Saturday, April 30, 2011

Considering Conservative Values

My politics and even my religious perspectives tend to be left of center. By now, if you started reading from the beginning, that confession shouldn’t come as any surprise. In a previous essay I tried to reclaim, even redeem, the “liberal” label. Having made that point, I want to say that I also value the true conservative voice. I use the words “true conservative” because what passes for conservatism today is actually quite activist, which runs against the grain of the conservative ideal.

Now, I welcome the conservative voice as a necessary caution to the liberal’s advocacy of progressive ideas and actions. This is, of course, the American way, for this nation has never been a one party state. Multiple voices can make for disharmony and confusion, but the alternative is quite unappetizing. If only one voice is heard then freedom of expression has been effectively eliminated.

Our government’s system of checks and balances helps prevent one branch of government from dominating the other two, and it keeps us tied to the rule of law. Now, from time to time one party or another will gain ascendancy, but the people have the power to adjust the balance, and often they do just that.

If a liberal is, by definition, open minded, tolerant, and change oriented, the conservative, so the dictionary says, is one who is “averse to change.” Conservatism ties itself to the values and institutions of the past, which means the idea of a radical conservative is kind of an oxymoron. I don’t know about you, but I find a bit of irony in the label “conservative revolution.” That’s because a true conservative is cautious and committed to tradition, so to pursue a revolutionary agenda and then try to remake the American way of life, which some modern expressions of conservatism appear to be doing, is anything but conservative.

True conservatism is, however, a check on an overly optimistic and radical liberalism. The conservative voice should caution us against grandiose schemes and ground us in reality. It should call us to be fiscally sound so that the institutions of today may prosper (the Medicare/Social Security debate?). True conservatism remembers and treasures the traditions of nation and religion.

As one church historian said “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” There is much value to be found in our shared traditions, just as long as they don’t become rigid and unreformable. The value of tradition is that it serves as an anchor, without which we tend to lose sight of our purpose and values – such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.

The phrase “throwing the baby out with the bath water” is apropos here. While some things need changing (even radical change), not everything needs changing. Some things are best left alone, like a pristine forest or the habitat of an endangered species. Old buildings may be less efficient, but they give character to a community. Remember that the word conservation derives from the same root as conservative!

What is true of the environment and local architecture is also true in religion and politics. In many ways the American political system has worked quite well for a very long time – two hundred and thirty years and counting. It has needed tweaking and even significant reform, but the basic structures have held up quite well.

Regarding religion, I must confess that my faith is rooted in a book that in its most recent parts is more than nineteen centuries old. I recognize that not everything contained within its pages applies today or even makes sense today, but when responsibly interpreted, it remains the anchor of my faith and millions of others as well. Although I enjoy contemporary forms of worship and new musical expressions, I also love the old hymns and symbols of my faith. In my tradition we practice weekly communion as a way of remembering an event that occurred centuries ago. It’s not very modern, but it’s still an anchor to my faith.

In many ways I am a liberal, but I appreciate the cautioning voice of the true conservative. This voice allows us to reform our structures and traditions, while keeping us anchored. Change is good – like the growing numbers of women clergy or the prospect that most Americans seem ready to elect a woman or an African American President – but change is most beneficial when it’s tempered by a wisdom that’s informed by tradition.

Essay excerpted from book under construction -- Faith in the Public Square.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Red, Blue, Purple: Redeeming the “L Word”

Once upon a time it was a good thing to be liberal, but today it seems that to be a liberal is to be godless and unpatriotic. The word has become so disrespected that many liberals run from the label and call themselves by other names. This is the age of Limbaugh, Hannity, and Coulter.

Not long ago conservative Republicans controlled all three branches of the American government, and conservative church leaders had the President’s ear. The once powerful Mainline Protestant churches sat on the sidelines looking back wistfully at what had once been theirs. While the 2008 elections seemed to portend a turning of the tides, it’s much too early to tell which way the wind is actually blowing (as the 2010 elections reminded us).

The rise of conservatism is explained by an appeal to ideas. It was said that liberals, unlike conservatives, seemed to lack ideas or a willingness to stand up for what they believe. Of course this isn’t really true, but the political and religious right have done a good job at portraying themselves as the true protectors of American political, cultural, and religious values.

It may only be a matter of semantics, because it’s quite possible that “liberals” are really “conservatives” and “conservatives” are “liberals.” Turning to my trusty Merriam-Webster Online dictionary I discovered that to be “liberal” is to be free, generous, and broadminded (it can also mean licentious or loose). Freedom, generosity, and broadmindedness would seem to be good American values. That is, to be a liberal people, means that Americans aren’t “bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” As for the dictionary definition of the word conservative – I’ll deal with that label later.

If you read the definitions of liberal and conservative closely you discover that there is value in both frames of mind. There are traditions, structures, and values worth conserving and preserving, but not everything is worthy of preservation. Surely slavery, Jim Crow, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, the denial of women’s suffrage -- just to name a few -- aren’t values and structures worthy of America. At the same time openness and generosity, and freedom of thought and speech are virtues that should be lifted up and preserved; and by definition these are liberal values.

America was born on the premise that the people have the right and the responsibility to question authority and orthodoxy. This requires a broad education and critical thinking. My fear is that we’re being tempted, out of fear and maybe ignorance, to jettison these values.

In truth, conservatives and liberals need each other. They provide checks and balances that keep us centered. This is as true in religion as in politics. It’s ironic that Mainline Protestantism is often accused of being traditional in its structures and worship, while many conservative Evangelical churches are on the cutting edge of technology and culture.

Being a bit purple myself, I wish to redeem the “L Word.” Many religious “liberals” now call themselves “progressives,” but there’s nothing wrong with being “liberal,” especially if by definition this means that one is free, generous, and broad-minded. When it comes to faith, and I’m a pastor after all, there is value in considering the liberal ideal. Although I love the traditions of the church, including its liturgy and music, there’s also much value to be found in open conversation, critical study, and the application of reason to faith. Openness to the leadership of women is also a liberal value, as is the commitment to learn from secular thought and from people of other faith traditions. I love the Bible and seek to live out its teachings, but I’m not content to simply believe because “the Bible tells me so.” If I’m to profit from its teachings, I must read it responsibly and intelligently.

When it comes to living in a free society, critical thinking and the willingness to grow, even evolve as a human being, is essential. Tradition is important, because it provides us with a sense of rootedness, but tradition can’t be left unquestioned. If we wish to continue moving forward as a nation and not become stagnant, then we must hold strongly to the values of freedom (religious and political), generosity, and broadmindedness. And, if this is what it means to be liberal, then I wear the label proudly.

Excerpt from book under construction -- Faith in the Public Square

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I Believe in the Resurrection -- A Lectionary Meditation

Acts 2:14a, 22-32



1 Peter 1:3-9


John 20:19-31


I Believe in the Resurrection


This may simply be the week that follows Easter. We had our great celebration, but now it’s time to get on with business. The liturgical calendar has, of course, other ideas (as does the lectionary). Therefore, let us continue the celebration we began on the Day of Resurrection by singing the songs of resurrection. With contemporary hymn writer Brian Wren we can sing:

Christ is risen! Shout hosanna! Celebrate this day of days.
Christ is risen! Hush in wonder; all creation is amazed.
In the desert all surrounding, see, a spreading tree has grown.
Healing leaves of grace abounding bring a taste of love unknown        (Chalice Hymnal, 222).

And, with St. John of Damascus (8th century), we can sing:

Let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
for Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end.                         (Chalice Hymnal 228, vs. 3).
Yes, it’s not yet time to let go of the Easter song – indeed, the reason that we gather for worship on the first day of the week is that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

I realize that this doctrine of resurrection continues to be controversial, with scholars taking positions along a spectrum from bodily/physical to the metaphorical and everything in between. You can pick your theologian/interpreter and go from there. But, as theologian Clark Williamson reminds us, we can’t get away from its message:

The resurrection explains the New Testament; the New Testament does not explain the resurrection. The resurrection is God’s answer to Pilate’s brutality and to the death dealing ways of all oppressive powers and principalities
.
Thus, God chose to exalt him so that every knee should bow and tongue confess him Lord (Phil. 2:9-11). He goes on to write:

When the church affirms that the Christ who was raised still bears the marks of the crucified Jew who died on a Roman cross, it puts us on notice that the risen Christ will not now do anything out of character with what the Jew Jesus did in relation to his followers. As Jesus then confronted his followers with the promise and command of the God of Israel, so Jesus now confronts his followers with the same promise and command. (Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, pp. 200-201).

It is this nail scarred but risen Lord whom we meet again in John’s gospel, and through whom we experience the healing presence of God.

On the first Sunday after Easter the lesson from the Hebrew Bible is replaced by a reading from Acts 2, though this passage draws our attention to the words of Psalm 16, the author of which, according to Peter, is David. In this text we hear Peter addressing the gathered crowd on Pentecost, and drawing upon Psalm 16, Peter declares that in this song of the ancient Jewish people, David had declared that the Messiah (the one who would sit on David’s throne) would not be abandoned to Sheol (Hades) or experience corruption, which Peter takes to mean resurrection. David might suffer death and be buried – after all, his tomb remained with them. But the one whom “they” had crucified, God redeemed by raising him from the dead – all of this according to God’s foreknowledge. They may have acted outside the Law, but God had acted to reverse their judgment and restore to the throne of David the chosen one of God. For Peter, David, who died, and whose tomb remained with them, had made it clear that the one who would redeem his throne would be greater than him, for he would be the risen Lord.

If Acts roots the promise of Resurrection in the Psalmist’s prophetic statements, 1 Peter, a letter that claims the great apostle as its author roots the new birth and living hope of the people of God in the resurrection of Jesus. That is, the church doesn’t explain the resurrection – the resurrection explains the church. Therefore, because of this resurrection, the people of God will receive an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heave for you . . .” That promise of the resurrection that the letter speaks of gives hope and strength to those who must suffer trials because of their faith. It enables the follower of Jesus to endure the testing of faith by fire. In the end, strengthened by this promise, they will express their joy in praise and glory and honor. And though you may not have seen him you will be able to love him and believe in him. Yes, because of the resurrection you will experience indescribable joy due to the salvation of your soul.

The text that truly grabs us on this Sunday after Easter is John 20. It comes to us in two episodes, both of which remind us that this resurrection of which we speak was no mere resuscitation, but it also appears to be more than mere metaphor or vision.

In the first episode, the disciples are locked away in the Upper Room, because they’re afraid “of the Jews.” It’s interesting that the Romans executed Jesus, but in John’s view they fear the Jews (even though that too are Jews!). But the point that needs to be grasped here is that they are afraid. This is no jolly band ready to continue the work of their fallen leader, and therefore it would seem to take more than a metaphor to cause them to take on a new calling.

Hiding away behind that heavy door, afraid of their shadows, they experience something unexpected. Jesus suddenly appears – as if he walked through walls. Here’s the piece that fits with Clark’s meditation on the resurrection – he shows them his hands and side and then they rejoice. They are comforted that he’s the one marked by the cross. Because they believe and receive him, Jesus then breathes upon them the Holy Spirit and gives them a commission – forgive or retain sins, for whichever you choose, God will act upon this choice. This is John’s Pentecost, the time in which the Spirit empowers and ordains the disciples to be witnesses. They are given the responsibility to share the word of forgiveness.

But not everyone is there that night. One is missing – Thomas, the Twin. He’s not ready to receive their witness. He’s something of a David Hume. He has to see in order to believe. I’m with him really. I too need evidence to quell my doubts. And so we have the second episode. Again, the group of disciples hunkers down behind locked doors – a reminder that the resurrection message didn’t completely take. They received the Holy Spirit from Jesus, but the Spirit had yet to free them completely from their fears. And once again, Jesus appears – through the door - -and he again says: “Peace be with you.” This time his focus is on the doubter, and he invites Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and in his side. Touch them so that you might know and believe. Yes, the New Testament doesn’t explain the Resurrection. The Resurrection explains the New Testament! It is the Resurrection that compels the people of God to share the good news. Now, Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubts, but he does offer a blessing on those who don’t see and yet believe. We who live after David Hume, should receive this word with joy, for if we’re to take the Resurrection Road, it will require of us great faith and trust.

The Gospel doesn’t tell everything that occurred, but it does tell us enough that we might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God. If we’re willing to believe this, then there is salvation in his name.

The hope of the church and the world is found in the risen Lord. For as Charles Wesley put it:

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, O Heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!                                                      (Chalice Hymnal, 216 vs. 4)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Age of Selfishness

According to the Gospel of John, as Jesus was in the Garden, just prior to his arrest, he told the disciples who were with him:

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13; Common English Bible)
This statement stands at the heart of the Christian message, a message that is also contained in the commands to love God and love your neighbor.  Jesus divided the sheep and the goats from each other on the basis of how persons loved  him by taking care of the "least of these" (Mt. 25).   The question that Cain raised:  "Am I my brother's keeper" has been answered in the affirmative by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  Following the example of the Samaritan, Jesus said:  Go and do likewise.

American may be a predominantly Christian nation, but recently it seems as if an ideology that is quite foreign to the gospel has taken root.  One of its prophets has been Ayn Rand, author of the novel Atlas Shrugged,  which Martin Marty discussed in a Sightings piece published here yesterday.  As noted there, Ayn Rand has become something of a hero to a growing number of people, especially among Tea Partiers and Libertarians.  She is apparently the inspiration for Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan, among others.  At the heart of her message is the "virtue of selfishness."  According to a book of essays by that name, Rand lays out her "philosophy of objectivism."  Now, she might not be a respected philosopher, nor even a great novelist, but she is influencing a culture that seems intent on abandoning the common good for the good of the individual.  She writes that "the Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest."

As David Heim, Editor of the Christian Century, writes in Century blog post:

Rand has never been taken seriously by those who know philosophy or care about fiction, but plenty of people take her seriously as a guide to politics. That number is on the rise, and it includes people like House budget chair and GOP economics guru Paul Ryan. Ryan has cited Rand's novels as the reason he got into politics, and he reportedly encourages his staff to read her books.

Other prominent politicians inspired by Rand include libertarian lawmakers Rep. Ron Paul and Sen. Rand Paul. The Atlas Shrugged film has been pushed by Fox News host Sean Hannity, by the Heritage Foundation and by FreedomWorks, the Tea Party organization headed by former House majority leader Dick Armey.

Few people are worried that Rand's "in praise of selfishness" ideas will take over university philosophy departments or that her novels will be hailed as great art. Hart and the rest of us can rest easy on that score. But there are reasons to worry that her thinking is shaping American economic policy and inspiring political leaders.
  The sentiments of Ayn Rand seem to stand at cross purposes to that of Jesus, about whom apparently Rand spoke of disparagingly in Atlas Shrugged, so whose ethic should we seek to support?  

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Jesus Creed for Students -- Review

THE JESUS CREED FOR STUDENTS: Loving God, Loving Others. By Scot McKnight with Chris Folmsbee and Syler Thomas. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011. 107 pages.

What defines the Christian faith? Historically, councils, denominations, bishops, congregations, and theologians have attempted to answer that question with creeds, systemic theologies, credos, and other statements of faith. Some have been relatively brief and others have been extensive, and what’s essential to one might not be essential to another. History also shows that not everyone follows the dictum of Rupert Meldenius that in “essentials unity, in nonessentials, liberty, and in all things charity.”

An evangelical college professor (North Park University), biblical scholar, author (The Blue Parakeet, among others), and blogger (Jesus Creed), Scot McKnight has proposed an answer to this question, which he calls the Jesus Creed. That creed can be simply stated as “loving God, loving others,” which briefly restates the two great commandments established in the Pentateuch and reaffirmed by Jesus (Mk. 12:29-31). The Jesus Creed for Students takes this concept, which McKnight first developed in The Jesus Creed (Paraclete, 2004), and applies it to the needs of high school students – with the assistance of Chris Folmsbee and Syler Thomas. Folmsbee, director of a youth ministry training organization called Barefoot Ministries, and Thomas, a youth pastor in Lake Forest, IL, are credited with helping McKnight focus the book toward a younger audience than he’s probably used to working with. Thus, the concepts and basic framework are McKnight’s but the style is somewhat different from what I’ve become accustomed to as I’ve read his other work.

Being that it’s been a while since I was either a high school student or a youth minister, I decided to read this book from the perspective of a left of center Mainline Protestant pastor who’s been asked to recommend for resources for youth to use in deepening their faith. As I began to read the book, I started with the assumption that the author stands to my theological right (although I didn’t read the original Jesus Creed book, I’ve read enough of his works to get a good sense of his theology). From that standpoint, I decided that this book would be very appropriate for most Mainline Protestants. That’s not to say that it is liberal. It’s just straightforward biblically based wisdom.

The point of the book is to help high school students understand what it means to love God and love others. He does this by not only focusing his attention on the great two commandments, but also the Sermon on the Mount, which stands at the heart of this conversation. In the course of this conversation he discusses the beatitudes, wherein he distinguishes between blessedness and happiness, which he says “describes the person whose central principle is ‘love myself’” (p. 21). The discussion continues on by addressing Jesus’ expectations (Jesus’ expansion of the law) and what he calls spiritual branding, by which he means seeking to impress God and other people with our spirituality. Later chapters explore the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness, one’s priorities in life, discipleship, and how one understands the person of Jesus. Finally, he invites the reader to be a “boundary breaker.” In this final chapter McKnight he invites the reader to consider what it means to follow Jesus by taking up a life of ministry (not professional ministry, but ministry in general), a calling that three characteristics: forgiveness, fellowship, and freedom. In the closing sentences of this chapter he suggests that “loving God and loving others is the path we are made to travel, and that when we love others genuinely, forgiveness and fellowship and freedom flow like a river” (p. 100).

Although this book could be used in a bible study, it’s really designed for personal use. McKnight invites the reader to begin each day by reciting the Jesus Creed and then recite the Lord’s Prayer each evening, so that these foundational Christian statements can penetrate the heart and mind. Again, the idea here is to establish habits (reciting the Jesus Creed in the morning and the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime) that will inform the moral vision of the young person.

Although I’m neither a youth nor a youth minister, and so I can’t speak to whether the style is appropriate to the audience, I do believe that this book should prove to be a valuable resource for helping young people develop a moral vision and a deeply rooted Christian faith, whether they’re Evangelical, Catholic, or Mainline Protestant. I might quibble with something that’s said here or there, but there’s nothing that stands out as a barrier to this being used by youth in my church. After all the premise here is to imbibe the vision that we are called to love God and love others!


This book was provided for review by Paraclete Press
 


Monday, April 25, 2011

Atlas Shrugged and Its Reviewers -- Sightings

On this Monday after Easter, I was thinking of writing a piece to be entitled "Rand Wins."  I was going to use this essay to reflect on the release of a survey taken in the city of Troy, MI, where I live and pastor.  What this survey demonstrated was that the people of Troy have little concern about the welfare of their community -- it's all about me.  That's essentially the philosophy of Ayn Rand -- the virtue of selfishness.  She didn't believe in Caesar, but she also didn't believe in Jesus.  Rand's teachings, interestingly enough, have had a renaissance of late among Tea Partiers, including evangelical Christians.  Well, Martin Marty has beat me to it, and so I'll let him raise the issues of the day for our discussion.  By the way, in answer to Cain's question, "Am I my Brother's Keeper?" I believe that God assumed he was!

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Sightings 4/25/2011


Atlas Shrugged and Its Reviewers
-- Martin E. Marty


Atlas Shrugged, viewed by reviewers of most stripes as being appallingly appalling, draws crowds of devotees, and has champions on the right, including the Religious Right. Reviewing movie reviews is not standard fare in this column, but the support for this film based on the Ayn Rand perennial best-seller, deserves notice for what its plot and author tell about our nation and some religious sectors in it. And what it tells suggests profound contradictions, the reality of blind spots among ideologues, and the question of what America’s real religion, or this denomination of it, is.

Gary Moore, founder of The Financial Seminary, is the most dogged observer of Ayn Rand’s doings, reputation, and effect. He is mystified, as his online column title suggests: “Et tu, Cal? A response to Cal Thomas’s endorsement of the Atlas Shrugged movie and its attack on Caesar.” Caesar? How about “attack on Christ,” which is another specialty of Rand? Cal Thomas? Since that columnist “has famously disagreed with the worst excesses of the religious right,” his touting of Atlas, says Moore, “cuts like a knife.” Do not he and his colleagues notice contradictions in their stand? These should be obvious enough, as Moore—no leftist—and Charles Colson, etc. have pointed out.

Now, a novelist, faux-philosopher, or economist does not have to be religiously orthodox or religious at all to be reckoned with and selectively appropriated by the religious. The bearded God-killers, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud come to mind as thinkers whose non-God and anti-God philosophies have to be dealt with by scholars, writers, theologians, and activists who use insights from them. But Moore says that the complexities in the camps need notice. Preachments are absorbed into the religious canon, and the result is “syncretism,” mixing of religions. And the public consequence of Randianism deserves notice as it befuddles Moore, Colson, and others.

Why expressive conservative Christians waste energies responding to the comparatively trivial “new atheists” while giving Rand a free ride or while taking their own ride on her renewed bandwagon is further a part of the mystery. The culture’s “new atheists” can be economic conservatives or socialists, Republicans or Democrats, humanists or anti-humanists and the world goes on. With Rand it is different, wedded as she has been to advocates and advocacies in both parties and many conservative camps.

That Rand has said that she wants to kill off all religions may bring her celebrity. She is consistently anti-government and stridently pro-selfishness. She sneers at people who care for the needs of others. As a result, Randists in the Bible-believing cohort of the population ask: is there anything in her philosophy that is not in direct opposition to the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament? Grounded in her contention that selfishness is a virtue and selflessness is a vice, she evokes a furrowed brow from columnist Maureen Dowd: “Rand is blazing back as an icon of the Tea Party, which overlooks her atheism, amorality in romance and vigorous support for abortion.” Obviously.

Give Rand in her writings credit: she did not set out to entrap or fool people. She made clear that if anyone would come after her, they had to deny all their impulses toward selflessness, take up their blinders and billfolds, and follow her. It’s been a long road already, and it threatens to enlarge as economic confusion continues to reign and religious witness is muzzled by the religiously confused.


 
References



Maureen Dowd, "Atlas Without Angelina," New York Times, April 16, 2011.


Michael Phillips, "'Message' pictures and the myth of objectivity," Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2011.


Gary Moore, "Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Great Recession," Christianity Today, August 27, 2010.



Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

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In his famous work, The Golden Bough, James Frazer (1854-1941) noted, "The custom of physically marrying men and women to trees is still practiced in India and other parts of the East. Why should it not have obtained in ancient Latium?" Drawing in part upon her own experiences as a field researcher in Nepal, Anne Mocko (University of Chicago) discusses the interpretive problems of Frazer's approach to the rituals of others in this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum; she also analyzes several rituals involving the fact that Frazer got correct: that, "in India and Nepal, men and women do physically marry themselves to trees--or to plants, fruits, statues, and animals." With invited responses by Wendy Doniger (University of Chicago), Reid Locklin (University of Toronto), and Benjamin Schonthal (University of Chicago).


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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.



Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Beautiful Sight! -- An Easter Sermon

Matthew 28:1-10

Over time the cross has evolved from being a means of torture and execution to a fashionable piece of jewelry. Crosses can come in gold or silver, plain or bejewelled, and if you didn’t know better, you’d never believe that this cross that people wear around their necks or on their ears was once one of the most feared and despised forms of execution devised by humanity. Its message was so powerful that the Romans reserved the cross for rebels and troublemakers.

It’s easy for us to forget the meaning of the cross since it no longer functions as a means of tortuous death, which is why it’s important to observe Good Friday before we celebrate Easter. Before we can appreciate the beauty of Easter, we must take in the ugliness of the cross upon which Jesus died. The cross upon which Jesus hung, reminds us of the ugliness is present in our world – war, segregation, prejudice, self-centeredness, anger, and hatred, to name but a few. As we contemplate the cross, we recognize that as Jesus hung on the cross, he was experiencing all of that ugliness that is present in human culture. And, as the prophet wrote centuries earlier:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was on him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Is. 53:5 KJV)

This is the truth that is revealed on Good Friday, and which is given voice in the ancient hymn of Bernard of Clairvaux:

O Sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown;
how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!
This is the message that gives context to our celebration of Easter.

1. A sign of New Life

With the cross behind us and the empty tomb before us, it’s time to celebrate the triumphant message of Easter. Yes:

The Tomb is empty. Sound the Trumpet.
The Lord is risen! Sound the trumpets!
In this declaration, we hear the good news that death has given way to life.

I realize that there are those who believe that Easter is simply a baptized pagan holiday that celebrates the coming of spring. While it’s true that the word Easter may derive from the name of a long forgotten German goddess, whose spring festival involved eggs and bunnies, that doesn’t mean that connecting spring with resurrection isn’t appropriate, maybe even providential. Spring, after all, does remind us that life emerges out of winter’s deathly grasp. Spring flowers, birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying, all remind us that the promise of the gospel is that life triumphs over death. As Paul put it:

Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so everyone will be made alive in Christ. (1 Cor. 15:21-22 CEB).
With these images in mind, we come to Matthew's account of the empty tomb. Going back to Good Friday, we remember that after Jesus gave up the fight on the cross, crying out to God: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” Joseph of Arimathea got permission from Pilate to place Jesus’ body in his tomb. Now, three days later, the story shifts to that tomb. Two women, both named Mary, go out early in the morning to the tomb, but unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew doesn’t tell us why they went to the tomb. The women of Matthew’s gospel don’t have spices to anoint the body, so we’re not sure why they came. Maybe they wanted to pay their last respects or maybe they came to grieve. Or, maybe, these women went hoping that Jesus’ promise of resurrection was true.

Whatever they expected to find when they got to the tomb, they found the stone rolled away and an angel sitting on top of that stone. As Matthew tells it, an earthquake knocked the stone away from the tomb and an angel appeared from the heavens, with a countenance like that of lightning, and clothes as white as snow. So dazzling was the appearance of the angel that the guards, who’d been posted at the tomb to prevent any skulduggery, fainted in fear and then ran away. But the women, although they may have been frightened themselves, remain steadfast and don't run away. What an interesting contrast between fear and faith!

And then the angel brings them a message: "Don't be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised!" And then the angel says to them, perhaps responding to the kinds of questions that we all have at moments like this: "Come, see where they laid him." Yes, come and see something amazing, something that’s beyond human comprehension! Something grander than the grandest sunset. Come and take in a beautiful sight!

There are many debates about the resurrection. Is it a physical reality or a vision in the hearts of Jesus’ followers? Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright have had a long back and forth about this issue, but however we decide to define this event, the message is clear: something happened that day that transformed a discouraged band of followers into powerful witnesses to God’s grace and love as it’s revealed in the person of Jesus. However you define the nature of the Resurrection, the good news is that life triumphs over death. The question, then, that Easter poses to us is this: What will you make of the resurrection in your life? What difference does it make in the way you look at life itself?


2. THE JOB AHEAD

This encounter with the angel at the empty tomb raises the question – what will you make of life? But that’s not the only point of the story. Not only are we confronted with this message that life triumphs over death, but the angel gave them and us a job. You see, the angel says to them: "Go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee’." That is, don't just stand there, get busy and spread the news. “Quickly now, go tell the disciples that Jesus Christ is no longer dead, joy to the world, he is risen, alleluia! . . .” At least that’s the way the “Easter Song” puts it, and with this word of guidance, the women head back to the Upper Room, with heads and hearts filled with wonder and grief. They may not totally understand what had happened, but they knew that something truly amazing had just transpired. Yes, mixed in with the fear and the doubt was an overpowering sense of joy. And as they run back toward the Upper Room, with these mixed feelings, they encounter the risen Lord himself.

When the women see Jesus, they respond by falling at his feet and worshiping him. What else could they do? He was dead and now he’s alive. In their joy and maybe a little disbelief they grab hold of his legs and give praise and thanks to God, for God’s gift of life. Yes, this was a beautiful sight, grander than the Grand Canyon, more wondrous than Crater Lake, and more majestic than Mount McKinley.

This is the sight that stirs in our hearts the joy that rings out in professions of faith like the one we opened worship with: "Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!" In this great hymn of Easter, we respond to Charles Wesley 's invitation to all creation, that creation might "raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!"

In coming with the women to the tomb of Jesus, not only do we discover its emptiness, but we also encounter the life-giving presence of our Lord, who calls on us to bear witness to God’s reconciling grace. This discovery should lead us to declare our faith in God with these words:

"Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in Vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!"
Yes, let us rejoice that in Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting, so that neither death nor hate will reign supreme in our lives and in our world. Alleluia!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter Sunday
April 24, 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Love Wins (Rob Bell) -- A Review


The trailer for Rob Bell’s Love Wins set Twitter afire even before the book was released, but why all the furor? The answer can be found in the responses offered by the defenders of evangelical orthodoxy. Because Bell raised questions as to whether the Hindu Gandhi might not be in hell that was sufficient proof that the young evangelical mega-church pastor had gone off the deep end and embraced the universalism of liberal Christianity. Further proof of the author’s unorthodox ways could be found in the fact that the book was being published by Harper One and not Zondervan (forgetting that Zondervan is a division of Harper-Collins and that by moving the book to Harper One, Bell’s book would get a bigger audience – especially among non-evangelicals).

The problem with Bell’s position was that in affirming the premise that Love Wins, he was somehow undermining the justice of God, not to mention the atonement, evangelism, perhaps even the church. With all the clamor over the book, it’s no surprise that Time Magazine deemed Bell worthy of its annual Holy Week cover story. They even reached back four decades to the famous “God is Dead” cover story for inspiration, entitling the story: “Is Hell Dead?” Over night the relatively obscure pastor from Grand Rapids had become a media sensation.

I’ve read a number of Bell’s other books, all published by Zondervan, including Velvet Elvis and Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and have enjoyed them, so the furor surrounding the book’s merits made me all the more eager to read this volume. I wanted to see why the critics thought he had fallen off the cliff into the abyss of liberalism, and besides that, Bell is a fellow alumnus of Fuller Seminary, and I wanted to see if what he was saying reflected ideas planted at an earlier time (likely back when I was teaching adjunctively at Fuller). As I read the book, I did find signs that his Fuller education did show up in the way he deals with issues, such as the nature of God and eschatology, which are the primary topics of this book.

So why the furor? Besides raising important questions that many are afraid to tackle, Bell is a very talented communicator. He knows how to bring seemingly dense topics alive, inviting the reader into the conversation. He writes with a very light touch – often in short sentences and even sentence-paragraphs. He is more apt to raise questions than resolve them, provocatively offering the reader biblical texts to ponder. He’s a teller of stories, though not in the same way that a Fred Craddock tells them. He’s more urban and GenX, whereas Craddock is rural and speaks from an earlier era. Both styles work powerfully, which is why both men have been successful as preachers.

As for the charges – the critics claim that Bell is a universalist, which means that in the end everyone gets into heaven, and that doesn’t sit well with the guardians of the gateways into heaven. Bell and his universalist friends make it too easy to get in, and that undermines Christian theology and even Christian morality. In fact, if God lets everyone in, why did Jesus need to come to earth? The whole house of cards begins to crumble if “love wins!”

So, what do we make of the evidence? Having read the book, I can say that I didn’t find any signs of universalism, at least not of a pluralistic sense. I did, however, find in this book a strong commitment to the principle that God’s love for the creation is absolute and everlasting. He speaks of a love that feeds God’s desire to reconcile everyone to God’s self, even if that means pursuing them after death’s doors close. What needs to be said here is that for Rob Bell, God’s love compels God to pursue us, but at the same time God doesn’t necessarily get what God wants. We have the freedom to say no.

What is clear is that Bell doesn’t believe in a God who punishes humanity eternally in fire for simply not saying yes to Jesus. We may sin, but these sins, committed in this life, don’t merit such treatment, and besides that, to define God in such terms is to demean God. Although Bell isn’t a universalist, I would say that he’s a Christocentric inclusivist. He allows for God to work through other religions, but in the end God is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self (2 Cor. 5). Does the death of Jesus matter? Very much so, it’s just that God doesn’t necessarily put the fate of humanity and the creation in the hands of Christians!

The book is full of wisdom, and even though Bell doesn’t resolve all the questions, there is much to chew on. Regarding the questions, although the book’s subtitle lifts up the issues of heaven, hell, and salvation, the real issue under discussion is the nature of God. Who do we believe God to be?

Readers may find different chapters to be of greatest interest – perhaps dwelling on the chapter on heaven or maybe the one on hell, which follows it. Or maybe it will be the one that wrestles with other religions. In light of the critiques, I found his discussion of the Parable of the Prodigal Son most intriguing (ch. 7). In discussing the parable, he focuses on the older brother, who gets angry when his father unexpectedly welcomes the prodigal home with open arms, even throwing a party for him. The older brother doesn’t think that this is fair, after all he’d stayed home, worked hard, did what the father asked, and the father never threw a party for him. The father responds by reminding the older brother that everything that was his belongs to the older son, and that he could have had a party any time he wanted.

The key to this story, as Bell unfolds it, is the charge the older son makes against his father. He accuses the Father of being a slave driver and of being cheap. That is, this older son, had a rather negative view of his father, and that fed his disdain for the way the father received the younger prodigal. The older brother didn’t recognize in the father, any sense of love, grace, or generosity – not because it wasn’t there, but because this son refused to see it, and it affected the way he lived. In the parable, Bell says, the father tells a different story about both sons, and Bell suggests provocatively -- this is the difference between heaven and hell. That is, the older brother is experiencing a hell of his own making, by separating himself from the father’s love. Bell writes:

Hell is being at the party.
That’s what makes it so hellish.
It’s not an image of separation,
by one of integration. (pp. 169-170).
That is, heaven and hell are intertwined, and we decide where we want to stand -- “hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (p. 170). Here is the story of one who just can’t stand it that the other is in a sense getting away with it! And therefore, he has a tantrum.

But back to the nature of God and how God deals with us – Bell notes the biblical story that speaks of God loving the world so much that the Father sends the son into the world so that the world might be saved. It’s a beautiful sight, but what of the other side of the story that so often gets told – and here’s where it gets controversial, at least in some circles. We’ve been taught that there are millions who, for whatever reason, don’t make that choice, perhaps dying before having that chance to say yes to God, and thus God must “punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.” If this is true:

God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death. A different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony (pp. 173-174).
Such a vision doesn’t make sense to Bell and to many others, including me. He’s right, an earthly father that took such a turn would be reported to the authorities. There might be those who find such a vision appropriate, but not many.

So, my take on this book is this: It’s a gentle pastoral response to the kinds of questions that people are asking. He recognizes that many of the answers traditionally offered don’t make sense and turn people away from God. Although they may hear that God loves them, the flip side of this story makes no sense. How can God love us, and then if we spurn that offer, torture us for eternity? Bell suggests that such an image speaks poorly of God and misrepresents the teaching of Scripture. Not everyone will agree with the author’s perspective, but I found it to be appropriate and compelling. Yes, he raises more questions than he answers, but he gives the reader enough guidance that they will, I think, discover that the God of Jesus is a God of grace and love, who will do everything and anything to reconcile them to God’s self. And in my estimation – that’s a winning message!  That makes it the kind of book that I, as a pastor, would share with the person wrestling with God!
 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Am I Addicted to Blogging?

75%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?


Cheryl thinks I'm addicted, but I say no, I'm not addicted to blogging. I have it all under control.

But, thanks to James McGrath, I have been able to gauge the level of possible addiction. As you can see I'm 75% Addicted! Not too bad for a daily blogger.

By the way, may this be a blessed Good Friday!

Father Forgive Them (The First Word from the Cross) -- Luke 23:32-34

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

All dressed in his imperial splendor, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate sits in judgment of Jesus. Surrounding Pilate is a group of Jesus' accusers. It would seem that the governor doesn’t know what to make of Jesus. He appears to be just some kind of religious teacher, but as he listens to the charges he begins to see Jesus in a different light. Maybe this Jewish teacher is really a threat to the stability of his province. If the charges are true, then he will need to take the threat seriously, and that means condemning his prisoner to die on a cross. He comes to this decision after a night of debate and his decision is final; there will be no appeal. It's interesting that Pilate tries to wash his hands of this sordid affair. Isn't that the way it is with the rich and the powerful? They don't like to get their hands dirty.

It is strange to watch Jesus stand before this seat of judgment. Only a few days earlier he'd been acclaimed by the crowds as a deliverer; now he's being sentenced to die a criminal's death on a cross. From our reading of the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t seem to be the type, and yet maybe there is more to the story than meets the eye. Since executions were always public spectacles, the soldiers would have led the prisoners, including Jesus of Nazareth, through the streets of Jerusalem, toward the place of execution. It's a place known to Luke simply as The Skull. Exhausted by the previous night's ordeal, Jesus falls under the weight of the crossbeam. Being in a hurry to finish the job, the soldiers force a pilgrim from Cyrene, a man named Simon, to carry the beam the rest of the way up the hill. That's the way it was in Roman times. The soldiers could force you into labor whenever necessary. Jesus had even commented on this: "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile" (Matthew 5:41).

Once they arrive at the execution site, the soldiers lay Jesus out on the cross and nail his body to the posts. They hoist him up into the air so that he would die a slow, humiliating, and painful death. The Romans used this method of execution because they believed that it was a deterrent to rebellion. Watching such a cruel death must have given any potential rebel cause to think twice about engaging the Romans. Jesus may have been deemed "deserving" of this special treatment, but he is not alone in his death. In the words of Isaiah, he "was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12). He dies in the company of two others, Isaiah's transgressors. We never learn the nature of their crimes, but perhaps they had been partners with Barabbas, the one released by Pilate, at the request of the people. It's quite likely that these two men had been arrested for stirring up trouble in Jerusalem, just like Barabbas. Maybe they'd killed a soldier of occupation. Theirs was an insurgency designed to run out an oppressive foreign invader. It was for persons like them that the Romans devised this horrific form of execution, and Jesus has been caught in the web. So here between the insurgents, hangs the prince of peace.

As Jesus hung there on the cross, a crown of thorns sat uncomfortably on his head. The crown has symbolic value, but it's also designed to inflict pain. As the thorns dig into his forehead, the blood trickles down his face. His back bleeding from the flogging he had endured during the night adds to his agony. But it was the crush of his weight that forced him to struggle with ever more difficulty to remain upright, which caused him the most physical distress. Still, there he hung, God's suffering servant, the one of whom Isaiah spoke. This one who poured himself out in death "was numbered with the transgressors." (Isaiah. 53:12). Yes, he took his place among us and was counted as one of us, counted as a sinner, and he suffered with us, but for what?

At the foot of the cross one could find a few followers, most of whom were women. Covering their eyes and weeping, they might have moaned out loud, "Oh, how could this happen?" But others jeered at him, both Roman soldier and collaborator from the Jewish establishment. Maybe there were also a few former admirers and some disappointed revolutionaries in this crowd, each voice adding further insult to his humiliation.

Now, as he struggles to catch his breath, Jesus utters his first word from the cross:

"Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Do you hear these words with a sense of disbelief? How can he say this? How can he forgive his tormentors? Yes, how can anyone forgive the ones who have participated in such an evil deed? But, while we recoil from such a thought, Jesus reaches out to his tormentors and offers them words of forgiveness. As we listen to these strange words, we discover that we are included in them. We too are recipients of Jesus' offer of forgiveness.

The recipients of this gracious offer of forgiveness are many, but Jesus begins with the most obvious offenders, the soldiers sitting at the foot of his cross. These are the ones who have just followed orders and have nailed him to this cross. In truth, they probably didn't understand the consequences of what they were doing. They were just doing their jobs. They'd rather be doing something else, but here they were standing guard over some local rebels. Yes, Jesus was just one more rebel who needed to be taught a lesson. They probably weren't even listening as Jesus offered them forgiveness. Even if they were listening, they probably didn't understand Jesus. As he cries out offering them forgiveness, they are busy dispensing with his clothes. It's possible that these soldiers would periodically look up at him and shout insults at him. But then again, they are simply following orders from on high.

There might have been a few Jewish leaders in the crowd as well. These were the collaborators, the one's granted power, not by the people, but by the occupying forces. They saw themselves as protectors of Israel, and they believed that their act of conspiring with the Roman officials was a defense of their nation. Collaboration helped preserve the status quo, but it also kept the nation alive. Did they know what they were doing? The destruction of Jerusalem just a few decades later would seem to support their position. If Jesus was in fact a rebel, then they would be correct in their actions. But Jesus offers them forgiveness.

Finally, there are the seemingly fickle crowds. According to the gospels, the crowd had at first acclaimed him the messiah. But things changed when he didn’t prove to be the hoped for deliverer. So, disillusioned with him they turned on him and when given a choice by Pilate they chose Barabbas instead of Jesus. Which one would you have chosen? I don't know who I would have picked. I'd probably have picked Barabbas too! After all, he seemed to have more potential as a rebel leader. Surely Barabbas would free his people from Roman domination.

To each of these conspirators Jesus offers a word of forgiveness. From the cross he asks God to wipe the slate clean.

Oh yes, there's one last group that needs to be considered. This final group is much larger than the crowd gathered at the foot of the cross. Its numbers exceed calculation and extend into eternity, for in truth, we're all numbered among those standing there calling for his head. We're like a herd of cattle that’s easily stampeded. We act first and think later. We don't think things through because it's safer to go along with the crowd than it is to act independently. It's by our deeds and even by our omission of deeds that we're led to join in crucifying the Son of God.

Our involvement in this act of violence isn't a matter of Jesus serving as our sacrifice designed to placate an angry God -- as Jonathan Edwards would have us believe. Nor does he die to satisfy God's honor, as Anselm believed. Still, we find ourselves in the judge's chamber crying for his head. We do this whenever we hate our brother or sister, or when we push others aside to take our place at the head of the table. It can happen when we refuse to help the hungry and the thirsty among us, because in saying no to our neighbor, we say no to Jesus. And when we say no, we place him on a cross in the hope that we might be done with him. We have no use for his offer of reconciliation, because we have no use for God. In our own sense of self-righteousness, we choose to nail the one who reveals God's love on a cross.

Jesus' offer is a generous one, even if we're not sure why we're included. We're puzzled with the offer he makes to his tormentors, but why would we be included? After all, how often have we said: "I didn't have anything to do with it. It's not my fault. No, I didn't do anything wrong!" The problem isn't with what I did, but with what I didn't do. Yes, my inaction and my neutrality require divine forgiveness. Perhaps we find these words troubling because they're not consistent with the way we deal with life. To our mind, forgiveness requires a recognition that wrong has been done, a recognition that should be followed by repentance and an apology. To our surprise Jesus seems to offer a blanket word of forgiveness -- a general amnesty. Now, while we might find Jesus' words to be strange, they do comport well with his life and with his teachings. He was a person who welcomed the sinner, the outcast, and the marginalized. Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to hear these words -- we don't put ourselves in the place of those needing forgiveness.

But maybe that's not really the issue that baffles us. Perhaps it's the excuse that Jesus makes for his oppressors that throws us off. It just seems too easy and implausible.

Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Surely they knew what they were doing. And yet, do we always know what we=re doing?

Theologian Karl Rahner gets it right: "Really they knew it all. But they did not want to know it!" We know what we're doing, but we don't want to face the consequences of our thoughts and actions. We have our excuses, but deep down we know that they're hollow. Nevertheless, Jesus reaches out to us and offers us forgiveness. It's as Isaiah says: he has "made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah.53: 12), on behalf of all those who would crucify him -- including me. And so, there, on the cross, Jesus acts as our high priest, interceding for us, the transgressors, and excusing us of our ignorance. He excuses us, however, of the ignorance we have often chosen for ourselves. Why, maybe it’s because we cannot grapple with the depths of our crimes.

If it were I, I don't think I could offer such a gracious word of forgiveness. I would want justice done, or at least I'd want to appeal to a higher authority. But Jesus didn't cry out for justice; instead, he offered gentle words of forgiveness. As we stand before the cross, we benefit from his compassionate words: "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

Excerpted from A Cry from the Cross (CSS, 2008)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Death and Resurrection! -- A Lectionary Meditation for Easter

Jeremiah 31:1-6



Colossians 3:1-4


Matthew 28:1-10



Death and Resurrection!



As we once again experience Holy Week, we’re reminded that life emerges from death. There is no better analogy of this truth than the transition from winter to spring, which is why it seems appropriate that Easter and the coming of spring coincide. With spring’s coming, the long dormant flowers and trees suddenly come back to life as spring’s warmth replaces winter’s cold darkness. Surely, we can see the parallels between this and Good Friday/Easter.

Now, of course, there are questions to be addressed when it comes to the Resurrection. David Hume has had his way with us, and we must face the fact that people just don’t rise from the dead every day. Therefore, we don’t have analogies that can truly help us grapple with this article of faith. Is it a physical event or a metaphor? The Gospels speak of empty tombs and appearances, and we even have defenses of the event against charges that the disciples stole the body. Of course there are the discrepancies between the various stories as to when and where and how Jesus appeared to his disciples. Did he meet them in Jerusalem or in Galilee (or both?). We can speculate, but that gets us nowhere. Whatever the nature of this reality – and I personally find myself somewhere between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright – and the nature of the debates, what we hear in these texts of Easter is a call to confess our faith in the risen Lord. It is a reminder that we don’t serve a dead hero, but a living Lord, who shares with us the fullness of God’s everlasting love.

Ultimately we must hear each witness on its own, listening for its voice, and in this case, for this meditation (and for Sunday’s sermon) I will limit my thoughts to Matthew’s testimony – together with that of Jeremiah and the author of Colossians.

Jeremiah doesn’t explicitly speak to Easter -- there’s no promise of resurrection here, but there is a promise here concerning God’s intention to be present with us forever, sharing with us the everlasting love of God. Now this word goes first and foremost to Israel, which must endure the suffering of exile, but here in Jeremiah 31 comes the promise that God hasn’t forgotten them. God promises to be the God of all Israel, even as they have endured the wilderness. The word that comes to Israel (and to us) is that God has loved Israel with “everlasting love,” and therefore God continues to be faithful to Israel. This confession of God’s faithfulness leads Jeremiah to invite the people to pull out their tambourines and begin to dance like merrymakers. Having heard the promise that Israel will continue to be God’s people and that exile is ending, they are invited to celebrate something that is equivalent to life out of death. But not only will they dance, but they will also plant. Yes, merrymaking leads to work. And from there, the call goes out: “Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God. All of this, however, is but a sign of God’s everlasting love. As I reflect on this truth, my thoughts go to the point made by Rob Bell in his new and controversial book, wherein, he speaks of God’s desire that all be saved–or reconciled. He writes:

History is about the kind of love a parent has for a child, the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds. The kind of love that moves toward, embraces, and always works to be reconciled with, regardless of the cost. [Bell, Love Wins, p. 99].

Jeremiah understands this truth – God seeks out and restores the people to the land, and therefore they will rejoice with song and dancing, and also by planting, by taking possession of the land that is promised. This is, after all, an act of love.

We hear the resurrection story from Matthew’s perspective in this lectionary season (unless you decide to go with John’s version). In this version of the story, Mary Magdalene and another Mary go to the tomb, though the reason for their visit isn’t mentioned. As they reach the tomb on this first day of the week, with the Sabbath behind them, they discover that an earthquake has rolled the stone away from the tomb. Now, I know something about earthquakes and generally their not as localized as this report would suggest. Whatever the nature of the quake, the stone is rolled away, and an angel of heaven with a countenance like that of lightening, and the clothes, a dazzling white, sits on the stone – having frightened the guards away. The message of this angel is simple: Don’t be afraid (like the guards?). Instead, hear the message he brings – the one they look for isn’t there, but is instead risen from the dead, just as he had said. Remember, God is faithful! They might not have gotten the message, but God remains faithful, due to God’s everlasting love.

The angel has another message – go tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. With this command these two women become the first witnesses to the resurrection – at least of the empty tomb. But as they go back to the larger gathering, they receive another visit. This time it’s Jesus himself, and like the angel, he tells them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee (where they’ll receive their commissions). It bears repeating here that one of the marks of an apostle is that the apostle is a witness of the resurrection, and thus these two women are to be counted among the apostles of Jesus. Oh, and there’s one other thing about this passage, not only do the women bear witness of the resurrection, but when they meet Jesus they worship him. Matthew says that they grabbed his feet and worshiped him (proskynein). While this could mean an acknowledgment of someone of higher rank, James Dunn notes that in almost every case in the New Testament it’s used in relationship to worship of God or of Jesus (as is the case here) [James Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?, p. 10-11].

There’s not enough space here to wrestle with the issue of what it means to say that they worshiped Jesus, but it’s clear that the women are rejoicing at this sign of God’s everlasting love. They can’t help not worshiping this one who was dead and now lives! And is that not the point of Easter – the one who brings God’s everlasting love to us is alive and present with us, so that we need not see ourselves alone in the wilderness?

Finally, our attention goes to this short passage from Colossians 3, where the author (we don’t know if it’s Paul or not), declares that if we’re raised with Christ then we should look for the things that come from above, for that is where Christ is sitting – at the Right Hand of God. The message of resurrection is to consider the things of heaven, rather than the earth. For many of us this command does raise warning flags. We’re all aware of the danger of “being so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” That is, it sure sounds as if the author of this letter is giving us permission to walk around with our heads in the clouds, but I don’t believe that’s the case. It is, I would suggest a reminder to examine our own sense of allegiance. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you must keep your allegiance with the one who sits at the Right Hand of God. And when he’s revealed then you, having hid your life in Christ, you will be revealed in glory.

Here we are at Easter, being called upon to declare our allegiance to the one whom God has raised to the Right Hand, a God who as Jeremiah reminds us, is faithful to the promise to love with everlasting love. If this is true, if Easter is true, then what is your response? How will you celebrate Easter’s glory?  Will you take out the tambourine and dance for joy?