Thursday, March 31, 2011


Do you remember the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer? There’s a moment in the great chess match near the end of the film when Lawrence Fishburne’s character is watching his prodigy struggle in battle against his archrival. Finally, when Fishburne sees a look in the face of his student (played by Max Pomeranc—who?) that suggests he’s figured out the board and the right strategy for success, he yells out, “There it is!” It’s such a loud and forceful declaration in a moment of quiet tension that it still rings in my mind even though I haven’t seen the movie (or the scene) in 10 years.

Sometimes in the gospel I get bogged down in the dialogue—especially in John. I think I like the story of Jesus because it’s just that—a story…and one with lots of drama and action. For the last few days, we’ve been reading one of the several discourses of Jesus, and I’ve felt kind of stuck in the “he-bears-witness-to-me” conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. As I made my way through today’s lesson (John 8:21-32), I was thinking that I would need to write on idols again (see the OT lesson—Jeremiah 10:11-24) as nothing in this gospel lesson grabbed me, until…

The truth will set you free. There it is! Well, sort of. It’s a powerful statement of Jesus that begs for attention. I think this verse is one of those snippets of literature whose author I am never quite sure of. Was it Jesus? (In this case, yes.) But I might have been Shakespeare or Franklin. Or maybe, given this particular quotation, it may have been King. But as we see, in fact, this time it’s Jesus. Well, sort of.

Jesus doesn’t only say, “The truth will set you free.” Actually, there’s more to it than that: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” As the author of this morning’s Forward Day by Day reflection suggests, we might want to ask ourselves a la Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” When we throw the phrase around, wielding it as a rhetorical device to suit our needs, we assume that “Truth” means rightness, justice, exactness, correctness. And, as Jesus uses it, it does have some of that element, but there’s also more. Truth, as he intends it, has its roots in discipleship. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth…”

Knowledge of the truth comes from following Jesus, from remaining in his word. We must live there and inhabit that place of his teaching that leads us into truth. I think truth is a process. It’s not some magic answer or solution that will free us from bondage. It’s a life lived in response to the gospel. The truth of the matter is that God loves us and wants to free us from our sin. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Well, sort of. In one way, it is as easy as it sounds—grace is easy. But, in another very real way, living in that place of discipleship and allowing one’s life to be molded and shaped by the gospel so that what remains is truth—the kind of truth that sets us free not only in the next life but also in this one—is tough. At least it is for me. But that’s our calling.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lasting Peace

Although we catch him in the middle of an important discourse on justification by faith, Paul opens today’s New Testament lesson with a powerful statement that, in and of itself, has substantial implications for our lives: “Since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” When I read that this morning, I really didn’t get any further before letting my mind wander through that assurance of peace. We live in that peace because we are justified by faith. I think there’s an important connection there.

For starters, it implies that we aren’t justified by works. That’s really important to Paul, and he drives that point home in lots of different passages in several different ways. To be justified means to be made right—to be given right standing—and it carries the overtones of a legal connotation. We are not made right (justified) by anything we do. We are made right by our faith. It’s what we believe rather than how we act. For Christians, that’s a central principle—even though it’s one we often forget.

Have you ever had a boss that made you feel like you weren’t good enough? No matter how hard you tried to get everything right, he or she always seemed to find something out of place or inadvertently forgotten? Maybe you had a parent whose primary way of motivating you to reach you potential was to always leave you wondering whether he or she was satisfied with the work you’d done. That parent, although loving, always reminded you that you could have done just a little bit more. And, even though the love that parent offered wasn’t really contingent on the job you did, sometimes it felt that way. Well, that’s justification by works. In order to be made right in eyes of the authority figure who is watching you, you must do something, accomplish something, or achieve something.

But then what? That’s the real problem with justification by our efforts. When are we finished? When have we done enough to remain in that place of good-favor? Probably never—at least not until we’ve found a new boss or paid for enough therapy to forget our parent’s insatiable demand for excellence. And that, my friends, is not peace. That’s agony. That’s being on a job interview every day for the rest of your life. That’s living in constant fear that we’re not measuring up.

But God offers us something different. He offers us the peace that comes from knowing that we have been given right standing (justification) not by something we’ve done but by something we trust. And our consciousness of that justification depends only on our willingness to trust it. In other words, our right place before God, as nothing we have done in and of ourselves, is a given. And as long as we believe that—as long as we trust and have faith that no matter what God will keep his promises to love us—we can’t do anything to jeopardize that love or that right standing before God. And that’s what real peace means. We have peace because we know we will always be loved and because we also know that even if we forget that love and stray away God our justification—our being made right with God—is only something we need to trust again.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Slippery Jesus

Several times a day every single day someone will walk into our church office seeking financial assistance. Most of the time, those people have a genuine need—circumstances beyond their control that have left them under severe financial pressure. Sometimes, however, someone comes through the door who just seems to have their entire life backwards.

Coach handbag, shiny Cadillac, designer clothes, fancy smartphone—everything on the outside tells me that this person has their life completely backwards. I don’t doubt the person’s moment of need. I genuinely believe that he or she owes that ridiculous amount on a utility bill and that he or she has no way of paying it before it comes due (past due, really). Instead, I hold that person in contempt because he or she has life’s priorities out of whack. “Why did you spend your money on that fancy purse? How can you afford that wireless bill? Why don’t sit down and do some careful, hard thinking about the steps you need to take to make sure you never have to come back here and ask me for money! What you really need to do is…”

It’s easy for me to sit in my comfy office in a position of power and authority and relative wealth and know for sure what is wrong about someone else’s life and to know just what needs to happen to fix it. But, in actuality, I am a complete idiot. (Just ask those who know me.) How can I possibly know enough about someone else and their situation to presume to know how to solve all their problems and solve them more effectively than he or she can?

In today’s gospel lesson (John 7:37-52), the Pharisees and chief priests send some temple officials to arrest Jesus. The return without their supposed prisoner, and say to their disappointed bosses, “No man ever spoke like this man!” Enraged at their affection for the rebellious though popular preacher, the authorities reply, “Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed.” In other words, the Pharisees and other temple higher-ups see no reason to honor who Jesus is until one of them—those in power—have decided Jesus is the messiah. It’s a “Let them eat cake!” moment.

I am in a position of power. Most of us—probably all of us—are in positions of power. It’s tempting to be right about something. To assess a situation and declare with certitude whether someone or something is right or wrong or good or bad is an exercise of real power. But that’s not how the Jesus-movement works. Jesus refuses to let those who with the formal authority to delineate true messiah from false prophet have that power. In other words, we don’t get to decide who Jesus is or what Jesus would do (WWJD in the trash!). Jesus is who he is. Even though I’m as empowered as almost anyone else to tell others who Jesus really is, I can’t do it. Because if I were to do it—if I were to dispense Jesus according to my limited and self-centered principles—I’d be no better than the Pharisees. An attempt to define Jesus is as much an exercise in exclusion as it is an attempt to evangelize.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Signed, Sealed, and Delivered

What is circumcision, really? Well, I know in the physical sense what it is, but why circumcision? Why does such a primitive physical mutilation retain its spiritual significance into the twenty-first century? This is the sort of thing that anthropologists study, but it’s also the sort of thing that Paul grappled with.

In today’s New Testament lesson (Romans 4:1-12), Paul demonstrates how Abraham is the father of all—not just of the circumcised but also of the uncircumcised. For Paul, circumcision was a physical manifestation of everything that distinguished a Jewish man from a Greek man. It represented the gap between the cultures, ancestries, and religions. Part of what set Paul apart was his circumcision, yet he’s willing to all but discard its significance for the sake of the gospel.

Paul writes, “We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” In light of the gospel, Paul now recognizes that the one thing that he bore as a sign of his chosenness—of his relationship with the God of his ancestors—was just that: a sign. It was a seal of something that God had already done on his behalf. It was not a means of obtaining righteousness; it was a declaration of a righteousness already given to him. In other words, Paul accepted a God-first principle that we still embrace as Christians.

God first; we second. That’s how the gospel works. God doesn’t wait on us to make the first move. He isn’t holding back his love in order to distribute it to those who merit it. God doesn’t bestow grace upon the godly and withhold it from the wicked. God pours his reconciling love onto the whole world. Then, we must do something with it. One way our primitive spiritual ancestors responded to God’s grace was with circumcision. Nowadays, we might respond by wearing a cross around our neck or by coming up to the front of church during an altar call or simply by smiling quietly to ourselves because we know God loves us. But if we think that God is waiting on us to make the first move—if he’s waiting for our spiritual circumcision before inviting us into his fellowship—then we’ll never understand the beauty of God’s love. God acts first. He sends down his love, shares with us his mercy, and then we respond.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pop Quiz

In this morning’s NT reading from the Daily Office (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), Paul makes a rather bold statement: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” But in my favorite version of the bible (ESV), it’s printed like this: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.” The New Living Translation makes that point even clearer: “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you.” But other translations (like the KJV) print it as if Paul were saying the whole thing. So whose saying what?

Greek manuscripts generally don’t include punctuation. The reader is supposed to figure out where sentences end and what’s set off by quotation marks simply by looking at context. Because of that, we don’t know who said what. Was Paul quoting someone—his audience in Corinth that was getting into trouble by over-interpreting some of Paul’s famous no-law gospel? Were the Corinthians using Paul’s words against him?—“I thought you said, ‘All things are lawful for me.’” Or maybe, as I like to read it, Paul was dealing with the hair-splitting nature of the gospel.

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. I don’t think Paul is suggesting that we are permitted to murder, but I do think he’s suggesting that whether committing murder or eating pork our status with God doesn’t depend on our transgressions. What is the law? It’s that which defines relationship. But what relationship is it defining? In much of the Old Testament, the Law (capital “L”) serves to define two relationships—that between Israel and God and that between human and human. That’s why we read both, “You shall make no graven images” and “If you accidentally kill your neighbor’s cow, you must replace it.” But the gospel sets us free—NOT from the law but from needing the law to define our relationship with God.

Paul knew that the real radicalism of Jesus was that his death and resurrection were what delineated the relationship between God and humanity. Nothing could be more immediate than God sending his Son to die for us and rise again. The Law—the pedagogue—was an intermediary definition of relationship—one given in response to humanity’s sinfulness (need for boundaries).

We still need the law. We need it to know how to live with ourselves and with each other. But our relationship with God doesn’t depend on it. God loves us the same whether we’re sitting in church or hacking our neighbor to bits. Pop Quiz: One of those things is helpful; one of them is not. Can you tell which is which?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Announcement of Union

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Incarnation. I’m in the middle of a class on heresies, and most of them tie back into the Incarnation—either directly (e.g., Arianism) or indirectly (e.g., Theopaschitism). Since I’ve spent the last 12 weeks or so reading about how the early Church struggled to figure out who Jesus Christ really was/is (and how we still have a hard time with it), I’ve become far more “Incarnational” in my approach to faith. And I must confess that it’s a pretty exciting development in my own spiritual life.

We don’t believe that God sent his Son to earth in the form of a human—looking like, talking like, acting like a man—but that God actually became human. Jesus Christ is the God-Man. He’s as human as you or I. And the more I think about that the more I realize how that is the foundation of our salvation. When God became man, God united the divine with the human. And the only logical consequence of that union is that the human must be changed—purified, burnished, made clean. And through the refinement of the human nature united to the divine in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are invited to have our human nature united with the divine through baptism and made pure as we are sanctified. All of that “old time religion” I grew up hearing about finally makes sense as an Episcopalian—and all because of a fuller recognition on my part of the Incarnation.

For me, today’s feast day, the Feast of the Annunciation, has always been a passing thought. Sure, it’s important. And I’ve always acknowledged its amazing qualities: the virgin hears the angel say to her, “You have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” But, until now, the Annunciation has always played second fiddle to other religious observances like the Nativity (Dec. 25) and the Crucifixion and Resurrection (Good Fri. & Easter). Yet this year, having been bathed anew in the importance of the Incarnation, I see the Annunciation as a truly earth-shattering moment. And it’s kind of humorous to me that I’ve been doing this whole Christian thing (and priest thing) for a while and have only now shown up at this party.

Today we celebrate the Incarnation. We celebrate God uniting to himself the lowest, meagerest, most broken part of humanity—our very human nature. And in so doing God declares again that our nature is good. And he declares it even more fully than on the sixth day of Creation. This time, God allows humanity to be something that is not completely other. He takes it onto himself. He makes a union of God and man that has eternal consequences. And all of that starts when a young girl says to an angel, “Let it be with me according to your word.” She said, “Yes,” and the human and divine were forever united to each other in an unthinkable, unimaginable, unbreakable union.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Donatism

This week's heresy is Donatism--the school of heterodox thought that holds that a sacrament is only valid if the minister performing the sacrament is holy. As best I can tell, though, the real defeat of this heresy is logic. How holy must a priest be to administer a sacrament and it still be valid? Where does one draw that line?

That being said, there's a lot about Donatism that makes sense. Back in the 4th century CE, Christians were being persecuted by Diocletian and the Imperial authorities. Some Christians stood up in the face of persecution and were killed (martyrs) or were tortured and imprisioned (confessors). Others, however, gave in. They handed over the sacred texts and scriptures and betrayed the confidence of the Christian community. These individuals were labled traditores or "hander-overers." Needless to say, they were not popular among the faithful.

In 311, the episcopal see of Carthage became vacant, and Caecilian was elected and consecrated to fill the empty seat. Unfortunately, one of his three consecrating bishops was Felix of Aptunga--a bishop believed to have been a traditor. When word got out that Caecilian had been made a bishop at the hands of such a scoundrel, a schism rent the north African church asunder. Some, including the Bishop of Rome, sided with Caecilian. Others insisted on electing, consecrating, and following another bishop--the successor to whom was Donatus...hence the name). They didn't believe that the consecration of Caecilian could take place. The traditor bishop was unable to exercise divinely-appointed sacramental ministry. But the Donatists didn't stop there.

They believed that anyone in communion with the Caecailian group was wrong, and they believed that only their tiny little enclave was the true church. That means that anyone who had any connection with the traditores could not function in a sacramental capacity. The schism held on for 100 years before the orthodox (led by Augustine) could rid the Church of the problem.

But the Donatists had a lot going for them. How can someone who betrays the church (Felix) still function as a minister of that church? Even though his identity as a traditor was disputed, one would expect some sort of process of readmission to be followed. And isn't the church supposed to be the spotless bride of Christ? Isn't allowing a schismatic to continue functioning as a bishop tantamount to permitting or even endorsing schism? If a modern bishop announced s/he was leaving the church but then showed up to perform an ordination, wouldn't we wave big, bold red flags before allowing that bishop to proceed?

And, at an even deeper level, what is it that enables an ordained person to perform sacramental minsitry? Sure, he or she has been set apart and annointed by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of episcopal hands in apostolic succession to do that ministry, but isn't the community's understanding of that ordination (setting apart) what really gives someone the authority to do priestly things? Isn't it when the broadest form of church recognizes someone's authority that she or he actually has that authority? And, if that's the case, isn't someone who has lost the confidence of the people to perform sacramental actions actually therefore incapible of doing that?

Well, the orthodox position says no. The Church says that even if the minister is heretical or schismatic or an all-around bad dude, as long as that which God commands is performed the sacrament is valid. But that's tough to swallow if you're asking me to accept the sacrament of reconciliation at the hands of a priest who has abused me. Right?

Much to think about. More on the heresy in the slide show below. Enjoy!

Annie Get Your Gun

It started with parroting back anything Elizabeth or I said. Then, we moved into the “that’s-mine” phase. Now, with a second child, we hear “I want to do whatever he’s/she’s/you’re doing” quite a bit. This morning, our older child, afraid that her brother might be having even the slightest bit more fun than she, exclaimed, “I want to be wherever he is.” The mimicry, once verbal and now all-consuming, has taken on a whole new meaning. We’re getting pretty close to the next stage, which I’m pretty sure will be Ethel Merman and Ray Middleton from Annie Get Your Gun. (In fact, I just spent a brief moment singing the first few lines from the famous refrain, and my daughter, with no prompting, jumped in on cue with, “No you can’t!”)

In today’s gospel lesson (John 5:19-29), Jesus points to a little mimicry between Father and Son. Though not based in any sort of rivalry, it is a little bit of “Anything you can do I can do…also.” Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise.” A central premise of our faith is that God the Father and Son are one—one in substance, united in will and action. That means that we believe that whatever the Father does, the Son also does. And nothing that the Father does does the Son not do. (A new theological tongue twister, perhaps?) (The same is true of the Holy Spirit, but he’s not mentioned in this passage.)

That belief, which took the Church a long time to figure out, means that we can look at the life of Jesus Christ—God the Son incarnate in the world—and see God. Jesus’ testimony in this passage from John invites us to know God in a new way. He says, “Look at me and see how much God love the world. The Father has sent me here to give life to the world.”

In the religious culture of the day (first-century Judaism) and in our own understanding of faith (twenty-first century Christianity), only God can give life. That’s part of what makes God God. This morning, Jesus offers an amazing promise: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” Jesus is asking us to put those to pieces together—God the Father, the only source of life, and Jesus the Son are one. Jesus has come to give us life—not just metaphorical life like a desert might receive in a rainfall but real, actual life. And the only way that’s possible is if Father and Son are one in every sense.

God is in the life-giving business. And, since it’s a family business, the Father and Son are both in it together. That means that just as God gave life to the Universe on the grandest cosmic scale, so too is God giving that same power of life to us by sending his Son. We don’t encounter a “lesser” God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We meet God himself. Therefore, we aren’t offered a “sort-of” new life in Christ. We’re given the real thing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I must admit that I like it when someone shows a little hustle. I haven’t done a lot of coaching, and I was probably that kid on the team that coaches didn’t really like (little motivation, lots of frustration, no talent). But I still like a player who puts forth a little effort. I think that’s true of most of us. No one like playing with a teammate who won’t dive for the grounder barely out of his reach. No one enjoys dancing with someone who doesn’t bother to practice her steps. No one looks forward to sitting next to the trombonist who never works hard enough to get the pep band’s fight song down pat.

We are programmed to expect some effort. Those who study hard make good grades. Those who practice hard receive the loudest ovation. But that’s not true in our faith. We don’t receive any reward for our efforts, and this morning’s gospel lesson (John 5:1-18) drives that point home. Jesus encounters an invalid who has been lying by the healing pool for a long time. He’s been sick for thirty-eight years, and, when Jesus asks him whether he wants to be healed, his response isn’t, “Absolutely. Please, tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it.” Neither does he say, “I’ve been trying my hardest for years to get into that pool, but I’m sure I’ll get there some day.” Instead, he pathetically replies, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” In other words, he says, “Sure, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” He gives up.

Perhaps it’s because he didn’t know with whom he was speaking. Or maybe it’s because he was so empty of physical strength that he couldn’t even muster an enthusiastic or hopeful response. But, for whatever reason, the man gives Jesus very little reason to heal him—other than the fact that he was sick and helpless. And that’s exactly the reason Jesus was looking for. Faced with the man’s apathy, Jesus declares boldly, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” The man was healed despite his effortlessness and hopelessness.

I expect players to put forth a little effort, but that’s not how God works. He doesn’t wait for us to do anything. He doesn’t look down and say, “Wow, that guy is really trying hard. I’ll let him start this week against Riverdale High.” No, God loves us just as we are—pathetic, apathetic, lazy and all. And that’s good news—the best news—because we’re often in a state of physical and/or spiritual malaise that renders us powerless to even ask for help. Like the man by the pool, we sometimes find ourselves in a state of spiritual (or physical) depression that makes it impossible for us to pick ourselves up, approach the throne of God, and beg for mercy. Sometimes, we don’t even have that much energy within us. And God knows that. He knows that we have so little power over our situation that we can’t even ask for help. But he helps us anyway—because he loves us anyway.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Time for Manners

There’s a line in this morning’s gospel lesson (John 4:43-54) that I don’t really know how to read. After being approached by “an official whose son was ill,” Jesus says to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Then, in a most confusing yet surprisingly straightforward manner, the official replies, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” His response, delivered in what sounds to me like an almost impatient insistence, is the line that grates against my gospel sensibilities.

I looked this passage up in a few other translations of the bible to see if any other versions would fill out the man’s curt response. After glancing at six or seven, I notice that only a few add that magic word to the request, “Sir, please come down before my child dies,” but those versions (The Message, Amplified Bible, New Living Translation) are the sorts of “translations” that are willing to add (or take away) words from the original manuscripts in order to make them “sound better” in modern language. The Greek, however, has no magic word. And I think that’s the thing that really bothers me—not in a bad way, more like a grain of sand in an oyster.

The man doesn’t say please. He doesn’t beg. He doesn’t plead. He just says, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” He asks Jesus for help, and Jesus responds with a “preacher’s statement”—“Unless you see signs and wonders…”—but the man is more interested in the problem at hand—“Look, can we get to that later? My child is dying. Come now, ok?”

I think this is an example of implicit faith or of faith that is expressed in a way that doesn’t quite fit the “perfect standard.” The fact that Jesus responds to the man’s impolite (at least to a 21st century ear) demand by healing his son suggests that enough faith had been discerned in order for Jesus to grant the man’s request. It just isn’t the faith-statement I was looking for. I wanted the man to say, “Yes, Lord. I believe. I know you can do it. Please, you’re the only one who can help. Please, come heal my child.” But this isn’t the time for that. This is the time for, “Sir, come down and heal my child.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in a pickle. And sometimes that crisis is so acute that we don’t have time to jump through spiritual hoops. We don’t have time for someone to say, “When all of this is over, you’ll be able to see God’s presence through the whole situation.” We don’t have the space to process out loud with others how we are attempting to discern God’s will in the midst of the crisis. Instead, all we can say is, “Help.” There’s a faith hidden in that word. It may not be well-formed, and it may not be polite, but often “Help” is all we can get out. And, in circumstances like that, as this gospel lesson shows, God knows that the seeds of faith will sprout in time.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sunday's Sermon - 2 Lent A (03/20/11)

March 20, 2011 – 2 Lent A
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

I used to see it everywhere—on bumper stickers, across the front of t-shirts, and, of course, on homemade signs displayed at sporting events. It’s printed on the bottom rim of every paper cup sold at In-and-Out Burger on the west coast. It’s on the tag in every article of clothing produced by several different niche designers. At times, Tim Tebow would print it on his eye black before taking the field, and a minor controversy arose when Fox refused to broadcast a Super Bowl commercial that portrayed two fans who, after seeing it written on an athlete’s eye black, took the time to look it up on their smart phones. At one point, it seemed to me like “John 3:16” was written everywhere and on anything that would hold still. And maybe it still is. Maybe I’ve just become so used to it that I don’t notice it as much anymore.

For many Christians, no other sentence encapsulates their faith more effectively than 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.” Those twenty-seven words are so familiar that even a short-hand reference scrawled on a piece of poster board held aloft in the stands of a huge sports arena can convey volumes about our faith. Clearly, a lot of Christians think that John 3:16 is an important verse in the bible, and, if given the chance to share one sentence with a non-believer, this would be it. But I’m not convinced that this foundational verse is intended for audiences out there. Instead, after reading the rest of this morning’s gospel lesson, I think it might be more important for us to hold up a sign like that in here.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:1-3)

Something was nagging Nicodemus. So he came to Jesus at night and began a conversation with him by saying, “Look, we know you’re from God, but we don’t understand what you’re talking about.” So Jesus tried to explain what he stood for by speaking of the need to be born again. “If you want to see God’s kingdom,” he said, “you must be born anew.” The rest of this gospel lesson is a dance between Nicodemus and Jesus, with the Pharisee asking over and over, “How can that be?” and Jesus saying again and again, “Don’t you understand what I’m telling you?”

As I read their back and forth, I wonder why it is that Nicodemus had such a hard time figuring out what Jesus was talking about. It’s not because he was stupid. He had risen to the highest ranks of the Jewish elite, becoming a member of the Sanhedrin, a judge respected by his peers. And it isn’t because he was unfamiliar with the faith that he and Jesus shared—quite the opposite. As a Pharisee, he stuck out in a crowd because he knew and practiced that faith with unsurpassed fervor. In fact, as the frustration built between these two, an exasperated Jesus asked Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Yet for all his intelligence and despite his intimate knowledge of the faith, something was missing in Nicodemus—something that kept him up a night and bothered him enough to bring him to Jesus.

Have you ever been so close to something that you couldn’t see it? Have you ever been so intimately a part of a situation that you were unable to gain any real perspective on it? That’s what happened to Nicodemus. His identity as a leader of the Jews and a teacher of Israel made him the definition of the inner circle of Judaism. He knew every rule, every commandment, every prescription. He was connected with anyone who was anyone and knew the faith inside and out. And yet he was so focused on the way things were—on his life as a faithful Jew—that he couldn’t see that Jesus had come to do something new and different. He didn’t understand what it meant to be born again.

You and I are a lot like Nicodemus. We come to church at St. John’s, which means we know enough about Christianity to come to a church that assumes we can find our way around a prayer book and a hymnal and find our way from a kneeler to a communion rail and back again without much direction. And most of us are from the American south, which means we can remember a time when stores were closed on Sunday and grew up thinking that religious diversity meant having a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Presbyterian in the same room. We are on the inside. We may not think of ourselves as being at the very center of Christianity, but each of us lives pretty close to it—close enough to know what John 3:16 says without having to look it up.

And, since we’re part of the inner circle, Jesus’ words for Nicodemus are intended for us as well. He wants us to make sure that we understand what it means to be born again. But do we? Do we know what it means to be born anew? Sort of, I suppose. We’ve heard the language, and, having grown up as Christians, I’m sure we’re familiar with the concept of being born again. But do we really understand what that means?

People on the outside—those completely unfamiliar with Christianity—instinctively get what it means to be born anew. Up to the point of their conversion, they’ve lived a life apart from the faith of Christ, so, when they hear the good news for the first time, it represents a radical change in their lives. For them, being born again is simply a necessary step in coming to the Christian faith. But we’ve been here—on the inside—for our entire lives. Most of never needed a radical new birth in order to belong to this family. We were born here the first time. Why would we need to be born again?

That’s exactly the question Nicodemus was asking. By virtue of his biological birth, he was already a part of God’s inner circle. How could another birth improve that? But John 3:16 and the faith it encapsulates envision a life that requires a spiritual rebirth regardless of how close to the center one might be. “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.” That eternal life is not and cannot be more of the same life that we already have—and that’s why this verse is directed at us here on the inside. In order for us to live in the kingdom of God forever, we must leave this life behind and be born anew.

But that’s so hard for us to see because it’s so easy for us think that we’re already there. Look at us. Look at where we are. In a place like this, you and I can’t help but think that we’re already as close to God as we will ever need to be. Yet, unless we are born again, we are as far away as we could ever get. Until we are born anew, until we start over from scratch and begin to live the new life that God has given us, we cannot enter God’s kingdom. Start that new life today. Let go of a life that is dedicated to this world and embrace a life that is dedicated to God. Your heavenly father sent his only son to give you new life—a new life that will last forever. Yet, in order to receive that life, you must be born again. Amen.

Our Story

In today’s reading from the Gospel (John 4:27-42), Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well part ways. Apparently, she was so taken with the wise stranger, that she left her water jar (a valuable commodity) there in order to hurry back to the town and tell others of her encounter. Although we know of no experience in the field, she seems to be quite the evangelist as she knew just what to say to her friends in order to bring them back to Jesus: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” As John records the story, he mentions that they (her audience) left the city and came out looking for Jesus.

After a brief interlude that features yet another enigmatic conversation between Jesus and his disciples, John picks the story back up near the end of today’s reading: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” And what was her testimony? She had run across Jesus at the well, and in a short exchange he managed to elicit from her a deep and honest confession of her marital troubles (5 previous husbands and a current live-in boyfriend). Perhaps the act of bearing her soul to the stranger endeared him to her. Maybe the opportunity to unburden herself from her guilt and shame had forged a spiritual connection between the Samaritan woman and Jesus. Or maybe she was just astounded that he was able to “see” into her past. Whatever the reason, the woman was taken with Jesus and spread her excitement to others.

Her word was enough to instill belief (confidence? enthusiasm? life-commitment?) into her fellow villagers, but they wanted to experience it for themselves. They came out to Jesus and asked him to stay with them for a while, and, after two days, they reported, “It is no longer because of [the woman’s] words that we believe, for we have heard four ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” What did they hear? What was it that Jesus said that helped solidify their belief? And why was the transfer of belief from the basis of her testimony to the first-hand experience of Jesus’ preaching important?

I remember a time when I had collected many examples and stories of faith from others, but I didn’t have one of my own. I had heard a number of exciting, inviting, and even compelling stories of faith. They were enough to convince me that I wanted to be a Christian. But I didn’t have a way of putting the Christian story into my own experience. Was I a Christian? Probably. I believed, but my belief was built on the basis of the second-hand testimony of others. That’s enough, I think, to engender faith—as the Samaritans seem to suggest. But I wanted something more. And, eventually, I got it. Although it took some time, I eventually realized that the Christian story is my story, too. Was I any more a follower of Jesus? Not really—the content of my faith was the same. But I, too, had a story to tell—my story, our story. The faith might have been the same, but now it was my faith as well.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Father's Love

St. Joseph, whose feast we celebrate today, is tops in my book. We don’t know that much about him—carpenter, descendent of David, resident of Nazareth—but he represents to our faith the patience, devotion, and submission to God’s will that we desire in any father. Although not the biological source of Jesus’ genetic makeup, Joseph, we presume, helped shape the boy Jesus into the man he grew to be.

One thing that drives me absolutely crazy is when someone says to me, “Oh, when you have a child, then you’ll understand.” Naturally, with two children, I don’t get that very much anymore, but, back when someone would say that to me in that utterly patronizing tone that is born exclusively from the I-know-something-you-can’t-know perspective, it enraged me. In fact, it still does just to think about it. As an aside, let me share my absolute and rock-solid conviction that I do not any more appreciate God’s love for me as exemplified in the gift of his son now that I have children than I did before they were born. To suggest otherwise is arrogant and insulting.

Now, where were we? Oh, yes. Well, that being said, one theological insight I have gained since being married that I didn’t fully appreciate as a single man is Joseph’s devotion, which is described in today’s reading from Matthew (1:18-25). Here is a man of first century Palestine whose betrothed becomes pregnant by someone other than him. The honor killings still popular in parts of the Muslim world suggest that Joseph’s initial reaction—“being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly”—was a generous gift of the first order. Of course, his devotion doesn’t stop there. After learning in a dream that Mary had become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, he agrees to marry her anyway.

What did that do to his family? What did they think of their son, who married the kind of woman who would get pregnant with another’s child. Consider the shame that must have brought on Joseph, his parents, and his siblings. What did that do to his ego? Joseph faced the reality that he would be raising a child that wasn’t his. Every cry in the night, every momentous first, every celebration—all of them would be reminders of his false-patrimony. This wasn’t his child. His beloved bride had gestated, given birth to, and raised a little boy that he wasn’t really a part of…unless he decided to make the child his own.

Joseph does what very few of us could do. He takes the “good news,” which probably meant the death of his dream to father a child with his bride, and submits himself to it as fully as the virgin did. He images her devotion in his own role as step-father. He recognizes that his claim of ownership (over his life, over his marriage, over his children) stops at the point where God’s will takes over. And he lives with that. He accepts it. He embraces it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Renewal of Vows

Moses is wrapping up his address to Israel in today’s Old Testament lesson (Deuteronomy 10:12-22), and he asks a rhetorical question which attempts to summarize succinctly what God’s people need to remember: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good?” Simple enough, right?

In some ways, Moses’ list is like a list I might give to a couple who asked me, “What do we need to do to have a good marriage?” “You’ve got to take care of the relationship,” I might reply. “Respect each other, spend time together, love each other, take care of each other’s needs, give yourselves completely to each other, and yet give each other enough space to be yourselves.” (I’ve never actually said that, but it sounds pretty good to me this morning.) All of that says to me that what Moses is asking Israel to remember is to take care of their relationship with God.

It’s no accident that the relationship of God and his people is often depicted in the bible as a marriage. That image suggests that a relationship with God is a complex, evolving thing that persists through time despite the various swings that the marriage endures. And taking care of that relationship involves things like devotion and love. If we stray (and we always do), God remains faithful.

I suspect that Moses (and his audience) knew that the simple though impossible task of remaining faithful to God was beyond the reach of God’s people. Yet our inevitable failure in our relationship with God does not deter us (or God) from dedicating ourselves. The same is true for a marriage. We stand before God and his people and pledge ourselves to each other in vows and promises we will never be able to keep. Yet we do so not with empty hearts or fingers crossed but fully and intentionally. We intend to be faithful even though we know we can’t. And something powerful happens when we enter a relationship like that.

Our relationship with God, like our relationship with a spouse, doesn’t hang on every mistake. When we forget to love God with all our heart and soul, when we forget to walk in his ways, when we ignore his commandments and statues, that does not represent the end of the relationship. It might mean that the relationship is broken, but usually the relationship still exists—hanging in the back of our hearts, waiting on us to return and rededicate and renew. How has your relationship with God ebbed and flowed through the years? Where is that relationship today? Have you thought of what you might do to renew that relationship as one might renew a marriage?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Marcionism

We begin the second half of the series on heresies this week with a look at Marcionism. This heresy, like those that will follow, focuses on the human side of the divine-human interaction. While the former half of the series dealt with mistaken understandings of who God is, this half attempts to illuminate those ways in which we have (and still do) fall into mistaken patterns of Christian practice.

Marcionism, though a very early heresy, still plagues us today. It's the errant belief that the God of the Old Testament is inconsistent with Christianity. How often have we heard someone say, "The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and judgment. But the New Testament is about love and forgiveness. Those can't be the same god." Well, that's the root of Marcionism.

Marcion of Sinope, the son of a bishop, moved to Rome around 139 CE and began to teach that the God of the Jews could not also be the God of the Christians. To us, knowing that Jesus is Jewish, that sounds ridiculous, but, as Martha Tilby puts it in her sermon on this topic contained in Heresies and How to Avoid Them, he found an itch and a way to scratch it. Christians of Marcion's day and Christians ever since have found it difficult to reconcile the descriptions of God contained in the Hebrew scriptures with the understanding of God that we gain from looking at Christ. And, throughout the years, various attempts have been made to distance the two--and that's Marcionism.

Marcion's solution to this problem is almost comical. He taught that there were actually two gods--the "Demiurge" of the Old Testament (anachronistic reference) that was responsible for creation and the supreme God who reveals himself through Jesus Christ. He quoted several passages of scripture (see PowerPoint slide show below) that made the Demiurge out to be inconsistent, immoral, and ignorant, bolstering his argument for jettisoning the entire Hebrew bible from the Christian tradition. Of course, that won't work.

Jesus' understanding of God was inextricably linked to the Hebrew scriptures. The understanding of salvation that he presents in inseparable from the covenants of the Old Testament. To discard them is to remove from our faith its foundation. But what, then, do we make of the "Old Testament God," whom we find so difficult to worship?

Well, as I see it, there are four options: 1) discard the entire OT as being false (Marcion), 2) to say that the OT God is a different entity than the NT God but to believe in both, 3) to say that the one God changed (matured?) from OT time to the modern era (ridiculous), or 4) to find some way of reading the OT and NT without creating contrary views of God. As you might guess, the latter is the orthodox approach.

What I love about Marcion is his consistency. He was a literalist. He read every word of scripture literally (we know people like that today), and, because he couldn't reconcile a wrathful, vengeful OT God with a loving, forgiving NT God, he decided to discard the OT. And that kind of makes sense. If you must read scripture literally, be honest about the inconsistencies and then get rid of them. **How I wish that modern literalists would embrace the fullness of their approach and make clear and open decisions of how they will reconcile the inconsistencies in their hermeneutical approach. But we, of course, aren't literalists.

We must recognize that scripture is a collection of writings of very different styles, subjects, and eras. It's not fair to hold narrative history and wisdom poetry up to the same scrutiny. They're fundamentally different. But it's scary to let someone decide which parts of scripture are relevant (important?) and which parts aren't. Many would argue that a "liberal" or "soft" reading of scripture is what's wrong with the Episcopal church. Yet we do that all the time. All of us do. We can't read the entire corpus of scripture with one, unitary approach. It takes a range of readings to make sense of that great book, the Bible.

Like Marcion, we can benefit from being open and honest and clear about how we are going to read the bible. When we discard parts (like the command to wear garments woven of only one fabric) or set other parts up to be instructive (like the command not to murder), we need to name why we read the bible the way we do. Otherwise we end up doing something absurd (like Marcion) without ever knowing it.

More on this is found in the slide show below. Enjoy!

Godly Rest

An additional reflection for today.

In today’s New Testament lesson (Hebrews 4:1-10), the author of the Hebrews attempts to explain to his audience that God’s “promise of entering his rest still stands.” Around the nave of St. John’s, there are several memorial plaques that read, “…entered his rest in…” or “he ceased from his labors,” to describe the death of a beloved parishioner. I suppose that the author of the Hebrews and the donor of the memorial plaques share an understanding that, after the work on earth is done, one goes to heaven to rest. But that sounds awfully dull to me.

As a teenager, lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothing that I was, everlasting rest sounded frightfully appealing. “Burdened” by the chores of adolescence, I imagined heaven as that place where I could just rest. Since then, I’ve grown to love activity and now find sitting still for longer than 10 minutes a challenge. So…maybe there’s a part of heaven that is reserved for people like me—those who would rather be sweeping the golden streets than sitting around doing nothing.

Of course, that’s not the sort of “rest” that the scriptures have in mind. Earlier this week, I had my first crack at yoga. A friend and I shared some memories of our own limited yoga experiences, and both of us readily agreed that we felt very, very good at the savasana pose—the corpse pose. It’s the one where you lie down on your mat on your back and “just melt into the floor,” as my instructor put it. I loved it. We lay there for three or four minutes with our eyes closed, and it occurred to me that I can’t remember the last time I lay still for a length of time without trying to fall asleep. It was wonderful. It was life-giving. It was full.

Rest doesn’t have to be idle. I’ve convinced myself that my job as a Christian and as a priest is to be busy. But that’s not what God wants from me. He does want fullness and activity and energy, but he doesn’t want busyness and frenzy and pointless struggle. My inappropriate association of rest with indolence cheapens the scriptural understanding of rest, which has much more to do with godly peace and protection (see Moses, Israel, and the Promised Land). Today’s reading, therefore, is a tug on me—not to “slow down” or “do less” but to honor and appreciate the goodness of focused and intentional (distraction-free) relationship.

Unable to Choose

This reflection is also published in this year's St. John's Lenten Medetations booklet.

Several times in the past few years, I have watched as an individual, when faced with a choice that to me seemed obvious, made a decision that destroyed his or her life. The memories of those moments of irreparable self-destruction haunt me to this day. As I revisit those encounters, I ask myself, “Why? Why couldn’t he make the right choice?” But I’m not sure an answer will ever come.

Why do human beings make horrible, illogical, damning decisions even though a way out is clearly available? Why do addicts choose death and destruction over the needs of those they love? Why do husbands desert their wives for a fling they know will never bring anything but heartache? Why do people who seem to have everything they need live a double-life that is buried in darkness and deception?

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy (9:23-10:5), Moses reminds God’s people that, when God told them to “go up and take possession of the land” which he had given them, they disobeyed. Even though the Promised Land was being handed to them, the people of Israel wouldn’t take it. Likewise, in today’s reading from John (3:16-21), Jesus says, “[T]he light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.” Even though the greatest gift of love was being offered to the world, the world wouldn’t receive it.

Part of what it means to be human is to make bad choices even though we know what is right. Why? Because we’re prideful, willful sinners. Receiving God’s gift of salvation involves acknowledging that we can’t make life-saving decisions on our own. We can’t choose to be rescued from the disaster that awaits. In our moment of blind need, only God can reach down and save us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Birth Certificate

This morning, we get a mini-preview of Sunday’s gospel lesson. Although not exactly the same, today’s reading from John (2:23-3:15) overlaps almost completely. And I’m preaching on Sunday, so it gives me a chance to think and write about the lesson ahead of time. There’s a danger in that, though, and I must confess that I’d rather revisit a lesson during the week after a Sunday sermon.

As I read the lesson today, my focus falls on being born again. Jesus and Nicodemus have a back-and-forth about being born again, and, although they dance all around it, no one ever says for sure what it means.

Jesus answered [Nicodemus], “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is fles, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’” (John 3:3-7)

Thanks, Jesus. Don’t marvel at the whole “born anew” thing? Well, it’s pretty amazing, and, unless I’m missing the point completely, I’m with Nicodemus on this one. How? How are we to be born again? Water and Spirit? What does that mean? Baptism? Is that all? Surely there’s something more to it than that. You’ve chosen the birth analogy, which brings to mind labor and struggle and total newness, and, while those things may be impregnated within the baptismal rite, they aren’t obvious. Perhaps I could tease out those aspects of baptism, but I suspect there is more to this “being born anew” than a little sprinkle and a Trinitarian formula.

I remember a fellow seminarian taking issue with the phrase “born-again Christian.” He said, “There’s no such thing as a not-born-again Christian. To be a Christian is to be born again. Why would you use ‘born-again’ as a qualification of one’s Christianity?” He makes a good point, but I can see it from two very different and possibly opposed perspectives.

If you call yourself a Christian but don’t show evidence of new birth, perhaps you’re not a Christian after all. Perhaps you’re the person Jesus has in mind when he says, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Maybe really being a Christian, which necessitates new birth, is more significant than simply saying the words and calling oneself a follower of Jesus.

Then again, if you think of yourself as a Christian, maybe you’ve already been born anew, and that’s what new birth really is. Maybe as a Christian you “inherit” a new ancestry—a new way of being, by which you are “born” as a son or daughter of God rather than the son or daughter of your biological parents. Maybe simply thinking of oneself as a child of God is all it takes to be born anew.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Comparative Religion

During the summer I spent in Chicago working for the Cubs, I took a weekend off to visit a friend in the middle of Illinois. During that stay in an area heavily populated by those of Swedish ancestry, the father of my friend told me a joke.

This Swede began to tell a joke about two Norwegians (a rival nation): “These two Norwegians, Olaf and Sven, were walking down the road…” But before he could even really begin, one of his friends stopped him and said, “You can’t tell that joke. It’s not politically correct. You can’t make fun of people. Try this instead. When you want to tell a joke, don’t tell it about two Norwegians or about any other people still around. Choose a biblical people who don’t exist anymore…like Hittites or Amalekites. There aren’t any of them around, so you can make fun of them.” Satisfied though a little off-put by the friendly instruction, the Swede began his joke again: “There were two Hittites, Olaf and Sven, walking down the road…”

I didn’t laugh. I knew it was funny, and I knew why it was funny, but I didn’t laugh. Looking back at that joke over the years has made it even funnier, and today’s Old Testament lesson (Deuteronomy 9:4-12) drives that point home. There really aren’t any Hittites or Amalekites hanging around anymore. The Israelites drove them out of the land they were possessing as a divine imperative. Nowadays, we call those sorts of military conquests “genocide,” but back then it was simply “God’s will.”

In today’s lesson, Moses gives an important qualification to the Israelite’s indiscriminate exercise of military might. He says to God’s people, “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land’; whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you.” It’s a familiar theme: “You didn’t earn this; it is gift.” But, in this case, it feels a little different.

Ultimately, contemporary Christians (and probably Jews, too) fail to find a good way of excusing or explaining some of the atrocities of the Hebrew scriptures, but in this speech by Moses we do find a “right-er” way of approaching this dark chapter in human history. We cannot revel in the glory of a bloody victory without also acknowledging the role of divine purpose of which we ourselves are just observers. In other words, if this military campaign really was God’s will (or at least seemed to be at the time), we can’t confuse that with our own righteousness or goodness. We can’t triumph over our enemies because God thinks we’re better than they are. We must accept that God’s will for our enemies isn’t necessarily a reflection of our own identity.

This may sound like splitting hairs, and if you read this as someone trying to excuse genocide than it will be no better than that. I’m not trying to say that Israel was right (or wrong) to thrust out the Hittites, Amalekites, and all the other people. All I’m saying is that Moses reminded God’s people that they weren’t the reason for their victory. If we ever fool ourselves into thinking that God’s will is for us to succeed because we’re better than someone else, we’ve fallen into the deepest trap of human evil imaginable. We must hold firmly in our minds that, whatever God’s will might be, we share the same sinful humanity of those on the other side of the battlefield. We are not fighting because we are “purer” or “more righteous” than our enemies. To do so would be a modern crusade against an abstract principle rather than a tangible humanity.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Literally, Jesus says, “Woman, what is that to you and to me?” His question to his mother in today’s gospel lesson (John 2:1-12) isn’t as harsh as it sounds. It was an honest question: “What does the wine running out have to do with us? We’re just wedding guests.” Mary doesn’t even hesitate. She says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Implicitly, she is saying to her son, “You aren’t just a wedding guest. You are the host of God’s great banquet.”

Timing is everything. Last night, I watched an on-demand episode of Top Chef, and, although she hadn’t seen it either, Elizabeth knew the outcome. I asked her not to tell me and instead guessed which competitor might be eliminated. Throughout the show, my guess kept evolving, switching from one chef to another and to another and back again with each little plot twist. How differently the episode would have seemed to me if I knew from the beginning how it would end! I’m told that Alfred Hitchcock filmed many different takes of the famous shower scene from Psycho because he didn’t want the audience to guess from the shadow of the killer who the murderer was. The truth being revealed in its due time makes for good drama and for good gospel.

Whether he was toying with his mother or genuinely unsure, Jesus appears hesitant about letting his identity out of the bag before the timing is right: “My hour has not yet come.” But that didn’t stop his mother from forcing his hand: “Do whatever he tells you.” Sometimes a mother knows best. She had seen him grow up. She had known since before he was born what he had come to accomplish. And she knew that this was the moment for her son to take center stage.

Yet Jesus still resists. As John tells this story, he writes, “When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew)…” By this miracle’s conclusion, only Jesus, his mother and disciples, and some anonymous servants knew what had really happened. Perhaps the time had come for him to perform his first public sign, but Jesus kept the miracle mostly under wraps. The truth to which this first sign pointed—Jesus’ identity as the Son of God—could only be disclosed in degrees.

Sometimes we’re not ready for the whole story even though it’s time for us to know it. It’s never right to hold back the kingdom of God…except when we’re not ready to receive it. This story from John reminds me that God’s timing is synchronized with human timing. We might want the answers sooner, but God holds them back until we’re ready. We might wish to delay a reality as long as possible, but God springs it on us when the timing is right. Perhaps a different way to say that is that God’s timing simply is and that our job is to figure out “why now” or “why not now.” Either way, our call to faith is a call to recognize that God’s truths are given to us at just the right time—sometimes we’re ready and other times we’re supposed to get ready.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Evangelism 101

To me, today’s lesson from John (1:35-42) seems to be packed with amazing personal revelations. First, John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by and declares without hesitation, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Then, without any other prompting, two of his disciples begin to follow Jesus, who turns to them and asks provocatively, “What do you seek?” At his invitation, they stay with him but not before one of them (Andrew) stops to get his brother (Simon) and take him along. As if out of nowhere, Andrew says to Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” And, when Peter catches up to them, Jesus declares, “So you are Simon…You shall be called Cephas,” thus naming him “Peter.” One remarkable act of faith after another.

At first glance, Jesus seems to be the most amazing part of this story. He radiates such charisma that he is able to hold the attention of complete strangers, attracting followers with hardly any effort. But there’s another subtle though significant expression of power in this text, and it belongs to John the Baptist. When John sees Jesus walk by, he identifies him as the Lamb of God, and that was enough for two of his disciples to break off and follow the Christ. What a testament to John’s conviction—that he is able with one sentence to embolden his followers to transfer their allegiance to Jesus and follow him as Lord.

I shouldn’t be surprised; that was the Baptizer’s entire raison d’ĂȘtre. His mission was to point people to Jesus, but I never realized how good he was at his job. He had cultivated such a strong relationship with his followers and had prepared them so completely for the advent of the messiah that his short statement about the Lamb of God was enough to precipitate the Dominican discipleship of Andrew and his comrade. That’s evangelism at its best.

As someone whose job it is to point people to Christ, I’m envious (in a good way) of John’s skills. This passage more than any other shows me how good he was at getting out of the way and letting God take center stage. Why am I so, so bad at that? How can I get better at it? And this isn’t just a job for priests and other ordained persons. This is the divinely appointed job of every Christian—to share the good news of God with the world. How can we so confidently and passionately and effectively communicate the saving love of Christ that a mere mention of his identity would capture the hearts of the world?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Pop-Culture Post

Did anyone else see this past week's issue of The New Yorker (7 March 2011)? It contains a piece by Ian Frazier entitled "In My Defense." Although a humorous look at the Boy Scouts' refusal to accept athiest scoutmasters, it take a hilarious look at heresies.

As I was casually thumbing through the issue, I read in the first paragraph of this article the author's claim to have stumbled upon Nestorianism--one of the heresies we have already covered in class. In his mock-e-mail to his scout troop, the former scoutmaster describes how he progressed from one heresy to another, and his description of each is a brief snapshot of each heresy's root. It makes for entertaining and informative (from our perspective) reading.

Unfortunately, I can't link to the entire article, which is only available to subscribers. But here's a look at the abstract. If you do subscribe, go back and read the whole thing. I'd love to hear what you have to say. If you don't subscribe, I'll make a copy available in class this Sunday.

Cinderella Story

March is here, and so is March Madness. I never played basketball as a child, so I’ve never been good enough at understanding the game to really take to it as a television fan. March, though, offers a few opportunities for the casual observer (like me) to take interest. And, like most everyone else, I love the Cinderella story: watching the underdog make its way through the bracket, higher and higher, approaching the improbable, the impossible.

In the Old Testament lesson for today (Deuteronomy 7:6-11), we read about a biblical Cinderella story of sorts. Moses, having gathered the people of Israel together as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, reminds God’s people of what makes them special: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you…” Israel’s chosenness is a testament to God’s love of the underdog. God, it seems, likes it when the 12-seed makes it to the third round.

But that’s not just true for Israel. The chosen people of God were chosen for a purpose—to reveal God’s love for the rest of the world. That means that we, too, are chosen not for our strength or numbers but simply because God loves us. At its most basic level, that’s grace. But, for some reason, this “underdog” expression of God’s “unmerited favor” hits me in a different way—a way that makes God’s love real to me in a way I often overlook.

As a Christian well-steeped in the Protestant tradition of “grace alone,” I understand that God doesn’t love me more or less because I’m a good Christian (i.e., go to church, say my prayers, keep the Commandments). God loves me just because. But in this lesson from Deuteronomy, I discover that God’s love is even richer than that. As anyone who knows me will quickly realize, God has not chosen me because I’m smart or good looking or talented at sports. God has chosen me despite all my imperfections—and not just the spiritual/moral ones. God loves me in part because I am a societal underdog.

As I said to the students in chapel at Holy Cross today, God has not chosen you to be his beloved children because you’re a good student or a nice person or have lots of friends. God has chosen you because he loves you and because, as Moses reminds us, he has made a promise to love us. And that promise has nothing to do with us—it’s pure God, pure grace, pure love.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Macedonianism

We jump way back in time this week--back to the middle of the second century of the Common Era. This week's heresy is Macedonianism or, more accurately, Pneumatomachianism. It's the heresy of the "Spirit Fighters," named for Macedonius even though he never really got involved with this side of unorthodox theology. At its core, this heresy is a denial of the Holy Spirit's divinity--akin to Arianism but with regard to the third person of the Trinity. Like Arianism, it had its roots in the first and second centuries, but it came to a head in the fourth, when the Church was dealing with other heresies.

My favorite part of Pneumatomachianism is its ability to demonstrate to the contemporary Church how slowly theological development moves. This is demonstrated by the first two versions of the Nicene Creed. The original text, written and agreed to at the Council of Nicaea in 325, simply mentioned "And in the Holy Spirit." That was it. That was the only part of the statement of faith that dealt with the Holy Spirit. By 385, the text had been significantly elaborated to a version much closer to the one used today: "And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is adored and glorified; who spake by the Prophets."

The gap between the two creedal statements shows that the church was initially concerned with the divinity of the Son ("light of light, true God of true God") and that the divinity of the Spirit, while perhaps a logical consequence of the Son's divinity, was (at best) an afterthought. More accurately, it was a "hardly-thought." A positive doctrine of the Trinity wasn't attempted until others (the Pneumatomachians) had declared firmly their denial of the Spirit's consubstantiality. It's as if they said, "Hey, alright, you win on the whole "Son is divine" thing. But surely you can't expect us to say that the Spirit is God too. That's just crazy." And, sure enough, the church wasn't first.

As the writings of the various Church Fathers who helped develop our doctrine of the Trinity show, it took them a long, long time to figure out that the Holy Spirit is God. Around 360 CE, Athanasius argued for the consubstantiality of the Spirit from the Son-is-divine-so-the-Spirit-must-be-too angle. But he didn't come out and use words like "God" or "Trinity." Basil, the hero of Trinitarian orthodoxy, is another example of reticence. He began from the other side of the debate, at first insisting that the Spirit can't be created. From there, he moved to sharing the divine substance. And then all the way to equal and to be glorified along with Father and Son, but he never called the Spirit God (JND Kelly). Instead, it seems his fear of overstating orthodoxy held him back.

In some ways, the Pneumatomachians' argument is compelling. The Father and Son have just about the only divine relationship that makes sense. Since the Son is the "only-begotten", to add a third person of the Trinity requires a new concept. And if the Spirit can't be "the other Son," what will we call its relationship to the rest of the Trinity? Pet? Sister? Next-door neighbor? You see? The Father-Son thing was good. Why would we want to go and mess it up? Likewise, the bible doesn't have a lot to say about the Spirit's divinity. In fact, in most passages, it appears to be the "gopher" (a term used by a member of the class) or a servant of the Father and Son. And that's hierarchialism, a heresy we won't get to in this series. Either way, the Spirit's divinity seems a bit of a stretch.

So why believe in the Spirit's divinity? And, more basically, why believe in the Trinity at all? My best answer is this: relationality. The Father and Son must be distinct persons of the Trinity in real relationship with each other in order for God to be relational and not static and lifeless. And, if the Father and Son are relational, then their relationship necessitates a third party--the Spirit. The Spirit is the overflowing of their love for each other. The Spirit is the Trinity's perfect internal relationship. Without the Trinity, we get a God who isn't able to love us, save us, or intervene in human affairs in any meaningful way. But how that works? Well, it's a mystery.

I don't like hiding behind things I don't understand, but that's pretty much where I end up. I'm relying on logic and history and tradition and scripture and none of those gives me a definite understanding of why the Trinity. Even the video below, which is good, raises as many questions as it answers. Perhaps you have more to say about it. If so, please, PLEASE let me know.

Here's the slide show. Enjoy. Also, below it is a video from the Orthodox Church on the Trinity. It's mostly good. A few bits (divine vs deity) are the Eastern way of saying things that the Western Church says a little clearer, but, for the most part, it's good.

Unqualified Prophecy

There are two kinds of prophetic commissions in the bible—good ones and bad ones. By that, I mean that sometimes God tells a prophet, “Go and proclaim my word so that the people may hear and be saved.” (That’s the good commission.) In the other, which is probably more common, God says, “Go and proclaim my word so that the people’s hearts may be hardened and they not be saved.” (Although I might call that “bad,” it’s still according to God’s good purposes).

Jonah’s commission was a good commission. He had been asked by God to preach a message of repentance so that the people of Nineveh—Israel’s archenemy of the day—might turn from their wickedness and be saved. When he got the message, Jonah would have been familiar with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and countless other prophets who had been asked by God to proclaim the need for repentance so that, when they failed to repent, God’s wrath might be justified. So when he heard God disclose a plan of salvation for Israel’s nemesis to the north, Jonah didn’t like it.

“Why can’t I be like the other prophets?” he asked. “Why can’t you use me to destroy those nasty Assyrians rather than save them?” In today’s reading, after a ship, storm, fish’s belly, vomit, and successful prophecy, we find Jonah wishing he were dead (Jonah 3:1-4:11). The success of his mission was too much for him to bear. God’s amazing reply, delivered through the life and death of a shady plant, rebuked Jonah and rebukes me: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow…Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

The terrible truth is this: part of me loves God’s limitless forgiveness but part of me would rather dole it out according to my understanding of right and wrong. Like Jonah, I’d rather not help the other team win. I’d rather not be used to save my enemies—which is why I have a hard time following Jesus’ commandment and praying enthusiastically for them. I want to decide who gets to repent and who must be punished. But the prophetic commission, whether good or bad, does not diminish the quality of the call to repentance. If people ignore my cries, let it be because God has hardened their hearts and not because I have decided they shouldn’t hear God’s word.

My job—our job—is to preach the power of forgiveness with unwavering fervor and without regard for the audience. If the magnitude of the cross were only reserved for those whom others may have deemed worthy, I’d likely be left out.