glory of god

glory of god

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Christ has died! Christ is Risen! Christ will come again!

It is May 21, 2011 and some people around the world are busy preparing, and perhaps worrying, about the second coming of Christ today. Harold Camping, an evangelical Christian radio broadcaster in California has predicted that today is the day. His means of calculating the date is too complex for me to understand, truth be told. But somehow, his arguments are compelling enough to lead some to quit their jobs, others to go into hiding, and still more to wonder what exactly it is that Christians believe. I was asked a question about it all by a friend (also my former high school orchestra conductor, as it happens). Here is my response, with an extra dose of Anglican theology thrown in, since I am supposed to be on retreat working on my doctoral dissertation.

Obviously there are some Christians who believe strongly in the triumphant return of Christ. The TV is full of them. However, they tend to think the May 21 prediction is nonsense, since Jesus himself says that no one knows the day and hour except the Father in heaven. But they believe it will happen eventually. Even mainline Protestants, who certainly don't emphasize such things, must believe in the second coming in some sense, since our liturgies are full of reference to it. In the Episcopal Church, Eucharistic Prayer A includes the congregational refrain "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." In fact, the liturgical season of Advent is specifically set aside for the preparation of Christ's coming, both as a baby at Christmas and also on the last day.

The earliest Christians, too, believed in the Second Coming. However, they thought it would happen in their lifetimes. St. Paul certainly did. That's why he advised against people marrying unless absolutely necessary. He thought we should focus on preparing ourselves spiritually for Christ.
The gospel writers also thought it would happen sooner rather than later. Mark's gospel, in particular, really has to be read through the lens of one who thought that the second coming would be soon. There's lots of evidence for this. His gospel--the earliest--was written in AD 70, around the time of the destruction of the mighty Temple in Jerusalem. It was for Mark a sign of the approaching end times. Throughout his gospel, he uses the word 'immediately' often, emphasizing that there isn't much time to get his message out, or to be prepared. Thus, Mark avoids stories about Jesus' origins, such as the virgin birth, since for him that's so much less important than the future--he just wants to get to the substance of his gospel, sharing the Good News of the saving work of God in Christ. Finally and perhaps most interestingly, in Mark's original ending, there is no resurrection appearance, since he seems to believe that the resurrected Jesus will appear not on Easter morning, but on the last day when he comes again. He concludes his gospel by saying that the women who came to the tomb left terrified. Obviously, that didn't happen--or at least it hasn't yet.

The later gospels (Matthew and Luke use Mark as a model, but were written 10 to 20 years later) deal with the fact that Jesus hadn't come again as soon as expected by the Christians of Mark's era by telling us about Jesus' resurrection in more pictorial ways. Luke grapples with the fact that Jesus is not still physically on earth by describing his ascension into heaven. They write about the establishment of the church community and Luke describes the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, all to tide us over for the longer term until Jesus comes again. Even so, I don't think these later evangelists would have imagined we'd still be here 2,000 years later.

The toughest question is: what did Jesus himself think? Of that we can't really know, since each of the gospels is written from a post-resurrection, post-Temple destruction perspective. So, as a result, much of what we read, much of what Jesus says, is the gospel writers' attempts to craft a compelling story, rich with theological meaning, inspired by the events happening around them and most especially by their profound belief and conviction that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross and rose victoriously on Easter. It doesn't mean that what they write isn't true in a deep theological sense, even as it probably is isn't always historical fact. They believed this Gospel, this Good News, with every fiber of their being, and because they were confident that Jesus was the Son of God, they were also sure that he would come again, at some undetermined time.

However, what that means is that it is sometimes hard to discern what Jesus thought about such issues, or even *if* he thought about such issues. Presumably he did to some degree as it was a common first century concern, but we can't know for sure. Sometimes what Jesus says is really what the gospel writers say, inspired by their belief in Jesus as the Son of God. But sometimes it really is Jesus, too. Unfortunately, it can just be hard to figure out which is which.

Whatever is depicted in the gospels, I think that if and when Jesus comes again, it will not be a cataclysmic event for the world--with stars falling from the heavens and earthquakes and the like. Instead, I think it will be a reconciling event. Because I believe that Jesus came to bring peace, hope, and new, abundant life. There may well be judgment--either at the end of our lives or on the day of the second coming (whatever that may mean)--but in my imagination, anyway, we will do the judging of ourselves when we see from a new perspective the pain and hurt we have caused others. As we know, there's nothing more damning in the human experience that knowing how deeply we have hurt others. F. D. Maurice, the great nineteenth century Anglican theologian and my hero,
described sin as “the sense of solitude, isolation, distinct responsibility.” He writes that one knows sin most fully when he realizes “how he has broken the silken chords that bind us to our fellows; how he has made himself alone, by not confessing that he was a brother, a son, a citizen."

But then, just as we grapple with that, we also have the opportunity to receive God's limitless grace, forgiveness, and love. Just because that's who God is and what God does. God doesn't force us to accept this love, of course. We can wallow in our guilt and pain and self-destructive ways if we want, but God certainly hopes we will choose the more life-giving path that is being offered us, and will wait on us for long as long as it takes. God will always be there holding out hands in love, waiting for us to drop whatever junk we may be carrying (guilt, pain, selfishness, whatever) so that we can reach back and be raised to new life.

All that said, I do think we should be ready for Christ's return, because it just might happen. We don't know when or how. But I believe that readiness doesn't come through doomsday predictions, but through loving and forgiving others, helping the poor, sick, and oppressed, living fully and abundantly, just as Jesus wanted us to do. If we do all that, then we'll be ready to meet Jesus, whether he descends on a cloud, or meets us around the next corner in the face of a homeless man, the cashier at the grocery store, or those we already know and love.

None of this is a definitive answer, of course, but it's what I think. Maybe I'll be dreadfully wrong. But if I am, I'd rather be held accountable for being too loving and too forgiving than not loving enough.

F. D. Maurice (who plays a starring role in my dissertation) wrote the following in his controversial book
The Theological Essays in 1852. I think it is just about the best assessment of what we should believe and hope for, both now and in the age to come:

"If you take away from me the belief that God is always righteous, always maintaining a fight with evil, always seeking to bring His creatures out of it, you take everything from me, all hope now, all hope in the world to come. Atonement, Redemption, Satisfaction, Regeneration, become mere words to which there is no counterpart in reality.

"I ask no one to pronounce, for I dare not pronounce myself, what are the possibilities of resistance in a human will to the loving will of God. There are times when they seem to me—thinking more of myself than others—almost infinite. But I know that there is always something which must be infinite. I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is greater than the abyss of death. I dare not lose faith in that love. I sink into death, eternal death, if I do. I must feel that this love is compassing the universe. More about it I cannot know. But God knows. I leave myself and all to Him."

Enjoy your May 21, whatever happens at 6 pm. Jesus wants us to appreciate and embrace the gift of life. He wants us to abide in that abyss of love.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On Anne Frank, Resurrection, & Baptism: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Today in Wakefield we celebrated the Second Sunday of Easter with two baptisms. This was the homily.

Most of you know that I like movies, and I like to talk about movies in my sermons. Usually, I talk about science fiction movies like Star Wars or Star Trek, because they played such a major role in my life as a kid--the vast, vast majority of my toys were Star Wars action figures, so those movies and its characters like Luke Sykwalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader, were my constant companions--I think I often even brought action figures to school in my backpack to play with at recess, and also just to have my heroes with me. I also liked the Wizard of Oz and quite a few musicals-- my parents liked them, too. So it might come as a surprise that it's not only fantasy or cheesy musicals that draw my attention. I also like serious movies that make me think. Movies that draw me in, identifying with the characters, sharing in their story.

When I was 12 or 13 years old I happened to see the old 1950s movie The Diary of Anne Frank. I don’t think I knew of her story before I saw that movie; although, I did know of the Holocaust, but perhaps without the personal face that Anne Frank gives us so movingly. My parents recorded it on TV and I was so drawn in that I watched it over and over again (I am one of those people who likes to watch movies many, many times, so I can catch all the nuances). Sometimes I wonder if that was such a good idea, when it came to Anne Frank, as it really scared me on the one hand, but it was also so compelling. Certainly it shaped how I look on the world.

You probably know the story—from reading the actual diary or seeing a production of the play or the movie. (As it happens, if you don’t know it, or if you want to see it again in the near future, our own parishioner Chip Sheeran is directing a production of the Diary of Anne Frank at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, opening this Friday. And, our super talented parishioner Emily Sheeran stars as Anne.) You may know that Anne and her family were Germans, from Frankfurt, but right after Hitler came to power they moved to the Netherlands, when Anne was 4, where they thought they would find a safe refuge. And for about 8 or 9 years they did—living comfortable middle-class lives, until 1940 when German troops rolled in and occupied that country, too. So they went into hiding in the secret apartment above Anne’s father’s office in a factory that made pectin and spices used in making homemade jams.

What’s interesting, from a dramatic, literary, and even human perspective, is how the story is really limited to what happens in the secret annex. They obviously hear about what’s going on outside, from the radio and the few helpers who bring them food and other provisions, but those in hiding never see that world, except when they take a peek through the heavy lace curtains or blackout paper that cover their windows. The adults try hard to give the younger residents as normal a life as they can—assigning books to read, math homework, and the like. But, of course, their lives are far from normal. The fear of being found out is never far away. A telephone call at an odd time, an unexpected knock on the door, or footsteps on the stairs on a Sunday fill them with terror. I can’t even imagine the strength of character and courage it must have taken them to live that way for 2 whole years, every day worrying that they might be discovered.

I read once someplace that when the authorities finally did find Anne and her family and marched them out to a Dutch prison camp, before sending them off to even worse places on the last train to leave the Netherlands, Anne—who was always so hopeful—actually expressed a sense of relief at being found. Not, of course, for the fate that would come, but a sense of relief for being freed from worrying about every knock or footstep, and relieve to be able to experience the pleasure of feeling the sunshine again and breathing fresh air. As you probably know, only Anne’s father survived the war. Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, sadly, just a couple weeks before the British liberated the camp. Afterward, her father devoted his life to telling the story of Anne, her family, and fellow residents of the secret annex, giving us faces and lives that we can relate to on a deeper human level while we learn about the horrors of World War II and the hope and power of the human spirit.

So, what does this have to do with Second Sunday of Easter and our baptisms this morning? Well, when I first read this morning’s gospel, I imagined that the disciples who were locked away on that first Easter felt a lot like Anne Frank and her family. They were terrified. They were afraid of any knock or footstep outside, worried that like the SS 2,000 years later, the Roman soldiers would find them and crucify them, just like they had Jesus. After all, that’s why they scattered; that’s why Peter denied Jesus; that’s why the disciples weren’t there at the foot of the cross. The women were there, but the men fled. They were too afraid—not only for Jesus, but also, really, for themselves. And probably, their fears were justified. Because the authorities ruled by fear. Like the Nazis, the Roman rulers were not hesitant to use the sword, or the cross, to accomplish their goals.

Now, our gospel reading says that the disciples were locked away for fear of the Jews. That’s very misleading. Jesus was Jewish. The disciples were Jewish. Absolutely everyone they knew—Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jesus’ mother, Joseph, absolutely everyone—was Jewish. Maybe the disciples were afraid of the Jewish religious authorities whom Jesus had upset, but then, they didn’t really have the power to do anything. So more likely, the disciples were locked away afraid of the Roman government. Because, you see, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area around Jerusalem, was a ruthless man. In fact, Caesar later removed him from office for being so over the top in terrorizing the people under his authority. The gospels sort of portray Pilate as being reluctantly caught up in the situation with Jesus, but that seems less likely as we learn more about who Pilate was. He wouldn’t have given the crucifixion of Jesus (or anyone) a second thought, if it would have kept the peace and kept him in power without news of a disruption traveling to Caesar in Rome. The problem is that by the time the gospels were written, especially John’s gospel, the church leaders knew that Rome had the upper hand, and they wanted to secure as much protection as they could from the government. They couldn’t portray Rome as the bad guys, so they shifted the blame for everything on not just the Jewish leaders but on the Jewish people. Unfortunately, we Christians have been dealing with the fallout of that shift ever since. Sadly, tragically, it’s part of what gave rise to Jewish persecution throughout history, including in Europe during World War II, including families like Anne Frank’s.

But you know what, in today’s gospel, as the disciples are cowering in fear, afraid for their lives, hope breaks in. Because Jesus breaks in. He literally breaks in, in fact, showing up in their locked room, saying “Peace be with you.” Peace. Do not be afraid. He tells them, in fact he shows them, that they have no reason to fear, because God is in charge—not the religious leaders, not the soldiers or Pontius Pilate or not even Caesar. But God. Jesus appears to them that Easter evening so that they will know that their life and the life of the world is really, truly, in God’s hands, despite how it may seem sometimes. Easter is God’s way of telling us that there’s nothing that the world can dole out, however fearful, however horrific, that God can’t transform into something better. It doesn’t erase what happened earlier, it doesn’t make it go away—the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion are still there, after all—but God takes it and is able in some mysterious way to bring new life.

And it’s that new life, that promise that we celebrate today as we baptize Kate and Madison. By baptizing them, what we are really doing is telling them that their lives are, in fact, in God’s hands, and that they are marked with the cross as Christ’s own forever. There’s nothing that the world can do to change that. They will forever and always belong to God. And time and again, God will work through Kate and Madison to bring wonderful new life to the world. That’s God’s promise for them, for us, for the whole world. It’s a promise that we saw fulfilled that first Easter 2,000 years ago when Jesus appeared to the disciples in their locked room, and it’s a promise fulfilled each and every time new life conquers fear, death, and despair.

Before I close, I want to go back to Anne Frank for a moment. I know it probably seems like a weird thing to talk about Easter and a Jewish girl who died in World War II in the same sermon. And sometimes, we may wonder how it is that these promises of new life are actually lived out when we see so much destruction around us, not only a generation ago, but today as we hear the news of Libya and Afghanistan and Iraq, the earthquakes and nuclear disaster, and even this week’s tornadoes in the south. But I believe, because I believe in Easter, that somehow, in some way, God really is working to bring experiences of the resurrection and new life into our lives and our world. Most especially I believe that God is doing that work of resurrection through us.

And consider this: Anne Frank, the girl who lived in hiding and simply wrote a diary has touched the lives of millions of people in the 60 years since it was first published. In fact, next to the Bible, her diary is the most translated and most widely read book in the world. By Jewish people, of course, but also Christians, and Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and people of no religion at all. Eleanor Roosevelt described it as “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that [she had] ever read.” John F. Kennedy said, “Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank.” And so it is that through her, and people like her barriers between people—whether because of religion or culture, or anything else—are broken down. Through her story we see the human spirit soar and transcend the terrors of the world. In her story, we find God’s promise of new, abundant life.

And you know what, it’s a promise shared by the whole human family, regardless of our religions or cultures. It’s a promise that we will make when we baptize Kate and Madison today, and it’s a promise that we receive each and every time we see signs of new life, of resurrection, of Easter in our world.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

May that peace, joy, and new life fill our hearts, today and always.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell