April 21, 2013
Easter 4, Year C
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
“If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
The setting for today’s gospel is the temple, specifically Solomon’s Portico, the magnificent colonnade enclosing the large Court of the Gentiles. It served as a market and public meeting place, a social space for meeting and mixing. It was built 800 years after King Solomon, but called that because it was the porch of judgment, the place where kings heard disputes and made decisions.
It was mid December, the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah. Nearly two hundred years before today’s event, Antiochus Epiphanes, a Greek, had ruled Jerusalem.[i] Greek culture and customs had become quite popular among many Jews. Traditional, observant Jews took offense. Tension between the two sides escalated and grew bloody.
Antiochus foolishly got involved in this Jewish conflict about religious observance, siding with the Jews adopting Greek customs. Antiochus began persecuting observant Jews to crush them. He desecrated the Temple by setting up a large statue of Zeus, outlawed Jewish Law and its religious rites, and even forced Jews to eat pork.
This intensified the opposition of the observant Jews. Led by Judas Maccabeus, the observant Jews fought the imperial power and won, largely because Antiochus started another war, which distracted him. (Sound familiar?) The Jews removed Zeus from the Temple, ritually cleansed it, and re-dedicated it in 164 B.C. The Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, celebrates this event. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the feast made them remember that their revolt had achieved independence. It lasted about a century. Then another imperial power, the Romans, invaded and added Judea to their empire.
For many of Jesus’ contemporaries, the great national hero Judas Maccabeus was a model for a Messiah, someone who had rallied the Jews to attain independence. They longed for another grassroots leader to kick out the Romans.
According to John, that day in the portico a group of Jews surrounded Jesus and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?” That’s one way to translate it. Some say a better way is: “How long are you going to annoy us?”[ii] Then they demand, “If you are the Christ, the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus responded, “I have told you, and you don’t believe.” Jesus’ point is that he’s told them who he is through his works, his actions, his miraculous signs, his teaching. The character of his deeds reveals who he is. But this wasn’t sufficient for his audience. They sought greater clarity. “Are you the Messiah? Tell us plainly.”
Essentially Jesus’ response to them was: “There’s no longer any point in engaging with you. My sheep believe. You don’t and won’t. You’ve made your judgment.” Then he really annoyed them. He said, “My Father and I are one.” He claimed to be divine. We, of course, associate divinity with Messiah, now, after Jesus. It’s not how Jesus’ contemporaries thought of Messiah. Instead, it greatly offended them. Just after today’s gospel ends, the next verse: “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.”
Jesus did not fit into their preconceived ideas of the Messiah. He was no Judas Maccabeus, and perhaps we can have some empathy for those Jews because it’s very difficult to let go of previous ideas, to adapt, to be open to the new and different. Jesus had told his interrogators, “If you want to know who I am, look at my work.” As they picked up stones, he asked, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you stoning me?”
Jesus knew that they were not about to stone for his works. They were angry how Jesus had challenged their certainties, upset their expectations, and stirred up doubts. That’s a fundamental characteristic of Jesus’ ministry and teaching: challenging, upsetting, stirring up.
In John’s gospel, Jesus taught through dialogue, but often with cryptic, ambiguous, provocative sayings. In the other gospels, Jesus taught with parables, which are often confusing and mysterious and have multiple meanings. Jesus did not teach to provide clarity. His meaning was often not obvious. His teaching method was participatory, requiring his listeners to think, to talk about things, to live with uncertainty and confusion, to wrestle with him. The word “Israel” literally means “the people who wrestle with God.” Jesus is more interested in engagement with him, relationship with him, than in correct, plain answers. Wrestling with God is more important than understanding.
When I read the Bible, I find clarity about some basics: Jesus loves you, delights in you, cherishes you, cares for you. You are a child of God. He wants you to be part of his rule of love, his Kingdom. You can trust him. You have hope. Your life is meaningful. I expect to find good news, and there’s plenty of good news.
But there’s a lot of complexity and uncertainty and bewilderment, too. The gospel stories often offer multiple meanings and layers of meaning. When we read a story, first we can reflect upon what Jesus meant, what he was telling his listeners in that moment, the original setting. A second level of interpretation: there’s what the evangelist meant. Each evangelist tells the stories of Jesus in different ways to make different points. Each evangelist sees Jesus in a different way. Sometimes they don’t even agree, but it doesn’t diminish Jesus. It enriches our sense of him. Third, there’s the way the church has interpreted the story through the ages. Christians typically are not in agreement. Fourth, and most importantly, there’s what you make of it. Our own understanding helps us know and experience God.
Last Sunday, the bulletin had a couple of questions about today’s gospel. Jesus said that his sheep, you and me, his followers, know his voice. Do you? When have you heard Jesus’ voice? How do you hear Jesus?
Few of us have an experience like Paul on the road to Damascus where Jesus appeared in a great light and spoke directly to Paul. Some people have strong mystical experiences of God, even hear his voice, but those experiences tend not to be regular and sustained. How then might we hear Jesus? He does speak to us, to each of us. I think that I listen to Jesus best, feel closest to him, when I shut up and try to say nothing – just sit in silence, eyes closed, sit trying futilely to clear my heart and mind. I don’t hear a voice or see light, but it nurtures my relationship with Jesus, grounds me, settles me, helps me trust, hope.
We may hear Jesus in other kinds of prayer as well… when we talk to God, when we tell him what’s important to us and what we’re grateful for, when we reflect on our lives, the events, the pattern of things. We may also hear Jesus inside us, in our conscience, in our passions, in our longings. Jesus lives in us. We may hear Jesus in conversations with friends and family. Jesus is in them, too.
And, of course, we may hear Jesus in scripture. What grabs us as we listen? What demands our attention? How does it speak to us here and now? Does it help us feel something? Does it give us a new insight? Jesus is there. It may not be a hundred percent clear, but that’s a common experience encountering Jesus in the Bible.
Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit, told a parable he called “The Explorer.”[iii] The explorer left his home and journeyed across the planet to the Amazon and, after much exploration, returned home. He told his people about his adventures, and they eagerly listened to his stories. He tried to find the words to describe his experiences and feelings; he tried to express the impact of seeing exotic flowers and plants, hearing the sounds of the jungle at night, sharing the land with wild and frightening beasts, paddling a canoe through treacherous rapids. He couldn’t find sufficient words, and so he told them, “Go and find out for yourselves.”
He really wanted them to know the Amazon. He drew a precise, detailed map to guide them to the river. His people pounced on the map and studied it. They framed it and put it in the town hall. They made some copies to have in their homes. They discussed it. They memorized the explorer’s description. After a while, they considered themselves experts on the river. They knew its every turn and bend, where it was broad and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls. But they never left their home.
They thought that they had achieved some clarity about the river. But do you think that they really knew the river? Or were they armchair explorers? The explorer’s message – “Go and find out for yourselves” – is the evangelists’ message. Go and meet Jesus. Experience him yourself. The Bible is not a clear map, but is full of meaning and possibility. It’s to encourage us to explore, to wrestle with God, to be in relationship with him and to know him for ourselves.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
[i] Uriel Rappaport, ‘Maccabean Revolt,’ article in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 4, David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, Doubleday (1992), pp. 437-438.
[ii] Andreas J. Kostenberger, John, Baker Academic (2004), pp. 310.
[iii] Gary D. Jones, article in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press (2009), p. 448, mentions Anthony de Mello, “The Explorer,” The Song of the Bird, Image Books (1984), pp. 32-33.
April 14, 2013
Easter 3, Year C
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
To me, Rick Warren, the mega-church rock star, is the American Pope. No fancy dress, no Baroque triumphalism, no Gothic intrigue, but Hawaiian shirts and bestsellers focusing on growth and transformation. Pastor Rick is the most influential Christian voice in our country. Although I do not share all his views, I’m grateful for his ministry, have learned from him, and have tons more to learn from him.
Just nine days ago Pastor Rick lost his son, Matthew, to suicide. Matthew had been suicidal for years and had received much care. I pray for Matthew, and the Warren family, and encourage you to do so as well. My heart goes out to them.
I am hopeful of silver linings because we’ve something to learn here, something about how to understand life with Jesus. Matthew’s death has initiated a national conversation about how Christian beliefs sometimes stigmatize people with mental illness.[i] Many well known pastors have called for Christians to stop shaming and stigmatizing mental illness, to end the secrecy and embarrassment.
Some Christians believe that because Christ lives in us, we necessarily are healthy, whole, and sound, and we should have no problems of the heart or mind; we’re fixed. Some believe that following Jesus gives us perfect emotional, spiritual, mental, psychological health. All we need to do is be a faithful, moral, right-believing Christian. And the corollary belief is that mental illness or emotional troubles represent spiritual weakness or a deficiency in faith, the only thing we need is prayer and obedience to God. Depression and other emotional challenges are a result of sinful behavior or insufficient faith.
Every part of me rejects that point of view. It is deeply, profoundly wrong; it is destructive, dangerous, hurtful, unwholesome, false. If we believe it, then we’re far less likely to get help for ourselves or family members or friends, and we’re likely to look down at those who do.
Years ago, I spent a summer working in the chaplain’s office at St. Elizabeth’s, a hospital in Anacostia for those who need intensive, inpatient care for mental illness. One of my insights was that every human being is, in a way, mentally ill, just that the dysfunction of some is more intense than others. A clinician could diagnose mental or emotional disorders in every one of us, in every human being. Most of us have more mild disorders and better coping skills than residents of St. Elizabeth’s, but we all need healing.
Mike Fewster is a pastor of New Life Christian Church out in Chantilly. The church’s website says, “We’re a place full of messed up people.”[ii] Not long ago, I clicked on another church website. It said: “we are a church with accomplished members.” It was an Episcopal Church.
Fewster has suffered with various addictions, suicidal thoughts, and bipolar disease. He said, “For a lot of people, church is just a place to go, a building. They put on their suit and tie, stand up when they’re told to and check a box, but that’s not supposed to be church. There is this false idea that church people are perfect. I try to say: ‘Until you break that, you’ll never get healing.’” Amen, Brother.
I have the same vision of church. When we accept Jesus, decide to follow him, direct our lives to him, that hardly means we’re set, we’re spiritually healthy, we’re completed. To the contrary. Let’s see life as a journey with God, to God, a journey full of obstacles and challenges and real darkness, evil. We try to move closer to God, and we make mistakes, our progress uneven, sometimes going backwards. Jesus came to help those in need, those who know weakness and sorrow and pain.
Another way to see it: the Christian life, what this parish nurtures, is growth in Christ, a gradual growth, where over time we may move closer to God, to others, to ourselves. It’s about strengthening a relationship with God, and our relationship with God, like our other relationships, sometimes hits rocky territory.
Our belief about God, our experiences of God, our understanding of holiness and goodness and the specifics of what God wants from us – these are NOT fixed, not rigid, but ever evolving and expanding. Hopefully, we’re constantly learning, seeing anew, adapting, gaining new insight. Allow that. Welcome that. The Holy Spirit awakens us and helps us move and grow. That’s the gospel, the good news. See it in today’s story from John.
The disciples have returned to Galilee after a week of tremendous emotional intensity and ups and downs: the hope of Palm Sunday; the Last Supper; the arrest of Jesus; the violence against Jesus; the loss of Jesus, the person on whom they had centered their lives; and then the resurrection, the incredible and confusing return of Jesus.
The disciples returned to the familiar, to making a living fishing. As usual, when the risen Jesus appeared to them in routine, ordinary life, they failed to recognize him. The first to recognize Jesus is the so-called beloved disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Scholars argue about the identity of the beloved disciple. We don’t need to resolve that, but only appreciate his role in John’s gospel. In the same way that Luke described the sisters Martha and Mary as complementary, Martha all action and business and Mary all contemplation and reflection, John set up Peter as the decisive and active disciple and the beloved disciple, the one who reclined at Jesus’ breast during the last supper, as the wise, discerning one.
The meaning for us: if we want to recognize the risen Christ here and now, in our lives, in our ordinary daily routines, then we need to make time to be with Jesus in prayer, in reading scripture, in reflection. We have to expect to see Jesus, to look for him in our lives.
The appearance of the risen Jesus once again shocked and amazed Peter, and all excited he jumped into the sea and swam about a hundred yards to shore to meet Jesus. Jesus had built a charcoal fire and was cooking fish for breakfast. He asked the disciples to bring some of the fish they caught. It’s a common theme in the gospels: Jesus asking his disciples, you and me, to contribute to what he’s doing.
The night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter had stood next to a different charcoal fire, and three times people asked whether he knew Jesus, and three times he had denied knowing Jesus. Standing next to another charcoal fire, Jesus three times asked Peter, “Do you love me?”
It reminds me of baptism, when three times the person being baptized renounces evil and then three times pledges to commitment to Jesus. We make a three-fold vow to Jesus: to accept, to trust, to follow. Like Peter, sometimes we fall short and don’t love him as we’ve pledged.
Peter had failed Jesus, denied him, had been slow to recognize him, but Jesus still entrusted Peter with great responsibility and authority. Today’s gospel shows Jesus re-commissioning Peter for ministry. “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.” The prerequisite for service, for ministry, is loving Jesus, even loving him imperfectly. Jesus knows that at times we’ll disappoint, foul things up, disobey, wander away, but he never gives up on us. He never gives up on us.
Central to Peter’s story is botching up, but bouncing back and trying again. Three times he assured Jesus he loved him, and I think Jesus was telling him, “You’re going to need to love me because your future, Peter, will try you. Evil and darkness await you.” Three decades after Jesus was crucified, Peter was crucified. It’s a story of growth – not perfection, Peter gradually becoming more like Jesus, moving from denying his friend to dying for his friend.
We tell Bible stories again and again and again so that we can see ourselves in them, so that we can identify with Peter, see ourselves in him. Like him, we encounter obstacles, personal shortcomings and failures, but we try again. Jesus never gives up on us. We’re resilient. We bounce back from difficulties.
If we really want to be serious about following Jesus, then becoming a Christian doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. It means we’re just beginning. It means we expect ourselves to change, to be transformed, that the Holy Spirit works in us and through us. We expect to learn, to grow, to be challenged, to encounter evil and darkness. Real transformation comes with uncomfortable experiences and feelings, sometimes with loss and pain and fear. Those are all part of Peter’s story. But so is the experience of having Jesus love him and trust him no matter what.
Peter’s story is our story. Remember Jesus saying, “Thou art Peter, the rock upon which I build the church.” That’s for us, too. You are Peter.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
[i] Michelle Boorstein, “Suicide of Star Pastor Rick Warren’s Son Sparks Debate About Mental Illness,” The Washington Post, April 10, 2013.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
One of the ways I experience the risen Christ is through scripture. The longer I’m a Christian the more the Bible means to me. The more I connect with scripture the stronger my experience of the risen Jesus is. It helps me see God alive and active in the world.
Last week, I heard about a seminary professor, David Lose, who suggested a way congregations might see the resurrected Jesus in scripture.[i] This Easter, the next seven weeks, in each Sunday bulletin, the following Sunday’s readings will be listed – see the bottom of page 18 in today’s bulletin. During the week, take five minutes to read the gospel and ponder a couple of questions about it. No correct answers. The best answers to these questions are the ones that help us enter the story more fully, that help us see these stories not merely out there, back then, but rather as here and now, that the risen Jesus is speaking to us through scripture, that these stories are very meaningful for our lives. We’ll see that quite clearly this morning.
The Second Sunday of Easter is always the story of the risen Jesus and Thomas. I think that through the ages Christians have treated Thomas rather roughly. We made his feast day, December 21, the winter solstice, the beginning of cold, the peak of darkness, the longest night of the year. Back when everyone was a Christian, and there was lots of religious art, artists often portrayed Thomas as an incredulous moron, poking around in Jesus’ wounds. Ridiculous. It’s not in today’s story. Jesus invited Thomas to stick his hand in, but there’s no indication that he did.
Thomas has represented doubt and darkness. Conventionally, doubt is regarded as the opposite of faith or doubt as opposed to faith. Ridiculous. More and more I think we appreciate that doubt is part of faith, not wholly different, but as existing together. We have faith, we trust God, not when we have no doubt, but despite our doubts. Real faith is trusting God, following God, loving and giving and opening ourselves despite our doubt, not letting doubt have the last word and rule us.
I find Thomas attractive, someone vitally important, and perhaps especially for our age, our world. Perhaps we might see him as representing the spirit of inquiry. He wanted evidence, proof, of the resurrection. He believed in the power of observation, the value of experience. Jesus did not rebuke his inquiry; he offered Thomas his hands and his side for inspection. Jesus invited Thomas’ questioning. Jesus did not declare Thomas’ faith lacking or inferior. Today’s story is a divine endorsement of science, of Western civilization’s passion for understanding our material world, learning from what we see and experience.
Thomas also receives criticism for not believing the witness of the other disciples, the witness of the church. Again, I identify with Thomas here. While I now accept and love the church, despite its many and deep flaws, I didn’t become a Christian for years because the church struck me as… well, as worse than ridiculous, as hypocritical, judgmental, moralistic, petty, controlling; as anti-material, anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-play; as rigid, static, ideological; as opposed to growth and looking backward. I understand why a lot of people are highly suspicious of the church, and if non-religious people are at all interested in God, they may identify with Thomas, not so quick to accept the church’s testimony.
Like me, perhaps you, too, Thomas wanted to see and touch the physical presence of Jesus, and when Jesus invited him to touch, Thomas saw and believed: “My Lord and my God.” Jesus replied, “You believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes.” Indeed, Thomas believed, and it changed him.
Then Jesus said, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believed.” That’s Jesus speaking to us, to you and me, to the billions who have not seen and yet believe. John said that’s the purpose of his gospel, that his readers, you and me – those who don’t see or touch Jesus physically – may come to believe that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing we may have life, abundant life.
Do you see how we are part of this story? The story is for those who don’t see Jesus, but who want to believe, or do believe, or might consider believing, or struggle to believe. We are characters in the story.[ii] Thomas is the bridge, linking the disciples’ belief, linking those who saw Jesus physically, to us, those who haven’t seen, and yet believe. Thomas is the point of transition from belief through seeing to belief through hearing the witness of others.[iii]
Today’s story also invites those of us who hear and learn from the witness of others to get involved, to be part of Jesus’ mission. In most of the resurrection stories, Jesus gave his disciples authority to continue his work. The resurrected Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations, to baptize, to be witnesses, to care for each other, to forgive sins. We heard Jesus say, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Again, Jesus is speaking to each of us, sending each of us.
Then Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. Jesus breathed on them. It’s the same thing God did at the creation in Genesis. When God created Adam, he breathed life into his nostrils, and man became a living being. (Gen 2:7) Here Jesus breathed on his disciples; he gave them the Spirit, the breath of life, eternal life. It means that through the gift of the Spirit the disciples are now God’s children, Jesus’ brothers and sisters.[iv]
So the scene is significant in two ways. First it’s about reconciliation, forgiveness. The disciples who abandoned, denied, betrayed Jesus are forgiven. There’s love and acceptance. Second, Jesus gave the Spirit to make them his brothers and sisters and to send them into the world, to engage in his mission, to be his presence in the world. At the Last Supper, Jesus had promised the disciples he’d give them the Spirit to help them witness to him. It’s to help them share and tell good news, to be an evangelistic community.
That’s what we’re part of, part of our identity. But I’m highly ambivalent regarding myself as an evangelist, and you may be too. Although I want people to know the strength and life that comes with following Jesus, I have some negative associations with evangelism. Often evangelism seems coercive and manipulative, and I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to damage relationships with my non-religious friends and family. Yet, I know that Jesus wants me to be an evangelist. Consequently, evangelism can arouse feelings of guilt.
Here’s something to keep it in perspective, to diminish guilt, to focus energies in the right place. While evangelism may involve getting out there and telling your family and friends about Jesus, it’s usually not that. The first Christian communities spread good news, evangelized, by focusing on living the gospel with integrity, living according to God’s rule of love.
In his letters to churches, Paul got all excited and upset when his churches became full of pettiness, strife, selfishness, and jealousy. Paul longed for them to embody what he called the fruits of the Spirit: love, peace, joy, kindness, self-control, forgiveness, persistence, compassion. If a community lives like that, it witnesses to Jesus and the gospel. It attracts people because most people want the fruits of the Spirit in their lives.
Evangelism is not a program. It’s about showing people life with the risen Jesus, what it does for us. It’s being in the world, engaged with the world, but part of a renewed creation. Paul said, “Do not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of our mind.” (Romans 12:2)
Evangelism may occasionally require a few words about faith: why Jesus is important to you, how the church gives you life and strength. But what’s more powerful than words is how we change as people, how God transforms us, what the Holy Spirit does in us, the life in us. Real witness to the risen Jesus is growth, spiritual maturity, a developing and enriching character. When people see you changing positively, your behavior changing, your attitude changing, your values changing, when the fruits of the Spirit are growing in you, then it is obvious Christ is living in you. That’s powerful testimony. It helps others to see and believe as Thomas saw and believed.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] David Lose, ‘The Never-Ending Story,’ www.workingpreacher.org, 4/1/2013.
[iii] Andreas J. Kostenberger, John, Baker Academic (2004), pp. 580.
[iv] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible Commentary 29B, Doubleday (1970), pp. 1035-38.