Advocate | Day of Pentecost

John 14:8-17, 25-27

8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

9 Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. 12 I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. 14 When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. 17 This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.

25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. 27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. (CEB)

Advocate

Today’s text from John’s Gospel has so many theological zingers that I could turn this sermon into a thesis on the Trinity that I guarantee would put most of you to sleep. So, before I start preaching, does anyone need a nap?

This section of John fits really well with Pentecost. Not only because it deals with the Holy Spirit’s role, but because it picks up in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and the disciples that already has the disciples entirely confused. The reason I think the text fits is because we’re often confused about the role of the Holy Spirit, too. What is the Holy Spirit? What’s the Spirit’s role in the community of faith? How do we know if we have it? The Holy Spirit is a bit of an enigma.

This section is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse where he told the disciples that he would die and tried to prepare them for his departure. Judas had already left to betray him, and Jesus was talking about going away and how the disciples knew the way to the place where he’d be going. But the thing is, they didn’t. At least, they didn’t think they did. Thomas asked Jesus how they’d know the way (14:5). When Jesus told them that he is the way, the truth and the life, they were probably thinking, Well, it’s a great line, but it’s hardly turn-by-turn directions on Google Maps. They failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words, even as Jesus turned to the subject of the Father by saying that if they have known him, then they also know—and even have seen—the Father.

But the disciples didn’t get that part either. They couldn’t fathom the mutual indwelling that Jesus described. So Philip piped up and said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us” (John 14:8 CEB). And this is where Philip got chastised by Jesus. The disciples were a Christian community that had walked with Jesus for three or so years, and they still failed to grasp who Jesus is and from where Jesus had come. They didn’t yet understand how Jesus is the essential and full disclosure of the Father.

In fact, Jesus tells them that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. It’s a mutual indwelling to the point that the works of Jesus and the works of the Father are one and the same. Whatever works that Jesus does are perfectly in line with the works of the father: so perfectly in line that Jesus can say that his works are the works of the Father.

Jesus offers a rebuke to Philip, yet it seems that Philip probably wouldn’t have asked Jesus to show them the Father if he didn’t think Jesus could do it. So, it appears that Philip’s problem was that he failed to see the deep connection of Jesus to the Father and the Father to Jesus.

A further problem of Philip is that he still held to the idea that seeing is believing. He wanted Jesus to show them the Father. The Gospel of John uses contrasting symbols that point to belief and unbelief, like light and darkness, sight and blindness. But faith is not based on sight, as Jesus highlighted many times, even in his prayer for us in which he prayed, “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21 CEB).

Seeing is not believing, rather, believing is seeing (c.f. John 11:40). In fact, one of Jesus’ concerns was that seeing can get in the way of the necessity of belief. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 highlights seeing without believing. It also highlights the same kind of indwelling that Jesus has with the Father: an indwelling that we, too, can share with God. The main point of Jesus’ reproach of Philip is to show the disciples—and us—the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and what that intimacy means for all who follow Jesus. We get to share in that intimacy.

Then, Jesus tells the Disciples, “I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 CEB). When we think of great works, we usually think of miracles, signs, and wonders.

But that’s not necessarily what Jesus meant here. The work of Jesus was to bring good news to the poor, to invite people whom the world rejected—people like prostitutes and tax collector—into God’s realm, to set free those who were oppressed by the weight of sin, and release those who were crushed by the oppressive powers of the world. Jesus came to open the eyes of our heart and mind to the good news of God’s healing, acceptance, and reconciliation. Jesus came to show us that God loves us (c.f. John 3:16). Jesus came to show us that God is present with us (c.f. John 1:14).

Jesus did not come to put on a fancy show and do miracles.

The followers of Jesus have done greater works. We are doing greater works. Think about it. Jesus was limited by time and place. He was one person in a small location. His followers have spread around the world. We’ve worked for roughly 2000 years to bring health, comfort, education, and relief to the least, lost, broken, sick, imprisoned, hungry, and hurting. There have been profound failures on the part of Christian people, too, we can’t deny that. But by and large, we’re doing the work of Jesus and, therefore, the work of the Father. The church continues to bring the presence and power of God to bear on human plight throughout the world by befriending the outcasts, housing and feeding the homeless and hungry, serving the marginalized and, in general, speaking truth to the powers of this world by our words and our actions.

We don’t need miracles to show God’s love and compassion. We simply need to remember what Jesus taught, and what Jesus came to do. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 CEB). The expected result of believing in Jesus is that we will keep his commandments to love each other just as Jesus has loved us. Those who love Jesus will love as Jesus loves.

That’s why Jesus provided a way for us to remember his commandments and to teach us. That’s why Jesus also provided a way for us to have the presence of God with us even as Jesus is physically absent. This is accomplished through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told the disciples that the Father would send another Companion. Another, meaning, one instead of himself. The Greek word has multiple meanings: advocate, comforter, companion, mediator, intercessor, and helper. Instead of trying to pick which nuance is meant, I think it’s best to imagine that all of them are meant.

This Companion is identified as “the Spirit of Truth” (14:17 CEB). In verse 6, Jesus stated that he is the way, the truth and the life. If Jesus is the truth, then one role of the Spirit of Truth is to point to Jesus as the truth.

It’s important that we understand that the work of the Spirit of Truth is on behalf of the community. The Holy Spirit was sent by the Father in Jesus’ name to teach the community of everything Jesus had taught, and to remind the community of everything Jesus had said to them. There is a clear connection between the role of Jesus and the role of the Holy Spirit. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit teach us about the work of the Father.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is grounded in belief, not sight. Jesus said that the world can’t receive the Holy Spirit because the world neither sees nor recognizes the Spirit. Christians might actually be lumped in with “the world” here because we don’t see the Spirit either. Yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they know the Spirit because he lives in them—and us—and is present with us.

In both Greek and Hebrew, the word used for Spirit also means wind. The Holy Spirit is like the wind. We can’t see the wind directly, but we can see the effects the wind has on everything around us. We can watch it ripple across a field of wheat or corn. We can see and hear leaves rustle as wind passes through trees. We can feel wind waft heat from our bodies on a hot day, or bite into our skin in the frost of winter.

We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit when the community that follows Jesus makes lunches for kids who are hungry, or when they help children with their homework in an afterschool program, or when they host appointments for people in need to get some financial relief, or when we send out missionaries to serve others in places near and far. We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit in a community of faith when the work of Jesus is being done; when we are loving others as Jesus loves us.

We can know and, in effect, see the Holy Spirit through our belief, which is more than intellectual ascent. Belief is faithful loving and faithful living. Belief is adherence to the commandments of Jesus to love beyond ourselves, deeply, even when we haven’t seen him.

Beyond Jesus’ abiding presence in the Holy Spirit, we’re offered peace. Peace represented by the Hebrew word Shalom is more than a fuzzy contented feeling, but real and tangible peace between people and God. The prophets foretell that the coming reign of God will be characterized by peace. What Jesus offers the community of faith is a taste of this peace now.

The thing is, we still mess up. We still hurt each other, gripe about each other, and do damage to our existing relationships. We live in a world of sin, and we mess up. The peace offered to us by Christ and through Christ isn’t magic. It doesn’t just happen. Peace includes and requires the work of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s part of the work of the Father: to reconcile the world to God and bring about endless peace. Because Jesus offers us peace, the Holy Spirit offers us that peace, too.

The Spirit of Truth continues to teach us and remind us of Jesus’s commandments and examples so that we might love others as Jesus loves us. And loving others isn’t always easy. Oftentimes, we need some direction, if not a reminder, that those who really love Jesus are expected to, themselves, love. Yet, in the Holy Spirit, we have that advocate and teacher. Jesus is never absent from the community of faith because the Holy Spirit lives with us and is with us forever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Word and Deed | 6th of Easter

John 14:23-29

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me. 25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. 27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe. (CEB)

Word and Deed

The lyricist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem about words, and the first stanza says:

Ever the words of the gods resound;

But the porches of man’s ear

Seldom in this low life’s round

Are unsealed, that he may hear.[i]

Ultimately, this passage in John is about words. It is the story of the logos the Greek word, meaning, word or principle. The word of God has come to the human race in many ways. Sometimes people had epiphany-like experiences where God appeared to them, such as Moses with the burning bush, Jacob at Peniel when he contended with the Lord, or Abraham with the three visitors. Other times, the word of God came to individuals in a dream, or a vision to prophets who spoke that word to the people.

But the word that Jesus brought is much more direct. Jesus himself is the Word enfleshed. The words Jesus speaks to us are not his own words; they are the word of his Father who sent him.

At this point in the narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus is not revealing his word to the Apostles. He’s already done that. Jesus has come to the end of his journey, and here, encourages the Apostles to keep the word already spoken, already revealed in his earthly sojourn. In the same way, Jesus is encouraging all of us to keep his word.

Jesus’ word is a message of love and peace, a message of seeking the kingdom of God rather than chasing the vanities of the kingdoms of this earth, which are no more than a chasing after wind. The Holy Spirit is our teacher and helper along the journey of this life. The Holy Spirit is God ever-present among us.

An interesting fact of Hellenistic culture is the close association of the logos with the ergon the Word with the Deed. This feels less true today. In our own culture it’s common for people to say whatever they want and never act on anything they said. The Greeks understood better than we do that words and deeds go hand in hand. When words of instruction are spoken by a teacher, or the words of command are spoken by a parent or leader, or words of advice are spoken by a friend and counselor, those words can be heeded or unheeded, obeyed or disobeyed, acted upon or not. Deeds, whether done or left undone, are linked with words.

Jesus tells us that all who love him will keep his word. More than that, Jesus tells us that the Father will love those who keep Jesus’ word, and God will come to them and make his home with them. If we love Jesus Christ and keep his word, God will love us and actually make his home among us. The book of Revelation says, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3 CEB).

Jesus also leaves us his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV). What kind of peace does Jesus leave us, and what does he mean that he doesn’t give as the world gives? One of the bands I like is the heavy-metal band Metalica. On their black album, they have a song entitled Don’t Tread on Me, where one of the lyrics says, “To secure peace is to prepare for war.” This kind of peace is not the kind of peace Jesus is giving to us.

The peace of Jesus is not the kind of peace brought about by either of the World Wars, either of the conflicts in Southeast Asia, or either of the Iraq Wars, or the war in Afghanistan. In the history of warfare, war has only led to more war. There’s peace for a little while, and everything blows up again. War can’t bring Jesus’ kind of peace, because war never actually settles the issues that caused the conflict in the first place. War can’t bring Jesus’ peace because Jesus’ peace is the peace that God himself bestows upon God’s people.

John Wesley commented on John 14:27 in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament by saying that when Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you,” he is referring to: “Peace in general; peace with God and with your own consciences.” And when Jesus says: “My peace” I give to you, he means: “in particular; that peace which [Jesus] enjoys, and which [Jesus] creates.” When Jesus says: “I give,” he means that he gives: “At this instant.” And when Jesus says that he gives us this peace: “Not as the world giveth,” he means he does not give in a way that is: “Unsatisfying, unsettled, [or] transient; but filling the soul with constant, even tranquility.”

Wesley continues with a prayer:

“Lord, evermore give us this peace! How serenely may we pass through the most turbulent scenes of life, when all is quiet and harmonious within! Thou hast made peace through the blood of thy cross. May we give all diligence to preserve the inestimable gift inviolate, till it issue in everlasting peace!”

This is the peace that will endure for all eternity in the Kingdom of God. Yet, somehow, we can have that kind of peace among us even now as the People of God. This peace is a gift of Jesus Christ for us: now. This peace comes from keeping Jesus’ word.

What are the sources of disquiet, conflict, and anxiety in our own life?

Where do we need to find peace?

Do our finances cause you anxiety? What about our relationships with others? Does our spiritual life—or lack thereof—cause our soul to be disquieted within you? Of course, there are other areas in which we might need a good dose of peace, but money, relationships, and spirituality are three big ones, which is why I mention them.

What does the word of God say about the things that cause turmoil, stress, anxiety, conflict, and disquiet in our lives? Are we willing to listen to the word Jesus offers us and follow his teaching? Because, what the word of Jesus says and what the word of the world says are often quite different. But only the word of Jesus brings peace.

To which word will we listen? Upon which word will we act; that of the world, or that of the Lord who made heaven and earth; who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves? The peace of Jesus Christ comes from living out the word of Jesus in daily life.

Finally, Jesus reminds the Apostles that they have heard him say, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” (John 14:28 NRSV). Jesus then says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” The sentence construction of the Greek text assumes that the first part of the sentence, “If you loved me” is true; that it is fulfilled, and we really do love Jesus.

We do love Jesus, don’t we? (Just checking).

The second part of the sentence defines the result of that statement: “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” So, what Jesus said here is, because the Apostles loved Jesus they rejoiced that he was going to be with the Father. Because we love Jesus, we rejoice that he is with the Father. Jesus is once again glorified in the presence of the Father with the glory that he had before the world was begun. This is the same glory in which we can participate to a degree, now, and then fully when God comes to make God’s home among us when heaven and earth are made new.

Jesus offers us a starting place as followers. We who follow Jesus can live love by keeping his words, which ultimately come from God the Father who sent the incarnate Word to us in the first place. We are invited to make our faith incarnational by practicing it. By living it. And there’s a reason whey we call it the practice of faith. We don’t always get it right. It takes practice, and that includes learning from our mistakes, and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we do make mistakes.

Our actions—the practice of our faith—leads to the indwelling of God’s presence. The way we know and love God is by living the word of Jesus.

This coming Thursday the church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus. We celebrate that Jesus went away from the disciples, which was a source of grief to them. But we also know and celebrate that Jesus promised he’d come to them—and to us. In the absence of Jesus’ physical presence, our daily practice makes the living presence and love of God real and known among our faith community and among the world around us.

Until that day when Jesus comes in final victory, let us keep our deeds together with our words, so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled in us. For we have an advocate, the Holy Spirit—who is with us in our every day—to teach us and remind us of Jesus’ word, which is the word of the one who sent him. May our ears be open to the word and teaching of Jesus. May our hearts be open to the example of a life lived with love which we have in him. And may our deeds reflect the love and peace that Christ our Lord gives.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Words of the Gods, in 1000 Quotable Poems: An Anthology of Modern Verse, Thomas Curtis Clark and Esther A. Gillespie, ed., (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1937), 310.

Reign of Christ | Proper 29

John 18:33-37

33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

Reign of Christ

A world-famous archaeologist who once said, “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Ok, so, that was actually Dr. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Harrison Ford was right. Even for a movie-archaeologist. There is a difference between fact and truth, and there are differences between kinds of truth.

We talk about facts as those empirically verifiable objective things. Facts exist in reality. They can be observed and proved by the senses. If I have two apples and add two more, I have four apples. If I mix hydrogen with oxygen and then light it with a match, I’m going to get a really big explosion…and water.

Truth is, seemingly, a little more difficult to nail down. Truth can have the quality of being more subjective than objective, it can be relative or universal. Truth is sometimes defined as what an individual person has come to believe about the state of something or someone. That’s relative truth, and it’s not the same for everyone. My wife and I still disagree about the temperature. In summer, she’s fine with scorching heat in the house so long as it’s not too humid, so I roast. But, in winter, she’s like an arctic fox who needs to feel the cold, so I freeze.

On the other hand, logic requires us to admit that universal and absolute truths exist. After all, if anyone who believes that all truth is relative and thus states, All truth is relative, there is no such thing as absolute truth, then that person has already contradicted themselves by stating the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.

John’s theme of truth is a central point in this text. When Jesus encounters Pontius Pilate, it’s an encounter between an intellectual understanding of truth, which we find in Pilate, and truth as divine revelation, which we find in Jesus. Years after this encounter, one of the early Christian Fathers named Tertullian would ask one of the most enduring questions in Christianity: “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Prescription Against Heretics, 7). Athens represented philosophy and empirical truth. Jerusalem represented the truth of divine revelation. John tells us that Jesus is identified with God’s truth (c.f. 1:9, 14), and is, himself, the truth (c.f. 14:6).

God’s truth speaks of God’s reign and rule over all creation. It points to an authority that is above all earthly authorities, powers, and political entities. For those who belong to this truth, it speaks to a way of life that is different from the way the rest of the world lives, and values that are different from what the human world values. This truth requires us to look beyond what we believe so that we can hear what God has declared.

This truth is absolutely transforming if we seek it through discerning obedience. But discerning obedience is difficult because it means we must try to live—beyond our individual selves—into something that isn’t necessarily comfortable for us. This truth asks us to look deeply into ourselves: who we are and what we have become, in order that we might live into what we can and ought to be as citizens of God’s dominion. If Jesus Christ is our king, if the reign of God is a truth above all truths, then Christians bow only to Christ. We give our allegiance to Christ above and before any other person, nation, party, power, politic, or authority. And, we seek to understand what God values and requires even as these earthly persons, nations, parties, powers, politics, and authorities are clamoring for our attention and our allegiance.

 

One of the difficulties for American Christians who read this text is that our very mindset is so different from the people of the Ancient Near East. American culture values the idea of individualism. And not just individualism, but rugged individualism. We tend to think of ourselves wholly as individuals, apart and distinct from other individuals to the point that the idea of community, itself, is almost thought of as a weakness or, at best, an appendage that’s nice to have on occasion, but we like that it’s something that we can easily cut off—at least temporarily—so we can be our true individual selves. Especially if things get too deep or too real for our rugged individual comfort.

We United Methodists have largely forgotten that the glue that held Methodism together from the earliest days was Christian community. Methodists were organized into small groups which met weekly where the members encountered each other in community that was authentic and life-giving. In those small community-groups, they shared their lives with each other: their faith, their struggles, their hopes, their prayers. That kind of thing scares the snot out of most Americans because we’re so deeply trapped in the cultural value of rugged individualism that we can’t allow ourselves to experience the vulnerability of community. We don’t want other people to see our true selves because they might see that we’re not so rugged or so individualistic after all. They might see that we need them, and that’s terrifying for an American.

Maybe that’s the challenge for us, because another theme that’s central to this text is that of belonging. Jesus told Pilate, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB).

The reign of God is larger than any individual. The reign of God creates a new community. John the Seer wrote of Jesus, “…by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will rule on earth” (Revelation 5:9-10 CEB).

When Jesus uses the word king and kingdom, here, he gives them new definitions. Belonging to the community of God’s dominion, a community over which Jesus Christ reigns, means we belong to a truth that is not bound to earth. Yet, this kingdom-community is not some esoteric, imaginary thing, either. Jesus came from and belongs to a different kind of kingdom: the dominion of God.

There are times when we test our belonging to community. Children test their belonging to family. I vaguely remember when I got mad at my parents and decided to run away. I climbed a tree behind our house and sat there until I got cold and hungry enough to decide that, whether I liked my family or not, whether I wanted to belong with my family or not, I really did need them.

Communities of faith are no different. Members and non-member constituents test their belonging to our congregation. Sometimes they deliver ultimatums. Sometimes they drift away quietly to see if anyone will notice. Others talk it out with church leadership or other persons and decide whether to stay or leave based on the response they get. All these tests of belonging are based on each individual’s own decision-making. Yet, in the Ancient Near Eastern sense, belonging isn’t really up to each one of us alone. We belong because we belong. We belong because the community knows us, loves us, and claims us. When Jesus tells Pilate, “Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB), Jesus is offering Pilate an invitation to be a part of this community that transcends the individual self.

 

But, how do we listen to the voice of Jesus? It requires a relationship with Jesus in which we constantly look beyond ourselves. When I do premarital counseling with couples, I use a tool called a Marriage Covenant which has all kinds of questions that are designed to force communication to happen. I remind couples that sometimes marriage is work—hard work—precisely because it’s a relationship. And relationships transcend individualism. Relationships require constant communication about everything. So, working through the Marriage Covenant is practice for the kind of constant communication that will foster growth and depth in their relationship as a couple.

When Joy and I were in our first ministry appointment in Terre Haute, we met this couple named Herb and Jerri Redman. They were the sweetest, kindest people you could ever know. Each of them, in their own way, was just a hoot. When you settled yourself on the couch or glider across the living room from Herb and Jerri and started chatting with them, you quickly found out that Jerri did all the talking. Those two loved each other so deeply, knew each other so intimately, that only one of them ever needed to talk.

Now, Herb usually got one or two words in on the edges of the conversation, but Jerri would even answer questions that you asked to Herb. And if you looked over at Herb when Jerry was answering for him, he would just get this big knowing grin on his face and nod his head. And Jerri knew full-well she was talking for Herb. She would even occasionally preface her comments by saying, “Now, I’m going to answer for him.”

Jerri was like the main character carrying on the dialogue of a story. Herb was like the narrator, occasionally throwing in little tidbits of background or corrective information. That’s how I hope my relationship with Joy is when I’m 80. When we have visitors I’ll just sit back and let her go, confident that she’ll say what I would have said anyway because she knows me that well.

Building up that kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight. Like the couples I counsel before their marriage, like Herb and Jerri Redman practiced for 65 years, all of our relationships require commitment, work, constant attention, and accepting the possibility that there’s still room to grow, that we don’t yet know it all. The way we listen to the voice of Jesus is by getting to know him so well that you could almost say he lives in you. In fact, when we enter into that kind of loving relationship with Jesus Second John, reminds us that the truth “abides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 1:2, my trans.). When we accept the truth and listen to the voice of Jesus, we cannot help but follow the truth that takes up residence inside of us.

There’s another aspect to being in relationship with Jesus that we might overlook. You see, having a relationship with Jesus is not a one-on-one, individual thing. It requires community. Jesus had disciples, and Jesus founded this thing called the church. The church isn’t a building, though that’s often how we think of it. The church is a community of people who are in a relationship with Jesus and with each other. Look around you. We who belong to Jesus belong to one another.

In this new community of God’s dominion, we don’t so much follow in the footsteps of Jesus as we live a life infused with his presence, in sync with the Holy Spirit, and governed by the truth Jesus reveals to us. I think that’s what it means for followers to follow truth. We follow by living Jesus-infused lives, by living in such communion with Jesus—and each other—that he lives in us and we in him.

We have the invitation. But we must be willing to listen to the voice of Jesus and look deeply into ourselves. Followers follow truth, even with the truth tells us we need to change our hearts and minds in order to live more fully into the dominion of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Flesh | Proper 14

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

42 They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

43 Jesus responded, “Don’t grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. 47 I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (CEB)

Flesh

One great difficulty with grasping the Gospel of John, at least for us post-modern, linear thinkers, is that John’s thought process—and therefore his writing—doesn’t match ours. We expect a somewhat linear format, but John presents his story in a format that seems to spiral and dance around the center-point. It’s almost a kind of poetry in the disguise of narrative prose. Another difficulty is that the Gospel seems to be written on two levels: physical and spiritual. Some interpreters tend to spiritualize the Gospel while discarding the physical as mere allegory for that deeper, spiritual meaning. Other interpreters tend to emphasize the physical aspects while holding the spiritual inuendo in a kind of uncomfortable tension. I’m of the mind that we need to pay attention to both sides of the debate.

John chapter 6 is especially difficult. Aside from immediate thoughts of cannibalism and wondering if we’re allowed to eat Jesus’ flesh grilled or fried with a little ketchup, how are we to understand Jesus’ words in verses 41-51? Specifically, how do we eat Jesus’ flesh? That’s one of the questions we’ll explore.

But, before we get there, we need to look at how this conversation even got started. After all, it’s weird, and starting in the middle of the conversation doesn’t help. Have you ever had a conversation that got kind of weird and stopped to say, How did we get to talking about this, anyway? Sometimes, to understand what we’re talking about, we have to go back and figure out how we started the conversation to begin with.

This conversation develops out of the events in verse 24 and following. That’s when the crowds began looking for Jesus after his disciples got into trouble during a storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus came to them, walking on the water. When the crowd found Jesus, they asked him how he got to Capernaum because they knew he hadn’t travelled in the boat with his disciples (c.f. 6:22). Jesus didn’t answer their question. Instead, he told the people why they were and were not looking for him. They weren’t looking for him because he had done a miraculous sign, but because they ate their fill of bread when he fed the 5,000. Then, he said, “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life” (John 6:27 CEB).

The people asked what they had to do to accomplish the work of God, and Jesus said they had to believe in the one whom God sent. Then, they asked what miraculous sign he would do so they could see and believe. After all, their ancestors ate bread from heaven. All Jesus gave them was a stomach-full of barley bread.

Note that this question kind of proves Jesus’ point that they hadn’t searched for him because he’d done a sign in the feeding of the 5,000. They’d just seen a sign. We were told earlier that a large crowd followed him because they’d seen the miraculous signs he’d done among the sick (6:2). It seems the people of this crowd had short-term memory loss. Or, somehow, they didn’t recognize the signs they had seen for what they were.

This is really the place where the conversation about bread begins. Jesus tells his questioners that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven, but his father who gives the true bread from heaven. “The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33 CEB). The people’s response was, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” (John 6:34 CEB). That’s where our text picks up with verse 35, where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life…” (CEB).

The Jewish opposition, which is a different group from the crowds though they were likely mixed in among them, grumbled about Jesus because he said he is the bread of life. After all, some among their number were locals from Capernaum. They knew Jesus. They knew his father and his mother. They knew his identity and his origin. How could he say that he’s the bread that came down from heaven?

Jesus responds by telling them not to grumble. No one can come to him unless they’re drawn by the Father who sent him, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. It’s curious that the word Jesus uses for drawn is found later in John 12, where Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me” (12:32 CEB). In John 6, Jesus says the Father draws people to him. In John 12, he says that he will draw people to himself. It might seem contradictory, except that we need to remember John 1, where we’re told, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1 CEB). Jesus the Word and God the Father are one God together (with the Holy Spirit).

When the Father draws people to Jesus, the Father is drawing them to God. When the death of Jesus on the cross draws people to himself, he’s drawing people to God. When held together with John 12:32, verse 6:44 does not suggest there are people the Father doesn’t draw. Rather, it emphasizes that everyone who comes to Jesus does so by the grace and prodding of God.

From that grace-filled prodding comes our action of listening and learning. When we listen and learn from God, we come to Jesus who was sent by God to raise us up at the last day. Jesus assures us that whoever believes has eternal life, and he is the bread of life. He’s a different kind of bread than the manna of the wilderness that their ancestors ate. That bread filled a physical need. They ate it, and they still died. Manna in the wilderness was a gift, but it wasn’t something that had eternal consequences. In fact, it only lasted for the day on which it was gathered (c.f. Exodus 16:20).

This bread, the bread of life which is Jesus, fills a whole lot more than a physical need. Whoever eats of the bread of life will never die. When Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51 CEB), what does he mean?

To Christians, there’s an obvious connection to the Sacrament of the Eucharist: the mystery in which we eat the bread and drink the grape juice (or wine), which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We can be sure that Jesus is referring to a physical act of eating because, in verse 54, Jesus changes the word he’s been using for eat from φάγῃ to τρώγων, which means chew, bite, chomp, gnaw, munch and includes an element of sound. It’s loud and abrasive like crunching your way through a bag of potato chips. My wife can’t stand the sound of other people chewing, but that’s exactly what Jesus says beginning in verse 54. Because of that word change, there’s no way to spiritualize our way out of the physicality of this.

At the same time, eating is used in Ezekiel and Revelation as a way of internalizing something. In Ezekiel, the prophet said: “Then I looked, and there in a hand stretched out to me was a scroll. He spread it open in front of me, and it was filled with writing on both sides, songs of mourning, lamentation, and doom. Then he said to me: Human one, eat this thing that you’ve found. Eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. He said to me: Human one, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you. So I ate it, and in my mouth it became as sweet as honey. Then he said to me: Human one, go! Go to the house of Israel and speak my words to them” (Ezekiel 2:9-3:4 CEB).

In Revelation, John the Seer recounts, “‘So I went to the angel and told him to give me the scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will make you sick to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it made my stomach churn. I was told, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings’” (Revelation 10:9-11 CEB).

In both of these texts, the prophets had to eat the scroll as a way of internalizing God’s word so they could speak it properly. Eating was a way of knowing. Psalm 34:8 tells us to “Taste and see how good the Lord is!” (CEB) as though God’s goodness is something we can sample and recognize.

In the Old Testament, salvation is often described in terms of eating. Isaiah 55 says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live” (v.1-3b CEB). In Proverbs 9:5, Lady Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed” (CEB).

Life comes from eating and drinking, so it’s not surprising that such simple, life-giving acts would be used to describe the life-giving goodness of God and eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ. The bread Jesus gave for the life of the world was his flesh, nailed to a cross and killed. How do we eat the bread of Jesus, which is his flesh?

In one sense, we chew it in the Eucharist. We eat the flesh of Christ and take the grace of God into ourselves in a physical way. In another sense, eating is equated with believing in Jesus. We believe and, therefore, take God into ourselves—into our heart, mind, and soul—in a spiritual way. When we eat the living bread as Christ tells us we must do, then we will live forever. Jesus will raise us up on the last day.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Prophet | Proper 12

John 6:1-21

1 After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.

14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading. (CEB)

The Prophet

As a kid, I remember watching Dr. J’s retirement season from basketball. I remember my mom telling me he was one of the greatest players ever, and that’s why he was being honored everywhere he played for the last time. I also watched Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas square off against each other in some of the greatest basketball games ever played. During the ‘80s decade, the NBA championship was won by either the Lakers, the Celtics, the 76ers, or the Pistons. I usually rooted for the Celtics because of Larry Bird. But I also pulled for the Pistons because my mom’s family is from Detroit, and Isaiah Thomas played for Indiana.

I don’t remember there being much of a question about what was next for professional basketball when Dr. J., Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas retired because Michael Jordan was already playing for the Bulls. And, he seemed to surpass everyone who came before him. I recall some speculation that Kobe Bryant might be the next Michael Jordan after Jordan’s second retirement in 1999. These days, people argue about who was the best player of all time, and Michael Jordan is always in that conversation. I think it’s because he was the greatest. He’s the standard against which every other player is measured. When a new great player comes along—and new great players are expected to come along—they’re always compared to the accomplishments of Michael Jordan.

The Jewish people had expectations, too. They expected that leaders would be raised up from among their people, and their measuring stick was Moses. During particularly difficult times, such as the years of Roman occupation, the expectation for such God-raised leadership grew to the point of desperation. We know from a few passages of Scripture that several hopefuls had risen, and that was also expected to continue happening (c.f. Acts 5:34-39; Matthew 24:11; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1-2).

You see, for the average Jewish peasant, Jesus was the hope of the day. More than that, he’d been doing these signs of healing the sick and diseased. The people saw these signs, and they dared to hope that Jesus was the next great-one. But for many among the Jewish leadership, Jesus was yet another probably-false prophet coming to make a splash before getting crushed by the Romans, and taking a whole lot of poor, hopeful innocents with him. To them, Jesus was someone they were skeptical of from day one because false prophets seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.

When Jesus returned to Galilee from Jerusalem, he crossed the Sea and a large crowd followed him because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. We’re told that it was close to the time for the Jewish festival of Passover, and that might be a clue to who this crowd of people were. Passover was a pilgrimage festival: a time when the people were expected to travel to Jerusalem to sacrifice their family’s Passover Lamb at the Temple. Because these people who followed Jesus hadn’t gone to Jerusalem, this crowd might well have been made up of those who were too poor to travel and pay for lodging and a lamb during such festivals. If that’s the case, then they couldn’t fulfill their religious obligations because they were too poor to do so. Their poverty kept them from participating fully in their Jewish faith.

The mention of Passover also points us to Moses. It’s a subtle reminder of Israel’s past, and the promise that God would raise up leaders for the people. The story that follows is meant to show us that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.

Jesus went up a mountain and sat with his disciples, probably teaching them. When he looked up, he saw a large crowd coming toward him. Jesus asked the question, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” The Gospel writer gives us an insiders-view of the question by telling us that it’s a test and that Jesus already knew what he was going to do.

Philip, the project feasibility disciple, gave the crowd a once-over, did some quick math, and determined that more than half a year’s salary wouldn’t be enough to give so many people even a small bite. Andrew, the resource management disciple, had already taken inventory and reported that a youth had five barley loaves and two fish, but that obviously wouldn’t feed this many people.

With neither of those answers sufficing, Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down. There were about five-thousand of them. Then, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks to God, and distributed it to the people. Then, he did the same with the fish. In this story, Jesus, himself, is the one who served the people. Every person got as much as they wanted. When everyone was sighing with satisfied bellies, Jesus had the disciples gather up the leftovers, “so that nothing will be wasted.”

Now, we don’t know what became of the leftovers. Maybe each of the Twelve Disciples got a carry-out basket. Maybe the saying that “nothing will be wasted” is meant to show that the leftovers of the world, whether they’re food or people like those in the crowd, are important enough to be gathered in rather than abandoned. Jesus showed over and again that he loves and cares for the people that the rest of society had abandoned. This action begs certain questions.

How will we care for the “leftovers” of Mount Vernon and beyond? How will we care for the people who’ve been abandoned and even wounded by our social structures? Rugged Individualism might be an American ideal, but it is absolutely NOT a Christian one. Jesus took care of people, especially the poor and outcast. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we must do the same. Of course, that begs another question: Do we really want to be disciples of Jesus? And, while I assume most of us would say, Yes, we should consider whether we’re willing to examine the fullness of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and, maybe—probably—change our hearts and lives so we better reflect the meaning of discipleship. Repentance is something everyone needs to do, all the time.

When the people saw what Jesus had done, that he had accomplished something miraculous and beyond explanation, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world” (John 6:14 CEB). The people were so excited that that they were about to come and make Jesus their king by force. So, Jesus took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

Earlier, I said that the Jews expected leadership, and I said that the reference to Passover—in one sense—points to Moses. When the people responded by saying, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world,” what did they mean? John chapter 1 gives us part of the answer. When John was baptizing, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask John who he was.

And we’re told, “John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), ‘I’m not the Christ.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’

John said, ‘I’m not.’

‘Are you the prophet?’

John answered, ‘No.’

They asked, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied, ‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight, just as the prophet Isaiah said.’

Those sent by the Pharisees asked, ‘Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’

John answered, ‘I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps’” (John. 1:20-27 CEB).

The reason people expected the Christ, which comes from the Greek word for Messiah, is because the prophets spoke of one who would come from the line of King David. (c.f. Isaiah 9, 11, 53; Jeremiah 23, 33; Zechariah 3, 6). After all, God had promised David that someone from David’s line would be king forever (c.f. 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:34-37; Daniel 2:44).

The reason the people expected Elijah to come is because the prophet Malachi said that Elijah would be sent before The Day of the Lord arrives (c.f. Malachi 4:5). The prophets spoke of The Day of the Lord as a time of terror when the Lord would redress the world for its evil (c.f. Isaiah 13, 24; Ezekiel 30; Joel; Amos 5; Obadiah; Zephaniah), and the idea was well-known to the New Testament writers (c.f. Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Thessalonians 5; 2 Thessalonians 2; 2 Peter 3). Sometimes it’s referred to as Judgment Day.

The reason the people expected “The Prophet” is because of what God promised the people of Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to” (CEB).

So, there was, at least, a three-fold expectation. The Messiah, Elijah, and The Prophet Like Moses were expected to come and start to right the world’s and Israel’s wrongs. When Jesus did this sign, the people identified him as The Prophet Like Moses who was coming into the world, and they were ready to make him king. But, as Jesus told Pilate before he was crucified, the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world (c.f. John 18:36).

The account of Jesus walking on the water pushed the matter of Jesus’ identity even further. Jesus’ disciples tried to cross the lake when a storm swept in and drove them three or four miles out from shore. The disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, and they were afraid. Jesus said, “I Am. Don’t be afraid” (John 6:20b CEB). The disciples wanted to take Jesus into the boat, and suddenly they reached the land where they had been heading. The event is reminiscent of when Moses led the Hebrews safely through the sea. This phrase used by Jesus, “I Am” is significant because it’s what the Lord told Moses to say to the Hebrews while they were still slaves in Egypt: “Tell them I Am has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14 CEB).

One thing this text tells us is that Jesus fulfills the expectation of Messiah and The Prophet. And it pushes our faith further by identifying Jesus as I Am. It ties together what John told us in the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:1, 14 CEB).

We’re also reminded that what is broken should be gathered rather than discarded, because not even that which is broken should go to waste. And, again, part of me wonders if this isn’t, in some way, an analogy for broken and hurting people. Either way, I think those twelve baskets of leftovers remind us that, beyond the 5,000 who were satisfied, there are more hungry bellies that need to be fed. And a basket for each disciple suggests that God has given the disciples of Jesus enough resources to feed and satisfy those who are in need.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Born | Trinity Sunday

John 3:1-17

1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (CEB)

Born

The Sunday after the Day of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, and it’s the day we celebrate one God in three Persons. While neither the John nor the Isaiah texts that we just read say anything direct or specific about God as Trinity, they are important texts in our reflection upon God’s nature as Three-in-One. The John 3 text hints at God as Trinity with Jesus the Son teaching Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God, and his own work on earth. The Son speaks of the Spirit and the Father to a leader of the Jews.

Nicodemus, himself, is a curious figure. From early on, church teachers and theologians have both lambasted and praised him depending on the teacher’s agenda. During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin compared Protestants who were living in Catholic France to Nicodemus who, as a secret disciple, came to Jesus by night. The Nicodemites, as Calvin called them, were secretly Protestants at heart but Catholic in appearance because they were afraid of the Catholic authorities.

Later, Søren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus, but too cowardly from fear of his own people to become a follower.

Neither of those views of Nicodemus are accurate. Even though Nicodemus came to Jesus by night that first time, he did stand up among his peers and call them out when they wanted to arrest Jesus without giving him a fair hearing as the law required (John 7:44-53). Ironically, the leaders argued that no one among the leaders had believed Jesus to be the Christ except for the crowds who didn’t know God’s law. That’s when Nicodemus stood up and reminded them that the law doesn’t allow them to judge someone without first hearing them to see what they’re about. But his peers didn’t want to listen to Nicodemus and accused him of being a Jesus fanboy from Galilee because the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee as Jesus did. Later, Nicodemus brought the burial spices and helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial with Joseph of Arimathea (c.f. John 19:38-41).

Like most of us, it seems that Nicodemus was a work in progress. Painting him as a fearful coward who never stood up for Jesus against his peers or who never made the leap to true discipleship doesn’t fit his whole story. Nicodemus was someone who saw that Jesus had come from God, and who went to Jesus in order to investigate what his faith told him about Jesus. It’s really not fair for us to judge Nicodemus too harshly. He might have been confounded by what Jesus taught him, but he was trying to understand.

Every Trinity Sunday I’m reminded of the inadequacy of human language when speaking about God. One of the texts for today is from Romans 8, where Paul goes so far as to say that we’re children of God and cry, “Abba! Father!” In one sense, this cry signifies the confidence that we Christians have in turning to God. In another sense, the cry “Abba! Father!” reveals that the desperate longing, eager expectation, and grasping hope of humankind can only be expressed in comparison to the cry of a small child. Small children don’t know how to express why they want their mommy or daddy. But they feel that mommy and daddy are where they need to be.

We believe that the One God is revealed to the world and exists as Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it’s difficult to explain that concept in human language because human language is incapable of defining God. I studied the theology of the Holy Trinity in seminary because it is an essential dogma of the Christian Faith. Still, people have difficulty understanding it. In fact, we can’t know all there is to know about the Trinity, because God is unfathomable and indefinable. There is no end to who God is. No one could ever learn all there is to know about God. When we say that God is eternal, we mean more than how long God has existed or will exist. God is also eternally indefinable. God the Trinity is a mystery. We can only know what has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ, the Son, and that often times, just as with Nicodemus, we have difficulty grasping God and God’s work in our minds.

The text from Isaiah provides a powerful account of Isaiah’s vision of God sitting exalted on the throne. At this vision, Isaiah can only speak the words, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB). One of the seraphs touched Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” (Isaiah 6:7 CEB). Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord and was able to respond to it.

Isaiah was almost completely paralyzed with a sense of God’s power and his own inadequacy by his vision of God, and rightly so! Even the seraphim had to shield their faces from God’s majesty. The act of cleansing not only restored the sinful Isaiah to wholeness, but also released his power to hear God’s speech and, in turn, to speak God’s words to a sinful people. The prophet had been released from sin so that he could be the bearer of God’s word. His being able to hear and respond to God was not something of his own power or ability but was wholly a gift of grace from God. God enables us to hear and respond to God’s words. It’s never by our own abilities apart from God that we come to God, because all that we are is a gift from our Creator. Every breath we breathe is gift. Just like Isaiah responded, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8b CEB). We are called to respond to God’s voice and be sent.

As Jesus taught Nicodemus, it’s through the power of the Third Person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—that we’re born from above. Many translations of the Greek Scripture translate the adverb ἄνωθεν (anothen) as again, meaning, born again. Yet, the word has multiple meanings, including above. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about being born from above. Jesus says, “Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 CEB). We must be born of water and the Spirit.

This Son of God, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity, was sent by the Father from heaven to earth, so that God might teach us and give us life through His eternally begotten Son. The eternal Son of God took on flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary and became human. By this action, God the Son forever united human flesh with the Godhead. Humanity has been given a share in the Divine life by God’s gracious invitation.

Yet, we had to be redeemed from the power of sin and death. So God’s Son was lifted up on a cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. When the people of Israel were still wandering in the wilderness, they sinned by speaking against God and Moses. So God sent poisonous serpents against the people. They repented, and asked Moses to pray to God for them so that He would take the serpents away. The Lord told Moses to make a poisonous serpent and put it on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by a serpent they could look at the serpent of bronze and live (c.f. Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus the Son, in whom all things were created, was killed by his own creation. He willingly gave up his life so that we might have eternal life. We have life in the cross of Christ.

One of the paradoxes of our faith is that our life comes through death. The eternal life of John 3:16 is synonymous with the birth from above of John 3:3 and 3:7. Birth from above is from believing—having faith—in the death of Jesus Christ.

Part of what we remember on Trinity Sunday is that God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity, is the one who sent His eternal Son into the world for our sake. God the Father initiated the redemptive activity of Christ. God would not remain content with a world in the process of self-destruction and enslaved to the power of sin. The divine act of love was reaching out to the unlovely creatures we had become. God’s gift of the Son is an expression of deep love. When the Son returned to the Father, the Spirit came not only to empower and teach us, but to birth us from above so we could be called children of God.

God is always acting in and among us, giving grace upon grace even to the unbelievers, so that all may come to know the love God has for us. Humanity has never merited salvation. We have never deserved to be saved. God’s grace is an unmerited, gratuitous gift. All is grace, and all is gift.

The Father loved, gave, and sent for the salvation of the world. The Divine Trinity wants all of us to live in communion with God. This communion is exemplified in our communal life together. God gives us grace when we seek grace, and has done wondrous and powerful deeds for our redemption and salvation. As God’s children, born of water and the Spirit, we share in the relationship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is perfect relationship, perfect love, and we’re invited to participate in and receive the life God offers.

But we know we aren’t perfect. The self-giving love of Jesus Christ shines on us, illuminating even the darkest pieces of our inner selves, and seeing the places within us that have been wrapped in darkness can make us want to keep hidden. It isn’t easy to let ourselves stand in the kind of light that sears and burns through the darkness. Like Nicodemus, we’re works in progress. What we can trust is that the Father didn’t send the Son to condemn us, but to save us and heal us and bring us into the light. God didn’t send the Son to judge us or toss us away, but to make us more perfectly God’s own.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

The Samaritan Woman | 3rd in Lent

John 4:5-42

 5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,'” Jesus answered. 18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming– and is here!– when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

26 Jesus said to her, “I Am– the one who speaks with you.”

27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

31 In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

32 Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

33 The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

34 Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. 36 Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. 37 This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. 38 I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.” (CEB)

The Samaritan Woman

One thing that I’ve learned as a parent is that no two human beings are alike. Even children of the same parents are strikingly unique. Kara is naturally honest and fair-minded. When she would get candy from preschool, she wouldn’t eat it. She would wait until she got home so she could share it equally with her little brother. To her mind, it would not have been fair if James didn’t get an equal portion of the candy she received. James, not so much. He was the kid who would eat all his candy immediately so he wouldn’t have to share. In his mind, it wouldn’t be fair for him to have to give what was rightfully his to anyone else.

Potty training with Kara was a breeze. She loved Altoids mints. All we had to do was set a tin of mints on the bathroom counter. We told her, if you go and flush and wash your hands, you can have one mint. And she basically potty trained herself. She would even show us the mint before putting it in her mouth. Joy and I thought we were the best parents on the planet. Potty training is easy. So, we tried the same thing with James. The first time he walked out of the bathroom, his mouth was so full of mints that he couldn’t get his lips closed. Drool was oozing down his chin, and he was making this troubled buzzing sound like he was speaking through a kazoo. Why take just one mint when he can eat the entire container-full at once?

Most of us know siblings who are as different as night and day. My brother and I were like that, too. He was the sports guy who played football and baseball. Our mother had to coerce me to run cross country and track. When I got into trouble, Mom would ground me from going to Youth Group. When my brother got into trouble, Mom made him go.

Last week, we looked at Nicodemus, who went to Jesus by night. This week, we hear about a woman who met Jesus during the day. These two figures could hardly be more different from each other. She was a Samaritan, he was a Jew. It appears she had a checkered past, while he was a respected moral and religious leader. She was presented as a beginner and learner when it comes to religion, he was a teacher with vast knowledge. She was a woman in a male-dominated world, he was a man who had every advantage of power and autonomy. It appears that she might have been somewhat of an outsider in her own community, whereas he was as accepted as one could get within his. In the eyes of everyone, this woman is a nobody who doesn’t even get her name recorded. Nicodemus was a somebody, and his name is attached to one of the most well-known verses in the Bible.

Yet, it’s the Samaritan Woman, and the story that is recorded about her encounter with Jesus, that presents one of the best portraits of the Gospel. In fact, it gives clearer context to what it means that “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) than what the encounter with Nicodemus provides. In the first few verses of John 4, which the Revised Common Lectionary skips, we’re told, “Jesus had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4, CEB). And that’s true on two levels. First, he was going back to Galilee from Judea so, geographically, the shorter trip is to travel through Samaria.

Second, he was making more disciples than John the Baptist in Judea, so he had to move on if he was going to show what it meant that “God so loved the world.” The world is much bigger than Judea or Galilee. So, Jesus traveled through Samaria and had this marvelous encounter with a woman at Jacob’s well. There are some really remarkable things that happen.

Firstly, the differences between this woman and Jesus—she: a woman, he: a man; she: a Samaritan, he: a Jew—are, according to every social convention of the day, insurmountable. Jesus asks for a drink of water, and the woman’s response is incredulity because she immediately recognizes those two social barriers Jesus is breaching by even speaking to her, let alone asking for a drink. This woman has her place, and Jesus has his. The Samaritan Woman asks Jesus what in the world he’s doing when she poses her own question in return: “Why do you, a Jewish man ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” and the Gospel writer makes a side comment—our English translations put it in parentheses—so we understand the social dynamics at play, “(Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other)” (John 4:9).

In typical Jesus fashion, he starts into a religious discussion. “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water” (John 4:10, CEB). At first, the woman misunderstands and comments that Jesus can’t give her any water, let alone living water, because he doesn’t even have a bucket.

Now, here’s where we can misunderstand, too. Living water wasn’t necessarily a spiritual term. Living water was water that moved, like water that bubbles up from a spring, or water that flows in a stream (c.f. Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13). So, it’s likely that the Samaritan Woman was already skeptical of Jesus who suggested he could provide living water for her from a well. You don’t get living water—moving water—from places like wells or cisterns, and especially when you don’t even have a bucket with which to draw it.

She pushes Jesus even further by saying, “You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from hit himself, as did his sons and his livestock” (John 4:12, CEB). We already know what she thinks because rhetorical questions in Greek are constructed in such a way that we know whether the questioner expects a positive or a negative answer. The Samaritan Woman’s question uses the word μὴ, so it expects a negative answer. She’s stating that Jesus is not greater. In a sense, she telling this Jewish man that this well-water was good enough for their ancestor, Jacob—whom God named Israel—and it was good enough for Israel’s sons for whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named, so it’s good enough for her and him. She doesn’t need living water and neither does Jesus.

The Samaritan Woman knows the historical and religious disagreements between the Samaritans (the remnant of the northern tribes and Kingdom of Israel) and Jews (the remnant of the tribe and Kingdom of Judah). By pointing out their common ancestry, the Samaritan Woman deftly points out that Jesus can keep his Jewish arrogance to himself and drink from the well because Jews and Samaritans are part of the same family tree. His people are no better than her people, despite the fact that Jews believed otherwise. For a woman of her time, it is, honestly, rather forward of her to speak like this to a man. She knew way back then that a woman’s place is in the Rebellion. What she says is defiant, and I love it! (#Resist)!

But, Jesus continues to engage the Samaritan Woman with much more patience than he showed Nicodemus. He says, “Everyone who drinks from this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up to eternal life” (John 4:13, CEB). This is where the Samaritan Woman begins to understand. She takes baby steps, and Jesus encourages her to keep walking. She wants this water so she will never thirst again, and not need to draw from the well. She’s teetering on the edge of grasping that Jesus is talking about spiritual matters, but she’s still somewhat stuck in a physical understanding. It’s the next gentle push Jesus gives that brings her understanding to fullness.

Now, people have tried to read into Jesus’ words about the Samaritan Woman’s marital status for centuries, and most of them conclude that she’s living in some sinful or less-than-moral situation. But the truth is, we don’t know. It’s not as though a woman in her culture would have had any control over her own marital status anyway. It could just as easily be the case that this is a woman who has been abused, used, and hurt. So, for any one of us to judge her and declare that she is a sinner or assume she must be a prostitute is not only unfair, but it’s wrong to the point that we might be in danger of sin for doing so. Jesus never accuses her of sin, nor does he demand that she repent, nor does he offer her forgiveness. In the Gospel of John, sin is not so much a behavioral thing as it is unbelief and unwillingness to recognize Jesus for who he is.

Jesus’ question about the Samaritan Woman’s husband is meant to prod her to understand who Jesus is. He knows her life. He knows her sufferings. He knows her situation. It’s that intimate knowledge of her that makes her realize that this Jewish man is more than he appears. She recognizes that he is a prophet, and engages him even further in the discussion that has turned thoroughly theological. She says, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem” (John 4:20, CEB). The mountain in question is Gerizim near Shechem, which had a long history as a place of worship. Abram built an altar to the Lord at Shechem. (Genesis 12:6-7). Jews, however, believed the Lord could only be worshipped at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Her theological comment really contains a question about God’s location. Where does God dwell? Where can a person worship God? The response Jesus gave surely surprised the Samaritan Woman. “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You and your people worship what you don’t know, we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way” (John 4:23, CEB).

As the conversation continues about the coming of the Messiah who will teach her people everything, Jesus speaks the first of his I AM statements to the Samaritan Woman. “I Am—the one who speaks with you” (John 4:26, CEB). The beauty of how this conversation plays out is that the woman, who is already bold, is further emboldened. She leaves her jar and goes into the city to bring her people to Jesus. In fact, she speaks the very same words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when he first invited them to follow him, “Come and see” (John 1:39, CEB). “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” (John 4:29, CEB).

There’s still a trace of skepticism in her words because her question expects a negative answer. Nevertheless, she goes and calls people to come and see! The Samaritan Woman becomes a witness to the Gospel, a witness to God’s salvation, and her perfect, beautiful response is to invite her entire village to come and see Jesus for themselves. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we were that amazed at what Jesus offers us that we dropped what we were doing to share the Good News and invited everyone we bump into to come and see?

John records this amazing statement: “Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days” (John 4:39-40, CEB). Now, remember that verse from earlier that said Jews and Samaritans don’t associate with each other. This is another barrier broken.

Many more of her fellow townspeople came to believe because of what Jesus taught them. Later, they told the Samaritan Woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:42, CEB). It’s impressive, don’t you think, that an entire city came to believe because Jesus took the time to have a patient, gentle, kind conversation with a stranger—even a Samaritan woman who was so different from himself—about a drink of water? God so loved the world, not just people like us, not merely people who agree with us, but the world. Do we?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher