My Favorite Gospels Resource

Easter is near, the time of year where—if I haven’t already reached for it recently—I pull out my favorite Gospels resource: Synopsis of the Four Gospels.

There are three versions of this resource of which I’m aware:

– an all-Greek one (complete with Latin title: Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum)
– an all-English one
– the one linked above, which has both Greek and English

I love the color. The binding is secure. The size is beautifully large but not overwhelmingly so. My copy, though I got it used some years ago, even smells good. It might be the aroma of the Holy Spirit.

For those seemingly rare but delightful stories, parables, or teachings that all four Gospels treat, the Synopsis is a great way to see everything lined up together. Each year I choose whichever Easter account is the Gospel lectionary for the day, but I always look at all the Gospels side by side before preaching about the story of the resurrection.

Here are some pictures:

 

 

 

 

And if you really want to get into this text, check out this review—more of an homage, rightly—at the Bible Design Blog.

“Can there be any day but this?” George Herbert’s “Easter”

As we are still in the Easter season, here is George Herbert’s “Easter,” quoted in N.T. Wright’s Resurrection and the Son of God.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

“He Is Risen!” Delirious Tale or New Reality?

There was a family with twin boys. They looked exactly alike, but everything else about them was different. One liked rap; the other listened to country music. One always thought it was too warm in the house; the other thought it was too cold. And so on. One brother was a hope-filled optimist, while the other was a convinced pessimist.

Their dad wanted to try an experiment with them. So one Christmas Eve, while the kids were asleep, he filled the room of his pessimist son with every single item on his wish list: toys, games, books, gadgets.

The room of his optimist son, on the other hand, he filled with horse manure.

Christmas morning came, and the Dad went to the pessimist’s room. That son was surrounded with his new presents, weeping.

“Why are you crying?” said the dad.

The son replied, “My friends will get jealous of me; I’ll have to share; there’s all these instructions to read before I can play with the toys; the batteries are going to run out…”, etc.

Down the hall the father saw his other son–the optimist–singing and dancing around in the pile of manure.

“Why are you so happy?” the dad asked.

The optimistic son said, “Because… there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”

 

Setting the Stage: The Tomb

 

The disciples on Easter morning lived in a pessimists’ world, and for good reason, as we’ll see. They had no hope of finding a pony among the manure. Their hope, they thought, lay dead in the ground, sealed behind a heavy stone.

Luke tells us some female disciples went to the tomb, “taking the spices that they had prepared.” They were going to embalm the body. Not in the hopes of resuscitating it—nobody thought that was possible. But because they wanted to show honor to the dead.

But they get there, and—no body. Luke 24:4 says “they were perplexed about this.”

And wouldn’t you be, too?

This is not necessarily a sign of hope to them, that the body is gone. It’s cause for despair.

Their beloved teacher, their companion and friend, the one who was going to redeem them from their constrained existence under Roman rule—this one was dead. What’s worse, they can’t mourn him properly now. They’re losing access to their chance at closure. This is not shaping up to be a good death.

Fact is, it’s not shaping up to be a death at all.

The angels ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (“The living,” they must’ve responded?)

“He is not here, but has risen!”

Spinning as their heads were, verse 8 represents at least a minor miracle: “They remembered his words.” It all clicks. Jesus is alive! They believe it.

And they run and tell the disciples and a bunch of others.

 

Unbelieving Disciples: Idle Tale

 

And don’t you just love how true-to-life the Gospels are?

The eleven apostles and the others—a formidable group of men and women from whom the Church would spring–they didn’t believe their own friends! Verse 11 says, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

“An idle tale.” Silliness. The ravings of madmen, or, in this case, madwomen. The narrator Luke was a doctor, his word for “idle tale” is rooted in medical language–it has to do with delirium. The women were assumed to be delirious.

 

Bad start for the Church

This is a bad start for the church–resurrection is THE core belief of Christianity. The apostle Paul would soon write, “If Christ has not been raised [from the dead], our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor 15:14)

Useless. The faith of these disciples the women are preaching to is useless. If the story had stopped here, you and I would not even be gathered for worship this morning! If you don’t have the resurrection of Jesus, you don’t stand a fighting chance against the world!

This is a real struggle of people of faith: they thought they were hearing idle tales.

They might have appreciated the narrative arc of the women’s story. They might have said, “This will make for some great literature to be studied in future English courses.” (Or, uh, Aramaic and Greek classes.) They maybe even saw the book sales potential–finally we’ve got something that can bump Homer off the best-sellers’ list!

But still, this is just a story we’re hearing, they thought. Fiction–not factual truth.

 

Justified, though?

One reason they didn’t believe the women is because of some bad cultural mores that discounted a woman’s witness. They weren’t seen as credible sources.

But if we can’t forgive the disciples their outdated sexism, let’s cut them some slack, for some other reasons. Before Jesus would undo death, his death had undone everything for the disciples. Every word Jesus had spoken to them? Felt like an empty promise. This coming Kingdom of God? Gone, nailed to the cross with him.

Besides that, one of these women, Mary Magdalene, had been demon-possessed. And not just sort of demon-possessed. She was severely demon-possessed. Luke told his readers earlier that she had “seven demons cast out.”

The disciples thought she was delirious, and must’ve wondered–did she now have a relapse, with Jesus dead? Is she a conduit for demons again?

Make no mistake–the disciples believed in resurrection, even before they saw Jesus. But the story of Lazarus notwithstanding, they seem to have reverted back to their default religious belief. Resurrection would happen in their mind… but at the last day. In the end times. And THIS was not yet the last day.

 

How we are like them

The story of the resurrection did not ring true in the disciples’ ears. To their mind there was no power to it.

There is a danger that you and I would hear the resurrection story as they did, as an idle tale. We are susceptible to the same disbelief the disciples had, when it comes to Jesus’ rising from the dead. Many today take this account as fiction.

Or worse, we might accept the truthfulness of Luke 24, but then unwittingly dismiss the resurrection story as an irrelevant tale. We may celebrate the resurrection historically, as a past event, without the realization that it still means everything for us today. We would be without true hope if we acknowledged that it happened, but then failed to live like ones who have ourselves received the gift of resurrection power, of new life.

 

Peter: Sprint to the Tomb

 

Peter fares a little better than the others. He actually takes the women’s story seriously, and so runs to the tomb, in Luke 24:12: “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

He gets there and sees the tomb:

 

Tomb Vacancy

 

But Peter goes home. He doesn’t, oh, say, go back to the disciples and confirm the account of the women. That’s because, even though he’s amazed, he’s still not sure what everything means. His amazement does not seem to translate into full acceptance of faith. It’s more like being perplexed, bewildered. He is astounded, yes, but this going home feels like a shrug of the shoulders.

We can identify with Peter. How many times have we sprinted towards the cross, only to get there and turn around and go back home, to our old ways? How often have we run towards the empty tomb, eager to meet our risen Lord… only to walk away as if nothing ever happened?

It’s like the one in James who looks in a mirror and then goes away and forget what he looks like. Peter’s response calls to mind the seed that was sewn, and grew up fast… but then could not grow once it encountered the thorns and weeds of this life.

Living in the light of the resurrection is more marathon than sprint. Eagerness is good, yes, but so is stick-to-itiveness.

 

The Women

 

We come to Jesus much as the women came to the tomb that morning. We come to him with no hope in the world, apart from what we trust he can give us. Maybe you’re coming this morning and wondering if the resurrection really is all that relevant to what you’re going to have for lunch in a little while, or what your working day tomorrow looks like. Maybe you are having trouble connecting the glory of this morning to the mundane week that awaits you. Perhaps you are looking for somewhere trustworthy to place your belief… someone Good you can hold onto.

Mary Magdalene and the others, desperate and forlorn, manage somehow to offer a model response to the resurrection.

The male disciples–even Peter, the so-called “rock”–are Luke’s version of the TV show “What Not to Wear.” Dismissing the resurrection as an idle tale? Not the response I’m looking for, says Luke. Sprinting toward the empty tomb, only to go away shrugging your shoulders in bewilderment? Nope.

Instead, Luke traces an inspiring movement of faith by Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James.

 

They looked for the living, albeit among the dead

The angel asks, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The women didn’t realize they were looking for the living, but they were looking for Jesus all the same! They thought they were going to find a dead Jesus, but at least they were seeking all the Jesus they had left!

Especially in those moments when Jesus seems distant, disconnected–or, worse, dead to us–approaching what we have of him may be all we can do. Still do it, Luke suggests.

 

They bowed in worship

In response to the angel, the women “bowed their faces to the ground” in worship. This humble posture of Doxology shows their openness to letting God reveal himself however he will reveal himself. At this point they’ve let go of the fabrication that we know better than God.

 

They remembered his words

From their posture of worship, Mary and the women could remember what Jesus said. Verse 8 says, “Then they remembered his words.”

Remembering is not just something you happen to do or don’t. Sure, if we don’t go grocery shopping with a good list, the pack of coffee filters will slip our mind. But this remembering the women do–it’s more than a fleeting thought that happened to come to them. They’re training their focus back to inhabit the world they had known with Jesus. They’re calling his words to mind… dwelling on them, and believing them. They remember their first love. You do that, too, Luke seems to tell us.

 

What the Resurrection Means

 

This week has brought us a steady stream of reminders that life sometimes seems like nonsense. An airport attack in Brussels. Another one in Iraq. Yet another videotaped example of institutionalized racial profiling.

It would be easy to rush to the tombs of these innocent men and women and see only bewilderment and death.

Closer to home we have our own enigmatic interactions and happenings that push the limits of our capacity to hope in God.

But because of the resurrection, where our lives once looked like this…

 

Egg Down

 

…they now look like this:

 

Many Eggs

 

Jesus’ defeat of death is real. The resurrection is far-reaching in its implications. Jesus’ rising from the dead calls us to a new way of living. Those women’s lives really started that day.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, failure can become opportunity. Because of Jesus’ defeat of death, every ending has in it the seeds of a new beginning. Because of the presence in our lives of the resurrected Christ, where we have forgotten, we can again choose to remember. Because the stone was rolled away, our stony hearts can give way to compassion. Because Jesus did not remain among the realm of the dead, mourners can know that–if not now–then SOME DAY they will rejoice. Because of Christ’s victory over the grave, when others intend to keep us down, God can bring us back up again, rising with him.

That optimistic twin brother was right–where there’s manure, there’s got to be a pony somewhere. But not because we are optimistic people by nature. There are plenty of things to be pessimistic about, and with good reason. But the power of Christ’s resurrection opens us up to a new reality. It’s more than a new perspective on life. It’s new life altogether!

We can overcome evil with good. We can stare down death and know that it’s not the end. Even when we’re confronted with evil, we can be assured that the power of the rolled away stone is stronger than the power of the tomb. We can follow these wonderful women, and be first responders at scenes of tragedy, sharing the good news of God’s love in Christ.

If the resurrection of Jesus is real–if it transformed the world then–it is still transforming the world now. If Mary Magdalene and her friends could go from wailing tears to evangelistic zeal, there is hope for you in your despairing moments. If Jesus rose from the dead–and, friends, he did–he rises again out of the rubble of the world. Jesus even rises in our hearts, and empowers us to choose life with Him.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Holy Saturday? More like “Awful Saturday”

(Adapted from the archives)

Many Western Christians have an idea of what to do on Good Friday and Easter. On Good Friday we call to mind our sins, the last words of Jesus on the cross, the shock and despair his followers experienced… and we try to imagine his suffering, entering into that as best as we are able.

And then Easter is the party of all parties, when we declare the defeat of death: “Jesus Christ is no longer dead!”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

But what about Saturday? The disciples didn’t have an “Easter” to look forward to. Jesus was done for, as far as they knew. He was really dead. When he did appear to the apostles, they were terrified and thought they were looking at a ghost. They weren’t even hopeful for resurrection–it hadn’t crossed their mind as an option.

So what some Orthodox call “Bright Saturday” was anything but bright for Jesus’ first followers. It was horrible. Awful Saturday, they thought they would have to call it for years to come. They felt as empty as the tomb was about to be. It was a Sabbath day, too, so they didn’t have any work to distract them. They were quiet. Or maybe they wailed loudly.

Maybe the second day–Saturday, and he was still gone!–was even more difficult for the disciples than Friday.

There’s a liminal quality to Saturday in Holy Week: it’s an often unnoticed, unmarked day that is situated between death (Good Friday) and life (Resurrection Sunday). How should I feel? Sad? Penitential? Happy? Pre-happy? Expectant? However I want? All or none of the above?

Many Episcopal churches have a full Easter Vigil service on Saturday night, but just this simple offering for a Holy Saturday liturgy. We “await with him” and “rise with him” in that service’s Collect. This calls to mind Psalm 30:5, which says, “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Our Holy/Bright/Liminal Saturday is a short day, since we know of Resurrection Sunday’s shouts of acclamation and loud Alleluias.

But Saturday for the disciples was not liminal. It was not thought of as perched between death and life. That day and those men and women felt firmly ensconced in the grips of death. There was no “other side” to look forward to, as far as they knew–at least not until the end of time. The closing anthem in the short Book of Common Prayer liturgy above begins, “In the midst of life we are in death….”

 

Jesus and Mary

 

“We are in death.” Death Saturday. Awful Saturday.

Jesus’ followers had no clue what–or Who–was just around the corner….

With Him in Death, With Him in Life

S 1

 

When I saw the Whoopie Pie truck in the drop-off lane of a local workout facility, I was reminded that life is full of oxymorons. Or at least things that go together that seem to be contradictory. (Chocolate and cream-filled power up for the elliptical? Yes, please!)

Jesus once said:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

There’s another oxymoron for you—or at least it sure sounds like one. The disciples thought it was. “Lose your life to save it? If you lose your life, you’re dead.”

Jesus applied that idea to himself. Before he could rise again from the dead, he had to… well… die first. That you would have to die before you could come back from death is logical enough. But that Jesus even could come back once he was in the irreversible state of death sounded as oxymoronic to the disciples as a dessert delivery driver stopping by the morning Zoomba class.

Peter “knew better.” After his teacher’s death-to-life crazy-talk, Peter pulled Jesus aside and started to “rebuke him.” Jesus rebuked him right back, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Shortly after that episode with Peter, Jesus said again to his disciples, “‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’”

Once again, the Gospel of Mark tells us, “They did not understand what he was saying,” but this time they “were afraid to ask him.”

 

I-Thou: Why Jesus’ Death Was So Devastating

 

Peter and the others thought that death could only be the career-ending move that it has been, is, and will be for every other human being. It’s not something you come back from.

The idea of resurrection supersedes rationality and, generally, so-called empirical evidence.

And underneath Peter’s blockheaded attempt to tell Jesus who he really was and what he should do, there was a real love. Peter would confess Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching of, “I must die and you must die so that we together may truly live.” And even if they could grasp it intellectually, Jesus’ disciples were a group of men and women who had left home, jobs, ways of life to follow someone they believed was going to save them, guide them, and just be with them.

Someone you love that much is the last person you want to even think about dying, let alone hear that person repeatedly referring to their death and saying it has to happen. So there was, I’m sure, an emotional resistance on the disciples’ part to hearing Jesus talk about his own death.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber offers some insight into why the death of a loved one is so difficult. In his I and Thou, Buber writes that the identity of the individual is constituted not just in isolation, but in relationship to others:

If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it.
The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou.

The disciples’ sense of self was fully interdependent with their sense of who Jesus was. They knew, at least at some level, that they lived and died with him. When they heard Jesus talk about his own death, whether they kept living or not, they knew that a part of themselves would die with him.

It was that knowledge—that gut sense of their intertwined identity—that would lead Peter to say just before the crucifixion, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”

Jesus’ death was devastating to his followers. Their sense of self and of the world would never be the same. How could they ever hope again? How could they ever trust? How could they dig out of the hole they now found themselves in?

In the Gospel John’s resurrection account, the stone is gone, but the disciples still don’t understand about Jesus’ dying-then-living. Even with the tombstone rolled away, it was all Mary Magdalene could do to stand “outside the tomb crying… [weeping].”

 

But There’s More Beneath the Surface

 

It seems like every time I walk back to our house from the church, I find something new in the driveway or yard. As the snow continues its slow, steady melt, we keep discovering things we forgot we lost. A whiffle ball bat. The pink plastic shovel that caused so much discord back when the kids were fighting over who would use it. Or that hand towel I was reaching for to wipe snotty noses in between shoveling piles of snow off the van several times a week.

I asked our Deacons if they, too, were able to testify to the signs of life emerging from underneath the snow, shooting up from the ground. And they were—let me show you.

 

B 1

 

B 3

 

S 2

 

S 3

 

There’s always more beneath the surface. Life is so rich and the universe so mysterious and wonderful that what you see on first glance isn’t all that’s there.

The workings of God exceed what we can comprehend. We may think or live as if he’s limited by natural laws. Yet the One who wrote those laws, who put them into place, can re-order the universe as he sees fit.

The one who breathed and still breathes life into creation does not find death to be an obstacle to his purposes.

What seems to be the end is not the end. What the disciples thought was the Last Supper they would ever have with Jesus was, in fact, the first communion meal, an observance that would be repeated countless times by Christians everywhere. That bread—in its brokenness‚ representing death—would be the very source of life to followers of Jesus throughout the ages. One early church father called the communion bread, “medicine of immortality” and “an antidote to prevent us from dying.”

 

I-Thou, Redux: With Him in Death, With Him in Life

 

Jesus’ death was heart-wrenching to his disciples. This is because, for them, participation in Jesus’ suffering and death was not a spiritual discipline, or a spiritual state to try to attain—it was their natural reaction to an immense loss. They died with him, as the fire in their hearts went out.

But if they died with Jesus that awful Friday we dare to call “Good,” they came right back life with him, at his resurrection.

“I have seen the Lord!” Mary Magdalene proclaimed. When Jesus came—in person—to the fear-struck, mourning disciples, John says they “were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

The disciples were buried with Christ, and they rose again with him to new life. Jesus breathed on them, gave them the Holy Spirit, and the book of Acts happened. The church spread at an amazing rate. Christ’s followers could not contain the joy of new life.

We who call ourselves disciples today also have participated in the death of Jesus. We take part with Jesus in his suffering any time we are compassionately attuned to the unjust treatment and oppression of others. We associate ourselves with Christ’s crucifixion again today when we receive the elements of communion. We join with the first disciples when we observe Holy Week, or practice austerity during Lent, and when we affirm that we, too, were there when they crucified our Lord.

One well-known disciple, Paul, would say, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?”

We participate in Jesus’ death when we accept that it was a sacrifice made on our behalf, offered to bring us into communion with God. From the cross came life–our life, springing forth from the cold, dead ground.

Elsewhere Paul would write, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

If we have died with Christ, then we live with Christ. We have participated in his death, so we participate in his resurrection.

 

Conclusion: The Stone Has Been Rolled Away

 

The stone has been rolled away. Jesus did not stay in the land of the dead, but rose to the land of the living. When death gets the last word in the lives of the ones we love, we know that life actually has a rejoinder. Dead isn’t dead forever.

This is why the Psalmist, perhaps in anticipation of the coming Messiah, could say, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.”

So, like those beautiful buds and flowers that improbably spring forth from under an impossible mound of snow, come on out of the hole you’ve dug into the ground. The stone has been rolled away–Jesus himself has done this! There’s no more need to hibernate or hide out.

Jesus, thought to have breathed his last, springs forth from the grave, finds the disciples he so loves, and breathes his own new life on them, so that they can share with him in the resurrected life. The darkness of the tomb is now illuminated by the light of Christ. The somber purple of Lent has give way to the bright white of Easter.

Jesus is risen from the dead! Death is so last season. Resurrection is the new black.

Apparent endings can become starting points, seedbeds, for unexpected beginnings. We now have access to new life in Christ.

The world is lit up with the light of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died and lived through it. He took us with him from cross to grave to glory.

We who have died with Christ, who “were there” when they crucified our Lord, now share in the abundant, new life he gives us, through his resurrection from the dead. Thanks be to God!

A Tale of Two Eucharists

The Last Supper

 

I just got home from our congregation’s Maundy Thursday service of communion. We came forward, knelt down, and partook of the bread and the cup–the body broken, the blood poured out for us. The altar has now been stripped and the cross covered with black cloth.

Our church’s practice is to celebrate communion on the first Sunday of the month. This Easter, then, will be a Communion Sunday for us.

As we do not have communion every Sunday, the idea of two Eucharists in such close proximity–one on the betrayal-and-death side of the story, the other on the resurrection side–has been fascinating to me.

Below is an adaptation of a short message I wrote to our congregation last night.

 


 

 

I’m writing to invite you again to our Maundy Thursday communion service of worship tomorrow night at the church.

And Sunday is Easter Day, Resurrection Sunday, the most glorious day of the calendar year.

As it turns out, because April 5 is the first Sunday of the month, it is also a Communion Sunday for us.

This offers as a unique lens through which to experience this last half of Holy Week and Easter. We might even think of it as A Tale of Two Eucharists.

 

The First Eucharist

On Thursday Jesus broke bread and gave thanks (this latter verb is the underlying meaning of the Greek-based Eucharist). But even as he was filled with gratitude for his Father’s love, surrounded by the ones who loved him most, he knew there was a betrayer at the table.

In a more cosmic sense, the next day—Good Friday—he would be betrayed by all of the ones he came to save. Not I!, we protest with the disciples at the table. But we, too, “were there when they crucified our Lord.” We have been complicit.

 

The Second Eucharist

Yet Jesus forgives us of that complicity. Every other Eucharist that has taken place since that first Thursday Eucharist has been on the other side of Resurrection. Our moral failings, stubborn hearts, and forgetfulness in doing good have now all been put to death. We rise to new life with Christ, given a second (and a third, and a fourth…) chance to embody Jesus to a world that is as broken today as it was when our Savior was crucified.

Easter reminds us that the crucifixion was not the closing chapter the disciples thought it was. Rather, it was a preface (a “cold open,” as TV shows call it) to the real story of why Jesus came—to defeat sin and suffering and death through his resurrection, and to invite us into the resurrected life with him.

Just as we participate with Jesus in his death and suffering–Maundy Thursday’s bread of betrayal–we also participate with him in his glorious victory over darkness–Easter morning’s bread of new life.