Rev. Danielle K Bartz June 4, 2023
Acts of John: 94-95, 97a “To Dance on Good Friday”
“Now before he was taken by the lawless people, who also were governed by the lawless serpent, he gathered all of us together and said, ‘Before I am delivered up to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father, and then go forth to what lies before us.’ He told us therefore to make a ring, holding one another’s hands, and standing in the middle of the ring of us, he said, ‘Answer ‘amen’ as I sing. He then began to sing a hymn…
Glory be to thee, Father. Amen.
Glory be to thee, Word, Glory be to thee, Grace. Amen.
Glory to be thee, Spirit; Glory to be thee, Holy One; Glory be to thy glory. Amen.
Now let us give thanks:
I would be saved, and I would save. Amen.
I would be loosed, and I would loosen. Amen.
I would be wounded, and I would wound. Amen.
I would be born, and I would bear. Amen.
I would eat, and I would be eaten. Amen.
I would hear, and I would be heard. Amen.
I would be thought, being wholly thought. Amen.
I would be washed, and I would wash. Amen.
Grace dances! I would pipe; Dance all of you! Amen.
I would mourn: lament all of you. Amen.
The number Eight sings praise with us. Amen.
The number Twelve dances on high. Amen.
The Whole on high has a part in our dancing. Amen.
Those who do not dance, do not know what comes to pass. Amen.
I would flee, and I would stay. Amen.
I would adorn, and I would be adorned. Amen.
I would be united, and I would unite. Amen.
A house I have not, and I have houses. Amen.
A place I have not, and I have places. Amen.
A temple I have not, and I have temples. Amen.
A lamp am I to those who behold me. Amen.
A mirror am I to those who perceive me. Amen.
A door am I to those who knock for me. Amen.
A way I am to you, wayfarers.
“…Thus, my beloved, having danced with us the Lord went forth.”
The apocryphal texts of early Christianity have a complicated relationship with the Church. When the Biblical canon, the 27 books that form the New Testament still today, was formalized in the 3rd century, the Church leaders ordered all other ancient writings about the time of Jesus and the early spread of the Gospel destroyed. They had decided which books to include and all other writings were considered heretical and a threat to the growing Church. In a lot of ways, it was an ancient example of book banning – something that has quite distressingly continued today. I don’t know about you, but when I hear of a book that has been banned it quickly moves to the top of my must-read list. That includes for me the apocryphal texts of Christianity.
Luckily some monks in Egypt, librarians really, were appalled at the idea of destroying those important texts. So, to the great benefit of the Church today, they defied the order and hid those texts in caves. There they lived, preserved in the dry, desert conditions, until they were re-discovered. There have been several discoveries of such ancient Christian documents – the best known being the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars have spent decades carefully studying, translating, and making public these writings. While some are incomplete because sections continue to be missing or are too damaged to be fully readable, there are dozens of texts that have been re-discovered. And I believe they are of great value to the Church.
One such text is the one we read a portion of today, the Acts of John. This text is in three parts: stories about the disciple John’s early work of spreading the Good News about Jesus – including several miracles; stories about Jesus, some of which cannot be found in the Biblical Gospels; and finally a re-telling of the death of John. Today’s reading came from that second section – stories about Jesus. And what we read today cannot be found in the Gospels we are most familiar with.
This story comes right before Jesus’ arrest before his trial and execution. It describes Jesus doing things we do not find in the canon – leading the disciples in corporate worship and responsive prayer. And this worship and prayer includes dancing. He tells the disciples to form a circle, holding hands. Jesus, in the center of that circle leads them in a responsive prayer and together they all dance.
Dancing as worship was not unusual in any way. The Old Testament has several examples of people dancing as a form of praise. Miriam dances on the shores of the Red Sea, Kind David dances naked before the Ark of the Covenant. While it might sound unusual to our ears because it is not a story about Jesus we heard growing up, there is actually nothing particularly unusual about it at all. Dancing was then, and continues to be today, a common worship practice. So, it is not the dancing that makes this story extraordinary. What is extraordinary about it is that it is Jesus’ final act of leadership and teaching with his disciples before his arrest. In his darkest hour, knowing of the pain and torment to come, Jesus leads his followers in full-bodied worship and praise of God. He leads them in a hymn of praise. And much like the protest hymns that we can find in American history, it is a hymn of resistance and rebellion. It is hope in the face of despair. Praise in the face of hate. It is joy on Good Friday.
The Most Rev. Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal church in the United States, says that one of the great contradictions of Christianity is that often Good Friday and Easter are experienced at the same time. “Such is the nature of life,” he said at the Festival of Homiletics a few weeks ago. The theme of that week was ‘Preaching Hope to a Weary World’. Preaching hope, for people like me, or living hope for all of us, is not about denying the realities of the world. Put another way, to be Easter people does not mean that we pretend Good Friday didn’t happen. To be people of hope, the type of hope that Jesus embodied by dancing and singing on Good Friday, is not about denying the nature of the world. It is about refusing to allow ourselves to be overcome by it.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the disease of despair that is a pandemic just as deadly, if not more so, than COVID. Drug addiction is rising exponentially. Loneliness is considered such a serious health risk that the US Surgeon General has called for systematic efforts to combat it. Online vitriol is growing and creating serious harm for the youth of this world. And there are not enough words available to me to do justice to the way gun culture is literally killing our children. It does no one any good to deny the nature of this world. But if we are to follow in the example and teachings of Jesus – the example and teaching that can be found in both the Gospels and the apocryphal texts – we must not allow ourselves to be overcome by this world. That is, I believe, the ultimate form of nonviolent resistance. And we must remember – Jesus did not dance and pray in private. He gathered his community around him. He led them in prayer. They danced together. To be Easter people in a Good Friday world means that we too have a community with which we can gather. We have a community that we can join hands with. A community to dance with wild abandon – so that we shall never be overcome by this Good Friday world.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, in his recent report on the epidemic of loneliness, made the obvious explicit – the best way to cure loneliness is with the engagement of community. A faith community, then, can be a curative. It can be the difference between being overcome by the weariness of the world, and overcoming it with hope and song and dancing. And building on that, it is communities that can actually confront that same weariness and create hope on a systemic level. Dancing on Good Friday is gathering in a church kitchen on Thursdays to cook together and offer a place of community for some of the most vulnerable in our town. Dancing on Good Friday is participating in Habitat for Humanity’s Rock the Block, which will bring together people from all over to make the homes of our neighbors just a little bit nicer – topped off with a block party to celebrate. Dancing on Good Friday is worshipping together, sitting at table together, tending gardens together, and singing of hope. Dancing on Good Friday is opening this building for vigils and meetings and choirs and theater groups – all in an effort to shine the light of hope a bit brighter.
In the Acts of John we hear of Jesus dancing on Good Friday, refusing to be overcome by the despair surrounding him by gathering with his community to sing songs of resistance. In the hymn Lord of Dance, we sing that same song of resistance, allowing those words of hope to be carried with the sounds of our own voices. It is our act of rebellion. It is our resistance. It is our spark that can light the fire of hope for this weary world.
It is the nature of our Christian lives to experience Good Friday and Easter at the same time. We see the despair of the world and we praise God. We know the hatred that exists and we love our neighbors as ourselves. We see how death has crept in and we hold as our greatest joy an empty tomb. Dancing in the midst of this weary world is not naïve or callous. It is what it means to be Easter people. It is what it means to be the followers of a divinely-inspired man who danced on Good Friday. Amen.
God of Dancing, you are the hope that we cling to when the weariness of the world threatens to overwhelm us. You are the spark of joy that gives us the strength to keep singing and dancing. You are the presence that can never abandon us. For all of this we are so grateful and it is in this spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we do not deny the realities of the world around us. We know our own grief and the grief of our neighbors. We see the wars, the hatred, and the fear. But we also see the ways in which your life cannot be crushed. We see the ways that so many people are doing good for one another. We celebrate the ways that this community shines a light for this world. And we seek your inspiration for what we can do next.
One of the ways, God, that we hold onto that hope you provide is by opening our hearts to you in prayer. In these moments of silence we release to know those things that we carry and by so doing create more room for you to fill us up with your love…
Great and Good God, you are our source and our strength just as you were the source and strength for our greatest teacher Jesus Christ, who showed us what it means to dance and sing in hope. We pray all of this and so much more in his name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…