In Celebration of Mark’s Gospel

Almighty God, by the hand of Mark the evangelist you have given to your Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God: We thank you for this witness, and pray that we may be firmly grounded in its truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist

Today we join the church in celebrating St. Mark, the Evangelist on his feast day. As Joel Green writes, “We know next to nothing about this Mark except what we can glean from the gospel itself.[1] The celebration of Mark’s feast day is therefore a celebration of his gospel account.

As any seminarian, pastor or theologian may tell you: Mark’s gospel is tough. It doesn’t fit into our neat categories of what a gospel should be or what a gospel should contain, and therefore many questions are raised about the text. From the beginning of Mark—literally the first verse of the opening chapter—to the end, there are questions about interpolations, reductions, and more.

I fear that Mark often gets the “short end of the stick” when listed alongside Matthew, Luke and John. Many commentators, opponents and scholars have complained that:

  • Mark is the shortest of the four gospels
  • It ends abruptly
  • It is the least descriptive of the resurrection
  • It contains the messianic secret

Martin Kähler even described the gospels generally and Mark specifically as “passion narratives with extended introductions.”[2]

I have actually come to love Mark’s gospel. Reading Mark requires that we celebrate tension, embrace mystery and discipleship, and look for the breaking in of God’s kingdom.

Celebrate Tension

Mark ends abruptly, particularly when you take in to account that the last 11 verses of the gospel do not appear in all of the earliest manuscripts. The “shorter” version ends in Mark 16:8 with Mary and the women fleeing the empty tomb in fear and amazement. There is no record of the resurrected Jesus in this story; after spending 15 chapters describing Jesus’ ministry and death the ending is simple: the tomb was empty.

Some of the earliest manuscripts include verses 9-20 that depict Jesus appearing to Mary and then to the two disciples, commissioning the eleven, and finally his ascension. We would know all of this from reading the other evangelists as well, but the addition of these eleven verses makes for a cleaner, more satisfactory ending.

But what if the story really ended in verse 8?

N.T. Wright suggests, “No history, no biography, ever tells you everything. All history selects and arranges, not to falsify but to highlight what is significant.”[3]Each of the four gospels can and should be read alone as individual accounts but they should also be read parallel to one another. Mark’s gospel is not exhaustive, nor is Matthew, Mark or Luke. Each biography (gospel) provides a unique vantage point focused on one topic: the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The four gospels collectively form a biographical symphony providing glorious melody, harmony, and major and minor notes describing Jesus of Nazareth.

Therefore, we need to celebrate the tension that comes from not having all of our questions answered. The Gospel of Mark is no less inspired or holy depending on the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20, it still tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, his death, and proclaims that he has been raised. Fear does not have the last word in the short version; the Good News of the Risen One is still shared! Mark’s gospel was the earliest account of Jesus written and was likely used by Matthew and Luke—and perhaps John—in the composition of their own biographies. It was considered to be the most trustworthy based on its early date and we should trust it still even if all of the loose ends aren’t tied up into a nice bow.

Embrace Mystery and Discipleship

Mark’s gospel is well known for containing the messianic secret—the idea that the disciples (and others) did not and could not know that Jesus was the Messiah until after his death. In Mark 5:43 and 7:36 we find Jesus commanding people to not tell others who he is after he had healed them. But why? Why would Jesus want his identity kept a secret? And why would Mark be the only gospel writer to hone in on this? The twelve followed their leader for several years without really knowing who he was. And that’s the point! How could they have possibly understood Jesus’ true identity on that side of the cross and empty tomb?

The reader is given a real and raw look at Jesus of Nazareth in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus healed many and died at the hands of the Roman government, his tomb was empty, but it is left up to the reader as to whether or not they will follow this man. The picture of discipleship in Mark’s Gospel is not one of comfort or ease. Mark paints the picture of discipleship and cross joined together. “Mark’s narrative braids together these two strands, Christology and discipleship, in order to show that one flows into the other.”[4] Jesus predicts his death in Mark 8:31-32 and then insists that his followers will face consequences for their decision to be his disciples, they will have to: deny themselves, take up their cross, follow him, and lose their lives to save them.

Jesus can and should be understood in the context of Israel’s story. “Mark weaves a narrative, and in doing so evidences his conviction that only a ‘storied christology’ will do, that our capacity to grasp the significance of Jesus in a way that can be transformative is dependent upon the story of Jesus, and the embeddedness of Jesus in the story of God.”[5] Mark brings together the Old Testament image of “Son of Man” found in Daniel 7 and that of Messiah in Isaiah. This combination of Old Testament images was not what the disciples or the religious elite of the day had in mind when referring to the Messiah; the disciples still followed Jesus without fully understanding who he was before his death. The mystery of Christ is one for us to embrace as his disciples.

God’s World Breaks In[6]

From the beginning of the gospel the reader is sure of one thing: in and through Jesus the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world. Jesus began his ministry by announcing publically that the “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The urgency in Mark’s language is fulfilled and realized in the drama of his reality: God is up to something and it is important. Wright comments, “The four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel.”[7]

Now, God is not activating Plan B in Mark’s gospel—or in any of the gospels for that matter. “This new thing that God is doing is the new thing he had always promised.”[8] Mark fills his story with references to Jewish texts, to the ancient Scriptures of Israel, as a means of pointing out that God is fulfilling Israel’s story in the person of Jesus.

The in-breaking of God’s kingdom therefore looks like Jesus’ ministry: healing, deliverance, repentance, conversion, discipleship and life through death. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s prophesies that one day God will be King, one day he will come to set the captives free and bring sight to the blind, one day God’s people will feast with him at a great banquet table, and one day there will be no more pain, or tears or death. And Jesus announces that the time has been fulfilled! God is doing exactly what he promised even if it looks different than expected.

Commemoration

Today we celebrate and commemorate Mark on account of his gospel. We should remember Mark’s desire to present Jesus as fully man in an authentic and powerful way and celebrate the tension of not having all the answers. We need to embrace the mystery of Christ and the call to discipleship as depicted in his gospel. Perhaps then we can encounter the Crucified Lord through Mark’s storytelling with the assured knowledge that he is Risen and his kingdom is in-breaking.

[1] Stephen C. Barton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels, Cambridge Companions to Religion (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Joel Green, “The Gospel according to Mark”, 143.

[2] Ibid, 139.

[3] N T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 63.

[4] Green, 152.

[5] Green, 148.

[6] Wright, 74.

[7] Ibid, 65.

[8] Wright, 75.

The Good Shepherd – Sermon Notes for Easter 4

Thesis

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In fact, he is the Shepherd for whom Israel had been waiting (Ezekiel 34). The resurrection of the Son of God means that he is living and actively guarding his sheep and shepherding their hearts toward him. To dig into the nuts and bolts of this passage from a pastoral angle it is important to understand the role of both shepherd and sheep. 

My friend, Margaret Feinberg, wrote a book called Scouting the Divine in which she explored the agricultural and agrarian themes of the Bible that might be lost on most of the western world. Margaret spends time with a shepherdess from Oregon and provides excellent insight into this important biblical theme—go read it!

Analysis

Collect

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect highlights three distinctive features of the shepherd-sheep relationship. First, Jesus is the shepherd and therefore we are the sheep. Simplistic but important. We should never forget that Jesus is the one who leads his people.

Second, we are called to hear and recognize his voice. To hear his voice is the first step but it is not enough. I may hear the sirens blaring behind me (I haven’t been pulled over in years!) but if I do not recognize that the sirens are a police car urging (commanding) me to pull over then my auditory skill means nothing.

Third, we are called to follow. To hear and recognize the voice of the shepherd should always result in following. Once I’ve discerned the police siren and understood that it was directed at me, I am left with a choice: pull over or run for it. It’s an imperfect analogy but it still works on some level. Bonheoffer suggested that discipleship is rather simple: Jesus calls and we follow. But why do we follow? We follow because we know the one who is calling us. That’s the point here! We’re not following a stranger; we are following the good shepherd! The lessons for this Sunday provide a beautiful picture of the Good Shepherd.

First Reading – Acts 4:5-12

Peter and John have been arrested. Why? Because they preached Jesus and the resurrection! The resurrection is both folly and scandalous to those who do not yet know Jesus. This is the second time in as many chapters that Peter has been at the center of a controversy due to a healing miracle.

Peter’s response to his accusers is quite simple—and it echoes what he said in chapter 3 after that healing episode. He says: “the power to heal comes from Jesus of Nazareth; you crucified him; he’s been raised from the dead; he is the one way to salvation.”

Look at the lessons for Easter 3 and read my summary of Acts 3 here to see more on the same point. Peter has a basic message and formula for sharing the Good News with those around him: Jesus, crucified and risen. There is nothing fancy or flashy about his words or technique—its just Jesus.

Peter roots Jesus firmly in the history and tradition of Israel. This is something that Paul and the other New Testament writers did on a routine basis—read N. T. Wright and Richard Hays for more on this—because Jesus was an actual person who walked this earth and who inhabited and embodied an ongoing story. The Old Testament (as we know it) was the interpretive matrix for the Gospels. Here is a long excerpt from something I wrote several months ago on the topic:

A helpful methodology, according to Hays, is that we learn to read backwards. He believes the Old Testament to be the “interpretive matrix” for the fourfold Gospel.

Hays’ view, which he expounds on in much of his writing, celebrates that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, that he lived within a very Jewish context, and that the stories of Israel were his own. Further, to fully understand the many claims of Jesus as recorded in the gospels one needs to understand the story from which they were launched. For example: Israel was waiting for Messiah and many believed that the Anointed One would be a political and/or military type leader, and yet this was not who Jesus was. Instead Jesus was the Suffering Son of Man and the only way to grasp such a concept is to be aware of the “Son of Man” motif in Daniel and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

Rather than reading the New Testament into the Old, or “searching for Jesus” within Israel’s Scriptures, we are challenged to embrace these writings as our own corporate memory just as we’ve been adopted into Jesse’s branch. This has all sorts of ramifications for preaching and discipleship. One is a call to radical discipleship and an authentic engagement with culture. To read Scripture well is to begin living Scripture daily and publicly, it is to engage with a world desperately in need of the triune God, and it is to occupy space in the here and now according to Jesus’ vision for life. The faithful presence that Hays sees for every Christian begins with understanding the story of Jesus through the lens of Israel and then embodying Jesus’ kingdom presently.

By referencing the stone rejected by the builders, Peter is placing Jesus squarely in the salvation history of Israel and verbally recognizing him as the Faithful Israelite.

Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm was penned by the shepherd-king and is about the Shepherd-King. David’s own context is important when understanding the imagery contained inside: it’s not just poetic; it’s utterly accurate.

The entire Psalm hinges upon the opening five words: the LORD is my shepherd. Everything else in this Psalm is totally dependent upon this one phrase. You could literally insert this clause at the beginning of every verse like this…

Because the Lord is my shepherd…I shall be in want.

Because the Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down in green pastures.

Because the Lord is my shepherd…I shall not fear evil when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Why? Because the LORD is a good shepherd. He cares for his sheep. Shepherds were known to defend their sheep against predators, to lead their flock to new grazing every day, and to care for them when they were in need—to literally go after the 1 when the 99 were safe. You can use Psalm 23 in a variety of ways but for the sermon this Sunday you should use it as a living picture of the shepherd’s goodness.

Epistle – 1 John 3:16-24

1 John 3 is a direct reference to John 10: we know this great love because Jesus laid down his life for us. He goes on to say that he has the power to lay his life down and pick it back up again. This is a radical love and radical love is always a call to action. If Jesus loves us so, how can we see a neighbor in need and refuse to help? If Jesus loves us so, how can we continue to consciously or unconsciously contribute to racism, sexism, ageism, or unfair economic structures in this world? If Jesus loves us so…then what?

John moves further into that call when he writes, “not in love or speech, but in truth and action.” Our heartfelt words are not enough; the language of grace is insufficient. Grace is sufficient, it is more than enough, but simply talking about grace will not do. We are called to love beyond boundaries, beyond borders, beyond our means and beyond ourselves. Why? Because he first loved us, even while we were still sinners. Love is therefore a response to God’s grace.

John further weaves together the tapestry of his gospel and epistle by making reference to abiding in Jesus. In John 15, Jesus talks about the vine and the branches and how the disciples are to abide in the Father’s love—this is the pericope for Easter 5 and 6—and here he draws the connection: to love God and one another is to abide.

The commandments are simple: believe in Jesus and love one another. I have written on this extensively and may post a paper or excerpt soon, but covenant faithfulness will always result in loving action. There are a myriad of situations not covered by Scripture explicitly but if we keep these two commandments in mind (love God and one another) then we will not have to wonder how we should act. As Dave Ramsey said, “When you live a life based on principle 99% of your decisions are already made.” The life of the disciple is the life of loving action.

Gospel – John 10:11-18

The Gospel lesson for Easter 4 is the crowning climax of the lectionary readings; it is pastoral, sacrificial and eschatological in nature. Before digging into John 10 it is important to set the stage, Jesus’ words, “I am the Good Shepherd” are not simply poetic, they are prophetic. Read through Ezekiel 34 and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Israel had been given spiritual shepherds who had abandoned their flock, feasted upon their charges, and who had abdicated any real spiritual authority. Such action sparked YHWH’s fury and he speaks through Ezekiel to say, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” He lists five main actions of the shepherd: seek the lost, bring back the strays, strengthen the weak, heal the sick and bind up the injured. This was a promise, not a threat and so when Jesus speaks these words it is the fulfillment of that which YHWH has promised his people: he will be their shepherd.

Our passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ opening remarks about being the sheep’s gate—all who enter the pen must pass through him. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he begins. Our 8 verses cover in depth what it means for him to be the True Shepherd of Israel. Here are the highlights:

  • Lays down his life for his sheep, unlike the hired hand
  • Shepherd knows his own and his own know him just as he knows the Father and the Father knows him
  • Makes one flock out of many
  • Has the power to lay down his life and take it up again
  • This command has come from the Father

There is a lot that can be covered given these points, but let us briefly unpack them. Jesus is going to lay down his life for his sheep. We hear later in the Gospel that “no greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” It was common for shepherds to have their sheep sleep in caves and to lay down across the small opening. This way nothing could come in without first going through the shepherd; this is why he is both gate and shepherd. The hired hand would not do this because he isn’t invested in the sheep like the shepherd is.

The shepherd knows his sheep. Margaret does a brilliant job of capturing the shepherdess in Oregon who can spot her sheep uniquely based on birth marks, the coarseness of their coat, or even the sound of their bleating. These are things that a shepherd notices and remembers, just as a parent does for a child. Jesus know us this way and is also known by the Father.

Jesus has sheep of another flock that will join this flock so there is one flock and one shepherd. Sounds like Paul in Ephesians 4, right? The point is the same! Israel and the church are to become the new Israel and there will be one people. Jesus’ followers are to be grafted into the branch of Jesse and embedded in YHWH’s history with Israel.

Jesus’ power to lay down his life and take it up again comes from his Father and it is something that he will demonstrate on the cross and through the empty tomb. Jesus traveled to the cross willingly, allowing himself to be betrayed, and his Father vindicated him victoriously as he trampled down death by death.

This is the image of the Good Shepherd. This is the image of the Risen Christ who is Lord over his flock. This is whom we worship as part of the triune God.

Liturgical Considerations

Consider juxtaposing this week (Easter 4) with Christ the King Sunday (last Sunday before Advent). John 10 is often used in both circumstances. The RCL does not include Peter’s reinstatement by Jesus (John 21) during Eastertide this year and so that’s another consideration to make. When John 10 comes up on Christ the King Sunday the question to “What type of King is Jesus?” becomes, “He’s the Shepherd-King.” When John 10 comes up in Eastertide the question can easily become, “What kind of Lord is Jesus?” The answer is obvious, “He’s the Shepherd-Lord.” Christ’s Lordship and his Kingship are interwoven an intertwined. You might think of grabbing the Collect for Christ the King Sunday (Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.) and using it at some point in your sermon.

I have penned an alternative proper preface for the Eucharist on Easter 4:

But chiefly are we bound to praise you for our Shepherd-King; for your Son Jesus Christ is both the true Paschal Lamb and the true Shepherd of Israel who has bound up the injured, healed the sick, strengthened the weak, sought out the lost, and brought back the strays. May we hear and recognize his voice for by his death and rising to life again we are able to have abundant life now. 

Synthesis

I have often heard leaders (read: bishops) refer to themselves as “under-shepherds.” By this they mean that they are shepherding the flock on behalf of the Good Shepherd. I’ve also heard leaders suggest that we should look like sheep from the front and shepherds from the back. The point is the same in both instances: we are following the voice of the one and true shepherd of Israel, period. We are also called to lead others to the shepherd and therefore we take on the role of “under-shepherd” in a sense. Listen to the shepherd’s voice and help others to recognize it as well.

Major Request: Please do not use the tired idea that sheep are somehow stupid. Sheep are actually quite intelligent. However, sheep are in desperate need of a shepherd because they are vulnerable animals. There is a massive difference between being dumb and vulnerable. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd—and when God promised to be Israel’s Shepherd—it was not a backhanded way of suggesting that the sheep were stupid. Can you imagine a more insulting promise? Then why do preachers constantly begin this sermon by suggesting, “Well, sheep are actually quite dumb because they fall and can’t get up; they don’t know how to graze for new food, etc. etc.”?

To follow Jesus as the Good Shepherd is to believe that he is both the crucified and risen one. To follow him is to love him and learn from him. We follow Jesus because he is our Shepherd and we desire others to follow him as well. This may mean that the sheep are actually following you while you are following Him, but always point people to Jesus.

Why I Prepare Sermon Notes

You may have noticed that this blog contains many posts tagged as “Sermon Notes.” It would be easy to assume that these notes are meant solely for preachers, so I’ve decided to write a post sharing my motivation behind putting these notes together.

Spoiler alert: sermon notes are for everyone.

Background

The first time I ever prepared sermon notes was when I was on staff at an Anglican church plant in California from 2010-2012. I was one of several seminarians attending the church, and our Rector and Associate Rector invited us to prepare sermon notes weekly. Many times our notes were helpful and used, and sometimes they weren’t, but through this weekly discipline, I learned a lot.

Old Idea, New Format

Preachers have always gotten help preparing their sermons through a variety of sources: biblical commentaries, books solely devoted to sermon illustrations, anything written by N. T. Wright (I’m only half joking!), journal articles, etc. There are now entire websites devoted to helping preachers with sermon prep. Most of these websites compile blog posts, media clips, quotes, or book excerpts in one place to make research easier.

Sermon preparation takes a lot of time. Some seminary professors suggest spending one hour of preparation for every minute preached. While most preachers probably don’t have that much time to spend on sermon prep, every preacher with whom I’ve spoken say they search a wide-variety of sources for material and inspiration. Some preachers may view 15 blog posts or commentaries and not use a single idea while another may find one really good source and base their entire sermon on it. With the busyness of our lives, especially the lives of pastors, sermon prep is made easier through these online resources.

Staying Sharp While Out of Season

Many athletes maintain their physical strength and skillset by participating in off-season workouts and personal training so they can be prepared to hit the ground running when they report to training camp with the rest of their team. I currently find myself “out of season” as I am not preaching regularly. I have found that an added personal benefit of preparing sermon notes is that it keeps me “in the game” of preparation by reading and studying Scripture and commentaries regularly. Preparing sermon notes has become a form of personal discipleship and growth for me, which brings me to my final points.

Sermons Are Not a Spectator Sport: Sermon Notes for Clergy and Laity Alike

Liturgy is not something to be observed; it is participatory and active. I believe that preaching also serves a liturgical function, and therefore is a “work of the people” (this is the meaning of the Greek word leitourgia) which requires active participation. Sermons should not be a spectator event, even though that is the assumed norm.

It would be easy to suggest that the only person who has to “work” on a sermon during the week is the preacher. I’d like to paint a different picture though. What would it look like if lay people were familiarizing themselves with and studying the lessons for Sunday? What would it look like if clergy and laity were equally prepared for a sermon? I have a feeling it might increase the depth and reach of the sermon’s message.

Baptized believers are set apart for ministry in God’s Kingdom. We’re all called to be theologians. All of God’s people should prepare their hearts and minds for the sermon each Sunday by reading through the lessons ahead of time. Think of this as a form of liturgical homework. Better yet, think of this as catechesis.

If you put time and effort into learning from God’s Word, when it is explicated on Sunday you will grasp the material in a new way and be led toward fruitful application. Just like a violinist doesn’t show up for her concert without practicing and someone taking the Bar Exam has spent time studying, so too should clergy and laypeople immerse themselves in sermon preparation.

May we heed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer’s words from his famously beautiful Collect:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I therefore urge all of you to read through the lectionary passages before you go to church every Sunday. Take time during the Daily Office or your private devotions to read through the passages that will be preached.

Further, I invite you to read through my notes on a weekly basis as your prepare your hearts and minds to hear from the Lord on Sunday. Your pastor/priest/preacher may go in a totally different direction than where I go in my notes and that’s good!

The goal isn’t to know what your preacher is going to say on Sunday, but rather to be aware of the texts and to be familiar with them so your preacher can take you deeper into the mystery of faith. Allow yourself to be formed by the Word through the power of the Holy Spirit and by the Body and Blood of our Lord.

Breaking Open A Different Kind of Bread – Notes for Easter 3

Sermon Notes – Easter 3 – Year B – Breaking Open A Different Kind Of Bread

Thesis

The Collect appointed for the day would fit nicely with the story of Jesus breaking bread with disciples on the Road to Emmaus, but unfortunately that is not the scene with which we’ve been presented. Instead we have Jesus eating in front of his disciples and then breaking open the Scriptures for them. Remember Jesus’ words while in the wilderness: “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Perhaps we can begin seeing the Scriptures as a form of heavenly manna that sustain us; perhaps we can allow Jesus to break open the Scriptures for us that we might understand him and the Story even more; and perhaps when the Scriptures are opened and we are feasting on the word we will be more able to feast on the Word of God weekly through Eucharist. 

Analysis 

Collect

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This Collect feels a bit out of place in Year B given the Gospel reading. It pairs up much better with the story of Jesus joining the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus when he is truly revealed in the breaking of bread. This reference has to be at the forefront of your mind as you write and preach, but you might want to avoid the desire to move from here to there. A reference here or there will be sufficient because to jump from one to the other would be to confuse the narrative. What really jumps out, then, from this Collect is that we need our eyes to be opened and we need to behold the Lord’s redeeming work. Preach on that. Let the Road to Emmaus come up next year, or the year after, and preach a beautiful sermon on the four-fold action of the Eucharist then.

First Lesson – Acts 3:12-19

I’ll be honest: this is a bizarre selection from the RCL. We are still moving in a non-linear fashion as we encounter Acts during Eastertide. Last week we were in chapter 4 and today we move back to chapter 3; both of these chapters take place after Pentecost and we are still 35 days away from that feast! What’s more, this lesson leaves out verses 1-11 and 20-26. It is not that this is a stand-alone pericope and the verses I’ve just mentioned are dispensable. Rather, the former provide the context and the latter provide further meaning and explanation from the lips of Peter. If you use this passage in your sermon you’ll have to help piece Humpty-Dumpty back together.

Verses 12-19 come on the heels of a healing miracle. Peter has healed a well-known lame man. This man was carried to the gate of the temple (the Beautiful Gate) so he could collect alms. Peter has no money to offer him. Instead he offers him healing in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. People see the healed beggar “walking and praising God” and they want to know more. This is the context of Peter’s homily about the person of Jesus. Without verses 1-11 our pericope doesn’t make sense.

Peter explains who this Jesus of Nazareth is. The crowd is beginning to attribute healing power to Peter and John but Peter wants to correct this immediately. The power doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to Jesus. Peter connects the dots between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (recalling the mighty works of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness) and the Jesus whom they murdered (the Faithful Israelite). YHWH has glorified Jesus even though you killed him.

Peter holds nothing back in his message: “you killed the Author of Life and God raised him from the dead.” The Cross and Resurrection—again, see them as one—are the central event in Christianity; indeed they are the hinge upon which the history of the world turns. They killed Jesus but God had the last word: resurrection, new life, new creation…victory.

It is Jesus the Risen One who has made this man well. Not me. Not you. Jesus. I’m reminded of N. T. Wright’s strong urging in After You Believe when he states that we are to build for the kingdom. We cannot build the Kingdom just as a stonemason does not build the cathedral. The stonemason builds for the cathedral in whatever tiny way he or she is able; likewise, we don’t build the Kingdom—God does—we simply join God in his already active, always present work.

Peter’s last line (in this lesson) is scathing: “you acted in ignorance and so did your rulers.” But ignorance doesn’t get them off the hook. They still need to repent. They need to turn to God. And so do we. Faith in the Son of God means that we can no longer feign ignorance; it means that we are called to proclaim the works of God just as Peter did; it means that we are called to witness to what God has done in Christ.

Again and again in the book of Acts we see Peter (or others) encountering the powers, principalities or peoples of this world who are opposed to the Risen One and he does so with a proclamation that bears witness to who Jesus is and what he has done. Are we telling the story? Are we proclaiming truth? Are we witnessing to the works of the Almighty?

Psalm 4

This Psalm of praise and supplication is bookended with remarks about God’s sovereignty. It is particularly meaningful in the context of Easter 3 because it further demonstrates the call to place one’s trust in God. God is worthy of our trust. He has demonstrated time and time again that he is faithful, that he is active, and that he loves his creation.

Verse 2 strikes a discordant note with the rest of the Psalm. Here talk of idols and false worship sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of the living and active God of Israel. But isn’t that the point? How can one worship an idol when he has seen the lame healed, or the blind given sight, or the dead raised to life? How can idols compare to Almighty God? They cannot, but are we offering the world a picture of the triune God that is authentic and awful (in the truest, awe-inspiring sense) or are we giving the world a “Jesus-in-your-pocket” version of Christianity?

The Psalmist declares God to be “defender of my cause”; one who “does wonders”; one who “will hear me”; one who puts “gladness in my heart”; and one “who makes we dwell in safety.” That is a powerful picture compared to lifeless idols of wood, metal, money, or anything else that is not God.

Epistle – 1 John 3:1-7

We are children of God and are therefore somehow like God. Not perfectly and not completely this side of Glory, but we are still his children. Some day we will be more completely like him. Justification has happened—we have been made his children through adoption—but sanctification is ongoing and will only be completed through glorification. But let’s talk about sanctification.

As I mentioned last week, 1 John has been used to conjure up some interesting views of postbaptismal (or post-conversion) sin. Here we see John suggesting that no one who abides in him (Jesus) sins. This isn’t to suggest that we are sinless, for that is not possible, but to suggest that we are no longer slaves to sin and therefore we aren’t in sin they way we used to be.

We have to believe that in Christ we are new creations and the old has gone (1 Cor. 5:17). We have to believe that God has started a good work in us and will complete that work, but work is not yet completed. This is a prime example of the “already but not yet.” I have already been cleansed of my sins through the blood of Christ and the waters of baptism but I have not yet been sanctified and glorified to the point of being sinless and like Christ. Through the power of the Spirit I am to strive daily to be more like Christ but that is always an imperfect attempt. Rome wasn’t built in a day; it was built daily.

Please, please, please do not use this passage to suggest sinlessness. Take John at this word and understand that we are God’s children (and therefore co-inheritors) and that there is something started in us that will be completed later. We are to strive toward righteousness because Christ is righteous.

Gospel – Luke 24:36b-48

Here is where things get fun. The RCL cuts out the first half of verse 36 and therefore severs the tie between this passage and our Collect with the story along the road to Emmaus (don’t get me started on the RCL, it’s like Churchill’s famous description of democracy). Just to recap: Jesus is walking along to the road to Emmaus and meets up with two disciples. They do not recognize him and he asks them why they seem so gloomy. They go on to relate the events that have just (three days earlier) transpired in Jerusalem and about the death of Jesus. Jesus opens up the Scriptures to them and tells them all about what was prophesied and then was fulfilled. Finally he breaks bread with them by “taking, blessing, breaking and giving” and they recognize him as the Risen Lord.

Therefore, in Luke 24:36a the disciples who traveled with Jesus (unknowingly) along that road and then saw him revealed in the breaking of bread have now reached Jerusalem and are sharing the news with the disciples gathered. Without this piece of the puzzle we completely miss what is taking place. The disciples are heralds of the Risen Lord and are sharing this news with the rest. And then Jesus appears.

We know from the second half of verse 36 that others (companions) are gathered with the 11. Jesus appears and speaks, “Peace be with you.” This is not some quaint greeting, but rather it is the shalom of God speaking shalom over his people. Jesus is God’s peace and he gives it freely to his followers.

This recounting is contrasted with John’s account of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples because in John’s Gospel there is no need to see the hands and side until Thomas comes into the scene because he doubts. But here the disciples need to be calmed from fear and need to be shown that Jesus isn’t a ghost but is the Risen One. And yet it still isn’t enough. They have joy but they still have doubts and so Jesus asks for food to fully demonstrate that his risen body is real, is tangible, and yet is transformed.

After eating the bread he begins to open up the Scriptures to his followers. This is exactly like what he has just done for the two on the road to Emmaus. Jesus relates how he is the fulfillment of Moses (law), the prophets and the Psalms. Indeed he is the Faithful Israelite who has keep God’s covenant and is the Suffering Son of Man. The disciples can finally understand this reality in the fullest sense because they have experience and encountered the Resurrected One. Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s has written an important book on this topic, Thy Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Fr. Behr reminds the reader that we can only fully know Jesus as he is revealed after the resurrection.

Liturgical Considerations

There is nothing particularly special about Easter 3 in a liturgical sense, but I do think that this grouping of lessons provides a teachable moment for your parishes and congregations. Actually, isn’t that the point of Eastertide? We have a 50 day feast to celebrate with great joy that Jesus is risen. Then we will celebrate the Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost: i.e. the ministry of the Holy Spirit. During Eastertide we learn at the feet of Jesus while he appeared to over 500 people.

Most liturgies, regardless of form, can be divided (some more nicely than others) into a “Liturgy of the Word” and a “Liturgy of the Table.” Now, some churches make the mistake (yes, I’m preaching now) of trying to highlight one over the other. This is a mistake because a) they are intimately connected in Christ and b) because to highlight one is to make the other seemingly deficient.

I believe that a proper liturgy is one that is doubly climactic. The sermon and the Eucharist are both considered high points in the liturgy and one cannot be understood without the other. For the sermon is the explication of the lessons and is fleshed out and applied most fully with the Eucharist; to have a sermon without the Eucharist is to have a feast of the mind without feasting on the Body and Blood of the Lord (that which gives true spiritual nourishment. Likewise, the Eucharist needs to be “set-up” and “prepared” by the lessons and sermon because the Word of God is known through the revelation of God’s word. To have the Eucharist without lessons and a sermon is to rob the Eucharist of it’s interpretive meaning and matrix. So, highlight both parts of the liturgy as being equally meaningful and necessary. Jesus broke open the Scriptures for his followers after he gave himself up to be broken. Jesus broke bread with his disciples in the Upper Room and gave us a meal to celebrate often in his remembrance. Teach on this if you can and I think you’ll provide a nice teaching point for your parishes.

If you are not part of a church that celebrates Communion on a regular basis then perhaps you can consider moving in that direction and use this week’s lessons as the catalyst for that. 

Synthesis

Pray that the Spirit would work through you and open up the minds of your listeners to understand the Scriptures.

Pray that many would heed the call to repent of their sins and amend their lives.

And pray that Jesus would be known throughout all generations to the ends of the earth.

The Collect reminds us that Jesus has been revealed in the breaking of bread. Jesus also reveals himself by breaking open the Scriptures (and our minds) that we might understand. The intersection of the Collect and lessons this week can be found here: we can encounter the Risen Lord in the bread and wine because he has been revealed in the Scriptures. We cannot, nor should we, separate word from table.

I want your “so what” to become a “now what?” The disciples encountered the resurrected Jesus, they received his peace, they touched his hands and side, they watched him eat, and then they learned from him. Now what? Well, Peter and John go forth and begin healing in Jesus’ name and proclaiming Jesus to all whom they meet. That’s a good application point!

Finally, may we cling to the Risen Lord and learn at his feet for the 50 days of Eastertide before we move into Ordinary Time and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. How can we fast when the bridegroom is with us? May we feast on his words and the divine Word!

“My Lord and my God!”

Sermon Notes – Easter 2 – Year B

“My Lord and my God!”

Thesis

We are concluding Bright Week with the words of St. Thomas when he proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” These words are significant to believers, but why? What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord and God? My hunch for this week’s sermon is that the lessons flesh out what it means when Jesus is understood as Lord and God. Give people Jesus this week!

 

Analysis

Collect

“Show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” The Collect launches us into radical discipleship very quickly. Our walk needs to match our talk (don’t you just hate that phrase?!). Or, to put it in the vernacular, we need to be “smoking what we’re selling.” I don’t mean to be crass, but that is a good image. Are we really living out in the here and now what we claim to believe on a Sunday morning? Do our lives match that which we proclaim in the Creed, the prayers of the people or the Eucharist?

Our faith is based on the Paschal Mystery. That is, our faith is based on the combination of Cross and Empty Tomb. I heard N. T. Wright put it this way in a lecture last year, “The resurrection of the Crucified One gives meaning to the crucifixion of the Resurrected One.” Our faith is based on the intersection of this two events; no, it is actually the interweaving of these two events into a holistic whole.

Because Jesus is both crucified and risen can we profess and show forth as agents of reconciliation.

First Lesson – Acts 4:32-35

We’ve gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in this lesson. It’s important to bear in mind that between Easter Sunday and Acts 4 is Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church. Acts 4:32-35 makes little sense without the empowering ministry of the Spirit.

The young, little church is growing daily. What sets the church apart from competing narratives and groups is her common lifestyle. (The Resurrection of the Son of God also sets the church apart…!) Acts 4:32-35 is a dynamic picture of the church fulfilling that which her Lord called her to on Maundy Thursday: love one another, and they will know you by your love. The church was in the business of caring for one another and for those around them.

At the center of this life of overflowing love was the apostle’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Without the resurrection these actions would simply be like welfare, or a non-profit organization, or any other modern group that does “good” for others. No, these actions only gain meaning because they stem forth from the Risen One. A church that has faith without actions is dead, but a church that has works without faith isn’t a church at all.

Psalm 133

The concept of fellowship is continued in the selection from the Psalter. Psalm 133 is one of the Psalms of Ascent; indeed it is the second to last Psalm of Ascent and was part of the crescendo of liturgical proclamation for Israel as she sojourned to Jerusalem three times a year for festivals. This is both a present aspiration and eschatological image. Fellowship such as this, true koinonia, is possible in the here and now through the power of the Holy Spirit. However, this fellowship will only fully and eternally be known when God is all and all and we are praising and reigning with the triune God. May we strive toward such unity in our churches and in the Church, and may we know that this side of eternity we will only see as through a glass dimly lit.

Epistle – 1 John 1:1-2:2

1 John continues the trend of fellowship and the call to discipleship. Before we can unpack the message of 1 John 1:1-2:2 we need to understand who is writing. John is writing and he is doing so in harmony with others who have experienced the Paschal Mystery with the five senses. Paul may have been a Jew of Jews, but John and the disciples could boast something greater: they heard the voice of Jesus for three years, they tasted the bread and wine offered by the Lord, they smelled the fragrant oil that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet, they saw his tears as he wept over his friend Lazarus, they saw him hanging on the cross; they touched the scars on this hands and wound on his side. In short, the true Apostles of the church are able to claim authority of teaching because they received it firsthand from the Lord himself. You’ll notice that Paul claims the same authority in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere; they all claim that they are passing along what they have received (paralambano) because they can trace it to the source. That’s John’s point: trust me, I know what I’m talking about because I know from whom I received this.

For God is light and in him there is no darkness. Fellowship is first and foremost with the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). It is out of the overflow of koinonia amongst the Trinity that human koinonia has substance. Again, a church that has unity within itself but is not unified with the Godhead is not a church at all.

We lie against the light if we claim to be the light and/or if we have darkness. Sin has no place in the Christian life. That does not mean that we are sinless. Far from it! We are still sinful but we are no longer slavers to sin because Jesus is our Advocate. We have been changed from sinners to saints but we still sin regularly. But what would it look like if our sins were truly upsetting to us? In the early church there was a belief that postbaptismal sin was unacceptable and that you could be absolved only once for sin after baptism. I’m not suggest this to be true in the least, but think about the severity with which they viewed sin. Does our sin grieve us? Do we strive toward holiness or would we rather toe the line of sinfulness without actually touching it? I want light! I want holiness!

Therefore, our fellowship with each other is made real because we have been cleansed by the blood of our Advocate. We can have right relationship with each other only because of the right relationship we’ve been given through and by and with Jesus. Fellowship is a call to discipleship. Again, our actions and our words need to match up.

Gospel – John 20:19-31

The Gospel lesson picks up right where we left off last week: we’re still on Easter Sunday. Mary has just run from the Garden to the disciples and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”

The disciples are still gathered together (expect Thomas and Judas) and Jesus appears. What does he speak to them? He speaks peace. He is peace. He breathes his Holy Spirit over them. Just as YHWH breathed life into humanity (ruach) in Genesis 2, so too does Jesus give new life to his followers. And this new life is empowering. The Holy Spirit gives them the ability to forgive sins, to lose and to bind. To receive the Holy Spirit and the true shalom of God is to be commissioned for ministry.

Thomas isn’t present. We don’t know where Thomas was but we do know that he had doubts. Friends, doubts are ok! Thomas isn’t rebuked for his doubts by his brothers or our Lord. Thomas isn’t told to suck it up and believe because questions or the need for proof is wrong. No! Thomas is given the opportunity by our Lord to touch his wounds and to worship. Thomas worships on the spot with his proclamation: My Lord and my God. In touching the Lord’s hands and side, Thomas knew that he was encountering the crucified and risen Lord. He know that Jesus wasn’t appearing as some sort of ghost or aberration but in the flesh, in the present, in reality. That is the God we worship. That is the Lord of all creation. But are you worshipping him? Jesus is a big boy, he can handle your feelings of doubt, but when you encounter the risen Lord what is your response?

Liturgical Considerations

The Second Sunday of Easter (the Sunday of Thomas) is the conclusion of Easter Week (Anglican and Catholic) or Bright Week (Orthodox). In the patristic church, and still in the Orthodox Church, Bright Week was a weeklong celebration for the newly baptized. Indeed those who had been baptized on Easter were to wear their white garments for the entirety of Bright Week. During Bright Week the newly baptized went through mystagogy; that is, they were instructed in the Holy Mysteries of the Church and were therefore illuminated (i.e. made bright).

Such a historical reality could factor into your sermon this week because at the end of Bright Week shouldn’t we all be able to properly proclaim, “My Lord and my God” like St. Thomas? What would it look like for you to offer some real catechesis and instruction during Bright Week, or at least to have your people reaffirm their baptismal covenant if you didn’t do this via Easter Vigil? To be discipled is to grow in wisdom, stature, understanding and most importantly: more and more into the likeness of Christ. Inviting people into the mysteries of the church—both through participation and instruction—is a form of spiritual formation and liturgical catechesis.

 

Synthesis

If you haven’t noticed it already, one of my favorite approaches for sermons is to use phrases from the lessons as points in my “So what” section at the end. These lessons are no exception. I’m not going to put the meat on these points because I’d rather you receive inspiration from the Spirit and use some sanctified imagination as you know your context better than I do. Here they are:

  1. “We have seen the Lord.”
  2. “Show forth in their lives what they profess by faith.”
  3. “Peace be with you.”
  4. “My Lord and my God!”

Remember, this is the conclusion of Bright Week and the Sunday of Thomas has been part of the liturgical calendar of the church for many hundreds of years: do something about it. His words are offered to Jesus as reverent worship; may we worship at the Lord’s feet like Thomas. May we see the Lord and profess him with lips and lives. May we offer the world the shalom of God.

Ecce Homo – Here Is The Man

Sermon Notes – Good Friday – Year B

Ecce homo – Here is the man

Thesis

We have arrived at Good Friday. Last night we had our feet washed, we shared the Lord’s Supper and our altars were stripped and washed. Tonight we arrive in solemnity. The “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday still ring in our ears and the “Alleluias” of Easter—those that have been hidden (unless your Orthodox) for Lent—are welling up inside our hearts. But. But we have to deal with the Cross. Actually, we have to deal with the man upon the cross—the one who gives the cross meaning.

Borrowing from Pilate’s phrase—ecce homo—this post will focus primarily on the person (both human and divine) of Jesus. When we read, “Here is the man” we should immediately begin asking, “Who is the man?” Indeed he is the Suffering Son of Man, the King of the Jews, our Great High Priest, and the Crucified One. And remember: God is glorified in Christ crucified!

 

Analysis

 

Collect

Today’s Collect sets the stage for us, per usual, by emphasizing the actions of Jesus. I don’t often desire to change any of the language in the collects but this one could use a minor tweak. That Jesus was willing to be betrayed is excellent, as is the statement that he suffered death upon the cross. The second statement is the one with which I taken issue: it is too passive. Jesus, as the Orthodox (yes, I’m quoting the Divine Liturgy AGAIN!) powerfully remind us, was not given into the hand of sinners but rather gave himself voluntarily into the hand of sinners. This is a far more powerful, active and accurate description.

Either way, the Collect makes it abundantly clear that the focus of Good Friday’s lessons is the person and work and Jesus. And if Good Friday is bad news to anyone, particularly people who have not yet heard the story, the final clause of the Collect (the clause that is always included) reminds us amidst our grief that Jesus lives and reigns with God. Even in the darkest hour there is hope and light because we live on the other side of the Empty Tomb.

I only reference the Collect this much to suggest that the three actions of Jesus are further highlighted by John’s Passion narrative (Chapters 18 and 19) and could therefore form part of your homiletic structure.

 

Old Testament

This is one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, and it is certainly the most famous. Isaiah is writing words about God’s servant who will suffer at the hands of his enemies. It was a common belief amongst Jews that the servant was a metaphor for Israel because they had no category for a suffering Messiah. Indeed the Son of Man as depicted in Daniel 7 is more what Israel had in mind for her Messiah and therefore needed to reflect upon her troubled history to make sense of Isaiah.

However, the Gospel writers knew that Jesus was the Suffering Son of Man and that Daniel 7 could not be properly understood without reading it alongside Isaiah 52-53. This is what Richard Hays has argued in both Reading Backwards and “The Canonical Matrix of the Gospels.” Jesus and the New Testament writers were firmly planted within the Jewish story and therefore used the Old Testament as the interpretive matrix for that which had taken place. Suddenly Isaiah 52-53 is referring prophetically and directly to Jesus as the Faithful Israelite rather than Israel as a whole.

The imagery in this song ties directly into the Passion Narrative of John as we see that Jesus’ clothes were divided by lots, that he was bruised and beaten, his interaction with Pilate, and ultimately his death and burial. The correlations here are endless. The Good News is contained within: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Through and in Jesus many are made righteous. His stripes and bruises heal us of our sins!

Look at the second to last verse: “He poured out himself unto death.” That’s not a passive comment in the least; this does not give the impression that Jesus happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No! Jesus put himself in the right place and the right time because his journey was always toward the Cross, toward death, and toward victory. The Servant has to Suffer in order that all might be redeemed!

 

Psalm

N. T. Wright has suggested—and I agree with him—that the Psalms were the prayer book for Jesus. Being a (good) Jew, Jesus would have known the Psalms through and through as they formed the basis of Jewish prayer life. It is possible, even likely, that upon the cross Jesus recited the entirety of Psalm 22.

Notice the opening verse, it is indeed the same line that we read from Jesus during Palm Sunday when he cries out to God in Mark’s Gospel, “Eloi, eloi…” My God, my God why have your forsaken me?

I’ve heard a lot of preachers focus on this one line and come to the conclusion that this is simply a Psalm of lament on the lips of Jesus. Unfortunately to suggest that is to not read far enough. Let’s assume that Jesus did indeed recite the whole Psalm. Let’s assume again that Jesus did so not because the Psalm was about him but because the Psalms had formed him. We arrive at a much different picture! Psalm 22 ends up being a Psalm of praise! That which begins in lament ends in worship.

Jesus is therefore offering himself upon the cross as an act of worship. This is oblation. This is worship. Verses 1-21 are full of lament and they are followed up by verses 22-30 which can be considered praise in the face of lament. It is NOT that lament is wrong or that we need to stuff our negative feelings. This could not be further from the truth. Rather, it is that Jesus (and the Psalmist) is able to praise YHWH-who-reigns-over-all even in the midst of trials, tribulations, and death.

Coincidentally, that is what the liturgical use of the Psalms helps form within each individual: a repertoire of feelings, emotions, images and phrases all for the glory of God given in worship.

 

Epistle

There are two choices here but they focus on one main theme: Jesus as High Priest. Hebrews 4 was used a few weeks ago and should be fresh in your memory if you elect to preach from it on Good Friday. I’ll point you here for my thoughts on Hebrews 4-5 and reverent submission.

Hebrews 10 mirrors the description of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. The parallels between the sacrifices offered in the Holy of Holies and the work of Jesus are numerous and significant (approaching, sprinkling, pure water). The author of Hebrews will also share elsewhere in the epistle that Jesus is now sitting down as our Great High Priest because his work has been accomplished. The sacrifices of the Old Testament, particularly Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), were insufficient. Israel would annually make ritual atonement for her sins and she would need to do so the next year and the year after that, etc. Jesus sacrifice was full, complete, and sufficient and it was literally once for all.

The point here, and for all of Hebrews, is that Jesus is the Great High Priest unlike any other. He is like Moses but greater than Moses. He is like Melchizedek but greater than Melchizedek. In short, Jesus is the true High Priest and has offered a sacrifice—his self-sacrifice—on our behalf and Almighty God accepted it.

The veil has therefore been torn. We have an Advocate and Mediator in Jesus, giving us access to the triune God, and we are to approach with a humble confidence. Think of the Tabernacle—and the Temple—when reading this. Also remember that both Tabernacle/Temple were considered to be the meeting place of heaven and earth. Jesus is now that meeting place.

 

Gospel

We encounter another mammoth passage, but this time it is from John’s perspective rather than Mark’s. John’s “Book of Glory” gives us far more detail about Jesus’ interaction with Pilate and the reemergence of Nicodemus among other things. The story is the story is the story and rather than working through it bit by bit right now, I’d like to share a few tidbits that leap out to me. I’ll add some more work in the “Synthesis” section but honestly this is the central story of Christianity and shouldn’t require too much work to “bring to life.”

  1. Not of this world

 Have you seen the t-shirts and other Christian paraphernalia in the last 5 years or so that read “NotW” or “Not of this World”? This is a quote taken from John 18 and yet it seems to have been misappropriated. The suggestion of this logo seems to be that we are not of this world and neither is Jesus. It seems to coincide with a belief—subconscious, I’m sure—that this world is passing away and we’ll be united with Jesus in the sky, in some heaven somewhere else.

N. T. Wright is quick to remind us that the Greek here can certainly be translated as “of” but it can also be translated as “from.” In fact, it should be translated as “from” in this instance. Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world. Please hear: unlike NotW or any other claim on Jesus, his kingdom is utterly for this world. There is no Docetism whatsoever in the Jesus’ Kingdom. We are not escaping this world. No, Jesus’ Kingdom is the promise of new creation, of a new heaven and a new earth that will be the same and yet radically different.

  1. Peter and Charcoal 

John tells us that a charcoal fire is present in the courtyard when Peter denies the Lord three times. This is a random observation to include but we learn at the end of John’s Gospel: Peter’s reinstatement. Jesus and his disciples share a meal of grilled fish cooked over a charcoal fire, “When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught,’” (John 21:9-10). The parallels continue when Peter is asked three times by Jesus if he loves him—three times to mirror the three denials. In short, that which was used for ill is now transformed, redeemed and used for good.

  1. Ecce homo – here is the man

John shares more of Jesus’ conversation with Pilate than the Synoptics. In this conversation we see that Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, that Pilate only has power over Jesus that has been given him from above, and that Pilate is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Pilate presents Jesus before his people by saying, “Here is the man.” “Ecce homo,” and I think it’s extremely important that we keep Jesus’ humanity in full-scope. In The Purple Headed MountainMartin Thornton is keen to remind believers that Jesus was fully man. It would be easy to read John 18-19 by only highlighting Jesus’ divinity and therefore assuming that this caused him no pain, nor that he had to submit himself, nor that he would have felt hungry, tired, angry, saddened, humiliated, defeated, worshipful or anything else. But to strip Jesus of his humanity—however inadvertent such stripping may be—would be to rob the story of its central meaning: Jesus redeemed humanity by taking on human flesh; Jesus demonstrates to all of mankind what redeemed humanity looks like and calls us to follow; Jesus is indeed the man presented by Pilate and we should take his words literally.

  1. We have no king but the Emperor

The ruling powers of the Jewish people have sold themselves to Rome. Sure, they are already under foreign (Roman) occupation and are not free in the least, but they have now sold themselves completely from God to man by saying, “we have no king but the emperor.”

Your ears should be ringing with the words in 1 Samuel when Israel cried out that she wanted a king like all of the other nations. God knew that he was their one and true king but he allowed them to be ruled by men nonetheless. This was the beginning of the end of Israel because after the disaster of Saul we encounter David, Solomon and a long, long list of evil kings with only a few bright spots in between. The words in John 18-19 are no longer the beginning of the end but the end of the end and the beginning of a new dawn. For God is their true King and he will prove his kingship through the Cross and Empty Tomb, ultimately the Exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God will be the final demonstration of his reign over all creation. God is King but do we recognize it?

  1. The re-emergence of Nic at Nite

Nicodemus makes his second appearance in John’s gospel. You’ll remember him from John 3 when he came to Jesus by cover of night and was given a mind-puzzle about being reborn. For 16 chapters we learn nothing more of Nic at Nite nor do we hear from him again. And then, when the hour is darkest and Jesus the Great Teacher is dead, Nicodemus emerges with Joseph of Arimathea and helps to bury him. We don’t know what happened to Nic in between John 3 and John 19, nor do we know what happened after, but I have to believe there was a transformation inside of him to enable him to help bury Jesus. Call it prevenient grace, call it discipleship, call it a response…I don’t care! Any way you cut it, Nicodemus was no longer approaching Jesus by night and was indeed helping to bury the man that his fellow Pharisees had handed to the Romans for execution. That’ll preach.

  1. The Mercy Seat?

Is John juxtaposing the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies—hidden by the veil—with the judgment seat of Pilate? Pilate sits on a stone seat to render judgment on Jesus and then (according to other sources) he washes his hands. The mercy (or bema seat) was the place on the Ark of the Covenant between the almost touching wings of the Seraphim where God would “sit” to judge his people on the Day of Atonement. A fascinating angle perhaps…

 

Liturgical Considerations

In the Anglican tradition, Good Friday is accompanied by the Solemn Collects. The Collects take up 3 ½ pages in the Book of Common Prayer and are prayed in place of the Eucharist. Here is a link to the Collects. Weaving some of these lines into your sermon would be wise.

 

Synthesis

Jesus is the Suffering Servant and the Son of Man; he is the King of the Jews and the King of all creation; he is both fully divine and fully man. So, when Pilate says, “Here is the man,” we need to understand who it is that stands before us. We need to see what Luther was talking about when he described Jesus on the cross as the deus absconditus, the God who is hidden. The disciples and crowd didn’t look at the cross and see God; they saw a man. They saw their lives change before their eyes. They saw their friend, son, brother, mentor, teacher, and leader hang lifeless from a Roman murder tool. And yet…and hallelujah, and yet…it is on the cross that Jesus glorifies God. It is through the willing and intentional sacrifice of the cross that Jesus makes an offering of himself unto God for the life of the world. Remember from the Eucharist: this is for the life of the world.

Jesus was fully in control. Power had been given to Pilate but Caesar didn’t give it to him. No, God the Father had empowered Pilate and therefore Jesus was utterly in control. Jesus went to Gethsemane of his own accord. He gave himself up to the betrayers and sinners. He suffered death on the cross. Why? He did this that we might become sons and daughters of God; that through his wounds we would be healed; that we would become inheritors of his kingdom.

The way of the Cross is the way of death but it is in death that we have victory for Jesus “trampled down death by death.” Good Friday should be solemn because we are pat of the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” We are part of the crowd screaming, “We have no king but the emperor!” We are the ones denying Jesus three times. And yet he loved his own unto the end and gave himself up for them…for us.

Entering Lent With Intentionality

Here is an article I wrote first for the Diocese of C4SO monthly newsletter. It was then picked up and published by Anglican Pastor.

My social media news feeds are a flutter with posts about the beginning of Lent: Shrove Tuesday meals, Ash Wednesday services, Lenten disciplines and strong opinions about the relevance of the season. It seems that there are differing views and/or misunderstandings about the nature of the Lenten season. People write about Lent being “Roman Catholic” or that there is no need for Lent because “Jesus already paid for my sins.” I think that we need to unmask Lent for those who are unsure about this penitential season. I think that we need to see Lent for what it is, and certainly for what it is not.

Lent is not a time to earn forgiveness for your sins. It is not a time to begrudgingly give something up temporarily only to greedily pick it back up after Easter. It is not a time for false humility or personal piety. Lent is not only a tradition for the liturgically minded.

I believe that Lent is for the priesthood of all believers.

I believe that Lent is full of hope.

I believe we must journey to the foot of the Cross before we stumble upon the Empty Tomb.

Lent is catholic

Lent is catholic, not Catholic. This is not meant with any insult toward our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, far from it! It is for the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

In this Lenten Season we are athletes in intense training rather than sinners in the hands of an angry God. There are ancient disciplines and biblical practices that help locate and combat the spiritual flab on our souls. Much like a marathon runner needs to practice for weeks and months on end, stretching before each run, we are stretched through our continual workouts as we practice for the kingdom. N.T. Wright challenges us to begin practicing in the present for the full reality of Jesus’ kingdom in the future.

The call in Lent is the call to discipleship. That is, in this penitential season of self-reflection and intentional spiritual awareness we look down the slopes of the Mountain of Transfiguration straight to the cross on Golgotha and journey with Jesus, the disciples, and one another as we follow the One who has called us. Jesus’ 40-day temptation retreat in the wilderness provides the framework for our introspection and spiritual regimen.  Why?

Because we know that we need the cross daily.

Because we know the areas of our hearts and lives that are not aligned with God.

Because we know that we are but ashes and dust; we are creature not Creator.

Our call is not to become spiritual superstars or to take on disciplines to the notice and laud of others. Our call, as Christ-followers and as the Church, is to sacrifice our entire person as our spiritual act of worship (Rom. 12); to be formed spiritually as “new creation” (2 Cor. 5); to “decrease” so that Christ might “increase” (John 3); and to grow in maturity in the faith together (Eph. 4). As you can see, this is the call for all believers. In fact, historically the local church took on disciplines throughout Lent—particularly prayer and fasting—while her newest converts went through the catechumenate to prepare for baptism during the Easter Vigil. Lent was a church-wide tradition. I think it still is Church-wide, or at least still can be.

Lent teaches us to live in the shadow of the cross and the radiant light of the empty tomb. We learn to die to self and rise in Christ. Taking on of spiritual disciplines, coupled with “giving things up”, helps form us more fully as members of God’s Story rather than our own. Our desperate need for grace and the radical reversal of our realities plant us firmly in the tradition of the one holy catholic and apostolic church which teaches us to rely on God absolutely.

Fridays are for Fasting

As stated previously, prayer and fasting are two of the oldest spiritual disciplines in Christian spirituality and Lenten preparation. The faihtful would fast alongside and on behalf of those new believers in Jesus who were readying for baptism. Fasting has become a regular fixture in my weekly schedule as I set Friday aside for the abstinence of food. Why? I am fasting because I want to draw closer to God through lack of food—I want to encounter him in my hunger—and I have found that prayer and meditation are actually much easier when I am not interrupted by the need to feed.

Recently the majority of the 32 postulants for ordination in this Diocese have agreed to spend Fridays in fasting and prayer for one another. Fasting has become a sort of spiritual solidarity that they can offer up in the midst of any circumstance or trial. We are not earning or winning anything through this spiritual practice, in fact I have personally found myself desperately hungry well before the time is up. If I can meet our Lord in the bread and wine of the Eucharist then why can I not meet him in the words that “flow from the mouth of God” because “man does not live by bread alone”?

In On Liturgical Asceticism, David Fagerberg relates a poignant story about fasting from the Desert Fathers, “No fast should be held inhospitably rigid that it cannot be broken.” He goes on to share a story in which a monk breaks his fast and his dining companion asks why. The monk replies, “Because I can always fast but I will not always be able to dine with you. We can eat not and I can resume my fast later.” The point is not to become self-righteous or Pharisaical but to approach the Father through our own oblations and sacrifices in the knowledge that he has already wooed us to himself and that he desires our praises, both verbal and physical.

Will you join us and set Fridays in Lent aside for fasting? This is not a “misery-loves-company” type invitation but rather an opportunity to train our bodies, hearts and minds in the contemplation and adoration of He Who is Greater than we can ever comprehend; it is a request for you to participate in the spiritual life of the Church in a meaningful way; it is a chance for you to remove every hindrance and encumbrance while we run the race set before us. The goal is not weight loss or personal holiness (per se): the goal is always God. It is the God whom we meet in the absence of a few meals and it is He whom we meet in the presence of physical hunger.

Perhaps our physical hunger can serve as a mirror or catalyst for spiritual hunger. What if I longed for God the way I longed for food after a 24-hour fast? What if I pursued God with zeal as I do the meal ravenously consumed once my fast has broken? What if? Perhaps this is an opportunity to the glory of God…will you join me?

Pass this along to friends and family as a challenge to live life in Lent together. Join with those who have gone before and set the example for those who will come after. Lent is a launching pad for the life of the disciple to be continued daily after Easter.  May we journey together as one voice, one Body. May we all observe a holy Lent.