The Lord Abides

The juxtaposition in literary grace between John’s prologue on the eternal Word (v. 1-14) and our introduction to the person of Jesus toward the tail end of John 1 couldn’t be more jarring if it tried.  From the loftiness of the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14) we find John the Baptist not wild-eyed, beard matted with honey and locust legs, but rather stilted, awkward almost, as he tries to explain to his disciples who this “Lamb of God” is.  “I myself” is a phrase I’m pretty sure I’ve never uttered myself 😉 and yet, John says it three times in four sentences.  It’s as if we replaced the poet of the first fourteen verses with a systematic theologian for the next twenty.  Anyway, what this really strange interaction between John and his disciples manages to do is a) introduce an adult, already baptized Jesus into the narrative, and b) pique the interest of the two disciples, Andrew and an unnamed disciple, so that they take on their Rabbi’s awkwardness and just start to follow Jesus.

Eventually, Jesus feels them on his heels, turns around, and asks a most appropriate question, “What are you looking for?”  Caught in their own weirdness (I can say this, as one of my spiritual gifts is awkwardness), one of them blurts out a random question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Despite the overall oddity of the language in this passage, John does seem to always be doing something with the narrative.  This question, strange as it may be, begins a short riff on the Greek word, meno, which is variously translated as “staying” and “remained.”  If we were going to stay stilted, I would have preferred the translators have used the word “abide” instead.

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I have my reasons for liking the word “abide”

This image of Jesus abiding is helpful to me as I think about what it is that Jesus was called to do during his active years of ministry.  Though he was always on the move and had no place to lay his head, part of what Jesus modeled for the generations of Christian leaders to come was an abiding spirit.  Even when the narrative seems clear that Jesus intended to quickly move from one place to another, we find many examples of Jesus being present to and abiding with an interruption.  His was a ministry of presence.  He abided with those whom the world passed quickly.  He spent time with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the oppressed.  He shared precious moments with those whom the world said weren’t worth anything.

The Book of Acts tells the story of the first generation of Christian leaders also abiding.  Paul abided, sometimes for years, in places to which he had been called.  Philip abided in Samaria and later in the chariot next to the Ethiopian Eunuch, neither places that a good Jew would spend much time.  James the Just abided in Jerusalem despite growing pressure to leave.  So too, as disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are called to abide.  Whether we are clergy or lay leaders, part of what it means to follow in the model of Christ is to be present, to abide despite discomfort, and to see what God has planned next.  In John 1’s stilted language, we learn that the Lord abides, and we should too.

John’s Epilogue

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John’s Gospel is, for all intents and purposes, over already.  Last week, we heard the author tie the whole thing up with a nice bow, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  We were told to look and listen for other stories.  We were told why this book was written.  We were offered the means to gain eternal life.  The End.  Or maybe not.  Our Gospel lesson this morning somehow comes after the greatest story ever told is over.  Chapter 21 serves as something of an epilogue. It is very clearly a story “added to the end of the book that serves to comment on what has [already] happened.”[1] Scholars have spilled all manner of ink trying to decide who actually wrote John 21.  They’ve argued over why it is included when it is so obviously an addition.  They’ve dug into the nuances of the original Greek to seek any number of answers to questions about why it matters that there were exactly 153 fish in the miraculous catch.

It is a puzzling story, to be sure, but if we take as our basic assumption that the purpose of this chapter is to “comment on what has already happened,” then we might begin to get a richer understanding of why it has been passed down for nearly two thousand years.  See, what has happened, at least how it gets told in John’s Gospel is that the eternal Word of God entered time and space and moved into the neighborhood of our common humanity in order to show us what eternal life looks like.  Through signs and teachings, through relationship building and intentional discipleship, Jesus developed a significant and devoted following that ultimately put enough fear in the hearts of the powers-that-be, that he was killed as a revolutionary, but in so doing, by lifting Jesus up on the cross, they lifted Jesus up upon his throne to reign as King of kings.  In God’s great victory, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, breathed new life into his disciples, and sent them out as apostles to follow in his footsteps by loving, teaching, and discipling the nations.

So, that’s what happened.  As the epilogue on that story, we find the disciples back where Jesus had initially found many of them, in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Just like before, they’ve fished all night, and caught nothing.  Likely, this all serves as a metaphor for the early stages of their new ministry.  Jesus gave them all the tools they needed for success, but it takes time to learn new things.  There is no doubt in my mind that Peter had tried to perform some miracle and failed.  Philip had tried to preach the good news and got all tangled up in his words.  Thomas has tried to make a rational argument for the resurrection of Jesus, and got lost in his own logic web.  They had been fishing for people on their own for a little while and thus far, had caught nothing.

Back on shore, a football field away, Jesus appears and calls out to them.  “Hey y’all try the other side.”  It’s interesting that shortly after this, John tells us that Jesus already had fish cooking over a charcoal fire.  He could have called out and said, “breakfast is ready,” but having completed his work on earth, Jesus’ last mission is that of an encourager, an empowerer, a cheerleader.  Give a person a fish and they eat for a day… yada yada yada.  As the nets came up from the right side of the boat, the catch was so big they couldn’t even begin to haul it in.  This seems to again be a good metaphor for what happens when we try to do ministry on our own.  We get a good idea, we gather a group of interested people, we start to work on it, and we see no fruit because we forgot to invite God along for the ride.  Jesus had promised that he would not leave his disciples abandoned.  The Holy Spirit would come and serve as their advocate and guide.  The Spirit would help them find the mission of their ministry, but it seems as though they couldn’t wait.  Rather, they seem to have been dead set on doing it their way.  John 21 reminds us that it is only when we listen for the Spirit, look for Jesus, and follow the will of the Father that our own good works will be met with success.

Back to what had already happened.  Holy Week started with Jesus and his disciples getting into trouble for eating with sinners and tax collectors.  As I said back then, the act of eating together was a symbol of relationship, an act of true intimacy.  Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup.  They didn’t pass the broken bread around.  They weren’t supposed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus.  Yet, in the kingdom Jesus’ came to proclaim, those food laws weren’t as important as the community he was sent to establish.  Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love.  When Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast, it becomes an opportunity for reconciliation for them all.  While Peter seems to be the focus of the story, and he might have needed reconciliation the most, none of the disciples except for the one whom Jesus loved were anywhere near Jesus when he was crucified.  By sharing breakfast with them, breaking biscuits and picking from the same freshly caught fish, Jesus showed the remaining disciples that they were loved, forgiven, and restored to right relationship.  John 21 reminds us that it is in something as simple as the sharing of a meal that we can be reconciled to God and one another.

As breakfast was wrapping up, Jesus took a moment to have a special conversation with Peter.  As the spokesman of the group for three years, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, and the rock upon whom the community would be built, Jesus knew that Peter likely needed a little extra dose of forgiveness and encouragement after what had happened.  Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus meant it would be helpful if maybe Jesus offered Peter a three-fold moment of redemption.  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my lambs.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Tend my sheep.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.”  Having been fully reconciled to Jesus over breakfast, what this becomes for Peter is something of an ordination into the next phase of his ministry.  This three-fold invitation to service seems to serve as Peter’s anointing for ministry.  As baptized followers of Jesus, we too are reconciled into the Kingdom of God.  Through water, the Holy Spirit, and in our tradition, a good smear of chrism across our foreheads, every baptized follower of Jesus has been anointed for ministry, and specially gifted to serve.  Just like Peter, all of us have fallen short from time to time, but thankfully, God is in the forgiveness business.

As an epilogue, John 21 helps us see what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus might mean for us as modern-day followers.  We learn that faithful ministry starts with listening for the call of God.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit for the work of reconciliation, we are nourished routinely at this table and then we are sent forth, out into the world, as anointed ministers of Christ, to help bring about the restoration of all of humanity to God and to each other.  It isn’t work that we can do on our own or even as a faithful community apart from God, but with God’s help, success has already been secured for all who have come to believe and through believing, have found their way to the resurrection life.  Amen.

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=epilogue

Parlor Tricks

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One of the gifts of having two young children is that I end up watching television shows I might not otherwise watch.  Well, its a gift sometimes.  Our third go ’round of the Thundermans isn’t really a gift at this point.  Anyway, one of the shows we like to watch as a family is America’s Got Talent.  You probably know the premise, but it is basically a variety show in which acts of all kinds compete for a million dollar prize and a show in Las Vegas.  I think it is safe to say that our favorite acts in AGT are the close up magic acts.  What those people can do right in front of your eyes, and how it can be conveyed both to the judges, mere inches away, and in my living room thousands of miles and a DVR time-hop away, is nothing short of amazing.

As I re-read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, the well-worn story of Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, I couldn’t help but wonder how quickly he would have gotten X’d off by Simon.

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In John’s Gospel, there are seven signs, or miracles, highlighted in Jesus’ ministry: 1) water into wine, 2) healing the boy in Capernaum, 3) healing the paralytic in Bethesda, 4) feeding the 5,000, 5) walking on water, 6) healing the man born blind, and 7) raising Lazarus from the dead.  When compared with the other six, this first sign of turning 180 gallons of water into the finest of wines seems like nothing more than a silly parlor trick.  It is the kind of close of magic that my daughters perform with a deck of cards and their ability to count to 10.

My severe eye-roll at this miracle notwithstanding, the response to it by the disciples is pretty astonishing.  Somehow, in the wave of his hand, turning water into wine, Jesus revealed his glory.  Despite the fact that it was not yet his time, and that like his baptism, it seems he only did it to make his mama happy, in this first sign, Jesus revealed to the world his glory – his magnificence, grace, and majesty – the same Greek word used to describe his Second Coming with “power and glory.”  Somehow, in John’s Gospel, by way of what I would deem to be a cheap trick, it seems Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and in so doing, his disciples came to believe in him.

That’s the funny thing about faith.  I doesn’t come to us all in the same way.  I might roll my eyes at the wedding miracle and prefer to look at Mark’s first miracle of healing a demoniac in Capernaum as more revelatory, but that’s me.  For others, this miracle of water turning into wine shows Jesus power of the nature, it affirms his status as the pre-existent Word from John’s prologue, and sets up the other six miracles that will follow.  No matter how we get to it, each of these signs are meant to point us to the truth that Jesus really is the Son of God.  Each, in its own unique way, shows us the authority given by the Father to the Son.  Each calls us to answer the question the disciples had to reckon in the middle of that wedding banquet.  Do you believe?

I’ll give you…

… Something to be angry about!

As our interminable summer foray into John 5 and 6 continues this week, our Gospel lesson doesn’t just start where the last one left off, it helpfully includes the last verse of last week’s lesson as the first verse for this week (then immediately skips five verses that actually help that first verse make sense in context because RCL).  Having taught the hungry remnant of the 5,000 what the miraculous feeding was meant to represent, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life.  Those who eat of this bread, Jesus says, will never again know hunger or thirst.

If one were to try to figure out the most offensive thing someone could say in the 1st century Jewish context, this was pretty close.  As I noted last week, this “I AM” statement by Jesus, the first of seven in John’s Gospel, would have been fairly obviously blasphemous, unless that person really was the Messiah, the Anointed one of God.  To claim the holy name, that which has gone unspoken even about God in Judaism, for one’s self would have been unimaginable.  Yet, in a very public setting, Jesus was willing to say “I AM.”

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The tetragrammaton – the Hebrew name of God

When confronted by the crowd for making such a bold statement, Jesus essentially says, “U MAD BRO?  I’ll give you something to get mad about!”  Jesus doubles down on his claim – saying twice more “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread.”  He claims that he will raise those who believe up on the last day.  He is even so bold as to suggest that the true bread that gives life to the world is his flesh.

One of the leading complaints about Christianity in the early days was that it was a cannibalistic cult.  Jesus does himself no favors here, and yet, he feels compelled to make such outlandish claims because he knows that all of it is true.  Jesus is “I AM.”  Jesus is the bread of life that God has chosen to offer to the world.  Jesus’ flesh, in the bread of the Eucharistic feast, will be the nourishment of all who come after and the sign by which Christ’s Church will signify the ongoing life of faith.

It would have been hard to imagine Jesus going further off the deep-end than his initial “I am the bread of life” statement, but deeper he went.  All the while, even in this polemical rhetoric, Jesus is offering an invitation.  “If you want eternal life.  If you want the salvation that comes from a relationship with God.  If you want to know life abundant, then believe what I am saying, as outlandish as it may be, for these words which I speak are the true bread that gives life to the world.”

Bread of Life

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Sunday’s Gospel lesson exposes a comedy of errors on behalf of those who are trying to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It would be easy to look down our noses at “those foolish Jews,” and ignore the reality that, if we are honest, every Christian struggles to follow Jesus in a similar way.  Rather than reading the story with a chuckle and thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not like those people,” it might behoove us to look at the narrative arc of the story and see that maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from a crowd of people who, while struggle with faith, have traversed the Galilean Sea several times in search of Jesus and his disciples.

The story picks up sometime after the Feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus, having realized that the crowd, misunderstanding what he came to do, was about to declare him their king, retreated to the mountains for some time to reflect and pray.  In the meantime, his disciples got into the boat and crossed to the other side of the lake, and Jesus caught up with them by walking across the surface of the water.  As day broke, the crowds realized that this amazing prophet was gone, again, and they set out in search of him.

When they found him, the one they claimed as prophet and king the day before, they call him Rabbi, which means teacher.  He’s slid back a bit in the hierarchy over night.  They’ve come in search of him, Jesus notes, not to worship or believe, but because bread wears off, and they are hungry again.  “What you need,” Jesus says, “is food that will endure, and that comes only from the Son of Man.”  Somewhat confused, the crowds wonder what they must do to earn this bread.  Jesus tells them to believe in the one whom God had sent, and here’s where things get interesting.

The crowd, numbering 5,000 men, not counting women and children, which Jesus had fed with five loaves and two fish just the day before says to him, “OK, well, what kind of sign will you give us to prove that you are the one God has sent into the world?  Moses gave the people bread every day.”  This is the ultimate in “what have you done for me lately,” and it is so human as to be absurd.  This is the reality of most of us who follow Jesus, and everyone who lives on the fringes of faith.  We might know, deep in our heart of hearts, all that God has done for us, but in this moment, do we have faith?  In the moment of hardship, when a diagnosis comes or when the pink slip arrives or when our lives don’t work out the way we think they should, do we look back on all that God has done for us, or do we, as is human nature, look up and say, “I thought you loved me!”

To the crowd, and to us, Jesus is quick to point out all that God has been doing in salvation history – the true bread that has been given to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the people of Israel – and the bread that God continues to give in the person of Jesus.  This bread, which the crowds don’t even know they really want, which we often don’t even know we really need, is Jesus who in a bold claim, one of seven “I AM” statements in John, declares himself to be the bread of life.  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus 1) on par with God who is the great “I AM” and 2) as the one who gave life to humanity at Creation.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  For those who are hungry, Jesus offers the very breath of God as the bread of life.

Yeah, but…

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Following on the heels of John 3:16, we have another popular verse this week.  Last week, it was, arguably, the most oft-cited verse, this week, the most popular pulpit inscription.  Like John 3:16, John 12:21b is often ripped out of context and jammed into whatever usage the preacher might need, but I guess that’s a bit of how it works in the larger story anyway.

From the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, we have skipped ahead to the last.  Whether this is the second or third Passover that Jesus has spent with his disciples is open for debate, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  The end is nigh, and Jesus knows it.  As the crowds begin to swell in Jerusalem for the festival, Jews and Proselytes from all over the known world are there to celebrate the Feast in hopeful expectation of what God might do this year; how God might save the Jewish people from their bondage-in-place at the hands of Rome.  The must have been a buzz in the city as people from all over shared stories of one particularly brazen Rabbi who was performing miracles and teaching with a conviction with which they had not known.

Word spread far and wide, until even Greek converts began to seek out Jesus.  A group of them approached one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  What follows is one of the most puzzling non sequitur responses that Jesus gives, and he was pro-level at the random reply.  Here, he doesn’t even begin to engage the request that Philip and Andrew make on behalf of the Greeks, but rather goes down a rabbit hole that the time has been fulfilled.  It is dangerous to mix Gospels, especially the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John, but if the timelines are close, then this is likely the day Jesus turned the Temple a second time.  Things are tense, to be sure, and so, we can forgive Jesus’ somewhat odd response.  Except, that there are still some Greeks who are out there hoping to see Jesus.

I imagine Andrew and Philip standing there, listening to Jesus, thinking, “Yeah, but…”  They had heard him talk like this before, but it hadn’t stopped him from proclaiming his message of repentance and salvation.  This time, though, it seems different.  This time, Jesus seems to be of a one-track mind.  The Greeks will see him, but not in the way they had hoped.  Instead, they will soon see him glorified, lifted high into the air on his cross, with arms outstretched, as the savior of the world.  This is more than a pulpit inscription, but rather, the Greeks name what will be the desire of all nations one day.  That we might see Jesus in his glory, welcoming us into his arms of love and the reach of his saving embrace.

Early Zeal

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As is often noted, there are two versions of story of Jesus clearing the Temple.  The one that is most often cited comes from each of the three synoptic Gospels, in which Jesus, either immediately after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, or shortly there after, drives out the money changers in preparation for a week of ongoing debate with the Pharisees and Scribes that will ultimately end in his arrest, torture, and death.  Less often studied, albeit read every three years on Lent 3B, is the version from John’s Gospel.  In John’s account, this story takes place on the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry.  It follows on the heels of Jesus calling his first disciples and performing his first sign by turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana.

While the synoptics point to the prophecy of Isaiah as Jesus’ motivation – “Why have you turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers?” – John looks instead to the Psalms.  Psalm 69.9, to be more specific.  As Jesus’ newly minted disciples look on in what can only be a combination of fear, horror, and exhilaration, Psalm 69 is recalled to them, “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.”  Clearly Jesus is consumed.  Clearly Jesus is zealous for the Lord’s house.  But why so much energy?  And why so early?

It would seem that the Gospel writers were avid proof texters.  Often, in all four of the Gospels, we hear references to a passage or two, even the merging of two or more passages, of the Old Testament, used to satisfy some piece of the larger story.  What is also true, however, is that they knew that story much better than we do.  They had been hearing the accounts of the Hebrew Bible since their childhoods.  They had sung the Psalms again and again from their youth.  It seems reasonable, then, to assume that when a passage of scripture is referenced, they assume the reader/hearer knows the fuller story.  When John has the disciples recall Psalm 69.9, it isn’t just about the zeal that Jesus has for his Father’s house, but it is the fullness of the story of the Psalmist.

In this case, since it comes so early in Jesus’ ministry, the reference to Psalm 69 and the zeal of Jesus serves to foreshadow what is to come.  As we work through the season of Lent, marching ever closer to Holy Week and Jesus’ Passion, the words of Psalm 69 ring with meaning.

V. 3 “I am weary with crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

V. 4b “many are those who would destry me,
my enemies who falsely accuse me.”

V. 15 “Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.”

V. 29 “I am lowly and in pain;
let your salvation, O God, protect me.”

V. 33 “The Lord hears the needy,
and does not despise his own that are in bonds.”