St. John

Thomas, the skeptic

I often wonder how much of human history—especially the darker moments of history—can be attributed to misunderstanding.  A misheard word, a mistaken look, can lead to all manner of distress in our lives.  How many wars have been fought over a misinterpretation of something quite innocuous?  (Which also brings up the point of taking a deep breath and making sure we know what we’re doing, especially when contemplating violence.)

We humans are making it even easier to not trust our eyes and ears.  The falsification of images is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  The falsification of reality is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  One of the first major motion pictures to employ those techniques was Forrest Gump.  Imagine, Forrest Gump meeting JFK and LBJ (and a few other folks)!  We could the lament the technological trickery utilized for these counterfeit countenances, these fake faces, but the genie is out of the bottle.  Think of it, though: police can use sophisticated aging tools to track missing persons long lost.

Here’s a little game.  Can we distinguish between the faces of real people and those generated by computer?  Which are real and which are fake? (answers given below)

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Going back to my original thought, given how much more complex our ability for mimicry has become, how much more havoc can we create?  We are well aware of the mischievous purposes for which the internet can be used.  So often, we believe we are too intelligent and savvy to be taken in by bogus claims—disinformation and misinformation.  I won’t get into discussing the ease with which the powers-that-be resort to censorship by pressing those very issues.

Let’s look at one who historically has been derided by his insistence for independent verification of a claim pushed by his peers.  In John 20, St. Thomas, given the news of a resurrected Jesus, has his doubts, which later leads to the affixing of his nickname.  I would say his “unfortunate” nickname.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

Maybe we should first take a step backwards.  We hear that the disciples are huddled in fear behind locked doors.  It appears they have good reason to do so.  However, Thomas is conspicuous by his absence.  We don’t know what he’s been up to; maybe he just wasn’t as scared as the others.

It’s also possible there was a bit of recrimination going on.  It would only be natural for some finger pointing to occur.  In the aftermath of trauma—and this definitely was traumatic—there can be the temptation to lay blame.  Was it the fault of the priests and the Romans?  Was it Judas’ fault?  Those are pretty easy guesses.  However, perhaps something more was happening.  Did they look inward and see their own shortcomings?  There has been some denying going on, and not just by Peter.

Whatever the case, Thomas is with them the week after.  That is when he receives his desired second opinion—and it comes from the man himself.

Honestly, it’s hard to fault Thomas.  It’s not like the others really got it themselves.  For example, while taking Peter, James, and John down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Of course, they knowingly agreed, understanding some things are better left unsaid.  No, I’m just kidding!  Rather, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:9-10).

In other words, they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the heck Jesus was talking about.

2 jnCould we say Thomas wanted to do his own fact-checking?  Jesus agrees to it.  “Do you want to see my hands and side?  Well, here they are.  Check it out.”  Thomas is convinced.  Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  Is Jesus “blessing” Thomas out?

We should note that after Lazarus has died, Jesus plans to go to his home in Judea.  The disciples beg him not to, understanding he has enemies there ready to stone him if he shows his face.  Still, Jesus is determined.  It is Thomas who steps forward and tells the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).  Thomas is ready and expects to lay down his life with, and for, Jesus.

Clinical social worker Jason Hobbs says, “Thomas was not simply looking for facts…the facts in the way that we think about fact…what is true and what is false…  Thomas needed to touch in order to believe.  He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.”  He needed to “see” for himself.

I think it’s a good thing we have a record of Thomas’ doubt.  That gives reassurance for the rest of us who sometimes (and who often) doubt.  I don’t think Jesus is chewing Thomas out—or even expressing disappointment.  Let’s remember that it was the men who had trouble believing Jesus was back from the dead.  The female disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, had much less trouble.

On the question of having a record of his doubt, notice the bit at the end.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (vv. 30-31).  These words are directed to you, dear reader, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “so that you may come to believe.”

We might easily say “doubting Thomas” displays skepticism.  Mark Buchanan, professor at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, has some comments on that very subject.  “Skepticism,” he says, “has an interesting etymology.  It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care and in minute detail.  On this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism.”[1]

Buchanan continues, “I met a man who told me he didn’t believe the Bible because he was a skeptic.  I asked him if he had read the Bible.  ‘No, not really,’ he said ‘I told you, I’m a skeptic.  I don’t believe it.’  This is not skepticism.  This is its opposite—a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”

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Something to note about faith: true faith is not blind faith.  How often do we hear, “Faith is blind”?  On the contrary, genuine faith is not a mindless leap into the void—or a mindless leap into the path of an oncoming truck!  Faith has its own evidence.  Faith has its own eyes.  Faith does its own fact-checking.  In 1 John we are counseled to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).

Buchanan gives Thomas credit.  “Thomas was a true skeptic.  He doubted, not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief.  He doubted so that his belief might be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking.”  He makes his point by saying that “here is the real sign that Thomas is not some poseur, some mere academic trend-chaser: his seeing gives way, not just to belief, but to worship: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[2]

For Thomas, it isn’t a matter of theoretical argument, but rather it encompasses his whole being.

That becomes true for all of them.  Jesus comes to them, not to prove anything, but to comfort and strengthen.  First it is the distraught Mary Magdalene, weeping uncontrollably at his tomb.  She mistakes him for the gardener.  Jesus, still incognito, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 15).  Put your tears away.

In the midst of those disciples, dread forcing them to take cover, their Lord appears, twice proclaiming, “Peace be with you” (vv. 19, 21).  And in what many call a preview of Pentecost, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and adding, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vv. 22-23).

How is that a word of comfort and strength?  What good does it do for these frightened folks to talk about forgiveness?  Would that be a word of comfort for us?  Remember earlier.  In times of distress, it’s only normal—and even expected—to thrash about, asking and crying out, “Why?”  What a gift it is to have and know the Spirit of God is with us.  There is that powerful word of knowing we are forgiven, and that we have the power of forgiving others.  Though Lord knows, it doesn’t happen overnight—if it happens at all!

Doubting Thomas.  One moment in his life earned him a nickname that has stuck through the centuries.  What have we been at our worst?  What have we been at our most embarrassing?  What have we been at the time we most want to take back?  (I can think of plenty more than one.)  Now, imagine that as forever being declared as the sum of who you are.  From now on, that is how you will be defined, how you will be identified.

4 jnHow often do we refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?

Imagine if God decided to take us at our worst.  Actually, God does that very thing!  Nonetheless, in spite of everything, we learn with immense relief, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8).

Of that, it is okay to be skeptical!  It is okay to look at the matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care, to ponder deeply.  It is okay to take God seriously.  (Yes, it is okay!)  It is okay to join with Thomas the skeptic, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] Mark Buchanan, Christianity Today, 44:4 (2000 Apr 3), 64.

[2] Buchanan, 67.

* for the faces on the left: fake, real, fake, fake


blessed release

I’ve sometimes thought to myself, “everything is possible at night.”  That thought has occurred to me when I’ve been up very late, and it seems like the whole world is asleep.  The most incredible plans, the wildest ideas, all seem to be quite capable of being accomplished.  There’s the sudden, “Yes!  Why didn’t I think of that before?”  And then when sleep comes, it seems like everything is figured out.  All is right with God and the world.

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And then the cold light of morning forces open eyelids that aren’t quite ready to be opened.  The mental cobwebs disappear, and a sudden realization takes hold.  What a stupid idea that was!  What in the world was I thinking?  What seemed so clear and so true and so sensible now seems so unclear and so wrong and so ridiculous.

I wonder if the disciples had any similar thoughts.  Jesus had, after all, on occasion made strange statements about being risen from the grave.  What on earth could that mean?  Did they understand him correctly?  Is it possible in those dark, lonely, sorrowful hours before dawn that any of them dared to entertain such notions?

John 20 points us to Mary Magdalene, who ventured out to the tomb of Jesus before sunrise.  The other gospels say she wasn’t alone.  She was accompanied by other women, including Mary the mother of James.  According to the Jewish burial custom, they intended to anoint the body of Jesus.  Still, I wonder what thoughts filled their minds during that terrible and heart-breaking evening.

Mary Magdalene has received a lot of bad press throughout the centuries.  It’s been claimed she had formerly been a prostitute, an allegation stated nowhere in the Bible.  (Though, even if it were true, wouldn’t it be a good thing if she had left that life?)  What is stated is that she had been demon possessed (Lk 8:2).  Some people have said she’s the sinful woman of Luke 8 who washes the feet of Jesus with her hair (vv. 36-50) or that she’s the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (vv. 1-11).

In her blog, “Here’s a Story,” Ashley Buenger takes Biblical characters and events and infuses them with her vision and imagination, bringing them to life.  Here’s an excerpt from her story about Mary and her struggle with demons.[1]

{I have altered the spacing of some of the sentences.}

“I scramble to the jar [I just threw], it’s shattered.  Perfect, I think.  No, wait.  Whose jar is this?  Why have I broken it?  I pick up a shard and I scrape it along the top of my foot.  I see the red beads of blood glisten and I’m delighted.  I’m bleeding.  So beautiful, I stare at it.  Then I take a sharp edge to my palm.

“Stop it.  I say to them.  But they never listen.  They never give heed to what I want.  Get out of here.  I say to them but they laugh at me and snarl.  I can see their teeth in my head.  Oh, Mary.  They taunt me.  Silly Mary. You’re ours.  We won’t leave.

“I pick up another piece of pottery and put it between my teeth.  I chomp down on it as hard as I can.  I wince as I feel a tooth break.  They laugh and place another piece in my mouth.  It’s getting worse.  I push, they push back, I push again, they push back again.  Sometimes I win.  But not often and not lately.  It’s been too long.  I’m too tired to fight.  They have taken over this body.  I’m no longer Mary…  I don’t know half the things I do.

“Look what you’ve done to me, I say to them.  We’ve made you better, they say and laugh, we’ve made you prettier.  They take me to a booth where a man is selling mirrors.  See?  They say.  Gorgeous.  I am horrified.  My face is sunk and my eyes are empty, there are deep wounds on my cheeks.  Chunks of my hair are missing.  What is left hangs limp and dirty around my face.  I don’t even recognize myself…

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“The air shifts and the hair on my neck tingles, I stand up straight and look around.  Someone is coming.  Someone important.  The demons are stirred.  I stumble to the wall and then back and to the wall again.

“There he is, that’s him.  Who is he?…  ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they yell from my mouth.  ‘We know who you are.  The son of the Most High God.’

“‘Come out of her.’  Jesus says.  ‘Now.’

“My body shakes and they shriek as they leave.  It smells like burning flesh for a moment and then they are gone.  There were seven of them.

“I look up and into the face of my healer.  He stands before me with his hand out to me.  I take it, wincing at the pain of the gashes in my palm.  ‘Hi Mary.’  He says to me.  And I stare at him.  My name from his lips is like a song.  The most beautiful melody that I had ever heard.  It is a song of freedom.

“I am Mary again.”

Mary is given a blessed release.

By the way, I sent a comment to Ashley saying, “I love your portrait of the demons as spiteful little punks.”  At the end of the day, that’s really what they are.

The scripture reading of that first Easter morning describes the event that earned Mary Magdalene the name “apostle to the apostles,” no longer the Mary with seven devils.  She peeks into the tomb, even while she’s crying tears of sorrow.  She’s greeted by two angels who ask her why she’s crying.  Mary’s answer shows how confused she is as to how all this can be happening.

3 jnNo sooner has she answered their question than she turns and sees Jesus himself.  Says G. H. C. Macgregor, “There follows the greatest recognition scene in all literature—and one told in two words!”[2]  (Jesus says, “Mary.”  She says, “Rabbouni,” meaning teacher.)  “The greatest recognition scene in all literature.”  (Why doesn’t he tell us how he really feels?)

She sees him, but she doesn’t recognize him.  Thinking he’s the gardener, Mary figures he can explain the missing body of Jesus.

Why doesn’t Mary recognize him?  One suggestion is it was still too dark, but that doesn’t seem very likely.  After all, the disciples on the road to Emmaus spend a long time with Jesus before realizing who he is (Lk 24:13-35).  It’s not until Jesus speaks her name that the veil over Mary’s mind is lifted.

Nadia Bolz-Weber has her own take on this recognition scene.[3]

“See, when Mary Magdalene, this imperfect woman, stood at the tomb, she didn’t encounter some perfected radiant glowing Jesus that morning.  Seriously, no offense to gardeners but Jesus couldn’t have been looking all that tidy and impressive if she mistook him for a gardener.  And here’s the thing: I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”

4 jnThat really speaks volumes about the incarnation.  In Jesus, we have God appearing on earth in flesh, God appearing as matter—this earthly, dirty stuff.  No angel, no vision, but the physical body and blood of Jesus.  In a few moments, we will eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (That’s the Greek word appearing many times in the New Testament which means “giving thanks.”)

How can we describe the intensity of the moment that follows?  In what must have been a flood of shock and joy, Mary cries out to the one she dearly loved.  There are other writings from the early church, besides the New Testament, that speak of the relationship that existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  They speak of a relationship, one of intimate friendship.  Some even go so far as to suggest a romantic bond.

The scripture presents her as turning twice.  In verse 14, she “turns” and sees Jesus, though as mentioned before, she doesn’t recognize him.  In verse 16, upon hearing her name spoken, she “turns” and speaks to Jesus with unbounded wonder.  She turns from grief to hope.  She turns from sorrow to joy.

Though the Bible doesn’t use that word, she turns—she returns—and brings the good news to the others.  Of course, they don’t take her word for it.  Sometimes even an apostle to the apostles isn’t believed!

Mary Magdalene is a fitting picture for Easter, for resurrection.  She, in effect, has been raised from the dead.  She has been freed from her demons.  She once was blind, but now she sees.

It’s been said that it’s “possible for Jesus to be present, and yet for [us] not to recognise him until his word goes home to [us].”[4]

“Until his word goes home.”  It’s not enough to hear about Christ or to be taught the meaning of the resurrection.  We can learn ways to understand the scriptures; we can learn the doctrines of the church—and these are important.  But hearing about Jesus won’t produce belief.  We must hear from Jesus.  And hearing from Jesus Christ means hearing the good news of his love.  That is the word that goes home.

And that is the word spoken to Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her by name.  It’s like those three-dimensional pictures that are hidden in the midst of a bewildering array of other images.  You have to let your eyes remain unfocused.  Straining to find the 3-D picture won’t do any good.  And it can be maddening.  You’re looking right at it, but you can’t see it!

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When Jesus speaks his word, he no longer is a gardener.  He no longer is a traveler on the Emmaus road.  When he speaks his word, he can be seen as the risen Lord who comes to us even now, in every moment of life.

So the next time you find yourself awake in the midst of the darkest of nights, think to yourself that anything is possible at night—even the impossible.  For it was before the sun had yet shown its face that the light of the world emerged from the darkness of the tomb.

 

[1] ashleybuenger.substack.com/p/mary-magdalene?s=r

[2] G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel of John (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 358.

[3] thecorners.substack.com/p/its-actually-pretty-easy-to-mistake?s=r

[4] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 686.


flesh and blood

Banu and I are fans of vampire movies.  There are many I like, but my favorite is still probably one we saw in the theater when we were in seminary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I also very much like the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In.  Banu got me started watching the Twilight movies, which I grudgingly will say aren’t too bad!  However, I do have one big complaint with their contribution to the vampire mythos:  sunlight doesn’t hurt them.  Rather, it makes them sparkle!

1 jn

Why do I begin with vampires?  It’s directly related to one of our sacraments.  In the first century, as word gradually spread that the early church was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, many non-Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, were horrified.  Prohibitions against blood in the Hebrew scriptures go back as far as Genesis: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4).  The blood is the life.

Some called the Christians cannibals.  And though the legend of the vampire goes back to ancient times, we can’t really pin that one on the early Christians.

Still, hearing this, one might be forgiven if there were some doubts: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Those are the words of Jesus in John 6:54-56.  To the uninitiated, it probably would sound like cannibalistic or vampiric actions are in order!

This isn’t the only place where the gospel of John speaks quite insistently about the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Later, I’ll mention its role in the encounter with Pontius Pilate.  But right now, flesh and blood have a prominent role in today’s reading: the introduction to the gospel of John.

The introduction, like the book that follows it, is very different from the other gospels.  The other three don’t have the level of philosophical and theological reflection we find in John.  Many would say this gospel is the most beautiful at a poetic level.  (I would be in that category.)

These eighteen verses are packed with meaning.  I’ll only try to unpack a little of it!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  Does that verse remind you of anything?  If it reminds you of the first verse of Genesis, then that is deliberate.  John wants to identify Jesus the Christ with the eternal living Word, the Word that transcends creation.

“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  That includes life, “and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).  Here’s some of that poetic beauty I spoke of.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (v. 5).  What does that mean?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The Greek word for “overcome,” καταλαμβανω (katalambanō), has several nuances.  It can mean “to grasp.”  In the physical sense, it would suggest “seizing” somebody or something.  In the mental sense, it refers to “understanding.”

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It can also have the sense of “detecting.”  In chapter 8, when some scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman “caught in adultery,” the same word is used.  In this case, she is both detected and seized!  (On a side note, we hear nothing about the man being detected and/or seized—nor about how word came to the scribes and Pharisees who detected her!)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The darkness did not grasp it, or seize it, or understand it, or detect it.  More than that, the darkness is incapable of grasping or understanding the light!

We are told John the Baptist testified to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”  John testified that the Word, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (vv. 8-9).

With verse 14, we have something of a summary of today’s reading.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.  That’s how John portrays Christmas.  There’s no messing around with a baby in a manger.  Like I said earlier, there’s more of a philosophical and theological focus.

As I was doing research for this sermon, I came across an article with an eye-catching title by Jennifer Glancy, who teaches Bible at LeMoyne College in Syracuse.  The title was “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.”[1]  This is where Pontius Pilate enters the picture.

In the article, she wonders, echoing Pilate in his interview of Jesus, “What is truth?”  Expanding on that, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?”[2]  If verse 14 is correct and the eternal living Word has come to dwell in flesh, then it seems we have to say yes, truth does in fact dwell in flesh.

That is the assumption of the Roman Empire and its project of torture and crucifixion—that truth can be extracted from flesh and blood.  Indeed, that’s the assumption of all who torture, truth can be wrenched from the body.

Glancy speaks of three intentions of torture.[3]  There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth.  (You know what I mean: “We have ways of making you talk!”)  Secondly, there is “penal” torture, torture used for punishment.

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Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which is part of a campaign to send a message to the rest of the population.  You make an example out of somebody.  Add to this the element of humiliation.  People crucified by the Romans were stripped naked and mocked.

For those who would say this talk of terror and torture has no place in the Christmas story, I would remind us of Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child.  His paranoia results in the massacre of numerous little boys.  Sadly, that kind of brutality has a very real-world feel to it.

In order to protect their young one from Herod, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt.  They have to seek asylum; they’re fleeing political persecution.  In Jesus Christ, we worship one who has been a refugee.  We worship one who has been a victim of torture.  Still, even though darkness does its worst, it still can’t overcome the light.

Almost five centuries ago, Martin Luther expressed it well in verse: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us / We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us / The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure / One little word shall fell him.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.

What does that mean for us?  Can we think of ways in which we see or experience the Word in flesh?  Are there ways in which we know there is truth in flesh, in this physical stuff?

The darkness could not grasp or seize the light; it couldn’t overcome it.  But the darkness did indeed grasp and seize the flesh of Jesus.

We all struggle with the darkness.  On struggling with darkness, Richard Rohr notes that it “can be experienced as pain and handicap.”  It can be “experienced by struggling with the riddles, dilemmas, and absurdities of life.”  Commenting on verse 5, he says, “Like physical light itself, true light must both include and overcome the darkness.”[4]

I pray—I hope!—we don’t literally engage in torture, but torture can have different meanings.  We torture each other in a multitude of ways.  I’m sure we can think of plenty of cases in which we find that to be true.  We torture ourselves, and we are tortured.  I think it’s safe to say Covid hasn’t always brought out the best in us.  We have shamed each other.  And there are consequences to all of this.  We are harmed as the body politic, and we are harmed as flesh and blood bodies.

Yet even though we surely know darkness can’t overcome the light, at some level—and in some ways we can’t quite put our fingers on—we turn away from the light.  Too often we hide in the dark.  We need to let the light, the light that enlightens everyone, penetrate our darkness.

That doesn’t happen by accident.  Responding to Christ’s call to eat his flesh and drink his blood is a matter of will.  As the early church father Ignatius of Antioch put it, “the Blood of Jesus Christ is love.”[5]  That’s what it takes to become aware of the body of Christ, be it in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or in the sacrament of everyday life.

The apostle Paul warns the Galatians when he says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:14-15).  Remember what I said earlier about vampires and cannibals?

We are at the beginning of a new year.  No one knows what 2022 will bring.  Certainly, it will have its own joys and sorrows, its own life and death.  We as the church, the body of Christ, have our own unique calling.  Our world is divided; our bodies are torn apart.

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We can remain whole.  We can be made whole.  We are told that from the fullness of Christ “we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16).  That is our witness.  That is our testimony.  Instead of tearing flesh and spilling blood, we build each other up.  We nourish each other, knowing that the Word has come and dwells with us.

 

[1] Jennifer A. Glancy, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel,” Biblical Interpretation 13:2 (2005).

[2] Glancy, 107.

[3] Glancy, 115.

[4] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 35.

[5] footnote in Archibald Robertson & Archibald Plummer, The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 252.


crimson detergent

Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic.  Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus.  He was out of his mind.  He had lost his marbles.  The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head.  Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.

Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit.  Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated.  There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites.  It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London.  I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.

1 ex

The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”  I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns.  I’m not terribly fond of its tune.  I apologize to those who do like it.  As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.

However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”  I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it.  Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe.  But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.

Now, I’m warming up to the song!

As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle.  It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt.  Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride.  The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25.  I have included a chart of it which I will reference.

The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east.  The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed.  I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.

2 ex

We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court.  The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.

This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God.  The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil.  Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.

According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it.  Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.[1]

Now, back to that bronze basin.

Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business.  I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying.  With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup.  We might need a large container filled with water.

Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.”  To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene.  It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Or is it?  There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests.  There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing.  And as they say, this is not a negotiation.

If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21).  So clean up your act, or else.

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As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood.  The priests were literally washed in the blood.

(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks.  People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you.  The Germans came up with the term.  Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)

“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”

We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal.  Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus.  It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.

That book is filled with visions given to John.  (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.)  We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.”  What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth.  As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.

He sees people from every nation, speaking every language.  John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.

Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns?  Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio.  Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other.  Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune.  The Lord is the best audience!

Notice who’s right next to the throne.  It is the Lamb, slain for us.  What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter.  But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.”  However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb.  A little itty-bitty lamb.

4 exRemember Mary, who had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb?  She had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme.  The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s.  The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian.  This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues.  Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia.  He enjoyed a certain level of popularity.  Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!

We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.

We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?”  John replies, “I don’t know.”

The secret is revealed.  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message).  They’ve scrubbed them clean.  I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient.  How indeed can blood remove stains?

It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.

Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.

John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.”  The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.”  It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.”  Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience.  Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general.  We all are afflicted by sin.  We all feel the pressures of the world.

The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23).  Washing those robes is washing them with life.  It is washing death away.  When we put on those garments, we put on Christ.  We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27).  We wrap ourselves with Christ.

5 exWhat is to become of that multitude without number?

We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one.  “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.”  “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17).  The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.

There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection.  Still, there is power in the blood.  The blood is the life.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcR9k8o4I0w


love conquers, fear abandons

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  That’s a question addressed by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century book, The Prince.  He deals with other issues, but that’s the one which is considered to be the most intriguing, the one which is the most discussed.  According to Machiavelli, if a political leader is able to be both loved and feared, that is best, but the two don’t easily go together, if at all.

1 1 jnThe problem with being loved is that people will eventually take advantage of you.  Perhaps Machiavelli is sadly accurate in his assessment of human nature when he says if a leader shows too much compassion, the people will want more and more.  They will begin to throw off restraint.  Thus, the need for a firm hand.  Being feared is safer.  If people know they better toe the line or else face, let’s say, unpleasant consequences, it’s an effective way to maintain order and to eliminate dissent.  It’s the rather cynical, “you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet” approach to life.

On the other hand, it’s important to not take it too far.  Excessive fear can turn into hatred, which can lead to open rebellion.  For one in authority, that spells danger.  Actually, that spells danger for those not in government.  It’s not good for those in business, in the school system, in the church!

Unfortunately, I think we know what rebellion in the church can look like!

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  Some might say the opposite of love is hate.  We’re told love and hate cannot co-exist.  However, I might respond with the reality of a love-hate relationship.  Love and hate, as emotions, are powerful and passionate.  However, there is a thin line between them.

The epistle reading in 1 John suggests the opposite of love is fear.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

Let me expand on my original question, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”  I would say those who want to be feared are filled with fear themselves.  They sense an insecurity within, an inner dread, perhaps a feeling of worthlessness, and they feel the solution is to command respect, twisted though it may be, which is produced—which is created—by the fear from others.  Is it out of line to suggest that all the weapons we invent, especially the really powerful ones, demonstrate not how strong we are, but how scared we are?

Let me quickly add I’m not saying everyone who is filled with fear demands to be feared.  That is not at all the case.  In one way or another, we all deal with fear.  At the same time, those who desire to be feared are at heart seeking love; they seek affirmation.  We have been created for love by the one who is love.  As we read in verse 16, “God is love.”

If God is love, then why are we so fearful?  Here’s an interesting example.  Whenever angels appear in the scriptures, they are not the cute, warm, and fuzzy creatures we like to imagine.  They are fierce, and yet they often say something along the lines of, “Fear not.”  In fact, that’s one of Jesus’ favorite lines.

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment” (v. 17).  Love has been perfected.  The Greek word (τελειοω, teleioō) has the meaning of “has been completed,” “has been accomplished.”

Fear has to do with punishment.  We might want to avoid punishment, or at least lessen it, if we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

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With that in mind, I have a little story from when I was a small boy, maybe four or five years old.  If I did something I knew I shouldn’t have done, on occasion I would rat myself out to my mother.  I would confess my crime.  I figured if I came forward before my misdeed had been discovered, I would gain leniency.  And it always worked!

There were times, though, when my transgression went undetected.  I got away with it, or so I thought.

One day when we were living in California, the door to our garage was locked.  I didn’t have the key, so I came up with the idea of getting a stick and pushing it into the lock.  I imagined the wood molding itself to the inside of the doorknob, thus becoming its own key.  When I turned the stick, it broke loose, leaving the lock filled with wood.

I don’t remember if it was my mom or dad who later wanted to get into the garage.  Lo and behold, something was blocking the key!  Upon interrogation, I decided to pin it on my sister.  Despite her protestations of innocence, she received an undeserved spanking.

I don’t recall if it was months or years later, I finally admitted she had not committed the crime.  By then, the statute of limitations had expired.  I was spared punishment.  (For many years after that, my mom would remind me of my false testimony.  Of course, my sister had known the truth all along.)

Fear has to do with punishment.  Dare we say we have a guilty conscience?  But if love is perfected, we have boldness on the day of judgment.

4 1 jn Rudolf Bultmann, one of the noted German theologians of the twentieth century, said of the human race, “the eschatological hour is first of all an hour of dismay.”[1]  The word “eschatological” refers to the end times, the end of the world as we know it.  When the bell tolls, so to speak, it is an hour of dismay.  It is a time of alarm.  The reason for that is because we know we haven’t been perfected; our love isn’t complete.  We have fallen short.  Love is perfected because of Christ.

Chapter 4 ends by telling us we can’t claim to love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters—indeed, if we actually hate them.  By framing my sister, I was not showing hatred, but I certainly was not showing love either!

Fear is suspicious.  Fear keeps us from opening our hearts to each other.  Fear keeps us stuck in the way things are.  It robs us of creativity, to imagine other possibilities.

We can sense that in the ways John uses the word “world.”  In Greek, it is the word κοσμος (kosmos), where we get our word “cosmos.”  One way he uses “world” is by speaking of God’s good creation, our material planet and everything that praises the Lord.

However, “world” can have a sinister meaning.  It’s the world as under the sway of “the evil one” (5:19).  Michael Rhodes says, “John tells us all is not well in God’s good world…  The kosmos has become a battlefield, and all humanity is caught up in the conflict.”[2]  It’s the place where fear reigns over love.

I’m reminded of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface, when his character, Tony Montana is asked by his partner what he expects: “The world, chico, and everything in it.”  In designing a cheesy statue that fits a wannabe dictator’s dreams, he takes inspiration from a blimp he happens to see that says, “The world is yours.”[3]

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Do I need to say, he wasn’t a guy noted for spreading the love around?

Fortunately for us, God isn’t content with leaving the world as it is.  Rhodes tells us, “For John, the world is finally and fully the world that God so loved that he sent his only Son as a ‘Savior of the kosmos’ (4:14).  In Jesus, the Creator has returned to reclaim what is his—a rescue operation that has required him to ‘destroy the works of the devil.’”  He envisions an action movie!

“To be a disciple, then, is to find oneself transferred from the kosmos under the control of the devil and into the realm of the God who is Light.”[4]

If one is under control of the devil, it is difficult, to put it lightly, to be a disciple of the Lord.  Now it has become “a glorious possibility for us as those born again by the Spirit of God.”

He tells us something I think we’re all going to love.  As the church, “because every child of God began life in enmity to God under the influence of the demonic, such a community is also always intrinsically missional.  The doors of the church are always open to any and all of the devil’s children who are willing to come in and be reborn.”[5]

Again I ask, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”

The word “world” (kosmos) has another meaning, which is “system.”  As before, it can have a positive connotation, but John is here using it in a negative sense.  It is the system as trapping us, working against the Spirit of God.  It is the system as robbing us of our freedom, quenching the liberating Spirit.

Bultmann says this: “Again and again the world seems to conquer, and again and again the disciple wavers and seeks refuge in his native haunts, in the world, leaving Jesus alone…  In fact he is not abandoning [Jesus] to the world, but by imagining him to be so abandoned and by despairing of him he is rather abandoning himself.”[6]

Let’s ask ourselves: how often do we abandon ourselves?  How often are we conquered by the world?

6 1 jnStill, all is not lost, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (v. 4).  On a side note, you already know the Greek word that “conquer” and “victory” come from: νικη (nikē), which we pronounce like the shoe, Nike.

The conquering—the overcoming—goes on, because “in [Jesus] the Father is at work, the Father with whom he is one, and therefore…in his apparent defeat he is in fact the conqueror.”[7]  One of my favorite scriptures in the entire Bible comes in the gospel of John, when Jesus is about to leave the upper room and go into the dark, to face betrayal and arrest.  He tells the disciples, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  His defeat sure doesn’t look like victory.

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[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

So we have the joyful question, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v. 5).  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God means many things.  Jesus as Son of God brings freedom, not compulsion.  Jesus as Son of God means clarity, not confusion.  Jesus as Son of God is indeed courage facing persecution.  Jesus as Son of God is light in the dark.

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 592.

[2] Michael J. Rhodes, “(Becoming) Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Discipleship as Gift and Task in 1 John,” Word & World 41:1 (Winter 2021), 24.

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAlTJ8gPJ3M

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


in the system, but not of the system

We tend to be more comfortable with priests than with prophets.

Some might quickly say that their church (or other religious tradition) has no priests.  Being a Presbyterian, I would be one of those folks to make that claim.  I’m not necessarily speaking of a man (or woman) who has been ordained to that office.  I’m thinking of a priestly function or priestly posture.  Likewise, I’m not necessarily thinking of a person identified as a prophet.  Again, it’s more of a prophetic function or posture.

Given the way I’m using the words right now, I can even imagine priests and prophets existing outside of any faith or spiritual context.

This is admittedly a crude oversimplification, but I’m thinking of a priest as one who serves the system—who keeps the system running.  I’m thinking of a prophet as one who questions or critiques the system.  The prophet doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  That approach might better fit the profile of revolutionary.  If you’re wondering what I mean by all of this, as I often say, hold that thought.  Stay tuned.

Before I go any further, I need to address an unfortunate way John’s use of the word “Jew” has too often been misunderstood.  The Greek word is ΄Ιουδαιος (’Ioudaios), which does mean “Jews,” but when it appears in the gospel of John, it’s mainly used for the enemies of Jesus.  The word can also mean “Judeans,” a word which has not led to the persecution of Jews through the centuries, especially by Christians.  It has led to a history of anti-Semitism.

A Judean was from Judea, just as a Samaritan was from Samaria.  If we feel like we can’t use the word “Judean,” we must recognize that “Jew” (as portraying an enemy of Jesus) only speaks of a tiny minority of Jews and/or Jewish leaders.  After all, it should be remembered that Jesus himself was a Jew.  Amazing!  Not only that, he was a faithful, observant Jew.

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The second half of John 2 describes what’s been called the cleansing of the temple.  Notice how it starts: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13).  Passover is one of the high holy days.  Jesus, as a faithful Jew, goes to celebrate.

Everything’s going fine; he’s with the crowds of worshippers who have come from parts near and far.  When Jesus enters the temple, his mood suddenly changes.  He sees the moneychangers at work.  They’re taking the peoples’ ordinary currency, with its images of Roman emperors and Greek gods (which would be idolatrous for purchasing animals for sacrifice) and exchanging it for Judean shekels.  And also, is it possible they’re ripping people off?  Of course, we also have to deal with the animals, producing their smells and solids.

Jesus goes ballistic.  He does his best impression of a bull in a china shop.  He takes off, flipping over tables, scattering coins, shouting at the merchants, and brandishing a whip.  Does he actually flog those fellows?  St. Augustine thought so.  He said Jesus “made a scourge of small cords, and with it lashed the unruly, who were making merchandise of God’s temple.”[1]  When the smoke clears, the place looks like the scene of an action movie.

On the matter of Jesus wielding that whip, some have said it justifies the use of violence, even to the point of punishing heretics and waging war.  “If Jesus was violent,” it’s been reasoned, “what’s to stop us?”

Others have a more nuanced perspective.  After all, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that animals were being sold for sacrifice.  There was no need for Jesus to throw a “temple tantrum.”  James McGrath has noted, “The sale of animals was essential for the temple’s main function as a place for the offering of animal sacrifices…  Both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions.”[2]

Maybe Jesus doesn’t fly off the handle.  This all might have been premeditated.  Maybe it was to make a point.  That would seem to be more in fitting with Jesus’ character.  And about Jesus being violent, there’s a long tradition holding that he was being nonviolent.  No one could have weapons of any kind in the temple area.  The Romans had their own security measures.

As you walk in, they scan you with the metal detector and ask, “Do you have any items to declare?”

That whip Jesus had could only be made with material on hand—stuff like strips of animal bedding.  (A lethal weapon, it was not.)  Not only did Jesus refrain from beating the people, as Andy Alexis-Baker says, we don’t see “Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.  The fact that he deliberately refrains from overturning caged pigeons shows his carefulness with the animals.”[3]

He has no doubt watched too many of those Sarah McLachlan commercials with the sad doggies.

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Is Jesus protesting worship which consists of the sacrifice of animals?  In chapter 4, we see him speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well.

He says to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (vv. 22-24).

To worship God means to worship in spirit and truth.  There isn’t much there about killing animals.  Maybe Jesus is trying to open our minds to a higher understanding, a more open awareness.  God doesn’t require us to slay our fellow creatures.

We hear Jesus saying, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (v. 16).  Our Old Testament reading has the final words in the book of Zechariah.  It’s part of a longer section on the day of the Lord.  The Lord will return to bless Israel and to defeat their enemies.  On that day, ordinary objects in the temple will be considered sacred.  What’s more, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (14:21).

Perhaps we see a promise of the day when exchanging of goods will no longer be necessary?  The slaughter of animals will be a thing of the past?

Whatever the case, we’re dealing with something grander in scope.  Whatever the case, we’re dealing with a challenge to the system.  In return, Jesus is demanded to explain himself.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (v. 18).  The word “sign” (σημειον, semeion), apart from the ordinary understanding, can also be a miracle or wonder by which God authenticates someone.  It shows that God is behind this.

They want to know why he’s there, messing up the program.

The first half of chapter 2 is about the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.  We’re told this is “the first of his signs” (v. 11).  His second sign doesn’t come until chapter 4, when he heals the son of a nobleman (vv. 46-54).  So in case you were wondering, Jesus doesn’t give these guys a sign.

Instead, as he so often does, he reframes the question.  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19).  Aha!  One of his interrogators slips away to grab a security guard.  He points Jesus out, saying, “You better search this guy again.  He’s threatening to blow up the temple!”  Of course, they misunderstand him.  He’s referring to the temple that is his body.  This is John’s way of pointing to the resurrection.

3 jn["Rage, the Flower Thrower" by Banksy]

I hope we realize that we all are temples.  As temples of the Holy Spirit, we in a sense, house God.  That’s what temples have always been for—to in some way, house a deity.  In our case, true deity, true divinity, dwells within us.

The chapter ends by saying, “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (vv. 24-25).  Jesus doesn’t put his faith in others, but he isn’t ridiculing his fellow humans.  It’s simply a recognition that, for all their efforts, they aren’t God.  People fail.  People fail us, and we fail them.  It’s just reality.  Jesus puts his faith in God.

On a side note, we so often disappoint each other because we want what only God can provide.  We subconsciously want each other to be God.  Our love falls short.

On the matter of love, I need to ask, “How does the cleansing of the temple demonstrate love?”  It might not seem like it all the time, but Jesus always acts with love.  He chooses to follow the path of love, not that of sin.

Jesus knows the opposition he would face in challenging the system.  He goes in with eyes open.  It’s not that he hates the system.  He wants it to operate in a loving and compassionate way.  He longs to show those in the system that it can be better—that they can be better.  Jesus wants them to risk being more.  He dares them to be more.  He dares them to be more human, which really is a high bar.

Here’s where we return to my opening statements about priests and prophets, or more precisely, their postures or functions.  The priestly function or spirit desires normalcy, a sane and orderly running of the system.  That in itself is a very good thing.  Systems are good.

Nothing could work—nothing could live—without say, the water system.  Take away H2O with its liquid, gas, and solid states, and see what happens.  We have the body’s digestive system, which is obviously necessary.  We have the political system, which is simply the way we structure our society.  It dates back to when protohumans lived in groups.

Too often, though, systems we create deviate from the beneficial, just, and even holy treatment we owe each other.  They become harmful and not helpful.

That’s when the prophetic spirit is required.  It challenges; it seeks to go deeper.  As I said earlier, the prophetic spirit doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  However, it does point to qualities that have long outlived their usefulness—that is, if they were ever useful for anything but cruelty and tyranny and ungodliness.

The true prophet is in the system, but not of the system.  What I mean by that is similar to what Richard Rohr says about being “on the edge of the inside.”  Prophets “cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either…  Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.”

Think of it.  Are you more likely to listen to someone who respects you and speaks your language (so to speak!), or to someone who disrespects you and thinks you’re an idiot?

Being in the system means having learned how it operates.  Being of the system means not being able to imagine anything outside of it.  It means not being able to visualize something new, something different.  Think of the times when Jesus apparently broke the Sabbath.  He healed people on the Sabbath.  He was working!  Yet, he was showing the deeper, more faithful meaning of Sabbath.

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May I suggest that many people who are accused of hating America really do not?  There are some, of course, who do hate America; I’m not talking about that.  I’m speaking of those who simply want America to be a kinder and more decent place, a more virtuous place.  There is indeed a prophetic spirit which calls us to be our best selves, to heed our better angels.

If we can see how the cleansing of the temple demonstrates love, we also should ask, “What does love require of us?”  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking!  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking me, and truth be told, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.  Love exacts a high price.  Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, some of those in the temple that day behaved in such a defensive manner because they understood that.

What is it about our temples that need cleansing?

Are we carrying on with business as usual?  Are we welcoming the unexpected and unwanted visitor—maybe one who’s cracking the whip and upsetting our plans?  All of that is part of the work of God.  All of that is part of the sacrifice, not of animals slain, but of love spent.

May we welcome, may we receive, the Lord who resurrects the ruined temples of our lives.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.xi.html

[2] www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers

[3] Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15, Biblical Interpretation, 20:1, 2 (2012), 91.


eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

5 dt

This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


good guys and bad guys

When we’re little kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms, at least I did.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and in my opinion, rather cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize it’s not simply a question of black and white, but shades of gray.

To be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  Life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were small.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

It seems like we fall back into a childish view in every election season.  I love the way commercials are designed.  (That is, love in a sad way!)

1 3 jn

Here’s a template on how to make your opponent look like a jerk.  First of all, portray them in black and white images, or maybe use muted colors.  An ominous sound effect is a nice touch.  Make sure they are speaking in slow motion.  That really looks sinister.  Equally effective is taking their words out of context, so it seems like they’re agreeing to something terrible.

Also helpful is a voiceover going along the lines of, “If So-and-So is elected, this is what you can expect.”  In the background show a car engulfed in flames.  Perhaps use a distraught family who can’t pay their medical bills.

If your commercial includes the candidate you’re promoting, change to bright, shining colors.  Include happy and triumphant music, people smiling and hopeful.

I think that’s a sufficiently cartoonish way to produce a commercial.  It is also depressingly cynical.  Clearly, there will be policy differences, but if you could speak to the person alone—with no cameras, no listening, in complete confidence—I think you’d find no one honestly believes their opponent favors the horror show we’ve just seen.

Why begin with these stark portrayals?  Hold that thought.

The author of the Third Letter of John calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is very likely someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, we could also call him the “Presbyterian.”)

He praises Gaius and Demetrius, but he castigates a fellow named Diotrephes.  In verse 11, in a back-handed sort of way, he suggests he is “evil.”  If we were to read 3 John in a quick and superficial manner, we might think we’re getting one of those two dimensional renditions of human behavior.

2 3 jn

[This fellow with the dreamy green eyes wants to know.]

Certainly, there’s a lot more to it than that.  We shouldn’t think the conflict pictured here is just a question of clashing personalities.  Even though 3 John only has fifteen verses, there’s plenty going on below the surface.  There are issues of love, hospitality, and power.

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First, he wants to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!

Unfortunately, there’s something else that has compelled John to write the letter.  He feels the need to issue Gaius a warning.  As I just said, he alerts him about Diotrephes.  John’s relationship with Diotrephes has become, let’s say, “problematic.”  Gaius needs to keep his eye on him.

He says, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9).

Here’s a question. “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  There was a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escaped me at the time, decided I would be a good person with whom to, let’s call it, display unfriendly behavior.  He never challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive responses.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

In retrospect, I understood he fit the profile of someone who was bullied at home, maybe by an older brother or a father.

It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.

Although, we’re told “bully” originally had a very different definition.  “‘If you called someone a bully in the sixteenth century, you were crushing hard on them.  The word bully was initially a term of endearment.  Bully comes from Dutch boel “lover” and evolved to mean sweetheart.  But it came to mean “blusterer” or “harasser of the weak” by the seventeenth century.’  So next time you get trolled, just tell your bully sweetheart that you love them too.”[1]

3 3 jn

In any event, John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[2]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

“Are you going to do what I say and tell these people to hit the road?  If not, you might find yourself hitting the road!”

We need to see this in context.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  The church is becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.[3]

It’s likely the conflict pictured here isn’t an isolated event.  It seems almost inevitable that when a movement enters into second and third generations, its nature begins to change.  Questions of authority arise.  Who has the right to do what?  Questions of identity arise.  Who are we?  Who are we not?

In verse 9, John gets to the business of naming names.  He does not say, “There’s a certain person I’m thinking of.”  No, it’s “Diotrephes, that low down dirty dog!”

This is where it might be helpful to hear Diotrephes’ side of the story.  It may or may not be convincing, but at least his voice would be heard.  And there are those who say he’s not completely out of line.[4]

In any event, this speaks to a problem with our own culture.  We have a tough time in listening.  We’re slow to listen and quick to speak.  We’re slow to listen and quick to judge; we’re quick to put labels on people.  It’s difficult for us to pray because we don’t want to listen.  We drown our spirits with noise.

Now, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first,” to shove people out of the way.  He spreads “false charges,” and keeps others from making friends with those he doesn’t like (vv. 9-10).  He actually is the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates to support our sisters and brothers who want to work with the truth (see v. 8).

How do we support each other?  Obviously, there are lots of ways: with words of loving encouragement—and with words of loving correction.  We support each other with open hearts and with open wallets, to the extent we can.  We don’t give to the church simply to pay salaries and pay the bills.  We give because we love God.  And here’s a crazy thought.  We give in order to support ministry and mission beyond our walls.

The spirit of “Diotrephes” is portrayed as willful and pushy.  The spirit of “Gaius” is portrayed as open and unpretentious.

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[5]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

“The little river said, ‘I can become a big river.’  It worked hard, but there was a big rock.  The river said, ‘I’m going to get around this rock.’  The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

“Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall.  Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through.  The growing river said, ‘I can do it.  I can push it.  I am not going to let down for anything.’

“Then there was an enormous forest.  The river said, ‘I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.’  And the river did.

“The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down.  The river said, ‘I’m going to go through this desert.’  But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river.  The river said, ‘Oh, no.  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to get myself through this desert.’  But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

“Then the river heard a voice from above: ‘Just surrender.  Let me lift you up.  Let me take over.’  The river said, ‘Here I am.’  The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud.  He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

4 3 jn

“There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves.  But there is the voice that comes, ‘Let go.  Surrender.  I will make you fruitful.  Yes, trust me.  Give yourself to me.’

Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.

We can see Diotrephes as the river when it wasn’t ready to listen and Gaius as the river when it’s receptive and wants to work with, rather than to work against.

So we all have the spirit of Gaius and the spirit of Diotrephes within us.  And Jesus Christ welcomes all of us, that is, everything within us.  We present our willfulness and pushiness to Christ, the one who welcomes those good guys and bad guys.

For those in our lives we deem as “good guys and bad guys,” as people of the new creation, we are called to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ep 4:32).

 

[1] medium.com/exploring-history/10-shocking-origins-of-some-common-words-489c0b987a76

[2] Revised English Bible

[3] Georg Strecker, The Johannine Letters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 262.

[4] Strecker, 262.

[5] www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html


this was always the place

1 gnHave you ever been given a nickname regarding something you had absolutely no control over?  You know, like being called “freckle face.”  (Assuming, of course, you have a generous supply of freckles.)  How about addressing someone of petite stature?  “Shorty” would be a nickname completely unearned.  That would also be true if the name “Shorty” were used ironically, referring to someone seven feet tall!

Here’s another question.  Have you ever given someone else a name about something they couldn’t help?

A lot of that goes on in the Bible.  Consider the Old Testament reading in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder.  We’re introduced to Jacob in chapter 25, just as he and his twin brother Esau are being born.  And what does he do to his elder brother?  He takes him by the heel!  Darn that infant.  Just for that, we’re going to call you Jacob.[1]  You know—the name that means one who supplants, the one who will shove you aside and take your place, the one who will grab your heels and try to trip you.

(I won’t go into detail now, but he does wind up tricking his brother into selling his birthright.  He tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, the one that should go to the elder son.  Esau is furious and is dead set on killing Jacob, so Jacob hits the road to go live with Uncle Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah.)

Speaking of nicknames regarding something of which you have no control, my own name wends its way through history back to Jacob.  James, by way of the French (Jacques), back to the Latin (Iacomus), back to the Greek (Iakobos), and finally to the Hebrew (Jacob or Ya‘aqōv).  Am I a supplanter; do I scheme to take someone else’s place?

I guess I can take heart in that there have been, and still are, a ton of Jameses throughout time and space!

But let’s go back to that sneaky Jacob.  Pastor and writer Renita Weems says of him, “What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character.”[2]

She isn’t kidding.  Later on, Jacob wrestles with a man/angel all night long.  Eventually, the man throws in the towel, but not before getting in one last lick at Jacob’s hip!  Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28).  His craftiness is rewarded.

2 gnWeems goes on, “I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use—deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever.  Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional.  They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.”

When called upon, he can also do an incredible Hulk imitation, though without the green skin!  He comes upon some shepherds at a well which is covered with a large stone.  Removing it is a job for several men.  Jacob, upon seeing the beautiful Rachel approaching, walks over to the stone and picks that bad boy up!  I don’t know.  Does this display suitably impress Rachel?

Still, all of that is in the future.

I started by asking about nicknames, but the real focus here is something deeper and more inward.  Jacob has a dream.  We’re told he comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night.  The Hebrew simply says, “the place.”  And at “the place,” he uses a stone for a pillow! (v. 11).  Who knows what kind of dreams that might prompt?

I don’t want to get into the mechanics of dreams.  There are numerous interpretations of what they might mean.  Some people remember their dreams on a nightly basis; some almost never remember them.  I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

There was a dream I had for many years.  If you’ll indulge me; I’ve told this story before.  It dealt with McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

3 gn
I haven’t had that nightmare (yes, nightmare) for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my needing to complete something.

All of us have had dreams, even recurring ones, that have had special importance.

Jacob has a dream that is exceptionally important—and quite vivid.  He dreams “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).  The word for “ladder” is better translated as “ramp” or “stairway.”  Jacob dreams of a “stairway to heaven,” to reference the old Led Zeppelin song.

The Lord meets him and identifies himself as the God of his fathers.  God gives him the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, that he will inherit the land and his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth.”  Furthermore, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v. 14).  God promises to be with him until these things are fulfilled.

(On a side note, it’s always the men who are given credit for the number of children.  The women are mysteriously absent.)

After that promise of amazing grace, Jacob wakes up and it dawns on him, “God is here, and I didn’t know it!”  Something is stirring inside him.  Whoa!  God is here, and I didn’t know it.  That something stirring inside him is fear.  It is reverence.

Remember what’s going on with Jacob.  He’s on the run; he’s literally running for his life.  Is it possible he has only himself to blame?  Maybe.  How many times have we been on the run, seemingly for our lives, only to realize that we are our own worst enemies?

We come to “the place,” just as Jacob does.  Where is that place for each of us?  Where is that place for us as a community, as the church?  Where is that place where we stop running?  Where is that place where it might take a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending, to make us realize that God has been here the whole time?  This was always the place.  It is a time of awe, of holy fear.

What does the dream signify?  What does Jacob’s ladder mean?  Now we’re back to the multiple understandings I mentioned earlier.  That’s certainly true with this dream.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for “meaning of Jacob’s ladder,” or words to that effect.  I imagine you’ll find two or three takes on it.

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

One that I find interesting and helpful comes from Ephraim of Sudlikov, a rabbi from eighteenth century Poland.  He speaks of the “ladder filled with upward and downward motion [as] a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth.”[3]  Very briefly, when we feel a profound closeness to God, we are ascending the ladder.  When we feel a profound distance from God, we are descending the ladder.

Ephraim says there’s nothing wrong with this.  It is an integral part of the spiritual life.  It is who we are.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that “God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid.  It is as if God seeks to reassure him: ‘This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.’  Just as your spiritual life wanes, it may yet wax stronger than you yourself thought possible.  And the waxing may owe much to the waning.”

Jacob now realizes, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).

Jumping ahead a few centuries, John’s gospel presents Jesus telling Nathanael, “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’ [By the way, in Hebrew thought, a fig tree was symbolic of prosperity.]  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (1:50-51).  John links Jesus himself with the gate of heaven.

How does Jacob finally respond to all of this?  He builds a shrine and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God” (v. 19).  Then he makes a vow in response to God’s promise of free and amazing grace.  He’s still not quite ready to fully trust God.  If you do this…then I will do that…

Thomas Whartenby tells us, “The man who has always lived by his wits now seeks to strike a bargain.  To the God who made gracious and unconditional promises, Jacob makes a very guarded and conditional vow: If you deliver, I will serve.  It is easier to build sanctuaries than it is to live the life of faith.  Conditional discipleship is much easier than unconditional surrender.”[4]  Can we all agree to that?

Yet, despite all of Jacob’s duplicity, despite all of his scheming, God is faithful.  Like Jacob, we come to our “place.”  And too often, we would rather be anywhere in the world but there.  We would rather be on Jupiter or Saturn than there.[5]

5 gn

Still, it’s true, that is where God meets us—where God has been waiting to meet us.

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

[2] billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling

[3] www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2000/12/the-ladder-to-heaven.aspx

[4] Thomas J. Whartenby, Jr., “Genesis 28:10-22,” Interpretation 45:4 (Oct 1991), 404.

[5] Since we’ve been able to see both of them at night recently!


shining in the dark

The introduction to the gospel of John is no mundane matter.  Every verse is packed (maybe we could say over-packed) with meaning.  Notice how it starts: “In the beginning was the Word.”  We’re off on a cosmic adventure.  There are all kinds of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing stuff.

Gail O’Day talks about the “cosmic, transtemporal dimension of the Prologue.”[1]  It goes beyond time itself!

1 jn

{Alexander Andrews, unsplash.com/@alex_andrews}

“All things came into being through him [that is, the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).

As the Christmas season gives way to the Epiphany of the Lord, it does so bathed in, and in preparation for, light.  Light is powerful, and there are those who say it must be infused with even more power.

Thomas Hoffman feels that way.  He offers comments in Caryll Houselander’s book, A Child in Winter.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[2]  A Child in Winter is a book of her devotionals covering Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Hoffman speaks of light as coming “pretty inexpensively and maybe even too conveniently to us.”  We have ready access to light, thanks to the power grid, batteries, cell phones, and so on.

He says, “We have grown accustomed to [this] being a season of light, but let’s agree to make this…a season of fire.  Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within.  Let it burn in you.  Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you.”[3]  It truly is a cosmic adventure!

2 jnI really like verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Hang on to that thought; I’ll be coming back to it.

Very quickly, here are some other highlights in John’s introduction.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6).  He came as a witness to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (v. 8).

“The true light, which enlightens everyone…was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (vv. 9-10).

Then there’s the grand statement of incarnation: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14).  It’s the over-arching meaning of Christmas.  In the human being called Jesus, “we have seen [the Word’s] glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (vv. 14, 16).  Or as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “one gift replacing another.”

We can see incarnation as something that transcends even Jesus; we can see it including the whole universe.  Without the Word not one thing came into being.

Let’s go back to verse 5.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  What is that all about?  The word for “overcome” in Greek (καταλαμβάνω, katalambanō) has a variety of connotations.  It can mean “to grasp,” “to seize by force.”  Were darkness and light in a wrestling match, and darkness went down for the count?

3 jn

It can also mean “to comprehend” or “to understand.”  We use our English word “grasp” in both physical and mental ways.

The darkness wasn’t able to grab the light.  The darkness wasn’t able to understand it.  I wonder, “What does it mean to not grasp the light, to not grasp the Word?”  “What does it mean to not comprehend it?”

I have a little story, though it’s not the most dramatic of stories.  It deals with something from my childhood.

For a couple of years when my sister and I were in elementary school, my mom took us to church.  (Long story short: this was an independent church, similar to a Baptist church.  Our attendance started to get a bit spotty, gradually moving to once a month, then not at all.  Years later, however, we did return to church!)

Anyway, back to my original thought.  There were times during the worship services when I would watch the pastor closely while he was preaching.  I was fascinated.  I couldn’t understand where he was getting all this stuff.  Was he reading the same Bible I was?  I read the same words…and nothing.  I was dumbfounded.  I couldn’t grasp it.  I’m not trying to equate myself with “darkness,” although it’s safe to say I was in the dark.

As I said before, this might not seem like a dramatic or remarkable story, and maybe we could just write it off because I was young, but it left a vivid impression on me.  And in some small way, there was a sense in me that I would be called to do what he was doing—preaching the Word.  I wanted no part of that, thank you very much!  But God has a way of taking our saying “no” and turning it into “yes.”  So maybe there was a hint of darkness not being able to defeat, to grasp, to comprehend the light.

We have a thought similar to darkness not overcoming the light in verse 10.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

4 jnMusa Dube, a theologian from Botswana, offers her thoughts.  “Those who fail to believe or recognise the Word have missed a chance to know and associate with forces of power, forces of creation.”[4]  She doesn’t pull any punches.  The unbelieving “deny themselves grace and the knowledge of God, which can only be received from the Word.  In sum, those who do not believe or recognise the Word, identify with death, failure, powerlessness and ignorance.”

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and we are reminded of the visit of the wise men.  They came, following the light.  Too often, we end the story with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But that’s not the end of the story.  The sandman visits them and tells them to take a detour on the way home.  (I wonder, did they have a collective dream, or did one have the dream and tell the others about it?)

Herod wanted them to come back and let him know the address of this young king of the Jews.  After all, he insisted, he wanted to pay his respects.

When Herod hears the wise men took off, he’s furious and sends his goons to commit mass murder.  However, Joseph and Mary make a night-time escape and flee to Egypt.  The word used for “flee” is φευγω (pheugō), to take refuge.  It’s where we get our word “refugee.”

The Holy Family flees darkness.  Through Herod, darkness attacks light.  Darkness would overcome light.  However, light is shining in the dark.

And the story continues; it continues with us.  How comfortable are we knowing and associating with, as Dube says, forces of power and forces of creation?  (Don’t answer too quickly!)  How often do we identify with—how often do we relate to—death, failure, powerlessness, and ignorance?

I know I have my work to do.

We can take a clue from Thomas Hoffman.  Be consumed by the energy that’s growing within.  Let it burn.  Let’s let God use fire to purify the cosmos through us, to purify everything and everyone around us.  That fire is the fire of the Spirit.  We can’t really welcome the Word in our own strength.  We can mentally agree with a doctrine of the Word—we can mentally assent—but that alone won’t purify or revolutionize us.  To unleash the Word in us is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Again, I know I have my work to do!

5 jnFrom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace, one gift replacing another.  Don’t be satisfied with gifts received in the past; yearn and pursue even greater gifts from God.  Let us remind ourselves, as I do, God yearns to complete our deepest joy—and give even deeper joy, a joy of shining in the dark.

How is that for a promise as we enter this new year—this new decade? 

 

{Tim Umphreys, unsplash.com/@timumphreys}

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9: Luke/John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)

[2] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[3] Houselander, 61.

[4] Musa W. Dube, “Batswaka: Which Traveler are You (John 1:1-18)?”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108 (November 2000), 81.