Abide With Me, Easter 6 (B) – May 6, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Easter


[RCL]: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
when other helpers fail and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, O abide with me.

 Abide with Me is a familiar hymn that Henry Francis Lyte penned while battling tuberculosis. What a thrilling prayer request: for God to abide with us always, and even more so when the “darkness deepens” or “other helpers fail.” But what does it mean for God to abide with us?

The gospel reading from John reminds us of Jesus’ words to his disciples and us that, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). To abide in Jesus’ love means to abide in Jesus because Jesus is love. In the gospel, Jesus lays out three benefits of abiding in him. First, abiding in Jesus means that the love of God is present in us, and, as a result, we can love like Jesus. Like most things, this is much harder than it sounds. Using Jesus as our model for love, many of us come up short and miss the mark. Jesus loved unconditionally and without judgment and without the need for reciprocity. Verse 13 spells out what it means to love as Jesus loves: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Crazy right? And definitely not humanly possible.

Wrong.

If we could turn our gaze to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for just a bit and remember how Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters tells what happened after King’s front porch was bombed while his wife and 10-week-old baby were inside:

“King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. ‘Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said… We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.’” 

Indeed, Dr. King is just one example of the love of Jesus being humanly possible; there are others. This tells us that it’s possible for us all, with God’s help.

Second, abiding in Jesus and loving like Jesus creates the byproduct of joy. We become joyful and joy is present when Jesus abides with us and when we abide in Jesus’ love. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11).

Later in Abide with Me, Lyte mentions the dimming of earth’s joys:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

In life, sometimes joy is hard to find: when disappointments and setbacks are the order of the day and God seems far or prayers seem unanswered. It is difficult to keep one’s joy when there is no hope or the walls seem to be caving in all around us.

Nehemiah 8:10, however, reminds us that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Whether the “joy of the Lord” here refers mainly to the joy the Lord has or to the joy the Lord gives us, we have no real hope of joy or strength unless God is joyful Godself (John 15:11). God cannot give us that which God ultimately does not have.

In Nehemiah’s story, we find a people who were in the midst of conflict. Hope was dwindling, and joy was a rare commodity. Nehemiah reaffirms the people as they hear the words from the Book of the Law of God that this is where we find our strength for life, for setbacks, disappointments, health crises, raising children, relationships, missions, everything. The strength we need for this life is found in the essential joy that God provides if we abide in him and in his love.

Thirdly, abiding in Jesus means that we are anointed to bear fruit that will last. Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name” (John 15:16).

The proof is in the pudding. What fruits are you bearing? A good tree does not bear bad fruit. Jesus is serious about his disciples bearing fruit. Good fruit. Fruit that will last.

We have been anointed by Jesus, who abides in us, to bear fruit joyfully.

That appears several ways. One important way today is in how we are making disciples. How are we sharing and telling of this love that we embody and that radiates throughout our entire being and all whom we touch? How are we telling our faith stories with each other and especially with those who might not know Jesus for themselves? We are not called to practice an insular type of faith or Christianity; we aren’t called to stick to what we like and what’s comfortable. If Jesus abides in us, truly abides in us, this all comes somewhat naturally. This doesn’t make it easy.

But when Jesus abides in us, we can’t help but exude his love and ways and share them. We can’t help but be joyful in all things. And because the proof is in the pudding, the fruit we bear is good and pleasing in God’s sight.

Abiding with Jesus is exemplifying the love that God and Jesus share with each other and that we as a community are called to enact.[1] Like Lyte, if we acknowledge our helpless state and beseech Jesus to abide with us, teaching us to love like him, we can joyfully sing out in confidence:

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

[1] Keck, Leander E. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke-John. Vol. 9. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

 

The Rev. Canon Arlette Benoit Joseph is the Canon for Transition Ministry in the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

Download the sermon for Easter 6 (B)

This Sacred Discontinuity, Day of Pentecost (B) – May 20, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Pentecost


[RCL]: Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-37 or Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The Bible and the church year commemorate many moments of grace. One of these moments of grace is what we celebrate here on this day of Pentecost: how the Holy Spirit fell like fire upon the infant church, equipping that small assembly for their global mission, energizing that community with nothing less than the life of God.

Here are other moments of grace we remember from the church year and the Bible: the universe summoned into existence; Israel called to be God’s people; messages spoken by the prophets; Jesus born and baptized; his suffering and resurrection; his ascension into heaven; and the witness of countless martyrs and saints from many centuries and many places.

We recall these moments of grace, and they help us recognize where grace works in our lives. For what God brings about in that story which we hear in Scripture and present in worship, God also brings about on the more intimate stage of our lives. Time and again, we die with Christ and are raised with him; time and again, the Spirit energizes us for some new venture.

Moments of grace are manifest through Scripture and worship. Moments of grace are manifest in our not so ordinary lives.

Still other moments of grace are manifest in cosmic history and human history, still other occasions of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life, the God of surprises, decides to do something new. We can recognize these as well; we can honor them.

Here are several such moments of grace: when human beings first controlled fire; when spoken language appeared; when the first gardens were cultivated; when people started making pottery.

The Bible and Christianity present a God who keeps doing things never done before, and often God does these things through human agency.

Yes, there are cycles in this world that repeat with obvious reliability: the changes of the seasons, the stages of a human life. But God is notorious for also doing what seems unprecedented, such as freeing his people from Egypt or raising his Son from the dead. These novelties belong to a plan and purpose we can only begin to recognize.

The Christian faith says that the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly at work in every moment of grace, not only the ones we celebrate in church. The Christian faith does not claim the Holy Spirit as a prisoner constrained by the Church. Far from it: the Holy Spirit, who is Creator and Giver of life, makes and sustains and brings to fulfillment every creature that exists.

The Holy Spirit is a subtle power, the secret force behind all beauty, truth, and goodness; every act of kindness and compassion; every wise insight and every noble decision. The Spirit’s work is apparent in the stars we see in the night sky and in the microscopic wonder of single-cell organisms. Travel at the speed of light if you can; you will never outrun the realm of the Spirit.

So then, moments of grace on whatever scale are not rare, but plentiful. To thrive in the Holy Spirit means that we become more adept at recognizing ways in which the Spirit operates.

Have you noticed? The future constantly becomes the present on its way to becoming the past. As this happens, we must confront problems and challenges and tragedies. We must also open ourselves to obvious moments of grace, strange and unexpected gifts that appear in our lives, our communities, and in human and planetary history. Through such moments, the Holy Spirit acts and summons us to obedience, to creative cooperation with the high purposes of God.

A resource for our creative cooperation with the Holy Spirit is the vision offered by Thomas Berry. In his nineties when he died in 2009, Berry was an eminent cultural historian, an historian of religion, and a Christian, specifically a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Order. The Great Work and other books he wrote late in life have become popular and influential, and Berry has sometimes been called “the leading spokesperson for the Earth.”

Berry believed that humanity in our time faces a moment of grace regarding the future of life on this planet.

He does not minimize the environmental disaster that confronts us on every side. “For the first time,” he tells us in The Great Work, “the planet is disturbed by humans in its geological structure and its biological functioning in a manner like the great cosmic forces that alter geological and biological structures of the planet…. So severe and irreversible is this deterioration that we might well believe those who tell us that we have only a brief period in which to reverse the deterioration that is settling over the Earth. Only recently has the deep pathos of the Earth situation begun to sink into our consciousness.”

While well-versed in the details of environmental disaster, Thomas Berry dares to point us ahead to a promising future when he announces that a “comprehensive change of consciousness is coming over the human community, especially in the industrial nations of the world. For the first time since the industrial age began we have a profound critique of its devastation, a certain withdrawal in dismay at what is happening, along with an enticing view of the possibilities before us.”

He then characterizes this moment of grace by contrasting one dream with another, claiming that the “distorted dream of an industrial technological paradise is being replaced by a more viable dream of a mutually enhancing human presence within an ever-renewing organic-based Earth community.”

Thomas Berry emphasizes that the old dream remains powerful. In The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth, he assesses it, declaring, “there is no dream or entrancement in the history of Earth that has wrought the destruction that is taking place in the entrancement with industrial civilization. Such entrancement must be considered as a profound cultural pathology. It can be dealt with only by a correspondingly deep cultural therapy.”

In the Acts passage we heard this morning, Peter quotes the prophet Joel about how in the latter days, God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and the result will be people prophesying and experiencing visions and dreams. Joel’s prophecy came true in that moment of grace we call the first Christian Pentecost.

Our time is also the latter days and may well be a moment of grace, an occasion of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life decides to do something new and do that something new through us.

Already the Holy Spirit has launched a great work: washing away the sin of our assault on the environment, inviting the Earth and humanity to a new reconciliation and peace.

For those with eyes to see, the Spirit is even now engaged in this unprecedented enterprise: inspiring scientists and environmentalists, activists and educators and legislators, business executives and farmers and urban planners, people of diverse religions and spiritualities, to take part together in a new and great work. Yes, the Holy Spirit is humble, moving among people everywhere, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged.

The newer generations of humanity include many who are responding to the Spirit’s lead with especially generous hearts. They are putting into effect the vision God has given them.

Today’s psalm declares that God sends forth his Spirit and thus renews the face of the earth.

This is a glorious truth! But will we all become partners in the divine renewal of this planet?

Will we recognize and welcome this current moment of grace, this divine discontinuity where the Lord is leading us to peace as we struggle with something unprecedented?

Will we act upon this opportunity, and will we do so in time?

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland with his wife Helena Mirtova and serves as priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, Md. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. He can be reached via Email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for the Day of Pentecost (B).

Wait. Pray., Ascension Day (B) – May 10, 2018

Episcopal sermon ascension


[RCL]: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Today’s first reading and gospel form an unusual pair.  They both come from the two-volume work attributed to Luke the Evangelist.  One is from the end of the first volume, the book we call the Gospel according to Luke.  The other is from the start of the second volume, the book we call the Acts of the Apostles.

Both readings deal with events around the ascension of Jesus.  In each passage, Jesus promises his disciples that they will receive power from on high.  And in each passage, he tells them that they must stay in the city, they must wait, for the realization of this promise.

Their period of waiting is memorialized in the church year.  For here we are, on Ascension Day, which commemorates the return of Jesus to his Father.  Nine days must pass until the Day of Pentecost comes, when we commemorate that gift of power from on high.

This nine-day period is sometimes called Ascension Season.  It is the conclusion of the Great Fifty Days of Easter.  Thus, it appears as a season within a season.

For the first disciples, it was a time of remaining in Jerusalem. A time to wait, and a time to pray. It reminds us, who are later disciples of Jesus, of the role of prayer and waiting in our lives.

Prayer and waiting sound pretty safe until we remember that our society has little patience with those who decide to wait and pray. Ours is an action-oriented culture, action-oriented to a fault, so that many of us pass much of our time struggling with stress and weariness.

Our culture is no friend to prayer, either, except possibly prayer that reinforces the status quo.  But all authentic prayer is a response to God, and God has been known to be a change agent.

Moreover, prayer acknowledges our dependence on God, and our culture is, at heart, uncomfortable with an acknowledgment of dependence.  Our culture is independence-oriented, independence-oriented to a fault, so that many of us live and die in considerable isolation from one another.

In the face of all this, then, there is something subversive about coming to church on Ascension Day because this feast is not just a goodbye to Jesus as he makes his way home; it is an invitation to countercultural activities such as waiting and prayer.

On this day, our attention might well focus on the triumphant Christ as he, in ways past our understanding, ascends through all the heavens. Our attention might well rivet on how he ascends in his humanity, and that therefore we who are human, we who are his body, ascend together with him.

But today I would like us to consider instead those waiting, praying disciples gathered in Jerusalem, anticipating power from on high. What they do is countercultural by our standards.  They wait.  They pray.

But there is still more about them that makes our dominant culture uncomfortable.  They wait, they pray, not simply out of obedience. They wait, they pray, because they desire. They desire that promised power from on high and all that it makes possible.  Their desire is good and holy.

Ours is a culture that accepts desire only to trivialize it.  Our TV commercials sing hymns to hamburgers, they celebrate the glories of dish detergent.  Our politicians–many of them–incite our fears and jealousies, rather than help us desire greater justice.  Poets and artists, writers and film-makers are often not widely known among us unless they bend our desires in directions violent or sentimental in the manner of much popular culture.  Yes, we accept desire only to debase it, to turn its focus from what is finally desirable and authentically glorious toward the trivial and the tragic, things that have no future.

One of the most memorable sculptures of the last several centuries depicts the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila caught in a moment of ecstasy.  This work by Bernini is a very human presentation, yet the presence of the divine cannot be denied.  The sculpture presents the Holy One as manifest in this woman’s life, together with her desire for God.

Art like this seems a world away from our society’s cheapening of desire.  And so, as a society, we lack the ability to understand what, for Teresa, is the big deal.  Because we have trivialized passion, we have weakened our own ability to recognize a desire for that which is the greatest of all, namely God.

The days and seasons of the church calendar represent attitudes that remain important to us all the year round.  This is especially true now, during this Ascension Season.  Christ returns home to the Father, and the gathered disciples wait and pray and desire.  Their desire is for God, for the complete coming of the kingdom, for the power from on high that will make their lives bright torches.

Can we make their particular brand of waiting and prayer and especially desire hallmarks of our lives?  I believe this is possible.

Set free from cheapened forms of desire, from violence and from sentimentality, we can desire the One who is the most desirable.  This will renew our various desires so that they will no longer be frustrated or misdirected or frail.  Instead, these desires of ours will become worthy of the God who pierces the hearts of his saints with desire for himself because his heart is pierced with desire for us.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland with his wife Helena Mirtova and serves as priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, Maryland.  He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications).  Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com.  He can be reached via email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for Ascension Day (B).

Is There an App for Abiding, Easter 5 (B) – April 29, 2018


[RCL]: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Unfortunately, some of us feel that if we don’t check our smartphones every few minutes, we will miss out on something crucial, maybe the event of the year or the e-mail that will change the course of our lives. And it is even more embarrassing when we don’t seem to be aware that we are doing it, and someone brings it to our attention – often the person we should have been listening to!

A common lament, whether working in an office or as a full-time parent, is that there simply are not enough hours in the day. Schedules are too full, responsibilities too numerous and commitments too demanding. Given this, a common reason as to why we don’t eat better or exercise more or even pray more regularly is simply, “Who has the time?”

We can easily mishear the invitation in today’s gospel passage as yet another demand on our time. We can make the mistake of assuming that what often works well in one aspect of our lives, works equally well in our spiritual lives: in this case, the motto of every controlling and rushed person – which is all of us at one time or another – “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” But listen to Jesus today, “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” And Jesus goes on to tell us very clearly who is doing the work, and it is not you or me, my friends. “He removes every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”

This image of the people of God as “God’s vineyard” is a very old one, going back to the Jewish psalms, as well as other places in the Old Testament. Listen to part of Psalm 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” Again, notice that it is God who is doing all the planting here, not us. And think of all the other I AM statements found in the Gospel of John: “I AM the light of the world,” “I AM the gate,” “I AM the resurrection and the life.”

All these I AM statements in the Gospel of John point to the reality of God’s availability. It is ironic that Christianity has the reputation of being an other-worldly religion, focused almost exclusively on how to get into heaven. Maybe you have seen the bumpers stickers declaring, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” or “Friends don’t let friends miss out on heaven!” It may sound surprising, but this kind of theology of a “distant god” is what most of us are comfortable with, because it ultimately pushes God to the sidelines and we can remain in control. We are very good at being busy and taking responsibility, and we rather prefer this to being on the receiving end of change. But as Jesus says in today’s reading, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses us twice with the phrase “I AM the vine.” There is a promise here. “I AM the vine, and you are the branches.” Jesus is asking each of us to simply be with him. This sounds deceptively easy. Listen to the words of the Collect for Purity, as if for the first time: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” It’s OK to relax a bit and stop worrying about hiding those parts of ourselves that we don’t want others, and surely not God, to see. We can abide with God, instead of busying ourselves to keep God at a distance.

The promise of Jesus, the Vine, the Gate, the Light, is abundant life here and now, not just in some future time. God is doing more in our lives than any of us are aware. God in Jesus is simply inviting each of us to take the time to notice. But the trick, of course, is to let God do what God needs to do and for us to get out of the way. Jesus is very clear on this point when he says: “I AM the vine, you are the branches.” That is what abiding in the power of the Word is all about, not placing impediments in God’s way by trying to do for ourselves what God wants to do for us: reshape our hearts, bodies and minds to receive the forgiveness being offered.

Hopefully, now, you can hear Jesus’ words as the beautiful invitation it truly is: “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

This sermon, written by the Rev. Stephen P. Hagerty, was originally published for Easter 5 (B) on May 6, 2012.

Download the sermon for Easter 5 (B).

The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (B) – April 22, 2018

Easter Sermon Episcopal


[RCL]: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Today’s gospel text uses an image that may be lost on many of us, an image that we may know from childhood stories — but not firsthand experience. Jesus, living in the first century, talking to people who know livestock and agriculture in their hearts and bones, tells his disciples, his friends, us, that he is the Good Shepherd.

We hear this story, or parts of it, year after year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. We hear it when Jesus has not only laid down his life for his friends, but has taken it back up, defeating death, sin, and the grave. His disciples hear it before Jesus has even gotten back to Jerusalem. The disciples are where they were through all of Lent — hearing Jesus predict his death, in disbelief at it, and somewhat perplexed. They don’t think he’s going to die. We know he’s died and risen again.

Our text today is the second half of Jesus’ describing himself as the Good Shepherd, a story split in two over the course of church years. Today, Jesus makes the distinction between himself, the Good Shepherd, and the hired hand. “The Good Shepherd,” Jesus says, “is willing to die. They’ll get down with the sheep even when the wolf comes. They’ll give up their own life to save the sheep.”

He contrasts this with the hired hand, someone whose work is seasonal but who isn’t invested in the sheep or the property. “The hired hand,” Jesus says, “says, ‘Nope! I’m outta here!’ when the wolf comes.” The hired hand’s work is probably temporary anyway, depending on the season and need. Why would they stick around when a wolf comes? Depending on the shepherd’s fairness and practices, there may not have been any guarantee that they would be paid. When a wolf comes with no human to guard against it, that leaves the sheep scattered — or worse, gobbled up.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” This second half of Jesus’ Good Shepherd narrative is remarkably tender, vulnerable, and human. Shepherds were dirty, hungry, and scrappy. They lived out mostly on their own with a vast responsibility. Their only company was sheep, and they had to learn to love them.

Jesus is telling his disciples then and now that this is how he cares for us. He’s not a leader who is around just long enough to get paid. He’s not there to just do the easy work. Jesus the Good Shepherd has come to offer salvation: salvation through love, self-giving, tenderness, and vulnerability.

The chapel at General Seminary in New York is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Each year, dozens of students move from all over the world, following God to lead God’s people. Many are not from New York City, and don’t know what kinds of wolves they may face there, from temptation and vice to greed and violence. At the center of their campus is a chapel dedicated to Jesus the Good Shepherd, who knows his own and whose own know him.

The centerpiece of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is, yes, a sculpture of Jesus the Good Shepherd. This sculpture is not a traditional one, where Jesus has a sheep slung over his shoulders, carrying it back from a rescue. This Jesus looks out at the seminarians and knows them — as they hope to know him. In his left hand, he holds a shepherd’s crook, a crozier, herding sheep as the ultimate overseer of the Church. In his right? A lamb held close to his chest, the way many of us might hold a cat we love. He stands looking out over the chapel, a place of silence and solace amid the noise and excitement of New York, with another sheep at his side. This sheep is leaned against Jesus, relying on him for support, demonstrating affection with touch. Jesus knows his own, and his own know him.

Before the plot, his trial, his execution, or his resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples that he lays his life down for his sheep. He protects them from the wolves. He brings them life. He tells his disciples, too, that there are other sheep to which he must attend, others who follow him, but that aren’t a part of the fold they know, the fold of which they are part.

Before our passage today, Jesus has just told the disciples that he is the gate, the pathway for attaining salvation — and tells them even still they don’t know it all. He will attend to these other sheep and there will be one flock, one people who have been brought to salvation. Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t give his disciples directions right now on who is in or who is out. He doesn’t give a timeline for when this one flock will be achieved. What he says more than once, though, is that those who are his know him, and he knows them. He says that he loves them, and that he lays down his life for them.

Jesus is giving his disciples an Easter message before he’s even been crucified. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again… I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t run from the wolves, he gets in the muck with the sheep and loves us. We started learning about that when God became human and let Godself be bound to our earthly, fleshy limitations.

He holds us close to his chest or lets us lean on him when we need to be held and touched, and he faces the greatest enemy we have: death. He does by his own will, not because he’s compelled to. He does it from his desire, not to satisfy a blood necessity. He does it on his own, not to appease the Creator’s wrath. “For this reason the Father loves me,” Jesus says, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”

Jesus lays down his life and takes it up again. He beats death, hell, and the grave, all the wolves we’ll ever face, and the adversary — Satan — himself. Jesus lays down his life and takes it up again, alleluia! Jesus the Good Shepherd loves his own, loving them to the point of death — and loving them even through death, to raise them from death, to bring salvation.

Jesus the Good Shepherd isn’t a Precious Moments painting or collectible, however sweet that may feel or seem. Love — love enough to lay down one’s life and take it back up again — isn’t only sweet and it isn’t only a moment. It’s earthy and dirty. It’s dangerous and deadly. But this is Jesus the resurrected Christ, alleluia. The Good Shepherd who knows his own, whose own know him, who lays down his life for them — even when the hired hand won’t.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is tender, affectionate, and vulnerable. As he tends to us in Bread and Wine, getting back into the physical, touchable reality of humanity — like a shepherd in the wild fields — he joins us to his life, his life that he laid down and took back up. Jesus the Good Shepherd knows us as his own, and we know him. Amen. 

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph – St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Wash. He began this cure in September 2017. Before moving to the Seattle area, he served as Working Group Head for Communications for the Diocese of California in San Francisco. When not priesting or lifting, Joseph grabs a whistle as a soccer referee. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their cats Maggie and Stanton.

Download the sermon for Easter 4 (B).

Jesus Comes to Coffee Hour, Easter 3 (B) – April 15, 2018

Episcopal Easter 3 Sermon


[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

The language of scripture is, for the most part, a graceful and formal language.

There’s that one place in Paul’s epistles where he uses a word we don’t use in polite company. There is more than one instance of whining, of rudeness, even of insult. Of course, there are the stories of things we don’t associate with a godly people: incest, drunkenness, rape, murder, adultery, prostitution, and so on.

But for the most part, it’s a lovely story, a formal telling, of a people’s history and experience in a cleaned-up, sometimes methodical, sometimes poetic way.

That is also a cleaned-up way of saying that it’s sometimes not very interesting.

Different versions have attempted a variety of styles to deliver the message. The Jerusalem Bible is widely credited with the most beautiful language, at least in the Old Testament books. The New English Bible was a breakthrough of sorts in rendering a compromise, readable, accurate text. Good News for Modern Man has been popular because of both its ready accessibility as a paperback and its language, which for lots of people is more approachable and less intimidating than the traditional King James Version. For those who have trouble with sophisticated English language, it’s a whole lot easier to understand. It just isn’t accurate to the original texts in a variety of ways. The New International and a few others more popular among conservative Christians are more readable still, though these, too, suffer from inaccuracy.

Still, the most popular and for some, the only “real” Bible, the King James Version (KJV), is the least accurate of all. Generations of Christians are familiar with it because of its language and cadence in poetry, its use in Handel’s Messiah, and its basis for many of our Christmas hymns. The Revised Standard Version, and more recently the New Revised Standard, at least strives for an accurate transliteration from the original languages—but in the process, it renders a rather “wooden” text.

The result of all of this—the years of familiarity with texts we’re accustomed to hearing—is that we think we know what they’re saying. We tune out some readings after the first few words are read because we already know what it’s going to say.

C’mon, admit it. We all do it.

We grow up identifying passages by subjects: The Last Supper. Or by movie adaptation: The Charlton Heston Part. Or by a name given to it even if that’s not really what it’s about: Doubting Thomas.

It gives us a handle. But in so doing, it also lets us be lazy in looking at the story for new, even deeper, meaning.

It can be an interesting exercise to take a look at some of the familiar stories in the Bible and imagine new names. Consider, for example, the Parable of the Unjust Judge, that story of the woman who comes to the judge demanding justice, asking again and again and again before the judge gives in and gives her what she asks. How might we understand that parable differently if we called it How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

Today, we read from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus joining the disciples for a meal after he had been crucified and laid in the tomb. Shall we call it Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

What we usually hear and what is usually preached out of this passage is that Jesus says, “Peace.” The disciples are their usual frightened, doubtful, selves. Jesus reassures them and offers proof that he is the Son of God. Then there is a long statement of faith which rehearses the history of expecting a Messiah.

It’s great drama, but it probably didn’t happen quite that way. In any event, Luke wasn’t there as a witness. Let’s consider a different focus in this lesson.

More than one person has observed that Jesus showed up wherever there was food. That’s promising!

So, consider the story again: the great drama of the cross is over. The disciples are talking. Jesus shows up and says, “Hey.” In today’s language, he might even ask, “What are you guys looking at?” Jesus then asks all of the disciples gathered together: “Have you got anything to eat?”

Do you see why it might be appropriate to rename this Jesus Comes to Coffee Hour?

“Do you have anything to eat?”

That has to be one of the great questions of the Bible, right up there with Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and Jesus asking Peter, “Who do you say I am?”

“Have you got anything to eat?”

We could also call this passage Jesus Gets Right to the Point, because eating and food are so basic, so necessary, so very ordinary, and so very much a part of human life.

In Luke’s Gospel, the story is told in a way that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity—and being human, it makes sense that he would first inquire about food. Being dead for three days and rising again is hungry work! But wait: having risen from the dead, would he need to eat? Would he even be able to eat?

If he’s not asking for food because he’s hungry, then what else might be going on here?

This may be as simple as Luke wanting to emphasize that the Christ of God is human as well as divine. Asking for food and eating in front of the bewildered disciples is pretty human.

It may be that simple.

But there is another possibility. Luke had firmly established that Jesus was human. He didn’t need to interject this tidbit between Jesus reassuring the disciples that he wasn’t a ghost and a lengthy statement about God’s Messiah.

It’s unnecessary unless it has particular meaning.

Luke was Greek, writing for a Greek audience. The popular religions of the Greek world were the mystery cults, where gods and goddesses—for the most part, goddesses—were worshipped from a distance of fear and awe, or regard for the divinity and other-worldliness of a far-off deity.

Jesus brought a different understanding of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He was God as one of us, God in human flesh.

This passage in Luke may be akin to the story about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. They were so wrapped up in Jesus as their Lord that they had trouble letting him be one of them. And in this passage in Luke, the disciples are so caught up in their misery, their fear, their doubt—that they forget their deeply-ingrained instincts of hospitality: 

When a stranger visits, when a guest comes among you, you don’t huddle in a corner, you invite them in.

The disciples forgot their manners. Jesus reminded them.

Jesus reminded them in the simplest way that he was human, one of them, and he would only enter into their community if invited.

Jesus has done his part. We have to do ours.

Two thousand years later, we still prefer the divinity of Christ to the humanity of Jesus.

In the glory and grandeur of our Easter celebrations, we forget the reminder of Christmas: that Jesus was God in human flesh.

That is the mystery, the wonder, the miracle of the one we call Jesus the Christ.

Certainly, Luke’s Jesus reminds us that he’s human, but there is more to it than that; to enter into our hearts, our lives, our community, he wants to be—indeed needs to be—invited.

Jesus was born into a tradition of absolute, compulsory hospitality. It’s what he lived. It’s what he taught. And it is what we are called to and to be.

Offering hospitality to Jesus on a personal level is the stuff of altar calls in the best of Baptist tradition: “Invite Jesus into your heart today! C’mon down!”

It is also the foundation of community, whether household or congregation. Coffee hour, our family dinners, any meal where people gather, gives us a chance to practice what we preach.

The next time you offer someone a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, a glass of milk, offer them the knowledge and love of Jesus, as well.

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world.  She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for Easter 3 (B).

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive, Easter 2 (B) – April 8, 2018

Easter 2 Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday. Low Sunday—that’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church. Last week we presented the triumph of the church year. We announced to the world the Good News of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us. And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom. Ouch. Was it something we said?

It may well have been. It’s a shocking gospel, frankly quite hard to believe. It was hard to believe even for people who knew Jesus in person while he was alive and witnessed his many miracles. Today we tell the story of Doubting Thomas, the apostle who had to see to believe.

Thomas, along with Peter, is the most human of the disciples, and this story is rich with interesting questions. The first thing that we notice is that Thomas misses out on Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples. It’s Sunday night, and they have been locked in the Upper Room, afraid for their lives since Friday night.

But not Thomas. Where is he? Was he terrified and trying to hide by himself, not wanting to be found by the Romans right in the middle of a pack of ringleaders of Jesus’ rebellion? Was he instead full of stoic courage, the only one brave enough to venture out and bring back food to his friends?

Whatever it was, he was definitely not there when Jesus appeared in the locked Upper Room. He missed the Resurrection. Many of us can identify with that sort of frustrated futility. We wonder if we’re missing the Resurrection in a lot of areas in our lives. God is raising things to new life and our attention is elsewhere, checked out, missing in action, like Thomas.

Thomas does eventually show up with the rest of the disciples, and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” And what is he supposed to think? If he was the only one who had been brave enough to leave, he has watched his brothers and friends driven nearly mad with fear and grief over the last three days. He probably feels great compassion and love for them. They so desperately want their dead friend and leader not to have been condemned to death and executed, that they have dreamed up this vision they experienced.

And who knows, Thomas wouldn’t put it past Jesus to come to them as a ghost. Lord knows he did stranger things than that when he was alive. But he is no longer alive. He is dead, and Thomas knows that denying that won’t help anyone. It’s never brought back any of the rest of the family and friends he’s lost over the years, and it won’t bring back Jesus.

Thomas remains in this state, unable to trust the word of his friends, for an entire week. What was that week like for him? The rest of the disciples were floating on air knowing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But where was Jesus for that week? And why did he leave the disciples alone? It’s like Low Sunday. Last Sunday we saw him raised from the dead. Now we’re back and starting to wonder, did we really see what we thought we saw? At least we have witnessed him alive. Thomas has had only his own stubbornness to keep him going.

Stubbornness and maybe a tiny spark of hope. Because what made Thomas stick around for an entire week with what he believed to be friends driven to delusions by grief? If Jesus was truly dead, there was nothing left for him anymore with this group of people. By all rights, he should have gone home to his fields or his fishing boat. Remaining with the disciples was a dead end—the longer they stayed together, the greater the danger of being arrested by the Romans. And spending time with them would only serve to bring home every minute of every day that their friend Jesus was dead.

But Thomas did stay. Is it possible that a small part of him wondered if this story his friends were telling him might possibly be true? He reveals himself a bit in his answer to their claim that they have seen the Lord. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

He doesn’t say, “You people are crazy, I’m leaving.” He sets up a hypothetical condition under which he will believe in the Resurrection. He’s laying out the challenge to Jesus. He’s saying, “Come and show me, Jesus, come and prove it to me. Just come to me, Jesus, on any terms.”

Thomas wants to be tough and uncaring and skeptical, but he loved Jesus. He is grieving as deeply as the others, and although they are now joyful since seeing him alive again, Thomas has had no such comfort. He’s throwing out this challenge to provoke Jesus into coming to them again, because Thomas just wants to see his friend. Ghost or vision or real person, it doesn’t matter.

And Jesus does not disappoint him. Thomas has had a grim week, the lone skeptic among the believers. But as soon as Jesus arrives, as soon as he bids them peace, he calls Thomas to him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

How fascinating and revealing that even in his resurrected body, Jesus’ wounds remain. And how very appropriate to Thomas’ story, and our own story. Resurrection is possible for us in so many areas of our own lives. But our wounds remain, the scars that, painful as they were in the making, have made us indelibly who we are.

Jesus is resurrected to new life, but he’s still himself. And he helps Thomas recognize him through his wounds. That is a potent lesson for us. When we look at ourselves and at each other, part of the proof of our true resurrection is that the past is brought forward to coexist with the present. Our wounds are not erased as though they had never existed. They are still present but no longer cause us pain. They are proof to one another that we are new and whole, but it was our woundedness that got us to this day of resurrection in the first place.

There was one other thing that happened on Low Sunday in the early Church. Those who were baptized on Easter received a new white robe and wore it all week. On Low Sunday, they took it off and went back to their regular clothes. There’s something very poignant about that and our story of Thomas. Today is the day when the loud and public festivities are over, and we return to our normal, everyday lives. But today is also the Day of the Resurrection for Thomas. It is the day when the new white robe falls away and Thomas sees the wounds on Jesus’ body, the same physical person that he knew and loved and now recognizes as both wounded and whole, alive and breathing.

Can we recognize that same type of resurrection in ourselves? In each other? When the fancy Easter dresses and suits are put away for another year, what is left? Our same wounded selves that we fear to show to one another. But we need proof of the Resurrection, and we will only find it in each other. If we are brave enough to show each other our wounded places, we will find that they don’t hurt quite so much. We will find that we are indeed both wounded and healed.

Thomas was a week late to the Resurrection, but he made it all the same. Where do you find yourself today? There is still time for you to come back to life. Reach out to touch the wounded, living Jesus and feel him touch your wounded, living soul.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com).  Find more of her work at her website, Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Easter 2 (B).

Look Again, Easter (B) – April 1, 2018

Episcopal Easter Sermon


[RCL] Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

In the darkness on the third day after their rabbi’s execution, three women check one last time to make sure they have everything they need. Followers of Jesus in his lifetime, they want to be faithful to their teacher in death. Jesus had been robbed of a proper Jewish burial as his death came right on the verge of the Sabbath. The women intend to make this one thing right in a universe turned hopelessly away from God. The Twelve are hiding in a locked room with other disciples for fear they will be found out as followers of Jesus. Meanwhile, the women prepare to be at the tomb as dawn breaks.

In purely human terms, the story of the would-be Messiah from Nazareth in Galilee has come to a brutal end. For the Roman colonial government, Jesus is a minor statistic, yet another Jewish revolutionary crucified in Rome’s ongoing efforts to preserve the peace in Palestine. The ringleader, Jesus, has been publically and cruelly killed. His disciples have vanished for fear of a similar fate. For the keepers of the status quo, this has been a successful Passover festival. Jesus’ movement is buried with its leader.

The women arrive at the tomb and looming large is an insurmountable obstacle between them and their task. The women know they don’t have the strength to budge the great stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. As they walk to the garden, they wonder, “Who will roll the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Our Gospel reading for this morning tells us that the women then looked up. The original Greek text [anablepo] for this can also mean the women looked again. The women come upon the tomb and as they expected, the stone is rolled in front of the entrance. They don’t stand a chance of getting near Jesus on their own. Then they look again, or perhaps do a double take, and realize that the stone has been rolled away.

Mark has already prepared us for this need to do a double take. It works something like bi-focal vision in Mark’s Gospel. Twice in the Gospel, Jesus has healed blind men and allowed them to see again. The word used to describe the two blind men seeing again is the same one used here, to look again [anablepo]. Already in those stories of healing the blind, there was a sense in which spiritual healing allowed the men to see again with physical sight.

In Mark’s Gospel, faith gives us the ability to see the world as God sees it. We gain bifocal vision. When we look with the eyes of the world, we see the obstacles and problems. The stone blocks our path and it is too large for us to even budge. We look with the eyes of faith and a different picture comes into focus. God has already removed the obstacles that we could not remove by our own power.

This is seen most clearly in the Easter story. The three women are blocked by an obstacle, which they stood no chance of removing on their own. They ask one another, “Who will roll away the stone?” Yet, when they look again through the eyes of faith, they see that the stone has already been rolled away. The Greek here is in the perfect tense. The stone that blocks their way is already long gone when they do the Easter double take and see the world as God sees it.

What are the stones that need to be rolled away in your life? Is the obstacle one of relationships that can’t be made right? Or is your path blocked by an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or some other destructive cycle from which you don’t have the power to break free? All of us can find our way blocked by obstacles too big to budge. The story of Easter tells us that God offers the ultimate leverage to remove the obstacles in your way.

If you rely on your own might, your own abilities, your own wisdom, the stone in your way will be more than you can face. Period. But, when you have the courage to admit you don’t have the power to remove the obstacle, you can turn the problem over to God. Then with the eyes of faith, you may come in time to see that the insurmountable obstacle has been rolled away.

Yet, that is not the end of the Gospel reading. The Bible is if nothing else, the most realistic of books, and today’s reading is no exception. The women enter the tomb to find an angel, a divine messenger, with the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead and has gone ahead of his disciples to Galilee. It would be wonderful to report that the women were immediately filled with joy.

Instead, we are told that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome fled from the tomb seized by terror and stricken with awe. Rather than spreading the joy of resurrection, we are told, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It is there that the reading ends. Mark’s Gospel offers the challenge of a circular story. The Gospel begins with Jesus in Galilee challenging people to come and follow him; at the close of the story, Jesus has once more gone ahead into Galilee holding out the offer of discipleship to any who will come and follow him.

What about you? Would you have the courage to leave the empty tomb and go back to Galilee to take up the task of being Jesus’ disciple now that you know the way of discipleship led to the cross and the grave? Even with the triumph of Easter, we can fearfully retreat now that we know the cost of discipleship.

The Gospel offers a dual challenge this Easter. The first is to look at the very real obstacles in your life with the eyes of faith. The things that you are powerless to change are not obstacles to God. Through grace, you can see that God has already removed the problems plaguing you, if you just have the faith to push ahead.

But the second prong of the challenge of the Gospel comes when you push ahead. Just as the women found the stone rolled away only to be struck dumb with terror and awe at the news of Jesus’ resurrection, we too can lose our focus and stop seeing the world as God sees it. The second challenge then is the harder one. Once you have seen that God can remove the obstacles blocking your way, then you must follow where Jesus leads.

The three women that morning did break free from fear. We know that they were all active in the earliest Christian church. They found the courage to follow Jesus even after they had learned the cost they might have to one day pay for their faith in him.

Jesus will remove the obstacles from your path if you will stop trying to remove them by your own might. Then he will give you the grace to continue the journey. The path is open to each of us. Jesus is still out there beckoning, “Follow me” to those who listen. We only need respond by faith and say yes to the invitation.

For Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Amen. 

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Easter (B).

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St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon, Great Vigil of Easter – March 31, 2018


Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward; if any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one he gives, and upon another he bestows. He accepts the works as he greets the endeavor. The deed he honors and the intention he commends. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of his goodness! Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when he descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

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Good Friday

The Passion According to John, Good Friday – March 30, 2018

Good Friday Episcopal Sermon

[RCL]: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Today we have heard some of the most beautiful, painful, heart-wrenching passages of scripture, juxtaposed with one of the holiest, most beautiful, painful, heart-wrenching moments of the Christian story. Jesus, our beloved healer, lover of souls, champion of the poor, weak, and oppressed, the man who washed the feet of his friends, has been betrayed by one of those same friends. He has been misunderstood and accused by the leaders of his own people. He has heard the shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” when the crowd had the chance to set him free. Maybe some of those people had been among the crowds listening to Jesus preach, and been changed by the encounter. Even Peter denies that he knows him. Three times! How complicated and interwoven are those who love him and those who condemn him!

The suffering servant passage from Isaiah, which we heard today, describes a humble, indigenous servant who was both astonishing and rejected by those around him and “by a perversion of justice… taken away.” This sounds to us Christians like the tragedy of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death. For some Christians, this passage is understood as an explicit prophecy of Christ’s suffering and death. For them, Isaiah 53 is an important proof-text that Christianity was predicted by the Hebrew prophet centuries before Jesus’ birth.

But how was the suffering servant understood by the Jews of Jesus’ time, indeed by Jesus himself? Rabbinic interpretation, acknowledged by the early church father Origen, identifies the suffering servant in Isaiah 52-53 as a personification of the nation of Israel, which had repeatedly suffered at the hands of Gentile oppressors.

According to the rabbinic interpretation, the speakers of the Isaiah passage are the startled kings of the surrounding nations: “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” These kings, in the messianic age in which the passage is set, humbly admit that a righteous people has suffered at their hands. At last, the Jewish people will be rewarded for their faith, and they will return from exile.

At the time when Jesus lived, Judaism was a diverse religion. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were influential factions with differing beliefs and practices. Other first-century Jewish factions included the Essenes, the Zealots, the Jews of the Diaspora who were influenced by Greek and Roman culture, Herodians, Hasideans, followers of John the Baptist, and those Jews who followed Jesus and believed he was the Messiah and Son of God.

Belief in salvation by a messiah at the end time was an acceptable concept among Jews. It would be possible to affirm belief in Jesus as savior and still be part of the first-century Jewish community; this community would not have rejected belief in a messiah, but did not necessarily believe in this particular messiah. Thus, the family from Bethany—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, as described in John 11—could comfortably live within the Jewish community and still profess faith in Jesus as Christ and Son of God.

Biblical scholars suggest that the Johannine community—the community for which John the Evangelist wrote—consisted of Jews whose belief in Jesus involved a relatively low Christology. The writer of the Gospel according to John, however, advocates a higher Christology. We have seen that belief in Jesus as Messiah did not necessarily require separation from the surrounding Jewish community; the problem is one of identity. The core of the Jewish identity was adherence to the law, circumcision, and observation of the Sabbath and certain festivals. Messianism would be only a tangential aspect of identity. For the Johannine writer, the core of community identity lay in professing Jesus as Christ and Son of God. This amounted to a rejection of the community’s Jewish roots and led to a collision course with the Jewish authorities; claiming that Jesus was God’s equal was going too far.

Hostility was inevitable as the Jesus-believing Jews came to see their movement as one distinct from Jewish identity. The split between high and low Christology is explicit in John 19, verse 7: “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’” This emphasis on a separate identity, this separation into Us and Them, is disturbing, ugly, and dangerous to most ears today. In John, the bad guys, the Christ-killers, are the chief priests and Pharisees, the Jewish police, the Jewish crowd. The Jews. The Romans and Pontius Pilate are explicitly exonerated. The blame falls squarely on the Jews, who seem to have enlisted the Romans’ help to avoid killing the man themselves, which would have been both illegal and caused ritual uncleanliness at the beginning of Passover.

We know that there are historical and theological reasons for John’s language about the Jews. We know that John wrote at a time when the Jewish followers of Jesus were carving out an identity separate from their parent Jewish community. Yet we cannot erase the centuries of ugly persecution of our Jewish neighbors that have resulted from the Us and Them separation created by John’s text.

And so, we are left with the beauty, pain, and polemic of John’s Gospel. This is Good Friday. For a moment, politics and history fall away, and we are left with the poetry of the Passion according to John. We stand at the foot of the cross. Peter and the disciples are confused and terrified. The three Marys are heartbroken. One of the most human and moving moments in the Passion is the passage where Jesus gives his mother into the care of the Beloved Disciple. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus overcome their doubts and fears enough to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body. We have reached the time and place when the body is in the tomb. A time of darkness. A time when death seems to have triumphed. A time when it is difficult to have faith.

John tells us that Jesus knew all that was going to happen to him. The hearers of the tale in John’s community knew. We know what is going to happen. This story is headed towards hope, death overcome, the certainty of the Resurrection. Yet over and over again, our hearts break for the disciples, for Jesus’ mother, for all who loved him.

On the night before he died, in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus spoke of how his followers are to live when he is gone. We are to live in faith that we will see him again. We are to learn from and be comforted by the Holy Spirit. We are to love one another as he has loved us. We are to live in unity with God and with one another.

Let us pray: Gracious God, may we love each other as Christ loved us. May we gather in community, in our times of grief and despair as in times of gladness. May we turn toward the day when weeping and mourning will turn to joy, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Susan Butterworth, M.A., M.Div., is a writer, teacher, singer, and lay minister. She leads Song & Stillness: Taizé @ MIT, a weekly ecumenical service of contemplative Taizé prayer at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She sings with Threshold Singers, a group that sings at hospice bedside. She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates and writes essays and literary reference articles.

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