Living with the dead; a poem by William Matthews; and the lessons for Sunday, April 15th

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy and righteous God, you are the author of life, and you adopt us to be your children. Fill us with your words of life, that we may live as witnesses to the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Every culture has its own way of living with the dead. As much as we might like to deny it, we are the products of past leaders whose decisions have shaped the world in which we have grown up, parents who, for better or worse, have shaped our character and peers whose unanticipated passing leaves holes in the fabric of our lives. Even if you don’t have a religious bone in your body, you can’t avoid reckoning with the dead. Welcome or not, they are a part of who you are and you ignore them at your peril.

Not long ago I had the opportunity to watch Coco, the animated film recently produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. The concept for Coco is based on the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. This multi-day celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The dead are permitted to return to the land of the living in ghostly form on this special day as long as their loved ones remember to post their picture among the “ofrenda,” a collection of objects placed on a ritual altar for the dead. For the rest of the year, the dead continue their existence in their own separate realm for as long as they remain in living memory. When the day comes that no one remembers them, they expire and become truly dead. In the movie, twelve-year-old Miguel, who lives with his extended family headed by his grandmother, Coco, dreams of becoming a musician. His dream leads him on a journey into the land of the dead where he encounters his ancestors and struggles with his conflicting loyalties to his musical aspirations and his family. That’s as much as I dare say. I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. In addition to being thoughtful, clever and visually stunning, the story provides a powerful image of what we confess as the “communion of saints.” The commemoration of the Day of the Dead is not so very far removed from our All Saints Day. Just as relatives of past generations live in the shared memories of their living families, so through our lessons, hymns and liturgy, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Debera, David, Peter, Mary and Paul continue to visit us with their witness and teaching. Just as the celebrants in Coco are comforted with the conviction that their loved ones are present with them in their celebration, it is likewise comforting to know that our loved ones are in the company of the saints in light. Yet Coco leaves us with one troubling question: What about those who have no family? What about those no one remembers or cares about? What about the lost pregnancy? The still birth? The infant abandoned at birth and left to die? The unknown and nameless folk who parish from hunger and disease in the corner of some refugee camp?

The good news of Jesus’ resurrection takes us a step beyond Coco. Turns out that there is a life-giving memory far greater than our own. “God is not God of the dead, but of the living,” says Jesus. “For all live to him.” In fact, it is the forgotten, the neglected, the outcast and those with no one to remember them that are foremost in God’s mind and heart. The resurrection of the betrayed, abandoned and crucified Jesus is God’s pledge to bring to completion all lives that have been stunted by poverty and oppression or ruthlessly cut short by violence or illness. Just how that will occur is beyond comprehension. When the scriptural witnesses speak of that new heaven and earth in which the saints of all the ages participate, they must resort to parables, hymns, poems and graphic apocalyptic imagery. Though Jesus assures us that those we deem dead nonetheless live to God, he doesn’t give us any clues about what that life is like. As delightful as Coco’s fanciful depiction of existence beyond the grave surely is, like all human efforts at imagining the mysteries beyond death, it necessarily falls far short of the real thing.

I think Saint John says about as much as can be said in our second lesson for this Sunday: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [God] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” I John 3:2. As I have often said before, this isn’t as much as we might like to know. But it is enough.

Here is a poem by William Matthews speaking of the way the dead continue to interact with the living.

Living Among the Dead

There is another world,
but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard

First there were those who died
before I was born.
It was as if they had just left
and their shadows would
slip out after them
under the door so recently closed
the air in its path was still
swirling to rest.
Some of the furniture came from them,
I was told, and one day
I opened two chests
of drawers to learn what the dead kept.

But it was when I learned to read
that I began always
to live among the dead.
I remember Rapunzel,
the improved animals
in the Just-So Stories, and a flock
of birds that saved themselves
from a hunter by flying in place
in the shape of a tree,
their wings imitating the whisk
of wind in the leaves.

My sons and I are like some wine
the dead have already bottled.
They wish us well, but there is nothing
they can do for us.
Sebastian cries in his sleep,
I bring him into my bed,
talk to him, rub his back.
To help his sons live easily
among the dead is a father’s great work.
Now Sebastian drifts, soon he’ll sleep.
We can almost hear the dead
breathing. They sound like water
under a ship at sea.

To love the dead is easy.
They are final, perfect.
But to love a child
is sometimes to fail at love
while the dead look on
with their abstract sorrow.

To love a child is to turn
away from the patient dead.
It is to sleep carefully
in case he cries.

Later, when my sons are grown
among their own dead, I can
dive easily into sleep and loll
among the coral of my dreams
growing on themselves
until at the end
I almost never dream of anyone,
except my sons,
who is still alive.

Source: Matthews, William, Rising and Falling (c. 1979 by William Matthews, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). William Matthews (1942-1997)  was born in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He earned his BA from Yale University and an MA from the University of North Carolina. He published eleven books of poetry during his lifetime, one of which earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. Matthews served as president of Associated Writing Programs and of the Poetry Society of America. He was also a member and chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. At the time of his death from a heart attack at age fifty-five, he was a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at New York’s City College. You can learn more about William Matthews and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.  You might also want to check out his profile on poets.org.

Acts 3:12-19

This passage is part of a larger narrative that begins with Peter and John going up to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Acts 3:1. The indication here is that the temple and its worship was an important aspect of faith and piety in the infant Jesus movement. Though the composition of Acts took place long after the temple had been destroyed and its worship traditions lost, there is no reason to discount Luke’s account of the early church’s worshiping and gathering there. This anecdote from the Book of Acts testifies to a reality that is hard to grasp from our historical standpoint, namely, that the Jesus movement that ultimately became the church originated as a reform movement within Judaism. Though Luke’s interest throughout the latter chapters of Acts is on the mission to the gentiles, he makes the point that the church’s origin was in Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism.

On their way into the temple, the two disciples encounter a lame beggar asking for alms. Peter tells the man that he has no money, but what he does have he will give him. With that, Peter commands: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Acts 3:6. As the song we all learned in Sunday School goes, “He went walking and leaping and praising God.” Acts 3:8. This show of divine healing did not escape notice of the crowds in front of the temple, who were “filled with wonder and amazement.” Acts 3:10. At this point, Peter addresses the crowd in the words of our lesson.

“Why…do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made [this man] walk?” vs. 12. From beginning to end, Luke is determined not to attribute this or any other mighty work done among the apostles to the apostles. This miracle of healing has numerous parallels to healings Jesus performed in the gospels. The healing power of Jesus manifest throughout his ministry continues unbroken through the community of disciples. It is, in fact, Jesus who healed the man and Peter would have his audience know that.

“The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our Fathers, glorified his servant Jesus…” vs. 13. Again, probably for the benefit of his gentile readers, Luke makes the point that the God proclaimed by the church is not “the god of our common understanding,” a sort of lowest divine common denominator to which everyone short of an atheist can own. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the God of the Exodus, the God of David and the God of the prophets. We do not all believe in the same God and it is not a matter of indifference where God is sought. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is not the anemic, placid and featureless deity of American civil religion. Prayers written with such a high degree of cultural sensitivity as to offend nobody are addressed to nobody. “Nonsectarian prayer” is simply pious slop.

Having said that, Peter’s sermon here alludes to the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush. There God reveals God’s self as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Exodus 3:6. This affirms, as I said previously, that God is known exclusively through God’s word and covenant faithfulness to God’s chosen people. Moses, it seems, is not entirely satisfied with God’s self identification. “If I go to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I tell them? God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Exodus 3:13-14. Depending on the rendering of the Hebrew which is not altogether clear as to the tense of the verbs, this declaration might also be interpreted, “I will be who I will be.” In either case, God will not be limited by any divine name. Surely, God’s saving acts on behalf of Israel are definitive in themselves and in our understanding of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Yet there is a difference between “definitive” and “limited.” A definition is capable of deeper understanding, interpretation and explanation. Only so can the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob possibly be understood as the God of gentile believers in Jesus Christ.

Luke goes further to say that Jesus, the one rejected, handed over to the imperial authorities and put to death is “the Holy and Righteous One,” “the Author of life” attested by God’s raising him from death. Vs. 12. It is the church’s claim that the promises made to Israel and to the world find their fulfilment in Jesus. What does this mean for Jews that did not find in Jesus the fulfilment of the covenant promises? What does it mean for believers of other faiths that do not know or acknowledge Jesus as Lord?

When I was in college I became well acquainted with a Taiwanese Buddhist woman who regularly attended our campus chapel worship and even sang in our worship choir. We discussed our respective faith experiences often, but I was never sure we were understanding each other well. I now know that views of divinity and godhood in the Eastern religions are quite different from orthodox Christian thought. Consequently, I believe we were probably talking past each other much of the time. I do recall, however, that in one of our last conversations she told me that learning about Jesus had helped her become a better Buddhist.

So I was left to wonder about the simple equation we make between salvation and conversion to orthodox belief in Jesus. Is evangelization always about conversion? My friend was never (to my knowledge) converted, baptized and received into membership of any church. She was not a Christian in any proper sense of the word. Yet she seems to have had an encounter with Jesus that deepened and expanded her Buddhist faith and practice. Can Jesus enable Jews to become better Jews, Buddhists to become better Buddhists and Muslims to become better Muslims-just as he enables Christians to become better Christians? Seems to me that disciples of Jesus need not choose between an absolutist position that denigrates all other faiths to the status of false or second class religion on the one hand and sappy, mindless drivel about a “god of our common understanding” on the other. It is enough to do just as Peter does in his sermon: preach Jesus Christ boldly, persuasively and faithfully. Then let that Word of God “multipl[y] the number of disciples” or work in whatever way the Spirit in her wisdom sees fit. Acts 6:7.

Peter goes on to emphasize that he and his fellow apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. This goes to my oft repeated quote from Rich Barger, President of Trinity Lutheran Seminary: “If the tomb wasn’t empty, we’ve got nothing to talk about.” Much of 19th and early 20th Century protestant theology and biblical scholarship has strained to explain the resurrection in terms that do not insult modernity’s creed of empiricism. Whether or not the tomb was empty, is irrelevant or so we are told. The church’s faith, we are assured, is based on the disciples’ encounter with the resurrected Christ. However that might be, it begs the question: was the resurrection an act by which God raised the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from death into life? Or was the resurrection a completely understandable response to the life and death of a person whose example and teachings proved greater than his mortal life?

As I pointed out five years ago in my Easter post of 2013, we need to be careful about asserting more than we know about the resurrection. Though Jesus appears to his disciples with a body that can be embraced, shares in meals and continues to bear the wounds of the cross, that body is clearly more than a resuscitated corpse. When Luke asserts that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God the Father, he does not mean to say that Jesus has gone away to some distant place. Rather, he is saying that Jesus is henceforth more intensely present than ever before. Jesus is God’s right hand at work in the world through his church. Saint Paul understands the church to be the resurrected Body of Christ. The empty tomb testifies that Jesus lives-not as a religious, theological or philosophical principle that outlasted him, but as God’s right hand bringing to completion Jesus’ work of salvation for all creation. Jesus was the face of God for humanity throughout his ministry and continues to be so with greater power and intensity as the resurrected Lord at God’s right hand.

Though Peter makes no citation to the prophets he claims foretold the suffering of the Messiah, his audience was well aware that God suffers along with the afflictions of Israel. See, e.g., Hosea 12:5-9Isaiah 1:4-6Isaiah 42:14-16. Whether a 1st Century Jewish audience would have recognized the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1–9Isaiah 49:1-6Isaiah 50:4-9a and Isaiah 52:13-53:12) from Second Isaiah as messianic is debatable. Nonetheless, they illustrate, as does the witness of the prophets generally, that prophetic faithfulness to the will of Israel’s God necessarily entails suffering, rejection and sometimes martyrdom. That the messiah should share in the suffering of both God’s prophets and God’s self is a legitimate interpretive step.

“Times of refreshing” in verse 19 may be an intentional allusion to Isaiah 32 in which the prophet foretells the coming of “a king who will reign in righteousness.” Isaiah 32:1. At this time, “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.” Isaiah 32:15. The “effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Isaiah 32:17. Peter means to tie everything that Jesus has accomplished into the most far reaching and wonderful prophetic promises growing out of Israel’s covenant with her God. With what other than prophetic language can one speak of the mystery of resurrection?

Psalm 4

This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. The essential elements of its type are:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vs. 1.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 2
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 3.
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 4-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. Using the categories employed by Professor Walter Brueggemann, this psalm falls under the collection of prayers characterized as psalms of “disorientation.” Such psalms insist “that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” Nevertheless, they also insist that all “experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. “It is a curious fact,” Brueggemann notes, “that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.” Ibid. at p. 51. He goes on to say that:

“It is in my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” Ibid. at pp. 51-52.

This Sunday’s psalm does not begin with a lengthy, pious invocation. The psalmist begins his/her prayer with a demand for an answer! Vs. 1. In that respect, s/he is not unlike my son when he was just a toddler. Occasionally I was distracted with one thing or another when he needed my full attention. At those times, he would literally grasp my head and turn my face in his direction to make it clear where he thought my priorities should be. It is with that kind of forcefulness that the psalmist demands the attention of God.

The dilemma of the psalmist appears to be false accusation. “How long shall my honor suffer shame?” vs. 2. That was a very real question faced by the spouse of a friend, a teacher accused of molesting one of his students. During investigation of the allegations, which took several months, he was suspended from his job. Though the law presumes one innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion presumes guilt, often even after a court has declared quite the opposite. This is particularly so when the offense is one we view as the vilest of crimes. Turns out that my friend’s spouse was cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated, but that could hardly compensate for the toll taken by living for months under such damning allegations. That may reflect what the psalmist is experiencing here.

“But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.” vs. 2. The psalmist is confident that God, the final court of appeal, sees all ends and will render a just verdict. However heavily the deck may be stacked against him, no human judgment founded on injustice can stand.

“Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” Vs. 4. The psalmist began with a call to God for an answer to his/her predicament. S/he then turns to address his/her accusers with the assurance that God will judge his/her case justly. Now the psalmist addresses his/her fellow worshipers with words of advice. “Be angry, but sin not.” The greatest temptation faced by persons undergoing false accusation is to become cynical and hateful. The question is whether one will be shaped by the conduct of one’s persecutors or by faith in the God upon whom one depends.

“There are many who say, ‘Oh that we might see some good! Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, O Lord!’” vs. 6. It is, of course, easier to live thankfully when life is blessed and times are peaceful. But the psalmist recognizes that the true measure of a person’s soul is taken in times of trial. Thus, s/he can pray, “Thou has put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” Vs. 7. These fair weather worshipers have no understanding of the joy that comes from confidence in God wrought through bitter experience where such confidence is sorely needed. Thus, as uncertain and ambiguous as the psalmist’s situation is, s/he can nevertheless “lie down and sleep” in peace. Vs. 8.

1 John 3:1-7

For my comments on the First Letter of John generally, see my post for Sunday, April 8, 2018. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul M.N.

The chapter begins with an affirmation of God’s love and promise that we are God’s children even now. Vs. 1. This relationship to God our heavenly Father is not something into which we grow. It is a relationship into which we are born through the waters of baptism. Yet, in a sense, it is something into which we grow. Verses 3-7 read in isolation from the rest of the epistle might suggest that believers in Jesus no longer sin. John already told us quite the contrary in last week’s reading. I John 1:8. The focus here is on the process described in verse 3 where John says, “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” Hope and trust in Jesus re-orientates life away from sin and toward a life of love for the sisters and brothers in Christ’s church. This new orientation is a process by which believers and the church as a whole are transformed into the image of Jesus. Sin is still a reality in the life of a disciple, but its power to enslave is broken by God’s promise of forgiveness.

The verse I find most meaningful among the many meaningful sentences tightly packed into this section is verse 2. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” We know from last week’s lesson that Jesus is the face of God that can be touched, looked upon and seen. So while much remains mysterious about resurrected life, we know that at Jesus’ appearing, we will be like Jesus. We will be the sort of creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God Incarnate. This is what needs to happen in order for us to receive the advent of God’s reign as good news. A kingdom in which all have enough might not look very attractive to those of us who have grown used to having far more than we need. A kingdom in which all are welcome might seem unwelcome to those of us accustomed to flying first class or living in gated communities. To those of us accustomed to being the center of attention, having all attention directed to the Lamb on the throne might prove an unbearable slight. Unless we finally become like Jesus, the kingdom of heaven isn’t going to be much fun.

Of course, the overall message of these verses and of the epistle generally is that God in Christ Jesus is even now working that transformation in us. We may not be aware of it. We might be tempted to doubt it when we try to measure our progress toward the goal of becoming like Christ. The best advice is not to try and measure. Like a tightrope walker, our eyes need to be fixed on the goal, on Christ who beckons us forward. The minute we take our gaze off him and fixate on the abyss beneath us and the distance we have yet to go, we are toast.

Luke 24:36b-48

This is a scene at the tail end of Luke’s series of resurrection encounters throughout this chapter. By this time, Jesus has appeared to the women at the tomb, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and apparently to Simon Peter as well. This resurrection appearance marks the climax in which Jesus appears to all the disciples, shares a meal with them and commissions them to be his witnesses to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. Vs. 47. If we were permitted to read a bit further to the end of the gospel, we would learn that Luke’s story concludes where it began, in the Jerusalem Temple. As I mentioned in my discussion of our lesson from Acts, Luke is concerned to anchor the good news about Jesus firmly within the covenant life of Israel while expanding its reach to all peoples.

Luke takes special pains to emphasize that Jesus is not a “spirit,” but a resurrected human being. It is important that the tomb was found empty (Luke 24:1-3); that Jesus was recognized in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30-31); and that Jesus could be handled by his disciples. Vs. 39. Perhaps, knowing his gentile audience, Luke means to emphasize the physicality of the resurrection to counter other near eastern beliefs such as re-incarnation, the immortality of the soul and transmigration to some eternal “spiritual” world. See Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 376. Not mere survival of death, but a new heaven and a new earth is what the prophets proclaimed and what is inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection.

Verse 44 makes reference to the tripartite “cannon” of Hebrew Scriptures as Law, Prophets and Writings (which included the Psalms). It should be noted that, at Jesus time and thereafter, these writings were not given equal weight of authority. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the Prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “Writings,” the largest of which is the Psalms. Also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther.

Luke tells us that Jesus “opened the minds” of the disciples to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. Our minds are not blank slates when we approach the scriptures. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures and how you read the scriptures depends on what you bring to them. You can find support for incest, rape, genocide, slavery and all manner of beastly conduct in the Bible. Sadly, the Bible has been used in just that manner throughout history. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures, is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus. When we depart from this hermeneutic, we wander into a morass of ethics devoid of compassion, doctrine devoid of faith and slavish bondage to the letter devoid of Spirit.

 

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