Thursday, May 29, 2014

The In-ness of God

Scripture for the 6th Sunday in Easter includes Acts; 17:22-31; I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

“I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

Can you call up from your photo file a set of matryoshka dolls that fit one inside another? (If you can’t, I can’t go on with this sermon!) The largest outer doll is often in the dress of a Russian peasant girl, and within her are several progressively smaller dolls, some female, some male, until the last, the innermost, is in the form of an infant.

I can’t help thinking of that image as I hear St. John capturing the gist of this intimate teaching Jesus gives his disciples. The biggest among these inter-related identities is God the Father, so that would be the first and outer figure. Within that is the next figure, representing Jesus. The next, within that, is us—okay, one at a time, you first, then me—and within that figure is another, Jesus again.

What’s fun about this admittedly peculiar image is that the outermost matryoshka is a peasant woman. Put that in the pipe of the commonplace long-bearded robed male representation of God and smoke it.

But even more playful is that innermost figure of Jesus Christ, the infant. Or, wait, maybe it’s the next-to-last doll that represents him and we are the infant within him, to whom he gives birth in the new creation launched by his rising from the grave.

Okay, I’ll stop—you may be wondering what I’ve been smoking, and all I can say is that we got our warning in today’s opening collect, where we acknowledged to God the plain truth that the good things God has for us surpass our understanding. They make us reach for metaphors. The arithmetic of grace doesn’t figure the way the world does its math, so we stretch to find figures of speech that suggest the deep reality of God.

Stay with that collect a moment. Hear its language again:

“O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good
things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such
love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above
all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we
can desire…”

Does this mean that these surpassingly good things that exceed all we can desire come to us only if we keep the commandments Jesus speaks of to his disciples? Only if we have that good conscience mentioned by the apostle Peter? Is that the Good News: that we have to earn our way into the heart of God by moral purity and existential success? There’s nothing new about that message, is there? And not much that’s good about it. I mean, whatever became of unconditional love?

Well, you’ll find it in that First Letter of Peter. It flits by in just a single sentence, easy to miss but wow, does it ever challenge the script of Noah the Movie! The apostle makes his case that Jesus Christ the righteous one suffered for the sake of the unrighteous, in order to bring us all to God. And when man’s inhumanity to man had done to Jesus the very worst it could do, God made him alive in the spirit: not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a person transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit. In that spirit, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark…”

Catch this claim of Peter’s: The very first appearance of the risen Christ is not to Mary Magdalene or Peter or Thomas or those disciples on the road to Emmaus. He goes to the deep freeze, the place of departed spirits, and breathes the Word of New Life onto those same rebellious resistant hard-hearted hard-headed mockers and scorners who ridiculed Noah, both in the Bible and in the Movie, and got not one single like on their Facebook pages—and met a miserable end. These, says Peter, are the ones the risen Jesus, in full freedom of spirit, goes to free.

Neither the authors of Genesis nor the movie moguls in Hollywood could have expected or welcomed that outcome, by far too sweetly generous an ending to make a good story. In both those scripts, it was necessary that Noah’s neighbors become victims of retributive justice so that we, the readers or viewers, might feel secure on our side of that boundary, feel good in sharp contrast to those bad guys.

I’ve recently read the essays of James Alison, a Roman Catholic theologian who truly deserves to be called progressive. He titles his four short volumes “Jesus the Forgiving Victim.” He maintains that in order to manufacture a sense of goodness that bestows a kind of security, human beings inherently create sharp boundaries between themselves and others, between “us” and “them”, between our own in- group and “those out- groups whom we are not.” This is, he says, “sunk in the bedrock of distinctively human culture.”

He’s not praising it, or recommending it. He’s analyzing why the nightly news is what it is, for this world is more in the mold of “Lord of the Flies” than we like to think, at least by morning light. And it’s a short step or two from this cultural victimizing of people to what Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently called, “the unchecked human need for control that arises out of fear of a chaotic and unsafe world.” Addressing a group of 33 American Episcopal bishops (one of whom was our own) gathered to strategize approaches to gun violence, Welby spoke of the addiction to violence and how we become hardened by it. He referred to the pattern of nations at war: “At first we fought like humans, then we fought like animals and finally we fought like demons.” What apt commentary on the nightly news.

What theologian James Alison does praise and recommend is the alternative that seeks us out in Jesus Christ. Jesus’s alternative released by his resurrection is honest awareness that we do manufacture a bogus goodness by our exclusion of certain others whom we make into victims. This is the position Jesus himself willingly entered in order to supplant it with a fresh alternative: to find ourselves being made good by moving towards actual victims, embracing the other whom we’ve by custom excluded. Here is how Alison puts it:

“When we talk about what Jesus came to do, did and is doing in our midst, we are talking about what comes upon us as an alteration of the axis of Creation rather than as a resolution of a moral problem. Our being brought close into the life of God by Jesus living out being a forgiving victim in our midst has this as its effect: that we perceive simultaneously where we used to be heading, into an ever-shrinking world run by revenge, envy and death; and where we are instead finding ourselves drawn: into being forgiven, forgiving, and thus being opened up into true, insider knowledge of creation as it unfolds dynamically.”

Deep within the matryoshka of God is the baby, the new creation, what God is doing in and through us. And before that stage where the new life works through us, first, the gift of that new life to each of us, the baptismal gift, undeserved grace, unconditional in-ness (“I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you”).

Alison, again, in his own words: “What it looks like to be on the inside of the life of God is to be stretched towards God with every faculty of your being, and the form this takes is being stretched towards your neighbor… our only access to finding ourselves loved is through our learning to love someone else.”

Our collect of the day helps us recognize that true goodness surpasses our understanding, requires our being open to change, a transformation that is made possible for us through the pouring of the love of God into our leaky hearts—and this transformation may be painful. As Alison says, “Since the more any of us loves, the more any of us is given a heart of flesh, the more alive that heart becomes. And the more alive it becomes, the more raw and painful the world comes to seem, even if also much, much richer and more interesting.”

By Alison’s analysis, Christian morality is less about what we do, and more about recognizing what has been done for us. However, it’s mighty tempting to say, “I don’t have the time or the temperament for all that being-loved business: Simply tell me what to do.”

But that’s not how the new creation operates. That’s how the old one worked, but the new one released by the resurrection gives us a new commandment (in that upper room on Maundy Thursday, as he washed his disciples’ feet): that we love with the same wide embrace that is his. While this may be a raising of the bar, it is more importantly a giving us the way, the truth, the life that constitutes goodness, the setting in motion a power that equips humanity to reproduce such love, the very gift we need, the world needs.

The gift you and I need: to be transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit.

(Quotations are from James Alison’s fourth volume, “Unexpected Insiders”, in his essay series “Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice”, Doers Publishing, 2013.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Living Stones, a Bulwark against Casino Gambling

Scripture for the 5th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 7:55-60; I Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

I love the image the apostle Peter uses in his letter: living stones. We at St. John’s have a vested interest in that image, thanks to the decision by our forebears in the 1890’s, to build a church, not a wood frame wood-clad church like many in New England, not of brick (like the nearby Congregational Church was in those days), not of well-behaved quarried stone like our neighboring Episcopal church in North Adams, but of native field stone, each one struck by the blade of a plow as Stone Hill was cleared for farming. I like to think of the delicious inconsistency that each stone in this house of prayer was cursed by a farmer before it got to us. Now, that’s redemption! Reclaimed stones from the reject pile make a place for the perpetual renewal of reconciling love. It’s an image just made for preaching.

Is it a coincidence that in the readings we have from that first-century apostolic world there are killing stones as well as living stones? St. Stephen had so much apostolic zeal that he lacked a basic instinct for self-preservation. He was all about advancing the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and that threatened some of his neighbors enough that they buried that project (and Stephen) under a pile of stones. Truly, each of those stones carried a curse. Rather like, in our own day, stones thrown at a building site for a new mosque, with the cry, “Not in this neighborhood!” Or the stones that shattered thousands of windows of Jewish shops and homes on Kristallnacht.

St. Peter’s image of Jesus as a living stone came to him by way of the Hebrew Bible, quoted three times in this one passage, one verse from Psalm 118 and two verses from the book of the prophet Isaiah, where the coming of a Messiah is being longed-for. You might be surprised how often those two books (Psalms and Isaiah) are quoted throughout the New Testament, as portions of the Hebrew Bible provide the infrastructure, the imagery, the vocabulary for the Christian scriptures.

But even without that religious pedigree, stone is an effective metaphor. Ancient, strong, useful, instrumental as tools and material for building, blades for cutting, flint for igniting fire, and beautiful to the eye. We have stone as an archive of evolution, a result of vast processes and pressures that have formed it; yet the stone we have is being reformed by vast processes like crushing tides that reduce stones to sand, and pressures like the frost that keeps raising and heaving buried strata—not to mention pressures of civilization, blasting its way through ledges, fracking its way through whole regions of shale. Stone is a rich and powerful symbol of human life on planet Earth.

And where stone has special traction in the New Testament, not always self-evident to later generations, is that about the year 70 in the common era, the imperial Roman army completed its devastating obliteration of Jerusalem by demolishing the great stone temple, leaving no stone unturned in their campaign to eradicate rebellion, leaving, as Jesus is remembered to have foretold, not one stone standing on the holy mount.

Losing that central temple drove Jews out of the city by the thousands, into a diaspora that circled the Mediterranean Basin. The fall of Jerusalem moved Judaism into the towns and villages where synagogues gained new importance, but even more so into the homes of Jews the world over, making of Judaism a religion observed in the home, at the table. Since the Jesus movement had risen within Judaism, the devastation of the temple mount did also to Christianity, for Christianity, what it did with the Jews: relocate a virtual temple within the human breast, within the home and at the table, and within the local community.

You might say that history had set the stage for the necessity of living stones, people embodying the vision of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught it, people animated by his Spirit, people committed to fellowship with him and with one another, people hungering to feed the hungry, people emptying their closet of that second cloak to clothe whoever needs it, people recognizing the call to proclaim in the marketplace the urgent demands of justice and mercy.

Where is this sermon going? The need for living stones is evident on a frontier of social justice today, one that is closer to us than we might think.

Our Diocese is renewing its push to gain signatures on a petition to put casino gambling on the November ballot as a referendum question, allowing the voters to decide whether to confirm or to contest our state legislature’s permitting casino gambling. Many of you signed the petition the first time around, so don’t sign it again—but I’m hoping (and Bishop Fisher is hoping) that you’ll consider taking today a blank petition form and collect signatures of MA-registered voters in whatever circles you’re comfortable doing it, perhaps a book group, a bridge club, a family gathering. This effort will ensure that the required number of signatures goes over the top, and happens during these weeks in which the State Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of placing casino repeal on the ballot. At the end of this service, you’ll find me standing at the table where the petitions are available, ready to offer you a minute or two of coaching in the fine art of collecting signatures.

“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” a temple with doors and windows fully open to the world where new jobs are needed, and we must do better than casinos can to meet that need. Casinos suck the local economy dry. They foster addictive gambling. They knock the stuffings out of the real estate market, and strain a community’s capacity to enforce the law and maintain public safety.

Is this really our business? Here we are in the bucolic Berkshires, where no one plans to build a casino. Isn’t it for Springfield to decide how to put its own house in order? I found that argument compelling for a while. But the spiritual house we occupy is the Diocese of Western MA. Like our Father’s house, this one has many dwelling places. Springfield is one of them, and is our see city, and the presence of our Bishop and Cathedral there places us there too.

It will not be enough to oppose the billion-dollar casino that MGM wants to build there. If it is the city’s desperation that propels them into the arms of MGM, the many other communities of Western MA, and of the Commonwealth as a whole, must learn to think and care and act as one, to build support, living support, a cornerstone of hope with strength that is felt where it is most needed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Passing the Peace

Scripture for the 4th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 2:42-47; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

I trust you’ve noticed that Easter season has so far given us Gospel moments that feature the risen Jesus appearing to his friends, persuading them by intimate signs that death has not been able to hold him. He does this with Mary Magdalene by cutting through her tears and grief simply by calling her name, Mary, and this is enough to convince her that it is he himself, passed over from death to an entirely new dimension of life.

For Thomas, a more visceral approach: Go ahead, touch my wounds, let your fingers see who I am, honor your need to know that it is I who stand before you.

For Cleopas and an unnamed disciple in the village of Emmaus, the familiar action of Jesus taking bread in his hands, blessing it, breaking it, is enough to reveal, remind, recognize who he is.

And if there is one word and one action that best sums up the nature and purpose of these post-Easter appearances, it is his trademark greeting after making it through the locked doors to that upper room that served as sanctuary for Jesus’s followers. They have locked the doors, for fear that they too will be arrested. He makes it through those doors—we needn’t imagine ghostly teleportation: it would be in keeping with these stories for their fear to have locked him out as well, to have reduced him to having to knock to gain entry (“Lo, I stand at the door and knock… if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me,” says Jesus in the Book of Revelation.

And what he says, what gains him entry, what announces that it is he, is his old familiar greeting, “Peace be with you.”

I have noticed, in recent weeks, that our Passing of the Peace in worship has been getting mixed reviews. I sense some self-consciousness among us. Though we’ve been passing the peace vigorously for years, it seems that recently we’re noticing some discomfort, and in the ensuing conversation about this I’m noticing that it’s not clear to everyone what the Passing of the Peace means.

That’s like waving a red flag in front of a preacher, so I’d like to speak into that subject today. Our New Testament passages are rich with the image of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. This icon may help us see into the purpose and value of ensuring that our liturgy include an experience of passing the Peace of Christ. It is going to have a lot to do with fostering a sense, a visceral experience, of being enfolded in the flock. We may arrive singly, sit solitarily, taste solitude in the silence—but when the Peace of Christ is announced, we are invited to throw open our doors and step into the enfolding arms of our Lord, who calls us each by name into the fold. This is a moment for remembering the words of St. Theresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Our Passing of the Peace is meant to present personal evidence that we are collectively the Body of Christ. It is intended to renew our awareness that we are partakers in the new creation launched by his resurrection. And it comes where it does, right after we confess our sin and welcome God’s forgiveness, to make the statement that it is by God’s gift, God’s freeing action, God’s making us right, God’s reconciling love, that we have the Peace of Christ to share.

So there’s the theory. We need that theory to shape our practice. I have a hunch it’s our practice that requires fresh mindfulness. How can we do a better job being the hands of Christ, conveying the embrace of the Good Shepherd, renewing a communal sense of being the Body of Christ? I don’t have a list of answers, but I do have six questions for you to consider:

1. Is more always better than less? What if, rather than greeting many people in haste, we were to greet fewer people more intentionally, without rushing?

2. Why not follow directions? The Prayer Book calls us to a specific task: to greet each person we approach saying, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” and, if you’re on the receiving end, reply “And also with you.” Is that too starchy for you? There are plenty of good alternative words, but the call intends that we pass the Peace of Christ, and openly receive it.

3. Is this a moment for more conversation? Sure, if that’s how you’ll obey the call to embrace this person in the Peace of Christ. Otherwise, later. The Peace is not meant to be coffee hour minus the coffee. Believe me, I need reminding of this, too.

4. As you consider how to move at the Peace, what if you were to give priority to three categories of people: those you do not yet know, those you do not usually greet, and those with whom you need reconciliation?

5. Do we respect the choice that some may make to opt out from a vigorous passing of the Peace? Given the purposes of the Peace, I hope that everyone will take part in at least one or two exchanges, but when you come to a person who has resumed being seated—and you have no reason to think that’s because of physical impairment—let it be.

6. Don’t we need help remembering that the Peace is not an intermission. I am sometimes tempted to dim and raise the house lights… Be ready to move on with the liturgy. What happens next is missionary: announcements of events by which we hope to fulfill our mission, sometimes a farewell blessing of someone soon to move. Yet again, the Body of Christ moving as the hands and feet of Christ.

In the little vestibule, each person returning from communion at the altar rail comes face to face with the window of Christ the Good Shepherd. He has his shepherd’s crook, and he is holding bread and wine. Surrounding him are words of Psalm 23: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Taking-in this window can be your encounter with the post-Easter risen Christ who has promised to be with us always, to the close of the ages.

John’s Gospel tells us a lot about the Good Shepherd. He calls his own sheep by name: his care for us is person by person, intimate. At the same time, he is the gate to the sheepfold: he draws together all his people to hear that same welcoming voice that calls us into the fold call us next to our mission. I have tried to show that the Passing of the Peace is the Anglican liturgy’s time-honored way to express this transubstantiation of many individuals into one united body ready to embrace its mission, which begins in the call of God’s voice, draws us out of solitude into community to feed us at the table of new life, renewing in us the peace not given as the world gives—yet is given for making peace in the world.

Now, there’s another trait of the Good Shepherd not mentioned in today’s Gospel. In another chapter, St. John tells the parable of the Good Shepherd leaving the flock in order that he may find the one lamb that has strayed off.

I like the way Archbishop Desmond Tutu highlights the message in that story. Here’s what he says: “In this theology, we can never give up on anyone because our God was one who had a particularly soft spot for sinners. The Good Shepherd in the parable… had been quite ready to leave ninety-nine perfectly well-behaved sheep in the wilderness to look for, not an attractive, fluffy little lamb—fluffy little lambs do not usually stray from their mummies—but for the troublesome, obstreperous old ram. This was the one on which the Good Shepherd expended so much energy.”

Tutu’s message is that every person has a place of privilege and responsibility in the heart of God. Within the community of faith, no one is to lose their place in the fold because of having an opinion, a viewpoint, or an approach (such as for how to do the Passing of the Peace). My six questions are not asked in order to make of you a cookie cutter congregation of fluffy lambs self-consciously fearing arrest by the Peace Police. What I personally like about a rambunctious approach to the Peace is the vitality it can convey. But it appears to be time for us to be mindful that our liturgy is intended to be a purposeful experience in all its moving parts, time now for paying attention to those moments of sacramental touch when we all are called to be its ministers.

(Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words are quoted in Richard H. Schmidt’s Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002.)

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Reconciling Reverence

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Easter includes Acts; 2:14a, 36-41; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

Last Sunday, I urged you to join me in having your radar plugged in when reading the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s death and resurrection. We considered some causes for a distinct note of blame that keeps cropping up as Jews are accused of killing the Christ. Such a puzzling dynamic, since the disciples are Jews, our Lord is a Jewish itinerant preacher, and the Jesus movement through much of the first century is a spiritual phenomenon within Judaism.

Until, that is, a sharp parting of the ways some three or four decades after our Lord’s death, a painful separation of the child (Christianity) from the parent (Judaism), a struggle we see and hear at work here and there in the New Testament.

Why make an issue of this? Because the holy scriptures are entrusted to the Church as the very Word of God that the world most needs to hear. It is for each generation to present that Word as the radiantly good news that it is, shaping that presentation by attitudes worthy of the task and worthy of the good news and worthy of the God who speaks it. Eternally repeating those occasional dyspeptic phrases and verses that evidently appear to blame the Jews for the crucifixion does not advance the Kingdom of God.

That statement does not make me a radical activist. I did not even realize that last Sunday was Yom Hoshoa, the day when Jews remember the engulfing darkness of the Holocaust and the undefeated bright flame of their faith. As I asked you to join me in wrestling with those doors of the upper room being locked by the disciples “for fear of the Jews,” I simply responded to the text assigned for the day. And then later felt first foolish for missing the day… and then amazed that we had not missed it.

So today, when we hear the apostle Peter upbraid “the entire house of Israel” for crucifying Jesus, we choose to affirm that we are part of that entire house of Israel, not over-against it. When we hear the disciples en route to Emmaus assign responsibility to their chief priests and leaders for condemning Jesus to death, we can say, “Isn’t that the way with the institutional Church, when it loses sight of its purpose?

I believe the path of faithfulness requires us to patiently delve deeper into the still-being-fathomed rich mine of the Bible, right into the motherlode of the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ, bring up the ore, and set aside the clay. Not throw it away: set it aside for what God the master potter will make of it—but not at the expense of raising up the precious ore.

Imbedded in that ore is the gold of the good news that fashions a whole new value, a new attitude distinctly different from what is hard-wired in the deep mine of our brain stem. By nature, we define who we are over-against others. We’re used to needing others against whom to compare ourselves, distinguish ourselves, unite ourselves in common cause… against. This dynamic is so basic, so successful, and so divisive.

And omnipresent in the news of the week. Donald Sterling’s racist rantings. Vladimir Putin’s manipulation of nationalism. The long half-life of hatreds in Ireland. The tyranny of terrorists kidnapping Nigerian schoolgirls.

By sharp contrast, the new Gospel value, the attitude that will help the world behold Jesus Christ in all his redeeming work, is named in our second reading today from the First Letter of Peter.

There we are told that God is impartial to the many human distinctions inherited genetically or culturally. Neither do silver and gold wield any influence with God. What matters is that we live in what Peter calls “reverent fear”. This will be the third consecutive Sunday, this Easter, that we will have heard the scriptures singing, “What the world needs now is reverence, sweet reverence.”

And on Easter Day we also heard reverence linked with fear, not to recommend fear the attitude God wants in us, but to acknowledge fear as a natural piece of our hard wiring. The good news of God in Jesus Christ directly addresses our fears: from the annunciation to Mary, to the birth in Bethlehem, and to the empty tomb, angels keep popping up to coach all the principal players (including us), not to be afraid. As much as to say, when faced with such enormity as birth, death, resurrection—and all the big stuff that intervenes, losing a job, facing an illness, being a caregiver, moving across the country, retiring—fear is at least second nature, often first.

But as I’ve said three Sundays in a row now (and I hope you aren’t yet finding it stale), in the resurrection of Jesus God commingles our fear and our joy, and what comes of this deep blend is reverence, an attitude that the transcendent creator God is the power and the glory that will bring on earth as in heaven God’s reign of justice and peace; and that established in each of us by the pure gift of Jesus is an embassy of that power, a border crossing between God’s dwelling on high and the divine presence dwelling within us. And by that inner life of the Spirit we learn to recognize movements of God, actions of grace, and callings to serve.

These recognitions require both solitude and community. It is by practices of prayer, of silence, of reflection, of study, of honest self-appraisal, repentance, and amendment of life that we open ourselves to recognize not what separates us from others but the common ground on which we stand with others, build with others, cross boundaries that need crossing.

And so it is no accident, but much part of the strategy of God that we should find one another in the fellowship and teamwork and loving relationships of congregations, Bible study and support groups, coffee conversations, interfaith exploration, ecumenical sharing, diocesan ministries, and worldwide communion. All require, and at their best teach as a core value, defining who we are not over-against others, but in full, open, mindful communion with others.

Consider Luke’s story of the unrecognizing disciples on the road to Emmaus. Two of Jesus’s disciples—not among the original twelve, but two fellows from the seventy followers Luke mentions elsewhere—they’re walking an open road all wrapped up in fear and loss and grief. Jesus himself approaches them and walks with them.

We don’t know if and how they welcome his company. Perhaps they’ve gone silent: is Jesus trying to draw out of them what they’re discussing, to get them talking again, this time including him? The moment sounds like it’s straight from a therapy session, when the patient is about to go deeper: “They stood still, looking sad.”

Cleopas breaks the silence. Notice how that is a Greek name. He may have been a convert to Judaism, but with a name like Cleopas he wasn’t a cradle member of the house of Israel, and it’s not unlikely that he knew what it meant to be viewed as an outsider, a stranger.

“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know what has taken place there recently?” Defined over-against others, Cleopas sees only the stranger in this sudden companion who we know is Jesus.

What does it mean that neither disciple recognizes Jesus? Luke wants us to locate the answer in them: “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” They were so wrapped up in Jesus’s burial shroud that they had him dead and gone—just like their hopes that he might be the one to redeem Israel.

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

Even then—even while he’s patiently giving them a tutorial survey of how the Hebrew Bible speaks to who he is and what he has done—still all they can see in him is an otherness. Not seeing their common ground, their imagination is not triggered and they retreat into themselves, writing him off as not being in the same world, not dealing with the same realities.

And could we blame him for walking ahead as if he were going on? “Sheesh… these disciples… what will it take to reach them?”

And at that moment they provide the first thing it will take: they pray him to stay with them that night, they urge him to remain with them. That’s what he had asked of them, his disciples, just three nights before, in Gethsemane: “Stay with me, remain here with me; watch, and pray…”

Their wanting him is the first step towards breakthrough. His familiar action at the table, over bread and wine, is the second. No longer do they see in him an otherness over-against them. They recognize him. And he vanishes from their sight.

The Gospels present several post-Easter appearances of Jesus to various disciples. By intimate engagement, Jesus ignites faith each time he appears, yet all these encounters convey the message he gives first at the tomb to Mary Magdalene: “Don’t try to hold onto me.”

It’s as if awakening their power to recognize him is the Master’s final gift to his disciples. What he doesn’t have to say to them is “Don’t dismiss me in otherness: for I am with you, to the end of time.” They know it.

But you and I do need to hear that message, to renew our inner life of the Spirit, and our outward life in community, for by both we learn to recognize movements of God, actions of grace, and callings to serve.

And, as the two disciples learned, Jesus himself understands his redeeming work as rising from and continuous with the Hebrew Bible, the law and the prophets, the entire house of Israel. He embodies such common ground with Judaism, and calls us to practice a reconciling love.

Detoxifying the Good News

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 2:14a, 22-32; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

At the back of the Book of Common Prayer is a section of questions and answers known as the Catechism. Here is one pair:

Q: What is the mission of the Church?
A: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

So how good a job of restoring unity does our Gospel do, today?

I mean that in two ways. First, our Gospel portion heard today, specifically that first sentence: “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” I said just “for fear” when I read it, but you who are students of the Bible—or readers of the insert—will have noticed what the text says.

Is this not a bucket of ice water in the face, the adversarial stance of this narrative? For heaven’s sake, every one of those disciples was a Jew, through and through. Who are these “other Jews” that our eleven apostolic ancestors were trying to lock out?

Since this was Jerusalem and those fellows were mostly from rural Galilee, the Jews to be locked out were city folks, perhaps educated, perhaps well-off and not dirt poor like most of the eleven, perhaps authorities in their own right (scribes, temple officials, members of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin—and therefore powerful, perhaps surrounded by hired security). I know, I’ve introduced enough perhapses there to make my point that any number of othernesses might help explain those locked doors.

And if you’ll tolerate one more: Perhaps this story told by our patron, St. John the Evangelist, is less the story of adversarial relations between disciples and fellow countrymen in the year 33 in the common era than it is the story of worsened—and worsening—adversarial relations several decades later between the early Church and the Jewish community at the time when John set his quill to the scroll of his Gospel. When reading the Bible, context is everything. For sure, the context of the first Easter was fraught with threat and terror; but the context of the actual text fast forwards us to a time of deepened and settled alienation between church and synagogue.

On the evening of that first Easter, there were no Christians on the inside of those locked doors. Those disciples inside were Jews: the Jesus movement begins as something new God is doing in Judaism. We’re told in the Book of Acts that it was in the Greek-cultured Syrian city of Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The Book of Acts, written about the year 80, reports on events around the year 60, so for another three decades after Easter, the Jesus movement is still mostly a Jewish happening. Between then and the end of the 1st century, when we think John’s Gospel emerges, relations between church and synagogue have soured, and John’s narrative gets toxic on this subject. It’s not just that Jesus’s followers lock out the Jews: Jesus-followers are no longer welcomed in the synagogue, and the context is not one of interfaith dialogue, but of injury, hurt, animosity. Their relationship is in full rigor mortis. Worse than that, this alienation will become deadly, will eventually justify centuries of ethnic cleansing, once the Church’s official place in the Roman Empire carries with it the power of the sword, the power to persecute.

Thank God, this is not our context today. When I returned to my inbox on Easter Tuesday, after a day off raking the yard, I discovered a sweet Easter morning message from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, wishing Diana and me, “ A blessed Easter. I find myself thinking again today of the two times I've been fortunate enough to attend St. John's on Easter morning. I know that your services will be beautiful. I hope that you and all who serve derive sustenance and blessing from your work today.”

And I replied, saying that I had thought of her on Easter Eve as we heard Vestry members read Elie Wiesel’s retelling of the Exodus story. It takes Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, to tell how Moses led the vast company of freed Hebrew slaves right to the lapping shore of the Red Sea, then forebade them to enter it as slaves meeting their death, but called them to enter those waves as free men and women and children claiming life. That they must choose the spirit in which they faced and jumped into that sea, whose waters would either carry them or drown them: that while they could not control the elements before them as their paths cross the water, they could choose their attitude.
And so I thought of her again as one of Rachel’s poems about the Exodus came to me from Barbara, with its lines:

“It’s time to forget our anxieties
and leap off the precipice.
This is a story about change.
Even God is all about change—
I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming.
It’s happening now. Open your eyes.”

“I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming…” One way to translate YHWH, the sacred name of God.

So who are we becoming by the Gospel we proclaim? Agents of reconciliation, or perpetuators of animosity? We choose the first, and find freedom to wade into the language of the early Church, not as slaves of correctness but as people freed to commit to our own detoxification.

Along with Thomas, we open our eyes to recognize what God has done—and is doing—in the resurrection of Jesus Christ: commingling our fear with joy and creating of that conversion, that alchemy, that transformation reverence for God, for our fellow human beings, and for ourselves.

Fear teaches us to define ourselves over-against some other person, some other group of people, whom we are not. Fear locks the door and keeps it locked, to preserve our sense of who we are. Fear rolls in place the stone at the mouth of the tomb so we can tell we are the live ones. Fear builds higher the border fences and tightens the loopholes in immigration law so we know we are the citizens.

Joy unlocks the door, rolls away the stone, applies honesty and mercy to the measures of exclusion by which we protect ourselves from change that is already happening and yet will.

Moses urged his pilgrim people to choose their attitude as they stood at the edge of death and life. Jesus calls us to choose our attitude as we bear his name and mission, representing his good news in our friendships, workplaces, entries, and unexpected encounters in a world urgently in need of what God makes of our fear and our joy at Easter: reverence for all.