Easter Sermon Transcript 4.6.23
John 20:1-31 and the Nicean Creed. Rev. Christopher Eshelman, preaching. "We believe..."
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary comes to the tomb. She's not sure what to believe. Has the body been stolen? She runs back and tells the men. Peter and the other disciple raced to the tomb. One goes in, he sees, he believes. He believes what? That the body is missing? That the nightmare is still going on? He believes it's too much. He believes he's overwhelmed. Have you ever felt like it's too much? Like you don't know what's going on and you don't know when the nightmare will end? Verse 9 “For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.”
Even on this first day of the week, the disciples haven't taken in all he has said and done they don't yet understand… “but Mary stood weeping outside the tomb…” Too much! She doesn't know what to do with herself. All that she had hoped for, the one she had followed; who had healed her; who had forgiven her; who had restored her and made her whole… is gone!
“Woman why are you weeping?” They've taken my Lord away… and then she sees a person she thinks is the gardener. She is so distraught. She's over so overcome by all of it. She does not yet see who it is. She says again “they've taken my Lord away if… if you've moved him let me know where he is. I'll take him. I'll anoint him. I'll bury him. I'll honor him… and Jesus says her name and the world changes!
I want to share with you this morning a poem by a gifted liturgical writer, Jan Richardson, who so often captures in words what I struggle to say and for this Easter day she has written a poem called The Magdalene's Blessing.
The Magdalene’s Blessing - For Easter Day
from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
You hardly imagined
everything you ever loved
suddenly returned to you,
looking you in the eye
and calling your name.
you do not know
how to abide this hole
in the center
of your chest,
where a door
and swings open
at the same time,
turning on the hinge
of your aching
and hopeful heart.
I tell you,
this is not a banishment
from the garden.
This is an invitation,
This is your life
calling to you
from a place
you could never
but now that you
have glimpsed its edge,
you cannot imagine
choosing any other way.
So let the tears come
let them go.
Let this blessing
gather itself around you.
Let it give you
what you will need
for this journey.
You will not remember
they do not matter.
All you need to remember
is how it sounded
when you stood
in the place of death
and heard the living
call your name.
“I have seen the Lord!” She proclaims! She hears Jesus. She sees Jesus. She knows Jesus lives She believes and she goes and she tells the others. “I have seen the Lord!” Her mourning has turned to joy! A few verses later their mourning turns to joy.
They huddle in a locked room for fear of the religious authorities; for fear of the rejection that Jesus experienced. Not sure what is going to happen. Will they come for us next? They know we were with him! Suddenly he is with them! He is in their midst. He shows them his wounds. His resurrected body still bears the wounds of this life. His hands, his feet, his side… He shows them he is the same person, but he is more. He the promised Messiah, has delivered not what they were expecting, but more. He is life itself. He is God enfleshed.
If only we see and we believe.
“But Thomas, known as the twin, was not with them.” Thomas, I think gets a bit of a bad rap. As you may know, at one point in my wandering journey, in my youth, I did a full Roman Catholic Catechism. I grew up in a neighborhood where all my best friends were Catholic, and I was the lone Public School Protestant kid. Fortunately there was another neighborhood nearby where there was one lone Catholic kid with all the Protestant kids I went to school with it and we were the liaisons for these huge neighborhood games, soccer and baseball and anything else 11 12 13 year olds would get into and I did a full catechism with my friend Ken.
Well as we finished, I had some questions. I'd learned all the “right answers” and I decided I disagreed with about half of them. Now Roman Catholic practice, when you do your catechism, when you're confirmed, there's a tradition of taking a confirmation name. The boys are almost always Michael after the Archangel and the girls are almost always Mary after Jesus’ mother or any of the other half dozen Mary's in the Bible. I told the priest I wanted my confirmation name to be Thomas. He said you're not ready yet. (laughter) He was right but maybe not for the reasons he thought… So we know Thomas as the doubter. “I will not believe unless I get to touch the wounds.” And we string this whole story around him as a failure and doubter.
But why is he the only one not there? If we read John's gospel he's often been the bold one. He's been “let us go with him back to Jerusalem even if we die” maybe… and I don't know, the Scriptures don't tell us, but maybe he's the only one with the courage to go out and get lunch… to provide for the needs of the other who are cowering in fear. We don't know why he wasn't there, but something has happened and he hasn't been there to experience it. And all he asked for is the same thing that they've already received. A chance to see the wounds.
This painting is from 1602 and I'll probably butcher the painter's name it's uh Caravaggio I believe is the way you say it, a great Italian Renaissance painter. He depicts Thomas and Jesus through his own cultural lens, their hairstyles, their pigment, their clothing… but he depicts Thomas as taking up Jesus words. About a week later Jesus appears again in the locked room with the disciples and this time Thomas is here there and he looks right at Thomas and he says here: put your finger in the wounds, put your hand in my side and so Caravaggio depicts that happening, But did you notice the Scriptures don't say that Thomas does? John says Jesus invites him to… and the very next line Thomas says: “my Lord and my God!” Thomas believes.
I don't know whether he took advantage of his demanded proof, but my own interpretation is that he sees and he believes and he is overwhelmed with joy and he professes faith… perhaps even more deeply than the others have. He got the gift of presence. He knows Jesus knows him!
At one point in my journey I demanded to see the wounds. I wanted the same proof that Thomas had received and some years later, I'd come back to church.. in fact I was already in the process of becoming a pastor, becoming an ordained person within the life of the greater church and I had settled into this United Methodist denomination and it's Wesleyan Theology in large part because it left space for a lot of the questions that had, some I still have. Notice I didn’t say answer them, but it leaves space open to ponder and explore them.
We don't demand a rigid certainty here, we demand thoughtful faithful action stemming from what we believe, but we leave room for rough edges. Just , I think, like the Bible does. There's a reason there are four Gospels and the councils that selected the canon and included these four gospels knew darn well that their timelines don't line up quite right. They resisted the temptation, the instruction even from powerful people, to pick one story and stick with it and they said “no, all of these speak to us and tell us the meaning of Christ, all are inspired, God-breathed. These letters, these gospels, these different tellings and experiences - even though, perhaps even because they don't exactly match but convey a wide range of encounter and meaning, - it leaves room for us to experience the good news ourselves. I was at a chapel service at my Seminary and the people organizing the chapel had taken that day's newspaper and painted symbols, crosses and other symbols on them, and the headlines that day were full of horror as they so often are… and I experienced the reality that I can touch the wounds. I can touch the wounds. The wounds are all around me. Tornadoes and violence, shootings and War, traffic accidents, cancers… I get to touch the wounds. Christ still bears the wounds for us …with us. We recited the Nicaean Creed. It is a powerful and beautiful statement of belief. The words there are central to Christian faith, including our United Methodist faith. Every line of that Creed is the answer to a debate in the early church and every line of that Creed was written in blood of Christians that took violence to each other to prove that their understanding of the God of love was right. It's tragic in a way. Constantine tried to unite the Roman Empire using Christianity. He called councils. We got power and we began beating each other over the head with our variety of understandings and we still do it to this day. We're doing it right now as United Methodist or divided Methodist as the case may be. We've forgotten to leave room for Thomas. We’ve forgotten to leave room for an honest question, for a different interpretation, for a different stage of life. I believe the Creeds. I affirm the historic creeds… but as we recited that I bet you at least one of those lines somewhere, in the back of your mind, you went …what does that mean? or I've said that a hundred times in my life but all of a sudden I'm not sure about this or that… I'm here to tell you this morning that's okay. That is okay because we are trying to find words to describe an experience beyond our understanding. I think when we beat each other over the heads with our understanding and insist that only our way can be right, I believe Jesus weeps. I believe he is frustrated and angry that his closest followers still don't quite understand and yet he continues to journey with us. Diana Eck wrote a wonderful book called “Encountering God.” She is a woman that grew up in Bozeman, Montana and through a wandering journey wound up having a deep personal relationship with the country of India and its dominant religion of Hinduism and she had some questions… as you’d expect. And she writes about her journey and at one point in her book she writes: “the Latin word Credo (from which we get Creed) literally means I give my heart to. it's not an intellectual assent. It's a life transformation. Our English word believe comes to us from the old English belove… making clear that this too is meant to first be heart language, not just head language. Faith, she writes “is not about propositions, but about commitment. It does not mean that I intellectually subscribe to the following list of statements, even if those statements are important, it means I give my heart to this reality, to this experience… that I cannot fully describe. I give my heart to the Risen Christ who calls my name; to the Risen Christ who calls your name this day! To the reality that suffering and death and sin… even my sin… do not have the final word for God, our Creator, Our Redeemer, our Sustainer… is with us here and now, calling us to wholeness.
These things are written… the author of the Gospel of John wrote at the end of chapter 20… “these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” These things are written that you might have life! That you might experience the presence of God - not a list of demanding statements codified - but the experience of the Risen Christ. That's what the gospel stories are about. It's almost tragic that in 300 years from the resurrection to the writing of the foundational Creeds we went from telling stories about what Jesus did to making statements that we must believe in the correct way. Instead of listening to Jesus challenge our understanding of Sabbath, our understanding of blindness, our understanding of light and dark… instead of realizing that Jesus had faith and trusted and went on the journey humbling himself even to the point of death, even death on a cross - realizing that Jesus had taken perhaps the worst punishment Humanity had ever developed upon himself and transformed the cross from a symbol of torture to something that we wear around our necks as a sign of Hope. That's the Jesus I follow.
He didn't demand rigid adherence and lockstep unanimity of views, he called fishermen and tax collectors, knowing that they would disagree and had different experiences and said to them follow me. Follow me! We are invited into mystery not into certainty. We are invited into faith that sees the light that the darkness cannot overcome, that sees the Hope beyond the suffering and the sorrow. That sees life even in the Tomb, confident that this life is important to God and that this life is not all there is. That Justice will roll down like waters.
Have you ever encountered an understanding of atonement different from your own? Very often we're told there is only one way to believe… in the dominant one in our day and age is substitutionary atonement. It is fixated on the crucifixion. It’s a couple decades old now but Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ beautifully, powerfully told story of the suffering and death of Christ – but that somehow never quite gets to the resurrection and glosses over his life. That's substitutionary atonement and it is beautiful and powerfully true… in its way. I said this uh Friday night. I know people for whom substitutionary atonement - the idea that God suffered the punishment in my place - is powerful and life-changing. I am not denying that. I am saying that that is incomplete because it only focuses on part of the story. The crucifixion it is beautiful. It is powerful. It is true… but it is only part of the story. The rest of the story is resurrection and the crucifixion and the resurrection don't mean a darn thing if we don't first encounter God in the Incarnation. God is not role-playing. God becomes flesh. The one who created all journeys a human life with us - that is also a form of atonement. After all, if we like the Ninevites when Jonah preached, had all turned and repented at that point the rest of it wouldn't be necessary. Incarnation is atonement. Or the life and teaching – moral exemplar - the earliest Church teaching of atonement was the life and ministry of Christ. That we were to be like Christ, imitators of Christ - John's gospel promises that we will do even still greater things if we are guided by the Spirit! That is atonement!
We need these different understandings at different stages in our life. All of them have valuable important contributions to our understanding of a whole that is beyond our understanding. If we lock in on one thing, we miss the rest of the story and too often, especially when we fixate on crucifixion, we become harmful and abusive to each other.
As an example of this needed variety - I want us to go back to John 19 in the midst of the crucifixion, the end of John 19. Jesus says two times the Greek word Tetelestai
it means “it is finished.” It is finished!
What is finished? The suffering? The death? The story will go on to the Resurrection. But Jesus says it is finished. In Greek and Roman society that word was used at least three different ways in business: Tetelestai meant “the debt is fully paid” You don't owe any more! Or in Court it means “the sentence is fully served” you are released from bondage. In military settings it meant “the battle is fully won!” It is finished Jesus meant each of these and probably more.
Or in Luke's account of the cross, you probably know, Jesus cries out “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” It's a low point of Holy Week. We feel the weight of Jesus’ suffering. It feels so hopeless. It’s too much!
Now, you may know that those words are also the first line of Psalm 22. A psalm of lament. My God, my God why have you forsaken me? and Psalm 22 is a lament of suffering that turns into a praise of God who is yet with me… that then turns into Psalm 23 “the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” On the cross, in the midst of the suffering ,I believe - I can't prove it to you with certainty - but I believe Jesus starts to recite this elongated Psalm that acknowledges suffering and proclaims hope and trust and faith in God. That the good news! Suffering and death do not have the final word. My opinion, my understanding is not the final word either. Each of us are called to continue to grow in faith, to take the assurance and the hope and the good news of Easter – the good news of the Gospel - to all the world. Not our particular understanding of it and especially not if we're arrogant and mean and judgmental about our understanding. Too many people encounter the church as arrogant and mean and judgmental instead of encountering the church as the body of Christ that calls out their name: “Mary!”
What if everyone we met heard Christ calling their name so loudly it drowned out are dogma and opinions?
So one of the reasons that I wound up as a United Methodist in my wandering journey was that I encountered the open Table. Now I am not bad-mouthing those traditions that have closed tables. They are important and uphold true understandings. My Roman Catholic siblings, some of my Lutheran siblings and others that say you have to believe a certain way, you have to have been trained and confess properly. That's important teaching. they are upholding something sacred and holy. We should take this very seriously. We should ponder deeply what we believe happens. We should confess and prepare ourselves…
And yet too often, for too many of us, it comes across as exclusive and even unChristlike. Jesus, after all, sat at table with everyone, even, according the the Gospels, Judas… and Peter… and all those who would soon betray, deny, and scatter! So who are we to draw such lines? And so it is important that there are also traditions like ours that say this isn't my table. Honestly, I don't really understand fully what's going on here either - but Christ is present, and Christ invites you. Christ calls your name to partake of His body, to drink of the cup of Salvation, his blood shed to forgiveness and salvation and wholeness and life. This is Christ's table and we bear witness to Christ's grace here. We invite everyone to a deeper understanding and walk of faith – no matter where they are on their path… so this day I have the great privilege of following in Jesus lead - of taking ordinary bread. Of giving thanks to our Father in Heaven who creates and sustains, who gives us his only Son to walk this human life, to face temptation, to show us the way to be fully human. To break bread and to give it to all who are gathered, that they might experience Christ's presence in their life, in this place and more importantly when they go forth. I have the great privilege of taking the cup, again giving thanks to our Father in heaven who knows us, who loves us, who calls us by name and offers us this cup filled with the blood of his son Jesus for the forgiveness of the nations. To extend his invitation to drink of it all of you that you might experience the fullness of life, of hope, of salvation Christ offers you. Holy God pour out on us gathered here your Spirit, fill us this day with your bread, with the fruit of the vine with your body and blood, with your presence, with your hope, with your questions, with your assurance. Make us be for the world the body of Christ. Let us touch the wounds. Let us spread wholeness and healing and good news in all that we do. Thanks be to God
Jesus knows what it is to be human to weep to be overcome for it all to be too much to cry out my God my God why have you forsaken me and Jesus shows us the way to wholeness and praise Jesus is with us in our suffering and Jesus calls us by name to touch the wounds in the world to be the body of Christ to be good news for the world go forth and be an Easter people exemplifying Christ in all you do thanks be to God Amen