Come and See

T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “In the end is my beginning.” It’s the unofficial tagline of circular narratives. In a circular narrative, the story begins and ends in the same place. Alice in Wonderland is perhaps one of the most famous circular stories; it begins and ends with Alice lying on the riverbank, her adventures down the rabbit hole sandwiched in-between. Alice may awake in the same place, but that doesn’t mean that her character remains unchanged from the beginning to the end of the story. Her experiences of a whole new world leave her a different person from the Alice that we see in the beginning of the story.

In some ways, the story of Jesus’ ministry as told in the gospel of John forms a circular narrative. Today’s passage contains the first recorded interaction with the resurrected Jesus. And while we don’t find ourselves literally in the same place as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the first dialogue of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the first dialogue after Jesus’ resurrection have remarkable similarities.[1]

Jesus’ first words in the gospel of John are spoken when Jesus walks by John the Baptist, who happens to be standing there with two of his disciples. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” At that moment, John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus. Jesus turns to them and asks, “What are you looking for?” They reply, “Rabbi (which means Teacher), where are you staying?” Jesus tells them, “Come and see.” These are the first disciples of Jesus.

Fast forward three or so years, Jesus has been crucified and his followers are distraught. They have wrapped their whole identity around him being the Messiah. If they are no longer disciples of the Messiah, who are they? Mary comes to the tomb early in the morning to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, empty except (we are told) for the linen wrappings folded and neatly laid where Jesus’ body had been. Of course, Mary goes to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who run to the tomb to see for themselves before then returning home.

And then it happens. Mary stands weeping outside the tomb when a man that Mary assumes is the gardener asks her, “Whom are you looking for?” Mary replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus calls her name: “Mary!” In a flash she recognizes him, saying “Rabbouni!” The passage ends with Mary’s confession that “I have seen the Lord!”

The scene in the garden between Mary and Jesus is in many ways a replay of the scene between Jesus and his first two disciples that took place in the very beginning of his ministry. In both scenes, Jesus asks a question, “What or whom are you looking for?” Then, for both the first disciples and Mary Magdalene, comes the naming of who Jesus is – Rabbi, Rabbouni, Teacher. But there is one very key difference between the two scenes. While Jesus issues the invitation “Come and see” in the beginning of the gospel, at the end Mary proclaims “I have seen.” It seems the perfect conclusion to the gospel story: Come and see has been transformed into I have seen.

If we look closely, though, we find that this scene in the garden isn’t really an end to the story at all. Instead, it is a beginning. Mary comes to the tomb in the beginning of the week. And, although John doesn’t tell us why Mary came to the tomb, we do know that Mary leaves with a new job, a new identity. Jesus tells her to “Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them….” She is sent to proclaim the risen Christ to the other followers of Jesus; in her encounter with Christ, she becomes the apostle to the apostles. This is the beginning of her new vocation.

It will be the same for the other disciples. That evening, Jesus will appear to the disciples who are hiding behind locked doors. Jesus will give them the gift of the Holy Spirit and say: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  Later in the gospel of John, we will hear Jesus’ instructions to Peter: “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me.”  In fact, it’s been said that all post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are commissioning narratives—they may come at the end of the gospel, but they all mark beginnings for those who have seen the risen Lord. Maybe the impulse to share the gospel is just an inevitable outcome of an encounter with the risen Christ; scripture seems to imply that nothing else can transform us this way – no mere logic or doctrines can.

After all, it’s not a belief in the general resurrection or even predictions Jesus made before his crucifixion that cause Mary to believe that Jesus is raised from the dead. It’s not even seeing the empty tomb that does it. When Mary sees the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, she believes someone has taken Jesus’ body. What makes a believer out of Mary is the experience of the risen Lord; it is the experience of relationship captured in that exchange of names: Mary! and Rabbouni! (As the gospel of John says, sheep recognize a shepherd because the shepherd calls the sheep by their name.) For most of the disciples, it will be Christ standing before them, addressing them, that brings home the truth of the resurrection. For Thomas it will be the experience of actually touching the crucifixion wounds that still mark the body of the risen Lord.

It’s interesting that – unlike what we find in the gospel of Luke and the follow-up volume of Acts, where the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples ten days after Jesus ascends into heaven – in the gospel of John, the risen Christ breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples when he first appears to them. The Church is formed in the encounter with the risen Lord. When Jesus disappears the disciples find themselves in the same place, but like Alice in wonderland they are by no means the same people.

At the end of the day, it is not carefully argued logic or any set of doctrine, but our encounter with the risen Christ that transforms us, too, that marks a new beginning and forms us as the Church. It is our experience of the risen Christ that leads us not to merely talk about the empty tomb and the resurrection, but to say to the world, “Come and see!”

Today we encounter the risen Christ once again in the bread and the wine, in the faces of one another, in the gift of new beginnings. But we won’t stay in this moment. Easter is not a linear story but a circular one. The I have seen always leads back to the beginning, to the Come and see. And so this encounter today is also a commissioning. We are sent to bear witness to the living Christ who dwells just as surely outside these walls as inside them. We are sent to bear witness to resurrection and new life whenever and wherever we find it.

A baby’s first cry: Come and see. After years of estrangement, two siblings reconcile: Come and see. The first signs of spring appear on a red bud tree: Come and see. A child walks out of a bone marrow unit cancer-free: Come and see. A man with an incurable heart disease spends a glorious day surrounded by the laughter of family: Come and see. A prisoner is paroled to start a new life: Come and see. On the site where a home was destroyed by a tornado, the frame of a new home takes form: Come and see. A woman with depression gathers the courage to start another day: Come and see. Polio, which currently only exists among the poorest and most marginalized peoples in the world, is finally eradicated one day: Come and see. The first rays of sun breaks through a dark sky: Come and see. A God who brings life out of death and makes all things new: Come and see. Come and see.

[1] I am indebted to Sermon Brainwave podcast SB599 of Working Preacher for the idea that there are similarities between the calling of the first disciples in the gospel of John and the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.

Jesus: Both Temple and Sacrifice

Painting by Caravaggio, 1610.

A sermon given by Dr. Deborah Wilson on March 4, 2018…

Today’s gospel describes one of the more dramatic scenes in the life of Christ. As I recall, this passage warranted an illustration in the Children’s Bible: Jesus with a whip and an angry face charging through people and animals, toppling over tables, with coins falling everywhere as he drives all before him out of the Temple in aggressive, righteous fury. He’s not just standing or sitting around telling parables, or making miraculous things happen by simply speaking a few words; he is using his body this time, apparently as and with a weapon.  However, after the “cleansing of the temple,” as this act is often called, he does speak. First, he tells them, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!”  Much has been made of the fact that stalls were set up to make a profit from exchanging money from other realms into Hebrew money that could be used in the Jerusalem temple.  But this was a necessary trade that allowed people from elsewhere to buy animal sacrifices in the Temple, which required the changing of foreign currency to Hebrew coins.  This was a longstanding practice that Jesus would have known about, and is unlikely to be the cause of this “cleansing” of the temple.

In the other three gospels’ versions of this scene, there is the accusation of cheating by the moneychangers.  However, a number of historical sources insist that, not only was there little profit for the moneychangers, but also little profit for the priestly aristocracy in this whole business establishment. Furthermore, Jesus casts out both the moneychangers and their customers, not to mention the animals involved in this monetary exchange, who clearly had no expected profit involved. Some Biblical scholars argue that the problem Jesus was responding to was that these stalls were set up in the only place within the Temple where Gentiles could worship. That would make his act an insistence on inclusivity.  But when Jesus finally speaks, these are not the issues he makes central to his justification.

If we set aside the issue of whether or not there are TWO such events (John places this at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, whereas the other gospels place it just before his death), we still have to read this as a revolutionary challenge to the political status quo, in which Jesus asserts his status as THE Son of God by calling the Temple “MY father’s house.”  If this scene occurs, as it does in the other gospels, at the end of his ministry, he is dead within a week of this pronouncement. He appears to be intentionally provoking those that will execute him. The statement he makes at this moment is about the Temple in which he currently stands, and therefore ensures his conviction and execution.  Not only does he call it MY father’s house, signifying his status as THE SON of GOD, but he also declares the apparently imminent destruction of the Temple (a politically revolutionary challenge): “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Those who took this statement as justification of his trial, condemnation, and execution, missed the true meaning of his words. They could not hear what the narrator in the passage states: “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” It is only after his death and resurrection that his disciples remember his words and understand them.

What he tells them is that the stone temple they are still rebuilding will no longer be required, that HIS BODY, He Himself will, from now on, be the temple. And what complicates that beyond their comprehension is that his body is a HUMAN body that is, at the same time, the divine body of the Son of God. Even after his death and resurrection, his body seems to remain flesh. The stone temple is now replaced by divine and yet human flesh, which is a paradox they cannot understand. The things Jesus physically overturns in this scenario are things that will soon be unnecessary: the paraphanalia of physical sacrifice for sin. In researching the temple, I read a reminder of what those physical sacrifices really were: On the “great altar of burnt offering, about eighteen feet square and fifteen feet high, perpetual fire burned and animal sacrifices were consumed in the daily ritual. Just north of the altar was a space for slaughtering the victims and preparing them for sacrifice. Only the priests could remain within the court of the priests, except for those who brought animals to be offered as sacrifices, since they had to lay their hands on the victim before it was slaughtered” (Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, Revised, 1985). The blood sacrifice, the slaughter of innocent lives—bullocks, young lambs, and doves–was a daily ritual.  There was no end to the deaths required as expiation for sin.  This was the primary function of the temple and its altar. Death. The endless, graphic death of innocent flesh. And notice that there was no means of distancing oneself from the materiality of those deaths.  You could not buy the sacrificial lamb and walk away without taking responsibility for its death, without laying your own hand on that body and standing there watching its death on your behalf, and smelling its body consumed by the fire.

Jesus was telling the people who heard his words on that day that these animals he herded out of the temple, as well as the moneychangers and clients who enabled, even required, their deaths, that is, the ancient, cultural and theological system by which innocent bloodletting paid the penalty for the guilt of sin, was all about to end, because HIS innocent body would replace all future bullocks and lambs and doves for all sinners for all time.  It is significant that the language of redemption is often monetary, the language of debt and cost and value and recompense in kind.  I remember a song we used to sing in my church years ago: “I owed a debt I could not pay. He paid a debt he did not owe.” Our redemption by Christ’s death does not represent the values of the marketplace. There is a relevant short story by the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which an escaped convicted serial killer, The Misfit, speaks a stunning truth to a woman he is about to murder. He makes clear that Jesus dismantled the entire system of equitable debt and payment: “Jesus thown everything off balance. He hadn’t committed any crime.  He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.” For the Misfit, that enjoyment is the pleasure of meanness.

But there’s another dimension of the temple I want to address, one that O’Connor also wrote about in a story entitled “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.”  In this story a 12-year-old girl endures the weekend visit of two 14-year-old second cousins currently attending boarding school at Mount St. Scholastica convent. The convent girls explain why they call each other Temple One and Temple Two: “Sister Perpetua had given them a lecture on what to do if a young man should ‘behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.’ Sister Perpetua said they were to say, ‘Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!’ and that would put an end to it.” The convent girls’ laughter makes it nearly impossible for them to tell their story, but the younger girl is baffled by their laughter, since, to her, being the Temple of the Holy Ghost “made her feel as if somebody had given her a present.” In I Corinthians 3:16-17, we are told, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” These verses no doubt lie behind Sister Perpetua’s theology, which is all about maintaining the purity of the bodily temple (I remember these verses used for all manner of bodily destruction beyond illicit sex: smoking, drinking, etc.). Later in I Corinthians, in a warning against fornication as a sin against the body, we are again reminded, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and you are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (6:19-20).

These passages seem to be warnings against sinning through and with the body. But I want to stress a different dimension of our bodies as temples. Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, the one Jesus prophesied would be destroyed, was indeed destroyed in 70 A.D. and was never rebuilt. The temple of His body was resurrected in three days, as He prophesied. The living body of Christ supplanted the need for any other temple. His sacrifice negated the requirements for all other blood sacrifices for sin. He is both the temple and the sacrifice.  And through the indwelling of the same spirit that dwelt in him bodily, we, too, are temples. What we must guard against is not so much the substitution of other earthly sacrifices instead of accepting the eternal efficacy of his, but rather the belief that we can merely observe rituals and liturgies that allow us distance from the physical sacrifice he made for us on the cross. Within our human selves, daily, we should be the temples of God, sacred places in which we experience true encounters with the divine. In O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” the young girl, whose prayers, though ritually performed, are often perfunctory, in spite of her attempts “to think of Christ on the long journey to Calvary, crushed three times on the rough cross,” has a different experience at the end of the story when she partakes of the eucharist at the convent. “She began to realize that she was in the presence of God . . . when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it.”  And that presence persists on the ride home as she stares out the car window and sees the setting sun as “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood.” That image, startling as it is, drags us back from our liturgical distance to the altar in that ancient temple where we had to place our hands on the sacrifice and be a witness to our undeserved redemption.

And I close with these words from the Book of Common Prayer, the Holy Eucharist, Rite One:

“All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his ONE oblation of himself ONCE offered, a FULL, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” Amen.

Invented Memory: A Maundy Thursday Sermon


Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A sermon by David Daily…

Sometimes, when people invent a memory, we think they are crazy.  But that’s not always the case.  I distinctly remember as a child being home with my mother when she learned that a cousin had been killed in Vietnam.  But I found out as an adult that that memory was an invention—a pure fabrication—because I was just a baby at the time, and we didn’t even live in the same house where my invented memory had placed the event.  Apparently, I had heard mention of the cousin’s death often enough, and seen my mother’s continuing grief over it, that my mental image of the moment of hearing the news had become a personal memory of my having been there.

Of course, the facts are important.  It is important to set the record straight and know that I was too young to remember this event.  But on a deeper level of meaning and relationship, that memory was rooted in something true—my sympathy for my mother, my childhood sense that her grief was my grief too.

Our readings today, and the entire service in which participate, invite us to invent a memory.  In fact, it asks us to live the memory, to be that memory, here and now.

We take our clue from the story of the Passover in the reading from Exodus, the same story of the Passover that Jesus would have read with his disciples on their last night together.  There are some very strange things happening there from the standpoint of time.  In the narrative world of the book of Exodus, the distinctions between past, present, and future collapse.  The account of Passover subverts the normal order of time by telling Israel how to remember an event before it actually happens.  This is not simply an event that people experience and only then construct a ritual to memorialize.  Passover memorializes something before it occurs.  As a result, the narrative of exodus itself becomes one with the ritual, and those who participate in the Passover ritual become one with those who take and eat in the story itself.  To celebrate Passover is to become like a book reader who tumbles into the story world of the book she is reading.

This is where literalism, you may be glad to know, fails us, and becomes the enemy of religion.  In the Passover ceremony, participants state, “We were the Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  Taken at the literal level, when later Israelites celebrated the Passover meal, and made that statement, it was false.  They had not been slaves in Egypt—only their ancestors had been.  But at the deeper level of meaning and relationship and identity, this claim would be reinvented as their very own memory, as the one thing that told them more than anything else exactly who they were.  In short, in imagining themselves to be what they were not, they became who they most truly were.

And that’s something of the mystery of what happens to us as well, on this very night.  Our own sense of time collapses as we hear Jesus, in the spirit of the Passover, memorialize his own death before it occurs.    And in this case, too, like the later generations of Israelites celebrating Passover, we have to admit that we were not there at the original event.  We were not there with Jesus in that room. He didn’t wash our feet, he didn’t break our bread, he didn’t pour our cup.  We are not living in the year AD 30, we are not sitting outside Jerusalem, our world is not ruled by Rome, and Pilate is not our governor.  We are Arkansans.  We come here in the midst of hopelessly busy lives, driven to distraction by a hundred competing tasks.  We are worried about (take your pick) our children, our aging parents, writing a paper before the deadline, finding our first job out of college, finding someone to spend our lives with, paying our mortgage, whittling down our credit card debt, eating a better diet, pacifying an unreasonable boss, working through conflicts in a relationship.  When we walk in here, that’s what we are. That’s what we’ve allowed to define us.  But we come here to be told that we are the disciples sitting at Jesus’ table, and in acting out that moment—by inventing that memory—we find that that is who we most truly are.  And it’s the power of that moment that makes this a solemn hour.

In this hour our indebtedness, our griefs, our fears, and our failures—even our achievements and our comforts—no longer ultimately define us.  For we are known to God, we are loved by God, and we encounter this God tonight in the servant who washes our feet. We meet this God tonight in the One who gives us the bread and the wine.  We meet this God tonight in the One whose sorrow is our sorrow, whose joy is our joy, whose love led him to the cross.

Tonight is not a night for long discourses, so enough with words.  There are feet to be washed, a table to be set, a divine love to be shared.


A Tattoo of the Heart

A wrist tattoo

My senior year in seminary at Austin, our class decided to get tattoos.  Well, actually, it had been talked about and in the planning stages ever since orientation that very first August, in 2005.  Throughout our time together, discussions about tattoo design permeated the usual seminary talk about papers, exams, chapel, ordination, and placement.  Drawings of possible designs were posted in the library.  And by Christmas of 2007, there was consensus about what the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest Class of 2008 tattoo would look like.  It was to be a two-dimensional illustration of the seminary cross which stood in the courtyard just outside the chapel.  The cross was the most recognizable feature on campus, so although not original, it just made sense that would be the image.

My friend Edson took on the job of finding a tattoo parlor in Austin that was exemplary in the areas of hygiene and artistry.  The winning parlor was run by a man we’ll just call John.  After seeing my friend arrive on a Harley Davidson sporting leather pants and a minister’s collar, John decided that he may need to check out the Episcopal Church.  (In the words of my friend Edson, score one for Jesus and the Anglican Communion…)  The place was sparkling clean, and the tattoo artist, who we’ll call Cathy, was said to be both experienced and “real spiritual.”  Everything seemed to be going according to plan.

Shortly after the General Ordination Exams in January (the exams we have to take before we can be ordained), the first wave of Seminary of the Southwest Class of 2008 students hit the tattoo parlor.  It was exciting, there was a lot of energy and a real sense of belonging, and I wanted to be a part of it.  One by one my friends would return from the tattoo parlor—beautiful images of the cross customized for each one of them according to the color of their skin, the size of the area the tattoo would cover, and personal preference.  But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to get the tattoo.  Sure, pain was an issue, but if some of the guys in my class could handle it, I knew I could.  If I was worried about what people might think, I could put it in a spot that was almost never visible.  And I loved these people—they were like family.  So what was the problem then?

Of course there’s the whole issue of how the tattoo would age as my own skin aged and changed—those of you who have seen the Saturday Night Live skit know what I mean.  But what really stopped me was the requirement to commit whole-heartedly in a way that’s permanent and irrevocable.  I mean, what if the seminary came to be a very different place over the next 50 years, so that the symbol of that particular cross represented something very different from what it encompassed at the moment of my graduation?  And what if one of these wonderful people that I loved very much did something a little crazy down the road—would I want to be forever associated with them?  What if I looked back on my seminary experience over time only to remember the difficult things that were a part of that journey—would I want to be forever reminded of painful memories every time I looked at that tattoo?  The bottom line:  I wasn’t ready to commit in a permanent, irrevocable way.  I treasure my freedom too much for that.  I like to keep all of my options open.

And that brings me to the prophet Jeremiah at the end of the book of Jeremiah.  The people of Judah haven’t kept the covenant God handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai—they haven’t kept the Law.  Their temple lies in ruins, and their king along with many of the elite citizens of Judah has been carried off to Babylon.  At this point Jeremiah’s words are no longer those of judgment; they’ve become words of hope.  He speaks now of a time when God will make a new covenant with God’s people—one that the house of Israel will no longer have to struggle to fulfill, failing time and time again.  For this time God will tattoo the Law on their very hearts in a permanent and irrevocable way.  God will transform them starting on the inside, in such a way that they will know the Lord and follow the ways of God.  It’s a beautiful picture Jeremiah paints: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  I think it’s the one of the most beautiful descriptions of our total belonging to God that we see in the Bible.

The Church has long since come to see this passage as a reference to Christ living in us, transforming us and bringing us into the very life of God.  But when we read these words it’s impossible not to come face to face with the fact that this kind of belonging that we hear about in Jeremiah has yet to be made perfect in our own lives.  We still struggle with wanting our freedom, with wanting the right to choose when and in what way we will give ourselves to God.

I suspect that Jesus’ disciples knew what that felt like, too.  As they journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, Jesus speaks of his coming death.  And then, of course, comes the kicker.  He says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”   Belonging to Jesus seems to come with a cost, with a loss of freedom.  We experience this a little bit in the season of Lent; we often describe the practices we take on as sacrifices.  Lent’s a time when we give things up, from chocolate to beer to Facebook.  And we see ourselves as giving up our freedom in the name of devotion.

But discipleship isn’t about limiting our freedom; it’s about giving up the things in this world that we think will bring us freedom and, instead, focusing on that which truly does.  Let’s face it, there are many false ways we seek to secure our own freedom.  We believe that the more options we have and the more money with which to purchase them, the freer we are.  We think that having power—be it in the form of prestige, physical dominance, or occupying top rung on the professional ladder—we think that having such power is a source of freedom.  We even occasionally think that avoiding relationships with those who might call us out of our comfort zone and into places we’d rather not go is a way to preserve our freedom.  But the truth is that in our attempts to remain in control of our lives and to grasp freedom through choice and power, we lose the very thing we’re looking for.  We’re not free; instead, we become slaves to material wealth, to what others think of us, and to the fear of not being in control.  We’ve got our whole definition of what freedom is all wrong.

The disciplines of Lent are really to remind us that freedom isn’t about being in control or having power or getting to choose.  Real freedom comes when our love for God determines what we do, instead of our fear.  It comes from knowing the love of God tattooed irrevocably in our hearts, calling us to places and to tasks that we never thought would be life-giving, but that are.  And so as we come to the final days of Lent and turn our eyes toward Jerusalem, may God transform our hearts, giving us the grace and courage to follow Jesus.  And may we find our true freedom in him.