end of the story to the mystery of the incarnation and Christ’s divinity.

But in John’s gospel, Jesus “was fully aware of his origin in glory…; he was also aware that he was now returning to that eternal glory in God’s presence; and he was further aware that while on earth, all authority from God was his.”

In other words, as teacher and preacher Fred Craddock says, the writer of John’s gospel “turns up the lights to their brightest, all focused on Jesus in the sweeping affirmation: from God, to God, possessing all knowledge and power. In that dazzling moment what will [Jesus] say? Will he command his followers to bow down in worship before him? What will he do? Will he ascend in a cloud out of their sight”[2] escaping the trouble ahead? No. John tells us. He got up from the table, replaced his robe with a towel, poured water in a basin, washed the disciples’ feet and dried them with the towel around his waist.

The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church at Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross. [Phil 2.6-8]

Do you know what I have done for you? Jesus asks.

What he has done unnerves Peter. (Probably the rest of the disciples too–although Peter is the disciple who gets to carry the burden of not understanding and protesting what Jesus does.)

Their Teacher should not be stooping down at their feet doing the task of the servant of the house. “You will never wash my feet” Peter says. In other words, “Get up, Jesus! What you are doing demeans you. This is not proper for you to do.”

“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” Jesus responds. “Then wash everything” Peter cries. “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand” Jesus says.

Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is not about being clean. It’s “about entering into relationship with Jesus by receiving his gesture of [love.]”[3] “By washing his disciples’ feet” says John scholar, Gail O’Day, “Jesus enters into an intimate relationship with the disciples that mirrors the intimacy of his relationship with God[: the beloved parent and the beloved child]. It is an intimacy that [unnerves] Peter, because it overturns all his…assumptions [about] roles and propriety. Yet it is only by accepting Jesus in the surprising role of …intimate servant that one receives the love of God incarnate…[Jesus] asks that [the disciples] enter into relationship with him on his terms, that they allow their relationship with him to be defined by God’s love and God’s love alone. They are to allow Jesus to lead them in love, much like the image of the good shepherd [who leads the sheep]. The foot washing removes the possibility of distance between Jesus and his followers, and brings them face to face with the love of God for them. Peter’s initial responses and the mention of Judas’ betrayal make clear that accepting this gesture of love…is indeed a challenge for those who follow Jesus.”[4] Not just then, but even now.

Do you know what I have done for you? Jesus asks.

I once heard a spiritual director suggest to a directee, “Invite God to be with you in whatever way God wants to be with you.” It’s that last phrase that gets us: “in whatever way God wants to be with you.” Peter wants Jesus to be with him in the way he expects and is used to: where teachers do not kneel on the ground and wash the feet of their students. Like most of us, Peter wants Jesus to be with him in the way he wants Jesus to be with him: in predictable, ordered, understandable ways. No curve balls, no surprises. If the truth were known, we might really prefer re-arranging the image of shepherd and sheep. How many of us would prefer to be the shepherd and have Jesus be the sheep close at our side instead of the other way around?

Do you know what I have done for you? Jesus asks us.

Author Kathleen Norris tells about talking with a monk friend. She confessed she had a hard time figuring out Jesus, especially the notion of incarnation. The monk reassured her, “Oh, most of us feel that way at one time or another. Jesus is the hardest part of the religion to grasp.”[5]

Do you know what I have done for you?

Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment. “Love one another as I have loved you.” But that’s not really new. The commandment to love is at the heart of the Hebrew scripture that Jesus would have known by heart. But perhaps the part “as I have loved you” is new. In John’s gospel, what Jesus does, is what God does. Back in John 3.16 we heard, “God so loved the world, that God gave the beloved Son.” The love Jesus offers to the disciples is the love God offers the world. Love that is not so much a feeling but a way of being in the world and with one another.

Do you know what I have done for you?

“The ‘saving’ work of Christ, what Jesus has done and does for us always, is not just about the cross. It is about the birth and the baptism, the teaching and the healing, the body and the blood, the basin and the towel, the life and the death”[6] and the resurrection.

When Jesus “got up” from the table–that word is literally “arose”–the same word that is used to describe Jesus’ resurrection. Pastor Bill Brosend says, “This getting up from the table, taking basin and towel, was not an act of weakness, but an act of powerful and empowering service, on the night of the betrayal [no less], nothing less than a foretaste of the resurrection….[even] as the bread and wine are a taste of heaven.”[7]

The posture of serving is not just to serve others but to be brought closer together in love. “To love one another as Jesus loves us is to live a life thoroughly shaped by a love that…opens up the possibility of relationship with God and Jesus and community with one another, but it is not an easy”[8] life.

* * *

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” The New Interpreters Bible, Vol IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 496.
[2] Fred B. Craddock, John, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 101.
[3] O’Day, 724.
[4] Ibid., 727.
[5] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace – A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 162.
[6] William F. Brosend, “John 13.1-17, 31b-35 Pastoral,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 274.
[7] Ibid., 276.
[8] O’Day, 734.

Practicing Resurrection – John 11.1-53

April 6, 2014 – 5th Sunday in Lent

We hear a story from John again this morning. A reminder that in John’s gospel, Jesus calls God “Father” more than any of the other gospels. And in this gospel, Jesus’ use of “Father” is not a title of patriarchal domination but a name that John scholar Gail O’Day says the writer of John’s gospel uses “to highlight the theological possibilities of intimacy and love that rest at the heart of God.”[1] So I invite you to hear this name for God as a term of intimacy and love.

Reading: John 11.1-53

Once more in John’s gospel we have a story where meaning resonates at multiple levels and the people Jesus is talking to think he’s talking about one reality while he’s talking about another reality.

Jesus speaks to his disciples about Lazarus who has “fallen asleep”–that’s the literal meaning of the word but it is also a word used frequently as a euphemism for death. Jesus says he will go to “awaken” Lazarus. The disciples are confused why Jesus is going to wake Lazarus up from sleep. Unlike in many of the other stories, Jesus quickly clears up the confusion. “Lazarus is dead.”

Arriving at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. Martha assumes Jesus is talking about a future resurrection of the dead which some sects of Judaism believed. Martha affirms that she believes this will be true for her brother. At some future point in time, God will raise those who have died to eternal life.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about.

“I am the resurrection and the life” he says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Most of the time when we hear about resurrection and eternal life, we also think of something in the future. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He doesn’t say “There will be a resurrection and eternal life.” He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

So what does that mean?

Gail O’Day says it means Jesus has something to do with the believer’s death and the believer’s life—our death and our life.

Those who believe (or “trust” is another way to translate that word) in Jesus and die, yet live. Those who live and believe (or trust) in Jesus, never die.

On the face of it, that seems crazy. We know that people, even people who trust in Jesus, do die. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead in this story, will die again. But here’s what it means: “For Jesus to be the resurrection means that physical death has no power over [us; our] future is determined by [our] faith in Jesus, not by [our] death. For Jesus to be the life means that [our] present is also determined by Jesus’ power for life, experienced as the gift of eternal life.”[2] Another way to say it is, “In life and in death, we belong to God.”[3]

First, life. Eternal life is not something waiting in the future. Eternal life is a life lived now “in the unending presence of God.” To have eternal life is to live life, as author Sara Miles says it, “liberated from human rules about who belongs and who has power and who deserves to be part of a family.”[4] “To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God.”[5] It is to live life as God intends it–here and now. It’s a revolution of values and priorities, a reorienting of everything in our life to be rightly oriented to God and to one another.

Wendell Berry in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” writes of the values of eternal life.

“…every day do something

that won’t compute. Love [God].

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what [humans

have] not encountered [we] have not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.[6]

 

Now the part about death. In life and in death we belong to God. This story in John is not just about Lazarus who has died. It is even more so about Jesus who will die. This story is the precipitation for the religious leaders who now seek Jesus’ death. It is about Jesus who freely walks into the grave and calls us to life. But in between the walking in and the calling out, Jesus dies. A real death.

Most of us don’t really want to talk about death. Our own or anyone else’s. Author Sara Miles who was previously a war reporter, writes, “Death and the fear of death, continue to drive so much on earth. They lie under all human violence, drive our sad struggles for domination, allow the manipulations of religion and empire to thrive. As a war reporter, surrounded by terror,” she writes, “I’d experienced the power death had to make me betray or refuse to help others. I’d seen people who were, in their souls, no more than walking dead: they were completely ruled by fear of the grave.” And yet, she writes, “I witnessed amazing sights…whenever a person left the fear of death behind, and rejected the temptations of power through violence…These people had a totally different kind of power, one which comes from believing that death doesn’t have the final word.”[7]

“For Jesus to be the resurrection means that physical death has no power over [us]; [our] future is determined by [our] faith in Jesus, not by [our] death.”[8] That doesn’t mean we’re not realistic about death. We are. We know that we will die and we know that people we love will die (and have already died). But we are not held captive by fear of death. Because we know we belong to God in both our living and in our dying. Nothing, in life or in death, will be able to separate us from the love of God. And so we are free to live our lives fully. Free to receive the abundant life that Jesus offers because we are not afraid.

There’s a prayer from the funeral liturgy that says, “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.”[9]

Trusting in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, we are raised into a new way of seeing and being and living.

Here is Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer continuing his manifesto:

Listen to carrion [carrion is what is dead or decaying]–put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go.

Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.”[10]

 

Practice resurrection.

One of the practices of resurrection is gathering at this table where we remember that in life and in death we belong to God. That nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Neither depression, nor aging, nor cancer, nor AIDS, nor heart disease, neither our weariness of soul or of spirit, neither our lack of faith, nor our greatest fear, none of it need keep us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”[11]

At this table, we are welcomed by the One whose arms are open to us and who says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”

* * *

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” The New Interpreters Bible, Vol IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 496.
[2] Ibid., p689.
[3] Opening line of the PC(USA) “Brief Statement of Faith.”
[4] Sara Miles, Jesus Freak – feeding, healing, raising the dead, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 152.
[5] O’Day, p552.
[6] Wendell Berry “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” Collected Poems 1957-1982, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 151.
[7] Miles, 125-126.
[8] O’Day, 689.
[9] Book of Common Worship, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 916.
[10] Berry, 151-152.
[11] Jon Walton, “If You Had Been Here” sermon preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church, November 5, 2000.