This week we are going to sit with a poem and some scripture focusing on the question of “Who am I?” The poem, written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was an incredibly interesting person who changed the way much of the west looks at Christianity and ethics. But he is mostly known for his book Cost of Discipleship and his letters and papers from prison where he spent the last part of his life as a Nazi prisoner. Literally weeks before he was put to death he penned a poem “Who am I?”
For me this is one of the more powerful writings he had and it shows a struggle that is very raw and very real for most people. Who are we? Are we the people we know ourselves to be, or the person others see ourselves as? For Bonhoeffer, this was ultimately a futile question, because the only one who knows us completely is God.
For many, of us the fact that we do not fully know or understand ourselves causes a great deal of frustration and difficulty in our lives. Starting early as children and intensifying in most of the transition times, we are faced with that very difficult question and often the answer is illusive. What makes this so illogical is the fact that if there is anyone we should know, it is ourselves! But alas . . .
For many the struggle to understand oneself makes it impossible to have faith. For others how they see themselves, whether that is positive or not, can also get in the way of seeing God. What is interesting in Bonhoeffer’s poem is that he recognizes that there is the person who he is, there is the person who he tries to show others, there is the person others see, but ultimately the only one who sees him fully is God.
It is in the knowledge that God knows him better than even himself where he finds the comfort and strength to carry forward, knowing that since God knows fully, God will extend his Grace because more important than the question of Who am I is the comfort of knowing that God fully knows who we are.
If a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? A great question but is it helpful. The better question I think is if it matters if a tree falls in the woods and makes a sound even if you do not hear it. This is where perspective plays a big role. If you do not study the science of sound, nor care about how sound affects the world around, whether it makes a sound or not does not matter because it is irrelevant. But if you studied such a thing, then it obviously is important, and, in fact, the whole fact that you did not hear it might be even more important for observation than if you were physically present to see it.
When you see the ramifications to a tree falling in the woods, naturally, we begin to see that a tree falling actually has a great impact on the ecosystem and we can posit that the initial sounds, along with the vibrations and other attributes of the tree falling are crucial for the animals and other forest things. When we see the results of the tree falling we can only assume all the details and what it was, but even if we saw the whole thing happen, our view would be limited to our location, viewpoint, and understanding.
This is crucial in understanding the Easter story. As many agnostics and atheists might ask, “how do you know that Christ was God, how do you even know that this story is true?” This is a hard question for many faithful people, but it definitely is connected to that understanding of the tree falling in the woods. Because we did not physically hear the message, we know that it happened not only because of the witnesses of those who were there, but in the aftermath of how we see God working.
As people, we often want things to be proven to us; we are often uncomfortable with mystery and when it comes to things we believe, we definitely are far more comfortable with what we see or know. This is exemplified through the story of Thomas, who despite knowing Christ intimately, doubted because he was not there when Christ first appeared.
For Thomas, at that point the sound was not important to him because he did not think it possible and could not fathom Christ coming back. But that did not mean it could not happen and when Christ confronted him and Thomas found assurance Jesus admonishes him saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29b)
In Christianity, there is a premium placed in not seeing but trusting and believing. We know that Christ died and was raised because we can trust in the witnesses of his follower and the promises of God. Just because we did not see does not mean that it did not happen nor does it lessen its importance. In fact, as we live, we live into the trust and direction that God lays out, trusting in the mystery of faith.
Have you ever wondered where the word Easter came from; I have! The problem is that the word has no direct derivation, so there is some speculation that it is connected to the Anglo-Saxon spring god Eostre, but it is based on obvious similarities and interesting coincidences. It is funny to read many articles on the topic. In reading those articles you can tell where the writer is coming from based on their bias to make Easter either more Christian or not. But that is the nature of speculation; without something firm and conclusive you can make things out to be what you want.
We see this often in the church, especially when it comes to the Bible. This is because we tend to forget that the Bible was not written as a factual, didactic history; rather, it is written as a witness. As we know with witnesses, the perspective is always skewed by bias and viewpoint. This is seen most relevantly in the four Gospels and the differences in the story they give about Christ.
This does not make them any less relevant or true; it just helps us to see God more fully and seek to discern what is the most important part of the story. This is important to remember when we think about Easter and the Celebration of the Resurrection. To keep things new and fresh many pastors, myself included, choose different parts of the story to look at. Sometimes it is the race between Peter and the Beloved Disciple, other times it is Mary. But regardless to other aspects of the story, what remains consistent in all of the Gospels, and supported by the letters is that Christ is raised and lives! This resurrection and life gives us hope and reminds us that our God will do what ever it takes to show us love!
This is why it is always interesting when people pronounce that all Christianity is, is a collection of pagan holidays rebranded. While there are always cultural aspects that may steal from one tradition or another, the ultimate truth of any holy day is the message that goes with that day. This is why knowing where the word Easter comes from is really just an exercise in curiosity.
But, if there is a connection to a Pagan religion, doesn't that ultimately further the witness of the day? Think about it this way. Core to the Christian Witness, especially in the reformed tradition, is the fact that God is present and active in the world. There is also the reality that God is bigger than any of us. This means that God may have, well, probably did, use the popular expressions to help people understand God’s sacred message. In other words, what matters is that we know and believe in Christ Jesus, and anything that helps us to understand and develop a relationship with our God is ultimately a good thing.
It is interesting, though many secular aspects have crept into the Easter celebration (I’m talking about you, Easter bunny!), unlike most Christian holidays, the Easter celebration is at its core a Christian Holy day where people will seek out a church and will look to hear that message of hope. Some people may decry this action, but the reality is we must be thankful that for a couple hours in a year people hear directly this message of Hope and Love, witnessing to the resurrection.
John 20:1-18 Colossians 3:1–4
One of the questions that seem to be popping up in both the religious and secular world is whether or not church holds relevancy anymore. It is a provocative question! But behind this question is something much deeper and powerful and that is how we are connecting or not connecting with the world around us. This is why we have spent most of season of Lent exploring relationship, both within the church as well as in our communities. We cannot be relevant unless we are firmly in relationship with each other and with God.
The two passages that we will explore this Easter hit on the core of the relevancy question because they both emphasize the foundational understandings of what it means to be a Christian and, by derivation, a Christian community. The first reading is the account of Mary Magdalene’s Witness of the Empty Tomb from the Gospel of John. This is a very interesting version of the story since it starts with Mary telling the disciples of the disappearance of Jesus and the Disciples wanting to confirm it for themselves. Interestingly, they went in, but when the scripture says “they believed” it was not stating that they believed that Christ had risen; rather, it was a statement that they believed what Mary said to be true. That is important because as they left, most likely confused, Mary stays.
It is important that Mary finds the empty tomb, it is confirmed, because when Christ reveals himself to her later and then she goes back to witness, the disciples know that they can trust this witness. It seems convoluted, but the story of the resurrection is first and foremost about recognizing and celebrating Christ in all his Glory. But secondarily, the Bible is concerned with how individuals and the community react to this event.
In a very basic way, we see that Jesus knew the disciples were not ready to fully understand the message, so primes the situation by using Mary first to gain their trust, and secondly to appear to her, who would be the most receptive and willing to accept the revelation. Moreover, Mary’s witness helps the disciples to get themselves ready for when Christ appears to them. This helps the disciples to reflect on the whole story and “put the pieces together” so they could come to understand fully who Christ was.
We recognize the importance of witness, community, and relationship within the resurrection story. Without Mary’s unquestioned love of Christ, she would never have been able to recognize him. Without the trust of her community they would have never believed her, and without all of their relationships with Christ and each other they would have never been able to tell the story sharing the salvific witness.
The Easter Sunrise service like the late Christmas Eve service are among my favorite services all year. There are many reasons why I like the services. Partly, because they feel more intimate, but there is something else; they are not services of convenience or routine. Actually, it is a struggle for me to get going and be fully awake at 6:30 in the morning! But something happens every year standing outside with the morning chill with out distraction or really anything other than celebrating God.
The roots of the sunrise celebration go back to the earliest Christians. As we know, Easter is really the only unique Christian holiday that goes back to the first converts. While it follows the Passover celebration and has other Jewish influences, it is the celebration of the resurrection and bears witness to the divinity of Christ and God’s salvation of all humankind.
In the early church, the Service of the Resurrection was a key moment for new believers because they would pray all Saturday night and be baptized Sunday Morning. The Easter Vigil is a direct descendant of that practice. The Easter Vigil takes the story or Christ and through song, meditation, prayer and worship brings individuals to a deeper understanding of Christ. A great example of this can be seen at St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Episcopal church who holds their Easter Vigil on April 19 from 8:00 PM.
Through church history that vigil started at various times, moving at one point all of the way to sunrise on Holy Saturday! But by the middle ages the practice solidified into much of what we see today. The baptisms started to be done at different times, and we were left with large Easter celebrations. Now I have to say I have nothing against a large Easter celebration! I love that service too, but for very different reasons.
In the reformed tradition, there was a general de-emphasis on Holy Days. This is because we take a more general understanding that the resurrection is at the core of everything that we teach and preach, so while some elements and certain pageantry continued, some of these special practices were lost. Recently (I’m talking now over the past 50 or so years) we have begun to rediscover some of the lost services, recognizing that they are important, as well as creating new traditions out of the old, like the sunrise service.
OK, so some may see it as a enjoying the celebration of Easter without the work and penitence of the vigil, but in a very real way it is about seeing Easter in a fresh and new way. When those who were new to the faith were baptized on Easter, they understood that their life would be starting anew, just as the day was starting fresh. When we come to a sunrise service, we pay tribute to the prayers and vigil, but most importantly, we reflectively look at ourselves and ask how committed we are to our lives with Christ.
This week we celebrate Palm Sunday. For many including clergy, biblical scholars, and theologians Palm Sunday is an awkward holiday. First, since it is this huge celebration right before Easter some feel as if it takes away from the message of Easter. Second, much like the first, many worry that because most people jump from Palm Sunday to Easter they skip over the passion that sets an important context for the resurrection. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, while it is witnessed in all four gospels, each witness gives a very different interpretation of the story. This leaves many in a quandary as to how to have a faithful witness of this day.
Unlike Christmas, which enters the Christian Calendar as a holy day much later in history, Palm Sunday is also not an initial celebration of the church. However, it enters the Christian Calendar fairly early in the tradition, around the fourth century. Like many Holy Days, the celebration of the palms was fairly devoid of the contemporary pomp and circumstance. Rather it was a pilgrimage, usually public, carrying the palms that symbolized the Christ’s victory over evil. The history of how we have celebrated Palm Sunday also leads to the awkwardness of the celebration because it has evolved into something that could very easily be seen as a stand-alone holiday almost trumping Easter.
So what the lectionary and many churches have done to step back from the pomp and celebration of Palm Sunday is to cram the entire holy week into the Sunday before Easter. As you can imagine, often these services are far more “educational” then spiritual or even inspirational. While there is a lot to be said for making convenience, there is something very real and important to each day of holy week. Moreover, there is something about the story of Palm Sunday that causes every individual to ask where they are in the crowed and examine themselves one more time to ask where they stand.
The four accounts of the story are very different, In Matthew the people in Jerusalem do not know who Christ is, and need to ask. In Mark, it was kind of like a parade that processed though town and left. In Luke, Jesus recognizes and names the reality that if had he not come into town with the fanfare, he would certainly be killed. Finally, John, as it usually does, is the most blatant. In John the crowd is not necessarily followers or “believers” as is alluded to in Mark, or citizens of Jerusalem as getting wrapped up in the fanfare of Matthew, but rather the crowd that witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus. This meant that the crowd was becoming almost sycophantic to the point that the Pharisees witness, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”  which leads to plotting as to how they might take Christ down.
One thing that all four Gospels agree on is that whatever happened on that day, it was part of the preparation and it was never supposed to be equal to Easter. More then anything Palm Sunday was set aside to be a day of deep reflection witnessing to Christ along with reflecting on where we stand with God.
As we recognize that I all of the accounts, the same people that celebrated Christ were just as quickly persecute Him during the passion. This is something that we must ask ourselves, could we have been one who turned their backs on Christ? This is why I always like to celebrate Palm Sunday because it asked me in my joy and celebration, do I put God first?
The story of the “triumphal entry” or Palm Sunday that we focus on this year is the witness from Matthew. As I have said before, each Gospel gives us a very different perspective.
For Matthew, the entry into Jerusalem was a whirlwind experience. Much like a tornado that blows into town without much warning, Jesus enters Jerusalem catching many of the residents off guard. The fact that people were caught off-guard is both strange and revelatory since Christ would have been well known by this time. So the fact that there were those who did not know Christ points to something more in this stories meaning.
In the case of the triumphal entry, we know that this something is both connected to the temple, and the way people view and relate to Christ. As I read this story, I would argue that it is an apocalyptic witness, saying far more about the second coming of Christ then anything else.
We know this because of what happens when you take the story within the context of the whole book, especially taking into account the second half of the story that the lectionary often leaves off. We remember that Matthew is most likely written post the destruction of the Temple and many people believe that the rapture will be coming soon. So preparation and purity are very important. So within this apocalyptic view, we see that God’s judgment against the people and ultimate destruction of the temple is due to the unfaithfulness of his people.
Think about the text, while the account says that many joined in the celebration, most after the crowds passed were left asking what actually just happened. Had they known Christ, or even understood the prophecy, this would not have been a question! Nevertheless, mere mention gives insight into how this whirlwind tour ends and why it ends with one of the few expressions of anger Jesus shows in the entire bible, that is, the turning of the tables in the temple. Ultimately, the judgment of the temple was a direct result of the unfaithfulness and wrong priorities of the people.
The wrong-headed priorities, that allow individuals to justify selfishness instead of faithfulness, will result in not only a destruction of the temple but a harsh judgment from Christ. For Matthew, the fact that the people did not listen to Christ and did not “know” him, was a sign that that they were unfaithful. Thus, in the end the question that we learn is how we will welcome Christ and not just celebrating because the crowd did, but knowing Christ when He comes.
The Passover Seder for the Jewish community is one of the most important, if not the most important celebrations in the tradition. The Seder marks the celebration of the exodus from Egypt and the new life in God. With a very focused celebration of Palm Sunday during the morning service, this week for the Gathering we will embark on having a “Christian Seder” following a book written by Barbara Thompson.
For me, the first time I did a Seder meal was one of the most insightful experiences in my ministry because I really had the opportunity to understand the context of the last supper. I think it is easy to think of the last supper to be this event that had the mere focus of Jesus breaking bread, but the context adds power and depth to the message.
It is kind of like having an incredible piece of cheese and having an incredible piece of cheese with the best bottle of wine you've ever had, either way the experience is good, it is just that the second is much more full.
Knowing the context for the Lords Supper allows us to see that the Lords supper is placed within a celebration of faithfulness: God’s faithfulness towards us, and our faithfulness towards God. Moreover understanding the tradition of the Seder helps us to see how God is integral within the life, both in the good and the bad.
For the believers in Christ this is crucial, especially in the early church since being subversive and being Christian were synonymous. Meaning that there was an accepted difficulty in following Christ, but that was OK because the ultimate good was worth it!
The Seder has much more to do with Christianity then just the connection to the connection to the Passover. According to some Church historians, many of the early Christian Worship and celebrations were directly modeled after the Seder Haggadah. This means that much of the way the early church worshiped was around food and teaching, but more then that, there was a strong reminder of God’s faithfulness and desire of our love.
I hope that you are able to join us this Sunday. I know it will be an experience that will help you to better understand the Last Supper, and help you grow in your faith.
As we move through Lent, one of the themes that is very present is the need for relationship. Whether that is with other people or with God, developing and trusting that relationship is central and crucial to developing faith. That is why I find movies like Noah and others like it to be so difficult to watch.
Now I have to say, first and foremost, that I think that had this not had a biblical theme, I doubt it would have made much of a splash. The acting was OK, and many of the effects really reminded me of what one of my youth 13 years ago said to me when I was putting together my first church website “Just because you can have cool effects, does not mean it should.” Unfortunately, the pornographic violence, with which Hollywood is overly obsessed, missed the real struggle in the relationship between Noah and God. In fact, missing that relationship, the conversations, and Noah’s unmistakable righteousness takes the story down a very different path than its purpose within the book of Genesis. Granted, this is merely supposed to be entertainment, though they are marketing it to churches.
After seeing it, though I do not condone banning any movie or book, I can understand why many Muslim and some Christian countries are banning it. Not only does it paint a Biblical leader in a very different reality than what the Bible teaches, but also it misses crucial teachings. One of the biggest pieces it misses is the covenant relationship, partially this is a recognition from God that this will never happen again, but also a promise on our mortal side to follow and keep the faith. Something we continually forget!
Unfortunately, for much of Christianity this is the problem. We forget that the covenants between God and humanity are two-sided, and though God seems to always keep his side, we continually turn away, seeking to please ourselves or design a religion that suits our own self-interest.
Many who seek churches and spirituality do so under the pretenses of humanistic goals. Many churches are established to serve people’s needs, wants and desires rather than doing whatever is possible to cultivate and nurture the faith. Fortunately, we have the ability, as a congregation, to be a witness to something more. We can teach faithfulness and walk alongside people who are seeking. Share with them the love of God and show them new ways.
Noah, the movie, is entertainment, and should be taken as such. As Christians, it does make our job harder to teach the love and passion God has for all of mankind and further God’s call for us all to be in relationship with him and each other, building up the community of God.
Remember this line “Your body is a temple”? Usually this is used for making a statement about what you put into you body or how you take care of it. For those reasons, thinking of your body as something sacred is helpful. However, the obsession with the body is often taken to extremes. Biblically, the problem that the body imposes is that at the end of the day, the body is incapable of being separated from this world. As scripture says, “it was formed from dust and to dust it will return.” But the spirit, the core of who we are will continue and live far beyond the limitations of our bodies.
It is interesting to think of the body worship of today and realize that it was the same so many years ago; well, maybe not the exact same - they did not have Photoshop! But the essence of living for the body was ingrained within the Greco-Roman and Hebrew cultures. The problem that this body worship posed for the Christians, and essentially all people of faith, is that the body has distinct limitations, mortality being among the biggest.
But beyond mortality the body has other limitations including the judgments of others, our self-esteem, and so on. There are physical limitations, health limitations and the like. All of this together makes us begin to recognize just how imperfect the body is, even if you look like Adonis!
The Spirit, conversely, is something that is neither bound to this world nor imperfect. In fact the spirit, which is the core essence of who we are is the part of us that is the most important and that is the part the will abandon our bodies when we join with the Father in heaven. Now I know that sounds overly doctrinal, but if you think for a moment about your body and your spirit, you can begin to see how they are disconnected. As simple as your spirit being able to control your impulses, or conversely when your spirit is tired and your body takes control.
The importance of the separation of the spirit from the body for Paul is actually fairly simple: the spirit is breathed into the body, the first breath we take. A midwife once said that she would see that every time she delivered a baby and they took that first breath, there was a powerful energy. As she described it, I could not help but liken it to the feeling at the moment of someone’s death, the times I had been present for that. Whether it is the first breathe or last, the spirit dwells within and becomes the life and the essence of our being.
This means that the body is a tool. It is a tool that will give us strength and carry us through all the parts of our life, but when it is time to move on, our spirit abandons our body to rejoin with God. This means that the body, as we know it, is actually a place where the spirit dwells and then, yes, it is a Temple. But not one that is to be taken and made to be perfect, but is used as a tool in living this gift of life, which God has given to us. This means that we have to be good care takers of the body, but know that it is God whom we worship.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen