Sunday, April 15, 2012

We are Resurrection People

Thomas is one of those characters we can all relate to.  He was not in the upper room when Jesus appeared and he missed a great opportunity.  He was not able to touch him. He did not hear Jesus speak.  So, he had doubts about what he heard; that Jesus was alive, and that Jesus was raised from the dead.

Who ever heard of a person being raised from the dead?

We can relate to Thomas because our lives today are based on things we see.  We need to see and touch and feel in order to really believe.  And even then—if it’s really way out there . . .?  all bets are off. Face it; we are a jaded and cynical people.  We need documented sources.  We need facts and figures that balance and are checked.

When I was a youngster I lived in a small town in which both sets of my grandparents lived within bicycling distance from my home.  Being in the presence of two sets of grandparents gave me plenty of opportunities to hear the first-hand witness.  Lots of stories were shared – some true and some shall I say embellished.

One story I remember well was of my father.  He was driving a team of horses on the family farm when the wagon they were pulling jackknifed, pinning him underneath.  My grandpa ran to his aid, across the field.  When he got to my dad he lifted the wagon and pulled the unconscious boy to safety and took him to the local doctor.  Later, when the moment had passed, it took several men from neighboring farms to right the wagon.  I thought this story must have been one of those legends that many families have in their histories.

“No way”, I thought, “could grandpa have lifted that wagon by himself.”

Years later I came across a faded newspaper clipping describing the story of my dad and the wagon in complete detail, even the lifting of the wagon by “four or five local men.”

Thomas probably heard the word on the street that Jesus was dead—executed and buried: that the Pharisees retained their puppet reign, and the Emperor was still the king. They were probably saying the rebel Jesus has been defeated and so for Thomas, the world was still a dark and scary place.  The story probably made sense to him because it was the way things worked.  And then Thomas hears something different.

How do we receive this Easter message?  Like Thomas—in the dark?  Or do we come, like Mary and the disciples with fear, misunderstanding, and uncertainty? Doesn’t this story run against our basic instincts?

This is not a story about Thomas not being there and seeing Jesus.  It isn’t about his absence and doubt. It is the story that the Good News of Jesus Christ is able to break through locked rooms, and enter the hearts of the disciples, and our hearts, through the limits of space and time and physical limitations.

John is trying to tell us we are all like Thomas. We were not in that upper room, on the "evening on that day.”  But that does not matter.  The street tells us Jesus is dead; that we should believe only what we see and that we cannot believe wild stories of resurrection and new life.

So, like Thomas, we all depend on apostles and disciples and gospel writers to bear witness to the news that brings life: a witness empowered by Christ.

Whether it is Mary telling of what she saw to the disciples that first morning, or Peter excitedly telling Thomas what happened when he was absent, or some 21st century preacher telling you the story of the Good News, we all have been given the message and the power to invite people into the kingdom of God.

I was in the last year of a multi-year Bible study and my friend Fred and I were doing some introspection into what our experience had been like.  Fred was an ex-military officer – a no nonsense and very pragmatic and tough kind of guy.  When he began to share his experience about our class he said, “I always thought of Jesus as a kind of first century crowd control.  You know, an ‘opiate for the masses’.  Now I know that Jesus really did die and was resurrected.  I know he is my Lord and Savior.”

Jesus has given us power us to believe, despite our doubts.  Thomas was not alone in his doubt. He wanted to see Jesus personally. He needed to see him—to believe. Maybe we do too.

Jesus blesses us for actually believing the story, “Blessed are those who have not seen . . . and yet have come to believe.”  That includes all those in the history of faith; you and me and prophets and apostles and martyrs and sages and all those in the long line of apostolic succession.  We have learned how to live with the doubts. And yet we still believe.

This is what sets us apart from others. This is what makes us “Resurrection People;” that we believe in spite of our doubts and in spite of our doubts we act, believing we can make a difference in the world. We struggle, and listen, and care, and love; all without guarantees . . . just a promise from our Lord.

The important message from Thomas is this: we may have doubts, in fact we probably should have doubts, but we are Resurrection People, empowered by Jesus.  We have learned to live with our doubts and to take action in the world.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

What does Jesus death mean to you?

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is great preparation and a good invitation for us to fully participate in Holy Week.   “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

Today is Palm Sunday, and we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, to the shouts of “Hosanna in the Highest.”  The long journey is finished and his disciples are certain that this Messiah Jew is about to do something extraordinary.  They may not agree on what is about to happen, but they know it will be great and mighty.

The donkey should have been a clue; it all seems to go very badly.  What happens next, the disciples are not prepared to see; this king of glory surrendering his inheritance to be joined with us—in every way imaginable.   Jesus—the son of God—leaves the glory of his position. Unbelievable!

We all love a good rags-to-riches story.  It is what we have become used to—what we expect in our feel good culture.  Whether it is the story of a poor farm boy becoming President of the United States, a nag of a horse winning the Kentucky Derby, or an undersized basketball team going all the way to win the NCAA tournament on a three-point shot from the top of the key, we love it when the underdog David beats the giant Goliath.  Maybe that is why we tend to skip Holy Week and go directly from Palm Sunday to Easter morning.

But this isn’t a rags-to-riches account.  This Jesus story goes in the other direction.  At one moment Jesus is being hailed as our king—the next his crucifixion is being demanded.  Why does he refuse to accept the glory that is rightfully his?  Why does he offer no resistance?  Why does he not protest his innocence and meet power with power?  Unable to act in his behalf, we are forced to watch his downfall in stunned silence.

Last night I had a dream.  It was one of those very realistic dreams that I knew was real—up to the point of my sudden wakefulness.  In my dream I held in my hand the winning MegaMillion lottery ticket.  I don’t know how I got it—I have never even purchased a lottery ticket, but here it was, half-a-billion dollars was mine for the taking.  The numbers matched.  The prize was mine.  I calculated the income I could receive from this endowment and all I could do.  Then I heard the words leave my mouth—I turned down the money!  I refused what was rightfully mine and tore up the winning ticket.

My dream doesn’t even begin to match the sacrifice Jesus made for us.  He allowed himself to be crucified on the cross, dying for us and pouring himself out for the benefit of the whole world.  His love became the power that overcame the empire.  His sacrifice lifts us out of our sin and gives us the possibility of a restored relationship with God.

In my life there were many who sacrificed much that I could be here in this place, at this time.  I’m sure if you stop to think, there are also those who sacrificed much for you.  Do you remember any of those people? Maybe a teacher or mentor; maybe it was a parent.  Can you remember what was done for you?  Maybe it was a small act of kindness offered at just the right time that lifted you from the pit of despair.  Or a monumental act of unselfishness that gave you an opportunity to become the person you are today.  Do you remember?

None of these acts can begin to replicate what was done for us by Jesus Christ and yet it is by remembering that we can begin to understand what Jesus did for us.  Our memories illustrate for us the character of the Christian community, like Paul’s letter tells us of the depth of Jesus’ love.  We are joined together by countless acts of selflessness and our lives are shaped by the love of our community.

But these memories of past actions do not sufficiently prepare us for the glory of Easter morning.  How do they all come together?  The shouts of Palm Sunday, the drama of Holy Week, the agony of Good Friday and the mystery of the empty tomb.  All must be experienced before we can exalt at the glorious resurrection of Christ.  Has anyone done for you what Jesus did?  Has there ever been a sacrifice so complete as Jesus laying down his life for you?

The tragedy is that for most of us this act was for naught.  But if you can remember and compare a life lived without the love of God in Jesus Christ with a life in His love—you know how great a gift you received.

Jesus held the golden ticket in His hand and said “no”.  I will not cash this in.  I will not rule the world of powers and principalities because this currency has no value for me.  Jesus trades in the currency of power for the currency of love—for you and for me.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

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