Archives for March 2013

Chelsea Page-Collonge

Chelsea Page-Collonge studies feminist liberation theology at the Episcopal Divinity School. She lives at Earth Abides Catholic Worker Farm in northern California with her husband.

Read Chelsea’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 3 Easter (C).

Read Chelsea’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 15 Pentecost, Proper 17 (C).

Bible Study: 3 Easter (C)

April 14, 2013

Chelsea Page-CollongeEpiscopal Divinity School

“Jesus said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” (John 21:17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Acts 9:1-20

The blended character of the early Christian church, as a movement of both Jews and gentiles that challenged religious and social distinctions of the day, owes its existence not only to Jesus’ inclusive teachings, but largely to the work of a person who never met Jesus. The story of Saul of Tarsus in the Acts of the Apostles reveals that the risen and ascended Christ intimately touched Paul and concretely transformed his life, from one organized around death and repression to one organized around creativity and new life.

This is the same and only Christ we ourselves can know, as followers of Jesus who never met him in the flesh. This account in Acts is remarkable for its transformation not only of Paul’s hatred of the Christian movement, but also Ananias’ fear of Paul, his community’s oppressor (verse 13). This courageous act mediates God’s forgiveness and restores Paul’s ability to function, healing his despair and completing his conversion (verse 9, verses 18-19). Jesus acts in our lives as a divine vision of restored relationship, and acts to restore our human vision, our ability to see others. The living Christ reaches out to touch us to demand that we reach out to one another.

Who has acted as God’s agent of change and healing in your life?

Have you ever received a call from God that knocked you flat, or seen that happen to someone else?

Psalm 30

Psalm 30 declares that our purpose for existing is to praise God, so much so that the psalmist implies that God will sustain his life only for that purpose (verse 10). While affirming that God listens for our cries of need, this psalm portrays God as having a special ear for our songs of thanks and praise.

The lived experience of people who suffer from injustice, such as the Hebrews in exile, is that sometimes God seems absent (verse 8). Our God does not intervene in suffering by exercising unilateral, top-down power over the way human communities treat each other. Rather, God listens for our assertions of the glory for which we are created, which challenge the suffering created by human-made structures of injustice. To steadfastly declare God’s faithfulness and remember God’s justice is to cling to a vision of a better world, of how things could and should be.

When does your heart sing to God? Has this ever happened during a time of hardship, or only in hindsight?

Can you think of examples of people clinging to God’s goodness during oppression and thereby holding open a space for justice to be won?

Revelation 5:11-14

In Chapters 4 and 5 of the book of Revelation, John of Patmos paints a vision, rich in political symbols, of God seated on a throne, surrounded by 24 elders and four creatures that Christian tradition now associates with the four gospel writers. They are then approached by a slaughtered yet living lamb, representing Jesus. Before the Lamb’s appearance on the scene, John despaired that no one in heaven or earth would be able to open the seven-sealed scroll. But now that Jesus has appeared to read the tremendous divine message, every one in heaven and earth is able to participate in joyous communication with God (verse 13).

Their praise directed to “the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb” sees God and Jesus as two figures, yet our affirmation that Jesus and God are one affirms that the throne and the cross are one. Despite the triumphalist tone of the book of Revelation, John was critiquing the Roman Empire’s concept of enthroned might by placing suffering, humility and abjection at the heart of God’s power.

What comes to your mind as you contemplate the image of Jesus as a slaughtered lamb?

John 21:1-19

In this last resurrection account of the Gospel of John, a group of the disciples have gone back to their old way of life, practicing their trade and readjusting to normal life. Jesus comes to them as a stranger, disrupting their self-reliance and nourishing them with his own abundant provision, evocative of the time he inspired strangers to multiply and share their loaves and fishes. This image of the risen Lord of the universe cooking a humble campfire breakfast on the beach is surely one of the most appealing images of the resurrected Christ.

After breakfast, Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to undo his three-fold denial of Christ during the Passion, by soliciting a three-fold affirmation of Peter’s love (verse 17). At the same time, Jesus makes clear that Peter’s restored relationship with him is also a command to provide and care for others, to once again leave his nets of self-reliance and follow Christ into selfless participation in community.

How do you experience God both challenging and nurturing you during this Easter season?

The work of Easter, 3 Easter (C) – 2013

April 14, 2013

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

In today’s gospel story of breakfast on the beach, we enter further into the Easter season, and the work of Easter: working out what it means to have Resurrection set loose in the world, in the church, and in our lives.

One of the oddest experiences of Easter is that it can feel empty, after the graphic realities of Holy Week: bread broken, feet washed, thorns pressed into Jesus’ scalp, crosses raised, a body laid in a newly hewn grave. Easter, by contrast, is about an absence: the body is no longer in the tomb; and we are left to work out what that means.

Today’s story makes it clear that one of the functions of Resurrection life is restoration of relationship, and deep forgiveness.

Peter announces he’s going fishing, and several of the disciples decide to go along. In prior chapters in the gospel, Peter has denied Jesus and fled from the scene of his crucifixion. Though it’s clear that Peter loves Jesus without reservation, his fear has led him to distance himself from Jesus, and we are left to imagine his disappointment with himself, and his guilt and shame.

It seems that Peter has returned to what he knows; amid the confusion and grief in the aftermath of the crucifixion, he feels most like himself aboard a fishing boat, handling the heavy nets throughout the cold night. His efforts are fruitless, though; after a night of fishing, the group has caught exactly no fish. On top of his grief, and his sense of having failed Jesus, he is now confronted with failing at something he has done all his life.

But as the dawn breaks, the disciples see a man on the shore, and they see the smoke from a small fire. The stranger calls out to them and suggests something very odd: cast your nets on the other side of the boat, he shouts across the water. Surprisingly, the disciples comply – and suddenly the net is full to bursting with fish!

Suddenly Peter realizes that he has seen something like this before: on a hillside, with thousands of people, he watched Jesus break bread and fish until they were all fed. He remembers a wedding in Cana, when water was turned into wine of the highest quality. The beloved disciple shouts: “It is the Lord!” and Peter clambers toward the shore with his heart bursting with excitement.

In fact, it is Jesus, and he invites them to come have breakfast, as though this was just a normal morning after a night of fishing. The disciples shoot looks of amazement at each other across the fire and wonder if this is real.

This story provides a bookend to the Last Supper; this “First Breakfast” changes the trajectory for the disciples from grief and confusion to purpose and mission. Everything Jesus said to the disciples before his crucifixion – and in John’s gospel, he said a lot – is now coming to bear on the disciples, and their purpose.

But first, Jesus has some very specific business with Peter. It always bears repeating that Peter, in so many gospel stories, is a stand-in for us. His enthusiasm, awkwardness, lack of understanding, and enormous love for Jesus are just like our own. So when the gospel story focuses on Peter, it’s fair to say that we are also a part of the story.

Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him, and sadly, his prediction comes true. Peter is accosted repeatedly by bystanders as he waits outside while Jesus is being interviewed, and each time, he denies knowing Jesus. He is absent at the crucifixion. He is among the disciples who meet behind locked doors out of fear. Now Jesus speaks to him directly: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks him three times, and three times Peter affirms his love for Jesus. Each time, Jesus says: then feed my sheep.

Peter is given the opportunity to undo his denial of Jesus with three affirmations of his love. Jesus tells him what to do with that love: feed the flock. Though the word “forgiveness” never appears in this story, it is nevertheless a critical theme. Peter, the impetuous, big-mouthed disciple, gave in to fear, and failed to acknowledge Jesus, failed to stick around for the bitter end. Now Peter is given the opportunity to face his risen Lord and begin again – in the words of Hymn 304, “forgiven, loved and free.”

And this story offers some of the deepest implications of Resurrection for us: we are forgiven. We are invited to start over. We are completely loved. And we have a job to do. This isn’t only Peter’s story; it’s our story, too. When fear holds us back, love calls us forward. When we feel trapped by the way things have always been, Jesus invites us to cast our nets on the other side of the boat – change our perspective, in light of the Resurrection.

So what does this mean for you? Are you held back from the abundant life Jesus promises by guilt, shame and fear? If you understood yourself to be completely forgiven, completely loved, and completely free, how would that change the choices you make about your work? Your money? Your relationships?

The light of resurrection, shining into us, invites us to look clearly at how we have made choices out of fear rather than love, and to move away from the fears that bind us.

The implications of this story also resonate in our faith communities: Are we making choices about budget and mission based on our fear of failure? Our guilt for past failures? Or are we pointed forward, with the light of the Resurrection at our backs? If we are completely loved, completely forgiven and completely free, what does that imply about how we are to feed the flock?

We are called not only to proclaim God’s love, known to us in Jesus, but to act on it. That means setting aside fear, and the way fear binds us into small lives; and embracing love as the basis of every action we undertake.

God’s love, set loose in the world in the Resurrection, needs our hands and feet and hearts to make it concrete in our place and time. Like Peter, we’re invited to change our perspective, and cast our nets where the love of God is available for us and there’s plenty for everyone.

Jesus invites us: Come and have breakfast.

In the morning light of Resurrection, there is no room for guilt and fear. We are forgiven, loved, and free, and we have some sheep to feed.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Alan Cowart

Alan B. Cowart is a first-year student at Virginia Theological Seminary and a postulant in the Diocese of Atlanta. If he ever has spare time again, you will find him gardening with his wife or hiking with his dogs.

Read Alan’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 2 Easter (C).

Read Alan’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Proper 23 (C).

Read Alan’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 5 Epiphany (A).

Bible Study: 2 Easter (C)

April 7, 2013

Alan Cowart, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (John 20:29)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Acts 5:27-32

The chief priests are trying to silence the apostles’ preaching and the growing movement of Christ’s followers. The apostles have suddenly and miraculously been liberated from prison by an angel of God (Acts 5:17-26). Now they stand once again before the priests, who don’t get it. “We gave you strict orders … yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching,” the high priest says (5:28).

The teaching of God is not a stoppable thing. It does not listen to human voices. It moves out in spite of any attempts to stop it. The apostles can’t avoid speaking about it.

The difference between the apostles of Acts and the disciples of the gospels is a different kind of encounter with Christ. Resurrection has to change you. It is not static. In each experience of the resurrected, risen Christ, there is a change. There is a movement outward. We move from death into life; from life into victory; from hope into certainty.

From what have you been freed?

What have you been freed to do?

Psalm 118:14-29

Reading this psalm, we recall the words we recite every Sunday and also what Jesus heard upon entering Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (118: 25-26). Jesus came to his ultimate victory through the avenue of death, yet entered Jerusalem through the prayers and songs of the people.

It is right, in this time of resurrection, to remember that what has been done is not just a moment of history.

This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
On this day the Lord has acted;
we will rejoice and be glad in it (118:23, 24)

Today is the day of our victory. Today, God reigns and we can put down our arms and our struggles. We can give thanks to God not only because of the victory, but because of God’s goodness, and because “his mercy endures for ever” (118:29). We can celebrate because God has not only seen us through, but has carried us. Again and again we are rescued.

And again, there is movement. We move from resting “in the tents of the righteous” (118:15) to a festal procession for the glory of God. We shout, “Hosanna!” because of God’s righteousness, because of God’s victory. And because of that victory – through that victory – we “shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord” (118:17). Hallelujah!

Where can you rest today in something God has already done?

Where in your life can you look for a victory from God?

How will you celebrate?

Revelation 1:4-8

Even though there are authorship questions concerning the Revelation to John, we can’t help but think about the opening lines of the similarly named gospel, which talks about Jesus’ existence before creation. Jesus was both before and after the world, and was both before and after the Incarnation of God-in-Christ. Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is both before and after our own lifetimes – the Alpha and Omega.

We remember, with John, the faithful witness who is and was and is to come. There is an ultimate vision of Jesus yet to be revealed. Like the “this day” in today’s psalm (118:24), Jesus of the Revelation is of all time. The victory Christ brings over life and death in his resurrection is just a taste of the ultimate-ness of this person we claim to follow, of this God who sent his Son. And yet the person of Christ is the same, the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. That is the meaning of “almighty.”

How might we act differently because God has freed us?

What difference does it make that Jesus is “coming with the clouds” (1:7)?

John 20:19-31

There is a transformation in those who encounter Jesus. In this case the disciples (originally from the Greek for “pupil”) are transformed into apostles, not only having seen the risen Christ, but also “sent out” (from which we get “apostle”). Belief is different from fear.

The disciples have just buried Jesus a few days earlier, or rather, they likely hid as others buried Jesus. Hours earlier, they heard from Mary Magdelene that Jesus was gone, risen. There was confusion, fear and probably not a little unbelief and doubt.

And then, there he is. This is a different version of resurrection. Jesus is there. No one mistakes him for the gardener (John 20:15). He is with the same followers who ran away earlier. Jesus comes to them. Jesus wants to restore the relationship.

This is an amazing thing. And then it happens again! This time, Thomas is with the others. We put a lot of our own doubt onto Thomas. But it is important to remember that he does not doubt here. He questions someone else’s claim, but in his encounter with Jesus, he believes. Thomas moves toward belief and proclaims the truth about Christ. This is what an encounter with the risen Christ does: It takes us from doubt to belief to proclamation.

How does your faith proceed out of you?

Where is God relentlessly showing up in your life?

What doors do you lock to keep God out?

Exchanging the Peace, 2 Easter (C) – 2013

April 7, 2013

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

We all yearn for peace and quiet, at least some of the time. We live in a noisy, intrusive world to the point when moments of silence may feel terrifying. Even when we are relaxing, there’s a good chance that the telephone will ring – a sales pitch for something we don’t need – or the doorbell ring, or the computer ping. Even if we decide to get away from everything, getting there can be stressful.

When we hear that Jesus appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection and said, “Peace be with you,” we wonder whether he was being sarcastic. The disciples are in the upper room, huddled for fear. Fear denotes an absence of peace. The disciples feared their new title, that of Apostle, feared their Mission to go out into the world and tell about Jesus, and feared the outside world that seemed ready to pounce and destroy them as it seemed to have done to Jesus.

At one level, Jesus saying, “Peace,” was utterly normal. Just as we say, “Hi,” or “Hey,” depending on our tribe, or “How are you?” – greetings that have become so habitual they are blurted out before we think. In Israel, then and now, the habitual greeting was “Shalom,” peace. It was expected. The response, “Peace be with you also,” was the polite reply.

Jesus says hello to his fearful, bemused friends, as he says hello to us, just as we share the Peace during the Eucharist each Sunday. Too often at the Eucharist we use that greeting to engage in hurried conversations that have nothing to do with peace at all! “Wanna join us for lunch after church?” “Have you seen what Marty is wearing?” “That sermon was a bore!” Meanwhile, the priest tries to shake as many hands as possible, hopes no one is offended if their hands aren’t shaken, and worries that this noisy interlude won’t destroy the rhythm of the liturgy.

Yet when we emulate Jesus as we exchange the Peace, we remember what he was saying to the disciples in the upper room.

What was he saying?

Jesus was saying that his presence is peace; a peace, as St Paul puts it, that is beyond our understanding, far more potent than an absence of noise, or a feeling of well being. Jesus says, “Peace,” and we are reminded how costly his gift of peace is, and how extraordinary its depth. Because Jesus has died, has risen, has ascended, we are offered a share in the results of those costly actions. Baptism reminds us that we have died with Jesus, have risen with him, have ascended with him, and now live in his company, in the company of the Church, fed by Word and Sacrament.

Secondly, the peace Jesus gives us means that nothing can separate us from the love of God, except our own unwillingness to accept the gift, live in the gift and share the gift.

Accepting a gift is a moment of self-emptying, of acceptance and gratitude. For a moment we are beholden, vulnerable, dependent as we receive that which we lack. Receiving a gift can strike our pride, can be uncomfortable.

Living in the gift demands an active gratitude. It also means that we value that which we have been given. We feel it necessary to show it off.

And that leads to sharing the gift. The gift of “the peace of God which passeth all understanding” is to be received as a trust to share with others. Thus when we exchange “the Peace” today, we say to those we greet, “Here is the most wonderful gift, the gift of accepting Jesus into our lives and sharing that communion with each other and out into the world.”

All the orders Jesus gave to the apostles are about that Peace: Go tell about me; go baptize; do this in remembrance; love one another.

In short, hearing and accepting Jesus’ “hello” forms us and renews us. It is that peace for which we yearn and which we are given. The apostles went into a hostile world. Many of them were martyred. But through it all they were upheld and sustained by the “Peace” Jesus gave them. Today he offers that same Peace to you.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Down and dirty with Jesus

Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper re-examined

Thank God It's Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord's Table as If for the Last Time. William H. Willimon. Abington Press, 2013. 110 pp.

Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord’s Table as If for the Last Time. William H. Willimon. Abington Press, 2013. 110 pp.

As we slow down to contemplate the Passion during Holy Week, we may ask ourselves, what does the Eucharist mean to me? How do I approach the communion table each week? Am I on automatic pilot, or am I truly in the moment? William H. Willimon’s new book, “Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord’s Table as If for the Last Time” provides fresh insight into those questions.

Willimon takes the reader on a journey to newly examine what it means to be at Jesus’ table.

The Eucharist can easily become an act that we follow automatically. It is a part of worship, part of ritual for some Christian traditions, and therefore it can become something that we participate in without active reflection. Willimon asks the reader to take a step back and then step into what happened at the table that night with Jesus. How does it translate into our Christian walk today?

Willimon takes the reader on a journey of the Last Supper through the Gospel of John, extracting examples and integrating real-life connections to the narrative. Willimon has the uncanny ability to take theology and illustrate it in ways that apply to the everyday life of the reader. “I hope that you find reassurance that, if you want to commune deeply with God, you need not climb some high mountain (like Moses). … You simply must pray a prayer of blessing – say grace – at your breakfast table. God will do the rest” (p. 3).

Willimon moves the reader through a process of being a guest at Jesus’ table – from the uncomfortable beginning as the new kid on the block, being introduced to friends and sacrament, being loved, hearing the Truth, and knowing what will happen to Jesus (the betrayal and crucifixion), to ending with sustenance that is both temporal (bodily) and spiritual (eternal). The author’s imagination draws the reader right into the story, sharing the dialogue around the table as introductions commence. This exercise by itself is a wonderful way to put ourselves in Jesus’ time and perhaps really experience what happened in those moments.

Willimon takes the Eucharistic off its high pedestal and reminds us of its daily importance. The Lord’s Supper is action and engagement, not a “spectator sport” (pp. 8-9), he reminds us. A good example is his chapter subtitled “Jesus Getting Down and Dirty.” In taking John’s focus, Willimon expounds on the washing of feet performed by Jesus rather than the bread-and-wine focus of the other gospels. He stresses that this means following Jesus by example: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

We are reminded that Jesus has claimed us with great love, claimed us as close friends, even as he knows our ability to be afraid and reluctant to follow his call. Jesus loves us. Willimon shows how Jesus loves and serves Judas despite the knowledge of his imminent betrayal. Judas was still welcome at the table. Willimon emphasizes how Jesus trusts us and gives us a promise in John 14:12-14 :“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Finally, we are drawn  toward an up close and personal Jesus. One who is truly divine and truly human. But this Jesus is not just one we encounter at the table; we are invited on the journey, to play a role and to serve as we are called.

We are called to live a life in which we are deeply loved by God and eternally invited to sit and eat at the table with Jesus, no matter how good or bad we think we are.

“Jesus shows that he has no intention of crossing over alone; he will, in some sense, take us with him” (p. 5).

 

Anne Thatcher hails from Walla Walla, Wash., where she is a member of the Diocese of Spokane. She currently attends the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, where she spends her precious free moments cycling, hiking with her large labradoodle and tango dancing.

Bible Study: Easter Day (C)

March 31, 2013

Susan Sevier, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:

Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;  Acts 10:34-43John 20:1-18

Isaiah 65:17-25

Our four readings from the lectionary for this Easter Day carry throughout the themes of victory, joy, gratitude and responsibility – all important lessons on this day when we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord, and the passage from Isaiah sets the tone for the day. The reading comes from what is often labeled the Third Book of Isaiah (Chapters 56-66) and is roughly placed in the early period after the return of some of the exiled Israelites from Babylon, probably during the first century of the rule of Persia in the land of Israel. Nothing on the ground is as they expected it; and yet the writer of Isaiah paints a glorious picture of the new Jerusalem that will be.

One interesting quality of this text is the ways in which it draws on pre-Exilic traditions. For example, in verse 17, when the author quotes God, saying, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” the Hebrew word for “create” (barah) is the same that is used in Genesis 1; in fact the same as the very first word of the Bible itself. The author could have used other words, such as “made” (asah), for example. Why was this an important word choice and what does it mean to start the description of this new world in Isaiah 65 just as the story of creation begins?

Everything about the Isaiah passage resonates with our Christian view of the Kingdom of Heaven, and in practice, much of the writing of Isaiah is often claimed as a foretelling of the coming of Jesus, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. However, keeping in mind the context in which our passage was written, what universal emotions does this passage evoke? Hope? Joy? What else do you see here that might bring comfort to the afflicted?

Again, the writings of Isaiah are often used as prophetic tellings about the coming of Jesus. But this passage in particular doesn’t talk about the coming of a person, it describes the coming of a new world. Jerusalem is a character in our story. Why Jerusalem? Take a minute and compare this text to the writing in Revelation 22; the important cultural symbolism of the city of Jerusalem is clearly shared by both Judaism and the Christian faith that sprang from it. What influence does this sacred view of Jerusalem have on us in our own time?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Our psalter for the day contains one of those often-quoted texts, the kind that even people who do not regularly study the Bible know: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (verse 24). The writer of Isaiah speaks the words of God, painting a beautiful picture of the new world to come through God’s grace and love, while the psalmist expresses the response of the receiver of that grace.

Psalm 118 is, in the liturgy of Passover, the last psalm sung. It is often called a song of deliverance (or thanksgiving), and in the days of the Temple was used as part of festival worship by the whole community on a day not unlike today in our own tradition. While the lectionary removes the verses recounting the troubles of the psalmist before their deliverance (verses 2-13), even these recitations are in the past tense, not an immediate cry for help.

What specific ways did the Lord deliver our psalmist in Psalm 118? How do those saving acts relate back to the promises in the Isaiah passage?

Take a look at the text and see if you can find the “liturgical” elements in our psalm. Imagine the text sung or repeated during a procession. What parts might be said outside the gate? Does any part of the psalm look like a song that might be sung on its own, like a doxology? Why would we as a Christians read this psalm today as part of our Easter worship?

Acts 10:34-43

We have heard the glories of the coming kingdom in our Isaiah passage; we have offered our praise and thanksgiving with a psalm; and now, in Acts, we learn of our responsibility to bear witness to this message: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (verse 42).

Some Easter services begin with the pastor proclaiming to the crowd: “Christ is risen!” And the congregation knows that the response to that proclamation is, “Christ is risen, indeed!” What does Peter tell us in this passage about the story that we, as disciples, are here to proclaim? Who is to receive this message? Who is to proclaim it? What it important about the message itself? What elements of Jesus’ life and ministry does Peter list as the important parts of that message?

Peter delivered this sermon in the home of one named Cornelius, a gentile, not a Jew. Why is that important to Peter’s message? What does that importance have to say to us today?

John 20:1-18

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear the promises of glory and joy; in the psalm we offer praises and thanksgiving for the deliverance that will bring us to glory and joy; in Acts we learn of our responsibility to others as receivers of that deliverance, and finally, in our gospel lesson, we have an opportunity to live that moment of deliverance, in all its confusion and fear and beauty. This is the moment of metanoia, or turning, that brings each of us in our lives to the kind of discipleship that makes it possible to understand our joy, our gratitude and our responsibility.

John’s account of this moment is different from that encountered in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). In each, the figures present at this moment are different, but it always begins with the women. As much as we might like to take that for a feminist statement on the part of the authors, it is simply a cultural one – it was the job of the female relatives to perform the rituals at the burial site.

Mary finds the tomb’s stone removed (verse 1). What other story in John’s gospel includes a stone rolled away (11:38-41)? And what about the burial clothes in each story? What do we see when we read these stories together?

Why does Mary weep? What happens that lets Mary recognize the figures she sees outside the tomb?

Our passage is all about the kind of confusion that many of us feel as we reach for a life of discipleship. Can I believe what is before my eyes? Why do I weep when the message of the grace and love of the Kingdom of Heaven has been told to me again and again? What must happen in our own lives so that we might truly understand the meaning of this Easter Day?

He is risen!, Easter Day (C) – 2013

March 31, 2013

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12

He is risen! This is the proclamation for the day. This is the celebration that brings us here. This is the truth we know.

A number of comics that appear in the newspaper around Easter time can be expected to touch on themes of Holy Week and Easter. A “Wizard of Id” strip from 2001 was cleverly on target. The squatty little king comes upon a church with a sign out front proclaiming “Good Friday.” He says to the priest: “Lemme get this straight … God comes to earth as one of us … and we kill him?”

The priest says, “That’s right.”

The king says, “Your Lord is dead! … There’s a big earthquake, and the curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom!”

“Right again,” says the priest.

The king: “What the heck is so good about that?”

Whereupon the priest says, with his hands clasped in front of him and a big smile on his face: “His curtain call.”

It is the curtain call we’ve come here to celebrate today. Think about all the Christian-themed movies and plays. This weekend alone a number will air on TV, and Charlton Heston will part the Red Sea as he does every year, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. Many films will depict Jesus’ short ministry and walk us through the drama of his last week, what we call “Holy Week,” from Palm Sunday’s entry into Jerusalem until Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb.

That is the drama, the main body of the play. The curtain call of his resurrection from the dead is so much more, though we need to be reminded that the New Testament offers no account of the act of the resurrection of Jesus. We have, instead, reports only of the empty tomb, and in the weeks to come, the weeks of Easter season, we will hear the stories of encounters with the risen Christ. But we have no stories, no account, no evidence, if you will, of the actual resurrection event.

What we have is an empty tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea claimed Jesus’ lifeless body and laid it in his own tomb, the one he had reserved for himself. The women saw this done, and then in keeping with Jewish law, left for the duration of the Sabbath, for the law prohibited any work on the Sabbath day.

And this is where today’s story begins.

The Sabbath has ended. It is the first day of the week, at first light. And the women come to the tomb with the spices they have prepared for the body. The great stone that had covered the mouth of the tomb has been rolled away, and when the women go inside, they find that the body is not there! Two men in dazzling array – heavenly messengers –ask, “Why do you seek him? He is not here! He is risen!”

The women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples and all the others. And that’s where today’s gospel reading ends, though it’s not the end of the story, and not even the end of this part of the story. Because when the women told their news to the apostles, what they had seen and learned inside that tomb, that empty tomb, the men didn’t believe them! “These words seemed to them an idle tale,” says one version.

There is a difference between standing in the tomb, as the women had done, and standing outside. The view is different. The perspective is different. One sees different things. One sees things differently.

The women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James – are named as being among the company that early morning. They had followed Jesus from his trial before Pilate to his crucifixion on Calvary. They had stayed with him at the cross and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus had said to his followers that they must pick up their crosses to follow him, and certainly these women had endured the cross while the men ran away and Peter denied even knowing Jesus. The women stayed at the cross, and later entered the tomb to follow him. Their view – their perspective – was an Easter faith. They had walked the path to Calvary and so had eyes to see the heavenly messengers where they expected to see their Lord, and ears to hear them ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!”

And they believed.

The men were frightened. They ran away from the cross; Peter denied knowing Jesus. When the women came to tell them the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, the men didn’t believe them! And when Peter – ever-impulsive Peter – got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself, did he go inside? No. According to the story we have received, he stayed outside, stooping to look in.

Much fun might be had with the gender differences in this story, and how later faith traditions developed understandings along gender lines that so disparaged the first to believe and exalted the authority of those who did not. This is a ripe field for exploration. But while there may be a point the gospel writers wished to make about such matters, that is not the point of this homily.

The point for today is: There is a big difference between standing inside the tomb in the place of the resurrected Lord, and standing outside the tomb, stooping to look in. One is the place of an Easter faith, a conviction of things known, though not seen.

The other place is stuck in the events of Good Friday, and can believe the horror, the fear, the death, but hasn’t quite made it to those things even more difficult to believe: the loving goodness of God, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, hope.

The difference between standing inside the tomb and standing outside looking in is the difference not of men and women, but of Easter resurrection triumphant over Good Friday death.

It is the triumph of a courage to believe over a skepticism that isn’t quite sure. It is the triumph of celebration and wondrous news over disappointment and despair.

It is the faith of Easter, which knows the agony of Good Friday, and knows that is not the end of the drama. There will be a curtain call.

When we stand in the place where Peter stood, stooping low to look into the tomb with our own doubt and our disbelief intact, what will we see? We will see a dark cavern, shadows and dust, an empty tomb.

But when we seek our Lord in that tomb and we stand with him in the darkness, what then will we see? Those same heavenly messengers in dazzling array? Probably not. But we will see the emptiness. And we will know its reason. It is an emptiness not of doubt, despair, disbelief, but an emptiness that signals something new, renewed, a triumph over the impossible, a hope and promise greater than our imagining. And when we look past the darkness of the tomb to the world outside, we will see light – dazzling light, blinding light, a shimmering curtain of light. The curtain call of Easter.

The light of Christ.

He is risen!

Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses, and making anything chocolate.

No idle tale, Easter Vigil (C) – 2013

March 30, 2013

Liturgy of the Word: Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]; Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]; Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]; Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]; Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Learn wisdom and live]; Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]; Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]; Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]

Eucharist: Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

Every few years or so, it seems, a high-ranking ecclesiastic or cleric somewhere in the Christian world gets into hot water for appearing to deny the reality of the Resurrection. The hapless theologian’s name is in the papers and all over the blogosphere, and devout members of the church everywhere are scandalized. There is even talk of excommunication.

Usually the prelate’s statement or assertion, when examined more closely, turns out to be nothing as definitive as an outright denial of Jesus’ physical resurrection, but rather a vague – some might even say muddled – expression of uncertainty about its exact meaning and significance in the modern world.

Of course, if we review carefully the various scriptural texts dealing with the Resurrection of our Lord, we find plenty of precedent for ecclesial muddle and confusion surrounding its actual meaning. According to this evening’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, for instance, the remaining eleven Apostles – the first bishops, as many believe – upon hearing the news of the empty tomb reject the women’s testimony out of hand as “an idle tale” and pay no further attention to it. They simply cannot believe their ears.

Peter, of course, at least bestirs himself to visit the tomb and see for himself if the report is true – that the tomb is indeed empty – just as the women have reported. But beyond “stooping and looking in,” he seems immobilized and unable to act. Rather than breaking out into Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus” and proclaiming loudly and joyously the Good News of the Risen Lord, he instead heads straight “home, amazed at what had happened” – as Luke puts it – which seems to be a polite way of saying Peter went home not knowing quite what to make of it all.

Some apostle – or bishop – he turned out to be.

The befuddlement does not end there, of course. If we look further into the various gospel accounts of the empty tomb, we find that Mary herself, according to the Gospel of John, at first does not recognize the Lord at all, even supposing him to be the local gardener. And in the account of the story from the Gospel of Mark, the band of women first head home themselves and sit on the news of the empty tomb, telling absolutely no one of their experience, “for they were afraid.”

So for something we now proudly proclaim as being at the very heart and hub of our faith, the Good News of the Resurrection does not get off to a very auspicious start. It is perhaps reassuring – or unsettling, depending on your point of view – to know that things have not changed that much among us Christians even some 2,000 years on. We still do not know quite what to make of the Resurrection. It is still a sign of contradiction, a mystery in the most genuine sense. Perhaps we should actually find it encouraging that Jesus’ resurrection can still be such a hot topic today.

Yet if the Resurrection itself remains a sign of contradiction and a mystery for Christians and seekers alike, it also happens to be the only hope there is for our fallen and sometimes all too callous world. The sad truth is that for far too many people today, believers and non-believers alike, it is still as if the rock had not yet been rolled aside from Christ’s tomb. They do not share in our Easter faith and joy this night. Their way is blocked still by sin, doubt and death; and their vigil goes on.

It is to such as these that we now proclaim our firm conviction that Christ has indeed been raised. It is perhaps not what we, left to our own wits and devices, might have expected or anticipated. It does not make sense, as the world understands sense and meaning. And it might, in fact, still seem “an idle tale” to some.

But it is so.

For us Christians, life and significance can paradoxically be found only in the chasm of an empty and abandoned tomb. The place of death has become for us and for our world the gateway of life itself. And just as our everyday living is in some deeper sense a mystery and sharing in all life, so is the Resurrection for us a sharing in the very life of God.

Perhaps better put, it is God sharing through his Son in our life, infusing our humble world with divinity, and transforming us as Christ was himself transformed.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, as Paul tells us in our second reading this day from his Letter to the Romans, “We are no longer … enslaved to sin.” Perplexed or not, whether we realize it or not, the granite has been rolled aside for us just as surely as it was for the women at Jesus’ tomb. Unfettered by sin, we now are free, as Paul describes it, to “walk in newness of life,” perhaps with baby steps at first, but with an ever stronger stride.

We shall leave this church tonight, however tired or sleepy, nevertheless “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” knowing that, for us, the dawn has surely already come. For we “live with him” who has been raised immortal from the sleep of death. No boulder or stone can ever block our way again. But as we, like Peter perhaps, return home tonight from the empty tomb, amazed at what has happened, we shall arise soon enough to proclaim loudly and boldly – for the whole world to hear – an end to sin and death.

For Christ is risen. And we no longer look for “the living among the dead.”

Yes: The Lord is risen indeed.

Alleluia.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com. Isten hozott!