Seeing the Kingdom in John 3
A sermon preached in May 2018
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I say to you, ‘You all must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you all do not receive our testimony. If I have told you all about earthly things and you all do not believe, how can you all believe if I tell you all about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This is the Word of our Lord.
Can you recall a time when you caused a royal mess of things? Really botched things up? Maybe you didn’t intend for things to fall apart – a business deal that never came to be, maybe you hurt someone you loved and didn’t mean to, maybe it was something more complicated, where it was not your fault, per se, but you also knew you had a role to play in how things turned out . . . with maybe a troubled child or sibling, a broken relationship with a former lover, an ongoing strain with a coworker or neighbor.
Or, maybe you did mean to. Maybe you were angry, hurt, or selfish. Just wanted it to go your way. We’ve all had these moments. Times where – intentionally or not – harm or disarray got the better of us. Where we hurt ourselves, our neighbors, or people we love. It’s the kind of stuff that can keep any one of us up at night, looking and hoping for a way through. Preferably, not the slow, hard, confrontational way.
In trainings I lead, I sometimes ask, what keeps you up at night? What leads you to Jesus in the middle of the night? Hear are some of the answers I get back:
And Jesus, as usual, immediately goes to the personal heart of the matter. Nicodemus, you think you’re in the presence of God, and yet you don’t see the kingdom. [pause] You don’t see the kingdom. And the only way to see the kingdom is to become born again.
Nicodemus is confused, and misses the point. How can anyone become born again, he wonders aloud.
A counselor whom Erik and I greatly respect, once said, “There’s no such thing as confusion. Confusion is just a moment when you either don’t want to or aren’t ready to take in the information before you."
I’m confused, Nicodemus says and, as so many of us do when we’d really rather not face what’s at the heart of the problem, instead he stalls a little more. How could I possibly be born again at this age? Maybe he’s even confessing part of what he’s wrestling with – how maybe he’s not sure could actually help fix things after all.
Jesus takes another tact. Here, look at the effect of the kingdom. It’s like the wind. Though you can’t see it, you can see what it does all around you.
Still, Nicodemus struggles to bring it home.
So Jesus moves the conversation back towards the heart of whatever is keeping Nicodemus up in the night.
You are a teacher of the law of Israel, Nicodemus. You have studied these things extensively. Remember, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness – remember what you’ve studied – so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
Now, not everyone has studied the law – or the Old Testament – like Nicodemus. So you might not recall right off what Jesus referring to here. When did Moses lift up the serpent in the wilderness, you might be asking. Why did he do that?
Let’s go ahead and take a look at the passage Jesus is referring to – Numbers 21:4-9. At this point, the people of Israel have been brought out of slavery in Egypt and are making their way through the wilderness. Starting with verse 4, we read:
They set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient on the way. [In their impatience,] the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt [only] to die in the wilderness? There’s no food and no water, and we detest [the miserable food that is here.]” [In immediate response to this proclamation] the Lord sends poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
So, that’s the passage Jesus is referring to when he’s talking to Nicodemus. You may recall a couple months ago when this passage came up in the liturgical calendar and was preached here. That Sunday, your Christian Education Director used a staff that she had made to talk with the kids and help them envision the staff Moses created. She also talked about how there are times, like at recess, when you might bump into someone else and that person gets hurt. Sometimes, you bump into them on purpose. Maybe in your playing, you become frustrated and you mean to hurt them. Sometimes, you’re just racing and its accident. Either way, when you’ve hurt someone, she encouraged the kids, you apologize – whether you meant to do it or not.
The staff and the serpent – which you may also recall seeing in other settings as a sign of medicine and healing – reminds us that mending wounds is not just a physical activity, but a mental, emotional, and spiritual activity. In other words, we don’t just say we’re sorry only when we really intend to be mean or only when someone is physically hurt. We say sorry, or seek to restore a relationship, when someone may be hurt mentally, emotionally, or spiritually and we had some role in that. It’s one of those important lessons we learn in kindergarten that makes a difference our whole life long. Our relationships matter.
Now, we’re still not quite at the heart of what’s going on here with Nicodemus – and the word for us today. We’re almost there. See, there’s an important piece – it’s what links the Numbers, Isaiah, and John passages all together – something that can too easily be missed.
See, Moses doesn’t raise just any serpent. “Poisonous” really is not a helpful English interpretation of the Hebrew here. In fact, it’s really the wrong word. What’s happening with them in this passage has nothing to do with poison. Because the word in Hebrew here says these are seraphim serpents. The same seraphs that Isaiah says he saw in attendance to God, and that John speaks of in his book Revelation. The same seraphs that praise the Lord without ceasing, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.”
It’s seraphim serpents – the very attendants of God’s realm – that came in instant response to the Israelites’ careless, ruthless, thoughtless complaints. And it’s worth pausing and taking that in. The attendants of God’s realm burst onto the scene at a moment when the Israelites are willing to cast it all away without a second glance. In their grievance, they have clearly missed something key. What were they not seeing? What were they missing? Maybe, how fragile life is? How precious, how valuable? How it can be gone in an instant? Might they have been missing the respect and honor of their lives and their relationships with one another and with God? How they could have quality of life, a sense of well-being, even in the wilderness where they found themselves?
Renowned psychologist and survivor of the European Holocaust, Victor Frankl famously demonstrated in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, how some people can have a sense of personal well-being – a sense of the value of life and relationships – no matter the circumstances and even being in a concentration camp. In fact, his book was originally titled: Nevertheless Say Yes to Life.
At one point Frankl recalls an especially grueling time he had in the concentration camp, and he describes how:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment . . . In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation . . . achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory…”
(Man's Search for Meaning, Part One, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp", Viktor Frankl, Pocket Books, ISBN 978-0-671-02337-9 pp. 56–57)
It is this, this angel, this messenger lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory, it is that very being that reminds the Israelites they crossed a a critical line of value and honor – of themselves and their relationship with God in all circumstances. It is this being that is lifted up on the rod as a sign and symbol of healing and restoration. No matter what – never the less – you are called to say Yes to Love.
So, Jesus referencing these beings – the seraphim serpents on the rod – with Nicodemus begs the question . . . what’s keeping Nicodemus up at night? What’s keeping him from seeing the kingdom all around him and in him? What about seeing the kingdom will help him with what’s keeping him up at night? Has he, possibly, crossed a line in his heart or with his relationships or with God? Or, might he be standing at that delicate threshold? Are the seraphim right there, just beyond the veil, with bated breath, cheering him on, as they continue to proclaim holy, holy, holy? You can do it Nicodemus! You can move toward love and not away from it. You can do it, beloved siblings. Repent, and become born again, filled and renewed by the Spirit. Amen.
A sermon preached with a congregation that has experienced multiple disasters – both natural and human-caused – over several years.
Lamentations 3:22-33 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
(there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
and be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.
Mark 5:21-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Good morning! What a blessing to be with you. Thanks very much for having me.
I remember once, after a rash of troubling headlines when I was a teenager, admitting to my dad that I didn’t think I would have kids. I say this as we celebrate my son's fifteenth birthday today. At the time, the world seemed too dangerous to bring kids into it. My dad's response? Well, if all you do is look at the destruction, then there’s never been a good time to bring kids into the world. That was just one of countless ways my parents strived to teach my siblings and I the importance of adding good back into a troubled world. And gracious! Is the world ever troubled today. It can be quite a challenge to figure out how best to add good back in. In today’s passages, we are given three examples of people in heartbreaking circumstances – a city in ruin, a woman experiencing untreatable hemorrhaging, and a man fearing for his daughter’s life – where each person, in his or her own way, seeks to acknowledge the pain they are experiencing and recognizing Good at work in the midst of it. Let’s consider these examples some more together.
I wonder, have you ever pleaded with the Lord? Begged God repeatedly, like the little girl’s father does with Jesus? Or, maybe pleaded with God quietly in your heart, as we may presume the woman who suffered from years hemorrhaging may have been doing following treatment after treatment after treatment that did not heal her. How did she keep hope alive through all that suffering? Or, perhaps have you lamented to God, as the author Lamentations does in the first two and a half chapters of the book, sighing great heavy sighs for a community facing devastation? In your own pleading, or searching, do you experience glimmers of hope? Do you experience a sense of trust that, even as great tragedy has occurred, in some way things are going to work out? That tragedy, trauma, devastation are not the end of the story?
As I have prepared to be with you this morning, and spent time with these passages, in each of the three accounts we’ve heard today, I was impressed with what seems like a common element – even amid such very different circumstances – of each person moving toward hopefulness from places of great discouragement and overwhelm. In each case, with the author of Lamentations, the hemorrhaging woman, and the little girl’s father, I note how all of them seem to move toward holding two truths at the same time – the truth of what’s happened and the truth that Good is still at work in the world. This practice seems to be important for not getting lost in despair and being able to move toward new life after tragedy. And it’s important for us to remember, there’s no versions of good, there’s only good. And God alone is purely good. So, when we see and participate in goodness in the world, we are connected with the Holy Spirit.
For example, in the case of the author of Lamentations, the author’s city has fallen into ruin. It’s a shell of it’s former self, with people dying and suffering all around. For the first two and a half chapters of the book, the author names the suffering, names what has been lost, through rich poetic arcs. I encourage you to read those passages, if you have not done so recently. Briefly, though, hear the author of Lamentations as the author writes just before our passage for today: “I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long. God has filled me with bitterness, and has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’ The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.”
These days, we do not often practice this kind of lamenting. At least, not publicly. It’s hard to be that bold, that direct, that poetic about what you’re feeling. So often, especially in times of overwhelming devastation, it’s immensely difficult to name not only what has happened but to give language to what reactions feel like in the body. How it feels like teeth grinding on gravel. Arrrgh! Or how devastation can make us even forget what it ever felt like to be happy. In fact, that’s a common experience after trauma – losing the ability to feel joy. Feeling embittered toward everyone around you. Being able to acknowledge not only what happened – a traumatic event that has occurred – but to acknowledge how you reacted and to incorporate that into a regular rhythm of life takes time and nurture.
In trainings I lead, I often encourage people to practice finding words for lament, as this author has done. To try writing about grief, and naming what has been lost – even just to yourself and before God. Sometimes, for example, the pain someone might feel after losing their home, for example, might not be the only aspect of traumatic loss they feel. They may also, for instance, mourn the loss of how meaningful the neighborhood had been, or the loss of feeling safe. It’s these less tangible losses that can sometimes be the hardest to process, and can fester within us for years, partly because they take so much more effort and intention to identify. It takes getting quiet, and asking yourself about what’s been lost, and listening carefully to how your body reacts and what thoughts come to mind. Sometimes, journaling can help. Sometimes, talking with a therapist or a good friend can help. Creating art can help. Sometimes we find we are able to identify what’s missing, what needs to be lamented, when we’re fellowshipping with loved ones. Whatever method is most effective for you, it’s good to practice lamenting what’s been lost – especially when it’s complex and multi-layered.
Unfortunately, sometimes, as Christians, we would rather just jump to Resurrection. We would much rather declare everything will be ok, without doing the work of earning that confidence. Rather than acknowledging what’s happened or how we’ve reacted, we dismiss those feelings in favor of only thinking positively and not dwelling on anything negative. The problem with that practice, sometimes, can be that it actually makes us stuff down a feeling of loss, and, unfortunately, forces it to linger within us rather than get metabolized. Trying to jump straight to health – to will ourselves to resiliency, as if a shortcut might be possible – skips over an important stage that occurs in between loss and health, a stage of uncertainty when we don’t know precisely how things are going to turn out. When all we feel is lost and forsaken. We miss the importance of marking that experience of bewilderment – a stage where, ideally, we recognize God abiding with us even in the midst of our sense of great loss.
We get a glimpse of this step in another passage of the Bible, when Mary Magdalene goes to the Garden after Jesus has died. In John 20, she goes to the tomb and finds two angels there and Jesus is missing. She begins to cry, wondering if his body has been stolen or moved somewhere. The angels ask her why she is crying and she says, They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him. She acknowledges her pain and her sense of bewilderment. She knows what she’s lost. As more and more scholars have studied trauma and healing, their studies show how acknowledging or expressing what’s happened – whether by words or by nonverbal action – is an important step in generating healing.
Sometimes, though, pain is much too hard, complex, or uncomfortable to name. Sometimes there are no words to truly describe what’s happened. Like it may have been for the woman who was hemorrhaging. After years of suffering, of seeking treatment after treatment to no avail, we find her experiencing her pain mostly by herself and not by speaking with others. She does not appear to have any friends or family in the crowd. She does not speak to the disciples or try to get Jesus’ attention. In fact, she’d prefer not to be noticed at all. She’s just going to touch Jesus’ robe, get her healing, and be on her way. After all, according to the Hebrew laws of her time, she should not be interacting so publicly at all, especially while she is bleeding which would have made her unclean. Imagine how isolated she would have been for twelve years. Never allowed to participate in celebrations or go to the Temple. But her she is, risking further ostracizing and punishment, for the possibility of being healed.
This same story appears also in the book of Luke chapter 8. There, when the woman touches his robe, Jesus says he immediately felt power go from him. He asks the disciples who has touched him and looks all around the crowd for the person who stole some healing.
No one knows, except for her. She knows she was instantly healed. Trembling with fear – she’s about to approach a Rabbi and his students within a crowd, knowing she also has not ritually cleansed herself. Still, she cannot help but tell the truth. She speaks both of what she has lost and of what she has gained. And he says, it is her trust in him and in his power that has healed her.
In the third account, a father is desperate to heal his dying daughter. When news comes that his daughter has died, Jesus’ first words are Do not be afraid, just believe. Sometimes, there are no words for what’s happened and no words come. There’s only the experience and going through the motions. In these cases, we acknowledge what’s happened through action, like giving the little girl something to eat . . . which would have been very different from every other time they had ever given her something to eat.
So there is the one truth – what’s happened. What’s been lost? And acknowledging what’s happened – what we’ve lost or suffered – as a part of the steps toward healing and health.
Then, there is the other truth, what’s to be gained. What goodness is at work in the midst of tragedy? The author of Lamentations speaks well to this in chapter 3. How, even amid an entire city in ruin, amid vast collective trauma, Goodness is still at work in the world. The author exclaims: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Trauma and loss are not the end of the story.
But so often, we miss the goodness. We miss those precious breaths of fresh air, fleeting moments of relief amid struggle. When we’re asked what’s happened, after trauma, we often will tell stories that only speak to the negative. Our emotions often blind us to the good. They get in the way of our faith, especially when we hang on to the feelings of pain and heartache. When we let them become, for example, a grudge we hold against God, or the world, or our loved ones. When they keep us from feeling like we can do good things – like when I thought I would never have kids in a world like this. We can become flooded with feelings of irritability, anger, frustration, sorrow, deep sadness, or great fear and anxiety. We stop being able to see Goodness at work. We stop feeling hopeful.
In trainings I lead, after I ask what’s happened, and I usually hear about all the bad. I ask, and when did you feel a moment of relief? And people pause, and remember, oh, yeah, these amazing people came to help, or my sister called right when I needed her to, or a stranger reached out a helping hand, or volunteers brought food and blankets, or in the midst of it all, I looked up and saw the clouds parting and I felt just a bit of peace. It’s important to remind ourselves, remind one another, we Christians are not meant to grieve like those who have no hope. We are not meant to go through sorrow only seeing the sorrow or only seeing Good and positivity. We are called to hold the two truths – of what has actually happened and how that devastation cannot overcome true Goodness.
Sometimes, we get to do that very publicly, like the woman who was healed. Sometimes, we do it privately, like the little girl and her father and their family. I’ve sometimes wondered what it would have been like to follow Jesus’ instruction and to not tell anyone what had happened, but to just know it for themselves. How does having witnessed such robust Goodness at work in the world, and not being able to talk about it, impact how you interact with the world? Do you become people who instead show what you know, without words? It’s something for us to ponder, as people who are called to be God’s witnesses in the world. What might it mean to be God’s witnesses without words? How do we show what we know and believe, or live what we know and believe, without telling people about it? While we are not instructed not tell anyone about God’s activity in ourselves, it can be helpful to think about what it might mean to live that way. It’s something to consider. How might you be if a miracle occurred in your home, and Jesus told you not to tell anyone about it? What would it mean to live more by action than by words? For example, might it mean living with less fearfulness? With less anxiety? With being more kind, more generous, more expressive . . . in other words, with more of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit? With our family, with our friends, with our neighbors, with strangers?
In days with headlines constantly telling us about the pain and suffering in the world right now, it can be easy to forget that people have experienced great forms of suffering for millenia. We met some people today who experienced great pain in their lives. And we have seen how holding two truths was a part of their movements toward healing – the truths of being honest about what’s happened or what’s been lost, and of recognizing how Good is still at work in the world even, and especially, amid great sorrow. And how we can participate in that Goodness. Indeed, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We do have hope. We know crises, and trauma, and disaster are not the end of the story. We are invited to claim, as the author of Lamentations does, that new mercies come every morning, even after disasters. We are invited to recognize, as the woman who was hemorrhaging does, that God calls us into greater relationship with God and with one another, even, and perhaps especially if all we want to do is get a little healing and move on. And, again and again, throughout the Bible, we are invited, like the little girl’s father, to not be afraid, but instead to believe. To believe that trauma and suffering are not the end. And that the Author of Goodness is at work in the world bringing about a new covenant of love each and every day. We are a part of that good work. Amen.
Witnesses in Luke 24
This sermon was preached in April 2018, four months after a church had experienced a devastating natural disaster.
Please join me in our First Testament reading, Psalm 4
Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
When you are disturbed,[a] do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
This is the Word of our Lord.
Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here, and I am always grateful for any opportunity I have to share my passion for healing and health. I was graciously invited me to preach this morning, and I find it a great pleasure to dive in with you into one of the more peculiar passages in Scripture today.
This morning we find ourselves actually still on the first day of the resurrection. And what a weekend and a day it has been! Obviously, a tremendous amount has happened. And these passages related to the first hours and days after Jesus rose from the tomb give us a lot of insight into what it’s like to be ping-ponged between overwhelming events in which worst fears and greatest hopes become reality. Some find these passages haunting, others exhilarating and motivational. Some stake the core of their faith on these passages, while others can’t make heads or tails of them and it’s all they can do to hang on to their little mustard-seed size hope that there might be even a sliver of a chance they are real. Still others find they are just too far from the kind of life they’ve experienced – surely they must be myth or symbolic literature. Indeed, these passages take us right to the heart, right to the feet of God, where we can only go alone. They bring us right to the very essence of faith, and ask what do you believe? What will you bear witness to? Will you follow Jesus’ call to bear witness to these events?
This work is not for the faint of heart, and we do well to enter in with some fear and trepidation. As we look to our New Testament passage for today, on this particular day in Scripture, let’s set some context. A couple of disciples have just walked with Jesus along the Emmaus Road. At first, consumed and in the tunnel vision of their grief, they do not recognize him at all. Later, as they eat together, they suddenly realize who he is and, at that moment, he vanishes. They jump up and immediately return to Jerusalem. They gather other disciples, who also have wild stories to tell about sightings of Jesus. And this is the moment where we find them. Let’s listen in . . .
Luke 24: 36-43, 46-50
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them, saying, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Even in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering. So he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending you what my Father has promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
This is the Word of our Lord.
It’s fairly safe to say the disciples are traumatized. We’ll unpack this a little more in a minute, but for now, it’s important to point out that a significant sign of trauma – or, the experiences we have immediately following severe loss – is not trusting or accepting what we sense in front of us. What we see, what we hear, what we feel. Just like what’s happening for the disciples here. And it’s one of the greatest challenges of being a witness. Unless you practice presence, any one of our body’s first responses to adversity is in some way to not take it in. To not believe what we see, to not fully hear the information, to not process the information accurately.
Think of significant stories in your own life – or, times you risked the possibility of loss. A close call. Think back on how the information came and went.
I’ll share one example of my own. Years ago, on my daughter’s birthday and when my son was about to turn three, just as we were finishing up dessert, Kaden was in the living room getting off a couch. He mis-stepped and came crashing down, full weight – and he was a little tank of a guy – slammed his forehead on the edge of the oak coffee table. I was by his side in what felt like a millisecond – like I just flew across the room. Instinctively, he had covered his forehead with his little pudgy hand. As I gently lifted his hand away, I was staring straight at that amazing, undeniable color of skull. A flurry of activity commenced, which resulted in a few of us heading to Urgent Care.
I remember walking up to the front desk, and the woman there welcoming me politely and asking me a few initial questions and then for my insurance card. I handed it over. At that was at that moment that I fully saw my arm for the first time, which was covered in blood. I burst into tears.
“It’s ok,” the woman at the desk assured me before I could barely get out, “I . . . I . . . didn’t have a chance to clean up.” “It’s ok,” she said again and took my card.
A lot has been said about Mary Magdalene in the Garden outside the tomb, or the disciples on Emmaus road, or Peter and disciples fishing on the shore, and none of them recognizing Jesus when he appeared to them. People wonder how they ever could have missed something so amazing and so obvious as their beloved Rabbi appearing before them. But it happens all the time, especially after trauma. Our bodies pace our processing, and help us focus in on what is most critical for us. You probably have your own stories of times you could not take it all in, or can’t remember quite how you got from here to there in the midst of it all.
So, here we are, with the disciples in a similar position, unable to take it all in at once. And for good reason. They’ve just been through one of the most tumultuous weekends of their lives. To start, their worst fears happened. The man they believed was going to save them, died. Dead. And they lived with that reality for at least 48 long hours.
Over the centuries, we Christians have conveniently removed ourselves from that part of the story. We often quickly jump from Good Friday to Easter, without a thought given to Friday evening or Holy Saturday. Without any sense of appreciation of what it would have been like for the disciples to really feel utterly forsaken, to really feel like the Messiah was gone and not knowing what comes next.
There’s a remarkable painting that can help Christians today consider what it might have been like for the disciples – another art form that brings viewers right to the feet of God and invites you to come to terms with what you really believe – Holbien’s Dead Christ paining. Personally, I think it’s a painting all Christians should see at some point in their spiritual journey. You can easily google it. Apparently, it haunted Dostoevsky. He’d spend hours staring at it. I don’t mean to be overly morbid. I just hope for you to have a sense of the fact that that’s where the disciples are when we meet them in our Scripture today. They had been facing the dead Christ for the last two days. We do well to try, even a bit, to put ourselves in their shoes.
Then, as this day unfolded for them, crazy rumors began to fly. People are reporting that the body is gone, the tomb is empty. People are wondering whether soldiers have stolen the body, whether zealots of any form have stolen the body, and what to do with the fact that a few trusted people seem to have possibly really gone crazy and are saying they’ve actually seen him and talked to him.
It’s not all processing. Wait, say it again. You’re sure?? They keep talking it through together, trying to make sense of what they are experiencing.
And we know what that’s like. We all have our own stories . . . of births, of deaths, of emergency room visits, of close calls, of heartbreaking loss . . . Wait, what? No. I don’t understand. I’m confused. How is that possible? It doesn’t make any sense. What? I woke up, and for a split second, I forgot it had happened, and then it all came rushing back again. We know these stories. We’ve lived them.
Like us after thoroughly life changing events, the disciples are radically disoriented when we meet them today. And, it’s understandable, that in the midst of this incredible disorientation, Jesus suddenly appears, and they are terrified and believing they are seeing a ghost.
So, what do you do in that moment? Can you help yourself, or help others, come back to your / our senses. To come back online, so to speak, when you feel like you’re going crazy and can’t trust your own sense of things.
Years ago, flight tower attendants received a terrifying message from a packed commercial airplane that had not finished taking off yet. It was mid-take off in New York City, not even a full minute off the ground yet, and the pilot is radioing in to say both engines are down because of a flock of geese and they are needing to land immediately. The attendants struggle to register the information. Wait, what? You can actually hear the exchange online. As I have listened to it, I have wondered whether, at a very guttural level, they did not want to believe a packed commercial airplane might suddenly fall out of the sky in the next moment. Say it again, they tell the pilot. The pilot repeats. Later, the pilot said, he turned to his co-pilot, and he asked, “My plane?” The co-pilot affirmed, “Your plane.” Then the pilot said, he forced calm on the situation. In other words, he forced himself to become immediately present. Within just three minutes, take off to landing, the pilot guided the engineless plane into the Hudson River. Lots has been made of this story, a book, a movie, and extensive investigation and study into exactly what the pilot did and the training that helped him to accomplish this tremendous feat.
Becoming present in an overwhelming situation makes a world of difference, and it’s one of the critical ways we take on the responsibility and calling to be witnesses and agents of healing in this life.
Thankfully, we also do not have to do it all on our own. In this passage, we see Jesus model how to help people who are overwhelmed come to their senses and become present. Being a caring person who helps others become present provides a tremendous gift of healing, and helps people become trustworthy witnesses. Let’s look at what he did.
“Peace be with you,” he starts off. Be calm, take a beat, be content in all circumstances. Peace be with you.
Then, he begins to draw their attention to their senses. Recall the five senses – touch, sound, smell, taste, and sight. He invites them to pay attention to how they feel inside – why are you troubled and have doubts? Trust your senses. What do you see? My hands, my feet. My bones and flesh. You hear my voice. You can even touch me, and know it is me. Then, as he’s commanded their attention in the most relational of ways, he brings his point home. He asks them if they have anything to eat. Over the years, nourishment is one of the most helpful ways I have found to bring someone back to their senses – to bring me back to my senses and sustain me in the work of care. A cool glass of water, a bit of healthy food.
The disciples bring him some broiled fish, hand it to him, and he eats it in their presence.
Now, think about what this last moment would have been like for them. Sure they saw him, they heard him, they touched him. But think about the amount of dreams you’ve had and how very real they have felt. But this, the fish, changed things. There’s no way that can be a dream.
It’s a moment that often reminds me of the scene in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, when Mr. Banks is interviewing Mary for the position of nanny. Mary brings out a single sheet of paper to read the advertised Qualifications for the position. Item 1, a cheery disposition. “I am never cross,” she assures a suddenly very bewildered Mr. Banks. Item 2, rosy cheeks. “Obviously,” she retorts. And now, Mr. Banks has risen to his feet, crossed the room, and is trying to make sense of what feels utterly impossible. This is not the advertisement he had posted. No, this is literally the advertisement his children had created, and he is quite sure he had ripped it up and thrown it in the fireplace. “Where did you get that paper?” He insists, even as he stops listening to her and goes over to the fireplace where he recalls his actions the night before. He sees how none of the pieces are there any more. He continues to completely ignore Mary, and instead continues in his revelry, even going through the motions of the previous evening, reminding himself how he physically tore the paper and threw it away. “I beg your pardon, are you ill?” Mary inquires with concern. “I hope not,” he says, disconcertedly.
I like to imagine the disciples also were hoping they were not ill. Imagine them watching Jesus eat the fish. Imagine the one or two of them who had held it in their hands and handed it to him, or watched this being done, and it disappearing. Right before their eyes. The very substance they knew for sure was real, was now gone, inside him. I like to imagine his smile growing wider and wider, as their eyes bulged.
Fish play a prominent role in the resurrection passages. For example, Jesus famously makes a breakfast of grilled fish on the beach for the disciples and invites them to share what they have to offer. Despite having read and thought about these passages many times, I admit, I’m a little embarrassed to say how long it took me to connect these passages with the Christian Fish symbol.
I had grown up hearing about the Christian Fish in much more analytic and scholarly terms. Even as a middle school or high schooler in Sunday school and youth group, I was taught about the greek word ichthus for fish, and how it was an acronym to help early Christians remind themselves of who Christ was and to teach others. How they would draw it as a form of greeting, a way to identify one another in a highly intense and harsh political climate, and how they used it to spread the Gospel message. That may be. But I wonder if it’s even more than an acronym, if it is at all. See, in my work with survivors and study of trauma treatment, I find most survivors – myself included – aren’t very pithy or scholarly after trauma. In fact, more often than not, it just seems like there’s no words that really do justice for what I just witnessed or lived through. No words could fully encapsulate those real experiences of terror or the fullness of unimaginable joy.
I find the Passion weekend and the days of Christ walking among the disciples after resurrection to be some of those kinds of experiences.
Right there, in the midst of all this bewilderment, disorientation, and jubilation, Jesus says, you will be my witnesses to these things – how does one even begin to describe what’s just happened? They can barely talk about it among themselves and make sense, let alone tell other people. To which Jesus says, you will not do it alone. You will have the power of the fruit of the Holy Spirit with you as you go.
And that’s wonderful to think about. Being filled with the Holy Spirit. Still, it’s hard to know, what do you do next? What’s the actual next step of bearing witness to all these things? How do you really begin to speak of such immense things like repentance – doing a 180, and going in a completely different direction from anything that in the past has broken your relationships or destroyed your health or the health of your loved ones or neighbors – and in stead, to be For. Giving? To take a stand for giving instead of holding grudges and being vindictive? How do you do this when you yourself are still just barely coming to your senses, just barely becoming present to what all that this means? How do you find your steps forward when the real mess of life is still out there, even after the Resurrection? And that’s the radical counter-cultural part, right? That Jesus did not come and lead a revolutionary army, or a governmental coup. He did not come a Western Hero, all herculean. He came as a baby, and he grew to be a man who loved and never exploited any one. He never used his power to manipulate, to finesse, to make things happen and make people do what he wanted. Instead, he always invited, enabled, empowered, and hosted opportunities for the people he was with to rise, as whole people – mind, body, spirit.
How do we witness to that? How do you witness, in yourself? In your home? In your neighborhood?
Maybe, maybe, for the earliest disciples, it started with one first question and one drawing: Do you believe he ate the fish?
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.