Monday, April 29, 2013

A New Commandment: Love Beyond . . .

In his farewell discourse to his disciples in the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).

Jesus creates community, not on the basis of purity codes, levels of holiness, or degrees of worthiness, but on the basis of a transcending, inclusive, loyal love.

The command to love is itself not new, but what is new is the emphasis and centrality Jesus brings to it. The duty of humankind toward God and toward each other can be gathered up in the command to love. If there is one virtue that is foundational to all other virtues, if there is one quality or attribute that stands above all the others and is the source of all the others it is love. This is the essential mark of Christian discipleship.

The commandment is also new in the way Jesus makes God’s love tangible, visible, and concrete. Theologically, the word we use to talk about this is incarnation. Jesus fleshed out God’s love in the nitty-gritty of life, through his words and deeds, through his attitudes and actions, through his conversation and conduct, through his reactions and responses. In his teachings, relationships, and interactions with others we see what divine love looks like, how it functions, how it relates to all kinds of people, and what its priorities are.

The context in which this teaching appears in John’s Gospel emphasizes the constancy of God’s love. It is a loyal, faithful, steadfast, enduring love.

Just before this instruction, Jesus takes a basin of water and a towel and washes and dries the feet of his disciples. This is a daring, extraordinary, audacious act. All Palestinian homes had basins of water for the washing of one’s feet; after all, they walked along dusty, dirt streets and walkways in open sandals. This was commonplace. However, not even servants of a household were assigned the task of washing someone else’s feet.

But Jesus is making a point. He washes their feet and then tells them to do likewise. This is how they are to express their love for one another—through simple, humble acts of service. When the divine love saturates the faith community, when the community is immersed in God’s love no task, no service, no ministry to another is beneath us. In God’s community everything is reversed and turned upside down. One leads by serving, and no task is to small or menial.

Yet, these very disciples will be the ones who deny, betray, and abandon him, leaving him alone to face his tormentors and killers.

But Jesus does not desert them. Even after their denial and desertion, after their betrayal and breach of covenant loyalty, Jesus refuses to withdraw his love; he remains loyal to them.

At the beginning of Jesus’ farewell instruction, John’s Gospel reads, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). Then, in the very next verse we are told that Judas had already made his decision to betray Jesus (13:2). Jesus never withdrew his love; he loved Judas and the others to the uttermost, to the end, beyond their betrayal and failure.

Very few of us have the capacity to love this way. Loving someone beyond the breach, beyond the denials and betrayals takes a large, magnanimous, steadfast love.

But let’s be clear. Loving beyond the breach never means continued victimization. Everyone reading this should be aware of the toxic nature of co-dependency and enabling behavior that may, on the surface, look like steadfast love. But it is not real love at all. Steadfast love will involve letting go rather than hanging on to a relationship that enables addictive behavior or a dysfunctional relationship.

But letting go does not mean abandoning the person, though the relationship may take a completely different form. Jesus gave his disciples the complete freedom to choose. He did not cling to them. Yet, he did not dismiss them either. How this works out in the actual inner-workings of our relationships can be complicated, but disciples of Jesus never withdraw their love and commitment to the good of the other.

If we are to love the way Jesus loved, we will need to nurture a rich, deep experience of God’s love. Jesus was the perfect receiving station. He could say, “I and my Father are one.” They were on the same page; they were one in intent and purpose. His experience of divine love empowered him to love.

This kind of intimacy and intuitive, inner, spiritual knowing of God is available and accessible to all of us. One does not have to have any special gift or calling, or go through any special ceremony or ritual, or believe certain doctrines to be qualified to know God intimately and encounter Divine Love.

Jesus embodied God’s love. Now he says, “Just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. Tag, you’re it. It’s your turn. As the Father sent me, so I send you to be channels of divine love.” It is a love large enough to include everyone and strong enough to withstand and endure all failures and betrayals. It is a love beyond all boundaries and breaches. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Knowing Christ

In John  10:27 Jesus says:  “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Eternal life in John’s Gospel is as much about quality of life as quantity of life. It is not merely life without end; it involves a particular kind of life that is without end.

This Gospel offers a rather simple, but profound explanation of what it means by eternal life. In John 17:3 we read: “This is eternal life,  that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” From the perspective of the Johannine community, eternal life is knowing God and Jesus Christ whom God sent into the world.

This “knowing” is not simply knowing about, it is not information based knowledge. It is intimate knowing, experiential knowing, relational knowing, intuitive knowing; it is deep, innate, inner, spiritual knowing.

Faith, of course, is vital in nurturing this kind of kind of knowing. It is critically important, however, to understand that faith includes both belief and trust, but these two aspects of faith are not the same thing. We enter into an intimate knowing of God, not through belief, but through trust, through a living faith. When John’s gospel issues a call to believe it is actually calling the reader to trust, not simply give intellectual adherence to certain beliefs.

What we believe, however, is important. What we give mental assent to, the way we imagine and think about God, the ideas, perceptions, and images we have about God can be helpful or harmful to this process of actually knowing God. What we believe about God greatly impacts our capacity to trust God.

For example, if one images a God poised over the smite button ready to smite us for our sins, if one  thinks of God threatening us with eternal torture, then frankly I can’t imagine why anyone would be drawn to such a God. How could you trust or love that kind of God?

So what we believe about God makes a difference. This is why in the first book I wrote, The Good News According to Jesus, I have an entire chapter on “Imagining God.”  And what can be said about our beliefs about God can also be said about the religious systems wherein we develop these beliefs.

Unhealthy religion sets up roadblocks and fosters a false confidence and security that actually prevents us from knowing God. Toxic religion disguises our wants and desires, dressing them up so they look holy, but are still rooted in the ego and saturated with selfish ambition. Unhealthy religion blinds us to our real motives and intentions. We call our sins holy. We think we want God, but what we really want is power and control and to feel morally superior.

Good, healthy religion leads us into an intimate relationship with God. It provides some boundaries and guidelines that help us get to know God and experience God in the inner self where God resides. It provides a context that inspires a genuine desire for God and one that is conducive to hearing and following the inner voice of the Spirit/the living Christ.    

For Christians the voice of God is the voice of the living Christ. We see God through the lens of Jesus. The only way to hear the voice of the living Christ is by spending time with Christ. One has to invest time with Christ to be able to discern the voice of Christ.

John Ortburg tells about a friend of the family who became really upset when her daughter told her that someone at school had been talking to her about God. This woman wanted nothing to do with God, or so she thought, and didn’t want her daughter to have anything to do with God. That night, however, she couldn’t sleep. For some reason around midnight she got up, went downstairs, and picked up a Bible. She couldn’t remember the last time she had even held a Bible, let alone read one.

When she opened it she noticed it was divided between an “old” part and a “new” part. She decided to start with the new part. So, in the still of the night she began to read the Gospel of Matthew. By the time she had finished all the Synoptic Gospels and was half-way through the Gospel of John, she realized that, in her words, “she had fallen in love with the character of Jesus.” She said a prayer: “God, I don’t know what I am doing, but I know you are what I want.” This marked the beginning of her spiritual journey.

A spiritual life begins with desire. One must want to know God in order to know God. I suggest spending time in the Gospels—reading, meditating, reflecting, questioning, probing, pondering—until one falls in love with the character of Jesus. If you invest time with Christ, you just may be irresistibly drawn to him.

To know God intimately is to experience real, meaningful, abundant life—eternal life. It’s all about intimacy of relationship—a deep, inner, intuitive knowing, connecting, communing, and cooperating with the living Christ who loves us more than we love ourselves.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Freedom to Love

In John 21:1–19, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter is singled out not because Peter is more noteworthy than the others. Peter functions in a kind of representative role. He is the one who tends to talk the most and shout the loudest.

The three times that Jesus addresses Peter corresponds to Peter’s three denials (18:17, 25–27). All the disciples betrayed Jesus and fled in fear, but Peter was the most adamant in his claim to loyalty. He had insisted that he would never desert Jesus.

It was painful for Peter to have to respond to Jesus three times, each time remembering his betrayals. Jesus holds no grudge; there is no retribution. We need not fear condemnation, but we all, like Peter, must be led through a process whereby we face the pain our betrayals and denials and failures have caused those we have hurt. Without such a process we cannot enter into the new covenant of forgiveness.

It’s not that God withholds forgiveness, it’s simply that we will be unable to realize it, experience it, know it on a spiritual, emotional, and social level. We cannot experience forgiveness relationally unless we enter into the relationship anew through confession. And what is true in our relationship with God is just as true in our relationship within the community. For we should know full well that our relationships with others are inseparably tied to our relationship with God.

This Gospel tells us that on the night that Peter denied that he knew Jesus, he was warming himself by a charcoal fire (18:18). In John 21, as he joins Jesus on the shore of the lake for breakfast he is standing beside a charcoal fire. The place of denial and betrayal becomes a place of forgiveness, a place of reconciliation. The place of failure becomes a place of restoration and a new beginning.  

There is an interesting detail given in 21:7: “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” Do you find that strange? You would think it would be just the opposite—that he would have his clothes on in the boat and then take them off to jump into the water.  

I don’t know if the writer and the community that gave us this Gospel intended anything by that little detail, but I see some rich symbolism in it. Part of the human condition is that we are always putting on certain kinds of clothes. We are concerned about appearances aren’t we? We are afraid people won’t love us or accept us if we just stand before them without pretenses or masks.

When we stand before the Lord we stand naked. There is no need for any disguises, no need to conceal who we really are or what we have done, what we are actually feeling or thinking. The Spirit within us knows us better than we consciously know ourselves and loves us with an eternal love.

The Spirit that draws us into relationship with God is always trying to get us to strip ourselves of all appearances, disguises, illusions and the defense mechanisms that we use to protect our fragile egos.

The depth and quality of the forgiveness we experience will depend on the depth and quality of our confession. Our readiness and willingness to name our demons, to confront the darkness within us, will determine our capacity to see our faults, insecurities, fears, and all the life diminishing attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that hold us in bondage. We are all attached to destructive patterns and habits that we have difficulty facing and admitting.

In the movie, The Flight, the pilot Whip Whitaker performs an amazing maneuver to land a plane. Four passengers and two flight attendants are killed, and others injured, but his ability to rotate the plane saved the rest of the passengers. The irony is that he did this phenomenal maneuver while legally intoxicated.

He is an alcoholic and a drug user, but refuses to admit he has a problem. It has destroyed his marriage and he has no relationship with his son. Though he was intoxicated the day of the crash, by all appearances his professional legal council will be able to get him off. He has found some loopholes. All Whip has to do is tell one more lie.

At the hearing it is pointed out that two empty alcohol bottles were found in the trash on the plane. Whip knows they are his. His interrogators know that one of the flight attendants was intoxicated. Whip had slept and drank with this woman the night before the flight. All he has to do to get out of this whole mess without any liability is deny that the empty bottles are his, though it will probably cost the flight attendant her job.       

He hesitates. He takes a sip of water. He whispers, “God help me.” He can’t do it. He finally comes to a place where he can’t lie anymore. He confesses that they are his bottles and that he was flying intoxicated and that he is even intoxicated now at the hearing.

Next, we see Whip in prison, sitting down in a group with some other prisoners. He is telling his story. He has been in prison for over 13 months. He says:

“That was it. I was finished. I was done. It was as if I had reached my life long limit of lies. I could not tell one more lie. And maybe I’m a sucker because If I had told one more lie I could have walked away from all that mess—kept my wings, kept my false sense of pride. And more importantly, I could have avoided being locked up with all you folks for the last 13 months. But I am here and I will be here for the next four or five years and that’s fair. I betrayed the public trust—that’s how the judge explained it to me. I betrayed the public trust. FAA took my away my pilot’s license. And that’s fair.

My chances of ever flying again are slim to none, and I accept that. I have a lot of time to think about all of it—doing some writing. I wrote letters to each of the families that lost loved ones. Some of them were able to hear my apology, some of them never will. I also apologized to the people who tried to help me along the way, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t listen. People like my wife—my ex-wife, my son and again, like I said, some will never forgive me, but at least I’m sober. I thank God for that. I’m grateful for that. And this is going to sound real stupid from a man locked up in prison, but for the first time in my life I’m free.”

Our freedom to love is tied to our willingness to be honest with ourselves, admit our addictions, face our entrapments, and trust a greater power, a greater love, a greater forgiveness and grace. When we know who we are, with all that is broken and beautiful about us, when we can authentically face our compulsions and negative patterns and experience forgiveness and love, then we are free to give ourselves more totally and freely to others. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Freedom to Trust

If you are familiar with Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ in John 20, then you may know this as the story of doubting Thomas. In fact, the expression “doubting Thomas” has become something of a cliché. But it’s not really accurate. It is true that most of our English versions use the word “doubt.” Jesus says to Thomas: “Do not doubt, but believe.” A more literal reading of the Greek is: Do not be unbelieving, but believing. Jesus is exhorting Thomas to move from a state of unbelief to belief (trust, faithfulness).

But even if we accept the translation—“Do not doubt”—Jesus is not judging or condemning doubt per se, nor is he condemning the particular kind of doubt expressed by Thomas.

The living Christ accommodates himself to Thomas’ requirements in order to move Thomas from a state of unbelief to belief. Of course, Christ was under no compulsion to do so, and John 20: 29 suggests that the vast majority of believers will not be given the kind of special revelation that was given to Thomas: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” There will be many after Thomas who will not “see” Jesus the way Thomas saw (experienced) Jesus, and yet they will believe.

That is not a condemnation or judgment on Thomas; but it is an acknowledgement that we all encounter the Divine from different places and not everyone has equal opportunity.

We should know that this is how life works. We are all given the freedom to choose, but we are not all given equal freedom to choose. The freedom some have is restricted by their circumstances in life.

The film Looper is a science fiction thriller that creates a dilemma around the subject of time travel that is very complex. Joe, the key character who is a killer, in the final scene performs a rather selfless act to save a mother. He does it, because he knows that the child of the mother, without the mother’s love and care will become a vicious killer known as the Rainmaker. But with the mother’s love in those formative years, the child will grow up to become a different kind of person. 

When children are deprived of adequate love, attention, and care in their formative years, they are severely restricted in their freedom to love. That is a psychologically proven reality. 

All sorts of things impact the freedom we have to choose: our genetics, our family history, our early childhood experiences, our socialization into our context in life, our education, our relationships, etc.

When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who do not see and believe,” he is clearly implying that there will be others who are not given the same vision, the same experience, the same opportunities that Thomas has been given. That’s life.

The reason for this has nothing to do with divine choice, or predestination, or divine providence, or anything that resides in God. God does not, God cannot micromanage the world. God is all about freedom, not control.  

What we need to know is that God is present in whatever the history, the circumstances, and the experiences of our lives. God is there inviting us, wooing us, drawing us into relationship and it doesn’t matter what we have done or who we have been in the course of our lives.

The ways we encounter God are diverse and varied because we and our life situations are diverse and varied. We are each one unique. God meets us where we are.

What matters is the relationship—a relationship of grace and truth, a relationship that teaches us how to love and be faithful, honest, and trustworthy. That’s what matters.

People who know God, that is, who have genuine God experience, who know God—relationally, intuitively, mystically, intimately— are people who are always growing in faith, hope, and love, regardless of the specifics of their belief system or the doctrines they hold too.

This is at least part of what the death and resurrection of Jesus is about from the perspective of the Johannine community. For this Gospel says that when Jesus is  “lifted up from the earth” (referring to his death and resurrection) he will draw all people to himself (John 13:32). The Spirit of Truth is always drawing us into relationship. Christians enter into this relationship through Christ; that is not true for everyone, but it is true for Christians.

This relationship is one rooted and grounded in trust and trustworthiness. One could translate the verb “to believe” in John’s Gospel as “to trust” or “to be faithful.” Our awareness and experience of the Divine Love compels us to live in loving relationships with each other. For our relationship with God is inseparably tied to our relationship with everyone else.  

And while it is true that our freedom to choose is shaped and influenced by numerous factors, and freedom is not distributed equally, and some events and circumstances severely restrict our freedom, it is also true that whosoever will may come and discover a God who loves us more than we can ever fathom. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

In Praise of Doubt

In the film Doubt, Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with a student in the school. She is relentless in her pursuit to expose and get rid of Father Flynn. She even lies to Father Flynn about calling a sister in a previous perish who acknowledges Father Flynn’s past history of “infringements.” Father Flynn resigns.

Sister James, a younger nun, was the one who originally suspected something and notified Sister Aloysius, but then her fears dissipated, and she came to the conclusion that Father Flynn was just concerned about the boy, the only African American student in the school.  

Sister James is at home visiting her family when Father Flynn resigns. Soon after her return, she sees Sister Aloysius sitting outside, looking troubled. It is a cold day, snow is on the ground. The following is the interchange beginning with Sister James.

“Why did Father Flynn go? What did you say to make him leave?”
“That I called a nun in his previous perish. That I had found out his prior history of infringements.”
“But you didn’t prove it?”
“I make no such call.”
“You lied.”
“Yes. But if he had not such a history the lie wouldn’t have worked. His resignation was his confession. He was what I thought he was. And he’s gone.
“I can’t believe you lied.”
“In the pursuit of wrongdoing one steps away from God. Of course there is a price.”
“I see.”

Then Sister Aloysius starts to break down. There is pause in the conversation. She cries out, “O, Sister James.” Sister James draws close, “What is it, Sister?” She says, “I have doubts.” Then she begins to weep as she exclaims again, “I have such doubts.”

Some see this final scene as a scene of despair. I see it as a sign of hope. I would argue that her admission of doubt to Sister James suggests the possibility of her redemption.

Until this moment, she had expressed no doubt whatsoever. She was quite arrogant and pompous in her certitude. She had even lied in the pursuit of her agenda to get rid of Father Flynn. But here, in her confession, there is at least some presence of humility. Maybe she can change. Maybe she can become someone different. Maybe she can become more than what she is.

In the interchange between Thomas and Jesus in John 20:24–29, Jesus in no way judges or condemns Thomas for “doubting.” In fact, Thomas is no different than the other disciples, who did not believe the report of the women that Jesus was alive.

Doubts are necessary stops on the journey of faith. They provide places where we can assess our beliefs, presuppositions, perceptions, and images of the Divine to determine if they are leading us into authentic God experience. Our doubts can be a way of keeping us honest and humble by acknowledging that our search for truth is always a limited and error-prone search.

If the truth were known, some people’s main interest in religion is not the pursuit of truth, but control. And people who use religion as a means of control will not allow themselves to doubt or question their faith. To do so would be a source of shame and a sign of weakness. The sad thing is that they themselves don’t know it’s about control. They have convinced themselves it’s about truth, when it is really about control. So they have to keep their doubts hidden, even to themselves.

When a faith community is more interested in control and in maintaining the institution than authentic spiritual growth, doubt is viewed negatively. The leaders may claim that questions are welcome, but everyone in the community knows that only certain kinds of questions are welcome. The community is not a safe place to seriously express one’s real doubts or questions. Such doubts and questions are either ignored, dismissed, regarded as a sign of spiritual immaturity, or flat out condemned.

When I pastored in Maryland, I had a member who worked as a police chief at the Capital. I was invited to give a prayer at the installation of some new officers, and while there my friend was able to arrange a visit with the Senate chaplain, Lloyd Ogilvie. I asked him: What do you think is the greatest spiritual need in our country? He said, without much hesitation: “For religious people to know God.”

What he meant, of course, was to know God in relationship, to have authentic God experience. Religious people have information about God, which information is always limited and inadequate. Religious people without genuine God experience are often the most zealous to protect their particular definition of God or their particular version of faith. They are zealous to guard what was handed down to them. Their faith is a second-hand faith that serves as a substitute for authentic God encounter. If they truly met God they would fall down in humility and repentance, the way Paul did in the book of Acts when he encountered the risen Christ.

If we are to grow spiritually, if we are to become more, then we need to grow comfortable with doubt, with uncertainty, with the continual questioning of our faith as a necessary part of our spiritual development.

There is a story about a university professor who came to a Zen master to ask him about Zen. The Zen Master poured his guest a cup of tea, but when the cup was full he kept pouring until it ran all over the table. The professor cried out, “It’s full. It’s running over.” The Zen master said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Some of us grew up believing what we believe, and we are convinced we know, but only when we empty our cup, only when we come to know that we don’t know, only when we let go of control and needing to be right, can the space be created to experience an authentic, dynamic, transformative relationship with God. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

What Does Easter Mean? (A Sermon)

Luke 12:1-12; 1 Corinthians 15:19-28

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, (the very timing of it has theological significance), the women arrive at the tomb bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus. They come looking for the body of Jesus, but they do not find the body of Jesus. The stone that sealed the tomb is rolled away and the body is absent. Their first reaction is bewilderment. They stand there “perplexed” Luke says.

Just then, while they are standing there perplexed, not knowing what to do, what to say, where to go, two men in dazzling clothes appear beside them, and ask them, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

Fred Craddock tells about the time he was at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. Pastor Joe Roberts had invited him. The time had come in the service for Fred to preach. He walked up to the pulpit, opened his Bible, and was about ready to read his text.

But before he could get started, the Pastor, seated up front, started to sing. He just starts singing. Then the other pastors joined in. Then the people started singing and the musicians went to their instruments, the piano and the guitar and drums, and in no time at all that place was rockin’. Then, at a certain point the pastor put his hand out, and things got quiet, and Fred started preaching.

Afterward, Fred said to the pastor. “That shocked me a little bit. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.” The pastor said, “Well, I hadn’t planned to.” Fred said, “Then why did you do it?” He said, “Well, when you stood up there, one of the associates leaned over and said to me, ‘That boy’s going to need some help.’”

These women at the tomb needed some help. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” There have been Sunday’s I have asked myself that very question. All of us need some help at times seeing and connecting with God. I consider that my first priority of my pastoral vocation. But sometimes, I can’t find God either, and it takes one of you to show me where God is.

Sometimes we do not find God, because we are looking for God in the wrong place. I use the term “place” metaphorically, because God is actually everywhere and in everyone, but we don’t know it. We don’t recognize God.

If we go looking for Jesus to endorse and sanction policies and practices, systems and structures, attitudes and actions that restrict, exclude, oppress, or diminish life in any way, then we are looking for God in the wrong place. And if we have read the Gospel stories at all, we should know that that the living Christ cannot be limited to what is safe, traditional, and predictable, for he is always breaking out of old tombs. He is always more than what we expect.

One of the reasons we fail to see the living Christ is because we look through the wrong lens, through the wrong set of eyeglasses. There are all sorts of things that can blur the lens, that can distort our vision. Our prejudices, biases, presuppositions, beliefs, assumptions, ideas, worldview—all of these things can blind us.

If you don’t believe that God is everywhere, you may not see God anywhere. Or what you think is God, may not be God at all. What you call God, may not have anything to do with God.

For example, if you don’t believe God loves the enemy and God is with the enemy, then you will possibly have no problem wishing harm or inflicting hurt upon the enemy. If you believe that God hates the enemy, then you may feel quite justified in hating or even killing the enemy. (Remember, how Paul persecuted Christians before he experienced the living Christ.)

This is why toxic religion is so dangerous. It gives people justification for hating, condemning, and excluding; people can hate and inflict pain on others and not feel guilty about it. If Easter means anything it means that God is on the side of life, God is always drawing us toward that which heals rather than harms, that which mends and restores rather than separates and excludes, that which renews, restores, and gives hope.  

When the two men in dazzling clothes stand before the women, the perplexity of the women turns to terror. The two men are stand-ins for the Divine. In the Hebrew Bible, in story after story, when an angel appears or when there is some visible or apparitional manifestation of the Divine, the first reaction is always fear. God was so regarded as “Other” or “Holy” or “Separate” from the creation, that any manifestation of God’s presence produced fear. There was even a tradition that said, “No one can see God and live.”

One of the great revelations about God that is mediated through Jesus of Nazareth is that God is not the kind of God one needs to be afraid of. In Jesus we meet “Abba” – the compassionate One, the loving Father or Mother, a God who even cares about the lilies in the field and the birds of the air, a God who takes note when a sparrow falls to the ground. God takes care of the flowers and the birds; God will surly take care of us. In Jesus we meet a totally nonviolent God.

And in the risen Christ we meet a God who is not totally “Other.” The One who is the Great Beyond is also the Intimate Within, the indwelling Spirit. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: He says that we did not receive an enslaving spirit that produces fear; rather, we received the liberating Spirit who cries “Abba,” who bears witness with our human spirit that we are the children of God. The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the indwelling Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Our bodies are temples of God’s Spirit. So also is the mystical body, the church, the community. The Spirit is within us individually and with us communally. Paul or one of his disciples writing to the Colossians says, “Christ in you, your hope of glory.” Use whatever language you are comfortable with, the point is that the Divine Presence is at the core of who we are.

I heard about a lady who teaches first grade. At the end of a particularly long day she decided to scrap the lesson plan. Instead, she had all the first graders in her class sit in a circle and tell each other what they wanted to be when they grew up. One by one each child got up and announced, “I’d like to be a nurse like my mother,” or “I want to be a banker like my father,” or “I want to be a teacher like you, Miss Smith.”

The last child to speak was the shyest and most timid boy in the class. He said something like: “Well, when I get big I’m going to be a lion tamer. I’m going to work in the circus. I’ll get in a cage full of fierce lions and tigers with my gun and my whip and my chair and I’ll make those animals leap through hoops of fire and obey all my commands.” Suddenly, in the midst of his exciting tale, he looked around to find all his classmates staring at him with their mouths wide open.

He realized they were finding it hard to believe he, of all people, was going to be lion tamer. Embarrassed, he was quick to reassure them. “Well, of course,” he stammered, “I’ll have my mama with me.”

No matter how cautious, shy, timid, or introverted we may appear, each of us in our inner recesses may be a potential lion tamer. Let us take no one for granted. Anyone who encounters the risen Christ, any one who comes to see God through the lens of Jesus and becomes aware of the indwelling presence will find the inner strength, vision, hope and courage to dream new dreams and live an adventurous life for the kingdom of God.

When the Christ calls us, he does not promise safety, long life, or even good health. He calls us to a risky adventure. But he does say, as he says to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “I am with you even to the end of the age.” We are not alone; never alone.

Sometimes our vision gets blured, sometimes our view becomes distorted because we follow our egos, our selfish ambitions, our pride, rather than listen to the Spirit. But we are never alone.

Easter means that the power of new life, the power to love deeply, unconditionally, inclusively, freely, without distinction and partiality—the potential and power of that kind of love resides within every one of us.

The stand-ins for God say to the women: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And the text says, “Then they remembered his words.”

What happens? It clicks. It makes sense. They see with new eyes, they hear with new ears. There is understanding. Call it spiritual illumination, spiritual discernment, awakening, a new birth, call it whatever you want to call it, but they get it.

One of the reasons we who teach spiritual truth teach the same truth over and over and over in multiple ways, approaching it from multiple angles, employing multiple stories, utilizing different methods, is because we are crazy enough to believe at some point you are going to get it. We know that when you are ready, you will get it. And then you will remember. It will all come together.

The women get it, so they rush to the apostles with the good news. And guess what. The men don’t get it. Luke says, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale.” Some of you women are thinking, “I go through that everyday.”

Interestingly, though, there is an exception. Luke says, “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed (not afraid) at what had happened.” Not afraid, not perplexed, not disillusioned, but amazed.

Peter seems to get it. If not, he’s right on the verge of getting it. It won’t be long. Luke will tell us in his sequel in the book of Acts that Peter will be the one who delivers the first sermon to Israel calling them to repent and embrace their risen Messiah.

This is the same Peter who, you may remember, rambled on at the Mount of Transfiguration and Luke tells us that he did not have a clue what he was saying. This is the same Peter who confessed that he would never forsake Jesus, even if everyone else did, that he would be loyal. Then he turned coward and cursed and denied Jesus and fled.

If Peter finds his nerve, if Peter can be redeemed, if Peter can finally get it, then we can all get it. If there is hope for Peter and the disciples who never seemed to get it, then there is hope for all of us. God does not abandon any of us.

Easter means that forgiveness is unlimited, that grace is inexhaustible, that new beginnings are possible for any of us at any time. Easter means that there is hope for all. No one is ultimately lost. The invitation to repent and come home is never withdrawn. Easter means that love will eventually gather up into the arms of God every thing and every one.

This is Paul’s vision in the passage we read from 1 Corinthians. Paul envisions a universal redemption where all life diminishing elements are subdued, all systems of injustice dismantled, and death itself is defeated. Then, everything is gathered up in Christ. Paul says, “In Christ all will be made alive.” When the end of the age comes, says Paul, the kingdom will be handed over to God, “so that God may be all in all.” That’s an unbelievably non-dualistic and universal. In a world dominated by apocalyptic dualism that is a radical vision. In our world of dualistic “us versus them” thinking, it is a radical vision. Easter means that Love (with a capital “L”) will triumph. Love is going to win.

Denzel Washington stars in the movie, The Hurricane, which is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s, he was falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to prison for the remainder of his natural life.

While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens, the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and commit to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives.

After twenty years in prison Carter is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict, Carter and Lesra share their thoughts. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.”

After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He then says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra responds, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching his hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.”

Even if the verdict didn’t bring about justice, Carter had been liberated from his bitterness and resentment and need for revenge.

That’s how love wins, sisters and brothers. Even when the prison doors remain shut, love bursts open the prison doors of our hearts and souls. Love rolls away the rocks that entomb us in disillusionment and despair. Love breaks apart the shackles of misunderstanding, insecurity, and fear. Loves pierces the darkness and drives back forces of injustice and violence. Love liberates us from the chains of greed and pride. Love frees us from our narcissistic addictions.

Love is what saves us from our own self-destruction. That’s what we have to fear. Not God. What we have to fear is our own demise, our own self-destruction. But Love can turn that around and set us on a new path in a new direction. That is what Easter means, Church, it means that Love will have the final word.

Our good God, help us face our fears and insecurities, our perplexities and confusion, our worries and anxieties, our addictions and bondages, and to see through them to new possibilities. May we realize that no matter who we are or where we find ourselves, we are loved with an eternal love, and that love can break the chains that keep us bound in cells of our own making.

There are circumstances that we may not be able to change, but we do not have to let the deadly forces over which we cannot control diminish our faith, deplete our love, or destroy our hope. May the power of the living Christ, which is nothing less that the power of Divine Love, roll away all the stones that would hold us back and keep us down. May the living Christ live anew in us today. Amen and Amen.