Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. April 25, 2021 The Fourth Sunday of Easter Psalm 116 John 20: 24-29
To Set Our Hearts Upon
Two weeks ago, Rev. Rick preached “you don’t have to be a “believer,” any more than Jesus’ listeners could say for sure what and whether they believed.” All of the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus relate the surprise and disbelief of his disciples. Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples – minus Thomas. None of them asks Jesus to prove who he is, but Jesus recognizes their disbelief, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Today’s Gospel reading begins with these same disciples telling Thomas what they have seen. Thomas scoffs and insists he will not believe in the resurrection unless he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds. A week later, Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly this. The encounter with Jesus in the flesh causes Thomas to proclaim “My Lord and my God”.
Christian tradition chastises Thomas for his disbelief– “doubting Thomas” remains a turn of phrase two centuries later. But I am not sure this is fair. The eleven who met the resurrected Jesus first were unable to trust what they saw in front of their eyes. Jesus sees their disbelief so clearly that he voluntarily offers his hands and feet for the disciples’ inspection and then reinforces his corporality by asking for and eating the fish. Thomas only makes his doubt explicit – he asks for the same showing the eleven received, although he is clear he wants to touch the wounds; we often overlook that Thomas does NOT touch Jesus, he believes without touching. Yet Thomas remains the odd man out, the worst of the disbelievers. Jesus responds “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I suspect that most of us are like Thomas more than we would like to admit. We “believe” in Jesus’ resurrection, but . . . just what exactly does believing mean? We say “seeing is believing” and we accept it as proof that confirms truth. Since the Age of Reason, the English definition of “believe” is: “to be persuaded in the truth or existence of something with demonstrable facts that are ordered rationally.”
You do not need to be a non-stop consumer of information in our present culture to know that truth is up for grabs. Conspiracy theories abound, the principles of science are challenged – to “believe” something because it feels true for us seems to be the only criteria that matter. This not only affects our politics, it affects the Church as well – what must we “believe” to call ourselves followers of Jesus?
In his seminal work Stages of Faith, James Fowler begins his discussion of belief this way: “For the ancient Jew or Christian to have said ‘I believe there is a God’ or ‘I believe God exists’ would have been a strange circumlocution. The being or existence of God was taken for granted, and therefore, it was not an issue.” But 21st century Christians do not take the existence of God for granted. William Smith writes in Faith and Belief:“A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort:‘Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life so-and-so reports that the idea of God is a part of the furniture of his mind.”
The word “believe” is problematic for 21st century Christians – but the difficulty is not so much the act of believing, but the verb “believe” itself. “Believing” in our context demands certainty and it implies that we have rational, provable facts to support what we believe. We are constricted by the word “believe” because our language has no verb for “faith;” we cannot say “I faith,” This is not true for biblical Hebrew or Greek. In both, there is a verb form for “faith,” and the meaning of that verb translates as “to set one’s heart upon something or someone.” This holds true in the Latin translations of Scripture as well – “Credo - creed” means “to trust or rely on.”
Does it open up our understanding if we translate “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” to “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.” This translation offers us the opportunity to expand our response to the Resurrection. Rather than focusing on whatever propositions we assert as belief, it invites us to ask “What do we set our hearts upon? In whom do we place our trust?”
The Easter season calls us to align our individual lives and our communal life with that upon which we set our hearts. Setting our hearts on Jesus is to proclaim that we will follow Jesus’ teaching and his example to love one another as God has loved us. To set our hearts upon Jesus leads us to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to heal the deep wounds in ourselves and in the structures of the society in which we live. Setting our hearts upon Jesus demands we build our lives on the hope that resurrection is true. We trust the promise that resurrection will transform us, our lives, and our world. We will be uncomfortable at times and go to places we never imagined. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in her book, Hope in Disarray, “The Christian faith is different from what the world teaches. The Christian faith is not “seeing is believing,” but rather “believing is seeing.” We must open our eyes and hearts to see Jesus’ presence in our lives. We need to see him in the places we dare not to look and dare not to think about.”
The resurrection of Jesus is NOT a proposition we assert from logic; it is the revelation of our hearts’ longing for love, truth, healing, justice and abundant life, relying with confidence on Jesus who loves and forgives us. Resurrection gifts us the courage to imagine the world as Jesus would have it to be and the persistence to work for that vision in the face of all obstacles. When the weight of collective wrongs seems overwhelming and outcomes are not guaranteed, Resurrection calls us to hope and persevere.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.”Alleluia. Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Jesus personally could claim for himself the conditions of the people he blessed in the Beatitudes. Everyone who heard the blessings pronounced upon them, had to know Jesus spoke from the same conditions. I am poor, I have mourned, I would not even snap a reed, I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I am persecuted, I preach mercy, I want just one thing for all of you, I bring a different peace than the peace the world promises.
In a region that had only known an empire of iron for 150 years, Jesus stirred hearts and fired imaginations. Under that empire where one’s fate was decreed by arbitrary fiat, Jesus inspired individual responsibility. Jesus made a liberating gift to Rome’s subjects, without having so much as to leave your village or overthrow a government. You can imagine how different it was, living in a police state, to hear the refreshingly, astonishingly, revivifyingly sudden proclamation of an alternate kingdom.
When Jesus finished pronouncing his blessing upon his followers in the Beatitudes, he gave them a new role in life, in their family and society--but rather than lay down instructions, Jesus gave them a new identity: he said, you are light, you are salt. In a single stroke, his listeners, his disciples, anyone who followed what he was saying, understood themselves to have a new place in the sun.
Just what are you when the gift of Jesus’ spirit is bestowed upon you?--you are light, you radiate light that reveals others to themselves as God sees them, that is, forgiven; and you are salt, you give flavor and savor to the routineized life. Your mere presence in God’s world blesses the world--your presence provides the key people need to unlock the prison humankind has made for ourselves.
In other words, you make a difference--simply as a disciple, you are a conveyance of Christ’s gift to others. Yes, you can and you do make a big spiritual difference right where you are.
No, it doesn’t take pursuing a theological degree, any more than Jesus’ listeners would have--but you might want to explore the sacred texts with someone. That qualifies as being a disciple.
No, you don’t need to be a member of a church, any more than Jesus’ listeners would be doing that--but you might want to hang around an inquisitive community. That qualifies as being a disciple.
No, you don’t have to be a “believer,” any more than Jesus’ listeners could say for sure what and whether they believed--but you might want to put yourself in a position to feel Christ’s spirit. That qualifies as being a disciple.
You might feel that it would be a grandiose claim on your part to say you are a disciple of Christ, but it’s not, it’s a humble, unassuming way to look at yourself. In a way, you are like the rest of the world trying to understand what it means to get our food and secure some love, too.
But something tells you to get closer to Christ because he is trustworthy, so you find yourself thinking more and more about this gospel verse or that gospel event. It could even become a regular thing, like opening the Bible every other day where you can look out the window and muse upon eternity. It might lead to something like prayer, whatever that is. Any of that is enough to earn you Christ’s designation as light and salt, and that alone should be a sufficient status in life for anybody.
We might prefer to say, oh I am a theological student, or I am a member of such-and-such church, or perhaps you would prefer to introduce yourself as “a Christian,” as many people do, with the particular associations that come with that in this country. But each of these labels has a social status and an approximately identifiable meaning in public--whereas, people probably wouldn’t understand you if you just said, “I am a disciple of Christ.”
But it constitutes an identity, nevertheless, and there is a minimum threshold by which Jesus would understand you to be his disciple--the light must be seen, and the salt retain its flavor. Humble and unassuming and as unprepossessing as it may be to look at oneself as a disciple of Christ, it requires a certain reality although Jesus does not provide much specificity as to what that looks like.
Let your light shine, don’t keep it under a bushel--commit to articulation. Don’t dilute the strength of your flavor--keep your distinction, your distinctiveness. No, Jesus does not supply any further explication or instruction by which we or the world might know us to be his disciples and find health and purpose and usefulness--that remains up to us.
We have many models we could imitate. And it doesn’t matter if it takes denominational shape, if it doesn’t domesticate a certain wildness that goes with it.
And we have many models NOT to imitate--which have not respected the dignity and the self-determination of others. Some so-called disciples in the service of Christ have weaponized, militarized and monetized Christ’s gospels. This is a concern that we must be careful to attend to as the Rev. John Eliot Church of Nonantum.
I guess after Easter, we are on our own. We are free to give body and shape to being a disciple, free to give our body and shape to it, however that may evolve. But know: being a disciple of Christ makes you an extension of the Word-made-flesh-made-bread-now-made-disciple- and-made-Word-again in the world (Could there be a principle of the conservation of energy at work here?)
Christ is a spirit that wants to be incarnate in the world, otherwise life in our society won’t distinguish itself from the merely appetitive, the grossly competitive, the narrowly self-interested.
There comes a definite responsibility with being a disciple of Christ, with looking at oneself as a disciple of Christ. After Easter, mustn't we each find a way to be in the world in which we are light and salt? And mustn't that be true for us, too, collectively as churches, as Eliot Church of Newton? It will be interesting to see, just how articulation and distinction will materialize in our case.
After Easter, it is up to us to find a way to be in the world in which we are light and salt. After Easter, will you own your vocation as disciples of Christ? May it be so! RevRichard Chrisman, April 11, 2021
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin April 4, 2021 Easter Sunday John 20: 1-18 “Welcome Happy Morning,” Indeed “Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. . .” Unlike Easter last year when we were newly entombed by the pandemic, this Easter, the stone has just been rolled away from our tombs. Like Mary, we stand just at the threshold of moving from one deadly reality to a new reality that we cannot predict. Fear and expectancy – with perhaps a dash of hope for good measure – comingle.
Easters of the past have always felt familiar to me – I don’t remember when I first heard the resurrection accounts, but they have been a part of me for so long that I have come to take them for granted. Familiar Gospel passages, soaring music, spring dresses and new shoes, lilies and daffodils abound in my memories. I expected to feel much the same this Easter Sunday.
But – I did not realize just how much the experience of the long Lent we have been living since Covid-19 over ran us would make new and real Mary’s experience on that day of resurrection so long ago. It must have been an intensely terrible week for Mary and Jesus’ other disciples. The experience of God’s presence in their lives had always held the promise that a Messiah would come to restore God’s glory to the nation of Israel. His disciples and those he had healed, fed and loved believed that the Jesus they knew was the fulfillment of that promise. He enters into the city on a donkey – making a mockery of Roman processions – not kingly at all. Yet, the disciples and the crowd hail Jesus with their “hosannas” as they wait to see what happens next. They are confounded by what follows; the authorities search for Jesus to arrest him. Judas arranges to betray him. Expectations are turned upside down – a woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She anoints his feet with oil – when Kings are anointed by oil poured on the head. They gather for a final meal together where he washes their feet as though he were a servant. They accompany Jesus to the garden to pray. Judas kisses him, Roman soldiers arrest him, Herod and Pilate try him and then Mary and the other disciples watch in agony as Jesus is crucified and then dies. All of the disciples flee. Whatever their expectations might have been, this was not how their journey with Jesus was supposed to end.
And so Mary comes to the tomb to do what women did at the time of death – she brings what is necessary to care for his dead body. She finds the tomb empty; the body gone and once again, expectations shatter. So many thoughts and emotions must have run through her mind and heart. What she knew and loved is gone. Only an empty tomb remains.
How different from her experience is our experience as we stand at the threshold of our Covid-19 tomb? The last year defied all of our beliefs about who we are as a people. Our government lied to us and did not protect us. Racism reared its ugly head as the most vulnerable among us suffered the most. Human beings deliberately put other human beings at risks by not wearing masks, refusing to practice social distancing and inciting violence directed at those trying to keep citizens safe. The biggest economy in the world came to a standstill as our neighbors, family members and those we did not know died agonizing and lonely deaths. Whatever we expected as citizens of the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, this was not it. Like Mary, we are left heart-broken and grieving. Our tombs are empty.
But Mary does not remain facing the tomb, she turns from the emptiness and after telling the male disciples Jesus’ body is gone, she retreats to grieve and continue her search for the body. Perhaps blinded by her tears and grief, she assumes the man she meets to be the gardener. It is only when she hears him call her name that she realizes the man before her is the risen Jesus. She races to tell the other disciples “I have seen the Lord!” Expectations are again overturned and suddenly, as the morning breaks, a whole new life of possibility opens up to those who seek Jesus. What has been a horrible morning following a devastating week, has become a happy if perplexing one. Unexpectedly, new life has arrived.
This Easter morning feels that same way. After a devastating year, vaccines are rolling away the stone that has kept us entombed. It is no less than a miracle; brought to us by scientists living their calling through their God-given gifts. As did Mary and the other disciples, we cannot forget all the hard truths we came to know during our time in the tomb. Just as Mary and the disciples are invited to live a new way of being in the transformation of the resurrection, so too, are we. The world around us may look much the same as when we left it. But WE have been changed by all that happened – and as a result, Jesus may no longer look familiar to us in this new light of this happy morning. But Jesus is here to surprise us with the gift of new life. As our risen Lord, he calls each one of our names as we listen for his voice.
The truth of the Christian faith preached for centuries is that because of Jesus’ resurrection, new life is always waiting for us no matter how long we have been stuck in our tombs or how broken we and our society may be. This particular Easter celebration of the resurrection is especially resplendent in so much possibility. As we emerge from the darkness of our tombs into the light of spring life bursting out around us, the resurrection is our invitation from Jesus to join him in making all things new again; to participate in recreating the world revealed in the Beatitudes we explored in Lent.
The hard lessons of the pandemic will – and must – remain with us and our search for the resurrected Jesus will continue to challenge our expectations, calling us to work for justice and healing, to care for one another and for the earth; to follow Jesus wherever he leads in ways we may not have understood before. There is a new urgency to our lives of faith that demands we boldly engage in undoing the human brokenness and suffering revealed to us during our time in the tomb.
We have been changed by our time in the tomb, but the world has not. As the Episcopal Bishop Barbara Harris often reminded the Church, “We are an Easter people in a Good Friday world.” To be an Easter people demands that we be light for the world, bringing love, hope, reconciliation and peace into a world that so badly needs our witness and our participation. We, too, have met the resurrected Jesus and because of his presence with us, today we are able to welcome this happy morning, secure in our hope and trusting that we will make a difference in the holy work of re-creating the world. With Mary, we boldly proclaim “[We] have seen the Lord!” “Welcome happy morning, indeed!” Alleluia! Amen.
We don’t know how long it took for Jesus to die on the cross exactly, but the gospel accounts put it at 3 hours. You don’t need Mel Gibson’s horrible movie to tell you this was a painful death.
A crucifixion can actually be as short as 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Yes, even shorter--a crucifixion can be over in 5 minutes in the death chambers of American prisons where black men constitute 34% of those executed (since 1979), a significant portion of which in error. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
There’s wholesale crucifixion, too, and when you’re talking about more than one person, it could take longer, although it only took the 2 minutes for that for the bomb to fall from the Enola Gay to crucify a city of 100,000. Normally, though, it takes longer. It took the Third Reich 10 years to crucify ⅔ of European Jewry. The United States holds the record--we spent 400 continuous years crucifying entire native nations. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
During the Jewish wars against the Romans between 50 and 70 CE, there could be as many as 1000 crucifixions visible in and around Jerusalem at one time, historians say. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
What is crucifixion besides state murder by any manner of termination? It is death of the manifestly innocent. Death without due process. Death with malice. Death by religious rationalization. And with those permissions, crucifixion is easier than you would think.
Does this observation cheapen the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion for us Christians and the world? What is left of Christ’s sacrifice if his unjust death is just one in so many?
This is what: we heard the prophet say once--
Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations--and we saw Jesus.
We heard the prophet say, He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench--and we saw Jesus.
He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth--and we saw Jesus. Christ’s cross speaks backwards in time and forward in time, giving voice to every innocent death whose voice died with their demise. Jesus’ death made the very stones cry out against wrongful death, whereas without him, that would have remained the norm.
We say Christ died for our sins--that also means BECAUSE of our sins. Without Christ, man’s inhumanity to man (as the proverb goes) would continue to be business as usual, without remorse, without recourse, without abatement.
Not only that, but Jesus revealed crucifixion to be humanity’s dehumanization of itself. The executioner says, I look at me, I see an animal, we are only human animals, don’t let’s expect more of ourselves. But the exception, of course, was the Roman centurion at the foot of Christ’s cross, who said that, truly, this was the Son of God.
Otherwise, all the executioner sees, with his knee on a neck, is a drug addict; all the prison warden sees is another con; all the bomber sees is little specks below; all anybody ever sees is the Other who has nothing to do with me. Jesus had to say from the cross for all of them, Forgive them, God, for they know not what they do.
But what then of all those promises in the Beatitudes?--when will we inherit the earth, when will we be satisfied, when will we be comforted, when will we see mercy, when will we see God--??
God’s promises are still worthy and valid--Jesus gave flesh and blood to the Lord’s plumbline, and in so doing, Jesus created a new baseline.
So, it’s out there, it’s been named, it’s why we say the arc of God’s universe bends toward justice. It was Jesus who made the world recognize that, if we must suffer in this life, let it be for righteousness’ sake. He is why we don’t give up hope, and why we keep faith. He is why we say with the prophet:
How beautiful upon the mountain (even though it be Golgotha), are the feet of him who brings good tidings, Who publishes peace, Who publishes salvation, Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”