Looking Lectionary: Trinity A/P1 A

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Reading: Matthew 28:16-20

To me, the Great Commission is one of those “guilty shifting in your seat” passages in the Bible. It’s something I know about, something I intellectually understand to be necessary. But I don’t always see evidence of this conviction – that it’s vital – when I look at my life. I think I can trace this – I’m going to say reluctance, but “apathy” would work just as well – to three things:

I doubt Jesus’ (earthly) authority

Terrorism, wars, violence, corruption. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel that Terry Pratchett was right when he wrote,  “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” If God is so good, I think, then… Then.

But I wonder if it shouldn’t be, “Despite God’s goodness…” Despite God’s goodness and greatness, there are those who choose the other things. I don’t even have the luxury of assigning blame here because I’m often one of them. To truly acknowledge Jesus’ authority is to submit to it, and I don’t always want to submit to God.

I don’t think everyone deserves Jesus

It’s not like I walk around, point at people and declare, “You there! Yes, you sir! I don’t think Jesus ought to like you!” And yet… And yet. There are moments when I find myself in some situation where I’m not only judge and jury, I’m jailer too, jailing someone away from Jesus in my thoughts. (Atheists on r/Christianity, for instance.) I do this by withholding – no, hogging – no, hoarding – grace. I so often deny others this thing I get so freely and so abundantly.

Why do I do this? Aside from the usual prejudice and self-righteousness, it probably has a lot to do with deservingness issues. I think I worry that if Jesus loves others – especially the ones I don’t – he’ll “run short” on grace and there will be less for me. Or, more worringly, he will expect me to love them too…

I don’t really want to obey Jesus

I wanted to write that “it’s hard to submit to Christ when the sins are fun”, but honestly, it’s hard to submit to Christ even when the sins aren’t fun, even when they are life-wrecking and gut-churning and terrible. Obeying all of Jesus’ commands brings out a donkey-like obstinacy in me that I’m usually unaware of and have no reasonable explanation for.

I wonder if my reluctance to do the Great Commission isn’t rooted in the concomitant accountability the work brings. If I am to do the work of the Great Commission, then spiritually-speaking, I have to show up, shoes shined; I have to continually confront my fallen nature with its butt-savedness, I have to constantly revise my assumptions about myself, others and the world around me in light of Jesus’ righteousness and salvation. And that means obeying, and obedience means surrendering to God’s authority.

Service

If one of our “services” as Christians is to encourage people to return to the world’s rightful ruler, to try to reach absolutely everyone, and to do so as an act of faith and obedience, then I wonder if it’s not as much a service to ourselves as it is to God and to other people. You can’t exceed at the Great Commission unless you trust in God, live in close relationship with Jesus and work in the Holy Spirit. And perhaps that’s no accident: wouldn’t it be just like God to give life to those tasked with this life-giving work?

Blessings,

Lee

Looking Lectionary: Pentecost Day A

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Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39

A few years back I was getting chemotherapy at a government hospital in Pretoria. One day an old lady was there for her treatment the same day I was. She asked me a question – something about procedure – but because she had such a heavy Scottish accent I had trouble immediately understanding what she was asking, even though she was speaking English. When I’d run it through my noggin’ and answered her, I could tell it took her a few seconds to process my (Afrikaner) accent in turn, even though I too was speaking English.

I was reminded of this incident when I went through the readings for Pentecost day. In Acts 2 the disciples witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – as a “tongue” of flame that rested on each of them – and they were able to declare God to many different people in their own languages and dialects. The sarcastic comments that they were drunk probably indicates that this wasn’t a staid affair: the disciples were ecstatic and emboldened, as we see in Peter’s subsequent speech. The crowd was astounded.

Beholden to our faith traditions or upbringing, I think we sometimes forget that the Holy Spirit is multilingual. We become used to hearing the cadence of the Holy Spirit’s voice in certain ways, certain places, certain music and rituals. There’s nothing wrong with this: we each have a “faith” mother tongue, a language we understand and speak well, one that expresses us best. But ours isn’t the only language the Holy Spirit speaks, teaches, guides and leads us with, and ours isn’t more or less legitimate than, say, French is to Finnish.

At her heart, the Holy Spirit is an interpreter. She interprets the heart of God for us and interprets our hearts back to God. In John 7 Jesus told his disciples that they had not yet received the Spirit because he had yet to be glorified (crucified). If Jesus had been the heavenly-to-earth dictionary, allowing us to make sense of God, then the Holy Spirit is a Babel fish*.

As an interpreter, however, the Holy Spirit isn’t just limited to heavenly/human conversations. The Holy Spirit is an active participant in human-to-human dialogues as well. In a faith marked by vast differences in practices and adherents, and in a world noisy with different spiritual “speech”, the Holy Spirit helps us to speak each other’s language. Like the Scottish lady and I, it might take us a moment, but if we are committed to hearing and to being heard, the Holy Spirit will “do the talking.”

Blessings,

Lee


* With apologies to Douglas Adams.

Looking Lectionary: Easter 2A

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Easter 2A’s reading: John 20:19-31

Easter is many things. Enriching, captivating, solemn, joyous, troublesome, a relief, a challenge. Easter is toil and contemplation and awakening. For church staff and congregants alike it’s the longest week in the Christian calendar, rapid-fire emotional, spiritual and intellectual experiences squeezed into a single week, usually with multiple services throughout. So while Easter is a blessing, it is also utterly exhausting.

Then comes Easter 2A, with Doubting Thomas’ question forming the core of this rapid-fire reading: peace, the Holy Spirit, witness, Messiah. For overwrought Easter nerves, it might feel a bit like an onslaught. Perhaps this is something we share with Jesus’ original disciples: like we want to lock ourselves in a room just to get a moment to absorb it all, to talk it over, to share quietly. Maybe, like Thomas, we want to go missing in action, to try to find a way to come to grips with the events of the past few days: Jesus’ trial, death, and then his apparent resurrection.

It is at this moment that Jesus steps in, steps into our rooms and says, “Peace be with you” before breathing the peace and power of the Holy Spirit onto us.

In the Bible, breath is often associated with God (as Bruce Epperly writes). God breathed the universe into existence. He breathed humanity into life. He breathed life into dry bones. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, and as Jesus breathes her over the disciples, she breathes life back into them. A week before it had been Jesus’ turn; now it was his disciples’ turn!

If you read the text you’ll notice that Thomas apparently misses out on the deliverance of the Holy Spirit – he isn’t in the room when Jesus breathes her out on the others. But then Jesus does something extraordinary: he allows Thomas to physically touch the wounds in his hand and side. This would have put him within breathing distance. So perhaps when Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” it’s not so much the physical evidence that he finds compelling as the life-giving faith of indwelling by the Holy Spirit.

On Easter we get to preach the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death; on the second Sunday, we get to preach on our own resurrection and continual life through the Holy Spirit. The excitement (trepidation, frustration) of Easter inevitably gives way to this: a peace that transcends all understanding.

Blessings,

Lee

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

Looking Lectionary: Palm/Passion Sunday A

 

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Texts: Matthew 21:1-11 (Palm); Matthew 27:11-54 (Passion)

Matthew 21 (NIV)

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew 27 (NIV)

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

You can’t separate Palm and Passion Sunday. You can’t separate the Jesus welcomed as “Son of David” to shouts of “Hosanna” from the man crucified as the “King of the Jews” alongside criminals. They are the same man, the same God, and part of the task of Easter is finding comfort in this duality and leading those who listen to your sermons or your podcasts or who read your blog or your devotions, or the people you share a breakfast or dinner table with to find comfort and meaning in this apparent dichotomy.

In fact, I would say the main task is coming to a realisation that there is no dichotomy at all, but that this is merely the reality of a suffering servant king, glorified.

For years Jesus’ ministry led him to this point: entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, bringing to bear the words prophesied by Zechariah (in Zechariah 9:9): “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, on the foal of a donkey.” Jesus enters the city near the time of the Passover; perhaps even at the same moment that, on the west side of Jerusalem the governor Pilate and his detachment of soldiers are entering with great pomp and fanfare in a show of power meant to cow the Jews during their most important religious festival, a festival commemorating their liberation from an oppressive power.

The contrast couldn’t have carried more of a kick had Jesus employed a skywriter to spell it out: Jesus, the Son of David, the Messiah, was different, and so was the Kingdom he had been proclaiming. Jesus was the new liberator, and this time he would lead the whole world in an exodus from sin and death and oppression, into a chosen land of grace, inclusion and service.

The people who had been travelling with Jesus knew this already; the majority of whom were probably poor peasants and social outcasts. They were the ones who spread garments and fronds over Jesus’ path, as one would for a king. This perplexed the Jerusalemites, the ones living in the seat of their nation’s wealth and power and who probably constituted the religious and economic top brass. Who was this man riding in on a donkey? “A prophet,” they heard, “from Nazareth in Galilee.”

These weren’t impressive credentials by any stretch of the imagination. Galilee was an area heavily populated with Gentiles, and so considered a sort of Jewish backwater. Nobody bragged about being from Galilee… Except for Jesus. Galilee – a poor area with frequent revolts against the Roman oppressors – represented exactly the people and the oppression Jesus had come to lever his Kingdom against.

We find ourselves, two thousand years on, still needing to ask this most fundamental question: who was this man riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey? We ask it on Palm/Passion Sunday so that during passion week we can rediscover the answer: he was a king and a prisoner; a servant and an offering and a sacrifice; he was the Christ. There are no contradictions in his character because his character is love.

Blessings for your holy week,
Lee