Martin Luther

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!

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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.


what do you want?

There was a question that I sometimes would be asked, and too many times, it really bugged me.  It’s a simple question, and I’m using it as my sermon title.  “What do you want?”  That sounds easy enough.

I guess it started when I was in high school.  Maybe some of you can relate to this.  Some of my classmates would say, “I’ll go to college (some would have a particular one that they were dead set on), and I will major in whatever.  That will set me up for this-or-that career—or I’ll have a certain job waiting—and this is how my life will go.”  It was all mapped out.

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Ben Stiller in deep thought as Derek Zoolander

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not opposed to setting goals!  I’m not opposed to actually planning things!  But with the way they were describing it, it felt like they were removing all the mystery from life.  They were removing the fun.  Sometimes I would wonder, “What’s wrong with me?  Why don’t I feel the need to chart everything so meticulously?”

When I got to college, I had a certain roommate for two years.  He was a really cool guy.  His major was Accounting, and he absolutely hated it.  Going outdoors—working outdoors—was what he really loved.  Like so many other people, his theory was that you go to college to get a job.  (That’s how you answer the question, “But what can you do with such-and-such a major?”  That one especially gets posed to liberal arts majors.)

I was way on the other side of the spectrum.  For me, college was about exploring, learning about new things.

I was baptized when I was 21.  By then, I had already graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.  I had lost interest in the directions that would take me, at least as a career.  As I became involved with the church, that question resurfaced: What do you want?  And like before, sometimes it really bugged me.

My first meaningful experience with church was the Assemblies of God.  I’m grateful for it.  For someone like me, who lived too much in his head, I needed that really heartfelt experience of the faith.

At the same time, when there is so much emphasis placed on following the leading of the Holy Spirit (which can be a frustratingly vague proposition), sometimes other things get overlooked.  That could include stuff like familiarity with the scriptures, the advice of wise people in the church, and the desires and interests God puts within us.  (Although I suppose all of that goes along with the leading of the Spirit!)

I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college in Florida.  After graduation, I was back to that question.  What do you want?  I rephrased it as, “What should I do?”  I wanted God to give me an absolutely clear direction.  This was a matter of much prayer.  In a way, I wanted God to remove the mystery and fun that I mentioned earlier in connection with my classmates.

So, while waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration, I went back to the job I had during my breaks from college: McDonald’s.  I worked there for quite a while until I finally decided to go to seminary.  But on more than one occasion, when I couldn’t answer the question “What do you want?” I felt like there must be something wrong with me.  And bringing in the perspective of faith, maybe I was ignoring the Holy Spirit!

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Speaking of the perspective of faith, that brings us to our story in Mark’s gospel: the healing of blind Bartimaeus.  (And I will get back to the question, “What do you want.”)

First of all, in case you’ve never noticed this, Mark is the gospel writer who is the least likely to go into great detail.  He just races along.  Mark uses the Greek word for “immediately” (ευθυς, euthus) more than Matthew, Luke, and John put together.  And his gospel is the shortest.

So if you’re binging on caffeine, or sucking down a Red Bull, this might be the gospel to read!

Look at the way our story begins in verse 46.  Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples come to Jericho.  We have no idea what they do there.  The next thing we hear—they’re already leaving town, and they do so with “a large crowd.”  That’s when they encounter “a blind beggar [who’s] sitting by the roadside.”

We’re told that his name is “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.”  That’s actually a repetition.  In Aramaic (which was the language they spoke), the word for “son” is “bar.”  So it’s “son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus.”  There is some confusion.  It looks like he’s anonymous; maybe that’s one way of saying he’s a nobody.  As a blind beggar, it’s no doubt the way he’s been treated.

And yet, we often see these reversals in the Bible.  Scripture is filled with subversive, counter-cultural ideas.  The word “Timaeus” (τιμαιος) means “honorable” or “esteemed one.”  The name Timaeus refers to a “worthy one.”  You know, this blind beggar might be somebody after all!

Whatever the case, he doesn’t let the crowd keep him quiet once he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is on the way.  Maybe he senses that Jesus is a kindred spirit.  Nazareth is not exactly the most cosmopolitan of places.  There were plenty of people who thought of Jesus as a nobody!

Bartimaeus doesn’t care.  In fact, he is calling out to him, loudly shouting, “Son of David!”  We’re told that some people “sternly ordered him to be quiet” (v. 48).  Sternly ordered—rebuked—the recipient of expletives.  I imagine the language hurled at this blind beggar, this nobody, is as crude as it is colorful.

Actually, shouting out “Son of David” would get you noticed.  “Son of David” is a messianic title.  It hearkens back to King David’s dynasty.  At the time, the messiah was expected to lead the Jewish nation to independence.  That would mean going against the Romans.  So Bartimaeus, stop shouting this dangerous stuff!  We really don’t need that kind of attention.

Eventually, Jesus appears before Bartimaeus, and he asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51).  What do you want?  It would seem to be obvious.  He’s blind!

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“Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus” by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861.

As Debie Thomas says, “But Jesus asks, anyway.  He doesn’t presume.  He doesn’t reduce Bartimaeus to his blindness.  Instead, he honors the fullness and complexity of a real human being who likely has many desires, many longings, and many needs.  In asking the question, Jesus invites Bartimaeus into the honest self-reflection essential to growth and healing.”[1]

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus poses the same question to James and John.  They are looking for positions of power and prestige, sitting “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v. 37).  Bartimaeus has a very different answer.  “My teacher, let me see again” (v. 51).  Let me see.

I have a question.  What does it mean to see?  Aside from the obvious physical definition of seeing, what does it mean?

Certainly, we can think of seeing as understanding, of coming to a realization.  It’s that moment when the light comes on.

At a deeper level, prophets have sometimes been called “seers.”  That’s a challenge for all of us—to see beyond the outer appearances into the depths where the true nature of things is hidden with Christ in God.

Do we ever, as I mentioned before, think there’s something wrong with us if we don’t know what we want?  And again, getting more specific, do we ever blame ourselves if we can’t see—if we can’t understand something?  “Why didn’t I see that?”  If so, we should remind ourselves of something.

The crowd considered Bartimaeus unworthy.  What good is a blind beggar?  But Mark makes a point of naming him, even if there is, as I said, some confusion about it.  (Matthew and Luke in their gospels leave him nameless.)  Mark takes the extra step of granting him that dignity.  His name itself says that he is “worthy”; he is “valuable.”

Still, that worthiness, that value, is not something Bartimaeus worked for.  It was given to him.  The same is true with us.  The truest and deepest worthiness is not something we work for.  I say that, because that type of honor can be taken away.  We can mess up; we can fail to see something, and there it goes!  Rather, the truest and only real measure is the worthiness and esteem we receive from God.

Jesus recognizes Bartimaeus’ need, but he doesn’t presume.  He doesn’t patronize him.  He asks him the question.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus enters into relationship with this son of Timaeus.  Far from saying, like some in the crowd, “Shut up, you dirty beggar,” he shows interest in him.

What do you want?

Ultimately, I would think, the answer is to be loved.  And it doesn’t matter if we are one of the beautiful people or if we have screwed up badly and made a wreck of our lives.  Really, that’s part of the human condition.  We make mistakes; we sin.  So often, we stumble in the darkness.  Maybe even today, some of us are experiencing our own kind of darkness.  We are blind beggars.

Again, we hear the question, “What do you want?”  We want—we need—the love of God.  The love of God is an intensity that we cannot imagine or conceive, blind beggars that we are.  But that is grace.  That is the gospel.  That is the good news.

Now here’s something that qualifies as a post script!

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This, of course, is Reformation Sunday.  Reformation Day falls on the 31st.  It marks the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted what amounted to an editorial, a letter to the editor, on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Years earlier, when he was a young man, there was an event that flows from my thoughts on, “What Do You Want?” and my expressed hope that the Lord would strike me with a lightning bolt of inspiration!

Martin had been studying law for a few weeks, and he went to visit his parents.  As the story goes, on the way back, he was surprised by a heavy thunderstorm.  Caught in an open field, he sought shelter under a tree.  A sudden lightning strike caused him to throw himself down onto the earth.  In mortal fear he prayed and vowed, “I will become a monk!”

He had toyed with the idea of being a monk for some time.  Did the lightning bolt help him decide “what do I want?”

Eventually, he left the monastery.  He proposed reforms to the Roman Catholic church which were rejected.  He never envisioned a church that would be named after him.  The forces he set in motion could be blamed on that thunderstorm!  The lightning bolt answered the question for him: “What do you want?”

May it not take a lightning bolt, but the fire (and the silence) of the Spirit to lead us down that path.

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1988-let-me-see-again