Monday, September 28, 2015

John Series #12 – The Passion of Jesus – John 18-19

Jesus’ ministry is now over.  The Incarnation, the en-fleshing of God is also coming to an end as Jesus moves from the last supper to the garden where he will be arrested and the events of the Passion will begin to unfold.  Before this though Jesus has performed one more sign and then interpreted this sign for his disciples.  In many ways this final sign – the foot washing – brings together all of the other signs along with Jesus’ entire ministry.  This sign helps us all to see that it all comes down to one thing: LOVE.  Earlier in the Gospel we had met Nicodemus who was struggling to understand what in the world Jesus was doing.  Jesus told him – “God loves the world so much that those who believe, those who are in relationship with God will remain – will Abide – in this love of God’s forever!”  Now the sign, the foot-washing, is a sign of this love that Jesus, God en-fleshed has for the disciples and for the world.  “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus told his confused and scandalized disciples – “that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”  The point – God loves the world – God loves the disciples – God loves you and me and all of God’s creation more than we can ever possibly comprehend.  And this is what we are called to do in response as well – to love others, as God has loved us!
And so, after a prayer Jesus goes out to the garden. And here begins the events of the passion found in chapters 18 and 19.  This narrative can be divided into 3 parts in John: the arrest, the trial and the crucifixion, which includes the burial.
First the arrest - Judas comes with a huge crowd of soldiers to arrest Jesus.  Judas is the thief, the bandit Jesus referred to in the Good Shepherd discourse in chapter 10 and who now stands outside of the sheepfold as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will protect the sheep, his disciples, who are inside the sheepfold.  “Who are you looking for?” Jesus asks, “Jesus of Nazareth,” comes the answer – And Jesus responds with these words: “I AM.”  There is no “he” in the Greek – Jesus does not say, “I am he.”  He only says, “I AM” which as we know from Exodus and from Jesus’ use of the phrase earlier in the Gospel is the name of God.  And so here at the end we are all reminded once more that the “Word had become flesh and dwelt among us” – that Jesus is God en-fleshed.  Judas and the soldiers cannot stand before the great I AM and they fall to the ground until finally they are able to arrest the Good Shepherd and as predicted, the sheep scatter.
Next comes the trial, but whose trial is it in John?  Well, it is Jesus’ trial for sure, but not only Jesus’ trial. Peter’s is on trial too, and by extension so are we, we believers and disciples of Jesus are also on trial.  “Are you not one of that man’s disciples?” The maid asks Peter.  “I am, not!” he responds.  And this response is the mirror opposite of Jesus’ response earlier.  Not only that but Peter is denying not only his status as a disciple of Jesus, but he denies his relationship with God.  Why?  Fear!  Peter is afraid.
At the same time inside the council chambers, Jesus is questioned by the Sanhedrin, the Temple authorities and the High Priest Caiaphas.  They struggle to understand his teaching, but a God that loves us so much, and so unconditionally is threatening and incomprehensible to those who are in power and those who have vested interests in power, wealth and control.  So, they question him, but they end up going in circles.  Finally they take him to the Roman Proconsul, Pontius Pilate, who is able to understand Jesus even less.  “Are you a King?” “What have you done?” Where are you from?” “What is truth?”  Pilate is confused.  Jesus is not the usual hate-filled revolutionary that Pilate is used to dealing with. There is an unusual gentleness, there is a love and there is an authority that Jesus embodies that confuses Pilate.  “I find no case against him,” Pilate finally tells the Temple authorities.  “No! We want Barabbas!” comes the response.  “Crucify him, crucify him!” comes the response.  Pilate stands before the people with Jesus at his side – “Ecce homo – Here is the Man!  Here is your King!” he proclaims.  “We have no King but Caesar!”  And with that the crowd has confessed that they have placed their trust in power and wealth and hate and exclusion and in this way they have denied their relationship with God.  Why? Fear!  And John tells us, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified – why?  Fear!
And sitting around a charcoal fire, Peter denies Jesus two more times – “Are you one of this man’s disciples?”  He is asked, “I am not!” comes the answer a 2nd time, and then a third.  Peter has joined the crowd out of fear in denying his relationship with God.  But this will not be the last time that Peter will be asked to make a commitment while he is sitting by a charcoal fire, by the way. 
Where do we stand? John answers the question for us in a way we might not want to acknowledge: we stand with the crowd – we stand with Peter.  We would like to think that is not the case, but John knows that it is the case.  We are all susceptible to the pressures of fear, to the pressures to conform, to the lure of wealth and greed and power and hate and we act too often out of this fear.  But fear is a liar – fear destroys relationship – fear destroys love.  But fear will not have the last word.  Because there is forgiveness and there is always a chance to place fear behind us and move forward, as we will see.
For now though we have moved into the last part of the Passion.  In John Jesus carries his own cross beam to the place of crucifixion – a place that John tells us will become a garden.  And there he is crucified! At the place of crucifixion he is surrounded by the whole world – soldiers from all over the empire, Judaens, the authorities – the whole world is assembled to witness the crucifixion of God incarnate.  And a sign is placed over his head – Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, languages that also represent the entire known world.  The world that God so loves!
And the last thing that Jesus does is to create relationship – “woman here is your son, here is your mother” Jesus speaks from the cross to the Beloved Disciple and his mother.  For this is what God always does – create relationship.  This is what love does – create relationship.  Oh, and who is the Beloved Disciple, it is you and me!  We are Jesus’ beloved disciple, we are the disciple who Jesus loves.  And for us Jesus, God incarnate is always creating relationship, out of love!
And then the one who had given the woman at the well the Living Water speaks these words – “I thirst” and then he proclaims the end of the Incarnation – “It is finished.”  And with that he breathes his last breath.  And the incarnate, en-fleshed God now hangs on the cross dead.  His side is pierced but his legs are not broken.  And he is removed from the cross and lovingly cared for by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who anoint the body and place it in a tomb.
The end! 
No?  No, not the end!  Fear will not be victorious!  Hate will not be victorious!  The power of broken relationship will not be victorious!  The grasping for power and wealth at all costs will not be victorious!  Death will not be victorious!
Jesus is entombed in a garden – yet, another garden.  And soon, in three days to be exact, this garden is going to blossom and boom and yield life and relationship!  This garden will allow love to be reborn and to flourish – because nothing can destroy God’s love.  Nothing can stand between God’s love and those whom God loves.

As night falls we know that very soon the dawn will come, that light will overcome the darkness and that this light of God’s love will obliterate the darkness and Grace upon Grace will be showered upon this world that God loves so, so much!  And so as we gaze on this image of the cross, we should see the God who so loved the world and who continues to shower us with Grace upon Grace upon Grace upon Grace…

Monday, September 21, 2015

John Series #11 - Jesus' Farewell Discourse - John 14 - 16 (17) - "Abide in Jesus"

What’s it all about?  This question is sometimes asked of these 3 chapters in John – 14, 15 and 16 – which are called the Farewell Discourse.  What’s it all about?  Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper?  What’s it all about?  Jesus going to crucifixion, death, burial and then resurrection.  What’s it all about?  Let’s start here:
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end… Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a robe around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…” 
This amazingly shocking incident occurs during the last meal that Jesus shares with his disciples and this act of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples demonstrates unconditional love in a way the disciples have never, ever experienced before.  It also demonstrates to us an overwhelming love and commitment to us by God that is really beyond our comprehension.  Jesus does not pick and choose – he doesn’t refuse to wash the feet of Judas because he knows that Judas will betray him a couple hours later; he doesn’t tell Peter that he’ll only rinse his feet and not wash them because Peter is going to deny him in the next 24 hours.  There is no judging here – there is only love - the unconditional love of God which flows through Jesus to us and then through us to the world that God loves so incredibly much!
This then is what Jesus is trying to help his disciples of all times and places see as he comments on his act of love – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  And all that follows these words is Jesus trying in different ways to make the same point – to help his disciples to see – to see what?  That God’s love and grace are abundant and plentiful and unconditional and God offers them to us all.  It seems so simple, but it is so hard for us.  Loving one another is hard.  Jesus’ original disciples didn’t want to do it and we don’t either.  We want to put all kinds of qualifications and conditions on our love – and by extension, God’s love.  How often do we hear all kinds of people who claim to be Christians speaking words of judgment and hate and then claiming that they speak for God.  How often do we, Christians, put people in this or that category and deny God’s love and our love to them on the basis of some difference between us and them?  Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Will they?
You know I don’t know much about botany but I do know this.  That every plant, every vine, has roots which root themselves into the soil from which they process and distribute water and nutrients to the rest of the plant.  The stalk, or the vine then is the conduit of this source of life for the plants or the vine.  The leaves then sprout, grow and flourish only because they are attached to the stalk or the vine.  If you pull the leaves off of a vine or a plant they will shrivel up and die.  They cannot survive apart from the vine.  Everyone knows this.  This is why Jesus uses this image – he is the vine and we are the branches and the leaves.  And God is the farmer who planted the vine in the first place and then loves and cares for it and wants to see it flourish.  God’s love and grace then flow through Jesus to us and through us to others just like water and nutrients flow through the vine to the branches and the leaves.  If we pull ourselves off of the vine we will shrivel and die.  It is God’s love and grace that sustains us and helps us grow and flourish.  This should say something to us about our way of living then and the place of God’s love and grace in our lives and relationships.
But there is more to it than that.  We are not only then to “live a life of love” as Christ loved us, but we are to “Abide,” to “remain,” to “root” ourselves in this love and grace of God’s.  This word “Abide” is one of the Gospel writer John’s favorite words.  It appears throughout the Gospel.  Jesus is constantly calling for his beloved disciples to “Abide,” that is, to root themselves in God love and grace that flows through Christ.  And this call is to us as well.  We are also to “Abide” in Jesus, “Abide” in God’s love and to make love a lifestyle, a way of being in the world and a way of relating to others.
What does this then mean?  It means a lot of things which include that it means it is not up to us to judge; it is not up to us to determine who is in and who is out, who is deserving of God’s love and who isn’t.  It means that we are to always, ALWAYS, give people the benefit of the doubt – the default is love – not suspicion, not judgment, not fear.  It means we are to do everything we can to help those who are in need; to find ways of providing support, to stand up for justice, to oppose absolutely any form of racism and discrimination of any kind.  Abiding in God’s love means that God’s love and grace are the bottom line for us and that they provide the foundation for all of our priorities, our way of living in the world and our way of relating to others.
This was not easy for the disciples and it is not easy for us.  And the major reason is that too often we allow ourselves to be led and rooted not in God’s love but in fear; in the fear of the different, the fear of the unknown.  The fears that infect us and grow and can paralyze us.  It is this fear that led Judas to betray Jesus; fear that led the officials to crucify Jesus and this fear continues to infect us and paralyze us and it leads to a host of evils – as Master Yoda from Star Wars says” Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” 
What Jesus offers us instead is the love of God; a love that calls for us to abide, to root ourselves and to allow this love of God’s to flow through us freely.  And, Jesus tells us further that this gift will lead us to something else – and that something else is Joy!  There is something in the original language here that is remarkable.  The Greek word that is used to describe God’s unconditional, amazing love is the word “Charis” and this word is usually translated as “Grace.”  But the word for joy is the Greek word “Chara.”  Do you see the connection?  Charis/Chara – Grace/Joy – they are essentially two sides of the same coin perhaps.  When we experience Grace we experience Joy – when we offer others God’s Grace, when we live rooted in God’s Grace – it brings with it the gift of Joy.
God’s love – God’s unconditional, overwhelming love – God’s unconditional, overwhelming Grace is for us as we Abide, as we are rooted in God through Jesus.  And as we live lives that reflect this gift of God’s love and grace we are given the gift of joy.  And this is the message that Jesus gives to his disciples and to us, and wants us to remember as he then moves towards the crucifixion and resurrection.

It is all about love!  And if your faith is not all about love, then you have missed the point!  Because faith in Christ is all about love!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

John Series #10 - John Chapter 13 - A Model of Servanthood – Jesus Washes the Feet of Disciples

Well in our exploration of the Gospel of John we have now entered into the Book of Glory and left the Book of Signs behind.  To review where we have been: Chapters 2-11 took place over a time period of 3 years; they contained 7 signs, several encounters and discourses or teachings.  Chapter 12 leads us from the final dramatic sign of Jesus raising Lazarus through Jesus’ anointing and entrance into Jerusalem.  The Book of Glory, beginning in chapter 13 and running through the end of the Gospel in chapter 21 will give us the final 3 days of Jesus’ life, including the last supper, the final discourse or teaching to the disciples, the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, resurrection and resurrection appearances.  And in this final section we will experience God’s Grace upon Grace in a way that we have not experienced it before - namely God giving God’s self completely for the beloved creation – The Incarnate, enfleshed God crucified on the cross and then defeating the power of death!
But first, one more sign, followed by one more discourse or teaching followed by a prayer and then Jesus’ ministry will be concluded.  Jesus and the disciples meet one last time to share a meal together. The disciples and perhaps a few other followers assemble together and take their places.  Now in 1st century Palestine the principal way to travel from place to place is by foot.  The disciples and followers have followed Jesus through the day and have been walking the streets of Jerusalem.  Some of these streets are cobblestones - that is large stones placed in such a way as to enable and support a fair amount of traffic, people on foot, horses, chariots and lots of other animals.  These roads were engineered by the Romans who also built highways throughout the entire empire.  But at the same time once you would get off these main thoroughfares there would be no paving, the allys and side streets would be dirt roads.  Also, bear in mind there are no sewers, no drainage and very little rain.  And so walking the streets and roads of 1st century Jerusalem was a dirty and we might even say rather disgusting thing to do.  The result is that since you are wearing only sandals, your feet would get very, very dirty.
On entering into a home or residence Foot-washing was then the custom.  But this task of foot-washing was usually given to a slave or a menial servant of some sort. It was not a pleasant job, though it was necessary.  Foot-washing was certainly not the job of the students, much less the job of the master – it was a job for the lowest of the low.  So when Jesus gets up from the table and wraps a robe around his waist and begins to go from disciple to disciple with a basin washing their dirty, disgusting feet it is not surprising that they are shocked.  It falls to Peter to express what was undoubtedly the feeling of all the disciples: “You will never wash my feet!”  But Jesus responds, “If I don’t wash your feet then you have no part of me.”
This is what love is, Jesus tells them.  Love is serving one another, caring for one another, getting down on the floor and washing the dirty tired feet of one another.  This is what it means to “Love one another” and that is what you are to do.  And, by the way, it is not optional – it is a new commandment – “Love one another!”  And what does this love look like – it looks like Jesus, God incarnate, the Word enfleshed – on his knees carefully washing the feet of those whom he loves.  And whom does God love?  Who does Jesus love?  “… God so loved the world!”  Jesus told Nicodemus back earlier in chapter 3.  And who is it then that we are called on to love?  We are called to follow Jesus’ example and love the world as well, to the best of our ability and through the power of the Holy Spirit, who is also known as the Advocate – the Comforter – the Wind of God who is constantly blowing across the forces of chaos and bringing order and life out of chaos and death.
This sign and the subsequent discourse with answer the question - what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?  What does it mean to be a child of God?  To what are we called and empowered to do by God’s selfless love and grace and power?  The answer: we are called to “Love one another… Just like Jesus has loved us.”  This is hard for us, because we don’t really want to do this.  We are happy to love those who are close to us, those of our own community, those who do not challenge us, those who are just like us – but loving others who don’t fall into the narrow categories we humans like to create – that is not so easy.  That we would rather not do.  So instead we turn our faith into an exclusively personal journey that is only about me and God and about what God can do for me and about personal morality.  And certainly all of that is a part of the journey to which we are called, but it is only a part, the other part is profoundly and starkly represented in this sign of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.  And that is, to love one another as he has loved us.  To love the world as God has so loved the world.
Peter reluctantly agrees and will continue to struggle with all of this, because frankly he doesn’t want to do it either.  He doesn’t want to have his feet washed by Jesus the Messiah, God enfleshed, and he certainly doesn’t want to serve and wash the feet of others.  Peter has good intentions but when push comes to shove he is weak and fearful and denies Jesus in order to save his own skin.  And even in his last encounter with Jesus it is obvious that he is still struggling with love.  But Jesus accepts him where he is and promises to be with him and to continue to love him as he struggles and grows.  This is a model also for us, because we are very much like Peter.  We are sometimes weak and fearful and we don’t want to serve like Jesus calls us to and we aren’t sure about our own commitment.  But Jesus loves us and is committed to us anyway and promises to be with us, to maintain the relationship and to nurture and love us even as he continues to push us and call us to open ourselves to this calling.
But there is another model, and this is the model of complete rejection; the model of Judas, who rejects relationship with Jesus, who rejects God’s love and grace who rejects the call to love as God has loved him.  Judas has put himself outside of the sheep fold and when he appears in the Garden of Gethsemane he would be outside the sheep pen just like any thief and robber who does not love the shepherd or the sheep. When Judas leaves the gathering, we are told significantly, it is night!  He has rejected the light and now dwells in darkness.  His relationship with Jesus, with God and with others is broken.  But Jesus, while knowing and accepting this, nevertheless loves Judas too.  Please note: the incident with Judas happens AFTER the foot-washing.  So, Jesus had washed Judas’ feet too, Jesus had shared his meal of bread and wine with Judas as well as with the other disciples.  Because ultimately that is what this faith of ours is about – it is about LOVE – unconditional love!
Jesus will go on to share with his disciples some thoughts about this love and grace of God’s, about this calling to love one another in what is called the Farewell Discourse.  Like the disciples though, as we hear those words, we should be able feel the clean dampness of newly washed feet as we remember that it was Jesus who did that for us.  It was Jesus who washed to dirt and the grime and the hardship and the misery away through that act of love.  And it is Jesus who calls us to wash the feet of others, all others, just like he had done for us.
This is grace upon grace…
This is the embodiment of God’s love for the world.  This is what it means to believe – to act in love, to serve, to wash!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"Mirror, Mirror On the Wall…" - An Interlude with the Book of James...

For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

When you look into the mirror what do you see?  Do you see a reflection?  Of what?  Do you see yourself honestly?  We do spend a lot of time looking in the mirror I think, and I am not just referring to the actual time we spend looking in the mirror, which for some of us might actually be a fair amount of time.  I am also speaking symbolically.  We as a society tend to like to look at ourselves and we also tend to see only what we want to see and not what is really there?  I can look into the mirror and say, “My, what a handsome and wonderful, spiritual person I see looking back at me.”  We see what we want to see – we do not necessarily see the blemishes.  And we avoid looking at the less than attractive parts of ourselves.

This is, in fact, what James is suggesting here at the very beginning of his letter.  And it all comes down to hearing vs. doing.  And James is making the blunt point that we Christians (in both James’ time and in our own time) are much better at hearing than we are at doing.  We can listen to Scripture read, and we can hear or read inspiring words from preachers and pastors and others and then what?  Does it prompt us to do anything?  Does it inspire us to change our lifestyle or our way of relating to others?

In the first part of this passage (vs. 17-18) James makes it clear that we are given the gift of the “implanted Word” at our Baptism.  Christ comes to dwell within us.  And that this “implanted Word” calls upon us to respond to Christ’s calling to us.  How do we usually respond?  Too often, James suggests, by spouting pious nonsense.  Talk, talk, talk!  Someone once said “talk is cheap.”  And James would agree.  But for how many of us and those we meet who claim to be Christian does their commitment to Christ consist solely and completely in talk (and in our day and age, this would also include posting religious platitudes in social media!)  We see this all the time, from folks we know in our own communities who feel they need to convince us (and possibly themselves) that they are truly religious, to people who we might consider to be celebrities or politicians spouting nothing but religious talk while their actual behavior shows us something else entirely.  James is blunt and spares no one here – talk is worthless and that kind of religion is “worthless.”

What is it then that James is calling for?  The “implanted Word” within us is calling upon us to be “doers” of the Word, and not merely “hearers.”  Luther would rephrase this and say, we are all called to be “little Christ’s” to our neighbor.  And in case you still don’t know to what James is referring he actually spells it out: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress….

The phrase “orphans and widows” is a code that refers to caring for others in a whole multitude of ways.  To care for “orphans and widows” means to find ways of helping others; of addressing their needs; of working to feed the hungry, provide housing to the homeless, to welcome the stranger, comfort for those who are experiencing loss; provide healing for those who are ill; take a stand for justice and fairness for all – no matter what!  It also includes opposing any kind of discrimination for any reason; it also includes committing oneself to the work of caring for the environment and working in every way possible to find ways of reversing the effects of global warming!  You cannot ignore these basic issues and still call yourselves “Christian” says James!  The “implanted Word” calls upon us all to do everything, everything to the best of our abilities to address these issues. 

And sometimes this means working with others.  There is, for example, no longer any reason for us not to partner with Roman Catholics in the area of caring for the environment.  Pope Francis recently issued a powerful, insightful and deeply Biblical call for all Christians to partner together to work to care for our environment and to reverse the effects of global warming (entitled Laudato Si).  Caring for God’s creation “is an all-embracing moral imperative: to protect and care for both creation, our garden home, and the human person who dwells herein -- and to take action to achieve this.”  This in a nutshell is our calling and it is exactly to this that James refers.

Finally, James also calls upon us to pray.  Pray and act!  They go together!  We pray without ceasing as we act and allow our faith to show forth in how we live our lives and relate to others.  So, the next time you look in the mirror, what will you see?  The reflection of someone who is a talker but who doesn’t live his/her faith?  Someone who talks about being so religious but never worships or partakes of the Sacrament?  Someone who claims to love God, but who turns around and is unkind and unfair to others, especially those who are different in some way or another?  Or will you see someone who is a “doer” rather than just a “hearer?”  Someone who has the “implanted (incarnate) Word” within them and who seeks in everyway possible to reach out and do: caring and loving and giving of yourself in the name of Christ?

“Mirror, mirror on the wall…”