Jesus Prays for Evangelists

I’ll spare you a long rant about the RCL and its oddball usage of John’s Gospel, and simply note that on Sunday, like every Seventh Sunday After Easter (see A and C) we will hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, ripped from its context and nonsensically placed on the final Sunday of Eastertide.  As such, we hear Jesus using pronouns for which there is no direct antecedent.  As the preacher, I’m privy to the larger story, as I should be, but since we, like many Episcopal congregations, have no Bibles in the pews, those who show up on Sunday, will only get a small glimpse into Jesus’ prayer, and will likely be left wondering what Jesus is talking about when he says:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Asking what, exactly?  The pericope appointed for Year B skips what Jesus is asking for.  As we look back to the opening verses of John 17, we note that despite the section heading that has been inserted into the text, “Jesus prays for his disciples,” what Jesus is really praying for in this moment is that the Father might “glorify the son, so that the Son my glorify you.”  In John, this language of glorification is a clear reference to the crucifixion.  In being lifted up on the cross, Jesus is raised upon his throng as king.  Paradoxically, through his brutal and embarrassing death, Jesus is glorified as the Savior of the World and the King of the Jews.

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With that context in mind, we return to the appointed lesson for Sunday.  When Jesus says that he is asking for his glorification, it isn’t so that world, which in John’s Gospel is synonymous with sin, will see it and be changed, but rather, that those who already believe might be further empowered.  As the disciples will soon look upon the glorification of Jesus, it is his hope that they might be encouraged, rather than dejected.  In verse 18, Jesus makes hope this overt, when he prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have them them into the world.”

If those words sound familiar, it is because they appear almost verbatim in the much more popular John 20:21, which we hear every Easter 2 and on the Day of Pentecost in Year A.  There, the now resurrected Jesus enters a locked room where his disciples were gathered, clearly dejected and afraid, having failed to live into his prayer from a few days before.  He breathes upon them, and essentially answers this prayer for them in saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In praying for his glorification, on behalf of his disciples and not the world, Jesus prays that the Father might encourage future evangelists.  His prayer is that those who have experienced relationship with God through Christ might have the ability and desire to share that Good News with a world that is evil and fallen.  In praying for the disciples to be empowered through his death, he prays for us as well, that we too might be sent, as the Father sent his only Son, into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to tell the story of God’s saving love.

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[Against you]

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My friend and colleague Evan Garner wrote this morning about the importance of reading lectionary passages within their larger context.  This is an important rule for preachers, and one that I often, in haste, ignore.  Reading his post this morning inspired me to look around within the context of Matthew 18 to see what Jesus is up to that would bring about this teaching on discipline within the Church.  (For those following along, this is that third usage of this word in Matthew, but the Greek actually lacks ekklesia here.  The NRSV’s commitment to inclusive language created the situation in which the Greek word for “brother” is translated as “a member of the church.”)  This lesson follows on the heels of the Parable of the lost sheep. There Jesus shows just how ridiculous and extravagant God’s desire for reconciliation really is.

“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”  Well, actually no, Jesus, that seems like a really good way to lose 100 sheep instead of one.  And yet, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.  God desires the restoration of every human being into right relationship that in Christ, God set forth to find every stray soul wandering the countryside.  Immediately after this parable, Jesus begins our lesson for Sunday.  It is helpful, as Evan points out, to note that this story about disciple comes withing a larger context of forgiveness.

It is also helpful to take note of content as well.  Many Christians are familiar with this text, especially the first line, “If another member of the church sins against you,” but how many of us pay attention to the footnotes?  In my HarperCollins Study Bible, footnote n comes right after the word you and reads, “Other ancient authorities lack against you.”  Isn’t that interesting?  Perhaps this isn’t a lesson in how to deal with one-to-one interactions, but a more general rule about how the church should handle sin.  Digging deeper, I pulled out Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. and found that the United Bible Society, as it put together its fourth edition of a Greek New Testament, chose to put the Greek words translated as “against you” in brackets, denoting that they are unsure of their place in the original text.

So what? You might rightfully ask, and I’m glad you did.  This lesson has long been used in unhelpful ways, usually as the result of the words “against you.”  Rather than being a tool for one church member to take issue with another, this lesson, when it lacks “against you” becomes a call to the whole church to a) be honest about sin, b) name it when we see it, but yet c) to offer grace continually.  Recalling that Matthew was a tax collector, who was invited by Jesus into his inner circle, those who followed in his tradition and finally put this Gospel to parchment would have taken note that the culmination of Jesus teaching on church discipline was to treat the unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector.  The call here isn’t to harsh excommunication of one who has sinned against you, but a loving invitation to repentance for all who continue to live in sin.  Thanks be to God that we are treated as Gentiles and tax collectors in need of forgiveness and lost sheep in need of being found.

An important caveat

One of my most oft quoted lines from the Bible gets read every Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year A.  I first fell in love with this sentence while in seminary.  The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hook, one of my homiletics professors, assigned us an off-the-cuff five-minute reflection based on 1 Peter 3:15b, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;”  It was an interesting challenge to offer that defense/account/answer to a room full of seminarians who were trained to think theologically, to reflect skeptically, and to offer critique of our work.  Over the years, I’ve come back to that phrase again and again: challenging not only myself to “always be ready,” but inviting my congregations to do the same.  We will never overcome the reluctance to be Episcopal Evangelists without embracing 1 Peter 3:15b.

This morning, however, I’ve noticed, maybe for the first time, that the sentence doesn’t end with verse 15.  Instead, there is a semi-colon.  This admonition from Peter (or likely someone using his pseudonym) brings with it a very important caveat that will make the hearts of Episcopalians sing while offering a strong critique to those street corner evangelists who decry the sinfulness of those who walk by, use the fear of hell to coerce, and suggest that only their way is the way of salvation.  Here’s the advice of “Peter” in its entirety.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

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The Greek here translates as “gentleness” or “humility” and “fear” or “reverence,” which points us to the two directions in which we must give an account of our hope.  First, we speak to other human beings who have experienced life and faith in ways that are different than ours.  When we tell them how the story of God intersects the story of our lives, we should always do so in humility, recognizing that our story is only our story.  No one person’s experience is universal, and we all have our own understanding of God and of hope.  When we share, we should recognize the power of the story of the other.  Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, we must recognize that we are telling the very story of God.  We should not presume to have all the answers, but rather, with fear, awe, and reverence, should be pointing always beyond ourselves to the power of God at work in the world and in our lives.

When we fail to share our hope with gentleness and reverence, we harm the gospel witness.  We should take this caveat, inexplicably broken apart by the oddities of chapter and verse, exceedingly seriously.  Always be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you with humility and fear.

Abundance is more than a platitude

I preached this without notes at the Parish Picnic, so the audio on the Christ Church website doesn’t quite match the text below.


There are two kinds of preachers in this world: those who get to choose their own texts and those whose texts are chosen for them.  I am the latter.  Our Prayer Book in a section opaquely titled, “Concerning the Proper of the Church Year” requires that we use the lessons prescribed in the Lectionary.  Most of the time, I love being a Lectionary preacher.  It means that neither I, nor you, are subjected to my whim and fancy when it comes to preaching.  Even if I wanted to preach a sixty-two-week sermon series on John 3:16, I can’t, thanks be to God.  Of course, this also means that some weeks, I’m stuck with what is set before me.  For me, this comes to a head every Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is affectionately called (by some) “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Good Shepherd Sunday marks something of a transition in Easter season.  We move from resurrection encounters like Emmaus Road and the Upper Room back into stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.   On Good Shepherd Sunday, in each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we hear portions of John 10 totally removed from their larger context.  It is here that I have the most trouble being a Lectionary preacher.  I have long lamented that bad theology lurks nearby when we read the Bible out of context.  And yet, this is exactly what happens on Good Shepherd Sunday when we take a small portion on one long story and split it into three lessons read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter over three years.  In the end, all we get are fuzzy platitudes like “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly;” “I am the Good Shepherd;” and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

According to Massey Shepherd’s Commentary on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Good Shepherd Sunday is a nod to the early Church in which, during the first waves of persecution, the most common image of Jesus in artwork was as the Good Shepherd, carrying his fold through hardship.[1]  This is all well and good, I suppose, but without the understanding of that hardship, we end up with a Google image search full of sappy paintings of a handsome, blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus carrying a single baby lamb with a long line of well-behaved sheep queued up behind him.

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Instead, I’d like to suggest that we reclaim Good Shepherd Sunday for what it really is: a portion of a longer teaching by Jesus in which he uses the extended metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and sheepfolds to explain why he healed the man born blind on the Sabbath day.  During this teaching discourse, Jesus calls himself both the gate for the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd, indicating that he is the way into the Kingdom of God as well as the one who will lead God’s people there.  He talks of other sheep that do not yet belong to the fold who will come to hear his voice and follow.  He alludes to his crucifixion and resurrection, and how they are both completely within his power and control.  He promises that those who listen to his voice will follow him to eternal life.  All this is said in response to the Pharisees who find themselves so threatened by Jesus’ ministry that they will remove from the Synagogue anyone who claims him as the Anointed One.

This larger understanding of what is going on in John’s Gospel then helps us to understand what is happening in the specific portion that is appointed for Easter 4 in Year A.  This is especially true of the oft quoted but rarely thoughtfully considered promise from Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Abundant life can be defined in really unhelpful ways.  Abundance can mean material wealth, but it seems clear from Jesus’ life that this isn’t what he meant.  Abundance can mean happy and healthy relationships, but again, Jesus didn’t seem to have many of those himself.  His healing miracles were often done to those who were socially outcast because of their infirmity, but as we hear in the story of the man born blind, simply being healed doesn’t guarantee restoration of relationship as even his own parents are afraid of what his healing might mean for them.  Abundance can mean power and prestige, but Jesus’ very undignified death on a cross seems to preclude that.  So, what does abundant life mean for this man who was born blind and has received his sight, but as a result has been totally ostracized from his community?  And what does abundant life mean for us, who can follow Jesus with relative comfort and ease in 21st century America?

I think we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to answer these questions.  After the mass conversion of 3,000 on Pentecost Day, those who were stayed in Jerusalem got about the business of being the Church.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  For the early church, as for us, abundant life in Christ is the life of faith lived out in intentional community.  There is no I in church, and the only way we can truly live out our Christian vocation is through the regular pattern of gathering with other disciples.  The man born blind may have lost his community in the Synagogue, but Jesus returned to welcome him into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd.  It is in gathering as the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd that we can teach one another, enjoy one another’s company, share meals (symbolic here in this service, and really good barbeque to follow shortly), and pray for the needs of the world.

As the Church began to expand beyond Jerusalem, the importance of Christians regularly meeting together grew exponentially.  The young Church needed to develop leaders, needed to work out what discipleship looked like, needed to understand what difference Jesus really made in their lives, and the only way to accomplish those things was to be together, to pray together, to learn together, to break bread together, and to celebrate God’ grace together.  I might struggle with Good Shepherd Sunday, but even in my frustration, I am thankful for another reminder that abundant life in God’s love is truly experienced through discipleship in community.  When we commit to studying, to fellowship, to shared meals, and to pray together, we experience the fullness of abundant life in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  Amen.

[1] Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, p. 172.

Mutually Exclusive Behaviors

It has been a good long while since I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some blogging banter with my good friend Evan Garner, but he went to the Greek in his post yesterday, and that’s just an invitation for me to nerd out for a minute.  In his post, “Rather Than or Alongside?” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Evan played with an idea posited by the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, Professor of Homiletics and New Testament at the University of the South, that the Greek phrase that is translated in Sunday’s Gospel as “rather than” in the sentence “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” could just as easily been translated “alongside” as in, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his dome justified alongside the [Pharisee].”  The argument, for those who might care about the Greek, is that the preposition para plus the accusative case “can mean ‘rather than’ but far more often means ‘alongside.'”

With all due respect to Dr. Brosend, “can mean” and “far more often means” does not an ironclad argument make.  While I am certain that this phrase could be translated as “alongside,” I’m also certain that it should be rendered “rather than” because of two very important factors: math and context.

First, the math.  In the study of probabilities and statistics, we find the idea of mutually exclusive events.  That is to say, there are things which can not overlap; they simply cannot happen at the same time.  Take, for a very simplified example, flipping a coin.  It can land on heads or tails, but never both.  These are mutually exclusive events.

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Now we turn to context.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to a group of people who trusted in themselves “that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  These two things are mutually exclusive.  To be righteous is to be in perfect relationship with God and neighbor.  One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible.

Jesus has taught this parable in order to make the point that righteousness does not belong to those who treat others with contempt, and as long as we engage in such behavior, we remain outside of the perfect relationship that God longs for.  Sure, God could forgive the sins of the Pharisee, but it seems far more likely that God would demand some sort of repentance from him.  To be unrighteous in one’s prayers may be the most damning unrighteousness of all.

I agree with Dr. Brosend that it could be that the both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went home justified, i.e. made righteous, but math and context seem to argue that only one was made righteous.

Honor and Shame

If it is possible to imagine, the differences between the context of Jesus in 1st century Palestine and me in 21st century America seem to be even wider than two thousand years and six thousand seven hundred miles.

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Image from USAGeo.org

The amount of change that has occurred in the world even in the last 50 years is enough to render the past a totally foreign place, let alone 2,000 years.  Anyone who has traveled knows that the amount of change that happens between getting on a plane in Alabama and landing in Jerusalem means a steep learning curve on the other end.  So it is that when we open the Scriptures and read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we are reading it through a glass colored darkly.  We can understand the story only in part.

Take, for example, the power of the honor and shame in the world in which Jesus lived.  As Asbury Theological Seminary’s Dr. Ben Wetherington notes in reference to Paul’s ministry, but with application to Jesus’ life, “The honor and shame culture Paul lived in was far different from contemporary Western culture and its values. “Honor” and “shame” in this context do not primarily refer to feelings of honor or shame, though feelings would be involved, but rather to being honored or disgraced in public.”  The goal of any point of argument in the culture of Jesus’ day would be to find a way to shame your opponent in order to bring honor to your point of view.

Which brings us to the tail end of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus has healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath day, much to the ire of the religious authorities, and in the brief spat between them, honor and shame plays a big part.  Jesus honored the woman by laying hands on her and setting her free from her affliction.  The leader of the synagogue tried to shame her, the crowd, and by extension, Jesus, by suggesting that they came to the synagogue with bad intentions, seeking to be healed rather than to honor God on the Sabbath.  Jesus shames the leader by suggesting that his rules are merely man made and enforced only at his own convenience, in order to honor himself.

Luke tells us that when the dust settled, Jesus’ opponents were “put to shame,” and the crowd rejoiced at “all the wonderful things he was doing.”  We miss something in the NRSV’s translation of the Greek which literally reads that the crowd rejoiced at honored things he was dong.  As tensions grow between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be, honor and shame will play a large role, and it would behoove the preacher to take a moment to understand the power of honor and shame in Jesus’ time in order to preach the story 2,000 years and thousands of miles removed.

Some Context

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson always feels like a non sequitur to me.  Either that, or a story Luke added in to solve a stewardship problem in his church.  It start with a man blurting out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  I mean, really?  Throughout the course of the Gospels, we often see Jesus the Rabbi invoked to settle theological debates, but off the top of my head, this is the only time we see Jesus invited to act as a judge.  From the time of Moses on, this case would have been taken to an elder or a judge for settlement, yet here we find a man, obviously ticked off at his brother, asking Jesus to weigh in on a family matter he knows nothing about.

From there, we get Jesus telling the Parable of the Rich Fool, which sort of deals with the question of this man’s inheritance, but sounds a whole lot more like Luke’s church is having trouble raising funds.  As a stewardship text, it comes at a particularly bad time of the year, since many Episcopalians forget that Sunday morning worship exists in the month of July.  I’ll dig into the theological claims of this parable later in the week, but for now, I’m content to try to figure out why Luke includes this story and why the RCL thought it was worth telling in the dog days of summer every three years?

To try to figure this out, having noticed that we’ve jumped from early in Luke 11 to midway through Luke 12, I decided to get my bearings.  Where are we?  What’s been going on?  How’d this man end up so close to Jesus?  Luke answers these questions in the bits we skipped along the way.  It seems that decrying lawyers was a popular in first century Palestine as it is today.

The second half of Luke 11 has Jesus spewing “woe to yous” to hypocritical lawyers and Pharisees, while Luke 12 opens with crowds number in the thousands.  There were so many people following Jesus at this point that they were trampling over one another to get a glimpse of him.  One can imagine the sound of hundred of voices crying out for Jesus to help them.  The sick, the demon possessed, the hungry, and yes, in one particular case, the jealous and greedy, all vying for Jesus’ attention.  It is no wonder this story seems so awkward or out of place.  Luke could have chosen any of a hundred or more these encounters between Jesus and a needy person in the crowd.  Hopefully, as the week unfolds, we’ll understand why he chose this one.