Blood and Water (Full Service)

April 30, 2017

Series: April 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: 1 Peter 1:17-23

Speaker: Rob McClellan

The middle school brought in a Buddhist monk to show the students the creation of an intricate sand mandala. Have you seen these?  They’re stunningly beautiful, laid out grain by grain, vibrant colors and great detail.  I’ll show an example of one, and if you’re listening at home at home you can simply Google “sand mandalas,” and you’ll find all sorts of images.  Among other things, these mandalas are to promote purification and healing.  If you know much about them, you will also know what happens to them after they’re completed.  They’re just wiped away.  I believe at the school the monk actually took it to a river and just blew it back into the world. 

That flies in the face of much of what we’re taught in this culture, as we seek to make a lasting name for ourselves.  As a child I thought it was really important to be famous, some how make a monument, a testament to our lives that would be permanent.  Impermanence is, of course, one of the lessons of the mandala, a key teaching in that tradition. 

In an instant, things can be, and are, blown away, gone.  This week, I received an email from the Presbytery about a colleague who had gone into the hospital, I believe with some throat issues.  Turns out it was cancer, and aggressive form that had progressed faster than Stanford had ever seen.  The next day we received an update email; she had gone home to be placed on hospice, surrounded by loved ones to do what you do when that happens—mainly be there, be sure they know you love them, wipe their head with a cool cloth, dab their lips with a swab dipped in ice chips.  Another day later we got an email and she was gone.  It all took less than two weeks.  What we have is so precious.

It only been two weeks since Easter, and it’s a precious time in the church.  Between Easter and what we call the Ascension, when the risen Christ leaves this realm, Jesus just keeps showing up in the lives of those who risked everything to follow him.  What a gift that time must have been for the disciples.  They had placed their hopes in Jesus, and while they never seemed quite able to catch up with him with their thinking—he was always up to something deeper than they could quite figure—it must have been devastating for them to see him taken and killed.  That was it, it was over.  No time for goodbyes, or for words that needed to be said to be said.  They had the last supper, but it wasn’t called that back then.

Then they are given this gift.  He shows up to them again, they who loved him so.  They experience him again and again.  It’s often unannounced; he seems to surprise them.  I half see Jesus as a practical joker.  People would be sitting around having dinner and he shows up, walking through a wall.  “Jesus!” they cry, “Would you stop doing that!”  Of course they don’t want him to stop doing that.  They never want him to leave, but he has to go.  It’s not the gift they wanted.  It’s not permanent, but they’ll take it.  Somehow it’s enough:  I’m still with you.  What we were about still matters.  No matter what happens, you’re still going to be okay.

Do we know that?  The week after Easter I felt a little like the monk building the sand mandala.  I holed up in a seminary apartment so I could work on my dissertation, writing almost every waking hour, except for food and a little exercise.  I wish what I was producing would be as colorful as a sand mandala, though no promises.  I have to admit that it crossed my mind more than once that this project would one day be read by a committee and then sit on some library shelf someday to gather dust forever.  All this work, about seven years in the making, for what?

Do you ever feel that way?  It doesn’t have to be a research project.  Maybe you’re staying home with a child and it feels as though all you did was follow him or her around all day picking up toys, doing housework, cleaning in between moments of playing and at the end they melt down and the house looks worse than when you started.  Just blown to the wind?  Have you ever felt like that?  Or, it’s a relationship you poured a lot of effort into, and at one point felt so right.  Then it’s wiped away in an instant, or slowly brushed away beyond repair?  The job you thought defined you didn’t, or after a while didn’t want you, or you didn’t want it.  It’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of it, the worth, the beauty, especially when you think of how quickly it can vanish. 

Do you know how long Jesus’ public ministry was? It was shorter than my tenure so far at Westminster.  (Please don’t use that as a point of comparison for the purposes of my evaluation.)  The gospel of John records three Passovers during his public teaching ministry, but the other three only record one, meaning he was active in that way for as many as three years and as few as one single solitary year.  All the time in his life leading up to that, from the last story we have of him when he was twelve until about 30, preparing, training, finding himself, putting in the quiet thankless and confounding hours of becoming.  He comes onto the scene for a short time, and then he was gone.

Would any of us question the importance of his life?  Not just his birth or death or resurrection, but his life too and the way he lived it?  Would we question that?  Our reading today from 1 Peter speaks of what it accomplishes in stark terms.  The author is writing to a community who had continued the Jesus tradition after his death, people who would have been “socially and politically marginalized” as one commentator puts it.[1]  This was meant to be a word of encouragement to them.  It reads, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 18-19).

I wonder how many of you grew up with a lot of emphasis on the precious blood of Christ, lamb of God, ransom for us.  I wonder how you feel about that language.  For some it is a source of comfort, assurance.  I knew this jovial, deeply spiritual, Baptist woman who was always talking about being “washed in the blood of Jesus.”  If that is a powerful image for you, I have no intention of taking that away.  For others, it is a troubling image.  Jesus as a blood sacrifice, ransom?  No thanks.

Well, context is everything.  In Jesus’ time, to receive forgiveness, one made sacrifices at the temple.  According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, “to affirm 'Jesus is the sacrifice for sin' was to deny the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God…Using the metaphor of sacrifice, it subverted the sacrificial system."[2]  To understand Jesus in this way was to stand in defiance and say nobody gets to own the rights to forgiveness.  Nobody gets to have a monopoly on access to God.  Remember Jesus said to people, “Your sins are forgiven,” all the time.  He gave it away freely.  It was both a moment of personal healing, but at the same time a profoundly and profound political statement, telling those who had power that they didn’t rule over the living God, and they certainly didn’t have the right to charge admission.  In a very dangerous way, Jesus’ followers conceived of his death in terms that directly challenged the power structure – you think you trade in sacrificial lambs, this was the lamb of God!  Christ’s forever flips the world on its head. 

Now we must always be careful with texts such as these not to allow modern anti-Semitism seep its way in.  Jesus was a Jew, remained a committed Jew.  He was critiquing his own people, his own religion, his own nation, not someone else’s.  We’re always given more divine license for self-critique than attacking the ways of others.

There’s another amazing aspect to this passage, one that brings us around to where we began.  1 Peter says you weren’t ransomed with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the imperishable.  We gloss right over that, but think about it.  Gold and silver, on the surface, far less perishable than blood, right?  Blood can only support life in a closed system.  Blood lives but for a lifetime, with new cells having to be generated all the time. 

Unlike gold and silver, blood is fragile, and blood isn’t the only element that God works with that in an instant is gone, into thin air?   The other passage you heard from today is from Acts.  In the aftermath of the bloody crucifixion and resurrection, the other disciples come to Peter and ask what they should do and he says, go out an baptize.  Baptize.  With water.  Water?  That’s what is going to usher in the new kingdom?  No swords or flags.  No statues or monuments.  Water!?  The tools of the one who had the most lasting influence were blood and water.  Do you remember what came out when they pierced his side when he was on the cross?  Blood and water.  It’s what Jesus was made of. 

This Jesus we so love, a manifestation of the divine love, the clearest one we claim we’ve ever seen – was made of fragile parts. He was a sand mandala, carefully, intricately built, beautiful to behold, a source of healing and purification for the particular sickness and ~corruption of his time, and yet somehow speaks to all time.  He didn’t waste his energy trying to build something permanent.  He spent his life becoming that beautiful creation, knowing—Scripture says he knew it—knowing it was all going to be blown away in an instant.  In his surrendering to his impermanence, he unleashed eternity.  There is even beauty in the brushing away of the mandala (show slide of mandala being wiped in beautiful spiral pattern).

In Christ, we are called to live resurrection lives, live into the gift of the sacred time between resurrection and ascension. To that end, let us learn: 

  • -to appear, to show up, fully inhabit the space we are in, including the pieces that are hard—they’re much less frightening when we stare them straight in the face
  • -to not get too far ahead of ourselves, recognizing the divine presence is with us now, and gives us what you need for this moment, which will allow us to handle the next moment when it comes.
  • -to see how others are appearing to us and manifesting the divine presence as well, recognizing they are fundamentally not other, but ultimately an other appearance of the resurrection, sometimes with just fresher wounds than we are used to.
  • -to tap into the reservoir available to us all and find the courage to stand up to what needs to be opposed and say, “No,” stand up for what needs to be advocated for and say “Yes.”
  • -to find beauty in the building of the beautiful life one grain at a time, not waiting to enjoy until it’s finished.

 If Jesus’ life mattered, then so do ours, perhaps precisely in their fragility. Before too long, God-willing, my dissertation will sit on a shelf to gather dust, but I won’t be, and insofar as it helps craft me grain by grain into something that can be used for purification or healing, then every bit of it was worth it. Let us build our lives out of the things Christ did—love, forgiveness, witness, solidarity with the poor, compassion for the suffering, courage, integrity, presence. These things are free…and they are priceless. They are God’s currency. You will know exactly what’s valuable when you find yourself one day in the unenviable and yet holiest of places, sitting by a loved one as their life blood drains from them, dabbing their lips with a swab dipped in ice chips, frozen water. In the end, what is most perishable is most lasting. Remember out of Jesus’ death comes new life. Your end is your beginning.[3] Amen.

1] Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year A, 279.

[2] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 94.

[3] From T.S. Elliott, “Four Quartets.” Quoted on bulletin cover.