John Koessler: Jesus Disappoints Everyone

From Christianity Today online. A thoughtful and mature piece of pastoral writing, in my opinion. It reflects something everyone of us has struggled with from time to time, and it has the power to be a faith-breaker. Read it and see what you think.

In other words, like John we are disappointed with Jesus because we do not see what he is really doing. It turns out that we have been laboring under a major misapprehension. Jesus came for us, but that does not mean that he came to please us. Jesus came for us, but he does not answer to us. He will not subject himself to our agenda, no matter how good that agenda might be. Instead, Jesus demands that we submit ourselves to his agenda.

Is the solution to our disappointment, then, to “suck it up” and “tough it out”? Or to admit that “life is disappointing” and resolve to “get over it”? No, just the opposite. Jesus’ parting words to John’s disciples were words of both blessing and warning: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matt. 11:6). These were the last words that John would hear from Jesus before his death, and they are Jesus’ last words to us in our disappointment—no matter what the cause.

In the face of great disappointment, we usually ask for an explanation. This is because we foolishly think that an explanation will make us feel better. Has it ever occurred to us that it might do the opposite? Instead of an explanation, Jesus offers something far superior: himself. When it comes to disappointment, there is no other remedy. It is the nature of disappointment to match us measure for measure. As long as we hold on to it, disappointment will wrap itself around our heart like a great snake. The tighter we hold on to it, the tighter it will grip us. The only way to free ourselves is to bow the knee to Christ.

Read it all.

Mark Galli: Proof of a Good God: ‘Crucified Under Pontius Pilate’

From Christianity Today online. Another fine piece from Mr. Galli, who reminds us where to start when thinking about God and his justice and mercy.

This is a startling and counterintuitive revelation; this is not a grand religious idea one can logically work toward, but an event that occurred under Pontius Pilate, not a theology but God caught in the act of loving us. This factoid and its revealed meaning are what we are called to believe and to proclaim, not what God might or might not do in this or that situation. We are asked not to preach according to our imaginations or our nightmares, but according to what God has, in fact, done for us in Jesus Christ.

This is the God we are asked to trust. Not the God who is said to be good or loving or powerful by some definition we might put on those words. We’re asked to trust in the God who gave himself for us on the cross in Jesus Christ.

Read it all.

Our Easter Hope: It’s Not About Dying and Going to Heaven

Sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church. I am indebted to the brilliant and faithful work of bishop Tom Wright in preparing this sermon.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; Acts 10.34-43; John 20.1-18.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning, St. Augustine’s, and happy Easter! On Friday we looked at what was so “good” about Good Friday and saw that the cross of Jesus was the means by which God became king and reestablished his kingdom on earth as in heaven. As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus fulfilled God’s call to his people Israel to bring God’s healing love and redemption to a world and its people created good but gone terribly wrong because of human folly and rebellion against God. We also saw that the cross is a tangible sign of God’s great love for us and his desire to offer us forgiveness, irrespective of who we are or what we have done or failed to do, thereby establishing the necessary conditions for our reconciliation with God, a message echoed in today’s reading from Acts. This is quite necessary if we ever hope to be a faithful disciple of Jesus so that we can love and serve him in joyful obedience, even in the face of the suffering we must inevitably endure for his sake. Simply put, we cannot love and serve Christ and others if we are distracted by our guilt, failure, and fears. And so forgiveness is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be a citizen of God’s kingdom and the cross is God’s everlasting promise to us that we have it.

But none of this would be true or even feasible without the resurrection. The first followers of Jesus didn’t see the cross like this before the resurrection. They were so devastated precisely because they knew the cross meant both that Jesus was dead and he wasn’t their hoped-for Messiah. Any good Jew of Jesus’ day knew that the real Messiah wouldn’t end up being crucified. We see this hopelessness and grief poignantly illustrated in our gospel story this morning. Mary didn’t come to the tomb expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead. That was the farthest thing from her mind. She came to the tomb to finish anointing Jesus’ body (cf. Mark 16.1; Luke 24.1) that had been hastily buried on Friday and grieve over her loss. And we all get that because like Mary, if we are old enough, we too have stood over the graves of our loved ones and wept. Death is a universal experience and barring Jesus’ appearance in our lifetime, the grave is our destiny. So this morning, I want us to look briefly at exactly what the hope and promise of Jesus’ resurrection is all about. As we will see, it really isn’t about going to heaven to live for eternity as a disembodied spirit. No, the resurrection of Jesus is a preview of God’s promised new creation—God’s ultimate answer to the problems of evil and death.

The first hint we have that Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s promised new creation that we read about, in part, in today’s OT lesson is the way John begins his resurrection narrative. He tells us that Mary came to the tomb on the first day of the week. John, ever the brilliant theologian and storyteller that he is, is taking us back to the opening of his gospel with its echoes of the creation narratives from Genesis 1-2. As we saw on Friday, John has Jesus saying on the cross, “It is finished!” The “it,” of course, was Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross in which God defeated the forces of darkness and evil (cf. John 1.5; Colossians 2.15) and bore the entire weight of his awful wrath against human sin and evil, thereby making it possible for humans to receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God once again, thus ending our exile from God and giving us the hope and promise to really live as God intends for us to live. Of course, in telling us that Jesus’ work on the cross was finished on a Friday, John is reminding us that Jesus’ work was finished on the sixth day of the week, the exact day God finished his creative work in the beginning, the day he made human beings in his image to be his wise stewards and image-bearers to his good creation. Now, in the wake of human sin and folly that had perverted and distorted God’s good intentions for his human creatures, here is Jesus on the sixth day doing what was necessary for humans to once again be God’s faithful image-bearers and good stewards by offering forgiveness to us and bringing about the needed conditions for our reconciliation. Only when humans are restored can God’s creation be restored (cf. Roman 8.18-25). And then like his Father, Jesus rests on the sabbath, the seventh day of the week.

Now it is Sunday, the first day of the new week, the eighth day, the result of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, and John wants us to pay attention to this because he repeats it twice, once in our gospel lesson and again in the verse immediately following it. John is telling us that in Jesus’ resurrection, God’s creative work has now brought about God’s promised new creation. The chaos and darkness that had disrupted and spoiled God’s good creation and our lives has been defeated and with it death itself had been conquered. The time for weeping and mourning is over. As John reminded us in his prologue, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Of course, sin, evil, and death have not yet been fully vanquished, even if they have been decisively defeated on the cross. We must wait for Christ to reappear in great power and glory to finish his work of new creation. But John is telling us in no uncertain terms that the forces of darkness and evil have done their best to kill the Lord of life and have failed. And so we are called to live by faith in the “already-not yet.”

The second hint John gives us that we are witnessing the beginning of God’s new creation is the poignant vignette between Mary and Jesus, whom she mistook as the gardener.  Mary is wrong on one level but so profoundly right on another because John apparently wants us to see that the other Garden, the one from which humans were expelled because of their sin and rebellion against God, is being reopened. The thorns and thistles, signs of God’s curse and judgment on our sin, are being swept away and being replaced with juniper and myrtle, signs of new life and new creation (cf. Isaiah 55.1-13). Jesus is the new Gardener who welcomes us back into God’s new creation, a garden that will be so much more spectacular than Eden was because it is being created anew. And since sin and evil have been defeated, they will not be able to despoil it like they did the first garden.

Do you see the focus here? John is not pointing us to some kind of disembodied spiritual existence. He is pointing us to created matter, to new creation. That is why bodily resurrection matters! God did not raise Jesus from the dead to pave the way for us to live in a disembodied spiritual state forever. No! Jesus’ resurrected body points us to God’s intention to bring about new creation. It is a preview of coming attractions of sorts. As our OT lesson (and the rest of Scripture) remind us, God does not intend to destroy his world or his people. Instead, God intends to redeem his people and all creation because God created all things to be good and creation matters to God!

So what does the promised new creation look like? To what do we have to look forward? We get our answer, in part, from today’s gospel lesson as well as 1 Corinthians 15.1-58, 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, and Revelation 21.1-22.5. What follows is a brief overview, not a full discussion of the new creation. When Christ reappears in great power and glory, the new creation will be fully consummated. The dimensions of heaven and earth, biblical language for God’s space and human space respectively, will be fused together in a spectacular and universal event so that they will no longer be separated as they are now. As Revelation puts it, the New Jerusalem, the new heavens, will come down to earth; we won’t be going to heaven. Pay attention to that dynamic! Our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead and we will be given a new resurrection body, the kind of body Jesus has. Like Jesus’ resurrection body, our new body will be impervious to all the nasty things that can afflict our mortal bodies. There will be no more suffering or sorrow or sickness or disease or evil or death—ever. This is because our resurrection bodies will be powered by the Spirit of God, the very Spirit of life, and not by flesh and blood that is mortal and fallen (that’s what Paul is talking about when he tells us our resurrection bodies will be spiritual bodies). We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ, never to be separated from them again. There will be new life to live and new work to do, work that will bring God praise and glory, life and work that we will find infinitely fulfilling and meaningful. And best of all we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. We need to be careful about getting too specific about all this because Scripture is not terribly specific. But whatever the new creation looks like it will surely be more glorious than we can comprehend or imagine because God is its author.

So the Christian hope and promise that Easter heralds is this. As Paul reminds us in numerous places, when we die, we go immediately to be with our Lord to enjoy a season of rest until he returns in great power and glory to raise the dead and usher in fully the new creation that his resurrection previewed for us and about which we have just spoken. Call this intermediate state heaven if you wish. The name doesn’t matter because it’s not our final destination. The new heavens and earth is! I don’t know about you but I find the hope of new creation to be a much fuller and richer hope than the idea of dying and going to heaven to spend the rest of eternity as a disembodied spirit. So does this guy [show cartoon]. If I have failed to excite your hope and imagination, it is certainly because I have done a poor job of trying to describe the indescribable.

So what does this all mean for us living today? Let’s start on the personal level. Everyone of us here has suffered loss and we grieve over those whom we love but see no more. Let the resurrection with its promise of new life and new creation work to bring you real comfort and hope for both you and your loved ones who have died in the Lord. Reread John’s account of the resurrection. Stand at the grave of your loved ones, either figuratively or literally, and as you weep over your loss, dare to hear Jesus’ voice as he calls you by name. Listen to his gentle rebuke and encouragement as he asks you why you are weeping, especially when you know that he has overcome sin and death and ended our exile forever through his death and resurrection. Let that work on you in the power of the Spirit. The grave over which you weep is only a temporary resting place for your beloved and they are now enjoying their rest with the Lord. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, you have a glorious reunion awaiting you!

Then get to work. The promise of new creation reminds us that this world and its people matter to God and if that’s true, the world and its people had better matter to you. As Jesus alludes to in this morning’s gospel lesson, he is now both risen and ascended. In other words, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. This means we are called to help Jesus continue to bring in his new creation by imitating him in his humility, service, and suffering. This means there is forgiveness and mercy to be extended, especially to those whom we really dislike. There is massive human need that must be addressed: people to feed and clothe, injustice to be fought, and folks to whom God’s love must be offered so that they too can know what it is like to be really forgiven, thereby finding real healing and hope. We do this work together as Christ’s body, his church, and in the context of our daily lives. God isn’t calling most of us to be overseas missionaries. He is calling us to love on the people around us because the need is enormous and right here under our very noses. We don’t do any of this to save the world. Jesus has already done that. No, what we do is in the power of the Spirit and in grateful response to the immeasurable gift God has given us in Jesus, even if it seems like we are sometimes laboring in vain. As Paul reminded the Corinthians at the end of his massive discussion on new creation and our resurrection bodies, we are to stand firm in our work for the Lord because apparently that work will somehow be carried forward into the new creation so that nothing will be lost (cf. 1 Corinthians 3.11-15; 15.35-58).

All this, of course, requires faith. Not blind faith but an informed faith. That means we must spend a fair amount of time and effort learning the story of how God is bringing about his promised new creation so that we can be thoroughly familiar with its promises. We need to do this because we are greeted everyday with more bad news and evil that seemingly goes unchecked. We don’t have to look any further than our weekly intercessory list to see how great is the amount of pain and human suffering going on and it is pretty easy for us to fall into hopelessness and despair and wonder if God really does love us. You can be certain that Satan and his minions will use all this to try and persuade us that God really doesn’t exist or has abandoned us, and that Jesus’ resurrection and the new creation it launched is a lie. That’s where an informed faith comes in. A careful study of the Scriptures, especially the NT, with its God-breathed story of how God became king and reestablished his kingdom on earth with its promised fulfillment in the new creation can serve as a powerful antidote, along with the Spirit’s presence living in us, to our doubts and fears that naturally arise when we are afflicted with evil.

We also need to come regularly to worship to help and support each other and be reminded of our hope and promise of new creation. Each week when we come to the table to feed on our Lord’s body and blood we are transported sacramentally in time to the day when the new creation will be fully consummated and we need this tangible reminder because we are so easily distracted. And on a more immediate note, I would be remiss in closing if I didn’t remind us that St. Augustine’s itself is a sign of God’s new creation, a new parish born out of the chaos of failure and loss and separation and hurt that is so prevalent in this world but which the love of God and power of new creation have overcome. That is why the hope and promise of new creation is so important, and that’s why we must celebrate it wildly over these next fifty days so that other people take notice. Because if we really believe that new creation has come, we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Archbishop Robert Duncan’s Easter Sermon

Received via email.

Preached by the Most Reverend Robert Duncan at the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh Vigil, in St. Peter’s Church in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on Easter Eve, 7th April, A.D.2012.

They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb? [Mark 16:3]

In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, One God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Blessed and Praised forever: Amen.

In all four gospels it is women who come first to the tomb. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us the purpose: to anoint Jesus’ body. Burial on Friday had been hurried. At least the soldiers had not broken his legs to speed death. He was already dead. The Sabbath was at hand. In the moment, Joseph of Arimathea was moved to give his own freshly hewn tomb, which was, St. John tells us, very near to the Place of the Skull. Nicodemus, John tells us, had given spices, but Jesus’ own inner circle had not been able to care for his body in the customary way. There had been so much hurry. They had loved him so much. Nevertheless, they could still do what was right, what at the very least they owed him, when the Sabbath ended.

They surely recognized their problem. They surely knew that the immense wheel-like stone had been rolled over the entrance to the tomb. St. Mark tells us that they had actually seen this happen. Maybe they had also heard about Pilate’s order that the tomb be sealed and a guard set to keep things that way. It is St. Matthew that records for us this detail.

So the women meet very early on Sunday, sometime after sundown on Saturrday. They must do what it is right to do and what could not be done on Friday. They can now prepare the spices and the ointments. It is still dark. They will arrive near first light.

Everything is, of course, very confused and confusing. Their grief is overwhelming. Have they forgotten about the stone? Do they not think about the stone until they are actually on their way? Do each think about it earlier, but not discuss it? We cannot know. All we can know is that on their way to the tomb they are saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?”

Followers of Jesus often face what seem to them insurmountable problems…challenges for which there seem to be no apparent solutions. They will nevertheless do what is right, what they can do, even if there is a part of the puzzle they do not have or cannot conceive. Trust in their God drives them on. With God, there has always been a way through in the past, so why not trust Him now?

A terribly injured child? An imposssbile situation at work? A marriage in tatters? Some debilitating illness or handicap? An unjust accusation? An adolescent in rebellion? A friendship betrayed? Wars and rumors of wars? Domestic or civil violence? Whatever the present impossibility… We Christians will trust him with this too.

We can wonder what the women spoke of as they went in the darkness toward the tomb of Jesus. Was there more than “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” Might they have remembered the Passover story of long ago, the very feast being celebrated in these same days? All the first-born of Israel had been spared. Might they next have recalled the victory at the Red Sea, when all God’s people were saved and all of Pharaoh’s army drowned? Might they have remembered Jericho, where the walls miraculously tumbled down? Could they have encouraged one another with the stories of Ruth or Esther, or Daniel or the Three Young Men? Might they have spoken of Judas Maccabeus or the miracle of Chanukah? Could they have rehearsed some of the miracles they had seen at the hands of their crucified rabbi? The healings, the feedings, the castings out, the raisings from the dead? Might they have even dared to wonder about his teaching concerning what would follow his own death? We cannot say what broke the silence of their preparation of the spices and ointments, or the silence of their walk to the tomb. We are sure of their grief – for that is why they were meeting – and we are sure of the one question: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?

In all of our speculation about the run-up to the arrival of the women at the tomb, it is very hard to imagine that the women could have imagined in advance what actually confronted them on arrival. God is so much bigger than our thoughts or imaginings. Even the rehearsal of earlier mighty deeds does not prepare us for the immensity of what he can do in the present moment, in the face of our seemingly insurmountable challenges. Yes, he often appoints brothers and sisters, or sometimes even strangers, to help us – to help us in quite ordinary, quite natural ways. But sometimes there is the supernatural, and the great stories seem to be filled with this. Indeed, at their arrival, they would soon have the greatest story of all time to tell. God would act. God powerfully, God unmistakably. God alone. Without man’s help.

God addresses our human challenges both naturally and supernaturally. He is God, after all. Our chief attitude needs to be to trust him, no matter what we face. His operation, whether natural or supernatural, is his choice, his provision by whatever means. He is Creator, sustainer and end of everything, so why do we doubt?

But tonight’s work – this dawn of the day work – is God’s alone. “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” God will. God does. There is earthquake. There is an angel, dazzling light. The guards fall away. The stone is rolled back.

But there is more, much more. The tomb is empty. “He has been raised, as he said.” They are invited to see the place where the body had lain. They are given a message. (Forget the spices and the ointments.) “Go tell his disciples.” It hadn’t been about the stone after all…or about a dead body. The crucifixion wasn’t the last word. Not at all. They had mis-read what God was up to. Yes they were being faithful, but their plan – their challenge – was much too small. Fear – a different kind of fear – and great joy are now theirs. They hadn’t run from their problem, from their grief, but had headed straight into it. Now everything was changed. So now they run with a different purpose. They are bearers of the greatest good news of all time. And suddenly he himself meets them: “Greetings!” They fall and worship, and so do we. And his last words to them are “Go and tell.” We, too, now fall and worship. Our next step is to go and tell.

There is now, with Jesus, no challenge we cannot face, not even death. For now the last challenge has been swallowed up in victory, and – for those who put their faith in him – no stones that cannot be rolled away. There is nothing now that can separate us from the Father’s love or Jesus’ resurrection or the Spirit’s power. Rejoice this Easter Day! Rejoice like never before! Rejoice for the stone on the tomb proved no problem to our God.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.

What’s So “Good” About Good Friday?

Sermon delivered on Good Friday, April 6, 2012 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22.1-31; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18.1-19.42.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Lord impressed on me the urgent need to preach this sermon tonight in a very strong and insistent way. I don’t know why but I dare not disobey. It’s not the sermon I had originally intended to preach but it is the sermon I am going to preach. Perhaps you are one of the intended recipients tonight. I don’t know.

Remember, LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace. You, LORD, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure (Lamentations 5.1, 19-22).

The man was dying of cancer and he knew it. As the time of his death approached he became more and more fearful, even though he was a professed and devout Christian. For you see, like the psalmist in Psalm 51 he knew his transgressions only too well and his sin was ever before him, and that terrified him. He personifies the passage from Lamentations that I just read.  That passage was written after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC and burned down God’s Temple, the very place where the Jews believed heaven and earth intersected and God had come to dwell. As the writer makes clear, he and his people wonder if God had forgotten or forsaken them forever because of their sins. Like the man dying of cancer, they too knew their transgressions and their sin was ever before them. They had utterly failed to be the people God called them to be and now they were paying dearly for it. They were faced with the real and awful possibility that the Source and Author of all life had rejected and abandoned them forever, just as he had abandoned his Temple. This too is what the man dying of cancer feared.

Or take Peter in tonight’s gospel lesson. In his bravado he had bragged to Jesus that he would never abandon or desert him, only to do exactly that to save his own skin. In Peter, we see all the ugliness of the human condition—pride, fear, cowardice, and loss of integrity. We all can relate to Peter because we are just like him. We remember the times we failed to speak up for goodness and justice because we were afraid. It happened to me just yesterday at Alfred’s funeral. We remember the times when we have denied our Lord in word and action because we wanted to be accepted and didn’t want to face the prospect of being ridiculed. Who does? We can relate when the other gospel writers tell us that after this massive collapse of truth, courage, and integrity, especially in the face of his earlier bravado, Peter went out and wept bitterly. When you have denied and separated yourself from the one who loves you and who has always been there for you, how can you possibly expect to be forgiven for something like that? It simply does not compute and it makes you afraid. The man dying of cancer surely would have understood.

And I suspect this is what many, if not most, of us fear. We know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us and that makes us terribly afraid. Each one of us carries secret sins so dark that we are terrified that someone might find out about them. We are convinced that those things are so wrong and so unforgivable that if found out, especially if God finds them out—which of course, God already has—that we will be justly condemned and rejected by God and others forever. Who could ever love someone like us who carry about our dark secrets? And so we usually do one of two things. We sometimes bury our secrets so thoroughly that we forget about them. We do this because the pain of carrying them with us on a daily basis is too great and terrible for us to bear. This strategy, of course, will not work because the knowledge of our repressed sins will continue to bubble up and manifest itself in the form of ongoing guilt or fear or alienation or a host of other psychological and/or physiological disorders, the way they did for the man dying of cancer. Satan uses all this to convince us that we are unlovable or beyond hope, and he will often appeal to our sense of justice. God or others could never love or accept someone as awful as you.

Or we do what sinful humanity has done since that sad and terrible scene in Garden that we read in Genesis 3. We hide from God or we come out to attack God and rid ourselves of him like the soldiers did in that other garden from tonight’s gospel lesson. We do this because while we know we can keep our darkest secrets hidden from others, we cannot keep them hidden from God and so we seek to attack and destroy him, as utterly futile as that might be. This is what many who reject God in all kinds of ways do. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that jig is up and that God knows who we really are—and that scares us beyond our ability to describe or cope with. Perhaps you are one of these people I have just described, or some variation of it. Perhaps you are someone like the man dying of cancer who is terrified that you are beyond forgiveness or healing or reconciliation, even as you desperately seek it. If so, I encourage you to hear what God has to say to you in tonight’s Scripture lessons and with the Spirit’s help, really believe it because in it you will find the forgiveness, healing, hope, acceptance, reconciliation, and real peace that you desperately seek.

This brings us to the title of tonight’s sermon. What’s so “good” about Good Friday. Seen from one perspective, there’s nothing good about this day because all we can see is massive injustice and human cruelty at its finest. We see an innocent man being flogged within an inch of his life. Roman scourging was not just some ordinary beating. It involved using a whip with multiple tails, each have rock, bone, or other sharp materials attached to the end of each tail so that when it hit the flesh, it was designed to flay it open. Often people died from the 39 lashes themselves. But Jesus didn’t. No, he survived not only that but also having a crown of sharp thorns shoved down on his head so that he could be crucified as King of the Jews.

Then there was the crucifixion itself, which none of the four gospels offer any details, but which we know quite a bit about. The victim was taken to the place of execution carrying the crossbeam of his cross on his shoulders and with a placard of the crimes committed around his neck. Crucifixion involved nailing spikes into the victims wrists and then hoisting the crossbeam onto a pole already embedded in the ground onto which the victim’s feet would be nailed. To add to the humiliation, crucified people were stripped naked and then left to die. It was a slow and agonizing death because the weight of the body made it increasing impossible for the victim  to breathe so he would have to push up with his feet to relief the pressure around his lungs and grab some air. This trauma would eventually rupture the sacs of fluid around the lungs and the victim would drown in his own fluid. The whole process could literally take days. It was not a pretty sight to behold but behold it the Jews of Jesus’ day did and it is not unreasonable for us to believe that Jesus would not have witnessed others being crucified so that he would have been familiar with its horror before his own crucifixion. But of course, looking at Good Friday in this manner is to look at it only from a human perspective and if that is all you can see, you likely will never understand why it’s called “good” because there is absolutely nothing good in what I have just described. Neither will you ever find the forgiveness and healing you seek.

But this is emphatically not what John and the other gospel writers are telling us about Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s why they do not detail his torture; they simply report it happened and that he had to suffer it. Instead, the gospel writers have something much, much better in mind. The massive injustice and extreme human cruelty—and the terrible, dark forces of evil behind it all—were simply means to a greater end. What the gospel writers want us to see in the death of Jesus is that this is how God became King. This is how the Kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. This is how God is putting to rights all that has gone so terribly wrong with his good creation and its people—by becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and bearing all the power of sin and evil himself so that evil is spent and ultimately defeated. The gospel writers, each in his own way, are telling us that Good Friday is the decisive turning point of human history, that God has taken on himself all the awful consequences of sin, evil, and death, and defeated them decisively, but not yet completely (cf. Colossians 2.15). In quite subtle and sophisticated ways, John and the other gospel writers are telling us in the crucifixion narratives that the cross has reestablished God’s sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and that in dying for us, Jesus has become Lord, a distinct political title. The gospel writers are also telling us that if we really believe that Jesus is Lord want to follow King Jesus, we have to imitate him in his suffering, just as Jesus himself told us we would (cf. Matthew 16.24; Mark 8.34; Luke 9.23).

But I do not want to focus on the kingdom aspect of the cross tonight. We will do that, in part, on Sunday. Instead, I want to focus on what must happen if we ever hope to follow Jesus in joyful and willing obedience, even in the face of our own suffering for his sake. For you see, if we ever hope to be a faithful follower of Jesus and do what he commands, we must first be convinced that we are forgiven those terrible and dark secrets we keep hidden and that God really will accept us for who we are (but who also loves us enough not to let us stay where we are). In other words, we have to be convinced that God really has made it possible for us to be reconciled to him so that we can have our relationship with him and others restored and enjoy real peace with God and others. When we know, really know, that God loves us despite who we are, that not even our darkest sins will keep us separated from God and his love for us, and that God will never abandon us, despite our massive rebellion against him, all the guilt, fear, and despair that we deal with and dehumanizes us will go away and we will find real healing and the wonder of forgiveness that is really undeserved. And that is what John and the other gospel writers are telling us happened on the cross. God became king because he established the necessary conditions for his kingdom to exist—healing and reconciliation between God and his stubborn and rebellious people. Without God’s forgiveness, without him bearing the consequences of our sin and the evil it produces, we can never hope to love or follow him in his kingdom work. We will be too busy dealing with our own guilt and despair.

We see God bearing of the consequences of our sin and the forgiveness that flows from that illustrated in several places in our gospel narrative tonight and here I will point out just two. First, we see the innocent Jesus bearing the consequences of Barabbas, a murderer and insurrectionist. Barabbas, representing sinful humanity that deserves nothing but God’s wrath and condemnation, goes free while God himself bears his (and our) punishment. This explains the horror that Jesus the man felt in the garden of Gethsemane, which John does not report but which Matthew and Mark do. We watch him sweating blood as he agonizes over having to bear the consequences of all the world’s evil and sin. It also explains the cry of dereliction in Matthew and Mark’s gospels. The terrible consequences of having to bear the weight of all our sin was so awful that for the first time Jesus knew what it was like to be separated from God, just like we do when our sin separates us from God. But if we stop there we miss the point. In bearing the consequences of our sin, God offers us forgiveness! We are not beyond hope! Jesus suffered God’s abandonment so that we would never have to worry about that again—ever!

Second, in John’s gospel we also see God’s forgiveness offered in Jesus’ last words on the cross. “It is finished.” What is “it” that was finished? John, always conscious of the creation narratives in Genesis, is telling us that the conditions for the new creation have been established by the Creator God himself embodied in Jesus. On Friday, the sixth day of the week in which he created humans and declared things to be very good, God himself has defeated evil, sin, and death by bearing the collective weight of human sin himself, thus taking care of the necessary conditions for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation to be offered, the very things needed for us to follow Jesus in his kingdom work. All this is why we call Good Friday “good.”

And so we return to our story of the man dying from cancer. Without Good Friday, he would indeed be without hope, as would all of us. But Good Friday has come and the course of human history has been changed. Because of that, I was able to ask him what he was going to do with Paul’s great statement in Romans 8.1, “[Because of the cross] there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Either you are in Christ through faith or you are not. Either you believe the truth or you do not. Fortunately the dying man was able to wrestle with this and found forgiveness, healing and peace before he died. He was able to know that the love of God manifested on the cross is far greater than even his darkest and manifold sins and he died in the peace of God, thanks be to God!

What about you? Are you struggling tonight with issues of failure and darkness? Are you allowing Satan to whisper in your ear that you are no good and beyond any hope for God to love someone like you? Do you suffer guilt or fear or despair or alienation because like the dying man or the people of Jerusalem you don’t believe that God could possibly love the likes of you? Do you desperately seek healing and reconciliation with the Source and Author of all life but are afraid that you will get wrath and judgment instead? If so, listen to the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion and really come to grips with it. Dare to believe the great love you see poured out for you. Dare to believe that like Barabbas, Jesus is taking your place on the cross. Dare to hear the gracious words of Isaiah and Hebrews in tonight’s lessons that by his wounds you are healed and that you do not have to live life alone and afraid because you have God’s very Spirit living in you and shaping you slowly into the human God created you to be. Dare to believe the truth of Paul’s statement that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and understand there are no exceptions to the great truth. None. Then let the healing forgiveness that you see flow from Christ’s side on the cross flow down on you so that by the power of the Spirit you might know what real healing and forgiveness are all about, just the way the dying man did and countless others have. Don’t succumb to the lies of the Evil One or your own broken fears. Look on the cross of Calvary and realize the one who is dying there is none other than God himself and he is doing so because he desperately wants you to feel his healing love and forgiveness so that he can equip you to help him bring in his kingdom and promised new creation. A God like that will never abandon you or remain aloof from your problems and hurts. And when, by God’s grace, you finally know what’s good about Good Friday, you really will have Good News, now and for all eternity. I pray that God grant each of us the grace to accept without reservation the wondrous love he offers to the whole world on Calvary.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

New Creation: A Real Future and Hope in the Midst of Our Grief

Sermon preached on Maundy Thursday, April 5, 2012, at Kumler Chapel, Miami University, Oxford OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 23; Romans 8.28-39; Psalm 139.1-11; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; John 11.17-27.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am Kevin Maney, a priest in the Anglican Church of North America and rector of a brand new parish on the NE side of Columbus. I am also an old neighbor and friend of the family. When I lived in Oxford, Alfred and I were known to have sat out on our porch and swill a few beers on occasion—usually without getting into too much trouble (although Dorothy might not necessarily agree with that assessment). During those times (and others) we would talk about life, death, and everything in between—and of course OSU football. Anytime Alfred wanted to get me going, he’d just mention a certain former head coach and soon I would be cussing and Alfred would be cackling out that infectious laugh of his. So I do not come to you this morning as a disinterested third party. Instead, like you, I come with a heavy heart. Given our friendship and the nature and timing of Alfred’s death, this is one of the hardest sermons I have ever had to preach, but preach it I must. And yes, I am still angry about it all. I am not angry at God for reasons that I hope to make clear. I am angry at the evil that exists in this world, pure evil like the cancer that took Alfred’s life and robbed us of a friend and his family of a husband, father, brother, uncle, and son. When evil like this shows itself, it is an affront to the goodness of God and his creation, and anyone who cares at all about human beings should be at least indignant over death. And so this morning I want to offer us all a word of real hope as we come to remember Alfred and mourn his death because real hope is good balm for grief and anger. The hope I offer is the Christian hope of new creation and it has the power to sustain and comfort us as we grieve our loss and reflect on our own life and death.

We can all relate to Martha in this morning’s gospel lesson, can’t we? When we are confronted by death, especially when it is somewhat unexpected and catastrophic the way Alfred’s was, we are tempted like Martha to throw our hands up and cry out in despair, “Why did you let this happen, Lord?” Now if you are hoping I will give you the definitive answer to that question, you will be sorely disappointed because I cannot. I do not know why God in his infinite love and wisdom for his human creatures allows evil to afflict us in the way that Alfred’s cancer afflicted him. Neither do I know why God does not tell us why he allows evil to exist in his good creation. But if we think about it, even if we did know why God allows evil to exist, it wouldn’t really change anything. Alfred would still be dead from cancer and our knowledge would leave us informed but still grieving and largely without hope.

All this suggests that we would be much better served if we stopped asking the why questions and concentrated more on what God is doing about the problem of evil and death in his good but broken world. If you listened carefully to Jesus’ response to Martha’s “why” question in the Gospel lesson, you noticed that he did just that. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, Jesus gave Martha a much more satisfactory answer. Acknowledging the reality of death, Jesus talked to Martha about resurrection and that to which it points—the new creation, God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil and death.

For you see, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension represent the climax of the biblical narrative of how God became king in the person of Jesus and is putting the world to rights and rescuing us from all the evil that bedevils and dehumanizes us. As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus fulfilled God’s call to his people Israel to bring God’s healing love and redemption to a world and its people created good but gone terribly wrong because of human folly and rebellion against God.

On the cross, God has dealt decisively with evil and death, bearing himself its terrible consequences and the consequences of our rebellion against him, thereby giving us a real hope and chance to live with him now and forever. This is an act of sheer grace and here we see God’s faithful love for us put into action to bring about our forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation with God, the very foundation needed to reestablish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. On a more personal level, we also see God’s love for us in Jesus tenderly manifested if we read further in today’s gospel lesson and watch him weep over his friend’s death, just the way we are weeping for Alfred today (cf. John 11.33-39). When we start to see God in this light, as a God who weeps with and for us, and who has acted decisively on our behalf so that we can have real life once again, it is hard to believe God does not care about us or his creation, even in the face of massive evil like the cancer that claimed Alfred’s life.

Of course, in claiming that God had defeated evil and death decisively in the cross of Jesus, the first Christians were well aware that God’s victory had not yet been fully consummated. After all, Paul wrote to the Colossians about the cross’ victory over evil from prison (cf. Colossians 2.15)! Despite their awareness that evil had not been fully vanquished, the first Christians believed that God had defeated evil and death in the cross of Jesus because they had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. And as Jesus reminded Martha, his resurrection gives us a preview of coming attractions of what God ultimately has in store for his people in the promised new creation.

As both our OT lesson and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians remind us, God does not intend to destroy his world or his people. Instead, God intends to redeem his people and all creation because God created all things to be good (cf. Genesis 1.1-2.25) and creation matters to God! So when Christ returns in great power and glory, he will bring about his new heavens and earth, the new creation. The dimensions of heaven and earth, biblical language for God’s space and human space respectively, will be fused together in a spectacular and universal event so that they will no longer be separated as they are now. This is what Paul is struggling to find the words to describe in his letter to the Thessalonians. Our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead and we will be given a new resurrection body, the kind of body Jesus has. Like Jesus’ resurrection body, our new body will be impervious to all the nasty things that can afflict our mortal bodies. In the new creation, there will be no more suffering or separation or sorrow or sickness or disease or evil or death—ever. There will be new life to live and new work to do, work that will bring God praise and glory, life and work that we will find infinitely fulfilling and meaningful. And best of all we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever (cf. Isaiah 25.6-9; 1 Corinthians 15.1-58; Revelation 21.1-22.9). We need to be careful about getting too specific about all this because Scripture is not terribly specific. But whatever the new creation looks like it will surely be more glorious than we can comprehend or imagine because God is its author.

So the Christian hope and promise consists of this. We believe that when we die, we go immediately to be with our Lord to enjoy a season of rest until he returns in great power and glory to raise the dead and usher in fully the new creation that his resurrection previewed for us and about which we have just spoken. That is why Jesus could tell Martha that those who believe in him live, even though their bodies die. And as Paul and the psalmists remind us, once the Lord has really claimed us, nothing can separate us from his love, not even cancer or death.

I don’t know about you but I find the hope of new creation to be a much fuller and richer hope than the idea of dying and going to heaven to spend the rest of eternity as a disembodied spirit. And there is no doubt in my mind that Alfred would too because the promise of new creation reminds us that this world and its people matter, and Alfred was all about that. A person as full of zest for life and having a passion to help improve the lives of others will surely relish living in God’s new creation with his new resurrection body where there will be infinite opportunities for him to continue to grow in his work and love for God and others. This is the hope to which Jesus was alluding when he told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. This is the future and hope to which we commend Alfred today, thanks be to God! It is God’s gift of grace offered freely to everyone without exception.

But what about us? After Jesus finished telling Martha about the hope of new creation that was in him, he asked Martha the fifty-cent question. “Do you believe this? Do you believe that I am the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that those who live and believe in me will live, even though their bodies die?” Likewise, Jesus asks us the same question in the midst of our grief. “Do you believe this?” Do you believe in the hope and promise of new creation to which Jesus’ resurrection points? The extent to which we can answer yes is the extent to which we can have real hope and real Good News to sustain us in our grief and loss.

You know, Alfred kept matters of the faith pretty close to the vest, at least with me. He usually did not talk about his relationship with God unless asked. But I did ask him about such things, especially after their daughter, Debbie, died. And Alfred did believe the promises I have just described, even if he didn’t articulate them in the manner I have. I know this to be true because I watched him live his faith. I watched how he and Dorothy handled the death of their infant daughter. I watched how he cared for his father who had Alzheimer’s disease instead of abandoning him to a nursing and getting on with the more pleasant things of life. I watched the passion Alfred had for his scholarship and for his students. You could see his passion for justice in the signature of his email every time you read a message from him. I observed how he loved on his wife and sons and worked hard to be there for them as good husbands and fathers do. Alfred knew what it meant to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus, even if he didn’t articulate it in those terms. He showed his faith not so much in words but through his actions, as real faith always manifests itself. That’s why I have no doubt how Alfred would have answered Jesus’ question to Martha and why I am not worried in the least about him or his future. May the God of love and power bless us with the grace to answer yes to Jesus’ gracious question as well. If you have that kind of faith and hope, you will not only find real comfort in your grief, you will also have Good News for yourself, just like Alfred Louis Joseph, Jr. has, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What Kind of Messiah is This?

From the archives. Sermon delivered on Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010.

Lectionary texts: Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning is Palm Sunday and marks the beginning of Holy Week. We have just read the Passion narrative and I am content to let that comprise the bulk of the sermon for today. I encourage you to ponder this story because it is the story of your salvation. Keep it in the forefront of your thoughts this week and ponder the depth, the height, the width, and the breadth of God’s love for you manifested in the cross of Christ.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, it was in fulfillment of prophecy, specifically Zechariah 9:9, in which Israel’s King arrives triumphantly and victoriously on a donkey. Luke tells us that the people spread their cloaks on the road, apparently as an act of homage (see, e.g., 2 Kings 9:13), and in response to the mighty acts of power they had seen Jesus perform, begin to cry out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” a reference to the messianic psalm of praise, Psalm 118.

From this there is little doubt that the people understood the messianic symbolism that Jesus employed to announce his arrival at Jerusalem. They understood that this meant Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the awaited Messiah, God’s anointed one. Luke implies that even Jesus’ opponents understood this because they told Jesus to order his disciples to stop what they were proclaiming.

What is less clear, however, is whether Jesus’ supporters (or his opponents for that matter) really understood the true nature of Jesus’ messiahship. Based on Luke’s description of why people paid Jesus homage and praise fit for Messiah—they had seen his deeds of power—and the traditional Jewish expectation of what God’s anointed one would be when he arrived—he would be a conquering liberator and military hero—there is every reason to believe that most people in the crowd that day probably expected Jesus to be just that, a liberating hero ready to overthrow the bonds of Roman oppression. In other words, it is likely that many people were following Jesus because they expected him to be something other than he really was.

Likewise with us sometimes, isn’t it? As we enter Holy Week, many of us are eager to rush to the great Easter celebration and skip over our Lord’s passion and death. We are more eager to worship and talk about the Risen Christ than to worship and contemplate a crucified Messiah. But that would be a grave mistake because like many in the crowd on the day of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, we would apparently be misunderstanding the very nature of our Lord’s mission and purpose. In effect, we would be denying that he is a suffering Messiah.

As both our OT and NT lessons remind us, Jesus the Messiah did not come as a conquering military hero. True, he did come to conquer sin and death, but not as a warrior. As Paul reminds us in the great hymn found in today’s Epistle lesson, Christ obediently humbled himself and came as a servant, a theme echoed in the Third Servant Song found in today’s OT lesson. He gave up the full manifestation of his deity to become human so that he could die for us. The path to Christ’s glory was suffering and the cross. There he bore the punishment for our sins and made it possible for us to live with God forever.

The cross is the central act in history. Without it we have little hope and an empty tomb would be meaningless because there would have been nothing done to end our alienation and exile from God permanently. Consequently, we must not be too hasty to rush to the great Easter celebration without stopping to consider the great Act on Calvary that makes Easter such a joyous event.

But what does this mean for us? Just this. If we are to follow him, we must become like him. We must put to death our sinful self-centeredness and serve him by serving others. We must follow the way of the cross, in which we act as if Jesus is Lord and we are not. We do so, not reluctantly but gladly, as a grateful response to all that our Lord has done for us. We are thankful that our God is a crucified God and not a vengeful or vindictive God.

Therefore I urge you to engage fully in the events of Holy Week, to observe a holy Triduum, the period of time from Maundy Thursday evening to Easter. Do not be too eager to jump to the great Easter celebration. First, come to Maundy Thursday and be with our Lord as he commands his disciples and us to partake in the sacraments of his body and blood. Imagine the self-righteous indignation Peter must have felt when Jesus told him he would deny him. Feel the tension around the table as he announces to the disciples that there is a betrayer in their midst and ponder in your heart if he could be referring to you.

Go with our Lord to dark Gethsemane and watch him struggle in prayer over his upcoming Passion. See him agonize over the suffering he must endure for the sins of the whole world and the separation from God that must inevitably follow because he chooses to do so. It is an agony so great that it caused him to sweat great drops of blood. As you watch Jesus in Gethsemane, recall the hymn in Philippians from today’s lesson and give thanks in the midst of your sorrow that you are watching love struggle in action for your sake. Be thankful that Jesus was obedient to death so that you can live.

Remain with our Lord even as the twelve desert him after his arrest in the garden. Be vigilant during the farce that masqueraded as a trial in front of both the Jewish authorities and Pontius Pilate. See how he was mocked, spit upon, beaten, and scourged to within an inch of his life before being condemned and led away to be crucified with criminals. Realize that this is God they are doing this to and recall the Philippians hymn again. Remember that you are watching your salvation story unfold.

On Friday go to Calvary with our Lord and watch in sorrow as his pierced, bloody, and naked body hangs on a tree. Listen in amazement as he prays for those who are crucifying him and in the midst of your tears, listen in wonder as he promises the repentant thief salvation that very day. As you do, remember that this is your story, your salvation. You too are being offered salvation this very day by the One who loves you and gave himself for you. Give thanks that Jesus didn’t come down off his cross because he had had enough of his mockers and his suffering. No, he chose to hang there and die so that you can live. This is God’s great love for you being played out. This is God’s symbol of justice and in it find hope in the midst of your sorrow because you are watching God do the impossible for you so that you can live with him forever.

Then spend Holy Saturday in quiet contemplation, musing over the terrible price God paid for your sins as you remember Christ’s dead body lying in a tomb. And because we know the happy ending to this story, begin to prepare for the great Easter celebration by giving thanks to God and asking him to help you become the obedient servant he calls all of us to be.

Then come to the great Easter Vigil Saturday evening in hope and anticipation of our Lord’s mighty Resurrection. Hear again the unfolding story of God’s salvation and give thanks that he has called you to be part of it. Give thanks too that Jesus is more than a military conqueror. In his mighty Resurrection he has conquered even death and God has vindicated his messiahship so that you know the Good News of Jesus Christ is true.

Holy Week is more than being about Easter. It is the pinnacle of God’s story of salvation. It is the story of the way of the cross and what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus. Take time this Holy Week and give thanks to God who loves you so much that he took on our flesh and died for us so that we can live with him forever. Remember his mighty and terrible acts on our behalf and give thanks because you realize how unworthy you are.

Life with Christ begins here and now and remains unbroken even by death. We have the cross and empty tomb to bear witness to this truth. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. Considering all God has done for you, can you not give him some more of your time and self this week by attending the events in the Triduum as a grateful response? I hope and pray that you can and will.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.