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

Authority in the Christian blogosphere

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Christian women find their voice and live out their callings online

Two weeks ago Tish Harrison Warren wrote a piece for Christianity Today titled “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” In it, she wonders whether the kind of platforms people – especially women – gain through blogging should be accountable to some kind of ecclesial structure, much like pastors are theoretically accountable to their denominations.

Warren posed the piece as a rumination on responsibility: how can we make sure these bloggers – many of them laypersons, their “only” virtue being their popularity – “do” theology responsibly? She cited Jen Hatmaker as an example. Hatmaker – who has been in ministry for two decades and is a published author and popular speaker – recently announced that she is supportive of the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church, a decision that proved unpopular in the evangelical world. (Read her response to the immediate flare-up of criticism here.)

Warren’s article wasn’t well-received, at least by my Twitter timeline’s standards. Warren was criticised for singling out Jen Hatmaker in a way that came across as chastising: how dare Hatmaker, “only” a blogger, deviate from the evangelical bottom line? The article read and felt like a gendered attack, Hatmaker acting as the negative example of what happens when those outside formal structures don’t toe the line.

Warren has since issued an apology to Hatmaker, but the article is still up on Christianity Today – the first part of a series called #AmplifyWomen. It’s ironic and telling that the first article in this series wasn’t about amplification at all, but about control.

Warren wouldn’t be the first woman delegated to keep her fellow women in check. One comes across it often; if you need an example, just skim any article relating to women on The Gospel Coalition blogs (alas, a favourite teacher of mine, Jen Wilkin, has participated in something similar). Warren has come across as sincere in her Twitter replies to criticism and praise, but I doubt she realises that a lot of her article’s backbone is internalised misogyny.

Make no mistake, the issue at play in Warren’s piece isn’t responsibility or accountability. As quite a few influential bloggers have pointed out, they are accountable: to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to the church or spiritual communities they form a part of, and to their friends, families, and peers. In fact, one could argue that the response to Warren’s piece is an indication of how much accountability there is in the popular Christian blogosphere: her article didn’t remain unchallenged, and the criticism was mostly fair and well thought out.

No, the issue Warren’s article skirts around is control. Unfortunately, there are still many church traditions where women aren’t allowed to preach, speak or teach (or if they are, it’s only to other women or to children). In these denominations, women aren’t allowed to have authority. So when these women, who are forced into silence by their churches, turn to the Internet to share their voice and listen to the voices of others like themselves, this presents a conundrum to the men and women in church denominations who delineate the function and authority of women. How do you control women speaking outside the traditional sphere of the church?

Well, you can’t, not without making it exceedingly obvious that the issue is really control rather than authority. If you’ve followed any of these popular female bloggers, authors, speakers and preachers (Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey to name the bare minimum), you realise that their passion and gifts are Spirit-derived, unlike the man-made ecclesial structures that would insist they aren’t allowed to write Spirit-filled words or share Spirit-filled truth or preach prophetic, Spirit-filled prophecies. If it becomes clear that so many women have the gift of teaching, preaching, and disciple-making outside official church structures, you have to ask yourself: are these women and their ministries the problem, or the fact that so many churches continue to deny them?

It’s interesting to me that, around the same time this piece was published, an editor over at The Gospel Coalition went on a Twitter and comment rant against what he calls “discernment bloggers”. He had had a run-in with the women who run Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, both websites dedicated to blogging about spiritual abuse in the American church. This editor, Joe Carter, called blogs like these divisive and the women who run them “broken wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

Call me crazy, but I spot a pattern here: women who won’t adhere to the “it’s all fine, it’s alright” party line of patriarchal, male-dominated church and spiritual traditions are called out by the benefactors of those traditions when their unsanctioned, Spirit-filled commentary hits too close to home. These churches, like Warren’s article, claim it’s about God-ordained authority; but it’s really about male-centric control. If God gives women authority to witness outside the church, then their authority isn’t in question.

As someone who had once lost her voice to an oppressive, male-dominated church situation and rediscovered it through blogging, I cannot overstress how important the voice of female Christian bloggers are. Even when those voices are more conservative than I am or have a theology that differs from mine, I’ve been enriched by the writing and teaching of Christian women who blog, both those with large followings and those with a smaller audience. Sometimes simply the reminder that there are powerful, Spirit-led women using their gifts is more of a comfort than I can say.

Christianity is a much bigger place than any one church, any one denomination, or any one pastor would have you believe. Faith, discipleship and following Jesus don’t heed the lines humanity draws around them. More often than not, the Holy Spirit uses those lines as starting places rather than as borders. These lines are porous, made to break through, much like sheep pens are meant to be left if the flock are to find places to graze, explore, grow and mature.

When an article like Warren’s appears, I see it as an indication that things are right rather than that things are wrong. It means that somewhere, someone is toddling from their sheep pen, following their Shepherd out into the world. It means that someone has chosen to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the strictures of men.

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

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