Sunday, March 31, 2013

Paths of humility

Texts: Philippians 2  1-11 (humbled for a season); Luke 24 1-12 (the empty tomb)

"Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here; he has risen!" With these words, our journey of 40 days and nights in Lent ends. We have arrived at Jesus' empty tomb amid Easter hope and with the Risen Christ.

Today, we celebrate the resurrection of both Jesus and of our ourselves. We are new people, blessed members of the Body of Christ.

Easter offers us two different paths, I believe. One I call the path of glory. It is represented in hymns like "Thine is the Glory" and "Jesus Christ is Risen Today."

The other one, I call the path of humility. Jesus -- who was humbled to the point of death, even death on a cross -- walks with us on this difficult but life-giving path.

To reveal which path best captures the hope of Easter for me, I first look at the accounts of Holy Week we heard from the Gospel of Luke in our services this week.

Most of the events of Holy Week happen in public. Jesus' is hailed by multitudes as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He spends the next four days among throngs of people at the Temple. There, Jesus argues with the Pharisees, thrills the crowds with his teachings, and angers religious leaders when he overturns the tables of the money changers. On Friday, he is tried by the Roman Governor in front of a mob who shout "crucify him!" Later that day, he is crucified before another large group.

Easter morning is different from this. Only Mary Magdalene and a few other women see the empty tomb and hear two angels proclaim that Jesus has risen. Peter alone of the male disciples then visits the empty tomb and wonders what has happened.

Later that first Easter, as we will hear in worship next Sunday, Jesus appears to two of his followers as they walk from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus. They are upset both by the events of the week and by the story of the empty tomb. They spend hours talking with him, but do not recognize that he is Jesus until he breaks bread at supper, at which point he disappears.

The first Easter Sunday, according to Luke, then ends after these two men run back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that they have seen the risen Christ. At that point, Jesus then briefly appears to this small group.

And that is it! The first Easter involves a handful of women in the morning, two discouraged men in the afternoon, and the 11 remaining disciples in the evening. During Holy Week, Jesus was present at large public events, some of which gave hope and some despair. But Easter itself is a quiet affair.

Easter unfolds with mystery, wonder, and no fanfare. There are no crowds and no public events worthy of a newspaper headline.

The resurrection represents God's victory over death, Jesus' victory over the Romans, and love's victory over hatred. But it is not the type of victory wished for by Jesus' followers.

Last Sunday, we looked at the hopes of the crowds on Palm Sunday. They believed that Jesus would lead them to military victory over the Romans. On Thursday night, we contrasted God's violent deeds associated with the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt, which is celebrated at Passover, with the sacrament of communion given by Jesus at a Passover meal. Then at worship on Good Friday, we saw the hopes of Jesus' followers for military victory and divine intervention brought to nothing by the arrest and execution of Jesus.

Victory does come on Easter morning, but it is a strange one that leaves the Romans still in power and the poor still poor. At first, it is a victory only experienced by a handful of Jesus' closest friends; and for the next 50 days until Pentecost, they do little to build a movement based upon the news of Easter morning and the few appearances of the Risen Christ.

Easter's victory comes at great cost. Hopes are dashed. Illusions in God's power are exposed. Jesus is executed and buried. The disciples lose most of their followers and are thrown back upon themselves in pain and confusion. And even though the empty tomb gives new hope to the disciples, at first it is not clear what they can now hope for.

Perhaps it is similar for us today. This Lent, we have again followed Jesus and his friends on the hard road to Jerusalem. In their hopes for military victory and divine miracles, we may have seen a reflection of our own hopes for a world made right. We have felt the disciples pain and fear as Jesus is betrayed, arrested, beaten and crucified. In their distress, we may have seen a reflection of our own dashed hopes amid bitter losses.

Now it is Easter Sunday, and we gather in joy even though our numbers are not large. We hear of an empty tomb and the news that Jesus has risen. But we might not see Jesus just yet. We might not be able to fully trust the angels' proclamation or believe the Love has conquered death.

Palm Sunday's dreams of military victory and Passover's dreams of God's Mighty Deeds seem to die hard. This was especially the case for the church between the years 1500 and 1900 when European empires conquered the world and the church flourished as the key supporter of those conquests.

Surely here was the glory and power that the crowds lusted after on Palm Sunday. Surely here was God's Mighty Hand defeating the church's enemies and leading us to God's Promised Land.

But this era glory for the church is over, and for that I am glad. Today we are like Jesus' friends on the first Easter, a small group who meet to experience the hope found in an empty tomb.

St. Paul shows us this better way, I believe. In today's reading, he urges us to imitate Christ on a path that is obedient even to death. It involves emptying ourselves of our illusions and ambitions. The hopes of Palm Sunday and Passover are understandable but not realistic. New life in Christ, which is symbolized by an empty tomb, is the love that remains after our illusions are shattered and gone.

In the midst of loss, violence, and defeat, love survives. We may not always find glory in our dark nights, but we can always can rely on love to spring up within and between us no matter how bitter our defeats. This is the path of humility, which is the path that life often offers to us and the path on which Jesus walks beside us.

Both paths -- that of glory and that of humility -- run throughout the Bible, the Christian tradition, human history, and our own lives. Both paths are found in our reading from Paul today. And the hymn, "At the Name of Jesus," which is based on this reading from Philippians and which will be our hymn of response, ends with the phrase "King of Glory."  Both paths can lead us to God in Christ, I believe.

But in my life and in today's modest church, I find that the path of humility best models how love works.
And so this Easter Sunday, I yearn both to raise my voice in a joyful Hallelujah, and to also stop at the empty tomb and experience the silence of a strange and wondrous new day.

The pain and despair of Good Friday are gone. The waiting of Holy Saturday is over.

Today, I pause to notice "how silently, how silently a wondrous gift is given."  This may be Easter, but I find myself turning to the Christmas Eve Hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem." It affirms that "God imparts to human hearts / the blessed gift of heaven. / No ear may hear his coming; / but in this world of sin,  / where meek souls will receive him, still / the dear Christ enters in."

Can you hear it? Christ is Risen. Risen Indeed.


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