Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
John 10:22-30 - link to NRSV text
"If you are the Anointed, tell us plainly."
I can understand the frustration of Jesus' questioners. In Matthew, Mark, or Luke, people ask him a simple question -- "Who is my neighbor?" "Why don't your disciples fast?" -- and they get a story. Jesus' stories don't simplify things, either. They complicate, leaving us wondering: Who's really the good son? What's really fair? Who is really wise or successful? Who is NOT my neighbor?
In the Gospel According to John, Jesus' manner of speaking is strikingly different from how he speaks in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but Jesus still doesn't do much to sate anyone's desire for clarity. He makes puzzling statements ("no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above"), and when asked for clarification ("How can someone who is old be born?"), Jesus issues a monologue that's twenty times longer, but no clearer.
It's not that Jesus won't help; it's that clarity doesn't help. "If you are the Anointed, tell us plainly," his critics say. But if Jesus said, "Yes. I'm Anointed," would that help? We still wouldn't know what he was anointed to do, who he was anointed to be for us. And even in the Gospel of John, with its lengthy monologues and seemingly clear (with our hindsight through countless layers of interpretation -- but how sure are we that we're seeing Jesus, and not just convincing ourselves that our ideas about Jesus are God?), Jesus' words often unsettle more than they settle for those who seek clarity.
But we don't need clarity. We need love. We don't need a truth we can apprehend with words. We need the Truth; we need Jesus, the Word. We don't need a map; we need to follow. Jesus' works -- in particular, his willingness to lay down his life for his friends rather than retaliate against those who seek to be his enemies -- testify to his character in a way that words alone can't. Even Jesus' claim that "the Father and I are one" gets its content primarily from Jesus' actions, from the way he loves.
And this is why Jesus is accused of blasphemy. It's not just his words, but the meaning with which his life and his relationships infuse his teaching. Jesus claims that the God of Israel acts as he does, asking to share a drink with the Samaritan woman, sharing a feast with five thousand strangers (with so many, how could he check to see that the food and the hands that passed it were clean, the male guests circumcised, the women virtuous?), washing feet, dying on a cross.
That's one reason I love the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Good News at all times. If necessary, use words." The works that Jesus did in the Father's name testified to Jesus' character, and to the truth of Jesus' claim that God acts in the world as Jesus does. We can talk about truth until there are no words left. We can try to boil truth down to four spiritual laws or three easy-to remember points starting with 'C,' but to what do our lives testify? Truth is not a set of words or a good idea, but a person and a relationship. Truth is not to be apprehended and explained, but loved, and we testify to our knowledge of Jesus' voice not by what statements we agree with, but by whom we love and how.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
In last week's gospel, a doubter made contact with the Body of Christ and found his Lord. In this week's epistle, a persecutor is touched by the Body of Christ and becomes an apostle. And in this Sunday's gospel ... you're not gonna believe this ...
Jesus has breakfast with his disciples.
I think this is worth emphasizing.
I'm serious. I'm serious because I think this Sunday's gospel is a serious challenge to how a lot of Christians talk about Jesus.
I can imagine that a lot of Jesus' earliest followers -- the ones in Galilee who left their homes and villages and nets, and in some cases their parents or spouses, to follow Jesus -- might have done so in part out of a conviction that because Jesus was The One, the Messiah, he would at some point knock off this whole blessed-are-the-meek thing and emerge from a phone booth with a big red 'M' on the chest of his spandex suit (thanks to Scott Bartchy for the image) to do what The One was expected to do, namely kick the enemy's butt and put the good guys in power.
The cross was a huge blow to these people. But I can imagine that some, hearing that Jesus had been raised from the dead, would think that the moment had come for Jesus' true nature to be revealed to the world, that the moment had arrived for Jesus to act like The One -- meaning, of course, that the time had come for him to take names and kick butt. I think that this Sunday's gospel was meant in part to take on people with expectations like that. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus DOES show his true nature. Jesus does precisely what The One is supposed to do, what is needed for God's kingdom to come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And it's breaking bread, not kicking butt.
Sometimes we Christians still talk about Jesus as if he were going to be undergoing a personality transplant at some point in the future. Sure, up until his death on the cross Jesus acted as a friend to tax collectors and sinners, and he broke bread and told stories and healed. But in the Second Coming, it's going to be a very different scene; that's when we'll see his real nature, his real strength.
But there was a second coming of Jesus. We call it Easter. According to today's gospel, in Jesus' second coming, he behaved pretty much as he did the first time around. He invited people to breakfast. He fed them.
Why do we still talk about Jesus as if he's going to become The Christinator next time around? Jesus said he'd be there wherever two or three gathered in his name, and he's been true to his word. Every time that a couple or more of us have gotten together over the last couple of millennia, Jesus has come again. We've got to be at least at the Trillionth Coming by now. I've only witnessed a few thousand of those occasions in which the risen Jesus has come again, but it's enough to convince me that Jesus' personality and mission have stayed pretty much the same. When Jesus shows up, it's to teach and heal and reconcile, and to enjoy a good meal. I believe that the one who is Alpha and Omega is going to have the same mission in the end that he's been carrying out since the beginning, and that's to reconcile us to one another and with God. What else could we think -- would Christ's mission in the Second or the Third or the Twenty-Nine Trillionth Coming be any different from the mission of Christ's Body?
I've heard many a sermon talking about the wonders of the apostolic age and speculating on how wonderful it would be to see those wonders again. I've heard quite a few talking about what Jesus is going to do when next he comes. But I think in many of the nostalgic or apocalyptic stories we tell about how Jesus worked in the past or will work in the future, we're forgetting the greatest of Jesus' miracles and slighting his miraculous work among us in the present. Jesus brought humanity together to break bread, to enjoy God's gifts with anyone who would hear the invitation to the feast. We may not realize how blind we are until we find scales falling from our eyes. We may not realize how hungry we are until we've decided to sit down with Jesus and the motley crowd he gathers. But there's always enough healing power -- and enough home cooking -- to go around. Soup's on!
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
John 20:19-31 - link to NRSV text
The Second Sunday of Easter is always the Sunday of Thomas "the twin," sometimes called "doubting Thomas." At St. Martin's, where I work, it's also a day when we baptize children, so as I prepare to preach, I find myself reflecting on the connection between the Baptismal Covenant and this Sunday's gospel, in particular Jesus' statement, "Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to believe."
In many ways, it's a puzzling statement. It certainly goes against some modernist sensibilities. A lot of the scientific quests of the 20th century seem predicated on the assumption, "blessed are you who, because you won't settle for somebody else's word for it, finally see for yourself." Some (though not all) scholars examining the historical Jesus -- what can be demonstrated with current evidence as most plausibly coming from Jesus of Nazareth before his crucifixion -- speak of their quest in "blessed are those who see for themselves" kinds of terms, as they talk about trying to get behind the stories early Christian communities told to something else, something behind them, something closer to "truth."
I don't think there's anything wrong with historical Jesus scholarship as an enterprise. I think it's of historical value, and can be of value for Christians and Christianity as well. At the very least, I find it's often useful to be able to make a very solid historical argument that there actually was a person named Jesus of Nazareth who lived in the first century C.E. But I don't think (and most historical Jesus scholars would agree with me) that trying to get somehow beyond Christian community is going to help (or, for that matter, hurt) much if what you want is to encounter the risen Jesus for yourself.
If you want to meet the risen Christ, I'd suggest hanging out where he hangs out. Invest compassion as well as time and treasure with those with whom Christ suffers today. Find a stranger on the road you can invite to break bread with you and your fellow travelers. Listen deeply for Christ's voice where two or three are gathered in his name. In short, don't rely solely on books, or even on solitary prayer to find Jesus. Connect with Christ in community. Thomas was absolutely sure of one thing before he saw the risen Jesus for himself. He knew that if Jesus was alive, Jesus would be seen in the flesh.
That hasn't changed. We still encounter Jesus in the flesh. We might not see him with our eyes, but we've got something in common with Thomas: the surest way for us to encounter the risen Jesus, and to know him as Lord and God is by touching (and being touched by) Christ's Body.
And that brings me back to baptism and our Baptismal Covenant. We can't live the life of the baptized outside of community, without other human beings with whom we can form relationships of justice, whom we can love, whom we can forgive, and from whom we can receive what Christ wants to give -- the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. I love to hear conviction in the congregation's cry of "We will!" in our vow to support the baptized as they live into the covenant they've made, or their parents have made on their behalf. Our journey isn't always easy; Jesus' call is as much in tension with our culture as it was in first-century Palestine. The new disciples will need our support. And we need theirs. We need all of the gifts, the creativity, and even the wounds of Christ's Body to know life in Christ.
Thanks be to God!
Easter Sunday, Year C
Luke 24:1-10 - link to NRSV text
"Why do you look for the living among the dead?" the messengers asked the women.
It's a question I ask myself from time to time.
Some years ago, I went to a spiritual director with complaints about my prayer life. I missed the easy, chatty intimacy I felt with God when I was younger, especially when I was in college. In comparison, my prayer life in the present felt dry. I prayed the Daily Office, I prayed the psalms, I interceded for the church and the world and I listed my own concerns. I also spent a lot of time in silence -- something I never did in college, when I thought of prayer exclusively as a conversation. And I just wasn't getting the same kind of emotional charge in prayer that I used to get. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong.
"You've walked into a bigger room," the spiritual director said. "The walls are further away and you can't see them, so you're not quite sure where you are. But you're where you need to be."
And I was where I needed to be. My life was far more full than it had ever been, and so was my prayer life. I had found discipline (something entirely absent from my college years!), and specifically I had taken up disciplines of contemplative and corporate prayer that were bearing prodigious fruit in my life. I had a hard time seeing that, though, when I was focusing on what used to be rather than on what is. I was looking for a living spirituality among memories of things that were long gone, but that's not where abundant life is.
Actually, I'm groping for the right verb -- "is" sounds too static, and abundant life, the life Jesus gives, is always beckoning us onward. When I was a child, I read C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia over and over, and one of the most vivid images I have of our life in Christ comes from the conclusion of The Last Battle, the final book from the series, in which the heroes finally enter Aslan's country, Narnia's vision of heaven. Once there, they find that Aslan's country is a little like the wardrobe they climbed into so long ago and found themselves in a whole new world, the world of Narnia. The inside is bigger than the outside. In Aslan's country, the cry is always "Further up and further in," and as one journeys toward the center, things seem increasingly more real somehow. The wonders left behind from the last step seem like shadows in comparison to the increasingly more vivid and wondrous country one journeys through in the present.
When I find something -- a spiritual discipline, a ministry, a step in my relationship with God -- that "works," that brings me closer to God, the temptation I find is usually to look upon it as a sign that I've arrived, whatever that means. Like Peter on the mountain of Jesus' transfiguration, I'm tempted to build a house right there and declare it my permanent address. But Jesus' call is always "Further up and further in!" If I stay there, I may be comfortable, but eventually I find I'm no longer growing there. It doesn't mean that something's wrong with the place, and it doesn't mean that something's wrong with me; it means that abundant life lies ahead, and I'm called onward on the journey.
These feel like uncertain times for many of our communities; I hear a lot of fear and confusion in conversations about our church, our nation, our world, and where we're called to go in each of these. I also hear a lot of anger from some. It's an anger that springs from a sense of loss: Where is the church and the world I knew -- my church, my world? Who took it away? How do we get it back?
I understand the sense of loss, having experienced enough significant losses in my own life. But when I feel the fear that often follows such a sense of loss, the words of the messengers in this Sunday's gospel come to me: Why look for the living among the dead? Even what was good before may not be what I am called to now. Further up and further in! Jesus is not dead. He is alive -- and furthermore, he is on the move! We will meet him not as a preserved body in a tomb, but as the stranger on the road. Further up and further in! Come to the table with companions on the journey; Jesus opens our eyes as we break bread together. Jesus is not gone, but he has been transformed, and we are called to follow. Abundant life lies ahead on the journey. No time to pack -- the next leg of the journey starts now! Further up and further in!
Matthew, Mark, and Luke present Jesus' last meal with his disciples -- the meal we remember particularly on Maundy Thursday -- as a Passover meal. The Gospel According to John, however, goes out of its way to say that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation, the day before the Passover meal would be eaten. I find the old-school historical question, though, of which day was the one on which Jesus died far less interesting than the (also historical!) question of what points the gospels are making in presenting things as they do in each of their unique takes on the meaning of Jesus' death.
John presents Jesus as dying on the Day of Preparation as part of his presentation of Christ as our Passover. In 1998, I was fortunate enough to hear Rabbi Alexander Schindler (former head of the organizations of congregations in the Reform branch of Judaism in the U.S.) speak, and I will never forget something he said. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means "the narrow place," Schindler pointed out; God leads us out of the narrow places.
I'd always loved the haggadah, the liturgy of the Passover meal, but each year, as I continue to reflect on what Rabbi Schindler taught me that night, my appreciation deepens further still. The haggadah instructs us to say, in the first person, "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor," from Deuteronomy 26:3-11. The story of our Exodus, as God leads us from "the narrow place," goes back at least to Abraham. When humanity's vision of what the world and the powers that made it is in the narrow place of thinking the gods were as thirsty for human bloodshed as humankind is at our worst, in a culture in which parents sacrificed their sons and daughters to appease the powers, God's voice speaks to Abraham as he loomed over his bound son Isaac, and God says, "Stop it! That's enough!" God goes with Abraham to that dark and narrow place and led him to a wider place, a wider vision.
The Passover haggadah instructs us to say, in the first person, "When we were slaves in Egypt," also from Deuteronomy 26:3-11. When humanity sees power merely as domination, when humanity treats difference as a reason to subjugate the "other," God raises a prophet to say, "Enough," to lead us out of the "narrow place" of slavery.
Not that we stayed looking and moving forward on the journey God set us on. We sacrificed our sons and daughters to all kinds of powers and causes, trading lives for what is far less precious than life. We enslaved peoples captured in wars, from colonies, or by poverty and debt, practicing slavery in legally enshrined and more subtle de facto ways. We experienced how, when we treat human life as cheap, our own lives seem worthless. We found as we enslaved others that our greed had enslaved us. We tried to protect ourselves from death by killing, from violence by violence, from pain by wounding others, and amidst all of our score-keeping and fantasied and practiced revenge, and in the person of Jesus, God said, "Never again."
The Cross is a dark place. The Romans who invented it used the height of their ingenuity to engineer a form of torture that even now has hardly been matched. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.
In the person of Jesus, God came to that dark and narrow place, to our Mitzrayim. In Jesus' arms, stretched out on the Cross, God showed us the wideness of God's mercy. The most powerful person in all Creation became powerless for our sake. The only person who could rightly be called "lord" or "king," the person before whom all earthly kings will one day kneel, took upon himself the treatment humankind dealt to a slave convicted of treason. The judge of the nations was stripped naked and violated with a shameful death, and he said, "That's enough. Never again. It is finished." Not with a decisive blow back to put his tormentors to shame, but with words of healing, of reconciliation, bringing together the human family with his last breath. The power of that demonstration has never been equalled, because Jesus' power is not like the power of worldly kings; Jesus speaks truly when he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of the order, of the kosmos, of this world. Jesus' light shines all the more brightly in the darkness of Good Friday.
This is a dark place we visit today. But we need to be here. We need to visit the dark and narrow places, to open our hearts not only to the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed, but to the contemptuous, the persecutors, the oppressors. Because the dark places in our hearts are populated by all of these; we scorn and despise and persecute and try to kill what we most fear in ourselves. It's hopeless -- or it would be hopeless, but Jesus put an end to that. There is freedom for slaves and slavers alike through the one who became as a slave to all, as we discover in this dark place. All scores were settled in the refusal of this one to settle the score. There's a wideness in God's mercy, as we discover the midst of our Mitzrayim, our narrow place. The darkness and the fear and the pain and death itself have been cast out; Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.
"It is finished."
One of my favorite episodes ("One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish") of The Simpsons shows Homer Simpson, the father of the family, eating sushi made with a rare blowfish that, if not prepared properly, is deadly within 24 hours to those who ingest it. After he's eaten the fish, Homer is told that it wasn't prepared as it should have been, and therefore he is a goner within a day. So Homer answers for himself a question I have occasionally asked myself hypothetically: if this were your last day on earth, how would you want to spend it?
I think that asking myself that question is a good gauge of to what extent I'm living into my vocation and my truest self. When I'm most in touch with who I am in Christ, and when my life is expressing that most fully, my answer to the question is that I would, for the most part, do the kinds of things I do anyway: eat a good dinner with my family, let those I love know how deeply I know and love them and how much I want good things for them, engage in meaningful work, enjoy something chocolate and a really good wine.
On Maundy Thursday, we remember the night before Jesus died, and how he chose to spend it. As someone who lived fully, he chose to spend what he knew might be his last night the way he spent his life throughout his public ministry.
In Luke, it is in breaking bread, not only with his friends, but with the one other person in the room who might have anticipated that this night would be Jesus' last: with Judas, the friend whose betrayal Jesus anticipates. Luke has gone out of his way throughout the gospel to show Jesus breaking bread with any who would eat with him, accepting invitations from Zaccheas and the Pharisees who looked down on him, and in throughout Luke's passion narrative, Jesus continues to do what he has done since he returned to Nazareth from his sojourn and temptation in the desert. He heals the ear of the high priest's slave in the garden. He prophesies against the powers that oppress, and speaks of a true and radically different kind of power that lifts the lowly over the mighty. He mourns for the women of Jerusalem. To his last breath, he speaks forgiveness. Throughout, Jesus demonstrates what he teaches his followers at his last meal with them: that in God's kingdom, the greater one is the one who serves.
Was it Bultmann who said that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Revealer, and what he reveals is that he is the Revealer? That sells the gospel far short. Jesus' self-revelation in John isn't solely about his status as the Word, the logos, become flesh and living among us; it is that the logos through whom all things were made, the only Son of the Father, shows his glory not by his might but by his service, lifted up not to a throne but on a cross. So on Jesus' last night, he does what he has done all along: he teaches and encourages, and specifically he teaches his followers to do as he does, to love and serve one another as they have been loved and served by him.
I don't know what written sources, if any, Paul had access to as he sought to understand the ministry and character of the one who called him as apostle, but his words in 1 Corinthians 11 show his profound understanding of the heart of Jesus' ministry, and how profound a perversion it is to make use of Jesus' name to humiliate the poor, whom Jesus called "honored" in the Beatitudes. Some of the harshest language we have preserved from Paul shows up in this passage -- and in light of how strong some other passages in Paul's letters are, that's really saying something. Those who eat without "discerning the body," Paul says, eat and drink judgment upon themselves. Actually, I think that phrase has a missing capital, and would be clearer if it said, "discerning the Body." As S. Scott Bartchy has convincingly argued (no references handy, but a good place to start for his views is his article on "table fellowship" in InterVarsity Press' Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, "the body" is one of Paul's two favorite metaphors for what we are in Christ ("brothers and sisters" being the other), and a strong case can be made that when Paul speaks of "discerning the Body" in 1 Corinthians 11, he is talking about discerning the Body of Christ -- i.e., treating all members of Christ's Body with the honor and care Christ shows them.
Jesus lived that message in all he did, in how he lived as much as in how he died. As one who lived his vocation fully, his last night wasn't spent in trying to change course; he spent it helping his followers understand better how best to remember him. And we act in remembrance of Jesus not only when we break bread around the Eucharistic table, but also as we live into the grace of which Eucharist is a sign: our call to love and serve and forgive and Jesus loves and serves and forgives, and Jesus' continuing presence with us to heal and strengthen and encourage us as we strive to do so.