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.
Imagine 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?
Passover is 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.
Think how 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?
Months or years – or centuries — later, what do you make of this story? Still a little confused? I know I find it hard to grasp.
For some, 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.
For others, 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.
Message or 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 Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
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 miracle.
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 shines still.
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 Fox quotation.
“You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?”
There is more to that quotation. Fox continues:
Art thou a child of Light
and hast thou walked in the Light,
and what thou speakest,
is it inwardly from God?
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?