Being disciples, staying with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

We are in the season after the Epiphany. It varies in length depending on when the date of Easter, (and hence Ash Wednesday) falls. This year is relatively lengthy as Easter falls on April 16. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and roughly means manifestation, revealing, or showing. Usually it is connected with an appearance or manifestation, presence if you will, of the divine. In the Christian context, the feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the magi coming to worship the newborn Christ at Bethlehem, although in ancient and Eastern Christianity, the Epiphany also connects with Jesus’ baptism, which is in part why we commemorated his baptism last Sunday, and with other miracles, like the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and as the gospel of John says, “revealed his glory.”

This season is a time when we celebrate and reflect all of the ways God is present in the world, in the glory and goodness of creation, but especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And although this is the year in the lectionary cycle when we read the Gospel of Matthew, on this Sunday, as in every year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we read from the Gospel of John. That makes sense in a way, because the themes of John connect very well with the themes of Epiphany, and nowhere is that more true than in this first chapter—the first 18 verses of which we heard on Christmas Day.

In today’s reading, we get John’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the story of the call of the first disciples. Coincidentally, this past week I was reading two books that I purchased as possible subjects for Lenten study this year. Both of them began with a discussion of this encounter between Jesus, Andrew, and the other disciple as a way of getting at the meaning of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

You may recall the story of Jesus calling the first disciples from the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee. He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John repairing the nets on their fathers’ fishing boats. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The four get up, leave the nets, the boats, and their fathers behind, and follow Jesus.

There’s a completely different dynamic here in John’s gospel. In the first place, Andrew and the other disciple (We never learn his name, by the way) are already disciples, but of John the Baptist. John and his followers come across Jesus in their wanderings, and John points Jesus out to them, saying, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world!” The next day, the same thing happens, and two of his disciples, follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they respond oddly, by asking “Where are you staying?” To that question, Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

“Where are you staying?” What kind of question is that? What might the disciples learn about Jesus by staying with him for the day? To understand what’s going on we need to put this question, and the event itself, in the context of John’s gospel. Staying… to use the traditional language of the Authorized Version, to abide… is one of those themes that is repeated throughout the gospel. In fact, we heard the theme sounded already in John’s testimony about Jesus. When he reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, he says that “it remained on him.” In today’s gospel the words is used at least four times in quick succession. Much later in the gospel, in the lengthy farewell discourse that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

These two questions, “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you staying?” get at the heart of what the Gospel of John understands by discipleship and the nature of faith. More than that, these two questions, and the understanding of discipleship they open up, invite us to a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our present day.

Discipleship is a word we use a great deal in the church but is easily misunderstood or distorted. Indeed, to the extent that it is a grounding metaphor for the Christian life, it can be as misleading as it is helpful. For one thing, we often think that faith, our Christian life, is primarily concerned with knowing a certain set of ideas, or holding a certain set of beliefs. But note that Jesus did not ask Andrew and the other disciple, “What do you know or want to know?”, or “What do you believe? He asked them, “What are you looking for?” Or perhaps, “What do you want?”

Posed in those terms, Jesus’ question gets at the very core of our being, our deepest desires and hopes, who we are and what we want to be. It’s a question of identity

And the question Andrew poses to Jesus in response, while seemingly unrelated to Jesus’ question, is very much of the same nature. “Where are you staying?”

Andrew’s question is an expression not of a desire to receive a set of instructions, or learn a set of doctrines. Andrew wants to be with Jesus. He wants to stay with Jesus so that he can experience the relationship that Jesus offers him. By abiding with Jesus, by staying with Jesus, Andrew will begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus talks about throughout the gospel.

Thus for John, discipleship is about relationship, not right doctrine or the transmission of a body of knowledge. Discipleship is about being in community with Jesus, and with others who seek to follow Jesus. And there can be nothing more important than that, being in community in these uncertain and frightening times.

We have been experiencing a great number of shocks to our worldview over the last months. Many of us are confronting the fact that we are living in a very different nation than the one we thought we were living in. Institutions that used to function and create stability seem to be out of whack—like the news media. Old alliances are collapsing and being reshaped. We are afraid of what might happen to our healthcare and our planet. Many of us wonder whether we will lose basic rights that we hold dear or for which we or our parents or grandparents struggled mightily. Christianity itself seems to be on the brink of collapse in the US, and with so many conservative Christian leaders preaching a message of hate, we may not even want to be called Christian anymore.

In all of this disruption and disorientation, negotiating a path forward is perilous. We’re not quite sure what to do, how to act, how to be in the world. Here’s where this gospel reading offers a model. Relationship—abiding with Jesus. In the first place, we are called to open our hearts and our lives to deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and through that relationship begin to experience and to live in the presence of God’s love for us. To open our hearts to Christ’s love is to begin to know the love of the God who became one of us and loved us and the world so much that he gave his life for the world.

And as we open ourselves to Christ’s love, experience Christ’s love, abide in Christ’s love, we also will begin to open ourselves to those around us, to others who experience that love of Christ and abide in that love.

All of this is quite abstract and you may think it has little to do with our daily lives. But I wonder. In the midst of all that we have to do, do we take time to be with Jesus? Do we take time to be fully present to our loved ones? Do we really know our fellow members of the Body of Christ in this place? What might it be like for us to nurture deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ in the coming months? What might it be like for us to take the time to get to know one another better, to listen to each others’ stories, to their hopes and fears? By nurturing those relationships, with Christ and with each other, not only would we be strengthened for the journey but the world around would catch a glimpse of the possibilities of new life in Christ’s love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Word became flesh and tented among us: A Sermon for Christmas Day, 2016

 

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”

We live in difficult times. The world is a dangerous, scary place. The future looks bleak. Not only are the problems we face apparently beyond our will and capacity to solve. It’s not just the ongoing wars, a challenging economy; Climate change seems to be occurring at a frightening pace—with reports this week about warm temperatures in the Arctic causing unprecedented ice melting.

It’s not just the immensity of the problems, in recent years truth and reason themselves have come under attack. First it was Stephen Colbert and “truthiness.” Now, we are victims of “fake truth” the manipulation of the media, and a widespread and vicious attack on science.

Some of this latter can be blamed on a certain understanding and worldview within Christianity. It’s been a practice among some Christians for centuries to draw a sharp contrast between faith and reason—to argue that one must believe in spite of evidence to the contrary; that faith in God goes against reason. In recent decades, that view has led to some Christians making contortions in their efforts to explain away the theory of evolution, the fossil record, the big bang, arguing that scientific evidence like fossils were given by God to test our faith, or worse, planted by Satan to deceive us.

In a way all of this has led us to this point; where we’re not quite sure of anything; that every position no matter how supported by scientific evidence, is only a matter of opinion.

These majestic, transcendent verses from the very beginning of the Gospel of John reflect and present us with a very different perspective. John is writing from within a particular worldview that permeated the Hellenistic culture of his time. In the beginning was the Word, in fact, in the beginning was the Logos—more than word, it could be translated as reason. You could understand it as the underlying order of the universe, natural law, if you will.

John is asserting not just that God created the universe, but that this created universe is imbued with divine order and reason; that it makes sense, and also, that by exploring the universe, we can come to know something about the nature of God.

Of course, to translate logos as “word” is to make another important theological point—that at the very beginning of things, the second person of the Trinity was present, involved in creating the universe. Indeed, in Genesis 1, God creates by speaking the universe into existence—God said, “Let there be light.”

This is all well and good, but the reality is that the world we experience only dimly reflects the divine order and creative power that brought it into being and maintains it. Our fallen natures have clouded our reason, and creation itself bears signs of our disobedience of God.

We experience our own sin and fallen-ness, we know our broken-ness and the broken-ness of the world, and we struggle to know and to love God and ourselves. Given that, we’re tempted to experience or understand God as utterly beyond us, beyond our comprehension or understanding, remote, uncaring, unmoved or unmoving.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the heart of this passage, the heart of the gospel, it may very well be the heart of Christianity. The God who is utterly beyond us, incomprehensible, infinite, has become one of us, has dwelt among us. The God who created the world and us, has come to us in human form, becoming human, sharing our lives and our existence.

But more than that, the word we translate as “dwelt” could be translated as tabernacled or tented—it’s a reference back to the experience of the Hebrews in the wilderness when they created a tabernacle to be a symbol of God’s presence among them as they wandered through the desert.

That’s one way we should think about it, that in the Word becoming flesh God tented among us, taking on a frail, temporary body like ours, but also that God journeyed with us, that God journeys with us, that God is with us as we wander through our lives.

It’s a remarkable journey that we make through our lives, it’s a remarkable journey of struggle, change, and love. There’s a remarkable journey in this text, from before time and the universe existed, to the Word becoming flesh and tenting among us.

To ponder that mystery, not just what the words say, but the mystery of the nature of God to which it bears witness—a God beyond our comprehension and imagination, but a God who so cares for us and loves us, that the very Word of God comes to us, becomes one of us, dies for us.

To contemplate that God, the God we see dimly in the beauty of creation; the God we see clearly in the incarnation; the God we see in the words and life of Jesus Christ; the God whose self-giving love embraces the whole world in his outstretched arms.

To contemplate that God, to contemplate that love, and to begin to express and share that love; that is what and who we are called to be by Christmas. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discipleship and Resurrection: A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 2016

 

We are in Easter tide—the fifty days following Easter Sunday that ends on Pentecost. And although Easter is the Church’s commemoration of our very reason for being, for the most part, we don’t take much notice of it, certainly not in our individual spiritual lives. While Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, and fasting, there are few, if any devotional traditions surrounding the season of Easter. That’s why, if you’re interested, some young adults in our area, led by Fr. Jonathan Melton, chaplain of St. Francis House UW, put together a devotional for the fifty days of Easter. We might reflect on how our personal spiritual lives might be different if we consciously and attentively focused on the joy of resurrection during these 50 days of Easter—the joy of a Risen Christ, but also our hope for resurrection, for the bringing together of body and soul in new beings, new creations, made alive through Christ, remade in God’s image. Continue reading

Pointing to Christ: A Sermon for Advent 3, Year B

Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_024The cover art on today’s service bulletin is a detail from one of the great works of art-Matthias Gruenewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. Created for a hospital and designed so that the patients could see the altarpiece from their beds, the center panel of the altarpiece depicts the crucifixion. Standing beneath the cross is the image of John the Baptist, with the lamb of God, a small lamb carrying a cross, by his side. Gruenewald was a master of perspective and artistic technique, so what stands out to me in this image is John’s index finger, pointing at the crucified Christ, which is all out of proportion with his hand. Continue reading

I am the Way–Jesus’ words of comfort: A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A

A story like that of Stephen’s martyrdom works powerfully on our imaginations, just as it has worked powerfully on Christians throughout the centuries. Upon hearing or reading it, we might wonder whether we would have the faith to make a witness like that of Stephen, or wonder perhaps if we took our faith as seriously as we ought, we might face the same sort of persecution. Continue reading

Blindness, Sight, and Faith: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

I used to have an intense fear of going blind. I was born with weak eyesight but on top of that I was, to put it in the words of a college friend of mine “wall-eyed.” I had two surgeries as a child in an attempt to correct that. I remember waking after the second of those surgeries when I was about 9 years old. When I couldn’t open my eyes–the lids were sealed by dried excretion–I screamed out in terror. For years after that, I practiced walking around in my house in the darkness, so I would be able to get around if (or more likely when) I went blind. I’m not blind yet, but my eyesight continues to deteriorate. In fact, one of the reasons I’ve taken to using an ipad in services is because I can increase the font size so I can read my sermons and the Book of Common Prayer. Continue reading

My help comes from The Lord: A Sermon for 2 Lent

We are accustomed to think of our lives as people of faith as a journey or pilgrimage. It’s an image that’s deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, perhaps beginning with Jesus’ own journey to Jerusalem, dramatically depicted in Luke’s gospel where he writes, “and Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Devout Christians over the centuries have understood their own lives and the experience of the Christian community writ large in terms of journey or pilgrimage. Journey is a word I often use when I’m welcoming newcomers and visitors to our services on Sunday morning. Like any metaphor it can become over-used, tired, even meaningless. The question becomes whether we can breathe new life into such language and by doing that, help us to think about our own lives and experiences in new ways. Continue reading

The Gospel of John is saving my life: A sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 2013

No really.

I was at an ecumenical meeting earlier this week that usually begins with some sort of round-robin check-in for all of the board members. This time, the chair asked us to respond to the question, “What is saving your life right now?” I was second in line, so I didn’t have much time to think about the question, and when my turn came, all I could muster was, “the Gospel of John.” Continue reading

Anti-Judaism and Holy Week

One of the central issues facing Christians during Holy Week (in fact it’s central to Christianity itself) is the pervasive anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition and in parts of the New Testament. It’s particularly prevalent in the Gospel of John and reaches its highest intensity in the passion narrative (John 18 and 19). It’s traditional that John’s Passion Narrative is read on Good Friday. The raw power of the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trials, and crucifixion that culminate with the silence of the tomb, combines with the larger liturgical context to confront worshipers with the enormity of the crucifixion and with human culpability in it. The concluding prayer includes this sentence:

we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death

As much as the overall liturgy seeks to make us participants in the drama of Good Friday, John’s Passion Narrative seems designed to leave us in the audience, observers of a drama in which the main actors are only Jesus, Pilate, and “the Jews.” Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charges against him, saying three times, “I find no case against him” (Jn 18:38, 19:4, 6). Each time, “the Jews” protest and force Pilate to reconsider. In the end, Pilate hands Jesus over to them for crucifixion (John does not explicitly state that Romans were involved in the crucifixion. “Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified” 19:16).

While the presence of “the Jews” as Jesus’ opponents is especially prevalent in the passion narrative, throughout John’s gospel, Jesus comes into conflict with “the Jews.” On one level, such a term is utterly meaningless because Jesus and his disciples were Jews just like those who opposed him. But John’s gospel reflects a later stage of historical development when it seems that opposition between some Jews and those Jews who had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah had become especially pronounced. Thus in 9: 22-23, the parents of the blind man whom Jesus healed were “afraid of the Jews” because they had already decided “that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

On careful reading, it becomes apparent that only “some Jews” were so opposed to Jesus that they sought his death. Others supported him; some of the latter were people like Joseph of Arimathea, who John says was a disciple of Jesus, but only secretly, “for fear of the Jews.”

Our preaching, liturgies, and reflection in Holy Week should include a healthy dose of repentance for Christian anti-Judaism. Whatever the historical context that gave rise to John’s portrayal of “the Jews” in his gospel, that portrayal has had a long and evil afterlife. Over the centuries, Christians have used the charge of “Christ-Killer” to oppress and persecute Jews. In the European Middle Ages, for example, Holy Week often meant increased incidents of anti-Judaism, including the blood libel and riots.

For more on John’s portrayal of “The Jews” read excerpts from Raymond Brown’s postumously published Introduction to the Gospel of John

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen many efforts by Christians to deal with past Anti-Judaism. An article on Christian philosemitism among Evangelicals is helpful.

A recent book examines the long history of Christian Anti-Judaism. R. I. Moore reviews David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition here:

The enduring legacy of the early Church, Nirenberg makes clear, was far more than the familiar stereotype of anti-Semitism: it was a language and a set of oppositions and associations in which any conflict could be framed, or any community, party or position attacked or defended by contrasting it with Judaism—irrespective of the presence, still less the participation, of flesh-and-blood Jews.

Martin Marty reflects on the Anti-Judaism in John and in Bach’s St. John’s Passion here:

but the Gospel of John, which provides the framework for Bach’s work, poses extremely harsh and judgmental accusations which turn “the Jews”—some Jews, since Jesus and his followers were all Jews—into primal and enduring villains. Being a Christian and a Lutheran, whose faith-communities include horrible records against Jews and Judaism—records finally being addressed with penitence and resolve in recent decades—I must deal with the “shadow” of this Passion. So: do we shun or evade the dark side, and make a big show of how uniquely righteous “we” and our contemporaries are? Or do we note the central, focal stream in Bach’s work, where in the classic Chorales and Arias the emphatic and even obsessive concern is for the contemporary disciples of Jesus to see that it was and is “they” who by their faults were and are guilty—until his death freed them from guilt. That’s Bach’s “bright side,” part of the allure of this transcendent musical work.

Abundant Bread–A Sermon for Proper 12, Year B

July 29, 2012

The feeding of the five thousand. It is one of the very few miracle stories that appears in all four gospels. As is almost always the case with John, the way the story is told here helps us understand better and more deeply that gospel writer’s unique perspective on Jesus and what he wants us, his readers to understand and experience. Continue reading