Pastor Lecia Beck
23 April 2023 — Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-8; Psalm 34:1-14; Hebrews 5:7-14; John 5:25-29
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Christ Calls Us to Rise
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In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.
The sun is shining, the trees are blooming. The birds are singing and the parks are full of people playing pickleball. Spring is finally here. And for many in Bloomington, this means one thing – finals are coming soon.
It’s been a few years, but I remember that feeling of dread as we were entering into the final stages of the school year and you weren’t sure how much you had actually learned, yet knowing everything hung on your finals.
I was always considered a good student. I got mostly A’s with a few B’s through high school and college, but I didn’t really deserve that label. I was a student who was good at testing and knowing how grades would work. On those bright sunny days when I didn’t want to sit inside and study any longer, I would spend my time calculating what grade I needed to get on a final in order to get the lowest A possible – because an A is an A and no pluses or minuses were recorded – or if an A was not possible, then the same thing for the lowest B and make sure I knew just enough to get there. When it came time for the final, I would go in and complete just enough points for my targeted grade and call it good.
For all the ways testing can be misused and overused, testing has an important place in education, helping students evaluate their mastery of a topic and showing teachers where gaps in knowledge still exist. (Imagine how much more I would know if I had just studied the physics or differential equations for the final rather than spending my time calculating grades!)
Yet we set up our students to experience the world through evaluation. Everything they do receives a grade or a ranking. Sometimes they are even asked to evaluate each other. We don’t know how to interact with ourselves or each other in a way that isn’t evaluating and comparing – and we always know who blew the curve!
At its best, evaluation helps us speak the truth about ourselves. It helps us understand what we know and encourages us to work hard and do our best. But at its worst, it spills over into other areas of life and either we give up trying or we are always on the quest for better.
We are told that we can be better at our jobs and better spouses or parents or friends. We are told that we can look better and feel better if we just develop the right morning routine or workout program or diet regimen or use the right planner in order to manage our daily schedules better. We are told that we need to be better at reducing our environmental impact and advocating for the marginalized and standing up for what’s right, all while being better at making time for self-care.
We quickly learn that we live in a world where there is never enough – not enough ability, not enough money, not enough passion, not enough time to do all the things we are told we need to do. And when we have been given an evaluation mindset and look at all the things we should do, it’s no wonder we judge ourselves and find ourselves lacking. We hide our true selves, so that no one realizes quite how far we fall short of all the things we think we should do.
And as we feel overwhelmed and buried in the list of everything we think we should be, our fear of judgment means we cannot share this with anyone. We hide ourselves and what is important to us so that we do not receive judgment – from ourselves and others. We are not free to be the humans created in God’s image, but instead feel pushed to become like gods ourselves, constantly manipulating our world and improving everything around us, even though we can never create perfection.
And the fear of judgment doesn’t end with this life. Passages like our gospel for today make this sort of judgment feel inevitable – and gives it even higher stakes. Who has done enough good to be called to the resurrection of life and how much evil will get you called to the resurrection of judgment?
When I hear these words, I wonder who the author of this gospel thought would be called to the resurrection of life and who would be called to the resurrection of judgment. Their first readers were probably a community facing persecution as they figured out what it meant to be Jewish Christians living in the Roman Empire. I’m sure there were questions about who was in and who was out – and for Christians who didn’t hold up under persecution, there was the question of how they would be let back into the fold – who was good enough or had repented enough and who was not?
So is there anyone worthy to be called to the resurrection of life or is everyone just condemned to the resurrection of judgment?
I’m afraid that we get so distracted by the question of judgment – of ourselves and others – that we miss the key – who it is that calls us forth.
This is the voice that spoke the world into being. This the voice that the Psalmist said is powerful and majestic and breaks the cedars (Psalm 29:3-9) and that the Prophet Ezekiel said is like the sound of many waters, making the Earth shine with God’s glory.(Ezekiel 43:2). This is the voice speaking the word who came to dwell among us (John 1:14).
When Jesus rose from the baptismal waters, this is the voice that said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22)
God calls us forth – Christ calls us to rise. Just a few verses before, this same Christ spoke to the man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years and told him, “Rise up, take your mat and walk,” (John 5:8) leading him into new life, just like he promises to lead each of us into new, abundant, resurrected life.
None of us can make it to the resurrection of life on our own but through Christ, all will rise. Christ calls us out of the tomb of shame, the tomb of never being enough or doing enough. Because it is Christ who calls us to rise and by Christ we are judged and only in Christ can we ever hope to be good enough, that we can ever hope to be the humans God made us to be.
Because of Christ, we know that:
when the good and the bad are weighed out, the good will win.
when the love and the hate are weighed out, the love will win.
when the death and the life are weighed out, the life will win.
It’s not that we are not called to try to be better, to improve ourselves and our world, but the constant striving and working is not the good news. The gospel frees us to be human in the face of everything that would negate that. We will never hit a point where we feel like we have arrived or have made ourselves good enough. Our constant picking at ourselves and others, this quest to be better and have it all, negates our humanity. We are free, not just from sin, but free to live our lives fully, without fearing judgment.
Covered by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, we share that grace with others. We speak a word of encouragement, lend a hand. We speak the truth about ourselves and others and let it be full of grace and love. When we know that we will only find wholeness in Christ, not through constant striving for better, we can share the good news with others, that through Christ, they too are good enough, worthy enough to be loved completely.
May we hear Christ’s voice each day as he calls us forth again and again, calling us beloved and saying we are enough. Amen.