Resurrection in community

In the artwork of first centuries, for example, we see a striking difference between western and eastern portrayals of the resurrection of Christ. From western art we see pictures focusing almost exclusively on the risen Christ. Jesus emerges from the tomb alone as if to say, “Look at me! I made it!” Light glows from behind him. Whatever else there is in the painting, it is background material. Resurrection is primarily and exclusively about Jesus. And we declare “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual.[3]

A good example is The Resurrection by Italian artist Andrea di Bonaiuto found in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, Italy.

Contrast this western artwork with the East. From eastern Christians, we see greater emphasis on the resurrection community. Resurrection is depicted more as a corporate event in the overcoming of death, evil and sin. Without denying the work of Christ in all of this, the implications are emphasized. So, it’s not so much about Jesus-the-individual conquering the grave as it is about all of creation rising from death to new life.

A good example is the painting outside the Church of St George in Romania.

The Eastern interpretation makes sense of challenging scriptures as one from the Gospel of Matthew; at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection: The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.[4]  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus has implications for the whole people of God. Including us.

Both our tradition and the bible challenge our western bias. Instead of focusing only on the individual, we can learn how to be, and embrace being, in community.

Being and remaining in community is not easy. Relationships are messy. We would rather avoid having a crucial conversation.[2]We would rather not commit to a community because it’s easier to just leave when it gets tough. Especially when we can fall back to our individual, autonomous, private lives and independence. We would rather escape the boiling cauldron of community life.

We need to come clean with our natural bias towards individuality. That we value it. Really value it.

Let’s look briefly at today’s scripture. The story we read from Acts, chapter eleven, is actually a repeat of the same story in the previous chapter ten in Acts. The story line remains consistent: Peter has a vision from God and then meets three emissaries from Cornelius. And the message in both is the same:

Peter is called by God to expand his vision and mission of the Gospel to include Gentiles. Peter is challenged to overcome his stereotypes and distinctions between the Jews and Gentiles, and see God’s mission in more universal terms. No issue was more important to the early church than whether their newfound faith was intended only for Jews, or whether it was to include Gentiles while allowing them to remain Gentiles.[5]

The same story, told twice, in successive chapters. In fact, some of the words in chapter eleven are taken verbatim from chapter ten. Why did the author repeat the same story? Obviously this story was very important to the early church that it was re-told. Maybe a way to understand why, is to note what is different between the two. What’s the difference?

What changes in chapter eleven is the confrontation with ‘the apostles and the believers’ in Jerusalem.[6]Peter has been called before them, has heard their criticism, and now responds to it by telling them the story first conveyed in chapter ten. The difference is the context; and that context is Peter being called to task for his eating profane foods with those uncircumcised Gentiles.

We learn from the early church that believers were not reluctant to voice their differences. Peter did not escape. He didn’t go hide in the anonymity of a large shopping mall, airport or Caribbean vacation. He didn’t jump in his fishing boat and disappear on Lake Galilee.

Peter entered Jerusalem and squarely faced his critics. Too often, we try to be ‘nice’ at church. We try not to be confrontational. We try to sidestep controversy. We closet our differences. We paint smiles on our Sunday-morning faces. Even as we know deep down there may be an elephant in our collective room, and even as we suspect in our hearts irreconcilable issues. And, if we can’t handle this posturing, we leave. Get out of dodge. Back to being individuals in our private lives.

This text reminds us that controversy and difference needs to be voiced, not avoided. Conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored and swept under the rug. Living in Christ does not mean putting our heads in the sand. It means looking each other in the eye. It means accepting the other is unique, different from you.

What does this mean for us? First, when we say that we participate in the resurrection of Christ, we begin to see with fresh eyes the whole world not as risk or threat but as gift, invitation and trust. There’s what we call a ‘mutuality’ that informs our relationships—the way we relate with one another and especially those whom we may dislike or are fearful of.

In other words, mutuality can be described this way: what I see in you I see in me; what I see in me I see in you; seeing myself both in those I love and those I dislike.

Jean Vanier, the creator of the L’Arche Communities around the world, died a couple of weeks ago. He was the founder of homes for the disabled after he realized that all people, especially those with severe disabilities, have something important to offer to the world. In his writing entitled, “Ten Rules for life to become more human”, he said:

“The big thing about being human is to meet people. We need to meet people who are different and discover that the other person is beautiful.”[7]

To make this discovery for ourselves, especially in people we dislike, we need to practice paying attention for the gift in others.

The disciples are commanded by Jesus to love one another.[8]The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus means the focus will shift to the community. The spotlight of faith is now not on some heavenly, other-worldly reality. It is on the Body of Christ. The focus now is not so much the individual, historic Jesus. Jesus now lives in the Body of Christ—the church, the community, wherever the Spirit of the living God blows in all creation, in every time and every place. This is the expansive vision of being a follower of Christ today, in real time.

When we share the Peace of God—a tradition in our preparation for receiving Communion—we can practice paying attention to the diverse ways in which we communicate that Peace of Christ and participate in vastness of Christ’s presence. We practice how it is to love. An analogy, you might say. Because we are all different.

And just because some may wish not to share the Peace in the same way as you do—shaking hands, or giving/receiving a hug—doesn’t mean they don’t want to participate.

Our intention comes from the heart. The desire to participate emerges from inside of us. I suggest the first thing we pay attention to is eye contact. When we turn to the person beside us look them in the eye. These eyes of ours are windows into the soul. They reveal this good intention in our heart to communicate the love and peace of Christ. This is when you can say, “the Peace of Christ be with you.”

The second thing is, pay attention to what you do with your hands. When you open them outward and upward you are giving a cue that you are open for a hug. Mind what the other is doing with their hands after making eye contact. Are they also opening their arms? If not, they are giving you a cue not to hug. What else can you do?

Your hands can come palms together in a prayerful pose—the namaste. While keeping eye contact and bringing your hands together over your heart, you may bow slightly, saying, “Peace be with you.” You can also give a fist-pump/shoulder-pump if you do not wish to shake hands. Obviously if both of you are reaching to each other in a motion to shake hands, your cues are mutual.

Two assumptions to review: First, please do not assume everyone will do it the same way as you. That’s Community 101 and it applies to lots of things. Pay attention to body language. There’s more to this liturgical act than saying the words. Second, just because you receive different cues from the other doesn’t mean they don’t wish to participate in conveying the love and peace of  Christ to you. We just have to work harder at discovering and respecting their way.

There are various ways we can communicate to another that we participate in the life-giving activity of God in the world that God so loved. And continues to love, through us.

 

[2]Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High (Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2012), p.11-14

[3]Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Resurrection (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org), 21 April 2019.

[4]Matthew 27:52-53

[5]Stephen D. Jones in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009)  p.451-455.

[6]Acts 11:1-3

[7]Jean Vanier cited in Canada Lutheran Vol 34 No3 (April-May 2019), p.8

[8]John 13:31-35, the Gospel reading for Easter 5C, Revised Common Lectionary.

Do we see the elephant?

You think when something happens frequently in a short period of time, perhaps I should pay attention to it? A sign? A reflection of something happening on a deeper level?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended a couple of administrative church meetings reviewing minutes taken at their annual meetings. One was the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA) and the other was our very own monthly council meeting. And, in both cases, I sat around a large table while members studiously reviewed the draft minutes. In the silence, you could hear the crickets.
“Fine!” “Good job!” “Everything looks great!” “Thank you!” “Yup!” — the responses came rapid fire. And then — in both cases — someone caught it. “Ahh, it says at the top ‘Annual Meeting 2013’. Wrong year. Minor detail. Yet significant. It was worse at the CCCA where there were two different incorrect years on the front page highlighting different text!
I mention this not to slight our very capable secretaries, because it is the responsibility of the entire council to ensure the final copy is in order. But, I say this to emphasize how easy it is to see, but not to see. How very human it is — natural — to stare something straight in its face, and not have it register. 
In the Liquor Store the other day I was looking for Jessica’s favourite white wine from Chile. So I went to the South America section, where it always is. And I couldn’t find it! I stood there for an entire minute rubbing my chin and scanning the shelves. Finally I went to the desk somewhat frustrated. The attendant smiled and said, gently, “We have it.” I said, “No, you don’t.” He calmly led me to the exact same shelf where I stood staring at — I don’t know what. But there it was!
Psychologists might point to the need for us to be more ‘mindful’, in each and every moment of our lives. People of faith might consider how we are present to God’s presence always in our lives. There is often a disconnect, is there not, between my perception and reality? Some have called it ‘the elephant in the room’ that everyone feels is there but for whatever reason refuses to name it, address it.
The Gospel text for this last Sunday of Easter, is about Jesus’ prayer to God (John 17). It is, what liturgists call ‘intercessory prayer’ — that is the genre, or form, that this scripture takes. Prayer is the context. Jesus prays for his disciples, as they take over the mantel of responsibility for Jesus’ mission on earth, after Jesus ascends to heaven.
Since the time Jesus gave this ‘high priestly prayer’ over two thousand years ago, the church — the Body of Christ, the people of God — has continued to pray. I like that. Because no where that I can find in the Gospels does Jesus command his disciples to ‘worship’ him, to ‘praise’ him, to engage in the act of worship to which we contemporary Christians have come to narrowly define our Christian lives ‘on Sunday morning’. But Jesus does say, very often, ‘follow me’ and ‘pray’ and ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (referring to the Holy Communion), and ‘love your neighbour’.
What we are talking about here, is a lifestyle of following Jesus. And with this understanding, I believe, we can get a better handle on what Paul means when he says to “pray always” or “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This phrase makes no sense if we see prayer merely as ‘asking God for things we want’ — how is it physically possible to do this? 
Prayer is not about trying to get God to change, according to our grocery list of desires and wants. Rather, when we pray what we are doing is asking God to change us. Prayer is about allowing God to change us. Always be open in your connection with God in Christ to being changed, transformed, grown in your own life into the image of God and the person God created you to be — regardless of what or for whom we are praying.
Problem is, some of us may be thinking: why would I want to change my life? There isn’t anything that needs changing. I am happy the way things are. Why would I want that? 

We may not able to be always ‘mindful’. But at least, could we not confess our sin in not hearing the voice of God calling us, not seeing and accepting the answer to prayer already right in front of our eyes?  I think it was Meister Eckhart who defined sin as simply refusing — by our actions and thoughts — to see ourselves as God sees us. What is the elephant in our room? What are we doing that is disconnected from what God is doing and what God sees in our lives?

We come to church with our pains, sufferings, hurts. But we also come to be Christ’s hands, heart and mind to those around us. We don’t come just to see ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘What can I get out of this experience?’, like a consumer. We don’t come just to have my selfish needs, social or otherwise, met. Rather, we come to pay attention to those others who are hurting in any way.
What does God see? How are we paying attention to those in our midst with mental illness? Are we giving any time or effort of love to these people? How are we paying attention to those who come with marital or relational problems? Are we attending, with compassion, to this need at all? How are we paying attention to those who come, who are financially poor or new-comers to Canada, or students with all their complex needs? Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do when we come to church is notice the elephant poop in the corner and complain about that. Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do is talk about what colour paint we should apply to the walls of the room.
After eighteen years of pastoral ministry and leadership, one of the top-rated questions that has come my way, is: How do I know the voice of God? How do I know that it is God’s voice speaking? How is that in prayer, God communicates to us? How do we know it’s God and not just my ego?
I wonder whether it’s the elephant in the room syndrome that so much defines or characterizes church life today. Perhaps the answer is staring us in the face. And we just don’t want to see it. We don’t want to see it or confess it because we are afraid. And we are addicted. Addicted to a lifestyle that is all about consumption. Getting more. And more. And more. For me.
The Executive Director of the Mennonite Church in Canada, Rev. Dr. Willard Metzger, said during the “Justice Tour 2015” stop in Ottawa last week, that those of us who are older are addicted. And it is much harder for us in the second half of life to divest of our material addictions, compared to most young people today who will never earn the kind of pensions that, in general, retired folks today are enjoying; young people whose starting incomes will likely not increase to the same degree that was the case a generation or two ago; young people, more of whom will be working at full time jobs but barely making enough to enjoy the kinds of lifestyles most of us older people are enjoying today. Yes, we are addicted. And we don’t want to let go of this. And we don’t want to make sacrifices along these lines. Not easily, anyway.
National Bishop Susan Johnson (ELCIC) said at the same meeting that ‘the cries of the poor, this is the voice of God in our time. Are we listening?’
In v.18 of the Gospel text, Jesus’ prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” While Jesus also says the disciples “do not belong to the world” (v.14), this does not mean escape from the world. While we affirm values and beliefs that do not correspond with the world’s values, we are not called to abandon the world, disengage nor hide from it, however bad it is. Because, Jesus prays that his disciples “may have Christ’s joy made complete in themselves/among themselves” (v.13). The joy that Christ gives is not found in escaping the world’s reality, but on the ground, in community engaging the world with all of its distorted powers, pressures and conflict.
God’s voice calls us into the world, not away from it. At the same time, God does answer our prayers, in a sense, because God already knows what we need (Matthew 6:7). And it’s a consistent answer, that we will read and hear about more in the coming season of Pentecost. God’s answer is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). And the Holy Spirit is all about power. So, God’s answer to all our praying, is the power of God to do what is right, even if it means a sacrifice of part, or all, of our lifestyle and our privilege. God gives power more than answers (1) to change ourselves for the better, and for the sake of the world that God so loves (John 3:16).
May we be faithful in listening to God’s voice, and responding in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s answer to prayer. We’ve prayed, in this morning’s service. Now, we are called to follow Jesus into our lives, away from this place.
(1) read especially chapter seven in Richard Rohr’s, “Breathing Under Water”

“Who’s voice is it?”

I’ve used this exercise with children during worship a couple of times with success, although it does take some preparation: Before worship, you will need to ask a couple of parents/guardians of children attending the worship service to participate; they will need to stand in the vestry or a room right beside the chancel area where they won’t be seen, but they can be heard. They will also need to listen to your cue, so they can call the name of their child at the appointed time. This children’s sermon can be used effectively when the theme of the day centres on ‘hearing the voice of God’ — when Jesus talks about being the shepherd of the sheep who recognize his voice (John 10:16); or, when Samuel first confuses God’s voice for the prophet Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-20). An appropriate hymn, “Hear I Am, Lord” (WOV #574) can follow

Good morning! The Lord be with you!!
When you can’t see someone, can you still tell who is calling you? Let’s say the person is in another room and they call your name — can you tell who it is?
Let’s see if you can tell, okay? Let’s hear someone’s voice …..
Who’s voice is that? …. Your parent! Good! Let’s hear another ….
Who’s voice is that? …. And that’s your grandmother! Wow! You’re really good!
How can you tell who’s voice it is when you can’t see them with your own eyes? …..
You know them, already. Right? You’ve spent enough time with them so that even when you can’t see them, you can still recognize their voice.
Our relationship with Jesus is a little bit like that. Because we don’t always see Jesus, we can still learn to recognize/to know his voice. How do you suppose we can learn to know the voice of God? What are the kinds of things we can do to get good at hearing Jesus’ voice? ….
We can spend time in prayer. We can sing the songs of worship. We can be with other friends from church. We can read and hear the stories in the bible. We can learn about God in Sunday School. We can help others in need. We can practice looking for God whenever we feed the hungry and help the poor. Etc. Etc.
There are all sorts of ways we can get good at knowing God, so that when Jesus call us, we’ll be ready to hear him, and do what is asked of us.
Let’s pray: Dear Jesus, thank you for knowing and loving us like a good friend. Help us to get to know you, so that we can tell it’s you, when you call us. Amen.