Easter II :: 4.28.2019 | John 20:19-31
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
Today is perhaps my favorite Sunday of the year. It is known by a variety of names, depending on one’s tradition: Divine Mercy Sunday, Low Sunday, Pascha Clausum, The Octave of Easter, Empty Pew Sunday or, as it is still known among my more incarnational friends from theological school, Side-Wound Sunday. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have frequently called this day Quasi modo Sunday, after the first line of the Introit traditionally sung at the beginning of Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, alleluia. “As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Today the divine gift of mind mixes and comingles with the gifts of flesh and blood; and an encounter with the Risen Lord offers us the new milk of a renewed, guileless knowing. As the risen and glorified body of Jesus meets His broken and weary disciples, so too our weary rationality meets and is gathered up into the reality of the Paschal Mystery. Today we remember that when the faithful doubt in love, God prepares a spring of faith, “gushing up to eternal life.”
When the disciples report to Thomas that they had seen the Lord, he baulks. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.A twin,Thomas is likely well acquainted with the liabilities of mistaken identity, and John begs us not to hear this as a faithless objection. Chapter twenty of John’s gospel contains three encounters with the Risen Lord, and in each of these encounters, the characters perform poorly. Mary only recognizes Jesus after He speaks her name; gripped by fear, the disciples lock themselves away; and Thomas—who was willing to go to his death with Jesus in chapter eleven—simply asks for something as tangible as the rest of them have received. John is not attempting to paint for us a picture of an inadequate faith. He is attempting something much deeper: a portrait of the complex, enigmatic realities of the paschal encounter, realities where doubt and unknowing become preludes to God’s creative word of truth.
It’s Easter Day! Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia! Today is a day for rejoicing. He is Risen: Alleluia!
But on Monday, just six days ago, I was not rejoicing. I was tearful. I was staring in shock and stunned silence – as you may have been too – watching those pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning. I first went to Notre Dame when I was 14; I was staying with my pen friend’s family in Paris. I was struck dumb, even at that age, with the beauty, the colour and light, the sheer holinessof the place. I remember we lit candles, and sat gazing in wrapt silence at a great rose window, shimmering like a jewel.
Throughout most of my life, as a parish priest in England, I tried to go back most years to Notre Dame, to light candles and pray for friends and parishioners who were sick or in need. Back to the place where for me, in Eliot’s words, “prayer had been valid.”
So it was heartbreaking to see this place of beauty and loveliness where I have for years felt so close to God, mauled and wounded and ravaged by fire.
“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.
Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical wayin which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[i]In dying, we live. Anything would be more palatable. Nothing is so essential. We must surrender, losing and letting go, being vulnerable again and again, dying to ourselves in order to live. This Holy Week we face Jesus on the cross.
When serving as a hospital chaplain, I found it exhausting continually listening to heartache. One day I realized Jesus was listening to the same heartache yet not for a few minutes per person and not just how many people I met. Jesus knows everyone and listens to all hearts, to everyone sick and dying, to all who are grieving, to each in any kind of suffering, and indeed to us all. Jesus draws the whole world to himself with a loving ear in a listening embrace.
All of us need and glory in the cross. Jesus invites each to die to self-sufficiency and secrecy. Jesus invites us to pray the whole truth of our lives, naming what weighs us down, our grief and questions, our wounds and concerns, as well as joys, thanks, and desires. Jesus listens directly and in the flesh through other people. Jesus, exposed and vulnerable on the cross, invites us to expose ourselves, share our inner life and struggles, pray in the dark, and pray our hearts.
Telling our stories can be painful, like touching wounds, a kind of death. Like wheat dying to bear fruit, safe exposure of our story heals. We like to edit, restrict, categorize, or deny our lives. Good listeners help by attending to our stories with their surprises, seeming contradictions, and scattered pieces. Listeners help us hear how these pieces together form us.
In Jesus’ day, palms were carried in joyful, triumphant processions by Jews and Romans alike. Roman soldiers, returning from a successful conquest, would wave palms as they returned home to their welcome. Jews used palm adornments for their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Festival of Tabernacles. And palm decorations were carved in stone within the Temple. Palms symbolized an oasis in the desert, victory in public games and in conquests, and a sign of blessing and homage.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem replicates how the Roman Emperor and his emissaries would enter the city: on a roadway strewn with palms, and with the crowds waving palms, shouting their praise. The crowds welcoming Jesus are shouting, “Hosanna,” which, in Hebrew, means “savior.” “Savior” is the very title already claimed by the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor’s titles included the “Savior of the World,” and “Son of God,” and “Lord of Lords.”[i] That’s the Roman Emperor. Unlike the Emperor and his party, whose processional entry would be on magnificent Persian stallions, Jesus is on a donkey.
Exodus 3:1-15, I Cor. 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
“I am who I am. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be rememberedthroughout all generations.”
This, the great climax of that wonderful story of Moses and the Burning Bush. Poor Moses, hiding his face in sheer terrorfrom the God who now calls to him out of the bush. The God who now reveals to Moses his sacred identity: God’s NAME. In Hebrew, four letters, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, “Jehovah” – so holy that their true meaning is unknown, and many will never pronounce them.
They are often translated “I AM who I AM.” I AM the one, the eternal I AM. But God is clear: My name is to be rememberedfrom generation to generation.
I want to talk this morning aboutremembering. The command to rememberis one of the most important themes running through both the Old and New Testaments. Yet it is not easy for us to understand what the Bible means by remembering because it is very different from what weusually understand it to mean.
“Do you remember last Christmas?” “Do you remember that restaurant we went to last week?” We think of rememberingas simply recalling something that happened in the past. But in the Bible, remembering has the full semitic sense of recalling in such a way that the event of the past is actually made present once again. This sense of remembrance is all but untranslatable into English. But it is fundamental to understanding God’s actions throughout scripture.
Remember the Lord your God. Rememberthe marvels he has done. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Rememberthat you are but dust and to dust you shall return. Don’t just call them to mind, but by remembering, call on their power, that you too may experience nowGod’s marvels, God’s holiness, God’s power to raise you up from the dust and ashes of death.
To remember in this way is really to literally re-member,in the way that a surgeon may put a broken body together again. What wasin the past has taken form and has become fully and powerfully present now.
I had one of the most precious and wonderful experiences of this some years ago. My father had had a stroke and he was dying. I managed to fly home and by the grace of God saw my father just a few hours before he died. I sat with him and I didn’t think he knew who I was. But at one point his eyes rested on me. I said, “Dad, do you know who I am?” After some time, staring at me, he said, “Geoffrey Robert.” After saying my name his whole being seemed to be radiantand he smiled broadly, and I knew that at that moment the whole of me, from my birth onwards, had suddenly become presentto him – and he had become present to me. I felt an incredibly close and intimate connection.
I think when God says, “This is my name, and this is how I am to be remembered throughout all generations,” it’s something like that. God longs to be so present to us, that God’s life irradiates our own.
And this biblical understanding of remembrance parallels the New Testament as well. So when Mary cries out in joy in the Magnificatto the Lord “who has remembered his promise of mercy to Abraham and his children forever,” it is not that God had forgotten for a while, and then remembered again. It is rather that in the act of remembering, that promise becomes fully presentin the child in Mary’s womb.
And perhaps the most mysterious yet wonderful place where God’s remembrance is made powerfully present is in the Eucharist, which we celebrate today.
“On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” The Greek word used here for ‘remembrance’ is the word anamnesis. In the Church of England prayer book, the phrase is translated, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The American prayer book’s translation, “Do this forthe remembrance of me,” although it is slightly clumsy English, is actually a better, more literal translation of the Greek eis ten anamnesin, and I think helps remind us of the special semitic meaning of the kind of remembrance going on here. At the Eucharist, we are not simply recalling, or calling to mind an event that happened two thousand years ago. When we say these words, a true re-memberingis happening. God’s saving deeds in Christ are being made present, so that the fullness and power of those deeds of the past – Christ’s life and death and resurrection and ascension – take effect in our lives here and now. In the sacrament of bread and wine, the Lord is truly and really presentin all his strength and power, and we receive him into ourselves. We are irradiated by the real presenceof the Lord.
“Do this for the remembrance of me.”
But if to rememberin this full biblical sense is so incredibly powerful, imagine what the opposite would be: NOTto remember. In Jeremiah 31:31, God says these words: “The days are surely coming when I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more!” Amazing words of grace! For if to rememberin the biblical sense is to make something truly present and real, then notto remember is to truly and really take something away, so that it is no longer real or present.
The Good News of the Gospel is precisely that. Because of what Jesus Christ wrought for us on the Cross, God will remember our sins no more. It’s not that God is “forgetting” or pretending he never knew – but rather that God, through love and mercy, chooses not to remember: those sins are taken away, removed, no longer present.
I wonder if you may have something in your life, some sin, some action of which you are ashamed and which you keep remembering, replaying, going over again and again. Maybe God is longing to reassure you that God remembers your sin no more, and you should stop remembering it as well. You may not be able to forget, but you can stop rememberingand trust God’s word.
And what about your relationship with others? That person who has hurt you terribly. “I’ll never forget what you did to me!” No, you can’t forget it ever happened, but you can— and I believe, to be set free, you must— choose not to remember – not to constantly re-enact, “make real” the offence, so that it is an ever-present reality and a perpetual barrier and blockage.
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
“Remember our sins no more, as we no longer remember the sins of those who have sinned against us.”
In a few minutes, we will hear those words again: “This is my body, this is my blood. Do this for the remembrance of me.” As we remember, Jesus will be made real for us. When you receive his body and blood, you will truly be receiving his power and his strength, wonderfully present to us.
In that power, in that strength, offer to God the burden of sin which you may be carrying, and hear again those gracious words of forgiveness: “I will remember your sins no more.” Then offer to God that person whom you find it hard to forgive, and ask for the grace to be able to say about them, “I will remember your sins no more.”
And there will be rejoicing in heaven – in the glorious Name of our loving, holy and gracious God, whom we remember, and will continue to remember, throughout all generations.
God is doing a new thing.
Jesus has just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. The crowd gathered at Bethany beholds something so powerful at work in Jesus that it astonishes them. A man, verifiably dead and decaying, emerges from his tomb at the voice of Jesus; a work so vivid and undeniable that some are convinced by the truth they see in him, and they believe. The power to give life is the sole property of God, and God alone. This man, Jesus from Galilee, must against all our own judgement be whom he claims to be, truly sent by the One he names ‘Father.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Others, however, cannot cope with what they have just seen. Jesus has done something that only the Lord of Israel has the power to do. And because Jesus meets none of their preexisting messianic criteria, the event they have just witnessed presents them, along with the leadership at Jerusalem, with a crisis.
God is doing a new thing.
Isaiah 43: 16 – 21
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
John 12: 1 – 8
Some of you will remember that in the old daysthis Sunday in Lent went by the title of Passion Sunday. It was on this day that the liturgical colour changed from purple, or Lenten array, to red, but not the fiery red of Pentecost, rather the deep, dark, blood red of Passiontide. At the same time, the focus in the readings changed and they began to point, not to what Jesus was doing, and the miracles he was performing, but what would happen during that last week of his life.
In many ways, while the liturgical colour has not yet changed, and today is no longer called Passion Sunday, the same shift has happened, and the readings invite us to ponder the way of his suffering. They do that by pointing us to the day of [his] burial.
The gospel for today is for me, one of the most tender of passages. It puts us back in the home of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. It is this family, you will remember, whom John tells us that Jesus loved.It’s important to remember when thinking about this family in Bethany, that it is about this family that we hear for the first time, in John’s gospel, that Jesus loved someone. Yes, we hear in other places in the gospel of the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father. And we will hear about the disciple whom Jesus loved. But it is only when we arrive in this home at Bethany, on the occasion of the raising of Lazarus in the previous chapter, do we first hear that Jesus loved another person.
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Jesus tells a graphic, gripping tale of a father and two sons. Each defies our expectations. It is more stark considering the Middle Eastern cultural context.[i]
The younger son says: “Father, give me my inheritance,” and the father gives him property. Asking for an inheritance is saying: I wish you were dead. It’s total rejection points out scholar Kenneth Bailey. A father would deny such a request and likely expel one for being so offensive. Instead, he lets the son break his heart, his family, and reputation by giving him the property.[ii]
Just a few days later, the son packs up to leave. Bailey notes property usually takes months to sell. To do it so quickly and walk off with cash is significant. The son humiliated his father by asking for the inheritance. The neighboring community quickly does the transaction to kick him out; they expel him.[iii]
The son slowly squanders all his wealth in a distant country, and he eventually runs out. So broke, this Jewish boy ends up feeding pigs and finds himself starving. There at the bottom, he wakes up a little by hunger: “My father’s hired hands have plenty to eat.” He forms a plan to save himself.[iv]“I’ll return and say I’m not worthy to be your son. Treat me as a hired hand.”
The son returns. While still far off, the father saw him approaching. The father had kept hoping, was waiting and looking. What would happen when the son came close, when people saw him, the one who rejected his father, whom they kicked out? The father runs to his son, humiliating himself—for men did not run. Bailey says the father ran in order to save his son from the neighbors who with good reason might gather as mob to taunt or abuse him.[v]