“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” –Annie Dillard, in Teaching a Stone to Talk
N.T. Wright, a favorite pastor, author, and theologian, the former Bishop of Durham, tells a story in his recent book, Surprised by Scripture, about being a caught in traffic in the streets of London with a taxi driver. At one point the cabbie turned around to face him and said, “What I always say is this: if God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, everything else is basically rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t it?”
Rock ‘n’ roll.
Wright described this conversation as “a great gospel moment” and said he had been living off of it ever since.
Andrea once lovingly, of course, accused me of talking in paragraphs. If I talk in paragraphs, maybe I write in chapters, and maybe I have a book in me somewhere. Who knows? Tonight I’ll try to keep it to as few paragraphs as are necessary to give you what God has given me to say.
So I want to talk with you tonight about resurrection, about new life and new creation, about a new humanity, about being the beloved community.
Let me stop there and say that again:
MLK, Jr., talked a lot about Beloved Community. He didn’t coin the phrase, but he certainly popularized it. It was the end for which nonviolent resistance was the means. Nonviolent resistance of institutionalized racial oppression wasn’t merely about justice and a hoped for end to the oppressive regime, it was about reconciliation between the oppressor and the oppressed and the redemption of all. As King put it in a talk entitled, Facing the Challenge of a New Age: “…The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men…” and women, I would add. The Beloved Community transforms the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. We are people of the new age, aren’t we? We are people from the future, residents of the kingdom in which God’s love and justice reigns with peace. Wherever we go, in whatever we do, little by little we unveil the dawning of that new age. We bring the future to pass. In a monochromatic world of black and white and shades of grey, we are an explosion of color. In an era of deep gloom, we are exuberant gladness, if we’ll but be who we are, if we’ll live as the beloved community we are becoming.
To paraphrase Joey a bit and maybe put words in his mouth, for the sports lovers among us we’re supposed to talk about Jesus at least as much as we talk about football, or in Joey’s case, baseball. For the musicians and cooks and coders and crafters among us, we’re to talk about Jesus at least as much as we talk about those things. For the consumers among us, we’re to talk about Jesus at least as much as we talk about The Walking Dead or our new iPhone.
But I ask you, why? Why should we talk about Jesus at least as much or even more than any of these other things? These other things are exciting! They’re fun and sometimes shiny and they give our lives some meaning, perhaps in the grand scheme of things not much meaning, or not very good meaning, if we’re honest, but some meaning nonetheless. Does Jesus? Has Jesus so transformed our lives that they are lives worth talking about? Are we filled with exuberant gladness? Do our hearts sing not out of habit or because we think they should, not because we expect to be rescued from this earthly mess in the “sweet bye and bye,” not because we feel morally superior to our neighbor or better than those who couldn’t make it in this dog-eat-dog world, but because Jesus has filled our hearts with exuberant gladness as we live in right relationship with him, with one another, and with God’s good world? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
Can we even imagine what the beloved community is? What it might look like? How we might live into such a future here and now and bring it to bear through beautiful acts of grace, kindness, inclusion, service, love, and forgiveness for our neighbors near and far? How might we do this? How might we imagine this and let our imaginations run wild with this hope?
Allow me to suggest that it begins, and ends, with resurrection.
Resurrection is inescapable in the life of a would-be Jesus-follower. Try as you might to avoid it or sanitize it or dumb it down or smart it up or market it or interpret it or explain it all away, it stands, still (or not), at the heart of any faith we might hope to have. It stands at the center of the Beloved Community, where Jesus is Lord and Caesar and Mammon are not. You may have heard it said that what God accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was to put creation back on track, to get us back, perhaps, to how things were in the garden, back to what God originally intended for us. In this telling of the Christian story, resurrection functions as a reset button. God pressed it, and finally things can get back to “normal,” back to the way they used to be. There’s hope again that in some cosmic future we can live the idyllic life of Adam and Eve in the garden, with humanity and the created order at peace again in a paradise in which lions lay down with lambs and children play safely with snakes.
I beg to differ.
As people from the future we know how the story ends, right? Ben and Joey have recently led us in a great discussion of it. We know that when God’s kingdom fully and finally comes, heaven will come to earth as a great city, not a mere garden paradise. Cities are the result of humanity’s God-given ingenuity and creativity. They are often held up as examples of human progress. To say, then, that a city is a central feature of the realm in which God’s love and justice reigns, a kingdom in which humanity and creation itself are fully and finally redeemed because the work of resurrection has reached its fullness, is to say that that work- the work of resurrection- is not just to restore what once was, but is to fully and finally create anew what might have been. Resurrection doesn’t cause us to look backward. It propels us forward. And to say all of this is to say that resurrection isn’t God’s giant “reset button;” that’s what the Flood accomplished. To put it even more boldly and provocatively, resurrection wasn’t necessary because of the fall, because of humanity’s sin. It was necessary because it’s what God intended from the very beginning.
That’s right. I’m suggesting, provocatively if this is the first time you’ve heard this argument, that God intended for Jesus to be resurrected, and therefore for Jesus to live as one of us and die like one of us, from the very beginning, from the moment he formed us out of the dust and breathed into us the breath of life. God created, but knew from the very beginning that it was the new creation, made possible by the resurrection of the son of God, that would bring humanity and God’s good world into the fullness of right relationship.
This, I suspect, is part of why Wright says that John chapter 20, describing the resurrection, is full of echoes of Genesis 1.
Genesis 1 speaks of Creation.
John 20 speaks of New Creation.
Wright says: “You see, it has been all too easy for preachers and theologians to imagine, within our late modern culture, that the point of the Easter stories is to provide a happy ending after the sorrow of the previous week or to assure us that there is life after death or something like that.” “But what John is saying,” says Wright, “is far more powerful and…far more relevant to our church life and witness today and tomorrow. He is insisting that Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation, and we therefore have a job to do. The completed work of the Father in creation and the completed work of the Son in redemption issue directly in the ongoing work of the Spirit in mission.”
We therefore have a job to do.
Wright reminds us of the declaration of 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that “it is love that believes the resurrection.”
Wright says that because of the resurrection “the world opens up before us as a strange, unmapped new land, full of possibilities and challenges.” He goes on to say that “The mission of the church is not to drag people into buildings or to run raffles or issue statements.” He says “the mission of the church is to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel.” He says we are to be “Jesus people for the world, kingdom people for the world, forgiveness people for the world.” Jesus, of course, was Israel’s Messiah, the promised one who would set things to right. He was the fulfillment of the Law, the one in whom its work was completed. The purpose of the law was to point us to Jesus, and the stories Jesus told time and again made this clear. The law points us in the direction of right relationship with God, one another, and God’s good world. It tells us how to live, but though it points us in the direction we need to go, it cannot take us there. Only Jesus can do that. In Jesus, the law’s work is finished and Israel’s blessedness becomes the world’s blessing.
Wright talks about Thomas, about Jesus’ willingness to meet him where he was, in the middle of his doubt, in the middle of a locked room, and give him the gift of faith, to show him the signs of new creation, of the new humanity and Beloved Community that God is creating. Wright says:
“The question for us, as we learn again and again the lessons of hope for ourselves, is how we can be for the world what Jesus was for Thomas: how we can show to the world the signs of love, how we can reach out our hands in love, wounded though they will be if the love has been true, how we can invite those whose hearts have grown shrunken and shriveled with sorrow and disbelief to come and see what love has done, what love is doing, in our communities, our neighborhoods: the works of justice and beauty that speak of God’s new creation, the works of healing and new life that should abound in our hospices and detention centers, our schools and our countryside. It is when the church is out there making all that happen, not waiting for permission or encouragement but simply doing what Christian people from the very beginning have always done, that resurrection makes sense, because suddenly the idea of God’s love in new creation makes sense, and people who were formerly skeptical find their hearts and minds transformed so that they say, with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’.”
So we’re to be, not in here, but OUT THERE, making it happen, and lest we get off track, this isn’t only about our speech. It isn’t only about what we say about Jesus and the amazing life together we’re having because of Him, it’s about having an amazing life together. This begs the question, again, do we? Do we have an amazing life together? I would be the first to posit that, especially given our size and firm placement in the humdrum middle of white U.S. culture, we probably do some amazing things, and we’re certainly trying to have a life together. I’m not sure though that our life together is as amazing as it can and will be just yet. I’m not sure that anyone would meet us and spend time in our midst and walk away describing our exuberant gladness. Good God talk like Joey challenged us to engage in rightly flows and is given life by a life, together, of exuberant gladness. Resurrection makes it possible, and resurrection makes sense to all the skeptics out there, and dare I say, all the skeptics in here, myself included, literally in light of such an exuberantly glad life together.
How, then, shall we live? What, then, are we to do?
Allow me, if you will, to humbly challenge us….to get a life. I mean it. Go get a life, and not just any life, not just a better than average one, comparatively speaking, according to U.S. census data for your zip code or hoped for zip code. Get a life full of exuberant gladness. Get a life that is truly a life together. Let me tell you how this is working for me. Notice I said, “how it’s working.” It has not worked, just yet, but God knows I’m trying. God knows that He has been trying me, challenging me with ever increasing opportunities to grow my love, to grow my faith, to grow me up. Here are a few examples:
- I’ve long felt convicted that if I truly belong to Jesus, and if because I belong to Jesus I’m part of the new humanity and Beloved Community that he’s creating, and therefore I also belong to you, then “my” stuff really doesn’t belong to me, in the end. I am to be but a steward of it all (and there’s so much, I admit a bit sadly), because everything belongs to God. It’s God’s stuff. I think a lot of us give lip service to this idea. We talk about it, some of us. I’m trying to back up that talk with just a little action, and lots of even more talk, but strange talk, peculiar talk, because language shapes reality, or at least our perception of it. Words make worlds. So by law Kirsten and I have “owned” God’s house in Cuyahoga Falls (hear that strange talk?) for 9 years this month, but we keep trying to be a little bit crazy with it. We keep imagining and trying out ways to be really good stewards of it. When we moved into it we had taken Kirsten’s mom in and she was the first occupant of the “master” bedroom. After she moved out we were foster parents for a little while and so brought two African-American boys into a community that is sometimes known as “Caucasian Falls.” Our resolve wavered and that chapter came to an end, but when we went down to TX as my dad was dying we rented it at half of our cost for the mortgage to a couple that couldn’t have afforded it otherwise and we eventually hoped to sell it to them. When we wound up coming back to OH we languished for a while, trying to come up with what God might want us to do with it next. Eventually God led us to you all and, on a hopefully Godly whim we invited Joey and Andrea to come live in the basement so that Joey could get out of what felt like an oppressive job and be more creative and available with his time devoted to the Resistance, to each of you. We were very glad to have them in our home and in our lives, but as Joey and Andrea were feeling called to move back to Canton, then free from that oppressive job, we likewise asked Sara to join our household and we now live in community and covenant with her residing with us in God’s house that we share. We don’t just share a house, though. We work hard to share our lives. We share the money God gives us access to. We pray together and eat together. We try to bear one another’s burdens. These are ideals, to be sure, but we’re shooting for the stars, doing our best to let our imaginations, and our lives, run wild with hope.
- Of course, we don’t just occupy God’s house, we drive God’s cars. We’re training Samuel and Nathan, and ourselves, to refer to them not as “Mom’s car” or “Dad’s car,” but as the black one and the gray one, or the Focus and the Freestyle. We try to use them that way too. We started out this school year with myself, Samuel, and Sara sharing a commute to Canton and then Holmes County, respectively, as this was the best use of the resources we had at our collective disposal and it just made sense, at least from a God’s kingdom-eye view. Now that Samuel is back at school in the Falls, and I’m looking for work myself, we still share the cars and sometimes the commute. Though this is now changing, we know that whatever the future looks like, Lord willing we’ll approach it just as creatively and courageously as we have so far.
Along the way, we hope we’re creating, with God, a life worth talking about, a community of love and support and care, a Community that is truly Beloved, and we yearn for such community with all of you. Whether or not we have any official sanction or title or not, Sara, Samuel, Nathan, and Kirsten and I are a pocket of resistance in Cuyahoga Falls. We didn’t wait for permission to do this. God calls us to do it. God calls you to do it too. God calls us not just to do, but to be. We are called to be the Beloved Community. We are called to be the Church. We are salt. We are light. Jesus is the light of the world, but he hides that light in us, just as He hides in us. Let’s open ourselves up so that it shines. Let’s make Jesus famous because we so famously love each other. Let’s be peculiar. Let’s be different. Let’s stop talking about going to church- as if such a thing were possible- because, remember, we’re the Church, and let’s be the Church. Let’s stop inviting people to Church, which only makes sense if you mean inviting people into the presence of the gathered Church, and let’s invite them into our lives, into the life we’re having together, into a life of exuberant gladness. Let’s give until our tanks feel empty, and then give some more, inviting Jesus to work a miracle inside us, to make us cups that are filled up and running over with his love, along the way. When God feels absent to us- as is so often the case for me- or we feel alone, let’s love our neighbors extravagantly, exuberantly, so that they feel God’s love coming from and through us, and as we do so maybe we’ll feel God’s love and presence too. Let’s practice resurrection. Let’s live as the beloved and forgiven people that we already are, like people from God’s future do.
So let’s stop and talk about that for a minute. At your tables, you’ll see a couple of questions I’ve suggested for you to talk about. Spend a few minutes on each one in your groups, and then be prepared to share out some of the ideas you’ve come up with, or, if you’d like, a question you might have for me.
[Table Talk Questions:
- You may already be doing this to some degree, but imagine if you will that all of “your” stuff, everything you own, really and truly belongs to God. How would you use it? What would you do with it? Would you still “own” everything you do? Would you share some things, even crazy things like houses or cars? What would that look like?
- Imagine too, though you may be living this way already, that YOU fully and finally belong to God- your time, your energy, your love and your will and all of it, every bit of you. How might you give yourself away to others? How might you share “your” time and energy, etc.? What would that look like?]
So let’s live as the beloved and forgiven people that we already are, like people from God’s future do, and let’s start doing this right now. Remember, none of this is possible without resurrection, without the body and blood of Jesus, given for you, and given for me. Jesus invites us to participate in a feast, a feast which is a foretaste of the feast to come. At the Lord’s table, he himself is our host, quite literally, as host means not only the one who gives the invitation and provides the feast, but it also has a theological and technical meaning. The Latin word “hostia” means sacrifice or victim; so Jesus is our host, and He is also our host. He offers us himself, and he makes this offer to all. All are invited to participate in the Lord’s feast, which is the gathering of a community called Beloved, a community that is becoming what Jesus was both for Israel, and for Thomas. For Israel, Jesus was the end of the Law, the “end” not because it was over, but because it was complete; it was fulfilled. The Law points us to Jesus. For Thomas, doubt was not the enemy of faith; it was its partner. Jesus responded to Thomas’ doubt not merely with an admonition to have faith, but with love and the gift of that very faith. Jesus met Thomas right where he was in the middle of his doubt, and he’ll meet us there too. Do you doubt your own faith? Do you doubt the resurrection? Do you doubt the Resistance? Do you wonder if our little band of provocateurs will make it? Do you doubt Jesus, as I sometimes do? Come, come and meet him. Come and see how we love each other, and imagine together how we might do so ever more exuberantly in the future we’re bringing to pass.
So tonight you will not be served the elements of communion by a “leader.” Jesus is our Leader, and he invites us to serve one another, just as He served the disciples at the Last Supper by washing their feet. At each table you’ll see the elements of communion, the bread and the juice. I invite you to serve the elements to each other. One person will hold both the bread and the juice and offer them to the next person, saying: “I love you. Receive the body and blood of Christ, given for you.” That’s right. Words make worlds, and I want you not only to live like you love one another, I want you, if you dare, to say it to one another, to say “I love you.” Those words were: “I love you. Receive the body and blood of Christ, given for you.” The person who receives communion will then turn and repeat the words and offer communion to the next person, and so on all the way around the table until the person who first gave communion becomes the last one to receive it. When everyone has been served, the kids will return and we’ll sing our closing song. I charge you to believe that God is not asleep. He is very awake, and he’s drawing us out past a point of no return. May we never return to our old lives, to our old selves. May we never return to our small lives, to our mundane, humdrum, so-so lives as people from the present only, with lives that lack exuberant gladness. May we never return to isolated, individualistic lives. Let’s be the Beloved Community. Let’s be the Church. Come, let us feast.