Monday, March 19, 2018

The Light has Come Into the World: A Sermon on John 12:20-33

So first off, a brief word of apology. You may know, I have a friend from seminary who I share sermons with every week. You don’t know her, but you’ve benefited from this, because Kelli is the one that says, I have no idea where this is going, here’s how to make it better. In my professional career, I have preached exactly one sermon that Kelli did not read beforehand, and it was the week after her son was born. I sent her this one last week, as I always do, and my big concern was it felt a bit too academic. She responded, well, it starts out a little heady… But you get going later on. So I probably should have reworked it on her feedback. But this is really what got me hopeful this week, and you all always seem to respond well to what really moves me, so I’m going to go out on a limb and just give you all this theology. So hang in there, per Kelli I get less wonky as it goes on.

A colleague posted an alternate translation of one of the verses from our Gospel reading for this morning. Instead of translating verse thirty-one as “Now is the judgment of this world,” as we heard from the NRSV, he translated it as “Now is the crisis of the cosmos.” Now in full disclosure, my Greek is not good enough to tell if crisis is a fair translation or not, but it definitely got me thinking.

When we think of the word “judgment” in scripture, we often think of it as this future thing, when Jesus will “come again to judge the living and the dead” like we say in the Apostles Creed. Its finality makes judgment seem like a pretty terrifying thing. Certainly we’ve all seen the tracks asking “where will you go on Judgment Day?” Implying that there will be a moment when we will all have had to make a “decision for Jesus” and we don’t know when that day will come, but it may be any minute, so we better get on board. This line from John seems to add to the urgency of the situation, “Now” Jesus said, “is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Now.

But, this text was written two-thousand years ago, and it seems to me like the world hasn’t ended and the ruler of the world definitely hasn’t been driven out. So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Now is the judgment of the world”?

There are a couple of different things that could be going on here. The first one is, especially in John’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t really have a lot of concern for time as we understand it. C. S. Lewis explains it like this, as humans, we experience time like a yardstick, with us a single point on it. We know what is in front and behind, but we can only ever be at one point and we can only travel it in one direction. But while we are a point on the yardstick, God is the air around it, at the same time touching in front of us, behind us, where we are, and all around us. We see a little bit of that in the reading this morning. Jesus said, “Now is the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When Jesus talks about “being glorified” in John’s Gospel, he is talking specifically about his crucifixion. That is what glory means for Jesus in John’s Gospel. And we see that very clearly, Jesus said, “now is the hour… Father, glorify your name” in chapter twelve, and by chapter thirteen we’re at the last supper, so, yeah, it’s go time. But then verse twenty-eight goes on with a voice from heaven saying, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” In that verse we see how the singular historic event of the crucifixion of Jesus is not bound by its location on a chronological timeline of human history. The bishop explained it in seminary like dropping a rock into a pond, the ripples of Christ’s death spread both forward and backward throughout time and space. The glorification of Christ on the cross and subsequent salvation of the world is not history, it’s not something we remember that happened long ago, it is happening now. It is as ancient as “In the beginning was the Word,” as current as this bread and cup, and every moment in between.

So that’s part of what I think Jesus meant by, “Now is the judgment of the world,” this vast already and not yet of living in the time and space between Christ has come and Christ will come again. But there’s something else even more immediately relevant and hopeful I found as I pondered this text, and it came from holding this text in conversation with the one from last week.

Last week, verse nineteen read, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” That caught me, because I’d always thought of judgment as Jesus making a decision between who was in the light and who was in the darkness, but here Jesus seems to be saying that judgment is everyone is in the light, and the question is do we want to be there or not? How uncomfortable does suddenly finding ourselves in the light make us? In today’s reading, could Jesus also be saying that now that the hour of his glorification has come, the light is on in the world?

If judgment is the light being turned on, then my colleague’s translation as judgment as crisis makes sense. Because how we may feel about having the light turned on really depends on what we were doing in the dark. It makes me think about how sometimes when I come home and flip on the light, my cat jumps off the table. He knows he’s not allowed on the table, but he’s a cat, so as long as no one’s home and the lights are off, he could care less where he’s allowed. But when the light comes on, boom, he’s gone. Well, most of the time. He is, like I said, a cat, so sometimes I flip on the light and he looks at me like, “yes, this is my new favorite spot, and I don’t really care about you,” and then I dump him on the floor. But when he’s in a pleasing mood, and I flip on the light, he skitters off the table like something’s chasing him. If judgment is the light coming on in the world, and in the glory of Christ all of the darkness is banished away, then unlike my cat, we have nowhere to hide, we have to stand exposed in the light.

This exposure can be painful. Think of the way your eyes feel if you’re in a dark room and suddenly someone turns on the light. Our vision adjusts to seeing in darkness, and that sudden shift hurts. You might turn away, or shield your eyes, or close them. But we know from experience that we get used to it after awhile, our eyes readjust to the light and we can see better in the end then we could before. And oh my gosh, is there better news in this chaotic time, than all of this crisis we feel is that blinding moment of light coming into the world and revealing things as they are. Rather than fear, this idea gives me hope, that all of this crisis is light finally being shown in the dark places where our complacency had allowed pain and suffering and evil to fester, and what we’re experiencing now is those first blinding moments of readjustment as we learn how to see again. I had amazing conversations with the hooligans this week about the walkouts at Harper Creek and Pennfield, and I have to say regardless of your views on gun control or the protests or any of the partisanship around these issues, you should see incredible hope in the clarity and the articulation which these kids had about the future of our world and their place in it. Their opinions on the issues were as diverse as any group of adults I’ve met, from gun control to increased security to better mental health care, but universally these kids did not feel like the problem could not be solved. They did not see mass shootings as an unavoidable and intractable reality. They were also not so naïve as to think they had the answer, but they felt like bringing the conversation, like having hard conversations and trying things and failing and trying something else was the only way change could occur. I walked away from Wednesday with no more answers then I’d had before, just as confused and overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem as I was before, but I also walked away incredibly hopeful. Because rather than the big scary thing that could not be discussed, these kids turned the light on for me. They disagreed, with each other and with me, but we all disagreed openly and respectfully, we learned from each other, and we found ways to let the conversation continue. That seems to me a lot like light being let into a dark space, and maybe as that light continues to grow; possibilities will emerge that we could not see before.

And because, to use C. S. Lewis’ metaphor from earlier, God is the air around the yardstick of our time, then this judgment, this light that is turning on in our world, this is continuously happening. Since “In the beginning was the Word,” the Word has been in the world bringing life and light. On Easter we are not celebrating that Jesus died and rose from the dead once, a long, long time ago, we are celebrating that Jesus dies and rises everywhere, every minute of every day, and in dying he destroys death, and in rising he brings us to eternal life. Christ’s death and resurrection was and is and is to come, this unending unfolding of hope and light and promise that we from our finite human plane can see only in part, but God in God’s infiniteness knows fully.

So have hope and walk boldly, dear people of God. Because when Christ is, was, and will be lifted up, he will, is, and already has drawn us together with the whole creation to himself. Yes, it’s blinding, standing in the light. But your eyes will adjust. They always have before. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Conversation Points for John 12:20-33

Study Format:
1. Read passage aloud. What did you notice in the reading? What words or phrase caught your attention?
2. Read passage aloud a second time. What questions would you ask the text?
3. Read passage aloud a third time. What do you hear God calling you to do or be in response to this text?

Interesting Ideas to Consider:
• Immediately following this passage, in verse 19, the Pharisees made an unwitting prediction confirming the promise made in John 3:16-17, that Jesus had come to save the whole world. This passage starts with the arrival of “Greeks” (Hellenes) which should be distinguished from Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenistai). The fact that they have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover means they well have been Greek proselytes, but the point the writer of John was making was that non-Jews, representatives of the Gentile world, are now coming to see Jesus.
• The role of Philip and Andrew echo their role in the beginning of the Gospel. In John 1:39-40, Jesus called Andrew to “come and see.” And in 1:43-46, Jesus found Philip, and then Philip found Nathanael with the same “come and see” invitation. Now in chapter 12, the first Jewish disciples respond to the first Gentile disciples request to “see” Jesus, which could also be read as a request by the Greeks to become disciples of Jesus.
• Verse 23 marks the turning point in John’s Gospel. Up until here, Jesus said his hour had “not yet come.” From here on, now that “The hour has come,” Jesus will begin a direct journey to the cross. The arrival of the Greeks is the final piece, a foretelling of the church’s future mission to the Gentiles and the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s promise.
• While agrarian metaphors are common in the synoptics, John’s Gospel is doing something different in verse 24. Throughout John’s Gospel, “fruit” is a metaphor for the life of the community of faith (15:1-8 is a good example of this). The only way for the “fruit” to grow, per this metaphor and the more specifically stated in v. 32, is for Jesus to die.
• Verse 25 is John’s version of one of the best-attested sayings of Jesus (see also Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 10:39; Luke 9:24; 17:33). While all of these have the same basic pattern, in John the word “life” (psyche) is the same one used by Jesus to describe his gift of life (see the Good Shepherd discourse, 10:11, 15, 17).
• Verse 26 also echoes a well-known synoptic saying (Matthew 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27). While the synoptics contain only a condition for following Jesus (“taking up one’s cross”), in John there is both condition (“whoever serves me must follow me”) and promise (“where I am, there my servant will be” and “Whoever serves me, the Father will honor”). This promise is made more fully in the Farewell Discourse, that Jesus and the believer will be together forever.
• Verse 27 echoes the Gethsemane agony scene of Mark 14:32-42, but considering how in control of the passion story Jesus is in John, there is no reason to assume that is the reference. Rather, this is probably an ironic play on the tradition of Jesus’ agony at death. For John, the focus is on the urgency and immediacy of the hour.
• The words of “agony” in v. 27 allude to Psalm 42:5, 11 (“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help”). The reference to Psalm 42 helps build the irony, because Psalm 42 is an affirmation of the psalmist’s trust in God. The first prayer, framed as a question (“and why should I say”) is never prayed by Jesus. The true prayer of the section is the second (“Father, glorify your name”). All of these are examples of how John’s Gospel takes traditional material and reshapes it to fit John’s understanding that Jesus’ ultimate purpose of ministry was to die.
• Verse 29 is often framed as the crowd not understanding what was unfolding. But thunder was commonly viewed as the voice of God, and angels were traditionally understood as messengers. So it seems the crowd understood at some level they were witnesses to a revelation of the divine, but not the whole scope of God’s presence in the relationship with Jesus.
• Verse 32 is the third prediction of “lifting up” (3:14; 8:28). Once again there is a double meaning at play, both his being lifted up on a cross, and being lifted up to glory, an act that will lead to the universal salvation of all.
• The most common understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ death in the North American tradition is as a sacrifice or a payment for humanity’s sin. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death is both necessary and life-giving not as a ransom or sacrifice, but because it reveals the power and promise of God’s love to the world.

Works Sourced:
O’ Day, Gail. “The Gospel of John.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Salvation is Here: A Sermon on John 3:14-21

If you’ve ever wondered about why the Christmas tree at the church has a snake ornament, it comes from the Old Testament reading for today, where Moses lifted up a snake on a pole in the wilderness to heal the people of Israel when they were bitten by poisonous snakes. This is not my favorite Old Testament story, and not just because I’m not a big fan of snakes. It’s just a weird and unpleasant story. Since when does God send snakes, or anything like that, to bite people! This is the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Poisonous snakes do not seem like abounding in steadfast love to me. And the Israelites complained about being stranded in the wilderness and not liking the food all the time, what was it about this time that made God say, alright, I’ve had enough, send in the snakes.

Then the people prayed for forgiveness and God is all, OK Moses, build a poisonous serpent out of bronze and place it on a pole. And then, when people get bitten by a snake, they can look at the snake on a pole and live. Which is a little bit better, but it still means people are being bitten by snakes. Wouldn’t it have been easier for God, who sent the snakes in the first place, to just take the snakes back again? Why do the snakes have to stay?

I’m not really sure what to make of this story, which seems to portray God as temperamental and vengeful enough to unleash a bunch of poisonous snakes on people simply for being tired of being lost in the desert. And I don’t know how to make sense of why God didn’t, or couldn’t, take the snakes back once they’d been unleashed. But I do think the story is maybe more helpful for the persistence of the snakes. Because the bronze serpent on the pole in the midst of the snakes reminds us that healing does not always mean the removal of suffering. Sometimes healing is the reminder of God’s continued presence with us even in the midst of suffering.

The snake story, like stories often are, is overly simple. People complained, God sent snakes. In the real world, events that produce suffering often develop from such a complexity of events and mistakes that there is no single cause. Spending so much of my time with the members of the Woman’s Co-op, I have become all too familiar with the complicated web of traps and pitfalls that led to the problem. I remember the story of a woman who had been offered a promotion at work, but had to turn it down because the small increase in salary would raise her family out of the income limit for subsidized childcare, yet was not enough extra money to allow her to pay the full childcare costs on her own. Or the woman who left her six year old to babysit her two year old through her third shift job, because it was the only way she could earn enough to care for them. Or women who drive on suspended licenses to get to work, because they can’t afford the fines on top of fines on top of fines, the chain that started with something as simple as a burnt out taillight that there was no money to fix. There are GED testing requirements for jobs, when testing is only offered in Albion. Or felony convictions from juvenile offenses that limit employment options for the rest of one’s life. Or lack of credit that prevents access to safe and affordable housing, leading to the only housing available being slumlords like Triangle or absentee landlords. In the story it seems easy, just take away the snakes. But in the real world, the snakes we face are complex and complicated, a tangled web of events and experiences, mistakes, and barriers that cannot be simply cleared through or easily undone.

And the good news that this story from the Old Testament promises us is that God provides healing even in the midst of the snakes. When we look around at our snake infested world, this story promises us that just because the snakes are still here, doesn’t mean that God is not. Just as the Israelites could look to the serpent on the pole and live, so too can we look to God and find healing. Because yes, the snakes are still here, and the snakes are real and poisonous, but God is more powerful than any snake.

This is the point Jesus was making in our Gospel reading for this morning. There’s a great pun happening here that the English translation misses. In verse fourteen where Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” That word translated “lifted up” means to physically lift something up, like when Moses raised up a snake on a pole, or like when Jesus will be lifted up to be hung on a cross. But the same word can also be translated as “exalt” or “honor.” When Jesus was physically lifted to death on a cross, he was also spiritually lifted in honor and glory. In the cross we are shown the depth of God’s glory, on the cross Jesus shone with the radiance of God’s love. And just as so long ago the Israelites could look to the serpent, once a source of suffering and death, and find healing, when we look to the cross, a place of death and suffering, we too are healed, we too are made whole.

Verse fifteen goes on, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The word translated eternal life is a rich one as well. Eternal life means a life not defined by the limits of humanity, but by the infiniteness of God. Eternal life is not the hope of some never-ending physical existence, which really doesn’t sound all that pleasant if you think about it. It is not a future we have to wait for or work towards, eternal life is life lived right now in the unending presence of God.

Reading on, we get to perhaps the most well-known verse of the Bible, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 is certainly a great passage of scripture, my only beef with it is that it so often gets quoted without the corollary verse seventeen, “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.” While the role of Jesus is judge, like we talked about last week, the point of that judgment is not condemnation, but salvation. Jesus didn’t come into our metaphorically snake-infested world to point out how bad everything already was, he came to save us from said snakes, to be light in the midst of the darkness, to draw us from death into life. And here’s a couple of fun facts from verses sixteen and seventeen that make these lines even more powerful. First off, verse sixteen is the only place in John’s Gospel that talks about Jesus being given to the world. Every other time, Jesus is described has having been “sent,” what is “given” is God as the source of what Jesus offers. But here, we see God giving us Jesus, a powerful reminder that the incarnation is God’s token of love to the world.

And that word “world” is also a powerful one. The Greek is kosmos, where we get the English “cosmos,” meaning the universe. But in John’s Gospel, kosmos most often means not the whole universe, but the human part of the universe, the part that is in conflict with the kingdom of God. Verses sixteen and seventeen state very clearly that through Jesus, God is not just reconciling the whole of creation, but very specifically the parts of creation that are in conflict. Jesus came not just to be lifted up to the whole wilderness, but specifically in the midst of the snake-infested parts, the parts that most needed a place to look to and be saved.

If you will now permit me my normal obscure theological term of the sermon, this is all a part of what theologians call the “realized eschatology” of the Gospel of John. Eschatology is the theological term for the end times. We often think of it as the great messianic moment, the long awaited future when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. But realized eschatology is the idea that the end times are now. Rather than some long-awaited future hope, realized eschatology holds that when God gave Jesus to the world in order that the world might be saved, what Jesus was doing was no less than saving the world. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so that in the midst of a world still filled with snakes, the people of Israel could look up and be saved, so too was Jesus lifted up on the cross, so that in the midst of our broken world, we would not have to wait for some long-hoped for promise that never seems to be fulfilled, but we can look to the cross and know that salvation is already at hand. Yes there is still pain, yes there are still plenty of snakes, but the Word made Flesh raised to glory on the cross reminds us that the God whom “In the beginning,” billions upon billions of years ago, spoke the cosmos into being, this beautiful and ordered creation, so perfectly formed that we can study it, marvel in it, that same God is still at work, bringing healing to our broken kosmos. Dear friends in Christ, just as God led the people of Israel from slavery into freedom, so too is God leading not just us, but the whole of creation. It is a long, slow journey, for the world is much bigger than even the whole of the Judean wilderness. But just as the people of Israel once looked to the serpent on the pole, so too can we look to the cross and remember that even as we are in the midst of our journey, we do not wait for glory, for our salvation is already here. Amen.

Conversation Points for John 3:14-21

Study Format:
1. Read passage aloud. What did you notice in the reading? What words or phrase caught your attention?
2. Read passage aloud a second time. What questions would you ask the text?
3. Read passage aloud a third time. What do you hear God calling you to do or be in response to this text?

Interesting Ideas to Consider:
• This passage is part of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night to seek out Jesus, an example of discipleship. Nicodemus appears two other times in John’s Gospel, once as a weak defender of Jesus to the other Pharisees, and then after his crucifixion to help bury him.
• The story referenced is the first reading for Sunday, in which Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole that people could look to for healing if they were bitten by a snake (Numbers 21:4-9).
• There’s a double meaning in v. 14 as the Greek word hypsoo means both “lift up” and “exalt.” The Hebrew word nasa has a similar double meaning (Genesis 40:9-23, plays on the same double meaning. The baker and the cup bearer both tell the Pharaoh dreams. The interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream is that his head will be “lifted up,” meaning he will be exalted. The baker’s head will also be “lifted up,” but using the second sense of the word, his head will literally be lifted from his body, he will be decapitated). In v. 14, the double meaning of hypsoo means Jesus will be physically lifted up on a cross, and in that moment also lifted up in honor, or exalted. This overlap of crucifixion and exaltation is crucial to understanding salvation in the Gospel of John. It is in crucifixion that Jesus is most highly exalted.
• V. 15 makes clear how the crucifixion leads to salvation. “Eternal life” (zoen aionion) is one of the repeated frames of John’s Gospel. It refers to a life not defined by humanity, but by God. “Eternal” is not merely endless, like you’ll live forever, but rather it is life lived in the unending presence of God. It is not the promise of the believer’s future, but is part of the present.
• John 3:16 is the only place in the Gospel in which Jesus is described as having been “given” to the world by God. The verb “give” (didomi) shows up often in John’s Gospel in reference to God as the source of what Jesus offers. But Jesus is usually described as having been “sent” (pempo and apostello, used interchangeably, both mean “to send”). The use of “give” in v. 16 highlights that the incarnation comes from God’s love for the world.
• “World” (kosmos) in John’s Gospel mostly refers to humans who are at odds with Jesus and God. The use of the word here seems to indicate that Jesus came for the whole world, not just those who follow him.

Works Sourced:
O’ Day, Gail. “The Gospel of John.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Zeal: A Sermon on John 2:13-22

There’s a funny internet meme that always goes around my Facebook friends when this reading comes up in the lectionary. The background is a very vivid painting by one of the old renaissance era masters of Jesus driving out the money changers from the temple with a whip, framed by the words, “If anyone ever asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Remind him that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is in the realm of possibilities.”

This story of Jesus turning over the tables and chasing the money changers out of the temple appears in all four Gospels, but no one tells it with as much fervor and detail as John. Only in John does Jesus produce a whip, and only in John is it mentioned that in addition to the money changers, Jesus also drove out the sheep and the cattle. Not even cows escaped Jesus’ zeal.

Before we get too far into this, it’s worth remembering that sheep, cows, and money changers were not just in the temple for funsies, there was a very important and useful reason they were there. Jesus was in town for the Passover, one of the pilgrimage festivals in the ancient Jewish tradition. People would travel from all over Judea to Jerusalem to worship in the temple, and an important part of worship was bringing an offering. But, unlike today when we have checks and credit cards and things like that, in the first century people would bring things like sheep, cattle, and doves. Imagine the complication of trying to transport your cow many miles through the desert to bring it to the temple. Not exactly convenient. So merchants began selling animals in the temple to help those traveling long distance be able to fully participate. The money changers were there for a similar purpose. Greek and Roman coins couldn’t be used for temple offering, because the image of the emperor on them was considered idolatry. So money changers were available so travelers could exchange for local coin.

The point of my sharing this information is to show that, like so many other things, the merchants and the money-changers in the temple started out as a way to help people connect to God. But over time, we humans got mixed up in it and it became something that kept people away from God. And whenever we humans turned a thing God gave us to connect into a way to keep people away, Jesus always showed up and set it straight. We saw it when Jesus quote-unquote broke the Sabbath by healing; the Sabbath is for about rest and connection. We saw it with food laws, they were meant to keep us healthy but became about proving who was in, just to name a few. God gave us rules to help us have healthy communities, and anytime humanity tried to use those rules to keep people out rather than keep people in, Jesus just had no time for that nonsense.

So that in and of itself is some pretty good news. But in John’s Gospel there’s even more going on. Because in John, Jesus wasn’t just challenging the rampant consumerist culture that had sprung up at the temple, he was “consumed by zeal.” Zeal is a great word; it connotes this deep, passionate, almost uncontrollable enthusiasm. As the reading goes on, we see that when Jesus said “zeal for your house will consume me,” he was making a passion prediction. Jesus was not talking about the temple at all, but about how his zeal would lead him to the destruction of his body on the cross.

All four Gospels have this story of Jesus overturning the tables and chasing the money changers out of the Temple, but only John places the story so early in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have the incident taking place during Holy Week, which is probably more historically accurate. It seems unlikely that the religious leadership would have allowed Jesus to make such a stir and then go on with his ministry for another three years. But John locates the story here to make a theological point. Immediately before this was the wedding at Cana, where Jesus first revealed his glory by turning water into wine. Now in this temple scene we see how the new life Jesus is bringing will challenge, even topple, the existing structures. In Cana, Jesus filled stone jars reserved for ritual purification with the best wine for a party, in the temple he will chase out the people who tried to profit off others access to God. But even more than that, the cultural belief of the time was that the temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of God, but in Jesus we have God among us, God with skin on, and by dying, by destroying his own body, Jesus will destroy the last barrier that stood between God and humanity, the barrier of death itself, releasing the glory of God into the world.

The good news for us in this story is that Jesus is zealous in his love for us. Jesus is consumed by zeal for God and for God’s people, for us, and Jesus will not let any barrier stand in the way of us and God’s love for us. Jesus has come into this world to turn things over, literally and figuratively, so that nothing, no barrier either human or divine, can stand between us and God. He flipped over tables and chased out the money changers with a whip in the temple, and in a few weeks we’ll hear about how he himself was whipped and then turned the world upside down on a cross, so all-consuming was, is, Christ’s zeal for us.

That is the good news, and here is the challenge. The challenge is this means that some things in your life are going to get flipped. And remember how the merchants and the money changers were originally in the temple for good and helpful reasons, this may mean that some things in your life, some patterns you developed that once were helpful but now are not so much, Jesus may be preparing to flip those things upside down and chase them out of your life. Our hymn of the day talks about how the world is about to turn and not a stone will be left on stone. It’s one of my very favorite hymns, don’t get me wrong, but I remember Bishop Satterlee pointing out in seminary that we all love that song, until we think about how the world God is turning may also be our world, how the fortress towers God is going to dismantle could be fortresses we built. It’s one thing to look out on other’s spears and rods and pray for God to crush them, but are we ready to recognize that we too might be holding some spears that need to be crushed? This passage challenges us to consider what barriers we might have built, to look for things in our own life, in our own church, that Jesus may be coming to turn over. It invites us to ask the question of if we share Jesus’ zeal in removing everything that keeps people from God’s grace and love, even things we like?

Dear people of God, Jesus Christ is zealous, is consumed by his love for you, and nothing, no one and no thing will keep Jesus Christ from you. Lent gives us this blessed time to look at ourselves and at our world and to see what tables may need turning, what barriers may need dismantling, and to begin that work ourselves. It is not easy work, tearing down the things that once seemed helpful can be hard. But here is the good news. Jesus is consumed by the zeal of his love for you. And nothing, nothing, will keep Jesus away. The world is not just about to turn, it has turned. On the cross Jesus turned the world on its axis to break every barrier that kept us from God. This passage invites us, like it did the disciples, to remember that Jesus had said this, and lived those words out in his actions, and to believe what Jesus has spoken. Amen.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Conversation Points for John 2:13-22

Study Format:
1. Read passage aloud. What did you notice in the reading? What words or phrase caught your attention?
2. Read passage aloud a second time. What questions would you ask the text?
3. Read passage aloud a third time. What do you hear God calling you to do or be in response to this text?

Interesting Ideas to Consider:
• Unlike in the synoptic, in John’s Gospel, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem three times. In 2:13, after the intimate setting of the beginning of John’s Gospel with Jesus in Galilee surrounded by friends and family, Jesus made his first trip to the Temple in Jerusalem, the geographical and spiritual center of the Jewish faith. The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple contrasts Jesus’ authority with the authority of the religious leaders.
• The story of Jesus cleansing the temple appears in all four Gospels. However, the synoptics all place this incident as part of his passion, whereas John locates it at the very beginning of his ministry. The synoptics are probably more historically accurate; it is hard to imagine the religious authorities tolerating such a blatantly challenging act for long. In John, locating the incident here frames it as the completion of Jesus’ introduction. At the wedding at Cana, Jesus revealed his grace and glory by turning water into wine, highlighting the new life Jesus offers. In the temple cleansing, Jesus demonstrated the challenge and threat that new life poses to the existing order.
• In the Greek, verses 14-16 are all one long, complex sentence, serving to create a mood of urgency and haste, underscoring the intensity of Jesus’ actions. “Just as Jesus never hesitates as he moves through the Temple, so, too, vv. 14-16 never hesitate.”
• John’s description of the temple scene is much fuller and more dramatic than that of the synoptics, describing a scene of sheep and cattle, and Jesus driving out humans and animals with a whip.
• Historical context: Jesus was in town for the Passover, a pilgrimage feast in which people would travel for long distances to bring offerings to the temple. Because of the distance, most people would not be able to bring animals for the required sacrifice with them. Leviticus 1 and 3 list cattle, sheep, and doves as part of the required animals for burning at the temple as religious offerings. Therefore, in order to participate in the festival, there would need to be animals for purchase available to the pilgrims. Additionally, the temple tax couldn’t be paid in Greek or Roman coinage, because those coins included pictures of the emperor, which were forbidden, so foreign coins would need to be exchanged for local coin. Having animal sales and money changers were not solely corrupt, the purpose was to aid people in worship. But like so many things, these practices seem to have gotten away from their initial intention of aiding in worship.
• The role of the disciples in this story is to act as witnesses, framing how the reader is to interpret the events. V. 17 references Psalm 69:9, “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” But the Gospel makes an important theological alteration to the verse from Psalm 69, setting it in the future tense (“will consume me”) instead of the Psalm’s past tense (“has consumed me”). This shifts the story into a passion prediction of Jesus being “consumed” at his crucifixion instead of a story about the destruction of the temple (though historically, that also happened).
• V. 18, “sign” (semeion) is the word used in John’s Gospel to describe Jesus’ miracles. Here the demand for “a sign” is about questioning Jesus’ authority. “The Jews” in this verse refer specifically to the religious leadership in the temple who question Jesus and do not know him.
• Only in John’s Gospel does Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple. In the synoptics, it is ascribed to Jesus by false witnesses during the trial at his passion (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58) and taunts at the cross (Matthew 27:40; Mark 15:29; Acts 6:14).
• The “forty-six” years claim in v. 20 is historically plausible. Construction on the temple began in approximately 19 BCE during the reign of Herod the Great. 46 years would place the date of this event at 27 CE, which would make sense since in John the event happens at the start of Jesus’ three year ministry.
• Verse 18-20 employ a classic Johaninne narrative technique of misunderstanding. The Jews response in v. 20 demonstrated they only understand the surface level of Jesus’ conversation, that of the physical temple structure. But the verb Jesus used in v. 19 about raising the temple back up, egeiro, is also used to speak of resurrection (John 2:22; 5:21; 12:1, 9, 17: 21-14), giving the sentence a second, more symbolic meaning.
• V. 21 makes what was hinted in v. 19 clear, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” In Judaism, the Temple was God’s physical location on earth, so to call Jesus’ body “the temple” was to suggest that Jesus is now God’s physical location on earth. The Fourth Evangelist’s commentary in v. 21 makes clear to the reader what the religious leaders missed, that Jesus has the authority to challenge the temple system because Jesus is God’s physical presence on earth.

Works Sourced:
O’ Day, Gail. “The Gospel of John.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Take Up Their Cross: A Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

To put our Gospel reading for this morning in context a little bit, immediately before this reading Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” To which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” Which is the first, and I think only, time in the Gospel when the disciples actually seemed to understand just how amazing Jesus is. Mark chapter eight, verse twenty-nine is the moment of greatest clarity for the disciples, it is the point in the story when all of Jesus’ teachings finally clicked, when they finally grasped that Jesus is the promised salvation of God.

But then, today’s reading shows us, fresh off what seemed like understanding, actually the disciples still had no idea what Jesus was about. Because Peter called him the Messiah, he told them what being the Messiah meant, that he “must undergo great suffering… be killed, and after three days rise again.” And Peter was immediately like, no way. “Took him aside and began to rebuke him,” the Gospel said. And this word “rebuke,” that’s the same word Jesus used to cast out demons. Peter was literally trying to cast out the demon of salvation out of Jesus, clearly he missed the boat on this one.

Then Jesus rebuked Peter, but he didn’t stop there. “He called the crowd together with his disciples” and gave what may go down as one of the worst motivational speeches in history. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross, and lose your life. I’ve been watching a lot of Olympics recently, and I can’t imagine anyone’s coach using that as the pump up talk before the competition. From a purely numbers-gathering standpoint, this speech seems like it wouldn’t do it. I think part of the reason Peter rebuked Jesus was Peter knew Jesus was trying to start a movement, and he couldn’t see, “give up everything you love and die anyway” as the best rallying cry. Wouldn’t it have been better for the movement if Jesus had said, “If any want to become my followers, come along, and you will get everything you ever wanted, and we’ll overthrow Rome and everyone will get a new chariot and a nice sundial and it will always be sunny and never rain on your picnic.” Who wouldn’t sign up for that! Or, maybe, “If any want to become my followers, if you do these things in this specific way, and follow this set of expectations, then you’ll win. And if you don’t, you’ll lose. Your choice.” A little more work involved, but still a clear cause and effect path to success.

Peter was probably right; Jesus may have gotten more followers that way. But it wouldn’t have been honest, and in the end it wouldn’t have been helpful. Because you don’t have to be an attentive human for too long to notice that life does not have clear cause and effect paths. Following Jesus does not always mean puppies and rainbows and everybody gets a new chariot. And telling someone that it will leads to false hope, a hope that, when the real world interferes, all too easily falls apart. I honestly think giving someone false hope is worse than giving them no hope at all, because the fall from false hope is so much longer and more painful. Honesty, however painful, really is the best policy.

And honesty is exactly what Jesus delivered. Peter wanted Jesus to paint a rosier future, but Jesus was like, look, there will be suffering. You will suffer, I will suffer. But, and here’s the huge, important but, but resurrection follows. That, dear friends in Christ, is real hope. Real hope does not ignore or push away the reality of suffering, real hope looks suffering right in the face and says yes, you are real, yes, there is pain, but life always follows death. I’m guessing that Peter and the others listening to Jesus could not understand what he was talking about in that moment, when everything seemed to be going as planned. But I have to believe that at the toughest times in Peter’s life, as he worked to spread the good news of God throughout the world and as he eventually faced his own persecution and death, that this powerful promise of God’s presence in the midst of suffering helped sustain him for the work ahead. I have to believe that when Peter was at his darkest moments, he remembered Jesus’ words, he remembered Jesus’ death and resurrection, and he found the strength and the courage and the hope to persevere.

In a time such as this one, I find tremendous hope and strength in these words of Jesus. Peter’s naïve hopefulness is nice, but when I look around this world, I see a lot of suffering. Suffering that breaks my heart and makes me afraid. I see a lot of suffering and I feel powerless to do anything in the face of it. After all, what can one soft-spoken Lutheran pastor in small-city Michigan possibly accomplish? It is all too easy for me to set my mind on human accomplishments and feel defeated.

But in this passage, Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now first off, I always want to give a caution when we read this text, because it has been used in ways that are harmful, and we need to acknowledge and unpack that. Notice Jesus said “take up their cross.” He didn’t say what cross they were to take up, he said their cross. Which means, the cross we bear is the cross we chose. You pick what cross you’re going to pick up. If someone tells you, “this is your cross to bear,” unless that person is actually Jesus, ignore them. Burdens are different, burdens get put on us whether we want them or not, and we know from Matthew that a) Jesus’ burden on us is light and b) Jesus helps us bear burdens. So if you feel like you’re carrying something you don’t want to be carrying but you can’t put it down, that’s a burden. But crosses, crosses we choose.

And before we get too metaphorical here, let’s name what a cross was. A cross was a method of torturous execution of political prisoners. Common criminals, thieves and the like, were not executed on a cross. Jesus was not killed because Rome considered him a common criminal, he was killed because Rome considered him a political threat, a challenge to their power. So a cross is not an individual decision. A cross is an active decision to engage in systemic change in order to bring about the kingdom of God. And when you engage the system, as Jesus well knew, the system fights back. Jesus literally chose the cross. And following in that example, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the church for preaching salvation by grace, Bonhoeffer died in a concentration camp for standing up to Hitler, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis for picking up the cross of civil rights. Now those are extreme examples of what it can look like to pick up ones cross and follow Jesus. Not all of us are called to a life of martyrdom and persecution to this degree. But all of us are called, in our own way, to bring about the kingdom of God, and what this passage promises us is 1) there will be risk involved, but 2) whatever risk we face, whatever suffering we endure, God is with us, and no suffering, no defeat, not even death, is the end of the story. The end is never the end, for “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Life follows death, hope follows despair, this is the weird and wonderful paradox of our faith. Reading this passage fills me with a powerful sense of hope that I can engage the suffering in the world, that the work that I engage in to bring about the kingdom does matter, because God is in that work. Suffering is not the absence of God, for God is present with in suffering, and the work we do in carrying our cross matters. That feels like some powerful good news in the midst of despair.

In the midst of the darkness of our time, one powerful example of hope I’ve seen has been the emerging youth movement led by the students in Parkland, Florida. That is a powerful example of the difference between a burden and a cross, and the power picking up a cross can have. Those kids did not choose the burden of being part of a school shooting. They did not choose the burden of losing seventeen of their friends and teachers. That is a burden laid on them, and I know that Jesus is with them carrying that burden. But what they have chosen is from that burden, to pick up the cross of advocacy, so that no other students have to bear the burden placed on them. They chose that work. Not all of them, of course. For some students, the burden of grief is still too great to bear, and for those students, I know Jesus is with them, helping them grieve. Because again, crosses are our choice. No one can pick your cross for you. But they are choices we make that liberate not only ourselves, but the world around us. Carrying the cross means being part of bringing about the kingdom of God.

The good news I hear this morning is an invitation to pick up a cross and engage in changing the structures of our world. The one caution I will give is, choose wisely, because you only get one. The bishop used to joke with us in preaching class, because new pastors always want to try all the things, to pick our battles carefully, because you only get one cross, and you don’t want to accidentally pick up the cross of, like, carpet colors. So choose wisely, but when you choose. When you find the thing that engages you, that captures your passion, that fills you with determination, then pick it up and go forth boldly. I don’t know what cross energizes you, if you are called to dismantling poverty or working towards safety and security for all of God’s children, or caring for God’s creation, or the list goes on. Whatever you pick, here’s what this passage promises. The work will not be easy. But is anything easy ever really worth it. The work will not be easy, but the reward will be great. Thanks be to God. Amen.