by Bishop Mariann | Jun 1, 2023
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven . . .
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, summer is a season unto itself: three months of extended sunlight that dramatically alters our sense of time. In the Christian calendar, our summer months coincide with what the Episcopal Church simply calls After Pentecost, and that our Roman Catholic friends describe more poetically as Ordinary Time. It’s a long stretch without a major Christian holiday, during which we are invited to experience the presence of Christ all around us and dwell on His teachings.
On a recent parish visitation I invited those gathered for the Sunday forum to consider the weeks between Memorial and Labor Day as a distinct season in their life. I asked them to call to mind what they knew was waiting for them in the summer months and what they hoped for. Even for those whose work patterns don’t change, I said, we seem to have more time in the summer, and the possibility of adventure For many, routines and rhythms change dramatically, allowing space for the things that bring joy.
Several people mentioned working in the garden and other summer-related activities that they loved. Others spoke of planned trips, family reunions , and college-aged children returning home. There was lightness and laughter in the room.
The tone shifted when one person shared that the summer would be a time of healing from surgery and then on-going treatment for cancer. Given a recent lay-off, another said that she would spend the summer looking for a job. We acknowledged that dramatic events that can occur at any time–the birth of a child, unexpected diagnoses, untimely deaths, and life responsibilities that remain, no matter the season.
There are unique opportunities for ministry in the summer, I said. Many congregations offer programming for children out of school, or take advantage of the opportunity for extended service locally or on mission trips. In the on-going work of gun violence prevention, the summer months can be intense, and one of the churches I admire, Peace Fellowship in Southeast DC, dedicates itself to walking its neighborhood in a ministry of presence. Food insecurity also rises for many families, and congregations across the diocese are stepping up their efforts to meet the need.
I asked, then, the question that my Jesuit spiritual director sometimes asks me: what intention might you set for the season ahead, and what grace might you pray to receive from the Holy Spirit for this time? Imagine yourself in September, looking back. What would you hope to be able to say about the growth you experienced this summer, or the healing? What offering were you able to make, and how did you increase in love?
The room grew quiet as we all pondered what lay before us.
I offer the same invitation to you. Consider the season of life before you, however you measure it. In a time of silence, or in close conversation with a trusted person, set your intentions and ask for the grace you need.
Keep in mind that setting an intention isn’t the same as a self-improvement plan. Rather, it’s an expressed desire to set your sights on a guiding light, and to keep your focus there. There is no failure in setting an intention, because it acknowledges our humanity and all beyond our control. An intention is a way of placing our heart’s desire in God’s hands and asking for the grace to live according to that desire, no matter the outcome. It helps us to place our desires in the proper order, as St. Augustine would say, so that we keep in mind the things that matter most.
If you are in church this Sunday you will hear two particularly inspiring passages of Scripture to consider at the threshold of summer: the first story of Creation as told in the Book of Genesis, and the Resurrected Jesus’ final words to His disciples as He ascends into heaven as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.
The Creation story reminds us that God sees this world and all that is in it as essentially good, and that we are all created in God’s image. We can’t deny all that works against that essential goodness, including our own failings and sin, yet goodness remains as our birthright and blessing. The passage also includes God’s creation of the Sabbath Day, a gentle exhortation for us to establish rhythms of rest, a welcome reminder at any time.
Jesus’ final words are of reassurance of His presence: Remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age.
May this summer, however it unfolds, provide you opportunities to savor and cherish the blessings of God’s creation, to fully live the life given you, to make meaningful contributions to others, and to rest. May you remember that you are created in God’s image and that Jesus will be with you, wherever you go.
by Bishop Mariann | May 18, 2023
The following passage–about what can happen when we decide to stay–begins chapter two of How We Learn to Be Brave by Bishop Mariann.
Ian Bedloe is the seventeen-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler’s 1991 novel, Saint Maybe. He blames himself for the apparent suicide death of his older brother, Danny, and subsequent family tragedies. One evening, as he wanders the streets of his home city of Baltimore, Ian sees a neon sign in a storefront window, “Church of the Second Chance.” He takes his place among a small group of wounded souls, and he hears himself telling them of his brother’s death and of his guilt. The minister, Reverend Emmett, a kind yet spiritually uncompromising young man, assures Ian that forgiveness is possible, provided that he atones for his sins. So Ian decides to drop out of school and take a menial job to help provide for his brother’s children. Years go by as he goes to work each day, cares for his family, and is a faithful member of the church. Still, the forgiveness that he longs for eludes him, and he begins to question the choices he has made.
Sensing that Ian is troubled, Reverend Emmett offers to walk him home from church one Sunday afternoon. As they walk, all of Ian’s frustrations pour out of him. “I feel like I’m wasting my life!” he cries. Reverend Emmett stops and turns to look directly into Ian’s eyes. “This is your life,” he says softly. “Lean into it. View your burden as a gift. It’s the theme that has been given you to work with. This is the only life you’ll have.”
Given the drama, adrenaline, and outward energy involved in deciding to go, staying put can feel like being trapped. Yet the decision to stay also can be brave and consequential. Making that choice, particularly when there are compelling reasons to leave, involves a similar internal struggle and building sense of crisis, leading to a decisive moment, as strong as the decision to go. But there the similarity ends, for in deciding to stay, we choose to go deeper into the life we already have.
Because the call to go is rightfully associated with the adventurous side of courage, choosing to stay can appear as if we are settling for less. Yet depth, which is the fruit of stability, is essential to a mature life and our capacity to make a lasting difference in the lives of others. In choosing to stay, we acknowledge that there is more at stake than what we feel or want. We learn that there is more than one way to live a brave life and that some of the most courageous decisions we make are ones that no one sees.
I first read Saint Maybe at a time when I, not much older than Ian, was struggling with what it meant to stay in my own life. Reverend Emmett’s words to Ian felt like God’s words to me: “This is your life. Stay where you are.” Until then, my life had been largely defined by going—moving from one place to the next, stepping out of one world and into another, learning to be brave in face of the unknown. Now I was in my early thirties, married, with a three-year-old and a newborn, working full-time at a job that I was supposed to love. I did love it much of the time, and I loved much of my life, which made it hard to acknowledge or talk about how I felt. Driving the streets of Toledo, Ohio, I would sing along with a Nanci Griffith song playing on the radio. I’m working on a morning flight to anywhere but here, wishing it were true.
I see now that my internal struggle was a call to accept and experience the gift and the cost of stability. It has been a recurring theme, whenever I wrestle with the call to stay. I’ve had to learn, time and again, that faithfulness isn’t always about taking big leaps, but also walking with small steps, and that it’s possible to make a lasting difference in the world by tending to one small corner of it.
A foreshadow of this realization came in our first year of marriage, which my husband, Paul, and I spent in Honduras, working in a school for impoverished children. Initially it seemed as if we
had made an enormous commitment. As our time there drew to a close, however, I realized that those who dedicate their lives to serve in that way are the ones who are able to have a transformative impact for good. I returned to the United States wanting to be that kind of person, but also sensing that nothing in my life had prepared me for the discipline it would require.
Marriage, parenting, and parish ministry became my teachers, each representing a small world for which I was responsible, each valuing stability over change and constancy over the excitement I craved. Not knowing who to talk to, I found solace and guidance in books. Bits of wisdom would come to me, keeping me grounded when I wanted to fly.
How We Learn to Be Brave by Mariann Edgar Budde goes on sale Tuesday, May 23. Join her that evening at 7:00 p.m. at Washington National Cathedral for a discussion with Canon Historian Jon Meacham, followed by a book signing and reception. Register now
by Bishop Mariann | May 12, 2023
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
John 14: 1-8
Good morning. Thank you for your warm welcome. I’m very happy to be worshiping at St. Mark’s, a community for whom I hold great admiration. I am also glad to be with my long-time friend and colleague, Michele Morgan. I was thinking this week about the letter I wrote to our then bishop of Minnesota, commending Michele for ordination. I told him people like Michele don’t come along every day, that she would be one to change our church for the better. Please join me in giving thanks for her ministry.
It is the beginning of May, which means, among other things, that we are entering the time of year marked by celebrations and rites of passage. There are graduations and weddings; in the church, it’s the season of ordinations. Today at St. Mark’s we are celebrating Baptism, Confirmation, Reception, and the Reaffirmation of Faith.
While not related to the season, St. Mark’s has had its share of funerals of late, the ultimate passage from this life to the next. The gospel text we read this morning is the most frequently chosen for funerals, for good reason. They are comforting words to hear in times of grief: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. . . I am going to prepare a place for you.
One thing these services have in common is that the person speaking attempts to give words of inspiration, the best they can offer for those whose celebratory moment is at the center of the gathering.
In a moment, that’s what I’ll do–give the best I can say today about the Christian faith for those making commitments today. But first, I invite you to think about what it feels like to give someone the best you’ve got, to dig deep to find the most important words you have to say in a given situation.
I once knew a man who worked as a chaplain at an assisted living facility. He took it upon himself to encourage everyone there to write a love letter to their families. It wasn’t their will. It was an offering from their hearts, a means of sharing their most important life lessons and hopes for their loved ones.
We needn’t wait until the end of our lives to do this. We could write letters to our children or grandchildren, our friends, colleagues, and neighbors whenever they reach an important milestone, or when we simply want to bless them. I had dinner last night with a colleague who is experiencing a time of real disappointment, and he told me how much it meant to him that people have reached out to him with words of encouragement and affirmation. They have been a lifeline in what would otherwise be a very lonely season of his life. If there’s someone you know who is going through a hard time, or embarking on an adventure, or has accomplished something they’ve worked hard for, I wonder what you might say to them, in wisdom and in love? What you might express by way of gratitude to those who have helped you along the way?
Here is what I have on my heart to say on this occasion of Baptism, Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation of Christian promises. I speak as one who has been a conscious believer in Jesus, and a follower of Jesus, since I was a teenager. It’s been quite a journey, and I’ve learned a few things. There’s still much more for me to learn, but this I know:
First: There is a difference between believing things about Jesus and believing in Jesus, between knowing things about Jesus and Him. The two are related–you can’t believe in Jesus if you don’t know anything about Him. Of course our knowledge will always be imperfect, and we all run the risk of believing in, or rejecting for that matter, a caricature of Him, or assuming that our partial knowledge is complete.
There is also the difference between the knowledge we gain by reading the gospel texts that tell of his life, and the knowledge of first hand experience, an encounter with the living Christ. Again, the two are related. If the purpose of our biblical texts was simply to pass on knowledge, we’d read them once and be done with them. Instead, we read and meditate on them continually, in worship, study, private devotion, because through the stories of Scripture, Jesus sometimes speaks a direct and personal word to us.
Believing in Jesus, however, is as much a matter of the heart as it is one of intellectual conviction. It happens in ways not that different from what it’s like for us to believe in other people, as an act of trust. To believe in Jesus is to place our trust in the possibility that the mystery we call God–the Source of all this true and good and real, the wonder of life and the mystery of love–took on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to show us what divine love looks like in the flesh–unconditional, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, and compelling.
Moreover, the part of God that is the person of Jesus, now the living Spirit of Christ, is real for us, and is with us, and is at work in and through us in ways that defy human understanding. As the Apostle Paul put it, his Spirit working in us can accomplish infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine. Sometimes Jesus is there simply to help us get through the challenges and heartache of life; other times, He calls us to acts of great courage, forgiveness, and sacrificial love.
Second, and this is related to the first: whether or not we believe in Jesus isn’t entirely up to us. The faith experience begins with an encounter, initiated from His side. That encounter takes many forms, but the point is, the invitation initiates with Him–although our openness to receive Him is key, because Jesus is not a bully. The encounter can be as if we hear–if that’s the right word for it–our name; as if we’re being summoned somehow. It can come through a moment of beauty and inspiration. For many, believing in Jesus begins rather dramatically, with an experience of being rescued or forgiven; for others, it’s more gradual, and only in retrospect do they realize how much Jesus has been with them all along. However Jesus comes to us, we have the sense that He knows us for who and what we are, and loves us still, unconditionally and completely.
Often the experience of Jesus is mediated by another person, and His presence is sometimes palpable in Christian community. Faith, it’s said, is more caught than taught, and it is a shared experience. Sometimes, though, He comes to us in a moment of quiet. He meets us in the times of greatest joy and immense suffering; I experience Jesus most powerfully in the gap between what is needed and what I have to offer.
Good teaching in faith is incredibly important, yet another plug for Christian community. One of the critical turning points in my life of faith was when I was in the midst of a genuine faith crisis, caught between two very different ways of understanding what it meant to be a Christian. The people who mattered most to me at the time and who had initially introduced me to the faith leaned one way, and the way I felt was more authentic to who I was and what I knew to be true was leaning another way. I didn’t want to hurt or anger the spiritual authorities in my life, and yet, I no longer believed much of what they believed about Jesus and what it meant to follow Him. Their teaching no longer spoke to me.
That’s when someone gave me a copy of a book, now out of print, entitled Turning: Reflections on the Experience of Conversion by Emilie Griffin. It was her personal account of how she came to faith–a lifelong process of struggle and doubt and intellectual questioning. She wove in stories about well-known 20th century Christians whose faith journeys were anything but straightforward, among them Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis. That book freed me to trust my own experiences, to take my own journey seriously, and listen inside myself, for what the theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”
Which leads me to the third and final thing I’d like to say about having a personal relationship with God through Jesus. It evolves and grows and changes over time, and as a result we evolve and grow and change in ways that we can’t anticipate looking forward and that we may only realize looking back. Ideally, although not always, we grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and forgive as He forgives. Often, however, we fail in love and forgiveness, and we find ourselves as the one needing forgiveness, or healing, or both. Sometimes, in faith, our prayers are answered and our deepest desires are met. Other times, they are not, and we must learn to live with grief and sorrow. That’s when Jesus can show up in ways that make possible for us what would be impossible on our own–for we realize that we’re not alone, and that His grace will see us through.
So that’s what I have on my heart to say, some of the most important things I have come to believe about believing in Jesus. But I’d like to leave with what Jesus has to say, which brings us back to the Gospel of John.
This passage we read this morning–the one we are most likely to hear at funerals– marks the beginning of a long section in the Gospel of John that contains Jesus’s final words to His disciples before His death. It’s His love letter.
The setting is at their last supper together. He’s already shared bread and wine with His disciples, telling them that whenever they break bread together in the future, He will be with them. He’s just finished wrapping a towel around His waist, taking a basin and pitcher of water and washing each one of the disciples’ feet, saying to them, “Do you see what I have done for you? I have given you an example, that you might serve others as I have served you.”
Then He sits down and speaks to them—three chapters’ worth of wisdom and assurance. They are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture. It’s too much to read in one setting, for each sentence is enough to ponder for a day, or a lifetime. You won’t find His ethical exhortations here–for that, we would turn to the Sermon on the Mount. This is spiritual encouragement and consolation, an invitation to believe in Him, to trust Him as One who is with you and for you.
He starts off by saying: Don’t let your hearts be troubled. No matter what happens next, I’m going to be okay and so are you. God is still God. He says, in essence, although I’m going away, I will never leave you. And you know where I’m going.
The disciples have no idea what He’s talking about. They don’t know where He’s going; they certainly don’t know the way. Then He says to them: Don’t worry. Remember everything that you’ve experienced and keep your eyes on me. I’ll get you there.
Truth be told, by the time the Gospel of John was written, most, if not all, of the first disciples had died. So these words weren’t written for them. They were written for us. This is who Jesus can be for us and what He offers us, whenever we choose to believe–place our trust–in Him. What does that look like? Keeping our eyes on Him, and trusting that, no matter what, He’ll see us through.
by Bishop Mariann | May 4, 2023
Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me?
At our diocesan staff meeting this week, we opened with a communal reflection on the gospel passage that you’ll hear should you attend an Episcopal Church on Sunday.
There had been a lot of good natured banter as we gathered, and it took a while for us to settle down. At last we read aloud the text that begins:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I would go and prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going . . . “ John 14:1-3
The room became still.
These are Jesus’ parting words, spoken to his disciples as they shared a final meal. For three chapters in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells them all that what he wants them to know and to be assured of as he prepares to leave, and what he hopes they will remember. As in all of John’s gospel, they are also words for us, written so that we “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
Quietly, we shared in turn a word or phrase that spoke to us. We noted that in thirteen verses the word believe is repeated five times: Believe in God. Believe also in me. In response to one disciple’s anxieties, Jesus replies, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”
I found myself thinking of how easily I can lose confidence in my relationship with Jesus, particularly when I feel as if I’ve failed Him, or when whatever I’m facing feels insurmountable, or when the pain of the world is too much to hold.
Even now–as a bishop no less–I still need to be reminded that I believe–that is, place my trust–in Jesus. Remembering how He has been with me in the past helps me to place my trust in Him now.
Years ago, I was at a leadership retreat at which we were asked to consider the arc of our lives and how God might be calling us to serve in the future. I remember sitting alone, not wanting to ask God for guidance. I realized that I was afraid that God might ask me to do something I couldn’t do–or worse, that I didn’t want to do. Would I be like the rich young ruler who chose his possessions over the invitation to follow Jesus? (Matthew 19:21)
As I struggled, Jesus answered the prayer I was afraid to pray with a word of gentle reassurance, I know everything about you. I know your weaknesses, your sin, and your fears. You can trust me. I felt seen, and loved, for who I was. Jesus had been with me all along. Whatever the call in the future would be, it would take into account who I was, with all my gifts and failings. I could trust him.
Trusting Him doesn’t mean that we needn’t repent and turn from sin, or that all will go as we had hoped, or that He will spare us from sorrow and pain. But in trust, we can allow Him to help us face our sin, and experience Him carrying us through the most challenging, heart-wrenching times. In retrospect, we realize that, in the times we felt most lost and alone, or caught in the ways of being ourselves that we are least proud of, that He has been with us all along.
In your quiet moments this week, I invite you to look back on your life. Call to mind your most sacred memories–when you felt most alive or hopeful, or when God seemed to show up for you in a powerful way. Allow the memory of those moments to give you courage now, and help you to trust in God now. Remember, too, some of the harder moments of grief, disappointment, or regret, and how you got through them and what you learned.
The One who was with you then is with you still. So do not let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe in Jesus. He has been with you all this time and He is not about to leave you now.
by Bishop Mariann | Apr 9, 2023
Watch Bishop Mariann’s Easter Sermon
Peter began to speak to Cornelius and the other Gentiles: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed . . .
Hear this prayer, for us all (with thanks to Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie)
O God, we stretch out our hands to you on this Easter morning.
We need you to pull us up and set us on our feet again. . .
Blessed are we who stretch our our hands to you
in doubt and grief,
in sickness of body and mind and spirit,
Our prayers not fully realized,
rejoicing. . . anyway.
For that is what makes us Easter people:
carrying forth the realized hope of the Resurrected One,
singing our alleluias great and small,
while it’s still dark. Amen.1
What a gift to be with you here, to take in the grace and love of this moment and this place. For we are all living in an Everything, Everywhere, All at Once2 world, and it’s a lot to hold. (I was cheering for that movie to win Best Picture, sight unseen, based on the title alone, because it sums up what life feels like for so many people these days.)
I pray that you receive here the hope God longs to give, so that you may live with joy and purpose, grace and generosity of spirit in your everything, everywhere, all at once life. I’m so glad that you’re here.
Let me begin by placing what we have gathered to celebrate within a larger frame of spiritual quest and practice, the rhythms and rituals that can help us find meaning and connection to the mystery we call God.
On the big canvas of life and society, all religious traditions, including Christianity, establish ways of marking time according to a calendar of seasons and celebrations that are linked to the earth’s travels around the sun, and highlight events from a given religious narrative. The narrative is rooted in historical memory yet it holds spiritual significance transcending time and space. Thus religious celebrations like this one are never only about remembering the past, for they invite us, through the lens of past events, to look within and around for authentic spiritual encounter in the present, and they point us toward a future beyond the horizons of our sight. Most of the time, in the frenzy of everything, everywhere, all at once, we are, to our detriment, oblivious to this deeper rhythm. But it’s there for us whenever we stop long enough to look and listen for it, and to drink from deeper wells.
That there is considerable overlap across religious traditions, such that people of different faiths have similar celebrations at the same time, shouldn’t surprise us. The synchronicities validate that we’re all onto something real. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr makes the case that Christ is universal.3 It’s not that everyone is Christian, but the truth of Christ, the life force we find in Christ, isn’t only available for those who follow Jesus. If that life force finds expression in other traditions, praise the God who loves diversity and show no partiality. For all our differences, we are one human race. This fragile earth is the island home for us all.
In every spiritual practice, there is, nonetheless, what’s known as “the scandal of particularity.” Which is to say that if you want a spiritual life of any depth at all, you need to claim your particular path or, perhaps better said, acknowledge the path that has claimed you, and walk it. Otherwise you risk being enslaved by superficiality and all manner of distraction that will keep you running on other people’s hamster wheels for the rest of your life, without adequate inner strength to stop, get off, and find your true self and deeper call.
Speaking particularly then, Christians circle the sun each year commemorating the big events in the life of one man–Jesus of Nazareth–and reflecting upon His teachings. The bulk of each year is spent on the latter, in long seasons that our Roman Catholic friends call Ordinary Time. We gather in church on Sundays, or in small groups, or take time in private devotion, to slowly make our way through the repository of Jesus’ teachings found in the Bible. There is a lot of repetition and rehearsing of familiar tales and His great one-liners, because Jesus’ teachings aren’t the kind to consider once and be done with. They’re meant to take up residence inside us and become the worldview and the lens through which we attempt to live Jesus-inspired lives.
We proclaim the Scriptures are inspired by God not because they lack factual error or contraction, but because they tell of our spiritual forebears’ encounters with God, across millenia, they attempted to describe with words, metaphor, and poetic imagery. Sometimes, as we read, we, too, feel the power of divine encounter. The words seem to leap off the page and into our hearts. We hear an invitation through them to live and to love as Jesus loves, and claim his values as our own: compassion, forgiveness, solidarity in suffering, respecting the worth and dignity of every human being, pursuing justice through nonviolent means and sacrificial love. The point isn’t to learn more about Jesus, but to become more like Him, as we, over time and struggle, learn to place our trust in His forgiveness and love, and draw courage from His Spirit.
There is no shortcut on the spiritual path. It is the journey of a lifetime.
The commemorative celebrations of the Christian year, like today, are like bells tolling to get our attention, encouraging us to stop and consider one BIG spiritual truth encapsulated in a key event in Jesus’ life that, if we choose, can become part of ours.
Two celebrations stand out in significance. We celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, as the coming of God into our world as it is, and to us as we are.
This week we have commemorated the events culminating in Jesus’ death. We need several days to do this, beginning on the Thursday of Holy Week, when we place ourselves at the table where He shares a last meal with His friends, washing their feet and saying to them, and us: “I have given you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Then comes the long night He spends in prayer, and we do our best to stay awake, as He asks God to spare Him the inevitable suffering that is to come. On Friday, we linger over the worst day of all, when all His male disciples desert, deny, or betray Him, and the women stand helplessly by, as He is beaten and put to death, even though His crucifiers know that He is an innocent man. There’s nothing good about what happens to Jesus on so-called Good Friday, but it’s impossible not to be in awe of Him as we remember that day. “Father, forgive them,” He prays, “for they do not know what they are doing.” Until His last breath, Jesus chooses the path of love. Until His last breath.
Then there’s a day of nothing at all, which is a good thing, because grief is exhausting.
Then, while grief is still fresh, Easter morning comes. Morning comes while it is still dark. Mary goes to the tomb and is stunned by what she doesn’t see. She runs and gets two of Jesus’ closest disciples to join her, or at least that’s one version of the story. There are several, and they don’t match up well. You put them alongside each other and all they have in common is an overriding sense of chaos and confusion.
Of these varied accounts, Rowan Wiliams writes “We read of fear, grief, doubt…the consistent echo of disorientation and surprise… and the piercing note of shock.”4
Keep in mind that the gospel narratives were written down a generation or more after these things had taken place with the explicit intention of convincing people like you and me that this was the most important thing to know about Jesus. Though Jesus tried to prepare His disciples for what was going to happen, nobody, according to these stories, saw it coming. Those who lived to tell the tale couldn’t bring themselves to tidy up the rawness of their experience, and those who later wrote the stories didn’t even attempt to bring coherence or clarity to what had been handed down to them.5
I don’t know about you, but given the chaos and confusion in my life, I find all this strangely reassuring.
There are two points upon which the confusing, chaotic accounts agree.
1. The tomb was empty.
2. Jesus encountered His disciples in resurrected form.6
I have no idea what a resurrected person looks like, but it’s clear that Jesus wasn’t resuscitated, brought back to live as before. Resurrection is something else entirely, which perhaps explains why no one recognized Him at first. It wasn’t until Jesus called Mary by her name that she knew who He was; it wasn’t until Jesus broke bread with the two disciples on the Road to Emaus that they knew: it wasn’t until Jesus assured Simon Peter three times that he was forgiven for the three time he denied Jesus that he knew; it wasn’t until Thomas, the doubter, a week later touched the wounds in His risen body that he knew.
When do you and I know? Now there’s a mystery.
It’s said that faith is more caught rather than taught, which suggests that it comes to us, as well, in the form of some encounter, generally mediated by another who shares a story of Jesus encountering them and the difference it made. Or we see such faith lived in another, we find ourselves wanting what they have.
I met a man a few weeks ago, and over our dinner conversation he told me that when he converted to Roman Catholicism, a friend gave a book on the lives of the saints. “Welcome to the Church,” his friend said, “The saints are the best part of us.” He didn’t mean one-dimensional people who have no fun at all, but rather earthy people who live gritty lives through which, something of Jesus’ love shines through. And we catch it.7
Sometimes we put ourselves in the place of potential encounter and He comes to us. Or He comes when we’re running in the other direction, or at the bottom of some mess of our own making or of what others have done to us. He comes to us. He calls us by our name.
We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, not apart from His death, but as God’s response to it.
Here’s the big point of Easter: Jesus lives.
If Jesus had come only to take our sins upon Himself and be in solidarity in our suffering, His mission would have ended on the cross. But His mission didn’t end there, because He didn’t come only to die for us. He came to live for us, and to enable us to live fully in this world, and to join Him in healing this world.8
Resurrection is God’s promise to us that death is not the end, because our God is a God of life, and life rising from death.
Resurrection is God’s promise that this life as we know is not the end, that there is another realm. And there’s going to be some sweet sounds coming down on the Night Shift.9 We have another home. And we are not alone.
Resurrection is what makes it possible for Jesus of Nazareth, who lived over 2000 years ago, to be more than an historical figure for us to learn about and admire from a distance. He can be a living presence in our lives, a personal and communal Savior, there for us, who both loves us unconditionally and invites us to walk with Him on the path of sacrificial love for the healing of this world.
We don’t have to ask for Him to love us; that’s a given. We don’t have to accept Him as our Savior for Him to save us; that’s what He does. But Jesus invites us to follow him. We can say yes or no. It’s a free choice, with no threats of eternal punishment for those who choose otherwise. It is an invitation made in love.
Jesus’ resurrection is what we celebrate today, and it’s a big deal–big enough to merit all we can bring to it, all this extravagant splendor. But for those who choose to follow Him, it’s one day alongside every other. So we’ll be here next week, to gather around this table, or one like it somewhere else, and we’ll take up his stories and teachings again, considering our life in light of His, striving to live His Way of Love.
We show up every Sunday, we say our prayers each day, we study his teachings, and we go where He sends us, because we realize how much we need Him. We need his love and forgiveness and grace. And we’ve come to love him in return. We refuse to allow the cynicism and mean-spiritedness and brazen abuse of Him by others to sway us from His true path of love. He is the source of our strength, the strength of our life. He lives. Because he lives, so can we, in this everything, everywhere, all at once world.
So if he’s knocking on the door of your heart today, for the first or the thousandth time, why not let Him in? If he’s inviting you to take one step further on the path of love, why not take it? If you have experienced death, I am sorry. May you hear His assurance that death is not the end, and that new life awaits you. He loves you. He is here for you. He is grateful to you and for you. He’s so glad that you are here. And so am I, because in you and in me, and in all of us together, His love lives on.
1Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, The Lives We Actually Have: 101 Blessings for Imperfect Days (New York: Convergent Books, 2023), 210-11.
2Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture
3Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019).
4Rowan Williams, Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Kindle Edition, Location 1576.
5Williams, Kindle Version.
6David Ford, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 396.
7My dinner companion was Robert Ellberg, and he tells this story as introduction to his book, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019)
8With eternal gratitude to the late Rachel Held Evans for this insight, beautifully expressed in Inspired: Slaying the Giants, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018).
9Music video for the Commodores – Nightshift