For John – the source of this morning’s Gospel lesson – it is Good Friday, and not Easter, that is the day of triumph. After chapters of insisting that “My hour has not yet come,” finally on Good Friday, at Jesus’ death, his “hour” has come. Now, on Good Friday, he is lifted up from the earth. Now, at his death, he draws all people to himself. “It is finished,” says Jesus from the cross… and only in John’s Gospel! For John, it is with Jesus’ crucifixion – and not the resurrection – that all is accomplished.
Which takes some pressure off of Easter. Easter is filled with expectations. And confusion and doubt and incredulity about resurrection. We can all believe in death, for we’ve seen death. But resurrection… For so many, Easter and resurrection are the stumbling blocks to Christianity. “Are you a Christian?” “I don’t know. That whole resurrection thing…”
Today’s sermon is for those who find it difficult to believe in resurrection. The rest of you are welcome to listen in.
For those who find it difficult to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, John’s gospel is for you. John’s gospel is for you not merely because the triumph of John’s gospel is Jesus’ death rather than his resurrection, but also because John’s Gospel gives us something to do, even as we may have difficulty “believing” in resurrection.
To better understand what John gives us to do, it helps to go back to ancient Israel, to the time of the first temple and the yearly festival of the Day of Atonement. The liturgy on the Day of Atonement was basically a journey: the high priest made his way from outside the temple into the innermost part of the Temple, to the place called the Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant was kept. Wearing special garments – like a seamless linen robe and a turban – he first washed in a bronze basin outside the Temple, and anointed himself with perfumed oil. Then, on an altar across from the basin, he offered sacrifices of a bull and a goat. Taking some of their blood, he entered the outer chamber of the temple and walked past the table of showbread on one side and a golden lampstand on the other to the altar of incense at the far end of the chamber, to the curtain that opened to the Holy of Holies. Upon entering the Holy of Holies, he saw a gold cherubim on either end of the ark, with the so-called “mercy seat” on top of the ark and between the cherubim. The priest sprinkled the blood around the mercy seat and made atonement for the people.
The ritual of the Day of Atonement was not merely for the forgiveness of sins. More importantly, the ritual was a release that once again allowed creation to flow. Looking back to Genesis and creation, the rite allowed God to once again speak as God did at creation, a speech that created and brought a world into being. “There [on the mercy seat] I will meet you,” the Lord said to Moses. “And from above it, from between the two cherubim… I will speak” (Ex 25:22). The Day of Atonement allowed God once again to speak and to create. Theologian James Alison said of the Day of Atonement that the rite was so rich, the images from Genesis so present, that the worshippers saw not a priest come out of the Holy of Holies, but
God… coming out wanting to restore creation, out of his love for his people. It is God who emerges from the Holy of Holies dressed in white in order to forgive the people their sins and, more importantly, in order to allow creation to flow.
John, intimately familiar with temple ritual, places Jesus in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement. For John, Jesus is the high priest who moves through temple, moving past the table of showbread – “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says – past the golden lampstand – “I am the light of the world” – to the curtain that is the entrance of the Holy of Holies – “I am the gate for the sheep” – and into the place where the blood is sprinkled – “I… lay down [my] life for the sheep.” For John, Jesus is at once the high priest who makes the sacrifice, and also the sacrifice itself. Which is the triumph of John’s gospel.
And for John Jesus’ death – just like the ritual on the Day of Atonement – not only forgives sins, but also allows creation to flow. In John’s account the resurrection flows from the “mercy seat” between two angels. In John the resurrection is initiated by a priest who wore a linen tunic and turban. In John the resurrection, like creation, takes place in a garden. For John, resurrection is about once again allowing creation to flow (from the “mercy seat,” from the priest who wore a linen tunic, from the very garden of creation itself).
Looked at through the lens of the Day of Atonement, John’s gospel is liturgy. What John gives us to do is the liturgy of the Day of Atonement. John’s gospel is about Jesus’ sacrifice, and it’s about once again allowing creation to flow. And John – as much he speaks of “belief” – invites us not so much to “believe” in Jesus’ resurrection as he invites us to “do” Jesus’ resurrection. For John, resurrection is something not to be “believed” in a heady, intellectual kind of way, but something that is to be done in liturgy.
If you do not “believe” in resurrection, John’s gospel is for you. This liturgy is for you. I will leave you with a secret and also an invitation. First, the secret… The secret is that those who are here week by week are not here because they “believe.” We are here in order to “believe.” We are here, whether we “believe” or not, to do this liturgy of the Eucharist not merely so that sins might be forgiven, but – more importantly – so that creation might once again be allowed to flow. And we live in a world that desperately wants for God’s creation to flow.
Second, the invitation… I invite you to come back, to do this liturgy again. To walk and pray and sing our way back into the tabernacle. To pray and sing our way back to the wash basin, back to the altar, back to the priestly garments, to the anointing, to the showbread, to the golden lampstand, to the altar of incense and the curtain of the Holy of Holies… Back to the mercy seat where we sprinkle his blood, not merely to be forgiven, but to allow creation to flow. To flow from the “mercy seat” between the two angels. To flow from the linen wrappings. To flow from the garden. So that we, like Mary – a sheep who knows His voice and whom the Shepherd calls by name – may follow Him. Follow Him not as a stranger, but as the One who loves us and who has come that we may have life, and have it abundantly.