Thursday, April 26, 2012

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Our texts for this fourth Sunday in Easter are John 10:11-18, Acts 4:32-35, and 1 John 3:16-24. Read them here, and I also encourage you to take in the complexity and beauty of the depiction of Acts 4 from the St. John's Bible pictured at right, entitled "Life in Community."

Who knew Tina Turner was a theologian?  In her hit song she asked the poignant question that gives our blog today its title, "What's love got to do with it?"  This could easily be a subtitle of John's Gospel, a Gospel that claims life together in community has EVERYTHING to do with love.  We learn early on from John that God's great action in Jesus was motivated by deep love:  "For God so loved the world..." John 3:16 famously begins an explanation of why Jesus was sent to earth to embody God among us.

John 10, however, marks an important point in the story of love as well:  here, for the first time, love is tightly linked with Jesus' decision to lay down his life, in verse 17.  The "because" here does not mean that God's love for Jesus depends on him laying down his life, but rather that it is because of the deep link of love flowing between Jesus and his Father that Jesus chooses to lay down his life freely.  Love, it seems, is the motivating factor in this sacrifice--not just God's love for the world, but Jesus' love for both God and the world.  This will be reiterated by Jesus both in his words to his disciples on the night he chooses to lay his life down quite literally--"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15:12-13)--and in his prayerful words to God just before his arrest--"I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:23).  

Echoes of Jesus' prayer for love to prevail and link the people together show up in the way the early Christians are described in Acts 4:32--"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul."  What's love got to do with this--with the radical life these early Christians lived out in relationship with one another and God?

As we continue to consider our "You are my witnesses" theme for Easter--what it means for us to be witnesses of the resurrection, of what God has done in Christ--it is our question as well:  What's love got to do with it?  How does our love for others impact the ways we choose to bear witness in word and deed.  And, just as significantly, what does our love for God have to do with it?  It seems that simply loving one another is not enough--a greater Love, the love that was shown between God and Christ in which we are now invited to participate, must also be present.

So though it sounds obvious, it's really a tricky question:  What's love got to do with the way we bear witness?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Can I Get a Witness?

Our texts for this third Sunday in Eastertide (yes, Easter is not just a single day in our Christian year, but a whole season celebrated over 50 days!) are Acts 3:12-19 (readings from Acts replace our Old Testament readings in this season), 1 John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36-48. Take the time to read them through here.

If I had to pick a theme word in the post-resurrection stories of Jesus and the church that grew out of those who knew the risen Christ, it would be the word that we are focusing on for the season of Eastertide: "witnesses." It pops up everywhere, in our readings for this season and beyond, in the last words of Jesus and the first words of the disciples, including in our two main readings for today (in bold):

You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:48)

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. (Acts 2:32)

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Acts 3:16)

We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5:32)

"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem...He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead." (Acts 10:39, 41)

You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. (Acts 22:15)

The theme of witness was heavy in the content of Jesus' few recorded post-resurrection words, as well as in the speech and life of the earliest Christians. But what does it mean, to be a witness?
What associations do we have with this word today? I would encourage you to think on this question, and to reflect on the pictures at right that reflect some different meanings and interpretations of the word "witness" in advance of Sunday. Reflecting in advance may help you out come sermon time as we discuss this apparently crucial (if sometimes uncomfortable) aspect of Christian discipleship together.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Believing is Seeing

by Rev. Dr. J. Travis Moger
[Posted on his behalf by Jeremy]

Our text for this Sunday relates the story of Doubting Thomas, found only in John 20:19-31. The first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell us nothing about this obscure apostle. I don’t really like the epithet “doubting” Thomas. I think a better one would be “honest” Thomas, because he admitted his doubts, or “believing” Thomas, since he came to believe. Church tradition tells us that after Pentecost he preached the Gospel in India. When the first European missionaries arrived on the Indian subcontinent in the sixteenth century, they were surprised to find thriving indigenous churches full of “Thomas Christians.” But before Thomas could be used so mightily by God, he had to overcome his doubts.

The central miracle of our Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the main theme of theapostles’ preaching in the book of Acts and is included in all Christian creeds and confessions.Paul even says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”(1 Cor. 15:17). But that doesn’t make it easy to believe. The idea of a bodily resurrection goes against all of our experience. Dead people stay dead.

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with his fellow disciples when Jesus appeared to them postmortem, but we do know he wasn’t convinced by their story about seeing Jesus. He told them, “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” (John 20:25). Thomas wanted proof, empirical proof,that it was really Jesus and not a ghost. And he got it. Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present, but instead of rebuking Thomas for his unbelief, Jesus offered Thomas the tactile evidence he had demanded: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (20:27).

This offer for Thomas to touch Jesus is all the more surprising because just a few verses earlierJesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my father”(20:17). (The NRSV translates the command, “Do not hold on to me.”) Although Jesus forbids Mary to touch him in his resurrected state, he gives Thomas permission. Immediately upon seeing Jesus, however, the former doubter immediately blurts out, “My Lord and my God!” It was enough to see Jesus is his resurrected form. The Bible doesn’t say Thomas manually inspected the wounds as he had said he wanted to. This fact is all the more interesting since so many artistic interpretations, like Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (above), show the apostle inserting his finger in Jesus’ side. For Thomas and the other disciples seeing is believing.

The experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus was so important and exclusive that it became a prerequisite for apostleship. At least that’s how I read Paul’s statement, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). The rest of us don’t get to see the proof with our own eyes. We have to be satisfied with historical evidence: “These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Thankfully the Gospels give us reliable evidence based on eyewitness testimony. The lack of firsthand proof doesn’t make our faith weak or defective. In fact, Jesus praised those who believe without visual proof: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). The writer of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). For us seeing isn’t believing. For us, believing is seeing.

Faith comes naturally to some but not to others. The story of Thomas—believing Thomas—teaches us that God can handle our doubts and wants to help us when we are struggling with our faith.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Silent Day

On this Holy Saturday--the in between day, the day where we wait in silence and unknowing--another poem for your consideration and meditation, this one from artist Jan Richardson's wonderful blog called The Painted Prayerbook:

Therefore I Will Hope
A Blessing for Holy Saturday

I have no cause
to linger beside
this place of death

no reason
to keep vigil
where life has left

and yet I cannot go,
cannot bring myself
to cleave myself
from here

can only pray
that this waiting
might yet be a blessing
and this grieving
yet a blessing
and this stone
yet a blessing
and this silence
yet a blessing

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Maundy Thursday Poem

Throughout my Lenten journey, the poetry of Mary Oliver has been both a comfort and a challenge to me. I shared her poem "When Death Comes" with those of you who attended our Ash Wednesday service to begin the season; as we prepare to gather tonight at 7 PM for a Maundy Thursday service to conclude the Lenten journey, I offer another one of her poems for your reflection on this holy day:


The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splended fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.

-Mary Oliver (from her poetry collection Thirst)