Friends of Jesus

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio


“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear …”1

Aelred of Rievaulx, from his twelfth-century monastery, wrote the book on spiritual friendship. (More than one, in fact.) Drawing on Greek wisdom, the traditions of the Church Fathers, and scripture itself, he wrote, 

“… the best medicine for life is a friend. According to the pagan proverb, we do not need fire and water on more occasions than we need a friend. In every action and every effort, in certainty and doubt, in any event or fortune, in private and in public, in every deliberation, at home or abroad—everywhere friendship is delightful, a friend is closer than kin, and the friend’s charm is priceless. Hence Cicero says of friends, “the absent are present, the poor are rich, the weak are strong, and—even more difficult—the dead are alive.” … One truth surpasses all these: close to perfection is that level of friendship that consists in the love and knowledge of God, when one who is the friend of another becomes the friend of God, according to the verse of our Savior in the Gospel: “I shall no longer call you servants but friends.”2

Towards the end of his mortal life, Jesus addressed his disciples once more. Before their meal together he had washed their feet, explaining as he did so the prophetic action in which the master becomes the servant of many. Yet now, he tells them, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” (John 15:15)

But what does it mean, for Jesus to call us, “friend”? For Jesus still commands his disciples – but only to love one another. Jesus’ radical reordering of the relationship between himself and his disciples is part of his final teaching, the pinnacle of his incarnation as a human being, a friend among friends.

Friendship is a fundamental of creation, according to Aelred. It exists from the beginning. It is God’s design for the lowest to the highest creatures:

"Although in all other respects animals are proven to be irrational, surely in this respect alone they so imitate the human spirit that they are almost thought to be moved by reason. They so follow the leader, so frolic together, so express and display their attachment in actions and sounds together, and so enjoy one another’s company with eagerness and pleasure that they seem to relish nothing more than what resembles friendship. Among angels, too, divine wisdom so provided that not one but several classes should be created. Among these classes, pleasant companionship and the most tender love created a like will and attachment, so as to allow no entry to envy, for one might seem greater and another less had not charity countered this danger with friendship. ... Finally, when God fashioned the man, to recommend society as a higher blessing, he said, “it is not good that the man should be alone; let us make him a helper like himself.” Indeed divine power fashioned this helper not from similar or even from the same material. But as a more specific motivation for charity and friendship, this power created a woman from the very substance of the man. In a beautiful way, then, from the side of the first human a second was produced, so that nature might teach that all are equal or, as it were, collateral, and that among human beings—and this is a property of friendship—there exists neither superior nor inferior. So from the very beginning nature impressed on human minds this attachment of charity and friendship, which an inner experience of love soon increased with a delightful sweetness."

Only because of the Fall did friendship become fragmented and fractured, like so much else in creation. Only after the Fall did we acquire the term “enemies,” whom we are to love and for whom we are told to pray, but who are not our friends.

But Christ, in calling his disciples friends, begins to restore that design of nature and creation by which all are equal, and equally beloved, and no difference or division of status is recognized between the substance of one human, made in the image of God, and another. There is no hierarchy in friendship, no exploited profit, no gain that is not mutual, no care that is not shared.

Julian of Norwich has called Christ our mother, who feeds us with his body as some mothers may suckle a child,4 and whose love, wisdom, and mercy are the model we hope for motherhood – and so he is, because God is all in all to us, mother, father, creator, sustainer, and life; but in these final hours with his friends, according to Aelred’s interpretation, Jesus affirms that the most godly relationships among us (whether between colleagues or spouses, parents and their children, or mere acquaintances) abide in friendship: in mutual self-offering, trust, collaboration, and love, and that this friendship is the model and shape of the kingdom of God and the foundation of creation.

"This is that great and wonderful happiness we await. God himself acts to channel so much friendship and charity between himself and the creatures he sustains, and between the classes and orders he distinguishes, and between each and every one he elects, that in this way each one may love another as himself. By this means each may rejoice over his own happiness as he rejoices over his neighbor’s. Thus the bliss of all individually is the bliss of all collectively, and the sum of all individual beatitudes is the beatitude of all together. ..."
"…When the fear is dispelled that now fills us with dread and anxiety for one another, when the hardship is removed that we must now endure for one another, when, moreover, along with death the sting of death is removed—the sting that so often pierces and distresses us and makes us grieve for one another—then with the beginning of relief from care we shall rejoice in the supreme and eternal good, when the friendship to which on earth we admit but few will pour out over all and flow back to God from all, for God will be all in all."6

This process of renewal and restoration Jesus has begun when he called his disciples, those present and those, like us, who were yet to come, his friends, and commanded them in the name of that friendship, “Love one another.” This love and friendship is the work of the kingdom of God. This, to become a friend of Christ in this incarnate world, is the highest form of worship.


1 “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Author: Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1855)

2 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship: Book 2. 14-16, 18. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 92-93. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.

3 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship: Book 1. 55-58. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 81-82. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.

4 “The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, He may feed us with Himself, and doeth it, full courteously and full tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament that is precious food of my life; and with all the sweet Sacraments He sustaineth us full mercifully and graciously.” Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love: Chapter LX. Digireads.com. Kindle Edition.

5 Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship: Book 3. 79. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 135-136. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.

6 Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship: Book 3. 134. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 157-158. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.

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“Let anyone accept this who can.”

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Epiphany.


“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us… So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.” 
(1 John 4, selected verses)

God loves us; and the people seeking God’s grace will know God’s love if we love them in Christ’s name. If we love them as they are, as God has loved us.

I’m fascinated by the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). What prompts this person’s question to Philip: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

It could just be an opening for Philip to talk about Jesus, and that’s how we more usually read it; but what if it’s more personal, a more authentic question than that?

The eunuch has been up to Jerusalem, to worship at the Temple, an institution from which he would for a long time have been excluded because of his identity as a eunuch. Even if now he was accepted and invited in, what did they hear while they were walking around there? Was it kind, or was it cruel? Did it acknowledge their particular gifts and their image of God, borne in a body which was still an embarrassment to some. Did somebody use these verses, about the one who has no generations to follow and continue his life and line, to demean him or to embarrass them?

What do people whose bodies or whose gender expression or whose models of family do not fit the tight moulds in which some of us were raised hear from the church, and is it kind, or is it cruel? Would our interpretation and use of the Bible cause a transgender or non-binary person to respond with confidence and delight to the gospel that they hear, exclaiming as the eunuch did to Philip: “Here is water – why not baptize me now!”

Or would they hear something less inviting, less kind, less gospel?

Would they encounter a warm embrace, or a cold shoulder? Would they find the way to new life, or would we send them down a wilderness road?

Sometimes you have heard me talk about inclusive language for God and for humanity, and you may have wondered why it seems to matter so much to me. We have heard the secular voices of phobia and the sanctimonious voices of self-righteousness recently aiming barbs and damaging and demeaning legislation at people, especially young people, whose gender expression does not conform to a particular societal structure. Such unkindness and unwelcome can be deadly for the young person longing to belong, and to be beloved. It is beyond tragic that LGBTQ young people die of suicide or contemplate dying of suicide at a rate up to three times higher among than among their straight peers. Language and legislation that punish or demean them is the opposite of life-giving, the opposite of recognizing the diversity of the image of God among us. Language that is based in prurience, judgement, or distaste is so damaging to the confidence of a child of God. They know by what they hear whether we love them. And they hear a lot.

Sadly, this is a problem even amongst the most well-meaning of us. At our last diocesan convention the longest discussion in the whole meeting was about whether it is grammatically acceptable to expand our language to include those who use pronouns other than he or she. Finally, the idea that the loving people is more important than clinging to some timebound rules we were taught at school won out.

The people – any people – seeking God’s grace will find it here, and in us, only if we love them in Christ’s name, as Christ has loved us, finding the image of God within our facets and our flaws, in infinite variety and visions of beauty.

The truth is that Isaiah addresses the eunuch’s concerns, if they are as I have imagined here. God answers, through the prophet:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
 (Isaiah 56:3-5)

And Jesus affirms the eunuch in the gospel of Matthew, adding, “Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)

Philip, one of Jesus’ closest twelve apostles, remembered the word of Jesus: words of acceptance, embrace, grace, and love. He knew that the way of Christ is the way of truth, the way that leads to life, that is life-giving. He welcomed the eunuch’s desire to be baptized and he gave this person, this stranger, the confidence to ask for and to accept this sacrament of God’s grace.

The people seeking grace, love, belonging will know God’s love if we love them in Christ’s name, as Christ loves us.

How we talk about one another matters. Loving our neighbours matters. Bringing life, extending resurrection, matters. Recognizing the image of God, infinite in its diversity and indivisible in each person into whom God has breathed life, including you, including me: this is part of loving the God who has so loved us. In those whose bodies, lives, families, or identities most differ from our own, there it is that we see most clearly the breadth and expansiveness of God’s embrace.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. … Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [his, her, their, God’s] love is perfected in us.
(1 John 4, selected verses)


Image via pixabay.com

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Prayer for an end to mass shootings

My God,
can we not go one week,
sabbath to sabbath,
without a mass shooting?

Will you not beat
our pistols into ploughshares,
our shotguns into shovels,
our rifles into rakes,
massage some feeling into
our hearts of stone?

I sigh, open my eyes;
the mirror stares back in silver silence.
The water whispers, “Yes,
YES –

you
should do that.”

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Let justice roll like a river; still waters can wait

A pre-recorded sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (also known as Good Shepherd Sunday), 2021


When Peter preaches to the high priests and elders, he tells them what he has seen and known and how he has witnessed the power of God present in Jesus of Nazareth, and continuing in his name. He is a man possessed by the love of Christ. “There is no other name given among mortals,” he describes with awe, “that will save.” Peter knew Jesus as a man, a true and mortal human, who died and was buried: no one else who has lived this life, he asserts, has the power of God to save. But Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus was the Word of God. Jesus is the life of God.

But this is where Peter and I need to be careful not to do violence to the pre-existing promises of God. That exuberance, that faith cannot be used to do violence to the faith or the life of others. The misuse and abuse of Christ’s name has caused terrific grief over the centuries since Peter preached, leading most immediately and devastatingly to antisemitism, which has no place in God’s heart. Twisting the cross into a cudgel, wielding religion as a weapon; trusting in our own righteousness and rightness has led to all kinds of crimes and slights against those of other religions, cultures, traditions, bodies, families …

But a Christianity that follows Jesus is not a religion of superiority, nor of exclusivity, nor one of condemnation, nor of supremacy, nor of self-righteousness: Jesus comes not to lord it over the people whom God has made, but to love them, even to die for them.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; …
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

There is no way of praying this psalm truthfully, honestly, lovingly, in this time and place that does not acknowledge that there are no still waters, there can be no resting in meadows, when violence threatens to break in at any moment. There is no peace while injustice holds sway anywhere among us. And while it’s better than pretending that all is right in our world, let’s not pretend either that justice consists of one man’s conviction for another man’s murder. Goodness and mercy demand better than a cycle of violence and regret. There are no green pastures to rest in yet while racism, armed and dangerous, continues to poison the streams from which we drink, or while weapons of war wreak havoc in FedEx facilities, grocery stores, massage parlours, family homes …

God is faithful to God’s promises, to all people. Green pasture will be found. But let justice first “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Only then will the waters, the raging torrent will be stilled, when justice, God’s justice, God’s goodness and mercy have been poured out and completed.

These promises predate Christianity. God’s promise to provide for Adam, to protect even Cain, to immortalize Abraham through his and Sarah’s offspring, to save Moses from the Red Sea, to restore the people from exile, never again to flood the earth and all flesh: these promises and the promises penned by the prophets and the psalmists all predate the life on earth of Jesus of Nazareth, and God’s promises remain true, for all of God’s people, the sheep of many folds. God’s love is not exclusive.

Yet it is through Christ and in Christ that I have come to know God’s loving kindness. The incarnation, the cross, the resurrection: that God almighty would stoop to step among us, to breathe beside us, to die at our hands, to lead the way out of the grave – that is the revelation that continues to break my heart open to the cycle of grace as often as it is needed.

Jesus’ life, his love convict me of my sin – the ways in which I continue, knowingly and accidentally, to contribute to the cycle of violence and regret instead of self-giving love. In the Introduction to her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo warns that white progressive people like me are in fact one of the most dangerous demographics when it comes to the work of anti-racism in this country.[i] People like me who think that we know what’s best and how to pull ourselves out of the currents of racism in this society in which we swim; how to redeem ourselves. The death and resurrection of Christ convince me that only the torrent of God’s justice, God’s goodness, God’s mercy will be our salvation. The waters of baptism are only a beginning. There is so much more to do to live into the promises we have made, to find our way toward peace for all of God’s people, truly to love the image of God in every living being.

Even so, even as I stumble and lose my way, Christ is with us, tending and guiding us like a good shepherd, as one who loves his sheep, as one who keeps her promises. Where I am unfaithful, Christ remains faithful. Where I am ignorant, Christ is wise. Where I am cruel, Jesus is kind. Where I am earthbound, and hidebound, and lacking in imagination, the Word of God has dreamt into being everything we know and everything that we cannot yet quite see. God’s promises are true and unbroken.

And so may God comfort anyone caught in the shadows of death. May God bring justice to roll down like river, and righteousness like a mighty river, that they may pool together and become still, that all (all, all) may be refreshed, and one day find peace beside them.


[i] DiAngelo, Robin (Dyson, Michael Eric, contrib.), White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Germany: Beacon Press, 2018), 5

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Sore wounded

First purple, then green
new leaves unfurl as though
winter had never been;
veined and vain, they
bear no marks of last year’s deer,
no signs of decay.

This

is not the resurrection of the dead; this
is a conjuring trick with seasons meant
for children raised on fairy tales of
princesses pickled in aspic,
unscarred by spindle
or the thorn.

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Call to prayer

This reflection appeared first at the Episcopal Cafe


After a protracted battle with data plans and wifi boosters, and a long sojourn in the side chapel, it was only this past Palm Sunday that I was finally able, with any reliability (thanks to a Music Director with a spare thousand feet of ethernet cable and a cheap adapter), to broadcast our service from the church main. It was wonderful to be back behind the altar for Holy Week and Easter, despite the empty pews and the phantom, pre-recorded organ music.

It was also only a minute and a half into that Palm Sunday service that I heard it for the first time: a single, swift, unmistakably electronic “beep”.

“I only just replaced the battery on that darned smoke alarm,” I inwardly cursed, whilst scanning the Zoom squares for signs that anyone else had heard and keeping my outward composure suitably (hopefully) liturgical. The repetition against which I was braced did not, however, occur, and I gradually relaxed into the service and forgot about it.

On Maundy Thursday, at 6:01:30pm, it did it again.

Now, I was puzzled. Only later – one hour later, to be precise – as I locked up the sacristy to leave did the penny drop.

Somewhere in the sanctuary or close at hand, abandoned for a year and running a minute-and-a-half slow, there is an old-fashioned digital watch, the kind that is set to beep every hour, on the hour.

Between 12:01:30pm Good Friday and 10:01:30am Easter Sunday I pondered the problem. The thing was irritating me! But I scoured the chancel, the adjacent closets, the sacristy, the organ bench, the choir pews, all to no avail.

So I decided that maybe in this new season of resurrection it was time to look at it from another angle.

This past year has been full of electronics, which have sometimes cooperated and sometimes seemed almost malevolent in their refusal to participate in parish liturgy. But they have mostly been supportive. I have learned a lot – including when to give in. It has taken a while, I may admit, to feel quite at ease with online worship, even as I have encouraged others to join me in it. The pre-service routines and rituals, likewise, have undergone a sea-change since I started doubling up as celebrant and Zoom host. Even after recruiting help and co-hosts throughout the year, it is only relatively recently that I have felt as though I were beginning to find my sea-legs again.

Now, with another change of location and a new technological innovation, comes this beep.

The last time I attended an in-person conference, I remember the keynote speaker mentioning in passing that he sets an alarm on his phone at noon each day to remind him to pray.

So I have decided to regard this beep as my personal call to prayer. After the unwinding of the ethernet cable, the checking of signal and sound, the arrival of the co-host, the muting of the pre-service chatter, the sharing of the pre-recorded prelude – now, a minute and a half into the music, just before I greet the people I can see and those whom I cannot in the name of the Risen Christ, now it reminds me that it is time to let go of all that is beyond me, and let the Spirit lead me to a stronger signal, a faster connection, a much more reliable server, a powerful and timeless technology.

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Called into question

There is a chapter in Whom Shall I Fear? that asks questions about the relationship between the church and the police. It is evident already that it has made some of my early readers uncomfortable. I understand that: it makes me uncomfortable, too.

But not as “uncomfortable” as a mother whose son is shot to death by a police officer who says she couldn’t tell her gun from her taser.

Not as “uncomfortable” as the man with a knee on his neck.

I will not go on. It is too much, there are too many, and their names deserve better than a list.

We have a pretty good relationship with our local police. That makes the discussion more awkward, in a way. We have used police reports to back up our insurance claims after accident and incident, and they helped us with a no-trespass order when a repeat sex offender targeted a church member. I was grateful to the officers who helped me when somebody died in our basement apartment.

And still, the uncomfortable questions need to be asked:

  • Who is in control of the mission when police are invited to attend ministry functions? Will they leave their weapons behind if we ask them to?
  • Who feels less safe when the police are present? And do they matter to us?
  • What message does the police car in the parking lot send to the neighbourhood? And is it gospel?

And what will we do with the answers?

I confess, I have shied away in the past from having this conversation wholeheartedly within my own church leadership. The last time I brought it up the consensus we reached remained uneasy.

It is uncomfortable. But not as uncomfortable as a trumped-up arrest and crucifixion. It is our cross to bear.

If we do not ask the awkward questions, who will answer them for us? And will they look like Jesus?

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The midwives

Afterwards, when
they found you again,
did they use their ointments, spices, cloth
to bandage your wounds?

Hairline scratches
from the halo of thorns;
how did you bear the grass
beneath your feet?

Midwives of the body,
did they wipe your hands with aloe,
wash away three days’ dirt,
pack your side with linen,
swaddle you in cast-off grave clothes,
smother your pain with their song,

you, who were a new creation
born anew from the wound of the earth?


With all of the attention on Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter, I found myself wondering what it cost Christ to invite fresh exploration of his barely healing wounds, he who would not, would never stop giving of himself; and whether he would let them tend to him once more.

Image: Christus toont zijn wonden (1921), Gustave Van de Woestijne, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. (Detail)

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Balance

Picking my way across the wrong
end of the beach, avoiding
rocks that rock beneath my weight,
overhead branches that claw at my head,
empty bottles, remnants of some illicit picnic,
metal rope, remnant of some construction project,
sea glass and sharp plastic shards,
the frigid, opaque lake;

somewhere still is solid ground,
a stepping stone on which I cannot stand
forever balanced between
one world and the next 

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What is the meaning of this?

An Easter message

What does it mean that Jesus was resurrected?

He brought back others from the dead – Lazarus, and the son of the widow at Nain – because he carried life within himself, because he was the very Word of God, calling forth a new creation out of the carnage of death.

But his resurrection we hold to be qualitatively different. Is it because we, like the women approaching the tomb with trepidation before dawn, cannot see who is raising him, who is calling him out of his grave clothes, who is rolling away the stone? So the mystery is magnified; but there is more.

Jesus was crucified as a criminal. He was rejected as a madman with a messiah complex. He was taunted as a failure and betrayed by his friends. It looked as though the whole Jesus project had come to an ignominious end.

What happened when he was resurrected, in part, as many theologians have written, was that he was justified. He who claimed to be the Son of God looked like a fool when he died on the cross, but by dawn’s early light his identity was confirmed.[i]

Far from being rejected and abandoned by God, his resurrection made clear God’s will at work in his life all along, in his incarnation, even in the solidarity of death, and in its defeat. The resurrection was God’s third word from heaven: “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.”

What does it mean for us that Jesus was resurrected?

We hold that, unlike Lazarus and the son of the widow at Nain, Jesus, having once defeated death, would never die again. Death no longer had any dominion over him. This mortal man, as human as they come, born of a woman and crushed to death as a criminal on the cross – this man had trounced death, the devil, and the worst that this world could do to him, and he would live with his victory at God’s right hand for ever.

He did not, in a breath, undo the wickedness of the world—his wounds remained with him. But he had overcome it. He overwhelmed it with the creative and powerful force of God’s love, God’s life.

The wickedness of the world is still manifest about us, even within us. We carry its scars and we inflict its wounds on others. We crucify people for their differences from us, or we stand by and watch them be crucified. We crush people with poverty out of fear which leads to greed. We refuse to listen to the fears of others, out of fear that they will burden us with recognition or repentance. We still kill those whom we deem criminal, as though we learned nothing from the cross. We live with the wickedness of the world, and too often we make our peace with it, instead of bringing God’s peace to confront it.

The resurrection of Jesus confronts the cruelty of the crucifiers, those who wield the cross, those who left marks in his hands, his feet, his side, thorns in his head – Jesus has not undone their wickedness, but he has overwhelmed it with the goodness, the graciousness, the liveliness, the love of God. He has answered sin with forgiveness, violence with pity. He has answered death with eternal life. And what will be our answer?

The women went to the tomb expecting to find a corpse, the unfortunate end of a man. Instead, they found an angel. They were afraid; he told them to be unafraid, that Jesus would come and meet them just where they had first met him, at home in Galilee, in the landscape of their ordinary lives, in the midst of a messy and complicated world: the world that God created and we exploited. The women went to the tomb, expecting to uncover death. Instead they found its coverings rolled away. 

Resurrected, Jesus came back to his people, and he loved them out of their grief and his suffering. He remained true, in his resurrection, to the calling of his incarnation: to use his humanity for healing, his relationships for grace, his life for love.

What does it mean for Jesus to be resurrected? It means that, “having loved his own, he loved them to the end;” and that his love has no end. It is stronger than death. It is longer than life. From the cradle to the grave and out the other side, “Christ is risen” means that Jesus loves you, now and forever. Amen.


[i] See, for example, Alan E. Lewis, Between the Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Wm. B. Eerdmans, ), and John Barton, Love Unknown: Meditations on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus (SLG Press, 1999) 

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