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The Complications of Belonging to a Church

GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Read the Acts text)

We are now into the latter half of the season of Easter. The Alleluias from Easter Sunday, or as it is formally called The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, are not ringing as loudly as they were a month ago. Yes, it is still Easter but with 4 weeks of resurrection stories behind us we are coming into the questions that the early church community faced. Questions about what it means to be a community, what does it mean to belong, who exactly are we and where do we go from here? Sound familiar?

Even as we consider this new Easter world, John jumps us back to Maundy Thursday… to hours before betrayal, arrested, trial, and execution. Jesus is eating the Last Supper with his disciples, and he gives them a New Commandment – to love one another. On the night before Good Friday, these are the last instructions of a teacher to his followers. Yet, here a month into Easter, they speak of a different reality to a fledgling Easter community being birthed before our eyes.

In some ways we should have read story of Peter from the book of Acts after the gospel reading, because Peter’s dilemma is precisely how to live into the New Commandment that his teacher and master had given him.

In the days, months and years after the resurrection, the community of Jesus’ followers that continued on to become the church, had to begin dealing with a lot of questions. Questions about who belonged and what it took to become a member of the community. As Peter became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the question of who could be a part of the community quickly arose. Particularly, as small Christian communities began to sprout up beyond Jerusalem and into the Greek world, the early church had to contend with what new converts needed to do in order to join.

When Peter meets the community in Jerusalem, they are a Jewish group… all are circumcised. And they have been keeping to the tradition of Judaism not necessarily seeing following Jesus as a departure from the faith of their ancestors. Yet, Peter has been meeting with uncircumcised followers – gentiles. But not just meeting with them, eating with them. Of course, observant Judeans kept Kosher, so eating with gentiles would certainly mean breaking Hebrew purity laws. The circumcised believers question Peter’s actions… so Peter tells them a story. Peter was given a vision, a voice from heaven telling him to eat non-kosher meat. Yet when he dismissed the dream, it kept coming back.

Even then, Peter is not swayed… so the spirit sends him to the home of a gentile, Cornelius. And there Peter’s mind is changed.

Now some twenty centuries later, we don’t generally feel the same way about circumcision and eating non-kosher meat that the early christian community in Jerusalem did… yet there is still something extremely familiar about this debate.

Of course, we know on a technical level that the first step of becoming a Christian is to be baptized. In fact, the Greek word Cristos means anointed one, Messiah is the equivalent in Hebrew. And after being washed in the waters of baptism, we are a marked with cross in oil… we are anointed, we are named as Christians.

And yet, knowing what it means to become a Christian through baptism and anointing compared to belonging to a particular community… well those could very well mean different things.

In the first congregation that I served, an open country church on the corner of a quarter section of farmland, what it meant to belong had a complicated meaning. Belonging happened in a variety of ways: If your family had been farming the land for a few generations, you belonged whether you wanted to or not, whether you were in church every Sunday or once a year. And yet, if you were new to the community, meaning being the first generation to the land, you were always new. Some who had been faithfully attending for decades, were still considered “new members.”

In my second congregation, a very large congregation in a small city, belonging was very much tied to involvement and connections. You could quickly belong within months by joining one of the many groups active in the congregation, like knitters, musical groups, prayer groups, people interested in global mission and so on. Yet, you could remain a new person for years if you kept to yourself and just showed up for worship.

And at my last congregation, belonging was tied to one’s place in the community surrounding the church. Where you worked in town, what street you lived on and who your neighbours were, and how connected you were in town determined your status of belonging.

Of course, here at Sherwood Park, we have unspoken rules about what it means to belong too… they are apart of every church from Peter’s day to ours.

Circumcision and eating non-kosher meats, or having generations to stand on the shoulders of, or sharing a common interest like quilting or music or missionary work, or meeting by chance at the grocery store and again at the PTA meeting and again while shovelling snow… all of these things and so many more make up the complicated definition of belonging to a community, belonging to a church, of a church belonging to a denomination, of a denomination belonging to a religion and so on.

Yet, all of these complications of belonging are about more than checking off boxes and fulfilling requirements. They are ways that we deal with the same fear living within each of us. The circumcised ask Peter about his fraternizing with the uncircumcised because they are worried if they themselves are worthy, if they are acceptable, if they actually belong. All of our ways to defining who is in and out, who checks the right boxes and who doesn’t… they all have to do with our own fear of being good enough, of being worthy and acceptable.

Last week, we heard from Revelation giving good news to Christian communities living on margins of society and how the great multitude worshipping before the throne was God’s way of breaking down walls that divide and separate.

Today, is about God breaking down the same walls within our communities, within ourselves.

Even after being given the same vision three times Peter is not convinced… that is until he comes to the home of Cornelius.

It is when Peter must look Cornelius in the eye, in the flesh, and decide whether the good news of God’s forgiveness and love is also for this Gentile… The Holy Spirit breaks the walls Peter’s heart. The Spirit makes Peter realize something new…

All the complications of belonging… that is our baggage, that is our stuff.

But for God, there are no complications… there is simply belonging.

In Christ, we all belong. We all belong to Christ.

We all belong because of the one who crossed the chasm, who bridged the divide of Creator and creation, who joined what was separated in sin and death together in forgiveness and resurrection. In Christ, the one who is both our flesh and the divine, we are joined to the Trinue God of all.

And this same Christ, likes to keep reminding us of that. Not in the complications, but by meeting us in the flesh. Christ meets in human voices and bodies that read and proclaim God’s word, in prayer and song, in peace shared and praises given.

Christ reminds us that we all belong in the water that washes us and the oil that anoints us, and we are washed and forgiven by God, we are anointed and clothed by God, and we given the same family name – Christian.

And Christ reminds us that we are all one in the same body. As Jesus gathers at the table, as we share in Body and Blood of Christ, God makes us what we eat and drink – Christ’s body given for the sake of the world.

And all those complications, all those other things, all those reasons we find to say someone whether belongs or doesn’t… those things are pushed aside.

And instead Christ proclaims us that belonging isn’t up to us, not based on our worth or the worthiness of the generations that came before, not based on our ability to participate or contribute, not determined by our integration into the fabric of community, the number of connections to others we carry….

But belonging is determined by the One to whom we belong.

Today, Christ declares to Peter, to the early church, and to us… that we no matter who we are, we belong to God.

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Worshipping before the Shepherd’s Throne

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (Read the Revelation Reading)

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection! We are half way into the 50 day season of Easter. And for the past three weeks, we have stuck close to the events of the early days after the empty tomb. Jesus meeting the disciples and Thomas behind locked doors. And Jesus meeting Peter and others on the beach, calling Peter to feed his sheep.

Yet, the 4th Sunday of the Easter begins to move us along from the early resurrection moments. Traditionally, the 4th Sunday of the Easter has been observed as Good Shepherd Sunday… a day to be reminded of our Shepherding God calling us into God’s great flock. We hear familiar readings like Psalm 23 and we hear Jesus use familiar sheep and shepherd images in John. And as church folk, we love those quaint images of Jesus with a fuzzy sheep… usually on some oil painting found in a church basement or at grandma’s house… Yet, Good Shepherd Sunday has a deeper sense that it is moving us along in the story of resurrection. From resurrection moments to resurrection community.

And so we hear also from Revelation, John’s vision of the great multitude, the great flock before the throne of the great shepherd at the end of time.

A few decades on from the resurrection, and the first communities of Christians, of Jesus’ followers, were struggling in Roman society. They were social outcasts because they refused to follow the social order. It was essential in the Roman world to know where you belonged. Society was divided up by class, ethnicity, gender, occupation, citizenship, language, and religion. And those early church communities were marginalized because they had this inconvenient habit of declaring that under the One God of All, there was no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. They rejected a world that saw gods in everything, mountains and bubbling springs, the sun and moon and stars, in war and harvest, in nature and animals. They worshipped the one God of all things who died on the cross and rose again on the third day.

This was a threat to the Roman Military cult who believed the essence of their success at conquering new lands was that in each new place they came to conquer, they adopted and prayed to the local mountain gods or river gods or whatever kind they found for victory on the battlefield – and they go it.

For a community living under oppression, marginalized and ostracized, sometimes even sent to the coliseums to be eaten by lions, the Revelation of John provided a vision of God’s great promise of reconciliation… the unity of God’s people worshiping before the throne, the Shepherd’s one great flock.

This great unified multitude gathering before the One God’s throne is as counter-cultural today as it was for early Christian communities. We too live in a world that encourages us to look around for people who are like us, who resemble us, and to fear anyone who doesn’t. We constantly navigate the many and various divisions that categorize people. Whether it is which political party we support, what religion we practice, what education level we have obtain or job we do, what the colour of our skin is or the gender we identify as or generation we belong to, what sports team we cheer for or tv show we are fans of. Our world is just as divided and categorized as the ancient world. And the narratives, the stories that we are told push us to fear those who are different, those who don’t belong to the same tribes and groups we belong to.

The idea that we belong to one great multitude is one that goes against most of what we are told by the world around us.

And so it is no wonder that when we talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd, we hold on to the images of shepherd staffs and fuzzy lambs. We love those paintings of a kindly Jesus holding a little sheep in his arms. We want to be comforted, we want to hear that we are one of the sheep, one of the people who gets to be a part one of the most important groups we can think of.

Yet having just come from the cross and empty tomb, from Thomas seeing the marks in Jesus’ hands and side, from Peter’s shame being met by Jesus’ compassion over a breakfast of fish on the beach… is fuzzy sheep and kindly shepherds where we have been headed with all of this?

If we are honest, the radical inclusive of God’s kingdom is something we don’t usually want to imagine. The idea that those whom we fear, those who are different, those whom we often would rather keep out and keep away from, are actually a part of us can make us uncomfortable. A great multitude of people full of those who we struggle to imagine as being anything but other from us is hard to grasp.

So it is no mistake that the place and time that this great multitude comes together is not the end of time, but a moment that we know all too well.

My seminary internship was in Calgary, and I was placed in fairly affluent congregation in a neighbourhood just a few blocks from the University. Recently, the C-Train, Calgary Light Rail transit system, had just added a stop close to the church. And one of the consequences was that this sleepy neighbourhood was all of a sudden accessible from anywhere in the city. Many poor and homeless figured out that begging in the burbs was more profitable than downtown. And the church’s back porch and beneath the spruce trees in the yard became convenient places for homeless folks to sleep off a high. This also meant that from time to time, this mostly affluent congregation would welcome some of Calgary’s poorest to worship.

As the intern, one of my usual roles in worship was to serve the common cup at communion. Since most people chose individual cups, I often stood back and watched people coming and going from the altar rail. In those moments, it seemed like a glimpse of the great multitude. As people came to rail, there were oil executives and bank mangers next to retirees and school children. Ex-CFL players alongside teachers and retail managers. Homeless people next to engineers and nurses, people who had lived in the neighbourhood for 80 years next to new immigrants.

Despite all the ways in which we seek to divide ourselves, to find ways in which we are different, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back as we all came to the table in the same way. Hands open and empty, we are given bread and wine… God gives us the Body of Christ to make us the Body of Christ. As a seminary prof once said to us, “Swirling around in the cup are all your brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Good Shepherd Sunday and the great multitude gathered before the throne tells us a story of God’s desire for us that is very different than any story we hear the other days of the week. It is a story rooted in this gathering that we belong to right here and now. It is the gathering of God’s people before the throne… it the story of God gathering us, and all creation before the word, before the waters, before the bread and wine.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is not just a gentle shepherd holding a fuzzy little sheep, but a God who is gathering us, all of us, all the varied and different kinds of us… gathering all of us up into the great multitude worshipping before the throne. Worshipping before the throne of the one who has come to die with us, and who shows us the way to resurrection and new life…

To new and resurrected life in the one great multitude, God’s great flock to which we now belong.

Peter, Do you love me? Yes Lord, I am your friend.

John 21:1-19

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way…

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…” (Read the whole passage)

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection. Two weeks into the season of Easter, and we meet the disciples again in the hours and day following Jesus’ resurrection. Last week, Jesus came to them in a locked room, breathing life and peace back into his lost disciples. And now we get to the denouement, the part of the story that comes after the drama and tension, the part that wraps it all up in a nice happy ending. Or at least that is how it is supposed to go.

For the first time in the Gospels the disciples know the end of the story, they finally have caught up to us, they now know what we have known since Christmas morning – that there would be crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples now know that the story of the Jesus ends with life despite death, empty tombs despite crosses. The disciples know this miracle, this Good News, but they are back fishing. Back to their old lives, back to what they knew before this Jesus guy ever came into the picture – Peter leading the way.

And still Jesus finds them, and tells them how to catch fish and they do. As if they needed more proof of who the Messiah is, Jesus gives them yet another sign. And then calls them over for breakfast.

In the early morning hours. The first pinks and purples of the sun are showing in the sky. There is a fire glowing on the beach, the smell of fish and toast. The sound of waves lapping up onto the sand. Its maybe the first peaceful moment in days. There are no words spoken, simply the smell of the fresh seawater, and the dancing shadows of firelight. And as Jesus and Peter lay on the beach, having eaten breakfast, still under the dark of night, Peter cannot help but be reminded of another fire in the dark that he visited.

Lost in thought and memory, Peter stares into the flames. Jesus is the first to break the silence.

“Simon son of John, do love me more than these?”

Its a question that snaps Peter back to the present, a question that cuts right through to the heart. We know this question, and we have asked this question.

Maybe it’s the question of a child to parent. “Do you love me mommy?” “Do you love me daddy?” Maybe it’s the question spoken into a cell phone well into the night, “Do you love me enough to come home from work?” Maybe it’s a question asked after a fight between a married couple on the edge, “Do you still love me?”

We know this question and we have asked this question, because it’s rooted in our insecurities. It’s rooted in the insecurities we see in others. Do I really love them? How can they love someone like me?

Without hesitation, Peter answers back “Yes Lord, you know that I am your best friend!”. Peter does not respond with the same love that Jesus asked the question with, instead Peter uses a lesser and different love.

Jesus simply says, “Feed my lambs”.

Peter keeps staring at the fire, he can’t bring himself to look at Jesus. He doesn’t know where this question is coming from, but in the glow of the fire he can imagine the look on Jesus’ face. A sad, disappointed look. A look that cannot forgive Peter. A look of betrayal and abandonment.

A second time Jesus breaks the silence, “Simon Son of John do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?”

The question cuts deeper this time. Peter knows why Jesus is asking. This is not the first time Peter has been huddled around a fire in the darkness. This is not the 2nd time that Peter has been asked this question, but the 5th. And the first three answers he gave to the sound of a rooster crowing, “I do not know this man.”

Jesus asks do you love me enough to give your life – agape in Greek, and Peter couldn’t even acknowledge that he knew him the first three times, and now he can only respond in friendship – Philias in Greek, not the deep love of self sacrifice, not agape.

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we don’t want to hear, and that is painful to ask. The answer can be frightening. It demands self examination and exploration of feelings we may not want to deal with, emotions we don’t want to experience. It also reminds us of our betrayals and the times we abandoned those around us. When we have failed to live up to promises, when we have failed to be anything more than self-centered.

And again, without hesitation Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that you are my best friend!”.

Jesus simply says, “Tend my Sheep”.

The wound is now as fresh in Peter’s heart as it was when the rooster crowed the first time. When that 3rd denial came out of Peter’s mouth, he knew what he had done, and now he is reliving it… reliving it in front of his teacher and best friend, in front of Messiah, the one that Peter could not bring himself to believe in when Jesus said, “I will be raised up on the 3rd day”.

Again, Jesus breaks the silence. Peter knows what is coming and it hurts to bone. “Simon Son of John, do you even consider me a friend?”.

It’s the last nail, the final blow. A last strike that we know and that we have felt. The final words of a friendship, the death of a relationship, the last words between two people who will not speak again. Without looking, Peter can see the face that asks this question. A face stoically set on concluding affairs. A face that is seared in our minds each time we have hurt a loved one beyond repair, beyond forgiveness.

This time Peter takes a breath, and staring into the flames, struggling to say something, struggling to find words for his teacher, “Jesus you know all things, you know how I feel about you, you know you are my best friend!”

Peter can’t help it anymore, he needs to see Jesus’ face, even if it’s set on ending their friendship. He knows he has abandoned his friend, he knows that he can’t forgive himself for it, but he still needs to look his friend in the eye one more time.

But when Peter looks up from the fire, its not the face of rejection, or disappointment, or stoic resolve. Its a face of compassion, a face of forgiveness, a face of tender care for a grieving friend.

“Feed my sheep”.

Jesus’ words are gentle and kind.

Despite the betrayal around that fire on Maundy Thursday, Jesus still loves his friend. Despite Peter’s lack of faith and return to his life before Christ, Jesus is there offering his friend the bread of life. Despite the hard questions and Peter’s luke warm answers, Jesus is giving Simon Son of John forgiveness… grace for an undeserving sinner.

The risen Christ has met his disciples on the Sea shore to remind them once again of who he is. Jesus welcomes Peter back into the community of God… welcomes him back home with words of Peace spoken in a locked room. And Jesus is there to forgive Peter what he cannot forgive himself — a betrayal around a fire in the cover of darkness. For as they eat and talk, the sun is rising and banishing the dark world of betrayal. And Jesus is there bringing fish and bread, just as he did for the 5000, to remind his disciples and friends, to remind his best friend Peter, where the bread of life comes from. Jesus is feeding his lambs, tending his sheep and feeding his sheep.

And the Risen Christ meets us too on the sea shore. Meets us to break into our questions, our insecurities, our suffering and pain, our self-centeredness and our inability to forgive ourselves. We know the questions that are asked today, we have heard them, we have asked them. But what we learn anew is that Jesus knows us.

That Jesus knows where we are and calls to us again and again.

Jesus knows us sinners.

Jesus knows our betrayals and abandonment, our losses and grief.

Jesus knows how we inflict these things on each other and still he says, “Follow me”.

Follow me, when we do not deserve to follow him out of the tomb.

Follow me, when we cannot forgive ourselves as Jesus forgave from the cross.

Follow me, when we return to life before Christ — having lost our faith.

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection today, and even though it feels like this is the end of the story… it is in fact just the beginning.

The beginning of Jesus’ call to follow him into eternal life, into the love of God, into grace that forgives all sins. Jesus knows where we are and knows that this our beginning… and Jesus keeps meeting us wherever we are with the fish, bread and wine of New Life to give us strength for the journey.

Yes, it is still Easter

John 20:19-31

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It is still the first day of the week, it is still the day of the resurrection but it can feel like the excitement has already worn off. The drama of an empty tomb, the joy of the story: Christ is Risen! It all seems like a lifetime away.

Although it feels like we might be moving on, the season of Easter is seven weeks or 50 days long. The early church considered the 50 days to be one great day of the resurrection. And in fact each Sunday is understood to be the day of the resurrection, a mini-Easter so to speak. And despite all this, it is often our habit as modern Christians to move on and get back to normal.

This is something we do a lot in our post-modern world… we engage in the big moments for a time, and then we get back to business as usual, we go back to the routines we have always followed because they provide us comfort and certainty.

Our 21st century response to moments of significance is not that unlike the response of first century people. On that first Easter, it didn’t take long for the disciples to begin hiding away in a locked room. They hear that Jesus is alive and still they lock themselves away in fear. They have been told the good news by Mary Magdalene… but as far as they are concerned Jesus is dead.

And what else is there to do? Whether the story is true or not, Jesus isn’t there to keep things going. Dangers are as real as ever, life is now changed, but also must go on. And so quickly all the disciples fall into fear and hiding. The resurrection hasn’t changed anything for them, there is no New Life for this terrified group. Instead, they are packed away in a tomb of their own making, they are closed off to the world.

Like the disciples, we often go about our lives as if Jesus is still dead. We may not hide ourselves away in real locked rooms, but we are surrounded and entombed by apathy, by a world that simply doesn’t care about how the resurrection might change things. In times gone by non-Christians may have tried to make the claim that Jesus wasn’t real, or that he did not rise from the dead. But today, a non-believer might say “Jesus was raised from the dead? So what? Who cares? How does that make a difference in my life?” Jesus is worse than dead, he is ignored and made meaningless… at least that is what it can feel like to those of us who have gathered ourselves together on this second Sunday of Easter.

With the news full of floods and even more acts of terrorism and hockey playoffs and political maneuvers, this second Sunday can feel forgotten. Jesus’s resurrection is left behind by a world getting on with more exciting things. The world lives as though he is still dead and does not matter. And we too begin to move on, we just keep going with life, everything becoming the same after Easter as it was before.

As the disciples hide away and try to figure out what they should do now, something or someone appears in their midst. The words come first. Words that feel like wind.

“Peace be with you”.

Jesus doesn’t just make an appearance at the empty tomb. Jesus shows up right in the middle of his disciples. Right between them. Close enough for them to feel his breath.

“Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you.”

He breathes on them the spirit.

Until this moment Jesus seemed dead to the disciples. And until this moment, the disciples were acting as though they too were dead in a tomb, hidden away from the world. And yet Jesus walks right into their tomb and finds them. Jesus shows them that he is alive. But this is more than Jesus being alive, this is Jesus breathing life back into them. This is more than Jesus the man who has died and risen. This is God who has conquered death for all.

Jesus speaks like God in creation. Just as God spoke, “Let there be…” in the beginning. Now, Jesus speaks his followers into life. “Peace be with you. God’s Shalom be with you. The wholeness and completeness of God be with you”.

Just as God breathed Life into the Adam, Jesus breathes life into his death-like disciples. Jesus gives them the spirit, the sign that God lives in them and they in God.

Jesus breathes hope into them when the world seems too dangerous. And Jesus keeps coming, even when the disciples are still in the locked room. Jesus will not leave them. Jesus won’t let them keep falling into fear and hiding, into a life where there are dead men walking.

Jesus comes even though our world doesn’t want to believe that Jesus matters anymore. Jesus speaks words like “Peace be with you” even when we cannot see how they change us. Jesus breathes the spirit into us, even when we cannot feel it. Jesus comes when we cannot see why and cannot understand what this all means. And Jesus keeps coming.

Jesus comes gathering us each day, each week, each Easter, and Jesus comes in between. The faith that Jesus gives is not solid belief or concrete certainty that we can hold on to. The faith that Jesus gives is hope for a future that we cannot see. It is trust in things we cannot understand. Jesus brings us into the relationship of faith, a relationship that goes on, that exists in the in between times, between each day, between Sundays and between Easters. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that exists between us, between neighbours, friends and family. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that joins us together into One Body — the Body of Christ.

And so, even when we often continue to live our lives like Jesus is still dead. Even when we have heard the Good News, and are still hiding and afraid. Jesus comes into our midst. And Jesus keeps coming. Today, tomorrow, next week and in between.

Resurrection: Looking for the living among the dead

Luke 24:1-12

1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? (Read the whole passage)

Just a short while ago, we stood on the mountain. The mountain called Golgotha, with the cross looming high above us, and the crucified God hanging there. That Good Friday moment spoke loudly and clearly about us. About humanity, about our desire to be God in God’s place, to be the ones in control and in charge, because human beings threatened by God in flesh tried to put God to death.

But now, we are once again down into the valley, the valley of death. A literal grave stands before us with the women who have come to tend to the body of their beloved teacher and friend.

This is always an awkward place to begin the Easter celebration. The church is already decorated, breakfast has already been eaten, the songs of praise with Alleluias have already been sung. But the story takes just a few more words to unfold, a little bit more to get there.

And so every Easter, before we can truly announce the good news of the resurrection, we have to begin with the women on their way to a tomb. It is easy overlook and to see this moment as part of the celebration. But going to a cemetery is not the most festive of experiences, especially going to see the freshly covered over grave of a loved one. It is an all together different feeling than coming together to celebrate the resurrection.

And yet, this is always where Easter begins. Just as from from Ash Wednesday with crosses marked on our foreheads, to the Lenten wilderness, and from the Palm Procession one week ago, to the last Supper on Thursday, and mostly clearly from the cross on Good Friday… there is always the promise of Easter peeking through the horizon, calling to us.

And Easter too, never leaves Good Friday completely behind, the path that leads us to the empty tomb always comes from Golgotha and the cross.

And so with these women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, we begin on our way to the grave. When they get there, they do not find what they were expecting. They do not find the body of Jesus. Instead they find a stone rolled away, divine messengers in white and an empty tomb. Still Easter hasn’t fully landed for these women, they respond first in fear.

Then the Angel asks them this question,

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Seeing resurrection does not come naturally to the women, nor to us. There is always a bunch of other stuff obscuring the view. Even as we just made our way through the story of Holy Week, and the central story of the Three days, Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter Vigil… even though it is preferable to set aside most things and focus on observing this most important time of the Christian calendar, the world kept churning onward.

Along side Holy Week were the end of hometown hockey team’s playoff run and reports about presidential misconduct, there were hate crimes carried out in our own city and even this morning the bombing of churches in Sri Lanka as the faithful worshipped, and of course the great fire that seemed to burn down much of the world famous Notre Dame cathedral in France.

The world reacted in shock to the burning of the 800 year old church. Crowds gathered to sing and pray in the streets of Paris, people lamented online watching the flames in real time. The initial reports were of the worst, that the whole cathedral would be destroyed.

Even during the the most important week of the Christian year, when we strive to most clearly tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, all the other things have a great capacity to obscure our vision. Even at Easter, we cannot not see beyond death.

Resurrection is hard for us see. We are so used to looking among the dead, that we don’t know what the living looks like. Even when resurrection stares us in the face, we cannot help but focus on the dead things. The stories that captivate our attention almost always the stories of the cross, of sin and death… The stories of resurrection, of new life in the most surprising of places almost don’t register at all.

Of course hockey teams will have another chance at things next year, and politicians will continue being politicians, and the community surrounding the victims of hate crime in our city have already begun to rally… and the news of Notre Dame’s total destruction were greatly exaggerated, even as over a billion dollars was donated towards its repair. The artwork, the relics, much of the stained glass and the great organ were all saved.

But the part that is hard for us to see, even during Holy Week, even when we know the end of this story, when we know what happens Easter morning, is that all of that other stuff isn’t the point. The rebuilding of an 800 year old church or putting the donated money to another use isn’t the point.

The point of the the church building in the first place is to enable Christ’s story being told. The point is the story, the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Despite our habit and the habit of the women to look for the living among the dead, the Angel reminds Mary, Joanna, and Mary of what Jesus had told them – that he would be raised from the dead.

The empty tomb isn’t just the absence of a body or empty space… it is the symbol of life, the sign that death is not the end, that the cross on the mountaintop isn’t where human sin wins by putting God to death.

The empty tomb is the birth place of resurrection.

The empty tomb is the making of space for New life to grow and take root.

The empty tomb is the re-membering of the community broken apart on Good Friday.

The women are re-membered, re-connected, re-made into New Creations once they finally see the implication of the empty tomb. It is only then that they run off to tell the new to the other disciples.

And then then story of death and resurrection that we have been telling this week becomes more than just something we are trying to fit in along side all the other things happening in the world.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the new frame of life.

Cross and Empty Tomb become qualifiers to all the other stuff.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the one story the holds all other stories together.

And the Christ who hung on the cross just a while ago, becomes the first born of a new humanity… of a new us.

And this Christ who took all our stories on the cross, all of our failings and frailties, our suffering and sin, our dying…

This Christ finally brings us into God’s story.

And God’s story, our new story, is resurrection. If all we can do is look for the living among the dead, God will come and show us new life from death… God will come to us from empty tombs, and Christ will call to us to to come out of our graves too.

So yes, it is always awkward to begin the story of Easter by making our way to a cemetery with death on our minds… but we cannot help ourselves from always looking towards the dead…

But the Good News is that Christ is always looking for us.

Always finding us, even among the dead.

And from among the dead, The Crucified, Risen and Living Christ brings us too, into the Resurrection and New Life.

Good Shepherd Sunday – An Easter Let Down

John 10:11-18

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them…. read the whole passage

Today marks the half-way point of the seven week season of Easter and the fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday. We hear images of the Good Shepherd on the 4th Sunday. 

And in some respects this Sunday represents a departure from the urgency and immediacy of Easter that we have been hearing for the first 3 weeks of Easter. We first heard the story of the women at the tomb fleeing in fear and telling no one. We followed it up the next week by going back to the day of the resurrection and the fearful disciples hiding out as Jesus appeared in their midst, and how Thomas missed the whole thing. And then last week, we again returned to the day of the resurrection as Jesus appeared to the disciples, this time according to Luke, where they thought he was a ghost. 

Three weeks of immediate urgent experiences of the resurrection. 

Honestly…today can be a bit of a let down. 

While these words are familiar and much beloved… I serve a church named Good Shepherd after all… they don’t seem to carry that same earthiness of the resurrection stories that we have been hearing. Jesus giving one of his wordy speeches found in John’s gospel isn’t as exciting as appearing to the disciples who think he is a ghost. 

Yet these familiar words about Good Shepherds are not really about the hard and unheralded job of being a sheep tender, and Jesus isn’t really talking about the job of tending sheep out in a literal field. 

We have a habit of taking this good shepherd passage out of context… we name churches, we make idyllic pastoral art work of Shepherd Jesus, we compose sanguine hymns about “The King of Love my Shepherd is” all clinging to the sweet and cuddly of image of Jesus gently caring for little lambs (the lambs are us by the way). 

The image makes us feel good, Jesus the Shepherd is like a warm blanket we can wrap around ourselves to keep our faith warm and comfortable. 

And to be certain, there are times in our lives when we need that image of the good shepherd loving and caring for us. 

But this passage is a little more complex than we tend to make it. 

This monologue delivered by Jesus doesn’t happen in isolation, nor are these words intended to provide comfort to the disciples or the crowds following Jesus. Rather, we have to go back to a story that we usually hear during Lent – the story of the blind man. Jesus heals a man born blind and moves on. Then the blind man’s community question his healing and declare that he is still a sinner and eventually send him away. Jesus finds him again, reveals that it is Jesus, the Messiah, who has healed him and then says that it is the religious leaders who are blind. 

Nearby pharisees overhear and challenge Jesus. 

And this speech about the Good Shepherd is what results. 

So imagine Jesus, with a man whose blindness has been healed yet has been sent away by the religious leaders of his community, standing in the bustling streets just outside the synagogue. And there is Jesus and the pharisees are arguing about sin, arguing about the responsibility of leaders to tend and care for God’s people. And Jesus says this, 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand sees the wolf coming and runs away…”

These words of Jesus take on a very different meaning and character. 

They are fiery and bold. They are words that condemn rather than comfort. 

They condemn the leadership of the pharisees. The religious leaders of God’s chosen people who have been given the responsibility of making God’s love and mercy and forgiveness accessible to all. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day had turned this responsibility into a commodity, into a withholding. They withheld righteousness for the privileged few, only for those who could afford its great cost, only for those who could afford to keep the law of Moses. They had turned their call to serve, into selfish ambition and benefit.

They had let their self-concern, their desire to seek their own benefit, get in the way of this task given to them by God. 

And Jesus was calling them on it. 

Of course this tension and conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is what eventually leads to the cross, but by the end of this particular speech about the Good Shepherd those listening in were divided into two camps. Those who thought Jesus was nuts, and those who thought he might have a point. 

And while the church has been guilty of the same kind of letting our own selfishness get in the way of our call to make God’s mercy accessible -remember Martin Luther’s central issue in the reformation and the sale of indulgences – we probably find ourselves somewhere the middle those two groups of listeners. 

Somedays we probably think that Jesus and his habit of turning everything we think makes sense upside down is infuriating. 

And other days we can see that Jesus has a point. 

And we know we have the same habit of letting ourselves get in our own way as the pharisees do. We know that we can make things more about ourselves and what we want or fear or desire or detest or prefer or abhor. We know that we get in our own way when it comes to our relationships with others, with our families and friends, with our work and vocations, and of course, even here at church. 

We cannot help it, we are human. We get in the way of God’s calling to share God’s mercy with God’s people. We make things about ourselves and we know it. 

Yet, as Jesus calls out the the pharisees for their selfishness, for self-centredness, he also proclaims something else. 

Something deeply tied to this resurrection season that we are in. For you see on Good Shepherd Sunday, half way through the season of Easter we pivot from the urgency of the resurrection to trying to figure out with the rest of the church, just what we are to do next. 

And heard in context, this Good Shepherd speech of Jesus’ retains some of that resurrection urgency. 

As Jesus calls out the pharisees for getting in their own way of proclaiming God’s mercy for the world, Jesus also declares that God is doing what we cannot. 

The Good Shepherd is laying down his life for the self. 

Jesus is laying down the self – God’s self – for the sake of the world. 

Human beings just cannot get out of our own way. 

So God does what we cannot do, and gives up self. 

God gives up God-like power and God-like control, in order to give us mercy. In order that we may be shown forgiveness. In order that we can hear good news in our dying world. 

God gives it all up for our sake. 

And Jesus know that this will take him to the cross. That selfish humanity will kill God in order to take God’s place. 

But as we have been hearing for the past three weeks, God’s selfless act incarnation, of coming in flesh to live and be among us combine with God’s triumph over death on the cross…

That leads also to empty tombs. 

To empty tombs that frighten Mary Magdalene and the other women who loved Jesus. 
To resurrection appearances in locked rooms that remind Thomas that the one he loves lives. 
To resurrection callings to make us witnesses of all that we have seen and heard. 

And the empty tomb leads us to the Good Shepherd. 

To the Good Shepherd who lays down his life, his self for our sake. 
To the Good Shepherd who gives up the self for the sake of the world, for our sake. 

So that God’s love and mercy is given to us in the Word of God that hear. 
So that God can clothe us with forgiveness, life and salvation in the waters of baptism. 
So that God can give us God’s Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper, so that we can be shed our selfishness and become God’s Body the Church. 

The Good Shepherd does what we cannot. 
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for us in order that we might have new life. 

Life given by the resurrected Christ, who is shepherding us into this new  resurrection reality. 

And so today, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we are reminded that this is not about being sheep and God being our heavenly shepherd. 

But rather, that the Good Shepherd Christ is leading us, the Body of Christ, into a new resurrection world in order that we become Easter people. 

Clinging to the Ghosts of the Past

Luke 24:36b-48

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Read the whole passage)

Today it is the still the day of the Resurrection. Even though this is the third Sunday in the season of Easter, in keeping with the tradition of the church we treat this whole 50 day season as one great day of celebration. And so we go back once again to the day the resurrection, and we hear a similar story to last week’s story of Thomas… yet, this time it is Luke who tells it to us. 

It is situation that can be pretty hard to identify with. We may know the Easter story and believe that we encounter the risen Christ here in this place each time we gather for worship, but how many of us have witnessed the death of a close friend and teacher, only to have that person show up in our house a few days later? Don’t answer that…

Jesus’ moment with the disciples today comes as the third such moment where the disciples struggled to understand their encounter with the risen Christ. First it is Peter who runs to check the empty tomb, after the women from their group report back that the tomb is empty. And Jesus walks with other disciples on the road to Emmaus, who cannot see who they are walking with until he breaks bread with them. 

And now, with all the disciples in one place, Jesus shows up again. 

But of course, the group thinks he a ghost. 

And so Jesus goes through elaborate ancient tests to demonstrate that he isn’t a ghost. He shows them his hands and feet, invites the disciples to touch him, to see that he walks on the ground and doesn’t float in the air like a ghost. And he eats a meal with them, because ghosts don’t eat, people do.

Yet, the disciples still don’t understand what is going on. 

They are stuck, they are stuck back on Good Friday, back in Holy Week, back in the wildness of Galilee, back on all those dusty roads, small town synagogues, back among the crowds of people clamouring for a piece of Jesus. 

It us more than seeing Jesus as a ghost, they are clinging to the past. They still have not moved on from what once was, from the way things were, from the pre-crucifixion Jesus that they knew and loved. 

They are holding onto the ghost of what was before because they are afraid to move on. Peter was more than willing to run out into the world when he thought Jesus was dead, but once he found an empty tomb, he and the others are hiding in fear. 

They hide because it is easier to hold on to the ghosts of the past then to begin new life with new purpose. And so when Jesus shows up, they would almost rather that Jesus were a ghost than risen from the dead. 

The disciples are not much different than we are. 

Like the disciples, we too cling to the ghosts of our past. 

As our country continues to feel the pain and loss, the grief for the lives lost outside of Tisdale Saskatchewan a week ago Friday, we might have some insight into what it means to be in a mental and emotional state that can’t quite get past what has taken place. Because we know what it is to be driving on rural highways. Because we know what it is to send our kids, our loved ones, out into the world that we know is unsafe, where accidents happen everyday.

And so we we grieve and pray, we wear jerseys and put hockey sticks on porches. We cling to one another searching for hope and peace, much like those disciples after the tragedy that they had encountered. 

Yet,  ghost our pasts come in many forms not always rooted in grief and loss. They may have to  do with church, and with our memories of the past and wanting things to be like they were. To bring the young people back or perhaps really to ourselves the young people that we remember sitting in the pews. 

But the ghosts of our past can also be personal. We might cling to relationships that ended long ago, to times in our lives that we wish never ended, to jobs we once held, to youth we once enjoyed, to eras that we once understood. 

The ghosts come in many shapes and sizes, and the desire to cling to them is not anything but a normal human response to grief, loss and even change.

Yet, we know that refusing to accept change will not work. Staying stuck in the past, clinging to things as they once were, holding onto the ghosts of what once was, in the end, is impossible. 

Because the more stuck and unwilling to move on we become, the more like the ghosts we cling to we become… Like the disciples who found the tomb of Jesus empty, their response was to hide away from the world in a tomb of their own making. A tomb where they could stay at Good Friday, cling to the Jesus they once knew refusing to imagine to new life, the new Jesus that they sense is coming. 

And again, Jesus comes into their midst offering peace. 

Peace to the troubled hearts of the disciples. Peace to those who are stuck in the tense conflict of holding onto a past that is slipping away. 

Peace to our troubled hearts, peace to our grieving world, peace to those unable to let go. 

But Jesus doesn’t end with Peace. 

Once Jesus shows the disciples that clinging to ghosts is not possible, he takes things a step further. 

And all of a sudden the Easter moment, the resurrection moment extends beyond the empty tomb of Jesus and reaches into his hide away of the disciples. 

Jesus begins to transform these stuck and hopeless disciples clinging to a ghost of the past. 

“Everything you know, everything you believe in” Jesus says, “From Moses, to the prophets, to the psalms” or in other words the whole Hebrew bible, “has been fulfilled.”

And Jesus opens their minds, Jesus begins to transform these disciples giving them a new understanding and a new experience of their world. 

Everything that they thought they knew about God, about religion, about meaning and purpose in the world has been changed. The Messiah’s death on a cross and resurrection from an empty tomb changes everything. Everything moment in the story of God’s people that has come before has been leading to this moment… to this Easter moment. 

To this moment of the disciples’ Easter, to this moment of our Easter. 

“You are witnesses of these things.”

A witness is more than someone who saw something or experienced something. 

A witness is someone with a story. 

A witness is someone with a story to tell. 

Jesus transforms the disciples, transforms the world, transforms us. Jesus brings us into God’s story. Into God’s story of new life, new life given for the sake of the world, new life found in empty tombs where there should only be death. 

By making us witnesses of the Messiah, by making us witnesses to this story of God bringing new life into the world… we are given new life, we are given new meaning and purpose. 

Everything we thought we knew, everything we thought we understood has been changed by Messiah, by the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

And every week, every Sunday, every Easter morning, Jesus reminds us of this again. Jesus reminds us that that ghosts we cling to will not root us in past, and we no longer will be stuck. 

Jesus has made us witnesses. People tied inextricably to the story of God. People whose purpose is to tell that story to world. 

And Jesus continues to make us witnesses in the word of God that is proclaimed here, in the holy waters that we are washed and claimed in, and in the bread and wine, body and blood of Christ that we share together. Jesus makes us resurrection people, free from the ghosts and the past and given a story to tell. 

Today, Jesus says to us,

I have made you witnesses to resurrection and new life.