Thursday, March 23, 2017

John's Lenten Series of Main Characters

This Sunday we hear the story of the man born blind in John 9. Last week, it was the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The week before that it was Nicodemus in John 3. Next Sunday it will be Lazarus and his sisters in John 11. Do you see a pattern here? Each of these is a fairly lengthy gospel text. Each of them features a prominent character or characters in John's account. And each of them is a story about seeing and recognizing the messiah.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above...No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."
The woman at the well said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming...When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
After he had healed him, Jesus said to the man born blind, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”
Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Maybe this is a post for next week, when I'm looking for a sermon on John 11, but I don't think it's too early to recognize what the lectionary authors are doing to us. With the exceptions of the first Sunday in Lent, when we always read the story of Jesus' temptation, and the last Sunday in Lent, when we always read the story of Jesus' passion, we spend each week asking, "Who is Jesus really?" Of course, one could say the same about the first and last weeks in Lent, too, as we discover Jesus' identity during his encounter with Satan or see his true kingship as he is crowned with thorns. All of that suggests that if we leave Lent 2017 without grappling with Jesus' true messianic identity we will have missed the point.

Even though most of these readings are from John, that seems a particularly appropriate theme for Year A, when we're usually dwelling in Matthew's gospel account. Of all the gospel editors, Matthew seems most interested in Jesus' identity as the Jewish Messiah. And what do we see? What are these particular lessons showing us?

Jesus speaks to a leader of the Jewish tradition (Nicodemus), and that leader cannot quite grasp his identity, though he comes around fully by the end of the gospel account. Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman who, by virtue of her religious-ethnic heritage, would not have known what it meant to look for a messiah, yet she seems to get it fully. Jesus appears to a man born blind and heals him, and, although the man initially is not sure who Jesus really is, the antagonism presented by the religious authorities helps clarify in the man's mind that Jesus, indeed, is the expected one. Finally, at the tomb of his friend, Jesus speaks to Martha and appropriates last-day resurrection hope to himself, and Martha accepts this, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. What does this tell us?

God reveals himself to those we wouldn't expect to see him. A position of power makes it harder for someone to see the truth. Letting go of one's theological presumptions is an important part of beholding Jesus as savior. Guess what! Those of us who faithfully make our way through Lent by coming to church each week are more likely Nicodemus than the Samaritan woman. If we're going to be Marthas, we need to recognize our inherited blindness. Believe it or not, we're only halfway through this season. There's still time to ask God to strip us down and open our eyes so that we might receive the one who has come into the world to save us.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

We Were There

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

As a kid, I loved looking through my parents' wedding photos. They were kept in a sort of commemorative book that was left on a shelf in the hall. Every now and then, I would pull the book out and stare at the men with their moustaches and women with their long, flowing, rosy pink gowns. My parents looked funny--so young and skinny. My grandparents, too, looked younger than I had ever imagined them. I would look at those pictures and imagine what the wedding was like--a sort of fairy tale preserved in pictures.

The other day, on a drive back from Birmingham, my kids started asking Elizabeth about our wedding. We were highly disappointed with our wedding photographer, so I don't think my kids have ever seen any images from that day. But somehow the concept of our wedding came up, and they all started asking questions about who was there and what were they wearing and what was the food like and were there any funny moments. I wasn't in the car, but, when they got home and Elizabeth told me about the conversation, it made me want to participate, recollecting my own experience of that day. My children had much the same experience that I had had, exploring a fascinating moment from the past as if it were a myth to be encountered rather than a day to be remembered.

It's funny how such clear and definite moments from our past, which we remember vividly, become less than real to those who did not experience them firsthand. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Kennedy's Assassination, the Challenger Explosion, September 11. If we only read about them in history books, we run the risk of losing touch with the real experience--what it felt like to be there, to see it, to know the emotion of those moments. We need to hear from someone who can give context to the event. We want to hear their words about what that day was like. Without their personal stories, we cannot remember the past in the sense of re-membering or re-embodying it. We can only learn about it the way a student learns a history lesson, studying facts to be regurgitated on a test.

That was Moses' concern in Deuteronomy 4. "We have this incredible law," he told God's people. "When the people in the land where we are going see us and our law and how we live with it at the center of our lives, they will say to themselves, 'What a wonderful people! See how they live so close to their god! No one has a god as close to them as the people of Israel!'" But Moses knew that memories fade. He knew that, within a generation or two, the people who had been there when God had come down to Mt. Sinai and appeared to Moses and spoke to God's people in fire and cloud, would die. And then who would remember why those laws were given in the first place? Who would recall that the law and the proximity that it gave to God's people were unique? Who would be there to teach the people that the law was not merely a set of rules to be followed but an opportunity to live in covenant relationship with the creator of all things?

"Be careful," Moses said, "not to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor let them slip from your mind all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children." You were there, Moses reminded God's people. Do not forget what it was like to see the fire and hear the voice that spoke to you out of the flame. You cannot see the Lord. He will not come and tap you on the shoulder and remind you why all of these things are important. You must remember. You must relive that day. You must tell it to your children and grandchildren so that our people can remember--can relive--what it means to belong to God and never forget that we are God's people.

Somehow, as the sound of racing footsteps up and down the hall testifies, when I tell my children to brush their teeth, by the time they've walked upstairs, they've forgotten all about it. When they hear my footsteps coming up the steps, they remember and scurry into the bathroom, where they pretend to have been brushing their teeth all along. Mt. Sinai was a long, long time ago. And God's footsteps are a lot harder to hear than those of an angry father. How will we remember?

Immerse yourself in the stories of God's people. Read the words of scripture--words written not only to recall the events but also the emotion, the terror, and the awe of it all. Share the stories with each other. Seek out those who know them well, and learn from them. Participate in the active remembrances by going to a Seder meal, celebrating Sukkoth, or keeping the sabbath. Jesus said, "Not one stroke of one letter of the law will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished" (Matthew 5:17-19). In Jesus, we may have found the fulfillment of our relationship with God, but we cannot afford to forget God's dealings with God's people. We must tell the stories until we find ourselves there in the wilderness, preparing to enter the Promised Land. We must teach them to our children and our children's children so that we will never forget what it means to belong to God.

But So That

Yesterday, I pseudo-engaged, pseudo-trolled my friend Steve Pankey by commenting on his blog post on Facebook. He had written about the importance of avoiding bad theology by not declaring that God had intentionally caused the man in Sunday's gospel lesson (John 9:1-41) to be born blind so that a miraculous healing could be worked in him. Although I agree with that wholeheartedly, I take exception not with Steve's post but with a more general tendency to avoid hard theology by reinterpreting what the bible says by effectively ignoring what the bible says. That wasn't Steve's point, and I encourage you to read his thoughtful and important post. Although it wasn't his intention, he gave me the chance to spout off about my issue. I love back-and-forth theology, but Facebook comments are rarely the place for a full conversation, and I did not really give Steve's post its due. He was gracious in his response, and I appreciate it.

He also has forced me to grapple with those dangerous, theologically provocative, culturally insensitive words that Jesus says at the beginning of Sunday's long, long, long gospel lesson:
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him."
Here's how I read those words. Jesus and the disciples come upon a man who had been blind from birth. (How did they know he was blind from birth? I have no idea, but that's part of John's story, so we're just supposed to accept it.) The disciples asked, "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" (What a crass thing to say! Please, Jesus, put them in their place. Don't let them get away with it.) Jesus replies, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." (That's what I'm talking about! Be bold! Make a stand for good theology.) Jesus continues, "This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (Dammit, Jesus! That's not what I meant. That's even worse than what the disciples said. At least if it's a consequence of sin someone must have deserved it. Now you're claiming that God would deny sight to someone just so God could make a big show of his healing. That's cheap. That's terrible. No, thank you, Jesus. You can keep that theology for yourself. We've learned a lot about God since you were around. Maybe you need to go back to rabbi school.)

So what does it mean? What does it mean for Jesus to claim that a man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him? The Greek text relies on two conjunctions stuck together to hinge the "born blind" part with the "works of God" part: "ἀλλ' ἵνα," which means literally "but so that." How to we cross that bridge and relate the two seemingly unrelatable statements?

In a way that almost obliterates that bridge, Steve points to this week's Working Preacher commentary, in which Osvaldo Vena, a New Testament professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, shifts the punctuation to change the emphasis and, in some sense, the meaning: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me..." Remember that in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament there were no punctuation marks. Later readers and translators have added them, parsing out what clause and what phrase go where. We've inherited what they thought, and new translators usually rely heavily on what their predecessors have done. But that doesn't mean the tradition is correct.

What do I think? I think that translation makes me feel a lot better. And I think that it's doable with the Greek. But I think there's a reason that translators have rendered it the old way for a long, long time. And, more to the point, I think there is a better reason for us to stick with the old text that allows us to tackle more deeply the problem of divine causality.

This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. On the one hand, I find that statement repugnant, but why? Why is it offensive? Why are we uncomfortable with that sort of depiction of God? Because, in the back of our minds, we believe that it's up to God whether a person is born with a disability. But that's not how God works. God isn't upstairs in some great baby factory doling out intelligence, good looks, athleticism, congenital defects, and handicaps to those he wants to have them. Yes, God is the source of all things. Yes, I'm comfortable saying that God causes all things. But divine causality is not like human causality. We link cause and effect with purpose and, when appropriate, malice aforethought. But that's not how God works.

Yes, in some sense, God caused this man to be born, and, yes, in some even more vague sense, God caused this man to be born blind, but that isn't because God has a simplistic sense of the value in it--a value that is revealed when Jesus heals him. The problem isn't with the translation. The problem isn't with the theology of linking the "born blind" with the "works of God." The problem is with our limited theology of purpose--that we look for and often demand a clear and linear cause and effect relationship when that's not what God has in mind. Jesus says, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him." Jesus is repudiating a theology of divine punishment for sin. But that doesn't mean the only substitute is one and only one reason: so God's works might be revealed. Sure, that's part of it. Aren't we comfortable saying thing? The problem is when we limit God's purposes to a single strand.

I got married because I wanted to have children. But that's not the only reason. To a lesser extent, I got married because of the tax break. To a greater extent, I got married because the love I had for Elizabeth found its fulfillment in the institution of marriage. Christians see marriage as an image of God's limitless, unconditional love for the church as shown in Jesus. Does that mean all married persons must be Christians? Clearly not. There are often multiple reasons that things happen. When it comes to God, the lens of causality only works looking backward.

This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. Don't lose sight of the context. Jesus isn't saying this in the abstract. He's repudiating the disciples' suggestion that sin might be the cause. On another day, in another situation, he might give a different reason. Jesus doesn't say, "The only reason this man was born blind is so that God's works might be revealed in him." Instead, he points us to hope--hope for God's glory even in a tragic circumstance. He doesn't declare that the tragedy is justified fully in the healing work. He simply points to the miracle as a sign of redemption. There's too much bad theology out there for us to ignore the opportunity to tackle the tough issues. If we're sweeping hard theology under a rug, we do the world a disservice.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


This post is also an article in this week's The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read more from the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.
A few weeks ago, I let my passion get the better of me, and I made a mistake that I wish I could take back. I had driven up to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to support my friend and colleague Steve Pankey and the people of Christ Episcopal Church, where he has recently begun his ministry as their rector. I had been looking forward to the trip ever since I saw that they had scheduled the service for the Celebration of a New Ministry on a Tuesday night, when a clergyperson with regular Wednesday-evening commitments like me could go. Not surprisingly, my efforts were rewarded.
Church music in a university town is almost always resplendent, and the choir did not disappoint. Another colleague and friend of mine delivered a compelling sermon that effectively combined humor and exhortation, leaving me with a renewed sense of vocation and possibility. The bishop, although remarkably formal in his liturgical style, conveyed a genuine love for Steve and the people of Christ Episcopal Church that reassured everyone in the room that God would use this partnership—bishop, priest, and people—for the building up of God’s kingdom. Everything worked well. The people were warm and inviting. The worship was beautiful and inspiring. And, then, it happened.
As expected, the bishop explained during the announcements that the offering would go to Steve’s discretionary fund to help him meet the needs of the poor in that community. Eagerly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. Not one to carry much cash, I had made a special stop on the way to ensure that I would have something to put in the plate. I always look forward to making my offering, and I wanted to show my support for Steve and his ministry in a particular way. When the ushers brought the plates forward, however, they looked at the choir and visiting clergy, who were seated in the first few pews, and then skipped right over us.
“Excuse me,” I whispered to the usher nearest to me too softly to be heard over the offertory anthem. “Ahem!” I said more loudly as I mock-cleared my throat, again to no effect. Finally, in a full, sharp voice, I barked, “Sir! Come back! Don’t skip over us!” at which point the red-faced usher returned and passed the plate down our pew. Immediately, I realized with embarrassment what a spectacle I had become. A visitor who had been welcomed with true hospitality, I had let my desire to give and my frustration both at having been passed over and the theological and cultural crisis that that exclusion represented bring me to a disproportionately disruptive response. I sought the usher out after the service to apologize, but I never found him.
On the drive home, I had plenty of time to relive that moment and ask myself why I had reacted so strongly and negatively. My nature prefers decorum over disruption, and the recklessness with which I hollered after the usher had been an out-of-character and almost out-of-body experience. Initially, I identified the root as a perceived sense of wrong at having been excluded from the people’s offering. As a clergyperson who usually receives the alms basins at the altar rather than passes them down the pew, I have fallen into the shortsighted habit of paying my pledge electronically rather than adding my own offering to the plate before placing it on the altar. This was my chance to do what everyone else gets to do every Sunday, and it had been denied me. Soon, however, I realized that there was more to it than that.
Most people do not like asking others for money. We have convinced ourselves that it is rude, burdensome, and uncharitable, when, in fact, it is the opposite. When the usher passes the plate down your pew, she is giving you the opportunity to be a real, actual, tangible part of the community of the faithful. The plate is an invitation to give something that matters to you back to God. As such, it is an invitation to freedom—freedom from the false belief that you need every penny in your pocket in order to survive, freedom from the idolatry of your bank account, freedom from the delusion that you are the only thing keeping yourself and your family alive. Even if you pay your pledge through an online bill pay as I do, touching the plate is an opportunity for you to engage the practice of making your offering by recalling the check that will be written and mailed to the church on your behalf. The realization is even stronger, of course, if you place an extra dollar or two in the plate, but to wave off the usher and miss the chance to touch it entirely removes you from that moment in our worship—a moment that is absolutely and unequivocally focused on presenting the offerings of our lives and labors to the Lord.
That is why a deeply held anger and resentment bubbled up from within me in that moment—not only because I was left holding my money but because an usher who would skip over the choir and clergy is a symptom of a much more serious problem, and that problem starts with the clergy. Actually, I don't know why the usher skipped over us, but I do know what I thought when he did. Of course the usher passed over us! Collectively, we the clergy are worse than anyone else at discussing stewardship. Many assume that the clergy, who already work for the church, have no need of offering anything else back to God, and we are guilty of allowing that falsehood to persist. Why? Because we do not enjoy asking people for money either. It touches on that awkward balance between inviting people to give and inviting people to pay one’s own salary, but that discomfort reveals an unbiblical understanding of stewardship. When we invite people to contribute, we are not asking them to fund a budget or a salary. We are inviting people to grow in faith, and we have no reason to be shy about that.
Just as Moses warned God’s people in Deuteronomy 8, we have spent generations living in cedar-paneled houses and reaping the harvest of our bountiful land, and we have forgotten the life-giving nature of offering the first fruits of our harvest back to God. We are scared of stewardship, and our money-obsessed culture is desperate to rediscover it. I wish that I would have held my tongue that night or, perhaps, that I had slipped quietly to the back of the church where I could give my gift to the usher, but I do not regret the passion that it reawakened within me. I believe in the power of stewardship. I believe that giving away more of our resources is the most important thing we can do to deepen our faith and grow closer to God. I believe that the church is not faithful when it fails to encourage people to give. And I believe that each of us has an opportunity to share the good news of God’s limitless bounty by inviting others to take stewardship seriously.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Long Story #2

If you thought yesterday's gospel lesson (John 4:5:42) was long, buckle up for this week. Coming in at 858 words, John 9:1-41 is 11.3% longer than last week (word count of 858 vs. 771). Plus, we all know that the Passion Narrative is coming up in a few weeks on Palm Sunday, which is followed pretty closely by John's version on Good Friday. All told, we're reading a number of lengthy narratives this Lent. If the preacher has to read the gospel lesson, too, it may help to think of this as a marathon instead of a sprint. Sometimes, after hearing my own voice through a long gospel passage, I get bored halfway through a sermon, and that's not good for anyone.

This week's story about Jesus' healing of the man born blind is the kind of passage that cannot really be broken up. Was he born blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned? Neither, Jesus tells us. The miraculous healing happens, and the Pharisees are upset because it happened on the sabbath. Only a true prophet could perform a sign like this one, but a true prophet would not heal on the sabbath. Which is he? The man and his parents seem convinced, but the religious leaders are not. A debate arises about the nature of sin, and the formerly blind former beggar starts upstaging the authorities, so they quickly chase him away. Jesus finds him and reveals himself to him, and then there's one final jab at the Pharisees about being blind to their own sin.

John likes these lengthy stories. Unlike the synoptic accounts, he doesn't give snippets of narrative that follow each other and that combine to portray a single theological point. Instead, he digs in for the long haul. And so do we. And lessons like this one have so many layers that it is difficult for the preacher to pick just one. Yet, for the sake of all involved, I hope that the preacher will.

Sunday's sermon is still a long ways away, but there's one little line that has captured my imagination this morning, and I have a feeling that my sermon will be built on it. Deep in the conversation between the now-healed man and the Pharisees about Jesus' true identity, the man claims, "We know that God does not listen to sinners." Those words echo in my mind the way a careless claim uttered in an emotional argument reverberates between two people, revealing true feelings that otherwise would not have come to light. It's the kind of statement that stops an entire conversation. Of course, in the context of John 9, it doesn't stop the conversation. It's conventional wisdom. We all know that God does not listen to sinners! And everyone nods. But I want to stop the whole production and say, "Wait, what? God doesn't listen to sinners? Well, then, to whom does God listen?"

There are several different ways to preach John 9, but the theme that speaks most clearly to me is that of identity. Was the man born blind because he was a sinner or because his parents sinned? What does it mean to be a sinner? Could God possibly reveal himself to sinners like that? Like us? As the Pharisees make clear, this man was born in sin, yet he dares to lecture them about God. Unthinkable! But is it? At the end, Jesus claims that the Pharisees' sin remains not because they are blind but because they claim to be able to see.

In Jesus, God has heard the needs of his sinful people. They are the ones to whom God is manifest in the Son--not the religious authorities. The man born blind is an image for all of us. We are sinners even from our mothers' wombs. But God hears us. God listens to us. God saves us. There is hope for blind sinners like us--not because we can get there on our own but because God meets us where we are. That's the gospel.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Rejecting a Theology of Prosperity

I won't even call the perversion of Christianity proffered by those preachers and authors who claim that God wants true believers to be rich, happy, and blessed a "prosperity gospel" because "gospel" means good news, and there's nothing good about their message. In Sunday's reading from Romans 5, we encounter Paul's repudiation of this false teaching so clearly and resoundingly that one wonders whether Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar had first-century counterparts who were just as slick and popular. More importantly, Paul's words not only refute the bogus belief of prosperity for the faithful; they also show that such claims are antithetical to a gospel of grace, founded upon justification by faith.

"Since we are justified by faith..." Paul writes. For the last few Sundays, we've been jumping around in Romans, so don't lose sight of what comes right before this introductory clause. In Romans 4, Paul writes about Abraham and how he was justified not by works but by faith. As we heard last week, "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (4:2-3). For the rest of the chapter, Paul expounds upon this point, showing how circumcisions is a sign of justification and not a prerequisite for it. At the end of the chapter, Paul returns to Abraham as the paragon of justification by faith whose example leads us into the same, writing,
No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was 'counted to him as righteousness.' But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (4:20-25, ESV)
This is the thesis of Paul's letter and his entire theology of salvation. For him and for us, it is the core of the gospel. That's why he continues in Sunday's reading with, "Since we are justified by faith..." He wants us to see that the benefits of justification by faith are numerous, and, chief among them, is a hope that transcends earthly prosperity, success, and peace.

"Since we are justified by faith," Paul writes, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Without justification by faith, which is to say under justification by law or works, we have no peace--no persistent, unfailing, unwavering status of right-ness with God. Why not? Because, as Paul stresses in the previous chapter, "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due," which sounds promising enough until we remember that, "if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God." Works are find and good if you're trying to measure up to your boss, but they won't work with God. God's demand is a perfection we cannot provide. The failing, futile effort would be never-failing. Instead, because of justification by faith, we have a peace with God that otherwise could not be found.

How is this related to a theology of prosperity? Because, as Paul writes in Sunday's epistle lesson, "We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." We don't tout our wealth as a sign of God's blessing. We celebrate our poverty instead. We do not point to our power as a sign of God's work. We remember that our suffering is where God's glory is manifest. Our hope, our character, our endurance--they do not come from luxury cars, fine houses, country club memberships, vacation properties, corner offices, and investment portfolios. They come from hunger, beatings, imprisonment, poverty, and destitution. Unless we recognize that God's blessings come not to the powerful but to the meek, we cannot know a theology of grace. Unless we reject the false teaching that the faithful will be rewarded in earthly terms, we cannot know justification by faith. And we are lost--perhaps even beyond saving.

As Paul writes, Christ died for the ungodly. He died for us while we were still weak. He did not wait for us to be good or faithful before saving us. He came to us when we needed him most. Jesus does not come to us when we are in good standing. He comes to us when we are lost. If we believe that God's blessing comes in the form of prosperity for the faithful, we lose sight of everything Jesus came and accomplished. God's dream is not to reward our faithfulness with earthly success. God dreams of remaining with us in our poverty and saving us while we are there. That is where God is to be found. We cannot allow antichrists to make their claims without openly rejecting them. We cannot be silent while the gospel of grace is perverted by those wolves in sheep's clothing who lead the flock away from true salvation into a wilderness of empty promises and lies. Those who claim riches for the faithful are substituting works-righteousness for justification by faith because they implicitly teach that those who are poor must not be saved. Their faith must not be strong enough. Their gifts must not be generous enough. Their religion must not be pure enough. And to that the gospel says, "No!" We must preach the gospel of justification by faith and celebrate salvation for the poor and struggling. On that solid rock our hope is built. All other ground is sinking sand.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman

Last Sunday, Warren Swenson, a middler seminarian from Sewanee who is spending two semesters in our parish, used a phrase that not only helped me see something new in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-17) but that has also given me new insights into this week's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42). When describing Jesus' conversation with the leader of the Jews, Warren noted for us that Jesus was trying to reassure his eager inquirer instead of confound him. In short, after Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above and Nicodemus responds with confusion, Jesus tells him about the wind as a way of understanding what it means to be born of the Spirit. The description of the wind, Warren argued, was to help Nicodemus understand that being born again isn't as simple or straightforward as climbing back into one's mother's womb and being rebirthed a second time. It's more subtle, intangible than that.

There was something about the way that Warren said it that has helped me draw a connection between that conversation with Nicodemus and this Sunday's conversation with the Samaritan woman. After some ice-breaking back and forth about water and the well and Jews not asking Samaritans for a drink, Jesus offers a rich theological statement: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." Boom. Living water. There it is. Jesus has just introduced another complex soteriological (i.e. having to do with salvation) concept as if he expected his audience to understand. "If you want to see the kingdom of heaven," he said to Nicodemus,  "you must be born from above." Likewise, "If you knew who it was who is speaking to you," Jesus tells the woman of Samaria, "you would have asked for living water."

But what is living water? It's as illusive as being born from above. How is she supposed to know what that means? How are we supposed to know? Well, like last week, Jesus fills that out for us.

The woman responds to Jesus' statement about living water by asking where he's going to get that living water. He has no bucket. The well is deep. Is he claiming to be greater than Jacob, who gave his people this well? But Jesus isn't talking about that kind of water, so he explains, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." But what sort of explanation is that? He's still speaking in metaphors. Is he talking about life? Is he talking about water? What does he mean? Understandably, the woman is still confused: "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." She wants water--water to quench her thirst. But Jesus isn't talking about that kind of water or that kind of thirst.

With Nicodemus, we have the benefit of the rest of John's gospel account to see how the seeds of this initial conversation bear fruit in John 7, when he stands up for Jesus by asking that he get a fair hearing, and in John 19, when he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus' body for burial. With the woman, however, it all has to be finished by the end of chapter 4, so Jesus speeds things along. "Go, call your husband!" he tells her, but, of course, she has no husband. She's had five husbands and is currently living with a man with whom she is not married. Jesus' prophetic insights--both into her marital history and into the unresolved guilt she is carrying because of it--open up the door for clarification. The woman goes from recognition of a prophet to discussion of the right place for worship, and Jesus takes the opportunity to identify himself as the one upon whom right worship will be centered--the Messiah who is to come. "I am he," Jesus tells her, and the rest of the story fills out around that revealed truth.

But it all starts with a confusing statement. Sometimes churchpeople make the truth of the gospel hard to grasp. We use words like "grace" and "repentance" and "redemption" and "salvation" and "born again," and we don't always ground those in a way that makes sense. Even "love" doesn't mean to our culture (an emotion of affection) what it means in the Christian framework (an other-directed selflessness). Jesus, however, hangs with these people. He meets them where they are, drops a theological bomb in their laps, but doesn't then walk away. He stays. He explains. He uses images to help them get a glimpse of what he's saying. Sometimes he knows he has to leave things unfinished, but other times the opportunity presents itself to make the case clearly.

What about us? When we preach the gospel, do we assume too much of our congregations? Are we basing our message on concepts that are foreign to today's worshippers? Should we break things down a little more thoroughly? What can we do to recognize how hard it can be to hear the message of salvation? How can we, like Jesus, say it more plainly?