Monday, April 16, 2012

Leaping into the Everlasting Arms
Jn. 20:19-31[1]
I never cease to be amazed how people on the extreme opposite ends of just about anything look so much alike. They seem to be almost indistinguishable except for the fact that they take opposite viewpoints. In terms of faith, this applies as well to dogmatic Christians and convinced Atheists. They both operate from the same basic premise—without sufficient evidence, they will not believe. The only difference is that dogmatic Christians believe they have the evidence, and Atheists believe there is no evidence. You may be surprised to hear this, but I find it amazing the evidence some people think proves beyond doubt that their faith is true. Don’t get me wrong—I believe, and I do so joyfully. It’s the “proving beyond doubt” that I don’t get.
Some people point to supernatural, miraculous experiences as their evidence. And, in fact there are shrines all over the world that claim to house the evidence that proves faith beyond all doubt. Others point to a higher, infallible authority; sort of a “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” approach. For some this infallible authority some resides in a particular church. For others, infallible authority resides in the Bible as God’s word. But at the end of the day, in my opinion, all these efforts at establishing faith on the basis of some objective proof fail.[2] Faith isn’t something you can verify in a test tube, any more than love or hope or mercy or compassion.
As I said last week, embracing faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is challenging. It was challenging even for Jesus’ disciples, even for those who were closest to him! In our Gospel lesson for today, Thomas, one of Jesus’ hand-picked apostles, refused to believe without proof. No matter what the others told him, he simply would not believe. In fact, he refused to believe without the evidence. Unfortunately, this incident has earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” But Thomas was by no means a “doubter” in his relationship with Jesus. Quite the opposite was true—he was one of Jesus’ most diligent and devoted followers. When it became clear that Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem to die, it was Thomas who said to the others, “let us go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). So we shouldn’t assume that Thomas had a character flaw that prevented him from believing.
But that leaves me wondering even more why Thomas didn’t believe the unbelievably good news that the others were telling him? It’s hard to say. Perhaps the intensity of Thomas’ devotion to Jesus made the pain of his death particularly difficult to move past. Perhaps he had seen some of the others waffle in their faith, and wasn’t prepared to put his faith in their word alone. Maybe he was simply one of those people who look for evidence in order to confirm their faith. Whatever the reason for his refusal to believe, a week later, Jesus appeared to the apostles again. This time Thomas was there and Jesus invited him to prove for himself the good news of what the others had claimed to be true. He let Thomas see the very wounds that he still bore on his body. And in response, Thomas made one of the most exalted confessions of faith in this Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28).
But Jesus’ approach to faith was not one that endorsed seeing the evidence in order to prove it for oneself. In fact, he said “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed” (Jn. 20:29).[3] This is consistent with what we know of him elsewhere. The multitudes kept coming to him and asking him for some kind of miraculous sign in order that they might believe that he was who he claimed to be. But Jesus refused. I think he knew that faith that depends on some kind of proof or verification constantly has to be re-proven and re-verified. Those who look for evidence are always looking for evidence, and never really take the leap that faith entails.
In a very real sense, faith is a choice; a choice to look at reality from the point of view that God is making all things new rather than that death is the ultimate reality. [4] But that kind of choice isn’t something you can prove or verify. Faith is also a response; a response to our experience of something beyond us, something that perhaps even strains our ability to understand or even imagine.[5] Again, that’s not you can prove with objective evidence.
Whether we sense God’s presence in a special way or feel that Jesus is calling us by name, the experience that serves as the basis for our faith cannot be proven to anyone—not even to ourselves.[6] Making the choice of faith is not something you do once and then you’re done with it. Like any relationship, “the decision to trust … has to be made again and again.”[7] But I think that when we have these kind of experiences, we find ourselves entrusting our lives—again and again—to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We find ourselves leaping into the everlasting arms of God!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/15/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Søren Kierkegaard observes that in matters of faith, “for every proof there is some disproof.” See Charles E. Moore, ed., Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 256
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 226, where he points out that even those who had seen had to make the transition to believing without seeing.
[4] Cf. Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 209, where he defines faith as “committing ourselves to the continual possibility of goodness.” Cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 222: “the hope of resurrection is a hope against death.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 108-9, where he says that the gospel is something “so unheard of, so unexpected” that it can only appear to us as something “incomprehensible and meaningless,” as a “vast impossibility.”
[6] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2, where he says that faith a matter of “hoping like mad” in something. Cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 223: “As long as the facts that determine this world are the facts of violence and suffering, the world is not able to furnish proof of the resurrection of life and the annihilation of death.”
[7] Douglas John Hall, “Faith: Response in Relationship,” in The Living Pulpit 1 (April-June 1992):14-15.
Taking the Leap
Jn. 20:1-18[1]
In the season leading up to Easter, we usually talk about the various aspects of our faith as a way of re-examining our own lives. There is so much about our faith that is beautiful and comforting and reassuring. To know that the very light that surrounds us is a sign of God’s love constantly filling our lives with mercy and compassion and grace is something that gives us great joy. To believe that Jesus gave his life for us so that we can find new life is humbling and moving. To hold onto the hope that God is working to transform us all into people of compassion is encouraging in the midst of the struggle that life can be.
But when it comes to Easter, I think we run into a wall. Most people can accept that Jesus was born. And that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. But when it comes to Easter, it’s a different matter altogether. Even many who have identified themselves as Christians all their lives have a hard time really embracing faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That means Jesus was dead. He was really dead. He was so dead that he was buried. And somehow he was raised to life.
It’s one of those aspects of our faith that moves us beyond the normal realm of our experience. For most of us, we live our lives based on what we can see and touch. But when you believe that all you have to go on is what your eyes can see or what you can touch with your hands, you have not necessarily rejected faith; you’ve simply embraced a different kind of faith. It is a kind of faith that believes that our future rests entirely on what we can do for ourselves.
But the good news of Easter is that God does not operate within the limits of what we can see! Easter faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead points us in hope to the possibility that God really is working to make all things new. That sounds attractive, but it’s still not easy. As one of my favorite philosophers puts it, our faith moves us beyond the realm in which we can understand and manage things.[2] It moves us into “the sphere of the impossible,” where “only the great passions of faith and love and hope will see us through.”[3]
I think, in part, that means that it’s not enough just to “believe” our faith intellectually. Rather, the miracle of Easter calls us to trust God with all that we are, to entrust ourselves and our actual everyday lives completely to something we cannot see. For some of us that comes fairly naturally—like John the beloved disciple from our Gospel lesson for today. Scholars speculate about why he was so quick to believe.[4] It seems to me that he was one of those people who simply have a natural tendency toward faith.[5] I guess in some respects I’m like that. When I think about the great questions of faith, in the depth of my being, in that place where all pretense is stripped away, the hope and faith that there is a God who loves us all, who is working to restore and renew everything and everyone, simply rings true. From that perspective, everything makes sense; without it nothing makes sense.
For others, Easter faith not so automatic, like Mary. When she came face-to-face with the risen Christ, she thought she was talking to a gardener who may have removed Jesus’ body. It was only when Jesus broke through her sorrow and her suspicion by calling her name, “Mary,” that she recognized him.[6] For some of us, it takes an experience like that to break through the walls we put up to protect our hearts. And there are many who have had such experiences—in one way or another, at one time or another in their lives, we have felt that we experienced the presence of God in our lives in a unique and profound way.[7] I think many of us put our faith in Jesus because an experience like that puts us in touch with the love and the hope and the joy and the life that is at the heart of all things, and therefore calls forth the best within us.
But how do we encounter this presence of Christ? It’s one thing for Mary to meet Jesus in the garden. It’s another thing for you or me to encounter him now. I think there are many answers to this question. For me, I find myself experiencing God’s love calling me by name through the presence of Christ in the community of faith. I experience the presence of Christ through the love and support and affirmation I receive from other people who have experienced that life and that love and have come away from that experience transformed.
Faith enables us to move beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a different path, a whole new way of life that sees the possibility of new life in every death, sees the light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair. But it is not an easy path. At the end of the day, it takes something of a leap for all of us to really entrust our lives to the kind of hope that God awakened in the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning. When we take that leap of faith, it can be frightening, because we are taking a risk, and that makes us vulnerable. But that’s how we open ourselves to the new life God brings. The leap is frightening, but when we make that leap, we find ourselves moving from a life that we have to manage and control into the arms of the God who continually offers us grace and peace and mercy and love and life.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/8/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 9: he says that religion moves us “past the manageable prospects of the present, beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery, beyond the domain of sensible possibilities that we can get our hands on.”
[3] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 8; Cf. also Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 204; see further Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, 29-30.
[4] Cf. Raymond Brown, “The Resurrection in John 20: A Series of Diverse Reactions,” in Worship 64 no 3 (May 1990):194-98.
[5] Cf. Brendan Byrne, “The Faith of the Beloved Disciple and the Community in John 20,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23 (1985):86.
[6] Cf. Frank J. Matera, “John 20:1-18,” Interpretation 43 (Oct 1989):404. He says, “Resurrection faith is a gift. It occurs when God speaks to the hearts of believers, calling them by name.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 257, where he says that what we experience here and now of the new life points us both toward Jesus’ resurrection and to the completion of the work of “making all things new” that began on the first Easter.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Finding Life
Mark 15:16-32[1]
What would it take for you to be able to say that you’ve finally found what you’re looking for in life? It seems to me that we have all kinds of different answers to that question. For some, it’s achieving success—whatever that success looks like. For some, it’s about having wealth—whatever that looks like. For some, it’s finding the right person to make you happy in life. For some, it’s having a certain physical appearance that we think means we’re attractive. For some, it’s recognition. But when you look around you and notice how happy or unhappy we tend to be as a people, it would seem that all the things we spend our lives trying to obtain in order to make ourselves feel fulfilled in life aren’t really all that effective. In fact, they are not effective at all. The happiness they bring us lasts only a short time, at most. In many cases, what we strive so hard for doesn’t give us any happiness at all![2]
So what are we doing wrong? Why is it that we’re putting so much energy and effort into finding what we’re looking for in life and it seems that we’re only spinning our wheels? Jesus took a completely different approach to finding fulfillment in life. Instead of trying to get something, he taught that we should give ourselves away. Instead of trying to hold onto all the things we cling to so desperately in order to feel happy with life, he taught us to let it all go. He said it this way: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). If you want to know what that means in practice, we can look at the way Jesus lived his life. He didn’t seek fame, or power, or recognition. Rather he sought out the wayward, the rejected, and the lost in order to help them find their way home to God. He didn’t seek his own “happiness” in life. Rather, he served those around him with compassion. And ultimately, his idea of saving the world meant that he gave up his life by dying on the cross.
In our gospel lesson for today, we find a particularly distasteful episode where those who were present at his death were ridiculing him for that choice. The soldiers mocked him by dressing him up like a king. The crowd made fun of him for claiming to be able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. And the religious leaders scoffed at the idea that he could save anyone—hanging on that cross, in their minds he couldn’t even save himself! Even the bandits who were crucified with him taunted him.
And yet, it was the very act that they scorned that was in fact the deed that saved them all—and saved us all as well. It would seem that Jesus’ view of salvation was quite different from theirs. They believed that a “savior” would come as a military hero, leading them to throw off the yoke of their Roman oppressors. They believed that a “savior” would give them back the independence and freedom that they thought they deserved. They were looking for power and freedom to give them the life they wanted. And there Jesus was, dying on a cross. If he couldn’t even save himself from the Romans, how were they going to believe that he could save them?[3] In fact, it seems that the people of his day operated with many of the same mistaken notions about what it means to find fulfillment in life that we have.
But their notions of salvation had it all wrong. Jesus didn’t come to conquer nations, but to change hearts. Jesus didn’t come to set up the powerful, but to lift up the downtrodden with the mercy of God. He came to break the chains that keep us all locked up in the prisons of our own making.[4] And in order to do that, he gave up his life in the act of ultimate love. Jesus didn’t come to establish any religious or political order on earth. He came to make it clear to us that, despite all the religious condemnation that has been heaped on so many throughout the ages, God accepts us all.[5] And in order to do that, he gave his life in the act of ultimate compassion. Jesus didn’t come to give us confidence that we’re “going to heaven” when we die. He died and rose again to give us hope for living right here and right now. And in order to do that, he gave his life in the act of ultimate trust in God.[6]
We all run ourselves ragged trying to find the things that we think will give us the life that we’ve always wanted. Or we spend ourselves broke, or we work ourselves to death. But Jesus told us all those years ago that our efforts at “gaining” our lives are futile. The only way to find life is to give it away in love. And more than that, he not only told us, he showed us by giving his own life away for us all.[7] He obeyed the call to give his life for the sake of others, and in so doing, he made it possible for us to find life.[8] It is as we embrace his gift of love and trust that we find our own lives. It is as we follow his example and give ourselves away in love and compassion for others, trusting in God as he did, that we find life.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/1/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 53-54.
[3] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 505.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 277: “There is no loneliness and no rejection which [God] has not taken to himself and assumed in the cross of Jesus.”
[5] Cf. Moltmann, Crucified God, 242: “Because God ‘does not spare’ his Son, all the godless are spared. Though they are godless, they are not godforsaken, precisely because God has abandoned his own Son and has delivered him up for them.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 174-75: “Anyone who has once perceived God’s presence and love in the God-forsakenness of the crucified Brother, sees God everywhere and in everything.”
[6] H. W. Attridge & A. Y Collins, Mark, 750.
[7] Cf. Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus and the Ways of God,” Interpretation 52 (Jan 1998):32.
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:602, “Deliverance from death cannot be deliverance from before it but only deliverance from out of it.”