April 14, 2019
The gospel is music. It opens loud with a joyous aria: the birth of God.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, being found in human form.
St. Paul said that: Philippians, chapter 2, verse 6.
From its exhilarating beginning, the score rises, falls, and rises between two themes: passion/resurrection. Passion is the solemn underscore, and today through Friday it fills the room with mournful cello, pounding drums, discordant cymbals. But even today and all through the week, just at the border of our range of hearing, a single, tight violin string holds the resurrection note: faint but taught, thrilling. A nightmare unfolds from the garden, through the courts, into the streets, out of the city and up the hill, and all through the tumult, that glorious note does not relent.
Next Sunday that note will open like a flower and fill the room with resurrection brass and timpani. But still, today’s events will insist on being heard – a soft, low, cello passion chord that gives the resurrection music bottom.
In the dance of these opposing themes – over-score and underscore, passion/resurrection – we hear the gospel, and in the gospel, we are shown the meaning of our lives. In that meaning, we are saved. We are saved that we might play music, sing it, live it.
The last time I preached I quoted this from Karl Barth:
In the Gospels, everything runs to meet the passion story, yet… everything in he passion story runs to meet the resurrection story, and … nothing can be understood except from these two, or better, from the turning point between [them].[i]
Our own lives, in all their parts, move to meet the resurrection through the passion. The way of the cross, we call this, which is the way of eternal life. On that way, we endure our nights in the Garden of Gethsemane. The thing we were afraid of happens. We call the doctors or police. They can’t help us this time. There is nothing left to do but follow Jesus to the garden, drop to our knees and pray his prayer. “Father, if it be thy will, take away this cup.” Sometimes God does and sometimes not.
I think of my mother as a newlywed lying still for a solid week under doctor’s orders. “It’s polio. Do not move. In seven days we’ll know if you will walk again.” “Father, if it be thy will, remove this cup.” That time, God did remove the cup. In seven days, she walked.
[i] Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, Volume 1, part 2, page 56.
Then I remember my sister’s husband, handsome, strong, vivacious, at the age of thirty-nine, playing tennis one afternoon and losing badly. “Why can’t I hit the ball?” he wondered, then realizing: “I can barely see.” His field of vision had been cut in half. They flew him to the Mayo Clinic. “Father, if it be thy will, remove this cup.” The doctors did their battery of tests and came back grim. “We’re so sorry. It’s a tumor, cancer, in your brain, unreachable.” There would be nothing they could do but slow it down a bit with radiation.
Bonhoeffer said that in faith we drink life to the bottom of the cup. So there come those moments in our lives when we go with Jesus to Gethsemane and share that cup: his pain ours and our pain his.
But over the garden wall, out of sight and almost out of hearing, the violin holds that resurrection note, still taught and thrilling. Always, we have hope in Christ.
And hope doesn’t disappoint us, because through the Holy Spirit God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
St. Paul said that too.
That is what salvation looks and feels like in the music of the passion and the resurrection.
From the garden, let’s move out into a courtyard. It is crowded, buzzing with excited rumors. Soldiers, tourists, locals mix and mill about a fire. Among them, collar up, head tucked, avoiding every eye, is Peter. Now, commotion! Soldiers hustle Jesus through to lock him down for the night. Jesus spies Peter by the fire. Jesus knows his friend. He turns towards Peter, who looks away, too late. We can count on this: lurking in every worked up crowd is someone eager to identify a culprit.
“Hey…I’ve got it!” a woman shouts pointing straight at Peter. “You know him. You are with his crew!”
“Woman, I do not know him.” Peter’s first denial.
A moment later comes the second, this time to a male accuser who cries: “You. Yes, you. You’re one of them!” “Man, I am not,” he swears. “I am no friend of Jesus.” Two denials down, with one to go.
An hour later, another nosy witness snitches: “Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” This time Peter screams: “Man, I do not know what you are saying.” Jesus looks him in the eye. Cymbals clash, a cello mourns, a rooster crows.
Peter represents our failures too. Sometimes in life, we flunk the test spiritually and morally. These tests can happen so fast we could not have seen it coming. I tell young clergy to expect to face a crisis every three years. If that holds for priests it may be because it's true for everyone.
According to Barth, we live in the turn from doubt to faith, despair to hope, injury to pardon. We live in the turn, not beyond it. It is always just happening. On blue-bird sunny faithful days, doubt is still in sight, in the rear view mirror. Blink once and now its in the back seat. Blink twice and now its riding shotgun. Every now and then it tries to grab the wheel. In the heat of the moment, Peter’s doubt took over. Let’s remember Peter has a wife and may have children who depend on him. By lying he goes free. If he tells the truth, who knows? So Peter failed his test.
But when Jesus called him “Rock” he knew what he was getting. “On this rock, I will build my church,” he declared, “and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.” Maybe he said that with a little smile, knowing that he’d built his church on faith that had lost its nerve in crisis, but:
“Through the Holy Spirit, God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”
That love turns darkness to its own advantage, and that is how the powers of hell are overthrown.
When Christ returns come Easter, he does not deny his own denier. Jesus doesn’t say of Peter: “I don’t know him.” Instead, he asks, three times, “Peter do you love me?” Three times, Peter answers “Yes, you know I love you.” Three times Jesus says: “So feed my sheep.” Peter’s threefold experience of failure makes him that much stronger, and by the end of his life, he has become the man he had always boasted that he would be.
In our losses, through our trials, we are “more than conquerors” in Christ.
It is true, as promised, that as we wait upon the Lord, we shall renew our strength.
We do mount up with wings like eagles.
In this music of the gospel, we run up and down the scales, from note to note, and do not grow weary.
We walk through death and do not faint.