Photo courtesy of Western Theological Seminary
My God and your God
Jason Byassee welcomes a new class of pastors to the ministry with lessons about institutions, friendships and surprise from Samuel, Eli and Mary at the tomb.
Editor's note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached May 10, 2010, at commencement exercises for graduates of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich. The service was held in Dimnent Memorial Chapel on the campus of Hope College.
I've never done one of these commencement addresses before, so I asked around on how to do it. A colleague said when she did one, she found the genre swept her up. She couldn't not speak in platitudes. "Go forth and change the world," she preached, wincing as the clichés poured out. Fellow graduates of my college reminded me that Davidson did away with commencement speakers sometime in the 1800s after a particularly long-winded oration -- I will try not to become part of Western's illustrious history that way.
You can tell I got a lot of advice on what not to do. And the best advice I got was this: Don't not preach the gospel. I'm a guest in a Reformed house today -- if the word is not preached, John Calvin would ask us, why should we bother calling it "church" at all? So just to make sure we don't fall into that easy trap of not preaching the gospel, let's turn to the text from St. John, with apologies to the biblical and theology faculty here who know this text so much better than I do.
Mary has come to the garden not looking for a risen savior but for a dead friend and failed messiah. And she discovers that, in a last gratuitous insult, the killers of her Lord have also stolen his body. Mary is past desolation, so much so that when the very one she grieves appears to her, she mistakes him for the gardener. There's an immediate lesson here for all you graduating pastors, amidst the ocean of grief you will swim in at times in your parishes. The hope you will have to offer those who grieve is the resurrected Lord, precisely when those in grief are not expecting him.
We can push farther here and say a bit more theologically about this passage. Do you hear an echo here of another time when God walked in a garden? I know you do -- you had professors Stubbs and Billings. Our first parents wept as they were exiled from the garden. Jesus appears here to weeping Mary to replace her tears with joy. Jesus is the second Adam, whose work reverses the failure of the first.
Mary doesn't recognize Jesus until he says her name. She rushes to embrace him, and very strangely, he tells her not to. "Do not hold on to me," he says. "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." Strange isn't it? Precisely when things get strange in Scripture we should look for the Spirit, stirring the waters.
That short sentence from Jesus is the entire logic of the gospel. Jesus takes his way of addressing God, as Father, and grants that Mary and you and I can call God "Father" too. And he can do this because he stooped among us to call his Father what mere creatures call him: "God." St. Cyril of Alexandria put it this way: "In his case the Heavenly One is his natural Father; in our case he is our God. But insofar as this true and natural Son became as we are, so he speaks of the Father as his God, a language fitting to his self-emptying. Still, he gave his very own Father even to us." And I can't leave out my friend St. Augustine here: "This is the wonderful exchange, the divine business deal, the transaction effected in this world by the heavenly dealer. He came to receive insults and give honors, he came to drain the cup of suffering and give salvation, he came to undergo death and give life." In the gospel a magnificent trade happens. Jesus takes all our God-abandonment, our sin, our distance from God, and in return gives us his divine favor, sonship, blessing and love. That's a good deal.
The church is the gospel re-enacted. It's the gospel made flesh. What happens between Mary and Jesus happens between Jesus and you and me every time we show up Sunday. Jesus says our name, "Mary." We respond the way Mary does when she realizes the gardener is actually the resurrected Lord: "Teacher, Rabbi!" We don't hold on to him, but we go and tell others, "I have seen the Lord." The church over two thousand years and every continent is the others whom Mary and friends told. You all joined up with that going and telling in your baptism, and now as pastors you will equip others to go and tell. It is a good and honorable profession you enter, as partners with Jesus, Mary, Augustine and Cyril, Calvin and lots of people with Dutch surnames I can't pronounce, your seminary professors and former pastors, and your friends and family here. Go from this place with them and tell.
But not yet. First I have to do my due diligence and talk about the Old Testament passage, or Professor Bechtel will be right to object. Samuel describes a bleak day in Israel. "Visions were not widespread." As if to reinforce the point, the judge and priest Eli is said to be nearly blind. Of course Israel cannot see God -- her priestly leader can't see anything! His own two sons are using their positions of privilege to enrich and satisfy and fatten themselves, so God is going to judge this temple in Shiloh and this family and all Israel because of them. Eli's family later comes apart. His sons die in battle, he falls over and breaks his neck, his daughter-in-law dies in childbirth and gives birth to Ichabod, which means, "Where'd the glory go?"