God Gets Physical

John 1:1-14

This past week, NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope, a remarkable remote observatory that will travel 1.5 million kilometers, about 3.9 times the distance to the moon, before it parks itself in a Lagrange point—a kind of neutral zone in the tug-of-war between the sun’s gravitational pull and Earth’s gravitational pull.  There it will unfurl its highly polished mirrors made of gold-plated beryllium, and begin to stare deep into space—deeper than we have ever seen before with any other instrument.  As it peers into the depths of space it will also be looking back in time because the light it sees was generated billions of years ago.  It will be able to see celestial events that happened before the earth was formed.

The astrophysicists, astronomers, and engineers who designed and programmed the Webb Space Telescope have given it four primary missions:

  • to search for light from the first stars and galaxies that were formed in the universe after the Big Bang;
  • to study the formation and evolution of galaxies;
  • to study the formation of stars and planetary systems;
  • to study other planetary systems to see if they can tell us anything about the origins of life.

The writer of the Gospel of John didn’t have a telescope, but in a poetic way John did have a clear view of the beginning of all things.  In the beginning was the logos he said.  The Word.  The Blueprint.  The Narrative.  The Story.  The Content.  The logos was with God.  The logos was God.  All things came into being through the logos, and not one thing that came into existence came into existence except through the logos.  

Here in the prologue of John’s gospel, the logos is another term for Christ.  John is telling us about the Cosmic Christ who existed before all things, who is present in, with and under all things because all things came into being through the Christ.  Christ, the logos, is that aspect of the Divine Presence where Spirit intersects with matter.  Christ is in those distant stars and galaxies that the Webb telescope will show us.  Christ is in the giant nebulae and dust pillars that Hubble has shown us, those columns of interstellar dust and gas where stars are born.  Christ is in the quasars and pulsars, the black holes and gravitational waves and dark matter.

But Christ, the logos, is not just in the macrocosm. Christ is also in the microcosm.  Christ is in the strings of string theory.  Christ is in the strange interactions of quantum mechanics where quite literally anything and everything is a possibility.  Christ is in the anomalies of quantum flux. 

The writer of John goes on to tell us that Christ was not only in the inorganic dance of chemistry and physics, but that through the logos, through Christ, life came into being. Through Christ nitrogen and hydrogen and carbon and oxygen came together to form amino acids.  Through Christ amino acids formed long chain proteins which then formed protein blocks which then evolved into single-celled organisms.  Through Christ single-celled organisms bonded to form symbiotic colonies which then evolved to become multi-celled organisms.  Through Christ life began to take on more and more diverse forms.  Plants, ants, beetles, fish, mice, dinosaurs, cats and dogs, monkeys, apes, humans.  

John tells us that Christ was the origin of life.  In the logos was life, and that life is the light of all humanity.  I suspect that’s because humanity not only lives life, but we also seek to understand it.  

In an age when we have figured out so much about the essential structure of things in physics and the intricate functions of things in biology, an age when we have delved deep into the geology of our own world and have begun to poke into crust of other planets, it’s tempting to think we can explain esoteric things like existence without God in the equation.  But one of the beauties of real science is that the more we learn, the more we realize there is so much more that we don’t know.  Those who dive deepest soon realize there is no bottom, no stopping point, because they have thrown themselves into the mystery of existence.  As Werner Heisenberg said, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” 

The word Christ, Christos, means anointed.  John is telling us that through the logos,through Christ, all of creation is anointed with, infused with the presence of God.  As Saint Paul said, God is never far from us because “in him we live and move and have our being.”[1]  Saint Patrick understood this intimate and inescapable presence of Christ when he prayed: 

“Christ with me, Christ before me, 

Christ behind me, Christ in me, 

Christ beneath me, Christ above me, 
Christ on my right, Christ on my left, 
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, 
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, 
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, 
Christ in the eye that sees me, 
Christ in the ear that hears me.”[2] 

Then entire physical universe is where God hides…but it’s also where God is revealed.  God is not “up there” somewhere—well, not only “up there”—God is right here.  Christ is in you.  Christ is in me.  That is what Jesus, the Christ is all about.  Jesus came to show us that God is with us.  In us. Working through us.  “We spend so much time trying to get “up there,” says Richard Rohr, “we miss that God’s big leap in Jesus was to come “down here.” So much of our worship and religious effort is the spiritual equivalent of trying to go up what has become the down escalator.”[3]

Once we really accept the idea that through Christ God is present in all of creation, the world becomes “home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply.”[4]  The Webb Space Telescope will be looking deeply. It may even be able to see as far as the dawn of creation. There’s no telling what we will learn.  But whatever it shows us, it will simply be telling us more about Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being.


[1] Acts 17:28

[2] Prayer of St. Patrick, 5th century

[3] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe

[4] Ibid. 

Dear Pontius Pilate

Dear Pontius Pilate

John 18:33-38a

Dear Pontius Pilate,

I have spent much of this week reviewing a single moment from your life, to be specific, your brief interrogation of Jesus of Nazareth.  Surely you remember it.

One of the advantages I have, looking at this moment twenty one centuries after the fact, is that I know things you could not possibly have known. You could not have known, for instance, that this moment when Jesus stood before you was, in fact, a pivotal moment in the history of all humanity.  I’m sure that to you he just looked like another troublemaker and the whole business seemed needlessly tiresome.  As he stood in front of you awaiting judgment, with his overeager accusers prodding you from the wings and insisting on his execution, how could you possibly have known that your decision either way would have repercussions that would change the course of history?  I wonder…if you had known how monstrously important your moment with Jesus really was, would it have changed your decision? Would you have taken more time to think about it?  To make your choice?

After your exchange with him about whether or not he was a king or had made any claim to be a king—an issue which, it seems, was left somewhat unresolved—Jesus said something that was both intriguing and a bit enigmatic.  He said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

That last part is a little tricky in translation—that’s one of the problems with reviewing things centuries after they happened.  Details can become blurred.  Languages don’t always translate precisely.  Words and phrases seldom bring their cultural context with them when they plunge into a new language.  Did Jesus say “everyone who belongs to the truth” or “everyone who is of the truth” or “out of the truth” or “from the truth”?  All these are reasonable and acceptable translations of that potent little Greek word ek.  The differences in meaning are subtle, but not unimportant.  The choices we make in how we choose to hear it carry weight.  Personally, I like belongs.  It reminds me that truth, even as a philosophical concept, is bigger than I am.  Truth is my master, I am truth’s servant.  This means, of course, that I must be very careful that it’s not my own subjective version of truth or my wishful thinking version of truth that I am serving.  I have to be careful that I haven’t bound myself in service to a propaganda version of truth.  I belong to truth.  It owns me.  So I listen to the voice of Jesus.

You asked a simple question in response to Jesus.  Well that’s not quite true.  It’s not a simple question at all.  It is, in point of fact, a question that has kept various philosophers, theologians, and even scientists awake at night for two millennia.   Three small words in our language, also in your language, and also the ancient Greek that handed the question down to us:

Quid est veritas?  What is truth?

Were you being cynical when you asked that, my dear Prefect?  Or did you ask it, as Frederick Buechner suggests, with a lump in your throat?  Is this a question that had kept you awake at night, also?  Or had you dismissed the whole idea of objective truth after so many years on the judgment seat hearing people give competing versions of “the truth”?  

Did it occur to you for even an instant, my dear Pontius Pilate, that the truth was standing right in front of you as you asked the question?  Did it occur to you that the truth was not an idea or philosophical concept, but rather a person?

The truth was standing right in front of you, Prefect.  I don’t say that out of piety.  I don’t say it to be in conformity with the holy writings that arose from his followers in the years after your time with him.  I don’t say it merely to resonate with his own words when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  I say it, dear Pontius Pilate, because it is true. Objectively true. The answer to your question, the truth, was standing right in front of you.

Here is the truth that you were not seeing, my dear Pontius, as Jesus stood before you in silence with his hands tied and his fate all but sealed:

Heaven was confronting empire.  

As you faced each other, it was more than Jesus of Nazareth fronting Pontius Pilate of Rome.  In you, Prefect, was all the relentless and violent might of the empire spilled down through its systems of hierarchy and bureaucracy.   In you was oppression and military organization used ruthlessly to maintain efficiency, protect investment, and continue the empire’s  domination.  All that might and power and agenda was condensed into your title, Prefect.  And in that moment with Jesus, all the authority of that title was condensed into your word, your yes or your no.  

Across from you was Jesus, unadorned humanity in the image and likeness of God.  Challenging your word of imperial authority, your yes or no, was the yes of life,  the yes of creation, the yes of generosity, the yes who spoke light into the shadowy hearts of all humanity.  Creation, life, the light of understanding, love, which is the presence of the divine, grace and her twin sister mercy, equity and her twin sister justice—these things have always been opposed to empire, and Jesus of Nazareth embodied all this as he stood facing you in silence.  Standing before you was one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  

All the natural flow and goodness of earth and heaven was standing before the empire’s paranoid, overzealous, and slightly incompetent middle management, waiting for a decision.  

But so was everyday life.

The truth came before you, Pontius, in plain clothes.  Truth came to you as one of the invisible people you passed without seeing as you rode your chariot through the city.  Truth came before you already roughed up and mistreated by those with less authority but more fear, anger, and frustration.  Truth stood before you as one of the little people.

Truth came as a workman turned rabbi, a teacher who was trying to open the eyes and widen the embrace of his people—of all people—a teacher who was trying to give us a larger vision of how life could be with real justice and real fairness and real concern for persons.  He was trying to show us how life could be in a kin-dom of God where we love our neighbors as ourselves.  

The truth stood before you armed only with words and a vision, the most powerful tools humanity has ever known.  But words and vision have always found themselves contesting swords and spears because empire knows that words and vision are inevitably its undoing. 

Heaven confronted empire, Prefect, and heaven came armed with nothing but truth, words, and vision. 

“What is truth?” you asked.  Can you see now, my dear Marcus Pontius Pilatus, that truth is not an idea, nor merely empirically proven facts?  Can you see yet that truth is a person?  All of us stand in that truth one way or another.  And empire will always have trouble seeing that.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never understood it.  

Truth was staring you in the face, Prefect.  

Know that truth, Pontius, and the truth will make you free.  

The Cloud of Witnesses

My very earliest memory is full of lightning, thunder, and freezing rain.  And my mother crying.  

I was not quite 4 years old.  It was nap time at the preschool, and we were all supposed to be stretched out on our rugs relaxing and thinking sleepy thoughts, but most of us were curled up in a fetal position because the lightning kept flashing and the thunder kept thundering and the little beads of freezing rain pelting the windows sounded like something skittering and malicious trying to break in.  And suddenly, there was my mom, appearing out of nowhere, bending over the teacher’s desk and whispering something to her while my teacher made an “Oh no!” face.  The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of the car.  Mom sat in the driver’s seat.  But she didn’t start the car.  We just sat there.  Then my mom put her face in her hands and wept.  

Clearly something was very wrong.  Something awful had happened.  And since I was not quite four years old, I assumed that whatever it was, it was my fault.  So I started apologizing, just saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.  And, of course, I started crying, too, because I was confused and scared and not quite four years old, and my mother was crying, and the thunder kept thundering and the lightning kept flashing, and the wind was howling as it threw freezing rain against the windshield.  But mostly I cried because I was absolutely positive that I had done something very, very bad that made my mother cry, though I couldn’t have told you for the life of me what that might be.

Finally, Mom composed herself and reassured me that I had not done anything wrong.  She told me that my grandpa had died.  Her father, the person who, at that point in my life, I loved more than anyone else in the world, except maybe her,  had died.  I had sat in his lap in the farmhouse kitchen just one week before, sneaking sips of cream and sugar coffee from his saucer.  And now he was dead.  

Everything about the following days after that moment is blur in my memory.  Except for this: I have a very clear memory of looking at my grandpa laid out in his casket at his funeral.  I must have looked at him for some time, because when I close my eyes, I can still see him.  As I looked at him, I realized that he was both there and not there—that the body lying in the casket was my beloved grandfather, but that the something that made him the person I knew and loved was not in that casket.  And yet, I felt him so close to me.  As a matter of fact, I have felt him close to me many, many times since then.  

I learned some very important things about death at the tender age of not quite four.  

The first thing I learned is that death hurts.  It may or may not hurt the person who dies.  That depends a lot on how they die.  In fact, if pain is involved, death is a blessed release from that pain.  Still, death hurts.  It hurts those who are left behind, those of us who love the one who has died.  Death rips a piece out of the fabric of our lives, and there’s no patching it.  It hurts to know that the loved one who has died won’t be here with us any more—at least not in the tangible, put-your-arms-around-them-and-hug-them way they were here before.  It hurts to know you won’t be able to sing with them or cook with them or walk with them or joke with them or have lunch with them or any of the million little things we do with each other.  At least not in the way you did those things before.

Death hurts.  So we weep.  My mother wept.  Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.  He felt the pain survivors feel in the face of death.  In fact, the original language of the story hints there was anger in his weeping—anger at the pain and bewilderment that death always brings with it.  Death hurts.

I also learned when I was not quite four that death comes to everyone.  No exception.  As my mom talked to me about my grandfather’s death, she made that pretty clear.  She grew up on a farm, so she didn’t pull any punches.  I am going to die, she said.  Someday.  Your dad is going to die.  Someday.  You are going to die.  Someday.  It happens to everyone.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.  It’s a part of life.

Death is a part of life.  Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And if you don’t find a way to make peace with that idea—make peace with the idea of your own death—you will find all kinds of ways to make yourself crazy trying to deny death.  Our whole Western culture is built around exactly that kind of craziness.  Ernest Becker described our collective insanity from denying death and its destructive consequences so well that he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Denial of Death.   Money, seeking fame, gluttony, narcissism, surrounding ourselves with stuff, addiction—all these things and more can be ways to hide from the deep truth of our mortality.  

We just don’t want to think about it.  We use euphemisms so we don’t have to say the words.  He passed. Passed away.  Passed on.  She’s gone ahead.  He kicked the bucket.  Bought the farm.  Gave up the ghost.   Went to be with the Lord.  Went to heaven.  Met his maker.  Was called home.  Has gone on to a better place.  Even the military will say that there were X number of casualties instead of saying that X number of people died or were killed.  They died.  They are dead.

Death.  It’s a spooky word.  There is a finality about it.  I think sometimes we’re afraid to say it because we think might summon it.  But guess what?  We’re not that powerful.  We might have mojo, but we don’t have that kind of mojo.  And besides, death coming eventually anyway.  For each and every one of us.

I’ve thought a lot about death since I was not quite four years old, especially during the last twenty-five years.  As a pastor, I’ve been in the room with Death a lot more often than the average person.  But that’s not why I’ve spent so much time thinking about it.  I’ve thought a lot about death because I’m in the Life business, specifically the Life in Christ business.  And one of the things that’s essential for Christians to remember is that we were baptized into death.  Saint Paul said so in Romans:  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Newness of life.  That’s the thing you get if you make peace with death.  You don’t need to be afraid of death anymore.  You understand that life and death are part of the same thing, the same continuum.  So you can be free from all the crazy-making things that shackle you if you’re trying to deny your mortality.  You can be free to live life in all its fullness. 

There are some fairy-folk in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels called the Nac Mac Feegle.  They’re six inches tall, blue, mischievous, wear kilts, and speak with a Scottish accent.  They are absolutely fearless and embrace life with joyful ferocity.  The thing that makes them fearless and so fiercely, joyfully alive is their one central belief:  they believe they have already died and that the world they now live in is heaven.  There’s no need to be afraid of death.  It’s already happened.  And if they do happen to die, they believe that they are just going to another part of heaven they haven’t been to yet.  I can’t help but think that as Christians, we’re supposed to believe something like that.  We’ve already died.  In baptism we have died with Christ so we can walk fearlessly, freely, and even with a fierce joy into newness of life.

Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And it is a continuum that continues.  Life. Death. Resurrection.  As Saint Paul said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  It is Christ’s life in us that carries us through death.  It is Christ’s life in us and our life in Christ that guarantees our resurrection. Someday.  In God’s own good time.  

In the meantime, the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.    In so many, many ways our loved ones who have died still walk with us and stand beside us.  Their lives have shaped our lives.  We feel their presence.  They gather with us at the table in the Communion of Saints and share the sacrament that connects us through all the generations in an unbroken line all the way to the apostles and to Jesus himself.  

At his last supper, Jesus told us to remember him.  He didn’t mean that we should simply think about him with fondness and nostalgia.  He meant it in the Jewish way of remembering.  He meant for us to bring him forward out of the past and into the present to be fully with us so we can be fully with him.

This is a day when we remember the saints—those people of faith who have died in Christ and will rise again in God’s own good time.  But they arise with us now in a different way when we remember them.  

We remember them.  Re-member.  To receive again as a member.  To reassemble the whole from parts that were separated.  We speak their names. We remember them.  We call them out of our memories and acknowledge their place in the assembled body of Christ.  We remind ourselves that they have died, but they still stand with us in the body of Christ.

We believe that on this day and every day the saints live on in the love of God and life of Christ.  This is not a denial of death.  We do not deny death.  We defy it.  We defy it as we fiercely and joyfully embrace life eternal.

Crazy Bread

John 6:56-69

When you think about it objectively, religion is kind of strange.  The whole idea of it, if you step back and look at it from a certain perspective, is just king of odd.  The idea that if we meet regularly and perform certain rituals and pray a certain way and sing certain songs in a certain way, somehow God, the almighty, all powerful, omniscient Maker of the Universe, will like us better or come closer to us or overlook our bad behavior or give us things—that whole idea is, on the face of it, kind of bizarre.  And yet, that seems to be the way a great number of people understand God and church and faith and religion in general.  

Years ago, the late George Carlin had a very funny routine about all this.  I’m going to change one or two of his words because I don’t want to say them in church, but here’s what he said:

“When it comes to [bull puckey], big-time, major league [bull puckey], you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest [bull puckey] story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!

“But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good [bull puckey] story.” 

I have to tell you, if I thought for half a minute that God was anything like that, I’d be an atheist, too.  And the sad fact is, that this is exactly how a lot of religion and the Christian faith is presented and represented.  You think I’m exaggerating?  Go watch religious TV for a day and get back to me.  The picture you get is that God is distant, generally ticked off and inclined to be cranky, and it’s a good thing Jesus is there as our go-between because he keeps talking the Father down when he’s just itching to wipe us out altogether.  Except that in a lot of these “Christian” broadcasts, they think Jesus, himself, is going to come back any minute now  to settle our hash.  

Yikes!  He’s making a list, checking it twice, and you better believe he knows who’s naughty and who’s nice.  That’s not God!  That’s Santa Claus—and not in a fun way.  That’s Zeus throwing thunderbolts from Olympus!    

Richard Rohr said, “Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us.  Jesus came to change our minds about God.  God did not need Jesus to die on the cross to decide to love humanity. God’s love was infinite from the first moment of creation; the cross was just Love’s dramatic portrayal in space and time.”[1]  

Instead of responding to our violence with more violence, God, in Jesus, endured our violence and responded with grace, love, forgiveness and resurrection.  Jesus came to give us a new understanding of who God is and how God is at work in the world so we could have a fresh start in our relationship with God and with each other.

If God and Jesus are not punishing, vindictive, or violent, then we have no excuse for being that way.  Ever.  

Jesus is the human face of the Cosmic Christ—the nexus where spirit and matter intersect.  The Gospel of John[2] tells us that “all things came into being through him.”  In Colossians we see it spelled out a different way.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.[3]

This is not an invisible, cranky old Sky Man watching from a distance.  This is not Zeus or Santa Claus keeping score to determine rewards and punishments.  This is God who has poured the divine self into all of creation to infuse everything with love and goodness.  This is Christ in, with, and under not only the bread and wine of the table, but all things.  In him all things hold together.

In other words, there’s more than meets the eye in everything you see or touch.  There’s more than meets the eye in everything.  Period.  As it says in Ephesians, Christ is in all and through all.[4]

It’s like Crazy Bread at little Caesar’s.  If you just glance at it, you’ll just see breadsticks.  If you pick one up, though, you’ll find it kind of slippery because it’s slathered in butter and dusted with granules of Parmesan.  And if it happens to be a piece of stuffed Crazy Bread, the minute you bite into it you’ll discover a surprise because it’s filled with melted mozzarella.  There’s more to it than meets the eye.  If you pass it up because you think it’s just a breadstick, you’ll miss the surprise. You’ll miss the experience.

When Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, he said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[5]  

He wanted us to understand that he is incarnate, God is incarnate, in all things. The world is full of the life and light of Christ.  Yes, Christ is absolutely present in the bread and wine of communion.  But also in the soil where the wheat grew, and in the stalk of the plant and in the grains that were ground into flour.  He wants us to understand that he was incarnate in the vine and the grape and the yeast that ferments it into wine.  He wants us to understand that he is present in our coming together at the table in the same way he is present when water that bonds with flour to make dough, creating a new thing altogether—a thing that is still water and flour but also something different, something greater, something more.  He wants us to understand that he is present in the trials and troubles we share the same way he is present in the fire and heat that bakes the bread.  He wants us to understand that “taste and see the goodness of the Lord”[6] is more than a poetic metaphor—it’s an invitation to open our eyes and broaden our understanding so we can see Christ, so we can begin to see that in him all things hold together.  It’s an invitation to hold all life more dearly—not just ours, all life—because in him was life, and life is the light of humanity[7].  And by that light we understand that the life of Christ is infused into all living things and the planet itself.  By that life we participate in the eternal cycle of life, death, and resurrection—like the grains of wheat that fall to the earth and die but rises again in the fullness of a new existence.

“The words I have spoken,” said Jesus, “are spirit and life.”[8]  He went on to acknowledge that some people had difficulty with what he was saying.  Some took him far too literally when he talked about eating his flesh and blood.  They were offended.  They didn’t understand that it was his words that carried spirit and life.  They didn’t understand that he was the Word—the Word that became incarnate, embodied, living among us full of grace and truth.  The things he said didn’t fit the context of their religion—or at least not as they understood their religion.  So they turned away.

As I said at the beginning, religion is an odd thing.  It can help us understand or it can get in the way of our understanding.  It can open our hearts and minds, or it can close them.  It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t come to give us a religion.  He came to show us the love of God in person.  He came so that we may have life in all its abundance.[9]


[1] A Nonviolent Atonement (At-One-Ment); Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation; 10/12/16

[2] John 1:3 ff

[3] Colossians 1:15 ff

[4] Ephesians 1:23; 4:6

[5] John 6:56 ff

[6] Psalm 34:8

[7] John 1:3

[8] John 6:63

[9] John 10:10

A Deeper Kind of Seeing

John 6:35, 40-51

There are lots of things we can’t see, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.   Ultra-violet rays, viruses, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.  We can’t see them, but if we don’t protect ourselves from them, we’re in trouble.  Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen—we can’t see these things, but we trust that they’re really there because we see the way they act on us and the world around us.   They’re invisible, but we know that we benefit from them.  We say we see the wind, but what we’re really seeing is the effect of the wind as it blows things around.

If you were to stand face-to-face with another person right now and really look at them—I mean really look at that person as fully and carefully and completely as you can—there is a whole lot of that person that you would not be able to see.  And I don’t just mean because they’re wearing clothes.   

For instance, you wouldn’t be able to see their microbiome.  The average person has about 30 trillion human cells in their body and somewhere around 39 trillion bacteria, according to Ron Milo and Ron Sender, researchers at the Weizman Institute of Science.  Even though you can’t see them, those 39 trillion bacteria play an important role in shaping that other person you’re looking at.  A change in the balance of the bacteria in that person’s biome can alter the condition of their skin and hair.  It can alter mood and personality.  A change in their biome can even lead to genetic changes.  Their  invisible biome has a profound effect on the person you’re seeing, even though you can’t see it.

You can’t see their thoughts, either.  You may see hints of their thoughts in their facial expression or body language,  but the thoughts themselves remain invisible. 

Have you ever gone to the refrigerator or the cabinet to get something and, no matter how hard you look, you just can’t find it, but then someone else takes a look and it’s right there in plain sight, right where you were looking?  For some reason, you really could not see it.  You had a mental blind spot.  Those mental blind spots, by the way, have a name.  They’re called schotomas.  

Sometimes we have a schotoma, a mental blind spot, a failure to see what’s right in front of us because we just don’t expect to see it or because it’s not where we think we should see it.  We can be blind to things that don’t fit our preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be.

In John 6:40 in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says a really interesting thing—a thing I didn’t really see for the longest time.  Jesus says, “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”  I think we all catch the part about believing, but it’s easy to overlook the part about seeing Jesus.   

The word that’s used here for see in the original Greek is theôron.  It means “to observe something with enhanced attention; to perceive.”  In other words, to really see as completely and fully as possible.  Jesus wants us to see him.  That makes all the sense in the world, because to really and truly believe,  to trust him, we first have to see him for who he is and what he is.

That’s the problem the religious leaders who confronted Jesus are having in today’s gospel lesson.  They have a schotoma, a mental blind spot.  In spite of all his miracles and the wisdom of his teaching, they are simply unable to see Jesus for who he is and what he is.  Their preconceptions about God and religion and the way the world works just don’t have any room for Jesus as the Son of God, as Immanuel, as God With Us.  Their theology gets in the way of what God is doing right in front of them.

“Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph?,” they say.  “We know his parents!  How can he say he came down from heaven?”   Their skepticism is understandable.   It’s more than a little bit of a leap from “Jesus, the teacher and healer” to “Jesus, the divine presence in our midst who has come to us from heaven.”  It’s such a leap, in fact, that a lot of people try to put Jesus in a category with less outrageous claims.  They think of him as a great moral teacher or an important social pioneer.

But here’s the thing…C.S. Lewis said we either need to take Jesus at his word, or put him aside altogether.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”  

To really believe in Jesus as the Son of God, first you have to see him that way.  But a lot of people—maybe most—just aren’t prepared to see him that way, and the most brilliant theological arguments in the world won’t change their minds.  Jesus understood that.  “No one can come to me unless the Father draws them,” he said.  And the word “draws” here, by the way, is the same word that’s used for hauling in a fishing net.  People come to faith because God draws them to faith.  Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him by my own reason or strength, but instead, the Holy Spirit has called me.”

God can reel you in, but God won’t force you to believe.  It’s like they say about a horse and water: God can make us come to Jesus, but God can’t or won’t make us believe or trust.  God will lead us to the bread of life, but God won’t force it on us. 

Jesus is inviting us to a faith that’s anchored in love and trust.  Jesus wants us to believe in him because we see him for who and what he really is.  And Jesus wants us to learn to see each other as children of God, too—as persons who are created  in the image and likeness of God—even when it’s a stretch, and the person you’re looking at seems far removed from God or anything like God’s grace, generosity, compassion and love.  

Jesus wants us to really see him.  And he wants us to learn to really see each other.  That requires a deeper kind of seeing.  That requires us to put aside a lot of preconceptions that tend to create a schotoma—a mental blind spot—around Jesus, and frankly, around each other, because so often we seem to be truly blind to each other as children of God, shining in the image and likeness of God.  

Sometimes, in order to really see Jesus, we even need to put aside our creeds and theology.  The problem with them is that they make us think we understand what it means to believe.  They give us a formula to recite, boxes we can check off, things we can assent to in theory.  But that’s not what Jesus has called us to.

Creeds, professions of faith, theology, doctrine and dogma—these all have their place, and once we come to faith they can help us see more deeply the life we’re experiencing.  But it’s important to remember that God did not write a creed for us in words that can be debated or that change their meaning.  Instead, God gave us a living example.  God gave us a life that we can see—a mirror to show us how we are to be in the world and with each other.  Theology can be argued about.  Faith, as a life, can only be lived.  

Jesus is the bread of life who not only sustains us in a living faith, once we learn to see him, but who opens our eyes so that we can see him and each other more deeply—so that we can see God With Us, in him and in each other.

Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203

The Problem With Creeds

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will work?  That’s crazy-making.  God won’t be boxed in.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein, which is about the fascinating theological and political battle surrounding the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in which the first prototype of the Nicene Creed was formulated.  The Emperor Constantine called the Council to settle a raging theological dispute that pivoted around several theological questions:  Was Jesus divine?  What did that mean, exactly?  What was Jesus’ relationship to the Father?  And the Spirit?  Was Jesus subordinate to the Father?  Was Jesus co-eternal with the Father or was he created? 

These questions had simmered in the background since the very beginning of Christianity but most Christians were more or less content to live with differing opinions on these matters.  But when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, stopped the persecutions, and made the religion legal, suddenly it seemed important to find official answers and establish doctrine.   

The Council of Nicaea was supposed to settle these matters once and for all, but, even though the Trinitarians “won” the debate and formulated most of the language of the Creed, the Arians continued to push for their interpretation of the faith for more than a century and often were in the majority.  They believed that Jesus was created by the Father and was not co-eternal, that he had a kindof divinity as the son of God, but was not equal to the Father, was instead subordinate to the Father. And so on.  So while the Creed gave language to the first official doctrine of the Church, in practice it really failed to unify the Church in any meaningful way.

Creeds can be useful.  Up to a point.  They are useful to help clarify what we think.  They draw lines that determine the boundaries of what we understand about God and our relationship with God, and help us identify ideas that don’t seem consistent with what we’ve known and experienced of God.  They tell us who’s in and who’s out—who agrees with the official line and who does not. But that’s also part of their limitation.  God is bigger, deeper, wider and more innovative than any boundaries we draw.  God is not a cat.  God does not want to curl up inside our box.  

Another problem with creeds is that they emphasize some aspects of our faith over others, sometimes even ignoring things that are vitally important.  In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, for instance, more and more Christian thinkers are calling attention to what’s being called The Great Comma.

“But have you ever noticed the huge leap the creed makes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? A single comma connects the two statements, and falling into that yawning gap, as if it were a mere detail, is everything Jesus said and did between his birth and his death! Called the “Great Comma,” the gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to “believe” in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ life and teaching?” –Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Perhaps the greatest problem with our creeds, though, is that they focus on what we think about God and not what we’re doing to live out our relationship with God.  There is nothing in their language about service. There’s nothing about love. There is nothing about hope.  There is nothing in them about helping “the least of these brothers and sisters”, or life together in a family of faith.  Forgiveness of sins is mentioned but there is no actual call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. The creeds are, instead, a historical snapshot of what the men who formulated them (and they were all men) understood to be the most important philosophical premises of their faith. And to be clear, these were the statements formulated by those who won the battles—battles that were sometimes physical and not just philosophical.  One can’t help but wonder how Jesus felt about that…or feels now, for that matter.

Yes, we do believe.  But more importantly, we are called to follow Christ and to live as the Body of Christ.  I wonder… what would a creed look like that focused on that?  What language would move our statement of faith out of our heads and into our hearts and hands and feet?

No Place Like Home

2 Corinthians 5:6-11, 14-16

“We’re at home in the body,” says Paul the Apostle…at home in this vessel that bruises and jostles and ages and wrinkles and sneezes and bleeds, at home in this meat case of incessant needs, at home in this temple of hungers and appetites yearning for ecstasy, longing for paradise, wishing escape from our aches and our pains, our own wounded psyches, our time-addled brains. From the tips of your toes to the crown of your dome, be it ever so…broken… there’s no place like home.

There’s no place that needs such upkeep and maintaining. One day you’re feasting, the next you’re abstaining. One day it’s easy to carry your weight, the next day you wonder “Who packed all this freight?” One day you’re an athlete racking up points, the next you’re a senior with bionic joints. One day you’re a tower of strength, in your prime. The next day lumbago is twisting your spine. The years pile on and give you a licking, but with diet and meds the ticker keeps ticking. So we take baby aspirin and pray for catharsis because, after all, home’s where the heart is.

Home’s where the heart is…so, although we are slowing, we’re still pretty confident about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight–especially when nature calls three times a night. But despite all our physical hurdles and hobbles, despite how our little world teeters and wobbles, despite all our blindness and deafness and woe we still, pretty much, know which way to go. Though our feet may meander, our attention may roam, softly and tenderly Christ calls us home.

Christ calls us home. And yes, we are judged. We stand here before him all battered and smudged, we feel every scar—especially those we’ve inflicted—every lie or dark deed–we stand here convicted. But we stand here with Christ who died once and for all so that our death is wrapped up in his in one ball of death-killing love and mercy and grace that lifts us right out of that self-centered place where we wallow in fear and ego and worry and gross self-importance and anger and hurry. We find mercy and grace, forgiveness, shalom—our souls wrapped in love until Christ is our home.

Christ is our home. So we see with new eyes—a new point of view—and to our surprise, because Christ is more than a mere human being, we see that there’s really no mere anything. Or mere anyone–we are, all of us, deeper, more complex, more cherished, and no life is cheaper than yours or than mine or than anyone else’s. We find our true selves when we learn to be selfless, when we fall into Christ and let love conform us, let the Spirit inspire, reshape and transform us, till in this slow stew of transfiguration we see that in Christ there is new creation.

In Christ, new creation. All things are reborn—the ones you love most, the parties you scorn, the planet itself, the stars in the skies—all things are made new and we see with new eyes. Old habits, old angers, old grudges, old fears, addictions, obsessions, your old unshed tears, old guilts that trouble your sleep in the night, opinions and bias that narrow your sight—it all fades away to allow a fresh start in Christ, your new home, in Christ, your new heart. The old fades away as the new takes its place and life becomes grace upon grace upon grace.

Grace upon grace, even through the long waiting that drags on our days as we’re anticipating that final renewal, the post-mortem waking, when you’ll shine like a jewel at the final remaking of all things that are and all things that will be and all things that were. And all you. And all me. The blossom that hides in the seed is concealed and what we will be has not yet been revealed. And though we’re impatient to make our escape, like a nymph in a chrysalis we’re still taking shape. But home’s where the heart is and our hearts are glowing, so we speak with confidence about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight. Love urges us on and Christ is our light. Our feet may meander, our attention may roam but softly and tenderly, Christ guides us home.