Today we continue in our Easter celebration and as we will throughout this season, we hear the stories of Jesus’ followers who were witnesses to his resurrection. We read this particular Gospel each year on the second Sunday of Easter, perhaps you remember it because of that. In part, this story has an important place in the resurrection stories because it speaks directly to us, the current disciples of Christ. Thomas’ story of how he came to belief in the resurrected Christ belongs to the generations of believers who came after those original witnesses.
The story begins. Jesus has come to stand with the frightened disciples shut into a room and locked away from those who might harm them. He calms them by speaking to them; then he shows them his hands and his side and reminds them of their purpose. They are to go out into the world to take his message of love and forgiveness to all. They will be his voice, his hands, his feet.
Later, Thomas, who was not with the others, did not believe what they told him, that they had seen the resurrected Lord. He said to them, “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” These are strong words from one who was a practical man.
Now Jesus was then and still is a good teacher. We have numerous examples of his teaching. He used parables; he talked about God directly; he demonstrated his message in ways that formed a lasting picture of what he wanted to convey; he gave short assignments and discussed the results.
His teaching methods were varied, sometimes simple and sometimes complex, always involving his disciples in the learning process. When faced with Thomas’ doubts in this morning’s gospel Jesus did not give up on him and think that Thomas just did not get it. Rather Jesus patiently gave the lesson to Thomas in a personal way.
Jesus came a second time to that same room with the gathered disciples, only this time Thomas was present. Jesus then offers Thomas exactly what he said he needed in order to believe. Of course, Thomas did not need the physical proof he thought he needed. It was enough that he saw Jesus and heard his voice. His response was immediate: “My Lord and my God”.
Jesus knew what Thomas needed in order to believe in him and he offered it to him.
In thinking about Thomas this morning, I wonder, “How did you and I come to believe that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord?” How were we able to say “My Lord and my God” with Thomas?
What has the teacher, Jesus, provided to you, for you to come to belief?
Each person’s answer is different. It is personal.
I once knew someone who had worked it out mathematically why there was a God. It made perfect sense to her, all the formulas pointing to the existence of God. Now, I must admit when I see pictures of fractals and the beauty of them, I know that this is not a random event. But in this case, I had trouble following the logic. Yet, these formulas worked for her. I am sure that the good teacher, Jesus, knew that for her it was the way to belief. Perhaps some of you here this morning may have come to belief through mathematics or some other scientific knowledge.
Others I have known came to belief by asking philosophical questions of another person they admired and then listened intently to that person’s explanation why it is that they believe.
For many, it is a process coming to belief; it takes time. And there are others, more like Thomas, who knew the exact moment that they believed, at 9:13 on May the first, they will say. Some may have heard Jesus speak to them in a moment of crisis perhaps with that same word, peace, that Jesus gave to his original disciples.
How have you come to believe? I am sure that you had teachers and mentors along the way for you to be here this morning.
In the words of a favorite collect, maybe you were one who lived and moved and had your being surrounded by God from earliest life. This was my experience. I was rocked to sleep by a loving grandmother who sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in her deep alto voice. I learned Bible stories from my babysitter each day. Of course, she taught all the usual ones, but she left nothing of the scary ones out either: Shadrach, Meschak, and Abendigo the three young believers locked up in the fire and Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac. She made me love all the thrilling stories of God’s presence in all times and all experiences we may face. Without question I went to church every Sunday. My grandfather sat next to me often with his arms around me and fed me wintergreen lifesavers to keep me quiet. I knew church to be a place of being loved. In the summers I would go to Bible school for weeks at a time, moving from one denomination to another. I was one who lived and moved and had my being surrounded by God. And for this I am very grateful. This was my beginning and my foundation. I can honestly say I do not remember a time when I was not a believer.
I look forward to hearing your story!
Of course, like all long-term relationships there are times that our belief will be stronger, without a doubt, and then there will be lower times of questioning, concerns, and longings. We are human beings, after all.
Thomas had traveled with Jesus. He had learned from him and believed in him. But then the crucifixion happened, and he was at the lowest of low. Thomas’ story in this morning’s gospel is a story of longing, not of doubt. What he had been told by others, Thomas wanted to experience for himself. Thomas thought he needed concrete proof of the risen Lord but then the appearance of Jesus transformed him completely. He no longer needed to touch the wounds when in the presence of Christ. While before his idea of faith and belief was an intellectual agreement of observable facts, in a moment, it became a personal trust in a living God.
What Thomas had been told by others he wanted to experience himself. What we have been told by others about Christ we eventually want to know for ourselves. When we have questions and concerns it is a sign of our desire to go beyond secondhand knowledge of Christ to come to know Jesus himself. We, too, want to touch and be touched by Him, perhaps to hear his voice, or perhaps to see his hand in what is happening in our lives. Like Thomas there is a time for our acceptance of what we have been told.
Being a believer is not a matter of accepting data. None of us believe simply because we have been given the right set of facts. Being a believer is a mature act of faith, a gift offered by Jesus himself.
Jesus is a master teacher. He will use a variety of ways and experiences to bring to us into his life. He reaches out to each one of us. He invites us to real life and then it is our decision to join with those over the past two thousand years and accept what he offers.
How have you come to believe? Today on this second Sunday of Easter give thanks for your own journey and give thanks for those who have witnessed Christ’s love to you. For this Easter gospel is ours.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. An “idle tale.” When the women give the apostles the news of the resurrection of Jesus, that’s what the Bible says the apostles thought of it. Actually, “idle tale” is a fairly polite translation of the Greek word Luke uses. You might better say nonsense. What the apostles meant was that the women were out of their minds and their story was ridiculous on the face of it.
That is, probably, the most sensible response to the proclamation we make this Easter morning, and that those women made the first Easter morning. The claim that Jesus was killed by state-sponsored torture and then raised to new life in his body on the third day, to any normal person, sounds like nonsense.
It’s well, I think, to start on this Easter morning by recognizing that. We all know that dead bodies do not rise. But, say Mary and Joanna and Mary Magdalene today, Jesus has risen. He has been brought by God through death into a whole new kind of embodied life that he’s going to spread to everyone and everything. That’s the message, and fantastically improbable as it is, soon the apostles will have been convinced, the risen Christ will have shown himself to over 500 people at one time, the malicious skeptic Paul will have had his mind changed and begun spreading the very claim he once fought to destroy: that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that after his execution and burial the life of the world to come invaded this world through the very molecules of his body, raising him from the dead and changing what is possible forever.
This news was not an idle tale, but it’s so hard to believe that generations of people have sought ways to turn it into one. To reduce what happened into something that is simpler and easier, more in line with what we’d prefer to think. You’ve all seen examples of that. I’d guess some of you here are in that camp yourselves, looking for some “out” which will let you enjoy the festivity and tradition of Easter Sunday without having to take a position on whether the resurrection of Jesus itself is an idle tale, or a revolutionary act of God.
I’m not going to go through all the ways people can try to make Easter easier for themselves, but I will namecheck a couple. Here’s the first: We could make sweeping assumptions about how gullible people used to be and how much smarter we are now. This is obviously falsified by the Biblical texts themselves which describe how flummoxed, panicked, and skeptical everybody was, but nevertheless, you will hear the idea bandied about that somehow men and women who lived in the first century were so childlike and naïve that they just hadn’t figured out, the poor dears, that dead people stay dead 100% of the time. And of course we know better. Well, that is absolutely absurd. First century people knew what death is, probably based on far more direct experience than most of us have. The Gospels make clear that just as we would, the women and men of the New Testament find the idea of resurrection intrinsically unbelievable.
Another way: we could theorize that the apostles agreed to spread the story that Jesus had been raised as a way of trying to continue his movement and retain their power. (Not that they had any power, if you actually read the texts, but we all like to blame things on power these days.) One does have to wonder, though, how long this scheme would have endured under torture and threats of capital punishment; I mean, really? Nobody says, “Please don’t kill me, we were just making it up,” ever? Not one person?
It doesn’t stand up once you think it through, but even more, anyone who has studied second temple Judaism knows that inventing a resurrection would not have fit their mentality anyway. Historians have documented several other Jewish messianic movements during the one or two centuries on either side of Jesus’s public career. Those movements routinely ended with the violent death of the proposed Messiah, and the adherents routinely did one of two things: they gave up and got on with their lives, or they chose a new leader. The concept of one person being resurrected now, rather than at the end of time, was inconceivable to Jews of that era. That’s a whole other sermon, but no 1st century messianic movement ever thought to claim that anybody rose from the dead – except one.
I’m only going to mention one more example of ways people try to make Easter easier. This may be the most popular. We could take this narrative and abstract it as much from its details as possible, pulling it further and further out of its Jewish and historical context until it becomes a generic, inspiring platitude nobody would really bother to challenge. There’s always hope. Or a little less generic, Jesus lives on in our memories, like every other dead person. Or again, Jesus did die, but then he went to heaven.
Any downgrading of what happened at the tomb like that would have made things so easy for the apostles, just like it does for people today. It’s almost surprising they refused to do it. If the facts of the matter had left them free to respond, ‘please understand, when we say “resurrection”, that’s a metaphor. What we really mean is that Jesus is still with us spiritually and his message will live on,’ nobody would have thrown them in prison or called them a menace to society.
The empire wouldn’t have been bothered a bit by that kind of abstraction, nor does it really offend our contemporary mentality either. You have a sense that some spiritual something is with you inspiring you, and that your soul will live on? No problem. If that works for you, awesome. Go ahead, call it Jesus! Call it whatever you like, as long as you keep it to yourself. As long as it’s interior and private and doesn’t require of you any action that challenges anything about the systems of the Roman empire -- or of course, of the American one, either.
A claim that in the risen flesh of Jesus Christ a whole new world has begun, though? Well, that’s going to be trouble. But in the words of the late John Lewis, it’s good trouble. In fact, it’s just the trouble we need. One million people have been taken from us by Covid. Champaign has seen 36 shootings so far this year. The world is watching war crimes, and not for the first time. We’re getting offered second boosters here, while just 15% of the African continent is fully vaccinated. Kids are still bullied. Women are still harassed. I could go on. How, in the face of that, can we settle for soothing ourselves with private spirituality and soft-focus inspiration?
On Good Friday, the African-American Biblical scholar Esau McCaulley wrote in the New York Times: “If a Black body can be hanged from a tree and burned, never to be restored again, what kind of victory is the survival of a soul? …. Either give me a bodily resurrection or God must step aside. He is of no use to us.”
See, you lose so much when you try to redefine Easter to make it easier. Because Christ is risen, mainstream Christianity is entitled to teach that one day the entire created world will be transformed to become what God always intended it to be: full of justice and love, freed from oppression and mourning. It can give a plausible account of how that transformation began in the flesh of Jesus Christ on Easter morning, saying that he is the prototype, the down payment, or in Biblical terms the “first fruits” of the risen life with which God will flood all creation.
God feeds us with that life in the sacraments. God sends us into the world to make good trouble as we share that life with others. But it has to have begun in the resurrection first. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen in mine or yours, or in the carbon-dioxide choked earth, or in the cynical halls of power, or in the redlined neighborhoods, or in all the bodies who have been bombed, machine-gunned, unjustly incarcerated, assaulted, dehumanized. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen anywhere. But.
Esau McCaulley already knows it. Mary and Joanna and Mary Madgalene knew it. Generations of Christians have known it. St. Paul knew it and wrote it in today’s epistle: in fact Christ has been raised from the dead and we can count on it. We can count on God to bring his new world to fulfillment. We can count on resurrection to take us through to the end. We can count on justice to be done and every tear to be wiped away, because Christ is risen. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, says Paul, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being…. [and finally will come] the end, when Christ hands over the universe to God the Father. That is not an idle tale. Amen. Alleluia.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Today begins the Triduum, a time of remembering, honoring, and walking with Jesus on the road to his death. This day, Maundy Thursday, we hear the words and see the actions of Jesus on his last night with his closest and dearest friends. What Jesus did on that long ago night helped those original disciples, and the generations of disciples to come, to know him and his message of deep love.
Holy Week offers us many once-a-year images. All that we do this week is in remembrance of Jesus. There were the palms we carried on Palm Sunday as we walked through the alley and into the church. There will be the stripping of the altar tonight, removing everything that makes this building a church. Late tonight and Friday morning some will sit in the garden watching and waiting with Jesus. Tomorrow we will sing the reproaches as we venerate the cross and then on Saturday, we will light the new fire and bring the light into the worship space. We will be sprinkled with holy water and ring the bells to accompany the great proclamation of Easter and more. And probably even if this is your twentieth holy week you will still see or hear something you had not noticed in the past. Each action, each sight, each smell, each sound is intended to involve us with all our senses and to imprint on our bodies what happened that first holy week and Easter. Just as it was for Jesus’ disciples, so much happens in such a short period of time, it can be overwhelming. Actually, it is supposed to be overwhelming! We can process later; for now, we experience.
It is fitting that tonight’s actions begin with the Passover celebration. As one of my Jewish-born friends, who became a Christian as an adult, describes it, Passover is like the Easter Vigil and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. It has the rite of scripture and prayer as well as the joy of being with extended family and friends, using special dishes, eating special foods that only are served once a year at Passover.
Jesus wanted to spend his last night with his friends in celebration of God’s leading the Hebrews out of slavery and into freedom. The plagues that were to convince Pharoah to let God’s people go are named with a special remembrance of the 10th plague, the death of all first-borns. The Hebrews were to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so God would know to leave those households intact. God’s people were protected by the blood of a lamb. This Exodus brought redemption and liberation for the Hebrews from the Egyptians. The Passover meal Jesus had with his disciples on that last night set the stage for the events ahead. What Jesus would do over those next few days brought freedom from sin and darkness and death for all. He is that lamb whose blood will mark his followers as God’s own people and protect them forever. So it is meaningful that Jesus actions tonight begin with the Passover.
For three years Jesus had used his time with his disciples readying them for these next few days and what would happen to him and what God would accomplish through him. Ever since he called his disciples, he had fed them, taught them, and set an example for them. At first what we see happening this day may seem the same. Jesus does teach them; he does feed them, and he does set an example for them. Yet there is more in his actions. Today Jesus is also equipping these disciples for their life ahead. Jesus has been their master, their teacher, their leader. They have been his students, his followers, and his aides. Today Jesus shows them that their relationship is about to change.
Through being with him daily he has taught them love, love for each other and love for God. This group of ordinary people had at some level come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, the one sent by God. They had experienced his love overflowing in so many ways. Theirs was a deep relationship. They knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. He knew their human characteristics with all the pluses and the minuses and his love for them included and accepted their human qualities. Jesus knew that these friends would be the ones to carry out his ministry. He depended on them. On this night so long ago, Jesus gives them what will sustain, nourish and help them to be able to do just that.
Near the end of the Passover observance, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In English remembrance; in Greek anamnesis. The Greek word means a little bit more than the English translation. Let me explain using an example from Laurence Stookey’s book on the Eucharist. If you were asked to remember an event in your life, let’s say your high school graduation you could probably come up with some thoughts. You might mentally picture the building, remembering that you had a party afterwards, and with a bit of time, perhaps who had come to see you walk across the stage. But if you “remember” in the way of the ancient Hebrews you would put on a cap and gown, play a version of Pomp and Circumstance on you- tube while you walked in a very dignified manner across the room. You would have invited many of your friends and relatives and had a party following. This is what is meant by the word anamnesis. It is bringing to life again what you are remembering. And this is precisely what we do in these days of Holy Week. Carrying the palms, shouting the words, “crucify him” lighting our candles, ringing our bells, it is our actions in addition to our thoughts that connect us to the truth of what Jesus did for us.
And it is more than Holy Week where this type of remembrance happens. Jesus knew our human frailty too, and how much we need his continuing presence to be able to carry out His work on earth. This remembrance, this anamnesis, is what we participate in at each and every Eucharist. The priest takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to us. The very same actions that our Lord did at that last supper with his friends. We do this now following Jesus’ instruction, “do this in remembrance of me”. The actions of the Eucharist are not just something done once many years ago and on only that particular night. Rather those actions connect the past, the present and the future. Jesus gives himself for us in the bread and the wine. They are his real presence, his body and his blood given for us. This ritual meal lets us know that God does not forget us, nor do we forget God. He is with us in all. He gives us his strength to bear what we have to bear and do what He calls us to do.
We are under the blood of Christ now, and marked and protected and guided by his holy body and blood. Jesus, the living Christ, is among us still, giving himself to us. And we receive him giving ourselves to him in witness to his great love.
We do this, with our actions, we do this in remembrance of him.
The actions of the Triduum continue—don’t miss this once a year experience! Amen.
On this, the darkest night of the church year, God himself — wholly innocent Love incarnate — was brutally murdered. And for what reason?
We could fill in the blank with any number of answers: Christ died because humankind wanted to kill him. Christ died because Sin was too powerful for us to escape on our own. Christ died because God required some kind of satisfaction for the rebellion and hatred shown him by his creation. All correct answers as far as theology goes.
But what I want to focus on tonight is the reason underlying them all. Jesus took up his cross because he wanted to. Jesus took up his cross because God so loved the world that he chose to die for it.
Which is an idea almost too big for us to grasp. If we were to imagine ourselves in the most extreme circumstances, we might just approach something resembling that love. We might think of the parents who have died for their children. Or of the men and women who have died for their country. Or the saying, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.
But Jesus — Jesus laid down his life for his enemies. Jesus picked up his cross so that even those who cried “Crucify him” might be saved.
Why would he do this? Why would he who knew infinite power and perfect contentment count it all as nothing so that he might in every respect be tested as we are?
“To redeem a servant, the Father did not spare his Son.” Nor did the Son spare himself. He shouldered our burdens and carried our iniquities. He drank the cup that the Father had given him, all so that he might bring us before God, not as slaves or exiles but as brothers and sisters of the King.
In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Who could believe the story we’re telling? The love of God is so extravagant, so prodigal, so ill-advised according to even the smallest amount of common sense that the life and death of Jesus will always be something of a mystery to us, a tale of bloodshed and tears that continues to teach and to touch and to heal those who hear it.
And so we call today “good.” We call today “good” — though centuries and societies have passed since Christ’s crucifixion — because Jesus’ love has not and will never change. As it was then, so it is now: Jesus loves us so deeply, so tenderly that he would die a thousand deaths if that was what it took to save a single one of us.
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
In the Cross of Christ we are given the incontrovertible proof of God’s commitment to all of creation: God so loved the world that he died for us — not because we were good enough to merit saving but simply because God’s love won’t rest until everything and everyone is reunited with him. Jesus chose to pour his life out on the altar of our salvation, knowing that no stain, no sin, no separation could withstand the power of his blood. This is the God we worship. A God who loves those he has made so profoundly that he would lay down his life to lift up ours.
On this, the darkest night of the church year, the altar is bare and our voices are hushed. But even in the darkness, light shines. Look on our Savior. See the blood from his wounds. Listen as he draws his last breath. His arms are stretched wide to embrace us all. He loves us. He loves us. He loves us. AMEN.
Why is this cross beautiful? When we look at the Emmanuel rood screen, we are looking at death and suffering, after all. This sculpture enshrines agony, mockery, abandonment -- all the things human beings normally want to turn our eyes away from. Why is this cross beautiful?
Today we begin the solemn 6-day journey through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that has been the centerpiece of Christian community life since the 3rd or 4th century. The Bible texts the Church feeds us with today orient us as we go through Holy Week, and in particular as we experience the three great evenings of the Triduum, one liturgy extended over three nights.
Other minor services and devotions are available between now and Saturday night, but above all what the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church asks of her members is to participate in the Triduum: Maundy Thursday at 7pm, Good Friday at 7pm, and the Great Vigil and first Mass of Easter, Saturday at 8:30pm. There is nothing else like this: as I’ve said many times, the Triduum is the Church’s strongest medicine, but it only works if you take it as directed.
So on Palm Sunday as we enter this priceless experience, the Church orients us with Scripture, helping us know where to stand and what to understand. We hear the voice of Jesus addressing us prophetically in Isaiah, recounting his heroic act of trust in God: I gave my back to those who struck me, he says, I did not hide my face from insult, because God who vindicates me is near.
We hear the voice of the first century church in Philippians, an early hymn celebrating how Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and became obedient unto the point of death, even death on a cross, and that therefore God highly exalted him, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend. These readings help us stand in a place where we can experience the shame, in light of the glory. We can feel the agony, made even more poignant in light of how astonishingly God used it for good.
And today we stand, and hear, and speak in the voices of all those who participated in the Passion, experiencing the truth of what Jesus went though, experiencing the truth of how we prefer to make God suffer rather than sacrifice our own illusions of power or our own illusions of security. How we’d rather kill him than let him love us.
This is our place to stand: this is where the Church will keep on putting us this week, if we have the integrity and the courage to show up for it. We stand inside the experience of Holy Week, living it night by night, shaped by the meaning Scripture tells us it has.
We don’t just think or debate or watch this: we live it, we stand inside of it, and we let Scripture interpret it for us, because we could never, ever figure Holy Week out for ourselves. It’s too vast and too powerful for that. We have to physically experience these three nights of liturgical action, and we have to let Scripture be our guide, or we’ll never even get close. So let’s hear it once more:
Though Jesus was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Why is this Cross beautiful? That’s why. It’s beautiful because Holy Week is not a set of ideas or a topic of discussion, not an act of regrettable violence or a political process, not an historical curiosity or a religious ideology. This Cross is beautiful because through Holy Week God made the ugly beautiful. This Cross is a work of art because Holy Week is a work of art.
Because Holy Week is what Scripture says it is: God himself, entering into the world at its ugliest, and taking all the world’s ugliness into his own body in order to redeem it. Holy Week is the experience of how God can make beauty out of any suffering, even the most obscene or outrageous, even the act of God’s own creatures killing him, even the suffering you and I carry in our bodies and our minds and our hearts right now, if we show up for it. Whatever you are carrying, put it all in this process over the next six days. Don’t be afraid. God knows what he’s doing. Just show up. God knew how to make this Cross beautiful, and he knows how to make all your crosses beautiful too.
Thanks be to God for all he will do here between now and Saturday night.
Back in the 1990s when Mark and I were living on the North Shore of Boston, his parents came to visit us, and we took them up to Gloucester for a whale watch. It was a stormy day, though, and we didn’t see any whales. In fact, not only didn’t we see any whales, but the whole boat got seasick. And I mean truly seasick. People were collapsed all over the place, groaning.
When we started pitching around, somebody announced: go up top, stand out on the deck, and focus on the horizon. Most people paid no attention, but I staggered up the stairs, and that’s what I did, for the next half hour as they turned around and took the boat back into the harbor. I stood in the drizzle and the wind and stared with all my might at the furthest thing I could see. One other person came up too, and I didn’t even glance at her once. We exchanged one grim sentence of conversation, and then we both stared at that horizon as hard as we could. And it worked. Worst boat ride of my life, but I got through it by keeping my focus in the distance rather than on the immediate surroundings.
I looked up later why that works. And the deal is that motion sickness is caused when your brain receives conflicting messages about whether you're moving or not. If you’re reading a book or looking at something right next to you, your eyes are telling your brain that you’re still. But because your body can feel movement going on, it sends the opposite message. And the result is that your brain gets disoriented. So if you look at an object in the distance, that helps your eyes realize that yes, you are moving after all, and it resolves some of the confusion and you feel better.
So this is a physical phenomenon. But it is just as true in the mental world and the spiritual world. Focusing on more than just what’s right next to you helps you stay oriented. It’s true in business, it’s true in relationships, and it’s true in our life with God.
In business: I read an interview recently with Horst Schulze who founded the Ritz Carlton hotel chain. He grew up in a small German village and had never even seen a hotel as a kid, but he talked about how the success that brand achieved was because they focused not on daily tasks, but on the horizon, the ideal of service, which as a Christian he sees as rooted in love of neighbor. Schulze said, “Service always implies caring. If we settle for lesser goals — meeting the budget, for example, or safeguarding jobs in a tough economy — we will miss the most important work.”
In relationships: Talk to anybody who has maintained lifelong friendships, ask them how they did it, and they will tell you that at least part of it was learning not to sweat the small stuff. You keep your focus on your overall love for the person, on your shared values and goals, and not on the ordinary ways that they might fall short or fail you.
And in our life with God. There’s no better example of that than today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Let’s look at it. Paul starts by listing lots of his concrete qualifications, and then says, Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.
That temporary stuff, good or bad, even if somebody else would consider it a gain, says Paul, all that stuff is rubbish compared to the goal I can see on the horizon. Paul loves strong language, and in fact if we translated the word he uses for rubbish literally, you couldn’t say it from the pulpit. That’s how high a value he puts on Jesus as his horizon.
And Paul continues: Not that I have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. A well known civil rights slogan came from this passage: Keep your eyes on the prize. Instead of interpreting your life by its current inconveniences or its current successes, interpret it by your main goal. Focus not on the deck chair next to you, but on the horizon. Keep your eyes on the prize.
For many people, the focus point we have is too close for us not to get a kind of spiritual motion sickness. Rather than looking up to the horizon, the surpassing value of knowing Christ, we look at what’s right around us -- the paycheck, say, or spending time with family. What we’re keeping our eyes on is better health, the next set of deadlines, the favorite leisure pursuits, the screen of our phone.
Nothing wrong with those things. Helps to have a paycheck, helps to be in good health. But if we focus on them as our ultimate goals, doing that is just like what happens with motion sickness. Your mind and your body may be trying to convince you you’re fulfilled, but the spiritual part of you is telling you you’re empty. And the result is that you get disoriented, you get out of whack. Until you know where the horizon is and can focus on it, you will have spiritual motion sickness.
Spiritual motion sickness is not cured by non-spiritual methods, though many people are trying. Some people try making something else into their horizon, usually something that has a sort of cosmic, beyond feel to it – like great art, or sex, or passionate political causes, or getting intoxicated. Some try keeping so busy and distracted that the disorienting input telling them they’re spiritually empty is temporarily drowned out. Some try dumbing down the spiritual life into another close-at-hand consumer product they can buy and control without having to look beyond themselves to the real horizon. All of those things will work for awhile, but none of them work forever, because they get the whole structure of the thing wrong.
See, in the Christian understanding of the universe – and you may not share that understanding, I’m just telling you what it is – in the Christian understanding of the universe, spirituality will not function as advertised until you put it in its proper place. If knowing Jesus Christ is not the ultimate value for you, as it was for Paul, the Christian life won’t work right. You will always have that inner disorientation, that spiritual motion sickness, until you deal honestly with Jesus.
In the Christian vision, there is no greater horizon for a human being than the one who is both human and divine, Jesus Christ. In him we see who we are, and through him we are welcomed into infinite love and purpose. Compared to that, as Paul says, everything else is a poor, shortsighted second. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…. I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
You can try to avoid the horizon and keep rearranging the deck chairs, as the boat of life pitches around you and you pass from calm to storm and back again. You can try and hang on to a table that isn’t nailed down. You can surround yourself with people who tell you there is no storm and you aren’t actually seasick. But doesn’t it make more sense to raise your eyes to the horizon and see Jesus Christ there, who has made you his own and is waiting for you? To give him his proper place as the ultimate goal, as the prize you always have your eyes on?
And as Lent comes to a close this week, I have to advise you that there is no better way to experience what that means than to block out next week so you can be sure to experience the major services of Holy Week and walk through death and resurrection with Jesus. Entering fully into the Triduum will reorient you to the horizon God has given us. Holy Week is the strongest medicine the Church has, but you have to take it as directed. You can’t just drop in a couple times and then show up on Easter morning and expect to be cured of your spiritual seasickness. You have to give yourself over to the orienting power of the full process. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. That is the horizon of the universe. Navigate by it, and you’ll find home.