LIVING BY The Word

Reflections on the lectionary.






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Publication: The Christian Century
Author: Jinkins, Michael
Date published: April 18, 2012

Sunday, April 22

Luke 24:36b-48

IT WAS THE SPRING of 1988. We had rounded the corner of the liturgical year again, and although I'd preached Easter sermons many times, I was feeling relieved that I was not preaching the Easter service that year. Senior minister Thomas Allsop would preach to the throngs of parishioners and visitors at historic Beechgrove Church of Aberdeen, Scotland. As pastoral assistant, my duty would be to read the scripture text and to pray on the "high holy days."

I was glad, because in the spring of 1988 1 was living through a season of profound doubt.

I remember one Sunday afternoon after worship services when I walked into our house down the road from the church, took my clerical dog collar off, tossed it on the table and said to my wife Deborah: "You know, I don't think I believe anything at all." At the core of my unbelief was the resurrection.

I had prayed and thought long and hard about all of this, but to no avail. Friends had counseled me, but doubt persisted. I was working toward a Ph.D. in systematic theology at the university. My doubt was unimpressed by my research.

Easter arrived, and I did my duty, unbelieving. After I read the Gospel text, Tom climbed the steps up into the pulpit and said something that utterly surprised me. I felt as if he was reading my mind when he remarked, almost offhandedly, at the opening of his sermon: "You know, the disciples couldn't believe it either."

I can still remember the soft Glaswegian lilt of Tom's voice. He paused a long time before continuing with a sermon that became the word of God to me that day and marked the moment when I started my long pilgrimage back to faith.

Tom located me (and, I suspect, many others in that congregation) right beside the earliest followers of Jesus. He noticed what the Gospel writers did not fail to notice but what we often miss: the first followers of Jesus (as Mark observed) were seized with terror and amazement and (as Luke tells us in this story of the appearance of the risen Christ) were "startled and terrified."

It is appropriate (I am tempted to say it's more appropriate today than ever, though I doubt this is true) that belief issues forth from doubt. At the very least, belief and doubt are not opposites. They are intimately related responses in those who are actually paying attention to the amazing acts of God among us.

This is particularly relevant to the passage in Luke's Gospel.

"Touch me and see," Jesus said to the disciples, "for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."

"And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, 'Have you anything here to eat?'"

Seeing a ghost in a dark corridor might require some shifting in our conventional thinking. The appearance of a specter, although surprising, can be explained in all sorts of ways. But when Jesus appears, bodily risen, bearing the scars of his crucifixion, hungry for a nice piece of broiled tilapia, then we have to do more than merely rearrange some intellectual furniture. We have to move into a whole new mental and spiritual dwelling place- and the first disciples were as unprepared as we are to make this transition.

There's a line in my favorite play, The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II of England, says, "In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible."

That's the message that meets us on Easter. Anything is possible. The first disciples did not fail to grasp this fact. If Jesus is raised from the dead, we have to rethink everything we ever thought we knew about what's possible.

At least the first disciples did finally grasp this fact after Jesus met them in flesh and blood, and through the power of his presence among them "opened their minds to understand the scriptures." It was only in his presence that their minds were prepared to be opened. Then they understood "everything written" about the Christ "in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms." Then and only then did the tumblers fall into place. The Messiah had to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. Then and only then did they realize the significance of the fact that "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" and that they were the witnesses of all these things, witnesses sent by Christ because they had been in his presence.

It was a long time after that Easter in 1988 that I told Tom what his sermon had meant to me. I suppose it took a while for me to risk his knowing that his assistant had not believed in the resurrection on that Easter morning.

But I need not have worried. Tom preached the sermon out of his own honest struggles with doubt and belief. He understood that witnesses to the good news of the gospel, if they are trustworthy witnesses, bear in themselves the tracks of their own pilgrimage of faith, a faith that more often than not involves some terror and some surprise, some disbelieving and some wonder- much like the faith of the first disciples.

Sunday, April 29

1 John 3:16-24

THE FIRST THING that struck me about First Presbyterian Church in Dallas was not the imposing building where one of my longtime heroes, John Anderson, once served as senior pastor. No, the first thing that grabbed my attention that day was the church sign: "Justice is love distributed."

I turned that sentence over again and again in my mind as I made my way into the church. It was an appropriate sign for my mission that day. I had come to talk with associate pastor Bob Lively about bringing a group of young people and their adult sponsors from our church in suburban Irving to join First Presbyterian's Stew Pot ministry.

A friend had shared an article with me about the ministry's beginnings. Lively had been walking along the sidewalk in front of the church one day when he passed a homeless man sleeping at the base of the church steps. Lively walked into a colleague's office and said, "That's my Lord out there." Then he, his colleagues and congregational leaders began to ask themselves what they could do to address the problem of homelessness. Over the next few years, they initiated the Stew Pot ministry, which fed the homeless a hot meal every day and provided basic medical care and social services. Later they also offered educational and recreational programs to children and youth.

The young people from our congregation helped with these ministries, as did their parents and others in our congregation. Over the years I've noticed that many of the young people who participated in these programs have become social workers, counselors and leaders of conscience in their congregations and communities. I think there's a direct connection between the sign I saw at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas and the vocations these young people chose as adults. They had seen justice in personal terms, as an extension of love, as a distribution of God's love, and they came to understand love as something tangible and powerful.

"How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" asks the author of 1 John. Sadly, it has become commonplace even for Christians to rule this question "out of order."

Listening to nationally broadcast political debates in the last year, many of us have heard the applause when a candidate championed capital punishment or implied that if a person cannot afford health insurance, society should just let them die. It is disappointing when some of those who applaud believe that they are representing "Christian values."

I wrote a blog post in which I argued that whatever our politics may be and whatever our economic philosophies may advocate, the call of Jesus requires Christians to care for those who are in need. I critiqued the Ayn Rand myth of individualism, an ideology that sees altruism as a con game. A respondent to that post wrote me a lengthy and energetic reply, arguing that Jesus never told us to help the poor.

As I read that reply- which was thoughtfully written and sincere- my thoughts went immediately to 1 John 3:16-24 and to passages such as Matthew 25:31-46, with the disturbing "sheep and goats" parable that is painful to read, not only because it implies that there are lasting consequences for not recognizing or responding to the face of God in those in need, but also because it strikes at the heart of our ability to know with certainty matters of such eternal consequence.

What's missing in some of the current political debate of Christian values is the value of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. However we frame the political, social or cultural dimensions of the challenges we face, we Christians have an obligation to act in a manner consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As 1 John says: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another." George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, said: "We are to be to others what Christ has become for us."

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1958 essay "An Experiment in Love," he reminds us of the transformative potential of love, the creative power of love wielded as a social force, love crafted into direct, nonviolent action that can overcome hatred and violence. Such love, he says, not only lifts up the downtrodden but can also transform oppressors into liberators. Such love "is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart." King paraphrases 1 Corinthians 10:24: "[It] is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor."

If justice is love distributed, what a difference it makes if justice flows from our congregations like a mighty rushing stream.

Author affiliation:

The author is Michael Jinkins, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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