How Can This Be?

How Can This Be?

I say the same words each week to many people, but, they never become mundane or repetitive, because it’s the same invitation Jesus makes to John’s disciples in today’s gospel, “Come and see”. These words, repeated weekly from my heart to yours are, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven” or in Lent “The body of Christ, broken for you.” These words, uttered often soft and pensive,  as they come from the soul place of my being, are designed to invite illumination for you of Jesus’ identity, to encourage you to draw within you the essence of the “light that came into the darkness”. To inspire you to, in the words of St. Augustine, to inspire you to “Behold what you are. Become what you have received” to find your purpose, your dedication and your life’s essence in becoming the Body of Christ in the world.”

Our Episcopal tradition calls for us to say or sing  the Angus Dei, or Lamb of God, immediately after the breaking of the bread, itself a symbol of the breaking of the body of Christ into our world. In our parish, the tradition when I came here was to hold a time of silence in that liturgical space, rather than uttering these words, and this contemplative tradition suited my, and apparently others’, hearts well, so we’ve kept the silence to draw us into the invitation, to “come and see” and “become the body of Christ”, for “coming and seeing” is synomomous with “becoming the body of Christ”

If we were to say the words of the Agnus Dei, you might notice a difference between the words of the prayer and the words of our gospel text. As many of you know, the prayer goes like this: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace.” However, the gospel text reads, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” As you might know, sin is singular in John’s gospel, and serves a specific purpose: to show that Jesus, the light of the world, who as the pre-existent Christ was before all time and is in all time, is here to reconcile all of the world to God, to draw unto himself the collective brokenness of our existence and restore it to the state of the original creation, when we and God are One, where there is shalom or peace. The Jesus of John’s gospel did not come to erase our individual sins, but rather to enable us to see the light that casts away the darkness of sin. This puts some of the responsibility upon us, doesn’t it? For you will notice that John does not call Jesus, “The lamb of sinful humans” which would show Jesus as a “perfect sacrifice” for human error, but rather, “The lamb of God. Our restoration into the oneness of Christ is initiated by God. Always. Dina proclaimed this in her sermon last week when she said that we are baptized so we can see, believe, and live into our belovedness by God. God’s love calls us into being and into becoming God’s love in the world.

Here, in John’s gospel, we learn of a new way of articulating atonement theory, a way of talking about the role Jesus had in our salvation. We are introduced to an incarnational view of our restoration by Jesus, a view which is very Episcopalian. We talk about ourselves as a sacramental church, one where the union of Christ through the sacraments is essential to our lives together. We learn in John’s gospel that baptism with the Spirit is not connected to an emotional state or any particular gift or ability, but to “seeing”, to being born anew so we can see that Jesus is the One sent by God; so, we can bring light into this world. And in that seeing, our whole lives, the life of the world, are changed. We receive, are strengthened by, and live out Christ by and through our engagement with baptism and the Eucharist. We understand the Word-made-flesh in Jesus means that we too can hold and bear into the world the same gifts Jesus brought into the world: light, love, joy, hopefulness, and healing.

Most Christians, however, are more familiar with either the substitution view of atonement, which says that Jesus, God’s innocent Son, was offered on our behalf or in our place, a “perfect sacrifice for the whole world”, or the satisfaction theory, , which sees Jesus’s death as satisfying the righteous demands of a God offended by human sin. John’s gospel, though, has a unique perspective with Jesus as, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, or what we might call the incarnational theory of atonement, or “at-one-ment”. The death on the cross in John’s gospel is not unimportant, obviously, but it is uniting the Divine and the human in this man Jesus that makes our salvation possible, because the divine life has entered human life and the possibility of new life exists for all. To see and believe in the light and truth that the Word-made-flesh reveals is to participate in this new life. The cross is seen as a divine self-emptying – God’s giving of God’s own self, put to death by those who were too blind to see. Hence, rather than saying Jesus died “for” our sins as an innocent substitute or to appease the wrath of an angry God, it might be more in line with John’s proclamation of the identity of Jesus, the “Lamb of God” to affirm that Jesus died because of our sin: humanity’s blindness to the light of Christ, which is indeed the greatest spiritual sin of the world. The Lamb of God that takes away the sin, the corporate blindness to the light and goodness of God at work in our world, does so by shining light into our spiritual darkness, which makes new life possible – as if one were born again. One can imagine that Jesus died because of the darkness or blindness in the world. Even though it is not our particular or individual sins that were erased by the cross, this doesn’t mean that Jesus’ death doesn’t play out in our lives. In fact, that’s the point. It does play out in our lives. Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection are incarnational, meaning they are a part of us, to be lived into our world.

This incarnational theory also says to us that, when we kneel to receive or stretch out our hand, it doesn’t matter where we have been before, when or where we have allowed darkness to rule our lives, when we’ve chosen the lesser self, or the many times when we have hidden our own light under a bushel for fear of the cost of discipleship. New life is possible, and it shows up in the piece of bread in your hand, the body of Christ broken apart, so that the light of Christ can be within each one of us and we can witness to in the world. So we may cast away the darkness  and blindness of humanity, by being and seeing Christ in the world.

We may wonder when and how the light appears that guides us toward seeing the fullness of Christ, and we may worry whether we will recognize it or dismiss it as foolish or unreliable, or we may stare in disbelief, wondering how we could ever see, let alone be, the light in the world, but I invite you to listen to God’s shorthand with you – for “the Holy Spirit will guide into all truth and light”, as know that from the scriptures.

Recently, the words which stumble most often from my mouth and heart are, “How can this be?” I feel like I am Mary, the mother of Jesus, who when she learns of the conception of her baby, and she says these words, “How can this be?” She of course goes on to explain why her pregnancy would be an extraordinary event. My context is obviously different. I don’t say this in response to a miraculous pregnancy, but I do say it repeatedly to the revelation of blessings upon blessings which keep unfolding around me and within our parish life. Miracles seem to unfold into new miracles, blessings are received upon blessings.

Clearly every Sunday when I visit Brian, the words leap from my heart – “How can this be?”- how can he be recovering at such an amazing pace? I wonder, “how can this miracle continue? Am I being foolish in my conviction of not putting a box around the possibilities of what God can do in Brian’s recovery?” “How can this be?”  is all I seem to be able to say. I don’t know how this can be, except I do know that I cannot dismiss this unfolding miracle as unreliable or foolish. And I am coming to understand with each new place of being Brian moves into, that I will name it and testify to it, that this is the light of Christ, banishing the darkness of his injury. Brian’s recovery is just one example of the miracles, of the blessings by God, of the new life emerging in response to witnessing this miracle—our new prayer shawl ministry, our reinvigoration of our Lay Eucharistic Visitor program, our collective prayer each morning or throughout the day as we check our Facebook page or website, our contemplative Eucharists designed to be healing and centering, and the existence of the bond which draws us in care to those around us. This is what church about. This is the incarnation of Christ made real in our lives. The love, light, and life of Christ given to us so that we may be this with each other. Faithfulness is the ability to see the newness around us, the capacity to recognize and embrace that which is of God alone, the gift of insight into that which is extraordinary showing up in our ordinary lives, the power to find clarity in the midst of the complexity of our world. We, like our patron saint Andrew in our text today, are called to testify to the light, which is rarely simple work, but it is our work as faithful Christians, to see the light and to proclaim it as of God.

For me this takes honest self-examination,  reflecting, asking, “Where am I hiding the light that yearns to burst forth from my soul through my actions and care?” Or “Where am I letting it explode like a sparkler on the 4th of July, when the eyes of children light up in complete disbelief of anything so appealing and yet so unexpected?” Or “Where am I tentative in my example, afraid to the risk of discipleship and truth?”

I sit with these questions long enough for complexity to emerge. After all, there is nothing simple about being the light of Christ in the world. At the end of each day, I engage in an Examen prayer which asks me to look at the highlights (notice the root of that word- light) of my day (the bright and shining spots when I encountered or shared Christ’s light) – and then I answer one deceptively simple question – the hardest of the whole exercise: “I felt unrest when …” My answer is meant to show the moments where I put my light under a bushel, or when I failed to see someone else’s light as the light of Christ, or when I was too busy to even notice. By now, of course, I am in a place of complete humility, recognizing my failures and testifying to the grace of God for my highlights.

Sometimes I think these words, found only in this gospel, “Behold the Lamb of God” are a cry from the womb of creation, a recognition of the sudden movement of God coming into our lives with anticipation and an awareness of the Spirit’s gentle guiding of our hearts to become God’s new creation. I could substitute “Behold the Lamb of God” for my phrase, “How can this be?” for each phrase speaks of something marvelous and miraculous, drawing us into wholeness and holiness, of the extraordinary showing up in our ordinary lives, of the light of Christ being revealed for us – for us to pick up, marvel at, and then enable to light up our lives and our world. For light gives us new life – and like love, and like miracles, is not understandable or explainable, but to be rejoiced in. Amen.

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