Sunday, April 24, 2011

Spirits in the Divine Service

Spirits in the Divine Service

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Easter Day, April 24, 2011

Matthew 28:1-7

Hebrews 1:1-4, 14

Are not all angels spirits in the divine service?NRSV

You may remember the name Vaclav Havel, a playwright and the first president of the post-Soviet Czech Republic, who, after spending 10 years helping his country move beyond the burdens of communist repression, returned to writing plays. He has become one of those quotable historic figures from our times. I recalled one of his often-quoted comments as I read again the gospel story of the resurrection. In 1986, 3 years before becoming president of the Czech Republic, he was asked “Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?” He replied,

Hope is an orientation of the spirit, a reorientation of the heart... It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something will make sense, regardless how it turns out.

He could well have been describing that situation of the disciples after Easter, with the dawning recognition from their own observations, and the stories of others, that Friday had not been the end of Jesus. Death by crucifixion did not finish his work. Rather, the one who healed the sick, forgave the guilty, and raised the dead would move beyond the confines of an individual life. God’s power embodied in Jesus was – and is – still on the move in the world.

That’s a pretty good working definition of hope: not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something will make sense, regardless how it turns out. The idea that hope means things should turn out well assumes a sort of finality that doesn’t exist in the real world, doesn’t it? – a point at which everything stops and draws to a fine conclusion: “...and they lived happily ever after.” But we all know from our own existence in the world, that life is not like that: it goes on. And on and on, with or without us. Some things turn out well, but that is not the end, because what turned out well at one point may turn out badly later. And vice versa. We work hard, buy a new car with our hard-earned dollars. Hurray! A good outcome. But wait. It turns out that car has a major defect that causes an accident resulting in major injury or death. Bad outcome! But wait. Through the experience of hospitalization following the accident we discover the love and support of our family, which we had not known before. Good outcome! But wait...

This is what I mean.

Time moves forward with unstoppable force. So, hope rests more in the sense we can make of events than in some artificial endpoints we place on them. Imagine, for instance, how different things might have been between Palestinians and Jewish people if Hitler had never come along. Would things be better? Worse? Whatever we think, chances are good they would not be the same. Making sense of the events of history in our present living, that is a task for resurrection people, which today of all days we remember is what we are.

The execution of an innocent man who was a compassionate healer and good-news teller is not a good outcome. But when all was said and done, the events surrounding his suffering and death began to make sense to his followers in ways they could never have imagined before the events themselves. And in the end, Jesus’ followers became his new body, living and moving in the world. We are part of that body as we gather today.

I once read about a church in Europe[1] where the baptismal font rested in the arms of a carved, wooden angel that was normally suspended above the chancel of the church. On one day when families were presenting children for baptism, an assistant went behind a screen to lower the angel to the floor. However, the rope holding the angel aloft was apparently stuck, having slipped off its pulley. He yanked on the rope this way and that, but the angel refused to descend. Finally, a woman from the committee responsible for the upkeep of the sanctuary came in with a step ladder, climbed up, and retrieved the bowl for the baptisms. Once she got down, the angel promptly crashed to the floor. One pastor reflected that until it fell, that angel was a good illustration of our modern experience of angels, whose function appears to have once been to bring news of God’s grace down to people, but who generally now remain suspended beyond our experience.

The author of Hebrews wrote that angels – whatever else we may believe them to be – are spirits in the service of God, and their purpose, so far as we are likely to know, is to help human beings make sense of the world into which Christ came to bring life. It could be that more often in ancient times than in modern, God used angels to carry messages to people like Mary and Joseph before their wedding day[2], Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem[3], and Peter snoozing in Joppa through dreams of unclean animals on the hoof[4]; but “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son...” The point isn’t whether angels exist – I suppose they could exist when God needs them to exist and don’t when God no longer requires their service – the point is that God moves within the events of our world, and in the midst of that turbulent history there has come a Son, Jesus, bringing the news that while our own day may not have a happy outcome – indeed, our own lives may lack a happy outcome – there is, in the end, a way in which the living of our lives in this God-provided world makes sense.

According to our reading from Hebrews, the sense we can make of Jesus is that...

· He came, not as an angel to proclaim the love of God; Jesus is the love of God made alive in human form;

· He doesn’t merely announce God’s power and announce God’s wisdom; “he is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”[5]

· He is not a mirror reflecting the light of God in the world; Jesus is God’s light, which no darkness can overcome, and in whose face we find ourselves gazing upon the very glory of the very God.[6]

· He isn’t a string around the finger or a sticky note reminding us that God is a God who provides; Jesus is the very providence of God who “sustains all things by his powerful word.”[7]

Because of Easter we know that God’s grace is not a concept or a doctrine or a formulation or a blind affirmation. God’s grace is a person. The word about the risen Christ is not a notion, a proposition that without our acquiescence might fail. Jesus didn’t come to the world in order to increase our options but to reconcile the world to God. And the word from the tomb became an unequivocal word: “mission accomplished.”

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster this September. 9/11 arrives this year on a Sunday, as it turns out. I like to start planning some months ahead for worship, and running across that fact reminded me of a story I heard at the time of that disaster about a fire fighter named Vinnie, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.[8] Those whose lives are touched by senseless tragedy know all too well the feelings that Vinnie’s family knew. Vinnie’s father delivered a eulogy at his church in Queens at a service with no body present, and as he went on he discovered he was unable to stop. Apparently he was searching his own words for a final explanation, a way out of the crushing feeling that nothing makes sense, and he could not stop speaking, because to stop would be finally to admit that Vinnie was gone, disappeared from the face of the earth with little evidence that he ever existed. When our lives are visited by tragedy, we know the feeling.

Two months after that memorial service, Vinnie’s remains were found. And everything at the World Trade Center site went silent. Hats came off, and a reverent cessation of activity overcame the grounds as Vinnie was carried out. The next worship service at his church a few days later, on Good Friday, was filled to overflowing, and when the congregation sang a hymn with the words, “Lord, let at last thine angels come,” everyone knew that in these latter days the Lord had spoken to them. And while the angels might have been summoned to carry their beloved brother in Christ to heaven, suspended above the experience of the world we now know, here on earth we live within the community of the very body of Christ as we gather this day to say:


The Lord is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


[1] “Where Have All the Angels Gone?” by Dale Bringman, Best Sermons 3, Harper & Row, 1990, p.141.

[2] Luke 1:26-38, Matthew 1:1-25 NRSV.

[3] Matthew 2:12 NRSV.

[4] Acts 10:9-16 NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:24 NRSV.

[6] Thanks to John B. Rogers for images of the nature of Jesus in Interpretation, “Between Text and Sermon,” p. 291 ff.

[7] Hebrews 1:3 NRSV.

[8] Thanks to Stephen Bouman for this account in his sermon “Jacob’s Ladder,” in Christian Century, 9/20/03, p. 19.