Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Jenee Woodward -- whose work is a boon to lectionary preachers everywhere -- honored this blog by making it the featured link at The Text This Week, the site she runs. It's quite a compliment. So I reread my reflection that I wrote in 2005 on the texts for this week's readings. And, if I may say so myself, I thought it was pretty good. I've been stumped for several days as to how I'd add to it, so I think I'll just link to it instead:
Let me know what y'all think of this, and blessings!
Proper 10, Year C
Luke 10:25-37 - link to NRSV text
I'm going to build this week on what I said three years ago about "The Parable of the Good Samaritan."
The people who pass by the injured man are NOT portrayed by Jesus as the heartless jerks a lot of people today make them out to be. The priest and the Levite were on their way to serve in the Temple. It was service commanded by God, and touching a corpse (which, for all they knew, is what the injured man was) would have rendered them unclean and therefore unable to serve. And since being a priest or Levite was a function of bloodline, not of choice, it's not like they could have just had some random person fill in for them.
Before we point to them as nasty hypocrites, we ought to think long and hard about the roles we embrace (voluntarily, even) that obligate us to particular sets of people in ways that leave us less flexible to respond to the needs of others. If a mother with two-year-old twins in the car pulled over and got out of the car to see whether a man lying at the side of the road needed help was a robber (or worse) faking it, would we say that she was a "Good Samaritan," or a foolish person? If a father of young children decided that he couldn't give any more than a tenth, say, of his gross income to feed poor children elsewhere lest he not have enough to save for his family's "rainy day," would we say that he was refusing to be a "Good Samaritan," or that he was refusing to be a bad parent?
The point of our gospel for this Sunday is not that Samaritans can be nice and priests and Levites can be jerks. The point comes as Jesus turns the lawyer's query ("Who is my neighbor?" -- i.e., "To whom am I obligated?") on its head. Jesus asks, "Who was a neighbor to the injured person?" -- a question that they lawyer can't answer without putting himself in the place of the penniless, naked, and half-dead guy in the ditch. The question as the lawyer asks it is one that seeks the limits of compassion: "Whom am I obligated to help?" The question that Jesus invites him to ask himself is one that seeks actively to expand or erase those limits. If I or someone I loved needed CPR, who would be "good enough" for me to want them to administer it? Absolutely anyone who knew how to give it. Absolutely anyone I'd want to give CPR if s/he were able and came upon me or someone I loved in need of it is my neighbor, the person God invites me to love as I love myself.
"Invites"? Is that the word I mean? I think so. The lawyer's question is about obligations, and it's perfectly legitimate to say that our gospel for this Sunday teaches that we are obligated to love as we love ourselves anyone whose CPR would be good enough if s/he could give it and we needed it. But I really do view it as an invitation, and an exciting one.
People who know me well or have been reading this blog a while know that I love the Gospel According to Luke, and I particularly love what Luke does with the story of the calling of the first disciples. Jesus meets some people fishing. They're not fishing for recreation; they're doing backbreaking daily labor hoping beyond hope that somehow they'll catch enough fish to be able to pay all of the fees required, mend the nets, have a boat to go out in the next day, and still have enough to feed themselves and their families for the day. It's a precarious existence, asking yourself every dawn, "Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family?" It's a cruel world to live in.
Jesus introduces those who hear his call to another world. When fishers meet Jesus, they encounter such abundance that it literally threatens to swamp the boat. In that moment, the fishers' most urgent need becomes the need to find partners -- anyone with a boat who will respond. In that moment, the crucial and constant question of "Will I catch enough fish today to get by?" becomes, "Can I gather enough people to take in this day's abundance?" In that moment, they become fishers of people.
I live in the wealthiest nation on the planet, and still I know a great many people who are exhausted and anxious almost constantly. They spend countless hours working, commuting to work, and worrying about work so they can provide everything our culture defines as a material need -- including a house and/or tuition that are far more than they can afford, but that will allow their kids to go to the "right" schools. They spend hours shuttling their kids around to the zillions of activities our culture says kids need to be healthy and successful. They feel constantly overextended, and with all of their hard work, they toss and turn at night with waking nightmares about being one paycheck, one illness, one layoff, one rotten stroke of luck away from disaster. And perhaps the saddest thing is that as they take on all of these other obligations so they can meet what they feel are their obligations to their children, they pass along to their children all of that anxiety, all of that feeling overextended, put upon, and trapped.
What a cruel world to live in! What an awful world in which to raise a child! No wonder that few people living in a world like that sigh when some preacher stands up to tell them that their obligations go even further.
The Good News is that we don't have to live in a world like that. We can live in the rein of God that broke through into this world in Jesus' ministry.
That's the invitation God issues to us, this Sunday and every hour of every day. That's the world we experience when we accept God's invitation. We can embrace the mission of a God who is not exhausted, put upon, and looking for reasons to cut back on the number of people to bless and love, but is fully alive, moving, and active, blessing in limitless abundance, and loving with more power in the world for every person in the world with whom God's love is shared. When we align our way of living with God's love and God's mission, that's what we experience. When we live in an active search for opportunities to extend mercy and compassion, we experience more fully the reality that this world and every one of us was created by the God of mercy and compassion. Parents, isn't that the world you want your children to grow up in? Isn't that the world we all want to live in?
So this Sunday, as we read a parable of great need being met with surprising compassion, let's think of at least one way we can try out that way of life, that we can look actively for opportunities to extend mercy when and where it's needed.
Commuters, see what it feels like to spend one week of commutes looking actively for opportunities to let in someone who needs to switch lanes -- even or especially if it's someone driving on the shoulder to try to get ahead. It's really very stressful to try to shave every fraction of a second possible from commute time, and to try to stay safe while making sure that nobody driving "unrighteously" prospers by it -- and in my experience, it's actually kind of fun as well as much more relaxing if while stuck in traffic you drop the taxing tasks of monitoring everyone else's driving for infractions and devote that energy to looking actively for opportunities to exercise compassion. A similar dynamic comes into play when we stop calculating how much we have to give to avoid feeling guilty and start thinking and praying about how we can express with our time, our compassionate listening, our energy, and our material resources just how abundantly and recklessly God blesses the world God made and loves.
That works in part because, as Robert Maurer writes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, of how our brains work, how we're made. When we ask ourselves a particular question repeatedly every day, our mind becomes accustomed to gathering that information all the time so it's there when we call for it. When we repeatedly remind ourselves of scarcity and ask ourselves how we can get more, our mind becomes conditioned for anxiety, gathering constantly as a "background process" (to use a metaphor drawn from computers) any information that could suggest scarcity, danger, ways in which we are or could be wronged. The more we worry, the more we see cause to worry. I often think that's why so many people think that the state of the world gets worse and worse -- not because the gross or net evil done or challenges faced are that much greater, but because we carefully tune our attention with years of effort toward the information most likely to make us feel miserable.
Does that describe you? Then change it! Decide that you're going to use something that occurs every day -- stepping in the shower, eating a meal, stopping at a red light -- as a prompt to ask yourself what you're grateful for, how God has blessed you. I particularly like using the red light or pressing the car brakes as a cue for a blessings inventory; over time, it changes the habitual question in that moment from "how late am I running?" to things more like "is it a nice day out?" and "how lucky am I to be loved by this person?" What if we took balancing the checkbook as an opportunity to inventory not what disasters could happen and how little we have to shield ourselves, but how much we have and ask ourselves whether we can share more? What if we took every time we pull out our wallet as that kind of opportunity -- a chance to say (as I often do in sermons like this), "Wow -- I've got enough to get gourmet coffee -- do I have more than I think to hasten the end of poverty? How cool would that be?"
The more intentionally and deeply we look for opportunities to express gratitude for God's blessing by extending that to others, the more deeply we experience that blessing. The Good News is that the Creator of the universe set it up so that every good gift shared is "the gift that keeps on giving." The world God made isn't a vicious circle but an arc toward justice and wholeness. Forward my mail there, because I'm moving in!
Thanks be to God!
Proper 9, Year C
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This week, I'm going to build on my entry from three years ago -- Proper 9, Year C in 2004. There's a great deal more that can be said about this passage, but one of the points I emphasized three years ago has struck me afresh in a slightly different way, and it stems from the question of why the number of apostles sent in this Sunday's gospel is significant.
And I'd like to start, as I did in 2004, by noting that this passage is one of many excellent reasons we shouldn't talk about "the twelve disciples," as if there were only twelve of them, or "the twelve apostles," as if the Twelve were the only ones Jesus sent out (which is what "apostle" means -- "one sent" by another as messenger, ambassador, or agent). The group of Jesus' followers and the group of those sent out by Jesus in his ministry prior to his death and resurrection included women as well as men; Luke 8:1, among other texts, goes out of its way to point out that Jesus' followers depended upon women among them as patrons and leaders. Luke and Acts make clear that the Twelve did not serve any function of governance for the church. Indeed, most of the Twelve aren't portrayed as prominent leaders among the disciples or the early church. The gospels don't even agree on their names -- just on there being twelve of them -- much as there are twelve baskets of leftovers from the "feeding of the five thousand," as Luke is careful to show in tandem with Jesus' sending the Twelve out on a mission in chapter 9 of his gospel.
Twelve, as in the twelve tribes of Israel. It's a number representing all of Israel. Jesus' choosing twelve men to represent the twelve patriarchs of Israel shows his authority to reconstitute and restore the people of Israel. Jesus' feeding five (the number of books in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses that all Israel accepted as scripture) thousand and there being enough fragments of bread to fill twelve baskets brings to mind the sojourn of God's people in the desert as the Hebrews were freed from the "narrow place" (as I blogged three years ago, that's what Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means) of slavery and formed as a people, God's people. And much as the blessing of God's manna in the wilderness was of such abundance that none had need to hoard and all of God's people were fed, Jesus proclaims God's blessing on Creation such that all are fed with enough leftovers to feed all Israel all over again. Twelve baskets, twelve sent out.
This week, there are seventy sent out. Seventy, like the number of books in the Septuagint -- the translation of the wider collection of books the Pharisees, our spiritual ancestors as Christians, accepted as scripture, including the prophetic books such as Isaiah, into Greek so that the whole known world around the Mediterranean could hear the word of the God of Israel. Seventy, like the number of elders chosen to share Moses' spirit of prophesy and burden of leadership (Numbers 11:16-17). Seventy, like the number of times time seven that Jesus' followers are to forgive. Seventy, a number of completion, of wholeness.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus sends out seventy as workers for the harvest, to proclaim that God's rein has arrived, that the accuser of humanity has fallen. Jesus sends out seventy -- a number of fullness and wholeness -- to exercise authority over every spirit and every condition that oppresses God's children. I wish we included the whole passage through verse 24 in our lectionaries, so we could hear in worship the words that "I tell you, many prophets and kings desired to see the things you are seeing, and they did not see, and to hear the things you are hearing, but did not hear it."
I wish that we read those words because, as folks who were at the U2charist in Michigan a couple of weeks ago know, it has been pressed on my heart that we who are alive now are privileged with a particular opportunity, a particular resonance to Jesus words that "today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." We have an opportunity to see the end of extreme poverty, of people living on less than a dollar of day, of a child dying every three seconds of easily preventable diseases. We have an opportunity by 2015, in our lifetime, to see an end to suffering we're used to thinking of as infinite if we can bear to think of it at all. The Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs), people call it, the campaign to Make Poverty History, the ONE campaign. They don't entirely encompass the scope of God's mission, of the reach of God's limitless love for the world, but they're an excellent milestone on God's way of offering Good News for the poor. God's mission includes even more than the Millennium Development Goals -- so pay attention, anyone who (unlike many of the world's leading economists) thinks those are too ambitious! -- but they're a timely, if modest, expression of Good News for the poor, and Jesus' sending of the Seventy should give heart to those of us who want to hear what prophets and kings have desired to hear, those of us who want to experience firsthand a taste of the banquet on offer when "the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Because as much as we might be tempted to say that it would have been sufficient (I can't help but echo the Passover dayenu when I think of Jesus, Luke's "prophet like Moses," leading exodus from every "narrow place") for Christ to empower the Twelve, the tribes of Israel, to do what God is doing in the world, Christ empowers the Seventy. Those who read to the end of Luke's gospel and through part II of it, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, know that even more is to come, because God is granting Moses' wish, "would it were that all God's people were prophets," Joel's vision of the Spirit poured out upon all flesh.
And all God's people should pay attention, because this concerns us all. Those sent out aren't a tiny group of guys in bathrobes. It's all God's people. It's you and me, sisters and brothers, and everyone who will hear the call, as the workers are few indeed compared to the abundance of the harvest. Luke begins the story of Jesus' public ministry with Jesus' version of a 'mission statement,' delivered to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
An ambitious mission statement, Christ's mission on earth. And we are the Body of Christ. Christ's mission is the mission we are called to engage in, as we are in Christ. So I'd like to say to y'all what I said to folks in Michigan a couple of weeks ago, one of the things I say to anyone who will listen whenever I have opportunity to say it when I'm awake in a context in which I think it could bear fruit:
Put this on your bathroom mirror to see when you brush your teeth at night and in the morning. Stick it on a post-it on your car's dashboard. Put it in your wallet to see whenever you pull out a credit card or some cash. Because you are a member of the Body of Christ, and Christ's mission statement is for you.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring Good News to the poor.
Impossible? Under ordinary reckonings of human capacity, I guess so. But for the Body of Christ, the mission for which Christ was anointed cannot be impossible. In Baptism, you were made part of Christ's very Body on earth. The Spirit with which Christ was anointed has been poured out -- not just on the Twelve, not just on seventy, but on the whole of God's people.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed YOU to bring Good News to the poor. And nothing is impossible with God's Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
That's the collect we pray this Sunday. We ask God to "pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire." It's language of abundance -- such abundance that it can't help but overflow, and powerfully.
It reminds me of the story of the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Poor fishers who were haunted each day by a single question -- Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family and myself? -- meet Jesus, and catch such an abundance of fish that it actually threatens to swamp the boat. In a moment, the guiding question in these fishers' lives has changed from "Will I catch enough fish to survive?" to "Can I gather enough people to help take in this abundance?" That's what it means that in becoming disciples, they became "fishers of people." There is such abundance in God's love for us and God's blessings in our lives that once we see it and begin to understand its limitlessness, our priorities shift quite naturally. If we know Jesus, we know that there is enough of everything we really need -- enough love, enough blessing, enough courage and joy and peace -- that we can't actually take it in if we're stuck in a model of competing with others for the goods; we understand that these overwhelming blessings can only be taken in if we call in everyone whom God calls -- and who isn't in that number?
Luke has this story at the start of Jesus' public ministry; it explains what Jesus' earliest followers experienced that made them not just willing, but eager to leave everything to follow him. John places his version of this story after Jesus' resurrection (John 21:1-19), and this Easter season, it strikes me as an appropriate place to tell it. In Jesus' ministry in Galilee, powerful things were accomplished; the blind saw, those oppressed by powers were freed, the poor received Good News, and the rich were challenged to join in solidarity with these outcasts to experience God's healing, reconciliation, and liberation.
And at this point, I'm reminded of the Passover song: Dayenu, "It would have been sufficient." Jesus' ministry prior to his crucifixion was powerful, astonishing, liberating. When I pause to take in all that meant, I want to say, "It would have been enough." But it was more. Everything sinful about humankind put Jesus on a Roman cross, and even as he suffered that, he was speaking words of forgiveness and blessing. It would have been enough.
But the glory of the Easter season is that this wasn't the end, or anywhere near it. The God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead and set him at God's right hand; we know now that the Jesus who showed us such immeasurable love and forgiveness is the one who will judge us -- and if that isn't a liberating word, I don't know what is. It would have been enough.
And yet there's more, another astonishing, miraculous, immeasurable abundance of blessing to come. Jesus is sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, as an ongoing presence to teach us all things. No human being could be such a tutor, but God's Spirit walking with us is, teaching us both to recognize how Jesus gives -- not "as the world," but with limitless generosity, limitless love, and with limitless blessings to impart -- and to empower us to give more and more as Jesus does.
You may have heard the old joke: "She lives for others. You can tell who the others are by the hunted expression on their faces." I've seen something like that a great deal in churches especially -- people who are in pain that they take as a call to martyrdom. They minister out of their pain in ways that spread it; they take the misery they feel as confirmation that they're on the right path, and the misery that others experience as a result (and often send back in the form of anger) as the inevitable persecution of the righteous. But look at the kind of dynamic in our readings for this Sunday.
Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth -- the imperial color, rare and very expensive -- may have thought she was rich before she knew Jesus. God opens her heart, and she knows how rich she really is and what it's for; she "prevails upon" her brothers and sisters in Christ to enjoy her hospitality.
Jesus' Revelation to John gives a vision of the holy city of God's redemption. By conventional reckonings, it would be the poorest of cities -- no temple, no gates keeping invaders out, no aqueducts, no lamps. It is the poorest of cities by conventional measures because those measures are utterly irrelevant in the economy of God's kingdom. God's presence and God's light are everywhere; people bring in not weapons but glory and honor; the very water of life flows from God's throne and from the Lamb through the city.
That's the dynamic of abundance we are called to take in this Sunday, and every day in the life God gives us. When Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," it's not a whiny attempt to guilt people into doing something that they ought to do because there's no joy in the task to motivate them. He is expressing that dynamic of God's abundance: not, "those who love me ought to keep my word, or I'll be really cross and you'll feel even worse," but a declarative statement of how it is to live in Christ: when we love Jesus, we DO keep his word -- and it's worth underscoring that his word, especially in John, is to love one another.
It is, of course more than that -- much more. But the "more" isn't the 'catch' of what otherwise would be an appealing offer; it's the "more" of God's abundance. The journey we're on to learn about that, to take it increasingly in and live it increasingly out, will stretch us. We need to be stretched, as finite creatures learning to live into God's infinite love. I'm not saying that it's all fun and games; such a process of stretching can be painful. But in the light of God's abundant love, that pain is transformed; it becomes the ache one feels after waking up in darkness, barely knowing where you are, and opening the curtains to see that you're in the most gorgeous surroundings and witnessing in a moment the most indescribably gorgeous of sunrises -- something so exquisite that you gasp. Do you know what I mean?
The aches of the world in the context of God's love -- and please believe me, I've felt them -- can become something of astonishing beauty in the context of God's love. That aching moment is a moment of glimpsing redemption -- all the more beautiful for knowing that it is a moment of transformation, not eternal, but showing something of the Eternal nonetheless.
That's the feeling I have when I gasp at a sunrise. It's a feeling I get when I see a moment of transformation in a human life -- of someone who was told by too many for too long that she is worthless finding her voice, her power, and a sense that she is of more worth than human beings can measure; of someone who was told that having made this mistake, he would forever be outside community and beyond grace find his feet and seeking in honest humility to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It's the feeling I have when I look at another human being -- even when I use the imagination and compassion God gave me to put faces and names to statistics in the newspaper -- and am willing to see their suffering and to care about it with God's love, which goes far beyond my ability or even my comprehension.
In those moments, I understand a little more what an Advocate is; I know a little more of the one who walks with me as I seek to follow Jesus. It's such a gift that I can't help but feel grateful, and I can't help but pray to be an instrument of that grace I experience. It's love. It's peace. It's freedom. It's power. And it comes in such abundance that I wonder even now who I could invite that I'm missing, how I could gather community to take in even the smallest fraction of that limitless grace, love, and peace. It seems too much -- but I have an Advocate to help me on the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I hope you'll pardon me if I start with a shameless plug, as the gospel passage for this Sunday and my reading of it play a substantial role in the Connect course I wrote with John de Beer, one of the founders of the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.
Connect is a six-week exploration of what it can mean to connect to a Eucharistic community. It takes place in small groups that invite participants to gather over a dinner to reflect on and share their own stories, and to explore what it might mean to see those stories in context of the larger story of God's love and redemption of the world. The experience of gathering, breaking bread, inviting, experiencing, and acknowledging God's presence among the gathered community, and exploring what God's call might be to each of us is in itself a sacramental experience that helps unchurched participants, should they decide to join the congregation for worship, understand and have made personal connection with the liturgy of the Eucharist.
One of the most interesting things about Connect for me is that we have released it on an "open source" basis. You don't have to pay anything at all to download it or use it; you do, however, commit to sharing any adaptations or modifications you make to it on the same basis as Connect itself is distributed. The practical advantages of "open source" development and distribution are clear from what they've done for programs like the Firefox web browser, which can offer extensive support from others who use the product and innumerable "plug-ins" and translations that make it more stable and more useful to more people. That's my hope for distributing Connect on an "open source" basis -- and I hope it will inspire others developing resources to do the same.
I also have a theological reason for this approach to Connect's "open source" way. The dinners in Connect are designed to give people an experience of what they're hearing about in Jesus' ministry. They are welcomed to a community that understands that they have gifts to offer the community, including their story, and that encourages them to offer their gifts. They experience a small taste of what it's like to be in a community that lives as one Body and shares with one another as freely and graciously as God is with us. And I think those messages are also underscored by Connect being "open source." As developers of the course, we're sharing what wisdom we've got, but we assume that you all have gifts that could make it much better, and appropriate for use in far more communities. Because Connect is "open source," those who have expressed interest in versions for university campuses, Native American communities, Australian cultural settings, and numerous other communities have been free -- applauded, even -- for taking the Connect materials, modifying them appropriately, and letting us know what you've done and how it worked.
In short, rather than seeing evangelism and Christian formation as a "pie" of a market with all of us competing for slices, we've started, continued in, and pray to finish faithful to a central point in Jesus' teaching and ministry:
God's love and grace are so abundant as to be inexhaustible, and the more we enter into that, the more we joyfully seek to extend that kind of grace to others, and with all of God's good gifts. I'm not talking about feeling 'guilted' into generosity toward others, about being generous so God will notice and finally give us love and approval we've found to be too rare in our lives, or about trying to earn some kind of generosity medal that will help us get some other limited and valuable commodity, like others' respect.
I'm talking about a personal transformation that can transform the world: I'm talking about LIVING with a deep sense that there is more than enough of "the good stuff" -- the things our truest selves, the people we were made to be in Christ, want, need, and enjoy. I'm talking about an end to the constant, creeping anxiety I've seen so much pastorally in communities -- especially the wealthiest and most powerful communities (so many of which are filled with wealthy people so overextended financially to afford those grand homes in the neighborhoods with the good schools that they are a single paycheck from bankruptcy) -- as we worry about whether we have or can accumulate enough to shield ourselves and our loved ones from illness, danger, and deprivation. I'm talking about the kind of emotional freedom and deep peace that comes when we no longer feel the need to worry about whether we can get enough love, peace, or approval. I'm not talking about what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"; I know the cost of discipleship can be steep in worldly terms. It's more than worth it, though -- not only because the shallow "peace" and "freedom" we get from accumulating resources and respectability for ourselves isn't nearly what it's cracked up to be, but also and more importantly because the abundance of real joy, peace, and love we can find following Jesus really can give us the true, eternal, and abundant life for which we thirst, and can let us start living into it now.
What I'm talking about it illustrated very well in this Sunday's gospel.
As Jesus comes across the fishers on the lake of Gennesaret, it's not hard to see how they could have concerns weighing profoundly on them. These are poor fishers. Every day as they go to their boats, they have to be wondering to themselves, "Will I catch enough fish today?" They have families to feed, and on top of that they have to get access to and repair the boats, get and maintain the nets. Fishing rights on the lake could cost them nearly half of a catch, and they were often paid far less than their catch was worth besides. Life was precarious at best, and it wasn't always at its best. One storm, one rotten stroke of luck could spell disaster.
So every day, a nagging worry: "Will we catch enough fish today to survive?"
And then Jesus calls them. They respond, and let down their nets once more. And in an instant, the central question in their life changes.
They have caught such abundance that they can't spare a moment to ask the now-ridiculous question of "Will we catch enough fish for my family to survive?" -- the far more urgent question is "Can we gather enough people to take in this abundance such that it doesn't swamp the boat?" Their lives are forever changed; as Jesus says, "from now on, you will be catching people."
What would it mean for us to hear Jesus' call to a similar transformation? I'd like to dream aloud about that a bit.
What would my life look like if I always looked with joy upon others' accomplishments, and without the slightest niggling doubt of whether they mean that others will grab limited slots for (you name it -- ordination, employment, perception of "hipness")?
What would my household budget look like if it was guided more by a concern for others' immediate needs to sustain life than by a worry of what would happen to me if my car broke down, I got sick with something that would leave me with bills I couldn't pay, or I didn't have money for tuition?
What would church politics look like if the basis for our every plan was the certain knowledge that God is providing what we need for our participation in God's mission, and therefore there is no need to grasp at what others have? If we believed and lived the conviction that God's grace and love are such that we don't have to choose any population to shut out or shout down, and can afford to "strive to outdo one another in showing honor," as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10? What if we took energy spent on competing for shares of budgets and used it to foster generosity to increase them?
What would the world look like if those of us who seek to follow Jesus let him transform our lives around the central question, "How will we gather enough people to share God's abundance?"
Among other things, I suspect that the Millennium Development Goals would then seem less like an audacious vision we hope to achieve IF (and only if) everything goes smoothly and no other needs arise, and more like a helpful, albeit modest, first step. Fully funding them would be a given -- we NEED all of these people, all of these children of God, to take in the abundance God gives! We can't afford to lose a single one to what U2's singer Bono calls "stupid poverty" -- this poverty that we can eliminate with resources we've got. And there is no one too conservative or too progressive or too anything else to justify ignoring or slighting their gifts. I have faith that God has given each and every one of us something else in immeasurable, overflowing abundance, and that's compassion.
That might sound hard to believe at first. Steve Cook has done an outstanding job in his post this week on Isaiah 6 sketching some of the ways in which we can choose a path that desensitizes us to both the pain and the gifts of those around us in a way that can become a vicious circle (as U2 puts it, "You become a monster / so the monster will not break you"). Each one of us has the capacity to experience God's compassion for us, and when we do, we will find it an urgent need every day to find others to help take it in and extend it to others in turn.
Thanks be to God!
[And if you're curious about Connect, you can get more information on it and on the other two parts of the Klesis (from the Greek word for "call") program to which it belongs and can download Connect for free here.]
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. And Mark makes very clear that when Jesus proclaims the message, it's not just sharing words; it's healing and freeing people so that they can form communities that heal and free people.
That's what Jesus does with Simon Peter's mother-in-law. If she had a husband of her own, she would have been living with him rather than with her daughter's husband; she must have been a widow. And when her husband died, she would have been living with her son if she'd had one, or with her extended family. But she's living with her daughter's husband, and thus probably has no living family of her own to care for her. Perhaps even her daughter, Peter's wife, has died.
This, by the way, underscores for me just how costly and complicated Jesus' call often is. When Peter leaves to follow Jesus, what will become of his mother-in-law, who has no other family besides her daughter? What will become of Peter's wife, if she is alive? Did Peter have children? If so, he left them.
Don't be shocked. Well ... do be shocked. It's pretty shocking, especially for those of us (the majority in America, I think) who have swallowed wholesale the idea that “Christianity” is practically synonymous with mainstream respectability. But reading this Sunday's gospel carefully brings a whole new layer to our reading of Mark 10: 28-31, in which Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” and Jesus says this:
Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields -- with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Peter wasn't exaggerating: he really had left everything, including the mother-in-law Jesus heals in this Sunday's gospel, and his children as well, if he had any -- and in a culture in which children, like women, often weren't seen as people worth mentioning, there's no reason to assume that there were none in the household just because this passage doesn't mention them.
Peter left his family to follow Jesus. Abandoned them.
I'm not going to try to make that sound easy on either side of that equation, because it isn't. Peter's a bumbling disciple, but he's not an unfeeling monster, and he walked away from this woman who depended upon him absolutely for protection, for her very life, and she had no one else. And there may well have been children too, who depended upon their father as much or more. Please don't gloss over this or move on before letting the full impact of that sink in. Discipleship -- real, cross-bearing discipleship -- means hard choices and real cost -- sometimes even for others who know us and will be puzzled or angry at choices made genuinely for the sake of Christ's gospel, choices which could cost them as well as us.
Ouch. I can't help but wonder whether the story in this Sunday's gospel in which Peter's mother-in-law is healed by Jesus is meant in part to assuage readers' profound discomfort with what they would have assumed in the first-century Mediterranean world, namely that Jesus' followers abandoned family who depended on them just as surely as Jesus abandoned his own mother (who may well have been a widow, given that Joseph appears nowhere as a living character in the gospels after Jesus' youth). At least when Peter leaves his family for Jesus' sake, there's one person who has experienced Jesus as a healer in her family rather than solely as the man who tore it apart. And at least she can do household work. That wouldn't mean that she could hang out a shingle as a cook -- her culture still would hold her as a “loose woman” if she didn't have a husband or brother or son with honor to which she was attached -- but maybe that was something.
In other words, this is not exactly a feel-good story, about which we just cry, “Hurrah! She's healed!” before starting to chuckle about how much it bites to be a woman who has to spring up from her very deathbed if necessary to get dinner on the table for men.
She was healed. But where's the hope for Peter's nameless and friendless mother-in-law when Peter leaves? And what kind of a jerk is Jesus to extend this woman's life only to ruin it by calling her sole source of support away? And it's not like Peter's life is going to be a picnic either. Everyone he meets will assume that he had a family and he abandoned them, so he's bound to be seen as a disreputable character everywhere he goes. In his new life he has no fields to farm, no boat to fish, no money to rent either, and no blood kin to care for him (you think they'd take him in again after how he treated them?). Tradition tells us that Peter died the same painful and shameful (in the world's reckoning) death that his Lord did in the end, but surely he wasn't hoping for death when he left to follow Jesus. He was seeking life, but what life would there be for him if he made it to old age?
In short, Peter's new path makes him almost as vulnerable as his mother-in-law, and his hope is the same as hers:
That Jesus' gospel takes root.
Jesus' Good News is very good news indeed for those without conventional honor, those without family, those without friends or means, because Jesus taught that anyone who hears the Word of God and does it is his brother and sister and mother -- his family, his kin. That means that we are kin with one another, bound to one another by our relationship with God in Jesus more surely than we could be bound to anyone by blood or marriage.
We are set free from every structure that bound us otherwise, but we are bound absolutely to care for one another.
This is pretty much the point of my Ph.D. dissertation, which is titled Freed To Serve, and examines Paul's language of “freedom” in his letters. Did you know that when Moses proclaims to Pharoah what God is saying, the full message isn't “let my people go,” but “send my people forth, that they may serve me”? That's what God does. God frees the Hebrews from Pharoah's power, not so they can do what they wish, but so they can do God's will, which is to become a people -- and a people who live a certain way. It wouldn't surprise me if some echo of Moses' message weren't intended in this Sunday's gospel, as Peter's mother-in-law is set free from the illness that bound her so that she can serve some tired travelers whose path will lead to the cross.
And that woman's hope is all our hope -- that Jesus' message takes root such that there are communities of people everywhere who will seek out widows like her, derelicts and demoniacs and orphans and foundlings and anyone else whom the world would exploit and ignore, and will care for them as Jesus cares for them, as the God whom Jesus calls “father” -- and the only father, the only authority, the only Lord -- cares for them.
So yes, Jesus does tear families apart, and this Sunday's gospel is a perfect opportunity to share that with people who think there's nothing in the bible that should make them uncomfortable or cause their neighbors to look askance at them. But Jesus sets us in a family that runs on a different set of rules -- one that privileges those who have nobody else rather than encourages us to serve only or primarily those of our own blood or surname.
We must read this Sunday's gospel remembering that Peter is about to leave his mother-in-law to follow Jesus. She, and her fellow widows and orphans, have one hope in this world:
That we follow Jesus too, caring for the outcast as for our own flesh, or better. I'm not going to harp in this entry on the Millennium Development Goals, but you know that I believe that they're where this Sunday's gospel is headed when applied to our world. Jesus wasn't going to stick around to enjoy the hospitality of one household when neighboring towns hadn't yet experienced the Good News, the new Beloved Community of sisters and brothers, God has to offer. And Jesus' Good News, Jesus' message, God's Beloved Community, wasn't meant for just our family, our town, or our country; it demands a new economy and a new way of reckoning family for the whole world. If you are a follower of Jesus, your mother and your sister and your brother is in sub-Sarahan Africa and Southeast Asia and in every place where war or disease or circumstance is out to make widows and orphans.
Did you pause long enough to feel the pain of Peter's mother-in-law, both before and after the fever left her? That's Jesus' call. Please follow.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
A lot of people talk about St. Paul as having domesticated Jesus' message, taking the edge off of all of those radical things that Jesus said and did and rendering the Christian message palatable to an audience in the Roman Empire who didn't want much about the current social order to change. People who talk like that would love to use our gospel and epistle passages this week as a case in point. Jesus calls people to leave what they're doing -- their occupations, villages, families, and their lives as they knew it -- to follow him. Paul says “remain in the condition in which you're called” -- advice that, if Simon and Andrew took it, would have them still toiling away at their nets and fully immersed in their former lives as village fishers.
That's a bad reading of Paul, though, which depends on a bad translation of 1 Corinthians 7 (and props to Scott Bartchy for my reading of this passage).
First off, Paul doesn't say “remain in the condition in which you were called.” What Paul says is “remain in the klesis in which you eklethe. As you might be able to tell from the transliteration, those two Greek words are related. Besides in 1 Corinthians 7:20, the word klesis occurs eight other times (Romans 11:29; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Ephesians 1:18, 4:1, and 4:4; Philippians 3:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; and 2 Timothy 1:9) in the New Testament, and each time the NRSV renders it as ”call“ or ”calling.“ That makes perfect sense, since it's derived from the verb kaleö, ”I call.“ What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:20 is ”remain in the calling in which you were called.“
Another and more thorny translation issue arises in 1 Corinthians 7:21, which the NRSV renders as ”Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition more than ever.“ But there's nothing in the Greek that says ”present condition.“ That phrase is added by our translators to clarify for readers what they're convinced the verse means: namely, that those who are slaves should try to remain slaves even if they are offered freedom. This is a highly problematic reading for at least two reasons, though.
First, nobody polled slaves for their wishes with respect to whether they would be freed. Owners could free slaves if they wished, and they generally did so when it was advantageous to them to do so. For example, a slave who had been injured or had become elderly and was unable to work would often be freed by her or his owner -- at which point, the slave would find, in the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
Cast out from the owner's household, possibly separated from family by her or his slavery, a slave in this situation might well want to beg the owner to remain in slavery -- but as I've said, nobody asked them, and when they did ask not to be cast out like a broken appliance, their cries generally fell on deaf ears. Slaves in the first-century Roman Empire couldn't choose to remain slaves any more than they could choose to be freed; their owners held all the cards in this situation. Paul wasn't saying, "if your owner wants to free you, try to remain a slave instead" any more than he was saying, "if you're a slave, try to get your owner to release you." If I can be a little anachronistic with the science, Paul might as well have told them to obey or protest the law of gravity; it would have had as much effect.
So what WAS Paul saying that slaves should do, then, in 1 Corinthians 7:21? The Greek is ambiguous: it's mallon chresai, literally, "rather, make use," and doesn't specify what slaves should make use of. It doesn't make much sense for the object of the phrase to be either "the opportunity to become free" or "the 'opportunity' to remain a slave," since the slave would have no control either way. There is a third possibility, though: that Paul was telling slaves to make use of their klesis, their calling in Christ, regardless of their status as slaves or freedpersons.
This not only works better than the other two readings in the context of what choices were and weren't available to first-century slaves; it also makes the most sense in the context of Paul's thought. Paul was, after all, the person who wrote that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28); and in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wants slaves who, after all, can't do anything about their status not to feel that it in any way undermines their worth in God's eyes or their ability to live into Jesus' call.
Indeed, Paul holds that Jesus himself was a slave in the world's eyes and died a slave's death, but was honored by God with the name above all names, and Paul instructs all Christians regardless of status to have the "mind of Christ" in this respect (Philippians 2:5-11). Every Christian receives this klesis, this calling, from God. That call from God is hardly a call to stasis, or to passive complicity in propping up an unjust world order. It is rather a call to full humanity in God's image, to full maturity in Christ, and to make full use of the gifts God gives us to live into what we pray: God's just rule come and God's will done, on earth as it is in heaven.
That's the klesis to which we were and are called -- slave or free, male or female, and whatever our nationality. (And, by the way, that's why the FREE, open-source, comprehensive adult formation curriculum I designed with John de Beer is called Klesis.) That's the call that led Andrew and Simon to leave their nets, their homes, their families, and everything that gave them a good name in their culture to follow Jesus, who is always on the move in the world as Christ's Body, anointed with God's Spirit to call the whole world to the wholeness and justice for which it was made.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
Have you ever taken one of the Implicit Association Tests (IATs)? These tests have been used for psychological research on people's implicit assumptions about others in terms of a variety of categories -- age, race, sexual orientation, skin tone, religion, and others, and there's evidence that they can be very effective in testing what attitudes and prejudices people have, and there's often a marked contrast between that and what people are willing to report or even what they're aware of about themselves. An Implicit Association Test takes 10 minutes of less to complete, and the results are striking -- I encourage you to check them out.
The results are often rather jarring, though. Most of us want to think of ourselves as open-minded and unprejudiced, but when we're put to the test in a way that gets beyond what we think we ought to think, nearly all of us are prejudiced in ways that reinforce and perpetuate injustice -- even kinds of injustice that we spend a lot of energy consciously trying to rectify. I've done a lot of work on my own racism, and the test on attitudes toward White and African Americans still shows that I affiliate good qualities far more strongly with white faces than with black faces. I'm a woman, a professional, and a feminist, but I still have at least a moderate association of maleness with career and femaleness with family compared to the other way around. The list goes on. I'm prejudiced, and mostly privileging those whom our society privileges -- even in terms of categories where I belong to the less privileged class.
That can be hard to admit. In the circles in which I generally move, “open-minded” is considered a compliment and “prejudiced” an insult, and on the whole, I think this is as it should be. There are some things, though, about how our minds work that make complete open-mindedness impossible and not entirely desirable. If you place a wax bowl on a pedestal in your microwave and zap it for a while, it'll become so open that it won't hold anything. Our minds work in part by organizing information into categories, by keeping things distinct in ways that are artificial but at least occasionally helpful.
People in Jesus' culture weren't so embarrassed about some of the things we consider “prejudice,” though, and this week's gospel story is an excellent case in point. Nathaniel is convinced that if he knows which village Jesus came from, he'll know as much about Jesus as he needs to know -- much as he would if he knew who Jesus' father was. Furthermore, Nathan is fine with that cutting both ways. He asks Jesus literally, “from where do you know me (to be)?” -- NOT meaning, as the NRSV misleadingly suggests “where did you have a chance to get to know me?” or “where have we interacted before?” but rather something more like “what do you believe to be my hometown?” Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree,” in words reminiscent of Old Testament passages in which this image stands for one's home (props to Malina and Rohrbaugh on this). In other words, Jesus saw Nathaniel at home, and therefore knows everything he needs to know about him. His culture wasn't individualistic or introspective as ours is, so people would have perceived this manner of thinking about who's trustworthy as being perfectly reasonable. Indeed, the Gospel of John itself takes up this style of assessing people; the first thing it tells us about Philip is that he is from Bethesda, the city of Andrew and Peter, and I think it's fair to say that the writer seems to think that this will tell readers what they need to know about Philip. This is a particularly reasonable assumption to make since Philip behaves as Andrew and Peter do.
It's still very fortunate (a blessing, even) that the people in this story did not stick to what was reasonable.
Nathaniel notes that Jesus comes from Nazareth, which indicates that he's got no messianic credentials (and the Gospel According to John says nothing to suggest that the author sees Jesus as coming from anywhere other than Nazareth) -- but when invited to “come and see,” Nathaniel goes anyway, and sees that Jesus is a teacher, the Son of God, and the King of Israel.
That underscores for me what the crucial question is about prejudice: not “should we have prejudices?” (because we do and we can't help it even if it was going to be to our advantage to do so), but “what do we do when confronted with something or someone not matching our prior expectations?”
When Nathaniel is confronted with the phenomenon that Philip believes a person from Nazareth to be the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, he is willing to come and see. His trust for Philip overcomes his prejudice at least enough for him to go to Jesus to investigate, to question him, and to listen to the answers. That's important.
And then what Nathaniel hears doesn't fit with his prior assumption that nothing good can come from Nazareth, and Nathaniel makes another important decision: He revises his assumption. He's willing to tweak or even discard his categories to accommodate new information, a truth that doesn't fit prejudice, so he can confess the truth he now knows about Jesus.
That just might be even more important, because as crucial as this turning-point is for Nathaniel, he's going to be asked to do some even more radical revision in the days to come. He's confessed that Jesus is a blessed teacher, the Son of God, and the King of Israel, but Jesus is not going to behave as those categories would suggest. Jesus associates with those whom the authorities deem outsiders rejected by God and right-thinking Israelites. He's going to confront the power of Rome, but not to seek his own crown; he will die the death of a slave rather than take a place at the head of an army. If Nathaniel is going to continue to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, eventually that will mean more than revising his expectations about Jesus ...
It will mean revising his expectations for God.
Nathaniel will have to let go of the idea that God's blessing of Israel hinges on Israel's remaining distinct from the nations to follow a mission that invites all nations to join the people of Israel in God's kingdom. He will have to let go of the idea that God's justice is about punishing the unrighteous to follow the Son of God who blesses and forgives his persecutors. And he'll have to let go of more than ideas: he'll be leaving behind his village, his family, everything upon which he formerly found honor to follow one whom the world shamed but God exalted. He'll lose his life as he knew it, and find abundant life beyond all expectation.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 14, Year A
I remember when I was an undergrad, this story bothered me. It seemed to me that Peter was getting chewed out for not having enough faith, and I didn't see why he deserved that. My college chaplain proposed that Peter was getting chewed out because, despite Jesus' directing them to go to the other side, none of them should have been afraid that anything ill would befall them on the way. After all, Jesus didn't say, "go on ahead ... there's an evil ghost who's going to attack you, and I don't want to be around for the carnage," right?
At the time (before I'd taken any New Testament courses, among other things), this seemed like a perfectly good reading to me -- so much so that I repeated it to many others, with the moral of "if you get a word from Jesus to do something, you can anticipate success."
Let me start this week's blog entry by apologizing to everyone to whom I said that, or anything like it. That's the sort of thing that only very young (or young in the faith, anyway) people and people in frenetic denial can say with a straight face. Or maybe I'm just talking about myself when I say that just about every week between then and now I've had plentiful opportunities to fail, and many times to fail in spectacular fashion ... and I'm not one to squander opportunities.
So I can identify with Peter, and especially with that sinking feeling (literally!) he must have had just before he cried out to Jesus to save him. But I don't think that my natural sympathies for Peter form the only reason to think that he's been given rather a bad rap by many interpreters of this passage (e.g., my college chaplain). After all, what does "faith" mean anyway, and how much of it does one need?
The first thing I think it's important to clear up is that "faith" or "belief," at least in the biblical sense of those terms, doesn't connote belief in a particular outcome or intellectual assent to a proposition so much as it suggests trust in and allegiance to a person. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we'll be "successful" (however we define that!) in a particular enterprise if it was Jesus calling us to do it, and having faith IN Jesus doesn't imply signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus. Having faith in Jesus means, in my view, a willingness to follow Jesus -- not because we believe that we've already got the rest of the story plotted out once we've made that decision, but because we take seriously that Jesus is Lord, and the ultimate in good ones. As I've preached on before, having faith doesn't mean convincing ourselves that we're convinced of something. Faith isn't an activity of the brain so much as of the heart, and then I mean it not in the sense of drumming up some kind of feeling, but of pumping blood to ones feet and hands.
In other words, faith is about doing. A faithful person eventually gets to the point at which s/he can say to God, "I don't know where you're going, but I know that wherever it is, I'd rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else." That kind of trust in Jesus, in my experience, comes from experience with the person of Jesus. The kind of trust I have in Jesus has come as I've experienced Jesus' generosity and mercy, so much that I'm pretty sure that if Jesus is involved, then following Jesus is where I'm going to experience the most of the goodness and mercy God has to offer. That process of building confidence, of getting to know Jesus such that I'm understanding more deeply just how much I can trust Jesus is a major ingredient in what I call the journey of faith.
But when I say that faith is like that function of the heart that gets blood to hands and feet, what I mean is that faith starts with action, with taking a step, with taking a risk. The best intentions in the world don't do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give you the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.
There's no better evidence for that than the story of Jonah. Jonah just might go down as the whiniest prophet in history. He had no intention of saving anyone. He didn't even intend to follow God's direction, but when the seas got rough, he knew that it was time to step out of the boat. Just about everything that Jonah has said up to this point indicates no faith, no trust that God's will could mean anything good for him, but when his life is at stake, he calls out to the very god he's been running from. That suggests to me that despite all his protestations of how much God's will means only ill fortune to him, underneath all that is both a trust that God will take care of his fellow travellers (as Jonah 1:11-12 indicates) and that God will deliver him (as Jonah's poem in this Sunday's readings indicate). By the end of the story, we understand that every step he took, even Jonah's whiny rebellion, came in some sense from a deep sense (and sometimes an unwelcome sense!) that God will extend mercy, that God's mercy will be the final word.
That trust, that willingness to risk stepping outside the boat, is how I think of faith. And Peter has that. So why does Jesus address him as "you of little faith"? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Jesus addresses his followers as people of "little faith" repeatedly in Matthew's gospel (e.g., Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and 17:20), but following the last of those, he says, "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).
So how much faith do you need to make a difference in your life, or even to change the world? Not much, by some ways of reckoning. You don't have to talk yourself into absolute confidence that anything in particular will happen. That's a good thing, since none of us -- not even, or perhaps ESPECIALLY not those who shout most loudly about knowing exactly what God's specific plans for everyone are -- really knows the future, or even the heart of another person. Faith isn't about knowing, though.
Faith is willingness to risk. It's willingness to take that step out of the boat, whether you think you'll sink or skate. It proceeds from the kind of love that, despite all of the butterflies in one's stomach, makes a person willing to be the first to say "I love you" in a relationship -- not because of a certain expectation of a particular reply, but because of the possibilities that saying "I love you" opens. Reading a biblical expression of that kind of faith makes me think of a passage (one I've used in preaching before) from Sara Maitland's short story "Dragon Dreams" (found in her collection Angel Maker):
When [you] died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.
And that's why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God's reluctant prophets and Jesus' wavering disciples. They didn't have it all together, and they didn't fully understand or consistently appreciate what they eventually would proclaim. But the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God's mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith arising -- the kind of faith, shared across the Body fo Christ, that could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
John 20:19-31 - link to NRSV text
Thomas gets a lot of bad press, and I don't think he deserves it. He wants to touch Jesus, and who wouldn't? A lot of us feel that way. One of my favorite worship songs (which is track #10 from my favorite worship record) has a chorus that goes like this:
I need to know that God is real
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world including me
That's something that Jesus' followers most definitely need as they gather in this Sunday's gospel. They are gathered secretly, behind locked doors, "for fear of the Judeans." If you can, please read hoi ioudaioi in verse 19 this way, rather than "the Jews," as the NRSV has it. First off, there's no Greek word in the first century that corresponds neatly to our use of "Jew." Particularly as the Gospel According to John uses the term, hoi ioudioi aren't all adherents to Judaism, or all those of the people of Israel (Jesus and all of his disciples are Jews; they're not locked up for fear of themselves!), but rather those who not only live in Judea but whose primary allegiance is to the Judean authorities and the Temple aristocracy. The 'Judeans' hold what power and influence they have at the pleasure of Rome, and its basis is the Temple system that, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus rails against from the very start of his career.
So the question on the minds of Jesus' followers, in the dark and confusing days immediately following Jesus' execution at the hands of Roman soldiers and the instigation of the Judean authorities, is probably not so much "will we be next?" as it is, "how long do you think we can last?"
That totally understandable fear is keeping the disciples in hiding -- though apparently not Thomas, as he's not with those cowering in the locked room when Jesus appears to them. And so Thomas doesn't see Jesus, doesn't experience Jesus' breathing on his followers, doesn't receive the commission the risen Jesus gives the others.
But does this mean that Thomas is less faithful than the other disciples? Not necessarily. In the appearance of the risen Jesus that Thomas misses, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out into the world, forgiving as he forgives. I like to think that Thomas wasn't present to hear those words because he, unlike the others, was not locked inside in fear, but was already out there, in the world.
Thomas, the disciple who wants to touch Jesus, is onto something.
If you want to touch Jesus, if you want to KNOW that God is real, that Christ is alive and at work in the world, the best place for you to be is out there, in the world.
And Thomas is onto something even more important:
If you want to have the most profound experience possible of the risen Christ, you'll need to touch Christ's wounds. Thomas is entirely right about that. Touch Christ's wounds, and you'll find yourself crying out with Thomas, "My lord and my God!"
There's only one point on which Thomas is stumbling in this Sunday's gospel, but it's an important one, one that I believe the Spirit is cautioning us to heed. Thomas, who might have been the only one of Jesus' followers brave enough to be out there in the world while the others were hiding behind locked doors, takes the other disciples' report to mean that Jesus had been with the others and not with him, that those hiding in the room had, in seeing Jesus there, experienced Jesus' presence in a way that Thomas missed out on. Thomas takes the others' report to mean that, if he really wanted to touch Jesus, he'd been in the wrong place.
Not so. The biggest mistake Thomas makes is in thinking that the body he wants and needs to touch, the body of the risen Christ, is the body that had been nailed to the cross. But it's not like that. If Thomas was out in the world, he was in precisely the place Jesus wanted him to be. If Thomas was out in the world, he didn't need to hear Jesus' commission to the others because he was already following it.
Do you need to know that God is real? Do you need to know that Christ is alive, that sin and death itself are not the last word, but are passing away? Do you need to experience Christ's presence? Do you want to touch Jesus, and KNOW that Jesus is really right there with you?
Then hear Jesus' commission to those upon whom he breathes his spirit: you are being sent out, into the world, and specifically to the world's brokenness. You are being sent to touch those places, to proclaim and participate in the reconciliation and healing that is Christ's work in the world. You are being sent because YOU -- each one of us about to gather at Jesus' table here, and at every other table at which bread is being broken in remembrance of him -- are now the Body of Christ, Jesus' presence at work in the world, called and empowered to do what he did, and more.
If we want to know that, if we want to experience that, we'll have to leave the rooms we lock ourselves in because of fear. We need to do what Thomas did -- get out into the world, and insist upon touching Christ's wounds. When we try to sequester ourselves and our children away from the world's pain, we are hiding them from Christ's presence. Fortunately, Jesus keeps after us, breathing peace and power to go out there and touch the places where the Body of Christ is still suffering. More than 38 million people infected with HIV. The life expectancy in Botswana down to 30 years old. One in five people in the world trying to live on less than a dollar a day. One person in seven trying to stay alive without access to clean water.
What can one person do? I don't know. But I know what Jesus can do. We can read about the signs of Jesus' power and how Jesus used that power in the Bible. But these signs were recorded not to provide us with something to read as we wait in locked rooms and gated communities, but to inspire us to experience the life of the risen Christ by living as Christ's Body in the world, touching, loving, healing, forgiving in Christ's name and to Christ's glory.
So let the gospel come alive
in actions plain to see
in imitation of the one
whose love extends to me
I need to know that God is real
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world including me
Thanks be to God!