sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 04/20/2014
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[Dictaphone story, sale of Straight Talk Plus to Poinsettia on last day of quarter…]
God loves to do good to those who depend on him, who trust in him, who take a leap of faith on him.
I knew it on that day. I tasted and saw that the Lord was good.
In the midst of an anxious system, stress-filled people passing their stress around like the flu in a first-grade classroom, God stepped in with a little bit of life.
I’m so glad you leaned on me; I was hoping to bring you abundant life today.
I don’t remember anything I bought with that commission. That’s not where the life was.
I do remember the feeling of being a star when I returned, because of the praise that came my way from Jane, but that’s not where the life was. I knew my star didn’t shine half as bright as the true light that had provided life for me that day.
No, the life was in the experience of God present with me in the midst of this stressed out world. The signs of his presence in Poinsettia’s light up the room smile and favor. The signs of his presence in the thrill of last second rescue. The wonder of his surprisingly generous response to my asking. The peace and faith that lasts with me to this day in the ever-fresh discovery that he is real, that he is good, and that he loves me in some kind of personal, aww-shucks, embarrassing and a little silly to talk about to another person way.
I have to think that was just the beginnings of a hint as to how the disciples felt when Jesus’ showed up in their locked room, the evening of that famous Sunday, the third day after he’d been killed on a Roman cross.
Here’s the story.
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
We’ve spent the last 6 weeks talking about the goodness of God demonstrated in Jesus, and there is no doubt that the resurrection teaches us something about the goodness of God, because we see in it how the Father does good to Jesus who entrusts himself to him on the cross. After all, Jesus had taken the ultimate leap of faith, hadn’t he?
But the resurrection teaches us something more than that about the goodness of God.
Yes, God loves to do good to those who depend on him. The Resurrection is the ultimate “Amen!” to that truth. It’s the ultimate vindication of Jesus as the good king of God’s good kingdom, the ultimate “Yes!” to the good news Jesus has been announcing and embodying and demonstrating in his pre-resurrection life.
But God is really, really good.
God loves to do good - so much so that he loves to do good not just to those who trust in him, but also, and even,
to those who reject him.
To those who persecute him, who do violence to him.
Paul writes about it this way to the new disciples in the capital of the Roman Empire…
6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
No one is exempt from the Resurrection-charged Love that Jesus brings to this world with his nail-pierced hands.
Not the people you love.
Not the people who stress you out and cause you pain.
Not the people who tease you and disrespect you and take out their issues on you.
Not your worst enemy.
Not the person in your life that doesn’t want to hear another word, ever, about God.
No one is exempt from Resurrection-charged Love.
We said at the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for the Resurrection, that Jesus came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. “They” includes everyone, anyone who would receive him.
Life for the women in grief.
Life for the disciples in fear.
Life for the members of the crowd who mocked him and called for his crucifixion.
Life for the soldiers who whipped him and nailed him to the cross.
Life for the religious and political leaders who organized his arrest and mock trial.
Life for the “witnesses” who testified falsely against him.
Life for every single one of us who participates, often unwittingly, day after day, in the same enslaving systems of envious desire that focused its Satanic energy on him that Good Friday and whose power he dismantled on Easter Sunday.
It’s Jesus’ resurrection that demonstrates that most powerfully.
It’s his resurrection that makes it possible.
It’s his resurrection that opens the door to us, a door that cannot be shut.
Let’s talk about that. What does Jesus’ resurrection from a brutal, violent death have to do with all of us having life, and having it abundantly?
Well, it has to do with the wholly unanticipated and striking forgiveness we experience, and are invited to extend, when the resurrected Jesus shows up out of the empty tomb. (Forgiveness is what the peace be with you is all about, and the showing, and the breathing…it’s experienced…)
A forgiveness I experienced that day at Dictaphone, in Poinsettia’s office.
A forgiveness each of us can experience, now that the resurrection has happened, anywhere at any time.
Right in the midst of our stressful work.
Or conflict with other people.
Or in the mundane anxieties of day to day life.
Or in the midst of depression or sickness or tiredness.
A forgiveness that meets us while we are all bound up by death and the brokenness of our broken desires and sets us free to participate, joyfully and freely, in Life. In God’s Life.
To help us see it – because it’s in the seeing of it, the experiencing of it, that its power is made real - we’ve got to go back all the way to the beginning. To Genesis.
God is with the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in the garden of Eden. Human beings, his image bearers. Meaning, at one level, people who are meant to be like him, to share in his purpose, to participate in his desires for themselves and for creation. Unique in the exquisite freedom of their desires, their wills.
I’ve got provision and life for you, God tells them. All these trees, full of good food for you. A tree of life, even.
But also in this garden is a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Don’t eat from that tree, God tells them. You’ll certainly die if you do. And of course, God desires life for them – he always has – life, and life abundant.
Now, we need to notice something about human desire that is very helpful for understanding what happens next. Imitation and desire and powerfully linked. If one person desires something, other people who become aware of that desire are strongly inclined to desire the same thing. It’s even been suggested that all desires are, at root, borrowed desires. Advertisers know this; it’s why they’ll show a celebrity using a product and talking about how much they want it – it makes you and me more likely to want it too. Parents and child-care workers know this too. Picture a play room full of toys, with a single toddler playing with one of them – let’s say it’s a cheap happy meal toy, for example. Now another toddler comes in the room. Of all the toys in there, which toy does she want? The one the other toddler is playing with, of course.
So what happens to our ancestors, to Adam and Eve? These image-bearers, created for life, exposed to the desires of God for life, and offered the tree of life, come across a serpent.
A serpent who points out the tree of knowledge of good and evil, who calls into doubt the idea that they will surely die if they eat of it. You’ll become like God, the serpent says. And in the account in Genesis, the fruit of this tree is now described as desirable.
Because now Eve wants it. She wants it, at some primitive level, because the serpent wants it. The serpent desires to be like God, the serpent desires death for human beings, the lords and priests of God’s good creation. And now she gives some to Adam, who wants the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because Eve wants it.
And thus begins what is sometimes referred to in theological language as original sin. Sin that prevents us from imaging, from imitating, God’s desires, God’s will, and instead imaging, imitating the desires of the serpent, and of one another.
We know what happens when our desires are tied up with what other people want. We become rivals. Just like the toddlers in the play room. Two happy kids now fighting over a limited resource.
And at the end of that story, barring the intervention of Love, is always violence. And death. God in the garden was truthful with Adam and Eve. If you eat of it, you will surely die.
And thus began a cycle, a system of self-perpetuating violence in human history from which there is no escape from the inside. We can’t always kill our direct rivals, like Cain killed his brother Abel, because if we did, there would never be any civilization or culture. So instead, we temporarily find outlets for our rivalrous envy by unifying in hatred for someone we can pin the blame on for the stress we feel. A process we call scapegoating. We stand in judgment over these scapegoats – people we attribute all kinds of evil to, all the while maintaining our goodness (remember, the tree whose fruit we ate is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) – and we kill them. And remarkably, the tensions we previously felt because of our envy and rivalry calm down for a while, and we can get on with building our cities and countries and empires. But it only lasts so long, and we need new scapegoats.
We see the same dynamics in schools with the majority of kids getting along while they tease a couple of other kids – they always find some reason, and feel justified in it, blind of course to what’s actually happening. It happens in workplaces. In politics. In families. In teams and every kind of human organization.
Cultural anthropologists, scientists who study human beings and culture and civilization, observe that almost every major culture in history has a founding myth that involves a scapegoat, a person whose death gave rise to the building of that civilization or culture.
Scapegoating works, which is why it’s so powerful, and it’s evil at the same time. And when we’re in the midst of participating in it, we’re in darkness about it, feeling good and justified in our persecution of the scapegoat. (Unless you’re one of its victims, of course.)
Scapegoating can only give us the dimmest shadow of life, a shadow with a horribly high price tag – the lives of countless victims, and the ongoing price of an existence with fear at its center. Because any of us can become the scapegoat at any time; not one of us is wholly innocent. Every one of us, but for the Grace of the God who is Love, is inescapably caught up in the original sin of rivalrous desire.
God sees the violence and death and sin we are enslaved to, and it grieves him. He longs to deliver us, to set us free, to save us, to give us life, and life abundant.
Which brings us to Jesus.
At the beginning of John’s gospel, the story that ends with the resurrection, John writes about Jesus:
In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome [could not comprehend] it.
Have you noticed that it’s almost impossible to understand what someone else is doing when their desires are fundamentally different from yours? This is why the darkness could not comprehend Jesus.
Jesus was free from rivalrous desire, from envy. He only does what he sees his Father doing. He was a true image bearer, an imitator of his Father in heaven. All of his desires flow from God, the God who is love.
Here’s where the plot gets really interesting…
Love’s desire was that God himself would allow himself to become the world’s first truly innocent victim of scapegoating.
Only, unlike any victim before him, return, alive on the other side of death, resurrected, to confront the “righteous” ones who heaped their sins on him. Forever taking the sting out of death, shining such a light on sin, on rivalrous desire, that it could be seen for the first time what it is – an imitation of the serpent’s desire, that which is not Love, and be sorrowfully repented of.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
We have come to understand that Jesus was present and active in the creation of the world in Genesis, of course. But this text hints at something more. This world – this present system of cultures and civilizations built on scapegoating, was made through the blood of sacrificial victims. Jesus is coming as God, identifying himself with the victims of sinful humanity, becoming one himself. John is saying, in a sense, that not only did Jesus create the world originally, but it was also built on him in his revelation of God himself as the ultimate victim of the scapegoating system. And the world didn’t recognize him. It couldn’t recognize him, so blinded was its sin. God, a victim!? Never!! The gods of this world are always the ones to whom victims are offered.
Not until Jesus hung on the cross, and the Roman Centurion, the tip of the spear for sin our world, looked up at the shining, holy, blameless victim hanging there, and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” It’s no surprise there were earthquakes at the crucifixion of Jesus – something earthshaking, history altering was happening.
And now Jesus is alive. Death couldn’t hold him. The blood soaked earth that held so many victims previously, upon which had been built our broken world, had to open up and let him out. Jesus, bearing the wounds of our sin on his body, so that we might see the truth of the awful darkness of sin every time we encounter him, and see at the same time the absolute fallacy of the fear of death that might keep us from following in his footsteps as his disciples. Jesus, coming to us not with vengeance or retribution for what we’d done to him or all of our other victims, but with forgiveness.
Peace be with you!
Again Jesus said, Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I also send you.
He was sent to us with forgiveness, and we are sent into this world with it as well.
So let us see Jesus, the light of the world, this Easter. Jesus, the innocent victim of our sin, meeting us with the forgiveness of God, setting us free. Jesus, walking out of the grave into a garden from which springs a new creation, one in which we are free to take up our image-bearing role again, imitating him in his imitation of the Father, imitating him in love.
Let us see Jesus everywhere we encounter the goodness of God in our lives, whether in provision as we depend on him or in forgiveness as we ignorantly and willfully crucify him afresh – and see his goodness in the light of the resurrection.
The world of the first creation, the City of Man ruled by the Father of lies, is built on the blood-filled tombs of mythologized victims, their pain and cries for justice silenced by death and buried by the judgments and accusations of their killers.
But not the New Creation.
Because the Prince of that world has met his match in the Prince of Peace, and death has lost its sting, swallowed up in the victory of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The world of the New Creation, the Kingdom of God, is built from a garden growing up around an empty tomb, its once-but-never-again tenant now alive and well, making all things new through his loving justice, announcing forgiveness with his Spirit-filled voice, a voice that roars like a lion and lands like a kiss.