The Courage to Love

I have a recurring nightmare.  In the dream, I get up on a Sunday morning, drive to church and don my vestments, and step into the pulpit to preach.  But my manuscript is gone.  There are no words awaiting me on the lectern.  Beads of sweat collect on my forehead.  I begin to speak without notes, and it is a disaster.  It is always a disaster.  I fumble.  People in the pews roll their eyes.  The congregation begins to get up and walk out, and my muddled voice is drowned out in the hubbub.  That’s my nightmare.

According to the web site SelfHelpCollective.com[i], Americans’ top ten fears include the fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of heights, and fear of spiders.  Other than fear of public speaking, these fears (of heights, flying, and spiders) all entail physical danger.  These are things that we perceive can injure us, and we’re afraid of them.  That’s not surprising. What is surprising is the list of the six other top ten fears.  They are the fear of intimacy, death, failure, the dark, rejection, and commitment.  In other words, sixty percent of our fears are not physical, but existential.

Fears

With the exception of the very modern fear of flying (and maybe spiders), Peter and the other disciples experienced virtually all of these fears, both physical and existential.  During the week of the Passion, their fears were well-founded, as they watched Jesus of Nazareth, their leader and their hope, speak boldly in public, only to become a failure, as he was stripped from his intimates, carried away in the darkness, scourged and killed.  The disciples then hid, except for Peter, who rejected Jesus outright in the high priest’s courtyard.  After the crucifixion, the disciples huddled together in the upper room in fear.  That’s how we left them on Easter.

But the attentive worshiper may also have noticed something strange about our first reading these past several weeks.  Since Easter, we’ve read nothing from the Old Testament.  In its place, the lectionary has prescribed a series of readings from the Acts of the Apostles.  In these, Peter speaks, and the Peter we discover here is a very different person from the one who made excuses in the high priest’s courtyard and hid in fear in the upper room.  Something transformative has happened.  This Peter speaks boldly.  He proclaims goodness and the Gospel.  He shows courage.

Peter preaching

The Peter we discover here is a very different person from the one who made excuses in the high priest’s courtyard and hid in fear in the upper room. Something transformative has happened.

Many of you will know C.S. Lewis’ fantastic book, The Screwtape Letters.  The book is a series of epistles written by the master demon Screwtape in response to requests for advice from the apprentice demon Wormwood.  Wormwood has been assigned as his “patient” a young World War II English soldier.  Wormwood’s job is to corrupt the young man, and Screwtape offers counsel along the way.

At one point in the book, Wormwood asks Screwtape how to turn his soldier—who faces the fear of combat in the war—into a coward.[ii]  But Screwtape counsels otherwise.  Cowardice is one response to fear, but an even better option, Screwtaps says, is to turn the patient toward hatred.  You see, hatred, unlike cowardice, feels kind of good.  For one thing, because hatred seethes, and rises, and often boils over, it disguises fear in a way that makes fear look like power.  For another, hatred so clouds judgment that we easily convince ourselves that our hatred is not really hatred at all, but rather righteous indignation toward whatever affronts us.  Screwtape explains that hatred and fear feed on one another.  The more we fear, the more we hate, and the more we hate, the more we fear.

Screwtape Letters

As we look around our world today, the truth of Screwtape’s analysis is obvious.  As I flip through the talking heads on the cable news channels; as I witness the rhetoric of people on the street; as I observe the international, political, racial, and economic tensions that simmer across our communities; I see people who pose as powerful and people who feign indignation.  But just below the surface of all that sound and fury, I sense fear.  It is, really, that existential, “top ten” fear: the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear of loss, the fear of intimacy with those different from us.  And too often that fear finds its outlet in thinly veiled words and actions of hatred, which are surely tearing this world apart.

Are these the only options in the face of fear?  Must we succumb to cowardice and retreat in hiding from the world, or else pose with false strength and hold our fear at bay through hatred?

There is another option, the one most feared by the demons.  In place of cowardice and hatred, we can choose courage.

What is courage?  Screwtape says that courage is not itself a virtue, but rather, “the form of every virtue at the testing point.”  Courage is the form of every virtue at the testing point.  We need to think about that for a moment.  Maybe the best way to do so is to return to the Book of Acts.

Just below the surface of all that sound and fury, I sense fear. And too often that fear finds its outlet in thinly veiled words and actions of hatred, which are surely tearing this world apart.

Just below the surface of all that sound and fury, I sense fear. And too often that fear finds its outlet in thinly veiled words and actions of hatred, which are surely tearing this world apart.

Between the time Peter has huddled in the upper room in fear and today, when he boldly proclaims the Gospel, danger has not lessened for Peter.  Indeed, when today’s reading begins, Peter is a prisoner in the hands of his enemies.  He is in eminent danger.  He knows it, and he is undoubtedly afraid.  And yet, he boldly speaks the Gospel of love.  What has changed?

Love is a weak brew until it is tested.  That’s what Peter and the other disciples earlier learned.  Their love for Jesus, which they professed floridly throughout Jesus’ ministry, dissipated on Maundy Thursday as soon as that mob arrived to haul Jesus away.  When their love met the testing point, it failed.

But Jesus’ own love for them couldn’t have been more different.  Jesus’ love endured rejection, and darkness, and even death.  It was not that Jesus lacked fear any more than the disciples did.  All the Gospels make this clear.  Jesus was anxious and afraid.  But courage is the form of every virtue at the testing point, and, when tested, Jesus’ love proved to be courageous.  He didn’t cower and hide.  He didn’t lash out in hatred, with fury and invective.  Jesus continued to love.  His love persevered in the face of fear.  It was so faithful and strong that it saw its way through death to return to the very disciples who rejected it.  Can you imagine such courage?  Can you imagine such love?

It is when Peter and the others experience the radical courage of Jesus’ love for them, a love that will not be dissuaded by any of life’s fears—a love that defeats death—that their own love is transformed.  Theirs, too, becomes courageous love.  And the next time their love meets the test, it does not retreat into cowardice or devolve into hatred.  Peter and the others will have none of that.  In the face of their fear, they will love.  In the face of all danger, they will love.  In chains and under threat, with dangerous men jeering him, Peter boldly speaks love.

Courage quote

The second reading today is St. John’s soliloquy to this courageous love.  John says: “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and [in love] we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not [only] in word or speech, but in truth and action… And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”

It is not exaggeration to say that the movement from cowardice and hatred to courageous love transformed the disciples, and through them, transformed the world.  And it is surely not exaggeration to say that our world needs this transformation now more than ever.  Every day, there are demons whispering in our ears, fanning our existential fears of failure, of rejection, of intimacy.  We can huddle like cowards.  We can lash out in hatred.  Or we can love until we reach the testing point, and see if we find courage.

The Rite II Post-Communion Prayer says, “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you, with gladness and singleness of heart.”

May it be so.

[i] http://www.selfhelpcollective.com/top-10-fears.html

[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, chapter 29.

Going back to Galilee

Shopping at Wal-Mart near the end of Lent, a priest ran into one of his parish children in the candy aisle.  The little boy, Johnny, holding a giant chocolate rabbit, eagerly looked up at his priest and said, “We’re getting ready for Easter!”

The priest was understandably disappointed.  He’d invested so much in the parish Sunday school program, only to see this doe-eyed child equate the church’s holiest day with a super-heroic rabbit.  He looked very seriously at the little boy and asked, “Johnny, do you know what Easter is about?”

Without pause, Johnny responded, “Of course I know what Easter is about. It’s when Jesus went to Jerusalem, and he rode a donkey, and they waved palms at him.  But Jesus made people angry, and they nailed him on a cross and he died.”

As you would expect, the priest was incredibly gratified.  “Do you know what happened next, Johnny?” he asked.

“Well, sure,” Johnny went on, “Then they put him in a tomb and put a big rock in front of it.  But three days later he got up and got out of there!”

Well, the priest was satisfied and excited that somehow Christian formation had trumped what the secular world had to offer.  He patted the boy on the head and began to walk away, but Johnny grabbed his priest’s pant leg and stopped him.  “Wait, that’s not all,” Johnny said, “When the rock gets rolled back, and Jesus steps out, he looks around.  And if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.”[i]

chololate easter bunny

The ending of the Easter story didn’t make good sense to Johnny.  It seemed incomplete somehow, so he added something, not something that rendered the story less incredible, but that did make the story fit into some broader context.

That is actually not much different from what the early Church did with Mark’s Gospel.  The Gospel of Mark originally ended exactly as our Gospel reading concluded this morning.  In case you missed it, here it is again.  (It’s only eight verses.)

“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

That’s it.  That’s how Mark’s Gospel ends.  What do you notice?  For starters, the resurrected Jesus is not seen.  At all.  And second, the women who find the tomb empty don’t tell anyone about it.  They leave the graveyard, fearful and dumbstruck.

“But wait a minute…” you’re thinking, “There are lots of stories of resurrection appearances: Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room.  Jesus appears to Peter on the lakeshore.  Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus.  And of course the women tell people.  Peter and John race one another back to the tomb when they receive the news.”

Not in Mark’s Gospel.  Mark includes none of that.  But we, like Johnny, want the ending to make better sense—we want it to fit with what we already understand—so we interpolate stories from the other Gospels.  We tack on a new ending.  The Church began to do this almost as soon as Mark had finished his Gospel.  That’s why your bible at home actually has three endings for Mark’s Gospel: the original ending, which we read this morning, and what are labeled the “shorter ending” and the “longer ending,” which were written later and which were added to Mark’s Gospel by Christians who assumed Mark must’ve run out of ink.

He didn’t.  Mark is a brilliant writer, and we fail to do him justice, to pay due attention to what he’s trying to tell us, when we tinker with his ending.  So, what does Mark leave us with on Easter Day?  What makes the women fearful and renders them mute?  It can only be the proclamation of the young man awaiting them at the tomb.  And what does he say to them?  “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here…He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

"He has been raised; he is not here…He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

“He has been raised; he is not here…He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

See, this tomb is not in Galilee.  It’s just outside of Jerusalem, miles to the south.  Galilee is where these women, and Jesus, and the disciples have come from.  It is the past; it is what many of the followers of Jesus believed (undoubtedly with some relief) they were leaving behind for good when the came with Jesus to the capital.

But the risen Jesus is calling the women—and, indeed, all those who would follow—back to the lives they’d hoped to leave behind, back into their past, back into the experiences they’d had but not fully understood, and surely not redeemed.  Before they can move forward, they first have to go with Jesus back into the story that has brought them thus far.

In the light of the Resurrection, we are called to do the same, to plumb back into Mark’s Gospel, to look at Mark’s story a second time.  It’s like watching a whodunit film again after you’ve seen the ending.  We notice things we didn’t before.  Events take on new and different significance.

Much of this is lost in our English translations, but if we read Mark’s Gospel in the original Greek, we would see, suddenly, that the unusual verb used by the young man at the empty tomb, this phrase by which he says, “Jesus has been raised,” this verb that means resurrection, shows up on the tongue of Jesus himself throughout the story.[ii]

In Mark 2, when a paralytic man is lowered through the ceiling of a house by his friends to meet Jesus, Jesus says to him in English, “Stand up,” but the Greek verb is “Rise!”

In Mark 3, when a man with a withered and gnarled hand plaintively seeks Jesus, Jesus says to him in English, “Come forward,” but the Greek verb is “Rise!”

In Mark 5 when Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter, Jesus says to her in English, “Little girl, get up,” but the Greek verb is “Rise!”

Do you catch what this means?  It means that what Jesus ultimately accomplishes on the third day after Good Friday he has been empowering us to do all along.  Every story in Mark is a resurrection story.  “Be resurrected!” Jesus says, “Be resurrected!  Be resurrected!” Again and again and again, whenever the least, the lonely, and the lost come to him.  And with him, again and again and again, they are.

Resurrection in Mark

It is wondrous, this power.  It is also terrifying, and it is what renders the women mute.  Because in Mark’s Gospel it’s not a suggestion; it is a command.  The young man at the tomb tells the women that the Jesus to whom they’ve committed their lives has gone back into those lives—back to Galilee—and he is calling them to follow him, back through their experiences, back through their pains, back through their failures and disappointments and loss.  Is there anything more terrifying?

And it is also what Jesus calls us to do.  I say to you on this Easter Day that we cannot move forward in our faith until we first move backward, back into the Galilees of our lives, back into even those places we’d prefer never to revisit.  But we need not be afraid, because we don’t go alone.  You see, Jesus goes before us: the Resurrected Jesus, the one whose words and whose touch heal, the one who negates the power of the past to harm us, who redeems all that has been and grants the power for us, too, to rise in new life.

Empty tomb

It is Easter.  The tomb is empty, but there is not yet an end to this story.  The young man is telling us, “Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

He has gone back to Galilee—our Galilee—so that it can be redeemed.  He has gone ahead of us.  Will we follow?

_____________________

[i] From the internet, where else?

[ii] This insight comes from Dr. Ray Pickett’s masterful essay, “Following Jesus in Galilee: Resurrection as Empowerment in the Gospel of Mark,” which appeared in the December 2005 (32:6) issue of Currents in Theology and Mission.  Ray was one of my New Testament professors in seminary.