Embracing the Power of Eternity
We cannot gather for worship this week and not consider the tragedies that unfolded in Boston on Monday and in Texas Wednesday evening. Three have died in Boston, all still young and full of life, many more injured, some severe. In Texas a fertilizer plant has exploded, with several dead. We grasp for answers, our psyches wounded. At least with regard to Boston, fear is taking hold of our lives.
Violence, whatever the reason, is an ever present reality in our lives. The situation in Texas might be an accident, but since it comes just days before the anniversaries of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the Branch Davidian raid, we will wonder until we know the full story. Death has its sting, especially when it comes as a result of crime or war. When the one who dies is young we’re especially troubled. When death comes from suicide we wonder what could have been done to prevent this occurrence (as we saw recently with the death of Rick Warren’s son).
Death can consume us. It can define our lives. And yet, the message of Easter, the message of resurrection, stands in the breach. As move farther away from Easter Sunday, its message can fade. The texts for the week, however, offer another reminder that God is the source of life, the restorer of life, and the protector of life. In the words of the Psalmist: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death), I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4 NRSV). Such words of assurance enable us to push through the tragedies and find hope for the days to come.
Each text in its own way speaks to the promise that God is with us, even in the midst of death. By taking hold of the promise that God will not let anyone snatch us away from the presence of God, we needn’t fear death’s grip. Instead, we can live fully in the presence of the living God who is revealed in the Risen Christ.
In reading Acts 9, it might be wise to look ahead for a moment. We’re moving toward the moment when the revelation of God opens the doors to the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Peter is moving into position to go to Cornelius’ house, where things change dramatically for the church and its mission. But for a moment we stop to consider another expression of resurrection life. Here a beloved disciple, a “woman disciple” (mathetria), has died. Her community feels her loss deeply, for they had come to count on her love and generosity as a leading member of that community. This appears to be especially true for the widows who come to share their grief. Luke even provides us with an example of her work – the grieving widows bring forth the tunics and clothing Tabitha (Dorcas) had made in life. This is more than a display of Tabitha’s creativity. Luke includes this because is a sample of the work that Tabitha had engaged in that benefited the community. It was an expression of her spiritual gifts – a gifting that including caring for the widows of her community, which resulted in her being numbered among the disciples.
It is as the community grieves their loss that Peter arrives. As is true of Jesus’ arrival at the tomb of Lazarus, it seems as if it’s too late. But perhaps not. Peter sends everyone out of the room, kneels, prays, and calls for Tabitha to rise. When she sits up, Peter takes her out, and presents her alive to her community. How this happens isn’t clear to us. As one who is skeptical of testimonies about Near Death Experiences (NDE), I must put that skepticism in abeyance for a moment, and let the story speak. Life is restored and many come to faith in Jesus as a result. It is a testimony to the power of God present in this new and fledgling community. As for Tabitha herself, she can resume her ministry as one of Jesus’ disciples – showing us what it means to be a follower of the Risen Christ.
The Book of Revelation always looks forward – to the time of God’s victorious reign. The promise here seems to be two-fold. First, death has been overcome. Secondly, the scope of this victory is inclusive of all nations. We’re not quite there in our journey through Acts to see the inclusion of Gentiles, but we see inklings of that promise here. All nations are represented before the throne of God, and that of the Lamb. They cry out: “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” The community that gathers here appears to be composed of those who have died in service to the Lamb – the martyrs. They have the responsibility of leading the worship of the Lord. They no longer thirst or hunger. They no longer face the scorching sun. Instead, they have been freed from the curse of death. The Lamb of God shepherds them toward the springs of life giving water, even as the Shepherd leads the sheep toward the green pastures (Ps. 23). And, God will wipe away their tears.
The word we find present in Revelation 7 seems to encompass only those who have been martyred in that early moment of Christian life, but as Bruce Epperly suggests we might expand our imaginations to be more inclusive of others who suffer.
[W]e need to go much further, bringing our own poetic imagination to play, recognizing that many today lack shelter and are martyred by diabolical forces beyond themselves: children sold into slavery to make clothing or perform sex acts; multitudes dying of starvation; elementary school children massacred at Sandy Hook; victims of terrorism and violence; and so forth. Will they have the opportunity to experience beauty and love? Will they receive the “justice” of divine healing and companionship?
To any and all who suffer, there is the promise that God is present in their midst. They will find that their tears are wiped away and they can join in praise of God.
The Gospel reading comes once again from John. In this brief reading, Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication – also known as the Feast of Lights or Hanukah. He is walking in the Temple, when his religious opponents (unfortunately in John, it always appears that the Jews in general are implicated, even though Jesus is himself Jewish), and they’re tired of guessing. Is Jesus the Messiah or not? They want a straight answer.
Jesus is not one to be intimidated. In answer he points to the works that he does as sufficient answer to their question. He’s already told them more times than he’d like to remember, but they’re not ready to believe. And why don’t they believe? Well, they’re not counted among the sheep. The Lord is not, obviously, their shepherd, and so they’re unable to perceive the truth revealed in his many works in their midst.
The sheep of God, they know who he is. When he calls, they follow. Again, it’s important that we’re careful here. It’s easy to fall into an anti-Jewish trap. Also, John tends to divide people into black and white categories. You’re either for me or you’re against me. There is some of that here. But we needn’t let that exclusiveness keep us from hearing the broader message. That message is this: God in Jesus offers those who are willing to receive it, the promise of eternal life. Those who are counted among the sheep of God will not be snatched away from the hand of Jesus, because “I and the Father are one.” They are one, perhaps in essence, but definitely in their work. Even if one takes a universalist perspective (and I lean in that direction), one can appreciate this offer of eternal life. By embracing the promise, we can let go of fear. We can live in the knowledge that death has lost its sting. We can embrace the sacred nature of this life we live – and the sacred nature of the lives of those who share this earth with us. Eternity begins now – not in the future – and that promise is revealed in Jesus’ revelation that he and the Father are one!
There is a children’s story that illustrates what I believe
to be the truth about God’s inclusive love when it comes to our salvation. We can run, and we can hide, but in the end, the love God will continue to pursue us. The story I have in mind is one I read many times to my own son when he was very young. My friend Bruce Epperly, points us to this story in his own lectionary reflections for the week. It’s the story of the The Runaway Bunny. In this story, a young bunny decides to run away, but his mother keeps finding him. Wherever he goes, whatever form he takes, his mother finds him. The message is a beautiful analogy to the story of salvation. The gracious and loving God continues to pursue us. Thus, Bruce concludes:
“When the little bunny finally realizes he can never escape his mother’s love, his mother simply says, “Have a carrot.” That’s the story of salvation – enduring, all-encompassing, ever-restoring, and always sustaining.”
Death has its sting, but the love of God assuages it. It needn’t be an idol. It needn’t lead to complacency. Instead, it can and should be liberating. Tabitha is restored to life and continues her ministry. She will die physically at some point, but in her resuscitation to life she bears witness to God’s provision. For those who grieve the loss of loved ones, the sting will remain, but hope can heal. For God is like the mother of that Runaway Bunny. In that promise life will triumph over death.