April 8, 2018
I took some ribbing from a certain member of my family (who shall remain nameless, though I’ll tell you I’m married to her) for being more than just a little excited about last Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on network TV. Did any of you see it? I thought it was remarkable. The acting, the singing, the choreography, (even Alice Cooper of all people,) but mostly the words and the music – they were so thoughtful and moving to me. I loved the records as a child, and thought for sure that the production would never live up to my childhood memories, but I was wrong!
I especially loved the scene where Judas betrays Jesus. In the gospels he comes with a violent crowd from the chief priests and he kisses Christ as a way of identifying him for the mob, but in Sunday’s production it’s just Jesus and Judas on the stage. The crowd, we presume, is following. Judas kisses him as a something of a “goodbye” and begins to walk away when Jesus stops him. “Judas!” he says, sounding somewhat angry. “You would betray me with a kiss!” And he walks with command and intention back over to Judas, their eyes meet, and Jesus throws his arms around his betrayer. He hugs him like parting friends, like brothers, like family.
I love the moment because it stuck me as such a powerful image of what God does. God embraces a world that rejects, betrays, and denies God. Though the world would kiss God goodbye, go its own way, live and die according to its own powers, God calls the world by name, forgives it, embraces it, and gives God’s self to it and for it. In the production Jesus was angrier over the kiss than over the betrayal. A kiss wont work; it’s a hug that’s needed between parting friends. And in that hug Jesus reestablishes their right relationship and Judas’ identity not as a sinner, but as a forgiven sinner.
I once read a book – I thought it was a brilliant concept – called, “Judas, Come Home. All is Forgiven.” Though Matthew has Judas hanging himself in guilt and shame after his betrayal, the author reflects upon the conversation that Jesus and Judas might have had after their deaths. As you can tell by the title, it was a book on forgiveness and redeeming love. I can’t tell you anything more about the book’s content, but I do recall the unusual cover. It had a mirror on it so that every time you closed it you would see your image on the cover reminding you that Christ was equally committed to forgiving you, embracing you too beyond all of your reasons for thinking that you aren’t ultimately all that embraceable.
All of this in a way is a foreshadowing of today’s gospel passage, which echoes the same theme. For some reason we tend to skip over the first part of the story and focus instead on “doubting Thomas.” But, prior to that there are huddled disciples hiding in fear from those who might persecute them, but also no doubt, hiding in shame from the voices within them that condemned themselves as betrayers as well. Though the doors are closed and the room is locked, the risen Christ comes, he appears and like a full embrace he proclaims his peace. “Peace be with you,” these are the first words of the risen Christ to his gathered friends. Peace to you who denied me. Peace to you who abandoned me. Peace to you who couldn’t see the gift of God before your very eyes. Then Jesus says it again in case they didn’t get it, and later, when we get to Thomas, “peace,” once again is his very first word.
What comes next is the Johanine Pentecost. Generally, we point to that moment a bit farther down the road in Acts when “tongues as of fire” descend upon the disciples and the gift of the Holy Spirit empowers them to preach and be heard in all kinds of languages. John’s gospel jumps that gun a bit. After offering his peace Christ wastes no time in also offering his Spirit. He breathes it onto them and calls them along with him into the business of forgiveness and peace. You too will be proclaimers of peace. You too will be agents of God’s way of peace rising in this world.
So, one of the first signs of Christ’s resurrection, its primary consequence is a call upon the disciples into a new understanding of their own purpose. In light of the resurrection they were called to forsake their guilt and shame, to come out of their hiding, and to become a community of peace embodiers for the world. They were empowered by the very Spirit of God to build up a people who would live and operate by the divine priorities of love and forgiveness for the creation of a peaceable kingdom – a kingdom that would look nothing like the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of Rome, which had the power to kill but not the power to stop resurrection.
Christ renamed these hiding disciples “friends” and called them to be pioneers in offering the world a social alternative to its ego and violence driven power. They were given grace to give to others and the resurrection proof that God’s love can save and redeem in a way that the world’s violence cannot. They were given the Spirit in order to give the world the Church.
I came across a story that Will Willimon tells about his time at Duke Chapel. If you don’t know him you might check him out. He is a retired bishop, long time preaching professor, and highly regarded and prolific writer.
He talks about preaching what I believe was an Easter sermon many years ago at the university. Following the service there was a long line waiting to shake his hand on the way out. He noticed this one couple lingering beside the line, clearly waiting for everyone to be gone so that they might have a word.
Well, it turned out that they were the parents of a student who had been particularly inspired by a bible class that Willimon was teaching at the time. The only thing is, they weren’t happy about this new inspiration their daughter had found. So, instead of the congratulatory “nice sermon” handshake that Willimon was expecting, he got an earful from them about how their daughter’s new love of God was giving her thoughts about ministry and mission that weren’t in their plans. They had already mapped out her life and invested heavily in her education. Her path was clear and it was the path they knew to be best for her, but his class was feeding her faith and messing everything up.
That’s when he stopped them. “Wait a minute,” he said. “None of this is my fault. It’s actually your fault. You baptized her, didn’t you? You raised her in Sunday school. You got her confirmed. You brought her to church, right?” “Well, yes,” they said. “Then this is your doing. You gave her church, and that gift worked. Or, did you not really want it to?”
We have a couple of baptisms in a little while and I share this story because I think it makes pretty clear the point that these are far from sentimental rituals; these are initiations granted to the church to give in witness to the mission of a risen Christ, – a mission from God that we all get to carry out. Peter and Eleanor are about to be welcomed into God’s social alternative to a world of ego and violence, an alternative that saves the world through forgiveness and love, an alternative of peace. The thing is, when we enter this alternative we also admit that our lives aren’t entirely our own. They are united with Christ; they are claimed, and they are most alive when this claim takes hold. Are we ready for that claim to take hold?
 This story was shared with me by a colleague. I’ve repeated it with as much accuracy as possible without having seen the story in print. Apologies to Willimon for any inaccuracies, but I am confident that I’ve captured the spirit of the story.