Close Encounters

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday of Easter + April 3, 2016

Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31


For the last month or so my guilty pleasure has been watching Fargo, the TV series, inspired by the Coen brothers film from the 1990s. In Season 2 there are constant — but not really connected or explained — references to alien life: What were those weird lights in the sky? Why is the young kid drawing flying saucers? Did the narrator just quote War of the Worlds?

(**mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t finished season 2 and care about the alien subplot line**)

In the last episodes there is a huge shoot-out at a motel: two warring Midwestern crime mobs face off in their last battle, and the police are caught in the middle. Suddenly, it appears: a giant flying saucer, hovering just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, shining beams of light down on the gunfire and fistfights. Everything comes to a halt as everyone stares up at this unbelievable sight. Then, just as suddenly, the spaceship disappears.

fargo

Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly website

What I enjoyed most about this crazy scene was watching the characters react to their U.F.O. sighting. Peggy, a young woman who has never been fully hooked into reality, seems totally unfazed. She and her husband are making a run for it, and when he stops to stare at this thing in the sky, she just says: “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed. We gotta go!” When the saucer flies away, everyone goes back to the fight as if nothing had happened.[1]

A few days later, two of the most level-headed and competent characters in the show — a pair of police officers — talk about the UFO sighting. They’d both been eyewitnesses. Sheriff Larsson asks, “So…you gonna put that in your report, then?”

“What?” asks Officer Solverson, “‘Gunfight interrupted by spacecraft’?”

“Yeah…maybe leave that [as] subtext…”

Even though they both saw this giant flying saucer, neither of them finds the story believable…at least not believable enough for a police report.[2]

Jesus’s disciples witnessed something even more unbelievable than a flying saucer appearing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; they saw a living man appear after they had seen him die.

Of course there are many ways we can attempt to prove that Christ’s resurrection really happened: the authors of the gospels did it themselves, writing about how Roman soldiers had been guarding the tomb, so the disciples couldn’t have stolen the body (Matt. 27:62-66); how the stone had already been rolled away when the first of the Jesus-followers showed up at the tomb (Luke 24:1-12; in Matt. 28, they see an angel roll the stone); how the resurrected Christ ate fish with the disciples, so he couldn’t have been just a ghost (Luke 24:36-42). Christian apologists from today add that those people who saw the resurrected Christ probably weren’t hallucinating or lying, because the whole lot of them chose to face persecution and even martyrdom rather than renege on their story about the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.

But even with all those arguments, the resurrection is still unbelievable.

Officer Solverson could have written about the U.F.O. sighting in his report. He could have quoted multiple eyewitnesses. But still, I think he was wise to leave it out. No matter the proof, no one would have believed the report, because everybody knows flying saucers are a bunch of hooey.

And if “everybody knows” that, how much more does everybody know that dead bodies don’t come back to life. Even if we could prove it happened, it would still be unbelievable. We would find a way to doubt, because resurrection is just not how the world works.

So maybe we can understand why Thomas didn’t believe his friends’ report about receiving a visit from the resurrected Jesus. Sure, a whole group of his closest companions shared their eyewitness testimony. Sure, he had heard Jesus talk about dying and rising. Sure, he’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead with his own eyes (John 11). But still the resurrection was unbelievable. Maybe Thomas reasoned his way out of all the proof. Maybe his doubt was just a gut reaction. But in any case he was responding based on what he knew to be true of the world: death is death. People don’t come back.

Thomas didn’t believe otherwise until he’d experienced Jesus for himself, until he’d had a real close encounter, touched Jesus’s crucified body, heard Jesus speak to him. And then Thomas did more than admit that Jesus had been brought back to life. In that very moment Thomas made the most basic and yet most life-changing confession of the Christian faith. He looked at this man, crucified-and-resurrected, and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”

So how do we react to the unbelievable story of Christ’s resurrection?

I would wager a guess that few — if any — of us react with faith because we heard a convincing argument. Even C. S. Lewis, that great logical mind, who did spend much time debating the reasonability of Christian belief, who heard arguments and argued back, who studied the faith so carefully before becoming a Christian, and who, as a Christian, wrote many a logical defense of the faith…even C.S. Lewis, in the end, described his coming to faith as an experience of encountering God; and his confession almost echoes that of Doubting Thomas. In his autobiography he wrote:

You must picture me in [my room], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In…1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.[3]

It reminds me of a conversation I had with some friends from Vanderbilt Divinity School shortly after we’d all graduated. We were all about to embark on very different religious careers: one pastor, one hospital chaplain, two prison ministers, one director of religious life at a college, one scholar. Some of us had grown up in mainline traditions; some Southern Baptist; some, secular households; I’m sure at least one of us had been raised by hippies. What we had in common — besides being a bunch of white women — was that we were all very intellectual and rather skeptical, and we’d come to divinity school ready to doubt and question and challenge, and not entirely sure whether we were going to hold on to our faith through that process — or whether we even wanted to. My friend Sarah asked us: So, do you still believe in God?

I expected a variety of answers, but we all shared one. And it wasn’t what you might expect from a bunch of Vanderbilt eggheads, e.g. “Well, I had my doubts, but that paper by Kathryn Tanner really convinced me.” No. The answer we all shared was: “I can’t explain why. I have a lot of doubts, and I’ve even tried to stop believing…but I just feel like God won’t let me go.” It was not a well-reasoned argument; it was the reluctant confession of a bunch of doubters who’d had an encounter with the holy.

The main message of Martin Luther’s reforms was that it is faith alone that saves us: faith that God loves us and forgives us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet even for Luther this faith was more than believing that message to be a fact; it was primarily the result of an encounter with God. In the Small Catechism, in the section on the Apostle’s Creed, Luther wrote:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…[4]

For Doubting Thomas, for C. S. Lewis, for Martin Luther, for many people I know personally, and for myself: believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ is less about agreeing with certain statements, and more about encountering a God who won’t let us go — an encounter that drives us to exclaim “My Lord and my God!” sometimes even despite our doubt.

Jesus wouldn’t let Thomas get away with his doubt; instead, he appeared and said “Here I am. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.”

How does God encounter you? Maybe you have had a “mountaintop experience” that changed your heart in an instant. Maybe there is something going on in worship or in the stories of the Bible that moves you. Maybe you look back on a life spent going to church on Sunday mornings, and you just feel like that’s where you belong. Maybe you found something in the life of faith that had been missing: peace, joy, forgiveness, acceptance. Maybe you simply find yourself here this morning, or praying by yourself, or thinking about God, and can’t put your finger on why.

Another question is: how can we, as the Church, help others to encounter God? Surely God can and does work on God’s own to reach out to people. But the Church is referred to as “the Body of Christ” frequently enough in scripture that I have come to see it as more than a description or a metaphor, but as a calling, as a mission. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Living out our mission as the Church is less about convincing people of the things we believe, and more about offering an encounter with the Body of Christ. Doubting Thomas came to believe because he encountered the Body of Christ.  In that moment Christ’s body bore the marks of crucifixion and death: it was vulnerable; it had known suffering; it had sacrificed. Yet it was also invigorated with new life: a life that didn’t survive, but triumphed over death.

How can we — the Church — be that Body of Christ for those around us? How do we best offer what Jesus offered to Thomas: Touch Christ’s hands, see Christ’s body, experience both the sacrifice, and the new life?

Let us pray: Open our hearts to your presence moving around us and between us and within us, until your glory and compassion are revealed not only to us, but in us. In the name of Jesus, crucified and risen, we pray. Amen.[5]


Sources of Inspiration:

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “#477 – Second Sunday of Easter,” Sermon Brainwave podcast, March 27, 2016. Available online.

[1] Fargo: Year 2, “The Castle,” Ep. 9, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley and Steve Blackman, FX, originally aired Dec. 7, 2015.

[2] Fargo: Year 2, “Palindrome,” Ep. 10, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley, FX, originally aired Dec. 15, 2015.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, (London: Harvest Books, 1966) pp. 228-229.

[4] Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), Third Article to the Creed, 355-356.

[5] Adapted from an intercessory prayer provided by Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resources for April 3, 2016 (2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C), available online at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=134

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Expect Life

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Resurrection of Our Lord + March 27, 2016

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12


 

At dawn on a Sunday morning, about 2,000 years ago, a group of women walked toward a tomb. They were prepared to see death: they brought spices to wash a dead body, to wash away the scent of death from one they had loved so dearly.

And of course they were prepared to see death; they were walking toward the tomb where they’d seen Jesus’s dead body laid two nights before (Lk. 23:55). Of course they were prepared to see death; they had watched as Jesus hung on a cross; they had watched as he cried out “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and breathed his last (Lk. 23:46, 49). Of course they were prepared to see death; they’d seen so much of it in their lives already: friends who died in childbirth; children who didn’t survive to adulthood; fellow Jews killed on the orders of Pilate (Lk. 13:1). Disease, starvation, the cruelty of people in power, violent rebellion. They had seen so much death; they expected only to see more.

We can be a lot like those women. We, too, have seen so much death. Death pops up in news alerts on our phones or TV screens: another terrorist attack, in Brussels or Afghanistan; another shooting; another accident. Death gets closer to home, too: we hear diagnoses; we feel disease or pain in our own bodies; someone we love dies, slowly or suddenly. We have known death, too; and we expect to see more of it.

And what we expect, we prepare for. We don’t come bearing spices, but we may come bearing arms, or fear, or distrust. We go into the world bearing grief and anger, we go with our defenses up. We go ready to fight or to hide away, to keep other people out. We go ready to give up hope in life in the face of the reality of death, much like the women who approached the tomb of the person in whom they’d placed all their hopes.

The women arrived at the tomb, the stronghold of death. If there was any place to feel certain of death, to feel certain that death wins, this was it.

But death was gone. The stone was rolled away; a spring breeze whistled into the empty tomb. Two living men appeared and asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

wom-tomb_detail-new

Bob Quinn, “The Empty Tomb.” Bronze. (See more images here.)

They weren’t looking for the living. They were looking for the dead. They were prepared once again for the harsh reality that death had taken someone they loved. What they weren’t prepared for was life. They weren’t expecting the power of God.

“Jesus is not here,” the two men told the women, “but he has risen. Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” It was not a question (“Don’t you remember?”); it was a message, almost a command: “Remember.”

The women remembered. They remembered what Jesus had told them about God’s plan: how death would not be the end of their hope. They remembered all the paradoxes he had spoken: you will die, but not perish (Lk 21:16-18); those who lose their life will keep it (Lk 9:24, 17:33). They dropped their spices – their death-preparations – and ran to the disciples to share the news of life.

For thousands of years Christians have gathered to remember that very news, to tell again the same story the women told to the other disciples.

So what happens when we remember? What happens when we remember that on a Sunday morning, long ago, life took over the tomb? What happens when we remember that God’s power is the power of life: the power to create life; the power to break free an entire nation of slaves and give them a life of their own; the power to transform hearts and minds and lives; the power of resurrection?

When we remember, do we dare to change our expectations? Do we dare to stop expecting death and start expecting life?

“The Easter message calls [us] from [our] old belief in death to a new belief in life.”[1] And that means having hope that, contrary to all appearances, life is stronger than death.

Even while I wrote these words, I heard sirens wail outside: an ambulance or a firetruck. I had just scribbled a note to myself, a reminder to send a condolence card to a friend whose wife died suddenly in the middle of the night. And just to complete the picture, I took a peek at CNN.com. The headlines read: terror attacks, a massive after-school fight that left one teenage boy dead, and the testing of a military attack submarine. Those kinds of things can make the memories of God’s acts of life seem like idle talk or a fairy tale.

That’s what the disciples thought of the women’s message. They didn’t believe the story about the empty tomb and the strange messengers. Jesus was dead. That was the end.

Still, Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He had to check. What if the story was true? Peter desperately needed it to be true.

The last time we saw Peter in this story, he was sitting around a fire in the high priest’s courtyard. While inside Jesus was being mocked and beaten, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.  Peter had just seen Jesus arrested, and he knew that execution was coming. And Peter knew that if word got out that he was one of Jesus’s followers, he would face death, too. So, expecting death to come for him, he hid from it; struggling just to survive, he denied Jesus, and Jesus saw it happen. It tore Peter apart; he left light of the fire, weeping (Lk. 22:54-61). Peter needed the story of the resurrection to be true, because he needed to say how sorry he was, he needed another chance to be a loyal disciple and friend. I can only imagine the rush of hope he felt when he peered breathlessly into the tomb and saw only a pile of cloths.

We need the message to be true, too. We need it because the more the world expects death, the more death it gets. We see the situation escalate every day in the way that some politicians (and voters, too) talk callously about bombings or people going hungry. We see it when we fear helping others, lest we get hurt. We put our trust in the power of death; expecting death to win, we figure we might as well live on its terms, terms like “kill or be killed” and revenge. And so when we take risks, whether with what we own or our lives or our moral code…we tend to bet on death rather than life.

But if we dare to expect life, that all changes. The risks we take will all be for the sake of life: we will risk making peace; we will risk forgiving; we will risk welcoming one another and loving one another. We will risk reveling in the moments of joy we are given. We will live on life’s paradoxically life-giving terms, terms like vulnerability and sacrifice and hope.

When we live expecting death, our struggle is only to survive – like Peter outside the high priest’s house. But when we live expecting life, our struggle is to build up all that makes for true life: justice, peace, truth, grace, love – like the disciples who, after the resurrection, dedicated their lives and even their deaths to spreading the word of Jesus Christ, the message that God’s love, grace, and justice is for all people.

So remember the Easter story. Remember all the stories of God bringing strength from weakness, victory from defeat, and life from death. And choose to see the world through these memories. Choose to expect life. Don’t live your life under the power of death; live your life in the promise and power of God. The promise and power of the resurrection.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia, alleluia.


 

Additional Sources of Inspiration

Curry, Michael (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church), Easter 2016 message. Available online: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/03/23/easter-2016-message-from-presiding-bishop-michael-curry/

[1] Koester, Craig R., Commentary on Luke 24:1-12, Working Preacher, April 4, 2010. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=558

Monroe, Shawnthea, ”Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary” (March 27, Easter Sunday) in The Christian Century, (Vol. 133, No. 6), March 16, 2016. Available online: http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-02/march-27-easter-sunday