Monday, April 9, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Long Live the Lamb"

John 20:1-10, 21:15-17

1 Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep." (CEB)

Easter Sunday 2012

The dying man’s voice crackled precariously over the background static noise of the cell phone, of the beeps and whirs of the machines that were helping keep him alive, of the other people standing by his bedside. He was saying goodbye to the world, but most particularly to his wife, who years ago had been stricken with Alzheimer’s. He had spent all this time since then trying to care for her as best as he knew how, but he had just turned 90 and had recently fallen, taking him again to the hospital. And so rather than being able to say goodbye in person, his family and friends tried to do the next best thing for him and his bedridden wife with the cell phone and a hearing aid. And even though I visited him then, in the hospital, I had no idea that phone call had taken place until the following Sunday, when my senior minister held up the cell phone before the church, and played that portion of the final phone call where the man was whispering to the love of his life, “Goodbye, my sweetheart. I love you.” But by Sunday, the time when we heard that call, he had already passed away. Out of the depths of death, his voice spoke to all of us who were there that morning, and no longer burdened by his body, all that remained of him were his words…words of love, of compassion, of such warmth of spirit that I knew no words to describe it—only comparisons: like the family member who dies but who had recorded your answering machine greeting, and you keep it because it keeps them alive. I had so much to say in trying to describe to others what I had heard that morning, and absolutely no language in which to say it, until I realized this week: what I had witnessed was a resurrection. Before this week, before reading the Resurrection story in the Gospel of John, where the Beloved Disciple saw the empty tomb and believed, even without seeing the living body of Christ, I had never dared to believe that I would have borne witness to a resurrection. Even though Easter is supposed to be one of those stories that we all know—Jesus is betrayed, tried, convicted, crucified, and three days later is risen. And yet, it is impossible to read it each and every year without taking something at least a little bit different away from the story. And so, on this Easter morning, roughly the 1,982nd anniversary of the Resurrection, here we are, gathered as the Disciples of Christ at the empty tomb.

Like the Beloved Disciple, like Simon Peter, like Mary Magdalene, we too do not yet know the whole story of Easter. At this point, nobody in the Gospel has actually seen the Risen Christ. And we are not so lucky as Thomas, to be able to later place our hands upon Jesus’ wounds, and believe because we have seen and felt the proof of Christ’s Resurrection. So we would well be forgiven for making the exact same mistake as I did, to assume that we simply have never seen the Resurrection in our ordinary lives. But we would be wrong for thinking that.

We do not have the luxury of denying—whether because of our own doubts or because of our own uncertainty that God really does love us so much that He would bring one of His own back to us from the dead. We do not have the luxury of denying because we see what has happened with Peter—the exact same Peter who, three days earlier, denied over and over and over that he ever knew Jesus. Now, our denials are not the same as Peter’s—we may not be actively denying that Jesus has a role in our lives, but we are denying ourselves many, many more opportunities to see Him and hear Him when we tell ourselves that the Resurrection can only happen just this once. I had denied myself a chance to see and understand the risen Christ in not recognizing that dying voice on the phone for what it was—a person’s love outliving the person itself. That, that, at its absolute core, is the Resurrection in a nutshell: God’s love has outlived Christ’s earthly body, and now, that love is so abundant and overflowing that it actually brings Christ back, not to God, but to us. God’s love has brought Christ back to each of us!

And, like Peter, Christ comes back to us despite, or perhaps because of, our ability to deny to ourselves how much God loves us. Remember—earlier, Peter had denied Jesus three times. In this post-Resurrection conversation between Peter and Jesus in John 21, how many times does Peter now affirm his love for Jesus? Three times. The three times Peter says he loves Jesus poetically counteracts the three times he has denied Jesus, and that entire back-and-forth between him and Jesus is living, breathing proof that no matter our own denials, our own ways of shutting ourselves off from the living God, that none of those denials can prevent us from participating in Jesus’ plan for the world, for His plan to feed and tend and care for His lambs. This is a God who loves us so much that He cannot and will not exclude us from His vision.

Originally, in Scripture, Jesus is meant to be God’s lamb—that is why John narrates the Passion story on the day BEFORE the Passover, rather than the first day of the Passover—because the day before was when the Passover lambs were to be sacrificed for the holiday. But in what he says to Peter, Jesus has completely turned this notion on its head though—it is no longer Him who is God’s lamb—it is us. You, me, all of us, we have become His lambs as well.

Which means that Christ is indeed able to live on through each of us, in spite of ourselves, in spite of our own ability to deny or doubt or wonder if Christ lives. And He lives in us, in spite of the things we do wrong, the things we wish we could do better, the things that remind us again and again and again that we are nowhere near as perfect as the original lamb who died and rose again. But if you do feel, as Peter surely did during the trial and crucifixion, if you feel cut off from the lamb, cut off from Jesus, because of your own limitations, because of your own hurts and pains and mistakes, know that Easter is the opportunity for you to cast those doubts aside, to say, “Enough with the things in life that are keeping me from becoming closer to God. Enough with the things in life that are keeping me from loving as Jesus loved. Enough with the things in life that are keeping me from trying to create a better world—the kingdom of Heaven itself—in this beaten and broken world. Enough with all of that pain! Long live the lamb!”

Dedicating yourself to loving the Risen Christ, as Peter did in proclaiming his love, as John did in believing that Christ had overcome death, as Mary Magdalene did in exclaiming “Rabbi!” upon recognizing Jesus, it means loving not only Christ simply because He lives, it means loving one another because He lives in each of you. To say, “long live the lamb” is to say “long live the lamb in each of the children of God across the world.”

And that is the wonderful, powerful, awe-inspiring paradox of Easter: to say yes to the Risen Christ is to say yes to the world that crucified Him to begin with. And I know what the Bible says, about how we are not made for this world, but for the next. But so too was Christ Himself, made not just for Heaven, but made from Heaven, yet He returned to us—for us. In spite of everything that had happened, in spite of the agony of the betrayal, and of the hatred in His trial, and of the humiliation in his public, painful death, Christ did not simply return to God—He returned to us. The victory of Easter Sunday is not simply one of life over death, or of love over hate—it is a victory of reconciliation and right relationship over sin and blood revenge. By returning to the world that killed Him, Christ restored the right relationship between us and Him, between earth and heaven, and between you and God.

And if that were not enough, God invites each of us to bear witness to that reconciliation of our relationship with Him in the events of each of our lives: in the forgiveness offered to a person who has hurt another, in the release of a once-ill family member from the hospital, or, in my case, in the hearing the voice of a now-dead man pouring out his love for all to hear, the Resurrection lives and breathes all around us. Christ’s Resurrection is there, and it is up to us to believe in it out of the same faith that called this anonymous Beloved Disciple to believe that life and love had won in an empty tomb outside Jerusalem.

Long live the Lamb! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 8, 2012

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