Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Dinner Guest Who Gives Heartburn

Luke 24:13-35
Easter 3
April 26, 2020
William G. Carter

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

This is a favorite Easter story for me and for many. After all the commotion on Easter morning, two disciples go for a late afternoon walk. It sounds like they were heading home to a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Passover holiday had been disrupted by the arrest of their friend Jesus. He had died a brutal death and was buried in a borrowed tomb. On that very morning, news came that the tomb had been cracked open and his body was missing. So they go for a walk.

On the way, Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple are joined by a stranger. We know who it is, but they do not. Not yet. They are caught up in conversation, talking through the traumatic events of the past three days. The Stranger says, “What are you talking about?” It stops them in their tracks.

Cleopas responds, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things going on?” He says, “What things?” And the sad disciple replies, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet.”

This is where the story begins. We are going to hover here for a bit. Because if there is anything Luke’s Gospel that he has repeatedly said about Jesus, it is that he talks like a prophet.

According to Luke, the first sermon Jesus preached was the sermon of a prophet. That day in Nazareth, he opened the scroll of Isaiah, found his place, and announced the Day of Jubilee had come. Then he declared, “This Word is now completed in your hearing.” They all smiled, and nodded, and said, “Doesn’t he talk good?”

But then Jesus told them what prophets like Isaiah could see more clearly than the rest of us: that God loves the Gentile as much as the Jew. With that, they jumped to their feet, grabbed him, and tried to throw him off a cliff. And that was his very first sermon! That time he slipped away, and he explained the event by saying, “A prophet is never received in his own hometown.”

He was right about that. The hometown crowd had already dismissed him as a well-known neighborhood kid. They weren’t ready to receive him as the One who brings the Word of God. In the Bible, that’s what a prophet comes to do. The prophet doesn’t gaze into a crystal ball and predict the future. The prophet speaks the Word of God and does so in the present tense. The prophet says, “Today the scripture is fulfilled.” When the people experience that, some brighten up and others aren’t so sure they want the prophet to stick around.  

Did Cleopas and the other disciple forget how they themselves characterized Jesus? “He was a prophet.” What did they expect?

According to the Gospel of Luke, there was a truthful edge to everything Jesus said.

·         Asked to identify a neighbor, he wove a story about the outcast Samaritan who shows compassion (10:25-37). That story made his neighbors angry.
·         Answering complaints about his inclusivity, Jesus spun another tale, a tale about the Father who welcomed back the wayward child while his older brother snarled about it out in the field (15:13-32). The Pharisees snarled about that one.
·         Taking notice of the exclusive invitations to a dinner party and the jostling for good seats, Jesus said to the host, “Next time you have a party, invite the poor, invite the wounded, invite the people who could never throw a party for you.” (14:7-14)

This is how a prophet speaks for God. The prophet is more interested in telling the truth than making friends.

Luke says this is how the story of Jesus unrolls. His prophetic work divided the crowd. Those who were desperate to hear a word from God couldn’t get enough of Jesus. And those who believed they were anointed to protect the words God once spoke are the very ones who wanted to get rid of Jesus, the prophet who now speaks. All of them should have known better. But the truth was hidden.

This is the larger backdrop of today’s familiar story. Two disappointed disciples go for a walk in the country. As the Stranger draws near to walk with them, did you notice how the Incognito Jesus draws them out? “What things? What are you talking about?”

They speak their sadness of how Jesus didn’t turn out as they hoped. Every day they saw his mighty works. They knew he had the approval of both God and the poor. They affirmed him as the Messiah and expected him to redeem all the people. Instead he was captured, condemned, and killed by their own religious leaders.

And then, that very morning, news came that women found the tomb empty. Yet the disappointment of these disciples is so deep, so real, that they would not trust the word. They regarded it as an idle tale.  

That’s when the Stranger stops walking and starts talking. “How foolish you are,” he says. “Your hearts are so stodgy.” Later on, they will reflect, this was the moment when those stodgy, slow hearts began to burn. And yet for the time being they still don’t see him.

This is the way the Gospel of Luke describes the truth of Easter. For this writer, the issue is not whether Jesus is alive. Rather, the issue is why more people don’t see him now. For Luke, now as then, it’s the same reason: because they didn’t yet understand the scriptures. According to the story, this is why “their eyes were kept from seeing him.”

As Luke tells it, Jesus has been called to proclaim two interlocking invitations: the whole-hearted love for God and the radical love of neighbor. There was nothing new about this. Jesus speaks what the prophets of God had always spoken. In turn, he was dismissed as the prophets of God were always dismissed. So on the road to Emmaus, he opens the scriptures  for them.

·         From the books of Moses, Leviticus 16: “He will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.” He will atone for them and reunite them with God.

·         From the prophetic writings, Isaiah 53: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” The Servant will suffer as he brings us back to God.

·         From the psalms, Psalm 110: “The Lord said my lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a stool for your feet.” In other words, this is ongoing work. God has raised Jesus to keep winning over his enemies.

Now, it was a seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. At a leisurely pace, that’s about two hours of instruction. Two hours of understanding what kind of Messiah God has sent to us. He will free us from our own sin. He will suffer for doing so. He will keep working to overcome everything that opposes God’s work in the world.

According to one scholar, this is precisely the reason why Jesus didn’t simply appear to them on the road and say, “Hey, here I am.” First, they needed to see Jesus as God has sent him: humble, vulnerable, misunderstood, yet healing, forgiving, and always telling the truth. He was rejected by the world but approved by God. He was crucified yet he forgave the human ignorance that put him on the cross. He was pushed away, but now he draws near on the road. Luke wants us to know this is the way of God in the world.

It is an astonishing Easter story, for it proclaims two truths about us and about God. The truth about us is that we push God away. Perhaps we think we know better. Or we believe the lie that we are self-sufficient. Or we simply don’t like to be pushed or challenged. So we push God away. That’s the truth about us.

The second truth is far greater, the truth about the God that saves us. And here it is: the God we know in Jesus Christ comes back. Out of sheer grace and complete persistence, Christ comes back. The One we thought was gone is now inescapable. The One that the world dismissed now walks with us, whether we see him or not. And he will not back off from his prophetic work, calling us to love God and love neighbor.

As the two-hour Bible lesson was winding up, Cleopas, the other, and the anonymous Stranger drew near to the little town of Emmaus. It was getting late, and the Stranger was traveling to travel on. But they urged him, begged him, to come and stay the night. With a slow smile, he agreed.

You heard what happened: at the table, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Suddenly they saw him, truly saw him. And maybe, at some level of comprehension, they saw what they had known it all along. It was the opening of the scriptures that opened their understanding of who Jesus truly is. And the breaking of the bread sealed it on their newly awakened hearts.

Now that they are convinced he is alive, Jesus vanishes. According to the story, they weren’t sad about that. If anything, that’s when their joy began. They had received an extraordinary gift from him, and just like him, they had miles to go before they would sleep.

It’s a rich story. There are a lot of lessons teased out of it. There is the breaking open of the scriptures and the breaking of the bread, forever holding together the importance of Word and Sacrament. There is the revelation that Christ is alive and the hint that he walks among us. And there is the somewhat comical detail that those of love Jesus most might not be able to recognize him.

What emerges for me, and what I pass on to you, is that the Risen Christ is not sitting on a distant cloud somewhere. He is still very much with us as the scriptures are opened and the Word of God is released again. Our Lord and Savior continues to speak as a prophet. He will not abandon us to stale thinking or fearful flights of foolishness. The Lord knows there is plenty of all that to go around.

No, he speaks the truth that is greater than mere human opinion. When he does, the truth comes with a kind of heavenly heartburn. Christ challenges us to believe deeper and love wider. He confronts our suppositions. He will not let us put him on a first-century shelf or keep him in an unopened Bible. Jesus Christ is alive and hs is still speaking.

As a preacher of the early church affirms, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).” And Christ will keep speaking his prophetic Word until every available human heart loves God and befriends the neighbor.

There are a lot of reasons to go to church, even a technological worship service like this one. Some of us tune in out of habit. Others go for comfort, for a sense of solace. Some are here because friends are also here. Still others go to confirm what they think they already know.

But after hearing this Easter story again, could I suggest the best reason of all? How about if we go to worship to hear Christ open the scriptures? To encounter his voice as he challenges us to love how he loves. To discover all over again that he is alive. To picture him at the center of all life, for surely he is. To perceive how much he loves all of us. To receive the living bread that he breaks and puts into our hearts.

For Jesus Christ is alive. And the best evidence of Easter is how he speaks to us when the scriptures are opened.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Gifts of Easter

1 Peter 1:3-9
Easter 2
April 19, 2020
William G. Carter

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Ever notice?  We often mark our big days with the giving and receiving of gifts.

That’s how we mark a birthday. Or an anniversary or a retirement. And it’s also true for the big days of the church. When someone is baptized, we offer a white rose and a Bible. When a teenager’s faith is confirmed, we throw them a party. When Christmas comes, there are so many gifts that it animates the economy.

And then these is Easter. This year, the shopping may have been disrupted. But I’m sure some Easter baskets were filled with jelly beans, marshmallow Peeps, and a chocolate rabbit.

I remember fondly a childhood Easter gift, so early in my life that I don’t remember much else. It was one of these – a 45 rpm record. It looked like this, although the original is long gone. On the record was the theme song to a television cartoon that I liked: The Jetsons. Old-timers like me might remember “Meet George Jetson, his boy Elroy,” and so on.

The music was jazzy. It was thrilling. I must have played it a thousand times. Most of all, it was a gift. I’ve never had an Easter gift quite like that. Maybe a new necktie or a shiny pair of shoes. But that was something special.

Today, I don’t know why that one sticks with me. Perhaps it’s because I’m spending a lot of time talking to a screen as if it’s a phone, just like George Jetson. Some gifts linger in our hearts, even when they are long gone. I don’t know why.

So let me ask you this: what did you get for Easter?

Last Sunday, we received a beautiful day. The weather was nice. The sun was out. It was a bit chilly, but at least there wasn’t any snow. Not like this morning. We did not have any flowers in the church sanctuary, but in my front yard there were daffodils shouting alleluia. They weren’t going to let some silly old pandemic keep them from praising the Lord. That was a gift.

Some of us had the pleasure of conversation with loved ones. One of you told me about enjoying Easter dinner with a daughter and her spouse in Boston. In two separate homes, each set the table and cooked the ham. At the appointed hour, they turned on their iPads, had a prayer, and enjoyed conversation while they ate. Our friend said, “It was a gift.” An Easter gift.

What kind of gifts did you receive for Easter? If you tuned into our worship broadcast, you heard glorious music on the organ. It was just like being there. After the preacher said the final Amen, our wonderful organist Kay pulled out all the stops and cranked up the volume. She played the Widor Toccata flawlessly, an amazing piece in the key of F. Hearts were stirred and spirits were lifted. It reminded us of what we have heard many times and taken for granted. It offered a glimpse of what we can’t wait to enjoy again. When this pandemic is over, maybe we can gather in the sanctuary and receive the music for what it is. It’s a gift.

Can you think of a gift you received for Easter?

There was a sermon. Easter always comes with a sermon. But sermons don’t last very long. Oh, I know, for some of you a sermon might seem endless. If you think they are long, you ought to try preaching one. When I say sermons don’t really last very long, what I mean is they don’t have a shelf life. Like a piece of music, a sermon doesn’t linger in the air. It evaporates. It fades. Perhaps something helpful will be said, and that would be a gift. But then the clouds roll in. Life takes over. Somebody says, “What’s playing on Netflix?”

So let’s pause to welcome a paragraph from Peter’s first letter, our scripture for today. Some scholars think that letter began as a sermon. It was an Easter sermon, in a sense, because every Sunday is a little Easter. This sermon was written down. It was important enough to keep, even before it was collected into a Bible.

The writer calls himself “Peter.” That’s all he says, and assumes we know who he is. What catches my ear is not the author but the audience. He calls them “the exiles in the dispersion.” In other words, he writes to a scattered church, to Christians who are dispersed. They are not together in one place – do you hear that? That sounds like you and me. You and I are scattered for a time. It feels like each of us lives in exile.

And then Peter, whoever he is, begins to talk about the greatest gift of Easter.

He’s not talking about a chocolate bunny, nor a magnificent organ extravaganza, nor time with people we love. No, he points to something bigger, something grander. The gift comes before us all. It lingers to the end of it all. Do you know what it is? The gift of Easter is hope. Hope. Hope is the gift.

What does Peter say about this hope? For one thing, you don’t choose it. It chooses you. It’s like being born. Nobody chooses to be born. Birth is a gift. A seed may be planted. It takes a while to gestate. Then suddenly, there it is. You didn’t ask for this. It comes without any effort on your part. That’s why it is a gift.

And it’s not a disposable gift. Hope is not a battery to keep your light shining. Batteries wear out and are inevitably discarded. Hope is not like that. Peter says we are talking about something imperishable. We may wear out, but hope never wears out. We might wish we had more hope within us, but true hope always comes from outside of us. It’s not dependent on how we feel, or what kind of day we are having. For hope is a gift from God.

Peter calls it “an inheritance.” That is, it’s bequeathed to you and me. As an attorney once observed, there are two conditions for receiving an inheritance. First, somebody must die. Second, our names must be written in the will. For the Christian, Jesus has died. And just think: your name, my name, all our names are written in Christ’s will.

Now, that’s extraordinary. If we poke around in the rest of Peter’s letter, we discover who is included in the inheritance. He writes to women, who were frequently excluded from first century legal matters, including an inheritance. He writes to slaves, those who were indentured, did the hard labor, and could not benefit from the economy. Peter includes those he names as “strangers.” That is how all Christians back then were regarded.

And to these people otherwise regarded as nobodies, Peter says the gift is for you. The inheritance is for you.
It is imperishable. It cannot be changed. It never runs out. For now, it is under lock and key in heaven, guarded by the power of God. The inheritance – the gift – is hope. He calls it a “living hope.”

Now, he’s not talking about optimism. Sometimes we equate hope with looking on the sunny side of life. “Turn that frown upside down.” “Turn those lemons into lemonade.” If only it were that easy, like flicking a switch to make everything better.  

Talk to someone who has been through a pack of trouble. You can’t say to the person who lost everything in a house fire, “Well, it was only a lot of stuff.” No, they are feeling the loss. You can’t say to someone who got a bad medical diagnosis, “Oh, you will be OK.” No, that is still uncertain. It is only when we get through the trouble that our spirits can be lifted again. And then, it won’t be optimism that we feel. It will be relief.  

Yet Peter affirms that, even in the thick of trouble, there is hope, a living hope.

What does he mean? Is Peter reducing hope to endurance? Some of us do that. I confess my own tendency to smooth over somebody else’s difficulty by saying, “hang in there.” Those are thin words. Imagine walking up to the family that has lost their father. Perhaps with this pandemic they haven’t been able to have a proper memorial service. Should you say, “Oh, someday it will all work out,” those who grieve have every right to ask you to step away.

The living hope is something else, something deeper. It comes through the message of Easter. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. The One who suffered and died lives again, never again to die. In that sense, it is Christ who is our living hope. In a broken world like this, we might have every reason to expect things to keep breaking. Yet something happened in a first century graveyard that interrupted the typical pattern decline and destruction. Now it is the brokenness that has been broken. This is the miracle of God.

When we sing that Christ is risen, we affirm there is something greater than our separation and our suffering. When we declare that He lives, we claim that we are living with him. Even in his death, Peter tells us that something greater than death was at work. For as he will say later in his letter,

When Jesus was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free might live for righteousness.  (1 Peter 2:23-24)

This is how Peter believes the word of one of the ancient prophets, “by his wounds you have been healed.” Imagine this: all of us restored, in every dimension of our lives. This is the imperishable hope. It is our God-given inheritance. This is the present-tense work of Easter at work in us. It is how we can rejoice even when times are tough, and we are touched by suffering. Christ is risen from the dead. The brokenness has been broken.

So let me ask you to help me with something. This is a difficult season for us and for many. There are friends, neighbors, and family members who are overwhelmed by what they hear and what they fear. Could you reach out to them? Could you remind them there is so much more to life than the things that make us afraid? Easter is still going on. Easter is at work in us. It is a gift from God, a gift to be received and shared.

For the hope of the Gospel is this: “Although you have not seen Christ, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1:8-9)

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Can We Have An Easter Without Touching?

John 20:11-18
Resurrection of the Lord
April 12, 2020
William G. Carter

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

My friends, what a wonderful privilege it is to celebrate Easter with you! This is the day of resurrection. We proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive. This is the Christian song of triumph. The grave could not hold our Lord. The anger and hatred that nailed Jesus to the cross are canceled. Hope punctures our helplessness. We greet you with the words, “Happy Easter,” because Christ is risen.   

But what unusual circumstances these are! When the season of Lent began six and a half weeks ago, few of us expected that we wouldn’t be together today. An unseen virus has swept viciously across the globe. Good health dictates that we must be cautious, restraining ourselves in awkward and uncomfortable ways. This is not the way we thought we would mark this day.  

Some have drawn connections between our circumstances and those of the first Easter. Today the churches are empty, and the tomb of Jesus was empty. Today most people are in their homes; the scriptures tell us it was that way for the first circle of Christ followers. There were mixed feelings in the air, conflicting reports about what was going on; some would say then as now. And for many, there is a measure of fear.

But none of this, then or now, can shut down Easter. Easter reveals the power of God, in the raising of Jesus from the dead.  The Messiah of God who taught of God’s dominion over all life is teaching again. The Great Physician who healed people of their dis-ease, both physical and emotional, is still healing. The Prophet who spoke truth to power is still unmasking everything that is false. The One who referred to himself as the Bread of Life cannot be bound by death. He continues to offer us life, the abundant life of God’s eternity.

This is the truth about Easter. Fear and worry cannot shut it down. And if we read the Gospel accounts, we see that fear and worry are always the context into which the Easter story is told. There are frightened disciples, hiding behind locked doors, afraid to go outside. There are frightened religious leaders, fearful of the disruption of everything they thought they could count on. There are frightened public officials who want to rush through the situation and do what is expedient for themselves.

And there is Mary Magdalene, who provides a singular face for what it means to encounter the Risen Christ. The Gospel of John keeps the focus on Mary alone. None of the other women who went to the tomb are mentioned in John’s book. Other Easter accounts name the others, but today we hear only of Mary Magdalene.

She goes to the tomb of her beloved friend before the sun comes up. We don’t know why, and we don’t really need a reason. According to the account, she stood with his mother and watched him die. She was there at the foot of the cross. She saw the soldiers humiliate him. She heard the onlookers make fun of him. She watched him take it, take it all, and then she heard him entrust his own mother to one of his friends. Then she heard him breathe out the words, “It is finished.”

Now, it’s a couple of days later, and she visits his tomb. To her shock and dismay, she sees the stone has been moved. So she runs into the city, finds Simon Peter and another, and says, “Someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where he is.” The two men run off to check it out, see the scene, and then they head back to their homes. There is nothing they can do.

Mary has trailed behind them, back to the graveside. As the two men stumble back into town, she stands alone and cannot hold back the tears. They had humiliated him on the cross. Now grave robbers have humiliated him again. That’s all she can conclude. Bending down to look into the grave, she sees two angels and they ask why she weeps. There is no comfort in that. Through scalded eyes, she stammers out, “They have taken away my Lord.” And the tears are real. 

Sensing someone there, she turns and sees the gardener. At least she thinks that’s who it is. Apparently, he heard the angels, too, for he asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She wonders if he might have taken away the body. Then the unknown gardener speaks her name: “Mary!” His voice punctures her fog. She recognizes who it is and gives him a big, old hug. 

He says, “Stop it! Don’t touch me!” It’s a shocking thing for him to say. This year, it’s the one word that I hear him say. Don’t hold on to me.  

Wow. Do you suppose we can have an Easter without touching?

Touch is important. It is one of the most naturally human things we can do. Mary Magdalene appropriately did what any friend would do. She extended her arms to the beloved one she thought she had lost. Here he is, back again somehow. She reaches toward him with a genuine gesture of love – and he shuts her down. Don’t do that. It’s curious, in a way even stranger than the truth of his resurrection.

Jesus knew the power of touch. When he healed, he frequently did so with his hands. One of the big moments in the Gospel of John was the healing of a man who had been born without his sight. You may recall what Jesus did. He spat on the ground and stirred up some mud as a salve. He stuck his thumbs in it and spread it all over the man’s unseeing eyes. Then he said, “Wash in the pool of Siloam.” The man did what he was told and then he could see (9:1-7). Like other healers of his day, Jesus healed through the power of his touch.

And yet, on other occasions he healed without touching at all. In Capernaum, a royal official begged Jesus to help his son, who was at the point of death. “Come down,” he said, “before my little boy dies.” Jesus said, “Go, and your son will live.” The man trusted what the Lord said. On his way home, his excited servants met him to announce the boy had recovered (4:46-54). 

Or there was the day Jesus saw an invalid by the so-called miracle pool of Beth-zatha. There was a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well? Stand up and walk!” That’s exactly what happened. Jesus could heal with his voice. There was no touch involved as far as we know. Jesus could heal with the power of his Word (5:1-9).

But what are we to make of what he says to Mary Magdalene? Our scripture lesson puts it, “Don’t hold on to me.” In the original language, the verb tense suggests, “Stop hanging on to me.” Or “stop clinging to me.” However we hear it, his words sound abrupt and insensitive. Yet they point us to a deeper truth. He is risen.

Mary thinks Jesus is back, that God has resuscitated him, just as Jesus resuscitated his good friend Lazarus. But this is resurrection, which is so much more than resuscitation. As someone notes, “The risen Jesus is not restored to the normal life that he possessed before death; he possesses eternal life and is in God’s presence.”[1] By the grace of God, Jesus is more thoroughly alive even than he was before. Mary can’t hang on to the former way that she knew the Lord; now she must relate to him in a different way. 

This is what the Gospel of John wants us to see and trust. In this Gospel, we hear Jesus say repeatedly, “When I am lifted up,” and it refers to three things: lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up into heaven. In chapter 12, for instance, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” The Gospel writer clarifies it by adding, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die (12:32-33).” And John also he uses the same verb to signify resurrection and ascension.

Jesus must return to the Father in heaven. He must do this so he can become more than the friend of Mary. Now he will offer himself as the friend of all. While he can still become very real to specific people in specific situations, he is not bound to one place or one time. He is eternal, and he is with God. Now he is available to everybody.

On this very odd Easter in the middle of a pandemic, this is a helpful Gospel word. This is our big day. We want to worship in a crowded church. We want our voices to resonate with a well-tuned choir. We want to see the flowers, admire the new Easter outfits, welcome back the exiles, and for some of us, offer plenty of handshakes and hugs. For health reasons, we cannot do this.

Yet it is still Easter, and maybe this Easter we can discern a truth that has been with us all along. Jesus Christ is lifted up: cross, resurrection, and now ascension. Each of us can turn toward him, for he is accessible to all. In the same way, he is not bound to the first century in a far-off land. The Savior can find every one of us. 

In the power of his presence, we don’t have to be afraid of anything. We don’t have to be afraid of a health pandemic. Sure, it’s a good idea to wash our hands and keep to the social distancing for a while; that’s just good sense and a way to love our neighbors. But in this season of social distancing, Christ is alive, and he can find us.

As he said at the Last Supper, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate – my Holy Spirit – will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (16:7).” This is the new reality that Easter makes possible. All of us can have a living relationship with the Risen Christ, through the presence of his Spirit. Through that Spirit, we are also present with one another.

So we celebrate today. Though we are in separate locations, there is something powerful that binds us together, something unseen, something that continues to reveal the grace and truth of God. Across town, or across the miles, we are knit together in the love of Jesus.  

Please know that I hold you in my heart during this time of separation, for it is Christ who holds us all in his heart. I miss you and cannot wait until we are together in worship again. I pray our Lord will reveal himself to you this day. I pray he will keep you and your loved ones safe. And I am especially grateful that he will always hold on to all who belong to him. 

For here is the Good News: though we are apart, there is nothing in life or death that shall ever separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. He is lifted up. Happy Easter!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970) p. 1013

Thursday, April 9, 2020

He Could Have But He Didn't

Matthew 26:47-56
Maundy Thursday
April 9, 2020
William G. Carter

While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

In the middle of his arrest, Jesus responds as the kind of Messiah that he is. “Put your sword away,” he says to one of his own disciples. He is not going to fight. He doesn’t believe in defending himself or living by violence.

This will come as no surprise to anybody who has been listening to him. Early in his ministry, he climbed a mountain and said to the crowd, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (5:38-39) The Lord lives by the words of his own Sermon on the Mount.

Some will find this hard to understand. We have been taught to push away the evildoer, to strike back if we have been struck, to exact revenge if someone has hurt us. But Jesus won’t have any of this. Not for himself. Not for those who follow him.

This might be difficult for some of us to understand. Under similar circumstances, we might brandish a weapon or run away from the scene. Those are the two options that the eleven disciples took. Yet Jesus stands in place with the one resource at his disposal: he speaks the truth.

He speaks to those who treat him as if he were a common criminal, coming after dark with an excessive amount of force. “Every day, I taught in open daylight and you never touched me.” It’s a line now permanently inscribed in our scriptures. He calls out the hypocrisy of religious leaders who commit evil while the public is not looking.  

And he also says something about the kind of Messiah he is: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” 

He could do that, you know. In the Roman army, a “legion” was six thousand heavily armed soldiers. Jesus has the authority to call on God to send 72,000 angels to defend him and destroy his enemies. He could do that, but he doesn’t. Now this is indeed a mystery.

Oh, the temptation has been there. He has dealt with that before. The devil had taken him to the tip-top of the Temple and said, “The Bible says, God will send his angels to take care of you. Psalm 91, verse 11. Jump and they will catch you.” Jesus wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t use his heavenly authority on earth to benefit himself.

He wouldn’t use heaven’s magic to turn stones into bread and feed his hungry belly when he was fasting. Neither would he take a shortcut and sidestep the cross to be acclaimed as ruler over all. This is the mystery of the Messiah: in a word, it’s his restraint.

Jesus doesn’t strike down those who strike him. He could have done it, but he doesn’t do it. Have you ever thought about this?

The Gospel of Matthew thinks about this. Matthew perceives that Jesus lives by the words of the prophet Isaiah. Speaking of the servant of God, Isaiah said, “By a perversion of justice he was taken away…although he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (53:8-9) For Matthew, this is how Jesus filled out the scripture. No violence, no deceit, even in a moment of great extremity.

But there is greater mystery about Jesus than following an ancient script. The work of salvation happens when the Christ treats people better than they treated them. When he withholds what they have “coming to them” and transforms it into mercy. Jesus could call down an army of angels, but he doesn’t do it. For the work of the Gospel is more than destroying your enemies; it is saving them.

The essential spiritual practice seems to be a holding back, stepping away from the punishment that all enemies justly deserve, so that you can buy back their souls in an act of redemption. In a word: restraint. In the evening of his arrest, as on the afternoon of his crucifixion, Jesus restrains himself. He doesn’t do what he could have done. It is holy mercy to those who do not deserve it.

The mystery of the Gospel is that this is the way God is. According to the teaching of Jesus, God makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good (Matt. 5:45).” Not only that, he says, “God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:35).” Some may be offended by such extravagant mercy; but I tell you this: our lives depend on it.

Restraint is the spiritual practice of heaven. Restraint means that we don’t have to say everything we want to say. Restraint means we don’t have to do all we may feel entitled to do. Restraint means that we limit our own freedom so that others might flourish. Restraint means that we don’t live by waste or extravagance so that others may have access to the necessities of life. Restraint means that we recognize there are others around us, that there are neighbors, and the world does not revolve around us alone.

With a pandemic raging, you and I live these days in a season of restraint. We can learn all over again how love can grow as we step back. It is a sign of the mystery of the Gospel, for restraint is the essential practice of mercy.

In this light we gather around the Table of Jesus once again. A small piece of bread reveals a greater banquet. A sip from the cup awakens us to the presence of abiding grace. It is Christ who gathers us this evening. We hear the story of what he endured for us and for all, we learn from it, and we live forward in his presence and under the guidance of his enduring Word.

For on the night of his arrest, he could have come in judgment with 72,000 angels, but he didn’t. Instead he gave himself for our salvation. Then he returned from the grave to say, “Be merciful, just as God is merciful (Matthew 5:36).”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

If the Crowd Turns

Matthew 27:15-25
Lent 6 / Palm Sunday
April 5, 2020
William G. Carter

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted even more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

It is an unusual Palm Sunday when children are not present. Palm Sunday is made for them. This is the day the church hands out props. Sometimes it’s the spiky palm branches imported from Florida, just ready for imaginary light saber fights with your friends or poking your sister from behind. Children inhabit one of our favorite Palm Sunday songs: “All glory laud and honor, to thee, Redeemer King, from whom the lips of children the sweet hosannas ring.”

In one of the accounts of the story, it is the children who squeal with delight when they see Jesus riding into the city on a donkey. The grownups say to Jesus, “Get those children to be quiet,” but he retorts, “If the children were quiet, the stones would cry out.”

Children recognize Jesus as one of their own. They see what’s going on. They have deep insight. In fact, it is a child who will often ask, “Why does the crowd that loves Jesus on Sunday hate him by the end of the week?” That’s a good question. It’s the question for today.

Some would say, “It’s not the same crowd.” I wonder how they know that. Did they take attendance?

I suppose they have a good point. Multitudes are multitudes. Passover was – and still is – the largest festival of the Jewish year. In the days of Jesus, the scholars tell us the population of Jerusalem multiplied. One preacher from Georgia says we can estimate between 200,000 and a million people were in the city that week. That’s quite an estimate, give or take 800,000.

Suffice it to say, there were a lot of people in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Every inn was full. Every bed was taken. Every lamb was purchased. Every piece of unleavened bread was consumed. Passover is that important! And if you have that many people swelling into the city, it’s logistically doubtful that the same people at the front end of the week would stick around to the very end of the week.

Except that Matthew doesn’t make a distinction. The Friday crowd has gathered for the Roman governor to release his customary Jewish prisoner as a Passover public relations ploy. The previous Sunday crowd welcomed Jesus as they sang from Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” That’s a Passover psalm. Say what we want: Matthew sees it as the same crowd, a Passover crowd. There is no segmenting “this crowd” from “that crowd.”

In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, the crowd is important. The word “crowd” comes up forty-eight times. Everywhere Jesus goes, there’s a crowd. According to Matthew, Jesus doesn’t slip off by himself very much. Rather, he welcomes whoever is drawn to him. He gives himself to the whole assembly of the human family. In one poignant moment of ministry, he has compassion on a large gathering of people because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:36). Even in a season of social distancing, we are part of the crowd. That crowd is us.

And yet, in this Gospel writer’s view, the very same people who welcome Jesus will turn on him five days later. Why do you suppose that is?

Some would point out that crowds are fickle. They change their minds. In the bottom of the fourth inning in a ballgame, they boo the pitcher who can’t get it over the plate. But if that same player hits a home run in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, they jump to their feet and cheer with a single voice. Were you ever part of a crowd like that? Of course you were.

Crowds can take on a mind of their own. Each crowd has a persona shaped by the setting and the circumstances. If you are enjoying a concert in a crowded auditorium, and everybody is having a good time, the trajectory may build toward the finish, and then the crowd leaps up as one for a standing ovation.

Or recall the public rallies, all too familiar these days, where someone up front loudly picks a fight against opponents who aren’t even in the room. In such moments, facts don’t matter. The only thing that matters is ramping up the rhetoric, cranking up the energy, and energizing the audience. Woe to the singular protestor who dares to speak up and heckle! A person like that will get hurt and the crowd will laugh.

Anybody wonder how a crowd could turn on Jesus?

The psychologists tell us something more. They call it the phenomenon of a “mob mentality,” noting that “simply being part of a group changes how people think and behave.” A few years ago, after a riot in Cologne, Germany, two social psychologists wrote:

A group of people may behave in ways that violate the moral standards of each individual in that group, often leading to destructive behavior and brutality... Acting as part of a group can make individuals feel more anonymous and less responsibility for their actions, both of which promote aggression. Crowds may also change what constitutes seemingly appropriate behavior: if everybody else is doing something, it seems justified or correct. Alternatively, perpetrators may knowingly commit wrongdoing to seek the approval of those around them.[1]

This sheds light on how the Palm Sunday hosannas can unravel into a unison cry on Friday to “crucify.” The crowd speaks as one. Together they shouted, “Hosanna!” Together they shouted, “Crucify!” Nobody dared to say otherwise. In fact, by Friday, Matthew says the religious leaders were actively agitating the crowds, and nobody, not Pontius Pilate nor Pilate’s wife with her nightmare, could talk them out of it.

And there’s one more factor that needs to be noted. When people are systematically mistreated, when they are demeaned, deprived, and put down in every way, should anybody be surprised if they rise up and push back? If the daily agitation that they feel is not released or processed in a constructive way, it will create more destruction.

That was the situation in the times of Jesus. Jerusalem was occupied by solders from the Roman Empire. The Empire rolled in with brute force. The people pushed back, an insurrection here, a demonstration there, and the Empire clamped down even harder. The city was a keg of dynamite, ready to explode. That’s why Pontius Pilate was there, to keep a lid on the Jewish Passover. Should we be surprised that Jesus became a scapegoat?

I remember the first church I served as a student pastor. It was in Plainfield, New Jersey. One of the old-timers was showing me around and said, “Do you know where we are?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “We are standing on the front line of the Plainfield race riots.” I looked around nervously and said, “I don’t see anybody.” He said, “No, that was in 1967.” I was curious to discover more.

In 1967, a third of the population in Plainfield was African American. Most of those folks wanted to raise their families, get along peaceably with their neighbors, and commute to the good jobs in Manhattan. But many of their neighbors weren’t so sure about having them around. Very few of those good paying jobs found their way to the African American third of the city. So the short version of the story is that tensions ran high. Anger simmered. Fear and innuendo were stoking the fire.

One Friday night, a fight broke out at the White Star Diner. Words flew. Fists flew. Store windows were smashed. Police cars were pelted by rocks. The situation caught fire. A white police officer took a shot at a young African American. The mob turned on him and killed the officer with his own gun. It happened just like that…because it had been happening for a long time.

There were three days of riots in Plainfield. It was only one of 167 riots that broke out during the Long Hot Summer of 1967. Over fifty years later, that city is still broken and struggling to recover, all because some people had been oppressed so hard they could not stand, and they wouldn’t take it anymore. Just like Jerusalem.

And into this whole mess of humanity comes Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and human Messiah. He chooses to ride the young donkey. Those who remembered the words of scripture picture him as “the humble king.” He is powerful and authoritative, yet he chooses to serve as one who is poor in spirit. The crowd cheers, cries out “hosanna,” because they expect him to use his power to lift them up and free them from years of degradation. Instead he just gives himself away.

On the day of his sentencing, Pontius Pilate puts it to the crowd. “As a Passover gift,” he announces, “let me release one of my prisoners and give him back to you. There are two to choose from. There is Jesus of Nazareth, and there is Jesus Barabbas.”

Now, wait, you say. We have heard about Barabbas before. He was a violent man, a revolutionary who killed somebody during an insurrection. And his first name was Jesus? That’s what Matthew’s Gospel says. And not only that: the name Barabbas means “son of the father” – “bar” is “son,” and “abbas” or Abba is “Father.”

So Pilate’s offer to the crowd is this: do you want Jesus Barabbas, son of the father, or do you want Jesus the Christ, son of the Father? Do you want the violent Jesus who considers killing somebody if it would change the world? Or do you want Jesus the humble king who comes to heal, restore, and teach us to forgive and love our enemies? This is the choice they are given. This is the choice that is still before us.

We are in the midst of an unexpected pandemic. The invisible threat of illness reveals who we are. On the one hand, gun sales are setting records, and some would deem the self-defense industry as “essential.” On the other hand, we have people in our own church who are stitching up face masks to protect caregivers from getting infections. There it is, the same choice: do we give in to the seduction of violence or do we engage of the hard work of healing?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah?  

The tragedy of Holy Week is that, for whatever reason, the crowd who acclaimed Jesus on Sunday made the wrong decision on Friday. They let their anxiety get the best of them. But the good news is that God anticipated this from the beginning. The crowd who has no shepherd does, in fact, have a Good Shepherd who will lay down his life for them. And in the grand sweep from Palm Sunday, to Good Friday, to Easter, God raises Jesus to come back with mercy and compassion and grace, and say once again to the crowd, “Can we try this again?”

There is another way to live. We have heard Jesus teach it. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, even if they are persecuted for doing the right thing. Blessed are the merciful and the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers.

And blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Mina Cikara and Adrianna Jenkins, “The Role of Mob Mentality in the Cologne Attacks,” Time magazine, 20 January 2016. Accessed online at