Easter

Stab Wounds and Nail Marks

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An Easter Sermon on John 20: 19-29

The gospel narratives tell us that the risen Jesus stayed with his disciples for a significant amount of time (40 days!). In the post resurrection narratives of the gospel we find powerful reminders of how we might live the resurrection life in our day and time. Below is an abridged version of the Easter sermon that I delivered at the First Baptist Church of Westfield on April 5, 2015, where the Rev. Mayra Castañeda is senior pastor.

Why the sermon title? I even asked myself, Elmo do you really want to have that as the title of your sermon? That is too much violent imagery for Easter. We should be talking about victorious and triumphant things today! We will, but as I reflected on the world around us today - as I normally do when preparing for a sermon - and what the Easter message might speak to this time, I was led to our gospel text today and found it inevitable not to speak about the stab wounds and nail marks of Jesus.

What is so holy about Holy Week? On closer examination of the gospel narratives, many unholy things happened to Jesus this past week. He was mistaken to be the messianic military deliverer for Israel, then sold for a few pieces of silver and betrayed with a kiss by one of his own followers. And when he was arrested one of his own followers driven by road rage violated his teaching on love, drew a sword and cut off the ear of one of the arresting officers. Jesus rebuked his disciple, and healed the ear of that soldier. And then when he was brought to the maximum security prison of the empire and used as political football by politicians and religious bureaucrats - Caiphas the high priest of the ruling religious party, vassal governors Pontius Pilate and Herod who were political rivals even found common ground on Jesus. And then the crowd that welcomed him with palms and loud shouts of hosannas when he entered Jerusalem earlier in the week, now joined all these protagonists who want him dead but no one wanted his blood on their hands.

All that Jesus did was proclaim and preach the coming of God’s kingdom of love and eternal life; all he did was miraculously heal the sick and raise a dead friend back to life, welcomed the outcasts of society, and preached forgiveness of sins and announced indestructible hope. Yet contrary to all evidence, a kangaroo court accused him of trumped up charges of sedition, terrorism, conspiracy to overthrow the religious leaders of the temple, fraternizing with sinners and blasphemy against the divinity of Caesar - enough charges to set the pretext for his brutal torture, his humiliation. They stripped him naked, mocked at the claims of his divinity by wrapping him in cloths of royal color, but then ramrodded a crown of thorns on his head as they laughed with glee and derision.

And then they executed him with unspeakable brutality by nailing him on a cross and plunging a harpoon on his side, still mocking him to his last breath, “If you are the son of God, call your angels to take you down.”

Jesus, who scripture prophesied as the coming Messiah, God with bones, muscles and sinew - God in the flesh, love incarnate - died in unspeakable pain, gasping for air as his lungs collapsed. Then his friends abandoned him, the MVP of the disciples even denied knowing him. Only the women stayed. Nothing holy happened during that week!

But, alas, in the brutality and viciousness and hate that suffused this whole entire week, it wasn't any of these, it wasn't death, that made the Sunday morning news circuit! It was the resurrection of Jesus that swept into the halls of the Domus Augustana, the imperial residence - so irrepressible in its power, in its improbability, in its utter triumph and threat, that the empire couldn't censor the news that was spreading. It wasn’t death that had the last word. It was love that had the last word! In the ugliness of the Roman cross Jesus laid bare the innards of evil for all to see, and exposed our capacity for hate and its consequences. In the cross we saw what God’s perfect suffering love looks like when it confronts unjust power, evil and death in the face. His triumphant resurrection subjugated the power of hate with the power of love. He died with the words of forgiveness on his lips, and he rose from the dead to declare once and for all that no empire, no power, no authority on earth can overcome and separate us from the love of God. And in the words of the great oratorio of G.F. Handel, “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ! He shall reign forever!”

In this proclamation I am reminded that in the resurrection of Jesus, all our politics, all our theologies, all our ideologies, even all our Christianities - now stand under scrutiny and judgement to this Jesus! We still live in a broken world, a time when many great evils continue to walk the earth. Cults of death, sadistic, genocidal and murdering hordes remind us still of the depravity of sinful humanity. The poor and the powerless continue to be oppressed and exploited by rapacious economics and unjust systems all over the world.

Thomas’ desire for proof brings us to a very important theme of the Easter message. The Roman empire used crucifixion as it primary mode of execution. The brutality and violence of this mode of killing was unspeakable, and the Roman empire had already executed tens of thousands of people during the time of Jesus. Thomas did not want to forget the violence and the brutality that Jesus went through leading up to his crucifixion. He saw Jesus die in that way, and he wanted to see the marks of his death as a condition of his belief. In a way, Thomas was thinking, my Jesus does not have a big “S” written on the robe of his chest. My Jesus had the marks of hate and brutality on him - crown of thorns, lacerations and bruises of torture, stab wounds and nail marks.

And so we cannot uncouple the inseparable link between the Bible and the wounds of the world. The passion of Jesus is eternally connected to the passion of the world. The saving divinity of Jesus is inseparably linked to his humanity, his wounds. To follow the way of Jesus is to follow his suffering in the world. What meaning would the Easter message bring in light of the present darkness of the world?

Following Jesus requires us to walk in the way of the cross. Loving Jesus requires applying such love into action. “Do you love me?”, the risen Jesus asked Peter three times. Each time that Peter answered “yes”, Jesus didn’t just reply, “Oh, that’s just cool!” Jesus connected it to action, “Then feed my sheep.” Jesus’ last words to Peter remind us that to love Jesus means to open ourselves to the plight of others, that living for others is where we find the life of the Spirit. It calls us to live for others in a world that usually encourages us to only look after ourselves. There is no other way to walk with God.

God’s suffering love seeks the powerless and the weak, the oppressed and the outcast among us. Where there’s the cross, there’s also the light. In the resurrection, God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14). Where there is Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds, there is also the declaration, “My Lord and my God!”

God chose to come in suffering love through Jesus, that God may enter the reality of humanity’s existence in all of its dimensions, its heights and depths, including death, that our redemption and transformation may also be complete.

There are yet many forms of death in our time longing for resurrection. People in the world are still being enslaved, and many live with violence and brutality, thousands of children and infants dying of hunger and preventable diseases. Much war and hatred in the world still destroy life. We also know that many parts of our planet are dying – disappearing animal species, decimated forests, polluted rivers, air and water. We see the urgent need for resurrection everywhere.

The risen Lord wanted Thomas to be assured not only that he is the same Jesus crucified on the cross. But Jesus also wanted Thomas to now fully understand that God’s kingdom of love is a kingdom that is inextricably bound to his wounds. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We no longer have the hands and side of the resurrected Jesus to touch. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. We live in the power of the resurrection, in its hope that in the end love and life are more powerful than death. And we are called to live the resurrected life in the kingdom of love here on earth. What does this mean? It means that we fiercely hope in the midst of despair; we act with generosity and hospitality to the different in the midst of prejudice and greed; we defiantly do justice for the poor and the powerless because God’s love becomes visible only through justice and compassion; we resist unjust authority without fear; and we love, we hope, and we forgive extravagantly in the midst of hatred; and work hard for peace in the midst of the idolatrous worship of war.

Like Thomas, may we be reminded that the kingdom of love is built on Jesus’ stab wounds, his nail marks. When we continue to rage against the darkness of the world and the nihilistic ideologies of death, we also proclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Death is defeated, we are set free from fear. And like Mary, may we live these days proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord!

Woman, Why Are You Weeping? - John 20: 11-23

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All throughout the gospels we learn that the main focus of Jesus’ message is that in him and through him, God’s kingdom has now entered history, and is revealed on earth. And so the narratives in the four gospels describe wonderful and miraculous things that surrounded Jesus’ ministry. He announced the coming of the kingdom by way of healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor, setting at liberty those who are oppressed, He worked many miracles - he raised the dead to life, he cast out demons, he violated accepted religious norms, he acted in ways that contradicted natural laws, he reached out to the outcast of society – the so-called “untouchables” – he did all these in the name of God’s love, and to show the God’s love rules over all things and over all nature. In these he demonstrated authority over all things, authority that only comes from the son of God.

The story of the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene is another luminous example of how the new realm of God that has come in Jesus has reordered relationships within society. Women during the time of Jesus were marginalized. They could not own property because they themselves were essentially considered as property by the culture during that time. They could not start a synagogue; they cannot petition for equal rights because there was no such thing as equal rights for women. They cannot constitute a quorum in any meeting because they didn't count; their opinions were not respected. A woman’s opinion would be the least believable. The proclamation that the resurrection was first  revealed to women stands alone among the resurrection narratives. There is nothing quite like it in the gospels and ancient literature. The disciples could not have invented the story not only because of this social context,  but they had no choice but to tell the story because our text today says that later that same night, Jesus appeared to all the disciples even when they were behind closed doors. Mary was right! It is no coincidence that the most powerful gospel stories of the risen Jesus’ appearances are told around women.

In the resurrection of Jesus into glory, the ultimate purpose of the story of God’s plan for the redemption of the world is now fully revealed. In the resurrection we see the totality of the story of God’s loving intention in history. It begins in creation. The entire created order is good because it comes from God. The Bible says that only persons and every human being are made in the image of God, to be a steward of the non-human world, invited to live forever with creator God. God's purpose is to restore the created order that is now tarnished by the disobedience of people. God chose a people to be a priest to the nations. But their disobedience messed things up, created self-centered and corrupt persons, and self-centered and corrupt persons distort creation and social relationships.

When Jesus announced the gospel of the kingdom, he meant that as you enter this kingdom you enter a new community and start living with new values. Salvation is not only an individualistic concept in the Bible. God is also concerned about the world. The Bible does not speak only about our relationship with God, but our relationship with others and with all of creation.

In Jesus’ resurrection we are reminded that we are created not to die and rot, but to live forever with the Lord. In Jesus, God’s kingdom has entered history. History is moving towards the completion of God's plan to restore all of creation. The good news is that we enter God's kingdom not because of our own abilities, but because Jesus died on the cross. The Holy Spirit’s work of love in the world is not yet finished, but in Christ we live in hope because we know that we live in the intercession of Jesus himself, and in the assurance that nothing - nothing - in all of life and even death, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. The proclamation of the resurrection is that Jesus is Lord, that he is already Lord of all rulers and kings. With this hope we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.  We are called to live in right relationship with God, creation, and with each other.

Because the world is not yet perfected, there are still voices out there that are constantly vying to drown out the voice of Easter – these are voices of fear, of hate, of cynicism and apathy; voices of violence and greed. We still see the poor, the weak and the vulnerable continually still being victimized in our world and in our neighborhoods. We still see creation being ravaged by rapacious economics. Hatred and wars still destroy people. And often times the moral and spiritual burden that we bear as a community of Jesus weighs down upon us: what do we do as a church? What does it mean to be the church in a society that is suspicious of faith? Jesus does not value faith that is based on one’s idea of “convincing evidence.” When Thomas made his confession of his belief after he saw Jesus’ wounds, Jesus turned to him and said, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!” This is the reason that apostle Paul said that faith is the evidence of things unseen, the substance of things hoped for. The mystery of the Word becoming flesh is fully embraced in faith.

We must not forget that the light of resurrection burst forth from the darkness and the shadow of the cross. God’s love was laid bare through the ugliness of an executioner’s cross. On that cross, Jesus cried’ “Eloi, Eloi, why have you forsaken me?” He didn’t use the word “Abba”, the customary way he called God, which is equivalent in emotional weight to “daddy.” Instead he used, “Eloi”, in his cry of abandonment. It is the way we would call God in the midst of our despair. Jesus also experienced the abandonment of God in the depth of his suffering and grief. We, too, have seasons of abandonment – we experience it in the death of a loved one, in the betrayal of a friend, when we see and experience great physical suffering and trauma, when injustice seems to prosper over what is just, or in the depths of despondency that comes when relationships are broken and when we lose everything that we know or value. We experience God’s distance when we see evil. In those moments, we feel God seemingly absent and so far away. Jesus’ cry is the cry of humanity.

Then in the midst of these, we hear Jesus’ voice in the way it came to Mary: “Woman, why are you weeping?” The gospels are unanimous in the one essential message of Easter: that the crucified one who was killed did not remain dead but is alive. Jesus the crucified now lives forever with God.  In our seasons of abandonment, we know that Jesus has been there. In Jesus’ conquest of death through his resurrection, we can also say with the apostle Paul, “to die with Christ is to rise with him.” And this is our hope, that whoever clings to Jesus and follows him will likewise live. There is no new dogma or doctrine is proclaimed here; only a new call to discipleship. The risen Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter said yes, Jesus responded “Then feed my sheep.”  Jesus called Mary by name, and this is when she recognized him. Can we recognize Jesus when he calls us by name in these days? In the midst of the challenges and discouragement that we still face in the world, we hear Jesus saying to us individually or as a community of faith, “why are you weeping?” Without Easter, all of Christendom will have no belief in Christ, no proclamation of Christ. There will be no church, no worship, no mission, and no gospel; without the resurrection there will be no New Testament. The Easter message is about eternal life. God’s love, in Jesus Christ, conquered death. We have no reason to be sitting on a rock weeping. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world that God so loves.

The earthly ministry of Jesus was consumed in the ministry of invitation, “follow me!”, of teaching, preparation, healing, liberating the oppressed; of preaching good news to the poor and the marginalized of society, of announcing that the realm of God and the gospel of love have now entered history fully in his ministry. Now, as we worship on this Resurrection Sunday, we are reminded of the risen Lord’s last words – they were words of mission and promise – “tend my sheep”, go and change the world…”and, lo, I will be with you until the end of the age.”

Where is the weeping in all of that?

 

Post-Easter "Letdown?" - Some Thoughts

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The phrase "letdown" is commonly associated with athletic competition (at least in my mind, it is). I love sports and enjoy watching tournaments, especially those where my favorite players or teams are competing. One of the sports I really enjoy is golf. For a golf fan, the four majors are centerpieces of an entire season. The Masters, one of the four majors, was held last week during Holy Week and ended on Easter Sunday (an odd schedule, but "par for the course" in a secular society!). I wasn't able to watch the final round on Resurrection Sunday, as I had a preaching engagement followed by travel to a family gathering, but I was able to catch up later in the evening in the news and some replays. If there are, say, tournaments being held each week back to back, it is very common for a golfer to win a tournament one week, and then completely miss the cut the following week. So if Bubba Watson, who won the Masters, was to play this week, it is likely that he will perform dismally. They commonly attribute this to the "letdown" phenomenon- when an athlete or a team competes at such superior level so as to win a significant competition, that the next event which is relatively less prestigious becomes less important and not worth the same effort.

The Monday after Easter, my Facebook page was unusually quiet. The usual frenetic traffic of posts was relatively sparse, actually. Then I started seeing posts (from pastors, too) throwing caution to the coming "post-Easter letdown" this Sunday. It got me to thinking again about some interesting but familiar thoughts I have had about this cyclical "phenomenon." It seems that this post-Easter fatigue of sorts hearkens back to several possible causation. First, it is plain to see - upon closer examination - that the seasons after Easter (the post-Resurrection appearances, Pentecost, Ordinary Time) are the most neglected segments of sacred time in the Christian liturgical tradition. The stories of the risen Jesus' appearances to the disciples, the nature and work of the Holy Spirit - emphasized after Easter and during Pentecost - are relatively neglected. How this attitude developed through time requires a broader discussion. Suffice it to say, it is self-evident. Second, it is not difficult to infer a secular connection to the joyous and celebratory atmosphere surrounding Advent, Christmas and Easter. These Christian holidays are inseparably connected to, or embedded in, the materialism of popular culture in which all of us are intertwined. There might be other reasons why the liturgical seasons between Easter and Advent are the most neglected. Pastors and church staff are exhausted after Easter!

Yet the Bible tells us amazing things that happened after the resurrection of Jesus. The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the Book of Acts, I Corinthians - recount numerous appearances of the risen Jesus in his miraculously new flesh and blood - he appears to Mary, ate with the disciples in numerous places, goes through closed doors, lets Thomas touch his wounds, hangs around with his disciples for 40 days before he ascends to heaven, recommissions them, tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit who was to birth and impart life to the church and inaugurate their new mission on earth - these things preceded the most rapid and explosive growth of the faith! There is no "letdown" in those post-Easter accounts - in them is a plethora of wisdom of immeasurable riches to learn.

Easter was a triumph, indeed. It was a victory that gave power to the church in her journey from that day forward. Perhaps if we separate the notion that our holy days must be accompanied by the trappings of secular materialism, its trinkets and tinsels, store sales, and heightened consumerism, and a fiesta atmosphere in order for them to be legitimate "holidays" - perhaps, then, we can truly see the meaning of the post-Easter events through the eyes of the first disciples - as moments full of power and eternal significance. So let's proclaim the post-Easter stories. There is much to tell. Have a "letdown-free" Sunday!