Sunday, April 18, 2021

At the Beautiful Gate

April 18, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Acts 3:1-19; Luke 24:36b-48[1]

Astonishing. Surprising. Certainly unexpected. The lame man who always lay begging at the Beautiful Gate has been healed. There he was walking and leaping and praising God. How has this happened? Who did this? “While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.”[2] These two?

As the word spread, they gathered around Peter and John. What were they looking for? An explanation of what had happened? A powerful being with healing power? Healing for themselves, perhaps? Maybe just to see what all the fuss was about. For whatever reason, they came, lured by the spectacle, the surprising healing, the happening. And what did they find? Peter, giving a sermon.

Yes, here is a miracle, Peter seems to say. The health of this man has been restored. But you seem to think that we are the ones who did this. “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”[3]

People are hungry for miracle-workers. We have a hunger for powerful people, those who seem to have tapped into the healing power of the universe, who might heal us, or give us power. We gather to see the faith healer in the revival tent or the miracle worker on TV who zaps the feeble woman with the power of JEE-ZUS and up she leaps. We flock to the self-help guru, the doctor with the miracle diet, the speaker who tells of the secret power of positive thinking. We believe that they have the answers, the magic touch, the wisdom or technique that will fix what is broken in our lives.

You’ve got it all wrong, declares Peter. It wasn’t John or me, it wasn’t our power or piety. The healing came from “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors [who] has glorified his servant Jesus.”[4] God is the healer. The name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the pathway. We are but faithful servants. We are no more powerful than any of you. “The faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.”

We know a bit more about Peter that his audience did that day in the portico. We know that this was one of the closest friends of Jesus, the rock on which the church would be built. We also know that Peter denied Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion. Peter knew all about rejection. Peter also knew the power of rulers to oppress, how the Romans handled threats to their power. Peter knew that the Empire of Rome allowed for no king but Caesar, and demanded worship of Caesar as divine.

As modern readers of this text, we could easily misunderstand the challenge that Peter offers to his fellow Jews. Christians through the centuries have forgotten that the Jesus movement was originally a Jewish movement, and have used these words by Peter, and other writings in the New Testament, as justification for the persecution and murder of Jews. Far too many have read the words “you handed over,” “you rejected,” “you killed,” as invectives justifying anti-Semitism. Far too many have forgotten that Peter and all the other disciples, and Jesus himself, were Jews. Far too few put themselves in the place of those who listened to Peter that day.

Peter was not preaching God’s vengeance, or a decree of God’s punishment. The people of Israel worshiped, and worship still, the same God worshiped by Christians. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Jesus, Mary, and Peter. The God of life, the power of Creation, is the God that Jesus embodied, the incarnation of the God of life among us. For Peter, and for us, the message is forgiveness, healing, salvation from sin and new life. For us, we must remember that the God who loves us never stopped loving the Jewish people, and that we are called along our path as they are called along theirs.

When we return to the Beautiful Gate, what we find is one who has been healed. Rather than look for who to blame for this healing, or ask how this could be done, might we instead celebrate that salvation has come, life has been restored, and the God of life lives among us? What Peter begins to teach them is that ours is a resurrection God, the living God who brings life, healing, and salvation to an Easter world. In an Easter world, the healing, forgiving, and loving power of God is everywhere, as pervasive as sunshine and rain.

When we see signs of God’s work in the world, when health is restored, relationships mended, the hungry are fed, and the poor hear good news, we may be astonished. We should celebrate and be glad that the living God is among us, that the Author of Life continues to breathe life into the world.

We should also recognize that we are called to do more than celebrate. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”[5] Peter’s sermon calls us to see not only the shiny world of happy people, but the reality of a world where healing, forgiveness, and love are sorely needed. Peter’s call to repentance is a call to recognize that there is still healing to be done, that our connection to God wears out and needs mending from time to time. Peter’s reminder that Christ was crucified is a challenge to not repeat the terrible past, but turn and return to God. Let us renew our faith in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, receive strength, healing, and forgiveness, and be witnesses to a beautiful God in a beautiful world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Acts 3:11.

[3] Acts 3:12.

[4] Acts 3:13.

[5] Acts 3:19.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Show Me the Scars

April 11, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

1 John 1:1-4; John 20:19-31[1]

Have you ever been not believed? “No, really. I saw it. It was right there!” It’s even worse when the doubt is delivered in a condescending tone. “Yeah? Suuure. Oh, I believe you.” When the other disciples told Thomas “We have seen the Lord,” they must have been hurt when he said, “Unless I see… I will not believe.” This was one of their own brothers, one who had lived and travelled and experienced the living Jesus right along with them. Why wouldn’t he believe them?

It is easy for us to impose our twenty-first century scientific worldview on the situation and defend Thomas. After all, we are trained to be skeptical, to test and verify what we hear. Don’t trust anything you read on the internet, right? Thomas is suspicious. He didn’t experience it himself, so he needs to see in order to believe. That’s understandable. How can he know it is really Jesus if he doesn’t see the wounds?

Sometimes wounds are a tool of conveying identity or experience. Scars have a tale to tell – “I’ve been there.” We can learn a lot from people who carry the scars of their experiences. Want to know what combat is really like? Ask a wounded veteran. Want to know what prison is like? Talk with an ex-con. Want to know what to expect from your upcoming surgery? Ask your neighbor who has been through it. “We’re you there when they crucified my Lord?” Show me the scars, Jesus, and I’ll know it’s really you.

When I was a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, we had a youth program called DEPTH. Yes, we brought young people to the seminary for a weekend event. The word was an acronym. The “P” stood for “Partner”; an event where we would bring two different youth groups together for a weekend of learning and service together. The two groups would often be from different contexts – one suburban, Caucasian, the other urban and African-American or Latino.

One weekend in particular we invited guest speakers, one of whom was a former gang member and CeaseFire[2] outreach worker. CeaseFire was an anti-violence program which would attempt to mitigate conflict on the street before it turned violent. These people were often former gang members, who used their street credibility as an inroad to show community members better ways of communicating with each other and how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

When our guest spoke about his experiences, and why he had joined the gang, the room grew silent. He spoke about a deep need for belonging, to be part of something bigger than himself, and to be important and respected in a world where the color of his skin, his accent, and the neighborhood he was from labeled him as less than others. He had lived that life, nearly died from it, and finally escaped from it. As he spoke, you knew that TRUTH was being spoken. He had the scars to prove it. The kids in the room who had been showing off and acting tough were now hanging on his every word, and we had to start dinner an hour late.

This man, now in his thirties, had learned conflict-resolution skills, understood the legal and penal system from the inside, and had a way of helping kids see the inherent value in themselves. Despite all the strikes against him, despite all the negativity, racism, and fear directed at him, he had found a way to respect himself, and respect others, to value life more than money, peace more than power, love more than hatred. “I was a gangster;” he said, “now, I’m a person.”

Must we see in order to believe? Is seeing truly believing? Are we prisoners of our senses, distrusting and rejecting whatever we cannot see, touch, taste, smell, or hear? Thomas had seen. He was there when Jesus gave sight to the blind, fed the five-thousand, and healed the lepers; and, significantly, so had the disciples who bring him the news of the resurrection. Does he not trust even his friends? They have lived through the same earth-shattering experience of the arrest and crucifixion of their master, and yet Thomas cannot bring himself to trust in their word. And this is where the community of believers is threatened from the very start.

Has something happened between Thomas and the other disciples? There is no mention of a falling-out in the Gospels. But for some reason, Thomas doubts them. This is strange for a community built on love and trust. Thomas challenges the credibility of the other disciples. Maybe it was the betrayal by Judas that had shaken his faith in his friends.

Now, you won’t trust someone you think is a liar or a hypocrite. This may be part of our current dilemma in politics and the news media. We’re pretty sure the politicians and talk-show hosts are all liars and hypocrites, or at least the other side is, and so we trust no one who doesn’t reinforce our pre-conceived ideas. Sometimes we listen to what sounds good so much that we forget that we don’t know these people or their true motivations. We might fall into the trap of thinking that we can trust people whose job isn’t to tell us the truth as much as it is to tell us what we want to hear.

But that wasn’t the dilemma for Thomas. These were fellow disciples; the people Thomas probably knew better than anyone else. Did he think they were liars or hypocrites? Was their word not good enough for him? What more proof did he need?

It may be that there is no solid data, no verifiable proof or empirical evidence that will convince us to believe something we’ve always denied. Sometimes it’s easier to live with a lie; the truth can be too painful, especially if it reveals our sins and shortcomings, our failures and foolishness. Thomas might have thought, if Jesus is really alive, then I was wrong to flee, to abandon him, to give up. Even worse, he’ll know what I’ve done.

We don’t get to see the scars or touch the wounds. And yet, if we are to move from death to life, we must have some faith. There is a point when we must stop distrusting one another simply because we don’t like what we hear. We must find a way to trust the motivations of the ones who love us, who know us best, and who want us to grow toward health and wholeness.

It is possible to believe in God, to believe in the risen Christ, and to carry on the work of the Church without proof. Even if our own faith is shaky, even if we don’t have the same conviction as our fellow beloved disciples, we can try to trust in them. If the Church is a community based on love and trust, then we really do have to trust, and love, one another. Especially when we hear the impossible, “We have seen the Lord.”

God, we find ourselves locked away, unable to love and trust. Come into our presence. Speak your words of life into our hearts. Say to us once again, “Do not doubt but believe.” Help us to know the risen Christ. Show us his face reflected in those around us. May we, who have not seen, come to believe and be blessed.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] CeaseFire was an anti-violence program and initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention aimed at reducing street violence by using outreach workers to interrupt potentially violent situations. It ended in 2015.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Words Can Never Capture It

April 4, 2021 – Easter Sunday
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8[1]

If there is one event that is crucial to the Christian faith, it is the Resurrection of Jesus. Yet the four texts which tell the story do not agree on the details. Fear not, however, for the truth is much greater than the words that tell the tale.

The four Gospels were each composed at a different time and place. Mark was written first, probably in the late 60s, the zero-sixties, that is. Luke and Matthew were written within a year or two of each other near the end of the first century. Each of them contains material from Mark’s Gospel and a second common source called the Q-source, yet each has original material not found elsewhere. John was written last, and in a very different style.

If we were to read these stories, one after the other, we would easily notice the differences. Who went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week? Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke tells us it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who had come with Jesus from Galilee. He also tells us that Peter took a look in the empty tomb as well. Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. And John simply says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark. Her report sent Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, racing for the tomb to look inside.

Whom did the women meet at the tomb? Mark says the herald of the resurrection was a young man, dressed in a white robe. Luke says it was two men in dazzling clothes. Matthew tells of a great earthquake and an angel of the Lord whose appearance was like lightning and whose clothing was white as snow. And, on the way to tell the disciples, the women were greeted by Jesus himself! And John has no one waiting at the tomb at first. Only after Simon Peter and the other disciple have come and gone does Mary Magdalene see two angels in white sitting in the tomb, and Jesus, whom she mistook for a gardener.

Where did the risen Christ appear to the disciples? Mark does not record an appearance, but says only that he has gone ahead to Galilee. In Luke, Jesus first appears on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, though Cleopas and Simon don’t recognize him until he breaks the bread and gives it to them. Then, back in Jerusalem, he appears to all the disciples. He leads them to Bethany, where he ascends into heaven. Matthew has Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they run to tell the disciples. Then the eleven gather to worship Jesus on a mountain in Galilee. In John, Mary Magdalene finds him standing near the tomb. That evening he appears to the disciples in a house, presumably in Jerusalem, and again a week later when the doubting Thomas sees him and believes. Finally, Jesus shows himself again by the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee.

Now, I haven’t told you all of these things in order to shake your faith or to make you doubt the resurrection. Indeed, there is no question that something happened that morning which had incredible power. As Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong writes, “Its power was sufficient to reconstitute a scattered and demoralized band of disciples. Its reality was profound enough to turn a denying Peter into a witnessing and martyred Peter, and to turn disciples who fled for their lives into heroes willing to die for their Lord.”[2] I want you to consider that the words we read can only point to the experience, but can never capture it.

The words came later. A life-altering experience takes time to process. Mark tells us that the women said nothing to anyone, at least at first. How can you put such an epiphany into human speech? Maybe that’s why the first writings about Jesus came many years later. Imagine trying to put into words the most amazing experience of your life, all that led up to it, and all that it means and might mean.

Bishop Spong writes that the words used to describe the resurrection are inadequate. “The power of Easter is both real and eternal, but the words used by human beings to narrate truth can themselves only point to that truth. They can never capture it.”[3] Words, however imperfect, are our best means of sharing the truth of the resurrection, “a truth that is never captured in mere words but a truth that is real, a truth that when experienced erupts within us in expanding ways, calling us simultaneously, deeper and deeper into life and, not coincidentally, deeper and deeper into God.”[4]

And so, we read and hear the scriptures, however limited and imperfect, however distant from us in time and culture, because they point to Easter. The words written in the Gospels are the gateway though which we enter the experience of Mary and Peter and all the others, the experience of knowing God in the life of a human being, the experience of burying Jesus and seeing him alive again, the experience that lies at the heart of Christian faith and life.

What do the words tell us? Early in the morning, the women went to the tomb. The stone had been rolled back. Mary stood weeping. Someone spoke. Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised. The words of the women seemed an idle tale, yet Mary was firm, “I have seen the Lord.”[5] Thomas doubted, but saw, and believed, “My Lord and my God!”[6]

As the words were found and spoken, as the story began to be told, the power of that moment was revealed in the transformation of those who had witnessed the resurrected Christ. A small group of disciples, whose leader was brutally executed as a rebel bandit, who betrayed, denied, and fled, were convinced that they had seen Jesus, not as a ghost, but alive, became courageous, proclaimed Jesus as Lord in the face of imprisonment and death, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations. Saul, the zealot famous for persecuting the followers, received the grace of God, and became Paul the greatest evangelist. What happened on Easter is more than any words could hope to express. “Peace be with you.”[7] “Receive the Holy Spirit.”[8] “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[9]  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 223.

[3] Ibid, p. 225.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John 20:18.

[6] John 20:28.

[7] John 20:19.

[8] John 20:22.

[9] Matthew 28:20.