Sunday, April 23

Click here to read John 20:19-31.

The Disciples locked themselves away in a room, imprisoned by fear. How can this be? Last we heard, Mary Magdalene ran off to proclaim the Good News that she had encountered the Risen Christ. Now, whether or not the Disciples really believed Mary or simply thought her grief had kidnapped her sanity, we can’t know for sure. We do know that Easter had not yet reached the men in Jesus’ inner circle. John tells us that the Disciples cloistered themselves behind a locked door on account of their fear of the Jews. Every biblical commentary I’ve ever read about this text scoffs at such a simple explanation for their terror. There was no evidence they would be the target of Jewish retaliation, or Roman violence for that matter. The man who’d been the problem—the one whom we call Savior—had been taken care of. The story was over, according to the authorities, and it seems that the Disciples agreed.

There they are, cowering behind locked doors. And while John doesn’t spell it out for us, the fear the Disciples felt was spiked with shame. They had failed their prophet, their teacher, their leader, their friend. If it was true that the tomb was empty and Jesus was walking the streets of Jerusalem again, were they really up for facing him? They had been cowards in the hour of his death, and now their fear and shame make cowards of them in the wake of his resurrection.

And then Jesus shows up. Even though the doors were locked, bolted shut with whatever sort of security device you’d find in an ancient Israelite home during the Roman occupation, Jesus is suddenly standing among them.

Isn’t this the stuff of ghost stories? Don’t only intangible haunts pass through doors? Aren’t we supposed to be focusing on the very real and tangible body of Christ, present and fully alive? Back when I was a skeptic, I used roll my eyes at this kind of biblical detail. Come on, now, John, I’d think. Dump the theatrics and stick to the story. But through the eyes of faith, Jesus’ sudden appearance in a locked door is much more than a special effect thrown in for pizzazz. Yes, it’s a sign of God’s impressive power made manifest in the Resurrected Christ. But God doesn’t waste his power on empty miracles.

Jesus, our Risen Lord and Savior, is shown here breaking and entering, and not just into a house. Jesus breaks the chains that bind God’s children to fear and shame, and enters our hearts. You might say he is like a thief in the night, only instead of stealing away with our treasures, he freely gives us the priceless treasure of salvation.

“Peace be with you.” This is what he says to the Disciples gathered there. Not, “How could you deny me, Peter.” Not “Why did you not go looking for me when Mary told you she had seen me?” Just, “Peace be with you.” The Disciples expected anger and disappointment, and instead Jesus greeted them with the ultimate sign of forgiveness and reconciliation – his peace.

With the passing of Christ’s peace, the Disciples are released from their cage of fear. They are released from the bond of shame. After showing the Disciples the traces of his wounds, Jesus reveals that he will still depend on the bumbling, fair-weather Disciples to continue his mission. He breathes on them, commissioning them with a ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness. Can you imagine the thrill of feeling God’s very breath on your cheek? What I wouldn’t do to have been a fly on the wall of that room. Just think what it would do for your faith, your trust, your sheer believe in the living, breathing, forgiving, loving Son of God. To have seen the wounds of Jesus, to have seen life where death had taken hold, to experience the jubilation of receiving the Holy Spirit from Jesus himself.

I had a friend who struggled with the notion of the resurrection. He got stuck, locked up in a prison of doubt and disbelief. He liked Jesus, perhaps even loved him. But he didn’t want to follow a Jesus who was evicted from the tomb. He didn’t want to associate with a Christ who mystically appears in locked rooms. He wanted a tidy faith that didn’t defy the laws of nature. But my friend has changed. He began to consider the reality that something happened after the death of Jesus. Something happened. That phrase became a mantra for him. For when you look at the Disciples before the business of Holy Week, you have a motley crew of men who only rarely understand the words of their Rabbi. It’s as if they take two steps back for every one step forward. As for Jesus, well, he was just one of thousands of men crucified by the brutal Roman government. He should have been forgotten, like the countless other criminals and rebels that met the same fate. Only he wasn’t. He became the central figure in a strange new religion that soon spread like wildfire throughout the known world. Something happened.

This is that something, friends. The encounter with the Risen Lord. Just as Mary Magdalene was transformed in the fleeting moments she spent in the physical presence of the gardener, the Disciples were changed by their joyful reunion with Christ.

No wonder Thomas was ticked. No wonder he stubbornly announced that he wasn’t going to believe a word the Disciples said unless he could see and touch Christ’s wounds for himself. He had missed the boat. Wherever he was on that evening, he wasn’t in the right place. Thomas has often gotten a bum rap throughout Christian history. How many Sunday School teachers have chided questioning kids to not be a “doubting Thomas?” But how can we blame him? He was the first person who was pressured to affirm the living presence of Christ without having laid eyes on his scars.

So Jesus does it again. He breaks and enters, though the closed doors of the house. He offers the same greeting of Peace, and addresses Thomas personally, offering to provide for Thomas what he needed to believe. Again, there is no condemnation. Even as he concedes that there is a special blessing in having faith without the benefit of proof, Jesus gently gives Thomas what he needs— the chance to touch the hand of his Lord.

Often, the entire focus of this text is on Thomas. Certainly, his struggle with belief and unbelief is a significant story. But I think it is wise to always return our attention to the One who returns from the grave. Here we have a story that reveals the depth of Jesus’ heart, a heart that still beats with compassion for creation. Here we encounter a Lord who doesn’t bother to knock, a God who shows up whether we are ready to face him or not. Here we are surprised by a Savior who forgives, again and again, releasing us from the bonds of sin and fear and shame.

Here we witness a Resurrected Christ who would let a man touch his tender wounds just to give him a chance to believe in God’s glory. Here we see that God’s idea of an Easter celebration is to kick down the door and give the gifts of Spirit and mission to a raggedy group of men who were, for better or worse, the church. We may not have seen, but we believe. The breath of his peace is still resting upon us.

Something happened. That something is Christ, and he is still happening, even here, even now.



Christ is Risen!

Click here to read John 20:1-18. And Happy Easter!

One of my favorite things about living in the South Bay is driving down the Esplanade on a clear morning. I love seeing the impossibly blue ocean and the pure white spray of the breakers. I marvel at the curve of the land, how the Santa Monica Mountains and the Palos Verdes Peninsula stretch to embrace across the bay.

But I think what I love most of all is the chance to observe the people who stand on the Esplanade sidewalk, taking in the grand seascape. As I keep one eye on the road and one eye on the coast, I catch fleeting glimpses of people who are utterly transfixed by the ocean. Something about being in the presence of something so deep, so mysterious, so big, just grasps people. I’ve heard it said that gazing at the ocean actually causes one’s soul to expand. The soul simply grows in response to what it sees.

The gospel lesson for this Easter Sunday is the most gospel of all gospel readings. It is the best of all good news, delivered out of the mouth of a very tear-stained Mary: “I have seen the Lord!” We gather on this Easter Morning because we, too, want to encounter the living Christ. We, too want a holy gardener to transform our tears into joy. We want to see the Lord.

But for the moment, our part in this story is as witnesses to the witnesses. The focus of this story, so to speak, is on the ocean, but also on the people whose souls are expanding in response to its beauty. We stand by as Mary and the Disciples discern the miraculous event that is at the core of the Christian faith: the resurrection of God’s beloved Son.

John’s account of the first Easter morning begins and ends with Mary Magdalene. She alone makes the mournful journey to the grave of her Lord. In the other gospels, other women accompany Mary to the tomb. But in the gospel according to John, she is alone. She has no hand to grasp or shoulder to lean on as she discovers, in horror, that the stone has been rolled from the tomb. Now she doesn’t even have a grave to tend. She can only assume that the body has been stolen by the same people who stole the breath from Jesus. At this point in the text, there is a lot of running around; and it is no surprise, for this is what always happens when Jesus is missing. Mary turns and runs back to the Disciples to proclaim the bad news. They all run back, one outrunning the other, to try to make sense of the strange turn of events. All that is left in the tomb are the linen wrappings that had bound the lifeless body of Jesus. They take in the sight—the utter emptiness of the tomb—and turn to go home, mired in confusion.

Mary remains. All that she knows is that her Lord is dead, and that someone has added salt to the wound by robbing his grave. She stands vigil in front of that empty tomb, weeping the tears of one who has lost more than everything. Her grief is soon interrupted by a pair of angels. “Why are you weeping?” They say. And then the gardener asks the same question. “Why are you weeping?” Mary is so desperate to retrieve the body of her crucified savior that she does not recognize that it is her Risen Savior who stands before her, as alive as anything else in the garden. And then he speaks one word that reveals everything to Mary. One word is all it takes for her to believe and understand: her very own name.

We can only imagine that Mary runs to embrace her teacher at this point, because Jesus has to gently remind her that he cannot be grasped. No matter that Mary wants more than anything else to embrace the body she had been weeping for so mightily; Jesus tells her that she cannot continue to hold on to him. The power of the resurrection is not the thrill of touching flesh that was once dead. The power of the resurrection is the encounter with the living Christ, the savior you might mistake for a humble gardener if not for the fact that he knows you by name.

And so Mary runs off to preach the first Easter sermon: Christ arose, and will keep rising until he is restored to the full presence of God. She knows this not only because of an empty tomb and a cast-off shroud. She knows this because she has experienced the resurrected Jesus, who is on the move even now.

The last hundred years or so have seen a flurry of attention afforded to what happened in the tomb. One of the five doctrines of fundamentalist Christianity is the matter of the bodily resurrection of Christ. While the gospels do certainly testify that Jesus was seen eating and drinking after he had been killed by Roman authorities, the fascination with what happened in the tomb still bewilders me. Standing in opposition to the fundamentalists are the scholars intent on offering believable alternatives to the unbelievable story of the resurrection. Death is death, they say. They prefer grave robbers to the miracle of the Risen Christ.

The gospels do not even begin to imagine the goings-on before the stone was rolled away. Barbara Brown Taylor notes that “the resurrection is the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God.”

And I have to tell you, I think we might be better off keeping it that way. I recently watched a video marketed to churches for use in Easter worship. It imagined the moment of the resurrection. A man wrapped in linens lay on a table. As an orchestra played dramatically in the background, the man slowly began to stir. The music billowed to a climax as the man sat up. It just didn’t work for me. It reduced a miracle into a cartoon, a holy mystery into a crude farce. And worst of all, it forced the Easter celebration back into the tomb.

Easter does not begin in the tomb; it begins with the encounter of the living Christ. When Mary’s tears of sorrow are wiped away, when the mere sound of her name shakes the grief right out of her, when her very soul trembles and swells in the presence of Jesus— that’s when Easter begins. That’s when the resurrection becomes real.

The gospels bear witness to a handful of appearances of the Risen Lord. They let us watch on as these encounters utterly transform people. And the gospels whisper a promise: the holy gardener is still on the move. He cannot be contained, not by the hateful grip of death, and not even by the loving embrace of a follower. Christ is on the loose, waiting for us to turn our tear-stained faces to his presence. We don’t need the paltry evidence of a cast-off shroud to know that our Redeemer lives, for the one whose Spirit outgrew those linens is present, even now.

Experiencing Easter isn’t about clenching your fists, closing your eyes, and forcing yourself to believe in an event that happened within the intimate circle of the Holy Trinity. Easter begins and the resurrection becomes real when you open yourself to the spirit of the Living God. Encountering the Risen Christ expands your soul and transforms your life so completely that even death cannot claim you. First the encounter— then the belief, the trust, the sheer joy of being in relationship with Jesus.

So have enough courage to show up at the tomb. Have enough tenacity to weather the moments—the days—the years—when it seems like someone has taken your Lord away. And like Mary, have just enough faith to keep weeping until you hear your name.



Holy Week at South Bay Christian Church of Redondo Beach

Maundy Thursday: 7:30 p.m.

Easter Sunrise Service: 6:30 a.m.


Easter Celebration: 10:30 a.m.

All are welcome!


Sunday, April 9: Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday

Click here to read John 12:12-16.

This is the day that the Lord has made. This is the day the solemnity of Lent gives way to shouts of Hosanna. This is the day that Jesus enters Jerusalem through a gate of jubilant worshippers, crouching on his donkey beneath a canopy of tender palm branches.

And this is the day that we can neither deny nor ignore that the man celebrated as King of Israel is processing to his death. Today is Palm Sunday, but it is also Passion Sunday. The hosannas we proclaim today cannot be separated from the tears of mourning we will shed in the coming week.

We do not share the perspective of the crowd in this text. We do not hope against hope that this triumphant entry means that God has finally sent a King to shoo out the Romans and reestablish an Israelite Kingdom. We remember this joyful entry from the weathered perspective of the Disciples, who themselves only understood these events after the death and resurrection of Christ. Which is to say that we know where this is going.

We know that the good favor of this crowd will abruptly shift direction, and that within the week, the Son of God incarnate will be beaten and nailed to a cross.

One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, made a confession a few years ago. “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside an open tomb: everlasting life and a box of chocolates.” I think Lamott speaks here for a lot of mainline Protestants. We don’t do well with bloodied crucifixes. We gather on Maundy Thursday, for sure, to commemorate the meal that is the marrow of our spiritual journey. But Good Friday— we’d rather stay home. Many years I’ve let Holy Week come and go without actually reading the texts that recount Jesus’ suffering and death.

I still haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s movie about the Passion of the Christ—in part because I disagree with his decision to explore Jesus’ death outside of the context of his life, but in part because I just plain can’t bear to see a man torn to shreds, even if the wounds are cinematic. Last week when the Los Angeles Times featured photographs of injured soldiers in an article about military medical care, I had to bury the front page under the classified section just so I could eat my breakfast. I don’t like blood, I don’t like violence, I don’t like death.

And yet, as the esteemed theologian Jurgen Moltmann proclaims, “Good Friday is the center of the world.” I don’t want to believe this. I don’t want to believe that the crucifixion of an innocent man is the nucleus of human life, that pain and more pain is at the core of existence.

But if we’re going to be honest, we cannot deny that suffering is persistent. We cannot pretend that every heart that beats will not eventually decelerate to one final cadence. We cannot make believe that people don’t abuse and exploit one another. We cannot pretend that life is all Hosannas when there is so much evidence to the contrary.

Last week, my sister’s friends lost their 9-month old son to a rare genetic disease. He became sick about a month ago, and despite all the best medical care, there simply wasn’t anything that could be done to save his life. In the midst of little Ethan’s brief and tragic bout with the illness, his two-year-old brother Andy fell ill with the same symptoms and diagnosis. The parents cannot simply return home in grief; they must stay on at the hospital to sit vigil with another sick child. What they have discovered, though, is that Ethan’s struggle with the disease taught the doctors a great deal about how to treat Andy.

In a message to concerned family and friends, the boys’ father wrote that they “have started to wonder if Ethan's purpose in his short life was to give us joy and Andy the gift of life.”

My heart has been heavy for this family. I cannot fathom the intensity of their grief. And yet I know who can. We know that Jesus suffered and died at Calvary. We know that his mother wept for his pain and sorrow. And I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the One who released Christ into this world wept alongside her. The One who created the moon and stars lamented the death of his beloved Son with the same heart-wrenching and powerless grief that every parent who loses a child experiences.

But currents of hope are coursing beneath the surface of even the most senseless tragedies. The promise of a newly sung Hosanna survives even the darkest hour of Good Friday. The agonizing question of “Why did this happen” finally comes to rest on one muscular word: love.

Just as Ethan lived and died to give joy and the gift of life to his family, Jesus Christ lived and died to give joy and the gift of life to the whole world.

The paradox of this Holy Week is that the depth of God’s sorrow revealed the depth of God’s love. Suffering and death were at the center of the world long before that Roman cross was planted at Golgatha for our Savior to die. What changed on Good Friday is that God entered the heart of pain and infused it with pure and holy love.

I am afraid that this appeal to love has all the effect of a Hallmark greeting card. I am afraid that this word has been bankrupted once and for all. I am afraid that we are so jaded that we might dare roll our eyes at the wondrous love of Christ.

But if a grieving father can locate his dead son’s purpose in the gift of life he bestowed upon his brother – if God himself can stand in solidarity with humans by bearing the cross of ultimate pain and humiliation – perhaps we can trust that a profound and transformative love is darting around the periphery of even the most unbearable circumstances.

We cannot erase the cross from Holy Week. We cannot ride the sea of Hosannas to the shores of Easter morning. We cannot avert our eyes from the crown of thorns. The Palms become Passion, and there isn’t a thing we can do to stop it.

But in light of this wrecked humankind, I don’t know if we would give up the cross after all. What good is a God who stays on his heavenly throne when the world he created is overrun with evil? What good is a God who keeps a safe distance from death? What good is a God who doesn’t love us enough to share the burden?

Hosannas alone are not enough to redeem humankind. And in Christ Jesus, we have a King who will ride a donkey to his death to save even the ones who will betray him. We have a God who exchanges hospitality and Hosannas for suffering, sacrifice, and solidarity.

I pray that this week we will have the courage to face the cross. No one has a Good Friday personality. No one longs to sit vigil as death suffocates life. But the vigil we keep this week will not end in the grave. Easter is just around the corner. The resurrection is on the horizon, carrying with it the promise of new life for all Creation. So face the cross, sisters and brothers. Face it and witness God’s love.


Sunday, April 2: The Hour Has Come

Click here to read Psalm 51, and here to read John 12: 20-33.

The hour has come.

The Jesus we encounter in today’s gospel reading is finally standing in the shadow of the cross. The unavoidable culmination of his life and ministry is mere hours away. Never in his life had so many people celebrated him. Next week we will recall the blitz of Hosannas that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. Even the Greeks longed to see the Holy Man from Nazareth. According to the wisdom of the world, Jesus was at the top of his game.

Yet just as the loaves of bread had to be torn into pieces to feed the multitude, so too did the Son of Man have to be broken to draw all people to him. Again and again in this Lenten season we are reminded that the wisdom of God turns our common sense into dust. This talk of losing one’s life to save it just doesn’t mass muster with human logic.

The analogy of the seed should alleviate our bewilderment. The seed must be buried in the soil before it can produce new growth. The simple miracle of germination transforms tiny seeds into fields of wheat. But there isn’t a very clean comparison, biologically speaking, between a grain of wheat and a human being. For wheat, the ground is a fertile source of new life. For a man, the ground is the dwelling place of death, the realm of the grave. Yet Jesus would have us believe that falling into the earth and dying has the same fruitful effect as planting the year’s crop. Only the life that will emerge from this spiritual harvest will be eternal.

Eternal life in the presence of God. This is quite a harvest. And an invitation to this feast is issued to every last one of God’s beloved children. The cameo appearance of the curious Greeks is a testament to the scope of God’s intentions. The elect—those chosen to receive God’s full mercies—turns out include a whole lot more people than suspected. Indeed, it is in this scripture from the gospel of John that we catch a glimpse of the radical inclusivity at the heart of the gospel.

Jesus will be lifted up. He will be lifted up onto the cross in a humiliating scene of suffering and shame. He will be buried in a tomb for three days. But then he will be lifted up again to the great glory of God. And when he is lifted from the earth, first to die and ultimately to live, he will draw all people to himself.

I’m not making this up. St. John isn’t making this up. Jesus publicly proclaims this unexpected revelation to the crowd: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

All people—all people!—will be embraced by the outstretched arms of the Son of God. All people will find themselves in the awkward position of being loved by him, regardless of whether they ignored him, rejected him, or loved him back.

There will be a judgment. In fact, that judgment has occurred already, when Jesus was lifted up to his death. The depth of human sinfulness was displayed in all its gory colors the day that the Son of God was crucified. “Now is the judgment of this world,” Jesus says. “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” The whole of Creation was torn asunder by disobedience and corruption, and the whole of Creation is to blame.

But remember the good news— the Son of God was sent not to condemn the world but to save it. All people are drawn to Christ—all people face him as the rightful judge of a broken world. And all people will discover that this judge cannot bear to condemn a single soul. This judge surrendered his life to plant the seeds of the Kingdom of God in the temperamental soil of the human heart. Nothing we do can convince him to withhold his abundant, life-giving grace from us. There is no way to escape God’s insatiable love.

If we recognize the full depth of God’s love, if we experience the dizzying height of his mercy, we cannot help but respond. The life and death of Jesus Christ has to inform our own lives. An honest response to the wondrous love of Christ is to recognize that our lives are no longer our own. We cannot love our lives so much that we protect our energies for ourselves and those within our intimate circles. Our lives must be turned over to Christ. Whoever serves me must follow me, he warns.

There is perhaps nothing more terrifying than surrendering one’s life to God. The instinct toward self-preservation and self-service is deeper than any cultural habit. Here we are asked to do what seems impossible—to voluntarily assume the posture of servants. Here we realize that the new commandment to love, love, and love some more is drastic. We are supposed to love the way Jesus loves. And Jesus’ love for Creation didn’t win him an automatic pass to the Right Hand of the Father. His love pressed him down into the earth like a lowly grain of wheat.

There are so many reflections of Christ’s love among the Saints of the church, so many people who allowed God’s grace to transform them into servants molded in the path of Christ. Father Henri Nouwen was one of the most celebrated Christian writers of the 20th century. He wrote extensively about Christian spirituality, yet shocked his students by giving up his comfortable job teaching at Yale University to become a caregiver for persons with severe disabilities. He spent the final years of his life feeding and bathing mentally retarded men who couldn’t read a word he had written. Yet those men experienced the Christian love Nouwen had written about so profoundly.

Just yesterday, the Los Angeles Times featured the obituary of a woman who became famous for the humblest of vocations: she taught Sunday School for 80 years, retiring soon after her 108th birthday. In this day and age in which self-promotion and fame-seeking has reached a fever pitch, it is no small miracle that a simple church woman whose joy was to share the gospel with 2nd-graders made it into the big city newspaper. Even the world marvels at men and women who faithfully surrender their lives to the glory of God.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. And the hour has come for us to decide if we want to be a part of this journey through death into life. Can we die to selfishness so we can live in Christ? Can we echo David’s impassioned cry for God to do for him what he cannot do for himself? “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” All people are invited on this journey from cross to grave and from grave to sky. Are we up for the severe mercy of God’s compassion? Are we prepared to become as seeds, hidden in the fertile ground of God’s love? The hour to decide has come.