26 April 2015

Organic Living

Psalm 104 & Luke 24:36b-43

Care of Creation Sunday

Fourth Sunday of Easter
26th April 2015

Allow me to be clear here from the start. The sermon title might be a little deceiving.  I’m not making a pitch for buying organic, but for living organically or, simply, organic living. That’s where I wish to go.

But since I brought it up let’s talk for a minute about buying organic. What makes something organic?  “All agricultural products that are sold, labeled or represented as ‘organic’ in any way must not have come in contact with sewage sludge during production and must be produced without the use of: synthetic substances, National Organic Program-prohibited non-synthetic substances, non-organic/non-agricultural and non-organic/agricultural substances used in or on processed products.  Also banned are ionizing radiation and various methods used to modify organisms and/or their growth and development in ways that cannot be achieved under natural conditions.”[1]  I looked all of this up on the Internet. I talk don’t like this.

So, have you joined the organic craze? The jury is still out whether or not organic is really better for us.  I’m not going to get into that debate, because I’m not trying to get you to buy organic. I would say, however, that an organic banana really does taste like a banana.

Did you know that sales of organic food and non-food products in the United States totaled more than $39.1 billion in 2014, up 11.3 percent from the previous year? Organic sales make up a 5 percent share of the total food market.  The organic dairy sector posted an almost 11 percent jump in sales in 2014 to $5.46 billion, the biggest percentage increase for that category in six years. Sales of organic non-food products—accounting for 8 percent of the total organic market—posted the biggest percentage gain in six years, with sales of organic fiber and organic personal care products the standout categories.[2]  I looked this up too. 

There’s a lot of money to be made here.  Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, MOM’s Organic Market seem to be doing well.  Even Giant and Safeway are now selling more organic items. Atwater’s here in Catonsville can’t seem to keep its organic milk in supply.  Perhaps you get your dairy products delivered to your doorstep from a Maryland farm. 

We want local, fresh produce.  Instead of buying blueberries flown in from Chile, we would rather buy them from a farm in Harford County.  We want to reduce our carbon footprint. In this sense, the organic food craze is driven by a real desire to help care for creation.  Farm to table restaurants are everywhere, the most popular being Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore (one of my favorite restaurants). It’s tough to get a reservation there on a Saturday night.  Farmer’s Markets are growing in popularity. We have two here in Catonsville, one on Wednesdays and one on Sundays.  The largest market in Baltimore, under the Jones Falls Expressway, is open right now; the new season kicks off today.  I’ve never been to it. I’m usually busy on Sunday mornings.  But I hear it’s great.

Most would probably prefer to buy organic food—if most could afford it.  This is not an option for a family on a very tight budget.  And so this becomes a justice issue.  Organic food costs more.  Places such as Whole Foods are ridiculously expensive. I love Whole Foods and don’t shop there on a regular basis.  When I do, I often think of the neighborhoods in Baltimore City without supermarkets of any kind, no Giant or Safeway anywhere to be found, these “food deserts” where folks buy food from over-priced corner convenience stores, without the option to buy fresh fruit and vegetables of any kind. 

No, this sermon is not about buying organic—it really isn’t—but about organic living.   They’re connected, however, linked by a theological vision for the way we live in God’s good creation.  Whether you’re caught up in the organic craze or not, the overall interest is rooted in a desire to care for creation, to heal the soil from the damage caused by pesticides, to help heal the atmosphere, the air that we breath, to help heal our bodies, to remove some of the toxins that contribute to the development of disease, to reconnect with Mother Earth, to return to the earth, to the soil. All of this might appear to be very secular, not necessarily religious or even Christian.  But it is actually very theological and therefore directly relevant to our life as Christians.

To care for the earth is the responsibility of every follower of Jesus Christ.  To care for the creation is part of Christian discipleship.  Several months ago, Pope Francis, who is becoming known as the “green Pope,” said, “a Christian who doesnot protect creation…is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.” It should not be overlooked that the Pope took his name from St. Francis (1181/2-1226), the unofficial patron saint of ecology.  At the beginning of worship today we sang St. Francis’ “Canticle to the Sun,” his hymn to creation written in 1225.  It’s a remarkable poem.  St. Francis’ theological vision calls us to see creation intimately connected to and existing within the Creator. The creation cries out with praise, like the psalmist, with gratitude to the Creator.  All of creation is dependent upon the movement of the Creator, who at the beginning called us into being and who remains Creator, and is still creating us. 

When we say God is Creator we must not limit God’s creative activity only to the first seconds of the Big Bang.  When we say God is Creator, Creator of this creation, we are affirming that God is still creating the world, still sustaining us with and in life.  God is life and in God we’re given life and wherever God is there is life.  God is forever saying, “Let there be…” and there was and is, thus yielding a life giving, dynamic, organic creation pulsating with life. An organic existence celebrates the interconnectivity of all that makes for life.  Living organically means living with the knowledge that as a living-entity we are all connected to everyone and everything and that everyone and every blessed thing are directly connected to God, “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

The psalmist said it best, “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world and those who dwell in it;…” (Psalm 24:1). Such a simple sentence yet saying so much!  It all belongs to God, life given by God.  There’s no part of creation that doesn’t belong to God.  It’s all part of a whole, a whole that includes you and me. 

In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures we find, again and again, a holistic vision of creation.  This is in contrast to the dualism that we find in other religions and philosophies.  In scripture we don’t find a dualist split between spirit and body or spirit and matter.  One is not privileged over the other.  The spiritual is not superior to the material or the physical. Privileging spirit over matter emerged a long time ago within Greek philosophy, yet its influence is everywhere in our society today, including some theologies that we find in the Church.  Scripture is far more holistic in its outlook.  Spirit and matter are combined. In fact, to counter the over-emphasis on spirit and spiritual things, we find within Judaism and within Christianity the elevation of matter, of the physical, of the flesh, an approach that horrified the average person in the Greco-Roman world.  The Gospel of John makes it very clear:  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  The birth of Jesus itself should remind us that matter matters to God, our physical, fleshly existence in this world is sacred and holy, embodiment is important to God, and everything in creation, at all levels, from the micro to the macro, is required for the sustenance of life.  Creation is sacred.  The French, Roman Catholic priest, philosopher, mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who was also a geologist and paleontologist, said it beautifully, “By virtue of Creation, and still more the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.”[3] 

And with the eyes of faith the creative outpouring of God’s life is seen most brilliantly in the life pouring through Jesus and most profoundly in God’s re-creating life, which brought Jesus back from the dead.  Not as a ghost, says Luke, but in the flesh (Luke 24:37-38).  It’s the resurrected body—not a ghost—that sits at table with the disciples.  The resurrected body sits at table and requires food for sustenance.  Why? Because the resurrected body of the Lord is hungry.

 “What do you have to eat?”  It’s a remarkable scene.  The disciples are “disbelieving for joy” and full of wonder and completely baffled by Jesus’ appearance, but Jesus is hungry and says, almost ignoring them, “Have you anything to eat?”   Several verses prior to this account we saw the resurrected Jesus at a different table, where he became recognizable to his traveling companions on the way to Emmaus only after he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them (Luke 24:30).

We can see in these stories how our understanding of the Lord’s Supper developed in the church.  Yes, we think of the Lord’s Supper as the Last Supper before his death.  But these post-resurrection meals are also suppers with the Lord, sacramental meals of presence.  This means that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist or Communion we should also view it a post-resurrection meal, a meal with a Resurrected Lord.  These meals of remembrance reconnect us to the Living Christ who connects us, through the Holy Spirit, to the Living God. Early on, the Church viewed the meal as a sharing with and participating in the life of Christ, who is sharing in the life of God.  The meal connects us to Christ who connects us to God in whom all is connected, which makes the Lord’s Supper or Communion or the Eucharist an expression of organic living at its best, as a sharing in the Source of life, sharing with all of life, sharing with one another in the One who makes us one. 

 “Lift up your hearts,” we say when we share Communion.  “We lift them up to the Lord.”  Theologian Ian McFarland, in his remarkable new work, a theology of creation, writes, the “Eucharist draws us upward by drawing us together, binding us not only to one another but also to the bread and wine, which in their organic connection with soil, water, sun, and air implicate the whole web of creaturely relations that makes our life specifically and genuinely human.”[4]  A web of creaturely relations….  It’s as if the entire universe, all of creation, Creator and creation, are all somehow contained in bread and wine and when we eat that bread and drink that cup we, too, share in the abundant life of the Creator.  All of this is true when we have Communion in church, but Communion also reminds us what is true all the time, at every meal, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Perhaps our approach to the Lord’s Supper can shape how we share every meal and inform our relationship with food and how it’s produced and sold and bought and shared.  And maybe our relationship with the food on our tables will connect us more deeply with the bread and wine served at the Lord’s Table. It’s all organic.

[2] Data from the Organic Trade Association: https://www.ota.com/what-ota-does/market-analysis.
[3] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1960), 112.
[4] Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 180.

19 April 2015

Unlocking the Doors of Fear

John 20: 19-31

Third Sunday of Easter
19th April 2015

Two Sundays ago, on Easter, we read from John 20 and heard the story of Jesus near the tomb, disguised as the gardener. Jesus reached out to Mary Magdalene in her grief saying, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" (John 20:15). Jesus told her not to hold on to him because he was about to ascend to the Father.

Then, later that same day, “the evening on that day,” John tells us, “the first day of the week” (Jn. 20:19), which we call Sunday, we find the disciples behind locked doors. They are back in the house where they gathered before Jesus’ death; perhaps the site of their last supper together. John tells us, “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (Jn. 20:19).

This, too, is a remarkable scene that we have in John’s gospel: Jesus’ astonishing exchange with the disciples locked away in fear. “The doors of the house…were locked for fear.” That’s such an evocative phrase and image.

In phrasing it this way, I’m intentionally omitting the object of their fear—“the Jews.” I’m doing this for two reasons. First, the reference to “the Jews” in John’s gospel has inflicted considerable damage and violence toward the Jewish people. Scholars have identified John’s gospel as one of the major sources of anti-Semitism. In fact, we Christians need to remember our role in the propagation of anti-Semitism across the centuries. We need to remember that the Nazis, for example, did not invent the concept of the Jewish ghetto. (Think of the Warsaw ghetto.) The Nazis got the idea from Christians. I was surprised to discover years ago that Venice, Italy, was the site of the first Jewish ghetto, in 1516.  It was the only place Jews were allowed to live in the city.  And I was surprised to discover there was also a Jewish ghetto in Rome (the Ghetto di Roma), built in 1555, surrounded by walls, with three gates and a Vatican guard that made sure no Jew left the area after dark.[1]

John’s attitude toward “the Jews” of Jesus’ time has been used to justify Christian pogroms against all Jews across the centuries.  However, biblical scholars now suspect that John’s use of “the Jews” throughout the gospel is really a code word for the Jewish religious establishment. He’s not referring to everyone who is Jewish (which would include both John and Jesus, who were, of course, both Jewish).

The second reason for omitting “the Jews” here allows us, we who are not necessarily fearful of “the Jews,” to access the depth of meaning of a text like this. While we might not be afraid of “the Jews,” we are certainly people who know what it’s like to live with fear. “The doors of the house…were locked for fear.

The disciples are hiding; scared for their lives. Why? The text doesn’t say, but it’s not difficult to imagine multiple scenarios. They’re afraid of being persecuted for following the “criminal” Jesus. They are marked men. Perhaps they’re fearful of retaliation. If Jesus wasn’t alive, then they would be attacked for being associated with the blasphemer who claimed to be God’s Son and stirred up the city and annoyed the Roman authorities. We can imagine them trying to find a way to get out of Jerusalem, to flee to safety in Galilee.

No doubt news was spreading about what happened at the garden tomb. But, why would this invoke fear?  Think about it.  If it’s true, if resurrection is true then it’s kind of difficult to return to life as “normal” after that. Resurrection changes everything. If Jesus is alive, then their commitment to him would be even stronger than it was when he was alive (which wasn’t all the strong).  And so, they can’t just set aside the whole experience with Jesus as a kind of bad dream and then go back to life as normal; they can’t go home again. There’s no going back to “normal.” If Jesus is alive, then this really does change everything. And in the face of such radical change, it is easy to imagine the disciples huddled together in fear behind locked doors—that’s probably where I would have been.

We can’t blame them for being fearful. On the one hand, fear was probably the appropriate and natural reaction to all that they experienced. If they weren’t fearful, then they probably weren’t paying attention to what was going on around them that weekend in Jerusalem. Fear is the normal, rational response when one feels threatened, attacked, unsure, confused.

Fear is such a powerful emotion, with both positive and negative dimensions to it. There’s a lot about fear that is good. There are rational fears that serve an evolutionary function, which have allowed humans to survive for millennia. Fear can be a good defense mechanism against all kinds of predators. There’s something primal about the way fear can be used as a way to keep us safe. When we’re fearful we respond with whatever it takes to keep us safe; it motivates us toward security. Feeling safe and secure are good things, obviously. It’s impossible to live and thrive without security, without a feeling of being safe.

Sometimes fear is a perfectly rational response—but if we get stuck there, stuck in the fear, then that becomes a source of considerable concern. That’s when fear can become the prison of the heart.

Fear—throughout scripture—never has the final word in any scenario. It’s never lifted up as being the permanent state of being for God’s children. We are not called to live in fear, but in freedom, including freedom from fear. Whenever the disciples are afraid, the voice of the angels or the voice of Jesus himself—the voice of God—is always consistent: “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” Over and over again, the good news of the kingdom is “Fear not.” Don’t live your lives in fear. Instead live your lives with love. And the New Testament is the only text I’ve ever read that states explicitly that the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is fear. As we read in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” And it’s when we fear that we then—hate and attack and persecute and destroy and murder and kill.

Years ago, a wise ruling elder said to me, “Ken, we act either in love or fear.” We have two choices. We can choose to act either in love or fear.  At first, I was a little suspicious, thinking that it’s not that simple.  But she was right. It might sound overly simplistic, but I think it’s true. Just look over your life. Consider the countless decisions you make on any given day or week or over a lifetime—are they, were they done in fear or in love? Think of the major decisions you have made in your life or decisions that need to be made. Love or fear? Which will dictate your life? Which governs your life?

The truth is there are so many places in our lives, in the church, in the world that are not governed by love, but fear. The truth is there are so many places in our lives, in the church, in the world today being destroyed by fear. The more you become aware of it, the more you see it everywhere. In addition to fear, there’s the related emotion of anxiety. We all know the price we pay when children are raised to be fearful and anxious, they tend to be apprehensive. If children are raised in environments that are fearful, they become defensive. Back in 1959, Dorothy Law Nolte (1924-2005) wrote a poem that became well-known, “Children Learn What They Live.” It begins with these lines, “If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn…/ If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight…/ If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive…” The poem continues with a description of what is learned when a child lives with acceptance, tolerance, justice, approval. My mother had a copy of this poem, the 1969 version, on the wall of the bedroom that I shared with my brother Craig. I remember reading those lines over and over again as boy.

Children are growing up and maturing in a world overwhelmed by the presence of fear. The world can be a fearful place for a child. It’s probably always been the case. But earlier generations were raised in communities that shared a common religious perspective, one that provided considerable resources for children. There was a time when family and community, religious communities in particular, helped provide a secure, safe place for growth.  This is completely missing for many today.

The source of so much hatred in our society is rooted in fear. The specter of racism raising its ugly head again in the United States is rooted in fear of the other. The rising intolerance for anyone or anything that doesn’t fit the “norm” is rooted in fear. Society is changing, the church is changing (and not all of this is bad, a lot of it is very, very good), but too much change too fast produces anxiety. Sometimes our resistance to change is simply rooted in fear. The rise of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalisms over the last century, especially over the last decade, each have one thing in common: fear. Christian fundamentalism emerged as a movement in the early 1900s, here in the United States, as a fearful reaction to advances made in science and learning. We then gave this fear to the world.[2]

God doesn’t want our lives governed by fear. Again, fear might have an evolutionary function that allows us to survive; however, theologically and psychologically-speaking, we know that fear can suck the life out of us and actually hinder our ability to thrive. When fear generates an obsession with safety and security—when we’re always living behind locked doors—then we cut ourselves off from life itself. The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), observed “negation of the life force by fear” is “the spirit of evil.” Only boldness can deliver us from fear, and if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is violated.[3] James Hollis, a contemporary Jungian analyst, builds on this point, “The meaning of our life will be found precisely in our capacity to achieve as much of it as possible beyond those bounds fear would set for us. There is no blame in being fearful; it is our common lot, our common susceptibility. But it may be a crime, an impiety…, when our individual summons, our destiny, is diverted or destroyed by fear.”[4] This is a remarkable insight: life governed by fear as an impiety, an expression of being faithless.

It’s precisely in such a context that we hear Jesus’ words to his disciples. God will not allow fear to have the last word. In fear the disciples try to hide themselves from a world that resists all the implications of the life changing, liberating power of resurrection. But fear can’t hinder the new life Jesus extends to us! Resurrection life acknowledges the fear, but does not allow the fear to divert or destroy what God is doing through Jesus and through us. We’re given a truly remarkable image here. I love the way the resurrected Jesus appears within the locked room and stands among them there; he stands within the confines of their fear; he appears and stands in their place of greatest fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Even locked doors can’t keep him out. Christ’s boldness overcomes every barrier we try to erect in fear. We’re not meant to live behind locked doors. Within the confines of all our fears, Jesus continues to stand among us, unlocking our prisons of fear, and saying, “Peace be with you.”

The place of fear can become the place of presence, the place of peace, the place of resurrection. The text tells us that their fear was replaced with rejoicing at the sight of his presence. That’s what resurrection can do. That’s what the resurrected Lord continues to do.

And, did you notice how these verses contain John’s version of Pentecost? There are no “tongues of fire,” as we find in Acts. What we have here is Jesus saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Sent to be agents of peace, agents of his presence, offering assurance in every other fearful place we find in the world. Then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 20:22).

In that place where you hide, locked away in fear, Jesus still says,
“Peace be with you.”

In all that instills fear in you, Jesus still says,
“Peace be with you.”
In the prison of the heart bound by fear, Jesus still says,
“Peace be with you.”

In the lives of people we know who are overwhelmed by fear,
the Lord sends us to say in his name,
“Peace be with you.”

In a world ensnared by fear the Lord sends
the Church out to offer a different voice to the world, saying,
“Peace be with you.”

Every place where we are tempted to act in fear over love,
may we remember the words of the Risen Lord
who said and continues to say to us:
“Peace be with you.”
“Peace be with you.”
“Peace be with you.”

[1] Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum, promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1555, segregated the Jews, who had lived freely in Rome since Antiquity, and subjected them to various restrictions on their personal freedoms such as limits to allowed professions and compulsory hearing of Catholic sermons on the Jewish Shabbat.
[2] See George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
[3] C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), par. 551.
[4] James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), 15.

09 April 2015

Beyond Our Grasp

John 20:1-18

Resurrection of the Lord
5th April 2015

Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

With gratitude for the life, witness, ministry, and deep friendship of Lawson R. Brown.  Whenever I read John 20:17, I will think of him. Lawson died on the 8th April in Dundee, Scotland. He was 83.

 In John’s telling there’s always something more just beyond our grasp. Matthew and Luke each have their versions of the story. In Mark’s gospel there is no resurrection appearance, only an empty tomb.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in unique ways, each attempt to describe the indescribable. 

John’s version is rich in detail and imagery, and yet it’s remarkable that in his telling resurrection is always more than a fact of history, more than something that we nail down to an exact moment in time, a verifiable event. The story, the narrative, even Jesus himself are there…and not there, present yet absent, available for the eye to see but not for the hand to touch. And so this Easter morning I want to stay very close to John’s text to see what he might be up to here.

Let’s consider Mary Magdalene.  She goes to the tomb, in the dark, before first light, expecting to see one thing, namely the closed tomb where Jesus was placed, only to find something else, a stone removed.  She arrives after the fact.  She arrives after the event, and comes across the after effects of a previous occurrence, namely a stone that had been rolled away. The event itself is missing, just like the unseen hand or force or whatever that rolled the stone away and removed the body.

Then Mary goes to Simon Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved,” most likely John.  “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb,” she says, “and we do not know where they have laid him” (Jn. 20:2). Taken away.  Removed from.  Displacement once again. That which was once “present,” there, is now gone, removed, absent.  They always seem to be one step removed from some previous act or event.

Then Simon Peter and John arrive to see for themselves.  John looks into the empty tomb and “sees the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in” (Jn. 20:5). Linens that once wrapped a dead body lie there missing a body. This, too, is striking. Suggesting an absent body brings to mind the memory of a once-present dead body.  There’s always this play between presence and absence in the story.  Startled by what he sees, John steps back. 

Then Peter goes into the empty tomb and fills the space with his presence.  He, too, sees the burial “linens lying there,” then he discovers “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn. 20:7).  Apart.  Like Mary, they, too, arrive late, removed from some previous, mysterious act.  They discover that someone removed the body, just as Mary said.  But they also discover that someone actually removed the body!  Someone—again we have an absent, unseen hand, which has such a strong presence throughout the narrative—someone unraveled the linens from around the body, unbound the body, carefully, leaving traces of this act in what remained behind.  They saw for themselves and believed for themselves.  And, so Mary was a faithful witness—but what did she really see?

Peter and John then leave Mary behind—in her grief.  Nice job, guys! They just leave her! Every time I read this I’m struck by their thoughtlessness.

Still crying, she finds the courage to bend over and look in for herself.  And then Mary is blessed with seeing something that Peter and John either missed or were kept from seeing.  She saw a curious sight, two angels “sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet” (Jn. 20:12).  She says to the angels, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (Jn. 20:13).  Again, a narrative loaded with absence, “taken away,” lost, once found.  She doesn’t assume that he got up and walked out of the tomb, she’s not expecting resurrection. Someone must have removed the body.  This is probably the reason why she doesn’t recognize Jesus when he does appear (from out of nowhere). She doesn’t recognize him because she wasn’t expecting to see him.  We see what we’re looking for. Jesus then echoes the same question posed by the angel, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (Jn. 10:15).  And so she begins to retell the story of Jesus’ displacement, of his misplacement, and her disorienting, unsettling experience.

Suddenly, her absent Lord utters her name—“Mary!  Mary!”  The lost is found.  But the one who has now found him never really “has” him.  You can imagine her running toward Jesus with joy and disbelief, wanting to hug him, hold him.  Wouldn’t you?  Wouldn’t you?  But then Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me” (Jn. 20:17a).  Do not grasp me.  Do not hold me here. Do not try to keep me down.  Do not try to manipulate or control or define me—or what has happened here.  “I am ascending.”  I won’t be here long.

Always beyond our grasp.

It’s a remarkable text, John’s gospel. He’s making an historical claim: the actual facticity of Jesus’ resurrection.  It happened.  It occurred.  That’s worth commemorating. And yet that event is always a disappointment to the historian because what happened is not subject to historical analysis.  However, John never said he was an historian. At the beginning of his gospel he doesn’t say, “I, John, an historian, here recount this story.” He’s a gospel writer, the sharer of good news.  What we are doing here today is claiming, celebrating, giving thanks to God for a theological claim that is true every Sunday, every day. 

Resurrection, the resurrected Jesus is always beyond our reach and Jesus remains the ever-elusive one whose presence is known even in his absence.  It’s the unresolved tension of presence and absence in John’s account that points the way toward something else that’s absolutely essential, crucial, here, something that should give us a clue about whose been at work here all along: The unseen hand of Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, is written all over this story.  How do we know?

Go back into that empty space.  Not the empty tomb, but the space between the two angels in the tomb, “one at the end and the other at the feet” (Jn. 20:12).  John’s gospel is the only one with this version of what happened—and nothing in John’s gospel is there by mistake.  God is, literally, in the details. 

John never says this explicitly, but any Jew reading this would immediately think of a similar image: the mercy seat of Yahweh, the ark of the covenant, the dwelling place of Yahweh. Which was flanked with what? Two cherubim, two angels.[1]  This is remarkable.  The two cherubim that flank the ark defined a space, an empty space, where Yahweh dwelt, present between the cherubim, yet never portrayed.  Present and absent at the same time.  The theological claim here is this, “If you want to see the God of Judah, this is where he is and is not: to ‘see’ him is to look into the gap between the holy images.”[2]  God is the one invisibly enthroned, non-representable.  Yahweh has always been understood as one who is non-possessable, mystery, difficult to recognize, impossible to “nail down,” indeterminate, always beyond our understanding, beyond our grasp, and yet, somehow, here, present, real, now. 

This is the God who raised Jesus from the grave.  This is all God’s doing.  It has God’s “fingerprint” all over it.  The Resurrected Lord is the embodiment of God’s redemptive love in the world, a strong love that cannot—will not—be bound or contained or grasped by us or the world or even the Church!  That’s the good news!

Therefore, we must resist absorbing Jesus into our visions or images of him, making him do or say the things that only reinforce our beliefs or ideologies or attitudes or opinions.  If you think you have Jesus all figured out––he’s not the Risen Lord.

And, again, we need to remember that John’s gospel was never meant to be what we might call historical non-fiction.  Neither was it was it written with the scholarly demands of the historian in mind. 

John had only one audience in mind: you and me.  In other words: the Church.  He had you and me in mind.  And John wanted his community then, and every community of the Nazarene, to know that “Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified is not confined in the past”—the past is the place of the dead—“and that his non-confinement is more than just some sort of survival in the minds or memories of Christian believers.”[3]  John isn’t saying that Jesus “lives” in our memories.  That was never, ever the claim of the early church. Ever. Instead, they claimed—and I claim here today—that what God did in and through Jesus continues unabated in and through this same Jesus. Today. “Do not hold me here,” Jesus said to Mary. We can also imagine Jesus saying the same to the Church.  “Do not hold me—there, in the past, or here, in the present.”  For he’s always beyond our grasp, always ahead of us, calling us forward into God’s future.  And so, we could say that Jesus has “unfinished business” to do in the world through us—through you and me.[4]

The good news that we proclaim to the world today is this: the absent-present-One, the present-absent-One is here with us.  Christ is risen! The absent-present-One, the present-absent-One is here within us, within our hearts, and also here, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine, and yet not localized here in the elements, but there and there and there in you and you and you and here and here and here

The Resurrected One, the Lord of Life, is here.  And if he’s the one you’re looking for today, then listen carefully, for you will hear him calling your name.

Image: Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Resurrection (Noli me tangere/ Do not touch me), c.1306-07, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua.

[1] See 2 Samuel 6:2 & Isaiah 37:16.
[2] Rowan Williams, “Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne,” On Christian Theology (Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 183-196.  I’m grateful for this absolutely brilliant essay on the image of the empty throne in John’s gospel.  I came across this piece more than ten years ago and have been waiting for an Easter when it seemed “right” to use it.
[3] Williams, 188.
[4] Williams, 192.