Friday, May 22, 2015

May 24, Pentecost: Life #4: The Lord and Giver of Life

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, Acts 2:1-21

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the eighth Sunday after Easter, and the consummation of the Easter season. We have finished a journey we began three months ago, on February 18, when it was still freezing outside, on Ash Wednesday. From ashes to tongues of flame. Ashes for death and fire for life. We put ashes on your faces. Shall we light your heads?

Ashes are the residue of fire. Fires can mean death too, and speaking scientifically, a fire is no more alive than ashes are. Yet many cultures use fire as a symbol for life. I guess because it’s energy. When you light a fire in the woodstove you also warm the heart. So what the flames on the heads of the disciples signify is the life of God.

Well, so does the breath, as in the prophecy of Ezekiel, the animating breath of God. When God breathes into you, you get a soul. But the flames mean that you get God’s soul too. The flames are the sign of God’s own private inner life, God’s own native energy, the inner heat of God’s personality. This is the hot breath of God, the inner soul of God, who has now come into these people.

Where does God live? In heaven? Or in God’s people? Or both? Do you want that for yourself? How much do you want God inside you? Would you rather keep God in heaven and keep possession of yourself?

It struck me this week, for the first time in my ministry of thirty-five years, how strange is the exchange that happened in those last ten days of the Easter season, from the Ascension to Pentecost. An earthling moves into heaven and then the divine soul moves into earthlings. It’s not so much trading places as a mixing up. Why does God do this?

Let me lay it out more carefully. If we say that the Lord Jesus is at once both God and man, then on Ascension Day, as the Son of God he returns to heaven, but as the Son of Man, he enters heaven for the first time. (This story cannot be explained without some logical conundrums.) If we say that he took his seat at the right hand of the Father, that means that somehow God has taken into God’s self the flesh and blood humanity of a real human being, with his original fingerprints, and of Jewish ethnicity. An earthling is mixed into God. Does that mean that God has changed? (What this does to the eternal changelessness of God I can’t begin to comprehend.)

And then, ten days later (at least from our perspective from within time, because heaven is outside of time), we say that ten days later this flesh and blood Jesus sent the Spirit of God down to the ground to live inside other earthlings, and to do so for keeps. And when we say the “Spirit of God” we don’t mean just one third of God, or just an energy from God, but the soul of God, God’s inner self. So now what we’ve got is a human in heaven who sends God down to earth! (I’m just working it.)

Why this exchange? Why this mixing up and trading places? I may say that this is where our sister religions of Judaism and Islam think we Christians go off the rails. Especially Islam. How dare you bring down God like this? How dare you raise one of us up to the level of God? And even as Christians we might well ask what the point is. What’s the value in it anyway? What good does it do anyone?

Well, it has no value, for example, if the goal of salvation is just to get us to be good. All this mystical traveling and exchanging is essentially superfluous mythology which is better jettisoned to stop distracting us from trying to be good. Similarly it has no value if the goal of salvation is to get you into heaven when you die. If the point is to get your sins forgiven so that you won’t go to hell when you die, then this strange exchange that brings God down to earth is only an expediency like a lifeguard in the water, who gets in only to get you out.

You were probably taught that the point of the gospel is primarily that, to get you into heaven when you die, and, secondarily, that you live a good life here until you get there. Like in the gospel songs: “This world is not my home, I’m must a travelin’ through, if heaven’s not my home, Lord then what will I do. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open shore, and I can’t feel at home in the world anymore.” “When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” I love those songs, but I am teaching you that God means this world to be your home, and that you’re not just traveling through.

Because it will be God’s home too. So instead of the images of escape, our epistle today gives us the image of pregnancy. The world is pregnant, and expecting, and, yes, is in some pain and discomfort until the birth. This is the discomfort of cleansing and sanctification and transformation, sufficient for the world to become the mansion of God.

This global salvation story gets personal for you by the Holy Spirit living in you already, invisibly but effectively, preparing you too, converting you and developing you and enriching you and blessing you. Then, finally, by means of your death and resurrection, the Spirt transforms your soul and body to be capable of carrying in your flesh the life of the world to come.

I’ve been saying that life on earth is not just an accident of physics and chemistry. I’ve been saying that life on earth is a gift of the Holy Spirit, to plants and animals and humans. We’ve been repeating that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. I have said that the source of life is the inner life of God, of which the energy is love. But now we’re adding something more, the second stream of life within the world, which was not there at creation, but which comes from the new creation, the life of the world to come.

The first life is the breath, and the second life is the hot breath. The first life is the creating love, the general love, the philosophical love, the love of a father for his children, and the second life is the passionate love, the suffering love, the sacrificial love, the groaning love, the love you hear in labor pains, the love that sighs too deep for words.

The epistle says that the whole creation groans because of us. The glaciers are groaning as they calve too fast. The ground is groaning in Oklahoma from what we’re doing beneath it. The migrants and the refugees are moaning on their open boats. Do we even dare to hope that this might be the birthpangs?

The groaning of creation becomes the inner tension of your souls in you who are believers. In this time in-between you feel like you are double, with two lives going on inside you, the original life, which has been corrupted and polluted by your sin, the life that is judged by God, but yet is still and no less loved by God, and then also the life of the world to come, which never replaces your old life but constantly converts it and revives it.

Your soul and God’s Spirit, your breath and God’s heat. On the one hand you are enduring, you’re waiting, you’re sorrowing and sighing. On the other hand you feel your contractions, the movement and the heat and every contraction gives you hope, and I’m telling you that your hope is not a delusion. I’m telling you that you can believe that your life already belongs to the life of the world to come.

So the Holy Spirit is for you personally, to comfort you and inspire you and quicken your personal spiritual gifts. But the Holy Spirit is also beyond you and beyond the church and beyond the Christian religion for the whole life of the world, and for the future of this world.

What this means for us as physical human beings we are just given hints of. What it means for plants and animals we can only wonder at. What it means for the planet we can only hope for, but our hope can inspire us to witness and action. The Holy Spirit moves you to think beyond your own practical benefits and applications. It wants joy for the world. The Spirit calls you to wonder and to the pleasure of your imaginations. It’s like being pregnant. Start imagining. Start envisioning. Dream dreams.

My take-home is for us as a congregation, and for our future and our mission. Look, if the work of the Spirit is to get us into heaven when we die, then our space for worship might as well be an ugly windowless mega-church with mega-screens and sound equipment. If the goal is just to get us to be good, then we might as well worship in a public auditorium.

But if our vision is the sanctification of this real world as the mansion of God, then you have sufficient spiritual reason to renovate that sanctuary as a witness to what God’s mission is. It’s a Pentecostal mission, it’s a Holy Ghost building. It speaks in the tongues of its stained-glass and its stenciling and its multi-colored arabesques. You should renovate that sanctuary not only to express your mission but also as your witness to God’s mission, who is reclaiming this created world as God’s beloved sanctuary, and who is giving you your own place with God within it. You should renovate that sanctuary to bear witness to all the riches and wonder of the love of God, that God so loves the world, and all that dwells therein.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 08, 2015

May 10, Easter 6, Life #3, The New Life of the World

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

This is the third sermon in my series called “This Is the Life,” and what we’re doing every week is asking our scripture lessons what they can tell us about Life. And I don’t mean just spiritual life, but life in the broadest sense, the life we share with animals and vegetables. There’s something about life in all three lessons, and I’ll take them in the order that we read them.

The reading from Acts is a snippet from a longer story. Peter had a dream of a great sheet let down from heaven full of unkosher food that he was told to eat. When he awoke he was brought to the house of Cornelius, an Italian, a Roman army officer, who’d gathered his colleagues and family. Peter preaches a sermon, and then our snippet opens with God interrupting him. God comes down into these pagans just as God had come down into the disciples at Pentecost. Now there were good reasons for Peter to hold off baptizing them, but the Holy Spirit didn’t bring Peter there to say No!

God was coming back into the larger world outside of Israel. Yes, God was always there, but now God was coming actively, openly, publicly, vocally, visibly, savingly. For a very long time before this, going back to Abraham, the Creator of the world had been purposely confining his saving presence to Israel. And Israel got used to that, and figured that the temporary was permanent, and that the means was the goal. This narrow expectation did not change automatically among the first Christians. But God did not wait for them to be ready. God suddenly enters into the lives of Italians as fully as the Jews. God is coming into the whole wide world. Not just individuals, but the nations.

The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, and that means not just spiritual life but the Life of the world. I want you to think of God’s salvation and God’s interest as widely and holistically as possible. So that when the epistle speaks of conquering the world, it doesn’t mean defeating the world, it means winning the world!

If you think of the broad Biblical story, when God created the world, it was empty of life until the Holy Spirit breathed on it. And when God created human beings to be stewards of the world, they were just lumps of clay until God breathed into them and they became living souls. But we rebelled against God and fled from God and got bad breath and corrupted our own lives and began to pollute the world within our care.

We developed a life that the Bible calls the old life. But a new life begins with the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit brings that new life into the old life. It doesn’t replace the old life but it enters it and judges it and purges it and cleans it and heals it and loves it and wins it to transform it. That’s the patient work of God in your own life, and what you experience in your own life is a smaller version of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

That’s my first take home. The Holy Spirit inhabits not just your so-called spiritual life, but the whole of your life, your speaking and thinking, your working and eating, your politics and economics, your home and family, your sleeping and loving, your laughing and playing, your singing and dancing. Not just for hymns but also for opera. God started with the Italians, after all.

From our epistle reading we get four signs of Life. Being born, and then water, and blood, and breath. The epistle says that you are born of God if you believe. You who were born into the old life are born again into the new life of the resurrection that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world through you. It’s called being “born” because it’s all encompassing, like a whole new life, and also because you didn’t choose it.

You didn’t choose to be born the first time. Your birth was the result of the choices made by other people. And Jesus says this in the gospel: “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.” It’s one of the great mysteries of Christian experience that although in your perception you have to choose it and you keep on choosing it, yet behind the curtain of experience it was God who was choosing you. Why you? Why not somebody else? God does not answer that.

But here is what you can believe, and to your comfort. As I said two weeks ago, no creature alive today has generated its own life. Just so, you cannot generate your own new life, so you don’t have to, it does not depend on you or how good you are at it, you just receive it.

How can you be certain that you are receiving it? Not by measuring your own experience. When I’m in Canada, I often don’t feel like a Canadian, I feel like a native of New Jersey. But my passport testifies that I have become a Canadian. Well, your baptism is your passport that testifies to the certainty of your being in this new life. The epistle calls that the testimony of the water. And the testimony of the blood is the display, in Jesus’ crucifixion, of God’s sacrificial love for people like you. Your certainty is not your own experience but in the nature of God and the fact that God has claimed you.

Water and blood: the liquid necessary for life and the liquid full of life. But in the Bible, your life is carried in your breath. In Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Breath of God, the inner life of God. You have been taught to think of your soul as like a ghost, immaterial and immortal, non-physical, but the Bible is more concrete, it regards your soul as seated in that vital column of your breath inside your body, moving in and out.

Let me point out here that in Bible terms, and despite what many churches teach, your personal life did not begin at your conception. You did not yet have a soul with your mother’s womb. In Bible terms you first came alive at your first breath. And as your very first cry was greeted with joy as proof of your life, that you could breathe on your own, just so those Gentiles in the story broke out in tongues with joy, infant believers, newly born, and with new life.

And as your breathing connects you with the atmosphere outside you, so your soul connects you to the Spirit of God. And as the springtime breezes can enter your lungs to refresh the air within you to revive you, so the Spirit of God enters your soul and blends in with you to give you new life within your old life.

Our gospel reading gives us three aspects of life that we have seen before. The first is living as abiding. The second is bearing fruit. We talked about them both last week. The third is laying down your life. We talked about that two weeks ago. I said that it’s as much about laying in your life or putting your life. He says this: “Greater love has no one than this, that you deposit your life for your friends.”

Don’t understand this only as, “Well, because I love you so much, I will sacrifice my life for you.” It doesn’t exclude that, it happened to him the next day. But it’s more about living than dying. There is no greater love than investing your soul in your friends, putting your life into your friends. Really? Friendship? Is that the new life of the Holy Spirit? Everybody has friends.

Look, families invest in each other naturally. As the epistle says, if you love the parents, it’s natural to love their children. Even in the old life, that kind of love happens all the time. We share the same traits, we share the same habits, we look like each other, we have the same color. We are family. It’s not wrong to call the church the family of God. But did you ever notice that I never do?

You must have seen those internet videos of animals of different species who are friends. A dog and a chicken. An owl and a cat. By nature they’re enemies, because one of them is the other’s food! Their friendships go beyond raw nature and even against raw nature. So what I’m saying is that in the life that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world, it’s friendship love more than family love.

In our gospel, at this climax moment in Jesus’ life, this most intimate hour with his disciples, he doesn’t call them brothers, he calls them friends. That’s an unprecedented category of salvation in the Bible. It’s one great step past the family of God. And I’m so glad of it.

Friendship means freedom. You don’t choose your siblings, but you do choose your friends. Friendship has no birth order and no hierarchy, so friendship means equality. God loves you as a friend. Not that God is reduced to sentimental human friendship, like Jesus is your best friend, but rather that you are raised to be a friend of God to share in the life of God. Of course you can’t be God’s equal, but God most certainly respects you, and gives you freedom, and no matter what you do or say or think, will never stop loving you and will always want to, well, just be with you.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

May 3, Easter 5, Life #2, The Life Abides

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

We’re going to celebrate a branch on the vine today. The branch on the vine has a name, her name is Frances. She’s a little girl, and by the way she lets me hold her in my arms, I like to think that she knows me. Let me think that. Her baptism is her grafting onto the vine. Not that we do the grafting, or even that it actually takes place today. The Holy Spirit does it, outside of time. But we claim that as certainly as we celebrate it in our history so certainly does the Holy Spirit do it in God’s mystery.

This is a baptismal cross. It’s from Ethiopia. It’s one of my favorite things. It was given to me by a member of my church in Grand Rapids. Jetts Bass was a great lady of great faith. She got sick while I was there and she died just after I left there, so I didn’t get to do her funeral. But she loved me and she blessed me and her blessing is on this cross, which signifies the power of love that crosses from life to life, through death to life again, across the generations of the faithful, life begetting life.

The Christian Church in Ethiopia is one of the most ancient churches of all. It dates itself back, of course, to the eunuch whom Philip baptized. Maybe so. There is no historical documentation of the eunuch afterward, or that he actually founded the church in Ethiopia, but neither is there any proof he didn’t.

There may well have been Jews living in Ethiopia back then, of which the Rastafarians bear strange witness, and this eunuch might have been a Jew or been influenced by Jews, which could account for his pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. And then after his return he might have witnessed to the Jews in Ethiopia. But we don’t know. Nor do we know enough to say it wasn’t so.

In any case, Philip had good reason not to baptize him when he asked for it. Philip could have said, Baptism is not an individual thing, it’s a communal thing. Baptism is crossing the river into the promised land and for abiding within the congregation of Israel. But you are crossing the waters in the wrong direction and you’re leaving the Christian people and you’ll be all alone, so baptism is not indicated! The vineyard is here and the vine is the people of Israel. You can’t be a branch on the vine when you’re down there. Philip had reasons to say No. To say Yes was to stretch baptism in new ways, to do it as a risk, and with no guarantees, to do it and to leave the outcome up to God.

I can imagine the eunuch answering, “That doesn’t count for me, because I’ve already been cut off. I’m a eunuch. The book of Deuteronomy says I’m not included anyway. The Bible calls me a branch cut off the vine, a dry branch, a faggot of firewood, which is why when I got to the temple I got turned away. Even though it was not my choosing to be castrated in my childhood, the Bible is clear, I’m not allowed in the congregation of God. But why not baptize me anyway?”

How can he say, Why not? Because they’ve been reading from Isaiah, which counters Deuteronomy. He had already been reading the passage in Isaiah about the suffering Messiah, and later in that passage comes the promise that when the Messiah comes, even the eunuchs will be welcome. He was looking for hope in that prophecy. He’d been reading Isaiah as a prophecy for himself, and then Philip shows him how those same chapters spoke of Jesus. So then, does the promise of Isaiah trump the prohibition of Deuteronomy? “If my branch is cut off from the vine of Israel, can’t you graft me onto the vine of the Messiah? Here’s water.”

Philip has to make a judgment call. He’s got to decide between two scriptures, and both of them with authority, and judge which one has authority over the other one. He’s got to read both of these scriptures in terms of what he has seen and heard in Jesus. Because of Jesus, he takes Isaiah over Deuteronomy. That’s how Biblical interpretation works. I can imagine Philip thinking he’d like to check with the apostles first, him being only a deacon. But the Holy Spirit is the third character in this story, and the Holy Spirit is breathing down his neck. Philip makes the call because he can feel the Spirit pushing him. “Philip, I didn’t bring you here for you to say No.”

The story shows us the Bible being read out loud, and Philip running to keep up with it, and the Holy Spirit driving it all, so that Philip must do a Christ-centered merging of the Bible and real-life human experience. That’s what we try to do here every week. And because Philip knows that it’s the Holy Spirit driving him, he has to believe that, yes, the vineyard is also Ethiopia, and the vine is certainly planted in Ethiopia, if the vine is Christ himself, and the eunuch’s branch is already on the vine, so he will baptize him, and give the eunuch reason to rejoice the whole way home.

The vine of Christ is very tall and it’s still climbing. Way down on its trunk is the branch of the eunuch and up at the top is the new branch of Frances. And just below hers you all have your own branches on it too. You abide in him. He is your abode. He is your residence. He is where you live. This is another sermon about life, because your abode is where you live. Philip runs, and the Spirit moves, so that you can settle down and abide in him, who offers to be the source of your life.

Abiding is another word for living, for long-term living. Living-in, living-with, living-through. Last week it was abundant life, this week it’s abiding life. The way to keep your life abiding is to keep drawing your life from someone else, your life support, to choose to not live your on your own. Philip could baptize someone who’d live his new life all alone only by trusting that the Holy Spirit would keep on working in ways he couldn’t see yet. When we baptize Frances we are claiming and celebrating that her life is not her own, and that she belongs to the life of Christ.

The second aspect of life this morning is bearing fruit. Reproduction is basic to living things of any kind. Yes, inorganic crystals replicate, fires spread, and isotopes make chain reactions, but only organisms do self-directed reproduction. Living things bear fruit; they make new organisms like themselves, and they nourish them and feed them and care for them and work for them.

Living things get creative in their bearing fruit, like making gorgeous flowers and offering nectar for the bees and food for other animals. There is of course self-interest in this, and the drive for survival, but what Christians see in the astounding abundance and extravagant variety of life on earth is a testimony to the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. And we see in the bearing of fruit a symbol of love. As even the birth of a child is literally the result of her parents loving each other.

You are commanded to bear fruit. You are commanded to love. Even Frances is commanded to love, and right now that’s easier for Frances than for you. The way that she’s loving is accepting the love of her parents. Her love is to live within their love. And there’s a lesson in that for how you practice the love you are commanded to love with. You love your neighbor accepting by God’s love for you, and then loving your neighbor from within God’s love for you.

Don’t try to love your neighbor with the love that you yourself generate, but put yourself within God’s love. Does that sound rhapsodic? Let me compare it to music. I love music, but I can’t make music the way I’d like to. I am literally a failed musician—I took an F in college orchestra, and I had to leave it. But even if I can’t make it, I can rise into it when I hear it as other people make it, and I let it fill me and inspire me and I can even share it with others. The love of God is like that. The love of God and the love of neighbor is one, it is a single love, a single energy. You let God do the loving, and you rise into it and live in it. That means quieting your own inner voice, and letting God’s love do your thinking and your speaking. That means not chasing other loves, it means not seeking other sources and satisfactions, it means abiding in God’s love. And then you can bear fruit.

God loves us. But our epistle lesson goes further than that. God is love. That’s not an abstract principal. It means that if you trace all of love within the world back to its ultimate source, there you will find the living God who generates the love. And it means that all of God’s many activities are loving activities. God’s creating is a loving creating, God’s ruling is a loving ruling, God’s judging is a loving judging, and God’s sustaining is a loving sustaining. It means that as Frances gradually discovers all the business and actions and attributes of God within her life, she can believe that binding all of them is love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

April 26, Easter 4: This Is the Life #1

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

The Easter Season is eight Sundays long, from Easter morning through to Pentecost. That’s an ancient tradition with its roots in Bible times. It’s only a recent tradition that the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, but that’s the theme of our gospel lesson today. It’s the second half of a longer speech by Jesus, where he repeats several times, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Our section of it begins at verse 11, but just one verse before it, in verse 10, Jesus says this: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

What is this life, this abundant life, that Jesus gives us? How is it different from the life we have already and that we share with other creatures like dogs and sheep? Don’t bugs and bacteria have life abundantly? And why does Jesus say that he lays down his life? Why give us life just for us to lay it down? What does life mean in the Bible?

Today I’m starting a sermon series on Life. Twelve sermons. This first one is theological, so be patient for the later ones which are more practical. I’ve never preached on Life before. We all take life for granted, right, as if we all know what it means, but I dare you to define it.

Even modern scientists don’t agree on a definition of life. One definition says that “life is the popular name for the activity peculiar to protoplasm,” but that leads to circular explanations. You could say that life is when the elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur form compounds. That’s what astronomers look for in their search for extra-terrestrial life. But what if alternative lives were based on silicon instead of carbon, like the Horta in that Star Trek episode.

A complication is that those five elements occur together in substances that are no longer living. Bones. We say that a bone is dead because it lived once, while a stone never lived so it is not dead. A stone is essentially immortal. At our cottage we have stones that are 3.96 billion years old. That’s older than our church. A stone may be immortal but it does not have eternal life. Eternal life and immortality are not the same.

When the New Testament was being written the whole question of life was big in the popular science of the day. Is life an energy? Is life a force? Are the stars and planets alive? Is fire alive? Did life arise out of fire? So said Heraklitus. Or out of the air? So said Anaximines. Or out of water? So said Thales.

Modern science basically goes with Thales, with our image of the primitive planet’s primordial soup, in which some chemical compounds somehow came to life. We don’t know how to replicate it in the laboratory, nor why it doesn’t happen in nature anymore. “As far as known at present all living substance arises from already existing living substance.” A living thing has to get its life from something already alive.

Look at your hand, and the life that’s in your hand. That life, which you got from your parents, goes unbroken and uninterrupted all the way back through some pre-historic primates to some primitive sea-creatures to those primordial protozoans who first came alive. Is it really possible that all plants and animals alive today share a common stream of life that got started three billion years ago from one common source? We assume so but we have no direct scientific proof and we are no more absolutely certain of it than they were in Bible times.

In the midst of these uncertainties we Christians make a claim that the ultimate source of life on earth is the Holy Spirit. We say that in the Nicene Creed, when we say that “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” That’s not a scientific claim, we don’t mean that, but it was certainly always meant as a philosophical claim. We’re not just talking about spiritual life, we’re talking about life on earth, that marvelous stream of life that we share with plants and animals.

We mean that this stream of life has its source in God’s own self, in God’s own inner life, which God shares as a gift to all the creatures of the world from bacteria to bugs to birds to us. We mean this natural life is not just the platform for our Christian faith, it is the target and the interest of our Christian faith. We mean that we are saved in order to live this life, not leave it.

The resurrection of Jesus is an affirmation of this life. Yes, it’s also a judgment on this life, but it’s not a rejection. It’s a saving of what we were ruining and losing by our own designs. The Lord Jesus was resurrected for the life of the world. This is why we celebrate Easter for eight weeks long, to give it time to enter into our lives, because the resurrection of Jesus is not just a one-off, hip-hip-hooray and let’s all go to heaven now, but rather that Easter begins a new reality that enters into the life of the world and into its time and space, and that it takes its time to do its patient and comprehensive transformation of our present lives into the “life of the world to come.”

Now here’s a complication. We use the English word “life” for three different Greek words in the Bible. There is βιος (bios), from which we get biology, ζωη (zoë), from which we get zoology, and ψυχη (psyche), from which we get psychology. The three words overlap, and two of the words have other meanings too, so it’s a tricky business. But when the Lord Jesus speaks of "abundant life" and "eternal life," it’s always zoë, that greatest and broadest stream and energy of life which the Holy Spirit gives to the world from its source in God’s own life. We will watch for this in coming weeks.

When Jesus speaks of "laying down his life," then it’s psyche, which is more personal. Your psyche is your personal life-force, located in your breathing, and it also means your soul, your natural life, which you share with other breathing creatures. What Jesus says in the gospel is expanded in our epistle, in the first sentence, that we too ought to lay down our lives for each other.

But the very next sentence uses the third word for life, bios, but it’s hidden behind that English paraphrase, “the world’s goods.” How did they get that from a word for life? Well, life in the sense of making a living, your livelihood, what you do for a living. I wish they had left it literal, and stronger: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has a life and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

It’s not about the world’s goods. It’s about your power, your purpose, your health, your energy, your momentum, your career, your trajectory, your course of life. Your living and your livelihood are what get saved by the power of the resurrection, your purpose and power and energy are confirmed and convicted and converted and transformed by the power of God’s love, so that you can invest your power and your momentum in the lives of others who may need it. As God does.

Don’t misunderstand what it means to lay-down your life. It does not mean surrender. It is not necessarily dying. It’s more like investing or depositing. Like laying down some cash on the table, or putting down some chips in a card game. Jesus did that with his life. He was investing in us, depositing his life in our living history, putting himself into our sin and grief and judgment, laying his life down within our death, yes, and losing it as you might lose your investment, or lose your chips in your card game, but then he won it back again.

That’s what Peter was doing before the Sanhedrin. He was laying his life out in front of people who had the power to punish him. These are the very same rulers whom Peter was afraid of on the night before Jesus died, which is why he had three times denied him. Now these rulers didn’t know Peter from Adam, so they didn’t know about Peter’s guilty conscience which had condemned him and then how the forgiveness and peace of Jesus had reassured him. So Peter has his second chance and now, because he’s not afraid for his life, he puts himself out there, he lays out his life to them and appeals to them to believe like him and get forgiven and saved like him. He’s loving them.

This is what Life looks like. One scientist has identified life as the reversal of entropy, the reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that instead of everything always breaking down to simple states of equilibrium, life is what builds, gathers, grows, risks, adds complexity, adds color, adds music, shares itself, feeds, nourishes, hopes, dreams. You invest your own life in the possibilities of others beyond you.

So this suggests that the source of life is not water nor fire nor earth, but love, and not just any love, and not determined by philosophy, but the love which God demonstrates to us in action, in the action of Jesus laying down his life for us, and in the constant investment of God in you as your Good Shepherd. You know you’re alive when you know this love in your life.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

April 5, Easter 2015: Women's Work

(This is the painting that graces the reredos of our sanctuary, The Empty Tomb, by Virgilio Tojetti. In St. Mark's account the young man is seated inside.)

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-7

This was women’s work, what they were doing, these three women, early at the tomb, taking care of things after the men were all done. Like after the church suppers of my childhood. Like on an ancient battlefield—the losers retreat, the victors chase them, and then the women come out to tend the wounded and the dying and the dead. The disciples of Jesus had fled and were in hiding. Did the women buy their spices in the dark because they feared the danger all around them?

A corpse begins to stink in just a few hours, and it was long past that. They wanted the spices to cover the smell so they could dress his body. These women were the ones who had been providing for him all along, and had seen to his necessities, so even his corpse was precious to them. In this way they were closer to him then his disciples were, these women who had birthed and nursed and held and swaddled and cleaned and fed and dressed the bodies of others—women’s work. So one last time they come to dress him and hold him and grieve for him whom they have loved and lost.

And when they get there, even his body is lost to them. The tomb is empty, except for the young man, who is described but not explained. Was he expecting them? Is he an angel? He acts like angels do in his disregard for human feeling. When the women are alarmed he says, “Don’t be alarmed.” How helpful is that! He matter-of-factly gives them instructions, which they do not carry out. They flee in fear, they don’t tell nothing to nobody.

And that’s how the Gospel of Mark concludes, with their terror, their amazement, and their fear. End of story. What? Don’t they meet up with Jesus, like in the other gospels? Like in Matthew, Luke, and John, where they encounter him fully alive, robust, and powerful, and his disciples walk and talk with him and even eat and drink with him? Not in the Gospel of Mark, at least according to our most ancient manuscripts. The later manuscripts offer a couple of longer endings, like the extra verse we did not read this morning, which provide more conventional conclusions. Because, like, how could St. Mark end his Gospel this way?

It’s not to discount those post-resurrection appearances that were already reported in the earlier writings of St. Paul and St. Matthew. St. Mark is not denying them, he rather assumes we know of them, but he wants to convey his own literary emphasis. In the Gospel of Mark, the miracles of Jesus are met with emotions that are strong and unpredictable and often negative. When Jesus walks on water his disciples are terrified. When Jesus is transfigured they are terrified. And all three times that Jesus directly predicts his resurrection his disciples speak against it from the fear of it.

The Gospel of Mark is always wonderful but never comfortable. The good news is always good but not always nice. The salvation shakes you up. The good news of salvation is so drastic that it is fearful. The choice before you is so total that it’s a whole new world in the midst of this one, and that means everything you thought was certain and dependable is shaking loose with instability.

In the reality of our world—and the women knew this as well as we do—it is just not possible that a corpse already stinking should come back to life. And if it did, who knew what it would be like? A walking dead? A zombie? Of course the women are terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

We don’t like terror. We have a war on Terror. In recent years the word “terror” has come to have a technical political meaning. Every morning we read another report of some act of terror somewhere. When an airplane is smashed into an Alpine mountainside and 148 people are killed, the first thing asked is, Was it Terrorism? And after the investigation we can say No, it wasn’t Terrorism.

But of course it was. In the larger sense. That great sense of grievance, whether personal in the case of the pilot, or corporate in the case of Al Qaeda. “We have been wronged, the world has done us wrong, America has done us wrong, the West has done us wrong, we have been wronged and we will make them pay.” Suicide bombers give evidence that often it’s less about wanting to win as wanting to make us pay. It’s revenge. It’s an anger that claims to be justified, to be righteous anger, seeking justice in revenge. We regard them as terrorists. They regard themselves as aggrieved.

And here is an end to all our grievances. The tomb is empty. You came here to grieve. He is not here. You came here with preservatives, to hang on a little longer to what you lost. One more loss in a life of constant losing, one more death in a culture that kills the innocent, cutting down your best and brightest in its jealousy.

You came here in your grievances, you came looking for the one who was crucified, but he is not here any more. He’s done with that. He has left behind your grievances. He has gone on ahead of you, and you must go there too. Where? Into what strange new world? Of course it is fearful, and you have to fear it before you can receive it. You have first to fear the loss of your life in order to receive the gift of your new life. It might not be nice news but it’s good news.

Now that I’ve spoken about terrorism, let me speak about my marriage. I would say that over the six decades of my life, the greatest fact in my life, the greatest gift, has been the love of my wife Melody. The thing about her love is that I cannot control it, it’s outside of my control. As she reminds me, I cannot see inside her head, I cannot read her thoughts. She habitually disagrees with me on certain things and I can’t convince her. Her love for me is real, a real force in my life, again every day, and yet I can’t explain it. I have learned that her love for me does not depend on me. Her love of me is independent of me. I live in it but I never really possess it. I admit I’m a little afraid of it. You know: if I can’t control her love, then can I count on it? I have to believe in her. I have to faith in her. Well, she is more than deserving of my faith.

I offer this to you as a metaphor for the resurrection life of Christ. It is something so good for you and yet so independent of you and outside of your control that it’s no wonder that you fear it. It is a reality which is also such a mystery that of course you find it alarming. You cannot make it fit. It will not fit. To want it explained is to want to posses it. The Bible never tries to prove it, because it can’t be made to fit inside your current categories, it rather challenges your categories. The only way to choose this life is to receive it as a gift, and to receive it every day again.

The resurrection of Jesus is not the solution the disciples would have chosen for their problems. The resurrection of Jesus is not the answer the children of Israel would choose for their grievances. The resurrection of Jesus is not what any philosopher would have proposed to solve the greatest problems of the world. As the solution to your personal problems you would not choose the rising again of Jesus. But it’s what God offers us.

The personal problem that St. Mark addresses is the problem of your fear. It’s in fear that he ends his part of the story so that it’s in your fear that you take up your part of the story. It’s one of your besetting problems. Your fear for your future, your fear that your needs will not be met, that your place will not be kept, your losses not paid for, your interests discredited, your story discounted, your grievances disregarded. You fear that this resurrection story might not be true and that all things will just get worse and never better.

There, in your fear, is where you must start, but your fear does not predict the solution to your fear. Your fear does not determine its own resolution, and you must not let your fear control how it gets answered. Let your honest fear be judged and die with Christ in order to receive God’s answer and plant your identity upon God’s promises.

You came looking for the one who was crucified so you could grieve your losses. You won’t find him here. He’s gone ahead of you. He has gone beyond your grievances. He doesn’t make your life so far add up. He doesn’t give you that satisfaction. If anything, when you look back on your life, he shows you how much more you have to repent of then you knew of. But that repentance is not required for you to receive the gift he gives you. The only thing you need to receive the gift he offers you is that you want that love, that love that you cannot possess, that love that you cannot deserve but still receive, that love for you which does not depend on you.

So all of you are doing women’s work today. Whatever your grief and grievances you did come here for love, because even deeper than your fear in you is your desire to love. And I know you want his kind of love, you want to believe in his kind of self-giving love. That kind of love is doubted and feared and even hated but it is vindicated by the resurrection and offered for your desire and belief. And just in your believing it begins to work its power in the world. You can believe it. When I say “Christ is risen,” it is your desire that the universe be run by love that lets you answer, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia.”

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 22, Lent 5, Walk to the Cross 5: The Sign of Jesus

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

These Greeks who want to see Jesus — whether they are tourists or converts or something between we are not told. Nor are we told if Jesus even connects with them. What they seem to represent to the Lord Jesus is the wider world outside of Israel, the world that God so loved. They are the sign of the world coming to God, to the God who is coming to the world, and where God meets the world and the world meets God is in this guy Jesus, who is both the Son of God and the Son of Man.

Why did they want to see Jesus? What they indicate is how people come to God, with all kinds of different motivations, a whole great range of motivation, all the way from curiosity like tourists to desperation like the dying, and with all sorts of desires in between. You yourselves are in this range and you move about this range at different seasons in your life. Some seasons in your life you desire God from curiosity, and other seasons in your life you desire God from desperation, from hurt, and fear, and pain. Your sin is ever before you (Psalm 51). Sometimes you are moved by love, and sometimes you are moved by guilt, and guilt and love are so close together. You want to see Jesus, and you’re not sure why, but you suspect that seeing him might get you some answers for the world, or some relief, or some hope and reconciliation.

I doubt that the Greeks wanted to see Jesus because they thought he was going to die. In all the range of what people wanted to see Jesus for, I doubt that anyone wanted to see him because he was going to die. No one who desired him desired that. And yet, when Jesus was told that they wanted to see him, he knew it was time for him to die. How did he arrive at this? What was he thinking? Why did he choose this? Did he choose it freely or were those his “orders”? Did he choose it for God? Was God letting him choose it for the both of them?

I asked a number of people why Jesus had to die. One person gave me a simple answer: “Because it was that bad.” That’s a good answer, but it’s intuitive; it’s artistic and dramatic. Implicit in this answer is that it’s us that are that bad, the totality of us. But let me ask you, isn’t the infinity of God’s goodness sufficient to surpass how bad we are and how bad it is? Couldn’t God still say “Ally-ally-in-free?”

Another person answered that sin costs. That makes sense. The universal human intuition that sin costs is the basis of our various systems of criminal justice. All humanity agrees that when a crime is done, then somebody, somewhere, has to pay something, somehow. But just because it’s a universal human intuition doesn’t necessarily make it proper to the gospel. Conventional wisdom often gets God wrong. Do we get this from God or do we impose this on God, that sin costs?

If you were to ask the official catechism of the Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism, why Jesus had to die, the answer is that “God’s law demands it.” This answer is a decent summary of the Biblical stories and the Biblical laws. But that only alters the question. You could simply ask the question in different terms: “Why did God set up the law this way, that Jesus had to die?”

We could point to the universal necessity of sacrifice. Jesus did that himself in this lesson. A seed has to die in the soil in order to bear new fruit. A tree has to die and fall to the ground in order to renew the soil for new life. When salmon run up their rivers to spawn, they die, and their dead flesh brings the nutrients of the ocean into the upstream environment for the good of all the other species. We could multiply examples of the law of nature that some measure of sacrifice is necessary to the renewal of life. And from this can we say that the law of nature is actually a law from God. But is God confined to the laws of nature? And again, the question remains, why did God set nature up this way?

Parents make sacrifices for their children, lovers for their lovers, and friends for their friends. It’s the expression of real commitment. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We do it for love. So the necessity of sacrifice in the law of nature is a sign which points us to the love which is at the center of the universe. We say that God is love. Not just a nice and easy love, but a sacrificial love, a costly love. This love of God which runs the universe is displayed to us in the life and death of Jesus and proven to us by his sacrifice upon the cross.

If this is true, it makes some sense of that promise from the prophecy of Jeremiah about the new and everlasting covenant. The Lord Jesus was obviously attracted by that prophecy and he believed he could make it work. Jesus seem to have seen his death as the final covenant, which can never be broken, because it is guaranteed upon the sacrifice of God’s own self, and doubly so: God’s self, and God’s only child, who is dearer than God’s self.

So Jesus is mounted up on the cross as the target of that arrow of God, the arrow in that archery bow that God had set within the clouds at the time of Noah, with the arrow pointed up at God and at God’s heart, when God had said to Noah, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Jesus put himself up as the target and the arrow is let loose and it flies at the target who is God’s son upon the post and it hits the heart of God. Jesus died in the place of God. People say that Jesus died in our place, as our substitute, which is true, but it was also in God’s place that Jesus died, as a substitute for God.

Why did Jesus have to die? So that God could die in him. You know it is philosophically impossible for the God of the Bible to die, but God was able to die in the death of Jesus. God was able to take the blame for the world, which is that bad. God was able to say, I will accept responsibility, even though it’s not my fault. I am doing it for love. God was able to make that ultimate sacrifice of love. God wants to show us what God is like, and wants to show us the direction of the world, and how we sustain each other, and how we give each other life.

Why did Jesus have to die? Because the secret of life is love. Love is what generates life. And the love of God is so passionate and powerful that it can die and not be stopped by death, because the love of God is not a what but a who. The love of God and the love who is God is what carries you through death and meets you on the other side of death.

The road of Lent that you are on and the road that God is on are converging at the cross, the narrow gate that leads to the resurrection. You are on the road towards your own death and God will meet you there, and then God will carry you on that single dark and narrow pathway of the dead, to the other side, to the resurrection, where God puts you on your feet again.

You are not told very much of what it will be like there. But I can tell you this: you will be living in that same love, and you will at last be able to give that love back fully, with no flaws, with no half-heartedness, you yourself that boundless love which is the love of God. You want to see Jesus because you want to see that living love which is the deepest desire of your own life. You’re on the right track, you’re on the right road. The Lord Jesus welcomes you to invest your life in that same God that he did.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

March 15, Lent 4, The Walk to the Cross: The Awful Trophy

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Our gospel lesson is the second part of the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus. That conversation comes early in the Gospel of John, at the beginning of Our Lord’s three-year campaign. And we can infer that the Lord Jesus can already see the cross in the distance, because already, this early, he talks about the serpent in the wilderness as a figure of himself. According to St. John, the Lord Jesus saw his whole campaign as a long walk to the cross, a three-year Lent.

I’d say that already before his baptism Our Lord had contemplated that story, before his coming out. And I wonder: in those eighteen years of his silence between his bar mitzvah (anachronism warning!) and his baptism, how did that awful story challenge him, and what guidance did it give him, and how did he come to regard that story as prophetic of himself?

When we read the story today, we are put off by the petty vengefulness of God to send those snakes. But when the story was first recorded it was assumed that any god had the right and the privilege to do such things whether humans liked it or not.

This is the kind of story that people raise in objection to the Bible and its God. They don’t want that kind of a god. If they want a god at all, they prefer the loving God of Jesus, the God who “so loved the world.” And yet the Lord Jesus himself was able to hold together his belief in the God of the serpents and a loving God the Father, and he speaks of the two things together in one speech.

Indeed, he sees his own future in that brazen serpent. Does he expect to be a trophy on a pole? The brazen serpent was a trophy, of an ancient sort. It was not a modern trophy, like the Stanley Cup. If hockey teams got ancient trophies, the winners would skate around the rink lifting up on their sticks the skates and sweaters and helmets of the losers, and, depending on the franchise, even the face-mask of the goalie with his head still in it.

You get it that the body of Jesus lifted up on a cross was a trophy for the Roman soldiers, when that body was identified as of the "King of the Jews". He’s not just been killed, like the thieves on either side of him, he’s been defeated. And does Jesus think that this is what God wants? What sort of a God is this that Jesus believes in?

On the face of it, your Lenten pilgrimage is about your repentance of your sins, but as I have said, your repentance is not really about your sins but about your discovery of God, this God whom Jesus believed in. This God is not the nice progressive God of Brownstone Brooklyn. This God is both more wonderful and more terrible than that.

So like when you read the news today, and you get indignant and upset, I would say that when God reads the news God doesn’t get just indignant and upset, God has “wrath”, as St. Paul says. Does God have the right to God’s wrath, even if we don’t like it that God should have sent the snakes? What is God’s wrath directed at, and at whom, and for what reason?

Isn’t more at stake for God than for us? How complex and inclusive is God’s love? When God so loves the world, how many species does God love, how many landscapes, how many glaciers does God love, and how many young black men and how many coral reefs, how many aboriginals and even young terrorists does God love, not to mention yourself, and your history, and your conscience, and your very body? Consider how much does God’s love include and to what extent, and then let’s talk about God’s wrath.

What Jesus did is remarkable. When he said to himself, I will be that brazen serpent, he faced the wrath of God and he took God to the cross with him. He said to himself, I will be the Son of Man, interceding in heaven for my people. But he also said to himself, I will be God, the God up in heaven who judges the world, but also the God up on a cross; I’m the God who requires it and the God who endures it, the God who lives and the God who is dead on the trophy of humanity. 

The Lord Jesus embraced that all, and gave himself to it. And why? He saw the deal that God had offered the Israelites in the desert, and made that same deal universal for humanity. The deal is expressed in all three of our lessons in their own ways: If you look upon him, if you believe in him, if you believe the deal that is being offered you in terms of him, and the relationship behind that offer, then you will be saved, you will not die, you will live. Not because of anything you can boast of, not because of your own victory, but because you have been defeated by his love.

Last week I reminded you that during Lent we pray the confession that “there is no health in us.” It takes some complex reasoning to repeat those words with honesty and understanding, and it takes faith to repeat those words with hope and joy. So your walk to the cross during Lent is when you rehearse the steps of that complex faith and reasoning which Our Lord worked out ahead of us, that bundled into the judgment of God is the sign of grace and the promise of love. God does not take away the snakes. God does not take away the darkness. But the light shines in the darkness. You can see the signs of light. The energy of that light is the energy of the love of God.

What do you want from your Christian faith? Do you want to add God to the world as it is, to make the world better? Okay. Do you want to add God to your life as it is? Okay. Do you want better health? Good. But if Jesus is the serpent, it’s beyond better health, it’s about healing from poison. To add God to your life means yielding your life, arresting it for God to start it up again. To add God to the world means accepting the judgment of God upon the world, which means your dying to the world and the dying of the world to you. Not that God condemns the world. No, God loves the world. God condemns the poison in the world which is the power of the world, to which we’ve built up tolerance and tell ourselves we are immune to.

What do you want from your Christian faith? If you want success, God offers you rescue.
If you want sympathy, God offers you challenges.
If you want respect, God offers you forgiveness.
If you want fairness, God offers you reconciliation.
If you want honor, God offers you mercy.
If you want spirituality, then Jesus points you to the serpent on the pole, so that you desire the God who is up there on it too.
If you want answers to the problem of God in the world, the answer that God gives you is love, a very deep and ancient and complex love.
Your pilgrimage of Lent is your exploration of this God, who is rich in mercy, who out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him, and seated us with him, to show us the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.