Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Text: John 17:20-26
Other texts: 1 Corinthians 12
Regarding unity, Paul wrote to the churches in Corinth: “The body is not one part but many. … If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? If they were all [the same] part, where would the body be?”
It is the absurdity of the metaphor that makes it effective—imagine a body made up only of ears, a body made up only of eyes. There is a unity among the people of God—just as there are many parts, Paul says, but one body. But unity does not mean we are duplicates.
Yet we are not independent. The ear, Paul says, cannot complain that, because it is not an eye, that it is not part of the body. There is no ear that is not part of a larger body. A body is not a democracy. A body is not a federation. A body is one thing, made by God. This making, this creation, defines us, and it also defines God. We are creatures. God is creator.
We just overheard Jesus pray in the Gospel of John. This passage is the last part of a long section called the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for the time when he will leave them. A time coming soon for them, for in the next passage in John, Jesus is betrayed and arrested. And he has prayed for them, that though they are in the world, they may be cared for by God. Now he prays that his followers might be one. Not just his disciples, but all those—meaning us—all those who through the word, the story, have come to follow Jesus, that they—we—might be one.
This sounds nice. In a kind of sentimental way, we all think unity is good. Yet this powerful petition by Jesus to God the Father has been used to argue on the one hand for increased ecumenism and cooperation among faiths and on the other hand for increased isolation and the erection of barriers between faiths. Evidently it is not clear to all what or whom Jesus is praying for.
What makes us one? Do each of us feel at one with our neighbors in these pews? We do not share doctrinal unity here. Even in a small community—Faith, this single church—is a church of disparate views on God and Jesus. On the way we are called to serve in the world. On how we enact Jesus’ teachings and commands. Is that OK? Can we still say that we are one?
Who makes up the “them” that Jesus talks about? “I pray,” he says, “on behalf of these”—meaning his followers at the time—“but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” How wide a net is Jesus casting? All Christians? People just learning about Jesus? How about baptized people who have recently become full of doubts? How about Christian denominations with which Lutherans are in theological conflict? My energetically evangelical sister once prayed that my other sister—who is a pastor, a Lutheran pastor—would become Christian. Did her wish conform to or conflict with the spirit of Jesus’ prayer? Maybe “be one” really means “be like us.”
Who is the judge of Christian unity? Perhaps it is the various Christian institutions. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is the people whom Christians serve, people in need and suffering who receive God’s grace from followers of Christ. Or who are denied it. Is our declaration that we are Christian sufficient to make that so? Or is it that our actions as declared Christians confirm or refute our claim to be?
Jesus calls for unity of some sort among his followers over all time. If we are in fact one, as Jesus hopes, what distinguishing characteristics would enable someone to know that? That is, how could they tell whether one of us is like another? To be one, to be unified, there must be something we all share. Do we, and if so, what is that?
There is. And we do.
Jesus describes in today’s reading what we might call a chain of spirit. A series of links. Or maybe a conduit of spirit. Or maybe better an ecology of spirit. Which relates and connects God the Father, Jesus, and us. There are two aspects to this.
First, God is in us. God abides in us, as John says throughout his Gospel. You, Father, are in me, Jesus says. And I, Jesus, am in them, my followers. The glory that you gave me, Father, I, Jesus gave to them. The love of the Father for me is in them.
It is clear that people saw God in Jesus. He spoke with the authority of God, he forgave sins, he hung around with the prophets, demons recognized him. It was more than that Jesus was a good, charismatic, powerful personality. It was that God was clearly in Jesus somehow. When you know me, Jesus said, you know the Father. God is in all of us, but God was more revealed in Jesus. Jesus was transparent. You could see through Jesus to see God inside of him. Theologically, we say that when we see Jesus do something we see God. Jesus, as one scholar said, draws aside the curtain to reveal God.
Jesus is in us as the Father is in him, he says, so that—for this reason—we may be made one in the same way that Jesus and the Father are made one. I do this, he says “so that they be one, as we”—Jesus and the Father—“are one.”
So, the first way that people might tell that followers of Jesus are in unity—are one, share some special characteristic in common—is that they are transparent to God that is in them. More or less, we have to add, because we are rarely if ever as transparent as Jesus was. This is not such an odd concept. You know that when you see someone who is especially compassionate and self-giving—saintly, you might say—that God seems visible in them (and working through them).
You might have known, also, when it seems like God is in you and working through you.
The second part of the ecology of the spirit is that we are in God. You, Father, have given them to me. May they be with me, Jesus says. They are in us, Jesus and the Father, he says.
So the second way people might tell that followers of Jesus are one is that they are not alone but with other people. And as important, that they act as if that was true.
We are all part of the body of Christ—as Robin said the other week, this is more than a metaphor. We make up the body of Christ in the world. People not only see Christ within us, but the image, the character of the Christ they see is revealed by the followers of Christ, by us.
We are each one of many. We share the habitation of God. We are not just individual souls being spiritual, or even being good. We are no less connected, being parts of the body of Christ, than the eye that Paul talked about is from the ear, the hand from the foot. We are none of us more valuable than the other. We are no less responsible for one of us than for another.
The unity of Christians is an ephemeral gift. We are sometimes opaque to God in us and it is therefore sometimes hard to see God in us. That does not mean that God is not there. We sometimes act as if we could do without our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are sometimes mean and indifferent. That does not mean they are not in God with us. Our unity is sometimes fleeting, but it is persistent.
Paul finishes his instruction to the Corinthians saying this: The eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you! And the head cannot say to the feet, I do not need you! … If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Because God is in us. Because we are in God. Because we are one.
A Scary Moment
Text: John 5:1-9
We might ask: what is wrong with this man? Why is he such a whiner? Why has he been so patient, waiting—it seems—for thirty-eight years? Why has he let more aggressive others cut in front of him? Why has he not asked for help? Our compassion is sadly mixed with disdain. Would we, we think, have acted as this man has? We think not, or perhaps we hope not. We have more gumption.
We might ask also: what is wrong with those other people? Why have none of them given this man a hand? Why have they time after time crowded him out, denying him a chance to be healed? Our disdain is thankfully tempered by compassion. Would we have acted as these people have? We think not, or perhaps we hope not. We are kinder.
What would Jesus do? What did Jesus do? He berates neither the crowd nor the man. This is not, evidently, a moral tale. Not a commentary on the character of the man nor of the crowd. Not a teaching about ethical behavior, self-reliance, or the energetic pursuit of progress in the face of difficulties.
Jesus asks the man: Do you want to be made well? The man has been ill for thirty-eight years. Though maybe not for all those years, he has been sitting by the pool for a long time, and Jesus knew that, it says. Do you want to be made well? This is often a trick question that implies some kind of disapproval, as if the man were ill by his own fault, laziness, or ambivalence. But Jesus is not judging him. He is warning the man that something might happen if the man agrees. If you want to be made well, Jesus seems to say, I can do that, but I want to make sure that that is what you wish.
The man realizes in this moment, I’m convinced, that Jesus has the power to heal him. Jesus has a tendency to elicit from us our true desires. (Confronted with pure compassion, we feel things clarify.)
This is the moment of the miracle in this story. It is a thrilling moment. It is a scary moment. Scary to be in the face of such life-changing power. Scary to think what that change might entail.
The man’s answer, in spite of what must have been a lifetime of longing by the man, is slow in coming. Instead, he tells a story about his past life, about obstacles and setbacks, and about the wrongs done him. He never answers the question that Jesus has put to him.
What is he thinking? Why does he hesitate?
Maybe the man was afraid of hoping. Of getting his hopes up, only to have them sink again. Maybe he had become cynical, tired of making plans that never worked out, or believing in others who were not trustworthy. Maybe he was exhausted by disappointment.
Or maybe the man did not trust his own ability to survive in a future different from the past he had known. What skills did he have? A resume that reads Experience: 38 years of frustration on a porch by a pool. When we are called to unknown journeys, there is no guarantee that we will have the abilities we need; we might not be good at what a new future requires of us. It might be confusing, or shocking, or dangerous. We might not be able to cope. Perhaps we will fail.
Maybe the man was ready to say Yes. But he hesitated to answer because he was overwhelmed by grief. His life’s work, the focus of his day, the preponderance of his thoughts must have been—seem to have been—how to be the ill person he was. Now, that would be gone. Freed from it, you might say, but maybe he would say instead taken from him. No one leaves the past without looking back. There is no dark life so black that there is no light in it. We cannot simply set aside years and memories as if they never were. There is sadness in every leaving.
The man grieves, perhaps, that his identity will be lost. We confuse who we are with what we have and what happens to us. I am the athletic person, the artistic person, the wealthy benefactor person. I am the responsible person, the socially adept person, the good-looking person. I am the struggling person, the person who acts out, the unlucky person. I am the sick person. Who will this man be once he can stand up and walk? How will others see him? How will he know himself? He will be a stranger to his friends and to himself.
And maybe the man did not answer because he was uncertain whether all this real loss would be worth some undefined gain. Even if he trusted Jesus to heal him, and even if he was able, how could he know that his new life would be better than his old one? Maybe this was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Better the devil you know. Counting chickens. And so forth. This situation is ripe for proverbial advice. We cannot know the future for certain. And just because our hopes are fond does not mean that they are right. What we think will fulfill us may not.
It is not helpful for us to judge this man as being of poor moral character. His fault is timidity and fear of the unknown, characteristics we all share with him. We are all timid in some way. We all shun adventure sometime—or most of the time. Change is hard. Transitions are hard. Even the ones we have sought. Even at the brink of the most longed-for changes in our lives, we balance joyful anticipation with secret dread and with real grief.
Jesus knows the man. He speaks without hearing the man’s answer. These imperatives—stand up! walk!—act more like offers. Which the man accepts. The man, it says, is made whole. What was broken is restored.
Today after coffee hour we—those who wish to—are going to talk about baptism. Central to baptism is that God has both the interest and the power to bring us to new life. This new life is not a thing of the moment, any more than the man’s healing was. It is ongoing, continuous. Even in our anxiety and grief, the uncertain future becomes a new future as the man—as we—live daily in new ways. God makes the promise of baptism to us constantly and also the power to accept this promise.
We are not able to nor are we required to live the same moment over and over. Jesus makes us an offer of new life. Stand up, walk.
Something might happen.
Do I Know You
Text: Acts 11:1-18 Other texts: John 13:31-35
What God has made clean, you must not call profane. Three times God says it. Three times God warns Peter in a vision. Three times Peter shows his reluctance to trust in God’s judgment. Three times God overrules him. What God has made clean, you must not call profane. What I, God, have said is clean, you, Peter, must not deny. If God has made it clean, then who are we, as Peter asks, to hinder God? You must not—you are prohibited from—calling profane what God has announced to be good.
This is a command, not advice. God is not giving Peter permission to accept the gentiles into the ministry of Jesus (as we’ll talk about in a moment). The voice from heaven is not merely giving Peter an OK to minister to the gentiles. To Peter, these gentile people are strange and foreign. Those who heard about Peter eating with the gentiles would have been disgusted. It would have been viscerally disturbing. This is not advice. Rather, this is an order. Peter must minister to those whom he might fear and despise.
It is not our prerogative to choose whom to favor and whom to detest. It is God, not us, who decides. It is certainly not in our power or charter to constrain God. It is not for us to second-guess God’s blessings.
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
We can interpret this story in Acts narrowly. We can see it as one of a series of episodes that document the discussions of the fledgling church with itself. Should the Jesus movement continue for Jews only—as it began—or for gentiles (non-Jews) also? And since gentiles were in fact already being included, did they have to become Jews first? So Peter tells of a vision that argues for the inclusion of gentiles as-is, without the need for their conversion. In the vision, Peter is instructed to eat the food that he, a Jew, would find hard to swallow, but God tells him: go ahead. God accepts the gentiles as they are; it is not up to Peter—and more to the point, the leaders in Jerusalem—to deny them. Peter closes his argument with the question: who was I (and by implication, who are you leaders) that could hinder God? The debate ends on that note. In Peter’s favor.
We could consider this story to be an historical tale, and interpret ourselves right out of it. Or, we could interpret it to be a story of the church’s first working out of the commandment that Jesus gave his disciples in the passage we just heard in John.
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
In the passage from John, Jesus is preparing his disciples for life without him. “I am with you only a little longer,” he tells them, “where I am going, you cannot come.” They will remain here. But their ministry to the world will not stop. It has just begun. What shall they do? How shall they behave? Here is how: “I give you a new commandment,” he says. Love one another. Love one another just as I have loved you.
This is much more than a tip for living a good life. This is much more than a teaching by Jesus about how to behave. It is a blueprint for a Christian life. It is a requirement. Loving one another as Jesus has loved his disciples becomes a definition of a follower of Jesus. In this way, it is a criterion for making decisions, a gauge for judging actions. Are we serving others selflessly (which is what this kind of love is)?
This command of Jesus makes loving God and loving others identical. Subsets of each other. You cannot serve God and not serve others. When you serve others, you serve God. To serve God means to serve others even before you serve yourself. To love one another as Jesus loved us is to love others more even than we love ourselves.
Our beliefs, our theology, even our praise and worship promote this end. They are not ends in themselves. They remind us of our creator; we remember to be humble and not so proud. We are given courage in the face of fear. We are moved to see all people as our brothers and sisters. We are freed to love one another as Jesus loves us.
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
This story in John appears between two predictions of betrayal by his followers. Just before, Jesus told his disciples that someone will hand him over to the authorities to be executed, and Judas—the one of whom he speaks—sneaks off to prepare to betray Jesus. And just after the passage, Jesus will tell Peter three times that Peter will disown him.
We are called to love not only the easy but also the difficult—those whom we like, our benefactors and admirers, but also our betrayers and disowners. It is not for us to choose whom to love. Jesus does not qualify his command, only except by the provision that if we want a model, we are instructed to use Jesus. This man who forgave his executioners.
On the one hand, we have plenty of reasons not to love all others. We are often inclined—more, we are often compelled—to hate others, to seek revenge, to act in fear. We are inclined to be indifferent to others whom we do not know—strangers on the street or in strange lands. To stand back.
On the other hand, we do know how to do this. We help neighbors whom we do not know. We feed people who are hungry. We visit prisoners. We rush into danger to save the wounded and offer grieving visitors our homes. We have a whole system of care-givers who try to protect and mend all who come in need.
What Jesus commands is not that we do something ridiculously hard. What he asks is that we distrust our preconceptions, our traditions, our instincts—and our notions of what is disgusting or abhorrent—when we act toward others in the world.
It does not particularly matter how we feel or what we believe. It does matter what we do. By this—by what you do—everyone will know you are disciples of Jesus. Loving one another is a hallmark of being Christian. Will the world know by your actions that you follow Jesus? Our actions indicate to the world what it means to follow Christ.
I give you a new commandment, Jesus says. Love one another. We are rarely changed by theological arguments—that’s why Peter tells a story instead—or sermons preached. We are changed by the doing of it. That’s why this is a command, not a teaching. It is as compelling as the command to “go and baptize” or the command to “do this in remembrance of me.”
It is a means of and a sign of grace. To follow it can change the world and it will change us.
The Sins of Any
Text: John 20:19-31
We live in a world governed by conditions that we create. Things have consequences that we wish to promote or avoid. If you do this, then that will happen. Do that so that this will happen. Do that so it will not. If you do this, we caution others, you will be sorry. If you do that, you will earn rewards.
You have to learn, we tell our children, that behavior has consequences. Grades, raises, special privileges exist to guide us into acting one way and not the other. Punishments and restrictions do the same. So do affection, approval, and respect, which we say you must earn. These are moral and behavioral transactions and contracts which depend on meeting certain conditions. To add a little necessary wiggle room, we sneak in some nepotism, corruption, and other forms of cheating. Or we acknowledge extenuating circumstances, and grant leniency.
At its best, this network of conditions keeps most of us safe and many of us prosperous. It makes systems like traffic, trade, and finance possible. Citizenship and communities. Marriage. But at its worst, it supports tyranny and exploitation, imprisons people for years (or forever) and treats them harshly. Destroys hope and dignity. Corrodes relationships.
So what? The notion that what happens to us should depend on what we do is so basic that it seems absurd to talk about it. If I do the right thing, people will grant me resources, affection, or liberty. Partly, moral conditions sound like physics. One thing follows another. But also, they sound true, right, and fair. A social and moral virtue. We should get what we deserve. Others should get what they deserve. That is how the world works, has worked, and should work.
When Jesus appears in a locked room in which the disciples are cringing in fear, it is clear that something different than usual has happened. Something new. The resurrection of Jesus is not just some personal victory, to be celebrated by his cronies, though it was that, too—they were thrilled. But more, it signifies a change in the world. His appearance not only confirmed his rising. After an initial friendly greeting—peace be with you, he says in the manner of the day—Jesus gets down to business. This is a meeting to equip his followers for the mission ahead. And the equipment he gives them are his life-giving breath, the Holy Spirit, and the power of forgiveness.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. These words, like similar ones in Matthew, give to all the disciples the power to forgive sins. It is this authority, we are taught, that allows pastors to say at the beginning of most Sundays: As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins. And to say, on Maundy Thursday: In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.
But the focus here is not on the one who is allowed to say “I forgive you.” Rather it is that the forgiveness of sins by human beings is central to the continuing work of Jesus in the world after his life with us here. Forgiveness of others is an essential part—it is of the essence—of the promised coming of God’s kingdom.
By tradition, this power of forgiving others has been interpreted as spiritual, residing in clergy, in priests and pastors. For example, it is one of the three things mentioned in the ordination rite, along with baptism and Holy Communion, that Lutheran pastors are entrusted with by their ordination. And in that rite, these words in John concerning forgiveness are recited.
But in these words, Jesus speaks to more than just a select few. Throughout this Gospel, when John speaks of the disciples in general (unlike when he speaks specifically of the twelve), he means all the assembled followers. These words of Jesus are delivered here not to some particular priestly ancestors but to spiritual ancestors of all Christians. This is not an attempt on the part of Jesus to grant special clerical privilege. Jesus is conveying a power here, but conveying it to all of us.
This charge to forgive is a hallmark of a new kind of world that God brings in Jesus. It is practical and technical advice. It may have wider and deeper implications, but in the words of this passage this charge is something that the disciples are to do as they live in the world as followers of Jesus. Something we are charged to do. To forgive others.
This is hard to do. Jesus is instructing us to act unconditionally. This goes against the normal ways of the world. Forgiveness breaks the inevitable link between our actions and their consequences. Sins might go unpunished. Wickedness might go without retaliation. Enemies might prevail. Mercy might release people from what they deserve. Someone will get a free pass. An underserved break. We are not sure we want to forgive others. Perhaps it is not a good idea. Perhaps we are not sure we can.
Jesus breathes on the disciples. John uses a word that is a synonym for the breath in Genesis that puts life into the first human. And in Ezekiel for the breath that puts life in those dry bones. It is the root of the word “enthusiasm.” It appears only here in all the New Testament. Jesus is re-animating his followers, giving them new life, as if they were being re-created. Re-born, if you prefer. With this breath they receive the Holy Spirit into them. They are thereby given both motivation and the power to forgive others without condition.
There is a kind of world—a world which we hardly know, but get a glimpse of from time to time when we are forgiven, when someone forgives us for no good reason. Or when we are able to release ourselves from a great burden by forgiving others. Or when we as a culture or nation act in mercy rather than retaining our fear and desire for retribution, or revenge. This is a glimpse of the way of Jesus. The way Jesus sent his disciples on to continue his ministry.
This is not a philosophical virtue but a practical one. May the Holy Spirit that has been breathed into you grant you the desire and power to forgive a particular someone for a particular something. When we forgive others in obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live in the changed world Jesus brings.
The story we just heard about Thomas appears is less about belief than it is about mission. As the Father sent me, Jesus instructs them, so I send you. It is our belief—trust—in Jesus that allows us to follow him confidently into the world, to argue for the forgiveness of sins against us, and to be adamant and courageous in mercy.
Text: Luke 24:1-12
Other texts: Isaiah 65:17-25
We know a lot. We know how the sun works, about how materials are different from one another, about the chemistry of cooking, about how proteins are encoded in a cell. We know how old the universe is and how many stars are in it.
And we know next to nothing. For every fact there are countless mysteries. For every rule of thumb, there are countless hidden details.
Our broad knowledge and broader ignorance combine in a peculiar recipe to yield a confident certainty. We are like the map-makers in the 15th century, just before the New World was discovered by Europeans. We know a lot about some things, and we are confident that the things we do not know are more of the same. Not all the territories are mapped, but at least we know, we think, where the unmapped territories are. We know the boundaries of knowledge. We are confident that with time and work what is unknown will be known. We do not know all there is to know, but we do know what kinds of things that there are to know.
When Mary, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid, they were perplexed. They were, the word means, at a loss, like map-makers who found unknown realms. Not just surprised at what they saw, but without resources to understand it. Thrown for a loop.
When they came back from the tomb and tried to explain it to the other disciples, no one believed them. They, the others, thought the women to be telling an idle tale, it says, as if it were a made-up story. But the meaning in the passage is even harsher. The disciples thought the women were delirious. And Peter was flabbergasted.
They were not alone. When Jesus then appeared to his followers, no one recognized him. His return to their lives was not like the return of a long-lost friend or like a soldier returning from war to greet his or her family. No one was waiting to embrace him and welcome him home. If we were to come back tonight to hear the readings specified for Easter evening, we’d hear about how two disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus but do not know who he is. And in the Gospel of John, which is an alternative reading for this morning, we’d hear about how Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. Either Jesus was very different, or they were very unable to grasp that it was him.
We live in a realm of expectations. We believe the past to be a good predictor of the future. That is not surprising, for we are pattern-detecting creatures. We survive because we are good at anticipating what will happen. Furthermore, we create structures and systems—like traditions and ritual—that help us do that better. The Passion story that we heard last week (Sunday and again on Friday) is the story of those structures coming up against something incomprehensible. No one can understand why Jesus does not make claims for himself, or defend himself, or declare who he really is. And he tells them that his kingdom is not from this world.
When Mary and Joanna and Mary come to the tomb, the angel asks them why they come looking for the living among the dead. It is a trick question. They are looking among the dead because they had seen Jesus die. Unlike the other disciples, who had scattered, these women had been eye witnesses to his death. They had come looking for Jesus among the dead because Jesus had been dead. They expected that once people are crucified, they must be prepared for burial and buried. It is right to do that. It is how things go. It was surprising that Jesus is not there. It is not surprising that the three women and the other disciples are incredulous.
We cannot, as they could not, explain this event by thinking that Jesus did not die. He did. That’s what our faith teaches us. He was not faking it. Not taking refuge from death behind his divinity. Jesus died and was buried, as we say in the creed. Jesus was as dead as any creature on this earth can be. Jesus was human. Humans die. Jesus rose from the dead. That tells us something about humans.
But it also tells us something about the universe. We celebrate in the resurrection of Jesus a revelation of an unexpected cosmos. Jesus reveals that there is something that is beyond the boundaries of what was knowable. The map-makers had to add a new land. The resurrection of Jesus reveals to each of us uncharted territory. We make discoveries. For some, in it we discover a kind of timelessness, for others the feeble power of death, for others a never-subsiding force of life. The list is long. Because for each of you, perhaps, something different is revealed. Jesus rises from death. Christians are adamant about the meaning of that. Only they do not all agree about what the meaning is. Just that it does mean something important.
We celebrate because we realize that the boundaries about which we were so certain are no boundaries at all. It is relieving to find that we know so little. We find that our convictions of what is possible are misplaced. We have no idea what is possible.
Isaiah features so strongly during Holy Week and Easter because the prophet delights so much in creation and is so confident about its renewal. I am about to create a new Jerusalem as a joy, God says. No more will people weep, no more will they cry in distress, no more will children die young or old men and women succumb before their time. These are unbelievable hopes. But they are not unrealistic.
The business of the church is to pray continually that the world be renewed, that there be a new earth, as Isaiah says. And furthermore—and maybe more important—to proclaim that such prayer is not futile. Even better, that it is likely to be fruitful.
We celebrate because we see that we do not have to continue in the same patterns that seem to have ruled our lives and the life of the world. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, then by that definition the world seems to be insane. But Jesus has revealed that it does not have to be that way.
The disciples are perplexed. But it does not so much take faith or courage or piety to believe that God has revealed something new. It takes imagination and humility. In the face of our expectations, God has in the resurrection of Jesus shown a willingness to surprise us.
As we are moved into the future, it is freeing, comforting, and exhilarating to learn that there are no boundaries to what is can happen.
Text: Luke 22:14–23:56
Other texts: Luke 19:28–40
In the next few days we will hear, read, sing about, and tell each other the essential story of Christianity: Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and his subsequent trial, death, and resurrection. The story dominates the Gospels, taking up about a third of each. It is a story that we retell every Sunday. We recap it in the Eucharistic prayer. We summarize it in the creed. These tiny, brief reminders—the whole story in a phrase: suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried—refer our hearts back to the complete version of this Holy Week story.
Today preachers are advised by the liturgical instructions to keep it short, or to say nothing at all. But the weird doubly-named Sunday begs some discussion.
Palm Sunday just started with a grand parade celebrating the hope of the crowds as Jesus comes into the center of power in Israel: Jerusalem. They see in him the prophesied king. Praising God—God’s work—for the deeds of power they have seen in the life so far of Jesus. They cannot contain their enthusiasm, and if they had been able to keep silent, the stones would shout out. Yet in a moment, in the time it takes to say these few “keep it short” words, we will hear of sadness, betrayal, cowardice, and death.
It seems odd. It is odd. It mashes together two events which are separate in the Bible into one liturgical container. It is like a space warp, where one can travel from one place to the other without traversing the intervening route. If you come to church this week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday the transition will be a little slower and smoother, but even so, we skip over some important ground. It is disorienting. How could the Jesus of the triumphal procession become seemingly in an instant the Jesus of the cross?
It is the same Jesus. In many ways, Jesus was not just a nice guy who healed people and turned water to wine. He was a trouble-maker by design. He ate with the wrong people, he spoke up when he shouldn’t have, he mocked those in authority, he told everyone to love their enemies, to sell what they owned and give it all to the poor. He told parables that made people ashamed of themselves. He predicted in public the fall of the main institution in Israel, and generally made a fuss. Jesus made people angry.
He was not brought to trial because he was lovable. The march on Jerusalem was a sign to the people in power: keep a close eye on this guy. And the next thing you know—the next verses in the chapters that were warped out, Jesus is agitating people with stories of the fall of Jerusalem—“your enemies,” he warns the city, “… will crush you to the ground, you and your children.” And after that he causes a riot in the Temple over the money-changers. Then he condemns the priests. And so it goes.
In spite of what we sometimes tell ourselves, people rarely do bad things because the people are bad and they just hate the good. They do bad things because they are scared. They are afraid that they will suffer. Or they think that what they love is good, and that the good will suffer. Jesus was scary to some people. They were afraid of Jesus. They had the authority and the power to bring him to trial and condemn him to death. And they did.
We often speak about the innocence of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke especially, whose version of the Passion we are about to hear, everyone proclaims his innocence: Pilate and Herod, notably.
But we need to be cautious about thinking that the actions of Jesus had nothing to do with his death on the cross. Jesus is not just an object in some divine project, like a piece in a game. What he, Jesus, does makes a difference in what happens. And neither is Jesus just a bundle of divine goodness that makes people’s response to him inexplicable. Jesus is human as well as divine. The human world responds to his human actions in a human way.
This story is a divine story of salvation history and of God’s intervention in the world. We know that because we know how the story turns out and because we have had millennia to think hard about it.
And the story is a human story of a particular person, Jesus, in particular circumstances, in glory and in sorrow, Palms and Passion. We know that because we see it in the words—including those in Luke that we are about to hear—the words and actions of the people who meet, hate, love, follow, or crucify him.
And because we know that we strive to follow this divine and human person who lived 2000 years ago and yet who remains in our lives today, the story is our story.
It is all one singular story.
Now let us say, and sing, and tell it to each other.