*This homily was delivered at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara, CA, on May 6, 2018.
Many Christians know that the good news of Easter is a message of Victory. We know that Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a new reality, a Victory of God that compels the rivers to clap their hands, the hills to ring out with joy, and us to sing a new song as was proclaimed in Psalm 98. While many Christians know this about Easter, fewer may know that the Church calendar allots a full fifty days to the season of Eastertide, and today we begin Week Six of the seven weeks we are supposed to have committed to some serious celebration.
Now, no matter how committed someone can be to partying, fifty days of celebration strikes me as a very long time. Long enough for us to have possibly polished off the 20-pound Easter ham and perhaps made a noticeable dent into the pile of Easter confectionery we managed to amass. Some of us may even have grown a bit restless and begun to ask, “Isn’t it time to get on with Pentecost?”
But fifty days it is, and fifty days is long enough for a healthy seed of self-doubt to grow and pose the question: “Maybe there is something more to Easter that I have yet to grasp?” Sure, we may know in our hearts and minds that, yes, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a cosmic victory over sin and death. But, what exactly is this Victory that we are invited to participate in? And what is it about this Victory that should compel us, even demand of us to sing a new song for fifty days?
On the surface of things, Easter is psychologically easy to celebrate. For, unlike Lent, which often features the not-so-appealing practices of fasting and repentance, Easter gives us permission to blare our trumpet horns, fly our flags, and celebrate Victory—all of which may come naturally to us, especially as Americans, a people and a culture that has been fortunate enough to enjoy many wins—whether those victories be through Olympic gold medals, military operations, or runaway successes from Silicon Valley. Indeed, we live in a culture that champions the victorious all the time: we admire and strive to be like those who are the strongest, the fastest, the smartest, the richest, and most of all, those who enjoy the certainty of being right. And, is it not true that victory often also means enjoying the humiliation of our opponents, those who seem –in our eyes, at the time– to be less than who we are?
As Christians embedded and swimming in these American cultural waters, it is not surprising that we may feel inclined to similarly approach participating in the Victory of God by imagining ourselves as the Israelites looking over our shoulders to see the Egyptian chariots swallowed up by the Red Sea, or marching alongside Joshua, blowing horns and yelling for the walls of Jericho to fall.
Surely, if Easter is about celebrating Victory in the ways that we are used to imagining victory, Easter can quickly boil down to an excuse to enjoy the glow of associating with the winning side. And what more winning side can there be next to having sided with Jesus Christ, the Conqueror of Death? The Resurrected Messiah? The Savior of the World? For those of us who grew up watching cartoons in the 80’s, it’s surely tempting to imagine our victorious Jesus as He-Man, Master of the Universe – rippling with muscles, wielding a sword, blond hair flapping in the wind, as he straddles the planetary horizons, fighting against evil!
Unfortunately, by the time we roll into week six of Eastertide, if He-Man’s muscles and swords are functionally equivalent to where we end up in our imaginations about what God’s Victory looks like, then we are sorely mistaken and at risk of missing out on how absolutely startling the message of Easter actually is. This morning, I’d like to offer three brief meditations on the Easter Victory—each beginning with a verse drawn from the Lectionary reading for today.
[F]or whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (I John 5: 4-5)
My 8-yr old son and I enjoy watching a show called, Planet Earth.¹ As a documentary about the animal kingdom, it is in one sense, a wonderfully soothing way to end the day before bedtime. The visual footage is gorgeous, the narrator’s erudite British-accent is calming, and the camera work is unbelievable. And yet, in another sense, Planet Earth is one of the most terrifying and gruesome shows to watch—as episode after episode, the often starving predator hunts and devours the prey. A prey that is often helpless, vulnerable. Sometimes only a few days old, and at other times, elderly and sick. As a result, my son and I have watched and talked about how lions hunt down giraffes, bobcats pounce on squirrels, snakes slither after baby lizards, and hawks feud over the fresh remains of a fox.
Any parent who is worth their salt knows that, in these unpleasant moments, we can hope to decrease the horror by talking to our children about the circle of life. But the gruesomeness of Death never quite loses its sting. My son and I, we grimace and avert our eyes when it is just too much. And still, we watch these shows and see it as part of Nature—we remind our children and we remind ourselves that: this is natural.
In more philosophical moments, or simply after a very bad day, it doesn’t take much for many of us, as adults, to read the predator -prey relationship into so many parts of our human history and our contemporary experience. We tell ourselves this is the way things are. The strong will always seek to amass and retain power. The meek will always get run over and exploited. So, if we want to make it in this world, if we want to be heard and be respected, if we want to stand our ground, we need to aggressively throw our elbows and box out when we are under the net of life. This is the ruthless dog-eat-dog world order that we resign ourselves to. This is the sad and broken world of sin and death that is part of the reality we are stuck with.….Or are we?
The other day, after watching another episode of Planet Earth, I settled down to tuck my son in and it occurred to me, for the very first time, that – actually, what it means to be an Easter people may be to proclaim and trust in a very different story, a very different reality. You see, every night, we have sung a family lullaby to our children. The words go like this: The wolf will live with the lamb. The leopard will lie down with the goat. The calf and the lion and the yearling together. And a little child will lead them.
These words were highlighted in one of our children’s storybook Bibles, and somehow struck our fancy as first-time parents so many years ago, but you may recognize them as the words from Isaiah 11 that describe the new Kingdom to come. These words describe a reality where the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, they defy the predator-prey relationship and live and lie together.
This is a quiet but powerful image of Victory that does not champion a bigger and stronger predator. Nor does it advance the prey as a wily underdog who surprises the predator with a sudden poisonous sting or blinding defense. Rather, Isaiah’s vision of Victory is rather astonishing! It is life together in mutual submission, so profoundly safe and secure, that a little child can lead the beasts in all their wildness and created glory.
This radical promise of God’s Victory transforms our world order so that we are no longer trapped within the framework of a zero-sum game between the predator and prey, between men and women, between peoples of different nations and cultures, between human beings, animals, and the earth. It is a Victory that undoes the zero-sum games that we have felt it necessary to play and whose scars have been—and continue to be—sewn into the contested fabric of our nation’s racial hierarchies, gender inequalities, and fears of the Other. Can it be that Easter is calling us to participate in a Victory that will entail a divine transformation that leads you and me into acts of mutual submission and into the beloved community?
With a glimpse of this possibility, our hearts might cry out, “Oh Lord, how can this be?” Indeed, to feel the deep longing behind this question is to begin to grasp how much the Victory of God makes our earthly versions of victory seem small and thin, and blasts the doors off of whatever world order we have imagined. The Victory of God is, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his interpretation of I John 5: “The conquering power that brings the world to its knees.”
Jesus said….”If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…..This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 10, 12)
Recently, I read about the famous Japanese tea master, Sen no Rikyu, who lived in Kyoto during the mid-16th century when Christianity bloomed for a brief time before the official state persecution began. Famous for his design of tea rooms, Rikyu is most noted for his creation of “nijiri-guchi,” a small square doorway through which guests entered into the tea house. This doorway is described as “so small that [it] forced everyone to bow and remove their swords in order to enter the tea room.” Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese-American artist of faith observes:
“Rikyu created a space dedicated to repose, communication and peace. Deep communication can only take place through a path of vulnerability. In other words, the only way to escape the violent cycle of the age of feudal struggles is to remove one’s sword; then, in safety, one can communicate truly.”²
Our worldly wisdom about the nature of victory presents to us He-Man, a warrior who conquers and grasps power on our behalf. But the tea master’s house signals through its architecture that a far deeper Victory is actually at work when the warrior sets down his sword, humbles himself enough to bow and enter the tea house in order to commune with his interlocutor. And when that warrior does in fact shed his sword and bow low, then something truly new is born. A deeper Victory begins to unfurl.
In the space of a tea house, the warrior is invited to yield. In the space of a tea house, the security of power is relinquished for the sake of the beloved community. In the space of a tea house, we can see how the design can seek to elicit a particular Victory—but, in order for that Victory to unfold and breath and come to fruition, it needs each of us to set down our sword and bow low.
Mutual submission between the wolf and the lamb. A tea house that literally disarms the warrior and requires that he bow low. These are snapshots of a Victory that our world does not know or understand. If we take some time to consider these images, we might come to see anew what John meant when he wrote that “the victory that conquers the world is our faith, the belief that Jesus is the Son of God.” Here, let us move past the thin notion of faith as merely a cognitive belief in the facticity of Jesus as Son of God, and work our way towards a lived understanding of faith that is closer to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as “having so surrendered our natures to God that His strength flows freely through us.”³ This kind of faith—to so surrender our natures to God —is the victory that brings the world to its knees. This kind of faith reverses the antagonism found in the predator-prey dynamic and points towards a journey into the knowledge of an imaginative love, such that we are capable of laying our life down, in the same way that Jesus Christ loved us.
In two weeks’ time, the Church will celebrate Pentecost, that inaugural outpouring of the Spirit of God who began to bring into lived experience the Victory that was won on Easter morning. What is so curious about the lectionary today–during week 6 of Eastertide, is that we are actually called to first remember the Gentile Pentecost.
That is, in Acts 10, Peter is preaching the Gospel, and “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
What is so intriguing about this account is that something completely new happens. The Jewish people and Peter were working with one understanding, one framework, one narrative about how God would use His Chosen people to bring salvation to the world. They were not expecting that God would also just give the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles—and, yes, they were astounded!
But, what is so lovely about Peter’s imagination is that it is so fixed on God’s Love that he is not bound by the power of the former narrative. Rather, after wrestling with a heaven-sent vision, Peter is willing to begin a journey of learning to move past the prejudices and assumptions he was socialized and raised into as a leader—and become open to God’s Spirit being given to a group of people who were not only completely outside his Jewish account of how things were supposed to go, but even regarded as unclean. In this way, Peter’s faith is one in which he is learning anew how to surrender his nature to God so fully that God’s strength flows freely through him. Here, Peter is in Rikyu’s tea house, he has put down his sword, he has bowed low to enter in, and is being invited to consider the possibility of a newer and truer communion than he had ever previously imagined.
Are we willing to let the power structures and social orders that we’ve been accustomed to become destabilized, challenged, shaken by the movement of the Spirit in the family of God? Being an Easter people may mean becoming people who are open to being stretched beyond what we have already seen and figured out. Being an Easter people may mean being ready for God to move away from the script we have been writing in our heads, perhaps for several generations, maybe even hundreds of years, and having our very sense of identity and relationships re-ordered.
Is it possible that our living into the Easter Victory means being like Peter in Acts 10 and recognizing those places in our lives where we have become entangled in the complicated family history of our nation and our culture, so much so that we may have inherited the identity and mindset of warrior against others?
As such, could it be that the celebration of the Easter Victory will involve taking off our sword and bowing low? So low that we are willing to gain new sight, to see how we may have—knowingly or not—benefited from preying on others who have been historically rendered more weak than us? If so, we might have the chance to discover that the Victory that brings the world to its knees is in fact our faith: to so surrender our natures to God that His strength flows freely through us?
For, in taking off our swords and bowing low to our Lord and, in mutual submission—laying down our lives for each other, as Jesus commanded—could it be that we are being invited to join the surprising beloved community made up of the wolf, the lamb, the leopard, the goat, led by a small child? Could this be the Victory that Jesus is asking us to participate in when we say “yes” to His invitation to eat at his Table today?
Indeed, if any of this is possible, perhaps it is with manifest wisdom that the Church calendar cleared out 50 days for us in Easter to fully contemplate how God’s Victory may surpass and exceed what we can ever imagine. Fifty days to find a way to begin surrendering ourselves to the possibility of God’s Victory actually being True.
¹ “Planet Earth” (not “Blue Planet” as referenced in the delivered homily) is the correct title.
² Quoted from Silence & Beauty, 2016.
³ Quoted from Strength to Love, 1963.
(Images are edited photos taken at Caldwell Chapel of Louisville Seminary.)