Monday, April 19, 2010

Reflection On John 21:1-19

This story is just a ridiculous story. Really, how can anyone take this thing seriously? First up, we have Peter. He is continuing his losing streak against the beloved disciple. Did you not know they were competing? The beloved disciple thus far has beaten Peter to the empty tomb (even though Peter started first), he beat Peter by a long shot in having resurrection faith, and now he beats Peter to recognizing the Lord who is standing far from their fishing boat on the shore. Oh, the beloved disciple of Jesus Christ; the disciple who laid his head on Jesus breast, the disciple who Jesus loved above the others, the disciple who Peter is going to be beat, literally, if he does not stop making Peter look like an idiot.

Unfortunately for Peter, he does not need too much help in the “looking like an idiot” department. The guy is standing in a boat, in the sea, completely naked, fishing. Need I say more. He just earned his idiot badge right there. Just give the guy a six pack, stick him on the Susquehanna, and he would be a local.

Wait though, I do need to say more. Did you notice that it was fine for Peter to stand naked in front of the entire world on the boat, but he just had to get dressed so that he could jump into the murky water to go see Jesus? I bet you did not know this but, because of this yahoo, all pastors are required to shower with their clerics on before they go see Jesus on Sunday mornings. I bet you did not know that. Well, I have to admit, that is not true. I shower with my cleric on every Sunday morning because I still have not figured out how to turn on our new-fangled, space aged washing machine.

Ridiculous! This whole story is ridiculous and funny. It is a funny, funny story; like when Jesus first comes onto the scene after the disciples have been fishing for likely more than 12 hours. The disciples are exhausted and frustrated, and some guy…they did not recognize Jesus…hollers out to them, “put your nets out on the right side of the boat.”

“Oh, duh! The right side of the boat, who would have thought to switch to the other side of the boat after twelve hours of casting the net into the water?” (Sarcastically)

Oh, and then the funniest part of it all, when Jesus says to Peter:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."

Ha! That is so…not really funny at all. “Peter, someone is going to kill you because you follow me,” is what Jesus is saying. The words sound ridiculous, but they certainly are not funny. This ridiculous and funny story has suddenly taken a sharp turn toward a cliff, and, I am not sure that I want to go there. I am not sure that I want to think about being murdered for my beliefs. Why do we not just go back to the funny parts? Do we really need to think about the cost of discipleship? Do we really need to consider the dangers of living a true life of faith? I think that I need some more humor.

After years and years of dealing with families near or during death there is one truth that I have learned, death and humor were born to go hand in hand. A person may be facing certain death, but that does not stop them from remarking that they "cannot wait to get to the coroner’s office, I have been dying to finally lose some weight."

Death has such a heavy hand and can offer such a strong blow that we need a gift that is equally powerful so that we can face it. Humor is that gift. It is God’s gift to us. It allows us to put death in its correct position; death may touch us, but it cannot control us. Joy can and will get the upper hand. Death cannot hold us down. We laugh in the face of death. We laugh in the face of the fact that our faith may get us precisely where it got our Savior: death on the cross.

If it were not for laughter, we just might not stretch out our neck for a stranger. It would be easy to simply play it safe: avoid all danger, avoid all strangers, stay at home, never allow your children to explore or help anyone. Death can frighten us into inaction. Death can frighten us into safety. But, I am not sure that Jesus is primarily interested in our safety. After-all he did go to the cross to save the world. That probably would not be the most prudent action one could take. He asks Peter to do the same. He asks Peter to follow. And, he asks us to do the same. He asks us to follow. I hate to say it, but Jesus is not interested in our safety, Jesus is interested in making sure people are fed, at peace, free from tyranny, and completely loved. This is not safe work.

Just consider, would blacks have the freedoms that they do if Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks had simply played it safe? No, but they had faith, they had love for others, and they had laughter. Could women and children in war-torn regions of the Congo find safety and nourishment if their missionaries and aid workers were primarily concerned about being safe? No, but those missionaries and aid workers who venture into danger have faith, have love for strangers, and have laughter. Can our children stand up to bullies and defend the weak if they are primarily concerned about their safety? No, but they have faith, they have love for the outcast, and they have laughter.

So, when Jesus seeks you out, and asks you to follow, with death hovering above the water, make sure to put on your finest tux before you dive in. Does it make any sense? No, but it will keep a smile on your face. As Jesus sends you out, into dangers unknown, may he fill you with good humor as you dare to serve in his name.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Reflection on John 20:19-31

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe," Thomas sternly retorts to the other disciples when they harass him with the message they had seen the risen Lord.

“But, he was right here. He came right through the locked door and gave us his peace.”

“I told you, I will not believe,” Thomas is emphatic.

I know that your English Bible says that Thomas doubted and that years and years of biblical interpretation has labeled him as “doubting Thomas.” But, this is not doubt that he is expressing. Thomas is not wavering in his faith and trust. No, Thomas is certain. The appropriate name for Thomas would be Thomas the unbeliever; Thomas the realist.

Thomas is under no delusions. He knows that the one who he trusted and loved is gone. He is dead and gone and Thomas has gotten on with his life. He is not locking himself away in the other disciple's little room of fear. He is out in the world getting on with things. He is rebuilding his life. He is not trapped in a tomb of fear.

And now these cowards who have locked themselves away in fear and self-pity are trying to drag him back into their delusions. They are trying to drag him back into the locked room. Well, he is not going to fall for it. He is not going to let it happen again. He will not be hurt again by losing someone he loves and trusts. He will not dare to make himself have hope again. He will not open himself to such pain again. He will not believe. He will not believe. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

Why can’t the dead just stay dead? When they don’t, it throws everything out of whack. You cannot rebuild a life when the dead refuse to stay dead.

I once heard the story of a girl whose life was continually thrown into turmoil every birthday until she was 30 years old, because on her birthday, her dad would give her a video-taped message from her mother who died way too soon. It seemed like a good idea at the time; tape some messages so that her daughter could have the wisdom of her mother years after the cancer had taken her life. Well, it was not a good idea. Each year the daughter would watch the new tape and every year the daughter would feel the pain of her mother's death again. Even worse, when her mother would tell her to marry a certain type of guy, go to a specific school for college, or choose a specific career, the daughter could not fight back with her mother and change her mother’s mind. She felt guilty for every decision that she made in defiance of her mother. Why can’t the dead just stay dead? It throws everything into chaos if they do not. They should just die and stay in their tombs.

Only when the dead stay in their tombs can people like we and Thomas build our tombs and stay there.

A life devoid of hope is indeed a tomb. It cannot allow God to do the unexpected. It cannot allow grace to change the order of the world. It cannot allow our Savior to come back from the dead. As horrible as missing out on those things may seem, the tomb of realism is a mighty fine tomb because it is predictable. The stone walls are the same tomorrow as they are today. You can count on a tomb. It will not cause you to love and trust someone only to lose them.

But, do not let yourselves be mistaken. It is a tomb. Tombs by definition do not hold life. Life cannot grow and flourish in a tomb. We are not made to live in tombs.

And, that is the problem; if we have closed ourselves away in a tomb, where there is no life, how can we possibly get ourselves out? You do not escape tombs. You cannot just decide one day that you are going to leave your tomb to go get a soda from the Dandy. Whether it be a tomb of pain and loss or a tomb of unbelief or a tomb for the dead, a tomb is a tomb. Only the dead lie in tombs, and the dead cannot escape.

It is a good thing that locked doors of fear are not an issue for the risen Jesus, who just slips right through and offers his peace and his breath of forgiving life. It is a good thing that sealed tombs in no way hinder our risen Lord.

Jesus bursts right into Thomas’ tomb of unbelief and shows him the scars in his hands and side, just as Thomas needed. It is a good thing that even a tomb cannot hold Jesus down because it means that there is no place in the universe and no place in anyone’s life where new life cannot flourish. “My Lord, my God” Thomas answers him with new hope filling his life.

Today, that new hope, the new life that cannot be locked away by a tomb, reaches to us across the centuries and Jesus speaks directly to us. “[Thomas] Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Jesus' blessing cracks the edges of our own tombs open. It is not much, but it lets enough light in for hope to grow in even those of us who have not seen the Lord with our own eyes. It may just be a crack of light in our tomb of unbelief, but a crack is all Jesus needs to set us free. Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

I guess that tombs do not last forever after-all.

Reflection on Luke 24:1-12

I vividly remember an Easter dinner spent with some friends of the family. Just as we were settling ourselves around the kitchen table to chat while the meal cooked, the mother of the household came in quickly and declared to everyone the weatherman on the radio had just announced that there was going to be a huge, late snowfall. She said that the boys needed to go out to the barn and get the snow plow back onto the tractor ASAP. That announcement elicited a two second pause in the conversation, and then it resumed with the swift action of raised coffee cups to sipping mouths. No one did anything.

Just minutes later, the Father came storming into the house, announced the oncoming storm, and told the boys to get out into the barn and get the tractor ready. “I’m not going to let any of my guests get stuck here,” he stated authoritatively. And, immediately the boys were putting on their coats and were out the door. You can imagine the mother’s reaction. The mother’s jaw dropped to the floor as she stared at the father. Confused, the father replied, “What did I do?”

I am sorry, but women, is that not just how it goes. You say something and it is considered to be about as important as Groundhog’s Day, but a man says the same thing and it is like Jesus has risen from the dead! Well, you can take a little comfort from the fact that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women…yes these, the first evangelists in the world, were so important to the early church that they get to bear for eternity the name, “the other woman…” you can take a little comfort that no one believed them even when someone did rise from the dead.

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women were the first evangelists and the first preachers in the world for the Christian church, and they never hesitated in that job. As soon as the two angels in dazzling clothes approached the women…well I suppose that they may not have been angels, the Bible does not say that, they may have been just a couple of lost choir members bumbling around… whoever they were, as soon as these lost choir members in their white robes told the women that Jesus was not dead, but had risen, they were off to share the good news…that no one believed.

Not only did the disciples not believe the women’s story and brush them off as insignificant, but they considered the whole story a bunch of manure. No, the original Greek Bible does not always use family friendly language, but that just proves the point even more of how utterly ridiculous the women’s story seemed. “People raised from the dead, yeah right! What a load of manure.” People raised from the dead is rediculous. Death is anything but.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

“Death is a natural part of life.”

“We all labor against our own cure; for death is the cure of all disease.”

“Only death has the last word.”

In this world, the women’s words are crazy! They go against the very law of nature. Death is death. It is the end. After death, there is no more. Death is the one thing that we can count on. Anna Carter Florence, a biblical commentator, once shared the sentiment, "if the dead do not stay dead, what can you count on?"

What the women are saying is illogical.

“People do not raise from the dead. And, in any case, we did not see it. It cannot be true.”

The only logical response is unbelief. Therefore, we keep to what we already know to be true, death.

Wow, did you hear what I just said? Did it sound as bad out there as it did right here? “Therefore, we keep to what we already know to be true, death.” Wow, is there not something a little pathetic in that? It is a life of just getting by from one day to the next because we all know it will come to an end soon. It is a life of just living paycheck to paycheck. It is a life of just getting from one episode of American Idol to the next.

Wow, have we really resigned ourselves to death? Is it really healthy to keep Jesus in the tomb? Is it really healthy to live there in the tomb with him? Really? Is death really where we will find our answers? Is death really something to construct our lives upon?

The lost choir members in white have a question for us…alright, the angels in the tomb have a question for us, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

People’s lives are not changed by a monotonous lifestyle of living paycheck to paycheck. People’s lives do not flourish if death has the last word. Are you really certain that death has the last word? "Really? How can you be so sure?" Jesus’ resurrection forces us to reconsider these deep beliefs of our lives. Yes, death is real, but it is not the last word. In Jesus, life gets the last word.

What if? What if the women are not full of it? What if death is not the last word? What might a life that is not focused on death look like? What might a life with Jesus look like, if the women are right that is, and in Jesus life gets the last word? Would life have meaning? Would it build up rather than tear down?

I am not sure that I can tell you for certain, but is it not worth checking out anyway? Go ahead and run beside Peter, the one disciple who listened to the women…you can tell he was married, he actually listened to the women, smart man…go ahead and run with him, and find out what this life in Christ is about for ourselves? What could it hurt? Certainly, it cannot be worse than death. Why not seek life with Christ? Christ has already claimed you for life with him! What is there to lose?

Reflection on John 20:1-18

Darkness. The sky was dark when Jesus let out his last breath. The morning was dark when Mary reached the tomb. Mary’s soul was dark when she saw that the body of her beloved Jesus was gone. Life was dark when the hope of the disciples was put to death for good. Life was dark. It was dark.

Darkness is a problem in life. Danger can lurk in the dark; you cannot see to protect yourself. You are exposed; naked. You can get lost in the dark. It is impossible to see your way out of a problem when in the dark. It is interesting that the perspectives of people whose lives have gone dark and therefore attempt suicide are described as having tunnel vision. Their vision is limited, they can see only one solution. Things have gone dark for them. Darkness is a problem in life.

Even though the morning was probably starting to break, the darkness had completely overcome Mary. Heartbroken, she searched for her Savior in the garden. She looked and looked, she went and got the disciples to help her, she even asked the gardener. Her life was dark. She was convinced that her Savior was gone. It was so dark that she did not even see Jesus. In her darkness, she could not see through the exterior of the gardener into his soul. She could not see that her own beloved Savior was standing right next to her.

What do you do when you are lost in the dark? What do you do when you do not even recognize your own salvation? I have known people who cry from being lonely all while family is gathered around them. What do you do when the darkness penetrates so deep that you cannot see the love that is right in front of your eyes?

Sometimes your eyes will deceive you. Sometimes you will be convinced of one thing, when another thing is all together true. Legal courts have discovered that eye-witness testimony is an extremely poor way to get at the truth. Statistically speaking, eye witnesses hinder the investigation of truth more than they help. The eyes deceive. The eyes see things that are not there. Or, they fail to see what is there. Sometimes, they cannot see Jesus and let you know that the one who created, saves, and redeems you is standing right in front of you. Sometimes they allow you to be lost and lonely when the one who would die for you is right there with you.

When darkness has overtaken your sight completely, Jesus does have one way of getting at you…one way of saving you from the darkness; he speaks your name. In the scriptures we recall that, "He calls his own sheep by name... and the sheep follow him because they know his voice."

“Mary,” Jesus says through the darkness.

Indeed, the sheep know the voice of the shepherd, and Mary knows the voice of the one who loves her. You cannot forget the voice of someone so close to you when you hear your name lovingly spoken. It was the Word after-all that created the heavens and the earth. It was the Word that became flesh and lived among us. And, it is by the Word that we were given a name.  When we hear our name, we recognize our Savior.

Seeing is not believing. It is through listening that we will find the truth. It is through listening that we will remember whose we are. It is through listening that we will hear our names woven through the fabric of life. It is through listening that Christ will pull us from the darkness into newness of life. Take time to listen for the Word. Take time to listen for Christ. Your name is being spoken. And, God speaks your name beautifully, you precious child of God.