Message at Durham Friends Meeting, April 7, 2019
Here we are, gathered as a community whose beginnings lie about 2000 years back, “a long time ago in a place far, far away from here.” I want us to imagine ourselves back there. It is a time of beginnings or endings – or really both.
yourself someone who has come to awareness of an itinerant preacher named
Jesus. Perhaps you are a follower,
perhaps not, you’re not quite sure.
You’re drawn to his message. And
you’ve seen – or at least heard – that he has performed miracles. He has been out on the road two or three
years, and he has a growing following.
But he has
also upset the established authorities, especially the leaders of his religious
community. Several times they have tried
to trap him into saying something wrong, and each time he has escaped, making
them look a little foolish. The crowds
around Jesus are growing, but the tensions are also growing. That’s odd because here is a man who is
teaching that we should “turn the other check” when attacked. The pressure on
him, on everyone, is mounting. Where
will all this end?
coming in about two weeks. Thousands of
people will gather in Jerusalem. Jesus
and his followers will be part of the crowd. That can only ramp up the tension.
Two or three
weeks go by in a confusing blur. Jesus
does go to Jerusalem. Huge crowds greet him.
And then one night, as he prays with and for his followers, he is
arrested by the authorities. He is questioned, tried before a hastily assembled
law court, and sentenced to die. This
master teacher makes no apparent defense.
Where you have known him as a charismatic leader, now he appears
resigned. He is dragged away, vilified,
and executed in the most terrible way possible.
Then buried in a tomb. Suddenly
it’s all over. Strangely his body
disappears – more desecration.
confusing that must have been. How can
you not feel let down, deflated; puzzled, sure; but also depressed.
You all know
this story. We tell it every year at
this time, but we tell it not as the tragic end of the story but as a bright
beginning. Because just as suddenly, it
seems, it’s not all over. In the weeks
that follow you hear people saying this man Jesus didn’t die. They’ve seen him. He is still preaching, still
encouraging. You wonder if you will see
him? Feel his encouragement again?
years – or centuries — later, what do you make of this story? Still a little confused? I know I find it
hard to grasp.
Jesus’s message is what you take to heart.
What he preached, what he taught, was so very different from what anyone
else was teaching. Not just turn the
other cheek. The last shall be first. Be
not proud but be humble. Ask for
forgiveness. Help the poor in
possession, body or spirit. He taught a
new way of life that turned upside down the common sense of the world, and you
find it oddly compelling even if very, very challenging to follow.
it’s the miracles. There were miracles
he performed while he was alive. Water
to wine, lepers cleansed of their affliction, the sick healed, a multitude fed
on a few loaves and fishes, even one raised from the dead. Like a master magician, he saved his most
stunning miracle for the end by coming back from his own death.
miracle? Miracle or message? Speaking
for myself, I’ve been more drawn to the message, the challenging message, than
to the miracle. I’ve not been sure what
to make of the miracle story. This
spring season presses us to think about the miracle.
I grew up in a church that recited the Apostles Creed nearly every Sunday. It wasn’t really written by the Apostles, but it is old, probably from the 4th century. Quakers are suspicious of creeds. George Fox, our founder, said, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?” But just today I want to read the Apostles Creed:
believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the
From there he will come to judge the living and
believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
I am struck by how much that 115-word summary stresses the
miracle. It hardly says a word about the
message – maybe nothing at all. Where is
the Sermon on the Mount in that Creed? The
Good Samaritan? Where is the tenderness to the poor or broken-hearted? Where is
the call to peace and justice?
That Creed with its focus on the miracle side gives us guidance about
how we are to understand the miracle.
“Resurrection of the body”: that would be a miracle. “Ditto “Life
everlasting” – the door to heaven swung open to believers. “Forgiveness of sins”: some theologians speak
of “substitutionary atonement:” Christ died for our sins so we can be forgiven,
a dramatic ‘paying it forward.’
But let’s note. People don’t
write creeds to sum up what everyone believes.
They write creeds to forge agreement, maybe even force agreement. Among early Christians there was disagreement
about what the miracle of Jesus’s last days was about. Serious disagreement. The Apostles Creed was put together to insist
on orthodoxy. If you didn’t subscribe to
that you were a heretic. Hence the
Quaker reluctance about creeds. “What
canst thou say?”
What we know of those extraordinary, puzzling events 2000 years ago we
largely know from four accounts of the life of Jesus in the Bible: the Gospels.
The Gospel of John, the one I’m most drawn to — and the one Quakers
have been most drawn to – has the following astonishing opening:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And a few verses later,
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
Miracle or Message? I’m struck by how powerfully this Gospel
writer opens the story of Jesus by telling us, in five sentences, that the
story is Message and Miracle. Both.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
What the writer of the Gospel of John is
telling us is that what Jesus taught was a Truth from the very beginning of the
cosmos. What’s more, Jesus was that
Truth. He was a Truth made flesh, a
message baked into existence itself.
“He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all
things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
Having introduced us to The Word, the Gospel
writer John pivots to introduce us to the Light.
In him was life, and that life was the
light of all mankind. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Gospel writer is taking us back to the
very beginning, to Genesis, where God says, “Let there be Light.” But he’s suggesting the Light is not just a
physical thing, not just something for our eyes. It is the message, but it is also now the
The Light is within each and everyone of
us. It is what can give us guidance if
we seek it. Whatever else we believe,
Quakers see this as the miracle:
Jesus did not die. He is still the Light of the world. The miracle is that he is within each of us,
still teaching, still guiding. The Light
was not extinguished 2000 years ago. It
The miracle is that the message, the Word, the
Light, shines still, and for all eternity.
Quakers speak today of the Inward Light.
It is for that we are seeking.
Let me close by taking you back to that George
“You will say, Christ saith
this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?”
is more to that quotation. Fox
Art thou a child of
and hast thou walked
in the Light,
and what thou
is it inwardly from
So let us
celebrate Message and Miracle. Word and Light. In the beginning. And in the life everlasting.
And let us ask
ourselves in this season: Are we
awakening to the Light?