Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reflections on I John for Lent

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  I John 4:7-10
Throughout the season of Lent at our 12:30 mid-week Lenten prayer service we are meditating on the Epistle of I John.  Like many of the epistles in the New Testament, this letter was written to address a specific situation that had arisen within a specific community.  The community is believed to be the community that had risen up around the beloved disciple John.  By the time of the letter scholars believe John had died and the community was now struggling with division and conflict.  Specifically a serious conflict had arisen over the question of whether or not Jesus was really human or if (as the break-away group was proclaiming) Jesus was only divine and that Jesus only seemed to be human.  This may have been the first recorded instance of this disagreement, but it would not be the last.  This question of the relationship of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, and whether Jesus was human at all would continue to be a major conflict in the early church (it is still with us, by the way) and would lead eventually to the formation of the three great creeds – the Apostle’s, the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds.  The technical name for the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human is docetism.
Apparently this conflict within the Johnnine community had gotten out of hand.  The docetist faction had pulled themselves apart, so as not to be “tainted” by “incorrect belief.”  And not only that, but it appears that they had adopted a very hostile attitude to all of those who disagreed with them.  The writer of this epistle addresses all of the issues – lovingly, but firmly.  From the beginning of the epistle he makes it clear that to assert that Jesus only seemed divine or that Jesus was only pretending to be human is a denial of the heart of the Christian faith.  If Jesus was not fully human then there is no Christmas, no incarnation; and the death and resurrection itself becomes meaningless.  The humanity of Jesus is essential to our salvation and our faith, without that then Jesus becomes yet another divine deity who pretends to be human and accomplishes nothing of importance.  It is through the incarnation of Jesus - the humanness of Jesus that God enters into our human experience, and is able to be present with us in the midst of the darkness of our human lives and thus to redeem and to offer salvation to us from within it.  First John asserts in the very first verse of the 1st chapter his affirmation that Jesus was fully human, which echoes the earlier Gospel of John from the same community: And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us….  
Jesus is fully human – God enters into the human experience through the birth of Jesus and saves us from within our humanity.  Jesus is fully divine – Jesus is God incarnate and thus fully divine.  The power to save, to extend God’s grace is dependent on Jesus being both 100% divine and 100% human – all at the same time.  How is this accomplished?  I do not know.  It is a mystery and I am content with mystery.  What I do know is that my own experience is of a Jesus who is both completely divine and completely human.  In this way I know that God is with me in the light and in the darkness – in joy and in sorrow – at times of bitter despair and in times of exultation and celebration.  How have you experienced the humanity and divinity of Jesus in your life?  This is the question for the Lenten journey.
Lastly, John also makes it clear that our calling is not to be “right.”  But our calling is to love, as God loves us.  That if we allow mystery to be a part of our faith experience there are going to be things that we do not agree on and things that we do not completely understand – and this is ok.  At the foundation though there must be love – God’s love for us, which is revealed in Jesus and which calls us to open our hearts in love to others.  May this Lent also provide an opportunity for us to contemplate the amazing love and grace of God as shown forth in Christ and may it lead us to love of others.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel - "Of Wells and Tents" - John 4:5-42

Read the Gospel text here:John 4:5-42

"Of Wells and Tents" - The Samaritan Woman at the Well - John 4:5-42

Within the first two weeks of Lent we have the opportunity to hear two wonderful stories from the Gospel of John and to meet two people with whom Jesus has an encounter early in his ministry.  Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  This week Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  The contrast between them could not be greater.  Nicodemus is very much an insider – he is a leader among the Pharisees, he is educated, he is established; he comes to Jesus at night to discuss Jesus’ teaching, which try as he might, he just cannot understand.  The unnamed Samaritan woman is very much an outsider – she is a Samaritan (Judeans like Nicodemus would have had nothing to do with Samaritans) and she was a woman; she was uneducated and she seems to be somewhat of an outcast from her own community.  She comes to the well at noon, which was the worst time of the day to draw water.  By noon the sun was high and it was hot.  Most women went to the well early in the morning or in the evening – not at noon.  This is why she and Jesus are alone.  No one else wants to be out in the heat.  She and Jesus then engage in a dialog that is much deeper are more probing than the one with Nicodemus.  Why?  Well, simply put - Nicodemus didn’t get it.  The Samaritan woman does get it – slowly – but still she gets it.
It is important to address a very popular interpretation that has tended to affect the interpretation of the passage.  In verses 16 through 18 Jesus asks the woman to go and fetch her husband.  She replies that she has no husband and Jesus affirms that, adding that he knows she has had five husbands and that she is living with a man who is not her husband.  Many preachers and commentators down through the years have interpreted this to reflect badly on the moral character of this woman – and thus distracted by this non-issue end up missing the important part of the story.  Please note – Jesus does not condemn her and neither does he offer her forgiveness.  Why?  She has nothing to be forgiven for.  The fact that she has had 5 husbands would not have been her choice or her fault.  Women in 1st century Palestine had no choice over those kinds of things.  She was a victim.  She was either widowed or divorced – which would have all been done without her input or assent.  If anything she deserves our compassion.
At the center of this encounter is a question that the woman asks about worship.  She asks – where is God to be found?  On Mount Gerizim in Samaria or in Jerusalem?  This question lay at the heart of the Gospel of John – where do we find God?  Jesus takes the question seriously and gives her an answer that I am sure she was not expecting: neither place – you must worship God “in spirit and in truth.”  In other words – open your heart, God’s dwelling is not in any particular place – it is with and among God’s people: people just like you.  Even though you may be excluded by the society, you are not excluded by God – God is open to all who open their hearts and believe in the Son of Man.  In John 1:14 we read: and the Word was made flesh and dwelt (tabernacled / tented) among us.  God is no longer remote. God is available through the Son.  And if that was not enough Jesus finishes off this section with a confession: I AM – Jesus says.  (The phrase that appears in the NRSV translation – “I am he” is incorrect – there is no “he” in the Greek.  It is just “I AM.”)  This of course is the name of God, and unlike the Pharisees the woman doesn’t flinch when she hears this.  She accepts and believes.
Ultimately this passage is about identity and belief.  Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the Messiah – Jesus is the Word made flesh – the I AM come into the world.  And to whom does Jesus come?  To all who have open hearts – to all who believe.  You don’t have to be a certain class or ethnicity or believe the right dogmas or be perfect or be male – God is open to all who follow and believe in Jesus the Christ.  In a real way this story reflects the famous passage from John 3:16.  For a Samaritan woman represents the outsiders of the world to whom the Son has been sent to love.  And her faith and action mark her as one who is a child of the light and who has been given the gift of eternal life.  Like her we too are called to open our hearts and allow our belief to be reflected in the way we live our lives – for we too are children of the light to whom God has given the gift of Eternal Life.
An excellent discussion of this text and the background of interpretation is by David Lose and can be found here: Misogeny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well
I find the comments - especially by those who claim to be Christian - to be really appalling. Are American Christians really that close-minded, judgmental and biblically illiterate?  None of us has all the answers and it seems to me that we Christians are called to openness, humility and to graciousness. Note Luther's explanation of the 8th Commandment:"We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"God So Loved..." - A Sermon for Lent II A - 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.
This is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the entire bible.  We have all heard it before – people put the reference on license plates, we have all seen folks on TV cameras at various sporting events with signs that read “John 3:16.”  Martin Luther called this passage “the Gospel in a nutshell.”  And indeed it is a profound and beautiful passage which confronts us with both a truth about God and a promise from God and that is this: the love that God has for God’s creation – the love which God has for us is so incomprehensible, so immense, so overwhelming, so inexplicable that even our language, our words are insufficient to describe and express the depth of God’s love of all of God’s creation and all of God’s children.
For God so loved the world that….. God chose to be born in Jesus of a human mother, into a specific community, into specific time and he lived a life as we do – he experienced human emotions, he experienced all that the human experience has to offer.  Jesus spent this time teaching and healing and loving us – he spent this time calling us to follow his way of love of God and others.
For God so loved the world that….. God sent the Son to suffer for us – to be tortured physically and to be lifted up and crucified on a cross, like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.  He suffered death, he was buried and entombed for us all.  This love of God’s is completely self-giving.  Through Jesus, God dies for us on a cross.
For God so loved the world that….. The cross is not the end of the story – for in three days God raises Jesus from the dead and in this way defeats all of the powers of death – the power of illness, loss, grief, torment, anguish, grief, loss, alienation – all of these which are such a real part of human life have been entered into and defeated so that we can now proclaim that these representatives of death do not have the last word.  Rather the last word is with the risen Jesus and that word is life – eternal life.
Now, when Jesus talks about Eternal Life in the Gospel of John, what does he mean?  When I was in college, many years ago, I was a part of a Christian fellowship group that I remember spent a lot of time talking about eternal life.  But when we talked about it then it seems as though it was always something off in the distant future, something that was still to be attained like some kind of a prize that would be awarded at the end of our earthly life.  Since those days I have come to understand that when John talks about Eternal Life he is talking about something which is God’s gift to us now!  God gives to us the gift of eternal life when we are baptized into Jesus death and resurrection and this gift is recalled and renewed each day as we encounter the presence and grace of the living Christ.  Eternal Life begins now – it is not something far off to be attained in the future – it is NOW.  Salvation begins NOW!
To speak of Eternal Life and Salvation only in futuristic terms is really a denial of God’s love and power to transform and direct our daily lives.  To think of Eternal Life and Salvation as a kind of future award which I get when I die is kind of like the image of a man drowning in the middle of a deep lake.  There he is thrashing around and trying to keep his head above water.  Off on the shore stands another man with a life preserver and this man calls out to the drowning man – “Swim to shore and I will get you the life preserver!”  Well, that’s not going to do a lot of good, is it?  The odds are that the man in the lake will drown before he even gets to shore.  He needs the life preserver – now – while he is in the middle of the lake struggling.
God’s promise of salvation is getting that life preserver now – and if I can push the illustration a little farther – it is Jesus who swims out to bring it to us.
For God so loved the world that….. God has called us to let our lights so shine – so that the light of God’s love and grace – the light of the gift of eternal life might shine forth – illuminating the dark corners of injustice, self-centeredness, hatred, fear, abuse and violence; illuminating the dark corners of sickness and loss and alienation; and illuminating the faces we encounter so that we might recognize all those faces as brothers and sisters to be loved and brought into community in grace and not as the faces of strangers to be feared and avoided.
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.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflection on the Texts for Lent I – "Theme and Variations"

Read the Gospel text here: St. Matthew 4:1-11
Read the Old Testament text here: Genesis 2:15-3:7 
In the area of Music Appreciation one of the most important things you need to learn in order to be able to fully understand and appreciate the music of some of the great composers, such as Mozart and Beethoven, is form.  The form is the structure of a musical composition and there are several standard forms that were used by the great composers.  One of the most popular was a form called “Theme and Variations.”  This was a standard form and often the first assignment that a student composer was given was to take a particular tune and compose a set of variations on the tune.  The way it works is this: there is a tune or a melody that is usually somewhat familiar.  After the listeners are reminded of the tune then there follows a series of variations that usually get progressively more complex as they proceed.  But the rule is that there has to be a connection somehow with the theme – so that even if it is masked you can still find the theme in some way (melodically, harmonically or rhythmically), even if it is masked in some way.
Our Gospel text for today tells the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan and when he is coming out of the water the heavens are open and a voice rings forth approval as the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove.  And then this Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he fasts for 40 days and 40 nights (think Noah, Moses, the people of Israel and Elijah).  At the end of this time the devil comes to Jesus and makes three offers: Since you are the Son of God  (p.s. the Greek here is the word “since” not “if”) turn these stones into bread (comfort); …. Throw yourself down from the temple (security-manipulation of God); … worship me (power, wealth and glory)! 
These are the variations on an old tune: In Genesis 3 (our OT lesson for today) the serpent says to Eve in verse 5: take and eat the fruit because then…you will be like God….  That is the old, old tune which human beings have been singing since the dawn of time – aspiring to put themselves into the place of God.  Adam and Eve succumbed to this temptation and the consequence was banishment.  The bible is filled with story after story of human beings who are constantly presuming that they can put themselves in the place of God. This comes in the form of lack of trust or by presuming power that is not theirs or in the lust for the acquisition of power and glory; it comes in the attitude of invincibility and entitlement; it comes in the form of arrogance; it comes in the form of placing me and my comfort and my power and wealth above others, and thus above God. 
These are all variations on the theme.  And the theme has a name: Original Sin; and the temptations that Jesus stood against are the standard variations of this theme: my comfort; my security; my presuming God’s power and agenda; my power and glory and wealth.  These are the same temptations with which we struggle as well.  How often do we put our own comfort, security, wealth and status above others and God? 
Finally, it is important to remember that we are not Jesus and no matter how hard we try to resist these temptation variations we will fail at times.  But because of Jesus; because Jesus did not fail; because Jesus died and rose again we can be assured of God’s love and grace and forgiveness.  And so, during this Lenten time we are called to recognize the times when we have been seduced by the temptation variations, ask for forgiveness and move forward, assured of God’s love, grace and forgiveness in Christ, Jesus our Lord.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

Reflections on the Transfiguration Gospel – A Glimpse of Glory

Read the Gospel text here: Matthew 17:1-9

       We have come to the end of the season of Epiphany and we are ready to enter into our Lenten journey, which will begin next week with Ash Wednesday.  During this season we have learned from our Gospel lessons about our calling to be open vessels of God’s love and grace; about our calling to be light and salt in the midst of the tasteless darkness of our world.  Today God gives us a Glimpse of Glory through the recounting of the events of the Transfiguration from Matthew 17, and through our own participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, through which we receive a Foretaste of the Feast to Come.
            As we enter into this worship experience today I think it is important to understand the context for this text, which is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem during which he repeats his Passion predictions on several occasions.  “Who do people say that I am,” Jesus asks the disciples.  “…John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet…,” responds the disciples.  “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter finally steps forward to speak: “You are the Messiah of God.”  And then Jesus immediately defines for them what that means: suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection.  The disciples are appalled.  They thought they had signed on with a Messiah who would bring them glory and power and influence.  Not so.  Jesus is insistent and repeats this prediction over and over again.
            And then Jesus takes three of them up the mountain where they have a moment of peace.  And, there on the mountain they receive a glimpse of God’s glory.  I suppose we can understand why Peter and the others want to hang on to this experience as long as they possibly can.  But it is truly a glimpse, a moment, and then it is over.  And they are heading back down the mountain to resume the journey.
            We too are on a journey.  Our lives are a journey with Christ, and sometimes the journey takes us into bright and beautiful places, and sometimes into some very dark places.  Throughout it all Christ is with us; Christ is present with us.  How do we know this?  Because of the glimpses God gives to us of His love and His glory.  Each time we take the bread and wine of the Sacrament we are receiving a Foretaste of the Feast to Come, a taste of the heavenly banquet.  Each time we experience kindness, grace and love from another we are catching a glimpse of glory.  As we prepare to enter into Lent I would invite you to think about your own experiences and make yourself aware of the various times and places when you have caught a glimpse of the glory of God.