Archive for April, 2013

If You Remember Nothing Else…

Monday, April 29th, 2013

April 28, 2013
John 13:31-35
Mary Hammond

One of my many unforgettable moments in ministry occurred during the funeral of Bob Thomas in 1993. Many of you never had the opportunity to know Bob. He is one of the principal reasons this church still exists. In 1979, the aging congregation that worshiped here seriously considered closing the church’s doors. Bob envisioned a fresh way forward for the “eleven members plus Jesus” as he always described them. And here we are today.

An African-American, Bob made his mark throughout many turbulent decades before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. Oh, the stories he could tell, both hard and amazing! He was a humble, passionate follower of Jesus, a gentle giant when it came to servant leadership. Everywhere he went, Bob committed himself both to reconciliation and care for the most vulnerable.

Bob was always turning his dreams into deeds. While in his 80’s, he could often be found sitting next to Steve Hammond, 50 years his junior, as the two of them traveled on overnight bus trips with rowdy Oberlin College students to protests and peace marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. Even today, 20 years after Bob’s passing, he continues to inspire my journey.

At Bob’s funeral, held at First Church to accommodate the massive crowds, his nephew stood up and challenged each one of us present to continue to carry the torch that Bob was passing on to us. I thought about Bob’s decades of faithful public service and I determined that day to seek election to the Oberlin School Board.

A third of the John’s Gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life. This account of Jesus’ ministry comes to us in such a different form than the synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–provide. Chapters 13 through 16 in the Gospel of John read to me like a contemplative memoir of the final deeds, teachings, and instructions of Jesus as he prepares for his death and prepares to leave his ministry in other hands. Like Bob, and each one of us, Jesus had a torch to pass on.

The language of “glory” is used to describe how intimately connected Jesus is to the One he calls Abba, or Father. This isn’t a word that we use frequently outside of religious circles. The verb, glorify, or in Greek, doxazo, is employed several times in just two verses–a combination of past, passive tense and future, active tense. This usage gives the sense that the past and future are merging together in the moments at hand and the ones to come. The image of Jesus “now glorified” implies that his mission is nearing completion. The glory that is in God and in Jesus embodies the deep unity between the Holy One and the Incarnate Presence.

“In a little while, you won’t see me,” Jesus warns his followers and friends. They are dumbfounded. They do not want this to be. How can Jesus sum up his last instructions? There is so much to say—some of which they are not even ready to hear. But if they remember nothing else, Jesus wants them to remember one thing. So he offers them a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you. By this shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The Greek word he uses for “love” is agape–that deep, unconditionally committed love of God.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the Jewish people are instructed to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus, however, asks his followers to both receive his love and share that same agape love. In this, God is glorified–not only glorified, but actually known and seen. The incarnate presence is re-introduced again and again in this world through the love that Jesus’ followers demonstrate.

There is something so deep and rich about these instructions. In an article for the May 2013 issue of Sojourners magazine, activist and author Shane Claiborne writes about his visit to Iraq in March 2003, shortly after the “shock and awe” bombing campaign. On leaving Baghdad, the group from the United States had a terrible car accident. Iraqis saved their lives. Claiborne writes, “As they took care of us, we found out that three days before, our government had bombed their hospital. The bomb hit the children’s ward. And they still saved our lives” (Sojourners, May 2013, “Friends Without Borders” by Shane Claiborne, p. 36).

At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a story is told about Rev. Joachim Alexandropoulas, an Orthodox priest on a Greek island during World War II. Nazis came to him one day, demanding that he immediately provide a list of every Jew on the island. When he met with the soldiers the next day, he gave them a list with only one name on it: his own (see workingpreacher, org).

Most of us may never encounter decisions about practicing agape love as stark as these. When I look out over these pews, though, at your faces, I see so many people who do know, experience, and share that kind of love in so many everyday situations.

I’m going to close with a very personal story about agape love. I have hesitated all week about whether to include it in this sermon because it is a deep “Sarah story,” and I guard those stories carefully. Yet, it is a testament to that love of which Jesus speaks.

Louis LaGrand is a grief counselor who has written several books on the topic of after-death communication, a field not as publicly discussed as that of near-death experiences. In his book, “After Death Communications: Final Farewells,” LaGrand speaks of eight ways that people across cultures, generations, and belief systems describe after-death encounters with loved ones who have passed on. The most common for me have been through either metaphors evoked by nature or what I call “heart to hearts”—a sense of Sarah’s heart communicating with mine.

One day, I was walking down College Street. It was not long after Sarah’s suicide, and the actual facts of that Thanksgiving Day in November 2011 were rolling through my thoughts and tormenting my heart. Unexpectedly, a voice touched my soul, saying so clearly, “I don’t want you to remember me that way.”

I was startled. Instinctively, arguments welled up within me. “Well, if you don’t want me to remember you that way, Sarah, why did you do this?” In my mind, I rattled off a host of other traumas that people experience in this world that cannot be simply erased from consciousness at will.

Eventually, I settled down enough to ask the obvious next question, “Well, Sarah, if you don’t want me to think of you this way, how do you want me to think of you?” I must admit, I asked that question in a rather petulant, demanding, grief-stricken way.

The response was brief. It was startling, unforgettable, and radically transforming. Just three words. Uttered in quiet gentleness.

“Remember my love.”

I could never make this up.

Sarah’s request became a gift that I could learn to give both her and myself. Nothing can erase the events of that day, but this spiritual discipline redirects my agony toward love. and it has been a Spiritual Discipline. Anytime Sarah’s actual suicide comes to my mind, which thankfully happens less often than in the early months after her death, but still does happen, I cast these three words, “Remember my love,” over those images.

Day by day. Grief by grief. Memory by memory. I flood the darkness with light, with radiance, with more light. Love embraces and holds it all–in life, in death, and in life beyond death.

‘If you remember nothing else, remember this,’ Jesus urges his followers. “Love one another, as I have loved you. By this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


Miracles that Take Hard Work

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Acts 9:32-43
April 21, 2013
Steve Hammond

“DONNA, I DON’T KNOW IF YOU’RE COMING TO THE FUNERAL, BUT I HEARD Daddy’s gonna try to raise Randall from the dead. Call me.”

That’s the opening line of the memoir Holy Ghost Girl* by Donna Johnson. Virginia Douglas recommended that book to me. It’s pretty good. Here is the next little bit from the book.

“My sister left the message as my husband and I stumbled into our darkened kitchen hauling groceries, deli takeout, and briefcases. We had finished another twelve mind-numbing hours at our marketing firm, making deals, finessing budgets, and placating clients, employees, and sometimes each other, racing toward every deadline as though it were life or death. The red light of the answering machine winked at us from the counter. My husband flipped on the overhead light. ‘That preacher’s going to resurrect his son? We’re going, right?’”

Remember this book is a memoir, not a novel. This is a true story that has been repeated throughout the history of the Church based on passages such as the one we read today about Peter raising Tabitha from the dead.

To just about everybody it seems silly, or comical, that the preacher, Brother Terrell, who is the focus of Donna Johnson’s memoir would try to raise his son from the dead. But I’m still living through the death of one of my children and I can sure understand why any parent would try something so desperate.

The story of Tabitha (she’s also called Dorcas) is moving in its familiarity. She was a woman who was so obviously loved and well known for “doing good and helping out.” When Peter arrived her friends got out some of the clothes she had made, those memories they could hold in their hands. It sounds like she took ill and died rather suddenly. There was the shock, the tears, the mourners gathered around her body. Most of us have experienced something like this. We have felt what they felt. Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, and Jesus his friend, experienced the same grief themselves.

And like Lazarus, the story didn’t quite end the way anybody was expecting. Peter raised Tabitha from the dead. And what do we do with that?

Here’s what happened at Randall’s funeral. “With the congregation in his thrall, Brother Terrell abruptly stopped preaching and handed the microphone to one of his associates. As the amens and hallelujahs softened, the associate minister waved forward a group of preachers. One of them carried a bottle of olive oil. They walked down the ramp to the casket. The church went silent. My sisters glanced over their shoulders, eyes wide. One of Pam’s younger sisters buried her face in her hands. The minister who had been Randall’s friend took the bottle of oil and tilted it onto a white handkerchief. He put the cloth on Randall’s forehead and spoke while the others laid hands on the corpse. ‘Brother Randall, in the name of Jesus, if you want to come back, then go ahead and come on. In the name of Jesus. We’d be glad to have you.’ After what must have been one of the shortest prayers in Holy Roller history, the preachers stepped away from the body. Shoulders relaxed in the family section. Randall would remain dead and his body would stay in the coffin. The organ music swelled and Brother Terrell moved to the side of the coffin. The audience lined up to shake his hand as they had years earlier. As they filed by, they gripped his arm, pulled him close, and offered their condolences. “So sorry for your loss.” “We’re praying for you every day.” “Don’t give up. God’s gonna see you through.” The miracle didn’t happen that day.

As much as Brother Terrell and so many others have tried over the centuries, they haven’t been able to do what Peter did that day. We could simply dismiss the story of Tabitha as either nonsense or simply some kind of narrative devise to enhance Peter’s standing in the first century church. I think that would be as much of a mistake as imagining we could replicate it ourselves. I think, rather, it is a story we just live with the best we can. That’s what Donna Johnson does. Randall wasn’t raised from the dead. But throughout her history with Brother Terrell she saw things that she could only describe as miracles, despite her skepticism.

There is another miracle, though, I think this story points to right at the end. Just this little line at the end where it says that Peter spent a long time in Joppa as a guest of Simon the Tanner.

Okay, I’m going to put you Biblical scholars to the test. Beside the stories that went on with Peter in the city of Joppa, do you know where else we read about Joppa in the Bible? It’s the city where Jonah left on his voyage to Ninevah.

Now some people think the miracle in the Jonah story is the one about Jonah being swallowed by the fish and delivered safely to his destination. Others of us think, though, that the more impressive miracle in the story is that in spite of all of Jonah’s intentions, God’s mercy and grace and love were offered and received by a people who lived outside of Israel. It’s a story of the walls coming down and people like Jonah and those in Nivevah learning to see God in new ways, even if Jonah didn’t like it.

And that is exactly what happened with Peter. It was while he was at Simon’s house, a house he should never have been in in the first place as a practicing Jew, he received a vision to go to the home of Cornelius.

Peter initially felt the same that Jonah did. There was no reason he should enter the home of a gentile like Cornelius. It was against his religion. Why would God have anything to do with the gentiles, anyway?

I don’t want to go into that whole story this morning, but I surely would recommend you read it in Acts 10 and 11. It is really one of the more significant stories in the Bible. Here’s a little bit of the story. This is when Peter first meets Cornelius. “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Then a few verses later Peter says “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”

To read about Peter saying that is another miracle. A miracle even more profound, I might suggest, than raising Tabitha from the dead. Some miracles take hard work, and reaching across the lines and tearing down the walls of division is a miracle you have to work for. It seems like it was easier for Peter to raise Tabitha from the dead than enter the house of a Gentile and claim that God loved those folk as much as God loved Peter’s folk.

All you have to do is look around this, nation and the world, from the bombings in Boston to Baghdad, to see that there are miracles we need to work for. There are so many divisions, so much pain and death and destruction caused because of the walls that divide us. They are hard miracles, but miracles we can work to accomplish.

When it came time to try to raise Randall from the dead, you notice that it wasn’t Brother Terrell who tried. He had realized that there wasn’t going to be a replay of the Tabitha story. And I don’t think it mattered to him. If you read the book you will discover there is a lot about Brother Terrell not to like. But on the day of his son’s funeral he found himself where so many of us have been. He had joined the community of the grieving. You don’t care about the walls and divisions there, because there is something much more profound that unites people. There are so many miracles out there.

Beyond Forgiveness

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

John 21:15-23
April 14, 2013
Mary Hammond

“Do you love me?”

How many times have we asked or heard this question? How many times have we wanted to speak it, and yet held back? It is such a poignant question, full of so much heart, hope, and vulnerability. What happens when we ask this question, and the response is “no,” or “not so much,” or “not in the way that you love me”? Then, what?

According to the Gospel of John, Simon has now seen Jesus three times since the resurrection. In each instance, he is with a group of other disciples. But finally, Jesus has a few moments to engage in one-on-one conversation with Simon. Jesus gets right to the point. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“More than these what?” we ask. More than these other disciples love Jesus? More than Simon loves his vocation as a fisherman? More than he loves his fellow disciples, family, and friends? More than everything and everyone he loves and values in this world?

“Simon, do you love me more than these?”

Given the fact that the disciple cannot gauge how much the others love Jesus, I have to assume that the Resurrected One is asking Simon how deep and committed his own love truly is. Simon’s past professions of devotion don’t square with his behavior after Jesus’ arrest, when he three times denies knowing Jesus.

Jesus addresses this disciple by his birth name, Simon, rather than by the new name, Peter, meaning “Rock,” that Jesus previously gave Simon. Do you remember the story? Simon confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus confers on him this new name (Matthew 15:17-18). And yet, the fisherman often acts more like his old self than and less like Peter, or Rock.

“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks.

“Yes, Master, you know I love you,” Simon responds.

Three times this interchange occurs, reminiscent of the three times Peter denies Jesus in the courtyard.

There are critical aspects of the Greek language absent in English translations that help illuminate this dialogue. So we’ll have to have a little Greek tutorial here.

While English offers one word for “love,” there are three words for love in Greek: agape, philos, and eros. Agape is generally associated with God’s deep, unconditional love. Yet, that word is also used in the Gospel of John on occasion for loving the darkness. In John 3:19, we read that the “people loved (agape) darkness more than light.” So, its shades of meaning can embody intensity and unconditional commitment, not solely divine love. Philos is the love between friends. To complicate things, the word seems occasionally to be used interchangeably with agape in the Gospel of John (see John 3:35, agape; and John 5:20, philos). Generally, however, the nuances of these two words for “love” differ. The third word, eros, is associated with sensual love.

This differentiation is critical to the dialogue between Jesus and Simon. Jesus asks Simon if he loves him, using the word agape. In this instance, it is most likely associated with that fullest, deepest, unconditional love of God. Simon replies with philos, the love between friends. They repeat this exchange. Jesus asks Simon again if he loves him. The third time, however, Jesus uses the word Simon uses–philos. And Simon again replies with philos, the love of a friend.

Is Jesus looking for a kind of love from Simon that he, at this time, is not able to offer, or perhaps does not yet even comprehend? Does Jesus then alter his question to reflect what Simon is actually capable of giving?

In Simon’s final response to Jesus, he says, “Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.” The word “know” here is expressed through two words with different meanings in the Greek. In the first sentence, “know” or oida refers to ordinary, everyday knowledge. “ Master, you know everything there is to know.” This is knowing from the head. But in the second, “know” or ginosko refers to interior, mystical knowing. “You’ve got to know I love you.” This is knowing from the heart.

Each time Simon asserts his love for Jesus, the Resurrected One asks him to do something. First, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs. Then, “Shepherd my sheep.” And finally, “Feed my sheep.” It is not enough for Simon to simply bluster and proclaim his love for Jesus. Didn’t he once swear he would follow Jesus to the ends of the earth and even die for him (Luke 22:33)?

The most astounding part of this interaction for me is that Jesus moves beyond forgiving Simon to trusting him with Jesus’ very own mission. Beyond forgiveness to deep trust. Amazing.

Jesus tells Peter that his future is in God’s hands, not his own. Throughout his youth, Peter did what he wanted to do. But as time passes, he will be led places he would not, on his own, choose to go. The Gospel writer editorializes, interpreting this remark as relating to the manner of Peter’s death, which history tells us was by upside-down crucifixion.

There is a maturing in our relationship with God throughout the passing of the years that comes amid stumbles and successes, paired with dogged devotion and rugged perseverance. Peter’s professed love for Jesus shapes itself over the long haul into concrete ministry that comes with a cost. Peter’s maturing process leads him all the way to his own cross, reversing his cowardice in the face of Jesus’ cross so many years before. The disciple’s journey is a powerful testimony of grace, transformation, and patience.

“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks Simon, and asks us.

In the wake of our daughter Sarah’s breakdown and suicide, this extended cancer journey has forced me to hear this question in ever deeper echoes of the heart. We learn so much about ourselves when we walk through the fire of adversity and loss. The consuming energy of its flame illuminates our unconscious attachments and unrealized assumptions. We find ourselves wanting to scamper out of the mess as expeditiously as Peter did in the Courtyard after Jesus’ arrest.

Like Simon Peter, I have been questioned by Jesus—“Do you love me more than these?”

I have had to re-examine my own heart and its greatest attachments. Jesus calls us to be deep, authentic lovers here on earth. Yet, we are also called to release everything and everyone we love to and for him. Sometimes our steps become very clumsy and halting in this paradoxical dance between passionate loving and profound surrender.

“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks.

What is your conversation with Jesus, when he poses this question to you?



Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Luke 24:1-12
April 7, 2013
Steve Hammond

It would be simpler if there were just one Easter story in the Bible, but probably not better. The fact that there are four gospels included in the New Testament canon indicates that this story of Jesus from birth to resurrection defies a simple retelling. And if we are going to find our way into that story, there have to be a variety of ways for us to get there, because we aren’t all alike.

The stories do diverge about their details, but there are also some pretty consistent parts in all the stories. One of those is that nobody expected the tomb to be empty when they went down to the cemetery that Sunday morning. In all of the stories it’s some or, at least, one of the women followers of Jesus who first go to the tomb. In a couple of the stories they took spices and ointments with them to finish preparing the body of Jesus for his grave. Maybe it’s a story about those folk who have to do something when such a tragedy has hit. They want to show their devotion, their appreciation, their grief by cleaning, caressing, touching for the last time the one whose touch had meant to much to them.

In Matthew and John’s stories there is nothing about preparing the body for burial. In those stories Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary in Matthew’s story, just goes down to see the tomb. For her, or them, it seems it’s a time to just grieve outside the tomb. There must have been questions running through their minds like, How could it have ended here? How did it go so wrong? How did we get it so wrong? What would have happened if only the authorities hadn’t turned against him or if he had fought back? How are we going to go on without him? Is this pain ever going to go away? This what not a time for Mary or the Marys to do something with their grief. It was a time to feel it.

So nobody expected the tomb to be empty when they got to the cemetery. That’s what all the stories tel us. And they also all tell us that when they did get there the tomb was empty. And they were very confused.

That’s not surprising. Craig Koester, Professor of New Test at Luther Seminary in St. Paul says it this way. “Experience teaches that death wins. The Easter message says that Jesus lives. When such contradictory claims collide, it only makes sense to continue affirming what we already know. The women bring the message of resurrection to the others, and they respond as thinking people regularly respond: they thought that the message was “an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Actually not in all the stories. In Mark’s story, the women don’t say a word to anybody. “Then they got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they didn’t say anything to anybody.”

That kind of makes sense when you think about it. I mean what would you have done? Keeping your mouth shut, so people wouldn’t think you were crazy, is surely an option.

In the other stories, though, the women did talk. Another consistent detail in all the stories is that it was the women who first realized that Jesus was alive. If I were going to compose my own story about how the resurrection might have happened in first century Israel, it wouldn’t have been women who were at the center of the story. It would have been those folk who were eventually elevated to the status of Apostle that would get my attention. Who, in that context, would ever take seriously a story where women played such a crucial role? And why go the extra step of calling the Apostles’ faith into question by having them dismiss the witness of the women, which turned out to be accurate, as idle chatter?

I mentioned last week that there’s a lot of running going on in all of the gospel stories. Except for Luke. That story offers a bit calmer narrative. It says the women, and in Luke’s story it’s a whole bunch of women, were perplexed when they came to the empty tomb. And they weren’t so much frightened by the empty tomb as they were the two men in dazzling white who asked them, in my opinion, one of the great questions in the Bible, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” The men also remind the women that Jesus said this was exactly what was going to happen.” And then it says they returned from the tomb and told all of this “to the eleven and all the rest.” It doesn’t say anything about them acting like a bunch of hysterical women. They just go back and make their report which, of course, the eleven, and probably all the rest, dismiss as idle tales.

If you really want action in your Easter story, a bit more Hollywood, then Matthew is the story for you. There is an earthquake as the women approach the tomb. They just don’t find a guy or two sitting in an empty tomb, but they watch an angel of the Lord descend from heaven and roll the stone away. It says his appearance was like lightening and his clothing white as snow. “And the guards trembled and became like dead men.”

It’s only in Matthew’s story that you get this thing about the guards. The religious authorities asked Pilate to place a guard around the tomb in case any of Jesus’ disciples tried to steal his body and claim he was raised from the dead. But we also know from the subplot in this story that the guard did really see the angel roll back the stone and were paid off to not say anything.

That story does make a much better theatrical production than the others and offers all kinds of possibilities. I think about those guards trying to hold off the resurrection. It kind of reminds me of those gun activists who insist they need all their high powered assault weapons in case they have to fend off the government at some point. The government, of course, has tanks, missiles, special operation forces, helicopters, chemical weapons, bombers, drones, and the like. The soldiers in front of that tomb didn’t have any greater hope of keeping Jesus in his tomb. But the story does has some additional pop.

There are all kinds of ways into the Easter story. Way more than the four the gospels offer. But like all stories the Easter story takes us to new places. Here is something else from Craig Koester, “The Easter message calls you from your old belief in death to a new belief in life. The claim that the tomb could not hold Jesus, and the idea that the one who died by crucifixion has now risen is so outrageous that it might make you wonder whether it might–just might–be true. The message was so outrageous that Peter had to go and take a look for himself (Luke 24:12). He had to wonder, “What if it is true?”
[We who follow Jesus] have heard the rumor that Jesus is alive and come to hear [the story] again for ourselves: “What if it is true? What if death is real, but not final? What if Jesus is not merely past but present? What if Jesus were to meet me here? What would life be then?”
The Easter reading stops with Peter’s amazement, but the Easter story continues far beyond, as God continues to challenge the certainty of death with the promise of life. Go ahead and tell God that you think it is outrageous to expect anyone to believe that Jesus has risen. Go ahead and tell God that you believe that death gets the final word. None of this is news to God. God has heard it all before and simply refuses to believe it.”

Something that I knew but didn’t think about until this time, is that it is only in John’s story that anybody encounters Jesus in the garden. Mary sees Jesus, and after finally figuring out who he is, grabs hold of him for dear life. In the other stories, though, except for Mark’s rather abrupt ending, “they didn’t say of word about it to anybody,” nobody sees the risen Jesus until later.

Some people need to find a way to really grab hold of Jesus, but for most of us, our faith comes from the stories of others, what they have experienced, what they have heard and seen. We enter the story through the stories of others. And others enter the story through our stories. And the same crazy thing happens that happened that first Easter. We find resurrection.

Disarmed Tombs

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

John 20:1-18
Easter 2013
Steve Hammond

If you read all the gospel stories about the resurrection of Jesus you realize there are a lot of people running. They are either running from the tomb, to the tomb, or back and forth.

In John’s story, Mary goes running from the empty tomb to find Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. The two of them literally go racing back to the tomb, running neck and neck. The other disciple, who is also known at the Beloved Disciple in other translations, beats Peter to the tomb. But he pulls up and Peter goes rushing past him straight to the finish line inside the tomb .

I know it wasn’t actually a race to see who got inside the tomb first. But that detail about the Beloved Disciple throwing the race is a bit of an interesting detail that the writer of the story thought was worth mentioning.

Nobody really knows who the Beloved Disciple was, but I read some real interesting speculation this week about his identity. The traditional assumption is that the writer of John’s gospel is claiming that title of Beloved Disciple for himself. But Mark David, in his blog “Left Behind and Loving It,” (great name for a blog by a Christian writer by the way), writes this, “I’ve always felt that ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ is not ‘John,’ as traditionally described, but ‘Lazarus,’ who is described this way in John 11:3. (Not many people are willing to go there with me, so feel free to roll your eyes at this point.) If so, I would certainly understand why BD/Lazarus would stop outside of the tomb instead of entering it. I hear that being dead for four days in a tomb makes you react like that afterwards.”

Do you remember the story about Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary? The three of them were great friends and followers of Jesus. Lazarus got sick and word was sent to Jesus that he should get to Bethany and do something. But Jesus decided to delay his trip there and Lazarus died before Jesus arrived. So Jesus did the next best thing. He called Lazarus to come out of his tomb even though he had already been dead for four days. That story also says it was when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead that the authorities decided it was finally time to deal with Jesus once, and they thought, for all.

If Lazarus was, indeed, the Beloved Disciple–and for today’s purposes we are just going to assume he was–you can understand as Mark David suggests why he didn’t go rushing into the tomb of Jesus. Once you have spent four days dead in a tomb, you have a different perspective than everybody else.

This story also tells us, though, that Lazarus may have lost the race, but he did eventually go in the tomb. While Peter was standing around scratching his head and trying to figure out what was happening, the Beloved Disciple or Lazarus, just took a look around and became the first to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Lazarus knew something about tombs that nobody else, except Jesus knew. And standing there he realized that the power of the tomb, a power he knew so well, indeed, finally been broken.

Remember how in his own tomb story they had to unwrap Lazarus from his grave clothes. They would have had to uncover his face before he could see. Notice that in Jesus’ tomb the face covering had been neatly folded up and placed off to the side. Lazarus realized, I think, that what happened that morning meant we could start seeing the world in a whole new way. The power of death was broken, now the call was to look for life.

Easter morning is our invitation to look at life from the inside of an empty tomb. The grave cloths are lying there with no real purpose anymore. The stone has been rolled away and the call we have to follow Jesus takes us away from the tomb.

The call of Jesus was always a call to leave death behind, to roll back the stone. He knew that death’s power was not just confined to the tomb, but that our captivity to death impacts everything about how we live in this world. It’s the tomb, or it’s power, that dictates our reliance on violence, separates from others because of their race, gender, language, or the thousand other ways we separate from each other. It’s the tomb that drives us to our greed, our militarism, our nationalism, and our hedonism.

The stone, though, has been rolled away. Jesus walked away from the tomb. Death took it’s best shot and it wasn’t good enough. Jesus was done with death, and Lazarus was the first one to figure it out. Jesus didn’t even give death it’s full three days–just the minimum to make it sound like three days–much less the four that Lazarus got. Jesus was up and out of there because he had life to get to.

We have life to get to ourselves. The path where we follow Jesus picks up right outside the tomb. And it leads us farther and farther away from that useless hole in the wall that, nevertheless, has such a hold on us.

To follow Jesus doesn’t mean we deny death and all that it is about. Rather, it’s just the opposite. We confront death because we know it’s power has been broken. We can go back into that tomb with Lazarus because we know there in no there, there.

When Jesus walked out of his tomb, he was in a garden, which sure makes me think about a much earlier garden in the Biblical story, the Garden of Eden or Paradise. If Paradise had a facebook page I would like it. I’m a big fan. I think Paradise is much closer than we think, even all around us. What tombs and all our death dealing ways do is hide Paradise from us.

That empty tomb tells us that doesn’t have to be. I think that was one of the things that Jesus had in mind when he proclaimed the Good News of the Realm of God. He was saying that Paradise is there for us to grab hold of. We just need to tell death to get out of the way, that we have chosen non-cooperation.

Lazarus may have raced Peter to the tomb, but I don’t think he ran away from it. He didn’t need to. Death no longer had it’s grip on him, even though Lazarus had seen it up close. But his tomb was different than the tomb of Jesus. When Jesus walked out of his tomb everything changed.

So what are we going to do about that tomb of Jesus? Run to it in disbelief, yet hope? Run away from it because it still has a power over us? Stay outside and peer in? Look at those empty grave cloths and believe? Maybe all of those things?

What do we see outside the tomb? What can we see when we roll up the grave cloths and put them off to the side and follow Jesus out of the tomb?