“Jesus’ Attachment to Life”
Sermon by James N. Poling1
Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; John 20:19-31
Easter was the highlight of the year when I was a pastor in Pennsylvania in the United States.
After six Wednesday night Bible Studies, many weekly rehearsals with the choirs, Holy Week finally arrived. It was a busy week! Thursday night was communion service. Friday was the memorial of the Seven Last Sayings of Jesus. Saturday was a time of prayer and vigil. Sunday morning included an Easter Sunrise Service, a church breakfast, and the biggest worship service of the year. We had special music from the children’s choir, youth choir, adult choir, and we had many other special effects. It was an exciting time. But after it was over, I was always exhausted. Easter was finally over! I wanted to go home and rest and often took time off during the following week. If the services went smoothly and the people were happy, I could take a little vacation.
However, for the disciples the week after the resurrection was not the end of a beautiful celebration followed by a vacation; it was something else. When Jesus was killed, the disciples were sure they would be next in line for execution by the brutal Roman government and their religious collaborators. So they hid out in secret places and made plans for their escape back to Galilee where they had started several years earlier. They felt they would be safer in the rural area among people they knew and trusted. Even the appearances of Jesus in his resurrected body did not make them feel completely safe. Every time they saw Jesus he said, “Do not be afraid.” The story of Thomas is just one of several stories that led the disciples to believe in the resurrection. But it was at Pentecost sometime later when the Holy Spirit came in power that Peter had the courage to preach his first sermon about the death and resurrection of Jesus. His preaching was so powerful that 3,000 souls were baptized in one day. During the weeks after Easter, the disciples went from terrified to courageous and their preaching changed the world. How do we practice our faith during the weeks beginning with Easter?
During the communion service at my seminary in Chicago, we say: “Jesus has died; Jesus is risen; Jesus will come again.” This reminds us of the Easter faith that we try to live every day with courage. What does it mean to say that “Jesus has died, Jesus is risen; Jesus will come again”?
Some Christians believe that Jesus was sent from heaven to judge the world; after he died he went to heaven to be with God. Someday Jesus will come again to destroy the world and take believers into heaven. In this theology the world as we know it has no place in God’s plan; the earth will be destroyed along with unbelievers. Until Jesus comes, believers should save as many souls as possible. The “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins give vivid descriptions of this theology, and millions of people believe that destruction is the fate of the world.
Other Christians, like me, believe that Jesus came because “God so loved the world that God sent Jesus. . . .” John 3:16. I believe that Jesus came to earth as an expression of God’s love for people and the earth; Jesus died because of the violence of corrupt political and religious leaders; Jesus rose from the grave because God’s love could not be destroyed by the power of violence and death; Jesus comes again whenever people join together to care for the people and the world that God loves. The meaning of discipleship is that we follow Jesus when we work together for social justice and environmental healing.
I have drawn these two alternative ways of understanding Jesus in stark contrast. Christian life is not divided this way. It is possible to work for the salvation of souls and also work for social justice and environmental healing. Yet, I believe these two tendencies exist in our churches. Personally I believe that Jesus did not come to destroy the material world and evil people, but to save all people and the earth from violence and destruction.
I want to think with you a few moments about what it would mean to love Jesus and also love people and the earth in which we live. I believe the Scriptures we have been studying during Lent give many clues.
According to Scripture, Jesus on the cross said seven things before he died:
Forgive them for they know not what they are doing;
You will be with me in paradise;
Woman, here is your son;
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me;
It is finished;
Into your hands I commend my spirit.
These sentences reveal Jesus’ attachment to life.
In the midst of violence and personal crisis, Jesus showed how deeply engaged he was in his relationships with people and the earth. He was aware of his body and its crisis of life and death; he was aware of the soldiers who are committing atrocities, and of two human beings next to him who are also victims of violence; he was aware of his mother at the foot of the cross, and of his relationship with God; he was aware of the moment of his death, and of his future with God. At the moment of greatest crisis in his life, Jesus was fully sensitive to his relationships in all their tragic meaning and value.
Traditional theology too often teaches that our relationships and material things are finite and constantly changing and we should not love them too much. Rather, Christians should seek what is eternal. This has often meant the hatred of the body and the earth and the development of a hierarchy of human power to distinguish between those whose lives are subject to finitude and those who are able to transcend their circumstances through education, fine arts, and wealth.
In contrast, Jesus embraced his life and relationships with people and the earth.3 The stories of Scripture show that he was fully engaged with the persons who surrounded him during his life. I like the stories where Jesus surprised his disciples with attention to the details of life around him. For example, he was preaching one of his most important sermons and noticed that the people were not really paying attention. Some were dozing off; the children were getting restless; people were beginning to leave. So he turned to his disciples and said, “The people are tired. Let’s get something for the people to eat because they must be hungry.” The disciples said, “Where will we get food for all these people? We don’t have enough money.” Jesus said, “Bring me what you have.” So he blessed the two loaves and five fishes and there was enough for everyone and twelve baskets left over. Jesus was paying attention to what was happening right in front of him and he found a solution for what the people needed.
Another time he was on his way to heal the daughter of Jarius, an important religious leader in the synagogue. A woman touched him and he felt power go out. He turned and asked, “Who touched me?” The disciples laughed and said, “What do you mean? There are hundreds of people here; anyone could have touched you.” But the woman with the flow of blood came to him and told her whole sad story about how she had been sick for twelve years, had visited many physicians. But they just took her money and did nothing to heal her. Now she was poor, tired, and wanted a new life. Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well.” The disciples were angry because he delayed his important task for Jarius, and as a result, his daughter died. But Jesus decided that the woman was just as important as Jarius and so he stopped. He had an attachment to life.
Jesus’ same surprising behavior comes up in story after story – Zacchaueus in the tree, the conversation with the Samaritan woman, the debate with Nicodemus at night. Over and over again, Jesus gets involved with the people around him because he is paying attention to life in a way that is not easy for the rest of us. During this Easter season, we ask what it means to follow the resurrected Jesus. Today I want to make three suggestions about what Jesus’ attachment to life might mean today for us today. (Slide 1, Picture of Laughing Jesus)
First, we follow Jesus when we enjoy every day with our family and friends
– the good conversations, the good food, the beautiful music of a concert or the iPod, the exhilaration of physical exercise, the excitement of new ideas. God wants us to enjoy our lives and have fun. I love the picture of the laughing Jesus because it reminds me that Jesus enjoyed his life. Every time I eat in a traditional Korean restaurant, I thank God for the wonderful opportunity I have to be in Korea. When I was young, I never believed that such an amazing opportunity would come to me. Now I am actually here! The food tastes so good, and I tell myself – God wants me to enjoy this food brought to me by Korean farmers, truckers, grocers, cooks, and waiters. This is God’s bounty for me. When I go back to Chicago, it is not easy to find a really good Korean restaurant. I am reminded of the time when Jesus had to make more wine because the people were having such a good time at a wedding. While I am here I will enjoy Korean food as much as I can as a blessing from God.
Second, we follow Jesus when we work for peace and social justice so that all people can enjoy life.
For most of the twentieth century, Korea suffered from Japanese colonialism, civil war, poverty, and undemocratic politics. But in recent years, the Korean people have created a miracle that enables more people to be healthy and creative in their lives. I have been talking to my students at Yonsei School of Theology about their families. Each family has many stories of hardship, poverty, war, and hunger. But now the grandchildren are attending one of the best universities in the world. Surely God wants every human being to have good food, good education, and good work for the benefit of the world. There is still inequality in Korea. Much more needs to be done in Korea to help the poor and the immigrants who travel here for work. Around the world, most people live in poverty and tyranny. I believe we are called as Christians to work for peace and justice in solidarity with struggling people everywhere. God wants every person to have a good life and none to suffer needlessly.
Third, we follow Jesus when we work to heal the earth.
This is the first time in history when human beings have threatened the future of the air, water, and land that sustain all life. If we don’t stop polluting and destroying the resources of the earth, many millions of people, animals, and plants will get sick and die and eventually all life could be destroyed. I believe this environmental emergency is evil in the eyes of God. I was very touched when I heard that Yonsei students had volunteered during the Christmas break to help clear up after the oil spill near the port of Daesan on the Yellow Sea coast of Taean County.2 The young people know that God does not want our beaches polluted with oil. They helped rescue the birds, the fish, and all the creatures that God created and loved. It would be better if there was no oil spill in the first place. We have to challenge human greed that allows the destruction of the earth, air, and water. We follow Jesus when we work for healing of the environment and develop ethical limits to the globalization.
The stories of Jesus are powerful today because they help us know that we are fully human and in communion with God when we have an attachment to life as Jesus did. Look at the beautiful people sitting around you today. Look at this beautiful chapel with its light-filled windows and colors. Think of your days with friends on the mountains of Korea and your good times in the city of Seoul. God loves this world. Every day God creates new beauty for us to enjoy. The Korean love of the natural environment and the mountains is inspired by God. The Korean love of beautiful music and social events with friends is inspired by God. God has created so much beauty; God wants us to love the people and the earth. When injustice and greed bring injury to people and the earth, we must work to change the politics and economics that allow this destruction to happen. We can make a difference if we love our lives, our relationships, and the planet the way God loved the world in Christ.
During the next seven Sundays of Easter, we have time to pray and reflect on the meaning of the gospel in our lives. I encourage you to think about how Jesus loved the world. He loved his family, the disciples, the poor, the land, the mountains, and the ideas of the gospel. He even loved his enemies. He lived his life in faithfulness to these relationships, and when his life ended in violence, he died with dignity and came back after death to comfort his friends. He sent the Holy Spirit to empower us so we can love the people, the society, and culture, and mountains and rivers. The Easter story is a love story. Let us love one another as God has loved us. Amen.
1 James N. Poling is professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL 60201, http://www.garrett.edu.
2 The MT Hebei Spirit oil spill is a major oil spill in South Korea that began on the morning of 7 December 2007 local time, with ongoing environmental and economic effects. Government officials are calling it South Korea’s worst oil spill ever, surpassing a spill that took place in 1995. This oil spill is about one-third of the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. At about 7:30 local time on December 7, 2007 (2230 UTC on 6 December 2007), a crane barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries being towed by a tug collided with the anchored Hong Kong registered crude carrier Hebei Spirit, carrying 260,000 tonnes (290,000 ST) of crude oil. The incident occurred near the Port of Daesan on the Yellow Sea coast of Taean County. The barge was floating free after the cable linking it to the tug snapped in the rough seas. Although no casualties were reported, the collision punctured three of the five tanks aboard the Hebei Spirit and resulted in the leaking of some 10,800 tonnes (11,900 ST) of oil. The remaining oil from the damaged tanks was pumped out into the undamaged tanks and the holes were sealed. The spill occurred near Mallipo Beach (in Taean County), considered one of South Korea’s most beautiful and popular beaches. The region affected by the spill is home to one of Asia’s largest wetland areas, used by migratory birds, and also contains a national maritime park and 445 sea farms.
3 Much of human evil can be traced to the rigid distinction of eternity and finitude, and its corollaries of mind and body, material and spirit, male and female.