It has been a good week at the Triennial, hasn’t it? We were enlivened by the Spirit of God. We were re-membered, one-to-another into that living reality known as the Body of Christ. And maybe, just maybe, we are little more prepared to go back into our communities ready to continue the ministry of Jesus. What do you think?
On Thursday evening, I mentioned how several people have told me they thought Quakers had all died out. Turns out … not yet. As Mark Twain once said when a rumor started circulating that he had passed away, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” We are not dead either — not by a long-shot.
In the future, I hope our vitality and felt impact in the world will not leave any room for doubt. In fact, it is my prayer that when others look at us, who they will really see is the Risen, Living Christ. This is who we are meant to be — the ongoing, incarnational Presence of Jesus, enfleshed in ordinary humanness but animated and directed by God’s Spirit . . .
Paul is even clearer in Colossians 3. As the ones who gets what God is up to in the world — reconciling all things in Christ — this becomes their joy and passion. Out of a growing intimacy and union with God, this chosen people put aside what might bind or distract them from their Good God and the Good Life and Great Work they have been invited to share in. So they put all of that behind them, like worn out clothing no longer suitable to wear. In its place, they dress themselves in lovely garments that bear witness to Christ’s presence in them: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, forgiveness, peace … and above all, undying love. As this happens, the glory of God gets revealed through us — even people like us!
But this road to glory passes through a valley of death, as we learn to die to ourselves in order to be raised to new life.
Over the last few years, one story that keeps nagging at me comes from John’s gospel. It is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. Let’s turn there together — John 11 and 12.
I am assuming most of us know the story. Jesus is summoned by Lazarus’ sisters because their brother is sick. But Jesus takes his time getting there, and by the time he arrives it is too late . . . or at least it seems. And though it has been a few days since he had passed away, Jesus calls to Lazarus’ tomb and before a crowd of people . . . a man’s life is returned to him.
Now, most often we leave the story of Lazarus at that point — a reunited family ready to live happily ever after. But if you read on, in particular to John 12, you find Jesus with friends in Bethany just before the Passover. In fact, they are meeting at Lazarus’ home, gathered around the table to enjoy a meal together, when in verse 9, we find this:
Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.
I am going to take a few liberties with the text at this point … but I think it is a fair reading of the situation. Here folks are eager to see Lazarus … just as much as they are eager to see Jesus. No doubt some wanted to trust Jesus … just as Lazarus trusted Jesus. But then we get this other bit of news — turns out many folks want to kill Lazarus … just as much as they want to kill Jesus.
What is all that about? Is this a story gone horribly wrong … one where happily ever after fails for Lazarus and his family? Or maybe … is there something wonderfully right about it, as he has finally become what we all are designed to be in Christ — a burning light — remade in Christ?
Lazarus, of course, had been a friend and follower of Jesus for some time. But now, having faced death, his life takes on a new quality and character . . .
Lazarus had just come through death and lived to tell about it. Not only “lived to tell about it” as though he barely escaped with his life. But LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT — in the sense that this now becomes the sole focus of his future. And so that’s what he does — telling everyone about it through his words and through the content and character of his life. No wonder, then, that so many were simultaneously drawn to him and threatened by him. He had become a burning light— just like his Master…
Nietzsche once said something like this: If Christians wanted him to believe in Jesus, they’d have to start looking more resurrected. I think it is fair to say that Lazarus here is looking more resurrected — and people are noticing. You see his life is no longer his. He is dead to himself and now it is Christ who lives in him — fearless and free. He is at peace — able to face down a still violent world and not be afraid. I suspect Lazarus embodied the quality of life that Douglas Steere, the wonderful Quaker writer, once described this way (I am paraphrasing a bit):
“Christians should be absurdly joyful, entirely fearless, and always in trouble!”
Absurdly joyful, entirely fearless, always in trouble. I can’t say for sure this always described Lazarus’ life from the moment he stepped out of that cold tomb — into the warming Light of God’s new world, seen life from a brand new perspective … but I am guessing it might.
Friends, what do you think of Douglas Steere’s notion about the Christian life — joy, fearlessness and trouble? In those few words, I think we get a glimpse of some pretty essentials signs of life…
Joy! There are two things I pray regularly for Friends. One is humility — which I think we could use a real dose of now and again. The other is joy. Joy! That deep, lasting sense of gladness arising out of our experience of God’s overwhelming kindness for us.
As I keep learning to go deeper into Christ, joy is what I experience. Not giddy happiness. Not an absence from pain or the elimination of the kind of real-world suffering we all endure. In fact, in terms of a sensitivity to others’ suffering, it seems to me that the deeper one goes into the Christ-life, the more keenly one is aware of the hurt and brokenness there really is in the world.
Joy is an altogether different animal, isn’t it? It may cause you to do all kinds of outlandish things. Consider the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13 where Jesus so beautifully captures the essence of spiritual joy in the parable of a man who stumbles across a treasure hidden in field.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” . . .
You know, he didn’t even “borrow” a few of the gold coins or precious stones in advance to pay off the land-owner. Instead, he went home and liquidated all of his assets in order to buy up the land and the treasure. What would move a person to do such a thing? JOY! Whatever he had found that day must have been amazing! Life-changing! He must have looked deeply enough into the treasure to realize it was worth far more than anything else he possessed.
For some of us, the faith-life winds up being much more an expression of some sense of duty, obligation, fear of punishment or tradition than it is a natural response arising out of a deep joy. When this is the case, the Christian witness is we demonstrate and proclaim winds up looking awfully constrained, reserved and guarded. There is little sense of wild abandon about it, not much radical self-giving, only hints of the kind of extravagant grace we’ve experienced in Christ. I wonder if joy was something Lazarus experienced after being raised to life? There is wonderful song by a fellow named Bradford Loomis called Dead Man’s Dance. The words are on the screen because I could play it for you this morning. It begins as a slow dirge and builds over the course of the song to a rocking celebration. The lyrics read:
O my love, when my days are done, and my bones have been put to rest
When my graven stone has found its home, may you not be bereft
Don’t waste your prayers on a wretch like me
My hearts been giv’n to wandering
All the things I’ve done since the war begun,
I could never be free
Wait my beleaguered love brings hope don’t set that stone
Though you feel meager,
Your heart may roam but mine will be your home
Wake, O you sleeper! There is still hope. Roll away that stone
Wake, O you sleeper! There is still hope. Roll away that stone
Come on up, rise on up, get out of that grave my Lazarus
Come on up, rise on up, get out of that grave sweet Lazarus
Go on get up Lazarus go on get out the grave
Oh you ain’t never seen nothing like a dead man dance
—Dead Man’s Dance by Bradford Loomis
I know . . . Quakers don’t dance . . . But maybe we would if we knew the joy of a Lazarus. Maybe today it would be enough to look again at the treasure we found in Christ . . . and see what a renewed joy might cause us to do.
I won’t spend so much time on being entirely fearless and always in trouble. Think about some the things we humans fear. What comes to mind? (Pain, not having enough, what people think about us, the unknown, etc). Do you think we’d view these differently through Lazarus’s eyes? Grace-healed eyes — that see people in a renewed light rather than our old prejudices. Eyes of generosity — that see God’s abundance rather our own limited resources. Eternal eyes — ones that sees a world set right…far beyond that one glaring issue or obstacle we can’t see beyond . . . The disciple’s life I have read about, seen modeled by my heroes in the faith or even experienced in my own life . . . is more like a wild boat ride where we are slapped around by frighteningly strong waves. And then in the midst of it, Jesus dares to show up and calls us to step out of the “safety” of the boat. Will we be ready to take a walk on the wild-side or seek the relative security of the boat? The more I read that story, the more I am convinced we ought to be praying God will sink the boat, if needed, to get us where we are called to go.
What we are promised is not safety — but a love that conquers every fear. And we are going to need every ounce of that love, because we are going to see and do some crazy stuff.
Which leads us to Steere’s third notion — that Christians will always in trouble. Hmmm, now hold on just a second here. Why does he have to spoil it that? Joy? You bet! Fearlessness? Ok, even if it does mean some scary stuff. But always in trouble? Isn’t it time to start the potluck?
One of my favorite theologians says it this way: “The cross is what happens to those who take God seriously.” The cross is not an inconvenience. It is what comes to a person who is willing to identify themselves with the values, priorities and purposes of the Gospel. It is the laying aside of ourselves, our ingrained cultural patterns, our status quo morality in order to be radically identified with Jesus. And when we do, the cross becomes the price we pay for our social non-conformity. It is what happens to people when the values of Jesus’ Kingdom collide with the values, priorities and wisdom of the world.
Long before Jesus ever faced his own literal cross, he had a crystal clear idea of what it meant to be crucified. Though the history of Jesus’ early life is very vague, one story from his teen years has some historical support. It is said that when he was a young man, there was a Jewish rebellion near his home. For a brief moment, Jewish Zealots seized control of the territory — away from the occupying Roman forces. Before long, however, the emperor sent in some of his powerful troops who simply overwhelmed this little band of rebels and quickly crushed the uprising. In the aftermath, the Romans wanted to ensure that the people learned a lesson they would not forget. So they crucified a Jewish male every 10 meters along a 16 kilometer stretch of road. For you math wizzes like me — who never got converted — to the metric system — that’s over 1700 people spaced every 30 feet for 10 miles. Imagine the horror . . .
If, indeed, young Jesus looked into the agonizing eyes of those dead and dying countrymen — the terror of it all was no doubt burned into his consciousness. It could never — would never leave him. And if that story is so, it is no wonder Jesus used the language of the cross as often as he did, even well before he faced his own. For in that ugly moment in human history, Jesus saw just what measure of evil God’s love was up against…how much sacrifice and devotion to God it would take by himself and others who would follow after — if the light was to, indeed, overcome the darkness.
But not by people unwillingly being led to their deaths — but rather by people voluntarily laying down their lives to take up a life of obedience to the will of God no matter the cost. When Jesus called his followers and the readers of these gospels to take up their crosses — he was under no illusions as to what that would mean for himself or them.
This, Friends, is the gospel at its most terse and dangerous. The cross is not a magic symbol or a fashionable decoration — it’s a symbol of a risky, alternative lifestyle. It is a symbol that makes normative claims about who our God is, about who we are and about the shape and direction of our life together. It is a symbol for how God and God’s people exercise redemptive love that has and will eventually transform the world. Being in constant trouble has nothing to do with being an annoying, judgmental, angry, demanding group of religious fanatics. We don’t go looking for trouble—it simply comes to those who are willing to follow where he lead.
Joy, fearless, trouble. These are signs of vibrant Christian life. And all we need to get there is near-death experience. That is what John Woolman experienced when one day in a dream he heard an angel say, “John Woolman is dead.” When he awoke, he pondered what the dream meant. Then he said, “At length I felt divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and then I said, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’” This is an echo of Paul’s experience in Galatians 2:20 where he said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
One of my good friends spoke on this text at a Friends gathering and asked people whether they felt similarly to Paul. It was a broad mix of Friends from all persuasions. He was surprised when those gathered explained Paul’s feelings away by noting he didn’t really have all of the things we have today that make life so appealing — comfort, security, entertainment, etc. Crucified with Christ — not today . . . There are other more appealing things . . .
I wonder how Lazarus would have responded had he been in the gathering of Friends that day? What might he say to us today?