Looking Lectionary: Easter 6A

 

 

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

#CoffeeTimePrayer: A painful choice

 

 

Reading: Ruth 1

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

Disappointments are constant. I know, it’s not really the chirpy Monday morning message most people are looking for. To live is to feel, and to feel is to experience pain. Our faith isn’t a safeguard against this, just the opposite, as Brené Brown recently tweeted:

We are all in different stages of labour.

For Ruth the Moabite, her pain – her labour – must have felt like it was at a critical point. Having lost her husband and his brother in quick succession, she was faced with losing both her sister-in-law and beloved mother-in-law as well. All the security and family she had come to know and love would be taken from her in one fell swoop. It’s hard to imagine someone like Ruth being impressed by a chirpy Monday morning message!

In a way, Ruth could have walked away from the pain of the delivery by returning to her own family. There she would find safety and security in her family’s house until she married again. But Ruth decided to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, and return with her to Naomi’s family. We often see in the book of Ruth little more than a romance, but Ruth’s decision isn’t motivated by the prospect of Boaz, who wasn’t even in the picture yet; nor just her love for Naomi. Rather, Ruth’s decision was based on her wanting to continue to serve the Lord.

In those days one’s tribal and cultural identities were inextricably woven with religion; all gods were “national gods”, and it wasn’t uncommon for a conquered people to adopt the gods of their conquerors. In Ruth’s mind, staying with Naomi and being part of her people equated to continuing to serve Yahweh, unlike her sister-in-law Orpah, who returned to her people and their gods (Ruth 1:15).

Ruth continued to “labour” in uncertainty and insecurity and poverty, trusting that Naomi’s God – her God – would care for them.

When we’re faced with hurt, we generally want to stitch up the wounds as quickly as possible. I’ve never been in actual labour myself, but I doubt you’d easily find women eager to draw out the experience. We want to expel pain rather than dwell in it. It’s a natural and good impulse.

But I wonder if we sometimes walk away from laborious experiences before we’ve allowed God to midwife them. Rather than deal with our hurts and their causes, we walk away, mistakenly thinking that we’ve dealt with the situation when in reality we’re still carrying it around inside us. A painful but powerful image is that of a woman carrying a stillborn child until labour.

Are we carrying pain around in us instead of allowing God to birth us to new life?

I know: definitely not a chirpy message! But I hope that as this week unfolds, we’ll take a moment to appreciate the relief of delivery, and turn to God to help us through the experience.


Prayer: Lord, I pray that you would bring me delivery from my pain. Help me to release that which burdens me and to experience new life. Amen.

Looking Lectionary: Easter 5A

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Reading: John 14:1-14

“From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7b)

To have seen God! We Christians have a tendency to romanticize the fact that the old prophets, like Abraham and Moses, had face-to-face encounters with God; “If that had been us,” we lament, “we wouldn’t have doubted half so much!” But for your average Jew, the sight of God was unimaginable. The great I AM was shrouded in tabernacle and temple and the Holy of Holies: visited once a year, glimpsed only by a man set aside for the job in holiness and righteousness.

So when Jesus told his disciples that they knew the Father and had already seen him? This was a big deal. A hold-your-breath moment. Staggering. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Philip asked, tentative, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” For Philip and the rest, it could not compute that they had somehow seen the Father without realising it – this was the God who set Moses’ face aglow with his presence. How could they have missed it?

We see things through the filter of our minds, both on a physiological and psychological level. Our unconscious filters out details it deems unimportant, so there’s truth to the fact that we struggle with seeing things objectively when even our observation is suspect. Add our psychological filter – biased to self and relating everything to the self before “plugging it into” other perceptions, and it’s obvious that our “sight” as such is compromised.

Jesus’ disciples, Jews that they were, had learned to see – or not see – God in a particular way; one that didn’t account for the incarnation of God the Father as the Son. That God would thus reveal himself – his heart, his mind, his very character – in a man named Jesus was astounding. It’s why Jesus went to such pains to drive the point home that if the disciples had seen him, known him, then they had seen and known the Father; moreover, that even as the Father dwelt in Jesus, and Jesus in him, the disciples and believers would come to dwell with God in his house. John, in his wordy way, closed the loop between believers and God, a loop that had been open a long time.

Nowadays we have the benefit of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In relationship, we see the whole of the Trinity revealed in Jesus: the Father he revealed, and the Holy Spirit left behind as a constant revelation. But I wonder if religion sometimes “shifts” our sight away from this incomprehensible, astounding vision of God’s heart to something that fits more comfortably within doctrine and liturgy and an hour on Sunday; and if we aren’t poorer, blinder, for the difference.

Jesus is “the truth, the way, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Apart from Jesus, our vision of the Father is foggy, limited; woe to us, then, if we lose sight even of him: this Nazarene with his compassion and his dusty feet, revealing God’s love in diseased skin touched, blind eyes healed, stooped backs righted, dead people raised.

Understood this way, we come to dwell in this vision of God, this reality of who God is; and this reality is his kingdom, come.

Blessings for your week,
Lee

#CoffeeTimePrayer: Being carried

 

 

Read: Jeremiah 10:1-5 NRSV

5 Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good.

A while back a friend and I went shopping at a nearby mall, and I volunteered to carry her two-year-old girl for a bit while she wrestled with the shopping trolley. Embarrassingly we’d barely gone a few shops before my arms were aching and I had to relinquish the little girl to the shopping trolley’s toddler seat. I wasn’t used to toting around an excited toddler, and my body quickly let me know it!

I’ve been going through a spiritual dry patch. It’s not impressive – nothing as fancy as a full-on spiritual crisis or a shadowed valley, nothing to write home about – but enough to let me realise, after a while, that my “body” ached from carrying this dry patch around. It’s just bad enough to make me drag-my-feet weary when it comes to spiritual issues: praying, Bible reading, church, relationship, life. It’s a constant “I don’t want to” vs “But I should”.

It’s exhausting, and I’m coming to realise it’s exhausting because I’m the one carrying instead of being carried.

My friend’s two-year-old won’t remember me carrying her that day, but she will recall the sensation of being carried far into her later years. But come adulthood, we often forget just what it feels like to be ferried about by (to our childhood eyes) mostly reliable adults, aloft and almost weightless and above all, safe.

When we feel heavy and weary and burdened, it’s usually because we’re carrying something around we’re not used to carrying around because we’re not supposed to be hauling it from place to place: unforgiveness, anger, doubt, apathy, fear, loneliness, legalism, religion. In the same way that the idols God spoke about are lifeless but for our moving them around and investing them with meaning and purpose, burdens lose their exhaustive power over us if only we would set them down – and instead be lifted up ourselves, safe and immersed in our Father’s arms.

This week marks the beginning of a new month, May. In the southern hemisphere we’re settling in for the first proper month of winter; our neighbours in the northern hemisphere are waking up to summer. Wherever we are, and no matter how heavy we feel, unburden yourself to God and enjoy the sensation of his uplifting you.

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