This God and No Other

Josh Applegate

If we want to know what God is like, there are good places to look. In Genesis, we discover God is Creator, God is life. From Exodus, we discover God as deliverer, sustainer, the One Who Never Abandons. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God is absolute holiness, the bewildering gift assuring us that divine love is never capricious and divine justice unquenchable. In the prophets, we discover that God moves toward the oppressed. In the wisdom books, we discover God as intimately concerned about human flourishing. Page after page, there are endless revelations, none of which fatigue the cosmic reality of God.

If you want to know what God is like, we might also be wise to explore Creation. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist tells us. We discover much about God by contemplating, by enjoying with wide-eyed wonder and reverence, God’s handiwork. How better to know an artist than to ponder her art? How better to get into the imagination of a novelist than to read his stories? The heavens, with the skies and the mountains and the creatures and the rivers, proclaim to us the wonder of God.

And we could talk about friendship and love and desire and beauty. There are a million ways to discover God in this God-drenched world.

However, if we truly want to know what God is like, we go first to God’s fullest revelation: Jesus. When God wanted to provide us God’s decisive self-expression, God gave us Jesus. And to know what Jesus is like (what God is like), we must reckon with Jesus’ cataclysmic moment. We must reckon with a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

God is none other than the God who gladly, though enduring great agony and grief, surrenders his own life to rescue another. God is the one who takes upon himself all the violence the powers of this world, both religious and political, can dish up. God is the one committed to healing the evil of the one driving the nails as well as the evil of the one enraged to vengeance. God is the one who refuses to answer his accusers, allowing the Cross – and then the Resurrection – to speak the final word. God is the one who refused to call the angel-warriors, surely poised with flaming sabers, to his defense. God is the one who spoke words of tenderness, even while gasping for breath, to the precious few huddled around his naked, heaving body. God is the one who cried out words of crushing sorrow and abandonment precisely because he refused to abandon his friends or his enemies. God is one who loves to the bitter end.

God is the one who died not only for his few beleaguered friends but for the very ones who hung him on this crucible of death. God is the one who in his broken body extinguished every pretense of human righteousness, human justice, every human dream for self-reclamation. When we encounter perfect love, we murder it; and God is the one who knows this acutely. God is the one who came to finally, irrevocably and at great cost, do something about the delusions we don’t even know we have. God is the one who came to do the final task of love, to die. God, in Jesus, is the one who, in some great mystery we cannot fathom (and God help us when we think we’ve got it) showed up, took our abuse and our ridicule, and in that one astounding reversal “died for our sins” – that haunting phrase.

This is the God we worship, and no other. The God who hangs on a cross of brutal death. The God who descends into the fullness of our agony and annihilation. The God who would rather die than let us die. The God who went into the bowels of hell and came out the Victor. The God who went into death, for us, and now proclaims life into every dead and ruined person and place. Whatever vision we have of God, it must begin here.

The Good News of Ascension

For Christians, today is Ascension Day. It’s supposed to be a day of feasting and joy and hope, but the day’s now ignored in many traditions, perplexed as we are by what it means, what’s the deal? Is it the anticlimactic downer, after Easter’s wild rush of hope? Did Jesus just jet off, the first intergalactic space traveler, into some far away existence, leaving us to muddle along for some indefinite (and very long, we now see) time, hanging on by the skin of our teeth?

No wonder those first disciples stood gawking up at the clouds. With this kind of story, I’d stand there scratching my head too.

The Ascension is the promise that God-gone-human was not a passing whim but that God loves the body and all the joys and goodness of being human and Jesus now takes this true humanity and joins it to God the Father. And Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and hopes and longings and deep scars and crushing fears and carries them to the Father who gathers them into the very center of the Trinity, all with the promise that we too, in all our splendid humanity, will one day be renewed and find complete joy in God.

The Ascension does not mean God is far removed and we’re to just make out the best we can – exactly the opposite. We’d only say such a thing if we completely misunderstand what “heaven” means. The Ascension assures us that the God who is flesh in Jesus is also present with us everywhere, by the Spirit, loving us, calling us into life, beckoning our wayward hearts.

The Ascension assures us that Jesus Christ has ascended to the good and generous and powerful throne, to rule over, watch over, and provide diligent care over the whole of creation. This means all of us – and every spec of this world in need of healing. This means the universe is in good hands. This means the story ends well.

The Great Story really needs Ascension. I’m glad we have it.

Donuts and Resurrection

Our church has an Easter tradition. After affirming with zest (multiple times): Allelulia! Christ is Risen! and after our raucous music and after recounting how the angel appeared like lightning and scared the holy bejeezers out of the Roman guard and after hearing that preposterous, heart-swelling story where Jesus tossed the dead man’s clothes and strolled out of the tomb and after gathering around the table of Resurrected Jesus to feast on mercy — after all that, we eat donuts. Piping hot, organic apple cider donuts from the Carpe Donut man. We invite all the neighbors to join us, and we go hog-wild. We’ve done this every year since our church began. Is there any better way to say Jesus is Alive and the party’s just getting started than locking down on a hot apple cider donut?

Only this year, as I was making my way over to the donut truck, I received a text: The donut machine needs a resurrection. Jesus is alive, but apparently the devil is still alive and well too – because through some mishap, the donut fryer was deader than a doornail. Let me tell you how big a downer it is, after the Easter high, to go down the long line of folks, all bright-eyed and brimming with Easter joy, and tell them the promise of donuts has been rescinded. Of course, we all survived. Easter’s bigger than donuts. Way bigger.

Even after encountering again the Ultimate Story, we move back into the world-as-it-is, where donut fryers go caput, where marriages waver, where hopes flicker, where friendships go sour, where doctors deliver dreaded news, where Syrian children and Coptic children die awful deaths. Easter doesn’t tell us that our troubles are no more. Easter tells us that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us out of all the deaths we know. So we keep walking, on Easter Monday just as we did on Easter Sunday. We keep walking into the love and the fury because we now know how this story ends.

Moved to Wonder

whirl-of-a-night

In those chaotic hours on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, two friends (Peter and John) raced, schoolyard-stye, to the tomb. After arriving breathless and after taking in all there was (and wasn’t) to see, they stood dumbfounded, mouth agape, like two boys who’d just seen a rabbit pulled out of a hat or a glamorous assistant disappear inside a small box. And though we’re told that John “believed,” we don’t know exactly what he believed because the Scriptures indicate that the whole brood of disciples were still very much out of sorts, baffled as they’d ever been (which is saying something). Luke tells us that Peter walked home in a stupor, thunderstruck by every remarkable thing he could not understand.

It’s striking, then, how Easter often becomes the day when we haul out our heftiest apologetic guns, overwhelming folks with our rapid-fire arsenal of logical rationale for the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. Look, I believe it, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. I think Jesus, once a corpse, walked out of that tomb better than new. And I believe Jesus’ resurrection cuts to the heart of everything God intends to do in this world, the very heart of the Good News. I think resurrection matters not only because one man rose from the dead but because of the promise that, through Jesus’ triumph, the whole of creation will one day shake of its grave clothes to shine brilliant and new.

Yet resurrection, with all the hope and possibility it summons, ignites awe and wonder – not a mad dash for sharp pencils and calculators or a whiteboard where we can sketch vast theorems. If we have the fact of the resurrection, but we have none of the bewilderment or the astonishment, none of the unbridled joy at the sheer fantastic lunacy of the whole thing – I wonder if we’ve really got the resurrection at all.

This is not only about the event of resurrection, of course, but about our entire faith. “It is not the task of Christianity,” says Kallistos Ware, “to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” If there is nothing in our faith that drops the jaw, that moves us to inexplicable laughter, that unravels our sense of things…If our vision of God never hurls us to our knees or gooses us in sheer pleasure — we should return to the old stories and hear them again.

Dear John ~ 24 March 2016

Dear John,

So Easter’s coming Sunday. You probably remember enough from your pastor-years to recall how this is a pretty big day. I love seeing all the joy and laughter, some folks stepping it up a little with their Sunday clothes and all the kids wired for the candy they’ve had or the candy they know’s coming their way. The sun’s typically bright, the dogwoods and the daffodils showing off. The music has extra oomph. It’s a grand day.

But I also know it’s an important day because this story we’ll be telling, this moment where we remember that Jesus rose from the dead and kicked evil to the curb – this day is pretty much the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? St. Paul seemed to know a thing or two, and he said that if Jesus didn’t raise up from the dead, then we’re all in a major heap of doo-doo. I tend to think everything in Jesus’ life pointed to this climactic moment when he sloughed off those grave clothes and walked back into this world he loves, this world he’d literally gone to hell to salvage. Some folks think that Jesus got a resurrection because he had to have a cross, but I think Jesus got a cross because he had to have a resurrection. What do you think about that? I don’t know, maybe that’s parsing truths that don’t need parsing. I know this though – what I most need, what most everyone I know needs, is a resurrection. I think most of us live fully aware of the death rattle; we’re just wondering if the story’s really true. We’re wondering if Life and Love really do win in the end.

But here’s my problem, John – I’ve been pondering my sermon for a mess of days now, and I’ve got nothing. Nada. At the moment, my heart feels flat as a pancake. Dry. Dull. Dead. Maybe that’s right, for now. My pastoral workweek calendar says I’m supposed to have a sermon prepared by 5 p.m., but my soul knows that first comes an evening where Jesus shares what must have been a very lonely meal with his disciples, clueless as they were to how he was pointing toward death. First comes a Friday we’ve named Good, though it’s the strangest good I know. Today, I’m leaning toward resurrection, but my soul knows there’s the valley of the shadow of death to walk through between here and there. Why can’t the story of God’s salvation of the cosmos fit into my nicely arranged to-do list?

I’ll tell you this: I do hope some worthwhile words present themselves to me before Sunday. The folks with whom I’ll gather to announce Resurrection are kind and generous, and most will put up with me and my bumbling ways. But still, I would like to have something helpful to share. Every hope I have is bound up in this Jesus who put death in a chokehold and refused to let go. I’d like to do it justice, if I’m able. 

So all that to say – light another candle for me. And if you get some flash of inspiration and want to write a sermon to pass my way, I’m all ears. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dance on the Graves

Lent lasts 40 days, but Easter stretches 50. In the Kingdom of God, the party always outlasts the sorrow. These are the days for fresh light, for new possibilities, the days to return to the joy we’ve feared might be lost forever. If you want to know the real juice for the Christian, well we’ve landed on it right here.

There is a kind of foolishness to these days, a devil-may-care abandonment to the hope of a new world, a new marriage, a new friendship. We have known long, grueling (and necessary) days of lament. We have reckoned with all the death. But today, we pull out the bagpipes and pop the champagne. Today, we dance on the graves.

Shalom. Now and Always.

Countryside Milky Way

In John’s gospel, each time Jesus encounters his friends and disciples during the wild days immediately after his resurrection, he pronounces a new reality, a blessing: Peace to you. Jesus does not speak these words in tepid piety, clinging desperately to a hope that peace might one day arrive. Rather, Jesus stands bold and strong, a Man drenched in victory. When you have descended into the depths of Hades and delivered a piercing, fatal blow to death itself, I suppose you are done with the niceties, disinterested in vague spiritual platitudes. You must speak the unadorned truth. Peace.

For us, the word peace can carry too docile a tone. As you know, peace emerges from the Hebrew word shalom which evokes well-being, an end of hostilities, the world made right. Shalom does not suggest (for it would be insanity if it did) that there is no such thing as violence, isolation, relational rubble, economic devastation or systemic injustice. Rather, shalom (whenever declared by Jesus and enacted by Jesus’ community through the Spirit) announces that the order of the world, because of Jesus’ Triumph, has met its match.

In those first post-resurrection days, Jesus did not suggest to the disciples that their life, hard-scrabble as it was, would soon all turn up tulips and lilies. Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, surely inflicting confusion and anxiety. Soon enough, Jesus’ teaching about the persecution and hardships his followers would endure became the disciples’ reality. Yet Jesus declared shalom. Shalom in the midst of (not escape from) the world as it actually was, in desperate need of God’s transformation.

Shalom does not mean we deny all that lies shattered around us. Neither does it mean we escape into some internal privatized spirituality, not knowing how else to make sense of the harsh discontinuity between God’s shalom and our ruins. Rather, shalom means that God stands bold and strong in the dead center of our weary lives and speaks the reality – that God is with us, that God will not leave us, that one day the story will come to God’s good end.

Shalom means we can join with St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

God Comes as Bread

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread

Last Wednesday was one of my days to be at the University of Virginia, and I parked on the opposite side of Grounds from where I typically park (it’s Grounds here, not campus. We’re persnickety about these things). My return route to my unusual parking spot meant that I walked past the 24 hour Dunkin’ Donuts. In general, Dunkin’ is not an establishment I frequent. On any normal day, I’d stride by without a thought. However, inspiration hit, and I thought I could score dad-of-the-year points by surprising the family with after dinner treats. I popped into the shop and walked out with a bag carrying 2 chocolate covered donuts with sprinkles, 2 blueberry donuts and one reduced fat blueberry muffin.

To review: I parked in a spot I never park on Wednesdays which meant I walked a route I never walk on Wednesdays which meant I strolled past the donut shop that I never enter on a day that I shouldn’t have even been near. Yet there I was holding a bag of donuts that never should have been. Got it?

When I arrived home, I unloaded my gear. As I hung my keys on the hook by the door, I heard Wyatt upstairs talking while Miska prepared dinner. Apparently Wyatt had harangued Miska into letting him tinker with her iphone, and Wyatt was in the middle of a conversation. “Siri,” he said earnestly, “please bring me donuts.”

Can you imagine the shock on his face (and mine) when, seconds later, I walked into the kitchen carrying the bag I was not supposed to have?

I do not care to turn this story hokey by making some appeal to providence. Sometimes, donuts just happen. I will say that I may or may not have grabbed the phone after everyone was in bed and secretively asked Siri for a best-selling novel and for Clemson to win a National Championship.

Dumbfounded by this moment, however, I’ve found myself struck by the gospel reading and the prayer the lectionary offers us this week. John’s gospel reminds us that after his resurrection, Jesus cooked fish over the charcoal fire for his friends. Then, in a reprise of their Last Supper, Jesus broke bread for them and fed them. There are many powerful ways Jesus could have chosen to share himself, and yet, as the prayer says, he chose to reveal himself in the breaking of bread. Jesus gave us bread that nourishes the body and heals the hunger — and this was not bread whole but bread broken.

Then with this broken bread that would sate our ravenous longings, Jesus said, “This is love. Eat and be full.”

I know many people in my sphere who are desperate for love today, desperate to be full, desperate for wholeness and healing. Gandhi said that some people are so hungry that God can only come to them as bread. The good news is that if bread (or love or joy or belonging or hope or friendship – or even donuts, I guess) is what you need, then God in Christ comes to you as exactly that. I pray you will find your bread today, and I pray you will eat to your heart’s and to your belly’s content.

Weeping, Then Laughing

Lent is 40 days. Easter runs 50. This matters.

While Lent blocks the exit for those chipper souls who’ve never seen a sorrow they couldn’t deny, Easter opens the floodgates on parched souls who’ve come to believe only in a life barren and brittle.

But – and this is what we must not miss – Easter trumps Lent. Lent owns its grey space, and the good news is no good news at all if we do not sincerely wrangle with the sad facts scattered about us. But then Easter comes and flips on the sunshine and cranks up the jukebox and opens the windows and breaks out the margaritas. Death is very real, Easter says, but Jesus alive is more real. Get up and dance.

Easter does not arrive as a joy easy won. Easter is the dance of the mourner who has grabbed the alleluia in a headlock and won’t let go. In Easter, those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death gather up their courage and bend their ear to the Church’s witness of the risen Jesus. Then, in an act both brave and costly, these reckless souls let the light in. They open themselves to another possibility. They slowly start to tap their toe. With all their might, no matter how fragile or sparse, they begin to practice joy. They begin to Easter.

I was dead, then alive.
Weeping, then laughing.

The power of love came into me,
and I became fierce like a lion,
then tender like the evening star.
― Rumi

Easter Blessing

resurrection_Hans_Multscher_-_Resurrection_-_WGA16328

 

People of the risen and conquering Jesus, lift up your weary hearts. Lift up your sorrowed eyes — your Jesus has risen from the dead. Easter’s for real. Jesus lives. And all the dying and all the deaths that lay claim on you have been crushed by the power of Jesus Christ, the one who descended into the very bowels of hell and marched out with a victor’s dance. Rise up and live. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. Amen.