An Easter People
April 8, 2012
Text I Cor. 15:1-24
Years ago I was talking with Elizabeth OConnor as she was completing her first book about the Church of the Saviour. She asked me what I thought of the title “An Easter People.” I said I loved it. She did too but her editors at Harpers persuaded her to change the title to “Call to Commitment” because they thought more people could relate to it. I like “Call to Commitment” too, and I still like “An Easter People” for its ring of joy and celebration.
Today let’s think about some more about our identity as a faith community. A couple of months ago I shared Barbara Hall’s description of one way the early church thought of itself which was as an “eschatological community.” This identity came to mind whenever it prayed the opening of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
In that teaching in February I said: An eschatological community is where the intent of Jesus’ prayer is beginning to show up. An eschatological community is one that is being shaped by that future toward which God is working, the future that expresses God’s heart. An eschatological community is empowered to give visible expression to Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that we can repent and we are given the capacity to believe this good news. An eschatological community demonstrates that the good news of the Kingdom of God is breaking in now in persons and in society.
When I first got involved with the Church of the Saviour what drew me in was its strong sense of identity and the presence of gifts and blessings that matched that identity that included bold mission that made a difference to the poor, inspiring preaching and teaching, warm and healing relationships, laughing and having fun together, seriousness about things that really matter. The community was and is grounded in a vision bigger than itself. That is why I like the title “An Easter People.”
Today I would like to work some more with our identity as a faith community. That means working to reach a shared understanding of the Gospel which makes us who we are. That also means working with the theology of the Gospel – that is, the basic convictions that ground us and establish our core. Without a core we are spiritually a 90 pound weakling.
What I see myself doing is to put out some building blocks. Others are needed to work with these blocks, to test their strength and to arrange them as a foundation on which we can build and grow. They say that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village, a community, to build the church. This takes work.
I would like to start this work today with what sounds like a strange observation. The observation is that one of the things I particularly like about 8th Day is that people here are not particularly concerned with being religious. We are primarily concerned with being real - real with ourselves, real with each other, real with God and real as we relate to the world.
Religion has a way of interfering with being real. Karl Barth in his commentary on Romans calls religion the enemy of faith. That is a theological statement. Here are some reflections that translate it into the vernacular.
Recently, several of us saw Ann Randolph’s one woman play Loveland in which the character Frannie is on a plane flight with her mother’s ashes in a suitcase to their home in Loveland, Ohio to bury her mother’s remains. The play is hilarious in stripping away all the social masks we cling to. Jennifer Ireland said about the play, “In the character of Frannie, Ann Randolph shows us in a loving way what it is to be unadorned, imperfect and vulnerable.”
The play reaches its climax when the plane hits air turbulence and the suitcase is dislodged from the overhead, opens and the ashes of Frannie’s mother scatter all over the cabin. Frannie is heartsick. The other passengers tune into her need, gather the ashes as best they can from the seats and floor and return them to Frannie in a barf bag. Then comes a sequence when we hear the old evangelical hymn that binds Frannie with her mother, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me. Come home, come home.” Frannie is put back together by the vision in this hymn. She gathers herself and is ready to move on, still the vulnerable incomplete person carrying out a loving task. . Ann told her personal story a couple of days later during a writing workshop at the Festival Center. To help her get through college and later to pursue her love for acting and writing for the stage, Ann lived and worked for several years in residential treatment centers for the mentally ill. One of the things she did was to write down dialogue she heard from patients. In the process she developed a keen ear and respect for what people were expressing. In the workshop we saw in operation a gift finely honed from listening to people who bounced back and forth between craziness and reality. During the play we move back and forth from laughter to tears and we allowed ourselves to laugh even when it seemed inappropriate.
With this as a backdrop let’s turn to the apostle Paul and I Cor. 15 where two images are in the foreground of everything Paul wrote – namely the cross and the resurrection. As Paul summarizes the core of the Gospel he declares staightaway “Jesus died for our sins.”
While mulling over this text I attended a workshop in Reston, Va. The workshop was part of an ongoing program called Healing from the Core. Its purpose is to teach how to listen to our bodies and draw upon its wisdom and healing power. I figured that I wanted this help because I so often get stuck in my head. During the workshop I had this strong urge to challenge something the instructor was saying. In my mind she was venturing into territory that I knew better than she – namely, theology, and I thought she was getting it wrong.
Going with the flow of my emotions I spoke up with a lot of conviction. This was a small workshop with one male – me - and 14 women, and when I spoke you could cut the tension with a knife. The instructor, Angela, accepted my outburst and said, “I’m not clear what you are getting at.” She stood there with an open face, waiting for me to speak again. I added a few sentences, realized I wasn’t getting anywhere, and concluded my remarks.
At first I felt proud of myself. I had exerted strength as a male should. It didn’t matter that neither the instructor nor the other women got what I was saying. I had dared to speak out and I was right. The problem was that this momentary feeling of strength and righteousness faded in an hour and I started feeling isolated from the group and upset with myself.
That night as I was reading our assignment for the next day on resistance and projection I saw my feelings and my behavior described on paper. I had publicly illustrated the very thing that gets in the way of our being in touch with our bodies and one another. I also thought of something else. I was already working with this text that Jesus died for our sins. It occurred to me very forcefully that the instructor had literally borne my sins in that she maintained openness to me and refused to condemn me or to turn the group against me as she well could have by simply rolling her eyeballs at my male dominant behavior. Instead she stayed open to me and by her manner affirmed my continued belonging to the group. I didn’t sleep much that night as I relived my actions and her response. The next morning I made it a point to arrive early and tell Angela what I had discovered and to acknowledge how she held the space between me and her and me and the group open.
When Paul refers to Jesus dying for our sins, I hear him talking about bearing our sins – that is maintaining a radical openness to each of us and all of us regardless of what we throw at him, at ourselves, at one another and the world. Paul was speaking first about himself. He had asserted himself in the world as a defender of religion, the true religion, the religion to supersede all religion, only to discover when he came face to face with the risen Jesus of Nazareth on the road to Damascus that he was stopped dead in his tracks. It was not Jesus and his followers who were in the wrong. It was Paul. And he saw more. There was Jesus as a living presence in front of him, holding an open space for Paul, and not letting Paul’s sin stand between them. This, I think, is what Paul means by Jesus died for our sins - the way this living presence of Jesus came across to him and penetrated the core of his being, beneath his religion to his heart, mind, soul and every cell in his body.
From his own experience and from checking with Peter and other Jesus followers, Paul extrapolated that Jesus was revealing the character of God. He then understood what had invaded the universe, applying to all humankind, it was nothing less than Jesus’ prayer from the cross “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
At the beginning of I Corinthians Paul says, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” That is the front bookend of the letter. The back bookend is the message we celebrate today – Jesus is risen. God has raised him from the dead. Between these two bookends Paul deals with all kinds of issues at play in the church at Corinth, and every thing he has to say is grounded in these two bookends. A sound theology holds these two realities together. The risen Jesus is the crucified Jesus made whole, free from physical limitations, and still the same chosen one of God.
One way we misinterpret the Gospel and give up its power is by making the cross a totally past event and turning Jesus into a martyr. Although many academicians do that, it destroys the Gospel as Gospel. It makes it unrecognizable.
Moreover, it equally destroys the Gospel if we go the other direction and make belief in the resurrection mandatory in such a way that we require everyone to click their heels and salute at the same time to the same words. It doesn’t work that way. The truth and power of the resurrection doesn’t get into us that way – into our hearts, souls, and every fiber of our being such that it operates from within.
There has got to be room for skepticism, for people to belong and at the same time to say, “I don’t get it.” Salvation is a community thing, even more than an individual thing. Now that is a theological statement and I can back it up from scripture in every New Testament writer.
The novelist Marilynne Robinson reminds how the accounts of the resurrection famously differ from one Gospel to the next. Mary Magdalene, when she finds the tomb empty, simply assumes someone has carried the body away, perhaps the gardener she does not recognize as Jesus. Peter and the other disciples run to see the empty tomb when they are told of it, but apparently draw no conclusions. Scripture says, “Then they went back to their homes.” Robinson says, “In every case the angle of vision is a skepticism based on the expectation that with Jesus’ death things will have taken their ordinary course…. An artful anticipation of disbelief is so characteristic of all the Gospels that the reason for it is worth considering.”
“The much-noted tendency of the disciples to miss the point, the emphasis given to their failures of comprehension, might be described as a narrative strategy for maintaining and honoring a human perspective, for making simultaneous a sense of the utterly human and the wholly divine. The risen Christ does not rebuke Mary for her error. He seems rather to enjoy the occasion of her surprise. Neither does he reject his disciples, for all their failings. The holy in all its otherness is addressed to and profoundly loyal to this world. That the two realities, earthly and divine, are simultaneous rather than opposed is a central assertion of the Bible from the creation to the resurrection.”
We need our skeptics for they are us, and our skeptics need to listen as do those to whom belief is given as a gift. In the 15th chapter Paul takes on skeptics and he does so not by attempting to push them out of the church but by appealing to their capacity to think, reason, and notice evidence of the truth of Gospel showing up in the church.
The Christian community in Corinth was a place where two cultures clashed – the Greek culture and the Palestinian culture. According to Greek religious teaching the resurrection as taught by Paul is unnecessary and beside the point. The Greek religion taught that at death the immortal soul automatically separates from its physical prison and floats up to God. This is what it means to talk about life after death. It really has nothing to do with Jesus’ resurrection. It is the way the universe works. This same belief underlies the belief in reincarnation.
The Palestinian tradition understood human beings as embodied spirit or inspirited body. This means when we die our bodies expire and over time turn to dust. Spirit and body live together and die together. It is their combined-ness that makes us what and who we are. The same that goes for the individual person applies to society. Society is both material and spiritual too. A right spirit can take hold and an evil spirit can take hold.
In this regard we had better make room in our midst for skeptics because every single one of us is a skeptic when it comes to the big picture. Given the direction and force in which things are now rolling, how can a different outcome than a destroyed planet, broken communities and helpless individuals occur?
What is the hope? For individuals? For community? For the world? The hope is that the crucified Jesus is alive, among us, and his very weakness is strangely awesome power. We as a community need to sit with that and work openly with both our skepticism and our faith.
In Scripture, God’s resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of a far bigger plan which includes the whole world, not just the so called religious parts. Everything and everybody, all of creation, are to be brought together in unity. This was Jesus’ prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” The Gospel declares that prayer will be answered with a yes. Our tradition teaches that our God is a living God who will settle for nothing less than the coming into its own of all of realness. That includes the real life Frannies, her mother, you and me, the people out on the street and society.
Whether everyone will be saved in the end is an open question. What the cross and resurrection tell us is that God is not only like Jesus but God is present as Jesus, and God is present with Jesus in his body the church and in the world itself.
I have run out of time and need to stop. In closing, I want to say two more things. One is a request that we keep working as a community on our identity. Others have spoken to this. I hope I have brought some further clarity. Let’s keep at it.
The other thought is one about dying. One thing is clear. We are all going to die, and, if you believe as I do, our physical bodies are going to decompose. Moreover, we are going to die as unfinished human beings who have lived only partially into all that we are, into our realness. Paul calls death the last enemy which too will be overcome in the tsunami of God’s love. Given this, I think of a simple prayer to fit with our last breath: “Lord, if you need me, I am ready.”