Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I Will Wipe Away Every Tear

This coming Sunday’s reading from John’s Revelation couldn’t be more appropriate, given the terrible week we endured last week. We were shocked into silence, and then burst with outrage with the explosions at the marathon. While we were dealing with the vulnerability that event engendered in us, West, Texas experienced a horrific explosion that killed, injured, and devastated. This, at least, appeared to be some sort of accident, but again we’re reminded of how tenuous life can be. Still reeling from these two tragic events, we learn that a large earthquake struck China, crushing homes and people, while floods began to affect our own midwest and Mississippi valley. Any of these is unsettling; all together, they are a body blow.

Then John speaks to us.

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

In this present world, we can only imagine the new heaven and new earth John saw descending, taking the place of this earth with its suffering and fear. But the words John spoke can resonate with any one of us who ever experienced a loving person wiping our tears. Some of my most precious memories are of my mother, my head in her lap, sweetly wiping my tears and singing songs of love to me, “to make it all better.”

What God will provide will be beyond anything like that. Not only will we be comforted, but Death, itself, will cease to hold sway over us. The weeping and mourning and pain, too real to us in this life of ours, will end--and end for eternity.

This is God’s gift to us in the midst of tragedy, shock and, perhaps even a little despair. “I am making all things new,” God says to us. “I am making all things new.”

Thanks be to God! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Evil and Good

By now all the world knows about the Marathon Terror. If the question hasn’t already been asked, it soon will be: why does a loving God allow things like this to happen? Well, as in most things religious, it depends on how you think of or define God.  Here’a an example from the Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in my own words.

Most believers think of God as all mighty, i.e., omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect. It follows from this that an omnipotent God would have the power to eliminate all evil. After all, if God is omniscient, God knows evil exists, and being all powerful, God could stop all evil. On top of that, if God is morally perfect, or as we might say in a more ordinary way, loving, then God would have the desire to eliminate evil. Yet, as we were reminded 15 April, evil exists. Therefore, if God exists, then either God doesn’t know evil exists, or if knowing, doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil. And perhaps worst of all, if God knows, and has the power and doesn’t eliminate evil, then God must now have the desire: i.e, must not be loving. Clearly, then, we must conclude that God as we prefer to think of God doesn’t exist.

In term of the study of logic, each premise of an argument (or position) must be true for the conclusion to be true. But how do we know the premises in the argument above are true? After all, there is a real sense in which we must conclude, as theologians have for hundreds of years, that God is ineffable: that is, too great or extreme to be expressed in words. One theologian (whose name I can’t remember) posed this way: anything we say of God is blasphemy because by trying to describe God, we impose limitations and God can’t be limited. By the way, that same theologian would say that that conclusion was comforting, but still blasphemy.

Here is the unsatisfactory answer I can offer to the question of why evil exists. Christians believe the day will come when God will eliminate evil. We believe that Jesus came to inaugurate God’s kingdom or reign and to declare that God, at some point, will make all things right. We often talk about this as the End Times or Judgment Day. Let’s leave aside whether or not we should think of it that way and just agree that we believe at some point in time, Jesus will return and God’s reign will begin in it’s most perfect form. That we might like that time to be sooner rather than later is irrelevant to God, who must have a different timetable for a different reason. What reason could that be?

If we believe that humans possess free will, that is, the ability to choose good or evil, and that that attribute is God’s gift, then God can’t logically impose goodness on humans. God must, rather desire that humans choose good over evil. Some of our Jewish friends believe that if for one day, all Jews kept the Law, the Kingdom would come into being. Some powerful streams of Christianity believe that the Kingdom will come when we as humans have started acting as citizens of God’s Kingdom. By that I mean, when we begin acting in “love and charity with our neighbors.” 

In fact, on 15 April, before the smoke had cleared, men and women were risking their own safety and well being to aid those who were injured. They didn’t do this because they were first responders who are expected to do so. They did it because they felt compelled by their own moral compass to aid those who were injured. So while evil existed on that Monday, so did goodness. I say let us all refocus our efforts in creating a world where there is no place for evil rather than wondering why God won’t do it for us.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

More Questions Than Answers

This coming Sunday, we have John’s story of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the seashore after his Resurrection. In John’s version, this is the fourth and last recorded appearance. The first was to Mary Magdalene in the garden on the morning of the Resurrection. The second was that evening when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the house where they huddled “for fear of the Jews.” The third was a week later in the same house, except this time Thomas is present. And then, some time later, as John puts it, “After these things...”

Have you ever wondered where Jesus was the week between his first appearance to the disciples and the second? I have. I always wonder about those kinds of things. But, I haven’t worried too much because I think the intervening week is primarily a literary device to have the Thomas doubt and confession make sense. That story is in the Gospel for a reason. We can find ourselves in that story and we might do well to do so.

But, this isn’t about Thomas; it’s about the strange events at the seashore. Seven of the disciples have gone fishing. We don’t know where the others are and we can’t be sure why Peter and the others have decided to fish. They weren’t likely out for recreation because they are fishing at night and with a net. That’s what commercial fishermen do; that’s what they were before their call by Jesus. 

Whatever prompted them to fish, they have no luck. In the morning as they are heading toward the shore, they see a figure who asks if the fish are biting. A negative reply gets them some advice--try the other side of the boat. The net is immediately filled and the Beloved Disciple recognizes it is Jesus who gave the advice. Peter then jumps into the water and heads for shore. Of course he does. He’s nude, by the way, because that’s the way the commercial fishermen worked to avoid soiling their clothes.

They beach the boat and Jesus invites them to bring him fish from their catch so he can cook them over the little fire he started. This is when we learn there were 153 fish in the catch. Google “153 fish” and you will find lots of interesting, and a little bizarre, interpretations of this odd number. And when did they count them and why are questions I might ask.

But strange things continue. Jesus quizzes Peter about his love. Three times. Again, if you Google this, you’ll find commentaries that suggest Jesus uses different words for love each time and that has a special significance. Or you may find a note that since Peter denied Jesus three times, he has to reaffirm his love three times. Each time Peter is perplexed and is told by Jesus to “feed my sheep.” One commentary mentions that Jesus uses different words each time for that get translated as “feed” and that they have subtle meanings that when taken together have great implications for ministry.

I’m not sure what to make of this story. For one thing, at the end of the Chapter 20, the chapter just prior to this story, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This sounds like the epilogue to the Gospel. But then Chapter 21 tells the stories I’ve been commenting on. Were these stories added to John’s Gospel to bolster faith, or to establish Peter as the forgiven leader? I don’t know. In any event, they are interesting and can be both comforting and challenging.

Happy Easter, Jerry

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Depending on which Gospel you read, the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus differ. Matthew says Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” came to the tomb and found an angel there who rolled back the stone. He gave them a message that Jesus wanted them to tell the disciples he was going to Galilee and to meet him there. Then, Matthew adds, “Suddenly Jesus meets them...” with the “them” in that sentence being the two Marys, and he too tells them to go tell the others.

In Mark, Mary Magdalene is the first witness. Mark, in his usual straightforward way, says, “Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared to Mary Magdalene.” Where? Mark doesn’t say, but we know what she did. She told the others, but they didn’t believe her.

Luke writes that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary (Jesus’ mother) and “the other women” find the empty tomb, but do not see Jesus. Two of Jesus’ followers are walking to Emmaus when they encounter a stranger who turns out to be Jesus. So for Luke, nameless men are the first witnesses.

John writes that Mary went alone to the tomb and found it empty. She found the followers of Jesus and tells them his body has been removed. Then Peter and “the other disciple” run to the tomb and find it empty, but “as yet they did not understand the scriptures that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps dejected, or at least confused, John tells us, “Then the disciples return to their homes.”  But not Mary Magdalene; she had returned to the tomb and she stays behind and weeps. As she weeps, she checks the tomb once more and finds two angels in white who want to know why she weeps. As she leaves the tomb, she sees Jesus, but fails at first to recognize him, but as soon as he speaks her name, she knows. She knows who it is.

In every version, Mary is present at the tomb. And in the three that have Jesus appearing at the tomb, Mary is either the only witness or among the first witnesses all of whom were women. Only in Luke’s version do we have men who witness the risen Lord first. Does this matter? Maybe. Women weren’t considered reliable witnesses in court, so they weren’t allowed to testify. Yet, here in the most phenomenal event in history, it is women who first see and the tell others what they have seen. In three of the Gospels, the writers offer us the least credible witnesses as the first to have seen Jesus. Imagine how hard it would be for early believers to have taken seriously a religion so populated by women and on whose testimony so much rested. 

There’s one other thing that matters here, in my opinion. Whoever it was that first saw Jesus, they all did the same thing--they quickly shared that news with others.  Maybe we, who because of the way we live--so often far from the life Jesus expected of us--may also be among the less credible witnesses. Yet we may also still have a story to tell. Let’s consider doing as they did and telling it.

Happy Easter, Jerry