Dear Friends of Jesus:
Happy Easter! Again and forever!
Now what’s a preacher to do on the Sunday after Easter Sunday—when Lent is over and all the high voltage hosannas and hallelujahs of Holy Week are done?
Well, some of you folks may not have noticed what happened during Holy Week this year: the baseball season has begun! The advent of baseball, for some of us, is not just a trivial matter. For in the spring, an old man’s fancy may turn back to the sandlots and the schoolboy sports of his youth. And also—and even now—to the great, great cosmic battles between major league baseball teams.
For me, as a kid growing up in northern New Jersey just across the river from New York City, the great cosmic cause was to be an ardent, faithful, true-believing disciple of the old Brooklyn Dodgers—I mean the Jackie Robinson, PeeWee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider Dodgers. That devotion meant many a pilgrimage to that old sacred shrine (that, alas, is no more), Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
But it also meant an absolute commitment to the overthrow of the New York Yankees: those rich, racist, imperialist Yankees, over across another river, in that other league (the “junior league,” we called it)—but mortal enemies in the World Series. Six different years in those October classics: 1941, 47, 49, 52, 53, and 1955—when, at last (thank God Almighty!) the Dodgers overthrew the imperialist Yankees.
But, you know, there was one honorable exception among those hated Yankees: a great first baseman named Lou Gehrig—the man now remembered less for his prodigious slugging (493 home runs and a .340 lifetime batting average) than for the awful paralytic disease that claimed his life and now bears his name: “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
So, on July 4, 1939, between games of a double header with the Washington Senators (also of blessed memory), Gehrig stood at a microphone in Yankee Stadium and he said, with solemn echoes resounding across the field: “Fans, you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
He proceeded to praise his parents and all his managers and teammates. And he especially thanked his wife Eleanor for being “a tower of strength who has shown more courage than you ever dreamed existed.” He closed by saying: “I might have had a tough break, but I still have an awful lot to live for.”
Of course, describing a fatal disease and certain death as “a tough break” is a magnificent understatement. But it almost seems to testify that death is just an episode in a life that goes on forever after that “tough break.”
I suppose not many of us will be given the kind of opportunity Lou Gehrig was given to offer a public farewell address, full of such grace and gratitude—but in the certain knowledge that the Angel of Death would soon come to take him away. Yet by sheer willpower and a marvelous dedication to helping others troubled people, Gehrig proved that he still had “an awful lot to live for.”
In a wonderful but hopelessly extravagant gesture New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Gehrig to a 20-year term of service as a municipal parole commissioner. And so Lou Gehrig spent his last days counseling, with great kindness and understanding, men and women released from prison given a new life after serving terms for thievery, or narcotic addiction, or prostitution, of pimping. And he did live two years after his farewell address.
Friends: I do not regard this as blasphemy to connect this particular baseball player’s story with today’s Scripture readings on this first Sabbath after Easter Sunday. For all these stories, biblical and baseball, involve the most fundamental perspectives on the meaning of life in the face of death.
There remains an unsolved mystery as to who actually wrote what we call Saint John’s gospel, that a very old tradition attributes to a disciple named John. But perhaps 60 or 70 years after the crucifixion, the writer of the Gospel reported that his purpose in writing was that people “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing,” they might “have life in his name.”
Sometimes that purpose is forgotten when some Christians argue that belief in a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus is the most essential tenet of our Christian faith—as if the life and the love and the teachings and the healings and the courage and the sacrifice unto death were not an adequate revelation of the grace and power of God.
But for those who do believe in the Resurrection, in whatever physical or spiritual sense, it is the sign of God’s ultimate triumph over the powers of tyranny and treachery and violence and death. And who can doubt that such a faith largely explains the survival and the global spread of Christianity, from its darkest hour of apparent defeat there on Calvary, to its endurance in our own minds and hearts, and in this place, on this day?
This is Thomas Sunday. In the whole story of Thomas—that honest, uninhibited, but skeptical doubting disciple Thomas—who felt he had to see and feel the wounds in the body of Jesus—perhaps the most important line is this one declared by Jesus himself: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
To me those words have always seemed to be our Lord’s own invitation to avoid making his own body the idol and focus of our Easter faith.
But what does it mean to believe that Jesus was the Son of God—and that, through believing, we may have life in his name?
Of course, earlier in St. John’s Gospel comes the verse, so basic to our earliest Christian nurture, even as little children, and a verse whose numbers, John 3:16, keep popping up on signs everywhere—yes! even in baseball and football stadiums: “For God so loved the world that he gave us his son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Son of God. Son of a Loving Father. So, in Jesus Christ, we learn that God has a family—and we all belong to that family! We, too, are to be embraced as sons and daughters of God.
But to be a son or daughter of God is not to deny or obscure our humanity, nor does it do so for Jesus. In fact, it is to make our humanity more fully and completely human—which is not the opposite of divine or holy.
Many years ago, I was privileged to enjoy the cordial friendship of an especially warm-hearted, evangelical yet rather liberal Swedish-American theologian, Nels Ferré. Dr. Ferré wrote a little book (among his bigger books!) titled The Sun and the Umbrella. Actually, the “umbrellas” of his “modern parable” are certain widely-held but narrow notions about Christ, the Bible, and the Church—especially too many complicated christologies that tend to block the sunlight of the most radiant truths about Jesus. To Nels Ferré, the heart of the Gospel is contained in just two of his sentences, which actually begin with a protest:
“What really hurts is the fact that Jesus, instead of being considered the first born among many brethren [that language is Saint Paul’s in his letter to the Romans], [Jesus] has been made into a unique being; not as the first born, not as the historic particular who is irreversibly the channel of revelation and redemption, but as the inimitable, the only one possible. The glad news of the Gospel, on the very contrary, is that anyone who accepts the fullness of God in his [or her] own life can have the full relation of Jesus, of a child to the Father. God through His Son calls sons [and daughters].” So wrote Nels Ferré.
I’ve just referred to Nels Ferré as both an “evangelical” and a “liberal.” How can that be? Please don’t take that to be a contradiction—and much less a double putdown. What such a grasp of the gospel does for all of us is to free us from a leftward habit of regarding “evangelical” as a bad, reactionary word—and, equally, from a rightward habit of regarding “liberal” as a dirty cussword. To be an evangelical liberal is to be a “good news progressive”—or a “Christian humanist.”
The Gospel of John—in both vivid, earthy, bodily human story and yet in the most lofty theology of all the Gospels—offers the essentials of our Christian faith. For here we have three things: Incarnation, Eschatology, and Ethics.
Incarnation: that God was in Christ—and to know Jesus Christ is therefore to know God. There’s no way to get closer to God than through Christ! And again: Incarnation is also to know what our own humanity might become if we were to dare being more like Christ. In its fullest, finest sense, humanity is holiness.
Eschatology: the branch of theology that has to do with our expectations of God’s actions in our long-range future and to the end of history. But this is a topic especially subject to exploitation by false prophets—including profiteering false profits, those who indulge in what a critic calls the “Rapture Racket.”
Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins have just published the twelfth volume of fiction in the Left Behind series: a book titled Glorious Appearing: The End of Days. This series so far has sold more than 40 million copies.
A main theme of this Left Behind fiction series (as you may know) is that Jesus will return again to defeat the armies of th Antichrist on the plains of Armageddon—and will thereafter reign as king over Israel for a thousand years: a kingdom in which Jews have converted to Christianity.
This fictional warfare is a spectacular mix of high-tech weapons and sword-wielding horsemen (as if we should look forward to still another war in the Holy Land).
The Anti-Christ in this fiction is the United Nations.
In the process, the Bible is profusely quoted and profusely perverted.
A review of all this in the Dallas Morning News says this story is “not your mama’s Christian fiction anymore.”
But fortunately, Friends, this is not the only brand of eschatology available to us.
Our Easter faith does bid us to believe that God will be with us in all our future days, in this world and beyond this life, beyond our death, beyond all wars and all terrors among the nations. God’s Kingdom, God’s future realm of justice and peace is coming! We pray that in our Lord’s Prayer—and that is true eschatology right there!
My former faculty colleague at Wesley Seminary here in D.C., Craig Hill, is a New Testament professor and the author of a very helpful new book on eschatology, titled In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future. So what is our future? Professor Hill makes it simple and direct: “The essential point of eschatology [can be stated in] two words. God wins. God’s purpose ultimately will succeed.”
So we are not to be constantly troubled, anxious, fearful about our ultimate destiny. God wins—for us all. We have a new home waiting for us: a life we shall share with our risen Lord. Is it really too hard to suppose that a loving God, who has once given us the miracle of life, can and will give us life again—and forever? Surely not!
And the third gift from John’s Gospel is the foundation for Ethics: that God is love—and that love itself is the most important truth about God. In Jesus’s last hours with his disciples before Calvary, he made clear that love should be the mark and the very definition of their discipleship. It was his “new commandment.” “Love is how people will know that you are my disciples.” Love is what does most to give the fullness of life to our life—our personal life and our life together on God’s good Earth.
Now, Friends, if you still cannot believe these basics of our Christian faith—at least not yet—learn all you can about Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. For they, too, can help you to live a good life—and maybe, maybe even bring you a bit closer to God! And maybe, too, if you know what’s really divine, you’ll know that we shall all meet again out there at the old ball park, some day! some day! Amen.