Looking Lectionary: Easter 6A

 

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Image source.

 

Reading: John 14:15-21

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18 NIV

John 14 is the first chapter of the “Farewell discourses”, John 14 – John 17, in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his death and resurrection and their post-crucifixion life. He delivers these discourses after the “last supper” on the eve of his crucifixion. The major themes include Jesus’ relationship to the Father, the believers’ relationship to the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the church and persecution.

Nestled in John 14, Easter 6A’s reading has a chiastic structure, leaving John 14:18 (quoted above) as the central thought. I think there are a few things we can tease out from John’s focus on this particular verse:

  • In first-century Palestine and other patriarchal cultures, widows and orphans were incredibly disadvantaged as they were typically outsiders to the large family structures that ordered life, power, position and wealth. Jesus would not leave his disciples and other believers as “outsiders” to the Kingdom of God – rather, they would be heirs (John 14:2).
  • “I will come to you.” John is teasing a few things here. On one hand, he’s probably referring to Jesus’ resurrection appearances (as in v19). But he’s also talking about the Holy Spirit (the Advocate mentioned in v16) and possibly Jesus’ return at a later date.

In a sense, then, it’s as if Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples at all.

But sight, as we saw in Easter 5A, is persuasive and fickle. In the same way that his disciples struggled to acknowledge that in Jesus they saw the reflection of the Father, they would come to struggle with Jesus’ identity as the Son. And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, who “will teach you everything” (v26). He staggers his promises of presence; drawing his disciples into him, into the Father, into the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches his disciples not to rely on what they see, but on what they know as truth: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

These days we tend to trust what we see rather than what we know. It’s our obsession with what we see that often leads us astray; that leads us to focus on externals, on snap judgments, on laborious theology, on prejudice, on what Jen Wilkin calls the “Instagram subculture of Christianity”. Vision-focussed, we demand bigger and better church services; we demand a kind of “Christian lifestyle” that’s big on visuals but not so big on content; we value presentability rather than honest brokenness, with little room or patience for anything that isn’t an immediate Experience™, that doesn’t play well or easily.

Jesus’ presence, on the other hand – his actually coming to us, his bringing us into his Father’s house – is an unseen, moment-by-moment, truth-by-truth thing. Like the twelve disciples, there will be many times that we doubt it. In these “blind times”, the times that wouldn’t make for a great Instagram post, we rely instead on Jesus’ promise that we won’t be left behind as orphans.

Blessings,

Lee

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Looking Lectionary: Easter A

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The lectionary for Easter A has two possible readings: John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10. Personally, I’m tempted to use the Matthew reading because it’s the more streamlined account, thin on John’s pointed self-insertion and apparent vendetta against Peter. But for this post, I’ll be discussing both in broad terms.

Reading Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:1-18 is an interesting exercise in comparison. Both the authors of Matthew and John were writing many years after Jesus’ resurrection when the first Christian communities had already sprung up. We can extrapolate a few things from the texts about the authors and their communities:

1. Both Matthew and John’s communities were facing “fake news” about the resurrection of Jesus. It’s why they go to such pains to emphasise that Jesus’ body wasn’t merely stolen, squirrelled off by unscrupulous disciples. In Matthew, this takes two forms. The first is that of the angel rolling away the stone. Nothing but an act of God, Matthew is saying, could have opened that tomb and left it empty. The second is the mention of the frightened imperial guards. In Matthew 27:62-66 we see the Pharisees applying to Pilate for guards to be posted at the tomb, and in Matthew 28:11-15 they bribe those same guards into lying about what happened.

John focuses on the burial clothing: had Jesus’ body merely been stolen, they wouldn’t have undressed it first; and if they had, the material would have been strewn about, not folded up neatly. The picture he suggests is of Jesus undressing himself from the tatters of burial and folding it up neatly as he did. The burial clothes change into angels by the time Mary looks into the tomb after Peter and John have come and gone.

2. The empty tomb is immediately linked to Jesus’ own prophecies about his purpose and resurrection. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see Jesus’ disciples apparently remain impervious to Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. John’s account has them make an about turn in John 16:19: “Yes, now you are speaking plainly!” But later in John, we find the disciples locked in a room, and then later still, fishing! Without Jesus’ guidance and knowledge of the Scriptures, and frightened and maybe ashamed by his terrifying death, the disciples didn’t draw the conclusion we find so obvious today: that Jesus had died as he’d foretold and that he’d risen from death. The gospel authors nail down these points, perhaps pointedly against divergent narratives being told at that time.

3. Jesus’ first appearance is to Mary Magdalene. This is significant for a few reasons. In the first place, Mary was a woman. Had Jesus’ resurrection merely been a story, why locate Mary as the first witness to the risen Christ? Women’s testimonies weren’t well received in patriarchal first-century Palestine. They were considered to be unreliable witnesses. Yet, in Mary’s being the first to see the risen Christ, we see an echo of Jesus’ earlier revelation of his being the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus didn’t treat women as the patriarchy around them did, so his appearance to Mary is in character for him.

In the second place, appearing to Mary Magdalene placed Mary fully in disciple territory. Sadly there are still people who don’t view the women who travelled with Jesus as his disciples. They usually justify this by saying that none of the twelve was female. But the twelve were chosen for two reasons: to show that Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, who required a minimum of twelve students to be considered such; and to represent the tribes of Israel. We see that Jesus’ inner circle actually consisted of Peter, John and James and arguably Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that he had many other disciples besides. That the gospels don’t explicitly name any female disciples may be for the most simple reason: they didn’t need to. The women in service to Jesus were numbered among his disciples.

In any case, the fact that Mary Magdalene and the other women remained to witness Jesus’ crucifixion, which must have been horrible – and unsafe – to see, demonstrate more loyalty than the scattered twelve, and so they become the first witnesses to Jesus, risen. It’s a furthering of the great reversal: the king of the world is revealed to those most often discounted and marginalised. The Good News is first and foremost theirs.

How, then, do we preach this text? There really is only the one way to do it, I think: to proclaim it as the good news it is. Our responsibility in preaching and proclaiming the Easter narrative is to preach it to everyone marginalised by sin…and who marginalise in sin.

The Easter story is subversive: a man born a Jewish peasant who proclaimed himself the Son of God and spoke of himself as the promised Saviour spent his ministry healing, providing for, teaching and interacting with people from all spheres of society. This man was then crucified as “The King of the Jews”; he was killed in the worst way possible, in a way reserved for traitors to the Roman empire, and delivered to this death by the elite of his own people. It was the worst they could do to him…and it didn’t take. Jesus threw off death and rose to be the Christ for the fallen world. In this equation subversiveness = Good News, because Christ always subverts corrupt power with the redemption and restoration of grace. Hopefully our sermons, writings and ponderings will underscore this subversiveness.

Blessings for your Easter,
Lee

Last Minute Lectionary (Advent A3)

 

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Matthew 11:2-11 (NIV)

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Tis the season of expectation: of Jesus, of Christmas presents, of good food, of family and friends, and hopefully a few days off between the twenty-fifth and New Year. Intellectually we know that December is a calendar month like every other… but for this sense of expectations attached to it; but for this sense of endings and new beginnings and, God help us, New Year resolutions!

We are in our own various ways as pregnant as Mary was. We expect. We hope. We dream. But Advent wants to pin down the what and the why, and it uses this week’s reading, more so than the others, to do it. What do we expect? Who?

John the Baptizer had expectations. He, like his contemporaries, believed that the Messiah would be a political figure; a king as well as a priest; someone who would unite Jews and overthrow their enemies and oppressors. So I imagine it was confusing for him, as he languished in prison, at the mercy of a king’s whims, to reconcile what he expected of the Messiah with the actions of the man he believed to be the Messiah. The man he’d baptised; the one of whom he’d said, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

Little wonder, then, that John began to doubt, and sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you he?” Perhaps the better question would have been: Are you it?

And to this question Jesus replied, not unkindly: “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, people are healed, the dead rise, the deaf hear, the poor hear the good news.” Isn’t this enough?

This is the season of expectation – but just what do we expect? More importantly, are we willing to have our expectations challenged by the Spirit, by the continuing work of God in the world?

And are we willing to carry this expectation well beyond every December, into every dark nook and cranny of the new year?

Blessings for your sermons,

Lee

 

Weekly reads

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Weekly reads. 

Weekly reads is a collection of interesting and informative news articles and blog posts from around the Interwebs. 

Most people are only aware of spiritual abuse in a peripheral sort of way – not something I begrudge them, honestly – but the reality is it’s an epidemic claiming many victims, most of whom don’t even realise it’s happening until after the fact – if they ever even realise it at all. In this regard, two recent stories are of interest, both of them reported on the excellent blog Spiritual Sounding Board (SSB for short). The first is that Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and popular author, is probably on his way to making a “comeback” – this barely a year after he left ministry in disgrace, having had an extramarital affair (which Julie-Ann, author over at SSB, is quick to point out is more akin to clergy sex abuse as the affair originated with a woman who received counselling from him). Here’s the kicker, though: shortly after news of his affair broke, TT actually had the temerity to blame his wife because she did it first. It was later revealed that this affair wasn’t actually his first, though. Classy guy, am I right? He married the woman he had the latest affair with in August, and more recently wrote an article for ExPastors.com that many believe is a first step in “public repentence”. A book is probably on the way.

Why do we care about this? Why should we care about this? Succintly, because public redemption without private repentance isn’t just happening in the spheres of the megachurch and the popular pastor/author; it’s happening all over the place, in all kinds of churches with all kinds of leaders and congregations. And people are getting away with it. Perpetrators actively foster conspiracies of silence and their adherents happily help in maintaining it. How we react to situations as visible as TT’s will affect how we react when it happens in our own communities, in our own churches with our own leaders.

Interestingly, this is what TT’s own cousin had to say about it:

The second story is on Saeed Abedini, an American pastor detained in Iran in 2012 and released earlier this year, who has filed for divorce from his wife. Saeed was the darling of the Christian American persecution complex and made a “pet cause” by popular evangelicals, who chose to turn a blind eye on worrying behaviour on his part. Last year November his wife Nagmeh revealed (privately; the information was leaked) that Saeed had been abusing her throughout their marriage – verbally, physically and sexually. She wrote about it on Facebook in January of this year. Saeed filed for divorce because Nagmeh insisted he receive counselling, and he has since violated restraining orders taken out by Nagmeh.

More troubling even than this is the fact that he’s still actively pursuing ministry. In no way is he being held accountable for his abuse. It’s only onwards and upwards for Saeed! What strikes me about his writing and TT’s piece on ExPastors.com is that there’s a distinct whiff of persecution complex around them. Neither demonstrates sympathy or indeed much awareness of their victims.

And to round off this week’s look at shitty ministry: the New Creation Church in Oregon, America has written this helpful guide if you’re looking to join their worship team. Only goodie-goodie teenagers from the eighties apparently need apply, because anyone who is fat, has piercings or tattoos or thinks wearing shoes with white soles to church is okay do not qualify.

The problem here (beyond the obvious of being total doodie heads) is that they’ve firmly placed brand above Jesus. According to their church website, there’s no dress code for the congregants, but I wonder how long it is until the anvil of “peer pressure” drops on you if you decide to attend regularly or to volunteer.

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A few weeks ago Crossway announced that they had finalised their flagship Bible translation, the English Standard Version, with a few final “tweaks” before the text became “permanent”, meaning it would not be revised or changed in future. This decision was met with concern, because the ESV – which has always firmly allied itself with complementarianism – tweaked verses in Genesis for a consciously more complementarian reading. I find this especially ironic considering how often complementarians accuse egalitarians of a “selective reading” of the Bible!

Well, they’ve now apparently reversed their decision (also: a fun game to play is “Spot how much pro-ESV/complementarian bias there is in that CT article!”) I don’t hold out much hope that the ESV will be any less complementarian, but this does at least show the occasional power of (good) outrage.

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If you enjoy psychology, check out this article on a study done on narcissists. Basically a bunch of researchers tested a group of students’ interactions and friendships over time. They discovered that while narcissists may initially appear more likeable, they quickly lose friends/influence. But most interestingly, this doesn’t seem to phase them much, because narcissists aren’t really looking for friends, only an audience, and nothing beats a fresh audience!

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An oldie but goodie – a fascinating interview with Eugene Peterson, academic, author, pastor and probably best known for translating The Message Bible. I especially liked his take on churches:

A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people.

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This article was fascinating. It looks at an unusual case of suicide vs murder. And it’s totally true:

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Weekly quote

You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.

-Martin Luther


Weekly funny

(Two in this case):

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Have a great weekend!

Lee

#CoffeeTimePrayer “Burdens” mini-series: Works

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Last week we looked at a second burden we bear instead of fruit: apathy. We saw that apathy is a result of doubt about God and his goodness and that it’s nourished by our own fears of having to care, of having to “do” something about all the pain we see in the world while we ourselves feel utterly powerless to change anything. But we realised that these cares aren’t something we’re meant to carry alone – Jesus bears the load for us.

Today we’re discussing our last burden for this mini-series: works. And it’s a tough one. Like we saw last week, the world is in pain. We’re God’s hands and feet; his foot soldiers. If there was ever a time to be living out our faith by being much needed salt and light, this is it. But at the same time, I think we’ve never been more in danger from a works mentality than we are at the moment. Think about the following questions and answer them “Yes” or “no”:

  • “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17) James said it, I believe it, that settles it!
  • I often worry that I’m taking grace “cheap” by not doing enough for God or for others.
  • Jesus detested “lukewarm believers” (Revelation 3:16).
  • I judge a person or church’s faith by how visible they are in a community or congregation.
  • I feel “burned out”, faith-wise, and wish I could take a break.

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, “works” may be a burden you’re bearing.

What does this burden look like?

Did you notice, most of the above questions aren’t technically “wrong”? James did say faith without works is dead; we do tend to take grace cheap by using it as an excuse (or at least, I do); Jesus did speak out against lukewarm churches; how self-centred a person or a church is can be a good indication of their faith. That’s why I ask the last question last: because while these things aren’t wrong, doing them for the wrong reasons certainly is, and it inevitably leaves us feeling burned out.

I’m working through Exodus and I’ve reached the exciting bit where all the laws are listed. One thing you can’t accuse the Israelites of is not covering the particulars! Small details and possible deviations are all accounted for. The formula is very straightforward: if x and y happens (and if z was involved), do a and b. But if c occurred, b isn’t necessary. And so on. The pattern repeats: law equalled works, and works equalled faith and right standing with God.

We read something like this and think how mighty lucky we are! We’re no longer under the law. And then we burn with guilt when we miss a Sunday service or don’t volunteer for something in our church or community! While we may no longer have to pay restitution for our ox with its goring ways (Exodus 21:28), we “pay” our spiritual way in all sorts of interesting ways, heeding the many “unwritten” laws that pop up in religious settings, whether at our homes or in our churches. Certain actions – being “busy for God” – pays off our “debts” within those systems, while inaction ticks away like interest on a huge loan, to be deducted off our salvation come your pastor’s wrath or eternity, whichever happens first! You see, “works” as a burden is rooted in pride and nourished by sturdy doses of self-righteousness.

Inevitably when we mix our salvation in with our Christian duty, things get muddled pretty fast. That’s because the two aren’t meant to be mixed. They’re distinct from each other. Salvation is a gift; it’s grace doing a fireman’s lift on our lives. Christian works as James defined it is and can be a result of that salvation. But works don’t earn salvation; that defies the point of grace.

This is a lesson Jesus’ apostles learned in Acts 11:1-18 (v 1-9 below):

1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8 But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Here we have a head-on collision between law (and works) and grace. Peter visited with Gentiles – a no-no for Jews, something prohibited by the law, and “the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” (v 2-3). The apostles back in Jerusalem were worried about appearances. This was a critical time in their movement; persecution had already started. To their mind, and despite everything they had seen and Jesus had taught, the law and works still played a defining role in faith.

While the Gentile believers received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and then the baptism of water with Peter’s visit, I think what the Jews back in Jerusalem received upon Peter’s return and explanation was far greater: the knowledge that salvation no longer had a basis in works. How could it? Cornelius, while a generous and devout man, had no law-based security to fall back on. He was a Gentile and by extent an outsider. He was, in terms of Peter’s vision, “profane.” In the eyes of the law not even his alms could save him! So we see it was necessary for these Gentiles to be saved by faith so the Jews could begin to be fully saved from the law and law mentality.

In this scenario, we modern-day believers have become the Jews of old. Our “laws” look different – they even look good and sensible – but the effect is the same: they separate us from God rather than bringing us closer to him, because they convince us that God is distant in the first place! But works do not earn us more grace or approval from God. He’s always at one hundred percent faithful. It’s only in realising this that we can live out our own faith and bear fruit for him.