Saturday, April 07, 2012

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Great Vigil of Easter
Romans 6.3-11; Mark 16.1-8
Saturday, April 7, 2012 – Trinity, Redlands

Tonight we travel with three women to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid following his crucifixion. For these women, this is a solemn time. Since Jesus had been killed on Friday, right before the Sabbath, they did not have adequate time to properly prepare the body for burial. The body was wrapped in a linen and placed in the tomb. But Jewish custom called for the body to be anointed with spices before being wrapped. So as soon as the Sabbath was over, they went to the tomb to complete the job. This was for them a profound act of both religious and personal loyalty. They would do this out of a sense of obligation to Jewish law, but even more so out of love for Jesus. And there was probably a deeper purpose for them – closure. Closure not only of the death of their friend and master, but also of the death of the dream he carried and taught – the fact that the kingdom he envisioned would not come to pass.

Or so they thought as they walked to the tomb.

Upon arriving at the tomb, they discover Jesus’ body missing and are told by a man “He has been raised; he is not here.” He then tells them to tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus will see them in Galilee. Mark tells us that their response, and rightly so, is to flee the tomb “for terror and amazement had seized them,” that they were afraid. Their world had just been turned upside down. Despite Jesus having told them three times that he would die and be resurrected, they did not comprehend what he meant. Maybe even now they didn’t fully comprehend. Hence their mix of amazement and fear.

Was it because the promise might be true after all? If it were, and it sure looked like it might be, their lives would be changed. As Jesus’ followers, they would be obligated to carry on the message he had been proclaiming for three years – if they truly believed. They would be called to live with this new truth, the truth of the Resurrection, and to discover its effects in their own lives and ministries. The only response could be awed, reflective silence – silence that allows space for the voice and presence of God to break through. Anything the women would say would only serve to trivialize the experience of the empty tomb. It’s not about what they had seen. It’s about what God has done, what Christ has accomplished. He has broken the bonds of death, taken away its sting, taken away our sins, given us new life – eternal life.

From Mark’s gospel, we don’t really know what happens after the women fled in awed silence. The original text of Mark ends with the empty tomb, where today’s Gospel reading ends. This places the burden of understanding on us, the readers. The fact of the empty tomb itself does not provide conclusive proof of the Resurrection. We must trust the witness of three women and the words of a strange man in the tomb, “He has been raised; he is not here.” We are called to discover for ourselves what this means through faith and by observing the effects of the Resurrection in our own lives. In this, the abrupt original ending of Mark is an appropriate one for those of us living the effects of the Resurrection. It sends us out from the empty tomb to find our own response. This ending, as does this celebration of the Easter Vigil, expresses the sense of awe at what God has done in the life and death of Jesus Christ. No words can adequately express it. It is only in the awed silence that the truth is revealed. It is only as we continue to live with it that the truth is revealed.

The only other response that even remotely begins to capture this sense of awe is the act that will follow in a few minutes – that of baptism. The baptismal affirmation of dying and rising with Christ is at no time more powerfully embodied in the life of a worshiping community than when we do baptisms at the Easter Vigil. It is in the act of baptism, in which we go into the baptismal waters to die to self as Jesus did on the cross, and emerge from those waters, just as Christ emerged from the tomb, resurrected – cleansed, healed, forgiven, and born to the promise of new and eternal life, that is only made possible through the unbounded love and mercy of God, only made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul talks about the meaning of baptism, particularly as a sacramental sign of our sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection – our personal journey from Good Friday to Easter. Paul wants the Christians in Rome to understand that their baptism is the most important event in their lives, whereby they become a new creation, receive a new identity, and obtain new life in Jesus Christ. In this act, Paul tells his readers they are united with Christ to become part of his body – both his body the church and his resurrected life. But even more, baptism binds us to Christ and Christ to us. And in so doing, we become heirs to the promised Kingdom.

Tonight we have watched and listened as the drama of salvation history and the good news of the Resurrection have been recounted. And in mere moments, we will see both salvation history and the Resurrection reenacted through the sacrament of baptism. Tonight, Elisa, Tristan, and Thomas, mother and sons, will follow in the footsteps of countless others who have made their personal journeys from Good Friday to Easter. Tonight, this family will make the most important step in their lives. They will be bound to Christ and Christ will be bound to them. They will be made part of a much larger family, the Body of Christ. Their lives will be forever changed, leading them down a new path, continually strengthening and deepening their relationship with God and the Risen Christ. For them, Christ was resurrected this night. And so are they, as they share in the resulting promise of new life.

On this night, we join with the women at the empty tomb, standing in awed silence, as we contemplate the truth that has been revealed to us. We take in the glory of Christ’s Resurrection, as we witness while Elisa, Tristan, and Thomas enter into the joy of that Resurrection, and as we ourselves continue experiencing the effects of the Resurrection in our own lives.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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Friday, April 06, 2012

The Truth of Good Friday

Good Friday
Isaiah 52.13–53.12; Psalm 22.1-11; Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9;
John 18.1-19.42

Friday, April 6, 2012 –
Trinity, Redlands

“What is truth?” When Jesus is dragged before Pilate on trumped up charges of blasphemy and treason, there is an exchange between the two about Jesus’ identity and purpose, to which Jesus responds “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate then famously replies, “What is truth?” Was Pilate attempting to be philosophical or was he just being sarcastic? I have always imagined it as more of a sarcastic remark, a la Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar. But the more I think about this scene and what follows, I am not so sure. Maybe he was being philosophical. Maybe he was genuinely asking for his own edification and growth.

What does John’s Gospel tell us about the truth Pilate, and indeed all of us, seek?

In John’s account of the Passion, Jesus seems to be in charge throughout. He comes off as being defiant in his interaction with Pilate. He is not willing to play the game the Temple authorities would have him play. He does not wither in the face of Rome. He does not give Pilate any easy answers. He is playing by his own rules, even when up against the mightiest and most powerful.

After he is found guilty in a mock trial, this air of control continues. On the way to the cross, he appears poised. He ably carries the cross himself. Unlike the accounts in the other (Synoptic) gospels, there is no mention of Jesus falling on way to Golgatha. There is no mention of needing any help in carrying the cross.

The calm presence continues even upon the cross. Even after nailed to the cross, there are no signs of anguish. Jesus does not cry out in abandonment – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He may have been forsaken by the Temple authorities, by his own people, by the Roman authorities, but he knows he is not forsaken by God. He knows that what he is doing will reconcile God with those who have indeed forsaken him.

Throughout the Passion narrative, Jesus is very confident, poised, and calm. He knows what is happening, why it is happening. Jesus seems determined for this to play out as he knows it must.

But in the face of this confident, poised Jesus, it is hard to see the truth. It may be there, but where? Certainly as we stand at the foot of the cross, with Mary and John, looking up at the broken body of Jesus, beaten, ridiculed, mocked, nailed to the cross, it is hard to see the truth. This scene betrays the truth of human savagery, of the senseless brutality of which we humans are capable, of the self-serving nature of our species. But this is not the truth that Pilate asked about. How can this violent scene, the broken man that is its victim, bring truth?

To begin to understand the truth we seek, it helps to turn to our Old Testament lesson. In the reading from Isaiah, we have the fourth Servant Song. This song was most likely originally intended to describe the vocation of the whole people of God, as a single identity, suffering for the sake of leading the world to God. But for Christians, the subject is Jesus Christ the Servant. From ancient times, this text has been read to make sense of the death of Jesus. In many ways, it is needed to make sense of today’s events, in a way that the Gospel lesson does not, or maybe even cannot, do.

The fourth Servant Song, while written as words of comfort to the people of Judah during the Babylonian exile, is nonetheless a particularly vivid foreshadowing of another set of events that would occur some 500 years later – the events we commemorate today. Even though not specifically written about Jesus, this passage from Isaiah provides a fitting image of Jesus and what Good Friday is all about.

As Isaiah says:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

This is all happening because of us – because we have all sinned. Of this and what it means to the Suffering Servant and what these actions mean for us, Isaiah writes:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

The Suffering Servant, although free of sin and guilt, takes on the sins of the people. Then through his death, provides the sacrifice necessary to pay the debt of those sins.

Isaiah uses the concept of the scapegoat, familiar to the people of the day, to illustrate how this is efficacious. It was the practice in ancient Israel for the high priest to lay his hands on a sacrificial goat, thereby transferring the sins of Israel upon the animal. The goat was then slaughtered. The ritual of sacrifice was a sacramental sign demonstrating the people’s awareness of their sins and the many ways they had fallen short of living according to God’s laws, of living within the covenant established between God and his people. The ritual act of sacrifice also, and maybe even more importantly, demonstrates God’s mercy in accepting the gift of the scapegoat, of taking back from the people all the sins they have committed and laid upon the animal.

But in the case of the Suffering Servant, of taking on the sins of Israel, the scapegoat is unlike any other. An animal sacrifice would not be sufficient. What was needed was something of even greater value – a human scapegoat to take on the sins of all Israel, to provide for the forgiveness of an entire nation.

But for us, this act is not just about forgiving the sins of a single nation. More than a single nation is in need of forgiveness. All humanity is in need of this same salvific act. In this, the fourth Servant Song is not merely predictive. Rather, it points to something greater, something more far-reaching. On a grander scale, this passage reveals the continuity of God’s purpose. It shows us that God’s plan all along was for salvation – first for Israel, then for all humanity, bringing to completion a plan made in eternity and patiently worked out throughout history, from the beginning of human existence. This is a plan for salvation culminating in the events of Good Friday.

But for the whole plan to work, a goat would not be sufficient. Even a mere human would not be sufficient. Something more would be needed to take on my sins, your sins, the sins of every person to ever live – past, present, and future. Think how massive that is; how much wrongdoing that is; how much pain and suffering that is; how much sorrow that is. It boggles the mind.

That’s what this day is about. It’s about providing a sacrifice capable of taking on all that sin. The only sacrifice remotely capable of achieving this herculean task is the son of God himself. What this ultimately reveals is the lengths that God will go to so as to be with us, to heal us, to save us. God in the human form of Jesus, God as father of the one being sacrificed, will suffer for us, go through evil for us, and die on a cross for us – to ease our suffering, to take away evil and the pain it causes, to give us life. In his actions, he draws a world of lost souls to himself, and through his blood makes them clean and whole.

Jesus does all this out of love. Even in the midst of our cries of “crucify him!” he still is willing to do this for us. Even in the midst of our cries of “crucify him!” Jesus still loves us.

Pilate asks “what is truth?” The truth is not a set of propositions. Rather, the truth is a person – a man . . . fully human as we are. But also fully divine, the son of God. For only in that unique combination of human and divine would there be sufficient love for such an endeavor; sufficient power to take on the vast sin that we humans are capable of and responsible for. Only one embodying that unique combination would be foolish enough to demonstrate such love for someone like me and like you; to be willing to die for what we and countless others like us have done; to be willing to die so that we are forgiven, cleansed, and made whole; to be willing to die so that we would not have to, but so that we might have eternal life.

John’s picture of Jesus is comforting. It reassures us that, despite the brutal tragedy that is happening before our eyes, Jesus is in control. Jesus is doing this for us. Jesus is doing this out of love for us. God allows this to happen out of love for us. This is the truth that Pilate sought. This is the truth we seek this day. This is the truth that will ultimately be revealed in an empty tomb.

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