Wednesday, April 29, 2015

you are witnesses

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Easter 3, Year B, 2015

“You are witnesses of these things.” 

The Easter season is filled with stories of people who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. This makes sense; after all, Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection are the most incredible, compelling, and important part of our faith. The resurrection is why we are Christians instead of remaining Jews. 

Last week in the resurrection-witnessing lineup we heard about Thomas and his need for proof before believing that Jesus had come back from the dead. At the beginning of today’s passage, taken from a different Gospel account, we find the disciples talking over Jesus’ appearance to two men walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. In Luke’s Gospel, the women who come to anoint Jesus are the first witnesses of his resurrection, followed by the Emmaus duo and then Peter. To the rest of the disciples, it’s all hearsay; they haven’t experienced Jesus’ return for themselves, and so they don’t quite know what to believe. They are going over the details of the Emmaus story trying to process what it means when all of a sudden, Jesus appears among them. 

After all they have heard, it is still a shock to see Jesus again; the text says that they are “startled and terrified, and [think] that they [are] seeing a ghost” (v. 37). In Luke’s version, it is not just Thomas who expresses incredulity; most of them have a difficult time believing it’s the same Jesus they knew and loved and followed. Jesus assures them that he is real, proving it by letting them touch the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, and eating something to show that his digestive system is still intact. He is not a ghost, but a living, breathing human being. 

I find it interesting that the first meal Jesus has with the Emmaus travelers is the Eucharist, the bread and wine. But when Jesus is with his disciples, the first meal he shares with them is broiled fish, which hearkens back to when Jesus was first gathering his disciples and promising them that rather than fishermen they would be fishers of men. 

After the piece of broiled fish, Jesus opens up their minds to receive and understand Scripture. He doesn’t keep them out of the loop, but makes sure that they have the tools they need to build the movement that later will become the Church. After they are thus equipped, the disciples are sent out to broadcast the message of repentance and God’s forgiveness to all people, beginning with those in Jerusalem. 

My previous rector likes to tell the story of an experience with one particular group of eighth grade confirmands. They were gathered in the church around the altar while the rector explained to them about the Eucharist. The eighth graders were listening as best they could, when the rector asked them a question. “What is the most important piece of furniture in a church?” The kids just looked at him. He repeated the question, this time patting the altar, “What is the most important piece of furniture in a church?” Without hesitating, a boy answered, “the exit sign.” [facepalm] “The exit sign?” the rector asked, becoming quite irritated that the kid wasn’t taking the lesson seriously. “What do you mean, ‘the exit sign’?” The boy replied, “because after the service we exit and go out into the world to do God’s work.”  

When Jesus is resurrected, he spends some time opening up Scripture to his disciples, but that’s not where the story ends. The disciples don’t remain hidden in their houses; they follow Jesus’ command to go out into the world and spread the Good News. If we keep this story to ourselves, then what’s the point? 

We come here each week to learn about God’s saving work in Scripture. We come here each week to share in the sacred meal of Christ’s body and blood, food for the journey beyond these doors. We come here each week as a community to pray and worship together as the Body of Christ, but the service doesn’t end there. 

When you go out of these doors today, ask yourself what you are going to do. 

Jesus appears to the disciples
(image found here)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh

When I was in fourth grade, I had a best friend named Lindsay. Lindsay lived in the same neighborhood and was in my class at school. We played together. We helped each other with our homework. We even came up with a secret alphabet, which we used to write each other notes. Lindsay and I were inseparable. The next year a new girl moved into our neighborhood. She was cool and confident and we wanted to be her friend. She and Lindsay hit it off right away. The only problem was, the new girl didn’t like me. And as a result, Lindsay chose the new girl over me. I’d chalk it up to pre-adolescence, but the same thing happened to me after college. And as silly as this sounds, I still nurse these hurts to this day. Jesus talks a whole lot about forgiveness, but it’s especially difficult when you are betrayed by people close to you.

Few people in the history of Christianity are reviled more than Judas Iscariot. His name is basically a curse word, and it’s no wonder: he’s portrayed as a thief who stole from the disciples’ common purse, of which he was in charge. He protests exorbitant spending because he wants to keep the money for himself. And, when either greed or jealousy or frustration take over, he plots to hand over Jesus to the authorities in exchange for money. In some ways, even Satan seems less of a threat than Judas because at least we know up front that Satan is pure evil. It’s harder to swallow Judas’ betrayal because he is one of the 12, chosen as a disciple to proclaim the Good News. He preaches, teaches, heals, journeys, and eats with Jesus. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah. And still he betrays him. 

I must admit, as strange as it sounds, I have always had a soft spot for Judas. I want so badly to believe that there was some other motivation for his betrayal, some reason that the gospel writers were too biased to include in their accounts because of their anger with him. It’s not like the other disciples’ were super faithful, either: all of them deserted him in the garden when Jesus was arrested, and don’t forget Peter denied Jesus three times. Even so, Judas is not the most likable fellow, and his death (either by hanging himself or spontaneous disemboweling) seems to satisfy our need for justice, and perhaps also our propensity for schadenfreude.

There’s a particular midrash, or ancient Jewish biblical commentary, that explores what happens when the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea. They have witnessed the power of God in their escape from slavery in Egypt and miraculous parting of the waters. As the waters come back down and cover their Egyptian captors, the Israelites are so moved by joy and relief at their newfound freedom that they begin to sing and dance. In heaven, the angels wish to join in their celebration. God says, “My creations are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing?”

We like to paint Judas as this one-dimensional character, but in reality, he was a multifaceted human being. Maybe the reason why I feel so badly for Judas is because I see myself in him. I, like Judas, have betrayed Jesus, in thought, word, and deed. It follows, then, that, I, like Judas, deserve death. 

But the story doesn’t end there. Tomorrow begins the Tridduum, the 3 Holy Days where we commemorate Christ’s passion and his glorious resurrection. Even though we had erred and strayed from God like lost sheep, Jesus gave his life for us so that we could live. I believe that God’s love extended to Judas, too. Apparently, I’m not the only one; there are several stories and poems about what happened after Judas died. I’ll read you the shorter one called The Judas Tree by D. Ruth Etchells. 

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died,
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified.
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there,
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair.
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms.
"It was for this I came,” he said,
"And not to do you harm.
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept,
Though one betrayed and one denied,
Some fled and others slept.
In three days' time I must return
To make the others glad,
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had.
My tree will grow in place of yours;
Its roots lie here, as well.
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell.”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst,
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.

As we move deeper into Holy Week, I encourage you to reflect on God’s mercy and forgiveness, and the extraordinary lengths God goes to show love for all of God’s creations.

The icon of "The Betrayal of Judas" in Haas Hall at St. Thomas'