The “The” Question

Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:5-6

Anecdotal evidence suggests that one of the most popular questions in search processes these days is how one handles the “the’s” in John 14:6.  While many liberal mainliners would like to simply ignore them and change Jesus’ words to read “a way,” the reality is that in the Greek, the definite article is there.  Jesus, at least according to John, claimed himself to be “the way.”  So, what do we do with that in an increasingly pluralistic society?  How do live into our baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” while also “respecting the dignity of every human being”?

It is a delicate balance to hold on to the scandal of the particular of Jesus while also embracing the radical hospitality of Christ’s all encompassing loving embrace.  When we focus too much on the “the,” we lose focus on the grace of God.  When we focus too much on radical welcome, we forget that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  In recent years, the answers seems to be some sort of “lowest common denominator” spirituality that basically says, “if you are a good person, you’re ok.”  In this worldview, evangelism is unnecessary, so long as we all give to the Millennium Development Goals.  That’s not helpful either.  So, what are we to do?

i-am-the-way

First, I think we need to be honest about the “the.”  As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  We have found access to the Father through Jesus, and as a result, we are eager to help others find that access as well.  Recently, I have been a part of the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism, which developed a tweetable definition of Episcopal Evangelism.

We seek, name and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people – then invite everyone to MORE. #EpiscopalEvangelism

Our story is the story of Jesus.  That’s the only story we can tell.  That isn’t to disparage the story of our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or None neighbors, but rather to be honest about our hope and what we believe to be the source of our salvation.  Do we hope for conversion?  Absolutely.  Do we coerce? No.  Are we emotionally abusive?  No.  Do we use scare tactics?  No.  Embracing Jesus as the way doesn’t require that we drag others kicking and screaming, instead, it means being honest about who we are, where we place our hope, and inviting, gently and with love, others to experience that same gift of life.  It isn’t an easy balance to strike, but it is, I believe, our calling as disciples of the one who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.

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A bad weekend for Acts 7

This weekend, at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the Bishop will make his annual visitation.  Not to brag too much, but it is exciting to have 1 adult baptism/confirmation, 1 confirmation, 1 reception, and 1 reaffirmation at 8 am and 7 confirmations and 3 receptions at 10 am.  What is really exciting, however, is that I won’t have to preach this week.  Of particular note will be how the Bishop will handle the story of stoning of Stephen with this good group of wide-eyed new Episcopalians.

saint_stephen_coloring_pages

Some things just don’t translate to a coloring sheet

Being a person of faith in 21st century America is a whole lot easier than President Trump would have us believe.  While an increasing number of people might look at us and wonder why we would believe that Jesus rose from the grave, and more people every day shake their heads at what is presented as the sacrificial love of God, we are free to exercise our faith on a day to day basis.  No one is telling us what we can and can’t believe.  No one is telling us that we can’t raise funds for charitable uses.  No one is telling us that we can’t gather to read scripture, sing praise, and offer prayers.  In fact, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the life of the average Christian American from that of the average None.

How then do we read this story of the Church’s first martyr?  What does it mean for those who are “singing up” on the day in which Stephen’s testimony leads him to be dragged into the street and stoned?  What should the life of the average 21st century American look like?  Is there anything we can really learn from the story of Stephen?

The answer is most certainly a yes, but maybe not from the 6 verses appointed for Easter 5, Year A.  If we look at the entirety of the story of Stephen, beginning with the despite between the Hellenists and the Hebrews at the beginning of chapter 6 and running through the end of chapter 7, there is plenty to learn from the story of Stephen.  It is a story about how the Church cares for those on the margins – especially those who are likely to fall through the cracks within the Church.  It is a story about discernment and how the Church calls people to ministry.  It is a story in which the apostles aren’t afraid to name gifts and talents that are required for the fulfillment of an office, which is a lesson the modern Episcopal Church could probably stand to have reiterated.

Most importantly for a service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation: The story of Stephen is a story about how expansive ministry can become when we invite the Holy Spirit to be the source of our work.  The Bishop will lay hands on and pray over each of our candidates, inviting the Holy Spirit who has already begun a good work in them to renew their ministry, to grow their faith, and to propel them out in service.  It is a story that we all could stand hear with some regularity, reminding us that each member of Christ’s Body has a ministry, and that the Spirit equips all of us for service.

You know the way – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

Being a Christian is hard work.  Of course, that’s not entirely true.  Like everything in life, being a Christian doesn’t have to be difficult.  In fact, there is an easy way and a hard way to be a follower of Jesus.  The easy way is based on self-preservation: a long-term life and fire insurance policy.  If you want to go to heaven when you die, then believe that Jesus died for you, ask him into your heart, show up at church every once in a while to make sure your ticket remains valid, and wait until that day when you finally kick the bucket and move on to the mansion that Jesus has prepared for you.  It is no wonder that this way is the preferred method of following Jesus these days: barely any work in exchange for a big pay day down the road doesn’t sound too bad, but like most things that seem too good to be true, this one probably is too.  You see, to truly know Jesus requires something more than a prayer and occasionally getting up early on Sunday morning.  Following Jesus takes us to the cross and back.

Our Gospel lesson this morning is somewhat peculiar.  Here we are shouting Alleluias on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, but our appointed lesson places us smack in the middle of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse on the night before his crucifixion.  None of our resurrection encounters with Jesus have been particularly happy clappy, what with Mary crying in the garden, the disciples huddled in an upper room, and Cleopas and his buddy downtrodden on the road to Emmaus, but at least all of those happened after the cross.  Today we find ourselves back in the upper room as trouble swirls in the hearts of the disciples.  Jesus has bucked all tradition and social protocol by washing his disciples’ feet in the middle of dinner.  Judas has just run from the room, determined to stop Jesus from acting so foolish, even if it kills them both.  Peter is sulking in the corner having just been told that he would deny Jesus not once or twice, but three times that very night.  Trouble is everywhere.

Being a follower of Jesus can be really difficult.  Often, it means that your heart is troubled, disturbed, or stirred up.  It is that feeling you get when you know things aren’t the way God intended them to be.  That gut reaction you have when you see injustice, prejudice, and oppression in the world around you.  That aching in the pit of your stomach when you ponder the tens of millions of children[1] and senior citizens[2] in the United States who go bed hungry.  That churning feeling that comes from seeing images of girls stolen from their school just because a class of educated women makes some ignorant men uncomfortable.  Following Jesus means having a troubled heart from time to time, but it also means listening when he encourages his disciples to not let our hearts be troubled.  “You trust in God,” Jesus says, “and you’ve put your trust in me. So don’t worry about all of this uncertainty that surrounds you. I may be away from you, but I will not leave you for good.  In the meantime, I’m preparing the Kingdom for you even as you are bringing it into being here on earth.  You know the way to get there.”

Thomas echoes what I’m sure each and every one of us has felt at least a time or two.  There he stands, seemingly in the dark, “groping around aimlessly for a path, a truth, a life, and THE path, [THE] truth, and [THE] life is staring [him] in the face and [he] can’t see it….”[3] In those moments when we are taking our faith seriously, when our hearts are stirred up for the Kingdom, when we are most on edge, it can be hard to trust that everything is going to be all right.  It doesn’t take more than five minutes of the five o’clock news to begin to wonder if this whole thing has gone irrevocably off the rails.  “No Jesus, clearly we don’t know the way.  It isn’t as easy for us as it is for you.  You are God, you know the heart of the Father, you can see beyond this broken moment to the culmination of history, but we are stuck in time and space and we are troubled.  Heck, we don’t even know the destination, let alone how to get there!”

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, “None of you comes to the Father except through me.”  In just a few short sentences, Jesus lays out the reality of what life is like as his disciples.  Being a Christian means following Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life: certainly no easy task, but the key lies in the announcement that Jesus had just made.  In the context of the Last Supper, it probably hasn’t been two minutes since Jesus told his disciples everything they needed to know about following him.  “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[4] Jesus knows the way to the Father’s Kingdom.  Jesus shows the way to the Father’s Kingdom.  Jesus is the way to the Father’s Kingdom.  That way is self-giving love – the sort of love that puts the needs of the other in front of our own – the sort of love that Paul wrote about in First Corinthians chapter 13: love that is patient, kind, unselfish, and keeps no record of wrong – the kind of love that is really, really hard to live out in practical everyday life.

Less than twenty-four hours before his death, Jesus reminds his disciples that they have everything they need to live the Kingdom Life without him.  They’ve seen him live out the love of God over and over and over again.  Whether it was in a seemingly silly act like turning water into wine or in the profoundly miraculous moment of calling a really, really dead Lazarus out of his tomb, Jesus lived in their midst as the love of God incarnate.  Our calling as disciples of Jesus is to do our best to follow his example by loving God and loving our neighbors.

Being a Christian is hard work.  Of course, that’s not entirely true.  Like everything in life, being a Christian doesn’t have to be difficult.  In fact, there is an easy way and a hard way to be a follower of Jesus.  The hard way is based on the model of self-giving love that we have in Jesus Christ.  It is less about a long-term life and fire insurance policy and more about the right here and right now.  It isn’t about getting to go to heaven when you die, but rather it is about choosing to bring heaven to earth every moment of every day.  It means placing your trust in Jesus and following him as the way, the truth, and the abundant life that God planned for each of us individually and for the world-at-large from the very beginning.  Sure, it means showing up to Church on Sundays, but not to be entertained or to have your ticket punched.  It means coming here to give God thanks and praise for his enduring love.  It means being nourished in word and in sacrament.  It means being fed at this holy table so that you are empowered to leave this place and truly follow Jesus the other 167 hours of the week.  Being a Christian isn’t easy, but the good news is, we aren’t in it alone.  We’ve got a community of faith, the body of Christ still on earth, to walk along side us, to support us, even to carry us when it feels like we just can’t go another step as together we follow the way that is well known to us.  The way of love.  The way of everlasting life.  The way of the Kingdom.  Amen.

 

[1] http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/child-hunger-facts.aspx

[2] http://www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/hunger/learn-about-hunger/

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=68

[4] John 13.34-35 (NRSV)

Greater Works

As I’m sure I’ve said before, one of my primary goals early in a preaching week is to try to figure out what question/concern/issue I think the average person in the pew will want me to address.  Some weeks the answer to this question is outside of my control: Sandy Hook, the Haiti earthquake, the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  Some weeks I never can figure it out because the lesson is so full of oddities or I’m so immersed in churchyness that I can’t see the forest for the trees.  This week, however, the answer seems clearly divided between one of two distinct possibilities.  One possibility is that Jane Schmoe is going to hear Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” and want some serious explanation (or they read yesterday’s post and think I’m a heretic).  The other likely point of controversy is Jesus’ response to Philip where he says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Greater works than [mine].

Ask anything.

I will do it.

This is a bit of a sticky wicket.  All of us know of someone who has died.  It is safe to assume that someone has prayed for the vast majority of those people, and often those prayers were done “in Jesus’ name.”  The truth of the matter is those people died anyway.  Equally true is that the overwhelming majority of Christians have not turned water into 12 year old scotch or raised a dozen people from the dead or healed hundreds from various diseases or fed 10,000 with 2.5 loaves of bread and 1 fish.  Hearing Jesus make such bold claims, right at the end of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, will most likely raise some questions in the minds of those who are actually paying attention.  I know it does for me.

So, what are we to do with this?

I wrote that question at 2:46pm.   It is now 3:00 and I still don’t know.  I’ve Googled “Greater Works” and found thousands of churches and parachurch ministries utilizing this phrase of Jesus to mean any number of things.  I’ve read a devotional by the famous Oswald Chambers which didn’t really satisfy me.

I keep coming back to the thought that what I think Jesus means by “works” is different than what Jesus really meant, and it hinges on this line, “the Father who dwells in me does his works.”  The work of the Father is the work of creation.  The work of the Father through Jesus is the work of redemption.  The same work that God continues to do through the Church as the Body of Christ.  As disciples we are called to work to bring about the restoration of unity between humanity and God and people with each other (BCP, 855, The Mission of the Church).  The greater works we do are works of sharing the Good News, caring for the stranger, loving the unlovable, and encouraging the downtrodden.  Sometimes that means miracles on par with the Seven Signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel will happen, but more often, it is the miracle of light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair, or joy in the sadness that is the fruit of our work.

Love Wins – a post about the word “the”

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14.6a)

Several years ago now, Rob Bell wrote a book entitled, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  The book raised the ire of many an Evangelical leader because of Bell’s seemingly Universalist stance (In the midst of the brouhaha that lead up to the launch of his book, Bell denied that he was a universalist).  None other than leading Evangelical John Piper tweeted what was essentially the 21st century version of an anathema, excommunicating Bell for modern Evangelicalism and forcing him into the Oprah speaking circuit, effectively ruining him as a theologian (a post for another day, perhaps).  Many [former] Mainline Christians received Bell’s book with no more than a yawn, noting that this is really nothing we hadn’t heard before.

One can read the Bible cover to cover and reasonably conclude one one hand, that everyone is saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus or on the other, that God has elected only a select few to be saved and will send the rest of the reprobate to eternal damnation, or on any number of other hands, some gradation in between.  So, I don’t presume to speak the definitive word on this subject, mostly because anybody who argues that there is a final word on it is either a heretic, a liar, or insane.

I bring this matter up because Sunday’s Gospel lesson gives us the line I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post, with that pesky word “the” included three times.  Attempts have been made to soften the blow of Jesus’ claim by suggesting a translation that reads, “I am a way, a truth, and the life” or some such thing, but the Greek of John’s Gospel very clearly a definite article before each of the key words: way, truth, and life.  It is unambiguous that Jesus is making a very exclusive claim, which is clarified in the next sentence, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  It seems clear, at least in this oft cited portion of John’s Gospel (cf John 12.32), that Jesus is making a very narrow claim about the salvation of God.

Let me suggest another reading, however.  What if Jesus’ exclusive claim that he is the only way to the Father is actually very inclusive.  Radically inclusive, even.  What if love really wins?  It seems clear in the Scriptures and in our Creeds that there will be a final judgment “of both the living and the dead.”  A final judgment infers that there will be a time between now and the end.  What if, in that interim period, the overwhelming love of God continues to work on the souls of those who have departed this life?  What if, the gift of grace continues to be offered again and again and again?  Sure, there is a chance that some will reject it, flat out, no matter what, but more likely, in my opinion, is the possibility that love will prevail; that in the end all will come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  It won’t be forced or coerced, it’ll be nurtured and cajoled.  What if Jesus really is the only way to the Father and that ultimately everybody finds that way?  What if there is a hell, but in the end, it’s empty?

Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, and surely something in here has made me a heretic, but this is what comes to mind every time John 14.6 comes up.  Love can win, even with the word “the.”

You know the way!

As Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure, he tried to cheer them up in several ways.  As I noted yesterday, he encouraged them to not let their hearts be troubled.  He promised that he’d be back to get them once he had prepared a place for them in his Father’s house.  He also assured the disciples that they “knew the way to the place where he was going.”  If you’ll pardon me for engaging in some gender stereotyping here, I am a typical guy.  If you mention a place where you’d like me to meet you, I’ll pretend all day long that I know where that place is.  I’ll nod my head vigorously.  I’ll mumble, “mmm hmm”s.  I’ll pretend I don’t need the directions you are giving me, even though I’m just not listening because I know I won’t remember which way to turn where the old Dairy Queen used to be.  I’ll convince you that I know the way, and then get in my car and let Siri guide me.  If the 11 disciples who are still in the upper room with Jesus are any indicator of the wider male culture, then roughly 91% of men will act like me.

And then there’s Thomas.

Thomas doesn’t pull punches.  He never has.  He was the one who named the reality that Jesus would most likely die if he made a return trip to Jerusalem (John 11.16).  Later (chronologically, though the lesson has already come up in the Lectionary cycle), Thomas will be the one who refuses to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead until he sees it with his own eyes and touches him with his own hands.  And in our lesson for Sunday, it is Thomas who pipes up on behalf of the 9% and says to Jesus, “Man, we don’t even know where you are going, how can we possibly know the way?”

I’ll get to Jesus loaded response in tomorrow’s post, that pesky word “the” deserves a reflection of its very own.  For today, I’m wondering about Jesus’ assurance that they already know the way.  For me, it all goes back to my constantly beating drum that the Kingdom of God is not a place far off in the heavens that we get to go to when we die.  Instead, the Kingdom of God is all around us.  The way to the Kingdom is through the commandment Jesus just gave the disciples in 13:34-35, “Love one another.”  He tells them, “the world will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”

The Way to the Kingdom of God is through agape love; love that is self-sacrificial; love that puts the needs of another before your own.  You can’t blame the disciples, in the heat of the moment, for forgetting this fact and focusing on the literal.  Two-thousand years later, we have less of an excuse for forgetting that the key to the Kingdom is to love one another.  We know the way.  If only we were better at following it.

Troubled – All Shook Up

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when things aren’t going right?  When your gut starts to churn and roll and well…

It seems as though Jesus and John knew something about that feeling.  Six times John uses this word tarasso, but he introduces it not in terms of the heart, but with the visual of the Pool of Siloam (5.7) which must be “troubled” or stirred up in order for someone to be healed.  Having introduced it with such an image, John then uses it five more times, each dealing with what it feels like when inner peace is all but lost.

  • John 11.33 – Jesus’ is troubled at the death of Lazarus
  • John 12.27 – Jesus’ soul is troubled in the waning hours of his life
  • John 13.21 – Jesus’ is troubled in spirit as he foretells his betrayal
  • John 14.1 – Jesus encourages his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled
  • John 14.27 – Jesus promises the Holy Spirit that will give the disciples’ troubled hearts peace.

I find the trajectory of this word to be interesting.  It starts, as I mentioned, with the vivid image of water being stirred up.  The next three instances of this word are within Jesus himself.  As the intensity of the lead up to his death grows, his heart gets all shook up again and again and again.  He knows the feeling of anxiety and stress.  He feels within himself the typical human response of fight or flight.  He is hurt by the deceitful action of his trusted companion, Judas, but in a few short moments, something changed.

After Judas flees into the darkness, Jesus turns to the 11 who remained and said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  As if on cue, Peter takes up the troubled waters, asking Jesus where he is going, and proclaiming his willingness to die for his friend.  The room has shifted, and in an instant, Jesus knows that he must find the peace of God that surpasses all understanding in order to help his disciples through what will be a very difficult few days, and so, he encourages them to find peace.

Isn’t this often the way with loved ones who are ill.  In the midst of their troubled hearts, they find a way to be encouraging to their friends and family to find peace.  Often, we wonder where their strength comes from: in the midst of their own personal battle, they find a way to support those around them.  I think Jesus, in all his humanity, is an example for us in this, when we find the love of God, we find peace, and both are to be shared far and wide.  Don’t let your hearts be troubled, dear friends, seek the peace and love of God.