Weekly Preaching: April 8, 2018

April 4th, 2018

I recall being semi-impressed with myself as an undergrad for taking a challenging course on Existentialism, expecting to have my intellectual horizons expanded. Plunging into Kierkegaard, though, I had my life challenged. His pointed, barbed critiques of a thin, superficial, even faked faith blew me away — including his report of walking around Copenhagen, asking people if they believed Jesus was raised from the dead. Almost unanimously, his fellow citizens said Yeah, sure. But what difference did it make? No one could answer; no one had much to show for their belief.

Easter 2's texts astonish us with the difference resurrection makes. Acts 4:32-35 describes a vital church not much like ours at all. What was the greater miracle for those first Christians? That they coughed up all their possessions to ensure no one went without? or that they were of one heart and soul? 

Psalm 133 is a fitting Easter text: How lovely when brothers dwell together in unity. Or we might today say, How rare. Or How miraculousHow resurrection-like. There is an inextricable link between "No one said any of the things he possessed was his own but they had everything in common" and "And with great power they gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" and "There was not a needy person among them." We can talk evangelistic tools or church growth strategies all we'd like, but the early Christians expanded exponentially because their witness was what they did with their possessions. We are so enmeshed, we prefer to keep our own stuff and blame others who don't have enough, or we feel noble if we toss some loose change or some leftover canned goods into a basket.

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Speaking of testimony: in my circles, we do not attend sufficiently to the remarkable epistle text for Easter 2, 1 John 1:1-2:2. The writer speaks urgently about what they had seen "with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands... We saw it!" Richard Bauckham wrote a fantastic, definitive-feeling book (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) about how the Gospels came to be, and it's all about the piling up of eyewitness accounts. The earliest Christian preachers could say We saw him, we touched him, if anybody could debunk the resurrection or his lordship, it would be us.

I continue to speculate over the role of testimony in preaching. I suspect that while I engage in it, I don't go far enough. I think people want to hear that Yes, I believe this as opposed to I've gotten up a sermon for you today.

Notice in 1 John the purpose of them sharing what they saw and touched: so we can have fellowship with each other and with God, and so that "our joy may be complete." I love it; it's not You better be joyful, but We are joyful. Joy isn't happiness jacked up a notch or two. It's so very different. I would commend to you Christian Wiman's lovely collection of poetry about joy, with his startlingly wise commentary. And, as I've said repeatedly, the point of Easter is forgiveness, not geting eternal life now. How much clearer could it be? 1 John goes from fellowship with God via the resurrection to being forgiven and forgiving.

The same goes for the Gospel lesson, John 20:19-31. The preacher can set a mood people can understand easily: doors are locked, fear dominates. They can't seem to recognize Jesus (Mary Magdalene or the twelve!). "I think they are blinded by their unfulfilled expectations and their feelings of loss and despair" (Jean Vanier). To such people Jesus utters a word, with the power of the one who commanded stars, sky and earth to come into being. It's the word which stilled the storm: "Peace." As Jesus clarified earlier in John, this peace isn't the one the world gives! (John 14:27).  Jesus doesn't give you some peace of mind or serenity you think you want. Jesus' Peace is his personal presence.

In Jesus' presence there is no fear, though the way Jesus banishes fear might get us a bit agitated. Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” Jesus comforts with one hand and then shoves them out into hard labor and danger with the other.

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His hands matter here. Jesus still has wounds in his hands and side (his feet are unmentioned). We’ll say more about the nature of this “resurrected body” in a moment.

I love Vanier's remark: “These wounds are there for all ages and all time, to reveal the humble and forgiving love of Jesus who accepted to go to the utter end of love. The risen Jesus does not appear as the powerful one, but as the wounded and forgiving one. These wounds become his glory.” 

And what do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns"? Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. I've sung that a thousand times and have never given it the briefest thought. How profound...

For now, the scars are worth pondering. I’m reminded of a lovely scene in Graham Greene’s The End of the AffairA woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing — I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall. The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”  

Thankfully, Jesus' scars remain; they tell us all we need to know about his character. What are the implications for us and our life in heaven? What wounds will we continue to bear — joyfully, but still?

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One of my favorite details in all the resurrection narratives is in verse 22: “He breathed on them.” I’ll acknowledge there is powerful symbolism here... God breathing the breath of life into people, the winds of Pentecost to come. But what if he actually breathed on them? What was that like? You have to be very close, physically, to someone before they can successfully breathe on you. Proximity to Jesus allows the sensation of his breath. 

And lest we forget: the note of forgiveness, once again, is sounded in a resurrection story. Jesus is risen, therefore you get eternal life? No. In the Scriptures, Jesus is risen, therefore you are forgiven — and you’d best get out there now and forgive others.

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We’ve all heard sermons about “doubting Thomas.” Doubt is hardly praised in this story. If anything, Jesus dings him, contrasting him with those who haven’t seen and yet believe. Still, he is loved and treated with immense compassion; Jesus invites him to touch the wounds. The Greek is graphic, with Jesus saying “thrust” or “press” or “cast” your finger into (like down in there) my side. Caravaggio captured this in a stunning way.

This whole business of Jesus appearing suddenly behind closed doors then vanishing just as suddenly, and yet you can poke a finger into his side and not just see but feel him, raises questions about the resurrection. Long books have probed this, but my shorthand answer is that Jesus is the first of what we shall be: we will be raised with (or in, or as) what Paul called “spiritual bodies” (1 Cor. 15). No simplistic resuscitation here. Your old body doesn’t revive and live on. You are transformed, metamorphosized maybe. Jesus was not recognizable, but then he was recognized; the mortal and spiritual bodies are kin, similar, but hardly identical. It’s still a body though, not a ghost or a floating spirit. It can cook and eat, but it might vanish, too. Paul uttered the understatement of the Bible: “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (1 Cor. 15:51).

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 
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