Resurrection

Seeing Christ in Full

This is the first in an Easter season series on Revelation.

Revelation 1:4-8

When I was in seminary, one of my pastoral duties was to provide support for a very large assisted-living apartment complex in Lexington, Ky.  A dozen ladies there asked if I would lead them in a Bible study focused on the Book of Revelation.

What surprised me was the reason they wanted to have the study. In short, they were afraid.

At the time, there was a lot of talk about Revelation, in particular because a set of books known as the “Left Behind” series had been getting a lot of attention. Not one of these ladies could have been younger than 80, and I’m sure most of them had been going to church most of their lives. But all of a sudden, what is essentially the end of the biblical story kept them awake at night.

That was when I first began to understand that teaching—or in this case, preaching—is a special case where Revelation is involved. A lot of Christians have poorly formed or misinformed ideas about the book, and I generally have to convince people to put their preconceived notions aside if we are going to travel to the place Revelation wants to take us.

The author’s name is John, a man we know to have been imprisoned for his faith on the island of Patmos. He may or may not have been the Apostle John; that matter is highly debatable, although ultimately irrelevant to the message the book sends. John’s point in writing Revelation was to communicate a powerful vision he had to churches who apparently knew of him.

The first thing I want to note is how, in his greeting to the churches, he used a couple of important words to set the tone for his vision. “Grace to you,” he told them. “Peace.” And he rooted this greeting in the holy, loving nature of God, as expressed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

His greeting expressed freedom, particularly freedom from the power of sin. John spoke of power and hope for Christ’s followers, not punishment. Fear was not an emotion he seemed to be trying to elicit.

John’s greeting continues to remind us of where our story is headed. Christ will return in a most undeniable way. The “tribes of the earth” may wail, but only because they failed to acknowledge a great truth still serving as the core of our faith, the truth of Jesus Christ as savior for all of humanity.

These words of hope and peace make Revelation a wonderful way to explore the continuing Easter season. Christ’s resurrection was just a beginning, a promise of more to come. A remaking is underway, and it will continue until it ends with everything in heaven and earth conformed to the will of God, made holy by the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.

I want you to keep that good news of the ultimate outcome in mind as we go through the next few weeks. Because, again, Revelation is a strange book, and it is easy to become confused.

Part of the problem arises because we have no other forms of literature like it. Westerners try to read it like a story, a standard kind of narrative familiar to our culture, but it was never intended to be read in such a way.

Instead, it is:

A special genre known as “apocalyptic.” Time flows differently than it does in a standard Western narrative. Viewpoints shift from heaven to earth with little warning. Reading Revelation as a straightforward narrative can generate some bad theology.

Highly symbolic. Very little of it is intended to be taken literally, but at the same time, there’s a deeper meaning communicated by the symbols. For example, after the text we’re hearing today, John launches into a vision of Christ in heaven. This description symbolically shows our Savior’s deeper nature—his purity, his all-knowing mind, and his uttered words as the purest truth, capable of cutting through worldly confusion.

An invitation to imagine. Apocalyptic literature was written for audiences facing persecution. They were being asked to see a better day, a great Day of the Lord promised since the Old Testament. We also are being invited to imagine and work toward the same dream.

Back to my ladies in Bible study: When we were finished studying Revelation, one of the oldest ones, a lady around 90, came up to me with tears in her eyes. “I’m not afraid any more. It’s about joy!” she said.

I pray that when we’re done with this series, we will all feel the same way.

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What Perplexes Angels

Luke 24:1-12

In Luke’s version of the discovery of Christ’s resurrection, there are two “men” waiting at the tomb to announce that Christ has risen from the dead. I place “men” in quotation marks for a reason.

Luke also writes of their “dazzling” clothing and the stunned response of the women at the tomb. In describing their clothing, Luke uses the same Greek word here that he earlier used in 17:24 to describe a flash of lightning. Clearly, he wants us to understand that these “men” are angels.

When I hear this story, I wonder if angels find humans perplexing. Along with announcing the resurrection, these two angels find themselves called to restate what Jesus had already said several times. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

As the women ran back to tell the others, did one angel look at the other and say, “What did they expect?”

One of the angels could have noted the humans had hundreds of years of prophecy to guide them toward an understanding of what must happen to the Christ. For example, these Israelites would have repeatedly heard the words of Isaiah 53:10: “When his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”

And then there are all those Psalms—16:10, for example. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”

“But that prophecy stuff is pretty vague for sin-cloaked humans,” the second angel might have countered. “They don’t see God the way we do.”

“Okay,” I imagine the first angel saying. “But then Jesus came along and performed all those miracles to demonstrate who he is. And then he said who he is. And then he told them again and again that he must die in Jerusalem and be raised from the dead.

“What did they expect? Did they think they would actually find his decaying body this morning?”

I also wonder whether angels find us perplexing in our modern day. First of all, reports of Jesus’ resurrection are widely available, in all four gospels and other New Testament writings. His resurrection is the centerpiece of history, shaping Western civilization. The power of this truth to spread globally is evidence something miraculous is happening.

Second, Jesus made promises that go far beyond his personal resurrection. He has promised that a day is coming when he will return, and his resurrection will then be ours, leading to eternal life or eternal punishment. “Stay dressed for action,” Jesus says in Luke 12:35.

Angels certainly must expect those of us who call ourselves Christian to take such an admonition seriously. And when we lapse into the short-sighted lifestyles we often lead today—lifestyles of hoarding and self interest, of lewdness and meanness—we must seem strange to heaven.

Easter is our chance to adjust our perspective, to see the big picture and make the truth of the resurrection a part of everything we do. With the Holy Spirit’s help, perhaps we can even see the world with the eyes of the angels.

Visiting Graves

John 11:32-44

I am a big Star Trek fan. As a pastor and preacher, I am aware others may not share my love of these shows, so I put severe limits on how often I reference Star Trek in conversation, and certainly, in my sermons. I don’t want people’s first thought about their pastor to be, “What a geek!”

That said, I decided to use one of my Star Trek reference rations today. I recently was watching an episode from 1994, the last season of “The Next Generation” Star Trek series, the one with the bald-headed captain with the English accent. A scene brought to mind what we are doing as we gather here on this All Saints’ Sunday.

We are, of course, considering what it means to remember those who have passed on. And frankly, I was disappointed as I watched this episode with pastor’s eyes for the first time. If this episode were to truly represent the future, the future would be a bleaker time than what we experience now.

Oddly enough, this is one of the few episodes with at least an oblique reference to Christianity. It opens with a graveside service for the grandmother of the ship’s doctor. As the service concludes, the character filling the role a minister would normally play says, “And so, we now commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope that her memory will be kept alive within us all.”

Pretty words, largely because they are rooted in a prayer that goes back centuries from our own time. But ultimately, they are hollow words. The prayer has been changed in one key way. That alteration represents a devastating shift in thinking and a loss of hope. (Odd for a show that is beloved because it so often projects hope.)

As we see in our Bible text today, Jesus confronted a similar loss of hope. From this text we get our shortest Bible verse, “Jesus wept.” I provided it in the King James Version so this one verse would come out the way people raised on childhood Bible drills in Sunday school would remember.

Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. He made that clear before he ever headed for Bethany. And yet, before performing this great miracle, he cried in solidarity with the grieving people around him.

Jesus understood the deep pain we experience when we feel we have lost all hope. He shared that pain with his friends, even knowing the great healing he was about to perform. I take great comfort in knowing God doesn’t watch our pain from a distance and impassively; instead, as Jesus, God understands his creation’s suffering intimately. And when Jesus called, “Lazarus, come forth,” he replaced pain with hope.

Now, as spectacular as the event was, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead was a short-term fix, a microcosm of what was and is to come. We have no reason to believe Lazarus did not eventually experience death again, although I think probably at a ripe old age. Jesus’ greatest work remained.

Death met its resounding defeat in Christ’s resurrection from the grave—at that point, death lost any real grip on us. We are promised that through our belief in Jesus Christ, we will experience resurrection and eternal joy, too, even if our physical death comes before Christ’s return.

That truth should color our view of life, even when we do inherently sad activities like visit our loved ones’ graves. Some might find it strange, but I actually enjoy walking through cemeteries. The headstones (sometimes, you have to study them together as a family) often tell little stories. It is possible to imagine the broad outline of people’s lives—their loves, their relationships, their pain.

And so often, in the midst of one of those stories, you see evidence of Christ at work. Bible verses on tombstones tell us a lot. I particularly enjoy little inscriptions referencing the resurrection. They can be as short as “Rest in Peace,” an acknowledgement a person is in a physical and spiritual state that will result in renewed, eternal activity one day.

That’s why I didn’t like that alteration of the prayer in Star Trek. Just one clause was changed, but it is critical. How long can we truly live on in the memory of others? A couple of generations, maybe three at most?

The proper prayer, the prayer you can still hear at many funeral services today, goes this way: “And so, we now commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

As Christians, that is the prayer of hope we bring to the world.

The Long Arm of the Lord

John 6:24-35

Today is a communion Sunday. In just a little while, we will share some bread and some grape juice, and in doing so we are supposed to be drawn into the mystery of God’s work in the world.

Every time we perform this ritual, we all need to ask the same question. Do we get it? Are we penetrating the mystery deeply enough so that it changes our lives? I’m not saying we can grasp what is going on completely—I call this moment a “mystery” for a reason—but if we gather here and go through the motions of this act we call a sacrament, we want it to make some sort of a difference, right?

We don’t want to be like the crowd in our gospel reading today. We don’t want to be pursuing Jesus but completely missing the magnitude of his work.

A little background: Just before our reading in the Gospel of John, Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. Sensing the crowd was about to seize him and declare him king, he withdrew to the nearby mountains. That evening, he walked on stormy water to catch up with his disciples who were crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, arriving in Capernaum with them.

By the time we reach today’s story, the crowd had actually decided to pursue Jesus in a flotilla of boats, showing up in Capernaum themselves. Why? Well, they were thinking Jesus seemed a whole lot like Moses. Their stories told them Moses provided free food and liberated people from political oppression. Jesus certainly had provided a lot of free food recently. Even if he never got around to the liberation part, all the bread and fish you could eat seemed like a pretty good deal.

But when they again asked for a sign—what they meant was, give us more food—Jesus tried to adjust their perspective. In essence, he told them, your ancestors missed the big picture, and you are missing it now. It was God who sent the manna from heaven; it was God who provided the Israelites quail in the desert and water from a rock. And while those signs, like Jesus’ signs, were to demonstrate power, they were not an end unto themselves. God was doing something much bigger. God’s reach is far greater than we usually want to admit, touching every point in time and space.

In the case of the Israelites in the desert, God was trying to teach a group of people to follow and obey. They were a ragged bunch of recently freed slaves wandering the desert, doubting and arguing the whole way. And yet God could see how through them he could heal a fractured universe.

Jesus was trying to get the crowds to understand the bigger picture, too. Specifically, he wanted them to see that he was the Christ, the apex of the plan that was unfolding in the desert thousands of years before when manna fell from the sky. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and later, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” he was saying, here is the great opportunity from God, the life-sustaining gift. Simply believe to receive.

The bread metaphor followed Jesus all the way to the cross. On the night in which he gave himself up to death, he took bread and broke it, using that simple act to show what would happen to his body because of our sins. The wine stood in for his blood.

And when the real body was broken and the precious blood was shed less than 24 hours later, everything changed. Sin was vanquished; the devil lost his hold on us as the holy, perfect God-man died like the worst of sinners. A night followed by another night followed by a glorious morning proved the victory over death in the resurrection.

Do you get it? Do you see how God has been at work from the dim moments of prehistory through Christ up to now to make it possible for all of us, each and every one of us, to be in union with him?

I know it’s hard to understand in full. I work with these ideas every day, and I cannot grasp them in full. To say you can understand God’s work in full is to claim you have the mind of God, that you can see the very fabric of the universe disrupted by sin and then put back together by a holy carpenter nearly 2,000 years ago—a carpenter still at work through the Holy Spirit in us today.

But we can get it in the sense that we can be in awe of what God has done and is doing. We can see past our immediate concerns and wants and live as people who know there is something more.

Members of this congregation (and readers of this blog) may have heard me tell this story before in other settings, but it bears repeating. About ten years ago, I learned the power of communion by taking it to an elderly couple who roomed together at a nursing home, sleeping on floor mats near each other. In an odd twist, both had developed dementia within about a year of each other, and by this visit, they could barely speak.

Having lost everything—possessions, positions, even knowledge of who they were—they responded to communion with the awe I have mentioned. The wife took communion first, leaning on one elbow, and said the only words she could find that day: “Hallelujah.” Her husband said nothing at all, but he too propped himself up and received the bread and juice eagerly. His wife watched from her mat and said the words for him: “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.”

When you come to take communion today, approach the table like people who have nothing. Upon taking communion, know you have everything. The God of the universe lives among us and has died for our sins. When we believe, we have eternity.

A Temporary Goodbye

He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Many of us who are Methodists make this statement every Sunday as part of the Apostles’ Creed. This declaration of the importance of “the ascension” seems to flow naturally from our affirmations that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and that he was resurrected from the dead.

In conversations with fellow churchgoers, however, it sometimes seems the ascension is more tightly wrapped in mystery than the idea of the crucifixion and resurrection. (Not that we can fully grasp those two astonishing ideas!)

As best we can, we want to understand all three ideas—crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—so we can see how they work together to make salvation possible.

The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what ascends, what is carried “up.”

Luke, a companion of the Apostle Paul, gives us accounts of the ascension in the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. After appearing repeatedly to his followers in his resurrected form, Jesus led them about two miles outside Jerusalem to Bethany.

He then did several important things: He opened their minds to understand the Jewish Scriptures, in particular how they predicted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He told his followers they would spread throughout the world the good news that salvation is available. He promised them the Holy Spirit would come to empower and support them.

And then the ascension happened. It’s described a bit mysteriously; in Luke, Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Acts, we get a little more detail, where we learn “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

When explaining all this to Luke, Jesus’ followers were trying to describe something almost incomprehensible, the visible crossing of Christ from one plane of existence to the next. They struggled for words as children sometimes struggle when confronted with a new idea.

A couple of years ago, at the funeral of my wife’s aunt, the preacher had a unique habit of kneeling whenever he prayed, even if he was standing behind the pulpit. At one point as he kneeled to pray, disappearing like a puppet behind a box, a three-year-old girl asked loudly, “Where’d he go?” I wonder if some of Jesus’ followers uttered a similar phrase in Aramaic as the Christ vanished from sight in such a mysterious way.

The point of the account as described by Luke is that Jesus physically left this world and entered the realm of the holy, God’s abode, the place where only things unstained by sin can go.

Later in Acts, the first martyr, Stephen, cried out shortly before being stoned to death, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” From this we see that the earliest Christians understood that after the ascension, Jesus resumed his role as part of what theologians sometimes call the “Godhead,” God in all of his aspects.

So, why does it matter that Jesus ascended into heaven? Well, it matters because of what Jesus took with him—his resurrected human body. Human flesh now exists as part of the Godhead, a strange change in the nature of heaven. What was unacceptable anywhere near the throne is now on the throne.

And that is why salvation is now so easy for us, if we will only believe that Jesus died to free us from punishment for our sins. When we appeal to God in heaven, we are appealing to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.

We’re also to understand that Christ’s return, perhaps to occur while we are all alive, will be a real, physical event, a moment when God-in-flesh will once again stand within his creation and claim it as his own.

I also should point out that the ascension left something of a void. For a brief time, humanity was again separated from the full presence of God. But then, just as Jesus had promised, something came down, another aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.

That’s an event we celebrate next Sunday, which is Pentecost.

A Beach Moment

There are stories in the Bible so powerful that I find it daunting to elaborate on them in any way. To do so is like standing in a gallery before a beautiful painting and breaking the holy silence by saying, “Note how the lines merge at this point.”

In this Easter season, I want to share with you such a text. It is, by the way, my favorite story in the Bible, the place I go for comfort. For me, it captures everything being revealed about God from Genesis to Revelation.

And yes, I feel like I’m already over-explaining it.

As a reader, do me a favor. I know we often read blogs as part of our hurried lives, our eyes racing over the words while our e-mail and texts beep for attention. Don’t do that today.

Please, either slow down or come back when you have more time, and carefully read John 21:1-19 the way you would read a really good novel. There are characters in pain in this story; remember, the disciples know Jesus is alive, but they also know they ran and hid when Jesus needed them most. And most of all, there is the resurrected Jesus, bringing healing.

—————–

Now that you’ve read it, let me share with you a few of the thoughts this text has given me over the years.

  • Even when faced with miraculous evidence of God’s presence, the best of us, when confronted with our sinful weaknesses, may want to turn back to what we used to be.
  • Because of the resurrection, we are a people of abundance. We simply have to see and accept that abundance.
  • The resurrected Jesus is exalted and glorified, and yet he meets us where we are, with love, grace and forgiveness, even if the sin is abandonment and betrayal. (I wonder, had Judas lived, how would Jesus have offered him forgiveness?)
  • And of course, as we are restored by Jesus, there is a mission—perhaps a difficult one—but a mission that gives us purpose beyond our former lives.

Because of Jesus, we know we worship a God of love, a God who asks only that we return to him by accepting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation. It’s also nice if we respond to the gift as best we can.

God forgive me if I just got in the way of a good story.

Walking with Jesus

Luke 24:13-35

The seven-mile-long walk home to Emmaus from Jerusalem must have seemed daunting for two weary travelers, one known as Cleopas. They had been in the city as it went into an uproar over Jesus of Nazareth, its people finally succumbing to political intrigue and a spasm of emotion that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Just before leaving, they also heard wild stories that only disturbed them more, tales of a tomb flung open, visions of angels, and a dead man walking. Yes, they would travel the seven miles home, but when they got there, could they even sleep? Which would win out, weariness or worry?

A man joined them along the way. We know the story; we know he was Jesus. Why two people who had followed him could not recognize him is not clear. Perhaps it was their grief. Perhaps a resurrected body is different enough that it is not immediately associated with its mortal predecessor. Or perhaps God simply willed that their eyes be veiled for a time to enhance their understanding later.

The man, oddly enough, seemed ignorant of all that had transpired, despite traveling from the same place they had been. They explained what they had seen. He proceeded to make them feel ignorant.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” the man asked. He began to explain the Scriptures to them—he worked from what we would now call the Old Testament, of course—showing them the events of the previous days had to happen.

We don’t know what he specifically cited. Surely he mentioned Genesis 3:15, the condemnation of the serpent for bringing temptation to the garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Also, the promise from God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

They must have discussed Deuteronomy 18:15—”The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”—and how Jesus’ role exceeded even that of a prophet.

And of course, they would have discussed prophesies from Isaiah 9, 11 and 53. It was, after all, a long walk.

They must have been intrigued. And being good, hospitable Jews, the kind of Jews who would not leave a man to travel dangerous roads at night alone, they invited him into their home when they finally reached Emmaus.

The stranger must have seemed pushy when they sat down to share a little bread. He took the bread to bless it, a role usually performed by the host. And when he broke it—Jesus! They knew they had been walking with Jesus! And then he vanished!

A seven-mile-long walk back to Jerusalem should have seemed particularly daunting. They should have been exhausted. They should have been fearful, for it was night, and bad things happen on the road at night.

But they walked back down that road anyway—when you’ve experienced the risen Christ, there is no fear.

I suspect they ran as much of the road as they could. When they paused for breath, did they laugh as they gasped for air? Did they discuss how crazy this all would sound once they reached Jerusalem?

Know that Jesus walks with you. Through the revelation of the Bible we’ve already been given, see Jesus for who he is—experience his presence. Then run and tell others. Living the Christian life can be that simple.