Weekly Preaching: April 19, 2020

April 15th, 2020

While the Gospel seems to obvious choice a mere week after the resurrection, our Epistle is an eloquent reflection on why it matters. 1 Peter 1:3-9, surprisingly enough, chops off part of what is a ridiculously long single Greek sentence extending from v. 3 through v. 12! It’s as if the author  was it Peter, the rock, the denier, the commissioned one?  was so exuberant that the words just kept spilling out. I wonder if I ever get so pumped up in preaching that an excess of words tumble over one another…

Some thoughts on special moments in his ramble: To call Jesus Christ “Lord” seems sweetly pious to us. But in those days, Caesar was Lord, so this claim undercuts all political allegiances and requirements, and risked punishment for subversion. Who really is Lord?
Being “born anew” takes us back to Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus in John 3. My book on Birth comes out this month; writing it forced me to rethink everything on being “born again.” Often we think of it as some kind of emotional intensity or spiritual high, but being born, as in when you came out of the womb, is a time of shocking transition from one world (dark, warm, aquatic) to another (bright, cold, breathing required!). And it’s all mercy. The Hebrew word for “womb,” rhm, is the same as the word for mercy. And who needs mercy more than a newborn? I’ll ramble around on this for a bit in my sermon, not saying “When you had a baby,” as people will be there who haven’t or couldn’t; rather, “When you were a baby”… God’s gift of new life is a radical transformation, and one we live into only by radical dependence on the mercy.
The basis of this new birth? The crucifixion and resurrection, sure  but really it’s the birth of Christ! He was born so we might be reborn. Reminisce about Christmas; not the party/tinsel aspects, but the holiness, the silent night, the humility of the manger, the joy of the shepherds.
We are heirs (an image people can perhaps envision), although it’s to riches unimaginably vast. It is “kept,” the perfect participle in Greek, implying the inheritance already exists in fact. Verse 6 reminds us how joy works: It is in the thick of suffering and trials or it’s not really joy, is it? The verb “may” (you “may have to suffer”) feels good, as it implies I probably won’t, but just in case. The Greek, dei, implies far more necessity. Your body may grow frail as you age. You may feel intense sorrow when the one you love dies. May, not probably not, but absolutely, it’s a thing.
"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead
It’s God’s faithfulness, not mine, that saves. The “genuineness” of faith isn’t a bulwark of belief in my heart or a sturdiness of conviction in my head; it’s a being grasped by that faithfulness that is God’s, not my own. This is “more precious than gold,” an echo of the lovely Psalm 19, which sees the Torah as similarly priceless. The concluding little section, which sorts through how we might love Christ although we’ve not seen him, intrigues. I’ve not seen Christ.
Or have I? I’ve seen paintings and stained glass. I’ve seen his actual Body, his Church, flawed as it may be. The miracle, I wonder, isn’t that we believe in the Christ we’ve not seen as the guy who came centuries ago, but rather the “rejoicing.” We’re sad, go-through-the-motions, joyless Christians, not getting the joy, the sheer delight in all this. Probably it’s because we are doers; we want to make spirituality happen! We wish we were like dolphins who can swim at birth or monkeys who actually use their arms to push out of mom’s womb... but we are dependent. We are weak, but he is strong — and that’s the joy!
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On Peter’s believing and loving without seeing, we find perhaps the first vivid instance of this in John 20:19-31, a text with traces of early church liturgy: They gather, a benediction is pronounced (“Peace be with you”). To fearful people (not hard for the preacher to explore locks, security systems, urban anxiety, even the proliferation of guns), Jesus comes and speaks Peace into their fear. It's fascinating how fearful our seemingly tough people are, and if just name it? They know. Fear for personal safety. Fear civilizationally: Our huge moral and political debates are fear-driven. As Walter Brueggemann divines things: All people fall into two categories, those who fear the world they treasured is crumbling all around them, and those who fear the world they dream of will never come to be. I have found in declaring this that people, even if for a moment, find some common ground.
Notice Jesus doesn't criticize or judge them for their fears and doubts. He loves them, and with his love he turns their confusion into friendship, their fear into trust. 
His wounds are his love. Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini… because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Earned scars, earned through the enfleshing of love.
The scars in Jesus’ hands and side, earned when he gave life to all of us, were not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). Caravaggio painted it graphically. I love that Jesus shows up, not as the powerful one but as the wounded one. The wounds are his glory. What do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns”? Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.
Jesus breathes on them. Fascinating, especially in these times. Of course we are to think of God’s breath giving life to the first humans (Genesis 2), and the reviving of the dead nation during the exile (Ezekiel 37). I like to ponder that, for Jesus to breathe on them or anybody, they’ve got to be standing close, right next to him. Is discipleship just sticking as close to Jesus as possible, to feel his breath?
I’m wary of sermons that get fixated on “doubting” Thomas. It’s a thing, but I’m unsure if it helps parishoners if the clergy say “I have doubts too!” At most I’d want to celebrate doubt, which isn’t a failure of faith but is more about asking darn good questions. Mark Helprin, in Winter’s Tale, writes “All great discoveries are products as much of doubt as of certainty, and the two in opposition clear the air for marvelous accidents.” Robert Penn Warren wonderfully said “Here, as in life, meaning is, I should say, often more fruitfully found in the question asked than in any answer given." And then Simone Weil: “One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

My doubts are less about the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ, but rather about the possibility of forgiveness, which seems to be what this text is ultimately about, and what Easter in the Bible is entirely attentive to. Jesus is risen, so therefore you are forgiven, and you go forgive. Startling. If I tell stories of forgiveness, of the Amish at Nickel Mines, PA or of Corrie ten Boom and her sister's executioner, will anyone believe?

What can we say April 19? 2nd Sunday of Easter originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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