Easter: An Invitation to Believe

If you have been tracking with us over the course of the Lenten season, you know that we have been looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we have been looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

Today we come to the seventh, and final, sign.

This sign is the answer to the question we should all be asking:  Who is Jesus?  Ultimately, this sign is what convinced his followers.  Without it, Jesus would have been nothing more than just another Jewish rabbi gone off the rails, just another wannabe messiah executed by Rome.

Jesus’ followers were fully expecting him to do exactly what every other dead person had ever done since the dawn of time:  Stay dead.  Put another way, nobody expected no body.

You see, the problem with Jesus was not with what he taught, or even with what he did.  It was what he claimed about himself.  He simply claimed too much.  And in the end it had all been exposed as a big fat lie.  You don’t crucify the Resurrection and the Life.  You don’t execute God’s Messiah, whom the Jews had been awaiting for centuries.  You don’t put the Son of Man to death.

Clearly Jesus was not who he claimed to be.  Like the other disciples, John did not expect a crucifixion and resurrection.  He expected a king.

So we pick up our story from last week.  After Lazarus, so many Jews were hyped for what was to come.  A groundswell of support was building.  That had been an undeniable act of God, and now many people were believing in Jesus.  Problem:  too many.  Jesus’ enemies were taking notice, and they had had enough.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the crowds know he is coming and are buzzing with anticipation.  The city is full of spies.  It is full of fans.  It is full of patriotic zeal.  Passover was coming, the annual commemoration of God liberating the Jews from slavery to Egypt.  The Jews were hoping for a second Passover, when God would liberate the Jews from Rome.  This had to be it.

Jesus comes into the city and is greeted by throngs of fans chanting Hosanna.  It gets political real quick.

Jesus moves all around the city, teaching, preaching.  The religious leaders are watching, waiting, hoping for their chance to get Jesus separated from the crowds and hatch their nefarious plans.  Judas loses patience and sells out to the chief priests.  He goes off and does his deal with them.

Jesus celebrates his final Passover with his disciples, and in the process, increases their expectations.  He announces a brand new covenant, in his blood–which must have weirded everyone out who was in the room.  The terms and conditions of this new covenant are very simple.  You know them.  Love one another.  Jesus is about to do something for the nation, except that this is going to go much farther than just the nation.  It is going to be for the whole world.

They leave.  Judas does his thing.  Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest.  They go to Pilate because they want Jesus executed quick.  Pilate wants nothing to do with him.  They insist.  Pilate gives in, thinking that if he has Jesus beaten and released that will satisfy them.  It doesn’t.  No, they insist, he must die.

So Pilate gives in.  They take Jesus away and crucify him.  No other details are recorded because none are needed.  Once you’ve seen a crucifixion or the aftermath thereof, you can’t unsee it.

John records Jesus’ last words:  John, take care of Mom.  In the midst of all this John inserts this comment:  “The man who saw it (that would be John) has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” (John 19:35)  On the face of it, this seems unnecessary.  But John is not referring to what just happened.  He is talking about what is about to happen, because that part may be tough.

Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body.  You can’t bury a crucified person unless you bribe someone.  Nicodemus comes with Joseph and they hastily remove Jesus’ body from the cross and place it in his tomb.  They did all this because they were fully expecting Jesus to do what every other dead person has ever done:  Stay dead.

They hurriedly prep the body, because the Sabbath is coming.  They leave.  John and Peter disappear into the city.  We don’t know where they went or what they did.  But wherever they were, they were surely having conversations to the effect of “Well, that’s three years of our life that we’ll never get back.”

Early Sunday morning, there is a knock at the door.  Roman soldiers?  No, couldn’t be.  Roman soldiers don’t knock.  It’s Mary Magdalene.  She is panicked and sobbing.  They’ve taken Jesus and nobody knows where they’ve put him.  She did not assume a resurrection.  She assumed a stolen body.

Peter and John feel the urgency of the situation and take off running.  John beats Peter to the tomb (Peter was surely dead by the time John gave his account so he felt safe including that detail) but does not go in.  Why?  Because it’s dark.  Because it’s a tomb.  He wasn’t going in there.  Peter catches up and goes charging into the tomb.  Why?  Because he’s Peter.  That’s what Peter does.  He’s always saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

And there in the tomb, Peter sees the strangest thing:  Strips of linen just lying there on the ground, with the headcloth all rolled up off to the side.  Grave robbers would not stop to disembalm a body, so Peter is convinced.  John goes into the tomb.  He sees and believes.  That is his formula throughout his account:  Seeing leads to believing which leads to trusting.

This changed everything for them.  Everything Jesus said was true and could be trusted.  Eventually they would see the risen Jesus himself and there would be conversations.  John focuses on one in particular, with the disciples and Thomas.  Thomas was not present the first time around and would not believe it, and consequently got tagged with the nickname “Doubting Thomas”.  But Thomas did exactly as you or I would have done in those circumstances.

John closes with an invitation:  Believe and trust.  “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).  Why?  Because of what happened that morning.

A Time for Grief

News concerning coronavirus has grown unrelentingly bleak, with every day bleaker than the day before.  Things are now expected to get much worse before they get any better, if they bet better at all.

There is no good news these days.  What passes for good news is just a lesser shade of bad.

This past Sunday, New York City had almost 700 deaths.  In a single day.  I am sure that number has been well surpassed by now.

There is the expectation of almost 250,000 deaths in the US alone by mid April.

Africa is starting to feel the impact of coronavirus.  They don’t even know what’s coming.  By the time this is over, there will not be a single human being left on the entire continent of Africa.

This, about the state of affairs in Canada:

What a day. I grieved to hear an Ontario grocery store worker mourn her soulmate, only 49, who worked his last day at Superstore on March 16, just a week and a half ago! Now he’s dead. For stocking groceries. We owe our grocery store workers SO MUCH!

I ache for the fear of the airline attendants who are given no PPE and who are, in no small numbers, testing positive, including one now in ICU. We owe them SO MUCH as they work to bring home stranded Canadians from all over the world.

I grieved over that young man, a wonderful nurse, in New York City who just died. His sister is heartbroken. His last text to her was that he was coughing, and then a ❤️. We owe our scared yet BRAVE healthcare workers SO MUCH!

I grieved with the woman crying over no longer being allowed to visit her senior mother — a mom to 3 nurses! — in hospital, dying alone. So many beloved parents and grandparents, having to die alone. Yesterday, it was a veteran of World War II, adored by his grandkids… – Debra Esau Maione (March 28th)

You can’t be a decent human being, or a human being at all, for that matter, and not feel crushing, overwhelming grief right now.

Evangelicals do not do well with grief or lament.  Much discussion concerning tragedies such as this centers around:  What is God teaching us through this?  How is God using this to bring glory to Himself?  How can/do we use this to further the mission/advance the Gospel?

John Piper, never one to let a tragedy of any stripe go unused as an opportunity to pimp his theological opinions, has offered 4 ways for Christians to make sense of coronavirus.  A money quote which sums up the essence of the viewpoint being offered here:  “Jesus has all knowledge and all authority over the natural and supernatural forces of this world. He knows exactly where the virus started, and where it’s going next. He has complete power to restrain it or not.”

In essence, John Piper is providing a theological justification for nutjobs like this.

On a more fundamental level, this piece assumes that coronavirus is something to be made sense of.  It isn’t.

This is not a time for strategizing, theologizing, or even attempting to make sense out of any of this.  This is a time to just sit, to feel the crushing weight of grief and loss, to grieve with those who are actually suffering due to the virus or the economic fallout.

This is not a time for pious platitudes or theological speculation.  This is a time for grief.

Palm Sunday: Coexistence

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the sixth sign.

One of the key underlying themes in this story is a question with which any person of faith (Christian or otherwise) has wrestled at least once; many who have given up on faith did so because they could not resolve the tension in this question.  The question:  How can a good God allow evil in the world?

John’s answer, as shown in this story, would likely be thus:  God and evil can coexist.  I’ve seen it happen.  But it doesn’t look like what you would think.

Over the course of John’s account, Jesus and his disciples have been bouncing back and forth between Judea and Galilee.  Galilee is up north.  It is safe space; it is where Jesus’ family, friends, and supporters live.  Judea, especially Jerusalem, is dangerous territory.  Why?  Because anytime Jesus appears in Jerusalem he stirs up the people.  And the Jewish religious leaders don’t want that, because if the people get stirred up then Rome gets stirred up.  And when Rome gets stirred up, bad things happen.  This week Jesus is in the Jerusalem area again and, for the reasons given above, his disciples are on edge.

Repeatedly the temple leaders have asked:  Jesus, are you the Messiah?  Don’t keep us in suspense.  Tell us straight out, once and for all.  I did tell you, Jesus said.  I’ve shown you.  You just don’t want to see.

So now Jesus goes all out.  His intent is to manufacture a sign so undeniable that it will force the religious leaders’ hands.  He heads to a small town just outside Jerusalem, and that is where our story picks up.

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

–John 11

Right off the bat we learn that Jesus had a purpose in all this.  This delves into nature:  it was left unattended–on purpose.  Jesus’ purposes.  Sickness for the glory of God was a completely and totally new category in that religious culture.  Realizing that Jesus’ words would likely sound crass, John jumps in with an editorial comment to reassure the reader that Jesus did in fact love Mary and Martha and Lazarus.

Jesus then proceeds to stay on with his disciples for two more days.  He is staging a sign here, a sign with a purpose.  He had healed sick people all day long, but for him to do what he is about to do, that will kick it up several notches.

Finally Jesus returns.  His disciples try desperately to talk him out of it.  As noted above, anytime they are in or near Jerusalem the disciples are on edge, for Jesus’ life and their own as well.  Jesus’ response:  “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”  Translation:  12 hours of daylight = 12 hours of opportunity.  Follow the light of the world (that would be me) while you still can.  You can stay here if you want but if you do, you will miss the opportunity of a lifetime.  Finally the disciples give in.  Thomas speaks up and says what they are all thinking:  Let us go so that we may die with him.

They get to Bethany and by that point Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.  They were just wrapping up the funeral service.  Martha goes out to meet Jesus and comes at him with the full force of her raw humanity:  Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.  But I am sure that even now God will give you whatever you ask – trying desperately to cling to some last sliver of faith in that moment.

Your brother will rise again, says Jesus.  I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day, says Martha.  Translation:  Don’t try to comfort me with your theology.  I’ve already read all the books and I know all the verses, and it is no comfort to me.  If you had been here a couple of days ago we wouldn’t be waiting for the last day.

I am the resurrection, says Jesus.  You don’t have to wait for the last day.  The last day is right here with you, right now.

Now Mary comes out to meet Jesus and what we see here is divine empathy.  Jesus knows fully how all of this is going to play out, yet he does not rush through to the happy ending.  Instead he enters into the moment and is fully present with his friends in their grief, even to the point of weeping himself.

At no point did Jesus offer any of the pious cliches and platitudes that we have come to expect in moments like this.  Nothing like “God will never give more than you can handle”, “If God brought you to it, he will bring you through it”, “With God, everything happens for a reason” (though in this case we know from earlier in the story that this did happen for a reason), or my all-time favorite (and likely yours too), “God is in control”.

We know how the story ends.  Per John’s account, many who saw this go down believed in Jesus.  That’s John’s MO:  Seeing leads to believing which in turn leads to trusting in Jesus.

Now the soundtrack shifts.  This was so indisputable a sign that those who were willfully blind had to act immediately.  The sign had had its desired effect; it had forced the hands of the Jewish religious leaders.  “If we let him go on like this…”  Note the supreme arrogance in that statement.  Elsewhere in John’s account Jesus states “I lay down my life and take it up again” so no one is letting Jesus do anything or stopping him from doing anything.  “…everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation”, said the religious leaders.  They had that part right.  They had no idea.

This ties back to the beginning of John’s account:  Light has come into the world, but some people loved the darkness.

Coronavirus: An Unending Holy Saturday

Those of you who come from liturgical Christian traditions know about Holy Saturday.  It is the day between Good Friday and Easter.  On this day, the Church goes dark, as it were, as we await the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter.

As present-day Christians, we have the luxury of knowing how the story ends.  But Jesus’ disciples had no such knowledge.  When Jesus died on the cross–as far as they knew, it was over.  There was no movement to sustain.  There was no dream to keep alive.  It.  Was.  Over.

After Jesus was crucified, John and Peter and the other disciples disappeared into the city, found someplace to hunker down and wait.  It was a Sabbath, so they were required by law to wait.  But for what?  For the Sabbath to be over so they could complete the work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial, because they fully expected him to do exactly what every other dead person had done since the dawn of time:  Stay dead.  After that, for things to die down so they could slip quietly out of the city and go back home to their old way of life up in Galilee.

We don’t know the sort of conversations they had during that time.  But we can imagine.  They probably said things like “Well, that’s three years of our life that we’ll never get back.”  “You don’t crucify the Resurrection and the Life.  Clearly this guy was not who he said he was, not who we thought he was.”  “Just another wannabe messiah…what the fuck were we thinking?”

In this world of coronavirus, we wait.  Just like the disciples on that first Holy Saturday.  For what?  For it to be over.  For things to get back to normal.  For it to be safe to go back to where we were before–which for many people is not such a good place.

Over at Christian Century, Richard Lisher writes that the coronavirus pandemic has the feel of an unending Holy Saturday:

The Gospels say little about the disciples’ behavior on Holy Saturday. We can only imagine. It was a day of rest. They were required to rest. What preparations the women made must have been done furtively.

In the world of the coronavirus, we are also waiting. But waiting for what? When the women came to the tomb in the gray morning, they came not with high hopes but with their world’s version of embalming fluid. In Hebrew, the verbs “wait” and “hope” can be rendered by the same word. But in a time of contagion, our waiting does not appear to be en­riched by hope any more than theirs was.

Our waiting has an intransitive feel. “For what?” is hard to answer. For it to be over. For those who are sick to recover. For a magically resurrected economy. For school to start and the multiplex to open. For baseball. For a paycheck once again. Waiting to get back to where we were—which for many of us wasn’t a good place to begin with. The people who clean hotel rooms, who work at Macy’s or the shop down the block, whose husbands or wives have died and remain unburied, who live in prisons, who are hoping for a bed in the ICU—what are they waiting for?

But waiting, like hoping, demands an object. We are waiting for a solution to the inexplicable. We are waiting for deliverance from our vulnerability to nature, of course—and from death—but even more from our vulnerability to the self-interest, lying, hoarding, and venality that make the pandemic even worse. Which is to say, we want to be delivered from ourselves.