A couple of years back, the author Douglas Abrams traveled to India to record a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The resulting text is called The Book of Joy, and it is an account not just of the week that these two extraordinary people spent together but of their whole lives. They are, both of them now old men, and in The Book of Joy they talk of their lifelong search for meaning and service and love, their encounter with what Tutu would call God and what the Dalai Lama might call by another name. The conversation recorded in the book took place over a week at the Dalai Lama’s home in India. And it is full of remarkable and inspiring moments.
The moment that I am thinking about this morning is when the two of them talk about hardship, about suffering, about unfairness. The Dalai Lama has endured years of exile – as a young person he had had to flee his native Tibet in the middle of the night. Like Jesus and so many other refugees before him, he went to another country to escape the violence of empire. But interwoven with this story of injustice, here is the joy from the book’s title. Even as the Dalai Lama talks of fear and unfairness, delight and laughter are never far away – he and Tutu together are this picture of holy mischief. After the Dalai Lama talks for a while, Tutu stops him and says:
You would expect the Dalai Lama to say that he is joyous in spite of adversity. But somehow he is saying that he is joyous because of adversity.
Tutu talks then about Mandela, about his 27 years in prison and the indignities and the hardships that he endured, but how he was able to emerge from prison somehow transformed. He left prison a kinder, more compassionate, more fully human person than when he went in. And so Abrams asks Tutu, How did he do it? How was he able to see his suffering as ennobling rather than rather than embittering. And Tutu corrects him:
He didn’t see it.
The two of them, these two masters late in their lives, are talking about mystery. And like a lot of mysteries, maybe like all mysteries, this one is laden with paradox. Because on the one hand, what they are discussing is rudimentary, almost a formula or a logical progression: they seem to be saying that suffering is necessary, good for us, that it is what makes us fully human. At one point Tutu says that we can almost be thankful for the Chinese invasion of Tibet, because without it the world would likely have been deprived of the Dalai Lama as we know him now.
Except that it’s not simple at all. We all know folks who have not been ennobled or in any way improved by suffering (maybe we’ve all been those folks). We all know folks who, quite to the contrary, have been almost ruined by it. Their cruelty and hostility has been magnified. It is overwhelmingly likely that a child abuser was themselves abused as a child.
And besides, who wants to say thanks for suffering or for unfairness? Who wants to say thanks for the invasion of Tibet or a car accident or for still another school or place of worship getting shot up? One of our family friends suffers from bipolar disorder – what another generation called manic depression – and he is beyond clear that we are not to talk as though there were “something good” about his mental illness, that we are not to talk about a life in which he swings from this fecund but out of control energy and then to thoughts of suicide as though it were a cloud with a silver lining. He is adamant that there is no silver lining, only cloud.
Similarly, among the many alcoholics whom I know and love, I don’t know that I have ever met one who says that there were some pretty good things about rock bottom, about that moment when they realised that booze was running and ruining their lives, that maybe even they understood that they could either stop drinking or die.
(And maybe the very definition of paradox is that we have to reach for the words “and yet” when we speak of it.) And yet so many of my friends who have seen suffering and unfairness have been, somehow, set free by it. To hit rock bottom and come back, to encounter a staggering grief and come back, to suffer injustice and come back: that stuff changes you. You are who you are because of that experience. We are who we are because of our experiences of trauma, of grief, of loss.
Sometimes these are the experiences which, while they could embitter us, instead transform us. Instead, they invite us into compassion, into possibility, into holiness and love.
Today, Jesus talks with his friends about peace. And maybe they are confused to hear him do so. After all, these are folks who are poor, some of them dirt poor, who are eking out a subsistence living as fishers and day labourers. They are folks who live under occupation, who endure the constant fear of the state’s violence. And they are living centuries before contemporary medicine. All of that together means that their lives can end brutally and abruptly at any time. To top it all off, Jesus has told them early and often that the state is about to lynch him.
More than one of them gathered in that upper room may be tempted to say:
Jesus, what in the world are you talking about?
And at some level, they would be right to do so. If what we mean by peace is a more or less stable middle-class existence, the kind of life that many of us in this room lead, then peace for Jesus and his friends is an absurdity, an impossibility.
But maybe the peace of God is something other than that. Perhaps this is what the hymn is trying to get at when it says that The peace of God, it is no peace. Much as Christian hope is something harder and better than optimism – the resurrection doesn’t say that there is no death, it says that death is real and awful and that God is bigger than death. Much as joy is something harder and better than happiness – if you have ever been up in the middle of the night caring for a baby or for an older person whom you love and whose health is failing, you probably didn’t know much happiness in that moment, but you may have known joy. So is the Peace of God something harder and better than stability.
There is a reason that, come the end of the service, the blessing says:
The Peace of God which…
What does it do?
Which passes all understanding.
God’s peace passes all understanding. God’s peace isn’t easy. But it is good. It is in that peace that we may find that we are following Jesus.
For the past several weeks, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – has told us stories of resurrection. Beginning today, it returns us to the time before Jesus’ death: to the upper room, to the Last Supper, to what scholars call Jesus’ farewell discourse, in which he tells his disciples what his work means, what his life means, what is coming next. With this return to the time before the great change, it is as though the lectionary, just like the disciples some 2000 years before, is looking back into its memory and saying, Now that we have seen the cross, now that we have seen the empty tomb, what do Jesus’ words and actions mean? How are they different in light of what we have experienced?
Jesus’ words today are prefaced by a brief and vital detail, by words that, if this were a play about the last supper, we would call a stage direction:
When Judas had gone out…
And drawing on the work of a scholar by the name of Frederick Niedner, I want to suggest that this preamble, this information about the departure of Judas, is our key to understanding what Jesus says next. In particular, these words are the key to understanding Jesus’ new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
When Judas had gone out, Jesus said to them, Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
The Gospels tell us that, as Judas walks out the door, Jesus knows what Judas is about to do. He knows that Judas is going to betray him. Maybe his other friends, the other disciples, guess what is going on as well. And so a possible a way of reading Jesus’ subsequent commandment is to say, You need to love one another. Don’t be like that guy, Judas, who is totally failing at the whole loving thing.
And maybe that’s right. There is a long and well-attested reading of the Bible in which Judas is the villain of this tale, the cautionary example, the guy whom we are permitted to loathe. I had a colleague in the theatre biz who toured for a while with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. And he said that, come the moment when Judas hanged himself, there were audiences who cheered.
But there is actually nothing in the Bible that insists on that reading, that insists on Judas as the icon of contemptible evil and, therefore, as the one whom we may safely hate. Indeed, there are scholars who make the case that Judas is really not so different than Peter or the other disciples. Come the moment of the cross, come the moment when empire’s violence descends on them, 100% of the disciples fail Jesus. (Well, actually, that’s not true. 100% of the male disciples fail Jesus, running away, preferring their own safety over fidelity to their Lord. The women stay with Jesus to the very end.)
What if hating Judas gets Jesus’ words totally backwards? What if Jesus, as Judas walks out the door to betray him, is saying to his disciples: I know you want to hate Judas right now. I can understand that. But I’m giving you a new commandment, you need to love one another – including Judas – as I have loved you.
Maybe that sounds like a stretch. If it does, stay with me. Because I’d like to us to notice Jesus’ new commandment. What he says to his disciples, what he says to us, is a change, a variation upon, an expansion or magnification upon the golden rule. The new commandment is not Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nor is it Love your neighbours as you love yourself..
Now, those are a good commandments. It is good to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Except what if the way that you want to be treated isn’t the way that another wants to be treated? If I love spicy food – and forgive me if this is a silly example – and my neighbour can’t so much as look at a jalapeno without starting to weep, then treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated by preparing a flaming hot dish would actually be kind of mean. There’s lots more examples, and lots more serious examples, of ways in which treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated would neither be loving nor kind.
But what about loving others as you love yourself? That might be a better commandment. Any time that we are talking about love, we are talking about God. As our Presiding Bishop rightly never tires of saying, the Way of Jesus is the Way of Love. But as several of my friends and acquaintances were saying recently in a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced conversation on Facebook, what if you are in a season of your life when you don’t especially love yourself? Are you morally required, required by Jesus even, to share your hurt with the world, maybe even to have contempt for neighbour as you have contempt for yourself? Clearly, there are people in the world who are doing that very thing – who are projecting their misery and anger outwards. We have all been those people at one time or another. We don’t need to look further than the news to see more of them.
And maybe it is because of these problems that Jesus, on the night before his betrayal, gives us this new commandment. Jesus says:
Love one another, not as you love yourselves, but as I have loved you.
We are to love one another as Jesus loves us.
As Judas walks out the door, that raises a few questions. The first one goes something like this:
Whom does Jesus hate? Whom does Jesus exclude? Of whom, as he hangs dying on the cross, does Jesus say, Father, do not forgive them?
The second question goes like this: When Judas goes out into the darkness, do any of his friends follow him, do any of them search for him? Does anyone miss their friend? What about later, after Judas brings the soldiers to Gethsemane? Does anyone look for him them, try to reach him with God’s love, a love that extends even into his shame, his anger, what Niedner calls his rapidly deepening hell?
And what about the Judases in our own lives? The people who have betrayed us, who have hurt us profoundly? Dare we go looking for them? Dare we trust the difficult, beautiful news that the love of God extends to them as well? And – maybe this is still harder – what about the times when we are Judas to another, when what we have doneor left undone has left another feeling profoundly betrayed? Will we allow the possibility that they will follow us into the darkness?
Dare we accept this new commandment? Dare we abandon the comfort of having a villain who is outside of our love? Dare we to say yes to being part of the staggering love of Jesus?
The encounter or the experience that we call conversion is about seeing and being seen. It is about being named.
First, seeing and being seen.
My vision fell off a cliff around the time that I turned 12. This is not a metaphor. In what felt like just a handful of days, but I suppose what must’ve actually been a handful of months, I went from being able to see at distance pretty well to blackboards turning green and vague and even stop signs morphing into red clouds on sticks.
I remember the day that I put on my new set of glasses. And, well, it was revelatory. I had never noticed or, I guess, I had forgotten how much texture there was on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, how there were veins in the leaves of the trees, how our cat was something other than a diffuse blob that moved around the house, periodically meowing.
Conversion is like that. Meeting Jesus is like that. In conversion we understand something, at least in part. But there is more than a new set of glasses going on, more than clarity when we meet Jesus. Because in conversion we realise that the clarity is mutual, that it is reciprocal. To turn around Paul’s language a little, in conversion we know and are known.
Now, I don’t mean that, in conversion, God sees us for the first time. God has always seen you and me. As Jeremiah proclaims, God has known you since before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Rather, I mean that in an encounter with Jesus, we understand, we know that we are seen by God.
This experience of being seen is powerful, it is transformative. If you have had a great teacher in your life – and if you have enjoyed any kind of success, any kind of happiness, I predict that you have had several great teachers – then you will know what it is to be seen. What is amazing about a great teacher is that, in order to free you up for the profound wonder that is learning, they don’t need you to be anyone other than who you are. A lesser teacher wants and maybe needs you to be just like them. They know how they learn and they want you to fit within their model. A great teacher, by contrast, wants and needs you to be utterly, freely yourself.
Jesus sees you as you are and wants you to learn and thrive and grow as you are.
Second, being named.
Sometimes when we encounter the holy, we get a new name. Some of us come out of the sacrament of marriage with a new last name, all of us come out of the sacrament of baptism with the new name Christian. And there are other sacraments, ones not named in the prayer book, where we get new names too. For some of you there was a day when you received the name Mom or Dad, or Grandma or Grandpa, Uncle or Aunt, Brother or Sister, or Friend. Hearing that name applied to you was maybe a little startling and a little beautiful all at the same time.
If we live long enough, we will receive other names, too. These names are harder. But maybe, maybe they are not less holy. To stand in a hospital corridor, for instance, is sometimes to be handed new and unwelcome names, names such as Next of Kin or Survivor or Widow or Orphan or the Bereaved.
In joy and in grief alike, we receive these new names. These names are outward and visible signs of our encounters with God.
In a way, it’s weird that the lectionary has paired this reading from Acts alongside this reading from John, that it has paired Saul along with Peter. After all, Peter is one of the very first of the disciples, he has followed Jesus from the very beginning, he was there long before the crowds, when absolutely everyone listening to Jesus’ words didn’t even add up to a dozen people. And Saul, well, when this story starts he is an ethnic cleanser, a supporter of the death squads. He is, Acts tells us, breathing threats and murder against the disciples.
But at another level, the pairing of these two people and these two stories makes total sense. Because Saul and Peter are both folks whose lives have been damaged by violence, whose lives have been shaped and distorted by the hatred of mobs. They are both folks, as a consequence, to whom Jesus comes – as Richard Rohr says, Jesus always goes towards the pain. They are both people who see Jesus and know that Jesus has seen them, they are both people who get new names after meeting God. Saul becomes Paul, and Peter (remember way, way back at the start of the story when his name is Simon), gets this new name, Peter, which means the Rock.
And they are both people who, in the stories that we hear today, are converted.
Clearly, the story from Acts is the conversion of Saul. And I’d like to make the case that the story from John is also a conversion story, that it is something like the second conversion of Peter.
Okay. I’ve just shared a whole lot of ideas in a row. Let’s see if we can unpack them a little bit. And let’s start with violence.
It is, I would venture, obvious how Saul has been distorted by mob violence: he is someone who is participating in and celebrating the Ancient Near East’s answer to lynching. And while, clearly, Peter has done no such thing, he does remain someone whose very understanding of himself has been shaped and shaken by the violence of a crowd. Because Peter at the last supper, remember, is the guy who says that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to death, that he will never deny Jesus. And he is the guy who, when confronted with the horror of the crowd’s violence, with the horror of the cross, denies Jesus three times.
So both of these men come into these respective tales having been profoundly diminished by violence, having had their understanding of themselves and of the world bent by violence. It’s fascinating to notice, by the way, that Peter starts this story naked. His very body is a metaphor, it is an outward and visible sign of how everything has been stripped away from him in the crucifixion.
Both Saul and Peter begin with this inability to see. Saul abruptly becomes blind. And Peter, like the rest of the disciples in the boat, can’t quite figure who it is on the shore in the early morning light who is calling out to them. As Paul Nuechterlein, whose work really shaped this sermon, says, the words, “Who are you?” are on the tips of all of the disciples’ tongues. But somehow nobody on the lake that morning dares to spit out that question, because – and how enigmatic or paradoxical is this? – they all know that it is Jesus.
Saul actually does ask the question, “Who are you?” And Jesus replies, fascinatingly, wondrously, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Not, I am Jesus, and you are persecuting my disciples, but I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Here, from the risen and ascended Lord, is an echo of the Beatitudes: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me.
Saul, now groping about in darkness in the middle of the day, is lucky enough to meet some people who are kinder than he is, and he is led further into Damascus. He finds his way into a room where, lost, he devotes himself to prayer. And this disciple, Ananias, comes to him. Ananias who is afraid of Saul with good reason, but who trusts Jesus more than he fears Saul, and who goes and lays hands upon Saul – Brother Saul, he even calls him. He says, Jesus has sent me so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit.
And something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes. And after he gets his strength back, he begins to proclaim everywhere that Jesus is the Son of God.
Peter meanwhile swims to the shore. (I love the weird detail that he puts on clothes to jump into the water – that’s the opposite of what most of us do. I love the even weirder detail that the net that he and his buddies haul in the incredibly specific number of 153 fish.)
And there, for the second time in not very long, he stands around a charcoal fire.
Remember that Peter is standing around a fire in the cold of the night when he denies Jesus. In the resurrection, in this moment of conversion, that scene is inverted or reversed. Jesus, wondrously, gives to Peter the chance to reverse his actions. Much as there were three denials, Jesus now gives Peter three opportunities to say, I love you.
The scene is amazing enough in translation, in English. It is a picture of resurrection, of forgiveness, so beautiful that it might just put you on your knees. But it is even more amazing in Greek. Because in John’s original language, there is a fascinating discrepancy in Jesus’ words and in Peter’s. The Greek has multiple words for Love, and so what Jesus asks Peter is Do you agape me? And Peter responds, Yes Lord, I philio you. And then a second time, Peter, do you agape me? To which Peter says, Yes, I philio you.
What happens the third time? Does Peter finally get it, does he finally use the right word? That’s what we might expect. But it’s not what happens. Jesus says:
Peter, Do you philio me? In other words, he sees Peter right where he is, he uses his language, he names him right where he is, he joins him right where he is.
This is what happens in conversion. For Saul, for Peter. For you and me. This is the moment, however fleeting, when we see Jesus and we know that he has always seen us, when we are given new a name, a name like Disciple, like Christian, like Beloved Child of God.
Stories, we learned in our early school days in English lessons, are made up of a plot line that has three main parts. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Beginning. Middle. End. That’s a story.
Maybe sermons are the same way, but I am going to skip to the end, and tell you the main point or theme that I hope you will carry away from my words today, and then support it with the rest of the story. Here it is: What if not knowing is the point? Can we all be okay with not knowing? And beyond being okay with not knowing, can we actually love the process of not knowing, because not knowing is just how it is?
Was that confusing? Let’s see if I can make it more clear.
I do not like scary movies. I’ve tried to like scary movies, and be one of those brave people who enjoy them, like Father Martin, for example. But, I think I have to come to grips with the reality that we are all differently and wonderfully made, and some people (like me!) are just better off NOT watching horror movies. They give me nightmares. They make my heart pound in a not-good way. I even roped a friend into this attempt to watch scary movies. Like, if you have already seen the movie, please watch it with me, and then warn me so I know when to cover my eyes and when it’s okay to look again. And having that reassurance of someone who has been there before is often a good way to navigate life. That’s why we have mentors, and career coaches, and support groups like AA where they have sponsors for the newer people in recovery to call upon.
I wonder if that’s the dynamic between Jesus and Thomas. I want to focus on the week or two when Thomas has not seen Jesus, but all the others have. The apostles have seen how it ends – they know of the resurrection of christ. And they tell Thomas, and he’s like “no way, I cannot handle that.” And Jesus appears again to the group and breathes into them the holy spirit (can you imagine how amazing that would be?) and he spends time with Thomas in his fear and uncertainty and says, “yes, Thomas, you can handle the horror and the wonder of all the emotions that come with my death and resurrection. See it for yourself.” But really, Thomas is not too far off from the rest of disciples in any other story of the bible, right?
It’s just this one week or so where Thomas is called out as being the doubter, the one who doesn’t trust until he sees what the other disciples see. But we know from the rest of the stories in the bible that all the disciples fall short time and again of being faithful believers – they often came across as petty and bumbling, falling a sleep a lot of important times, denying they even know their friend Jesus at the most important moments, being jealous of one another and arguing about which one is the greatest, or favorite. I love the disciples. It’s just the way we all seem to navigate the world throughout all recorded history. Even when you would think that humanity would learn, or get better about these kind of issues. Not having all the answers because of our limited perspective seems to be the human condition. It’s not hard to put ourselves into the sandals of disciples on any this, either. I can imagine the confusion and fear of Thomas. I can imagine the sureness of those who saw Jesus.
There are lots of issues where reasonable and unreasonable minds continue to differ: climate change is real and people are contributing to it. No it isn’t, and if it was, the impact of people is negligible. Vaccinations will harm your child; vaccines will save your child’s life. Women are equal to men in every way that matters. No they are not. Jesus our Savior is alive. That’s simply not possible. What’s the point of these arguments? These kind of disagreements are surely not the point of community. I’m not saying they don’t matter. Sometimes we have to take a bold stand for what we know is right, no matter the outcome or consequences. I do think all of our arguments will be ultimately resolved, and then the person who had it wrong is going to feel like a pretty big fool. But right now, the person who is wrong has no idea, and often times, they have to figure that out for themselves.
How we love each other through our differences will be remembered more than anything we say.
All our journeys/stories begin and end with God, so even when we feel very lost, and on the opposite side of a very large gulf between our neighbors in Christ, we can never be truly lost if we focus on the love we carry with us.
It’s just not possible to know everything, and we need to be okay with that. I get to work with law students who are trying to figure out their career paths. What is the job I want? What’s the job I can get? Will anyone even want to hire me? Am I worth being hired at all? These issues, like a lot of the issues where we feel uncertain or where we are willing to fight with others about the issue, strike to the very heart of who we are as people – our worth, our identity, our place in the world.
I see that these students are struggling because of where they are in time. All of the things that are causing stress, keeping them up nights, making them feel unwell, and making them doubt themselves and their choices – it’s all going to make sense to them soon. They have to go through the struggle of it. They have to not know before they get on the path to their career. Other people can point them the way, or tell them how much promise they have, or tell them it’s all going to work out, but they don’t share those feelings at all, no matter what anyone can tell them. The disciples saw Jesus. Thomas didn’t see Jesus – not then, and not yet. But he did see Jesus. We are – each of us – every one of us – on our own timelines for knowing God, and for seeing Jesus, and for finding our faith within this world. There’s an old spiritual that goes something like this (and I am probably getting it wrong but I think it goes): you gotta learn to walk with Jesus. Nobody else can do it for you.
I think of faith development similar to human development. There are stages of concrete thinking and there are stages of nuanced thinking. Each stage is important to our whole. We bring everything to our faith – our rational minds, our ability to be open to the possibility that we have it all wrong, our passion for good, and yes, even our doubts. None of these things can or should be checked at the door when you walk into church, or into relationship with God. Or to school, or to work. Or to finding the truth. Sometimes the truth can be determined. You examine the facts, you logically rifle through the possible conclusions, and you reach a determination that’s pretty absolute. For example, we know that if we go outside there are roses along the wall of the church that Frank Schramling tended. Fact. I haven’t seen him trim the roses, but I know that he does. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe. So keep disagreeing but don’t discount anyone’s humanity, and for some issues don’t discount that you might be wrong. I mean, what if we are wrong about everything? it’s a pretty interesting thought exercise to say, “but what if I am wrong on this?” I admit there are some topics where I cannot do it. But there’s a saying – the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. (I’m sure Thomas is relived to hear this saying.) If you know everything, then maybe God should just step aside and let you drive the universe.
The “not knowing” place is the way we spend most of our lives. So, they key to getting through “not knowing” in my opinion, is to be okay with it. Can you be okay with not knowing? Beyond that, can you love it? Can you love not knowing? There’s so much promise in what might be coming next. If stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, then we as humans on the journey are stuck in the middle perpetually until the end. We don’t get to choose when it ends or how it ends. We can find a way to love not knowing, though. And Jesus will be there with us to assuage our doubts. Can you love not knowing?
We live in the time after the resurrection. And given that, here is the question with which we are confronted. Given the staggering mystery of the empty tomb, what should we do? How should we live? What does resurrection mean?
These questions are as old as the Christian movement.
We can imagine the apostles asking this question. After encountering resurrection, after living the strange, wonderful miracle that was the resurrected Jesus for fifty days, after being part of this holy party that waited on the far side of the cross, they say:
What now? What does everything that just happened mean?
Well, part of the answer to that question is recorded in the Book of Acts, a book that we might call What the Apostles Did Next or, maybe, How They Made Sense of the Resurrection. Part of it is recorded in a collection of letters, some of which are bound into the Bible. Part of it is recorded in ancient church documents: beautiful, searching texts like the one that we call the Didache, that tell us what it was like be part of the young church.
And part of the answer is recorded in this very service and in the three days that came before it.
The first Christians knew that the resurrection had changed everything. Now, they didn’t understand the resurrection, any more than you or I can understand the resurrection. To stand before the empty tomb is have an encounter that bends the very rules of life, of reality. But they knew that it made everything different. Resurrection (and forgive me if this is a flippant analogy, I don’t mean it to be), is like a twist ending in a story or in a movie. When you encounter it you want to go back and read everything or watch everything again to see the clues that you missed before, to see what they might mean in light of what you now know.
Jesus’ life and his death are different when you understand that resurrection is coming. Creation itself is different when you understand that resurrection is coming.
And so, over the three days that end Lent plus this, the anniversary of the day of the resurrection, the day of Easter, they crafted a series of practices and symbols that told the story of, well, everything. It was as though they wanted to cram absolutely all that there was and all that there ever has been and maybe all that there ever will be into church.
Maundy Thursday, where we remember and embody Jesus washing the feet of his friends and establishing the Eucharist, the holy meal that we will share together in a few minutes. Good Friday, where we journey with Jesus to the cross and watch helplessly and hopelessly as he suffers and the life bleeds out of him. The Easter Vigil, where we tell one story after another after another from scripture (way back when, that service lasted all night long, so that the worshippers would have literally journeyed from darkness and into light, so that the Vigil and today’s service would’ve been the same thing). And then today, where we hold this celebration, where declare that God has broken the very bonds of death.
The Vigil – the old beginning of this service – begins with the very first reading that there is in scripture, with the part of the Bible that says in the beginning.
One of the big questions that the first Christians wrestled with back then and that those of us who do our imperfect best to follow Jesus are wrestling with still goes something like this: When God became human and lived with us and told us stories and healed us and then died and then proved to bigger than death, did God do that because we humanity was terrible, because we had made so many, selfish mistakes, because we had spectacularly screwed up the world, because we were such awful sinners?
Or was there another reason?
The first possibility is maybe the one that we are the most familiar with. This is the possibility that God, like a disappointed Dad getting up from the TV to deal with the yelling in the living room, God had to come to earth because we were kind of awful. In that reading, the first two humans introduced this thing called original sin into the world. (“Original sin,” by the way, is a phrase that appears exactly nowhere in scripture.) Ever since the first humans ate from the wrong tree and original sin got introduced, humanity has gotten worse and worse, running up a bigger and bigger tab of sinful debt with God, until the debt was so bad that humanity no longer had the capacity to pay it.
And because the debt had to be paid, because someone had to die, and die horribly, for all of our sinning, God sent God’s only son to suffer and suffer and suffer and finally die on our behalf.
And that’s an okay understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I guess.
With the lone problem that it makes God into a psychopath.
Why in the world would God require that his only son be tortured to death? And if God did require that, why in the world would we worship that God? Wouldn’t we have a moral duty to refuse to worship such a God?
Thanks be to God, we’re not stuck with that explanation. Because for someone like the wonderful Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, the Incarnation was not an in-flight correction but, rather, was God’s plan from the very beginning. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, God digs out God’s paintbrush and chisel and creates this world of wonder and beauty. God says that it is good. Some theologians reckon that we should not speak of Original Sin but of Original Blessing.
And God decides that God will neither watch what God had created passively from a distance, and nor will God operate reality like a puppeteer pulling on the strings of a marionette. Rather, God will participate in reality, with all of the grief and the joy that comes of being alive.
God will walk the earth.
If that’s right, then the cross isn’t something that God wanted or needed. Rather, it was something that we in our fearfulness and our anger and our violence did to God. Jesus, as Marcus Borg would put it, did not die for the sins of the world but because of the sins of the world. But here’s the amazing thing: God figured out how to turn even the cross, even the worst that humanity could come up with into something wonderful and something freeing. And even more than that – and this is a part of the story so beautiful that it puts you on your knees – God accepted that very worst thing that we could do. And God kept on loving us anyway.
There are lots of stories where the hero comes back from the dead at the end. Go see a Marvel movie. So that part of the story is maybe not so different. But there is a part of the Gospel that is entirely different. Because what does the hero say when they crawl out of the rubble?
The villain is going to pay.
That is what we would expect from Jesus. But that isn’t what Jesus does. Jesus refuses to return our violence or our hatred to us. The resurrection is all about shared meals, shared possibility, shared loved.
We are people who live after the resurrection. And we have this ancient question: What now? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have seen the staggering goodness of God? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have participated in resurrection?
What’s the deal with Judas Iscariot? I’ve been thinking a lot about Judas this week.
He’s a major player in the Holy Week drama, but we usually hear little about him, except to condemn him for his selling out Jesus to the Jewish and Roman authorities.
And we know little about why he did that. The gospels can’t agree on his motive:
Mark says nothing about motive, Matthew says he did it for money, and John’s gospel
says he was induced by Satan.
Over time there’s been speculation that he might have been sympathetic to the
Jewish radicals who wanted to attack Rome with violence and was therefore frustrated when Jesus didn’t choose that path. But we just don’t know. Nor do we know why afterwards, he apparently regretted what he had done.
But here’s another question: If Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, as
John’s gospel suggests, why didn’t he try to stop him, or why didn’t he try to find a
different place to hide? John says it’s because it was all part of God’s plan but
that doesn’t really explain much.
Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: I believe that in creating humans in God’s image,
God has given us the great gift of freedom of choice, of being able to know what the
right path is, and being free to choose it or not. It’s the freedom that Adam and Eve
exercise in the Garden, and it’s the same freedom that all the actors in the Holy Week
It is a measure of God’s love and respect for us that God invites us to follow God,
tries to show us the way but does not force us to follow. God wants our actions to be
freely chosen, based on our conscience. In allowing Judas to do what he does, Jesus
respects the human dignity even of someone who he knows means him harm.
The last days of Jesus are a swirl of different people making different choices in
response to him: the crowd in Jerusalem, which acclaims him on Sunday and cries for
his execution on Friday; his disciples, who abandon him and later realize that all is not
lost; his women followers, who are faithful throughout; the Jewish leaders, divided over
how best to deal with him; and Pilate, who releases one condemned prisoner and
We might see Jesus as strangely passive in this drama, in allowing people to act
against him, but we might also see him as according everyone the chance to choose
their own path, and trusting that God will see it right in the end.
The human heart is mysterious: In Holy Week we observe faith and fear, hope and
despair, hatred and love, life and death, and we know that these all part of our lives, too.
Jesus is not the master manipulator, forcing others to do his will. He is teacher and
model, inviting people to follow his path of love and sacrificial service to others.
Every year in Holy Week we have the opportunity to respond anew to that invitation to choose faith over fear, hope over despair, love over hate, and new life over death.