Jesus’ farewell discourse has shifted. He was talking TO the disciples about being faithful to God. Now he's talking to God about the disciples. He's praying for them. Jesus prayed for his friends, and we should too. We should pray for each other, like he prayed for us: with our grown-up glasses on; seeing the world as it really is; and us in it, as Jesus means us to be. As my Father has sent me, so send I you.
God sent Jesus. Jesus sends us. Here in chapter 17, the disciples – whom Jesus has promoted from servants to friends, remember – are overhearing Jesus talking to someone else. Dr. Fred Craddock was the first homiletics scholar to notice and study deeply Jesus' habit of seeming to teach one group or person, while clearly intending a more pointed message for someone else – usually disciples or Pharisees. And that pointed message was almost always, the outrageous love/grace/justice of God.
The way Jesus was smuggling the gospel into that overheard message is sort of like how I used to puree vegetables into spaghetti sauce and sloppy joes when Emy was a little kid,
so that it was still technically spaghetti or sloppy joes. Here, technically, Jesus IS just praying. Hard for them to argue what he says, since they’d have to admit they were spying. Jesus is leaving them, remember. He’s soon to be arrested, tortured, killed. Then rise. Forever after that he'll be with them in Spirit, far closer than they've known him so far. But they can't fathom that. Only that he's leaving them.
He’s leaving them like when we leave our kids at college. To our parent eyes, they look like toddlers in a tiny room floating in a sea of boxes. It seems nuts to leave them in charge of themselves. Jesus is leaving his friends in charge of the kingdom of God in this world. Depending on the kid, leaving a toddler to run the world seems nuts. But what is the alternative? Take them home and make their lunch for forty years?
Jesus cannot stay. The one thing left that he can do, he can only do alone: die. And so he prayed for them, in that overhearing way of his, that we'd be wise enough and brave enough to see this world as it really is – and make our lives and our life together in it as Jesus means for us to be. First, first, first, Jesus means his friends to overhear that We. Belong. To. Him. Verse 6: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me."
Verse 10: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”
We Are His. The moment we know it, it is the most true thing about us. We spend the rest of our lives learning to live our faith in it, whatever happened to us before that moment we first knew it; whatever someone else said about who or whose or what we are; whatever story we carry about who we were or how we came to be. Maybe somebody said you weren't much. Maybe you overhead somebody important say you were nothing but a bother.
No matter who it was that said it, whatever you've heard said about you up to this very moment, hear this: The Lord God of heaven and earth says, You. Are. Mine. You don't belong to anyone in this world more than you belong to me. Another thing Jesus says to God about his beloved friends is that we are very, very well endowed.
We are rich as rich can be in all the things that make a human being rich. Verses 7 and 8: “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”
We do love our things, don’t we? Northeast Arkansas is full of Hmong people, immigrants from Vietnam after the war. The people who came and their children have mostly worked in the Tyson chicken factories there. The third generation, however, are now entering college. My oldest friend, Angela, works for Student Services at U of A in Fayetteville. A couple of years ago she was with a team of students moving freshmen into their dorm rooms. Just like IU, some students literally need a U-Haul to move into half a dorm room.
But in the sea of U-Hauls and minivans was a young Hmong man. And all he had was his backpack, one enormous suitcase and a 50-pound bag of rice. He said he tried to explain the dorm cafeteria, but his grandmother could not fathom a place you could go for a year and not have to take any food with you. Angela saw him later in the school year and asked about the 50 pounds of rice. He said he and his roommate found lots of uses for it, including a launch into the top bunk and a beanbag chair.
If believing I already have everything I need to be faithful isn't the hardest part of being Christian, I am sure I don't know what is. Some days I spend more energy wanting
and needing than actually working. Or imagining what I could do with what I don't have
than doing what I can with what I do have.
We don't need to know what we have, to believe we have it, any more than a child needs to know what's in the pantry to know he'll get fed. That's faith in God's goodness, born of God's faithfulness to us.
Listening, we overhear Jesus tell the Lord that we belong to them, apparently they've been trading us back and forth like aunties at Thanksgiving. We've forever belonged to one or the other. Whom we have never belonged to, Jesus says in verse 16, is the world. “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world."
We live here. We are not from here. This world is not home. God wants us here, for now.
One time when I was in Seoul, Korea, I decided to ride the subway to a far neighborhood and walk my way back to our hotel. I walked through markets and parks and Temples. Then I got really hungry. Street food is easy in Seoul. You point to what you want and pay for it. Nicer restaurants are pretty easy, as we know a few Korean dishes we like and can always order. Bibimbap or bulgogi or kimchi.
I thought, "I wonder if I can order fast food?" Do I know the Korean word for hamburger? I do not. Can I read Korean? I can not. The menu board had no pictures, and the drinks were none I recognized. It was just like fast food here, people behind me in the line with kids wanting me to hurry up. I had to point and pray there was no octopus involved. I learned I like mustard and mayonnaise mixed together. I knew I wasn't in the U.S. It didn't seem like I was in Korea. I didn't even feel like I was inside my own skin. Inside my own skin, I'm competent. And literate.
Every human wants to feel at home, at ease, comfortable in their skin. Jesus' friends are NOT supposed to be at home in this world. Jesus’ friends are at home where peace reigns. Jesus’ friends are at home where justice rolls down like water. Jesus’ friends are at home where righteousness flows like a never-ending stream. Jesus’ friends are at home where rich and poor feast together and none are turned away, where children rise up in joy and fall asleep in safety, forevermore. And that is not this world, friends.
How could the friends of Jesus ever feel at home here? And yet, here we are. Sent and blessed by Him with everything we need to run the kingdom of heaven this side of heaven. The world won't love ya for it, either, the disciples hear him say, more or less. He asks God to protect them, suggesting that this world's dangerous.
I have three children. All three could walk down the same sidewalk at the same time and only one of them faceplant into a tree. He was always looking one way and walking another. The sidewalk wasn't dangerous. He was. This world is dangerous, or we're a danger to ourselves. But either way, we aren't safe without the Lord. Even Jesus thinks it's so. More dangerous for some than others. Into that divide Jesus sends us, between the ones for whom it is and the ones for whom it isn't.
For whom is this world most dangerous? for the weak and poor? Yes, but only marginally. I’d say for the ones not watching where they’re going; the ones who think this is all there is: what they can see and hear and experience here, this side of eternity. And the danger, it seems to me, isn't death, but hopelessness. Despair, the greatest poverty of all. And in that economy, friends, we are the rich ones. The ones who have lived to discover that to be human is to be beloved. Beloved by the Creator of the universe.
And either we believe it’s the gospel that has been the difference or we don't. What we are doing here is not a game. We have not gathered to pacify ourselves about the rest of our selfish lives. We have gathered as people who know in our deepest selves and in our life together, that we are the beloved of God and that we have been sent into this world to share this news with our friends. All seven billion of them. We have gathered to rest, restock and receive new orders for this life we have in Christ. Those orders are here, in this text, as Jesus takes his leave of us, to do what we can never do.
What are those orders? Go. Be the beloved in this dangerous world. And don't expect it to be otherwise. Go, greet every person as a friend and love them like a brother or sister. But don't expect them to love and admire you all the time. Expect them to hate you, Jesus says, in his overhearing kind of way. Expect to have trouble. Expect to suffer. Expect to feel uncomfortable, awkward, out of place, left out and marginalized, like you are in a foreign country where all they eat is octopus.
And when all that happens, do NOT whine like you've been mistreated; do NOT retreat like you are besieged by some enemy of the Lord. Because you haven't been. But rather, go. Go be like Jesus the best you can. Go be a good and helpful guest in this world. Go with the gospel in your pockets.
Go, knowing, trusting, believing that, in the midst of all the ordinary human things that make your life a life – growing gardens and keeping houses; making babies or making a living – it's the delivery of hope which is your highest and best calling.
Peace/justice/mercy/grace in all we say and do, speaks more of Christ in us than a thousand Sunday sermons. This world is not our home, but all the same, here we are. May the world overhear the gospel in our lives and in our life together.
People with whom we share no DNA. People we like. People with whom we have things in common: things; experiences; or hobbies; or commitments. That teensy, tiny fraction of the human population whose company we enjoy. These are the people we generally think of as our friends.
If you can find it, I recommend a British TV show called “The Secret Life of 4, 5, and 6 Year Olds." The producers give kids a set-up activity, then put secret cameras on them to watch them play. My favorite is one where two sets of 6-year-olds, each a boy and a girl, are given a doll and a bunch of doll accessories to pretend they are taking their baby to the park. Neither group knows the other couple is coming. Nor do the kids know that the doll can be made to cry remotely.
At first the kid couple works together to try to calm the baby. The boy gets bored really fast and quits playing, while the girl gets more and more frustrated. She's partly upset because their baby is upset. She's mostly upset because the baby-daddy, who is supposed to be helping, doesn't care that their baby is crying. She bounces it and checks its diaper and asks him to help her. He tries to explain it's not a baby – that it's a doll, probably broken, maybe they should try kicking it. She nearly loses her mind and starts crying, so he wanders off.
The camera goes back and forth between the couples, who aren't paying that much attention to each other at first. Then one baby stops crying (or doll, depending on who's telling the story). Can you guess what happens? The two girls who don't know each other become friends and partners in working to soothe the crying baby, while the boys go off to kick trees or something.
In this world, for good reason, our friends are people who see the world like we do. They are the people who take and receive the service and activity we need and offer, in the ways we want to receive and give it. It was always a game to the boys, so they were just happier with people for whom it was also a game. It wasn't just a game to the girls, so they were happier with people who understood the gravity of taking good care of pretend children.
But it isn't really about happiness so much as it's about thriving. Good friends are the people toward whom we gravitate to help ourselves live like we most want to live. Friends sustain one another. And while the subject of friendships is a deep and interesting rabbit hole into which to fall – probably more for women than for men – I won't. I won't, because no matter what the social science answers are for why we choose the friends we do, Jesus’ definition of friendship is other. If we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us, two shifts of understanding are in order:
Simply said, our friends are human beings. All seven billion of them, potentially. Because, unlike the way friendship works when Jesus isn't defining it, we don't choose. If we are to others as Jesus is to us, how people treat us is of no relevance. I don't know that Jesus had ever had a relationship talk with the disciples until here, in John 15. But here He says, I no longer call you servants; instead I call you friends.
Sounds good. But let's not be quick to dismiss the advantage of the master-servant model. At least we know what our job is, right? Jesus tells us what to do, and we do it; but Jesus is the one in charge. Always. We just follow orders. The master is always the master. The servant is always the servant. May not be fun, but at least it's clear. Nobody has to figure anything out.
Friends isn't so clear. Now who's in charge? Sure, Jesus is in charge of me and you; but between me and you, who is in charge? Well, according to Jesus, you are. But only if Jesus is talking to me. If Jesus is talking to you, then I am. Right? Because Jesus’ definition of friendship centers on submission. Submitting to everyone else. (More on this in a minute.) Sticking with the question of who our friends are: the church thinks of the disciples as heroes. But they weren't, here in John 15. They are still mostly knuckleheads. And Jesus decides to love them here and now, before they are anything like the men and women they eventually become.
As if to say “who your friends are” – this is Jesus speaking in my imagination here – “has nothing to do with what they can do for you or might ever do for you.” The apostle wrote about this in Romans 5: When we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. The Lord didn't wait for us to get ourselves together and be His good friend in order to be our good friend. God chose to be better to us than we deserve. Therefore, choose to befriend one another – not because the other deserves it, Jesus says, but because you didn't deserve it either. And I chose you. We are friends of Jesus, because God first loved us. We are friends to others, because God first loved us. It's not complicated at all.
A teenager I spend time with is the most bossed-around person I have ever known up close. Incarcerated people are probably no more bossed-around than her. Once when she didn’t know I was close enough to hear, she sighed and said, "God, I hate people." It was so deep-down honest that it made me laugh. Can you so relate to her? The adults in charge of her had the wisdom to get her a dog, a mutt named Lady. An unconditional relationship and someone for both of them to care for.
To love one another because God loved us isn't complicated at all, and yet feels nearly impossible as a way of life. Because, aren’t people just the worst and the best of every single day, amen? Sometimes I also think, “God, I just love people.”
And great is the temptation, for those of us with the power to do so, to surround ourselves with the ones who help us be the selves we most want to be. If I could, I would surround myself with people like my nephew Parker, because he and I each think the other is a comic genius. But to such a definition of friendship, Jesus says, No! Stop being so selfish. If you would abide in me like I told you to, five verses ago, you'd know how loved you are already, and you wouldn’t need 50 daily Facebook Likes to keep your heart up. Go find some under-loved people for me to love through you.
I know why we don't do it. We're afraid. We're afraid because we don't abide. We don't abide because we're lazy. And easily distracted. And afraid. Scott Simon told me yesterday morning about two suicide bombings in Kabul this week. Journalists got killed. More journalists than any day since the Taliban days. Scott had a different Afghani journalist on to talk about the ones who died. Some of them were his colleagues, his friends, he said. And he's brokenhearted now.
And now, because they have names and families and a story, my heart hurts a little too. And sadly, my first impulse is to say that my heart hurts because I didn’t turn the radio off in time, like I sometimes do when sad, sad news comes on. Having seven billion friends will break your heart every single day. Guaranteed!
Loving people hurts. And now Jesus tells us we have to love everybody – no matter what they've done or haven't done for us. No matter what they've done TO us. Who needs hurt like that? The right question, of course, is who needs love like that? The world, of course. All seven billion of us. If we knew that, and lived like we knew it, all manner of things would be well. But we don't. So they aren't.
The second shift in understanding Jesus’ way of friendship is how to be a friend. By laying down your life. Again, not complicated, but practically impossible. The last time Jesus used this language was in John 10 – the Good Shepherd text. 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."
Of course when He said it first, these disciples might have imagined Jesus dying, a martyr; a hero; in a battle, maybe. A sheep to the slaughter they'd never have imagined. This non-resistant, compliant, submissive goat to the great enemy of Israel.
It's a complicated saying. On its face and in context, it seems that Jesus means dying. Dying as He died. Putting one's own walking, talking, breathing body between my friend and my friend's enemy, absorbing whatever treatment my friend's enemy directs at my friend – which, not to make light of such a calling, seems slightly easier in that it must only be done once.
How does a disciple follow Jesus by doing something she can only do one time? And when Jesus says He has the power to lay it down and take it up again, does He mean the one death and resurrection, or some repetitive way of living? Something we can mimic in this befriending others as Jesus has befriended us?
I do not imagine discipleship as one long exercise of planning for which friend and in what moment Jesus expects me to die. It doesn't make sense to me. Not as much as the possibility that Jesus intends me to see this life of mine as something I lay down every day for the friends who cross my path. Not so much by my breath and blood, although it might come to that, but rather by my time and energy and will. Day in and day out. For years. Decades.
Because, honestly, what do we guard most closely? What do we protect from others? Time. Talent. And Treasure. The STUFF of my life that I consider MINE. And even when we itch to give it away, we want to give when and where we know it will be ____(what?)________? Appreciated. It's just good stewardship, we say.
But is it good discipleship? we should also ask. Does it mimic Jesus’ example of laying down one's life for one’s friends? The friends you've never met, who will never say thank you, who may never be grateful. Even now, I don't like this sermon. I don't like it for the inequity embedded in the language, the sense that we are empowered to do for others what others cannot do for themselves: Loving the underloved. I don't like the smack of that language, as if we have something others don't. We don't.
Insofar as we have not yet accepted our undeservedness of the love of God in Christ Jesus, we above all people are in need of Jesus and His grace. And now is the time for us to continue to abide in Him and Him in us.
Our love for one another is the hard proof of God's presence in the world. “Our”
refers to all human beings, not just the Christian ones, since all love is from God. Love refers to respectful, graceful, just regard and treatment of every human being – regard and treatment based not on what a human deserves
, but that he is
. God loves us, because we are God's. We love others, because they are God's. As for proof – well, proof is what humanity is starved for, isn't it? Meaning. Purpose. Some sense of why we exist at all. We exist to love and to be loved. When we find ourselves loved – adored – by the Creator, the Sustainer, of the universe, our lives become a circuit of that love. Or a circus
, which also works. As God is in us, so are we in the world, being love. We who have bound ourselves to Christ have made loving others the central purpose of our lives. Such a life bears much fruit, Jesus said. If you can pick it, what fruit do you hope to bear? The fruit I hope to bear is joy. And peace. And justice. And decency, kindness and grace. I don't, mostly. Mostly I fail – because I'm slothful. And timid. And gluttonous. I suspect Jesus minds, a little. But not so much that he won't work with me, that he doesn't keep inviting me to try. The bit I know about this life convinces me that it's the trying that makes a life. And relationship with Christ is about the running, as Paul said, though I wish he'd been a knitter rather than an athlete. That Christ is with us is what keeps us in the race, the fight, reaching for the prize. John 15 is smack-dab center of Jesus' farewell discourse: his most intimate conversation with his inner-circle disciples at the last supper, just before he's arrested. He's preparing
them, not just for his death, but for the new relationship to come: absent in the body, present in the Spirit. A relationship that will require new effort and intention from them. And faith. Lots and lots of faith. Bags and bags of faith. Abide
is the word for such faith – here and all through John's writing, actually. 4
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Lots and lots of abiding
. • Abide means “Stay.” • Just stay. • Don't go over there, • or up there, • or down there, • or back there. • Stay. Right. Here. Stay in the loving, safe, all-knowing, ever-graceful presence of God. Stay here mentally. Stay here emotionally. Stay here physically. Stay here morally. Here's the opposite of abiding: my phone chimes that I have a text. I'm driving, so I can't check it. Instead I take mental inventory of my six most important people and three most stressful projects. I conjure a possible disaster for each one of them. This takes five seconds, tops. Eventually I check the message – it's not a disaster, naturally. I spend another minute or two flogging myself mentally for being so dramatic. Then I go back to what I WAS doing before. Probably something like fretting about the Russia scandal or what a mess my house is. Or how many carbs I've already eaten that day. All my life I've been told being Christian means praying a lot; giving my money and time and energy; feeling guilty for not giving away enough money, time or energy; going to church a lot. But hardly anybody ever talked about abiding
a lot. And Jesus seems to be really big on it. He seems really big on us trusting him no matter what. Abide in me. Stay right here. To have any hope of being the people who bear evidence of God's presence in this world, we must decide to abide in Christ. First and most of all, abiding is a work of heart and mind, a discipline that demands as much practice and self-denial as any athlete or artist perfecting her craft.
It takes a lifetime, even to begin: day in and day out, rejecting the world's terribly low standard for decency and mercy and justice; insisting to ourselves and to one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ, that God's expectation is entirely other and inevitably demands sacrifice. Abiding begins quietly, seriously, deeply, with the decision to desire what Christ desires regardless of what our bodies or emotions ache for, day to day. Abiding is coming to terms with the fact that wanting what Christ wants doesn’t come naturally just because we are His. It is learned, practiced, and prayed-for behavior. Abiding is long and tedious and awkward. Sometimes scary. Sometimes boring. Sometimes hilarious. Sometimes fun. The company is usually good. Because abiding happens only inside relationship, in communion with God, in fellowship with each other. Since January, I've fallen off the exercise wagon. Fortunately I landed in my recliner, so no one was injured. I love that we actually buy chairs called Lazy Boys; we don't even try to hide our slothfulness. But I'm back at it, after going in for what is called another “session for success." Like asking a professor to let you take her class over again and promising to do better. One change is that I have a new trainer, Brandon. Brandon is a quiet man who doesn't look super fit, just normal tall and lean. But he can do 1,000 burpees in an hour. Then, not only does he not die, he can finish his workday. He's patient as a saint and as attentive as a mother hen. He laughs at all my jokes, except the self-deprecating ones. He always encourages. He's always kind. He asks after my aches and pains. He's really good to me, but only if I'm there. If I miss twice, he'll email me to see if I'm dead. But he doesn't come over. He doesn't drag me out of the Lazy Boy to drive me to the gym and puppet me through my workout. That would be creepy. And it wouldn't work; this body is my project. And so is my faith. As much as Jesus wants to love me, and love the world through me, without my volition – without my active, intentional participation – Jesus will wait. Or, more accurately, Jesus will go on without me until I'm ready. Friends, either life with Christ is a life we want, or it isn't. We can pretend it's something less than Jesus demands, make it one of our interests like gardening and fitness and chickens. Jesus may even appear to abide our pretense. But either our lives bear the fruit of the Spirit or they don't. And if they don't, we aren't useless
creatures. But neither are we the disciples Jesus was talking to in John 15. The ones who thought themselves devoted, called, willing to go the distance as his followers. In that group, there wasn't room or time for deadweight. Jesus talks more than once of a pruning, purging and fire, always to promote greater and greater growth, more and more fruit; more grace, more justice; more joy, more peace. For lots of years I only heard
this text preached as judgment – against people who don't believe in Jesus – rather than the more plausible interpretation, which is that firewood is a natural consequence for dead branches. At least as firewood, dead branches are still useful. Is Jesus really judging or is he explaining how adult relationships work? Which is: everyone contributes; everyone
puts in. I AM the vine
is Jesus seventh and last “I AM” statement in the gospel of John. We've been over nearly all the others since Christmas, two last week. Do you remember them? I AM: The bread of life (chapter 6) I AM: The light of the world (chapter 8) I AM: The gate (chapter 10) I AM: The good shepherd (chapter 10) I AM: The resurrection and the life (chapter 11) I AM: The way, the truth and the life (chapter 14) I AM is the oldest and most important part of God's name for God's self since Moses. God's shameless, audacious, outrageous pursuit of us – like a jilted husband chasing down a cheating wife
– is the picture painted by the prophet Hosea. Chasing humanity in hope we might know how completely and forever loved we have always been, by this one who calls themself, I AM. Seven times Jesus reduces I AM to some smaller word we might understand: bread, light, gate, shepherd, vine, any one of which will do, so long as at least one of them snags one of us and we discover ourselves the beloved. Once snagged, friends, by this love that never checks a resumé, that regards us worthy of grace, dignity, kindness and respect by virtue of our being-ness, by virtue of being God's, and the more of this goodness and grace that we soak up like vines soaking up sunshine and water, the more in love with humanity we will also fall; the less able we will be to tolerate the terror and injustice inflicted by our brothers on our sisters, by our sisters on our brothers, and by the systems of this world that enrich some by exploiting others. Injustice and oppression: they ought to feel like injury or poison to the Spirit of God in us, injury that prompts change, treatment, healing: the activity of love in the world – that hard proof of God's presence, the purpose of our lives and our life together.
Every once in a while a preacher will get fussed at for being too political in the pulpit. For those days, John gave us chapter 10, Jesus straight up trash-talking the leaders of his day – religious leaders with plenty of political power. He’s outright name calling: bandits, thieves and wolves. Verses 19-20 suggest the Pharisees thought he meant them. Metaphors are fluid, of course, especially in Jesus’ stories. I expect hired hand offended them the most.
Shepherd was a biblical reference they would have chosen for themselves: like King David, benevolent caretakers of the Jewish masses. Not a few scholars believe the whole passage in verses 11-18 is a reference to wartime in Jerusalem in the early 70’s CE. When the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, Pharisees abandoned the city and their flock in droves, claimed they went to this other village to get Judaism set up again. In that scenario the Romans are the wolves.
John wrote in the 90’s, when times were tough for Christians. The same lineage of Pharisaical Jews still haunted and harassed them, trying to steal them back for their own flock, if you will. But there’s no century or continent that can’t claim the same. Church history would be a skinny book without the wolves and thieves and bandits, all disguised as shepherds, who turned out to be nothing more than hired hands, in the business of tending sheep for what they could get out of it for themselves.
This time last week I was at the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. You must go, and you must plan two days to see it. I absolutely believe that one’s receipt for visiting the MAAHC ought be one’s ticket for getting into the Holocaust Museum a few blocks away.
The history of slavery in Europe and the Americas is a history of the Church’s complicity in the theft, murder, rape, forced migration and genocide of millions of human beings. Not the passive kind of turn-a-blind-eye complicity either, but the active armed, written-down, bought-and-sold partnership-with-the-empires-of-this-world complicity. For your extra credit reading, please look up The Doctrine of Discovery of 1493.
It takes one trip to a museum to expose the great hypocrisy of my faith. I refuse to spend money at certain businesses for their social or political stances, and yet here I still am – repping for the most corrupt organization in the history of Western Civilization. On a good day, I’m 30% of the way out of church. Museum days, it’s more like 85. It is the rest of this text which pulls me back, the heart and gospel in this text. More than I am anything else, more than any other metaphor, the Pharisees are lambs. I am a lamb.
For all the ways human beings have horrified one another in the name of God, God took it like a beating. Took it like a good parent takes it every time her child is hateful to his sibling. And instead of leaving us to our deservéd destinies – the natural consequences of our hatefulness and greed – instead, God chose to save us from that destiny: eternal, unending Death.
For some community work I do, I have occasion to be in court. Last time, I was there with a kid whose life is blowing up – by no fault of her own. She’s young enough to still seem childlike but old enough to know she’s been betrayed, by the ones who were supposed to protect and keep her. The story isn’t finished. There might be redemption.
But at court that day, the judge – a tall man in a black robe behind a very high bench – looked at the child and in his huge, deep voice, as factually as it is possible for words to be spoken, he said, “No matter what happens, I promise I am not going to let anything bad happen to you." The child whispered, “Thank you." While I – though composed on the outside – I melted into a puddle of tears on the inside. It was a puddle of relief, I decided later, relief for hearing that there are helpers, the hired hands. When we are trying our best to do what is right, we are not on our own.
Because metaphors are fluid, hired hand doesn’t always have to be synonymous with thief and bandit and wolf. It might also mean disciple, the one charged with helping watch and love the sheep in a certain place and time, the one who knows full well about the gatekeeper just beyond the next hill who welcomes all – sheep, shepherds, and hired hands alike – into the everlasting safety and security of the fold.
All of which might be well and good enough, were it not for the unfinished business I mentioned at the outset: the hills of history covered with the carcasses of sheep and lambs for whom the sentence “I promise nothing bad is going to happen to you” is a string of lies.
Into certain rivers of Costa Rica there washes a kind of sand that is used to make a kind of tile that rich people use in their houses. The sand is extra fine, and technology is scarce in Costa Rica, which means it is extracted by teenage boys who dive to the river bottom with strainer buckets. They fill the buckets, swim up and hand them to men on the bank who dump them into carts attached to oxen which haul the sand to factories.
In this same region of Costa Rica, grown men and women pick cantaloupe for $2 a day. But these boys earn $20 a day diving for sand. Care to guess why? Crocodiles. Really big ones. Because, in that economy the sand is more valuable than teenage boys. Boys like Andy and Tucker, only much skinnier, with very brown skin. Crocodiles would like you all more, would think you tastier. But we would never choose tile over you. See, the “anything bad” part of “I won’t let anything bad happen to you” has to be picked apart economically and socially and racially. To be eaten by a crocodile is bad for everyone except the crocodile.
But what’s worse, it seems to me, what must be worse in the realm and heart and mind of God, is straight-faced telling a child that his life, his personhood, is worth less than a few buckets of sand, no matter if the person saying it owns the factory or lays that tile in her bathroom floor.
The divine punishment our people deserve for centuries of abuse and terror and death rained down on the black and brown people of this world is incalculable. And yet, on the last day, we too go to the gate as lambs led by the Good Shepherd who loves us like a good father loves his newborn baby, when she still smells wet and lovely, years and years before she gets big and mouthy and tells him he never did a single thing to help her get into college.
Instead of backhanding us into oblivion, this Good Shepherd takes us by the hand – or the hoof, I suppose – and walks us all the way home with Him. What would this world look like, do you suppose, friends, if we could find in ourselves the humility and the courage to believe that?
Would you pray with me?
Welcoming the incoming class on my very first day of seminary the president of our school, Dr. Roy Honeycutt, said, “Men and women, God neither requires nor expects you to put your brains in your pockets to study the Bible" – a word I had been waiting all my life to hear from someone like him. Someone in a pulpit, in a church, in a classroom.
Granted, “all my life” was not a fabulously long time at that point: 22 ½ years. I’d only been reading for about fifteen. Only been reading the Bible seriously for about nine. But still, your whole life is still your whole life, no matter your age. I could have cried with relief to hear, finally, what I hoped was true confirmed by someone Christian, Baptist, and smart – because of stories like Thomas, a story I hated all through high school and college, about which every sermon and Bible study drilled down what a second-rate disciple Thomas was: “Doubting Thomas”; don’t be like Thomas; yeah, Jesus loved him and indulged him but said, “Nobody really wants to be like you, Thomas” – when I secretly LOVED Thomas for being so straight-up true to himself; for not pretending to believe what he didn’t believe just to save face with the other disciples who clearly didn’t believe it any more than he did but were too chicken to say so out loud.
Sometimes in those college Bible studies I said as much, always timidly, usually to be told I needed to pray more. Which I usually didn’t. Usually I got quiet and stayed quiet, until I couldn’t stand it any more. And just one sentence – “God wants your brain in the room when you are reading the Bible” – and everything changes. Along comes Thomas. So what questions come to these brains of ours?
First of all, where is he? According to John all the other disciples are hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. Why isn’t Thomas there too? Has he gone out for more beer or is he gone for good? Is he at the store or is he back in Galilee, wondering why he ever got mixed up with the likes of that Nazarene in the first place? I get the sense he’s estranged from his friends, given that they have to go find him to tell him Jesus has shown up.
Second, why does Thomas get labeled as the doubter for demanding to see Jesus’ hands and sides, when the other disciples don’t get excited about Jesus either until they see those same scars (verse 20)? Nobody calls them doubters, and they need the same evidence in order to believe.
Third, why does Thomas get labeled a doubter when the Greek word here translated as doubt in verse 27 – the word apistos – is almost never translated as doubt, but rather as unbelieve? All over the New Testament apistos is unbelieve, but to translate it thus here would make the sentence awkward. “Thomas, do not unbelieve, but believe." (In fact, Spell Check doesn’t like it either, so I had to override it when typing it.) But unbelief and doubt are not the same. Thomas has already clearly stated his unbelief, by his absence and by his own confession when pressed by the other disciples. Doubt is “I’m not sure”; unbelief is “Yeah. No. I’m done.”
Which brings me to my fourth question about Thomas: why did he go back?
Seeing your friend be tortured and die violently is traumatic; it causes neurological and psychological damage that profoundly affects responses and behavior. Such trauma that is deep and wide and lasting. I know that from pastoral care and counseling studies. I can bring that knowledge to this passage.
All the disciples were traumatized. No wonder the doors are locked – that is an appropriate response to trauma! So is leaving the scene of trauma. What is not appropriate to trauma is pretending it didn’t happen. “We have seen the Lord!" the disciples say. If that means, turns out it was all just a bad dream, Thomas wants no part of it.
He’s not putting his brain or memory or heart or his pain into his pocket, not for anyone. He won’t pretend that what happened didn’t happen. Not for his friends, not for the cause, not for Jesus himself will Thomas lie about what he knows to be the terrible, horrible, heart-stopping traumatic truth of the last two weeks.
It was the church since then who took his self-protecting unbelief and dialed it down to doubt. Because it’s what we do. The pain and trauma we are trying to avoid is impossible to ignore if Thomas refuses to ignore his. Therefore, the interpretation becomes “Don’t be like Thomas.” Scholar Mary Hinkle Shore writes that Thomas won’t be shamed into believing nor shamed into keeping his unbelief to himself. Neither will he ignore what he knows, to believe something he does not know.
In thirty years of ministry, I’ve known a thousand Thomases – ones who have walked away unwilling to ignore what they know, to believe something they don’t. They aren’t doubters. Doubters are believers more days than not. They are the folks expected not to see what they have seen; not to feel what they have felt; not to ask the questions pulling at their minds; to call it something less than evil or obscene; to pretend it didn’t happen or that it didn’t hurt, that it really wasn’t all that bad. People to whom it’s been suggested that if they’d just prayed more or believed better or not read so many books or asked so many questions, faith wouldn’t have been such a struggle for them.
I’ve known a thousand Thomases. And hardly a handful who have come back. So why did he, our Thomas of the Bible, go back? I’ve three possible explanations, none exclusive of the others. One, his friends went and found him. Having met the Risen Christ, they do what people do: they tell. They find their friends and tell their friends and share this news because it cannot be kept secret – the same way we have to tell people we have a new puppy at our house. It’s just too much good news to keep to ourselves. There is something wrong with other people not knowing, especially our friends who are hurting, like they knew Thomas hurt.
Secondly, maybe Thomas went back because part of him was still there anyway. He was AWOL, bodily away from where his heart and mind still were. When couples get divorced, it’s rarely all at once. They can be emotionally divorced long before papers are signed. They can also be legally divorced and never emotionally separated at all. At least in my experience, faith can be aggravating in that the very thing that makes me want to pull away also draws me back: the unknowableness of God.
In John 6, a whole gaggle of Jesus’ disciples left him and Jesus asked the twelve, don’t you want to go with them? And Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" – which is not exactly NO, is it? But rather, we would go, but there’s nowhere else to go. Like when I don’t want to drink water – but I will drink water, if water is all there is. If eternal life is what we are after, Jesus is all there is.
What Peter doesn’t say in chapter 6, but is plainly in the mix of being a follower of Jesus, is: Yeah, we’re staying. Which isn’t to say some of your sayings aren’t completely incomprehensible while others are downright crazy. But all the same, we’re staying but by nothing else on this earth will we ever be better off. Only you have the words of eternal life.
Of course, I’ve no idea why Thomas went back. I only know that when Jesus shows up a week later, Thomas is there too. Jesus goes to him, walks right up to all Thomas’ trauma and unbelief, raises up his shirt, opens up his hands and offers Thomas exactly what Thomas needs to trade in that trauma for faith in the God who keeps his promises to those with the community and the courage to give this life another look, another listen, another piece of our hearts and minds.
Would you pray with me?
Grace wins. Grace always wins. Even when it takes forever to see grace win, grace still wins. In the meantime, we live by faith, knowing that by his rising, grace has won. God chose to love and keep us, when God had every right and reason to give us up for good, to abandon us to ourselves and one another: we humans; we children; children who destroy what the Parent-God-Creator offered freely – and in the process destroy each other, destroy ourselves.
But rather than punish or abandon, which surely would have been easier, God absorbed the offense; surrendered the anger; stayed and loved, full of grace and mercy, for our weakness and our fear and for the cruelty we commit as a result. By God’s choice, God’s will, grace wins.
Grace always wins. By grace, the world is set to rights. By grace, justice rules. By grace, death dies. Life wins. God reigns.
Have you seen the movie Wonder Woman? Where she’s in the trenches in France with three seasoned soldiers: an American, an Irishman and an Indian? The shelling is constant. The soldiers explain stalemate to her. It’s gone on two years, they say. She’s horrified. Someone has to do something, she says. We can’t, they say. But she’s Wonderwoman, there to do what humanity cannot, and will not, do for itself. She climbs up and over the edge of stalemate, charging into the destruction, defeating the enemies, rescuing a village. The Christology starts breaking down fast, but for that one moment it shines.
Humanity at war with itself for so long, we cannot conceive of how not to be. Jesus enters the trenches where everyone else is paralyzed with fear and also hopelessness. Jesus does for us what we humans cannot do for ourselves, and the backbone of death is broken, once and for all.
Mary Magdalene doesn’t know it yet. She’s headed for the tomb, the graveyard. To do what, John doesn’t say. To grieve? To tend Jesus’ body? What we know for sure is that Mary Magdalene assumes he’s dead. She went to the cemetery, after all, not his house, his friends’ houses, the Temple. She went where dead people are and fully expected to find him there.
For some the graveyard is a place to visit our dead, knowing full well the dead are no more there than they are anywhere. Yet, for some of us, the graveyard is a particular spot on the earth for marking their absence in all the rest of our lives, somewhere to go when we cannot be WHERE we most want to be – that is, with them. We know they aren’t there – and yet knowing their bodies were once there somehow makes the trip seem worthy.
Still, none of us go expecting our loved ones to be waiting there for us, ready for conversation. Mary finds the grave is opened, the body stolen or moved. She fetches Peter and John. They see burial clothes, folded of course, because it’s Jesus. We’re meant to remember Lazarus waking up and walking out still all wrapped up.
Jesus’ rising was intentional. He did his laundry, as I like to say. Mary saw none of that. Only that his body’s gone. His DEAD body. I personally can write a backstory to any situation in about 20 seconds. And the backstory I write is always the worst possible scenario. Being Mary, I’d have assumed the chief priests paid someone to steal and hide the body to cover up the whole thing so his followers couldn’t make a martyr of him.
Peter and John go home; Mary stays; angels arrive. They ask why she’s crying. She explains her grave robber theory. And keeps crying. Now a man comes along. A gardener, she thinks.
Whom are you looking for? He wants to know. A sensible question in a graveyard; markers can be hard to find. Except he’s not the gardener. Nothing ever means just one thing in the gospel of John, and we’ve heard this voice ask this question before, in chapter 1. Two disciples of John the Baptist peeled off to follow Jesus. He felt them behind him, turned and said, “What are you looking for?”
The whole gospel starts over in chapter 20. Now we can read everything in the right light. The light of his resurrection, where nothing now means what it meant before.
He’s not the groundskeeper. He’s the Creator of the universe, and he knows her name. From the graveyard, from the void, from the place beyond all hope, he calls her own name. “Mary,” Jesus says to her. “Rabbouni!" she replied, which means “My teacher!”
I don’t know the words to do this story justice, I can no more preach this story than I can hit a mid-court shot blindfolded. Yet you still know what I’m aiming for. But in my mind’s hearing of the text, there is such a looooong silence between verses 16 and 17. The long silence of him letting her hug him and of him holding her. Until he has to peel her off him. “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.’” And she does.
But I can’t imagine it was easy, being her first act of faith and all. Because I get wanting to hold on. I REALLY get seeing Jesus after thinking she’d never see him again, and the temptation to imagine all the horror and fear and grief of the last five days was just a nightmare, and now that Jesus was back everything could go back to the way it was before. Everything could just be great again, like it was in Galilee. All that sunshine and seashore. Picnics and open air revivals with hundreds of people following them.
But all of life wasn’t Galilee, was it? Jesus wouldn’t let them stay in Galilee forever. He decided to go back to Jerusalem, where people were determined to kill him. And nothing any of them could do would stop him once he’d turned his face in that direction.
All the world is not Galilee in springtime. Bullets and bombs and people living in trenches are just as real. The stalemate of war and disease and poverty that grinds people into hopelessness this side of the graveyard, where people are helpless against our own fear and weakness; where human beings destroy each other and ourselves, barely even trying. It’d be awesome to pretend all the world was Galilee. But Jesus tells her no, that she has to let him go again.
Mary knows he’s risen, and now she’ll know he didn’t rise just for her. Go and tell my brothers too, he says. I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.
And so she let go of Jesus, again. And in some ways forever. The Jesus she had known so far; the one who walked and talked and was her teacher; the one who ate with them and preached to them; who healed the sick and fed the hungry and talked theology with women; who said God loved the poor and the prisoner and the foreigner; who said the Romans were to be treated as kindly as a neighbor – he was awesome and wonderful, and Mary left her life for him. But he was still just the Jesus she had known so far.
Don’t hold on to who I was, Jesus tells her here. Who I was is not who I came to be. Or what I came to do for you. For everyone.
Friends, all this Lenten season we’ve been holding back for this very moment. He is alive. Not “still” – but rather “again.” He was dead. Now he’s alive. But even death is under the command and direction of the Creator of the universe. The universe of death is contained within the universe of the Creator. Death takes its bidding from the Creator. Death is something smaller than, contained within, Life itself.
I can’t explain it. I can only say it. And words are too small and too few to say it perfectly. What Mary learned first is this: death does not have the last word in this world, in the order of things, when what we were sure was a hopeless, lifeless, dead-in-the-grave, over-and-done-with, broken-for-good situation, God was all along, alive and watching over us, with our own names on the tip of God’s tongue, calling us to himself again and again and again, Easter after Easter after Easter, for as long as we need to muster the faith that it takes to know Him risen, alive, and with us right here, right now, and forever.