Eye Witnesses

I sat with a man in a coffee shop. It was Easter time. He was a skeptic but one with a bit of knowledge about Scripture and the Easter story.  He had experience with law. He was smart and intelligent. He believed what his five sense and his reason told him. He did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Part of the reason he did not believe was the gospel accounts themselves. 

Look at them. They do vary in details, especially the details surrounding the appearance of angels to the women who came to the tomb that Sunday morning. One says two women came.  One names three. Another names four. One says an angel rolled the stone away from the tomb and then sat upon the stone and told the women Jesus was not there. Another says the angel appeared inside the tomb after the women went into it.  A third says there were two angels who appeared inside the tomb.  All of this, with of course the fact that people just don’t rise from the dead, convinced my friend that the story of Jesus rising was a fiction.

But I think those stories, especially with their little differences, are very believable. I think it’s precisely because of those differences the stories the gospels tell are believable. Those differences of detail show us  at least two facts. The first is the gospels are not a homogenized story. They are not the product of a back room meeting in which some people sat down and said, “Okay, if we’re going to get people to believe this resurrection thing we better get our story straight, so let’s get the details all ironed out.”  It’s obvious that the writers of the gospels are telling the story as they saw it. And that is the second fact. The stories the gospels tell are told exactly the way eyewitnesses tell stories. Any time an event happens, and people witness it, those witnesses tell the story the way it happened to them and that always includes some variety in details. The point I’m making is the gospels are reliable because they look very much like eye witness accounts rather than a synthesized, agreed upon story. We can trust they are telling us the truth. The ancient world trusted them. Within days Jerusalem was buzzing with the news. And in a world in which no story moved faster than the speed of a horse in a shockingly short period of time Rome itself was rocked with news of a resurrection.

The world is still rocked by it.  Jesus rose. Death’s reign is over. Life reigns. God reigns. The age of resurrection has come.  People are coming to life.  And one day, maybe soon, the world itself will be fully alive, too.

The End of All Our Babel-ing Tongues

Where will paradise be found? Who will be the one who because of wisdom beyond what we mere mortals possess will be the one who unlocks its gates for the rest of us to enter? Can such a place be found here? Does such a person exist? With all that goes on round us we ought to someday finally understand paradise cannot be found here and there is no guru who can lead us there.

Division plagues us, and I mean that word plagues. Plagues are what happened in Egypt when Pharaoh decided he was god enough for the world; who needed a puny Hebrew god. So God let pharaoh see what a world without him would look like and the world, bit by bit, began to deconstruct. Our modern plague is division. We, Americans, are falling apart. Our nation is falling apart. There are people, agree or disagree, who are openly questioning whether or not the nation, democracy, is in real peril for the first time since Aaron Burr wanted to carve off a piece of American territory to establish his own dictatorship. Events which ought to unite us at least in concern and compassion, events like yet another school shooting, don't. We become more angry. We point more fingers. We entrench more deeply into our opinions. What's more, over the last four presidential election cycles we have seen a disturbing political trend. We have always had "sides" in our two party system. In the past those on the other side were seen as rivals, the loyal opposition. No longer. Now they are seen as enemies, real enemies.

We, the church, must show a different way. We must abolish division. One way to read the Bible's story is to read it as how division and separation entered the world and how God ends it. Adam and Eve are one flesh, until sin comes, then they stand apart from each other pointing fingers and blame. The whole race, at Babel, pridefully believes it can make its own way to heaven and ends up divided. Then Jesus comes and he, alone, does not give in to sin, the me before you attitude that warps us. He lives love. He dies for it. And God raises him. We are his followers to live with his life, his Spirit, breathing within us. We are thus truly one body. And when his Spirit was given us at Pentecost, all the Babel of languages and division among us dissolved as with one voice and tongue we sing God's praises. We will stand together, a rainbow of colors, forever in heaven singing again the praise of God.

We need to do it now. And we need to invite the world to join in.

The Real Goal of Salvation

This past Sunday there was a phrase in the sermon's text, I Corinthians 12:7, that has stayed with me and has not let me move on. The manifestation of the Spirit. I love that phrase. We Baptists underplay the role of the Holy Spirit far too much. In fact, the chief promise of the gospel that is fulfilled through Jesus is the giving of the Holy Spirit to all people, all flesh, old men, young men, sons and daughters prophesying. The chief promise, we usually think, is forgiveness of sins, but it is not so. Forgiveness of sins is important. But forgiveness is not the ultimate and final goal. Forgiveness is the means to an end. The end forgiveness makes possible is the breath of God breathed into Adam at his creation being breathed again into our also earthen vessels so that we will become fully alive, empowered, real human beings. This is what the Gospel of John is moving towards. In that Gospel, after an enormous number of echoes of Genesis' creation story which start with the very first line of the Gospel, it virtually ends with Jesus pulling his disciples close and breathing on them as the Father did with Adam. They receive the Holy Spirit and for the first time since Adam there are real human beings alive in the world who can worship, rule, and speak like God and see things happen, real things, by mere words.

Even the Old Testament looks forward to the giving of the Spirit. When Moses is told that two of the elders of Israel are in the camp and are unexpectedly prophesying he replies, "I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would place his Spirit on them all." In the New Testament, that wish comes true. God's Spirit is given to old and young, to male and female. The fulfillment of prophecy and the goal of the ages has come. For the first time since creation there are real human beings in the world, people who are not just flesh and bone but are flesh, bone, and Spirit. We are fully alive.

That means God's restoration of the world, wrecked by sin and death, can go forward. That means the restoration has begun. Death has been banished. Life, real life in all its fullness, is back. It means you can manifest, make obvious, the Spirit of God. You can speak words that have power to teach, encourage, impart wisdom, even heal. It means you can touch, you can work, and see real effects, real change, instead of the shriveling that happens under sin's curse. It means you can display the power and presence of God. And that is your only purpose in the world.

The Word You Are

"In the book of Isaiah (55:10-11) the word of God is envisioned as the rain God sends to earth, and the prophet declares that it will return not empty, but bearing good fruit. If we are made in God's image, perhaps we are also words of God in this sense, and our life's pilgrimage is to determine what our particular word is and how we are to bring it to fruition. Within this frame of reference, we can envision the whole of our life as a journey home."  Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me

Is it so? Am I with all my fumbling and stumbling really a word of God? I am evaluating Kathleen Norris' statement but as I read it, it is the kind of thing that, whether true or not, I want to be true. I would like to know that like the raindrop, one of God's simplest creations, I come from him and when I return to him I will have accomplished what he sent me to do, that my journey home will be completed with hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful…”

If Norris is right then part of what it is I am sent to do must be to search because much of the time I do not know why I have been sent. I do not often have the sense of having been aimed. I more often have the sense of figuring it out as I go. Unlike a raindrop, which plummets from the heavens on an unvarying straight line toward the accomplishment of its mission, I, like the hymn writer, am prone to wander.

But I suppose even in my wandering God is saying something, that there is a message to be found. To believe such would be the counsel of not only Kathleen Norris but also Frederick Buechner who says we must listen to our lives, every single moment of them in the thrill and excitement of them and in the humdrum and tedium of them. We must pay attention to what is happening in us and to us and through us, because the moments and the days we live form a kind of alphabet, an alphabet of grace, in which the word that God is speaking to us can be found. The moments are pouring forth speech as surely as the heavens declare the glory of God and the earth is showing his handiwork. We, too, you see, are God’s handiwork. Ephesians 2:10 says “we are God’s workmanship.” Some of translated the word workmanship as masterpiece. The Greek word behind our translations is poiema. You’ll immediately see we get our word poem there. We are God’s poem. Our lives have an unseen, by us so often, rhythm and rhyme. God is speaking in us.

Listening, paying attention to whatever it is we are paying attention to in our lives is hard work. It requires abiding in Christ, being watchful and thankful, redeeming the time. Or in other words, staying with it every moment. Even though our course may wander we can’t let our attention to Christ do so. Not this year.

Far As The Curse Is Found

I love epic stories. You know the kind. There’s a terrible danger, the world is threatened, but a hero comes in an unexpected fashion. The hero survives dangers and threats and then in some surprising way saves everything. It’s Frodo, a tiny hobbit, a Halfling, who saves Middle Earth. Oz is saved from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch by Dorothy, a mere girl. Luke eventually saves the world and his long lost father, Anakin Skywalker with it. Part of the reason I love epic stories is I think they are true. I think they resonate with us because we know this is the way things really are. There is a danger. The world is at risk. There is a hero who arrived in an unexpected fashion and who saves the world in a surprising way. This is the story of Christmas,  and of Jesus.

He arrived into the world unusually, born of a virgin, yet usually, born of a woman. The only people who seemed to know he was coming, or had come, were strangers from the far away East. His own people, including Herod their “king”, were unaware of his coming. The only fanfare announcing his birth was given to shepherds, people considered to be so low they weren’t even allowed to give testimony in court. The Son of God, Philippians says, humbled himself. With this entrance he was truly beginning at the very bottom.

There were dangers, too. Frederick Buechner memorably describes Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. Then the angel says, “You mustn’t be afraid, Mary….As he said it, he only hopes she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.” Not only that, Revelation 12 tells us that at the birth of the Savior a great red dragon awaited to devour the child the moment it was born. Remember Herod and the hideous murders of Bethlehem’s innocents?

And yet, in true hero fashion, the True Hero accomplished his mission. He is accomplishing it still. When finished we will hear what Revelation 22:3 says, “There shall not be any more curse.” Not a trace of it. The people of God will stand, redeemed and well, in an also redeemed and well world in which heaven and earth have been brought together. My favorite lines of any hymn speak of that. “No more let sin nor sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found (and then it bears repeating), far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.”  Amen.

It’s Advent. Let’s get ready. And then lets turn ourselves loose in worship and service to join Jesus in making his blessings known that far.