Claiming the Body of Jesus


Sermon preached at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church for the Ecumenical Good Friday Service, 2017 in Enid, Oklahoma.

John 19:38-42 NRSV

After Jesus is crucified, John speaks of two individuals who emerge from the shadows, exposing themselves, risking their anonymity, putting their reputations on the line, by claiming the body of Jesus.  The first is Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus who had previously hid his faith in secrecy for what John calls “fear of the Jews.”  He was one of the Jewish authorities who never openly confessed their faith in Jesus because of fear of losing their political power and position in the synagogue.

And the second was Nicodemus. You may remember Nicodemus from John chapter 3. He had previously come to Jesus secretly by night, showing some interest in Jesus, but never making a public profession of faith.  However, now on Friday afternoon, in claiming the body of Jesus, the faith of both of these men is clearly exposed and made very public.

And as we read John’s account we notice that by coming out of the shadows, openly claiming the body of Jesus, these two men do much more than risk their anonymity and their reputation in their community.  They also put at risk their religion.  For touching the dead body of Jesus made them ceremonially unclean which meant that they would be unable to celebrate the Passover and the Sabbath with their families.

The extravagant amount of burial spices which weighed about a hundred pounds that the men bring to anoint Jesus’ body, tell us that these men also put at risk their riches. Along with the expensive spices, the linen burial clothes they used to prepare Jesus for burial were usually something worn only by people of wealth and prominence. The pristine condition of the garden tomb also underscores the extravagance of Jesus’ interment.

So in this story we see two persons who come out of the shadows risking reputation, religion and riches to claim the body of Jesus.

The question which should come to our minds is why?  Why risk anything for someone who is dead?  Why would Joseph and Nicodemus risk their reputation, their status in the community; their religion, their standing in their family; their riches, and their wealth for a lifeless corpse?

What was it that led these men to risk so much?  Well, one might ask: What would have happened to the body of Jesus if these men had not claimed the body of Jesus?  Well history tells us that after a Roman crucifixion, the unclaimed bodies were often left hanging on the cross to be picked apart by birds. And other times, the unclaimed bodies were simply thrown into the trash dump outside of town.

So these men, living in secret shadows, loving Jesus from afar, simply said, “enough is enough.”

We can no longer conceal our faith.  We can no longer mask our love.  We can no longer sit back and do nothing. We can not bear to let our Lord and our Savior’s body be defiled by being picked at by birds or thrown into a pile of trash.

We must do something.  Even if it means putting at risk every thing that we cherish, everything that we hold dear.  Even if it means risking our reputation, our religion (the way we have always done it anyway), all of our riches, we must act.  We can no longer stay in the shadows. Our love for our Lord demands that we claim his body:  that we remove him from the cross; that we prepare his body for burial, that we seal him in a rich man’s tomb.

It was love, pure and simple and powerful which caused these men to act on the behalf of Jesus by claiming his body risking reputation, religion and riches.

The irony here is that it was the same love which caused our God to act on our behalf.  The story of Joseph and Nicodemus is the story of our God.  Out of a high and holy place, our God said: enough is enough.  I can no longer love my creation from afar.  I can no longer watch my creation suffer and perish.  I can no longer keep myself from risking my all, from empting myself, from becoming a human being.  I can no longer keep myself from offering my creation all that I am and all that I have. I can no longer keep myself from pouring myself out.  I can no longer keep myself from loving my creation even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Joseph and Nicodemus claimed the body of Jesus because they were filled with the divine love of God.

The question for us is this:  How long are we going to continue to live in the shadows?  How long until we open our hearts to the story of God’s love; to the divine love of God which wants to fill our souls, to be so overflowing with the love of God that we have to cry out: “enough is enough!   I can no longer sit back and do nothing, I must act. I can no longer love my Lord and my Savior from afar.  I must claim the body of Jesus, the body of Christ, for myself even if it means putting at risk the things I most hold dear.  Even if it means risking reputation, religion, and riches, I must share this pure and simple and powerful love with everyone I know. I can no longer let others suffer alone. I can no longer sit back and allow injustice to continue. I can no longer ignore inequality. I can no longer turn my back on those who are marginalized and ostracized. I can no longer keep my faith private.  I can no longer remain silent. I can no longer keep myself from giving all that I have and all that I am to the ones who are lonely, thirsty, cold and hungry.  Enough is enough!  I must claim the body of Christ!”

Well, what are we waiting for?  Are we afraid of what we might lose from risking so much?  Let’s look at what Joseph and Nicodemus lost by claiming Jesus’ body.  They really did not lose a thing.  Instead of losing their reputations, their good names, their names are remembered by the gospel writers and by you and me two thousand years later as the ones who risked everything to claim the body of Jesus.

How do we want to be remembered?  As someone who lived only for one’s self; accumulating a lifetime of reputation, religion and riches?  Or would we rather be remembered as one who because of so much divine love welling up inside of our heart, we risked it all to claim the body of Jesus?   By doing whatever we can to serve our Lord in our community and in our world.  By giving all that we have and all that we are to our Lord by loving others with the complete, divine love of God.

The More You Know…

Buechner Blessing and Healing

John 3:1-17 NRSV

Our church has always believed very strongly in education. This one of the reasons that we have a graduate recognition Sunday.

Our church also believes it is very important to always ask questions. Our church has never been the kind of church that expects its members to “check their brain at the door” before entering on Sunday mornings. Like our forefathers Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we encourage free-thinking and open minds here. We believe that God created our minds to ask questions—even the hard questions of life and faith.

I know of some churches where people are taught never to question anything.  They are expected to go to church with the sole expectation to be indoctrinated with whatever the minister says. Not here.

Believing very strongly in the historic principle of the “Priesthood of All Believers,” our church encourages and even expects free thought and the free expression of ideas. You are your own priest. No one here is expected to agree with everything that is said from this pulpit. You are always free to examine, to mull over, and perhaps, even seek an entirely different word from God.

One of the reasons we encourage such questioning is that we do not believe anyone here, including the one who does the most talking on Sunday mornings, has, or will ever have, all of answers. We come to church recognizing that we will never be able to get our hands on, wrap our arms around, all there is to know about this mystery we call God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

During a Wednesday night supper, an eight year-old little girl came and sat beside me. She said, “Dr. Banks.”

Not many people address me in that manner. I kind of liked it. Made me feel smart, scholarly, intellectual! “Yes, how can I help you?” I responded.

She said, “I’ve got a lot of questions about God.”

I thought to myself, “Well, my dear little one, you’ve certainly come to the right place.”

She then asked, “Where exactly do dogs go when they die?”

I thought for a second or two, and responded the only way I knew how. I just looked at her—in dumbfounded silence

A little impatient, she asked, “Do they go to doggie heaven or to regular heaven with the rest of us?”

It was then I had to admit it, “I really don’t know.”

I could see the disappointment on her face. But she quickly moved on to her next question: “How old are people in heaven?”

Again, dumbfounded silence.

Frustrated she asked, “You know, if you die as a baby will you be a baby when you get to heaven? Or if you die as an old lady, will you be an old lady in heaven?”

Again, I had to say “I really don’t know?”

It was then she said, “You know something? For a doctor, you sure don’t know much.” She didn’t ask me any more questions.

No, the truth is, for someone who not only has a doctorate, but someone who has hardly missed a Sunday in church for the last forty-eight and a half years, I really don’t know that much.” All learned after spending a few moments with an eight-year old.

That is why I love ol’ Nicodemus.  For Nicodemus also discovered that he didn’t know that much either after spending just few moments with Jesus.

The very educated and esteemed Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish Pharisees, came to Jesus full of questions. “Rabbi,” how can a man be born when he is old?” and “Can you enter the womb a second time and be born?” and “How can this be?”  And through all these questions, Nicodemus is asking another question, “Who are you anyway Jesus?’

When it all comes down to it, isn’t that THE question? Isn’t that the reason we are here every Sunday morning? We come asking, “Who is this Jesus anyway?”

We, like Nicodemus, have heard some rumors about the amazing things Jesus has done. And we have been listening to his teachings and have heard just enough to be confused. And we’ve got questions. Can we really believe everything we have heard about Jesus? How can he be both an earthly human being and God at the same time? How can his spirit be both ascended into heaven yet still here with us?

Notice that although it is Nicodemus who begins the conversation here, by the time our passage ends, it is Jesus who is doing most of the talking. Nicodemus appears to be just sitting there in dumbfounded silence.

For you see, Nicodemus thought he would be able to go to Jesus and grasp Jesus. Nicodemus thought he could go to Jesus and figure Jesus out, get his hands on Jesus, wrap his arms around Jesus—understand, define Jesus.

Nicodemus learned what most of us already know: Sometimes when we come to Jesus with questions, Jesus doesn’t give us easy answers. I’m not sure if Nicodemus got any of his questions answered that night. However, the good news is that Nicodemus got something better. Nicodemus went to Jesus hoping to understand him, put his hands on him, wrap his arms around him, but instead, it was Jesus understood Nicodemus. It was Jesus who put his hands on and lovingly wrapped his arms around him.

So this morning, I want us to take Nicodemus as our model. While you are here this morning in the presence of Christ, I want you to ask Jesus whatever is on your mind. Go ahead and use all of your God-given mental capacities, use every ounce of intellect to try to think about Jesus this morning. Listen to what he has to say. And then, simply enjoy being with him.

Give thanks that we have the sort of God who wants more than anything else to be with us, who descends to us, who speaks to us, who shares truth with us, even if we cannot comprehend the wholeness of that truth.

There are a lot of people who have a great disdain for us church folks. Because they erroneously believe that Christians are those people who have it all figured out. They believe church goers are people who have had all of their questions about Jesus answered. And I am afraid they have good reasons for believing that.

I heard one pastor describe a member of his church who was convinced that he had all the answers. He said: “He is very stubborn and close-minded about everything!”  He said, “If he gets to heaven and discovers that things up there are a little different, he is the type that would get mad and ask for a transfer!”

No, the truth is, as William Willimon has said, “Jesus is that illusive, free, sovereign and living God who makes sense out of us, rather than our making sense out of him.” Every Sunday we risk coming to him, listening to him and following him, even when we do not always grasp what he’s talking about and know precisely where he’s leading us.

Notice that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about wind and birth. For what in our world is more mysterious than wind and birth? In meeting Jesus, we come face to face with a living God. And we cannot define him. We can’t put our hands on, wrap our arms around him. The good news is that it is he who defines us.  It is he who puts his hands on and wraps his arms around us—And beckons us to follow him even if we do not always understand him.

This is exactly what happened to Nicodemus. We meet Nicodemus again sixteen chapters later in John’s gospel. When Jesus was crucified, when most of his disciples deserted him, Nicodemus was one of the few people who were there to lovingly bury Jesus.

I’m sure Nicodemus still had even more questions on that Good Friday. How could it be that this one sent from God, this Savior of the world, be so horribly crucified?

But there, at the foot of the cross, Nicodemus doesn’t ask questions. He simply does what is right. He simply followed. By being associated with Jesus, a condemned criminal, Nicodemus risks his reputation, and even his life. He proves, in the most loving of ways, that one does not have to have Jesus completely figured out to follow Jesus.

If we take Nicodemus as our model, the question for us then is this, “Will we follow Jesus even if we cannot put our hands on him, even if we don’t always understand him?” The good news is that if we say yes, if we promise to walk with him, Jesus promises that he will walk with us forever. For faith is not in the understanding. Genuine faith is in the following.

Frederick Buechner has written: “You do not need to understand healing to be healed or know anything about blessing to be blessed.”

I would add that you do not need to understand the miracle of life to breathe. You do not need to understand the marvel of love to be loved and to share love. You do not need to comprehend the gift of grace to receive it and to offer it to others.  And you never need to figure out the holy wonder of the Trinity, the divine relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be an eternal part of that relationship. You do not need to ever grasp Jesus to follow Jesus and have Jesus grasp you.

The Problem of the Know-It-All

know it allJohn 3:1-17 NRSV

In today’s gospel lesson, a very knowledgeable and prominent leader of Israel comes to Jesus seeking to discover who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about. The learned and sophisticated Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus appearing poised and confident, “Now, we know that you are…”  He begins his conversation from the same place that most of us mature, experienced, educated, long-time religious people often begin our conversations about God—from the stuff we know, from the stuff we understand… or think we understand. “Now we know that you are…”

And it’s from there that the conversation gets all convoluted and confused. Jesus begins talking to Nicodemus about birth, and poor Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about ordinary, physical birth. Jesus starts talking about the Spirit—and Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about the wind.

It is interesting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, for in just a few brief moments with Jesus, Jesus proves that, when it comes to God, Nicodemus is in the dark in more ways than one.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus confident and assured, but by the time Jesus gets finished with him, Nicodemus is confused and mumbling, “Uh, How can this be?”

Nicodemus has a problem.  And perhaps Nicodemus’ problem is in the very way he came to Jesus in the first place—“Now we know that…”

And maybe that is precisely our problem—“Now we know that…”  We can’t help it.  We are modern, intellectual types who know a lot!  We can explain the inner workings of the atom, the intricacies of the human genome, the formations of tropical depressions, and how to build a space shuttle. We know. We live in what they call the information age. If there’s something we don’t know, we can just Google it, and in a few simple clicks of a mouse, we know. With WebMD and Wikipedia, there is hardly anything that we cannot easily understand and explain.

Perhaps this is why we try to approach God the way we do. God is to be understood and easily explained. 

It is no wonder those on the outside of the church accuse those of us who are on the inside of being “know-it-alls” when it comes to religion.  They believe that we think we have all the answers. There are some that think that we are here this morning because we are experts on religion, knowing lots of things about God. And truth be told, that is exactly why they are not here with us this morning.

One day, I was introduced to someone who knew that I was a pastor. He shook my hand, and said, rather proudly, “I am an agnostic.” Which means that he did not know he believed about God.

I surprised him when I responded, “I have my moments when I am an agnostic too.” I believe that some are agnostic all of the time, and all, if they are honest, are agnostic some of the time.

The reality is that here on Sunday, we acknowledge together how little we really know. We gather ourselves together to acknowledge the great truth, that when it comes to the mystery that is God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we are all, well, quite ignorant!

The truth is that the God we worship is much larger than our imaginations. God is bigger and more alive than we ever can possibly comprehend.

This is why I believe I left the movie, Son of God, feeling disappointed. There is just no way anyone can capture the essence of who Jesus is and present it in a one-hundred and forty-minute cinematic presentation. I told someone that I have been preaching the gospel of Jesus for over twenty-five years, and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of who Jesus is and what the gospel is all about.

William Willimon, commenting on how some reduce God to something we can easily understand said, “You can’t define this God, put this God in your pocket, or on a leash and drag God around with you.  Life with this God is an adventure, a journey, a leap into the unknown, an expectation that, among even the most regular attendees among us, there will be surprises, jolts, shocks.”[1]

In a few moments we are going to have a child dedication service. Robert and Ashley Bishop are going to present their son, Owen. And Brooks and Jenny White are going to present their son, Chase. We are pretty confident that we know what we are doing when we dedicate them to the Lord. We believe that we are merely promising to nurture them, guide them and teach them all we know about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. We say that we do this because they are the church of tomorrow.

But what if Owen Bishop and Chase White have more to teach us about the triune God than we can possibly imagine? What if Owen and Chase and every other small child here today are not the church of tomorrow, but are actually the church of today? What if they truly are, as Jesus implies, more a part of this thing called the Kingdom of God than we can ever know? What if we are not so much the ones who are going to instruct them about this journey called faith, as we are the ones who are merely going to invite them to go on this journey with us? And along the way, what if they are the ones who have a thing or two to teach us?

How often have we gathered around this table confident that we know exactly what is going on here around this table. Catholics and some Episcopalians are all so mysterious, always insisting on calling it “Holy Communion.” We like to call it simply “supper.”  Some believe that something mysterious takes place as they eat this meal. They call it transubstantiation. We only believe it is a dry little cracker and tiny sip of Welch’s grape juice and an act of remembrance that is confined to our limited and finite minds. 

But what if there is more going on here this morning than we can see, touch or taste or even remember? When we gather around the Lord’s Table, what if there is more going on here than meets the senses? What if there is some mysterious communion or a very holy fellowship happening here? Sharing what we merely call a “supper,” what if we are surprised to discover that we are somehow invited to join the same fellowship that is mysteriously and inexplicably enjoyed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? 

In and around this table, what if there is something afoot, something happening— moving, inviting, healing, strengthening, loving, forgiving, saving, calling, challenging, commissioning?

We have come to instruct and bless children, but we will leave having been instructed and blessed by them. We thought that we have come to remember a life, a death and a resurrection, but we will leave having been caught up in that life and death and transformed by that resurrection.

As Willimon has said, “For, that is our God at our God’s best. That night as Nicodemus talked with Jesus, he began with what he knew. And he ended with questions about what he did not know. He arrived fairly confident that he had a good grasp of, [a good hold on] who Jesus was; [he left surprised,] having been encountered and held by the mysterious, majestic Holy Spirit of God in the flesh.”[2]

This morning, when we awoke, we thought we knew what we were doing. We thought we were going to get up, get dressed and simply go to church, sing a few hymns, have the Lord’s Supper, listen to a sermon, dedicate some children. Then we would leave, get some lunch and come back home unmoved and unchanged, to watch a little more basketball.

However, when got here, we realized that we did not know it all. A song spoke to us, a small wafer and tiny cup filled us, a word challenged us, a child looked at us and blessed us, and God, the creator of all that is called us by name and loved us. Christ came and wrapped his arms around us as his Holy Spirit breathed new life into us. And now, we will leave this place changed, transformed and divinely commissioned to share the love of God with all people.

[1]Quote and interpretation of Nicodemus’ first words to Jesus “We know” came from William H. Willimon, We Know (PR 34/2; Inver Grove Heights Minnesota: Logos Productions, Inc., 2006), 49.

[2] Ibid.

Happy Birthday, Carson! Ah, 19

Carson with his sister, Sara

My son Carson, who many say favors me, turns 19 today. Ah, 19.

I do see myself in him in a few ways: in his smile, in some of his mannerisms, in his creativity, and in his public speaking.

Then he possesses many traits that I can only pray to God to one day obtain: an unwavering confidence, uncompromised ethics and a maturity that does not match his age. Maybe those traits came from his mother!

And then there are those attributes that I can only envy. After all, he is 19. His entire life is before him. There is so much hope and promise. A clean slate of adulthood awaits him. He has yet to burn a bridge, amass debts, disappoint loved ones and make costly mistakes.

Ah, 19. If I only knew then what I know now. If I could only go back. Do some things over. Make some different choices.

When Jesus suggested to Nicodemus that he could be born anew, Nicodemus asked if he could physically go back. Although he was being sarcastic, perhaps he was thinking about being 19 again.

Jesus responded by saying something like: “If you are born of the Spirit, the Spirit will make you anew in ways that you’ve never imagined!”  John 3:1-10 NRSV

Nicodemus could not physically go back, but he could spiritually go forward, anew, enveloped in grace.

With faith in this Spirit, maybe I favor my 19-year-old son more than I thought. With faith, perhaps we all do.