2nd in Easter (4/23): “Life for Others: Life in His Name”

Scripture: 1 Peter 1:3-9 ; John 20:19-31

Our seven-part Easter series—remember that Easter is seven weeks long!—is called “Life for others.” I chose the phrase to describe what we are all about here. I like it, because you can in three words describe what we are about without reference to any obscure belief in Jesus or even God. Of course, I love those obscure and mysteriously beautiful doctrines of Christian faith. But as we say, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. So it makes sense to start as openly as we can. But as we go on, we’ll see just how essential the story of God and Jesus are to this life for others. And we’ll discover more and more meanings to the phrase “life for others.” It means first of all that I do not live for myself, I live for others and out of love for others. But it also means that we are for each other; we love one another and give life to one another. And as one loving body our church is also life for others, working to extend our love and provide abundant life for others. Life for others does not mean no life for myself; it does not mean I work myself to death for others. Jesus alone can be said to be life for others in this sense, as we will see. Because Jesus completes and perfects life for others, we are first of all recipients of life, before we are givers. And at the foundation of all life for others is God. Let’s suppose that all our knowledge about who and what God is might be uncertain; but we can still define God this way: God is life for others, life for those who are not God, life for us.

We’ll have to be wary of common misunderstandings as we go. It’s not that God will be for us if we are for others. It’s not a quid pro quo. We are only life for others in response to God, not out of some deal with God. Why? Well on one hand, our relationship of faith in God amounts to much less than a deal. We don’t get to bargain with God. We don’t name our price. Of course, we submit our petitions to God in prayer, our joys and concerns. We can and should ask God to do things for us. But there is no negotiation. Some imagine that God rewards his faithful with protection from all harm and maybe with prosperity, romance, success, fun.   That’s what some imagine when they hear First Peter say that God “has given us…an inheritance…kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith.” That’s what they imagine; then sometimes they lose faith when life doesn’t go so well. But the relationship to God by faith is not a protection racket with the ultimate strong man. If we just attend to Jesus briefly, we see that this can only be a misunderstanding. God did not protect his own son from all the vulnerabilities of human flesh. God did not grant Jesus peace and success and prosperity and unadulterated good times. God vindicated Jesus as God has vindicated no other, but did not spare him dreadful sorrow and suffering. Why should we expect God to spare us from our human vulnerability? Consider Paul; Paul describes his service as including: “Great endurance, …afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” etc. Faithful service to God is no picnic. Why should we expect an easy, carefree life instead of persecution for the sake of the Gospel? (Indeed, we probably should wonder why we haven’t made more enemies for the sake of the Gospel.) So if we suffer it is not a sign that God has failed to keep some bargain; it may be a sign that we are being faithful. But we don’t with our faith buy God’s protection from all harm.

On the other hand, our relationship of faith to God is much more than a deal or a quid pro quo. God is irrevocably for us, and for others. We can’t mess that up. If we had a deal with God, we could fail to carry out our end of the bargain; indeed, we would certainly fail, because God doesn’t miss anything. But God has shown himself to be for us in Jesus Christ, once and forever. That’s why Peter exclaims: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfailing….” By faith we can see that this inheritance is so much more than protecting us from suffering. Sure, God can act to save us from disease and even death—remember Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead? But Jesus did this to direct people to the eternal life that we have in union with Jesus even though we suffer. Lazarus would die again. But Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” By faith in Christ we come to believe that God is for others, for us. God is life for others, for us.

But we’re not ready to think through how it is that Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us that God is life for others—our life. That will come later. For now, for the benefit of those of us (that’s all of us) whose grasp on Christ and the cross is a little shaky, let’s focus on what we can see and experience first-hand. Our life as Christians is a life for others. Maybe you don’t feel personally that your life is for others. I don’t feel like my life is for others; in some ways it is, since I’m a minister of the gospel, but then again I am making a living off of my ministry, which ruins my bragging rights. Instead, look at some of the great servants in this church. There are people here who work tirelessly for the church—for our ministry, our missions, our young people. There are those among us who have adopted people who needed help as their own family members. Dennis has had two guys he met on the street living with him who were going through detox and needed a place to feel safe. I gather this is no picnic. These great servants among us are not doing it because God is dangling a reward out in front of them. And they are not doing it because they are just goody-goody types who are naturally sweethearts. If you know them well enough to know their great deeds, then you probably know their faults also. (Dennis, I’m going to go to you once more as the perfect example.) Rather, they are great servants because God is life for others, and this life for others has become the shape of their life by the grace of God. They and we find joy in being life for others, in bringing life to others.

It’s this life for others that is the only true and abiding source of life for this church. This is our imperishable inheritance. If we think that our inheritance lies in having the classiest piece of architecture in town, or in carrying on a vaunted historical legacy in the town of Granby, or in being the place where everybody who is anybody in town comes to be seen, then our inheritance will be death. If we instead, as a church, practice life for others—and again that includes for strangers, for each other, and for God—then we will live in God, because through life for others we have “a new birth into a living hope.” I believe people are searching for an authentic life for others. Everyone knows that this is the right and true shape of life. Everyone knows that life based on selfishness is empty and false. And on Earth Day weekend, we should recall that life based on selfishness is destroying life on this planet.  And everyone knows that life that is only for some but against others is a denial of our one humanity let alone of the one God over us all. Everyone knows this; and even those who try to believe that human beings are naturally selfish or tribal are clearly wrong. Life for others is in fact deeply natural. Nature is never either wholly selfish nor against others, even when creatures prey on others for their own survival while protecting their own. Because in earth’s natural systems, everything depends on an integrated and balanced system within which species depend on one another. In this way, nature is always life for others, and all creatures are living for others, even if they are unaware of doing so. We children of God are called to live a higher way, to be knowingly for others, and not a lower one—knowingly for ourselves. If we are life for others, people will be drawn to us.

Everyone believes in life for others, but some try to deny it. Indeed, our world promotes and encourages people to deny it. It’s so easy for people to fall into a a steely, macho cynicism that masquerades as “realism.” And then they challenge us: “Life for others is for suckers,” they say. “You have to be tough in this life, or people just take advantage of you. People don’t respect weakness, only strength. Real men live for themselves; namby-pambies live for others.” (That’s my best macho imitation, I’m afraid; not very convincing, I know.)

I suppose their way of thinking is not all wrong. It might apply to a caricature of liberal Christians who believe that everyone is really very good, including ourselves, we just need some love and acceptance and we’ll give as good as we get. The Bible of course says nothing like that; it takes the sinfulness of the world very seriously. But unlike the tough guyz, the Bible makes us look at our own sinfulness first, before the sin of those others out there. And the Bible only considers sin in light of the love which God has for us and which God commands us to show ourselves and others. The tough guyz, however, use the sin of others to justify hatred and disregard for them. But by baptizing themselves in the bloody water of hatred and sin, they only ensure the perpetuation of death for others.

I find nothing attractive or life-giving in tough guy cynicism. And whatever accuracy their criticism of an extreme liberal version of Christianity, they don’t understand the gospel of Jesus at all. But what our reading in John’s Gospel shows us is that the life for others that the risen Lord Jesus is bequeathing to his disciples is not at all weak or namby-pamby. To be sure, when the reading begins, the disciples are huddled together in fear. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,” that is, the leaders in Jerusalem. The disciples were afraid, reasonably so, that the authorities would come after them next. Now, they, like us, had already heard from Mary that Jesus was alive. And two of them had seen the empty tomb themselves. But they hadn’t personally received the Spirit yet.

Jesus suddenly came and stood among them. (How did he get through the locked doors? you might wonder.) He greets them and shows them his wounds. The story doesn’t explain why that was important. Did Jesus have to reassure them that he was alive despite what he had gone through? That the wounds and piercings were indeed very real, very deadly, but even so not enough to defeat God’s chosen? That, like we were just saying, the Bible takes sin and its destructive power very seriously, but only in the light of God’s love and indeed, God’s victory over it?

Then Jesus greeted them again and added: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he breathed on them [breathe] and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now first, the word spirit in both Greek and Hebrew means the same thing as breath and is associated with the breath of God. God breathed his spirit or breath into Adam, you may recall. God’s Spirit is simply God’s power, that which makes God’s will active and alive in us; the Spirit is God’s life for others. But we have to take Jesus’ two actions together to see their significance. He breathes into them the Holy Spirit, and also says that he is sending them as God sent him. Now, in the Gospel of John, Jesus over and over again says that he was sent by the Father to bring knowledge of God and with that knowledge, a call to decision. Jesus does not come as a judge. He brings the truth about God and shows people the Father, and they judge themselves by their reaction. From John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe in him are condemned already, because they have not believed…. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Jesus does many signs and wonders, but they are all just meant to call attention to the truth and knowledge of God that he brings. And it’s this knowledge of what God is like and his ability to show that to others that makes Jesus a partaker in God’s being, so that he can say: “I and the Father are one.” That breakthrough by which Jesus definitively shows the world who God is / can never be repeated or exceeded: Jesus is unique, the only begotten Son.

But look what he just did. He shares his spirit with the disciples, and sends them as he was sent by God. He is making them partakers in God’s own life, God’s truth, God’s power, as he himself partakes in God. He is investing them with divine authority. And that’s why he adds that shocking and befuddling statement (that no one at Bible study could figure out at all—talk about blank stares, when I asked them what it means): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

So, first of all, who forgives or refuses to forgive sins besides God? ….Well, we do, apparently. We are being given divine authority. We are now the judges of the world. This theme is found in the other gospels, like Luke 22, where Jesus tells his disciples, “You will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This is not namby-pamby life for others, where we let people walk all over us. We are the judges of the world. /But that doesn’t mean exactly what you might think or fear it means. We aren’t swaggering judges who get to impose life or death on people depending on how we feel. Of that sense of judgment, Jesus said in John 8, “I judge no one.” Rather, like Jesus we are now entrusted and empowered with the truth about God, and we simply present it to the world in word and deed, and they judge themselves. So Jesus doesn’t mean that we forgive sins or not, depending on whether we are feeling generous or fancy a particular person. In John, sin all comes down to believing in the truth when it is made plain, or not believing. The truth about God is self-empowering. For our purposes it means this: We show the world what life for others looks like. Some will believe in it, even if they don’t understand what Jesus has to do with that. Some will reject it deliberately, saying, “Who needs that? I’d rather look out for number one.” John tells us that Jesus’ opponents “loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”

Life for others is the shape of the Christian life; the phrase is just another way to describe love. The rightness of life for others should be self-evident to us and to everyone. But it’s not, because the world prefers untruth. So the first thing that Jesus teaches us about life for others is that it is not weak and meek, timid and submissive: it is mighty and bold. It gives those who practice it divine power and authority. In those three simple words, and by living them out, we have the truth, against which the world will never prevail. So, have compassion and mercy on those who dwell in falsehood, but do not for one second envy them. Do not doubt this mighty truth we have been given. But believe, as our reading concluded, “that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Easter: “Life for others, Victorious Over the Grave”

This distinguished our understanding of grace in contrast to that of some Christians hung up on guilt and penalties being paid–though I worried about putting other people down, perhaps by way of caricaturing, on a day of Christian unity.  But then I set the stage for the next six weeks of the Easter season, which will develop the theme of “life for others.” 

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

May the Good News of the Risen Christ be proclaimed from my lips and bring joy to all our ears. Amen.

The Christian faith is an Easter faith. Faith begins from and returns always to the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead. (Alleluia! Christ is risen!) We deepen the meaning of that good news when we retrace the steps of Jesus through the way of sorrows that led to the cross. Likewise, we deepen the meaning of the grace we receive from God when we retrace the steps of our wandering through the alienation and sin that would be all we have were it not for the grace of God. But all of this deepening into the sorrows and the alienation is valid only when viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of the empty tomb, the dawning realization by first the women and then the other disciples that Jesus Christ is alive in God and his word will endure forever.

It’s a simple point: Easter comes before the cross—but understandably, there is still so much confusion and misunderstanding about the odd order our faith takes. We can clarify this odd but true order by contrast with what goes wrong when Christians get the order of things backwards. Some Christians get it in their head that God was so uncontrollably angry with sin that He (I think they would only say He) had to have a sacrifice to appease his wrath. No act of mere human repentance could suffice to appease God, so the one to pay the penalty had to be very valuable indeed—equivalent to God himself. That is, only God’s own son could pay enough to God the Father to mollify God, to settle God down, so that now God could love us again. / Now there may be a grain of truth in all that, but it’s been understood in a rather childish way, as if God is at odds with God’s own being. As if the grace we came to know through Jesus Christ wasn’t who God was from the very beginning, from all eternity. As if God changes in the year AD 30 from being mad to loving, the way a cross lover does when you give him his favorite bourbon and a backrub. (“There, there.”) I don’t think we want to say that God couldn’t be a God of grace until Jesus bore the cross.   That sounds weird. But this view is not as remote as I make it out to be. In our own Red Hymnal, “I will Sing of My Redeemer” has this line: I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me, on the cruel cross he suffered from the curse to set me free.” (God’s curse?) “I will tell the wondrous story how, my lost estate to save, in his boundless love and mercy He the ransom freely gave.” Ransom? To whom? To God? Was Jesus paying God (off) on our behalf? It’s left vague in the hymn, but you can see how someone would arrive at a conclusion that might create confusion.

Likewise, some Christians (perhaps the same ones) get it in their head that you can’t have faith, you can’t be saved, unless you become convinced that you personally are a miserable sinner. Nothing you do is any good, it all just makes God so wrathful. So first you have to hit rock bottom and confess that you are a no-good sinner, and then God will accept your contrition and show you mercy. (I’m not making this up, so it should sound familiar to some of you.) Now, that’s just wrong on several counts. First of all, it makes God’s mercy the reward for my contrition and humility, as if—once again—God is wrathful and angry until I win God over with all my self-abasement and tears. No: God’s grace comes before my penance parade. And God’s grace works in us before we hit rock bottom. And as real as sin is, we don’t cease being God’s good creation. And those outside of the Christian faith likewise receive grace from God, at least the grace of creation; I don’t think God has nothing for them but wrath and damnation. (Consider the words of Peter that we just heard: “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him.”) I suspect that some Christians like to demand that we feel guilty and shameful because of our sin, before we can experience God’s mercy and love, because they want to control us by manipulating our emotions. You may be surprised to find out that the NT nowhere enjoins Christians to feel guilty. Yet that’s what it’s all about for some. That, and perhaps they want Christians to feel superior to all those non-Christians because we are going to heaven and they are going to the other place—thus they say that God only loves people who confess themselves to be total sinners and rely solely on Jesus Christ.

So away with all that; you won’t hear that stuff from me, or in our liturgy or song. Because the Christian faith is an Easter faith. We only understand the cross and venerate it because we have encountered the risen Christ and know ourselves to belong to him. We only feel sorrow for sin—both our personal sin and that of the whole world—because we first have known and trusted ourselves and the whole world to a God of infinite grace. We do hear God say “no,” but only because we first heard God’s yes to the whole world, and believe that God has never intended and never will let us go, even when we stray. If you flip all that around and reverse the order, you can very easily make the Christian faith into its exact opposite: a self-righteous, moralistic, judgmental path of works righteousness.

So let me be very clear, since, because of the backwards theology of some Christians, you might think that the Christian faith is self-righteous, moralistic, and judgmental. This day, Easter Sunday, is the basis and beginning for everything we believe and do. We believe that because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, God has embraced the whole world and everyone in it in Christ, no matter how badly the world rebels against God, even desiring to put God to death. When you put it that way, Easter should make us catch our breath [gasp] at the depth of divine love for the world. And that love of God is not just a warm feeling—the hapless sentiment of an unrequited lover. God’s love comes in full power. The power of God’s love overcomes all the world’s death-dealing power. No stone, however massive, can stand in the way of God’s power of life. This day of the Lord, this Easter Sunday which is not just a day but the eternal foundation of the cosmos, is not about you, and whether you are going to be a bad boy or a good girl. It’s not about us paltry human beings, and about keeping us in line or about getting us to give more money or to have more good deeds to show for ourselves. This day isn’t even about Jesus of Nazareth. This day, and in essence, our Christian faith, sis about God’s power of life and grace and love. Jesus of Nazareth was a righteous man who was unjustly killed. That much of it is a terrible tragedy. But Jesus didn’t resurrect himself. Did you hear Peter say: “God raised him on the third day.” God raised Jesus up; the Spirit and power of God raised Jesus up, demonstrating that truly this was the righteous Son of God who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit forever. Easter Sunday is all about God, and because of Easter we know that God is our invisible father (or mother), as well as the Son we have come to know in person, and the Holy Spirit who remains with us. Because, we now know and believe in God’s power of life, and we know that Jesus is God’s son who lives forever, we know we can never be separated from him, and that God has the Spirit power to give us life in Christ Jesus. Easter is not about us, but we can now see—and this is the very basis of our faith—what Jesus told Mary: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We can now see—not because of our own efforts and piety; until we see and believe we are at best just like Mary: confused, hapless, and pathetic. But we know by our resurrection faith that we share the same relationship to God that Jesus did and does. /

So hopefully we understand by now something of what Easter faith means and what it doesn’t mean. It means that, whatever our little accomplishments and virtues, or however lacking we are in virtues and accomplishments, God’s love has the power of life. But that doesn’t make this Easter faith any easier or more accessible for some of us, including me. The Christian faith, I have said, begins and returns always to this day that lives forever, this Easter day, and to what God did on this day by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. This day is not even about the man, Jesus of Nazareth, I said. But you might very well think to yourself, “It would be easier for me if it was about Jesus of Nazareth. I can appreciate his preaching and good deeds, the love that he showed to all.” (Never mind whether Jesus was really all that loving or whether his love was of a sort very strange to us.) “But I don’t know,” you might continue, “what to make of God raising Jesus from the dead. And then he appears in strange ways—walking through doors and then eating fish with them, as we’ll read about in the coming weeks—and then this raised body ascends, just floats up to heaven, apparently. I’d rather just believe in Jesus of Nazareth.”

As the kids say nowadays, I feel you. Easter faith may indeed be the foundation of Christian faith, but it is a big pill to swallow. It doesn’t make it altogether easier if I reassure you that the stories of the appearance of the risen Christ are clearly intended to be symbolic and mysterious. You’ll still ask me: Isn’t there an easier place to begin?

That’s what I am going to spend the next six Sundays of Easter exploring. Granted that it all goes back to the resurrection of Christ Jesus and proceeds from a confession in him. But what does being a Christian mean and look like for us, apart from getting into the difficult to conceive events of that first Easter morning? I have an answer for you. It’s an easy answer. It’s an answer you can get on board with. It doesn’t require that you explain and affirm what exactly happened with Jesus’ body or any of that, but I think I can eventually bring us back to the events of that Easter morning as recounted by the gospels and show why they still matter. …Ready?

“Life for others.” That’s what being a Christian is all about. That is the shape of life that we pledge ourselves to in this community. “Life for others.” Being a Christian does not primarily mean believing in something, affirming something, especially affirming something even if it flies in the face of science and reason and evidence. Because the most important doctrines or beliefs in Christianity are mysteries—meaning you never fully understand them. Above all, you never understand God, say what you will about God. So these beliefs in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and justification by faith make for a confusing foundation for describing what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, being a Christian is not all in your head; it’s not a mind thing. So instead, let’s say that being a Christian means that life takes on a certain kind of shape for you. And that shape is being for others.

I can easily spend seven weeks teasing out what that means and what that life looks like. But for this week, let’s just put the matter very starkly: would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for me and mine? Or would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for others? Did you ever say to yourself, what if everyone were just nice to one another? That is in essence what I am talking about: being for others. That sounds so simple, and so attractive on a superficial level. There are still many hard questions to ask. If the answer was just, let’s all be nice to one another, then we wouldn’t need God to come down and die on a cross and then the whole resurrection thing. But essential it is simple. And the essence of Easter goes deeper and higher than just: wouldn’t it be good if we all were this and that way? The essence of Easter is this: God is life for others. The risen Christ is life for others, victorious over the grave. That’s why Jesus can say: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” because God is life for others. Those were not the last words of the risen Christ. But before he explains the rest to us, he invites us to partake of this life for others.

 

Palm Sunday (April 9): “The Humility of God”

This sermon–shortened to allow for a Passion litany–seemed to meander around a bit; the real point seems to come out in the last two paragraphs. 

Phil 2:5-11 ; Matthew 21:1-11

We’ve spent 40 days following Jesus, seeing ourselves as the disciples in the gospel story (but wondering whether we aren’t more like the Pharisees sometimes). And as we’ve done so, we’ve tried to live out our discipleship in concrete ways in our own daily lives. Well, as they approached the grand and holy city of Jerusalem, the disciples apparently felt pretty good about themselves. They are ready to take this town; Jesus told them, after all, that they would be the twelve judges over Israel. They felt like they had been transformed by following this mysterious one, Jesus. But very quickly they come up against the reality of Jerusalem. This was to be God’s holy city; at its center, a mighty temple, one of the architectural marvels of the ancient world (renovated and expanded by a corrupt King Herod). But Jerusalem was a seething mixture of genuine piety and self-serving corruption. The temple was under Jewish administration, but only thanks to an uneasy collaboration with the occupying Roman Empire. Everyone saw either corruption in this arrangement, or cowardice. The Essenes abjured the temple; they preferred staying out in the desert. The zealots, on the other hand, plotted armed revolt against Roman rule, longing for the ancient days, some 500 years past, when Israel was an independent nation under its own king. How quickly people forget that the Jewish kings themselves were typically corrupt and irreligious, and oppressed both Jews and gentiles with an imperial zeal.

Into this disaster waiting to happen rides Jesus, with his disciples whipping up the crowd. They played on the images of Zechariah’s prophesy from some five centuries earlier, describing a day of victory when God himself would at last become King of Israel and of the world. Matthew picks up on the humility of Zechariah’s image. This long-awaited divine king is gentle, peaceful, and humble in his reign.

When Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, he is very keen to connect it with Zechariah’s prophesy; but Matthew could be a little clumsy in citing Scripture. In Zechariah 9 we read, “Your king comes to you…humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Scholars of Hebrew recognize that Zechariah, using a device typical of Hebrew poetry, is describing the same animal twice with different words, just for poetic effect. Matthew, unlike Mark, assumes there must be two animals, and so has Jesus seemingly straddling a donkey and a colt. That’s odd, and clumsy. It’s a reminder that the gospels give us an interpreted reconstruction of events, not an infallible eyewitness report. We don’t know what Jesus was actually thinking and intending coming into Jerusalem. He arrives in the midst of great crowds of pilgrims who were coming to Jerusalem from near and far to celebrate Passover in the city. Allowing his disciples and the crowds to herald Jesus as the coming King was a very provocative move. And then he follows it with overturning the tables of the moneychangers at the temple (echoing the final verse of Zechariah). The powerful people of Jerusalem took notice; Matthew tells us, “The whole city was in turmoil.” The last thing they wanted was an uprising that would provoke a Roman crackdown. That would bring woe to the Jewish people—and indeed that’s what happened thirty-some years after Jesus—and also disrupt the authority that the Jewish leaders enjoyed. So Jesus is really asking for trouble, but he is perhaps only pointing out that the emperor, or Empire, is not wearing any clothes. In other words, the Jewish authorities know that their respected and powerful position was tenuous.

Everything I’ve just told you is what historians will tell us about the so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They provide us with one genuine dimension of the story—the events taking place on the human plane. But for the gospels, these events are playing out on a divine plane as well. The actions of Jesus are not just about the colonial politics of Israel in the 30s of the Common Era. The story of Jesus is also about humanity in relation to God—remember? Christmas was about humanity and God being united in the person of Jesus, even from birth. Then we witnessed as Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God and called his disciples to follow him. Or rather, we witness this today, for these events are eternally valid, eternally present. Jesus proclaims this day the coming kingdom and calls us. And we have been following and are following still. This day we are waving our palm branches and proclaiming him as our king. We are challenging and provoking all other claimants to the ultimate authority that, as far as we are concerned, only belongs to God. (You will notice that I took the flags out of the sanctuary, temporarily, so they would not crowd or distract from the cross, but also this is an appropriate Sunday and Holy Week to recall that we have only one king and one ultimate authority. We will hear later how those who crucified Jesus did so out of loyalty to the emperor.)

Not to get ahead of ourselves one week shy of Easter, but we can be present to all these events, and be his disciples following and proclaiming Jesus king, because Jesus has been raised from the dead. We believe and experience that he is not just history. And because he is risen, and we experience Jesus as alive within us and know ourselves to be his living body, we recognize that his actions are really God’s actions. And the other actors in the story are not just long-dead people, but us—they are our humanity. Not that we can completely ignore the particular human beings acting in this story, including Jesus’ own particular, historical humanity. There are real human villains in this story, and at least one hero. Nor can we ignore our own particular humanity today; there is a limit to how much we can learn about ourselves by reading the Bible. And so in Lent, we have been turned inward to our own practices, our own lives, our own repentance and discipleship. / But Lent is ending today; for me it will end in about 10 minutes when we transition from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday. At that point, we will mark that transition by turning outward to focus on the cross. You see, we’ve spent the 40 days of Lent in repentance, which was meet and right. We did this because we experienced ourselves as called to be Jesus’ disciples—those he set apart to be the new Israel, with Jesus as their king and Lord. We have been trying to be holy, as Jesus is holy, as God is holy—set apart from the sinful mass of humanity, and called to bring love and justice to the rest of humanity. And I hope these forty days have not been without fruit for you. I would love to hear that your life has changed completely and now you are living no longer in the flesh, as Paul said—meaning living for yourself above all—but living in the Spirit—living for God and therefore for others. I would love to hear you say that, so long as you are being true and honest. But I suspect I am not going to hear that.

In our Lenten Disciplines series, we didn’t aim too high; by contrast, Jesus, remember, talked about a kingdom of God that will turn the world upside down, where the meek inherit the earth and those persecuted and reviled are blessed. We didn’t attempt to bring about such a kingdom. We confined ourselves to turning our lives around if only in small, everyday ways. And how many of you did even this? Some of us tried some practices of repentance, which I know, thanks to some very nice posts on my blog my several of you. But I confess that even I didn’t do my own daily practices. Not all, not even most. Why are we so powerless? Why do we live day in and day out as if God does not exist? As if the daily grind is our true Lord and Master? As if we and the world are hopeless and will never know true goodness, love, and peace? Why do let ourselves be enslaved? That’s not a question just for us. Our whole world just keeps going around and around, replaying the same old mistakes. Same old war and violence and careless disregard.

The cross, which we are about to contemplate, is at the heart of the mystery of all things. It is the center of our faith, a center which precisely challenges our confidence that we’ve got it all figured out. The mystery of the cross has at least two sides; and perhaps it is no coincidence that the cross has two beams. On one hand, there is the mystery of our disobedience, our rebellion. Why indeed do we (do I) remain enslaved and powerless? The question is valid for non-religious people too. Everyone knows what goodness is, more or less. Why do we fail to be good?   But this question is sharpest for us people of faith, we who continue to rebel against God even while professing faith. Somewhere deep in the cobwebs of our psyche we don’t want to love and obey God. Something within us holds us back. We go all the way to Jerusalem with Jesus—even a great crowd follows him and proclaims him king. But when victory seems so near, suddenly we start withdrawing, dispersing, denying, and betraying. And poof—Jesus is all alone. We have our sophisticated intellectual doubts about religious belief; nothing wrong with that. But how much of our doubting really stems from a secret desire in our hearts to be free from God? / Jesus came to the city that should have welcomed him and instead handed him over to be crucified. How else can you explain that, other than as an expression of a deep rebellion against God that we ourselves can hardly acknowledge and understand, no matter how much we repent?

But the other side of the mystery of the cross is God’s unfathomable humility. This brings us back to Jesus’ humble entry as king, which is also God’s own humble entry. But even better, we hear this divine humility in the Philippians reading. Paul in this passage is probably quoting an earlier hymn, showing that even very soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection the church already understood that he was not just a good man who met an unjust fate. Rather, this was someone who shared in the form of God, but did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, even unto death on a cross. Jesus lived out God’s own humility, and died it too. God could have ridden in with 10,000 angels at his side, but God rode in on a donkey. God has chosen the path of mercy and humility, taking the suffering of our rebellion upon God’s own self. Only in this way could God have mercy on all. / This we believe, officially; but we can no more easily comprehend the meaning of divine humility than we understand our own stubborn rebellion against the good. If we think about it, we can realize that our lives are completely determined by these twin mysteries of the cross. We reject the good, and yet the good does not reject us. And we remain powerless to comprehend how this is so. But that’s not what we are to do this week anyway. The cross is not a puzzle to be figured out; it is there to safeguard this most obscure mystery of our human life with God—to remind us, like an open, flowing wound, of what we can neither comprehend, nor fix with all of our repentance. The cross is not there to be fixed by mind or by deed, but to provoke your wonder, and adoration.

Last Lenten Discipline: Loving Loved Ones

I repent the typo that I didn’t catch on the printed card!

Lenten Disciplines: Loving Loved Ones

(April 2-8)

Loving those closest to us (parents, spouses, children, friends, lovers) can be the most challenging. We fall into unloving dynamics with them, often unaware of what we are doing.   And we focus on our loved one’s faults rather than confessing our own.

Set some time aside this week to pray and meditate in private. List your loved ones with whom you have the most troubled relationship. Then imagine how you would be in that relationship if you had the perfect love of God dwelling in you. Imagine seeking nothing but the good of your loved one. Close your prayer with something like: “Lord, make my love pure and true, the way Jesus loved.”

Next, you can either sit down with your loved one and talk together about how to make your relationship better. Or if that is not easy, you can work on yourself. Ask: what do I do in this relationship that creates tension or drives us apart? What could I do instead to make our love stronger?

Share your experience on my blog: professortopastor.wordpress.com

 

5th of Lent (April 2): “Loving Loved Ones”

I was gratified by the expressions of appreciation I received for this sermon.  I often find John’s gospel difficult to preach from.  So this time, I came clean and was honest about that fact.  (Almost) Always the right thing to do!  Once I did that, I found that new insights from the text came upon me (from the Holy Spirit, as we believe).  For instance, I didn’t see any insight from the commentary I was using as to why Martha and Mary both say the same thing when they find Jesus.  It sounds stiff and repetitive.  But it came to me that Jesus’ different reactions to the same greeting demonstrate how his demeanor has changed.  

Now, I will not claim that the significance I find there was part of John’s “intentions.”  In some ways, I am imposing meaning that John would perhaps have intended to avoid.  And those with more conservative biblical sensibilities will find my reading a little disturbing.  But this is the confusing but refreshing world of interpreting Scripture seriously but not literally and always deferentially.  (Consider Paul’s baffling, shocking interpretation of Scripture in Galatians!)  I hope all of that does not distract the reader from the point: to focus anew on mending and vivifying our relationships with loved ones. 


Romans 8:6-11 ; John 11:1-45

Loving loved ones sounds easy. It’s actually the most difficult and fraught kind of love. It’s usually not too difficult to love a stranger who is in need. I urge you all to practice doing so. It’s both easy and rewarding. And I know that our Board of Missions is looking for opportunities for us to do so, opportunities like Cathedral in the Night, a worship and free meal program for homeless people. It really is easy, and you leave feeling good.

That’s not always how our closest relationships go. Isn’t that surprising? Why would it be harder to love an old friend or family member than a complete stranger? Perhaps because there is so much at stake. Our daily happiness and sense of freedom are bound up thickly with our relationships with parents, children, or spouses. We have so much at stake, personally, in these close relationships. They are part of our past that we can never escape from, and they set the course for our future, as far as we can see. With our past and our future at stake, these relationships threaten to consume us.

A love so essential to who we are can easily feel entrapping, like it is robbing us of our freedom. Perhaps we have all felt that way toward our parents at one time or another. Or we fret about whether the one I love loves me as equally and truly as I love her: perhaps I do not feel as giving as my lover does; or worse, perhaps she doesn’t love me as much as I love her. That’s an anxiety that especially many young lovers have felt. Or what about the heartbreak that clouds the horizon of us parents who experience such an amazing bond of love with a child from the moment of birth. You receive this precious, fragile, cuddly, lovingly dependent life that inspires the noblest feelings of care and nurture in you. Sadly, those precious early years of bonding will be largely forgotten by your child. And so the relationship between parent and child can never be fully mutual. Parents are doomed to watch their children grow more distant, more independent, and subject to all kinds of threats beyond our control, from untrue lovers who will break their hearts, to bad friends who lead them astray—and who knows how our unpredictable economy might fail to bring our children sustenance and opportunity? And then, what if our children do something terribly wrong? / There’s so much at stake. It’s no wonder that parents constantly get it wrong. Out of fear, we are too protective and controlling; our of a desire for mutual love and respect, we are too permissive.

Getting love right, in any of these relationships, seems almost impossible. But perhaps that’s because we have set our minds on the flesh, not on the Spirit. These are the terms Paul uses in our reading, and they are unfriendly terms. They may sound unhelpful. So let me explain them so that they can be helpful. Biblical scholars all agree that for Paul, “Flesh” does not mean the “body,” and “Spirit” does not mean soul or mind. To keep things brief, to set your mind on the flesh is to think only about what I have coming to me; what is mine; what am I going to get out of this? In verse 15 Paul calls this a “spirit of slavery” that makes you “fall back into fear.” When you approach your loved ones with the question: what’s in it for me in this relationship, you will always think first about yourself, and you will live in fear that you will not get what is coming to you. Life and loving relationships for those set on the flesh or on “me” can only bring loss.   “To set the mind on the flesh is death.” If you are all about having and possessing, the one thing you know is that you will inevitably lose it all.

But “To set your mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Spirit is all about giving, not having. For those in the Spirit, life is a gift and a chance to give in return. God’s grace, given freely, stands behind everything. My loving relationships are not a threat to my possessions, but show me the truth that there is no “me.” Who I am from the very beginning is bound up with others—my parents first of all. I will be entrusted with responsibilities, possessions, and decisions, but these are not ultimate. There is not me without others.

If you set your mind on the flesh, then your relationships will present your with two choices: either I am going to get what I want, or I am going to sacrifice myself, and this person I love is going to take all that I have. But if you set your mind on the Spirit, then you live in a “we.” When you give, you give to an “us” that includes you and your lover. And when you receive, you receive as a “we” that rejoices with the lover. There are no losers and winners in the Spirit; if you are thinking about who is winning and who is losing, you are in the flesh.

It’s really pretty simple. And Paul’s believes that God shows us in Jesus that the meaning and destiny of everything is in the Spirit, not in the flesh—with the “we,” not with the “me.” Paul is writing this to the church, whose very identity is founded on Jesus, the one who brought life and peace in the Spirit. Our “we” includes above all Jesus, and through Jesus, God’s own eternal being is part of our “we.” God is our loved one; and we are God’s loved ones. Our “we” is boundless.

So the first thing to do, as we practice repentance in our closest relationships, is to set our minds on the Spirit, not the flesh. In other words, your relationships are not your possessions to be managed, but they are life itself. They are your “we.” And they will not be all they can be unless you can enter them with the right intention, understanding, and heart.

But fixing our relationships probably isn’t as simple as just “setting you mind.” For one, we remain inevitably prone to selfishness, it seems. We remain at least a little bit in the flesh. After all, Paul had just said in chapter seven, apparently about himself, “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” This is the reality we confront during Lent. And so every day, we feel or inflict the pain of life in the flesh on our relationships, because as simple as it sounds, we cannot bring ourselves to live wholly as a “we.”

But besides being inevitably at least a little selfish, we are also fragile, bodily creatures, for thus God created us. We cannot overcome our own vulnerability, and neither can our loved ones. Above all we are mortal. If you were here on Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality is what launched this great Lenten journey we are on. Doing so can free us, as it did then, to face our need for repentance and to embrace real life with the time we have. But it also forces us to face the fact that even the “we” that we live, even when we love rightly, for will be taken from us.

That brings us to our reading from the Gospel of John. Now, I will tell you right off that the Gospel of John does not always sit well with me. It contains some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament, no doubt. But sometimes I find the portrayal of Jesus and others to lack credibility. In today’s reading, as he is bringing Lazarus back from the dead, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” That’s lovely. The author of the gospel could have left it at that. But he has Jesus add, “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” That’s weird. Jesus has to explain—not to God, surely, so apparently to us the readers—that he only thanked God out loud for the sake of the crowd. I guess that John thinks that if Jesus had to thank God, that suggests that Jesus wasn’t absolutely sure from the start that God would come through. Or maybe Jesus and God are so united that they act as one, so thanks would not be appropriate. But either way, I can’t imagine Jesus actually making this announcement (‘of course, I only said that for the crowds’). And indeed, scholars believe that John’s gospel shows at least a few layers of editing; this odd comment of Jesus could come from the hand of a later editor trying to clarify something about Jesus, but in effect messing up the story a little bit. It bothers me. But this detail in the story need not detain us.

Another detail of the story is more relevant to us today, and it also shows something odd about the way Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel. As I read this story, Jesus is a little bit above the death of Lazarus. Jesus receives a message from his dear friends Mary and Martha, telling him Lazarus, who is also dear to Jesus, is ill. But did you notice this? Jeanie did in Bible Study. Jesus, for no apparent reason, stays where he is for two days, before setting out to the town where Lazarus is. / What becomes clear is that Jesus intentionally waited two days, so that by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Now, what is important about these four days? According to Jewish belief at the time, the soul remains near the body for up to three days after death. It was not unheard of for people of God to bring back to life someone who has recently died. Elijah the prophet does this in 1 Kings chapter 17. Jesus apparently waits for four days so that his raising of Lazarus, even after he had begun to decompose, will stand out as an extraordinary miracle—like the way Jesus gave sight to the man born blind last week, something that was likewise unheard of.

In other words, Jesus is out to make a point. The raising of Lazarus is to be the last and greatest of Jesus’ seven signs, which are never about the deed itself, they are testimony that leads people to find eternal life in Jesus. Jesus indicates as much at the beginning of the story: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And so when Jesus meets Martha—who scolds him a little, saying that if Jesus had hurried up he could have saved Lazarus—Jesus tries to direct her beyond Lazarus’ dying and rising toward himself as the true life. She confesses, like many Jews at that time, that Lazarus will be raised from the dead at the end of time; this was thought to take place when the Messiah eventually comes and ends the world as we know it. Jesus corrects her a bit: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” His point is surely not far from what Paul was saying: to live according to the flesh is to die; to live according to the Spirit is to truly live. And then Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?” Jesus is trying to raise Martha’s sights beyond just the life of her dear brother Lazarus, a life and love that will remain fragile and mortal; Lazarus will die again. But to believe in Jesus is to transcend death, although I confess it’s not crystal clear what Jesus means when he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” When Jesus talks about “eternal life” in John’s gospel, it seems he is not only talking about a life after our death, but something we enjoy here and now. We have eternal life when we live in the presence of Jesus, for God’s eternal being is in this one. He is what allows our “we,” the spirit by which we connect our lives with others, to include not only mortal loved ones, but God’s own being which is eternal. And that is the Spirit that really gives us life and keeps us from falling back into fear, making us children of God and joint heirs with Jesus, as Paul says.

Living out of God’s eternal being, in other words, might prevent us from getting too attached to our Lazaruses, our loved ones. It is possible that the problem in our closest relationships is not just ego, or selfishness—the “flesh.” It’s not always that we haven’t loved enough. The problem can also be that we love too much. There is too much at stake; this one person means too much to me. It is a troubling possibility. You know I never would have predicted this, but there is no question in my mind that if I was ever faced with the choice of giving my life for Silas’—it’s unrealistic, but perhaps for a medical reason, I wouldn’t hesitate one second—the easiest hard decision I would ever have to make. Surely there’s something divine in that, the willingness to give up one’s life. There’s probably also a lot of evolutionary biology in it—our innate drive to reproduce. (And ask me again when he’s a teenager. We’ll see what the score is then.) We are not helplessly egocentric, as the cynics like to claim; we are capable of intense, selfless love, at least for our own. That same intensity of love can utterly break our hearts—that’s what is frightening. But while our human love bears an analogy to the love of God, it is not the same. The New Testament understands Jesus to have given his life for all, not just for his own. So I think Jesus in this story is showing a certain detachment from his love for Lazarus and his sisters, for the eternal life and love of God cannot be completely spent just on one’s family and friends. It expands beyond this, even to our enemies, to the ones we consider sinners, which I suppose is what we all were to God. And so in this spirit of detachment, Jesus is trying to lift up Martha’s vision beyond her grief for Lazarus. This is wise, for we must love our dearest ones without thinking that all of life depends on them, lest our grief break us. Only on God can we say that all of life depends.

Yet what is so touching about this story is to see Jesus also share in the fragility of grief. His character’s confident detachment holds sway, until Martha’s sister Mary comes out to see him. I think Jesus was closest with Mary; it is Mary who anoints his feet with her hair. And when he sees this dear friend weeping over the death of her brother, and hears her disappointment that he did not arrive in time, and when he sees the crowd who came to pay their respects moved to tears by Mary’s weeping, Jesus’ confident detachment, with its sights set high on God’s eternal glory, fails him. We are told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and greatly moved.” It is as if Mary and even the crowd of strangers who were so powerfully affected by her, remind him—or remind us the readers—of his humanity, for Jesus is fully human. He breaks down and weeps. He does this in front of the crowd of “Jews”—a problematic term we talked about last week—this crowd who are generally depicted by John as not to be trusted. “The Jews” are often Jesus’ skeptics and enemies in this gospel. But here is a rare moment when he is vulnerable in front of them, and they are moved by his love. Jesus is changed by all of this particular human attachment, that of both Mary and the Jews. The change is marked by the fact that, even though Mary greets Jesus in exactly the same way as Martha did, Jesus does not insist on correcting her and raising her sights beyond Lazarus. He simply asks, “Where have you laid him?” and gets on with it. /

We are called to love everyone, as God has loved all. We are not to restrict our love just for those who love us: our children, parents, lovers, spouses, friends. There is a time and place to detach from our loved ones and to say, as Jesus elsewhere says, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’”  But even Jesus could not help but be moved by his love for his dearest friends. Let us not imagine that we must forsake our dearest ones, but let us love them truly in the Spirit. Your Lenten discipline card offers some guidance to doing that this week.

Weekly Discipline: Consuming Media

For the Christian faith, in which light and truth are such central images (see the lectionary readings for this Sunday), it is imperative that we take the utmost care with seeking the truth.  There happened to be a revealing story in the NY Times this morning showing how Fox News manipulates and skews the news to support the Trump Administration’s interests (more in their prime-time opinion shows than in their afternoon news coverage).   On the day when Republicans suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of their own party, failing to replace the ACA (“Obama Care”), Fox News hardly mentioned it during long stretches.  Instead, they boasted about their exclusive coverage of a rape case in MD, in which one of two assailants was an immigrant.  Rape is terrible.  Although the rate of sexual assaults have dropped, there are still some 70,000 or more sexual assaults each year.  It’s not clear to me why Fox decided that this one rape case was such an important story, except that they touted it’s relevance to Trump’s anti-immigration policy.

Anyway, the Times piece is fascinating.  I am sure one could do a similar study of an equivalently irresponsible news source on the left, perhaps MSNBC.  The point is, there’s something wrong with our media system (which means something wrong with the American public) when the most popular cable news outlet (Fox) exercises such deliberate ideological distortion of the news.

That’s why it’s so crucial for us to practice great care about how we “consume” the news.  I offer some suggestions below.  Please share your experiences, and feel free to suggest for others some quality news sources, in-depth journalism, shows about science and other non-headline coverage, and good sources for Christian thinking today.


 

Lenten Disciplines: Consuming Media

(March 26-April 1)

 

For many of us, our media interactions consume us: we become addicted to social media and to the daily/hourly news cycle. This makes us anxious, and neither wise nor happy.

 

One thing we can do this week is unplug (revisit Week One). Set aside time to turn off all your devices. Use that time to pray. Or give a friend your full attention in person (and insist she do likewise!). Or meditate: just listen to your mind in solitude. Or take a walk and observe the timeless rhythms of nature.

 

But also use your time to stay informed more wisely. Check out some in-depth journalism, or news from well-researched sources, or from a political view opposite your own. Or better yet: get out of political news and learn something about faith (or about science: try Nova on PBS!).

 

 


Careful news sources:

The New York Times (more liberal)

The Economist (more conservative)

The News Hour (PBS 6:30 pm)

BBC on NPR at 9 am, 6 pm PBS

 

If you are conservative, try:

Mother Jones

The Nation

 

If you are progressive or liberal, try:

The National Review

The Weekly Standard

 

For in-depth journalism:

The Atlantic

Frontline on PBS

The New Yorker

 

For Intelligent Faith perspectives:

Christian Century: magazine available at church; or log on the web using “Granby UCC”; password: “Granby235!”

 

Or Conservative Christian sources:

Christianity Today (evangelical)

First Things (Catholic)

 

 

 

4th in Lent (3/26): “Lenten Disciplines: Consuming Media”

Ephesians 5:8-14    John 9:1-41 [1-17; 24-41]

This is the fourth week in a series I’ve called “Lenten Disciplines.” Each week I want to leave you with a concrete practice or meditation to guide your repentance during Lent. This makes for things difficult for me as a preacher. I have to force, to some extent, a current concrete practice onto some biblical texts that may be talking about something relevant, but certainly not specifically about how we rely on power companies, drive our cars, or reconcile with someone we’re estranged from. This week’s Lenten Discipline is related to the first week, when I urged you to unplug and consider how we are compromised by the systems we depend on: today, I want us to try to practice more responsible and liberating use of our news and media sources. That has something to do with our readings this week, which deal with light and truth, seeing and blindness. Admittedly, the connection is not perfect.

But maybe that’s ok. While I really want you to take these practices seriously and to try them during the week, that isn’t the final purpose of Lent. Lent is not a time of Christian self-improvement. Lent is our opportunity to deepen our connection to the story of Jesus by entering personally into our own struggles with discipleship. This struggle is year-round, to be sure; we always need to reflect on whether our daily practices and decisions are consistent with discipleship. But our turn inward during Lent to our own practices and decisions works in part to make us more conscious of our need to identify with the fullness of Jesus’ story, because we learn of our dependence on him and the limits of what we can achieve individually. This readies us to observe Jesus’ final destiny, which was for us, on our behalf—his death and resurrection. But this destiny is precisely where we can never be Jesus’ followers. It is not for us to die on a cross for all. Thus Lent must inevitably give way to Holy Week, and our meditation will turn solely to Christ, and away from ourselves.

In this regard, our reading from John’s gospel this week is very fitting indeed; for while it seems concerned with a disciple of Jesus who began blind and receives his sight, and with what an amazing deed of wonder this is, at the end of the story we see that what really matters is that he understands who did this wonder, and that believing in Jesus is the true and ultimate gift, the ultimate form of seeing.

Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus and his disciples come across a man blind from birth. In ancient Jewish culture, as with some other cultures, people often assumed that birth defects were not just random and unfortunate occurrences, but punishments for some misdeed. Much of the Old Testament operates under the assumption that goodness is rewarded by God and evil is punished; but elsewhere, the Book of Job and others question and resist this idea. The issue is relevant still today. Human beings seem to be under a perpetual, superstitious temptation to believe that “everything happens for a reason.” But the New Testament, for the most part, is only interested in the fact that Jesus happened for a reason. “Everything happening” does not reveal God; Jesus uniquely reveals God. As for the way the world currently is, the things we see happening, it is not at all the way God wants it to be, not revelatory, not at all yet the Kingdom of God.

So when the disciples ask, “Who sinned?” to make this man blind, Jesus replies: “Neither this man nor his parents…he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Consider that this man, and no doubt his parents, had perhaps asked themselves in anguish why he was blind. Now, children born blind don’t necessarily feel any the worse for it, unless they sense a social stigma upon their condition. This man surely sensed that his condition was associated with punishment for sin—and felt ashamed. No doubt, he spent his life as an object of pity at best and of moralistic judgment at worst. And at the beginning of the story, he is treated like an object manipulated by others around him—just the way most people today feel when the media spotlight falls on them. (But note that throughout the story we see the blind man, for the first time in his life, acquire agency, and by the end he has achieved a faith in Jesus beyond what even the disciples enjoy.)

The Pharisees put the man at the center of their biased, phony investigative journalism, trying to expose him as a fraud by going to his parents (but we skipped that part of the long story). Then they try to manipulate the man into confessing that Jesus is a sinner, because when he healed the man’s eyes, Jesus kneaded mud, which is considered working on the Sabbath, the day when all work was forbidden. That’s why the Pharisees say, “Give God the glory!” That’s a formula from the Old Testament for confessing when you have lied, equivalent to “’fess up!” But in the face of their pressure, we see that the man has not only gained his vision, he is gaining confidence and wisdom. He perhaps picks up on the divided opinion among the Pharisees, and cleverly gets under their skin. Asked, as all witnesses are, to again repeat his story, he says, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” He senses their obsession with Jesus, and that this obsession bespeaks a secret weakness or inquietude.

His clever turning the tables on them forces them to “revile” the man. The Pharisees claim adherence only to Moses and thus that Jesus is not legitimate. The man pushes further, more boldly, saying that no one could cure someone blind from birth unless he was from God. (You see, the give sight to someone who never had it was seen as not just restorative healing but god-like creation. You are making something appear that otherwise was nothing.) That gets the Pharisees really mad. They lash out: “You were born entirely in sins,” echoing the prejudice against birth defects that the disciples began the story with. And then they “drove him out.”

Now, that phrase is pregnant. John’s Gospel is written in a time, probably 60 or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Jewish leaders are no longer tolerating followers of Jesus in the synagogues, and are “driving them out.” The gospel reads this contemporary hostility between Christian and Jew back into the story of Jesus, alluding several times to disciples being “driven out” of the synagogues. Sadly, this had the effect of making Jesus sound anti-Jewish in John’s gospel. His opponents are often described as “the Jews.” But of course Jesus and all the disciples were Jewish too. We need to be careful not to hear anti-Judaism in John’s Gospel, especially since Christian anti-Judaism contributed and continues to encourage racist anti-Semitism. /

As always in the Gospel of John, the signs Jesus performs and the words he speaks have a deeper symbolic meaning. Last week we saw that “water” wasn’t just about quenching thirst.  So this week blindness and seeing light is not just about well-functioning eyes. This story is about truth. What we see is that truth is something that people fear, and because they fear it, they try to control and manipulate it. The serpent tricked Eve and Adam (that’s us, remember) by asking pseudo-investigative questions about what God said: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” It’s a moot question, obviously not true. We could have just answered the serpent, “No. Go away.” Likewise, you should know to ignore a news story that begins with a question that is patently false. “Could global warming be a conspiracy manufactured by the Chinese?” “No. Go away.”

The Pharisees represent to John (who is probably not being entirely fair) a general human tendency to take sacred truth and make it into something we can manipulate for our own power and prestige. They say, “We know that God has spoken to Moses.” They stake all their power and prestige in Moses, in having the words and commandments of Moses. But obviously they are afraid of truth. Jesus creates genuine uncertainty for the Pharisees; privately they debate among themselves about whether he is from God or a sinner. But before others, rather than honestly seeking the truth, they try to squash the truth that threatens them. They demonstrate how deadly is the equation of truth and power, how it inevitably leads to blasphemy and idolatry.

That explains something. Jesus at the end of our reading says, “I came into this world for judgment….” Well, hold on. John 3:17 tells us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Sounds like Jesus is now contradicting that verse. But in 3:19 continues: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Truth is difficult to grasp in good faith. Not because our minds are weak; our minds are stunningly good creations of God. It is because we are beholden to evil deeds, to sinful patterns and structures. For that reason we do not love the truth, we fear it.

In our day truth is purveyed as a product. It is something we are encouraged to have choice over, control over. We can select and design our own truth, even if it is an “alternative truth.” That’s what the serpent invited Eve and Adam to do. But today with the internet and consumer-driven media, things are much worse.

Jesus is not truth like this, nor is God. The truth of God is never ours to choose and manipulate. As soon as we attempt to do so, we end up with the truth of an idol, something created in our image. But God creates us—never the other way around. The words and text we have from our forebears invite us to manipulate them—to select from them what we want and interpret them as we see fit. But Jesus reminds us that properly, truth is personal, truth is in person—not a thing or a product; not “information” for us to do what we want with. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, reminding us that truth is not a thing, but a person and a response to that person that follows a way and forms a life. The real truth gives us life and demands our life.  That is why Jesus concludes at the end of our reading: “I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” It’s when we think we have the truth at our disposal, as our possession, like the Pharisees in this story, that we lose the truth. That’s how the truth judges us. But to those who are empty, powerless, without pretense to power and prestige, Jesus comes as true light and vision.

So we might want to identify with the blind man in the story, or maybe with the disciples, asking their poorly conceived question. But we, members of the now venerable, entrenched, still pro-establishment Christian religion, must consider to what extent we are like the Pharisees in this story. Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” but he is no longer in the world. Have we taken the words, rituals, buildings, institutions that were made in his name as something that we can manipulate for our own benefit, for our own power and prestige? Have we shut out the light of God, which is always alive, personal, giving us as our life and demanding our life? Have we become the Pharisees? If so, then what Jesus said to them applies to us: “Because you have said, ‘We see,’ your sins remain.” ~

 

Our Lenten repentance needs to include how we honor the truth, or not—above all Jesus Christ, but also the smaller truths we encounter every day that are part of Jesus Christ. Our Gospel reading demonstrates, in short, that we Christians cannot rest on our laurels because we know Jesus, but that we bear an even greater responsibility to honor the truth. We must remember that we are essentially the blind man: “Once I was lost, now I am found, was blind but now I see.” But if we think that now we see everything, we can easily become the Pharisees, taking Jesus as our possession and our source of power and status, and thus becoming blind again.

As I suggested above, we are daily encouraged by our media system to imagine ourselves in control; we are consumers, decision-makers, free choosers. Our little devices encourage us to think of the power of point and click as omnipotence. And our media world gives us a smorgasbord of ‘truth’ to choose from. They want to make their truth-products as enticing as possible, so that we will choose theirs over the competition (and the more ‘eyes’ they get—that’s all we really are to them, not people—the more money they get from advertisers.)   But not all truth that looks good is really true and good for us, just like not all food that tastes good is really nutritious and good for us.

By commodifying truth, our media system has led people to become cynical about truth. Truth is just whatever sells, whatever people want to believe. Everyone is biased, so you might as well just pick the bias that you like. “What is truth?” said Pilate, cynically. This is a mess and it threatens the unity of the Church, our spiritual integrity, and finally the viability of our democratic system. This is serious. We need God’s saving power to uphold the truth; I’m not sure secularism has the resources to rescue us from this plight. And I think it all stems from making the truth into a consumer product. I invite us this week in our Lenten Discipline to resist this reduction of truth to a product that we choose according to our fancy.

Jesus Christ is our truth, and remains sovereign above us, not something we choose and create in our image. This should apply for how we regard all truth. Truth is something transcendent, something above us that we seek, and submit to, however painful it might be to give up our treasured ideas, so that we can better conform to the truth. Because the truth is beyond us and above us—the truth is God ultimately—we should never expect to have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We must be content with seeking the truth, and we believe we can get closer to it by grace, without ever owning or possessing the truth.

So on your card, I first of all invite you to take a break from your devices—phones, TVs, computers. Get back in touch with non-virtual reality, something I call, “reality”—by becoming present to friends, or yourself, nature, or God. But also I encourage you to make better use of the time you spend on news and media. I suggest what I think are some good quality sources of daily news. And then I invite you to check out opinion sources that take you out of your bubble. We need to resist the forces that are making us more and more politically polarized, and chief among those is that people are only listening to those they already agree with. So check out some intelligent views of a different political persuasion. Furthermore, we should not become addicted to the daily news cycle. So I give you some in-depth options for good journalism, sources that take you beyond the daily headlines. And finally, our consumption of secular news should at least be balanced by intelligent faith perspectives on our day. I recommend the Christian Century—and there are some recent copies of that magazine in the narthex—as well as some more conservative sources. Honor and seek the truth this week, out of love and loyalty to Jesus Christ; for when you seek the truth, you are seeking Jesus.