February 12, 2017 | Song of Faith | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
It’s been my experience over the years that when it comes to Jesus, most people are pretty comfortable with Jesus the Rabbi, the healer, the prophet, the Jesus our Song of Faith refers to as a Jew, born to a woman in poverty in a time of social upheaval and political oppression. People seem to like this Jesus because for the most part he is someone we can relate to. We are far less comfortable with the Jesus who died on a cross, was buried in a grave and after three days rose again and is said to be still alive today. We’re not always so sure about what to do with him.
Sometimes we refer to the first Jesus as the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man who is said to have lived in the first century in the area now known as Israel and Palestine. Marcus Borg referred to this Jesus the corpuscular, protoplasmic Jesus. We know him through the stories that are told about him in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and to a lesser extent through the letters of the apostle Paul.
But what’s interesting is that when it comes to the stories of Jesus, including the story of his birth and the way he called his disciples, the accounts about the miracles he performed and the people he encountered, the gospel writers don’t agree on which stories about him are important enough to be told.
The writers of Matthew and Luke’s gospels think it’s important for us to know about Jesus birth, but Mark and John hardly say anything about how or where he was born. John says something vague about how he was in the world from the very beginning of time and Mark doesn’t even start his story until Jesus is an adult. Only John tells us the story of the woman at the well and Nicodemus who comes in the night to ask Jesus how and grown up can be born again. Only Luke thinks we need to know the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector who climbed up in the sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus passing by and only Mark mentions the blind man Bartimaeus.
But there is one part of the Jesus story each of the four gospel writers make a point of including, the story of his death and resurrection. Even though they each tell a different version of that story, they all include a cross and an empty tomb. There is something about death and resurrection, that for the writers of the gospels is central to the Christian faith. For the gospel writers, being a follower of Jesus is about more than being a good person, it’s also about embracing and living what we call the central mystery or the matrix of the faith, the matrix that includes incarnation, sacrificial living, death and resurrection. This is the part of the Song of Faith I want to address this morning:
By becoming flesh in Jesus, God makes all things new. In Jesus’ life, teaching and self-offering, God empowers us to live in love. In Jesus’ crucifixion, God bears the sin, grief and suffering of the world. In Jesus’ resurrection, God overcomes death. Nothing separates us from the love of God.
Earlier this week, when I started thinking about how I was going to talk about these concepts I wondered how I could present them in a way that would connect with our own lives and not put everyone to sleep or leave us scratching our heads. I found myself wondering how it is that God in Jesus makes all things new and empowers us to live in love. How is it that in Jesus crucifixion God bears the sin, grief and suffering of the world? How are these things more than doctrinal statements? What do they look like in our flesh and blood?
The only way I could come up with to answer those questions was to look for real life examples of them. So I have come up with some illustrations for these statements that I want to share with you and my hope in engaging this exercise is that you might find yourselves thinking about other illustrations or perhaps other ways that these statements are true for you.
Let’s begin with the statement “By becoming flesh in Jesus, God makes all things new.” This is a statement about incarnation, the way that God is with us in Jesus. The biblical stories that speak about incarnation are the stories of Jesus birth. But how do those stories point to the way God makes all things new in Jesus birth. How is that actually true for us in our lives? One way to look at that would be to say that God makes all things new in every birth. Let me give you an example.
January 20th was not a very happy day for me. You will remember it was inauguration day in the US and I have made no secret about how I feel about the new administration. About 10 o’clock in the morning I sent off an email to my niece and her husband who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their first child that week. The subject line of the email read: in need of some good news. The body of the message said: Was just thinking that a baby would lift our spirits on a day like today. I pressed send and went about my day sinking further and further into despair as the day went on until about 5 o clock when I got a text message from my brother to tell me my great nephew Finn had just been born. In an instant the world seemed suddenly not quite so dismal. It felt like now that Finn is here anything is possible. The old has passed away, all has been made new.
It’s been said that one of the most scandalous aspects of the Christian faith is that we have the audacity to claim a God that has becomes human. For me the utter brilliance of that claim is the way it implies that every time a human comes into being, we catch a glimpse of what it means for the sacred to come to life, for everything to be made new. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every time anything in the created order comes into being, we see a glimpse of the face of God and God’s renewing power. “By becoming flesh in Jesus, God makes all things new.”
Second story: “In Jesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering, God empower us to live in love,”
The easiest way for me to speak about this is again, to land it in my own life. My understanding of Jesus self-offering is that it’s about what we call kenosis or self-emptying, giving up one’s own will and becoming receptive to divine will. In my own life, that moment came when I realized although my will was to have a high paying job with no evening meetings and weekends off, a husband, a house, 2 kids, 2 cars and 2 west highland terriers; God’s will was for me to work weekends as a minister, being paid adequately for my work, with a wife, a townhouse, 2 busy boys, 2 cars and 2 guinea pigs.
Although it’s easy for me to make light of that, there are still times when I really wrestle with my attachments to the way society tells me my life should be as opposed the way my life of faith shows me that in fact, giving myself over to God’s way, the way of less for the sake of more, the way of sacrifice for the sake of serving others, the way being different for the sake of being honest, the way of being speaking out for those who are silenced, is all about being empowered to live in love.
I wonder how those same truths show up for you in your life, how it is that when you give yourself over to God’s way, you are more able to be loving and part of love’s way.
Next story: “In Jesus crucifixion, God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.” One of the most powerful images connected to the crucifixion I have seen is Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta found in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In it we see a grieving Mary with the lifeless body of her son Jesus hanging in her arms. Last fall, the world was brought to attention by a similar image of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi hanging in the arms of a volunteer who had plucked the three year old from the waters of the Mediterranean sea after the boat in which he and his family were fleeing Syria capsized. In that lifeless body we saw the sin of a country torn apart by a violent political regime and the sin of a world too often indifferent to the needs of others; we saw the suffering of a particular family and the suffering of refugees in general and we both saw and experienced grief.
The story of the crucifixion is a story about the sin of political violence, abandonment and betrayal, the death of a man who stood on behalf of the world’s suffering and a non-violent path to peace and paid the price for doing it. It’s a story of grief over lives lost and hopes dashed. Every time we bear the effects of corporate and personal sin and are complicit with it, every time we experience suffering that is the result of our brokenness, every time we grieve over lives lost and hopes destroyed, God who is incarnate in and with us, bears the same sin, grief and suffering right along with us.
In Jesus crucifixion, and in all places where love is crucified, God bears the sin, grief and suffering of the world.
Finally, in Jesus’ resurrection, God overcomes death. How is it that we overcome death? One of the most powerful witnesses to the way we can overcome death that I have seen is through a young woman name Heather. Heather was a 25 year old highschool music teacher who was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. After going into remission following a bone marrow transplant she awoke one day with a persistent pain in her back. She went to see her oncologist who confirmed her worse fears which was that the cancer had returned. She had a tumour in her back. When she asked him if this is the one that would kill her, she already knew the answer. Many people in Heather’s situation would have chosen to fight the cancer again, to ask for whatever treatment was available to keep her alive. Instead, Heather decided she didn’t want any further treatment. She and her husband took a trip to Italy, she spent time with her family and within five years of her original diagnosis and three months of her last diagnosis, Heather died.
When it came time to plan her memorial service, her husband Ashley requested that the highschool orchestra Heather had taught be allowed to play a song they had been learning: the theme to the Muppet show. Her minister was horrified and thought this would turn Heather’s memorial service into a gong show for all the people who were so deeply saddened by her death but because her husband was insistent, the orchestra was brought in to play.
I was at the memorial service that day and I have never been at another one like it. The whole time the highschool students played a lively version of the theme from the Muppet show, photographs of Heather cycled on the screen. There were pictures of Heather eating mountains of gelato in Italy and pictures of her making funny faces at the camera, pictures of her laughing and goofing around and living her life, just like every other young woman her age. For the first time, I saw what victory over the grave really looks like. Resurrection is not just something that happens after we die, it is how we, like Heather, can look death in the face on this side of the grave and choose life in spite of it.
In Jesus resurrection, God overcomes death, and so can we. Nothing separates us from the love of God.
The words of our Song of Faith, whether they are words about God, or about Jesus or what it means to be the church, mean nothing if we can’t find the ways those words come alive in our own lives, how they instruct our living in a way that both comforts and challenges us, most importantly in a way that gives meaning to our lives and brings hope to our world.
For us in the church, we are invited to find meaning, not just in the story of the human Jesus, but in the way the presence we call the Christ, continues to enliven, inspire and inform our living for today.