“Baptism: Get Busy Dying” – Romans 6:1-14

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife.  He winds up in prison with a lengthy life sentence of hard time.  While in this prison, he acquires a friend named “Red.”  Red and Andy are sitting in the yard one day when Andy begins to dream about being on the outside of the penitentiary.  Red doesn’t think it’s a good idea to dream when Mexico is “…all the way down there and you’re in here.  That’s the way it is.”  Andy thinks for a moment, his hopes of escape being slowly crushed.  He gazes at Red and says, “Yeah, right.  That’s the way it is.  I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.  Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Andy’s words ring true in our modern ears.  “Get busy living or get busy dying.”  In his mind, it’s a simple choice and one that we all must make.  If you are trapped and imprisoned by life’s circumstances, you have the power to move yourself out of that situation.  Put in the work and the effort or give up and give in.  If you’re not willing to change your life, then you’re as good as dead already.  You are the captain of your own destiny, over your own life, even over your own death.  “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Of course, this message is not a new message.  It is one that we constantly hear in our culture.  The mantra of self-help books and television shows constantly revolve around the idea of the power of positive thinking.  If we are imprisoned by our situation, then we need only change our thinking or actions.  Whatever it might be, we are the commanders of our destiny.  This is the gospel according to the world whose prophets are Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Joel Osteen.  It is a world where “I” am ultimately god.

The problem with this message of self-help and positive thinking is that we are broken, sinful creatures.  We are creatures that have become blind to that which is Good, deaf to that which is holy, and lame in our efforts to put these things into practice.  Even with our best intentions, we often create more havoc, chaos, brokenness, and destruction – for ourselves and for others.

Have you ever asked a small child to clean up their mess?  Ask a two-year-old child to clean chocolate pudding off of their face, hands, and eating space.  You will typically find that children are unusually adept at creating a bigger mess than when they first began.  Their efforts at cleaning appear more akin to the Tasmanian Devil’s skills at creating a disaster zone.

In our own efforts to wash ourselves of sin and to mend our brokenness, we find ourselves like children making a bigger mess than when we began.  “Get busy living or get busy dying” seems to leave us with only one possible option.  If the wages of sin is death, then that seems to be the only path left open to us.  It is the path that leads to destruction.

So, now, here we stand… or, perhaps, here we are huddled under the burden of sin, haunted by Death.  Here we sit in the mucky mess we have created, unable to clean ourselves, unable to wash ourselves pure.  Sin, like heavy shackles, imprisons us – a confinement from which we cannot escape.  Even Christians are found saying, “I’m not perfect; I’m only human.”  In other words, sin has mastery over my life and there’s nothing I can do about it – “That’s just the way it is.”

If “that’s just the way it is,” then the Apostle Paul has a lot of explaining to do.  He posits a question to the community of believers in Rome: “What then are we to say?  Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1).  Paul assumes that there is indeed an alternative to sin’s dominion, an alternative route to the death-path we were steadily plodding but unable to exit.  Isn’t sin, death, brokenness, and destruction the inevitable outcome of our lives?  Paul’s response is simple, yet profound: “By no means!  How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom. 6:2).  Now, we have a problem.  Sin seems to have mastery over us, yet Paul expects that we are no longer enslaved to that master.

Let’s reflect on the larger story of God, especially focusing in on the work of the Spirit upon water.  The watery chaos before Creation is not habitable, not amenable to life.  The Spirit of God hovers over the waters and begins to separate the waters, creating space in the midst of those water, where life can be brought forth, sustained, and blessed.  The Spirit brought life forth from the waters.

Israel ached under the bondage of Egypt’s cruel slavery.  Yet, God delivered them from Pharaoh and his lands.  However, no sooner had Pharaoh let them go, he regretted it and pursued them to the sea.  The Spirit, the wind of God, opened the waters so that dry ground appeared and Israel walked across.  Pharaoh’s army was drowned under the collapsing waters.  The passage through the waters were a passage from death to newness of life, from Egyptian tyranny to Exodus freedom.  The Spirit made a new people, set apart for God, through the waters of the sea.

The Spirit alighted upon the waters of Mary’s womb, barren because she had known no man, yet filled with life by the Spirit.  From these barren waters, God brought forth Jesus the God-Man.

The Spirit also descended upon Jesus as he arose from the waters of John’s baptism of repentance.  The Spirit rested upon Jesus as a sign and seal of the Father’s great love for the Son and then drove the Son into the wilderness where he was tested.

God, by the work of the Spirit, works through the ordinary materials of life, like water, to bring about God’s covenant purposes for all of Creation.  Water is ordered from chaos; water marks the transition and transformation from enslavement to freedom; water carries and nourishes the life of God in the womb, and the waters of baptism set apart Christ, “the Anointed One,” as the New Israel and the New Adam through whom sin and death would be defeated – all by the gift of the Spirit.

Eugene Rogers, Jr. describes the importance of this reality: “…the Spirit hovers over the waters of the Jordan as she hovered over the waters of creation and the water of the womb; and Jesus receives the love and witness in a way that other human beings can participate in – he comes to the Jordan ‘to perfect baptism,’ i.e., to accomplish its potential for initiating human beings into the triune life.  The baptism of Jesus does not make sense without the presence of the Spirit.  For what the Spirit adds to the expression and reception of love is this: that she witnesses to the love between the Father and the son among the disciples and among other human beings.  At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit, with her presence, indicates, marks, points out – bears witness to – the love between the Father and the Son in such a way… that it can be shared… What baptism accomplishes is a participation in the life of the God of Israel; what baptism washes away is a lack of participation in the life of the God of Israel” (After the Spirit, 137).

In baptism, we see the Spirit come to rest, not simply in Jesus but on Jesus.  The Spirit rests upon the physical, material body of humanity in and through Jesus.  Because Jesus is both God and Humanity, Humanity is brought into the life of God by the sign and seal of the Spirit – through the waters of baptism.

Rogers writes: “The Spirit rests on the Son in the waters of the Jordan and therefore on the disciples at the waters of the Galilee and on other human beings in the waters of the [baptismal] Font.  The first makes manifest that the Holy Spirit rests on the elect of the Father, and for that reason witnesses and celebrates this election not only in God but also in the baptism of Jesus and finally in others, electing further witnesses to the good pleasure of the Father in the Son.  At the Baptism the Spirit continues to befriend the body, allowing the Son to receive as human what he has as God, so that he might count equality with God not a thing to be grasped, and reverse the grasping of the Fall” (After the Spirit, 135).

In other words, baptism is entirely the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  The power and efficacy of baptism is not rooted in our decision to be baptized.  It is rooted in the life of God which has “perfected baptism” so that we might be brought into and participate with the life of God.  If baptism is not God’s work, then it is simply a bath where someone else is potentially attempting to drown you – not a particularly comforting thought.

And the call of the Spirit, embodied in the life of Jesus, and signified in the waters of baptism does not call us to “Get busy living,” rather it’s the call of the cross – “Get busy dying.”  It is dying, as Rogers suggests, to the idea and desire to grasp power and be like God.  It is to die to self-interest, self-sufficiency, and self-help.  It is to put to death the person in us that lives according to the flesh and not the Spirit.  Baptism is the washing away of the “old man” so that we might be robed by the righteousness of Christ and empowered by the gifts of the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

This is not simply, however, a washing from something but a washing for something.  Baptism is not merely a cleansing from sin.  It is not simply a washing that purifies us from sin’s power and dominion.  Rather, it is a washing that prepares us for the Table.  “Baptism is the great washing before the meal” (After the Spirit, 138).  Or, to put it another way, baptism sets us apart to be inhabited by the Spirit and brought into the life of God by which we might glorify God in this world, not simply by our spirit, through our bodies.  Baptism of water and the Spirit cleanses both the inside and the outside of the person so that no part is left untouched.  In this, we are prepared for holy service in the name of the Lord for the sake of the world – blown out by the Spirit to proclaim the Kingdom’s coming.

Now, I want to be very careful and diligent at this point because some might begin to think that it is the act of baptism that saves us.  Or, at the very least, they might hear me saying something like that.  But, that is simply to confuse the nature of baptism.  Baptism is not the end nor the point or the purpose.  Instead, baptism is a “means of grace.”

John Wesley is helpful to describe what is meant by this term: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end – to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to [people] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology: The Means of Grace, 160).  A simple way of saying this is that God has given us baptism to be a way by which God works in our lives for our good when we could not.

“…for Wesley baptism does not grant a permanent status, a ticket to heaven, but provides the grace that starts us on a continuing journey… God’s faithfulness and the work of the Holy Spirit call from us a response of faith and growth in the Christian life.  Wesley says this growth is necessary for sanctification that can transform every corner of our existence.” (Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology, 477-78).

The waters of baptism are effective for this reason: It is the work of God in the life of God that then overflows into our lives as we receive it in thankfulness, praise, and obedience.  It is possible to deny the power of baptism and the work of the Spirit.  It is possible for it to be merely water that wets us down on the outside but lacks power to set us free from the bondage of sin inside and out.  It is possible to take the Lord’s name in vain by calling ourselves Christ’s disciples yet refusing to let him be our master, living in sin and disobedience.  It is possible to go under the waters but hold fast to the old way of life, justifying our actions because we live in a still fallen world.  It is within our power to participate in acts of worship, such as baptism, while denying their power.  In doing so, we reject God’s invitation into a covenantal relationship.

But, Paul reminds those of us that have been plunged in the waters of baptism, that God has covenanted with us and we with God.  We have been buried in the death of Christ.  We have been washed with the newness of the Spirit.  We have been given the favor of the Father.  And, because God has conquered sin, death, and the grave, we, too, are invited to participate, to live into that resurrection life – here and now.  Sin and death have lost their dominion – Christ is Lord of all.  Baptism plunged us into a new way of life, life through the gift of the Spirit.  “Early [Christian] thinkers used to say that as God used dust at the first creation; he uses water at the second” (Leadership Handbook of Preaching and Worship, 376).  We are called to live into that new creation.

This is not something that is merely interior and inside us, but it catches up our bodies as well.  Paul writes, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever died is freed from sin… The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:4-7, 10-14).

In other words, Paul is calling the community of faith to remember their baptism.  Remembering is not something that is only recalling information to the brain.  Remembering is something that is faithfully embodied and lived out in community.  Remember the work of God made available to us and live faithfully into the death and resurrection of Jesus by “walking in newness of life.”

Today, I want to recall together our baptismal vows.  Like a marriage, we are only baptized once.  In marriage, you are as married in your fiftieth year as you were on your first day.  Baptism is the same.  But, like marriage, it is good to remember your marriage vows, to recall and recommit yourself to those promises made before God and the Church.  As Paul exhorted the church in Rome, we too are called to remember that we have been buried with Christ and risen to newness of life through his resurrection.  As such, we are also called to live into that newness of life by not misusing our bodies as instruments of wickedness but submitting them to the Spirit to be used as instruments of righteousness.  Baptism is the initiation of followers of Jesus into this new way of living as adopted children of God – no longer under the dominion of sin.

Losing Market-share of the Religious Landscape: Beyond the Brickyards

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey detailing the American religious landscape (find article here). Some of the data indicates that there is a rise in those that affiliate with no religion at all. This trend is sometimes called “the rise of the ‘nones.'” Along with this upward trend is a downward trend in those that identify as Christian, regardless of the denominational affiliation.

Of course, without must surprise, the onslaught of moaning about the demise of the Church and the emphasis on ministerial techniques to reverse this trend have been plentiful. Some see it as the moral decay of a nation and shout to rally the troops so that they might retake Capitol Hill and reclaim some kind of power to assert their influence again. Others see it as a matter of ministerial, pastoral technique that will ensure recovery. So, plant churches because that’s “the most effective way to reach the un-reached” or market to a particular demographic or create programs that will get people hooked on the church (sounds like we’re peddling drugs). Or, perhaps, and this has been my tendency, it is a matter of better education of laity and pastors that will ensure the Church’s future.

But, unfortunately, those are all inadequate. They are woefully inadequate because they focus on “technique.” By “technique,” I mean developing the skill set to achieve a purpose or goal. It’s about management. Essentially, it’s about control. Finally, it’s about power. The underlying motivation for the above-mentioned techniques is typically motivated out of a desire to maintain or gain ground in the market-share of the religious (and perhaps non-religious) consumers. That’s the primary difficulty in reading the Pew Research Center’s survey – people are reduced to percentages. And, where people become numbers and percentages for a market-share, they cease to matter as anything more than a means to our ends. They become commodities, useful until used up. Their humanity is diminished, especially if they don’t serve our bottom line.

The result, with little, if any, exaggeration, is that people do not matter in the Church. Thus, the “rise of the nones” threatens our market-share kingdoms. It becomes a fearful thing to see this downward spiral, even if we don’t see it as bleakly as the survey paints it. The rise in the opposition to the Church or to religion in general is easily viewed as a threat to our longevity and viability. But, this is only a threat to a Church that does not know how to die, that has left the cross behind for the tools of management. Isn’t this the very thing that Pharaoh fears in seeing the rising strength of Israel? They’re too many and what if Egypt is attacked by other nations; what if Israel turns their strength against Egypt? So, Pharaoh orders them to make bricks, he begins building projects, he turns to technique in managing the loss of market-share. In so doing, he attempts to de-humanize God’s people. The end result is that Pharaoh has no real identity – he’s never named.

I see this turn to technique and the Church’s resistance to embrace dying as a move in line with Pharaoh. We see the rising threat to Christendom, want to desperately hold onto our power, and are willing to go so far as to de-humanize those whose rising power might threaten our own sense of security and privilege. When this is our position, we operate out of fear and self-protection. We create “brickyards” out of our sanctuaries that tell people to work harder, lest we lose more ground. And, in the process of de-humanizing others, we find that we have lost our identity. We resemble Pharaoh, not Jesus.

Personally, I have found hope in the numbers because I believe in resurrection. Yes, we must go through death, but Jesus has shown us that life is on the other side. I’m okay with Christendom dying, with the Church dying, with me dying because I know there is hope where God is at work and that life springs up from dead stumps, dead bones, and dead bodies where God speaks. New life is able to break out with the death of Christendom because we might finally come face-to-face with our own false claims and narratives. We might hear the Gospel again when it has been extracted from the cultural narratives that we have swallowed. We might stop relying on our own power to control the outcome and re-enter into the difficult work of imagination, wonder, and surprise. We very well might find that being crucified with Jesus will free us from the bondage of playing power games and developing leaders that play those games. Instead, we might find disciples utilizing the tools of towel and basin, bread and cup, and the cross as the call to serve others and “not lord is over them.”

I think Desmond Tutu’s response to the question about optimism in the midst of great travail is poetically potent: “I am a prisoner of hope.” Hope is not yet another technique of optimism that we must engender so that we can motivate people to a new future. Rather, it is a hope rooted in the gift of God’s ever-abundant, life-giving Spirit at work in the midst of the broken Creation calling forth a new Creation – a new heaven and new earth. As Romans 8 unfolds, we are in the midst of the groaning pangs of child-birth of the new Creation. We’re not always sure even what to pray. But, the Spirit prays with and for us as we await the redemption of our bodies, which includes social bodies as well. In this I find hope to actively wait and serve while putting aside the tools of manipulation, management, and control. The hope of God’s promised future allows the Church to die faithfully, seeing it as an opportunity for God’s new work of the Spirit to unfold among us. Church, move beyond the brickyards.

John 20:19-31 – Sent Like Jesus

The disciples sit huddled together in the dark room, barely daring to breath.  The doors are locked, secured, and barred.  The barricade provides a measure of security, but still they huddle in fear of what lay on the opposite side of the door.  Death.

Jesus, their Lord and Master, had suffered intense, agonizing pain at the hand of the religious leaders.  Yes, Rome had done the damage, but it was the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and the ruling council that had brought up the charges and made sure Jesus received the death penalty.

It is safer to remain here together, safely tucked away, than to venture out there.  To leave these walls is to risk being seen, being identified, and being killed for their connection with Jesus.  Death waits on the other side of the door.  They sit, not speaking, not moving… staring at the floor.

The air is hot and thick with the stench of fear.  The room trembles from their shivering bodies.  Normally, the evening would be filled with celebration, laughter, and fellowship.  Yet, the silent tension can be cut with a knife.  It weighs on them heavier than if an elephant were to sit on their chest.

The days following Jesus’ execution are dizzying and disorienting.  Their heads reel from the sudden turn that life has taken.  Once, life had seemed so full, so promising.  Now, the world is crashing down upon their heads.  The small room seems to shrink in around them, like darkness smothering the very life from them.

With their heads drooped and eyes pointing to the floor, nobody notices the man standing in their midst.  There is no sound to announce his presence.  No knock on the door.  No scraping of sandals on the floor.  Nothing.  “Peace be with you,” he says softly.  Heads shoot up, eyes wide with terror at hearing a voice.  Fear grips their hearts as they look to the door to see it still latched.  Had the authorities finally come to put them to death, too?  And, how had they entered without notice?

Silence follows.  The men and women lean away from the stranger, sure they are to meet their demise if he reaches for them.  The stranger turns in a circle looking at each gathered there.  His eyes are kind, not malicious.  He smiles at them.  They are still cautious, not sure what trick he might pull.

Then, the stranger extends his hands out, palms up.  Holes can be seen all the way through his wrists, about the size of a spike.  The disciples notice his feet also have these same gaping holes.  Again, the man turns to face each one of them and then exposes his side where a gash from something like a spear must have pierced him.  As light flooding a dark room, the disciples suddenly recognize this man is no stranger but Jesus himself!     The disciples’ fear melts like ice sitting on sun-scorched pavement.  It’s Jesus!  They begin shouting and yelling for joy!  It’s Jesus!  The hands, the feet, the side… it is unbelievable!  And, yet, here he stands!

Jesus again addresses them, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus still shows them where the nails pierced him.  He continues speaking, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  The disciples’ eyes stare more intently, unable to move from those horrendous scars.  Jesus’ words echo in their minds, reverberate off the walls.

More than a couple of heads twist to observe the locked door holding the world at bay.  Jesus wants them to go back out there?  To endure what he endured?  To suffer as he suffered?

They stand there silently.  Then, without warning Jesus breathes on them.  He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  The significance of that act isn’t lost on them.  As the Spirit breathed the Creation into existence, now Jesus is breathing his life into them – God’s very Spirit.  Jesus breathing on them is an act of creation.  But, Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He continues, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now, Thomas was not with the disciples during this encounter.  Excited about having seen Jesus, the disciples run to find Thomas to tell him the great news.  They tell him, “We have seen the Lord.”  Thomas’ eyes narrow.  He’s no fool.  Dead men do not rise.  Those are the cold, hard facts!  Thomas knows that Death is final.  He responds to the others, saying, “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.”

Our story opens with the disciples crowded into a small home, huddled together.  They are hoping to survive the storm that the world has thrown at them.  The world is locked out; they are locked in.  Even as Jesus’ lifeless body was laid in a tomb, they now reside in a tomb of their own making.  The house with the locked door was meant to provide security, however, it only ensured death.  The room meant to provide protection is a space that acts more like a tomb.  Fear has buried them, Death has gripped their hearts.

The world has been turned upside down.  Life is out of control.  The sky is falling.  The earth is shaking.  All of their hopes have been flushed down the drain.  If there is a future, it doesn’t look good.

We can readily identify with the disciples’ mindset to “circle the wagons.”  This past week I was at a funeral in Texas.  While riding to the graveyard, the driver, who I had only just met, began to talk about the woes of the world.  He surveyed the landscape of our culture, the challenges for the Church and Christianity, and rendered a bleak verdict: “It’s all gotta end sometime soon, don’t ch’ya think?”  Indeed, his depiction of politics, economics, and declining morality would be enough to make anyone wonder at the futility of hope in such a world.

This view of the world often gives way into a “storm cellar” approach to life.  The storm is coming, lay low, take cover, and pray that somehow we’ll survive.  We inhabit a world bent on death and destruction; it is little surprise we feel the need to lock the doors, hide out, and make sure we are safe.

Our story informs us that the disciples have locked themselves away “for fear of the Jews.”  This desperate attempt to huddle for safety is rooted in fear.  It is fear of the unknown.  It is fear of the future.  It is fear, ultimately, of Death.  Fear has so gripped the disciples that they dare not risk the possibility of death.  It is this fear of Death that paralyzes them, rendering them incapable of living.

Our own striving for security is surely rooted in the same fear the disciples display.  It is fear that isolates.  It is fear that closes off from others.  It is fear that robs us of hope.  It is fear that immobilizes us.  Fear becomes so all-consuming that we are unable to see beyond the walls we have enclosed ourselves within.

Because fear drives so much of our lives, we, as the Church, have become a huddled mass trembling before the storm.  Whatever the storm may be in your mind, illegal immigrants, ISIS, global crisis, job loss, family death, democrats or republicans in office, other nations, divorce, past mistakes and sins, our fears render us incapable of being the Church in response to those situations.

Fear creates enemies.  Fear dominates our hearts and sharpens them for violence against our enemies.  Fear only has room for “me.”  It cannot open itself up to another.  To do so would only make “me” vulnerable.  Fear always creates in us paranoia of those different than me, especially those who I identify as my enemy.  In such a state, we are unable to see anything other than threats to our life, security, and viability.  By means of fear, Death becomes the overarching theme and power in our lives.  And, Death says that we must operate out of self-preservation in order to save ourselves, protect ourselves, and maintain our lives, no matter the consequence to others.

Jesus steps through the walls meant to keep the world at bay.  The walls cannot hold out Jesus.  He greets his Church, these fearful disciples, saying, “Shalom!”  Literally, “God’s peace.”  If there is anything counter to Fear, it is God’s peace.  Even as Jesus calmed the stormy sea, Jesus calls for the disciples’ fears to cease.  “Peace be with you.”

If anyone would understand the extent of the storm swirling about in the world, it would be Jesus.  If anyone can comprehend the power of Death and Fear, it is Jesus.  He bears the scars, the marks, the wounds from his encounter with Death and Fear.  They tore his body.  They broke his body.  They ravaged his body… until he lay dead, buried in a tomb.  If anyone would understand the deep darkness of the world, it is Jesus!

Yet, here Jesus stands before the disciples.  He is the resurrected Lord whom Death could not hold.  He is the risen Christ whose life overwhelmed the Grave.  He is the life-giving King whose reign knows no bounds.  Death and Fear are conquered by Life and Peace.

The Resurrection affirms that there is no power in Death or Fear out of which God cannot ultimately bring Life.  Resurrection says that Death’s reign is over.  Resurrection undermines Fear’s power.  Resurrection is God’s life-giving power at work in the Creation, which will not be defeated.  And, Resurrection offers a new way of living in the world, not one dictated by Death and Fear.

Resurrection beckons us to live as those that have received God’s peace, living as those with hope, because we have encountered the Risen Christ!  If the power of Resurrection is at work in us, then Fear and Death have no longer hold dominion.  As such, we no longer need live under their tyranny having been freed from their grip on our hearts.

Instead, we are free to risk much, even giving up our very lives, for the sake of the Gospel and God’s Kingdom.  Even if we should be killed, maimed, harmed, beaten, bruised, imprisoned, or enslaved, yet we would rest in the blessed assurance that God’s redemptive purposes are still at work and will not be undone.  Yes, even our very lives might be raised to new life.  If God can do that, then why fear what the future holds?

Jesus gives the disciples their mission: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”  He has shown them his nail-pierced hands, feet, and side.  They see the marks of crucifixion, the wounds of suffering and pain.  As Jesus was sent to suffer and die, now Jesus is sending his disciples to do the same.  Jesus doesn’t call for the disciples to defend their rights, run for public office, ensure that the Church survives, or to gain power by any means necessary.  Just the opposite.  Jesus calls his disciples to suffer and die for the sake of the world.

Henry Nouwen explains the Way of the Cross empowered by Jesus’ resurrection, writing: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

Compassion, meaning “to suffer with,” is the means by which God reigns in and over the Creation.  God, through Christ Jesus, enters into our world, takes on our suffering as his own, and nails it to the cross.  The new life of Jesus brought forth through resurrection also means that the brokenness of this world is being made and will entirely be made whole again.

The Resurrection says that Sin and Death do not have the last word – God does.  Even as Jesus’ broken body is made whole, so might the dead and broken Creation be restored and glorified.  Brian Zahnd puts it this way: “The resurrection of Jesus is not about confirming life after death. It’s about inaugurating New Creation and the Kingdom of God here and now.”  Now, Jesus commissions his disciples to no longer live in fear, behind closed doors, circling the wagons.  Jesus commissions his disciples to live fearlessly, to live out the hope of Resurrection, and to offer life to the world being offered through their lives in acts of compassion.

It’s hard to deny that our society is often resistant, sometimes decidedly antagonistic toward the Church and Christianity.  There is great vehemence, anger, and hatred directed toward God’s people.  At other times the Church faces relatively unaggressive opposition, like a simple disagreement.  Sometimes the opposition facing the Church is dangerous, such as we have seen with ISIS.  We shouldn’t be surprised to see a world contesting the Gospel.  After all, Jesus did tell us that the world hated him and it would hate us.

But, there is also another kind of opposition that has cropped up.  It is a position that denies the validity of the Church and Christianity because our lives don’t always match our message.  The Church, in many corners of our country, reflect the values of Death and Fear.  They reflect the values of our culture and nation.  And, as such, they deny any such claim to be rooted in love or the sufferings of Christ.  And, if we cannot claim any connection to the suffering of Christ or Christ’s death, neither can we claim any hope in Christ’s Life and Resurrection.

Thomas hears the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  The disciples tell Thomas, a fellow disciple, that Jesus rose from the dead and met with them in the flesh.  But, Thomas is a realist.  He is only willing to accept what he can verify by observation.  Unless he can touch Jesus, see the scars and wounds, then Thomas will deny that Jesus rose from the dead and now lives.

In a similar way, if the world is unable to see the resemblance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in his disciples, then like Thomas they won’t believe.  Jesus calls his disciples to be his Body, his pierced but resurrected Body.  Yet, if the disciples don’t resemble the Master, if the Body doesn’t live out of Jesus’ compassion for the world, then should it surprise us that the world denies that Christ lives or that the Church has any place in this world?  Should it so surprise us that the world would suggest that Christianity is merely a fairy tale told to children?  Many are still waiting to see Jesus’ Body, identified by the wounds of crucifixion.  Do we bear the wounds of Jesus in our own bodies?

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Drink deeply from this well.  “Whoever would follow me must pick up their cross and daily follow me.”  Ponder the call which Jesus gives us: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus understands the risk involved in living out Resurrection and the New Creation in a world still operating under the power of Death and Fear.  And far from telling his disciples to create a holy huddle and lock the door, Jesus tells his disciples to get to living by offering their lives for the sake of the world.

Jesus breathes on the disciples after he has told them what it means to follow him.  Ben Witherington states, “… as an echo of the story of creation where God breathed life into Adam, the first human being… we are to see this scene as a sort of starting over, the beginning of the creation of a new humanity.  The theme of life in this Gospel comes to a climax as we see Jesus now able to truly bestow eternal life and power once he returns to the Father who sent him.  When Jesus breathes out, he is not only emulating the original role of the Creator, he is also… communicating and committing himself to his disciples, in the person of the Spirit.  It is his own resurrection life that he will bestow on them” (John’s Wisdom, 342).

If this is the gift of Jesus through the Spirit to those who are truly followers, reflect on the freedom this grants us in giving away our lives in service to others, not dictated by Fear, not hindered by Death!  Enemies can then be perceived through the eyes of hope and God’s peace, rather than through eyes of Fear and Death.

Think about it.  Illegal immigrants are no longer viewed as threats to national security, our jobs, or our economic security.  Rather, we can see this influx of people into our communities as opportunities for sharing the Gospel with the people God is bringing to our doorsteps!

Members of ISIS and other Islamic groups aren’t persecuting us; they are persecuting Jesus.  Saul killed early Christians but was eventually changed because of an encounter with Christ, becoming the greatest evangelist the Church has ever known.  If Jesus can change Saul, can’t he also, through us, change the hearts and minds of our Islamic brothers and sisters?  The Resurrection gives us hope that their hatred for us can be transformed into love for Christ.

Dinka was sold into slavery at the age of seven.  His master, Ibrahim treated him cruelly, often beating and torturing him.  Ibrahim typically called Dinka “Abid”, meaning “black slave.”  Dinka’s family had been killed in the raid that took him from his home and for ten years he served Ibrahim.

Dinka’s living conditions were unsuitable for any human, surviving off of garbage and scraps.  He was lower than an animal in Ibrahim’s eyes and constantly reminded so.  Dinka was raised a Christian.  This was noted by his master and mocked, stating that “Abid” shouldn’t be allowed to worship because he was worthless trash.

Dinka was charged with caring for the camels and watering them.  He dutifully performed his tasks, despite the awful treatment from his master.  One Sunday, Dinka heard singing coming from a church nearby.  He went to the source and came upon a church service, which he remembered from his time at home.  He joined in the worship.

Unfortunately, when Dinka returned home, he discovered that several of the camels had wandered away.  Before he could find them, his master discovered the loss and flew into a fit of rage.  Ibrahim beat Dinka over the head and on his body.  Then, he took a plank and nailed Dinka to it, driving nine-inch nails through hands, knees, and feet.  Then, the master poured acid on Dinka’s legs to cause more agony.

Dinka lay nailed to that plank for seven days, sustained only by the master’s young soon giving him food and drink.  Finally, after days of agony and pain, the master’s son removed the nails and helped carry Dinka to a nearby hospital.  After Dinka’s return from the hospital, Ibrahim saw no more value in damage property.  Dinka was bought back by “Christian slave redeemers” who arranged his return home.

Upon his return home, Dinka’s name was changed by the village elders to Joseph because he had been sold into slavery and delivered like Joseph from Genesis.  Amazingly, Joseph was not permanently damaged from his crucifixion, but healed.  But, even more amazing, Joseph today says that God has helped him forgive Ibrahim!  The power to forgive is the fruit of Christ’s Resurrection coming to fruit in this young man’s life.

“Jesus is calling his disciples to take up a costly task, one that may even require that they give their lives, but Jesus was standing in their midst showing them that even if that is so, there would be victory beyond the grave” (Ben Witherington, John’s Wisdom, 342).

Church, let’s stop living under the power of Fear and Death.  Instead, Jesus commissions us to live out the power of Resurrection here and now, proclaiming to the world through lives of compassion that God is restoring the Creation and empowering us to live as New Creation by the Spirit.

Ephesians 1 – Resurrection, New Creation, and the Church

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

Paul identifies himself as the author of this letter to the Ephesian Church (in Asia Minor).  He also identifies himself as an apostle, which means “sent one.”  In other words, Paul is saying that he is an ambassador on behalf of Christ Jesus, called and empowered to do so by the “will of God.

          He addresses his audience in Ephesus, calling them “saints” and “faithful in Christ Jesus.”  The title of saints indicates the calling of this community of faith – to be holy.  The word for “saint” is rooted in the same word for “holy.”  Holiness is connected to the idea of being “faithful in Jesus Christ.”  This goes beyond simple obedience but aims at the heart of our obedience.  One may adhere to the Law perfectly and yet fail to fulfill the Law (think Pharisees, for example).  Sanctification (saint), the process of becoming holy (becoming like God, restored to the image of God), is right actions lived out of the overflow for love of God (holy love). 

This is also why Wesley will say that holiness is not the absence of sin.  This obedience is not about sinless perfection.  Rather, holiness is about perfection in the sense that we are fulfilling our purpose, even if our performance is not perfect. 

A mother planted flowers one Spring.  She had cultivated the ground and worked hard on getting the flowers in the soil.  Her young son came home from school, walked in the backyard, came back inside with a hand full of those same planted flowers with the dirt still clinging to the roots.  He handed them to his mom, saying, “I love you, momma, and I picked these for you.”  She graciously received the flowers and put them in a vase with water.  The mom understood that it was an act done in love, even if it did uproot her hard work. 

In a similar fashion, our sanctification does not mean that we won’t mess up, but that everything we do, even our mistakes, are derived out of a deep sense of love.  Thus, even while we might be holy, we are never done confessing our sins to God or to each other.  Why is it so difficult for us to confess our sins?

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul finishes his greeting by giving a blessing to the community.  What would it look like to extend God’s blessing to each other?  What would that mean for our relationships with one another?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

Paul begins the body of his letter with praise for God and what has been given to us through Jesus Christ, that is, “every spiritual blessing.”  Before challenging and encouraging the community, before addressing the issues facing the Church, Paul draws the community’s attention to God’s character and nature.  God is one who gives abundantly and generously – EVERY spiritual blessing.  God is not stingy.  God does not withhold any part of God from the Church.  If the Church’s character is to reflect God’s character, it will look like an abundant blessing to others.  Are we really a blessing to others or do we expect others to bless us? 

just as he chose us in Christ[b] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I’m sure the issue of election and predestination will come up here.  Here’s some quick thoughts.  God created everything to be a reflection of God, especially humanity.  Obviously, what God desired is only temporarily realized until sin enters the world.  God’s will is, at the very least, resisted.  So, just because God wills something does not then mean that Creation cannot choose differently.  There is potentially an element of free will at work in God’s election.

          God’s deep desire for all Creation is to be “holy and blameless in love.”  It is a gift which God gives all the opportunity to receive “to become children of God.”  God desires to adopt us as God’s children.  But, because God is Love, and love always has an element of freedom, God does not force the Creation or us to receive this gift.  We can, and have, rejected this invitation.  Now, that was the plan from the beginning, but this verse also hints at something new.  It has been offered (again?) through the Beloved, which is Christ Jesus.  God has made his appeal through Jesus to us to become children of God.  This is a Love that pursues us doggedly, as C. S. Lewis calls God: “The Hound of Heaven.” 

 

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

It is through the “Beloved” that God is doing this holy work of reconciliation.  To “redeem” is to literally “ransom.”  We have to be careful with this metaphor, because if we push the metaphor too far we will do damage.  But, essentially, this idea of redeeming underlines the impossible situation that we needed to be delivered from.  Sin was a prison from which we had no key.  Christ unlocked our prison to set us free.

          This redemption is made possible “through his blood.”  That’s another way of saying “through Jesus’ very life.”  Forgiveness of our trespasses is possible through the “riches of his grace.”  Mercy is God’s gift.  Jesus exhales his “spirit” or “breath” on the cross, exhaling his very life back into the Creation.  His blood seeps into the soil of Creation.  His body is buried in the ground like a seed.  The entirety of Jesus’ life and death is the means of our life and reconciliation.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Jesus is the Word (Logos of John 1) through whom the world is created.  Logos (Word) is the Greek word from which we derive “logic.”  Jesus is the key to understanding the purpose (telos = goal, also telos = perfection, we are talking holiness here) of God’s good Creation.  What was a mystery is unfolded, unveiled in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The plan “for the fullness of time” (Kairos = God’s timing, not Chronos = chronological timing).  This plan is to “gather up all things in him (Jesus), things in heaven and things on earth.” 

          This is a powerful reminder that God is not simply destroying the Creation at the end of time.  That which is in Christ Jesus is a “new creation.”  In other words, it is through Jesus that all of Creation is redeemed, restored, and renewed!  Not only that.  Jesus also gathers up things in heaven as well.  In other words, as Revelation will announce toward the end of the vision. 

Revelation 21:1-3 reads:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them”

          In this way, God will be all in all.  In a miraculous way, Love and Life win.  There will be no place in all the Creation in which God will not say, “This is mine.  It is good.”  Jesus is the first seed of the New Creation.  Furthermore, Jesus is also the first fruits of the New Creation.  In other words, Jesus is the means by which New Creation is created and Jesus is the substance of that New Creation.

 

11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

As mentioned, Christ is the seed of New Creation.  As we participate in his life, so we also participate in the New Creation.  We are made part of the New Creation.  We are made new creations.  None of this is accomplished through our own power but through the power of Jesus.  It is through Jesus that we receive this inheritance, which was God’s purpose all along.

          The purpose of this does not stop with our receiving the blessing.  But, as it was with Abraham’s blessing, we are blessed to be a blessing.  This inheritance is given to us as we “set our hope on Christ” with outcome resulting in “living for the praise of his glory.”  Holiness does not draw attention to us; it draws others’ focus and gaze toward God.  And what is the glory of God?  According to St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is [humanity] fully alive.”  So, in many ways, holiness is reciprocal.  We glorify God by reflecting God character and nature of holy love.  As we reflect God’s character we are fully alive and fully human, which means we are glorifying God.

13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

This seed of New Creation is planted in us through the life of the Spirit in us.  In other words, God resides in us (the Creation), thus connecting God’s Life with our life.  The Spirit in Genesis 1 is the primary agent of God’s creating work.  The Spirit (Hebrew = ruach, pronounced ru-awk) is also the Breath of God by which life is imbued in the Creation.  This same Spirit is given as a “deposit” or “pledge” of that inheritance in the New Creation. 

The Spirit continues to work in us the power of the Resurrection and the Life of New Creation.  But, this redemption is not simply personal salvation and redemption.  It is redemption of God’s holy people together – again, “to the praise of his glory.”  Redemption is both personal and social holiness.  As John Wesley would say, “You cannot have personal holiness without social holiness.”

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.

The only way Paul would have heard of their “faith” is if it was being lived out in tangible ways – faith in action – demonstrated as “love toward all the saints.”  It likely reaches out to those outside the Church as well.  People may know where we are located on a map, but do they know us because of our “faith in action?”

17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Now, holiness is essentially rooted in relationship to God.  Paul prays that the community will be given wisdom and revelation.  Wisdom is understanding how to live well in any given situation.  Revelation is God’s Self-revelation to the world.  God makes God’s Self known to us.  Paul prays that we will both see God and God at work in the world and that we might faithfully respond and live wisely.  This is an ongoing process “as you come to know him.”  In other words, there is never a point in time where we cease to learn, grow, and deepen our relationship with God.  If we think we have God figured out, that is a time to be cautious and prayerful.  God tends to break out of those boxes we construct.  Rather, this is a continuous seeking after God and developing that relationship with God.  “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.”

          This is the means by which “the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened.”  John 1 comes to mind.  Jesus is the Wisdom (Logos) of God and the Light of God in the world.  To see the world and ourselves and God correctly with our hearts requires that we are connected with Jesus.  Jesus gives Light and Wisdom by which everything in our lives and world is ordered and given context.  This Wisdom and Light is the foundation of our hope to which we have been called.  It is not “hope” as in wishful thinking.  Rather, it is the “hope” that inspires (inspires – as the Spirit breathes into us) us to move forward as parts of God’s New Creation.  It is also the “glorious riches of our inheritance among the saints.”  In this merciful movement toward Creation’s redemption we begin to see and understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”  God’s power does not violate God’s holy love.  It is the fulfillment of God’s holy love.

20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

The power of God is demonstrated in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.  Death’s dominion is undermined.  Death is put to death.  All “rule and authority and power and dominion” that act as agents of Death are put in final notice that their reign is abolished.  Resurrection and Ascension is the enthronement of God as King over all.  The enthronement of Jesus over heaven and earth is the fulfillment of the Lord’s Prayer: “May Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  We tend to think of heaven as a place apart from earth.  But, where Jesus is, there heaven and earth are wed.  Heaven is the place where God’s reign is enacted in totality.  With Jesus being seated at the right hand of God (the place of power/authority), God’s reign is established in full, both in heaven and on earth.

          Dr. Tim Crutcher states it this way: “Easter Sunday is not just about the resurrection of Christ as the anchor of our hope for new life. It is God’s decisive declaration that God will deal with all death-bringing realities in only life-bringing ways. God does not fight death with more death, hate with more hate, dark with more darkness. Death does its worst, and God brings life. Hate has full rein, and God offers love in return. Darkness rules and God says, “Let there be light.” As resurrection people, let us be daily living reminders of this reality.”

22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Resurrection power is also something that is given to the Church, through Jesus.  As Eugene Peterson tells us, we are called to “practice resurrection.”  In other words, even the world around us still lives as if Death reigns, we are called to live as those who have received God’s resurrection power.  Which is to say, that we are called to live and act differently than a world bent on Death.  We are to live as ambassadors of God’s mercy, bringing life to others, to the Creation.  We are called to spread the seeds of New Creation in the soil of our world. 

The Church is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.”  That is an incredibly awesome responsibility and gift.  It is also incredible power to live out, to practice resurrection.  God equips and empowers us to live as new creatures now, not just in the future.  As Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  Resurrection is not about preserving our lives but in giving our lives away, even as Jesus demonstrated on the Cross.  Death is a defeated foe.  Life is swallowing up Death.  What are some practical ways we can practice resurrection in our community?

John 20:1-18 – “The Seed of New Creation”

It was the first day of the week.  Darkness swallowed up the landscape, the stars and the moon.  The air was crisp with the morning chill.  Dew clung to the grass.  She stumbled along the familiar worn path in the dark.  She knew the way, though any stranger would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to follow in this inky black night.  The shadows of the night hid her drawn face, the baggy eyes red from grief.  She had cried until her tears had dried up like a river in the desert.  Her heart felt like that desert, blistered from the scorching sun.

Her stomach growled, but she didn’t seem to notice.  She had hardly put food or drink to her mouth.  Her tongue was parched, but she paid no heed to her body.  Her body…  His body…  Jesus’ body.  The Romans were masters at destroying the body.  They had beat Jesus relentlessly, screaming at him to testify to which one had struck him.  They placed a purple robe upon his shoulders mocking his claim to kingship.  They wove a wreath of thorns, forcefully shoving it down on his brow.  His hair matted with blood and sweat.  The thorns dug deep into the skin, rivulets of blood running down his face like red streams.

His body…  Jesus’ body…  The soldiers had stripped him of his clothes, pummeling him with rods and a whip.  The whip was especially cruel, digging into the flesh, ripping skin and muscle.  His back crisscrossed with the lashes, his breathing gasped and shuddered.  His hands shook, his body convulsed… and still they spit upon him and mocked him as their physical torture continued.

The lump returned to the woman’s throat.  It had refused to leave her as the grotesque visions would flash before her again and again and again.  She had followed him as he carried the beams of wood that would serve as his death sentence.  She saw Jesus’ eyes as the soldiers laid him upon the cross and began to pound the nails into his wrist.  Pain shot through them.  Then, something like pity replaced the pain.  Three nails driven into hands and feet.  The cross was raised into place with a sudden jolt as it slipped into its hole.

She tried to wash the barrage of images assaulting her mind, returning to her surroundings again as she trekked toward the place where his body had been laid.  Jesus’ body…  She recalled his hands and his smiling eyes.  He had come to her when she was in the darkest place of her life, possessed by seven demons.  Jesus had touched her, healed her, set her free!  The darkness had lifted.  He had shown her love and friendship that nobody had shown her before.  He had welcomed her as one of his own.  She had been so overwhelmed by his kindness that she wept and bowed at his feet.  The tears fell on his feet and she gently wiped them with her hair.  The expensive perfume that was her life savings and future, she poured out upon his feet.  Those eating with Jesus were indignant and shouted at her.  But, Jesus had said that it was a beautiful thing…

Her breath caught.  It had been a beautiful thing to experience such freedom, joy, and love.  But, that had all been taken away as Jesus breathed his last on Friday.  She had prayed that he would save himself; that angels would sweep down to save him.  But, she had witnessed him exhale and slump over.  She had watched the soldiers remove his body from the wood beams.  She watched Joseph and Nicodemus take the body for burial and prepare it.  Even after two sleepless nights, two nightmarish days where her whole world had fallen apart… she couldn’t help but wanting to be where Jesus was.  She was going to the place where they had buried the body…  Jesus’ body…

She rounded the corner, entering the garden where the tomb was located.  Coming upon where the stone should have covered the tomb, she realized that the giant boulder had been pushed back – no small task.  Perhaps it had been robbers.  Or, maybe the Jewish leaders or the Roman soldiers had returned to desecrate the body further.  Jesus’ body.  She turned and ran, fearful of what this might mean.

She ran to where John and Peter were and told them of her discovery.  They leapt out the door, running for the tomb.  She arrived just as the two disciples were walking back out of the tomb’s entrance.  They didn’t say anything.  Their faces looked bewildered.  She stood at the door’s entrance weeping.  Peter and John slowly walked back home.  She just stood there bitterly weeping that the body her Lord was gone.  Jesus’ body…

Moments passed.  The sky was beginning to pale with the promise of dawn’s rising sun.  Everything looked gray and bleak.  She stooped to look into the tomb one more time to see where the body had laid…  Jesus’ body…

There, where the body should have been, two men dressed in white were sitting.  One perched where the head had been.  The other reclined where the feet had been.  They questioned her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Wasn’t it obvious!?  This was a tomb, not a living room!  She groaned, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Grief washed over her again; she turned to walk away.  There was no hope of finding him here.  There was another man standing in front of her.  She was startled to find the gardener here at this time.  This man asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Why did everyone keep asking these ridiculous questions!?  Come on, Sherlock, check the clue!  Supposing this man to be the gardener, she begged, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

There was something vaguely familiar about this man.  The dawn’s light was now glowing bright over the edge of the horizon.  What had appeared gray and shadowy was now springing to life with the vibrant colors of the morning.  The man considered her for a moment, then spoke again, calling to her, “Mary.”

Her heart dropped.  Her knees nearly buckled.  She knew that voice.  She recognize that face and those hands!  Mary could see the healed wounds of Friday in his wrists feet, and face.  She knew the face of Jesus.  He walked, he breathed, he spoke.  His body…  Jesus’ body stood before her!

Waves of joy swept over her.  “My dear teacher!” she cried.  She clutched him, hugging him with everything that she had.  She wouldn’t let go… never again.  She clung to him even as the dew still clung to the grass.  Tears streamed freely down her face.  His hug released, but she couldn’t let go.  He spoke gently 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.’”

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John’s Gospel begins Jesus’ story before the beginning of the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

Jesus is the Wisdom of God by which the entire world has been created.  To put it another way, Jesus is the logic of Creation.  Creation makes sense in light of Jesus.  He embodies, lives out, what God intends the Creation to be.  Namely, it is to live as a reflection of God’s holy love.  It is to live in right relationship with God.  This was the purpose from the very beginning.

Humanity was created and entrusted with the great responsibility of caring for the Creation.  Humanity was made in the image of God to be good caretakers of the Creation, to help it flourish, to cultivate its life.  But, as we might recall, humanity rejected God and is plunged, with all of Creation, into darkness, plunged into Death.  We hated the Light, so we snuffed it out.

Our rejection of God was not a one-time act.  It is the ongoing story of the world filled with darkness and death.  We are surrounded by it.  It is the air we breathe.  We swim in it.  We swallow it.  We speak it.  We live it.  It’s in our very bones, in our very bodies.  Good Friday and the crucifixion of God in Jesus, depicts the depth of our hatred of the Light and our rejection of God.  We love the darkness and we killed the Light.

In the shadows of the dark night of the soul… in the dark night of Creation, we stand, like Mary, before the grave in the dead of night.  We stand in the darkness hating that darkness, but sitting in despair as we find no escape from its pull, swallowed up by hopelessness, wondering if there can be anything truly different than sin and death.  The futility of the grave overwhelms us.  We stare into the tomb, recognizing just how broken, sinful, and dead we really are.

Think of the brokenness in your own life and you will see the tomb.  The lies.  The deceit.  The hatred.  The bitterness.  The fornication.  The lust.  The fear.  The anger.  The violence.  The heated words.  The physical altercations.  The disobedience.  The pride.  The gossip.  The substance abuse.  The addictions.  The greed.  The despair.  We are surrounded and enveloped by the darkness of our hearts… and we love it!

We put a good face on it.  We rationalize why we are the way we are.  We try to convince ourselves it’s not that bad, we don’t need help, we’ve got everything under control.  Sometimes we argue the other way.  We can’t help it.  We have no choice.  Even worse, we will justify our actions because of other people’s sinful actions – “If we don’t defend our rights, then who will?”  Try as we might to avoid the confrontation with death and the grave, there it stands – open, empty, and waiting for us.  The tomb reminds us: “The wages of sin is death.”  There we stand… at the mouth of the grave… this is the place where our bodies of death will lead us.

John 1 hints at the turn of events: “But.”  There’s the Gospel in one word!  This word alerts us to something new, something different happening in our midst.  “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”  By taking humanity into himself, Christ has reconciled God and humanity to each other.

God was not content to leave the Creation to its downward spiral into the Grave.  God did not wash his hands of us or the Creation.  No!  Much more than that!  God entered the very Creation.  Once again, the Gardener is cultivating the life of Creation for life.  And, it happens because God enters into the Creation, taking the Creation into himself.  John 1 tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  God got into the Creation and the Creation was taken up into God.

When Christ was crucified on Golgotha, he exclaimed, “It is finished!”  After this, he breathed his last, he gave up his spirit.  Jesus exhaled the entirety of himself, the entirety of his life, into the Creation so that by his death we might have life.  Even as the Spirit, the breath of God, breathed life into the Creation at the beginning, now, the Gardener was again breathing his life back into the Creation – back into us!  Having given up his very life, like a seed, Christ was buried in the ground and Resurrection was the harvest.

Resurrection, then, is the power of God’s New Creation.  Jesus being raised from the dead to die no more is the first-fruits of this New Creation.  You notice that it says Mary went to the tomb on the first day of the week… that’s the first day of Creation.  Now, it’s the first day of the New Creation.  Resurrection is the seed of Christ blooming into life, conquering death, and placing everything under his dominion!

Jesus becomes the first harvest, the first fruit of new life.  Death no longer holds dominion.  The Grave no longer has its power, nor its sting.  Death swallowed up Life only to discover that Life had swallowed up Death!  The tyranny of sin, darkness, and death was nailed to the Cross, but it is in the Resurrection that all things are made new.

St. Irenaeus writes:

…The Word has saved what was created – namely, humanity which had perished.  He accomplished this by taking it unto himself and seeking its salvation.  The thing which had perished had flesh and blood.  The Lord, taking dust from the earth, formed humanity; and it was for humanity that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place.  He himself therefore had flesh and blood, so that he could recapitulate in himself, not something else, but the original handiwork of the Father, seeking out what had perished.  And because of this the apostle, in the Letter to the Colossians, says, ‘And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him’… He says, ‘You have been reconciled in his fleshly body,’ because his righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was kept in bondage to sin and brought it into friendship with God” (Irenaeus on the Christian Faith, 166).

God through Christ Jesus became what we are so that through Christ Jesus we might become everything that God is by nature.

When the risen Jesus stands before Mary, he sees a woman still standing in the dark, still looking into the void of the tomb.  He sees a woman consumed with the fear of Death and the Grave.  But, he calls to her, “Mary.”  It is in that moment that Mary recognizes Jesus.  Jesus’ light dawns upon her, dispelling her darkness.  Her encounter with the risen Jesus opens up for her the possibility of receiving the New Creation life which is found in the body of Jesus.

The risen Christ stands in our midst this Easter morning.  The Grave of Friday still looms large in our minds… we are standing in the shadow of night.  The dawn of God’s new day and New Creation calls our name.  He calls us out of our darkness and into his marvelous light.  Jesus calls for us to put to death the old man or woman who clings to the darkness, whose deeds reflect the darkness.  Jesus stands calling our name, each one, offering us Resurrection Life – calling us away from the tomb.

We have sometimes been quite confused as to what we mean when we talk about salvation and resurrection.  Some have understood it to be a ticket to heaven, a get-out-of-jail-free card, an escape from this world.  We have tended to talk about salvation and resurrection as a day when “I’ll Fly Away” and be whisked off to some clouded heaven and away from this Creation.  But, God is buried in the dirt of Creation.  His life-blood seeps into the soil.  Even all the Creation will be healed by his wounds, revived by his dying breath, his exhaling the Spirit.

Irenaeus again is helpful in understanding the gravity of what we have been given in the resurrection.  He writes:

“The maker of all things, the Word of God, the one who formed humankind from the beginning, when he found his handiwork impaired by wickedness, worked all kinds of healing in it.  Sometimes he has done so for individuals, who are his handiwork; at other times, he has done so for all, to restore humanity sound and complete in all points, working to make humankind whole for himself, in preparation for the resurrection” (Irenaeus on the Christian Faith, 165).

In other words, Jesus lived, embodied, and enacted in his own body and life, the original purpose of humanity – to glorify God; to live as light; and to serve God, one another, and the Creation in love.  Sin and Death came through the first Adam.  Grace and Truth came through the Second Adam, which is Jesus.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God holds up a mirror for us so that we can see who we really are in our sin and death and to show us who we can really be by God’s grace.

Resurrection is the power of God at work in the Creation to restore it back to its original purposes.  It is the power of God that has shattered the darkness, conquered sin, and vanquished Death.  Resurrection is the restoration of all Creation from Death to Life.  Jesus is the merger of heaven and earth and the first-fruits of the new heaven and new earth.

Mary has experienced this as she stands hugging Jesus, seeing his restored body and touching the New Creation.  But, Jesus tells her to not cling to him because he must return to the Father.  Jesus’ absence feels like God’s absence in the Creation, even now.  But, in going to the Father, Jesus is returning to the Father to reign in glory over all Creation.  Heaven is the place from which God reigns.  Heaven is not the absence of God, but the throne room of God.  Jesus has already begun the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.

Of course, it quite often feels like God is doing anything but reigning.  In looking at the brokenness still in our world, it seems like God is absent or non-existent.  But, the early Church understood that the darkness, sin, and death remaining in the world were simply the death throes of an already defeated foe.  It was the last finger-hold that Satan held in the Creation.  Soon, very soon, all would be put to right… Soon, very soon, God’s resurrection power would finish and fulfill what was started in Jesus and we would be found in resurrected, glorified bodies living in a resurrected and glorified heavens and earth.  In other words, God would restore and perfect that which He created!

In the meantime and in the waiting for this full and final consummation of the New Creation, Jesus calls Mary to go tell the disciples the Good News.  She is to be the bearer of the Gospel that God’s New Creation has been established in Jesus, who is the first-fruits of Resurrection.  Mary is to proclaim what she has experienced in the risen Christ, who has freed her from her own darkness and breathed new life into her.

And, so it is now with Jesus’ disciples.  We have been tasked with proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection, “… the revelation of the triumph of God’s life giving purposes” (Warren Carter, John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist, 206).  We are to proclaim the New Creation which God has established through Jesus and that we participate in through the Spirit as members of the Body of Christ – the Church!  We are to practice resurrection by fulfilling in our bodies the very purposes for which God has created us: to glorify God; to live as light; and to serve God, one another, and the Creation in love.

As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Live out the New Creation now – practice resurrection!

“Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” by N. T. Wright

This really was a fantastic book.  It will likely be one that I have to read again just to fully comprehend all that Wright is putting on display concerning the bodily resurrection.  Even a short synopsis of this book doesn’t do it justice.

However, mainly for my own benefit, there were several things that really stuck out to me.  Wright combats the Gnostic, dualistic idea of a disembodied heaven.  Resurrection takes the stuff of this creation and renews it.  It is the old creation that is transformed into the new creation.  Or, as Jesus taught us to pray the resurrection initiates and implements the Father‘s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  As such, heaven is not simply a place that we retreat to after we die.  When Christ comes again, we meet him “in the air” so as to be the procession that welcomes the King’s “descending” to earth.  It is the descending of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city, that will be established on that day.

But, for now, we live in a “now and not yet” Kingdom.  The Creation is still very broken, but like a tiny mustard seed, God’s Kingdom is even now expanding and making itself manifest in the world.  We are called to participate in this work as ministers of reconciliation.  The resurrection is significant because it reminds us that the Creation is to be renewed and God calls us to work toward that end, while we still live in anticipation of the day that everything will finally be redeemed.

Some believe resurrection to be a life after death that is the soul living in some ethereal spiritual realm.  That is Gnosticism, which leads to escapism.  Or, it creates the attitude that the Creation can be used up however we want because God is simply doing away with it at the end.  But, this fails to see the vital connection between resurrection, new creation, and new covenant.

This understanding also pours into other arenas of life.  Salvation now becomes something more than the saving of the “soul.”  Tasks and works like art, justice, and evangelism are viewed in a more holistic light.  Finding ways that the Kingdom of God is already blooming in our world while working to change those dynamics that are far from the Kingdom is what it means to be a missional church composed of resurrected people.

Overall, this was a very powerful book.  It challenged some of my assumptions through strong consideration of the Scriptures, as well as, historical, orthodox Christianity.  At the same time, Wright challenges some of the underlying foundations that have become such an ingrained part of Protestant evangelicalism.  He exposes the roots of modernism and postmodernism, as well as, thinking deeply about many of the cultural traps that the Church has imbibed.  Wright concludes by discussing practices that can help us live into this resurrected life that God has so graciously given us.  I would recommend this book for reflection.

“Christ and the Powers” by Hendrik Berkhof

This is a very short book, but it is extremely dense.  Berkhof makes several observations about the Powers.  First, it is important to recognize that the Powers were created by God as part of the “good” Creation.  They are instruments to bring order to the Creation and they find their purpose in Christ, who is their Head.  However, the Powers are broken due to sin.  This legion of Powers now often works in ways that are not reflective of God’s character and nature.  They are coercive and their way always leads to death.  On the surface, they promise well-being and stability.  In some sense, they deliver on that promise, but always at the cost of our very lives.  It is both a material and spiritual problem.  We are enslaved to the system.

The work of Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection breaks the dominion of the Powers.  Christ’s crucifixion actually unmasks the Powers for what they truly are.  The resurrection is the sign of Christ’s reign and the Powers “dethronement.”  The Church is also a sign that the Powers no longer rule.  The Body of reconciled believers that contains both Jews and Gentiles, demonstrates Christ’s reign once again over Creation.  The Church is called to stand firm against the Powers, not defeat them… that is Christ’s role.  Rather, the Church unmasks the Powers by living out Christlikeness.  The Powers are further destabilized by preaching and teaching Christ, which opens our eyes to the true reality of our broken world.

The Powers can never really come back to autonomous authority.  But, we live in the “now and not yet” which means that the Powers still vie for dominion.  They do so in three ways: secularism, legalism, and “restoration.”  Berkhof suggests that the Church is largely responsible for these trends and offers the only worthwhile response to the de-stabilization of the Powers: following and embodying Christ.  In other words, we recognize that the Powers are still at work, but we maintain their proper role, which is subordinate to Christ.  We recognize that the “authorities” are broken people needing to be reconciled to Christ.  We do not follow “ideology” but continue to pray that Christ would be made manifest through the Powers’ work.

Berkhof states it succinctly, “It can happen that Christ’s church, by her preaching, her presence, and the patterns of life obtaining within her fellowship, may represent such a mighty witness and so forcefully address the consciences of men far beyond her borders, that they generally orient themselves by this reality, tacitly accepting it as a landmark.  They do so because they know of no better gaurantor of a decent life, of mercy, freedom, justice, and humanity than a certain general acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Christ, or (as they prefer to say it) of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christian values'” (58).