John 10:11–18 (NRSV)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
I am the good shepherd. Of all the statements made by Jesus this one is probably the one that I find the most comforting. As a person who has spent time with herd animals, I can somewhat identify with the sentiment. Just this one statement causes me to think of the 23rd Psalm, which was penned by David while he was most likely still a young boy tending his father’s sheep:
Psalm 23:1–6 (NRSV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
The image of a shepherd is one that has been with humanity since the beginning of civilization. Animal husbandry is actually one of the very first activities recorded in human history. It began first with the domestication of dogs and cats for the intended purpose of assisting in hunting. Then after approximately 5000 years according to history they began to domesticate goats. And about 700 years prior to the first domestic goat humanity began domesticating plants like wheat, which is what many historians use to mark the dawn of civilization. As people started planting crops they did not want to move too far away from their fields so instead of hunting animals they began catching animals and working with them so that they could keep a ready supply of protein close at hand. After the first animal was domesticated others quickly followed, sheep were domesticated approximately 300 years after goats and pigs were domesticated about 200 years after the sheep. Showing us that they were becoming better at capturing and domesticating animals.
Since animal husbandry was so attached to human civilization most ancient cultures began identifying their deities as shepherds of people, and their rulers as the divinely appointed agents to keep watch over the cattle of the gods. We see symbols of this throughout the ancient cultures: in Ur, Egypt and in Israel. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs had a shepherd’s crook as one of the symbols of their authority. And throughout the Hebrew scriptures we are blessed with literary images of God being our shepherd, as in the Psalm I mentioned before. Why do I go into the history of this idea? Because within it lies truth.
Yes, most of the ancient cultures were not followers of the Hebrew God, but that does not mean that God did not reveal some truth to them. The fact that through the majority of ancient cultures they saw mankind as being the cattle of god, reveals to us that people have value. In ancient cultures a person’s wealth was often recorded in terms of the size of their flocks. Meaning their value, their ability to provide for a family was determined by how many animals were available for food and wool. If that is how man regarded worth, what would God value? God so loved the world, the gospel writer tells us, that he gave his only son not to condemn the world but to save it. God values people, we are the cattle or the flocks of God.
Have we ever considered this? Have we ever really thought about our value to God? For someone who has cared for animals, I know what goes into their care. I personally did not tend sheep because in the United States we do not places a high value on the products that come from sheep. But the same basic concepts remain no matter what type of animal it is. If you have any animal under your care, any type of animal, you must take care of it. It does not matter if it is a dog or cat, a sheep, cattle, or a horse if you own it you provide for its needs. We care take this so seriously that there are actually social penalties attributed to those that neglect their animals. We have even formed humane societies to be the watchmen for proper treatment of animals. Humane societies, have we ever thought about this? Organizations that monitor the care people give to animals. And we, humanity, are God’s cattle.
Jesus said, I am the good shepherd. The implications of this are profound when you think about the historical concepts surrounding shepherds. In most commentaries they mention that good, is not quite good enough, but the words that should be used is true. I am the true shepherd. The reasons they continue to use good instead of true are because good is more comforting and humane than true. But the idea of true shepherd is one that wraps every historic religious idea and places it under Jesus’s authority. Pharaoh might be a shepherd, but Jesus is the True Shepherd. All other shepherds are underlings or hired hands, they are mere agents of the true shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus says. This statement is of course a prophetic statement uttered by Jesus announcing his crucifixion, but there is more to this than meets the eye. If we were to look back through the histories of the Hebrew people we would see several instances where the image of the divine shepherd being mentioned. One of the most profound is in the 34th chapter of Ezekiel. In this chapter God commands the mortal prophet to speak to the religious leaders. And in this prophetic message he condemns the religious leaders of neglecting God’s flocks, and instead exploiting the flocks for their own gains. They take the fatlings and the wool for themselves, yet they neglect care. They fail to feed the sheep, they fail to seek the lost, they fail to bind the wounded with healing balms. And because of their neglect the sheep wonder off and scatter to be devoured by the wild animals of the wilderness. Because of the neglect these leaders were relieved of their charge, and God says that he will become the personal shepherd of his sheep. This prophecy points to Jesus, the true shepherd. As I read this passage this week, as I let the words of Jesus, and the prophecy of Ezekiel saturate my soul, it broke my heart. My heart aches because I see our current era in the words.
I could stop right here, and I would feel confident that as we centered on the scripture God’s spirit would reveal to us what we need to hear, but I feel that words must be spoken. As researchers and statistical analysis is being made about our current era we see that the church today is in decline. Much can be said about this, both positive and negative. Some say that nominal Christians are leaving because they never had faith, others say it proves that religion is dead, while others blame millennials because we always like to blame millennials for everything. But if people are leaving the church this says something about the church. It says that the church as a whole has neglected God’s flock in some way. We have failed to recognize the wounds that God’s lambs are experiencing. We have failed to lead them to the nourishing grasses for them to eat, and perhaps the waters we guide them to are not still but are filled with rapids.
We like to blame the millennials for the social ills of situation. They are lazy, they are unambitious, they are entitled. I have heard many things said about the emerging generation. Most of which are stated out of ignorance and not truth. The emerging generation is facing challenges that those prior have not faced. No, they have not experienced the Great Depression or the second World War and the horrors of the holocaust, but they have faced challenges. This current generation is the first generation where it was more common to be raised in a single parent or blended family than the prior generations. The only family they have witnessed was one based on self-interest instead of commitment and we look down at them for rejecting the traditional family. Friends they do not know what a family is. We look down at the Millennials for not buying houses or living with parents, but in the 1940’s when the “greatest generation” was coming into adulthood, the median home value was around $3,000, if we were to adjust the for inflation today that home should be just under $40,000. Yet today the median value of a house is around $200,000. This current generation cannot afford a home. And to make it even worse the cost of education has increased in the past forty years by 213%. With 71% of today’s students holding a debt before they even start a job that is greater than what their grandparents spent on their first home. And if we look at wages, the equivalent minimum wage from 1950’s adjusted for inflation would be just under $5 more than it is today. And many of them often were required to take unpaid or now low paid internships for at least year before they even have an opportunity to apply for jobs within their field of study.
We blame millennials for many things, but they are entering into their adult life in debt, they earn an equivalent of $5 less per hour than the previous generation did when they started working, and the cost of living has increased at a greater rate than wages reflect. And their family situations are often not ideal if they exist at all. They have deep wounds, they have grave concerns, and they are seeking answers. Yet this deeply wounded generation so often leaves the church, the agent of the true shepherd. What does this say about us? Do we reflect the true shepherd?
All that information of course is statistical analysis, each of you could probably find an exception and could say that those were life choices that were made and now they need to live by them. You would be right, but that does not alleviate the statistical norm within that generation. What we once knew and believed as a culture has shifted, and now we are scrambling with attempts to figure out how to correct the errors. We are casting blame and pointing fingers but are we even asking the right questions? Are we more focused on preserving institutions or caring for God’s flocks?
I have said often that history is filled with cycles. If we look at the names of the genealogy of Jesus we see the names reflecting various trends within history: they praise God, praise technology, praise war, cry in despair, cry out for God’s help, and praise God. They repeat again and again. And those same cycles continue even to this day. This gives me hope because eventually things will improve, but what do we do in the mean time?
Jesus says he lays down his life for his sheep. He freely gives everything he has for his flocks so that they will be well maintained and cared for. He leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one that was lost. When the sick are brought to him, he has compassion, he sits with them in their illness and then provides healing. He cares for the body and the soul. He faced down the hypocrisy within the religious institution and demonstrated a better way of life. A life focused on prayer, worship and service to the community. He demonstrated this to such a degree that he willingly took on our sin and shame by carrying a cross to Calvary. He said he freely lays down his life for his sheep and he also have the power to take that life back up again.
Jesus loves his flock, humanity, so much that he left heaven to be born as a baby to a virgin mother. He loved humanity so much that he lived a life devoted to God before us and he taught and showed us how to live that life with him. He cared so much for us that he bore the cross and was buried in our sin’s tomb. And He loves us so passionately that he rolled that stone away defeating the wages of our sin and throwing off the chains of death.
Knowing this, why does the current generation leave the fold?
The disciples were amazed at the wonders that Jesus performed around them, yet Jesus told them that those who believe will do the very same things, not only the same but greater things than he showed them. I read those words and I consider the things I have read as I studied this week and I wonder. If this is true why are so many struggling, and why do we lack faith?
It all goes back to who is our shepherd? Are we following a hired hand or are we following the true and good shepherd? All of the statistics and comparisons I mentioned before are based on mankind they have nothing to do with God. They are the worldly interpretations of worldly situations, that will lead into worldly applications and garner worldly results. Meaning we are looking to humanity for answers to problems we created for ourselves, we are looking for a human shepherd to make us great again. What result do we expect out of that? But what if we actually believed the words that Jesus spoke? What if we not only believed with our minds but what if we entrusted our very existence to those words, which is truly what belief means. What if we actually believed that if we followed Jesus we would see even greater things than mentioned in scripture happening all around us?
If we believed in that way, if we lived a life where we followed the teachings of Jesus in all that we do, the world around us would definitely change. Let us just dream a moment. Scripture tells us all that we need to fulfill the work of the kingdom is present right here with us. Every gift of the spirit is present and available to every body of believers. We may not have every gift personally but if we work together we have all we need to expand the kingdom here. With that being said, if we look at statistics again the median income in Kansas City is around $45,000 per household if we had just 11 families who gave a tithe we would be able to fully function at our current level. What if we added 2 new families? We would have a 17% increase to our current budget. Imagine what we could do? In one of my dream ministries, I considered serving oatmeal at bus stops three days a week. If we were able to have a 17% increase of ministry capital that dream could easily become a reality. That is just one dream that I have had, I am sure if we were to ask each of us in this church what our dreams were in ministry, what we would do for the kingdom if resources were available to us, we would have many more ideas that were even greater than oatmeal.
What is stopping us? What is stopping us from doing what God is calling us to? Is it because our minds are not on the true shepherd? The reality is that those resources that 2 new families could provide are already available if we wanted it to be. We already have all that we need to accomplish the work that God has given to us. Because he is the good shepherd and he will take care of his sheep. The reality is that the very power that rose Jesus from the grave is available to everyone who believes, but do we believe? The truth is that out of our fear we bind ourselves, we restrict ourselves, and we limit what we can do because we are focused on worldly things instead of focused on the things that God values. We would rather maintain our own systems of wealth instead of tend to the flocks of our Father. Why is the church in decline? The answer to that question is really simple, the church is not reflecting Jesus. I know that sounds harsh, I know I do not even what to mention it, because I am part of the church just like all of us. But if we reflected Jesus we would take his life as our own. We would live lives of prayer, worship, and service every single day. We would not worry about if we stay open another year or five but we would serve today and trust that our shepherd would lead us to green pastures and still waters and even when we pass through the valleys of death we would not have fear, because we would know that God is with us even to the end of the ages.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us consider what it means to be in the flock of the Good and True Shepherd. Let us consider what it means to believe and to follow Christ. And let us consider how we can reflect Christ in our community right now today.
John 20:19–31 (NRSV)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
(Lk 24:36–43; 1 Cor 15:5)
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
A week and 2000 years ago something amazing happened. Mary a close friend of Jesus had just come from the tomb and just kept cheering, shouting, laughing, and crying that Jesus was alive. “Jesus is risen!” She said. HE IS RISEN!
The disciples looked at her, and you know what they did. They closed the door and locked it.
John and Peter ran to the tomb with her, because just hours earlier she came to them crying, saying that the tomb was empty, that someone had taken the body. Peter and John ran to the tomb, they confirmed that the body was indeed gone, but it was odd because the grave clothes were left there and the head covering was laid apart from the rest. It was almost like it was removed after the body was taken a couple of steps away. They could not imagine what had happened, but the one thing they knew was that if someone took the body the authorities would soon be coming to question them.
They were afraid of this. This could not be good. To disturb a tomb that was officially sealed was a capital offense. It would not be long before Roman soldiers were knocking on the door and they knew that there would not be an honest trial, Pilate was not known to be a lenient man. He had crucified many for less, just a hint of rebellion and men were hung. They had not only hinted at rebellion they had cheered and proclaimed publicly throughout the city of Jerusalem that Jesus was the Son of David, the King of the Jews. They were all on Pilate’s radar. All he needed was an excuse.
They are all sitting in a room, the windows are covered and the door is locked. They are listening to Mary one more time as she tries to explain to them what she saw. What exactly did she see? It is too unbelievable; did she say again that Jesus is alive?
They sat there in fear. Every noise they believed was their ended. They were petrified, and unable to move. They locked the door. Attempting to keep everything else out. They feared not only the Romans but the Jews, their own people. If they were not part of their exclusive group they were sealed out.
Then out of nowhere, He was with them right there in that room. Words could not form in their throats, and Mary just stared at them with a look of satisfaction. Yet they remained in that room scared. Then Jesus spoke to them. “Peace be with you!”
Peace be with you. Peace, freedom from worry, be with you. Imagine the paralyzing fear they were experiencing at that moment, and in a word, Jesus is telling them let it go. Be released from it all, be free. They just stood there with their mouths agape, so he showed them his hands and his side. Slowly their mouths begin to form utters, partial words, and then all together they begin to rejoice. JESUS! It really is you, your hands look at them and the spear went right there. Mary you were right He Lives!!
Jesus then repeats the words, “Peace be with you.” And he adds as the Father sent me so I send you. Then he does something different, he breaths on them. There are many things attached to this action. The first is that Jesus was truly alive and breathing. They might have had an ounce of doubt to this point, maybe it was merely a spiritual manifestation of Jesus that they were seeing. One that is there to give them hope but he is really not with them. But no, Jesus is breathing they felt the wind coming out of his mouth, it was not a cold wind, but one that was tempered by the warm blood coursing through the veins of a living person and there was the hint of humidity that is also present in beings whose bodies contain seventy percent water. He breathed on them, which also snaps them to attention. When God formed the first human out of the dust, He then blew the breath of life into them. It was this breath that gave them life, true life one that connects both the physical and spiritual. It was that breath that connected them with God. And it was that breath that was taken from them when they fell in the garden. Life of sin is a life filled with fear. It is a life lived under the dictatorship of fear. The disciples were cowering in a locked room in the clutches of fear, and Jesus came to them, breathing life into them and giving them freedom and peace.
He did this because there was more to do. So, the father had sent him He is sending them out into the world. They were not created to sit in a locked room sealing out the things that bring fear. Instead they are to go out into that terrorizing world and breath life into it. They are meant to continue to spread the good news of the Kingdom because their king is not a king like the king of the world, their king was crucified on a tree, was buried for three days, and lives.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus continues as he finishes breathing life back into them. They remember the teaching He shared with them. The Spirit is like the wind, you know it is there but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. When Jesus spoke these words, he was saying that we do not know the beginning or the end, but we can follow where it leads, just like a leaf can sail along on the passing breeze. Jesus is encouraging them to latch onto that wind, because that very breeze is the breath of God. We may not know where it came from or where it is bringing life. Follow that wind so that we can participate in His kingdom work. Follow the Spirit, learn to discern its leadings, just as he showed them while he went to the wilderness to pray.
Then Jesus says something that puzzles me, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” At this point the wind dropped. My kite was flying high and it suddenly took a nose dive, and my mind says, “WHAT?”
This statement is similar to the one that Jesus spoke to Peter, the keys of the kingdom, “what ever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loose in heaven.” Which to be honest is just as confusing. But the difference between versions is that in John’s gospel account Jesus tells this to the entire body of apostles, whereas in Matthew is directed toward Peter. This is confusing because there is great power within these words. If I do not forgive does that mean that that sin remains on that person? Yes. It also means that if you do forgive that person is released from the obligation or wages of sin. That is a great deal of power to give to humankind. What about those grudges that people hold and you are not even aware that you might have caused harm to them, are you destined for an eternity outside of God’s blessing because they held a grudge against you? If that is the case then every one of us is in a great deal of trouble.
Sin, what exactly is this? Most of us have heard the definition that is derived from archery which means that we have missed the mark. This is a word, translators used to describe a concept. It is a theologically loaded word that basically means that something is amiss. It is both a legal term as well as a relational term, an error was made somewhere and the goal we were trying to obtain was missed. The word sin as we know it did not exist as sin in the original languages of scripture, it was a translator’s attempt to give us an idea of missing the life God intended for us to have. Jesus said that he came to give life and to give it abundantly, or to the full. That abundant life of which Jesus speaks is a life with Him, a life in communion or in community with God. It was the life that Adam and Eve experienced before the serpent hissed in their ears in the garden. Jesus describes life filled with contentment and joy, he does not mean wealth and health in the manner in which we think of it, but relationships. A life free from sin is a life where we are focused on pleasing those around us, where everyone is set on mutual profit instead of selfish gains. The greatest image of this is a marriage.
In an ideal marriage, let me stress ideal because we all know that often it is not ideal, both are help mates to each other. Both are assisting one another so that they can accomplish whatever their task is. They may have different roles to play in that task but if the task is complete both equally enjoy the benefit of their labor. Each member of the union is giving themselves fully to the other, and when both live in this way the romance is beautiful.
Marriage also shows us what a life of sin looks like, because if one member of a union does not live fully for the other and is taking more from the relationship than they give, tension builds and anger and resentment takes hold. If you want to know what sin is, all you have to do is look at your relationships with others. What angers you about them, and what causes them to become angry? What are the things that you can do to prevent these emotions, and what can you do to create a more harmonious union? Whatever you forgive is forgiven what ever is retained is retained.
For a relationship to flourish we need forgiveness, because we are people prone to selfishness. But in a relationship who loses if forgiveness is withheld? If you carry resentment to an action done against you by another you are causing a rift to build within the relationship and that relationship begins to tear apart. You begin to build up protective walls within yourself to prevent damage and you begin to pull back on your willingness to provide mutual benefits. In your mind you begin to take care of yourself instead of the other. And this self-focus pulls us away from the abundant life.
Jesus gave freely. Yes, he was aware of his limits but when he pulled away it was so he could reengage again in ministry to the other. We need to do this at times because we are human, and we interact with humans. At times we do not know where the boundaries are that we should not cross so we push forward and if we do not communicate we end up taking more than we should. Forgive and it will be forgiven, retain and it will be retained.
Jesus came to show us how to live a healthy spiritual life. He showed us how to live in ministry with others. Time together, time alone, and time in celebration. This goes with all relationships even with God. Jesus lived this so that we could live this with others, because we are sent to continue the work that he started.
That day 2000 years ago, well approximately 1985 years ago. The disciples moved from fear to life, but there were some that were not with them. One individual was Thomas, we all know him as doubting Thomas. He gets a bad reputation that he does not deserve because he is no different than the rest of the disciples, they all doubted they were all confused. His greatest sin was that he was not there with them. But whatever we forgive is forgiven and what ever is retained is retained. The disciples went out to find Thomas and they brought him back into the group. They forgave or offered forgiveness and the relationship was restored. Immediately within days of Jesus’ commission to them the disciples began to live the abundant life, and Thomas was the first fruit. But there was another member of their group that was not present, a man by the name of Judas. They did not seek out Judas that did not seek to restore the relationship with him, and he remained outside the community. To this day we do not see Judas Iscariot as a saint of the church but as the vilest of sinners. His sin was retained, and could it be that their actions had something to do with that?
One man was forgiven and another was not. The disciples themselves chose to judge, but was it their place? Do we do all we can to restore the relationships around us? We do not know if the disciples attempted to bring Judas back or not, all we know is that he continued down a pathway of destruction. I would venture that the disciples most likely tried to restore but Judas chose to retain his own sin and ended his own life. He was unwilling and unable to see the forgiveness offered and it drove him mad.
Which leads us back to the theological discussion of the power we possess over sin. Jesus said that the only sin that remains is grieving the Spirit all other sin is forgiven. All other sins. The only sin that remains the only retained sin is a conscience rejection of following the Spirit to the foot of the cross. When we reject the Spirit, we like Judas are unable and unwilling to see the forgiveness offered to us and we too are driven mad and continue to rip our relationships apart. This leads to marriages ending in divorce, suicide, exploitation of humanity in various ways. And when these things happen in individuals it bleeds into the greater community, which then bleeds into nations becoming mad with selfishness and unhealthy self-preservation which leads to the dehumanization of nations and war. And it all comes down to one thing will we forgive or retain? Will we follow the spirit to Christ or will we continue to walk away? Will we do all we can to encourage one another or will we push people away? Will we lock the doors to seal ourselves from the scary world or will we boldly enter the world proclaiming the gospel? Jesus lives do you believe? Jesus lives and he is breathing his breath of life on us all are we willing to take that breath inside of us and witness the abundance of life? Are we willing to live a life of forgiveness for the good of others like Christ lived or will we live as Judas?
John 20:1–18 (NRSV)
The Resurrection of Jesus
(Mt 28:1–10; Mk 16:1–8; Lk 24:1–12)
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 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. 13 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.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 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.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 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.’ ” 18 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.
I have been a bit vulnerable the past few weeks, letting everyone know just a bit about my approach to scripture and how I start engaging with it. At times I find it difficult to move through scripture. I begin to read and I just stop. I go back and read again and stop another time. So, I sit with it for a while. This week was no different. My intentions were to focus on the miraculous event that is the resurrection. And I am sure I will get there, but for some reason I had a detour.
Today we meet together with Mary. There is much to be said about Mary. She is one of those mysterious people in scripture. We might think we know something about her but so much of that knowledge is steeped in tradition and legend that it is difficult to consider if it is accurate or not. The only things we know for sure is that she was the sister of Martha and Lazarus and that they together were friends of Jesus. Pretty much anything beyond that are academics musings to entertain those that have too much to think about anyway. She and her siblings were engaged with the ministry of Jesus. Jesus visited their family estate many times during his travels and it might be said that their home in Bethany was the administrative center of Jesus in Judea. Mary and Martha severed Jesus, they provided food for him and his disciples. We even have a glimpse into their family life when Martha complains that she does all of work while Mary sits at the feet of the Rabbi.
Jesus was Mary’s teacher. This is something that is pretty radical. It would not be surprising that Lazarus would be a student of the teacher but in that era of history women were not educated by the Rabbis, yet Mary was there sitting at Jesus’ feet. She was an eye witness to one of the greatest miracles of history when Jesus came to Bethany to mourn the loss of his friend, her brother, only to call Lazarus from the tomb. Jesus was her complete hope; his life and his wellbeing was central to her mind. For her, Jesus was life there was nothing else.
This is why I kept getting detoured. Jesus was her life, and at that moment in her mind everything she was living for died. How often do we sit with Mary in this place? How often do we find ourselves in a place where all hope is lost?
Mary goes to the tomb early Sunday morning, to do the one things left to do. She goes to honor the dead. Imagine what would be going through her mind. Imagine your life through her eyes. Most of us have been there. Most of us have latched onto a dream and watched the dream fade. For many of us we are living in that place right now. We live in this place where what once was no longer is. We go through the motions of life, we try our hardest to live what is left of that dream, and we see the darkness closing in around us as if the large stone is being rolled over the opening of the tomb our dream is buried.
For Mary and all the disciples all hope was buried that Friday night, it was laid down in the darkness all through the sabbath on Saturday, and now as the sun begins to rise they are attempting to make sense of where their life went. For three years they had thought they were working for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. They thought they were serving the very messiah they had waited for from the beginning of time. Yet just three short days earlier the world’s systems hung their king from a tree, the most dishonorable way to die. Where do we go from here? Fear begins to creep in, the teachings of this rabbi start to diminish because the power of the world seems to be greater than the hope contained in faith. Fear is the tool of the world, it is where the world wants us to live, because when we live in fear we can be controlled. We willingly allow walls to be built to protect us from unknown demons only to find that those that wish to torture reside in ourselves. So often we live in fear. We live entombed in the darkness. We live yet we don’t, we exist in a dead faith. A faith built on human ability and wisdom. A tomb that is only as big as we allow it to be, and with each moment we allow fear to reign it closes in tighter.
Mary, at that moment was lost in the darkness. Her life was buried with Jesus. She slowly walked to the place where her hope was laid to rest, the weight of it all pushing her shoulders down, making it hard to even breath. Flashes go off in her memories, memories that should make her smile and laugh pierce her heart. She imagines how the mother of her teacher must feel. She arrives to face her fears, to enter that cool darkness only to find the stone removed. Confusion catches in her chest. Thoughts fire in a million different directions. And she runs. Breathlessly she finds the disciples and tells them what she saw and she follows them back to the tomb. Peter and John arrived before her and she watches John stop at the mouth of the cave and Peter enter. They see the cloth used to wrap the body, the cloth still stained with the blood of their teacher and friend. They are puzzled by the covering that was over the head being rolled up separate from the rest of the cloth, but they cannot explain it. Fear again grips them. Whatever did this would soon be coming for them. Peter and John leave and Mary slumps against the stone at the opening looking in and the tears begin to flow.
So often this is where we stay. We live in that place between life and death, merely existing. The past few weeks I asked some questions, “what do people see when they look at me, and what do people hear when I speak?” I have read countless books, I have listened to countless messages that reside in this place between life and death. I have listened to people promoting the Christian life using the wisdom and tools of the world, and the results are exactly what we would expect. Reports of diminishing churches, reports of legal battles defending and demanding rights, people calling for war to defend faith. The church so often lives in that moment between life and death, remembering the past, fearing the present, and praying that there will not be a future.
Mary through her tears looks again in the tomb and sees two figures sitting on the bed of the dead. She not only sees them but they speak to her. They ask, “Why do you weep?”
Why do we weep? Mary mumbles and answer. It doesn’t matter why she weeps. Life for her is over, she begins to just count the breaths till her last. She turns away, not even realizing that she was talking to angels. Unable to recognize the amazing events around her, because she is consumed by her own hopelessness. As she turns another person asks her why do you weep? At this time, she is probably about to throw punches. If one more person asks her this…I weep because life is not what I wanted, I once had hope and its gone, I weep because everything I ever loved has been taken from me, and now even the memory is fading because I can’t even anoint the body with oils. Jesus himself was standing in front of her, and she could not see him. He spoke to her and she spoke to him yet she did not recognize his presence. Because she was dwelling between life and death.
And He says to her, “Mary!”
One word, changed everything. As the breath of God spoke her name, the wind of the spirit blew the clouds away so the sun could illuminate her surroundings. As the darkness was overcome by the light the garden in which they stood began to come alive once more, birds began to sing its anthems of life, and color again was revealed. The voice of her beloved teacher just spoke her name. She did not even consider how it could be, because it did not matter, he spoke her name and she was looking at his face. And he told her to go tell his brothers.
I have asked many times in the past, “do we believe in the resurrection.” I ask it again today. Do we believe? At times I am like Mary, I am caught in that confused place between life and death. I see glimpses of hope yet in the next moment something happens that causes me to start repairing the wall I build around myself. Do I believe? So often times I am like Peter and John, I see evidence that something has happened, yet I cannot explain it so I move along as if it never occurred. Do I believe? So many times, I am like the other disciples within the group, closing myself in a room locking the door trying to keep everything that might hurt me outside so I can live safe. But do I believe?
Jesus rose from the grave. He died on a cross, taking a punishment reserved for the vilest offenders of Roman rule, he was buried in a grave and remained there for days. Yet when Mary came to anoint the body after the sabbath, he was not there. He rose from the grave and He lives. All of our fears, all of our shame, all the things that drive wedges within our relationships went with him into that grave, they were buried in that tomb. Yet the stone was rolled away, and Jesus came out and spoke the name of a dear friend. Do we believe?
It is a fascinating concept to consider, because if for a moment we were to imagine the idea that Jesus rose from the grave then we would have to admit that maybe the words that he taught might actually be possible. If we were to allow the possibility of Jesus raising from the grave we might just possibly consider that the life he showed us while he walked the countryside might be a life we should live, and we should not be afraid of living it. If we were to allow for a moment that possibility, we would have to let go of our fear, our desire for control, our quest for purpose in ourselves, because if Jesus rose from the grave nothing else matters. If Jesus rose from the grave he is truly the king of kings and lord of lords. And if he is truly the king of kings and lord of lords it would be foolishness to hold onto the things a defeated system has to offer. I ask do we believe?
Jesus told one of the religious teachers one night:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Jesus said these things to one of the faithful of Israel, and it confused him. It may even confuse us. But what he is saying moves us to this very moment between Mary and Jesus outside that tomb. Do we believe or are we caught in that place between life and death? The answer we give determines so much in our lives. It tells us if we are dominated by fear or if we are filled with hope. It reveals if we are driven by relationships or dominated by circumstances of today. It illuminates the motives behind our actions. Will we live by faith, hope, and love or will we exist in fear, greed, and exploitation?
Jesus lives, and he spoke the name of his friends. Jesus lives and he turned their hopelessness into hope. Jesus lives and he has resurrected in each one of us the opportunity to live as well. Jesus lives. And if you believe that, if you even hope that it is true, a spark of life will begin to burn in you to illuminate the darkened caves we find ourselves in, it will reveal that the things that we fear are primarily illusions created in our own imaginations, and it will expose a door with a key in the lock that is being knocked on by the king of kings and lord of lords. A door that if we unlock and open will allow us to see that all around us God is working and continuing to create a kingdom which spreads all tribes, and nations. Jesus lives. Let us turn toward him and dry our eyes, because our despair was buried with him in that tomb and now that tomb is empty. Our sin, our fears, our shame, our weakness and our condemnation are gone. All that remains is life. Let us live with him, stepping out into the morning light, and taking on the life he showed us. A life and lifestyle of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Jesus with other.