Delivered at Ames UCC
on February 21, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Was Jesus divine? Was he human? Was he half and half? Did he transition from one to the other over his lifetime or only at the resurrection? This was the topic last week at God-Talk, our month theology free-for-all.
In classic UCC fashion, we had no one answer. Some felt that Jesus was not divine but clearly gifted and blessed. Others expressed certainty that he was divine, and not just because scripture says so, but from their own life experience.
We also touched a bit on how our understanding of Jesus reflects on our concepts of God. If we deny God any role in Jesus’ conception or birth, for example, are we denying God the capacity to do miraculous, counter-natural acts? What is God’s power if not to do things we cannot do?
Toward the end Kevin B. asked kind of a fundamental question: Why didn’t God just let that burning bush keep burning so we wouldn’t have to wonder about all of this?
I’m with Kevin. Would it have been so hard to leave the bush burning? We are told not to test God in Deuteronomy and by Jesus when he is being tested himself in the wilderness. But this isn’t testing; it would have just been God allowing the revelation to persist.
Then I realized, over the course of my week’s reflection on the Lenten cross and today’s scripture, that God has left signs, God has allowed revelation to persist.
It’s just that is isn’t as fantastic as fire-resistant, talking foliage. It’s the cross.
If you weren’t here last week, let me recap a little bit. I described my own struggle against the cross, this instrument of torture and execution that has become sanitized and reified over the centuries. It has for me most often been a symbol of oppression and hatred rather than love and hope.
But, as I concluded last week, what could be a better reminder of un-beloved community? What could better exemplify the relationships that need healing than the political persecution, rigged trial, and public execution the cross reminds us of?
In that light, the cross is not a persistent revelation of God, but a persistent reminder of our own shortcomings.
However, as Protestants, we look to an empty cross. Our Roman and Orthodox siblings have crosses with Christ crucified yet hanging. The choice is not stylistic, but theological: If Jesus yet hangs, the essence of Easter is actually Good Friday. The cross with Christ still being crucified is an assertion that his suffering death is God’s gift.
If Jesus is gone, though, if he was removed from the cross by Mary the Magdalene and Mary the mother, then the gift is what happened after Good Friday: resurrection, the capacity of love to withstand hate, or worse, indifference.
The cross is as much a perpetual revelation of God as the burning bush. It is also a reminder of just how hard it can be to truly receive that revelation.
Which is why we take these six weeks of Lent to prepare for Easter, a revelation that we are still trying to characterize and understand.
Traditionally, one of the ways we prepare is through repentance. What usually comes to mind when you hear the word repentance? Failure, sin, shame?
My preaching professor, Dow Edgerton, described repentance as coming to terms with things we already know so that we may be shaped more and more into the form of love. Repentance is coming to terms with things we already know so that we may be shaped more and more into the form of love.
The disciples in today’s story don’t want to come to terms with what they already know.
Jesus and the disciples have been on the road for a while now. The disciples have witnessed more closely than anyone all that Jesus is: a teacher and healer imbued with a holiness others do not seem to have.
But there is more. Jesus has brought them along, calling them by name to take part in sharing the good news can bring a permanent jubilee, a revolution of hearts that will renovate society.
They are ready! They are ready to slough off both external, colonial oppression and the internal, social norms that likewise keep people in pain and hungry.
But they are not ready to acknowledge the risk of that work. Jesus tries to warn them. Three times he tells them, look, this will end badly. I am going to pay a price for this good news, a very high price.
How do the disciples respond? Reassure Jesus, up his security detail, make a plan for how to act when the assassins eventually come? No, they fight about which of them is most important.
It’s a human reaction, no doubt. We have all seen and done this in the face of bad news: The cancer diagnosis of a parent can lead to siblings fighting over who will drive that parent to chemo. Such squabbles are a way of distracting ourselves from something scary like death. It is an expression of our fear of losing someone: No, that can’t be happening to you. I can’t afford to lose your love and presence. Give me your attention now! Promise me you will always be here to love me!
The disciples knew that they were stirring up trouble, surely. But an execution would mean more than the loss of their Jesus. It would mean an end to their service. It would mean that Jesus was a liar and the word of God he brought was false.
The disciples could not have imagined Easter morning or the persistence of Jesus in their lives beyond death. So I think we can forgive their inability to repent, their inability to come to terms with things they already knew.
In that way we have one up on the disciples. We may not have gotten to know Jesus during his public ministry, but we do have the whole story.
Between the four gospels and our own searching lives, we do not have to resist the grief of the Good Friday cross. We confront its vulgarity and our own base tendencies. We then find our hearts and our lives shaped more fully by the love that left the cross empty and transcended the tomb.
At God-Talk each month I ask a lot of questions. There is so much to wonder about in our faith tradition. But that doesn’t mean we do not have any answers.
I invite you, when you look on a cross in the coming weeks, to imagine it as the burning bush: a perpetual revelation of God.
Then repent. Come to terms with the brokenness you already know in yourself and our world, so that it will be the last cross we raise up.
Let us repent this Lenten season in order to love better in everyone other one.