Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every year on the Sunday following Easter Day–commonly called Low Sunday–we hear the same Gospel reading, St. John’s account of the Lord appearing to “Doubting Thomas.” So, I’ve preached twelve sermons about this text, and usually it’s about Thomas’ doubt and belief and how we should be a bit more understanding of the poor man, because he’s more like us than we’d like to admit. I want to do something a bit different this year, then, and if you want a good reflection on that issue, I’d commend to you the “dialogue sermon” our bishop had with Canon Sutterisch for the Easter 2 service produced by the diocese.

This morning I want to focus on a matter we see running through all our readings today, namely the oft-overlooked affirmation in scripture of material reality. I say it’s overlooked because sometimes Christians, even relatively well-catechized ones, make this assumption that ours is a primarily disembodied faith.

Some years ago I even had two seminary-trained clergy (I note, not Episcopal clergy, though this confusion is not unheard of among clergy in our own corner of Christendom) who were shocked to learn that I believed Christ’s Resurrection (as well as ours on the last day) was a fundamentally bodily, physical Resurrection, not something merely spiritual or spectral. Christianity is a profoundly body-affirming faith, even in its most ascetic movements, which seek to deny not physicality but fallen fleshliness. More about that in a moment. The opposite, the rejection of material existence and the Creation which, though fallen, God deemed good, is not Christianity but Gnosticism.

Let’s consider this morning’s readings. In his First Epistle General, St. John writes:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.

The word of life, the second person of the Trinity, was not merely a principle or a spiritual force. It, he, was “made manifest” such that he could be seen and heard and touched.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, however one may feel about the economic policy which it may imply (and that, I think, is complicated), one thing it does not suggest is that the life of Christians is communal and has material implications. We do not see these early disciples each going his or her own way, becoming hermits, and living on bread and water to simulate a total detachment from physical existence. Whatever else might be said of the economics of early Christian community, it at least recognizes the fundamentally physical nature of existence, the understanding that possessions (however personal ownership and distribution is handled), are gifts from God created to enable human flourishing and require that we view them with a more nuanced moral and spiritual approach than simply saying “I detach myself from life and call these things illusory or somehow “less real” than some primal spiritual force, that they are some gnostic demiurge which must be shunned to enable us to disinterestedly float in the lotus position or something.

And finally, we have that famous story we hear this Sunday every year, but don’t worry right now whether Thomas was really doubting or believing (again, that’s a worthy question for a different sermon). Instead consider what Jesus does. On his first appearance in the upper room, he empowers the Apostles to forgive and retain sins by breathing on them. At his second appearance, when Thomas has joined the other Apostles, Jesus offers to let him touch his wounds. Jesus is making clear that his risen body is a physical body, and he continues to teach this message in the remainder of the Gospel, eating and drinking and building fire by which to warm himself and cook his breakfast.

There is one peculiar element of this story, and I love the answer one of my professors in seminary gave in a course I took on the Gospel of John. The doors are shut and locked, so how could an embodied Jesus get in? Is this not evidence that he is some kind of apparition or specter. Our prof said something like, “of course not; the point is that Jesus is even more solid than the door.” I don’t know whether explanation this holds up. I just know (1) I love it, and (2) John goes to such pains to affirm the physicality of the Risen Christ’s body that there must be some explanation like this.

Anyway, why is this all important? Why does it matter that Christ came back bodily and that we will too at the General Resurrection on the last day? It matters because it reminds us that Creation is not some inconvenient realm in which we can never live with purpose and gratitude. We are not just biding our time in some fleshy layover between states of pure spiritual existence. This life is not some mere test to see if we can become fully detached and join some kind of Nirvana or else get reincarnated as a slug or a chicken or something. God created the heavens and the earth and called them good. Our forebears’ fault caused it and us to fall, but God’s answer was not to dispatch some phantasmal lifeboats to get us out, but rather to redeem all of it. That redemption begins with God himself not only choosing to come to us as a man, but to die as one and to come back just as much of one. It will end when all other things end, not by God or entropy blowing it all up, but by the heavenly city coming to this earth that we might dwell in it, not as ghosties but as men and women, for all eternity. And our moral obligation is not to take this earth or our bodies or the well-being of our fellow human beings as soteriologically insignificant.

Sometimes poetry says it better than my theological ramblings, and so I’d like to close with the great 20th Century writer and Episcopalian John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” I cannot remember if I’ve ever included this in a sermon before. (To be honest, sometimes I can’t remember if I said something in a sermon or just posted on Facebook at one point or another, which is either a troubling indication about my memory or else just a reality of having been a priest for a while). So, if I’ve shared this before, forgive me, but it’s one of those texts which I think bears repeating, anyway:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter Sunday

Alleluia! Christ is risen

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m coming up on my fifth anniversary as Rector of Trinity Parish, and its hard for me to believe my wife Annie and I have been here half-a-decade. While the last twelve months have seemed a bit unending in some ways, the prior four years seem to have flown; I am, indeed, having fun! In any event, it got me thinking about my arrival here, and how it’s hard to remember precisely how I met each of the people that have become so much a part of our lives here.

One introduction I haven’t forgotten, because it seemed so strange at the time, was not with a parishioner but with a colleague, a brother priest in the diocese. He had come to Findlay for some non-church meeting or another, and was gracious enough to offer to meet and introduce himself. He came to my office, and immediately said, “so tell me about everything hanging on your walls.” I suppose that’s one way to learn about somebody, but I admit to feeling a bit “put-on-the-spot.” It’s a good thing I had put my own things in the office at that point, or it might have been a very brief interrogation. So, I talked about the print of St. John Vianney (patron of simple country parsons, like me) and the marble paper I got in Turkey and the Chinese Madonna and Child I picked up in Beijing and the gavel my old rotary club gave me after being their president, and at least a half-dozen other prints and paintings and objets d’art hanging on the walls. Then I came to the one thing that presumably one of my predecessors and put in the office and which I had not replaced with something of my own.

It’s a small icon which has remained in my office these five years, though this morning I have placed it at the back of the nave so you can take a look as you’re leaving this morning (though, remember Covid protocols and try not to bunch up). The icon depicts Mary Magdalene preaching to the eleven remaining Apostles, no doubt telling them the Good News of the Resurrection which she saw and believed before any of them had done. We call the Magdalene “Apostle to the Apostles” to this day for that reason.

I found this an important enough reminder for me–hence my keeping it where I can frequently see it–as a priest and as a man. The priesthood and the episcopate draw their authority from apostolic succession, that is from tracing our ordinations from a successive laying on of hands from bishops tracing their family tree, as it were, all the way back to these eleven men, chosen by Jesus. But these eleven scattered and fled at the crucifixion, and God had ordained that this woman was to preach the Good News of the Resurrection to them.

As a side note, and perhaps to be a bit provocative, I always encourage those who remain uncomfortable with the ordination of women to the priesthood (even after we’ve been doing it for 40 years), that two of the chief charisms of the priesthood–proclaiming the Gospel and mediating the mystery of Christ’s very Body–were both first undertaken by women: the former by Mary Magdalene and the latter by the Blessed Virgin Mary in a very literal way. Not to downplay the popular political slogan, having to do with sexual harassment and violence, but there is this other sense in which one may make it equally applicable to church history and theology: believe women.

In any event, we know from the other Gospel accounts that the apostles did not at first take this very good, if anachronistic, advice to heart. Luke tells us that they thought the Magdalene’s story was just “an idle tale.” At least that’s how our modern bible translations put it; the Greek is a bit stronger. They thought it was ληρος. The great Liddell & Scott lexicon translates this word as “trash, trumpery, of what is showy but useless.”

Granted, most of us would have been incredulous if given such remarkable news, no matter who was sharing it. Even so, I suspect the apostles were less open to the news because it was a woman who told them.

How often are we also deaf to good news which is being proclaimed because the teller isn’t like us? How often do we fail to recognize the Word of God, the Word of peace and justice and the Kingdom of God, because the person sharing that Word is the wrong gender or too old or too young or gay or black or poor? How often do we fail to see the Risen Christ Himself in our midst because he doesn’t look or think or act just like we expect, because he isn’t just like us?

But this is to set our minds on earthly things, not on things heavenly, for in Christ all those walls of division and distinction have been toppled. We are called to purge from our minds and souls the very human, earthly lens through which, in our fallen state, we view the world and our fellows. We think in terms of security, and Christ’s death and resurrection urge us to think in terms of sacrifice and trust. We see the world and our fellows in terms of judgment (namely, who deserves what particularly nasty punishment) and the great mystery we celebrate today urges us to see the world and our fellows in terms of grace and mercy. And, more to the point, we tend to think in terms of us and them (our people and those people) and the Resurrection should make those arbitrary distinctions disappear.

You see, through his death and glorious resurrection Christ has transcended particularity and taken on universality. Christ, the Word through whom the heavens and the earth were made, was a middle-eastern Jewish man in a particular time and place, and in his risen Body he still remains so in a factual sense. On another level, though, today Christ has become for us all in all, not bound by the categories we use to sift through and identify our fellow travelers. In a spiritual sense now Christ is no longer Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. Christ is in us and we are in Christ, and the risen Christ is you and me and the inmate down in the county jail and the pregnant teenager and the homeless kid whose parents disowned him just because he likes boys instead of girls. That’s Jesus in our midst.

That marginal person is both the bearer of Good News and the Good News Himself. It’s through loving that person, through seeing the grace and goodness and salvific potential with which that person is brimful, that we find meaning and purpose and hope and light and life. Christ is alive. He’s right next to you. He’s right outside the doors. Serve him with gladness and singleness of heart this day and for the rest of your life.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Good Friday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It used to be the custom in some places to hold a preaching service on Good Friday. This was before our current Book of Common Prayer; because its predecessor (the 1928 prayerbook), while strangely providing proper Eucharistic readings for this one day of the year on which the Eucharist cannot be Celebrated, did not provide for a special liturgy of the day (like we’re now observing). So it was customary to gather in the church for about three hours and hear seven sermons, one on each of the seven last things Jesus said from the cross.

As difficult as it would be to sell a three hour church service today, I think there was some wisdom to this practice, particularly focusing on discrete phrases from the passion narrative. There is too much of eternal importance in the words we just heard from St. John’s Passion to cover in a single sermon, and I think we preachers are generally forced to focus on just a little bit (a little, discrete phrase) and let the rest of the narrative stand on its own.

And so, I want to focus very briefly on just one of these “seven last words”, and let that long Gospel reading and our rather full Good Friday liturgy stand on its own and tell the rest of the story. I mentioned this in my daily reflection video today, so some of you know that I find it to be one of the most powerful, heartbreaking images in this whole story”

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

This is, in fact, the last of Jesus’ seven sayings from the Cross directed at particular people, and one of only two such sayings (the other being Our Lord’s comfortable words to the criminal hanging beside him in Luke’s Gospel: Verily I say unto thee, to day shalt thou be with me in Paradise!). Everything else he says from the Cross is either directed to the Father or else to nobody in particular. I think that this is significant, because I believe that these words can be understood on at least two levels.

First, there is the literal, though nonetheless powerful level of meaning. Jesus of Nazareth was a man, a man in tremendous pain who had been suffering a great trial since well before he was nailed onto that ancient implement of torture. Let us turn our focus briefly from the foot of the cross to the upper room the night before.

In the words Jesus spoke to his disciples that night we can detect the pain of impending loss. Our Lord was not fearful of the physical torture he would no doubt endure, but he was clearly troubled for the sake of his disciples. He senses their fear, the great angst each of them feels about their Master’s impending death, saying “Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions.”

He confides to his disciples the fear he feels that they might fall away from the faith once he has left them. He calls them “little children” for the first time, which is neither a term of derogation nor of condescension, but of sincere love for those whom he loves as one would a son or daughter, with the sort of love that cannot bear to consider that child going through an instant of pain, much less the kind of death most of the disciples would endure.

And, to my mind, most hear-wrenchingly, he says “Henceforth I call you not servants…but I have called you friends.” How often do we have one so much our better express such an intimate and loving statement and truly mean it? These men had followed our Lord for three years, and here, finally, just as they are about to lose him, the depth of the love he has for them is made explicit.

And then we return to the Cross, and behold the disciple whom Jesus loved most of all, and the Blessed Mother from whom he could never refuse a request, so great was his love for her. These two whom Jesus loved so much he gives to each other. Such tenderness of feeling our Lord and God is able to muster in the midst of suffering greater than any of us could imagine! Such warmth and gentleness to sinful man, for whose grievous sins he is at that very moment dying!

You see, while on one level he is caring for the welfare of a man named John and a woman named Mary, he is on another level saying the same thing to us. He gives us into each other’s care, and in an even greater gift, he asks us to behold our Mother the Church, to care for her and to be cared for by her. As He was giving us the gift of forgiveness, suffering on our account, he could have decided that the Grace of forgiveness was enough. Instead, even as we were crucifying him, he gives us yet another gift of Grace. He gives us a Mother.

In a few moments we will pray again the ancient solemn collects of Good Friday, and we will conclude those prayers by praying for this Mother we have been given. We will pray that the whole world may see that “wonderful and sacred mystery” which enables us to love one another in a new and powerful way. We will pray that the whole world may see her power to be God’s vehicle for Grace, to raise up that which has been cast down and to renew this old sin-sick world. May we, who are the Church, see the potential Christ has given us to love those who spurn us and to be gracious to those who don’t even know the meaning of Grace. May we be given the opportunity to die to self for the sake of a hostile world, knowing that Christ is still reigning from his tree and through him the Father’s love will be made known perfectly and ubiquitously and eternally.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.