Sent Out

Note: Today, Pentecost Sunday, was my last Sunday as pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Long Beach. I am retiring. What follows is both my Pentecost and my farewell sermon.

Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  Kind of like us.  Here.  Now.  Today.  They were all in one place and then all of a sudden a sound like a mighty blast of wind filled the place and tongues of fire appeared and came to rest on each of them.  And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.

That’s how the book of Acts describes the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of Jesus.  The writer of Luke, who was also the writer of Acts, really likes special effects, especially the ones that seem to pierce the boundary between heaven and earth.  Just look at his Christmas story.  

The description of Pentecost in Acts is dynamic and inspiring, and I know that the Spirit still does show up in some pretty remarkable and breathtaking ways sometimes.  I think we should always be open to that kind of energizing experience of the Spirit, always praying for the Spirit to fire us up with a passion to speak about what God has done and what God is doing among us and in the world.

The story of Pentecost in Acts is knock-your-socks-off inspiring and it can speak to us very powerfully of hope and empowerment and mission.  But there’s another story about the giving of the Holy Spirit that can speak to us just as powerfully even though it is a much quieter story.

The Gospel of John tells us that it was evening on the first day of the week when the disciples received the Spirit, evening on the day of the resurrection.  The Jews have always understood evening to be a transition time, a time when one day is ending and a new day is beginning.  For them the new day begins at sunset.  John tells us that it was evening.  An in-between time.  And the disciples were all together, except for Thomas.  

They were all together behind locked doors.  They were tense.  They were confused.  They were apprehensive.  Their future was uncertain.  Kind of like us.  Here.  Now.  Today.  They were all in one place, smothered under the weight of their anxiety, when suddenly Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them his wounds.  He spoke peace to them again.  And then he told them they were going to be sent out.  And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness, it remains withheld.”

That’s how the disciples received the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John.  It may not seem as theatrical as the fire and wind of Pentecost in the book of Acts, but it is no less dramatic.  It’s just a different kind of drama—a quieter and more personal drama, but no less life-changing.

As much as we might long for a blast of wind and tongues of fire, it has been my experience that most of us have received the Holy Spirit more in a Gospel of John way than in a Book of Acts way.  Most of us, I think, have experienced the Spirit as the quiet but revitalizing breath of Christ shared among friends in the beloved community.  The Spirit has come to us in hearing, studying and sharing the Word of God, in sharing the bread and wine of the table and in a splash of water at the font.  The Spirit has come to us in conversation and companionship, in words of comfort and whispers of prayer.  The Spirit has come to us in laughter and in singing.  And sometimes in tears.  

As long as we have gathered together in the name and presence and love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit has never stopped filling us and renewing us in our life of ministry, worship and faith.  Together.

When Jesus breathes on his friends he reaffirms the promise of peace.  Shalom.  “Peace I leave with you,” he had told them earlier. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”(John 14:27) And now as he fills the room with his breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit, he says to them once again, “Peace be with you.”

They needed that peace.  We need that peace, because to receive  the Holy Spirit also means receiving a mandate to pass it along.  It means being sent out to carry the love, grace and joy of Christ into the world to transform the world.  

Jesus sends us into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to forgive sins.  Immediately after saying “receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness of any, it remains withheld.”   Eugene Peterson in The Message said it this way, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”

We have been given the power and authority and responsibility to free people from the burden of sin.  Or to bury them under that burden if we neglect or fail to free them.  We’ve been given the Spirit to make the love of God tangible, to make God’s grace visible in the world.

This is the news of Pentecost:  God has a whole new way of being in the world.  God has chosen to work in the world in us, with us, and through us.   We cannot be afraid of change—because God has called us and empowered us to be the change that all of creation has been longing for.  (Romans 8) 

God, through us, is transforming the world, and that can be daunting.  But God has shown us the Way, the Truth and the Life in Jesus and empowered us with the Holy Spirit so we can walk that Way, speak that truth and live that Life.

“Peace I leave you,” said Jesus.  “My peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

In his book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis tells about the time he was attending worship in St. George’s cathedral in South Africa during the days of apartheid.  Bishop Desmond Tutu was preaching when suddenly the service was interrupted by South African security police who marched into the cathedral to intimidate Bishop Tutu so he would not speak out yet again against the apartheid government.  

When the Security Police filed into the building with weapons, tape recorders and cameras, Bishop Tutu stared them down then said to them, “You are powerful. Very powerful. But I serve a God who will not be mocked.” Then with a dazzling, warm smile he said to them, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to join the winning side.” 

Immediately the congregation was transformed.  The spell of fear that had gripped them was broken and the people began to dance.  They danced out into the streets where even more security forces were waiting to intimidate them, but the police ended up standing aside and letting the people dance in the joy of the Spirit.

When the forces of intimidation showed up at church, Bishop Tutu stared them down with a dazzling smile and the Fruit of the Spirit.  That’s our weapon.  That’s our most powerful tool in the God Family Business—the business of transforming the world:  a dazzling smile fully loaded with all the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.  And also grace, which is often the same thing as forgiveness.  

And I would add one more characteristic of the Spirit: gratitude.

As I stand here this morning preaching my final sermon as pastor of the Little Church with a Big Heart, my heart is overflowing.  I am so grateful to God and to each and every one of you for the almost 12 years we’ve had together, for the love we’ve shared, for the joy we’ve shared, and even for the sorrows we’ve shared.  I am grateful for the way you have all been the Church.  I am grateful for your sense of mission that reaches far beyond this building.  I am grateful for your consistent stewardship of your time, treasures and talents.   I am grateful for the ways you have adapted to change. Most of all, though, I am grateful for the love you have given so freely to Meri and me as we have shared this life of faith together.

Thank you for calling me to be your pastor all those years ago.  

And now God is sending us out, me to retirement and you to continue being the Little Church with a Big Heart in new and different ways.  Be not afraid.  You have all the gifts you need.  You are the Body of Christ.  You are filled with the Holy Spirit.

God be with you.  As St. Paul said in Colossians: “Though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.”  Peace be with you.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 


Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11

There is so much going on at this time of year.  The weather is warmer so it’s nice to get outside.  It’s a good time for gardening or deferred maintenance around the house—don’t forget to clean out your dryer vent, by the way.  Baseball, soccer and other sports are kicking into high gear.  Schools are having finals and graduations.  People are taking vacation or planning vacation.  Last week was Mother’s Day.  Next weekend is Memorial Day weekend—we’re already seeing ads for the sales.  When you add in Congregational Meetings, birthday celebrations and a retirement party it’s easy for something important to be overlooked.  Something like, say, the Ascension of Jesus.

The Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day, was on Thursday.  It’s always on a Thursday because it always comes 40 days after Easter.  Because it’s always on a Thursday, it often gets overlooked.  Fortunately, we have the option of commemoration the Ascension on the 7th Sunday of Easter.

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are written by the same author—let’s just go ahead and call him Luke—and Luke thought that the Ascension was so important that he wrote about it twice.  The Gospel of Luke ends with the Ascension as a kind of preview of coming attractions, and the Acts of the Apostles begins with the Ascension.  By ending his gospel with the Ascension, Luke was telling us that this event marked the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus.  By beginning the book of Acts with the Ascension, Luke is telling us that the Ascension marks the beginning of the mission of the followers of Jesus.

The 7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday is a transition point between the energizing excitement of the resurrection and the energizing empowerment of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  It’s a time to stand for a moment with the disciples as they stood at a transition point between their work of learning from Jesus to their work of teaching the Way of Jesus.  

It’s a good time to remember the power and importance of transitions.

In today’s gospel lesson from John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples, and by extension for us.  He says that we belong to him, that we are a gift the Father has given him.  We belong to him and we also belong to the Father, which Jesus would have us understand is one and the same thing.  

Jesus says that he is glorified in his followers.  The Message translates it as “my life is on display in them,” and I think that’s a useful way for us to think about what it means for Jesus to be glorified in us.  His life is on display in us.  He asks the Father to protect us.  And then he ends this part of his prayer by asking that we may be one as he and the Father are one.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In today’s reading from the first chapter of Acts, we get Luke’s fuller account of the Ascension.  The Message nicely captures the clueless confusion of the disciples as they stand at a transition point that will radically change their lives:  “When they were together for the last time they asked, ‘Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?’” 

Isn’t that just so like us.  You would think that after all they’ve seen, all they’ve been through, they might have learned to sit tight and see what comes next, but they can’t let go of their pet vision, their favorite idea, their fondest hope.  We have that same problem sometimes, don’t we?  We bring up our agenda before Jesus has a chance to show us what comes next.

Jesus is surprisingly blunt in his response to them.  He wants them to know that God’s agenda is broader than restoring Israel as an independent earthly kingdom.  He wants them to be ready to move out into the whole world.  He wants them to get the whole idea of the “Kingdom of Israel” –Israel as another political and military world power—out of their heads to make room for the world-wide Kin-dom of God.  He wants their minds and hearts free for what comes next, for the work he’s calling them to do.  

Once again, Eugene Peterson captures not just the words but the mood of Jesus’ response in The Message:  “He told them, ‘You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business.  What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.’”

“These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, ‘You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.’”

You Galileans!  Why do you just stand there looking up at an empty sky?  You Galileans.  You People from anywhere and everywhere… why do you just stand there looking up at an empty sky?  Jesus will be back.  In God’s own good time.  In the meantime, there’s work to do…and it’s not up there in the sky.

So why did the resurrected Christ ascend to heaven and leave us here to slog on without him, especially knowing that sometimes it was going to be so difficult and so painful?

Maybe we can think of Ascension Day as Graduation Day.  If he had simply stayed with us here forever, maybe it would have stunted our growth.  We would always be waiting for him to identify every problem and propose every solution.  We would always be asking him what we should think.  We would be like the spoiled kids who never develop any life skills who end up living the rest of their in their parents’ spare room or basement.  

The Ascension is Graduation Day.  It’s the day Jesus hands us the keys.  It’s the day we become adults in the faith and responsible partners in the mission and ministry of healing the world.

Jesus taught us everything we need to know.  He gave us the Holy Spirit—so we’re not really ever without him at all.  And now, with the knowledge Christ gives us, with the love he instills in us, and with the guidance of the Spirit, he wants us to master our own lives and take on God’s work.  

We are now God’s tools for transforming the world so that God’s reign may come on earth as it is in heaven.  Christ’s work has become our work.  Rebuilding the world on Christ’s ethic of love, grace and forgiveness is our priority.  

That means that we have to be clear about what Christ’s ethic of love looks like in practical terms in this world.  How do we live out the beatitudes of Matthew 5?   How do we learn to see Christ in the needs of our neighbor as in Matthew 25?   How do we embrace the mission of Luke 4 and Isaiah 61: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”?  How do we live out the values Luke 6, “blessed are the poor, but woe to those who are rich” in our personal lives, and in our life together as the church, and in our life as a society, a culture and a nation?  How do we witness to our Ethic of Love, compassion and caring for the neighbor and even instill these values into our systems without imposing our religion on others, but at the same time being clear that our faith is, for us, the source of these values?   

Figuring this out, answering these questions, takes prayer and discernment.  It takes time and discussion.  It takes time together beyond Sunday worship and coffee.  If we’re really going to live as witnesses to the love, the power, and the Way of Christ it means we take time together to examine our church, our community, our world and our nation through the lens of Christ’s commandment to love one another.

I mentioned earlier that Memorial Day is coming up.

I remember Memorial Day picnics at Salemsborg Cemetery in Kansas when I was a kid.  There would be a prayer and a brief speech by the pastor and a hymn or two.  People would visit the graves of their loved ones and plant flags on the graves of veterans.  Special attention was given to those who had died while serving.   I remember how my dad, who was usually pretty talkative in large gatherings, was quiet and introspective at these Memorial Day picnics, and I imagine he was thinking of all his friends in his B-24 Bomber group, especially the ones who never came home from the war.  

“Greater love has no one than this,” said Jesus. “To give up your life for your friends.” 

That truth was old even when Jesus said it.  He was applying it, of course, to his own sacrifice for all of us and the sacrifice we should all be willing to make for each other.  But it was something every soldier already knew and took to heart because soldiers have been giving up their lives for their friends for millennia—for crown, country and cause, of course, too, but deep at the root of it, mostly because they have believed that it’s what is necessary to protect family and friends.

That is the root that Jesus taps into with his Ethic of Love—that God-instilled instinct within us to give ourselves to each other and for each other in a cause that’s greater and more noble than our own selfish interests.  When Jesus calls us to “love one another even as I have loved you,” he’s asking us to find that God-given well of instinctive altruism inside ourselves and to drink deeply from it.

Every gravestone of a soldier or sailor or flyer killed in service is a marker both of the triumph and the failure of this Ethic of Love.  It is a triumph because it stands as a witness to ultimate self-sacrifice.  And as Jesus said, there is no greater love.  It is a failure because we have not yet succeeded in creating a world where we care about each other enough to free each other from the devastation of armed conflict and violence.  

“You will be my witnesses,” said Jesus.  You will be my witnesses that there is a better way.  You will bring love and grace and forgiveness to a world filled with violence, greed and fear.  You will meet the world’s anger and hate with forgiveness, peace and love.  You will meet the world’s fear and greed with grace, hope and generosity.

You Galileans… you people… you followers of Christ, why are you staring up at the empty sky?  There’s work to do.  In Jesus’ name.

Loving Jesus

John 14:15-21

A new student asked her yoga instructor, “Can you teach me to do the splits?” “Hmmm,” said her instructor.  “How flexible are you?”  “Well,” said the student, “I can’t come on Tuesdays.”

A man called the obstetrician in a panic and yelled into the phone, “My wife is pregnant, and her contractions are only two minutes apart!”  “Is this her first child,” asked the doctor.  “No, you idiot!” yelled the man.  “This is her husband!”

The way we hear things is important.  The way we hear things can make a huge difference in how we understand and how we respond. 

In his wonderful book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner wrote:

“WHEN A MINISTER reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.”

“We don’t see things as they are,” said Anais Nin, “we see things as we are.”  

The same goes for hearing.  We don’t always hear what someone is actually saying.  Sometimes that’s because we don’t really want to hear it.  Sometimes it’s because we think we’ve heard it before.  And sometimes it’s because we’re already thinking about our own reinterpreted version of what we think they’re saying.

“If you love me,” said Jesus, “you will keep my commandments.

How do you hear that?  What does it mean to love Jesus?  What does it look like for you—to love Jesus?  

Mark Allen Powell wrote a profound little book called Loving Jesus which takes seriously the idea of what it means to love Jesus.  The title is kind of a giveaway.  In the forward to Loving Jesus, he wrote this:  

“Becoming people who love God is the only reliable path to being more spiritual.  Loving God transforms people from within and connects them to something eternal and ultimate.

“The Christian faith is not just a religion (a system of rituals and beliefs), but a relationship—a relationship of love with Jesus Christ who is risen from the dead.  When this basic point is missed, the Christian religion becomes hollow and staid.

“When Christianity is not, first and foremost, a relationship of love, it becomes a matter of works and toil and patient endurance—all worthwhile, perhaps, but a far cry from the spiritual experience of joy and peace that it is supposed to be.”

What does it mean to love Jesus?  What does that look like?

How much is your love for Jesus affected by the picture of Jesus you carry in your head and in your heart?  And how does that picture affect the way you hear Jesus?

In May of 2017, the cover of Living Lutheran magazine featured 16 different pictures of Jesus, sixteen depictions of how people from different eras, cultures and ethnic groups imagine or imagined Jesus.

Do any of these look like the Jesus you’re talking to when you pray?

Can you hear the words “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” from any of these faces?  Is it easier to hear it from some than from others?

Here’s what Jesus looked like to me as a kid—the classic Warner Sallman painting of Jesus standing at the door and knocking.

That’s what Jesus looked like in my childhood mind.  That’s who I talked to when I prayed.  And in my mind he sounded like Victor Mature.  A serious baritone voice with ponderous music in the background.  And, of course, he spoke in King James Bible English because that’s what we heard in Sunday School, even though we didn’t understand half of it…  “Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.”  How’s that again?

Later we switched to the RSV in Sunday School and I saw other pictures of Jesus, so I began to hear him differently, too.

As time went on, more new translations were published—The New English Bible, The Good News Bible, The NIV, the NLT, the NRSV, The Message—and with each translation the words changed, usually just a little, but sometimes a little change in wording meant more than a little difference in meaning and understanding.

When I was a teenager, other pictures of Jesus began to emerge.  Sometimes we saw him depicted as younger and hipper looking.  Sometimes he looked a little more rugged, like someone who really might be walking everywhere he went and living out in the elements.  

Sometimes he was even laughing.

It didn’t occur to me until years later, though, that in all of these pictures he was pretty much Anglo.  White.  Like me.  And my dad and my mom and almost everybody I knew and went to church with.  He might have a good tan from being outdoors so much. 

But give him a haircut and dress him for church and he’d fit in just about any pew in any predominantly white church in America.  In fact, starting in the late ‘70s you wouldn’t even have to give him a haircut.

How does “Blessed are the poor” sound coming from Jesus in a suit?  

There’s been an increasing trend over the past few decades for different cultures and groups to portray Jesus as one of their own.  Black Jesus, Asian Jesus, Latino Jesus… 

On the one hand, this can be a useful way for people to hear Jesus speaking to them more clearly and directly within the context of their own life and culture, especially since so many of the images of Jesus have, for so long been kind of white, Northern European looking.  It’s easier for people to relate to and embrace a Jesus who looks like them.  That’s why a northern European church made so many images of a northern European-looking Jesus to begin with, and the wide dispersion and normalization of those images had everything to do with colonialism and nothing at all to do with how Jesus actually looked.

So yes, culturally diverse images are a good and necessary thing.

On the other hand, it’s easy for any culture to commit the same kind of small idolatry that white America has committed and white Europe before us.  It’s easy to fashion Jesus in our own image.  When we do that, when we appropriate him to our race and our culture, some of the things he says, especially the things that critique us most directly, may lose some of their power.  Many of the things he said resonate all the more powerfully because he spoke as a member of a marginalized class in a nation of oppressed people.

And that brings me to this image.

In 2001 a team of Israeli and British forensic anthropologists and computer programmers used skeletal remains from first century Galilean peasant men to construct a composite portrait of Jesus. Let’s be clear NOBODY is saying that this iswhat Jesus looked like.  What they are saying, though, is that he probably looked a lot more like this than like any of the other painting or depiction we’ve ever seen.

Look at that face.  Dark olive skin.  Curly, somewhat kinky hair.  Dark brown eyes.  If he was typical for the region, he probably stood somewhere between 5’1” tall to maybe as tall as 5”7”, and weighed about 110 pounds.  He would have been short, wiry, spare and strong—and most likely nothing special to look at.  

Now… can you hear him saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments?”

Are you willing to let him give you a commandment—even a gentle, grace-filled commandment?  

Can you love him?  

Can you see him as Emmanuel—God with us?

I ask you this because this portrait has been haunting me since the first time I saw it. When I first saw it, I confess that I recoiled from it a little bit.  More than a little bit.  This face is so different from the Jesus I had always imagined.

But then I remembered Isaiah 53:2-3 —“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by others…and we held him of no account.”

This face haunts me.  This is the face that I see more and more in my mind’s eye when I read the words of Jesus in the gospels.  This face challenges me.

Can I love him?  Can I see him as Emmanuel? 

When I see this face speaking the familiar words of the gospel, the words themselves are no longer familiar.  They are new.  They have sharp edges.  They penetrate my expectations in extraordinary ways and surprising places.  This Jesus also comforts me more than any of the Jesus pictures I knew as a child.  There’s an earnest sincerity in that face, the kind of sincerity that we tend to experience a little more readily from those who have “nothing in their appearance” to otherwise distract us.  His words feel more personal.

If you love me you will keep my commandments.

And what are those commandments?

Well there’s just one, really, but he repeats it twice:

John 13.34 – I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 

John 15.12 – “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 

The way we show that we love Jesus is to love one another.  He gives us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to give us the courage and will to love each other.  He gives us the Holy Spirit to help us get over ourselves so we can see Christ in each other.

It’s a true thing in life that some faces are harder to love than others.  

Some of the faces we face stir up unpleasant memories for us.  Some of them express unpleasant attitudes.  Some just seem unapproachable.

But in every face we face, Jesus wants us to find their true face, the face he knows and loves—and beneath that, even in some way, to see in them the image of God. Which is why Jesus gives us the Spirit of truth to help us love him and find the face we love in each other.

Sometimes you have to look hard and deep into a face to find the face you can love, the face that remembers it was created in the image and likeness of God.  And sometimes you have to adjust the way you’re seeing.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Hook (1991) where Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams, returns to Neverland after having lived for years as a grownup in the grownup world.  At first the Lost Boys don’t recognize him and are downright suspicious of him.  But then Pockets, one of the smallest boys, gets up close to him, looks at him through Peter’s own upside down glasses, squinches up Peter’s face and suddenly recognizes the face of his old friend.  He sees the face of the boy who left Neverland hidden in the grownup face of the man who has returned.  And in that moment all the love comes flooding back.

Within every face we face, Jesus wants us to find that person’s true face, the face he knows and loves—and beneath that, even in some way, to see in them the image of God.  In every face we face, Jesus wants us to search for his face.

“Those who love me show it by loving others,” says Jesus. “And God loves those who love me. And I love them.  And I will reveal myself to them.”

Who could ask for more than that?

Faith Along the Way

John 14:1-14

I’ll never forget the way I felt on that long-ago Sunday when Pastor George Johnson announced that he was leaving us.  He had been our pastor, my pastor, at Christ Lutheran Church here in Long Beach for twelve years.  He had confirmed me.  He had performed our wedding.  He baptized our daughter, Brooke.  I still had so much I wanted to learn from him about what it means to be a Christian—and how to be a Christian.  And now suddenly he was telling us that he was going away, that God was leading him somewhere else.

When George told us he was leaving, I felt disheartened and disoriented.  I felt dismayed.  I felt anxious about the future of our congregation and my own future as a person of faith.  My heart was troubled.

I felt sad and discouraged when I learned that Pastor George was leaving, but what I felt that day was nothing compared to what the disciples must have felt when they heard Jesus say, “I am only going to be with you a little while longer. . . Where I’m going you cannot come.”  

That evening as they sat down to dinner, he had washed their feet and told them they must learn how to serve one another.  Hard on the heels of that teaching, he had told them that he was about to be betrayed.  But before they could really take in that troubling news, he gave them a new commandment:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

And that’s when he told them he was leaving. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”

So they were upset.  They were confused.  They were anxious.  Their hearts were in turmoil.

 “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus.  “Believe in God; believe also in me.” 

That’s how it reads in most of our translations.  What it actually says in the Greek, though, is slightly different: 

Do not let your (plural) heart (singular) be troubled.  

It’s possible that this is just a quirk of the language, but it’s more likely that Jesus is reminding them to be unified in their love for one another and for him, to be so united in love and purpose that it would be as if they had one heart.  And he wants that singular communal heart to be at peace.

You, plural, do not let your singular heart be troubled.

“Believe in God; believe also in me.”   Again, that’s how many of our translations render it, but it really would be better translated and more to the point to hear him say, “Trust God.  And also trust me.”  The Greek word at work here, pisteuete, can be translated either way—believe or trust.  

Believe or trust?  They have similar meanings but they’re not exactly synonyms.  Believe is a head word, an intellect word.  Trust is a word with guts.  A word with heart.  A word with legs.  Belief is isolated and cerebral.  Trust is a relationship.  I may believe you’re strong enough to hold the rope that keeps me from plunging into the abyss, but it takes trust for me to actually put that rope in your hands. 

Jesus is telling them that, come what may, they can trust him.  Trust God, he says, and trust me.  Trust me to the end.  Trust me to beyond what looks like the end.  Things are about to get more horrible than you can imagine.  There will be betrayal and painful, ugly, humiliating death.  There will be astonishing, joyful, unexpected resurrection.  There will be mysterious and baffling ascension.  Those are just stops along the Way.  Keep following me.  Keep going.  Trust God.  Trust me.

“In my Father’s house,” says Jesus, “there are many dwelling places.”  

I feel a lot of sympathy for the translators here because the “dwelling places” are not really places at all.  The Greek word translated as “dwelling places,” monai, comes from the same root as the word for “abide.”  Meno, to abide, is the Gospel of John’s favorite and most frequently used word to describe being in a relationship with Jesus.  It’s the word Jesus uses when he tells Philip, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me—abides in me—is doing his works.”

When Jesus tells us that there are many dwelling places in God’s house, he is not giving us a tableau of heaven;  he’s not painting us a picture of the great reward at the finish line.  He’s giving us a travelogue.  Jesus is telling us that faith in him is, in fact, a journey with him.  He’s telling us that as we follow him through God’s house in this world and into what comes next, there is no end of places to stop and catch our holy breath.  He’s telling us that there are a lot of places to pitch our tent along the Way, a lot of places to enjoy our companionship, to tell stories and sing songs and make s’mores on the pleasant evenings or to huddle together for warmth and comfort when things are cold and dismal. 

All along the Way there are places to abide.

“If it were not so,” said Jesus, “would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Good old Thomas.  He speaks for us, doesn’t he?  Throughout the Gospel of John whenever Jesus sounds like an esoteric Zen Master, Thomas is the one who speaks up to say, “I don’t get it.  Explain it to me like I’m five.”  

“You know the way,” said Jesus.  “You know me.  I am the way. And the truth.  And the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Too many Christians have pulled this statement out of its context and turned it into a proof text to claim that believing in Jesus is the one and only way to get to heaven.  Not only does this reduce faith in Christ to nothing more than a ticket to paradise, it is completely contrary to the spirit and intention of the other “I AM” statements in John.  

In the seven “I AM” statements in John, Jesus is telling us that he is the ultimate source of abundant life and grace.  When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” or “I am the light of the world ” or “I am the gate” or “I am the Good Shepherd” or “I am the true vine,” these statements signify the very presence of God.  Jesus, himself, makes that clear when he says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.  In fact, you already know him and have seen him.”  

This is an echo of what he has already said to them at the end of chapter 12 when he said: 

“Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”

“I am the Way the Truth and the Life,” says Jesus.  “No one comes to the Father except—through  me/because of me/with me—those are all legitimate ways to translate that versatile little Greek preposition dia that indicates Jesus is the conduit into God’s presence.  Jesus isn’t saying that you have to make some formal statement of spiritual allegiance to him or accept certain doctrinal principles about him.  Whether you do these things or not, he is the one who brings you into the presence of God because he is the presence of God.

Frederick Buechner put it this way:

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way. 

“Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.”

It is possible to be on Christ’s way without ever having heard of Christ.  It’s possible to be on Christ’s way if you are a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist.  It’s possible to be living in the Way of Jesus even if you are agnostic or an atheist.  

If your life is centered in love for God’s people and for God’s creation, if Truth is your highest value and it pains you to see truth devalued, if you believe that Life is a gift to be entered into deeply, a gift to be treasured and enjoyed and shared, then whether you know it or not, you are walking in the Way of Jesus, a Way that leads directly to God’s presence…even if you don’t recognize it.

“I’m going on ahead of you,” said Jesus, “and I know that right now it feels just devastating.  But trust God.  Trust me.  Keep walking in my Way.  Keep speaking Truth.  Keep empowering and sustaining Life and immersing yourself in it.  Our pilgrimage into the heart of God is endless and there will be no end of places for us to meet up along the Way.” 

Image © AinVaresArt,

Who Wants You to Believe What? And Why?

John 10:1-10

The Revised Common Lectionary, which most pastors and preachers follow in our tradition, repeats every three years.  The texts don’t change, but the way we hear them is different every time.  God continues to speak through these texts to this people in this place at this time and in these current circumstances.  The text doesn’t change, but the circumstances do.

Six years ago, for instance, today’s gospel text spoke to me powerfully and deeply in ways I could never have foreseen.  

Only two days before preaching this text, I had presided over a memorial service for Meghan Brown, the daughter of some our closest friends, a young woman who had grown up with our kids.  

I had performed her wedding two years earlier, which gave her death an extra layer of pain for me and a feeling of something like guilt, because she was murdered by her husband, the man I had united her to in marriage.  

When I came to the part of today’s gospel where Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” it just wrecked me.  

But then I thought about her memorial service.  I thought about the church filled to capacity with people who had been touched by her, whose lives had interconnected with hers and with ours.  I thought about how they had all come “back to church” for her, back to the Christ-centered starting point where all our relationships had begun.  

I thought about how in that service, despite the pain and anger and sadness that had brought us there, we experienced the joy and comfort of the abundant life we had all shared over the years.  And I realized that our abundant life continues.  I realized that Meghan’s abundant life continues, that she lives on in the hearts and memories of her friends and family and in the loving presence and heart of Christ.

Three years ago, when this gospel text came up for the 4th Sunday of Easter, we were still in the very early days of the Covid 19 pandemic lockdown.  Talking about the abundant life seemed like the apex of irony when we were sequestered in our homes and hearing about thousands of deaths every day.  But our abundant life together continued in spite of our enforced isolation.  We found ways to continue our worship and education online and even discovered that our after-worship fellowship time had a unique advantage because everyone was able see everyone all at once and speak to everyone all at once, taking turns in the conversation. 

The text is the same but we hear it differently because of what is going on in our lives and in our world.  

What’s influencing the way you hear the text this year?

One of the downsides of preaching the lectionary is that the lectionary sometimes isolates sections of a text from its fuller context.  The fourth Sunday of Easter, for example, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, so the lectionary each year takes a different section of chapter ten from John’s gospel where Jesus uses shepherd and sheep imagery.  We get a different part of chapter 10 each year, but all these fragments are part of a larger unit, a larger story being told in John, that starts at the beginning of chapter nine and doesn’t end until verse 21 of chapter 10.  

This is the story of Jesus healing the man born blind, and the events of the story that’s told in chapter nine play out in and give meaning to the cryptic shepherd imagery Jesus uses in chapter 10.  

After Jesus gives the blind man his sight, some Pharisees are upset because Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  By the time we get to the end of this story in verse 21 of chapter 10, some of them are accusing Jesus of having a demon and being out of his mind.  Others, however, noted that a demon wouldn’t say the things Jesus has been saying and that a demon certainly wouldn’t open the eyes of the blind. 

They heard the same words but they heard them differently.

When the formerly blind man tells his interrogators that Jesus is a prophet, they drive him out of the temple.  He’s gets booted out of his lifelong flock but in that same moment he is received into another flock. 

He has been kicked out of the religious community that he had been part of his entire life, but he has also been immediately accepted into the faith community surrounding Jesus, the “sheep who hear his voice.”  He hears Jesus not only as the prophet who gave him his sight, but now as the Son of Man (9:35-38) who came into this world “for judgment, so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” (9:39)

The Pharisees and religious authorities who kicked the blind man out of their “flock” are also listening to Jesus but they’re not quite sure what to make of him.  In his Shepherd language, they hear Jesus referencing Isaiah and Ezekiel and Zechariah, but in alluding to those prophets, they also hear something that might be criticism leveled directly at them.

The formerly blind man hears Jesus describe himself as the gate that opens to welcome him into the safety, camaraderie and protection of the flock led by the Good Shepherd.  The Pharisees hear Jesus describe himself as the gate that separates the flock away from their influence and the rigid observance of religious traditions that they see as the only path of righteousness.

They hear the same words but they hear very different meanings.

When I taught Confirmation, I always began our section on the Apostles’ Creed by asking the students, “Who wants you to believe what, and why?”  We kept that question in front of us the whole time we talked about the Creed.  We kept that question in front of us as we talked about our society and all the forces and influences in our culture that want us to think and act a certain way.  We kept that question in front of us as we talked about all the voices that call out to us in life, that call us to follow them, voices that are not the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Who wants you to believe what?  And why? 

When we were ordered to stay at home three years ago to help prevent the spread of a disease that was killing people by the thousands every day, when we were ordered to wear masks in public, when we were asked to practice social distancing and stay at least six feet apart from each other when we took the risk of venturing out for groceries, most people heard these orders as the voice of medical authority urging reasonable precautions in order to keep us all safe.  But some protested and refused to abide by these precautions because they heard these orders as the voice of malicious authoritarianism with some kind of nefarious secret agenda.

We all heard the same words.  We didn’t all hear them the same way.  We didn’t hear the same voice.

What voices are you listening to?  What news sources do you read or watch or listen to?  What kind of message are they giving you about the world?  Are they messages rooted in faith, hope and love?  Or are they messages rooted in fear?  Do they seek to enlarge your freedom and the freedom of others or do they want control?

We’ve just entered another Presidential campaign season, and this week one of our political parties released a campaign commercial  depicting a bleak and almost apocalyptic future that will supposedly be the inevitable result of electing their opponent.  All of the images in the commercial were  generated by Artificial Intelligence.  Nothing in it is real.  Nothing at all.  Even the images of real people are faked, intentionally faked in a way that makes them look creepy.  At the end of all that computer generated dystopian imagery a voice asks, “Who’s in charge here?”  

Wow.  Talk about gob-smacking irony.  That’s quite a question, coming from a machine.

But I have another question:  Who wants you to believe what?  

And why?

What voices are you listening to?  What news sources do you read or watch or listen to?  What kind of message are they giving you about the world?  About yourself?  What kind of messages are you letting into your heart and mind and soul? 

Are they messages rooted in faith, hope and love?  Or are they messages rooted in fear?  

Do they seek to enlarge your heart or shrink it?  

Do they seek to open your embrace of others or close it?

Who is the gatekeeper for your heart and mind and soul?

“Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

The Shepherd leads the sheep and they follow him because they know his voice. But there are so many other voices that want to distract us.  So many other things calling our names and asking for or even demanding our time. So many things drawing us away from the sheepfold, from the companionship of faith.  So many voices competing with the voice of Jesus, the Shepherd.  

We know what they take from us, these voices that call us away.  But what do they give us when all is said and done?

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” said Jesus.  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life.  That’s what Jesus wants to give us

Abundant life.  That’s what the community of faith is supposed to be about—what it is about at its best.  Abundant life is the gift Christ gives us in our life together.

As I conducted Meghan’s memorial service six years ago, I realized that, while it was Meghan’s tragic and untimely death that had brought us together that day, it was Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who had originally brought us all together in the first place.  We had all met each other in the very beginning because we had come to church.  We had met in the company of Christ.  We had heard the voice of the Shepherd who called us all together into one great big flocking family.

That’s how it has been for us here, too, at the Little Church with a Big Heart.  Jesus has been our gateway into this remarkable community, this flock that is so full of love, a love that has been palpable and undiminished by the years.  

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for the Shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

The Shepherd calls us by name and we follow his voice.  Sometimes he calls us to flock together and sometimes he puts us out to pasture.  When I retire in a few weeks, I’ll just be following the Shepherd out to pasture.  But I will still be listening to the Shepherd.  And I will always be grateful for the time I spent in this flock.

And as I follow the Shepherd out to pasture, I will still be listening to the world around me and asking who wants me to believe what?  And why?

A Breath of Fresh Air

John 20:19-31

Have you ever found yourself in a group of people who are going on and on about a particularly beautiful and inspiring place they’ve all been to but you haven’t been there?  Or maybe they’re talking about a show or a movie you haven’t seen, and they keep talking about how moving it is or how a particular scene brought tears to their eyes, or how it made them think about things in a whole new way?  And maybe they even turn to you and say, “Oh you’ve got to go see it!”  But you haven’t been to that place or seen that show, and you really can’t imagine that it’s everything they say it is, so you wander over to another group who are having a good-natured debate about whether or not garlic belongs in guacamole. 

It’s hard to be fully involved in the conversation about an experience you haven’t had.  It’s hard to believe that the thing everybody’s talking about is really as terrific as they say when you haven’t seen it yourself.

In today’s Gospel reading we have a story about a guy who had not yet had the experience that all his friends were talking about, a guy who simply couldn’t imagine the life-changing event his friends were describing because it just seemed too far-fetched, too contrary to the way the universe and life are known to work.  It was easier to believe that his friends were pulling some kind of elaborate prank in very poor taste than to believe that their beloved teacher who had been tortured to death had suddenly shown up in the room with them very much alive.

The story of Thomas is a story for us.  And a story about us.  When Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen?” then adds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he is talking to us.  And about us.

This is a story for us, to us and about us even before Thomas is ever mentioned.  The story begins with the disciples huddled together behind locked doors.  They are afraid.  The world beyond those locked doors has become a dangerous place for them, and it’s easy for them to imagine that all that danger might burst through those locked doors any second now.  

They are grieving.  They are afraid.  And they are in turmoil.  In the midst of all that, Peter and the other disciple had erupted into the room all in a lather to say that the tomb was empty and the grave clothes were all neatly folded.  Okay.  Weird, but maybe explainable.  But then Mary Magdalene swept in and told them that she has seen Jesus and spoken to him!  But so far, she’s the only one who claimed to have actually seen the Jesus, resurrected and alive.  She’s the only one so far who had claimed to have spoken with him.  And for the rest of them… well that was just…unbelievable… so they passed it off as a delusion caused by her grief.  Or maybe some kind of female thing.  Because, you know, that’s how the boys’ club usually dealt with the perplexing things women sometimes said.

So there they were, locked in grief and fear and unbelief every bit as much as they were locked behind those doors.

But then Jesus showed up behind their locked door, stepping into their emotional prison to free them from the fear and grief that were paralyzing them, and at the same time unlocking and opening for them a whole new understanding of life and death and God.  

Jesus does the same thing for us.  Jesus steps inside our locked up spaces.  Jesus steps through our fear and unbelief to come and stand beside us and among us, to show us that he is alive—and to teach us how to live in a new reality.  If we will believe.  If we will trust.

In his book Living Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote, “The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?

“If Jesus is simply dead, there are any number of ways we can relate ourselves to his life and his accomplishments. And we might even, if some obscure bit of data should turn up, hope to learn more about him. But we cannot reasonably expect to learn more from him.

“If he is alive, however, everything changes. It is no longer a matter of our questioning an historical record, but a matter of our being put in question by one who has broken every rule of ordinary human existence. If Jesus lives, then it must be as life-giver. Jesus is not simply a figure of the past in that case, but a person in the present; not merely a memory we can analyze and manipulate, but an agent who can confront and instruct us. What we can learn about him must therefore include what we continue to learn from him.”

When Jesus steps into the locked up places in our hearts and minds, when Jesus steps through our fears and unbelief to stand before us, to stand in the midst of us, he does it for a reason.  The living Jesus stands in our midst not just so that we can resume the same old relationships with God and with each other that we had before, but so that we can begin an entirely new relationship with God and with each other.  

Jesus does not just want us to learn about him.  Jesus wants us to learn from him so we can live in unity with him.  We are not united to a dead, historical Christ who lives only in the pages of the Gospels.  We are united to a living Jesus who stands here among us, who meets us at the table of companionship, sharing with us and serving us all at the same time. We are united with a living Jesus who meets us in disguise on the streets just as in Matthew 25.  He awakens us to his presence and opens our eyes to look for him.  He urges us to be listening for him.  He opens our minds so we can learn from him.  He embraces us to be one with him as he is one with the Father.  

But Jesus doesn’t just show up.  Jesus knows that there’s something more that we need so we can rise out of our pain and fears and unbelief.  Jesus knows we need a spirit of courage that will make us brave enough and bold enough to love each other and love the world, a spirit of joy and wonder that will keep us from slipping into cynicism or despair in a world that is all too often indifferent when it isn’t being downright nasty.  Jesus knows that if we’re going to help heal the world’s angst, we need to be free of it ourselves.  So he gives us the antidote.

“Peace be with you,” he says.  Shalom aleichem.  Put away your anxiety.  Let go of your fear.  Put away your disagreement.  Stop trying so hard to be right.  Try, instead to be loving.  Stop the finger-pointing.  Stop investing so much energy and emotion in nonsense and things that don’t really matter.  “Peace.  There is so much you may never agree on, but you can agree on me.  Peace.  I will be your peace.”  

“After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” 

He showed them his hands and his side.  He shows us his wounds.  

In Wounded Lord, Robert Smith’s commentary on the Gospel of John, which he completed shortly before he died, he wrote: “Those wounds will never go away.  The exalted Christ has not passed to a sublime existence immune to suffering.  Even after Good Friday and Easter, God continues to turn to the world through the wounded Christ.

 “To believe in this Jesus means to take him, wounds and all, into our own lives.  To believe means to participate in Christ’s own suffering on behalf of the true life of the world.”

Our Christ, our God, is not some transcendent deity who sits in heaven far removed from the pain of our existence.  Our Christ, our God is wounded from embracing the world, wounded from loving the world.  We can sing about victory all we want, but the reality is that we’re still in the struggle, and the Good News, the really Good News is not that our Messiah, our Commander is immortal and impervious, but that he has a Purple Heart.  The Good News is that his wounds were fatal, but his fatality was not.  His wounds mean that our wounds may kill us, but that won’t stop us.  “If we share in a death like his,” says St. Paul, “then surely we will share in a resurrection like his.”

But first, we need peace.  And before we can spread peace “out there” we need to spread it “in here.”  

         We each need to receive that peace.

         We need to share that peace with each other.

This is so important that Jesus said it three times.  Peace be with you.

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 

This is where we go from being disciples to being apostles.  Now we have the same mission Jesus had.  We are not supposed to just sit still and happy in our own little pool of peace.  We are sent.  We have to go out in peace.  And with peace.  We have to be grounded in Shalom—the blessing of well-being—but on the move, carrying the shalom of God with us, sharing it and spreading it.

“When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It says in most English translations that Jesus breathed on them.  Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary says that the better translation would be that he breathed into them, and she reminds us that the word that’s used in the Greek, emphisao, is the same word that’s used in the Septuagint Greek version of Genesis 2 when God breathes life into the human that God has made out of earth.  This is the breath that gives life.  Jesus breathes the Spirit of life into us to give us a whole new life.

Breathe.  Take a moment right now and breathe.  Inhale the Spirit of God that is being breathed into you right now, right where you are.  Breathe.  

Now breathe out.  Let the holiness in you, the Christ in you, the love and goodness in you fill the room.  And now breathe in again.  Breathe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of Christ. 

And now, think about this.  This new life that you are breathing in—it has a purpose.  You are being sent.  “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” said Jesus.  You are being sent to bring God’s shalom to the world.  You are being sent to bring shalom into your home, to breathe out the love of Christ and breathe in the presence of Christ from those around you.  You are being sent into the world to breathe the Spirit of God and divine shalom into every place you go and everyone you meet.

Hand in hand with the breath of the Spirit comes the duty of 

forgiveness.  As Jesus breathes into his disciples he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Jesus gives us this very serious but also joyous job of discernment.  If you forgive, it’s forgiven.  Forever. Period. If you do not forgive, someone will carry the burden unforgiveness…and it might be you.  Refusing to forgive can forge a very heavy chain that binds you to the unforgiven person in ways that are painful and destructive. 

The Greek word for forgiveness means “to set loose, to set free.”  Just as there is bondage in not forgiving, there is transformative liberation in forgiveness.  As followers of Jesus, we are in the forgiveness business.

Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox wrote:  “The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business. . .

“What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business – and that, of course, is the church’s real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can’t turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what’s right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. . . We Easter People have been sent to forgive sins.”

Receive the Holy Spirit.  Breathe in the shalom of God then breathe it out again into a world that is gasping for the breath of peace.  If you forgive anybody anything, in God’s eyes it is forgiven.  When you do not forgive, someone will carry the burden and the body of Christ will continue to be wounded.  

And don’t worry about the Thomases of this world.  Don’t worry about those who don’t believe.  Just love them patiently and surround them with your peace.  When they see what you’ve seen and hear what you’ve heard, perhaps they will come to believe what you believe.  Until then, forgive their unbelief.  

Whom Are You Looking For?

John 20:1-18

         Whom are you looking for?   It’s the question Jesus asks Mary Magdalene as she stands weeping in the garden…  Whom are you looking  for?  The last voice she expected to hear that morning, the last living person she expected to see standing in front of her was Jesus, alive and asking questions.  

She came to the tomb expecting to prepare his corpse for its long, final rest.  When she found the tomb empty, she assumed that someone had moved his body.  Peter and the other disciple who came rushing to the empty tomb went right back home again to figure out what this all meant. Yes, Jesus had told them that he would rise from the dead—in rather veiled terms sometimes—but they hadn’t really understood him.  They clearly didn’t expect to see it happen.

         Whom are you looking for this morning?  What do you expect to find as you stare into this empty tomb, this “hole in all assumptions” at the heart of all our history?   

Did you come to see a mythic metaphor for springtime, for the perpetual renewing and rebirth of life in this new season of the year?  Well, certainly that is at work here.  But then what do you do with the formerly dead person who so many earnest, intelligent people claim to have encountered?  What do you do with all of those people who have put their lives on the line throughout history because they claim to have encountered a risen Jesus?  Springtime alone does not inspire that kind of faith, that kind of fervor, that kind of determination.  Springtime and metaphors of renewal don’t give one the courage to face martyrdom.

         Maybe, like some contemporary scholars, you want to frame this day, this celebration, in terms of a “Resurrection Event”—a kind of scholarly shorthand which says that there was no actual physical resurrection, but that after the disciples recovered from the devastating shock of Jesus’ crucifixion, they began to have visionary experiences as they remembered his teaching in powerful new ways, that he became alive for them in their hearts and minds and inspired them to spread his message of God’s overwhelming love as expressed in the alternative social and political reality he had called the kingdom of God.   

Well certainly that Jesus is alive, too.  Certainly Jesus is alive in the hearts and minds of those who follow him, those who proudly wear his name, those who seek to follow his teaching and do his will to the best of their understanding and look for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  And yes, even today some people do have visionary experiences of Jesus. That’s no small thing.  But is it the complete picture?  Is it the resurrection described in the gospels?

What do you do with all these troubling physical things that keep insinuating themselves into the resurrection story?  What do you do with the disciples on the road to Emmaus who share a meal with Jesus and watch him break the bread in that singular, customary way of his?  What do you do with the Jesus who asks his shocked disciples for a piece of fish to eat?  Who insists on showing his very physical wounds to them?  What do you do with the writers of the gospels who wanted to make it absolutely clear that his disciples and others testified to a tangible, physical Jesus who stood before them against all hope and possibility?

         Maybe you are seeking Jesus of the re-animated body.  Maybe you are seeking in the resurrection of Jesus a validation that your own body will be raised to new life.  And certainly that Jesus is here, too.  But you’ll notice that there’s something very different about his resurrected body. Yes, the wounds are still there.  Yes, he eats with his disciples.  But there is something almost ethereal about his physicality.  He tells  Mary not to hold on to him, as if too long a connection between his resurrected physical nature and her ordinary physical nature might set off sparks or open a hole in the universe.   He appears suddenly behind closed and locked doors.  When people see him, it takes them a moment to recognize him—in fact they often don’t recognize him until he speaks or breaks bread or reveals himself through some other personal habit or mannerism.

         Whom do you seek?   Do you seek the Jesus who will validate your politics?  That’s fair.  In spite of what some people think, Jesus was very political.  He was crucified at the intersection of politics and religion.  But is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead just a validation of his political stance on the side of the poor and oppressed?  Or is there a message in this empty tomb about a power that transcends both politics and religion?  Does it stand there in the vortex of history as an open invitation for us to enter a new kind of life altogether, a life that transcends power and manipulation?

         Do you seek a Jesus who will endorse your sense of morality?  Well certainly Jesus is moral­­–– the most moral person who has ever lived.  But Jesus does morality differently than most of us.   Jesus made it clear that the heart of our morality and ethics must be a deep and abiding love for all God’s people and all God’s creation, and not merely a mindless adherence to law or shifting cultural standards of propriety.  Don’t forget that it was the guardians of morality, propriety and law who literally nailed him because he challenged their standards.  And it was the God of righteousness who raised him to life out of love.

Whom do you seek?  Be careful that you don’t settle for a partial Christ, because it is the whole Christ who is risen.  It is the whole Jesus, physical, spiritual, mythical, mysterious, emotional, intelligent, rational, divine and human–– it is the whole Christ who has endured the ugliest, most vicious violence that humanity can dish out and has been raised above it to show us the depths of God’s love and God’s commitment to a new way of being in the world. 

 Christ is alive.  Alive now.  More alive than you or I have ever been.  Alive in the mystery of the Trinity and alive in the body.  Alive in the world.  Alive for you and me and for each and every human created in the image of God.  Alive so that we, too, can experience new life as whole human beings.  Alive to transform us, to change us, to move us, to inspire us, and to help us.  Alive to make us fully human, when all our lives we’ve mostly settled for being something a little less than fully human.  Alive to free us from the fear of death.  Alive to resurrect us out of the thousand little deaths we die over and over again.  Alive to roll away the stones that seal us in shadowy tombs of despair and grief and anxiety and loss and pain.  Alive to pull us out of  whatever personal death or darkness we’re enduring and lift us into life in all its fullness.

In spite of the odds, in spite of all human experience to the contrary, Christ is risen.  Jesus is alive.  

I know that not everybody believes in the resurrection of Jesus.  I know that even some Christians have their doubts.  Some very devoted followers of Jesus look for ways to reframe the resurrection language of the gospels.  I don’t judge them.  I’ve had moments of doubt, too.  

Saint Paul devoted a whole chapter of 1 Corinthians to addressing our very understandable doubts.  Apparently there were some skeptics even in the congregation that he, himself, had founded.  In chapter 15 he gives us the earliest account of the resurrection, written long before the gospels, and he focuses on speaking to those who had doubts.  Here’s what he had to say as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:  

“Now, let me ask you something profound yet troubling. If you became believers because you trusted the proclamation that Christ is alive, risen from the dead, how can you let people say that there is no such thing as a resurrection?  If there’s no resurrection, there’s no living Christ.  And face it—if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors.  Not only that, but we would be guilty of telling a string of barefaced lies about God, all these affidavits we passed on to you verifying that God raised up Christ—sheer fabrications, if there’s no resurrection.

   If corpses can’t be raised, then Christ wasn’t, because he was indeed dead.  And if Christ wasn’t raised, then all you’re doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever.  It’s even worse for those who died hoping in Christ and resurrection, because they’re already in their graves.  If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot.  But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. (1 Cor 15:12-19)

    We are not “a pretty sorry lot.”  Christ is alive.  The whole Christ, the entire Jesus, is walking this earth in unexpected guises, waiting to encounter each and every one of us to give us the power to become Children of God. 

Child of God,  may the God who raised Jesus from the dead resurrect all that is dead or dying in you.  May the risen Jesus restore your sense of wonder and beauty and hope and joy in life.  May the risen Christ open your eyes to understand the immense and eternal value of Life in every life you encounter.  May Christ be risen and alive in your mind, in your heart, in your soul. But more than that, may you see the risen, living Christ who stands beside you and invites you to walk into the world with him. 

Christ is risen!

Painting: The Resurrected Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene, by Alexander Ivanov (1835)

…And the Life

John 11:1-45

If you look at a full moon when it’s rising, sometimes it looks much closer and larger than usual.  The curvature of the earth at the horizon seems to magnify it, and it may look yellowish or have a tinge of orange as its light is filtered through layers of moisture or dust or pollution in the atmosphere.  If you see it rise during the day, it may look illusory and distant, a faded disc projected against a fathomless blue sky.  If you see the full moon through a telescope, you suddenly see it as a world in its own right and not merely as Earth’s bright companion.  You see its long story spelled out in craters and mountain ridges.  Sharp outcroppings of rock hint at moments of violent upheaval and plains of dust speak of eons of silence and solitude.  But if you are holding the hand of someone you love as you watch the full moon rise, it looks like a different thing altogether.  It becomes a benevolent entity from heaven full or romance, mystery, and poetry riding across the field of stars just for you and your love.

Sometime reading the scriptures is like looking at the moon.  So much of what you see depends on where you stand,  who your reading companions are, what clouds you’re looking through and what lenses are clarifying or distorting your understanding, and what you’re looking for to begin with.  

I read two very well written and well-reasoned articles by noted scholars earlier this week that helped me see this familiar story of the raising of Lazarus in a new way.  These articles made a strong case that Lazarus was the actual author of the Gospel we know as John.[1]  That idea has had me reading this week’s gospel in a different light, reading it as if it might be a memoir.  

One of the things you notice when reading John is that for much of the gospel Jesus seems to be slightly aloof or distant.  As one scholar puts it, he seems to be walking two feet above the ground.  But when you get to chapter 11, suddenly everything is very down to earth and the emotions come spilling out.  This chapter has all the feels.  It’s not hard to imagine that this is Lazarus telling his own story.  

The story starts out with a certain distance, but it quickly becomes more immediate, more personal, more emotional.  The disciples were fearful about returning the Judea because they knew that there was a certain contingency among the Jewish elders who wanted to find a way to eliminate Jesus.  When Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” it feels a bit like nervous bravado.   

We’re told that Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days when Jesus finally arrives.  The Jews believed that the spirit stayed near the body for three days after death.  This is a way of telling us that Lazarus was well and truly dead.  This will be reinforced toward the end of the story when Jesus asks them to remove the stone that sealed the tomb.  Martha says, “Lord, there is already a stench because he’s been in there for four days!”  I love the way the King James version puts this:  “Lord, he stinketh!”

When Martha runs out to meet Jesus, the first thing she says to him sounds almost like an accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary will say the same thing to him just a few verses later.

How many times have we felt that way?  

Where were you, Jesus?  Why weren’t you here when life was falling apart, when worse came to worst and everything went to hell in a handbasket?  What was so important that you couldn’t be here when we needed you most?  What kind of friend are you?  

When we are grieving, the littlest thing can trigger us to spill our pain all over everyone around us, especially on those closest to us.

“Jesus,” said Martha, “if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  But then she catches herself.  She takes a breath and says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Martha is hinting very broadly that she expects him to do something.  God will give you whatever you ask… so ask already!  That’s what’s hanging in the air.

But Jesus is reluctant.  “Your brother will rise again,” he says.  And it feels like he would maybe have preferred for things to stop right there.  It feels like he’s reluctant to say or promise anything more, as if he’s hesitant to promise any immediate relief for their grief.

Martha hears his reluctance but prods him further:  “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  I know he’ll rise again.  Eventually.  Everybody knows that.  But her unspoken question is still hanging in the air:  I know he will rise again on the last day, but what are you going to do right now?”  And haven’t we all felt like that, too, when we’ve lost someone we love?

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

It’s important to say a word here about what it means to believe.  In our world, in our time, we often use the word believe as a synonym for think.  It tends to be a cerebral word for us.  But in their world and their time, it was a much more visceral word.  You believed things in your guts, not in your head.  The essential meaning was trust.  Jesus is saying, “Those who trust me to the depths of their guts, even if they die, they will still live, and those who live with that kind of trust in me will never die.”  And then he asks Martha, “Do you have that kind of visceral faith and trust in me?”  

When Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” what she is saying is not, “Yes, I intellectually accept the idea that you have a unique relationship with God.”  What she is saying is, “Yes, I trust to the depth of my very being that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one we’ve waited for throughout all of history.  That understanding of who you are, Jesus, is part of who I am.  It flows in my veins.”

When Mary came out to meet Jesus, she fell at his feet.  The NRSV says she knelt at his feet, but the Greek text is more emotional and expressive than that.  It says she fell at his feet.  Her grief is so acute that she collapses at his feet.  And she echoes Martha’s words.  If you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Jesus sees her weeping.  Jesus sees the people who came with her weeping.  And he gets caught up in their pain.  The Greek text says that he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly distressed.  He was agitated.  He was a wreck.  He asked them where they had laid his friend to rest.  And then he began to weep.

Jesus wept.  Jesus wept because he loved his friend and felt the pain of his death.  Jesus wept for Mary and Martha’s pain and the grief of everyone around him.  Jesus wept for all the pain and loss we experience in the world.  Jesus wept out of frustration.  Jesus wept because he knew that restoring Lazarus to life would be the thing that would set his own painful death in motion.

When Jesus came to the tomb he was greatly agitated and disturbed.  The Greek word that’s used here, embriómenos, indicates an emotional mix of deep frustration and anger.  It’s another one of those deeply visceral words.

Jesus was angry at death.  Jesus was angry at loss and pain.

 He told them to take away the stone that sealed the tomb and then he prayed in a way that allowed those around him to listen in on his conversation with the Father.  “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  Lazarus came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

“I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus.  We tend to put the emphasis on resurrection, but the real promise is life.  Life in all its fullness.  Life eternal.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity.” (1:4)  Jesus, the light of the world, called Lazarus out of the darkness of death and into the light of life.  In chapter 10, the chapter that leads into this story,  Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”  Lazarus heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and followed him out of death into life. 

When we weep, Jesus weeps with us.  But weeping is not the end of the story.  Ever.  The Good shepherd calls us out of death and into life in all its fullness.


There Are None So Blind

John 9:1-41

Not too long ago I got lost while trying to find a mortuary.  I was on my way to attend a memorial service—thankfully, I wasn’t supposed to officiate at this one—and I just couldn’t find the place.  I entered the address into the GPS system in my car and followed the directions explicitly until the bossy GPS lady who lives in my dashboard said rather brusquely, “You have arrived at your destination.”  Honestly, I don’t think she likes me.  It’s her tone of voice, you know what I mean?  She’s always so abrupt. “Turn left NOW.”  “Turn right NOW.”   

Anyway, when she told me I had arrived at my destination, I looked over to my right, where my directions indicated the mortuary was supposed to be, and I didn’t see anything that looked at all like a mortuary.  I also didn’t see any kind of address numbers on the building that was there, so despite the confident insistence of the GPS lady, I was pretty sure I was in the wrong place.

Across the street, though, was a very large church and a very large graveyard that took up that whole block.  Aha, I thought, I’ll bet the mortuary is somewhere over there.  So I drove around the church and graveyard.  Three times.  But I never found any way to get in.  All the gates in the tall iron fence that surrounded the place were chained and locked.  So even though there was a graveyard, there was no mortuary.  At least not one that I could see.  

I pulled over and reset the address I had been given into my car’s GPS, then followed the bossy lady’s terse directions again—honestly, she really does sound like she’s annoyed about something—and once again I arrived at the same place where she had originally told me to go.  And once again, I didn’t see any mortuary.  So I drove home.

When I got home, after sending a text to my friend to apologize for my absence at her loved-one’s memorial service, I looked up the address I had been given in Google maps then clicked Street View.  And there it was, right where my GPS lady said it was.  Google even labeled the building as “Such And Such Mortuary.”  I realized that I had been right in front of it all along.  But I hadn’t seen it because it didn’t look like I expected a mortuary to look and it wasn’t in a spot where I expected a mortuary should be.  

It was there, but I couldn’t see it.  Sometimes we miss what’s right in front of us because we can’t see past our assumptions.

One day, as Jesus was walking through Jerusalem, he saw a man who had been blind from birth.  The text doesn’t tell us, by the way, how they knew he was born blind and didn’t become blind later.  Maybe he had a sign that said “Please help, born blind.”  

Anyway, while passing by, Jesus saw a man who was blind.  His disciples, on the other hand, saw a karmic punishment for sin.  That’s the first blinding assumption we encounter in this story.  This man is blind?  Somebody must have sinned.  That’s how the disciples understood the universe.  If you see an affliction, it must be that God is punishing someone.  Things like being born blind don’t just randomly happen…someone is to blame for this, right?  So they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?”  

“What’s wrong with you guys?” said Jesus.  “Nobody sinned!  What’s with all the blaming and shaming?”  Well, that’s not what he actually said, but that’s what it sounds like to me.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” is what he actually said.

And then we come to a translation problem.  In verse 3, the NRSV has Jesus saying, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”  Some translations read, “This happened so that God’s works might be revealed…” But here’s the problem: the words “he was born blind” or “this happened” are not in the Greek text.  They are a translation insertion that makes it sound like the man’s blindness was predestined just so Jesus could come along and demonstrate God’s power.  It reads like God set him up to be a stage prop.

But that is not what the original text says.   So what does it sound like if we follow the actual Greek words and re-work the punctuation, which was also added by translators and not part of the original text?  It reads like this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  So that the works God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day.  Night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

In other words, “Nobody sinned.  This isn’t about sin.  But since I’m here and he’s here, let’s use this opportunity to bring some light into this man’s life and reveal the power and presence of God while we’re at it.”

The traditional translation sounds like this poor blind man was being manipulated by God.  But the original text sounds like he experienced the grace of God when Jesus gave him the gift of sight.  That is so much more in keeping with what we read in John’s prologue: “From his fullness we have received grace upon grace” or “one gift after another.” (John 1:16)

Jesus made a paste of mud and spit and smeared it on the man’s eyes then told him to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam.  He went and washed and came back able to see.  And ran smack-dab into more assumptions.

“The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’   Some were saying, ‘It is he.” Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’” He kept saying, “Hello?? It’s really me!”  

The verbs in this section are all imperfect active indicative which suggests a continuing argument or impasse.  They kept saying it wasn’t the same man.  He kept insisting “It really is me, your formerly blind neighbor.”

Isn’t it just so human that some of them assumed that he couldn’t possibly be the blind beggar they had been seeing every day because this guy, obviously, can see! Their assumptions blinded them to the miracle right in front of them.  How could it be the same guy?  People born blind don’t just suddenly see.  The world doesn’t work that way.  God doesn’t work that way. If they accepted that it really was the same person, they would have to change the way they understood God, history, the world, the universe and everything.  So these doubting neighbors deny the evidence of their eyes and assume that it must be someone who looks like him.  

It’s easier for some people to ignore the facts than to accept new facts that require them to change the way they see and understand the world.

The doubting neighbors brought the man who had been blind to the Pharisees to see what light they might shed on the situation, but as it turned out, they had their own version of assumption blindness.  When the formerly blind man told the Pharisees how Jesus made a paste of mud then smeared it on his eyes and that when he washed it off he could see, they did not ignore the facts in front of them, but some of them did twist the facts to their own benighted purposes.  

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”  So, to summarize, Jesus gave the blind man his sight on the Sabbath.  And that’s not kosher.  You’re not supposed to do any kind of work on the Sabbath.  And if you wanted to be a real stickler, Jesus was specifically violating the restriction against kneading dough on the Sabbath when he made the mud paste.  True, mud and bread dough aren’t quite the same thing, but kneading is kneading, and they were needing an excuse to discredit Jesus in some way.

Once again, it’s easier for some people to ignore the facts, or twist the facts, or invent their own facts than to accept new facts that require them to change the way they see and understand the world.  “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot comprehend it.” (John 1:5)

Like detectives interrogating a criminal, the Pharisees made the formerly blind man tell his story repeatedly.  When some of them asserted that he had never really been blind, his parents were brought in to affirm that yes, he was born blind, and no, they didn’t know who gave him his sight, and by the way he’s an adult and this has nothing to do with us.  When they asked him one last time to go through the facts again, the formerly blind man was just plain exasperated. “I have told you already,” he said, “and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”   

That question really pushed their buttons.  They were supposed to be the authorities on all things sacred, and the suggestion, even if it was a bit facetious, that they might become disciples, students, of this Jesus who dared to do questionable things like healing on the Sabbath?  That really set them off.  They doubled-down on their commitment to Moses and Mosaic law, then circled back to their cultural assumption that the man was born blind because of sin.  “You were born entirely in sins,” they said.   And then they threw him out.  

And that’s when Jesus came looking for him.  

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” asked Jesus.  “Who is he, sir,” the man replied.  “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”  “You have seen him,” said Jesus, “in fact, he is the one speaking to you.”  “Lord, I believe,” said the man and then bowed down to Jesus in reverence.  

In John’s gospel, to believe is to trust.  Belief is relationship.  
“To those who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.”   

The man who had been born blind was now the one who could truly see Jesus as the Christ.  As Jesus predicted, the work of God had been done through him not only by Jesus giving him sight, but also by his testimony that challenged the assumption blindness of his neighbors and the Pharisees.  

“I came into this world for judgement,” said Jesus to the man, “so that those who cannot see may receive their sight, and that those who think they see may become blind.”  “And this is the judgment,” we read in chapter 3, “that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were harmful.”*  

In a world where we can pick or choose our sources of information to suit our biases and our agendas, we need to remember that facts are facts even when we don’t particularly like them or if they challenge our assumptions.  People following “alternative facts” or simply inventing harmful narratives erodes our common understanding of reality and truth, and that can be extremely destructive, sometimes on a massive scale.

As followers of Jesus we should have a particularly strong devotion to truth.  In his prayer for us before he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in your truth.  Your word is truth.” In John’s gospel, the last thing Jesus said to Pilate before he was handed over to be crucified was, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

The blind man’s doubtful neighbors and the Pharisees missed the truth that was right in front of them.  They couldn’t see past their assumptions to see the One they had been looking for their entire lives.  May God help us all to put aside the assumptions that blind us so that we don’t drive right past the thing we’re looking for.

* ponera is the Greek word.  It is usually translated as “evil” but can also mean “worthless” or “harmful” or “weak.”

What You Do Not Know

John 4:5-42

The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well is one of the most beloved stories in the gospels, and the Samaritan woman, herself has become a treasured figure of faith and devotion in several Christian traditions throughout the world.  In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, she is called Saint Photine or Photini, and is regarded as equal to the apostles.  Their tradition says that after her meeting with Jesus she continued to make disciples for Jesus and was eventually martyred at Carthage.  The Roman Catholic Church calls her Saint Photina and asserts that she was martyred at Rome after convincing Emperor Nero’s daughter to become a follower of Jesus.  In the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox traditions, she is called Svetlana, which means “shining one” or “luminescent one.”  In Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico she is called La Samaratina, and on her feast day, which they celebrate on the fourth Sunday in Lent, churches, schools and businesses give sweet fruit drinks or sweetly flavored water to people passing by on the street in memory of the drink of water she gave to Jesus and the living water he became for her.

As beloved as this story is, though, it begins with something of a mystery:  Why did Jesus suddenly decide to leave the Judean countryside to return to Galilee?  And why did he go through Samaria?

At the beginning of chapter four we read that when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was attracting and baptizing more disciples than John the Baptist, Jesus suddenly decided to leave Judea and return to Galilee.  You get the sense that he is worried that he and his disciples are suddenly a little too prominent on the Pharisees’ radar.  Some think that this was about the time when Herod had had John the Baptist arrested—the Gospel of John isn’t clear about that—and Jesus may have thought he would be next.  For whatever reason, Jesus decided rather abruptly to withdraw to his home base in Galilee.  

“He left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.”  That’s how it reads in the NRSV.  There is an implication in the Greek text that for some reason it was necessary for him to go through Samaria, that something compelled him to go that way.  It adds to the feeling that he was under some kind of pressure, but we’re not told what that was.  

Going through Samaria was the shortest and most direct route to Galilee from Judea, but most Jews avoided taking that road if at all possible, preferring instead to take the long way around Samaria through Perea, the region that’s often referred to in the gospels as “beyond the Jordan.”  

Perea was a Jewish territory with a fairly significant Roman presence.  The road through Perea was heavily patrolled and more travelled, so even though it was a much longer route, it was usually considered a safer way to go.  But the primary advantage of this route for most Jews was that you did not have to go through Samaria.  Instead, you skirted along the eastern side of it.  Which was good.  Because no decent Jew wanted to go through Samaria or deal with Samaritans if it was at all possible to avoid it. 

Jews hated Samaritans.  And Samaritans hated Jews.  Their feud had been going on for more than 900 years when Jesus decided to take the Samaritan road to Galilee.  It had all started with the death of King Solomon.   Jeroboam led the northern territories of Israel in a revolt against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.  The end result of the brief civil war was that the kingdom which had been united under David and Solomon became two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  

Two hundred years later, the Assyrians attacked Israel and Judah refused to come their aid.  The Assyrians quickly conquered the northern kingdom and renamed it Samaria after the region’s capital city.  The Assyrians took many of the Israelites into captivity, divided them into small groups, then exported them to resettle other conquered areas.  At the same time, they brought in conquered peoples from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim to resettle the territory of Israel. That is why the Jews of Judah sometimes called Samaritans “the people with 5 fathers.”  It was a kind of racial slur.  You can read all about it in 2 Kings 17.

Two centuries and two empires later, when the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah in 538 BCE, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back, but the Jews despised the Samaritans for their lack of ethnic purity.  Remember that racial slur about the 5 fathers?  

The Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Jerusalem temple, but the Judean leaders rejected their help because they weren’t “pure” enough.  You can read about that in Ezra 4.  That rejection turned a potential reunification into bitter political opposition and outright hostility.  As a response to the rejection of their help in building the Jerusalem temple, Sanballat, the Persian-appointed governor of Samaria, decided to build a temple on Mt. Gerizim.  And that’s when the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans became the unbridgeable Grand Canyon of feuds.  

When Alexander the Great conquered all of Palestine, relations  between Jews and Samaritans continued to deteriorate.  The Samaritans tended to cooperate with their Greek overlords while the Jews tended to resist them.  Then in 108 BCE, when the Jews had finally won their independence in the Maccabean revolt, John Hyrcanus, the high priest and new ruler of the Jews, destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim and ravaged Samaria as a punishment for having allied themselves with the Seleucid Greek rulers.  

The Jews and Samaritans were not just separated by politics and racism, though, but also by religion, even though they both claimed to worship YHWH.  The Jews of Judah continued to insist that sacrifices could only be offered in the temple in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans had never really accepted that idea even in the time of Solomon.  During their history they had had altars at Shechem, Bethel, Shiloh and other places but they regarded Mt. Gerizim as the holiest site.  The Samaritans had their own version of Torah that differed in several places from the Jews’ version.  The Samaritans had their own version of Messiah, whom they call the Taheb, the restorer, a prophet who will carry the staff of Moses as a sign of his authority.   They believed that the Taheb will come from the tribe of Joseph.  The Jews, on the other hand, believed that Messiah would come from the tribe of Benjamin and the line of David.

Even under the iron fist and enforced peace of the Romans, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans continued.  As an example of revenge being served cold, around the time of the birth of Jesus, a band of Samaritans profaned the Jerusalem temple by scattering human bones across the floor of the sanctuary.  

All of that history and animosity is in the background when Jesus sits down at Jacob’s well in the middle of a hot afternoon.

When Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water at Jacob’s Well he is crossing just about every line imaginable in their world, lines of sexism, racism, political hostility and historical animosity.  That’s why she responds to him with some surprise and asks, “How can you—a Jew—ask me, a Samaritan woman for water to drink?”  The NRSV then adds in parentheses, “For Jews have nothing in common with Samaritans.”  That translation is a monument to understatement.  The translation by Eugene Peterson in The Message may not be as accurate, but it captures the feeling a lot better when it says, “Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.”

Jews wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans, and Samaritans would be caught dead talking to Jews.  Men wouldn’t be caught dead talking to unaccompanied women, and an unaccompanied woman wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a man.  But there they are, both of them crossing the lines.  And talking to each other.

“If you knew the generosity of God and who I am,” said Jesus, “you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you living water.”  It sounds almost like flirting.

“Okay, Mister,” she says, playing along, “but this well is deep and you don’t have a bucket, so where does this ‘living water’ come from?  Are you better than our ancestor, Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it and watered his cattle from and handed it down to us?” 

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” said Jesus.  “Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst again. The water I give will be a spring within, a gushing fountain of endless life.”

Blaise Pascal said that there is a God-shaped hole in every human heart, an emptiness that only God can fill, a thirst that only the Spirit can quench.  Whether we know how to name it or not, there is a yearning for the living water of Christ in the arid wells of our souls, a cistern waiting to be filled by the love and life of God.

Jesus and Photina talked some more about her living situation.  Jesus knew all about her and told her the facts of her life but he didn’t judge her.  He just continued to talk with her and in the midst of their conversation she realized that he was a prophet.  So she asked him the big question, the question that had separated Jews from Samaritans for hundreds of years.

“I see you’re a prophet!” she said.  “So tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”

“Believe me, woman,” said Jesus, “the time is coming when that won’t matter.  You will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem.  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews.  But the time is coming—it has already come—when genuine worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  That’s the kind of people the God is seeking.  God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”

I think of Jesus saying this every time I hear someone say they’re “spiritual but not religious.”  You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know.  What matters in the end is that we are connecting with God and with each other in spirit and pursuing truth.  

When the disciples came back they were shocked to see him talking to this Samaritan woman because he was crossing all the lines and breaking all the rules.  For her part, the woman ran back to her village and invited all her neighbors to come hear Jesus and talk with him.  She wanted them to meet the prophet who knew everything about her but didn’t judge her, the man who was willing to cross all the lines and break all the rules for a conversation, the man told her that God doesn’t care which mountain you’re praying on as long as you’re putting your true heart and your true spirit into your prayer.

It’s easy to fall into the rhythms of old beliefs and assumptions.  It’s easy to get stuck in old, unexamined patterns of hatred and antagonism.  In our world today we have all kinds of ways to separate ourselves from each other.  We have no shortage of isms that draw hard lines and build daunting barriers between us.  We have religious commitments that keep us looking at each other with suspicion.  We have all kinds of political commitments that keep us glaring at each other as opponents.  But in the end, the only way we’re ever going to move forward is to cross all the lines and have a conversation.  That’s the only way we’re ever going to get anywhere.

Jesus took the road through Samaria.  He walked right past the old wounds of politics and racism and religious separatism and sexism to sit down beside an ancient well where he and the Samaritan woman could drink deeply from the sweet water of respect and conversation. 

And the end of the story is the best part. At the end of the story, the Samaritans of that village, the ancient enemies of his people, asked him to stay so they could talk some more.  In spirit.  And truth.