Asbury First United
Our celebration at Easter arises out of the unlikely womb of betrayal. Rightly heard, the voices of Holy Week lament betrayal at every turn. Listen again to the words spoken since last Sunday.
The ancient community expected a warrior victor Messiah, a liberator, a King, someone to rid them of the Romans. Theirs is a voice of disappointment before betrayal: if he is the Son of God, let him save himself. Somehow, their experience has not matched their expectation. They feel betrayed. We assert that they were not betrayed, but blessed, and saved. But they feel betrayed. Providence has let them down.
Listen, as well, to Judas. We think of him as the quintessential villain, the one who betrayed Jesus. And that he did. True to life, though, the Scripture recognizes that those who betray often feel they have already been betrayed themselves. Judas acts on his disappointment. He has seen his people betrayed by the Romans and by their own leaders. One of the zealots of his time, he determines to fight, to act against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. He is a realist, a fighter, and needs the power that silver brings.
And Peter, dear Peter, our Peter. The good news of resurrection comes on the preaching of one who remembers and confesses betrayal of the highest order. “Before the cock crows a second time, you will have betrayed me three times.” And Peter remembered, and he broke down and wept. Yet we know that Peter, and the others, only partly internalized the unexpected humility of the Messiah, riding on a donkey. With their generation, they must have harbored some hope for an eleventh hour donnybrook, and historical victory. Feeling betrayed, he also betrays.
Pilate and Caiaphas crucify, but their procedural betrayals seem minor compared to the others.
Last we come to Jesus himself. He, in the garden, alone at prayer. Listen again to his pathos: “Please God, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.” “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The music of the passion is played in the key of b, betrayal.
You may have known something of betrayal. In life, work, friendship, partnership, relationship, marriage, citizenship. Have you? It is hard for me to name a more bitter experience. Without the theme of betrayal the Bible would be six books not 66, and Shakespeare would have written only sonnets and a play or three. Without betrayal, human and church history would have had little drama. Without betrayal, your faith would not have been stretched and tested as it has been.
“Listen, didn’t we have an agreement…”
“My parents worked here for 40 years…”
“How could you…”
“I didn’t vote for that…”
“I just feel so betrayed…”
In a lifetime we get to see betrayal from both sides. How did Shakespeare put it? "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts."
All in a lifetime.
Can you, how can you, survive an experience, episode, or season of betrayal?
One finds the far side of betrayal by the breath of God in Resurrection Spirit—the breath of truth, the breath of health, the breath of mirth. The Lord of the Resurrection Spirit is risen indeed!
Our affirmation, “Christ is Risen”, comes from the heart of a story and a people who know about betrayal, for whom betrayal has been the seed bed of the future. A resurrection spirit will carry you to the far side of betrayal.
This is why the fourth gospel, more directly than the others, ties the resurrection to the spirit: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”. After this he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” A resurrection spirit is a breath of truth and of health and of mirth with which to survive betrayal! In a fully traditional sense, I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Feel the breath of God in Resurrection Spirit today!
First, in the Risen Christ there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.
Over time, and with much heartache, and by the long way home, the truth at last prevails. It is our experience, together, as a people, that ultimately reveals what is true. Truth needs no defense and falsehood has none, in the long run.
Our colleague William Russell wrote last week: In 1633 Galileo was summoned to Rome and put on trial by the Roman Inquisition, under Pope Urban, for writing and teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, when the Bible clearly stated that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun circled it. Galileo was found guilty and forced to recant. The church’s decision didn’t make Galileo wrong and the Bible right. It simply made the church look foolish. Those who insist on a literal interpretation of values and opinions from seventh century bce and first century ce writers are more likely to make twenty-first century Christianity look foolish in the long term.
True enough. Easter is the celebration that truth needs no human defense. It is self-correcting and it is free. Loose in the universe. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is truth alone that finally sets free. Sin is the unhappy willingness to live a lie.
Think for a moment of a lonely teacher in Tennessee. What was his name? Scopes? And the year? 1925? And the crime? New truth?
He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. Does not the Bible say that the earth was formed in seven days? Does not the Bible say that all flesh descended from Adam, and Eve?
The Bible is first a book about freedom, God’s freedom. We have learned, with Luther, to understand the lesser parts from the view afforded by the greater: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
Retired Bishop Jack Tuell of California recently said as much. He and others have carefully tried to open the hearts, minds and doors of our church to new truth. There are varieties of religious experiences, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of human identities, but the same Lord. There are varieties of sexual orientations, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one!
In our daily lives, too, this self-correcting spirit of truth is loose among us, loose in the universe. Given enough patience, enough space, enough attention, enough truth will emerge to lift us out of the swamp of betrayal. Stay close to the facts. As John Adams repeated, “Facts are stubborn things.”
This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
Second, in the Risen Christ, there is a self-sustaining spirit of health loose in the universe. We also learn, slowly, in our collective experience, the things that make for health, as for peace. Resurrection announces that such health, like truth, does not depend on our full appreciation for its own sustenance. Health lives, however we choose to live. The potential for health, the possibility of safety and salvation—these are raised in Christ beyond assault. This health can take many forms.
John Wayne died of cancer, due to films made in Nevada in the 1950’s. Regular old cowboy and Indian adventures, filmed in the white dust and sand of the desert. The dust was so white, in part, because of nuclear testing near Las Vegas in the 1950’s, and those who rode horses, and dressed in chaps and spurs and war paint to play parts, also, apparently, at least in some cases, developed malignancy. I track these things, as one who also lived for a little while, in those years, in that desert.
Here is what I mean. Many of us do not remember a day before the threat of nuclear holocaust. While we very seldom stand in a place or find a moment of safety and courage sufficient to produce full reflection upon it, our condition, today, on earth, is tenuous, hanging under the shadow of possible holocaust. Civil defense shelters. Practice for air raids. Sitting quietly under the desk that was to protect from attack. These things are troubling memories.
Look at this. We have lived as a planet for over 50 years, in relative nuclear health. Not complete, and not completed. And we still may fail. But so far we have not failed. Whether we fail or whether we continue, fail-safe, the resurrection spirit is as spirit of self-sustaining health, loose in the universe. This spirit, the reality of the Risen Christ, abides whether or not we do. This is the real possibility of our lasting health. But this possibility inspires those who will to live within its circumference.
M. Frayn’s play, Copenhagen, is a daring review of the frontiers of nuclear health. He imagines the conversations between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, in the middle of the Second World War. The implication of the plot is this: that the relationship, meeting, conversation, friendship, and sense of health between the two saved the world. The author concludes: If, if, if…The line of ifs is a long one. It remains just possible, though. The effects of real enthusiasm and real determination are incalculable. In the realm of the just possible they are sometimes decisive.
In the realm of the just personal, these healthy attributes, enthusiasm and determination, also make a real difference. It makes a difference to live with the conviction that there is a self-sustaining spirit of health loose in the universe.
Several years ago Lee Atwater was completing the destruction of Michael Dukakis. He had lived for years with two driving goals, to be achieved before he was forty: one that he works for the President in a successful election campaign and another that he becomes chairman of the Republican National Party. By Election Day of 1988 he had achieved both goals. He was 39. Within a few months, Atwater developed an inoperable brain tumor. He spent 14 months battling for his life. In this period something profound happened to him. He did not describe it in religious terms, nor in terms of religious experience. He asked for healing, and none, at least of a certain kind, came. He prayed for a revelation, and none came. He even prayed for more white blood cells, and none came. But along the way, in the face of his imminent death, and his growing awareness of sin, something happened. I do not quote his words lightly, but honor them:
What is missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood…that decade was about acquiring—wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want, and still feel empty…What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family?…What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with my friends?…It took deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay can learn on my dime…
Here is the way forward in personal estrangements. Find the health. To paraphrase Woodward and Bernstein, “follow the health”. Forgiveness, pardon, salvation—the things that make for health.
There is a self-sustaining spirit of healing loose in the universe.
For by the life and death of Jesus, God’s mighty Spirit, now as then, can make for us a world of difference, as faith and hope are born again.
Third, there is a self-generating spirit of mirth loose in the universe. Mirth, looth in the univerth!
Today is Easter! Wesley named his people “happy in God”. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, as Paul wrote. And even the heavens shall laugh, as the Psalmist did sing. What was it that Pope intoned, “All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye”. We see the world as we are, not as it is. Here are Peale’s seven most important words: “You can if you think you can.” Of all days, this is the day the Lord has made: we shall rejoice and be glad in it.
The ready mirth, the steady buoyant hopefulness of the people of God, revealed in mirth.
My two closest friends in the ministry are both dead. Goodness and Mercy. Dale Winter, I can hear still, preaching on the children in the marketplace, in our little Ithaca chapel: “to the market they came of old bringing livestock, fruit, vegetable, apparel—and their children: anything they could sell!” Mirth slips out. Al, Navy chaplain, pastor, never said a mumblin’ word, but did sometimes identify a difficult personality: “she is a test pilot in a broom factory.” Mirth runneth over, where the gospel is heard and preached.
There is Roy Smyres, who walked across Africa in the 1920’s: Christian, socialist, pastor. His son went on to be a DS in NYC. “I was a chaplain down at the Owasco Lake Empire Nudist Colony.” What was the worst thing there? “Wicker chairs.”
Here is BB Taylor, Anglican. “How am I able to write? I arise and work with coffee, from 6-10 at home every morning. I get to the office mid-morning. Yes, some say: nice timing, bankers hours, hope you slept well. I smile. I chuckle. I just take it.”
For Dee Wade’s ordination I dressed in black and wrote a ten page sermon, dull as beans, on the righteousness of God. Then an old preacher gave the charge by telling three odd stories, including one about a missionary, thrown into a cauldron to boil, who smiled and said to his onlookers, “I have managed to add a little unexpected seasoning to their soup.”
I heard one friend gently admonish: “let me help you get down off my back without hurting yourself.” Another rebuked a self-abuser: “Shall I get a ladder and help you down off that cross?”
The Resurrection Spirit is self-correcting, self-sustaining, self-generating. To preach Christ crucified and risen, such a spirit can use anyone and anything. God can use a dead dog to preach his Gospel. At children’s time last month the kids were asked, “Here is the Father, and the Son, and what goes here?” “The mother?” one replied. Mirth skips out, like a child in an Easter bonnet.
What a proud moment in time for you, Asbury First. You live Frost’s line, where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes. Now, in a time to build, you dare to dream, you dare to take your besetting sins, and choke them. In one project, you choke off the spirit of entitlement, and give breath to generosity, by helping us all double our pledges over five years to come. (The real question will be, how many will continue to do so after 2008?) In one project, you choke off the spirit of exclusion, and give breath to the welcoming Christ. (It is already happening, in anxious anticipation of new space.) What courage! You face and face down the challenges of this generation: stewardship and evangelism.
Then let us with the Spirit’s daring, step from the past and leave behind, our disappointment, guilt, and grieving, seeking new paths and sure to find.
In second century a Roman teacher declared: “The Resurrection is a revelation, a transformation and a transition into newness.”
A Resurrection Spirit is breathing upon you this Easter, a breath of truth, health, mirth. There is a self-correcting Spirit of truth, a self-sustaining Spirit of health, a self-generating Spirit of mirth, loose in the universe. As my children say, “deal with it.” Meaning: Crucified and Risen, Jesus Christ, in Resurrection Spirit, stands before us this day. Keeping it very simple: are you for him or against Him? Truth: for or against? Health: for or against? Mirth: for or against?
Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings. Our God is making all things new.