Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! (Easter)

Alleluia!  The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

So begins our celebration of Easter, the most important Feast of the church year.  This is a day of great celebration, with many flowers decorating the church, with festive white and gold hangings and vestments, with joyous songs and Alleluias (and Hallelujahs).  Easter is our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, a miracle that is mysterious and beyond understanding, but that is the foundation of our faith as Christians.  Many years ago, those who wished to be baptized would spend the season of Lent in learning and preparation, and on Easter, they would be baptized into the Church.  Without Easter, the Christian church would not now exist — which, I know, may be considered a mixed blessing — though we mark the birth of the Church at the Pentecost.  So what is this all about?

The lections for Easter worship offer several options, including two

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus
Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus

different accounts of the Resurrection.  The account in Mark’s gospel is more spare, less detailed.  The account in John’s gospel speaks with John’s poetic voice, with more details and more drama.  These appear to be two completely different stories, but they tell one very important truth: Jesus did not stay dead.  Jesus did not remain in the tomb.  Of course, there is another detail that is very dear to my heart: it was women who first discovered this.  It wasn’t John, the beloved disciple, or Simon Peter, the rock on whom the Church was founded.  It was Mary Magdalene, healed by Jesus of a multitude of demons, and some accounts include Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome.

I can only imagine the fear and anxiety that these women must have felt.  First, as they approach the tomb, they remember the large stone that sealed the entrance, and they doubt that they will be strong enough to roll it away.  And then, they arrive at the tomb and find the great stone is already moved.  What does this mean?  Did the Romans or the chief priests take the body of their beloved Jesus to hide it?  Did some thief come, and steal their lord away?  What happened here?

In John’s account, Mary Magdalene runs back to the men to tell them that the stone is moved.  In Mark’s account the women proceed straight into the tomb, and the first words the angel inside speaks to them are, “Don’t be afraid.”  (Of course, these are the first words that every angel appearing in the bible speaks to a human.)  It’s no wonder they are afraid!  This is beyond understanding, beyond comprehension — especially when one is already filled with loss and grief and anguish, and maybe even doubt.  But then, the truth of the miracle is revealed.

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here!

Two years ago, on Easter Sunday, I wrote in this blog that I could not understand why Jesus would ever want to come back.  I mean, it’s not that he got treated particularly well while he was here, so why would he want to return?  It doesn’t make any sense!

Well, it might not make any sense to us, but it makes perfect sense to God.  After all, what kind of sense does it make to us that God would love every single one of us — love us perfectly, extravagantly, profligately, scandalously — when we know that we’re really not all that lovely or lovable?  And sometimes we might think, okay, so God can love me, but does it make sense for God to love people like Saddam Hussein or Genghis Khan or Vlad Ţepeş every bit as much as God loves Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu and Mohandas Gandhi?  Those first three — they’re terrible people!  They’re monsters, destroyers of God’s children!  And those last three, they’re people of great love and peace, truly God’s children!  How on earth does this make sense?  Of course, I just answered that question.  It doesn’t make any sense at all on earth.  But to God, it makes perfect sense.

The resurrection of Jesus is a great gift, and the fundamental truth of it is simple:

GOD. LOVES. YOU.

That’s it.  That’s the message of Easter.  Love.  It’s so simple, but of course, simple things are rarely easy.  Love is hard work for us, because we aren’t God.  We can have a hard time loving people, like Hussein and Khan and Dracula,

The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo
The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo

even like the noisy kids next door and the husband or wife and that weird guy who’s always outside the grocery store smelling not-quite-right.  Some of the final words of Jesus to his closest friends, on the night of the Last Supper, were love one another, just as I have loved you.  Jesus commands us to love, tells us that we will be recognized as his followers by the love we show.  And we must show that love.  Love is a verb.  It is an action, a choice, a behavior.  You cannot say you love someone, if you ignore them or hurt them or refuse to help them.  Love is all about the actions.  You don’t love that smelly guy at the grocery store, if you make Tsch! noises at him, or refuse to look at him.  You don’t love the noisy neighbors if you yell at them or glare at them from your driveway.  Love does the very basic physical actions that Jesus entreats us to do: love feeds the hungry, love gives drink to the thirsty, love tends to the sick, love is present for the lonely, love makes sure that the naked are clothed, and love makes room for the homeless.

God’s love has shown itself in a very basic and physical way, too.  God’s love came physically into this world as a baby human.  God came to us as a naked, hungry, thirsty boy, helpless to provide these things for Godself.  God as an infant was even homeless for a time, when Nazareth was not a safe place for God’s human family.  God as Jesus experienced all of those needs: hunger, thirst, illness, loneliness, nakedness, homelessness.  Jesus experienced anger, frustration, fear.  Heck, Jesus even experienced flatulence, sneezes, itches, bumps, and bruises.  This is what it means when we say Jesus was fully human, while being fully divine.  Jesus knows what we humans need, knows in a personal, intimate way.  So when Jesus tells us to love each other, Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole
Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole

Jesus also knows our brokenness, our failures to hit the mark, our separation from God and from each other.  Before Jesus, if a Jewish person wanted to show repentance for sin and be restored to God’s favor, a sacrifice would be made.  Jesus chose to become the last sacrifice; he allowed himself to be killed in order to restore all of us to God’s favor.  When Jesus was nailed to the cross, every one of our sins was nailed to the cross with him.  We may not realize — in this world — that we are loved so perfectly, that we have already been forgiven, that this act of Jesus reconciled us with God and with each other.  That’s because we’re flawed, broken.  We’re not perfect.  All we can do is try.  We can try to love one another, just as Jesus loved us.  We can try to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another.  We can make our own sacrifices, giving time to act out our love, giving money to further God’s work in this world, giving gifts, both tangible and not.

And this is the miracle of the Resurrection.  Yes, Jesus died on that cross, taking on himself the weight of all of the sin of all of the people that ever have been, that are now, and that ever will be.  But God’s love story doesn’t end there.  The story doesn’t end because somehow, marvelously and miraculously, Jesus did not stay dead.  He entered into a new kind of life, a life that included a physical body but that was filled with God’s light and presence.  And the promise of this new life of Jesus is that every one of us will be given the opportunity to enter into this same kind of new life.  We don’t know for sure how or when this will happen, but we know why.  Because

GOD!  LOVES!  US!

Amen.  Alleluia!

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Continuing the love story (Year B, 5th Sunday in Lent)

This week’s readings continue the love story that we heard in the gospel last week, with the famous John 3:16.  This week’s gospel lesson seems a bit confusing, though, almost as though it contains several different stories all smooshed together, rather than one.  First, we see Greeks who are in Jerusalem to worship, and they ask to see Jesus.  And it sounds like there’s some question as to whether the disciples think it’s appropriate to bring these men to Jesus, because the Greeks approach Phillip, and Phillip takes their request to Andrew.  Then Phillip and Andrew together go to Jesus to ask whether he will talk with these men.  The gospel doesn’t tell us how the consultation went between Phillip and Andrew, and one can imagine all sorts of possibilities.  Nor is the story clear on whether the Greeks actually got to see Jesus.  The story just says, Jesus answered them, and we have to decide whether he is answering Phillip and Andrew, or whether he is answering the Greeks.

And then, Jesus gives us a parable.  Jesus compares himself to a grain of wheat, saying that the grain of wheat can only bear fruit if it gives up its identity — if it dies — to become something new and full of life.  In the same way, Jesus bears the fruit of forgiveness for us only when he gives up his life as a human being — only when he dies — to give us all eternal life in God’s kingdom.  And Jesus tells us that this analogy applies to us as well.  We, too, must die to the life we know, the life of this world that takes such a hold on us, in order to live the life God wants for us, in order to follow Jesus into heaven.

Next, Jesus admits that he is afraid to die, troubled by what he knows is coming, and he prays to God, Father, glorify your name.  And God the Father answers, as a voice from heaven.  Now, when we hear these stories, we can easily turn off our brains and think, well, yeah, God speaks from heaven all the time in the bible; he doesn’t do that any more for me.  We don’t realize that this would surprise — and probably frighten — the people around Jesus every bit as much as it would surprise and frighten us.  After all, these people were used to just going about their lives, doing the best they could, and thinking well, yeah, God spoke from heaven all the time to people like Abraham and Moses; he wouldn’t talk to me. Since the people around Jesus don’t seem to know what to make of this voice, Jesus tells them: I’m going to die, but I’m going to do it in a way that lets me gather everyone into my arms and carry you all into heaven.

See, isn’t that a wonderful love story?  The reading from Jeremiah expresses part of God’s love story, too, and I find it best when this reading is arranged like a poem.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt
— a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,
says the LORD.

But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD:
I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other,
“Know the LORD,”
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,
says the LORD;
for I will forgive their iniquity,
and remember their sin no more.

Isn’t that beautiful?  God considers God’s people to be God’s wife, and God to be our husband.  God’s people walked out on God, deserted God, forgot the promises they had made.  God was angry, but chose to forgive the people out of God’s love for us.  God says that God will put God’s law within us, written on our hearts.  And God will remember our sin no more.  This is the new covenant that Jesus brings us, straight from God’s love as the true spouse of our hearts.

The Blessed Julian of Norwich describes five joys of God:

God rejoices that He is our Father
God rejoices that He is our Mother
God rejoices that He is our soul’s true Spouse
Jesus rejoices that He is our Brother
Jesus rejoices that He is our Savior.

The love story that God writes on our hearts, that Jesus tells us in John’s gospel, that Jeremiah relates to us — this love story is filled with God’s joy in loving us.  I can’t tell you why God loves us.  I know that I’m not the world’s most lovely or lovable person; there are plenty of times when I don’t behave as though God’s law is written on my heart.  And yet… God loves me.  God loves me so perfectly that God erases my unloveliness from God’s mind; God forgives my sins and wipes them clean.  But it’s more than just this love, God rejoices in loving me.  And this amazes me.  I can’t explain it.  I can’t understand how or why; I can’t even understand why God would want to.  All I know is that love is God’s nature.

I’ll say that again: God’s nature is to love.  God’s nature is to rejoice in us.  God’s nature is to become one of us, to live with us, and to die as one of us.  God’s nature is to forgive us.  All we have to do is to believe, to love in return, so that we can experience God’s joy, too.  So we will pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God,
you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
Grant your people grace
to love what you command
and desire what you promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Let the love story continue!