The Stranger on the Way

Acts 8:26-40

There is an idea in Franciscan thinking called Mirroring.  Like so many Franciscan ideas it’s built on a chain of other ideas, so stay with me as I try to explain this.  

One of the things we are called to do as followers of Jesus, as people of Christ, is to reteach everything its loveliness.  We are called to reteach each other our loveliness.  

The world finds a lot of ways to tell us that we’re less than lovely and loveable, that we’re flawed and unacceptable in one way or another.  Even a lot of our theology does that, unfortunately.  So much of Christianity has adopted Augustine’s idea of Original Sin.  You hear it in a lot of our church language.  “We are born children of a fallen humanity.”  We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  To quote Richard Rohr, if you start with a negative anthropology, you’re going to end up with a negative theology. 

The Franciscans don’t ignore sin.  They just don’t think it’s the defining factor of human nature, at least not in God’s eyes.  They don’t start with Original Sin.  They start with Original Blessing.  God saw everything that God had made, and behold it was good.  Christ has come to remind us that we were created good, and to help us recapture that goodness.  

We are, in fact, children of God.  That is such an enormous idea with such far-reaching implications that I can’t generate a complete understanding of it in my own mind.  The idea that I, Steve Beckham, born in Missouri, of limited intelligence, and sinful like everyone else, am a beloved child of God is so momentous that the he mental circuitry just can’t handle it properly.  I’ll either under value it or over inflate my ego with it.   No one can properly process that idea.  I can’t.  You can’t. 

So we need people who, little by little, mirror it to us.  We need people who reflect back to us the image of God that is in us.  We need people who show us we’re beloved—they mirror God’s love and image to us.  They reflect the image of God that’s in us back to us.  One hopes it starts with parents when we’re babies and that it continues as we grow.  And one hopes that you are mirroring it to others.  So when you read in the scriptures that you are a beloved child of God, you’ve already got a template in place to help you believe it and process it. 

We mirror the image of God to each other to show each other our nobility, to remind each other of our worth and loveliness.  

I came upon a great example of mirroring in a letter written by Erin Poulson to Chadwick Boseman: 

In May 2018, I was newly Queen of Newcastle at the Georgia Renaissance Festival.  Black Panther had come out just three months before and it was on everyone’s mind.

I was still learning how to Queen, as the shoes before me were large, and pavilion time was always a time when I felt particularly inadequate.  It was one of my insecure days when I had a young black girl and her dad come and visit the Royal Court.  I introduced myself as Queen of England and the girl said, “I’m a princess!!”  And then she got shy.

I wanted her to keep talking so I said, “Oh, are you a Princess of England?”  She shook her head.  “Are you a Princess of France?”  Another head shake.  I don’t know why, I’d never done it before, but I thought I’d take a chance.  “Are you a Princess of Wakanda?”

Her eyes grew so big.  Her father jumped with excitement.  And she nodded regally.

I crossed my arms over my chest.  “Wakanda Forever, my Princess.  We are so honored to have you in our Kingdom!”  Now she stood a hundred feet tall, and her dad nearly trembled behind her.

I touched Joshua Miller’s shoulder, who had been carrying on a very different conversation as King Henry, and said, “My dear Henry, we have a visiting guest from Wakanda!”

Without missing a beat, his arms crossed over his chest.  “Wakanda forever, dear Princess!!  And welcome to England!!”

That shy girl walked out of the pavilion with her head held high like an empress.  And I remember her dad just dancing next to her, whispering, “Wakanda, baby!! They know you’re from Wakanda!!  You’re royalty too!!”  

Mr. Boseman, I’ve worked Renaissance festivals for almost twenty years now.  Since that point, I have seen dozens of black boys and girls accept themselves as royalty in a way that I’m not sure they would have before.  The doors you opened echo throughout time like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.

Thank you,

Wakanda Forever

Mirroring,  reflecting someone’s essential goodness back to them can be transformative and can send ripples farther out into the world than you would dare to imagine.

In chapter 8 of the Book of Acts we read the story of the Apostle Philip who is suddenly told by the Holy Spirit to “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  Philip obeys this prompting of the Spirit which must feel like some kind of mad impulse and promptly heads off for that road in the wilderness.  And there he encounters one of the most unexpected characters in all the Bible.  

“Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”

This is such a unique person, this eunuch.  He personifies all the margins of his world.  He has rank and privilege as a member of the queen’s court, but what power does he have here on the wilderness road?  And as a eunuch, where does he fit in to the social structure of the world he is exploring?  He may be Jewish or a Jewish proselyte—there were Jews in Ethiopia—or he may simply have been drawn to know more about the God of the Jews.  Either way, Deuteronomy 23 states that neither a eunuch nor a foreigner is allowed in the assembly, so after all his long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem he wasn’t allowed inside the temple.  At best he would have had to worship from the Court of the Gentiles.  His heart was drawing him closer to God but the rules of admission were keeping him at arm’s length.

As he travels he is reading the scroll of Isaiah, reading about the sheep who is led to slaughter, about the one who is denied justice, whose life was taken away from the earth.  He is lingering over that passage when Philip approaches him and asks if he understands what he is reading.  “How can I, unless someone guides me?” replies the eunuch.  So Philip tells him who that passage is about.  Philip tells him  about Jesus. 

He tells him about travelling with Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea and everywhere else they went.  He tells the eunuch about Jesus’s confrontations with the scribes and the Pharisees because Jesus expanded his circle of friends to include sinners and tax collectors.  He tells the eunuch about all the trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee so Jesus could heal and feed and preach to gentiles and include them in the community he was forming.  Philip tells the eunuch about the Kingdom of God as Jesus was building it.  The Kin-dom of God, and that in Jesus’ vision there are no outsiders.   He tells the eunuch that Jesus was building a community for all the people in the margins, all those who didn’t quite fit in so nicely and neatly.  He tells the eunuch about their last week in Jerusalem, about the arrest and crucifixion when Jesus was the lamb led to the slaughter, silent before the shearer, when he was denied justice and his life was taken away from the earth.  That’s who Isaiah was talking about, he tells the eunuch.  And then he tells him about the resurrection.  He tells the eunuch how Jesus has given him a new life, has reflected the image of God back to him so he could see it in himself,  how Jesus has shown him that he, too, is a child of God, that he has value.  That he is loved.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

“What is to prevent me?”

Do you hear the eagerness in that question?  Do you hear the anxiety–the hope mixed with a realistic anticipation of disappointment?  This is a question being asked by a person who had travelled a very long way to encounter God at a place that, when he finally arrived, wouldn’t let him come all the way inside.  So now he stands at the edge of an altogether new kind of intimacy with God, the doorway to a new kind of holiness.  And he asks the gatekeeper, “What is to prevent me from being immersed in this new way of being?  What is to prevent me from diving under all the barriers that have kept me separated from God all my life?  What is to prevent me from being part of the community of Jesus?  What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

Philip doesn’t say a word.  The Holy Spirit answers the eunuch’s question with a silence that echoes across the water and leaps across the wilderness.  Nothing!  Nothing!  Nothing, nothing, nothing is to prevent you from entering the community of Jesus!

“He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.”

Philip mirrored the imago dei to the eunuch as he told him the story of Jesus.  He reflected back to him the image of God within him.  He reminded him of something he had always known even though the world had tried to tell him otherwise, especially at the doors of the temple.  This man who spent his working life in a court of nobility was reminded that he, too, was noble, and he immersed himself in that new identity as a child of God, a prince of the kingdom.

How many times in the history of Christ’s church have we put up barriers at the font?  How many times have we made criteria for who is acceptable and welcome at the table and who is not?  How many times have we set boundaries around who is and who is not acceptable for the anointing and ordination to proclaim the word of God and the grace of Christ—boundaries that have taken generations to break down?   

How many times have we been trying to close a door that the Spirit is trying to open?   

How many times have we been focused on someone’s sin when Jesus has called us to help them find their original goodness, truth, and beauty?

The question is not about the wideness of God’s embrace.  God’s arms are always open wider than ours.  The Spirit is always running ahead of us and calling us to catch up somewhere on the wilderness road.  The question is whether we can polish our own understanding of what it means to be a child of God so it shines clearly enough to mirror the image of God back to others. The question is whether we are bold enough to trust our own nobility as baptized children of God so we more fully participate in Christ’s resurrection work of re-teaching the world its goodness, truth, and beauty.

Look, here is water.  What is to prevent us from diving in?

Heart Signature

John 10:11-18

There is a lot about you that is unique.  Your fingerprints are unique, of course, but did you know that so are your toeprints?  Your voiceprint is also unique and can be used to identify you.  The patterns in the irises of your eyes are yours and yours alone.  And the same thing goes for the patterns of the blood vessels in your retinas.  Your gait when you walk is identifiable and can be used to pick you out from a crowd.  You can be singled you out from a multitude of other people online by patterns in the way you type on your keyboard or move your mouse, a little trick that’s been used, apparently, in espionage.  But here’s a new one—at least it was new to me.  Did you know you have a distinctive cardiac signature?   That’s right.  Your heart beats in a way that is unique to you and can’t be disguised.  The Pentagon has recently developed a laser-based tool called Jetson that can read your cardiac signature through your clothes from 200 meters away.  So now if somebody says they know your heart you might want to ask exactly what they mean by that.

“I know my own and my own know me,” said Jesus, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”   Jesus knows your heart, although clearly not in the same way that the Pentagon’s invasive new toy does.  More importantly, though, we know the heart of Jesus.  We know he loves us and he cares for us enough to lay down his life for us.

Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.  I wonder how many of us really understand what he means by that.  I think what comes to mind for most of us when we hear “Good Shepherd” is a kind of greeting card image or something like the beautiful stained glass doors at the entryway of our church.  We picture Jesus looking pristine in his robe with a gentle, pure white lamb draped across his shoulders.  Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.  I think, though, that the image it brings to mind for us is a far cry from what it called to mind for the people listening to him on that long-ago day in Jerusalem.

When he was talking to people two thousand years ago in Galilee and Judea, Jesus used metaphors that were part of their everyday life.  That’s what made him such an effective teacher.  Even people who had never been outside of Jerusalem’s walls knew about shepherds.  They were a common sight.  They had all seen shepherds bringing sheep into the city for the markets and for sacrifices in the temple.  

Shepherds were also part of their faith heritage.  Joseph had been a shepherd.  Jacob worked as a shepherd for Laban so he could marry Rachel and Leah who had also tended sheep.  Zipporah and her sisters tended flocks.  Moses tended sheep before God called him to lead people.  King David started out as a shepherd.  The prophets spoke of the kings and religious leaders as shepherds—sometimes good, sometimes not so much.  Yahweh was regarded as the ultimate shepherd and, through the prophets, spoke of the people of Israel as “my flock.”   

When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, it brought a particular image to mind for those listening to him, but it wasn’t stained glass and greeting cards.  There was nothing particularly pristine in their picture of a shepherd.  They knew that shepherding was a dirty, smelly job.  But they also knew that good shepherds were strong and  brave and tough when they had to be to protect the sheep.  David, the shepherd boy, told King Saul he was tough enough to take on Goliath because he had already killed a bear and a lion.  

At night, when a shepherd would bring the sheep in from the pasture into the safety of the fold, he would recline across the opening of the sheepfold, making his own body the gate of the sheep pen, a barrier between the sheep and any predators, so that anything or anyone that tried to get at the sheep would have to do it across his body.

Often several shepherds would bring multiple flocks into a large sheepfold for the night.  When it was time to lead them out again to pasture in the morning, each shepherd would simply start calling out the sheep call that was familiar to his own flock.  Each flock knew their own shepherd’s distinct voice and would follow him and only him out to pasture.  So again, when Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice,” he is using a metaphor that’s familiar to everyone listening.  

So why is Jesus using this powerful image in that time and place?  He’s in the precincts of the temple.  He is already in hot water for healing on the sabbath, bringing sight to a man born blind.  This is all happening during the Feast of the Dedication, Hannukah, the feast that commemorates the rededication of the temple after the victory of the uprising led by Judas Maccabeus over Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BCE.  Judas Maccabeus was a national hero, someone whom the Jews thought of, historically, as a good shepherd.  The temple was the place that more than any other symbolized the people’s covenant relationship with God.  So in the midst of all of this, the Pharisees and temple authorities are listening to Jesus very carefully.  And what Jesus says is, to their ears, very provocative.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus.  Just what is he saying?  To their minds, God is the Good Shepherd.  Judas Maccabeus was a good shepherd of another sort. Was Jesus equating himself with God?  Or to the hero who had freed them from their Greek overlords?  They had to be wondering.  

And then he said this: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  Who was he talking about?  Could he be talking about gentiles?  Is he talking about bringing them into the covenant?  Into the temple?  This was both unsettling and provocative to the Pharisees and temple authorities.

And who would those other sheep be for us today?  Who are those who are “not of this sheepfold”—or not of this church, maybe?—who Jesus intends to bring into the flock?

One flock.  One shepherd.  None of the artificial distinctions we’re so fond of making.  No us.  No them.  The Good Shepherd has gone outside the sheepfold to call in all the sheep who know his voice.  All of them.  All of us.  Are we ready to be one big happy flock with sheep we don’t know? Even if some of them have different kinds of wool?  One flock.  One shepherd.

“I know my own and my own know me.”   I wonder about that statement.  Is it always that straightforward?  Especially the second part—“my own know me”?  I know I’ve sometimes been misled into following other voices.  It’s easy to follow the voice of politics or partisanship or moralism or prestige or money or national  or racial or cultural or generational identity out into a wasteland full of predators.  It’s easy sometimes to think you’re following the Good Shepherd but it’s someone else mimicking his voice or borrowing his name for their own purposes.  We all saw those “Jesus” signs at the Capitol Insurrection.  I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the Good Shepherd inspiring that activity. 

“My own know me.”  I think that’s our never-ending homework—to keep listening, to keep learning to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, to discern the voice of Christ above all the pretenders and the noise and other voices that try to distract us.  

“My own know me.”  Maybe Jesus states this so positively, so affirmatively, so that we have to take it as a goal and not make a liar out of him.  “My own know me.”  Okay, Jesus.  I will do everything I can to make that true.

But that first part—“I know my own,” –-That’s where the good news is for us.  Even when we have wandered off following the wrong voice or our own stubborn inclinations, Jesus still knows us. Jesus still says to us, You belong.  You are mine.  I know you.  I know your going out and your coming in.  I know your fingerprints and your toeprints and the pattern of your irises.  I know your heart.  I have your cardiac signature.  You are mine.

There will be one flock.  One shepherd…who knows the heart of each and every one of us.  And has laid down his life for us.  That’s the voice we can trust. 

The Resurrection of the Body

Luke 24:36b-48

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.[1]

 This is the beginning of the Gospel of Luke.  It is, in his own words, an orderly account.  He is reporting what has been told to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”  Luke wants you to know that he investigated everything carefully. So if Luke tells you that shepherds watching their flocks at night heard angels singing and that an angel told them to go to Bethlehem to see a baby in a manger, Luke wants you to know that he is reporting the story exactly as it was told to him by at least one reliable person.

Luke likes details.  Luke locates the story of Jesus in history.  It began when Tiberius was emperor.  When Quirinius was governor of Syria.  When that first census was taken—you know the one everyone hated so much, the one that stuck us with that annual tax of one denarius per person.  

Luke keeps things physical and human.  This gospel doesn’t spiritualize practical or justice issues.  It’s “Blessed are the poor,” not “blessed are the poor in spirit” for Luke.  Yes, Luke does emphasize the presence and work of the Holy Spirit–Jesus is conceived by the Spirit (1:35), and anointed with the Spirit (3:22; 4:1, 14, 18),  

people are filled with the Spirit (1:15, 41, 67) and inspired by the Spirit (2:25–27), 

God gives the Holy Spirit to all who ask(11:13), and Jesus promises the disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high”(24:49)—but for all that, the Spirit seems more practical than ethereal in Luke.

And then there’s the eating. 

Luke’s gospel seems to have an unusual interest in food.

In the Magnificat, Mary sings that the poor will be fed and in Luke’s telling of the Beatitudes, Jesus says those who hunger will be fed.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus talks about table etiquette three times. There are five banquet parables.  Jesus is present at nineteen meals.  Five times he is criticized for eating too much and with the wrong people.   But it is after the resurrection that food plays its most important role in this very pragmatic gospel.

On the afternoon of the resurrection, the risen Jesus joins a couple of heartbroken travelers who are returning to their home in Emmaus from Jerusalem.  These two, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, are two people who know Jesus well.  In fact, if Cleopas is the same person as Clopas mentioned in John 19, then these two Emmaus travelers might be Jesus’ aunt and uncle.  So they know him,  but they aren’t aware of who he is as he walks with them and talks with them.  It’s not until he sits down with them and breaks bread that they recognize him.   Breaking bread, food, becomes the sign of recognition.

Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples huddled in the upper room about their encounter with Jesus.  But just as they started to tell their story, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  

And here is where Luke, the realist, the reporter, is at his best.  He tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”  Well you would be, wouldn’t you.  Startled. And terrified.  If you had seen someone killed in a brutal and horrific way, and then seen them buried, but suddenly that person was was standing right in front of you, you would think you were seeing a ghost.  Or maybe you would question your own sanity.  

Before their minds could be blown too much or wander too far into the fog of speculation, Jesus brought them sharply to the reality of the moment.  “He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.”  

Once again Luke puts emphasis on the physical.  Touch me and see.  A ghost does not have flesh and bones.  Luke is making a point. 

Naturally the friends of Jesus when suddenly confronted with his unexpected, risen presence feel a jumble of emotions.  And once again, Luke is the realistic reporter.  He tells us they were joyful and disbelieving and wondering all at the same time.  So Jesus asks for something to eat and they give him a piece of broiled fish.  This is the physical proof that seals the deal and silences all doubts.  Ghosts don’t eat.

The realism is important here.  This is not merely a “spiritual” resurrection.  This is not some metaphor for springtime.  This is flesh and bones Jesus returned to life. Luke wants us to make it absolutely clear that Jesus is physically, bodily raised from the dead. 

Why does Luke make such a point of this and why does it matter for us?

In the original ending of Mark’s gospel, there are no resurrection encounters.  There is an empty tomb and the cryptic message that he has gone ahead of you.  It has been suggested that the empty tomb in Mark symbolizes that ultimate love in our lives, the love of God, cannot be crucified or killed.  

Well okay.  That’s not a bad message as far as it goes.  It’s an easy idea to carry in your head.  It sounds somewhat sophisticated and enlightened.  But does it move your heart?  Can that symbolic interpretation carry the full weight of your hopes and fears when you’re faced with a real crisis?

We are called to share the Good News of Christ risen, Christ alive, Christ with us, Christ at work in the world.   We are called to bring hope.  We are called to bring a real hope that speaks to the real needs of the real people who live in real crisis in our real world.  Does “the empty tomb is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering” do that?

And again, that’s not a bad message.  It is part of our message.  But is it enough?

Seven years ago when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer I found myself rethinking my mortality, especially since both my mom and my dad died of cancer.  My surgeon assured me that my chances of coming through the journey okay were probably good.  Don’t you love the language doctors use once the “C” word has been spoken?  You hear the word “probably” a lot.  The point is, once the word “Cancer” has been spoken, it sharpens your focus.  Things that had been theoretical either become the life raft you cling to or they get discarded.  I realized during that time that, while I’m willing to entertain and discuss all kinds of ideas and theories about resurrection, for me personally a psychological or philosophical understanding isn’t enough to carry the weight of my hopes and fears.  I need something with some bones in it, some skin on it.  And I’m not alone in that.

I have seen a lot of death in my decades as a pastor.  I have accompanied people up to death’s door and held their hand as they crossed the threshold.  I will tell you right now that the ones who have gone most easily, most readily, and most willingly have been those who believed in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus.

I will also tell you that those I’ve known who can proclaim their faith most convincingly have also usually been those who have believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus.  Though I’ve read his words many times, Frederick Buechner’s words of faith still move me:

I can tell you this: that what I believe happened and what in faith and with great joy I proclaim to you here is that he somehow got up, with life in him again, and the glory upon him. And I speak very plainly here, very un-fancifully, even though I do not understand well my own language. I was not there to see it any more than I was awake to see the sun rise this morning, but I affirm it as surely as I do that by God’s grace the sun did rise this morning because that is why the world is flooded with light.

The testimony of faithful people is a good and powerful reason to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  That’s why Luke, at the beginning of his gospel, makes it clear that he is reporting events  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  

But there is also another good reason to trust the accounts of the physical resurrection of Jesus, a reason that’s both practical and theological.

Jesus was a real physical person who was tortured to death in a first-century lynching.  The state and the religious authority colluded to crucify him, to physically destroy him and in so doing to destroy his opposition to their power.  His crucifixion was a political statement.  What they failed to see and understand, though, was that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” as it says in Colossians.  There was a power and authority in him that dwarfed any power and authority they imagined they had over him.

For that reason,  nothing less than a bodily resurrection would do to nullify their violence and call their power into question.  It was his physical body they killed.  It would have to be his physical body that would proclaim their work undone.  

The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that violence will not have the last word.  Pain will not have the last word.  Fear will not have the last word.  Anger will not have the last word. Disease will not have the last word.  Suffering will not have the last word.  Death will not have the last word.

The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that love, grace, forgiveness, hope and faith—these things will have the last word.  The resurrection was God affirming that Life will have the last word.  

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


[1] Luke 1:1-4 NRSV

Take a Breath

John 20:19-31

It was just over a year ago that we all went inside and closed our doors.  We locked ourselves in for safety because of the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish Flu.  Businesses closed.  Jobs were lost.  The economy took a nosedive.  Streets were empty and cities became ghost towns as we hid away from a virus that could kill us, our friends, our family—a virus that can be spread with a sneeze, a cough, or a breath.  We all withdrew from the places of our togetherness—from stores, from workplaces, from restaurants, from schools, from church.  

We did our best to stay connected and active with our computers and our phones and our tablets. But as the months dragged on and the statistics kept telling us that the world outside our doors was still dangerous, lethargy set in.  Psychologists are calling it Covid burnout and estimating that 75% of us are affected by it–  a feeling of low-grade stress.  Malaise.  Low energy. Lack of enthusiasm and purpose.  Fatigue.  Lack of focus.  Faulty memory.  

Productivity and creativity are down.  Weight is up.  The AMA says that the average pandemic weight gain is 29 pounds.  The prolonged worry, stress and anxiety of the pandemic has left millions of us living in a mental fog.  When we locked down our buildings, we locked down our psyches, too. 

We are grieving.  But we haven’t called it that.  

What we’ve been feeling must be similar to what the disciples were feeling after the crucifixion.  They were grieving.  Their hopes for change, for a better world and a brighter life had died with Jesus on the cross.  They felt betrayed by one of their companions, someone they had trusted.  They were ashamed of their own cowardice in deserting Jesus.  And they were afraid.  They didn’t want to be seen.  They didn’t want to expose themselves.  

They didn’t know what to do.  They didn’t know where to go.  They didn’t know what would happen next.  So they stayed locked inside the only place where they felt at all safe.  Emotionally, they were burned out.

And then Jesus came and stood among them.  Behind their locked door.  Jesus came to them where they were huddled in their fear and spoke peace to them.  He spoke to their anxiety.  He spoke to their fear.  He spoke to their loss of focus.  He spoke shalom.  Composure.  Stillness.  Peace. 

And then he showed them his hands and his feet.  He showed them his wounds not only so they would know it was really him, but to acknowledge the reality of what they had all been through.  It was his ways of silently saying, “Yes, there was real trauma.  There is a reason you feel this way. Here it is.  I carry it in my body.  You do, too, just in a different way.  Here I am.  Let my visible wounds speak for your invisible ones.”

When they realized it was really him, they were ecstatic, so he spoke peace to them again, this time maybe to calm them down, before he gave them a mission:  “The Father sent me, now I am sending you.” Imagine their surprise when he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins they stay forgiven.  If you hold on to anyone’s sins, they remain unforgiven.”

And then suddenly it was all over.  Just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone.

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there for this brief reunion with the risen Jesus, but it shouldn’t surprise us that he didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him about it.  I imagine some of them were having trouble believing it themselves, even though they had experienced it.  We’ve all had that experience, haven’t we, where you see something extraordinary and ask yourself, “Did I really just see that?  Did that just happen?”  Of course Thomas doubted.  There is no shame or sin in that. 

What is a little surprising, though, is that a week later they’re all still locked in that room.  Think about it.  Jesus has appeared to them and told them he is sending them out.  He has given them the Holy Spirit with his own breath which should equip them for the mission.  He has given them the authority to forgive sins or retain them.  And one week later they’re still hiding behind that locked door.

Why?

Well, maybe they weren’t sure what to do next.  Maybe they, themselves, didn’t entirely trust their experience with Jesus.  Maybe they were still afraid.

So Jesus shows up again.  He speaks peace again.  He invites Thomas to touch his wounds.  And Thomas falls at his feet and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

Even that second appearance didn’t really kickstart their mission.  Jesus had to appear to them again before they really got started.  In chapter 21, the epilogue of John’s gospel, we read that they had gone back to fishing in Galilee.  Jesus met them on the shore and cooked them breakfast, and basically told them it was time to get moving.

It took the disciples a long time to get over crucifixion shock.  Crucifixion fatigue.  The Post-Traumatic Shock of all they had seen and been through.  They were real people who had witnessed a real horror, and even seeing Christ risen didn’t erase that overnight.  It would take a refreshing and renewing breath of the Holy Spirit—Pentecost—to reenergize them completely and set their mission in motion.

They began to share their story, the story of Jesus crucified and risen, anywhere they could with anyone who would listen.  When they could, they would share it in the synagogues.  When they couldn’t share it there, they shared it in caves or in private homes or in open fields.  Little by little their numbers grew.  Then came Paul, the adversary who became their greatest evangelist after he encountered the risen Christ, and their ecclesia, their church began to take root in places they had never imagined.

All this took time.  And imagination.  And creativity.  And love.  And caution.

Jesus is still sending us out to proclaim the kin-dom of God.  Like those first disciples, we are stumped about what comes next.  And we’ve lost some momentum while we’ve been locked behind closed doors.

As we contemplate opening those doors, we’re not sure what to do next or how to do it.  We know it’s not enough just to get all of us back together behind another set of doors, even if they’re our doors in our building.  Jesus is calling us, as always, to go out there with the good news of God’s love and grace and kindness.  And it’s daunting.  Not only has Covid stymied the normal way we do things, but how do we overcome the energy-sapping pain of declining numbers and increasing cultural indifference to religion in general and ours in particular?

We are like those first disciples.  We don’t know how to proceed with safety and enthusiasm.  We’re not sure where to go next.  We don’t know what to do next and how to do it.  

What we do know is this:  The risen Christ has stood among us and spoken peace to us.  He has breathed on us with the Holy Spirit.  He has given us the authority to forgive.  And he has told us to go.

And we know that Pentecost is coming.  

We don’t have to figure it all out before we step out.  The disciples didn’t.  They went out in faith and followed the guidance of the Spirit as they went.  We can do that, too.  The Spirit will guide us and strengthen us and propel us into the future Christ is leading us to.  

If we are faithful, there will be changes.  God is always doing a new thing.

It’s not our job to know in advance what will change, just that Christ is the architect of the changes that are coming.  Our job right now is to pray for the Holy Spirit to fall on us and light us up in a big way so that we are brave enough and healed enough to unlock the door and go out.

So take a breath.  Breathe in the Spirit that Christ is breathing out on us.  And then go…to make disciples of all people.  For the sake of the kin-dom of God.

In Jesus’ name.

Betrayed- A Maundy Thursday Meditation

Thoughts Along the Way

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” ― William Blake

Betrayed. It’s such a gut-wrenching word, isn’t it? Betrayed. Just to say it, just to read it can open up that aching hollow in the pit of your stomach, can make the room tilt, can dim the light and warmth of the brightest day. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt it at one time or another.

Betrayed. The word can conjure up faces you haven’t thought of in years, or bring to mind places and events you thought were long ago laid to rest. It can test your claims of forgiveness. Betrayal cannot happen unless first there is trust. It is, by definition, a breach of trust.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf…

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He Is Going Ahead Of Us

Martin Luther once spent three days in a deeply gloomy mood because of something that had gone wrong.  On the third day his wife, Katie, came downstairs dressed in mourning clothes.  “Who died?” asked Martin.  “God,” replied Katie.  Luther rebuked her, saying, “What do you mean, God is dead? God cannot die.” “Well,” she replied, “the way you’ve been acting I was sure he had!”

The thing is, God did die once, and Martin Luther would be the first to tell you that.  God, in Jesus the Christ, was crucified, died and was buried.  And on the third day rose again.  That’s what we’re celebrating this morning:  the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The four gospels each tell the story of the resurrection a little differently.  Those differences really shouldn’t bother us too much.  Each writer was writing to a different audience and relying on different sources.  On the main points, though, they are remarkably consistent.  Jesus was crucified.  He was thoroughly and decidedly dead.  His body was not properly prepared for burial when he was laid in the tomb because the Sabbath did not allow enough time for that.  The tomb was sealed with a large stone.  On the third day the women of his company came to prepare his body and found the stone removed and the tomb empty.  They were addressed by an ethereal messenger (or two?) who informed them that Jesus had risen as he told them he would.  On these things all the gospels agree.

The Gospel of Matthew’s resurrection account is the most theatrical.  There’s an earthquake and an angel comes down to roll the stone away from the tomb which is already empty.  The angel then sits on the stone.  Matthew says that the soldiers guarding the tomb “shook and became like dead men.” The astonished women who had come to prepare the body of Jesus witness all this and later encounter the risen Jesus as they rush to tell the disciples what they have seen.  

Luke’s description of the resurrection is more subdued, but the story continues beyond the empty tomb to describe encounters with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room where the disciples have been laying low.  

John’s account is probably the best known and best loved with its touching description of the encounter between Mary and Jesus when she mistakes him for the gardener then realizes who he is when he speaks her name.  

It’s not surprising that in years when the Gospel of Mark comes up in the lectionary cycle, most preachers opt to go with the Gospel of John instead. The resurrection account in Mark is so haunting.  So uncomfortable.  The angel—or young man dressed in a white robe—is there in the empty tomb.  He makes the announcement we expect to hear: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”  And then he adds, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

So far so good.  But it’s the ending that leaves us off balance. 

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s the original ending of the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark, in fact, it’s the original end of the whole gospel.  

That ending is so disconcerting that by the late 3rd or early 4th century someone decided to add on a section.  These unknown editors wanted the ending of Mark, the oldest and earliest of the gospels, to be more consistent with the other three gospels and, frankly, happier.

But Mark had his reasons for ending the resurrection account and the gospel the way he did.  

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, has come to proclaim that the kingdom of God is beginning, that it is time for it to become a reality and not just a dream of the prophets.  In his teaching, in his sermons, in his healings and his exorcisms, he teaches his followers to confront the social structures, political structures, the religious structure that oppress and exclude people.  More than that he invites his disciples to begin to build an alternative way of life built on inclusiveness, generosity and equality.

When Jesus is crucified, it looks like all this has come to an end.  But now an empty tomb leaves questions hanging in the air.

It’s as if Mark is saying, “Christ is risen!  What are you going to do about it?  What are you going to do with that news?”

He has gone ahead of you to Galilee.  Back to where all this began.  Are you willing to go meet him where he is?  Are you willing to go back to the beginning?  Are you willing to start over?  Are you committed to building the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?

N.T. Wright wrote, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.  The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”  

One of the important themes in the Gospel of Mark is “let those who have eyes, see.”  Jesus, in Mark, is forever trying to get his disciples to understand what they are seeing him do and hearing him say.  Now he wants them and us to understand what it means that he has been resurrected.

If death cannot hold Christ, then it cannot hold you, either.  Not forever.  God is, by nature, eternal.  We were created in the image of God, so we share in that divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  God is love (1 John 4:16), and the Holy Spirit has planted the love of God in our hearts (Romans 5:5, 8:9).  Christ is in, with, and under every fiber of our lives.  Life is eternal, love is immortal.  Because Christ rose, we, too shall rise.  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5).”  That is  what his resurrection means for us.

We have all been through a year like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.  Because of the pandemic, we’ve faced trials and challenges no one anticipated.  Our way of life was radically changed.  We have laid dear friends and family into the hope that springs eternal, trusting in this promise of resurrection.

Now, with the vaccines and the virus numbers going in the right direction, people are talking about getting “back to normal.”  But wouldn’t it be better for us to be talking about resurrection?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to talk—not about resuming our old life—but about new life, and what that will look like and be like, and how we will do it, and how it will be different?

Jesus rose to new life.  We are being invited to rise to new life, too. He is going ahead of us, back to the starting point and inviting us to follow, and to join him in the continuing work of building the kingdom of God.  

Christ is risen!  We have a chance to start over!  What are you going to do about it?

In Jesus’ name.

In, With, and Under

It’s a simple thing.  You take a bit of bread and a taste of wine.  But it’s not just bread and wine.  You are told that Christ is in these things.  You are taking Christ into yourself.  In that bit of bread and that taste of wine you are drawn back to that original supper that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed.  In that bit of bread and taste of wine you are also being drawn into tomorrow.  You are being equipped to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears, to speak Christ’s love and forgiveness and grace.  In that bit of bread and taste of wine you are united as one with all the others who have shared in this sacrament in every age.

This is the eucharist, literally “the good gift,” the sacrament of communion.  This is the sacrament that signifies our unity as followers of Jesus.  And ironically, sadly, it has been the pivot point of many of Christianity’s most intense  disagreements. 

Over the centuries church leaders and theologians have excommunicated each other over their different understandings of just exactly how Jesus is present or if Jesus is present in that bit of bread and taste of wine.  Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer said that Christ isn’t really present.  The sacrament, he said, is only a “remembrance.”  Martin Luther insisted that Christ truly is present “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine.  Legend says he was so adamant about this that while arguing with Zwingli he carved it into a table top: “corpus meum est”—“this is my body.”   Luther and Zwingli excommunicated each other.  And the Pope excommunicated them both.  Calvin later said that Christ is present, but only spiritually.  No one was quite sure what to do with that.

And I think all of this makes Jesus weep.

One of the very first social boundaries that Jesus crossed was the boundary of table fellowship.  The Pharisees criticized him roundly for it.  In their day, who you ate with was important.  Table fellowship determined your social status.  It had implications beyond that.  In a culture where the ideas of “clean” and “unclean” or “acceptable” and “unacceptable” were important social constructs that could have serious implications for how your life was going to go,  who you shared a table with and who invited you to their table was a huge thing.  Dining with the right people could open doors and make your reputation.  Dining with the wrong people could close those doors and besmirch your name even if you had done nothing wrong.  So when the Pharisees talk about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, it’s not a compliment.  But Jesus did it to make a point.  In the kingdom of God everyone is welcome at the table.  In the kingdom of God everyone is “acceptable.”  Everyone.

On the night he was betrayed, even Judas was at the table.  Even his betrayer received the bread and wine.  Levi the tax collector was there.  So was Simon Peter the Galilean fisherman and Simon the Zealot.  They’re not mentioned by name, but it’s probably safe to assume that Mary Magdalene was there, and Joanna, and Mary, his mother.  The point is, there were people gathered around that table who we know would not have been acceptable in the “polite” company of the Pharisees.

When Jesus breaks the bread and begins to pass it around the table, I can’t help but wonder if he is looking at the faces of his friends as he says, “this is my body.”   Is he, maybe, thinking, “You—this eclectic group who would never in a million years have come together on your own, you all together, each of whom would be an outcast somewhere—you, this companionship, is my body.  You people sharing this bread are the ones who will carry on my Christ-ness, my Christ presence in the world.  Take me into yourselves the way you take in the bread and the wine.  My teaching, my way of being, my love, my grace, my way of seeing—swallow me whole so you can be my hands and feet and voice, so I will still be present in the world.”

Grains of wheat or barley are crushed and ground.  They change in form to become flour, which changes in form again when bound with water then baked to become bread.  

Individuals who learn the Way of Jesus together and work together in the work of Christ are changed in form.  Their habits, impulses and priorities change.  They are infused with the Holy Spirit. They’re bound together in the water of baptism, then baked into a community through life and service together. 

This is my body.  For you.

That same night, we’re told in John’s gospel,  Jesus had washed their feet.  “You call me Teacher and Master,” he said.  “And you’re right, I am.  But if I, your Master and Teacher have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.  And in case you’re a little slow on the uptake, what I’ve just done was to give you an example.  I want you to serve each other.  More than that, I want you to love each other.  I’m giving you a new commandment: you must love one another just as I have loved you.  That’s how people will know you’re my disciples—if you have love for one another.”

And these things, too, are in that bit of bread and that taste of wine.  

The call to serve is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.   

Love is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.  

Grace and forgiveness are there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.  

The Word of Creation is there, in, with and under the bread and the wine.  

Christ is there, in, with, and under the bread and wine—the way Christ is present in all of Creation.

All of that in a bit of bread and a taste of wine if you open your heart to take it in.

We Would See Jesus

John 12:20-33

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Some Greeks had come to the week-long festival of the Passover in Jerusalem and were hovering at the back of the crowd thronging around Jesus. This was just days after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and only one day after he had entered Jerusalem in the chaotic procession of Palm Sunday.  In John’s text, this was right after the Pharisees said to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”  That’s when, right on cue, these Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

It makes sense that they would come to Philip.  Philip is a Greek name.  They probably overheard him speaking to someone in Greek, which would come naturally to him since he was from Bethsaida, a Hellenized town on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  Philip consulted with Andrew, another Greek name, incidentally, also from Bethsaida, and the two of them went to tell Jesus.

Andrew and Philip are among the earliest disciples named in John’s gospel and they are the first two disciples who bring others to Jesus.  Andrew, having just met Jesus, himself, ran to find his brother, Simon Peter and blurted out, “We have found the Messiah!”  Jesus invited Philip to follow him, and Philip immediately went to find his friend Nathanael and bring him to meet Jesus, too.  And now, very nearly at the end of the gospel, Philip and Andrew are once again bringing people to see Jesus, but this time it’s because they have asked to meet him. 

So.  Philip and Andrew are good models for us.  They bring people to meet Jesus.  There’s a clue in there about effective evangelism, I think.  They didn’t invite people to join their discipleship group.  They brought them to meet Jesus.  

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” We don’t know anything about the Greeks who make this request. Are they Greek-speaking diaspora Jews who have come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to complete the obligations of Torah?  Are they Gentile proselytes preparing to convert to Judaism?  Are they Gentile tourists in town to see the temple, one of the wonders of the world during the time of one of its great festivals?  Have they heard about his miracles and are maybe hoping to see one for themselves?  Have they come to offer themselves as disciples?  We don’t really know anything about them or their motives.  But we surely can understand their request. 

We would like to see Jesus.  I would like to see Jesus. Wouldn’t you?  Oh, I know I see him all the time in a Matthew 25 way.  I see him in people in need.  I see him in people enduring injustice.  I see him in people pushed to the margins.  I see him.  I do.  And I see him in a 1 Corinthians 12, Body-of-Christ way.  I see him in the kindness of friends and strangers.  I see him in the ways we support each other and lift each other up and work together to dial up the love and grace and dial down the anger and fear and hate.  I see Jesus in you.  I see Jesus in you and that keeps me going.

But sometimes I would like to see Jesus the way Philip and Andrew got to see him, face to face. Debi Thomas put it this way:

 I know what it’s like to want Jesus in earnest — to want his presence, his guidance, his example, and his companionship.  I know what it’s like to want — not him, but things from him: safety, health, immunity, ease.  I know what it’s like to want a confrontation — a no-holds-barred opportunity to express my disappointment, my sorrow, my anger, and my bewilderment at who Jesus is compared to who I want him to be.[1]  

It stings to read that, but it’s so honest.  “I know what it’s like to want—not him, but things fromhim.”  It reminds me of that African American spiritual we sing sometimes, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.  “I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

I want to see Jesus.  That, right there, is a pivot point of spiritual growth.  Why do I want to see Jesus?  How do I want to see Jesus?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want something from him?  Do I want to see Jesus because my faith is wavering?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want to surrender to him?  Do I want to see Jesus just to sit in his presence?

Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves when we feel that powerful yearning to see Jesus.  And let’s be clear.  There are no wrong answers here except dishonest answers.  

We don’t know why those Greeks at the Festival wanted to see Jesus.  What we do know is that as soon as Philip and Andrew came to Jesus with their request, Jesus began to talk about the cost of discipleship and about his own coming death.  We might be singing “I want Jesus to walk with me,” but Jesus responds with, “Fine.  This is where I’m going.  You might not like it.”

Peter and Andrew told Jesus that the Greek visitors wanted to meet him.  “Jesus answered, ‘Time’s up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”[2]  That’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message Bible.  Time’s up. 

The time for sightseeing is over.  The time for spectator discipleship is over.  Now the Human One will be glorified.  Glorified.  As in martyred.  

“Listen carefully,” he says. “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”[3]   

Jesus is once again telling his disciples, then and now, a message that disciples are always reluctant to hear.  If you hold on to life just as it is, you will destroy it.  If you let go of it in reckless love, you’ll have it forever.  Reckless love of God, yourself, and others is eternal. 

“If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me,” said Jesus. “Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.”[4]

I want to see Jesus.  Yes.  But there’s that question again:  Do I want him—or do I want something  from him?  And have I given any thought to an even more important question: what does he want from me?

Do I want to see him so I can serve him?  Do I want to see him so I can learn to be a better follower?  Am I willing to be that seed that is buried?  

The language that Jesus uses here as he talks to the Greek visitors and his disciples and the crowd is all imagery and metaphor.  The time has come to be glorified. When a seed is planted.  When I am lifted up.  But all that poetic language is euphemism for a horrifying reality.

Beginning next Sunday we will observe again the events of Holy Week, a week that ends in the brutal torture and crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday.  Attendance at worship on Good Friday is always low.  We want to see Jesus…but we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross.  We don’t want to see Jesus die, especially not in such an ugly, helpless, brutal way.

We don’t want to see Jesus willingly take the hatred, the contempt, the violence, even the sheer indifference of this world into his own body.  We want to see Jesus, but we don’t want to see Jesus there.  Like that.  We want to see Jesus in a hundred other ways—muscular super-hero Jesus, miracle-worker Jesus, wisdom Jesus, justice radical Jesus, social worker Jesus.  But Jesus on the cross?

That’s where reckless love takes Jesus.  That’s what he is saying in all the poetic language.  The seed will be buried and dead to the world.

If I want to see Jesus, really see Jesus, I need to look to the cross… where, in reckless love, he opens his heart and his arms to you.  And me.  And the whole world.


[1] Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, 14 March 2021

[2] The Message, John 12:23

[3] The Message, John 12:24-25

[4] The Message, John 12:26

Pardon Our Disruption

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Such an interesting story in the Book of Numbers.  The people of Israel are on the road between Mt. Hor and the Gulf of Aqaba.  They’re complaining.  Again.  They’re not happy with the food.  It’s always something.  Anyway, the people grumbled, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them, and many Israelites were bitten and died.  That’s how the Israelites tell the story.

Nobody ever tells the story from the snakes’ point of view.  The way they see it, they were all just hanging about, minding their own snaky business in Snake Land when suddenly the whole nation of Israel showed up with all their noisy grumbling and complaints and pitched camp right on top of them, driving tent pegs down into their dens, breaking their eggs, chasing them with sticks, throwing rocks at them, hacking at them with swords… So yeah, they bit a few of them.  They were just trying to defend themselves.  They weren’t trying to kill anybody.  Why would they?  The Israelites were too big to eat…at least for those kinds of snakes.  

Moses prayed to the Lord to make the snakes go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes asked the Lord to make the people go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes suggested that the Lord could tell Moses to put a big bronze snake up on a pole to remind the people that they were in snake territory, and that the snakes were there first thank you very much, so they should be careful where they were poking around and pitching their tents.  

Well, that’s not the way we get the story in the Book of Numbers, but then snakes never were any good at public relations, and they don’t come off too well in the Bible as a rule.  Still, it’s interesting that in this particular instance, even in the Moses version of the story, God is using the snakes to accomplish God’s business and that includes healing cranky, ungrateful people from snakebite… which they wouldn’t have got bit in the first place if they hadn’t been cranky and ungrateful and gone poking about looking for something else to eat when there wasn’t anything kosher out there anyway.

So, the moral of that story is be grateful for what you have, even if you’re a little tired of it.  And leave the snakes alone.  

Many, many, many, many, many years later, this story would come up again when Jesus sat down one night with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand some very basic things about living in the love of God.  This was difficult for Nicodemus because he was a very smart and knowledgeable person, a teacher, in fact.  He knew the sacred writings of Israel backwards and forwards and upside down, but the things Jesus was saying mystified him.  He had a lot to unlearn.  The way he understood things got in the way of him comprehending things…if you grasp what I’m saying.  

Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus learn how to see and enter and experience the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus was trying to just get his head around it when he needed to put his whole heart into it.  

Nicodemus needed another pathway into the mystery.

It’s like this, said Jesus.  Remember when Moses lifted up that bronze snake in the wilderness?  It’s like that.  The Human One will also be lifted up.  And in the same way that people were healed when they looked to that bronze snake gleaming in the sun,  they’ll be healed when they look to the Human One, only they’ll be healed of something much more deadly than snake venom.

Have you ever wondered what kind of magic was at work in that bronze snake on that pole in the desert.  It was a powerful magic, stronger than any other.  When people looked at that snake on the pole, the light flashing off of it pierced their hearts and reminded them that they had complained against Moses and against God.  They had been in a desert, in a land of no food and no water, and God had provided for them.  But they were ungrateful.  There was poison in their hearts and it came out in their words.  The snakes biting them was a kind of metaphor for the way they had been treating each other.  And Moses.  And God.

When they looked at that bronze snake glinting in the desert sun, they could see a very unflattering image of themselves.  They could taste the bitterness of their ingratitude and the venom of their complaining.  So they repented.  And they were healed.  Because they also saw that God loved them enough to transform them.  They could stop being snakes, metaphorical or otherwise.  The magic, the power that emanated from that snake on the pole was God’s forgiveness and God’s love.  

And now the whole world is snakebit, Nicodemus.  People believe they are walking always and everywhere under the dark night of God’s judgment.  They don’t see that they have been always and everywhere in the bright light of God’s love.  They’re perishing.  Their souls are dying because they can’t let themselves believe they are loved.

Listen, Nicodemus.  God loves the world so much that God has given God’s only Son so that whoever believes him won’t perish, won’t fade into an everlasting death and nothingness, but will instead live forever in the light of God’s love.  

You think God is about judgment?   I’ll tell you about judgment.  God wants to bring everyone and everything, even the snakes, into the light of God’s love.  But some don’t want to come.  Some want to stay in the dark.  Some want to keep living in the deep shadows of hatred and fear, and us versus them.  Some have a greedy hunger in them that wouldn’t be satisfied if they swallowed the whole earth.  Some think they are the whole earth and don’t have room in their hearts for anyone or anything else.  They think they’re all that and a bag of chips.  Some, many really, want to keep judging others, because it’s the only way they can make themselves feel like they have any value, so they just keep living in the shadow of judgment…and the shadow of their own fears.

But the Son of God is not here to judge.  The Son came to heal.  To save.  To lead people out of the shadows.

The world has forgotten how lovely it is.  The Son of God has come to help the world remember, to relearn its beauty and its kindness.  

The world has forgotten that when God created everything God said it was good.  All of it.  Everyone.  Even the snakes.

The Son of God has come to help people remember Original Goodness.[1]

When they see the Human One lifted up, they will be reminded of all the ugly things that happen in a snakebit world, they will be reminded of how the venom in their own hearts and souls can wound and kill.  And then they will remember they weren’t made that way.  Then they will see the love of God.  They will see that the Son came out of love, not out of need.  And the love of God will transform them.  They will step back into the light of God’s love.

All of that is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to  understand.  And us.  It’s what he would like us to understand, too.

When you think about it, all of this is about disruption. 

The Israelites disrupt the generally sleepy life of the snakes when they pitch camp in their territory. The snakes disrupt the grumbly and quarrelsome life of the Israelites when they start biting them.  God and Moses disrupt the poisonous dynamics of fear and dissatisfaction when they set up the snake on a pole.  Nicodemus disrupts Jesus’ quiet evening when he drops by at night for a private interview.  In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus disrupts our understanding of theology and the scriptures, especially our understanding of how judgment works.  

God works through disruptions to transform things and people.

This week we observed the anniversary of two significant disruptions.  

Wednesday, March 10, was the 88th anniversary of the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.  Between 115 to 120 people were killed.  Damage was estimated at $40 million.  That would be more than $800 million today.  Two hundred thirty school buildings were either destroyed or declared unsafe for use.  Out of that disruption, though, came new standards for building safety, including specific codes for school buildings.  New methods of government assistance for disaster response and reconstruction were instituted, too, as people realized that these kinds of resources were needed when damage was too widespread or extensive to expect a city to be able to recover and rebuild on its own.  Essentially, we found new ways to take care of each other.  To love each other.

The other anniversary is one we’re all too aware of.  It’s been one year since we were all in church together, worshipping in our sanctuary.  Our building.  But we’ve never stopped being church.  The disruption of this pandemic has made being church more difficult in some ways, but it has also transformed us in some important ways, too.  Like all disruptions, it has taught us more about who we are and invited us to think about who we want to be, who we are called to be, as we move forward.

The Israelites weren’t the same people when they left the land of the snakes.  They complained less and were more grateful.  Life-as-usual had been disrupted.

Nicodemus wasn’t the same person when the sun rose the next morning as he was when he had sat down with Jesus in the dark of night before.  He had begun to understand both God’s love and God’s judgment differently.  Everything he knew, everything he understood had been disrupted. You might say he was being reborn.

We aren’t the same people we were a year ago.  All the patterns of our lives have been disrupted.  In a time when need and circumstances required us to stay physically apart you would think we would have made every effort to find ways to pull together, but all too often, as a nation at least, we let the polarity of our dysfunctional politics pull us farther apart.  We have seen the damage caused by the venom of our fears and anger.  But we have also heard the voice of Christ calling us together and helping us relearn our loveliness,  reminding us of our Original Goodness. 

We have seen the serpent lifted up in the desert.  But also the cross lifted at calvary.  Through earthquake or pandemic, polar vortex or politics…even snakes…  God’s love still flows to carry us through it all.  Together.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Genesis 1:31

When God Says Stop

John 2:13-22

I have a verse tattooed on the inside of my right forearm: James 1:19-20.  If you look it up, you’ll read this: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;  for your human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”  

Human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  But sometimes God’s righteousness produces anger.   “We boil at different degrees,” said Clint Eastwood, and apparently Jesus reached his boiling point in the temple’s outer courtyard, the Courtyard of the Gentiles, as he moved among the moneychangers and people selling livestock for sacrifices, and all kinds of other things.  He made a whip of cords and drove the cattle and sheep out of the temple courtyard.  He told those selling doves, the offering for poor people, to take them away.   He turned over the tables of the moneychangers.  And as he did all this he yelled, “Stop!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It can’t have been a surprise to Jesus that all this commercial enterprise was happening at the temple.  Animals were needed for the sacrifices and it was impractical to expect pilgrims traveling from far places to bring their own with them.  Salt, oil and wine were also needed.  Torah required these things.

A large open space like the Courtyard of the Gentiles would have seemed like a perfectly logical place to set up a marketplace to provide the things necessary for the rites of the temple, and as long as you’re selling those things, why not sell other things, too? 

In fact, it was well known throughout Palestine that the temple was in business for business.  There was nothing unusual about that.  It was the same at every temple in the ancient world.  Between supplying the needs of the sacrifice system and catering to the pilgrims who thronged there, the Jerusalem temple provided employment for a wide variety of people including curtain makers, barbers, incense manufacturers, goldsmiths, trench diggers, animal handlers, and dung removers.  And nobody seemed too bothered by it because the people in the ancient world didn’t make the same distinctions between secular and sacred that we make.  

So why is Jesus so upset?  Is it because all this commerce is somehow tarnishing the holiness of the temple?  Or was there something else going on?

Remember that for Jesus, the real concern in any situation is always first and foremost people.  It’s hard to imagine that he really cares all that much about the temple per se, but you can bet he cares a lot about the people who come to that building to worship and pray.

All this commotion happens in the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the one place in the temple grounds where Gentiles are allowed to be.  This is where they can catch a glimpse of some of the beauty that lies deeper inside.  This is where they can have instruction from rabbis and learn about Israel’s God and God’s Torah.  This is where they can become proselytes or converts.  This is where they can pray.  But it’s hard to do any of that in the noise and crowd of a marketplace with sheep and goats bleating and bulls bellowing and people dickering over prices or exchange rates.

So Jesus is probably concerned for the Gentiles who are being squeezed out of the one place designated for them.  But he’s also concerned about something else.  He’s concerned that the whole system is bleeding the life out of every day Judeans and Galileans and pilgrims from the diaspora who come to the temple out of obligation as the law commands.  He’s concerned because they’re the victims of racketeering and price-fixing.

Many of the commercial interests being conducted at the temple belonged to the family of Anas, the high priest.  Josephus, the first-century historian, called Anas “the great procurer.”  What Anas and his family don’t own directly, they license, driving up the prices of every item or animal sold.

And then there are the moneychangers, the ancient equivalent of bankers.  Not only did they exchange Greek or Roman money for Jewish or Tyrian coins, the only kind that were acceptable in the temple, they also dealt in general currency transactions and secured notes for properties.  These temple moneychangers were street level representatives of powerful banking institutions whose interests, in many cases, went far beyond Jerusalem.  You could think of these tables that Jesus overturns as little marketplace kiosks for Chase, or Wells Fargo or B of A.  

We like to think of this angry episode as Jesus displaying a surprising moment of religious zeal. Certainly there is an element of that and we’re steered in that direction in John’s gospel by the disciples remembering the words of Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house consumes me.”  However much we might want to think of this as a religious or spiritual act, however, the fact remains that Jesus is making a powerful political and economic statement with his actions.  He is hitting the power structure of the temple right in the pocketbook, a structure that is allied with the political structure of Jerusalem.  The temple is good business and Rome won’t like this disruption any more than Anas.  This action will have consequences.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said, anger is only one letter away from danger.

When Jesus said, “Stop!”  he was in perfect alignment with the prophets who had been saying the same thing for centuries.  Isaiah said it as he stood before the doors of the temple more than 700 years before: 

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood. 

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good;

seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”[1]

Micah repeats the same message:

“With what shall I come before the LORD,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil? 

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?[2]

The prophet Hosea was even more pointed in his condemnation of Israel’s failed stewards of authority:

Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house.

I will love them no more; all their officials are rebels.[3]

All of these words of the prophets were surely in Jesus’ mind as he cleared the market out of the temple.  They were surely in the minds of the rabbis, priests and scribes, too, which might be one reason why they didn’t arrest  him on the spot.   Instead they asked for a sign.  He was speaking and acting like a prophet.  And prophets perform signs.  It didn’t occur to them that they  had just seen a sign that was perfectly in keeping with the prophetic tradition.  Still, Jesus gave them another sign. An enigmatic sign.  Tear down this temple, he said, and in three days I will raise it up again.

Bede Jarrett, the Dominican Friar and author once said, “The world needs anger.  The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.”  Sometimes I think that’s right, but as Aristotle said, “Anybody can become angry.  That is easy.  But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and it is not easy.”

Jesus was angry.  But he was angry in the right way at the right time and for the right reasons.  And, well… he’s Jesus.  When he said “Stop!” it was the voice of God saying it.

Jesus was trying to stop a religious, political and economic triumvirate that was reinforcing ethnic, caste and class divisions and squeezing the poor into perpetual poverty.  God had been speaking to that system for centuries, telling them a day of reckoning was coming.  In the year 70 that reckoning finally arrived and the Romans destroyed the temple. 

From time to time, God says to those who know how to listen, “Stop.”  Stop.  Look at what you’re doing in my name and how you’re doing it.  Look at how you’re living.  Listen to what you’re saying.  Listen to how you’re saying it.  Listen to the words you’re putting in my mouth.  Stop.

Sometimes God says it through angry prophets.  Sometimes God says it through the sweeping movement of politics as the Babylons and Assyrias and Romes of history sweep across God’s people.  

Sometimes God says it with a whip made of cords while driving poor, dumb animals out of the temple courtyard and pouring out the money on the ground.    

And I can’t help but wonder if God hasn’t said it to us… with a pandemic.

Jesus, in the aftermath of his anger was still trying to teach.  

Tear down this building, he said.  The Holy One is not in the lovely building.  The Holy One is in the people who gather, in a body, a building that forever rebuilds itself.  The acceptable sacrifice is not the poor dumb animals or the bread and wine, it is justice and equity.  It is food for the hungry.  It is a people who care for each other.  It is kindness.  

Maybe this past year has been God’s way of telling us to Stop… to leave our house of worship where we hope and expect Christ will come to us, so we can more fully embody Christ and follow Jesus out into the world.


[1] Isaiah 1:11-15

[2] Micah 6:6-8

[3] Hosea 9:15