Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sun, April 16, 2006 - Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118
1 Cor 15:1-11
John 20:1-18

You know, when I hear John's account of what happened on that first Easter morning, I wonder at the different reactions that people had to the empty tomb. Particularly, I wonder why it was that Peter and the disciple "whom Jesus loved" were so quick to head back home after seeing the empty tomb. Mary's reaction I understand - even though she thought Jesus was still dead, she wanted to go out and find the body so that she could provide it with the dignity and respect that it deserved. But I can't really understand why Peter and the other disciple went home. It's not as if they believed that Jesus was resurrected - they didn't go home and start telling people that Jesus was risen. In fact, they must have thought that he was still dead or they wouldn't have locked themselves in a room with the other disciples a week later. So I don't understand why they just left Mary and went home - why they didn't continue looking with her to find Jesus' body.

Unless, maybe just maybe, they didn't go looking because they were afraid of what they would find. You see Peter and the other disciple and in fact all the rest of the disciples weren't coming into Sunday looking too good. On Thursday night and moving into Friday morning, they had all abandoned Jesus to his arrest, they had failed to put their bodies in place of his, Peter had denied Jesus three times, and not one of them hung around to take him down from the cross and put him in the tomb. If I were a disciple, I might actually be a little worried that Jesus wasn't in fact dead, that he might in fact be walking around looking to find me. Because who knows what would happen when he did?

I guess Jesus' followers reaction to his body's disappearance from the tomb was connected to whether or not they thought his return would be a good thing. For the disciples whose consciences were wracked with guilt, they would have been a little apprehensive of the whole thing. For the women who followed Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, the discovery of Jesus would be the most amazing thing in the world. They had nothing to worry about, no fear of reprisals, they, of all the disciples, had been the only ones whose loyalty to Jesus had passed the test. So it was natural that they would be out looking. Where the disciples were operating out of fear, the women were looking for a reason to hope.

We are here today, most of us, I would guess because we are like the women looking for some reason to hope. What I mean is, we are here looking for something more than just the knowledge that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday. We all have our different reasons for looking - but I would hazard a guess that most likely you are here because you're hoping that there is no body. You're hoping that the tomb is empty, not because somebody stole the body, but for a much better reason. Like all Christians gathered in church this morning, you're hoping that our ultimate disloyalty to Christ - abandoning and betraying him - will have a positive outcome. You're hoping, like I am, that our disloyalty hasn't ruined everything, that it won't lead to payback, that it won't lead to our deaths in exchange. We're all desperate to hear that this story has a happy ending, that our wish for forgiveness will be fulfilled, that our hope for a better future will come true. And so we're here, looking into the tomb, like Mary and Peter and that anonymous beloved disciple, looking for Jesus.

But the tomb is empty. There is no one there. But not because his body has been stolen or moved somewhere else. In one of those great, Godly twists it turns out that Jesus is not in the tomb because Jesus is out looking for those who are looking for him. Jesus goes looking for Mary Magdalene in the garden, and then, in the verses that follow ours today, which you'll hear over the next couple of weeks, Jesus goes looking for the disciples, who have locked themselves behind closed doors. A week later, Jesus returns, looking for Thomas, the disciple who doubted his resurrection, and after that, he returns, looking specifically for Peter, the one who denied him.

Does he go looking for them to get some kind of payback? To repay them for their complete lack of loyalty to him in his hour of need? That's what we would do - we're all about revenge and retribution, after all. But not Jesus. In fact, he never even once brings up the past, or reminds them of their guilt. Instead, Jesus' words to his followers are words of peace and blessing and forgiveness. "Peace be with you," he says to the disciples barricaded in the upper room. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he says. "Tend my sheep," he says to the runaway Peter. The one who was abandoned and betrayed and denied by his friends seeks them out to bring them forgiveness, and to give them new life, and to prove that his loyalty to them can never be swayed.

Which is wonderful, glorious, blessed Good News for us. Because Jesus' unshakeable loyalty to his disciples - his disloyal disciples - is the incarnation of God's loyalty to us. After all that we've done and will do - after all the times that we don't believe that Christ is bringing new life to the world, after all the times that we don't even bother to go to the tomb to look for him, after all the times that we call for those proclaiming the love of Christ to all to be silenced - after all of that, God, through Christ, continues to seek us out. Not for revenge, not to bring up our past against us, but to proclaim forgiveness to us and to make us new.

And as it turns out, this newness is what we're actually here looking for. We're looking for something that goes beyond the betrayal and disloyalty and death that we're all too familiar with. We need a reason to get up in the morning, to move past the morning news that talks only about disaster and violence and ends only in death. We know that story, and we're searching for there to be more.

So hallelujah - praise be to God - that we don't have to go far to find it. Hallelujah that God brings that newness that we're seeking right into our lives, restoring our relationship with Christ, overcoming the damage and death that we've caused, not just to Jesus, but to all the people in our lives. You see, Christ's resurrection is not about one man who was brought back to life and that's it. That kind of story makes the evening news, but it doesn't change the world. No, Christ's resurrection is about one man who was brought back to life but then went out to seek others to offer them forgiveness for killing him, to bring them new life that God knows they didn't deserve. It's about Christ's loyalty to God's people extending so far that not even death could stop him from loving us.

And that is the enduring significance of Easter: that not only were the deadly consequences of disloyalty to Christ overcome in his resurrection to new life, but that, despite our own constantly disloyal behaviour, both to him and to those around us, he shares that new life with us. It is not something we have to go out looking for, in a tomb or otherwise, because it's something that Christ brings to us, seeking us out to give us this tremendous gift, not just today on Easter Sunday, but every day. It is this that we celebrate, this we ponder as a wonderful mystery, and this that prompts us to give thanks and praise to God this Easter morning. Hallelujah! Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Fri, April 14, 2006 - Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1- 19:42

Well, yesterday we reflected on how Jesus showed loyalty to his disciples despite the fact that they were unable to remain loyal to him. Even though he knew everything that was going to happen to him today, how Peter would deny him, Judas would betray him, and almost all of the disciples abandon him, he still washed their feet last night, and fed them with his own life, cementing their forgiveness and showing that his loyalty to them could not be broken.
Today we see just how far Jesus's loyalty takes him, and we see especially that it is not just the disciples who were disloyal and faded away, but us as well.

So Judas has betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The disciples have abandoned Jesus except for Peter and another disciple, which isn't saying much for Peter, since he denied his relationship with Jesus three times. The people who shouted Hosanna for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem have called for his execution. At the moment of his crucifixion, only five of the mass of his followers were there, including only one disciple, and when it came time to bury Jesus, the only one who stepped forward was a secret follower. Jesus' close circle of friends, whom he had fed and forgiven the night before, were nowhere to be found.

It's easy for us to stand in judgment on the disciples. It's easy for us to identify with Jesus, to think of the times when friends of ours have betrayed us, or been disloyal, or just plain run away. But what's not so easy for us is to acknowledge that, in fact, we are those disloyal disciples. That we are the ones who stand in judgment, who have betrayed him, who have run away.

You see, today - Good Friday - isn't about how awful the disciples were who abandoned Jesus, or how awful the Jews were who betrayed him, or how awful the Romans were who crucified him. It's about how awful we are, for failing to recognize that we abandon and betray and crucify Jesus on a daily basis. The truth is that we pay only lip service to Christ's teachings. We say we're his followers, we go to church on Sunday and on the holidays, but when it comes right down to it - when we're asked to give all we have, to give our heart, to give our life, to give our possessions, we back away. We walk by people in need all the time because it's too embarrassing to look at them. We turn away from people who ask for our money because we're too afraid to give it up. We shut people out of God's circle of love and forgiveness because we don't want to be contaminated by sinners. We point out other people's faults so nobody notices our own. And in doing all these things, we are guilty of the same things Jesus' disciple-friends are - of abandoning and betraying the one we claim to follow. We are the ones deserving of judgement.

And we all know what Jesus' response to this ought to be. It's what we would do in his place - we would cut these so-called friends out of our life, we would turn our back on them. If we were in Jesus' place, we would probably get them dragged in to face the authorities and even onto the cross with us. But we also know that that was not, and is not, Jesus' response to betrayal and disloyalty. Jesus' response last night was to wash the feet of those whom he knew would walk - run - away from him. His response was to offer forgiveness through his body and blood to those whom he knew would not stand up and protect that same body. And today, Jesus' response is to die for those whom he knows would not die for him. To die for his disciples, to die for the world, to die for us. Jesus shows us that when it comes to loyalty, there is nothing that will break the ties he has made with us, that there is no betrayal so great that he would ever stop loving us or being there for us. Jesus shows us, as the Son of God, that his loyalty to us, to God's people, is forever. And he dies to prove it.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us at the foot of the cross, quite astonished that someone would actually give up their life for us. Now, we know what happens three days later - we know what happens on Easter, and maybe Jesus did, too. We can't be sure. But that doesn't change the fact that we have betrayed him and that he has responded to our betrayal with a loyalty that extends to death. And so we wait, to see if that loyalty will extend even further, to see if there is a way for us to give thanks for what we've been given so far, to see and hear that the forgiveness Christ brought is complete and everlasting.

Thurs, April 13, 2006 - Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:10-17
1 Cor 11:23-26
John 13:1-35

What kind of friends do you have? Close friends? Acquaintances? Friends is sort of a catch-all phrase that we use to describe our relationship to non-related people who are more than just passers-by. But even within that designation, there is a wide range of types of friends. There are the friends who we talk to only once in a while, and when we do talk, it's only about little stuff. There are the friends who only call us when they're in need of something. There are the friends we've had for years and years who know all the stupid things we did as children. And there are the friends who are closer than family - the ones who, through thick and thin, are there for us no matter what, and would drop everything to give us a hand. Those are the friends we treasure, and those friends are very, very rare. If someone asked us to describe people who are loyal, their names would be the first on our lips.

Jesus had a group of close friends. The Bible describes them as disciples, which means that they were students of a teacher, but I imagine that they were also friends. After all, Jesus and this group had spent the last three years together, day in and day out, had gone hungry together, had looked for shelter together, had walked all over Israel together - so I imagine that friendship had developed. I imagine that the disciples considered themselves to be loyal to Jesus, and thought of themselves as his circle of friends.

Now if you've ever had a circle of friends, that is, friends who are all friends with each other and with you, you know how nice that can be. You all stick up for one another, you spend all your time together, you worry about each other, you enjoy the group dynamic and the security of knowing that you have a band of people who are loyal to you and always there.

But sometimes it happens that you and that group start growing apart, and you realize that you're not walking down the same path anymore. Maybe it's because your friends don't understand why you've decided to live your life a particular way. Maybe they don't agree with a decision you've made. And what happens is that things start to get a little cold - you can't talk about things the way you used to, your friends stop telling you everything they're thinking, you still spend time together, but it's just not the same. It gets tough and you realize that you can't depend on your group of friends the way you did before. The tightness, the loyalty, that was there before starts to fade.

Well, that kind of thing was going on the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, with his close friends. There was a gap, a distance, between Jesus and those he was with. Although they'd spent the last three years with him, they didn't seem to understand what he was doing or where he was going - they certainly didn't understand why he would kneel down and wash their feet. They didn't understand the strange vibe between him and Judas. And for sure they didn't understand that when Jesus was referring to being glorified he was talking about going to his death. It's most likely that Jesus' disciple-friends thought he was going to lead them to some kind of military victory over the Romans, or to some kind of religious reformation. Even though he had told them over and over again that dying was a necessary part of God's plan for him, they still didn't seem to get it. And so there they sat on that last night, confused, in denial of what Jesus was saying, and probably wondering just what Jesus was getting them into. They were trying to be loyal, but they just couldn't manage it. It must have been difficult for Jesus.

So what do you do when you and your friends grow apart; when they stop really getting who you are, when they stop being as loyal as they once were? I would guess that most of us let the relationship dissolve. We might make one last effort to stay together, maybe go out for some get-together and try and rekindle the old relationships, but after that, most of us stop trying. We might slowly stop returning calls, or we might abruptly cut these former friends out of our life. Either way, though, we don't stick it out - we tend to put into a relationship what we get out of it, and when our friends are no longer as close and as loyal as they once were, we find ourselves behaving the same way towards them, too. Generally speaking, the amount of loyalty we've been shown is the amount we show in return.

So is that what Jesus did when his friends began to turn away from him - and in one case even turn on him? Did Jesus slowly but surely distance himself from them, did he respond to their waning loyalty by becoming less loyal himself? Well, since this is Jesus, we know that the answer is no. In fact, since this is Jesus, we can expect that he went even farther than just refusing to let the relationship with his friends go - that he actually took steps to strengthen it.

"Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." It's interesting - according to the Gospel of John, Jesus knew everything that was about to happen to him. He knew that his friends were about abandon him and deny him, he knew that Judas would betray him, he knew that he was going to die - and yet knowing all of this, Jesus did several things.

First, he performed for his disciple-friends a significant act of care. He washed their feet. Now this is not such a big deal, in and of itself. Foot-washing was something that was regularly done in Israel during a time when people walked around dirty roads in open-toe sandals. Yes, it was unusual and shocking to the disciples that Jesus would wash their feet when it should be the other way around, but really, they should have been used to Jesus doing that kind of thing by this point. But for Jesus, the foot-washing was about more than just hygiene. In the Gospel of John, the foot-washing was meant as a symbol of forgiveness. It is meant to draw out for us images of baptism, and of God's covenant with us through water. So when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, his friends who would soon abandon him, even the feet of Judas who was about to betray him, Jesus was forgiving them their sins. He was making the point that even though they couldn't remain loyal to him, he was not going to abandon them. He was not going to turn his back on them and return their lack of loyalty with his own lack. He washed their feet, he cared for them, and he forgave them.

And then Jesus went even farther than that. Although the Gospel of John doesn't refer to it directly, the other gospels and Paul's letter to the Corinthians that we heard refer to Jesus instituting the Lord's Supper on his last night with the disciples. And as we know, the Lord's Supper, along with baptism, is the ultimate agent of God's forgiveness of sins. Even now, almost two thousand years later, when we celebrate Communion, as we will tonight, we continue to experience the forgiveness that the Son of God brought to us. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to that first communion, the last supper Jesus had with his increasingly less loyal friends.

Again, knowing everything that his disciples were about to do, or were about to fail to do, knowing that their loyalty would be put to the test and that they would not pass, Jesus gave them his own body and blood - that is, he gave them his life as forgiveness for these things. He fed them, nurtured them, forgave them, because he wanted them to remember, when everything was over and they were consumed with guilt over how they had treated him, that his loyalty to them was not about to become any less simply because they let their own loyalty lapse. That his love for them was not based on their love for him.

And that is where we are left this evening, on the night of Jesus' betrayal. The group of disciple-friends is fracturing - they are about to abandon him, one of them is already betraying him - and yet Jesus continues to remain loyal. He washes them clean, he feeds them with his own life, he forgives them in advance for how loyal they are about not to be. Reflecting on all of this, we move towards tomorrow where we will discover just how far our own disloyalty runs, and just how far Jesus' loyalty will carry.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lent 5 - Sun, April 2, 2006 - A Royal Priesthood

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

So, Jesus Christ, " a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." I have to say, that's one of the more obscure references in our Bible, and not one we spend a lot of time thinking about. Melchizedek, it turns out, was the King of Salem in the Old Testament, and he offered some hospitality and a blessing to Abram and Sarai as they travelled on their way to the land that God was going to give them. Melchizedek gets about three verses in the entire Bible, not counting the reference made to him here in our second reading for this morning.

But it's not really Melchizedek that the writer of Hebrews is trying to get us to think about - it's the concept of Christ as our high priest. Now, again, we have a concept that's a little hard to understand. We Lutherans don't spend a lot of time talking about priests, much less high priests. Our church leaders are called pastors, not priests like in the Anglican or Catholic traditions. And even they don't have high priests. So what are we to make of this imagery of Christ as our high priest?

Well, the priestly concept has its biblical roots in the Old Testament. In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we hear about the priestly class, and how they're supposed to perform their duties, and what they should wear, and how they're supposed to behave and keep themselves pure. Historically speaking, the priests were the ones who ran the Temple in Jerusalem after it was built, which wasn't until the time of King Solomon. Then, after the Temple was destroyed for a second time at the end of the first century A.D., priests ceased to exist. There was no Temple for them to perform their duties in, so they were all laid-off, so to speak.

But the need for priests still existed. You see, underneath all the religious rituals that the priests performed, and underneath the funny clothes that they wore while they were doing them, there was something fundamental going on. The priest had a unique function in the religious world, in the world of the faithful believers, and that was this: the priest was a representative. Now, if you're thinking that I mean the priest represented God to the people, you would be right. The priest stood up in the Temple and became a living image of God for the people gathered there. The priest was a flawed image, to be sure, being human and not divine, but in the moment of performing his duties, the priest was taken as the representation of God - the words he spoke were God's words, whether they were words of condemnation and judgement, or words of forgiveness and mercy. The curses he uttered were God's curses, the blessings were God's blessings.

But the priest was more than just a representative of God. The priest was also a representative of the people. The priest would stand before God during the service, and be the image of the people to God. His words of confession were the people's words of confession. His pleas for mercy were their pleas for mercy. His thanksgivings for forgiveness were their thanksgiving. And so just as the priest was a representation of God to the people, he was also the representation of the people to God.

And so we have the writer of Hebrews calling Christ our high priest. Which makes perfect sense. No, Christ never performed rituals in the Temple, but he was the living image of God to us, and he was the living image of humanity to God. His crying out to God for mercy, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, and even his death on the cross were all carried out by Christ as the representative of humanity. His cries for mercy were and are our cries. His suffering is the suffering we ought to be going through. His death is the death we ought to be going through. But he represented us, so that we wouldn't have to go through all that.

Likewise, just as Christ did all these things representing us, he also did things representing God to us. His healing of the sick and suffering was God's healing. His ministry and love of those around him was God's love. His proclamation of forgiveness and inclusion was God's proclamation. God, being incorporeal and having no body, couldn't do these things - couldn't touch, couldn't hug, couldn't speak words of forgiveness that we could hear, so Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the incarnation and bodily representation of God did it instead. Christ brings us before God, and God before us - the ultimate high priest.

But while Christ is the ultimate high priest, he is not the last priest. Maybe you've heard the phrase, "the priesthood of all believers?" It was a phrase that Martin Luther was fond of, and it comes from the first letter of Peter. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." Here, Peter and Luther are talking about the same kind of priest that the writer of Hebrews was - someone who represents God to the people and represents the people to God. Someone who cries out to God for forgiveness and then turns around and proclaims God's forgiveness to everyone there.

Now, this "you" that the writer of Peter's Letter is talking about, this "you" that Luther is thinking about is you. You, the person sitting there in the pew listening to these words. Peter and Luther aren't thinking about ordained clergy, per se, or about diaconal ministers especially, or even about particularly dedicated and educated lay people. They are thinking about you - the regular Jill Christian sitting in the pews. You are part of a royal priesthood - you are a priest.

So at this point, you might be thinking, "Whoa, not me. I'm not a priest. I'm not called to be a pastor. I'm not knowledgeable enough, or skilled enough to be a priest. I'm not a perfect Christian - how can I possible represent God to people and people to God?" And in a sense, you would be right. None of us is knowledgeable or skilled enough, or even perfect enough as Christians to be God's priests. None of us are worthy enough to stand up and say, "Here is God's Word to you - you are forgiven, go in peace." But that's not how we're called to this royal priesthood. As it turns out, the call to be a member of the priesthood of all believers comes not from how worthy we are, but from baptism. When you were baptized, each one of you, the Holy Spirit came into you, bringing God's Law and forgiveness into your hearts, making you worthy to speak on God's behalf. It sounds scary, I know, but every baptized Christian becomes authorized, and even called, to be one of Christ's priests - to proclaim forgiveness to all who need it. In fact, during the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of the service, when I say, "As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins..." that's a bit misleading. I don't have the authority of Christ to declare forgiveness because I'm ordained. I have the authority to do it because I'm baptized. And you have that same authority. You, just like me, are a priest of God.

So, given that we are all part of this royal priesthood, given that our baptism calls us to live as priests of Christ - representing the people to God and God to the people - how do we do that? Well, one way is to come to church on Sunday. You see, as a priest of Christ, when you come to church on Sunday, and say the words of confession, and hear the proclamation of forgiveness, when you hear the Bible readings and come forward to receive Communion, you are not just doing it as yourself. As a priest representing the people to God, when you come to church on Sunday, you are bringing with you all the people in your life who aren't there in that pew. You represent those family members who can't make it, those friends who don't like church, those co-workers who think you're a little odd for going to church. And when you confess your sins, you're confessing their sins, too. When you hear forgiveness, you're hearing their forgiveness. When you pray, you're praying their prayers. When you come forward to receive Communion, you are carrying in your heart all those people that you know. When you come to church on Sunday, you are representing these people before God.

But that's only half of what priests do. The other half you do when you leave the church doors and go back out into the world for the rest of the week. That's when you represent God to those people. The patience you show with others, that's God's patience. The love you show, that's God's love. The forgiveness you offer, that's God's forgiveness. Just as you represent the people to God on Sunday, you represent God to the people the rest of the time. By the power of the Holy Spirit given to you in baptism, you are one of God's priests out there in the real world.

Francis of Assisi wrote a prayer that is very famous now. He said, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy." He may not have intended it as such, but it is the prayer of a priest - to follow Christ in his steps as high priest - to bring the world before God and to bring God to the world. As we come to the end of Lent and look to the Easter resurrection, may this prayer also be our prayer, and may God help us to carry out our baptismal priestly call. Amen.