Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

In his introduction to Genesis, Theodore Hiebert shares that the writer’s goal “was to make sense of the world [the Hebrews] knew by explaining how it came into being. They came to terms with who they were as a people by explaining their own origins in that world.” (The CEB Study Bible, 1 OT) Thus, Genesis 1:1-2:4a begins the Torah with a story detailing a very harmonious and beautifully-structured creation, not unlike the structure of Israel’s religious life, with a goal of articulating the climax of creation: the Sabbath (2:1-3). If a Hebrew child were to ask a question about the Sabbath, a teacher might have pointed to this very story and said, “It is at the foundation of who we are and who God is.”

Origin stories are important to us. Any K-12 education in the US comes with a history of how we became who we are with imagery of revolution, slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Popular culture is filled with origin stories. How many times has modern America witnessed Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider? (I honestly don’t think we can take another one!) Sometimes, when an adopted child grows older, they have questions about their parentage, leading to a search for answers.

In all of these things, one idea comes to the surface: knowing more about the beginning may shed light on the present. And in that manner, Genesis 1:1-2:4a sheds light on the very beginning of the Sabbath, the imago Dei, and the responsibility and stewardship of humanity over creation, ideas that have ever-present meaning for the modern reader.

The Psalmist demonstrates the concern with origins in the first praise psalm, which is a celebration of God the creator. The psalm carries with it the origin-centric understanding of the imago Dei when it declares, “You’ve made [human beings] only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. You’ve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet” (8:5-6, CEB). It seems that the very beginning of humanity and scripture still plays an important role in Israel’s present at the time of Psalm 8, and in the Christian lectionary today. From the start, humanity has been created in the image of God, to partner with God in bringing order to the chaos of the world and to care for creation and creature alike in harmony.

The origin of the Jewish people plays a role in 2 Corinthians when Paul writes to the community, “Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.” (13:11, CEB) Why is this the call upon the life of the early Christian? It most certainly has some root in the creation story above. The harmony-bringing of God is still the call of humanity. The 2 Corinthians’ charge also has its beginnings in another origin story of sorts.

In Matthew 28:19-20, the resurrected Jesus gives a mandate to his disciples that is the origin of most church vision statements and the historical evangelism (good and bad) of the global church: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (CEB) This disciple-making — rooted in obeying Jesus’ commands — is rooted in his summary of the law: love God and love neighbor. But the origin of this understanding comes from the Torah, from Genesis, and from creation, when from the natural outpouring of God (who IS love) came creation, humanity made in God’s image, the structure of religious life, and the task to bring harmony and care to creation and to one another. And all of that has great implications for who we are today. Our origins matter. And this is our ultimate origin story. So how will the knowledge of our beginning influence how you live right now?

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The Rev. Andrew Chappell

Andrew has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

Pentecost(A): Finding the Peace

Pentecost(A): Finding the Peace

John 20:19-23

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

I had to laugh as I read the Gospel passage for Pentecost this week. The disciples are behind locked doors, scared to go out; Jesus comes in and breathes upon them. From where I sit in coronavirus lockdown, I know well what it feels like to stay inside for fear of what’s “out there.” My viscerally negative reaction to Jesus exhaling on his disciples tells me a lot about how well I’ve internalized the importance of social distancing. And then he says, “Peace be with you.” Sure, Jesus. I’ll get right on that. I just need to wash my hands first.

It was encouraging, though, to remember that despite the fact this Gospel is read at Pentecost, this story isn’t about that fire-and-language-filled day; this is the story of the disciples just after the crucifixion, terrified that what had just happened to their friend would happen to them. They didn’t know if they were being hunted down by local authorities or if the friends who presumably brought them food and news would sell them out. Even when Jesus arrived, their reaction wasn’t excitement or comfort at first. Surely, they thought they were seeing a ghost – what else could come so easily through a locked door? Even when they realized he was there in the flesh, they had to have been terrified that he would be angry with them. They’d abandoned him and left him alone to suffer a brutal death! It’s reasonable to think he’d be a little salty about the situation. And now that it was pretty clear he wasn’t just another ordinary human, given that he was recently dead but currently wasn’t… how badly had they just ticked off the Almighty with their cowardice?

While the point of this reading is really about Jesus commissioning his disciples, I find myself more struck by the fear and isolation they experienced before and during his arrival because it so clearly echoes my current life landscape. Their community was fractured and strange, even while it was still real and important; mine is too, right now. I’m sure they were conflicted about what to do next, fearful of how long this in-between time would last; I know I am. But Jesus shows up in the midst of it all anyway, tells them “Peace,” and after a little bit more panicking, things aren’t as bleak anymore.

Jesus’ response to their disbelief and terror is one of the things he says most frequently in the Gospels, and the one thing that I most want to hear too while I’m locked in my own upper room – “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t promise them immediate resolution to all their fears or assure them that their troubles are over; he just reminds them that he is there, they can experience peace anyway, and that worrying isn’t necessary. This is my lockdown mantra; peace. Peace be with me, and my neighbors, and my family, and my students. Our trials haven’t ended, but we’re still here, and Jesus has showed up the way he always does. The peace is there for us, if only we embrace it.

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Dr. Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and their energetic toddler, Xavier.

7th Sunday of Easter (A): Casting Our Anxieties Upon God

7th Sunday of Easter (A): Casting Our Anxieties Upon God

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

As I write this post, it has been five-and-a-half weeks since our last in-person worship service. Based on our Bishop’s Pastoral Directive, it’ll be at least another six weeks before we can gather again. Based on my gut and what I’m reading, it’ll probably be even longer. As I look ahead to what will be the 7th Sunday of Easter, and the 11th Sunday of Quarantine, I really wish that 1st Peter hadn’t made it into the Biblical canon. Quite frankly, the author’s response to suffering and the question of theodicy is pretty weak, and borders on patronizing, especially if we attribute the text to the first Bishop of Rome.

As I write this post, thousands of people are dying everyday of a virus that has no known cure and no vaccine, millions are unemployed and fear losing their health insurance, and stimulus packages of all shapes and sizes are bogged down by governmental ineptitude. Hearing words like “don’t be surprised,” “it’s a test,” or “rejoice as you are sharing in Christ’s suffering,” feel like they fall short, and are the kinds of things that make us cringe when we hear them said at funerals. They are the words that people say when they don’t know what else to say. They might make the speaker feel better, but they ring hollow and can sting deeply those who are suffering under fear, stress, or grief.

In my experience as a parish priest, I’ve found that certain lessons can do more harm than good when they are read and not preached. It is why my congregations have always run with Track 2 in the Hebrew Bible during the season after Pentecost; the lessons just seem to “fit in” better. 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 begs to be preached in the ongoing stress of a global pandemic, if only to keep our members hearing the Bible reiterate dangerous theology like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “everything happens for a reason.”

Arguing that we should preach on a text is fine, but I think Modern Metanoia is better used as a resource for suggestions on how you might preach a text. For that, I think we have to skip past the platitudes of the first paragraph and focus more on the second. The author moves the attention away from scrambling to explain what they think God is doing in our suffering and toward what our proper response to that suffering should be. “Humble yourselves under the hand of God… Cast all your anxiety on [God], because [God] cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.”

I’ve not been great at the discipline piece, if I’m honest. I’m sleeping too little and snacking too much, but where I do find strength in this time of stress and anxiety is when I, in full confidence of God’s care for me, cast all my anxiety upon God. The Greek word, translated as “cast upon,” is a compound word that appears only twice in the New Testament. Its other usage comes in Luke’s gospel, when on Palm Sunday, the disciples cast their garments upon the colt that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. For me, the image of casting conjures up memories of my friend Will, standing knee deep in Big Lagoon just off NAS Pensacola, casting a net for bait fish. A combination of beautiful ballet and a haphazard toss is required to get the weights to spin out properly and to keep the net from becoming a tangled-up mess.

A similar mix of intentionality and chaos are required when it comes to casting all our anxieties upon God. Intentionality is required because honesty is necessary. Until and unless we can admit our anxieties, our fears, our inability to do it alone, we cannot even begin to find the healing, restoration, and strength that we are promised by God. Once we dig deep and begin to mine for that anxiety, if we really want to cast all our cares on God, then the haphazard nature of it begins. Digging deep, we fling all our fears—like sand at the bottom of a deep hole—tossing them all, even the stuff we’d rather hide and hold onto, so that God can offer full relief. Even so, as practitioners of pastoral care, we know that the process of casting our anxiety upon God is never finished. Like Will’s net in Big Lagoon, once we toss it, we’ve got to reset and cast again. It is a process that never ends. As we cast our anxieties on God again and again, we become more and more sure of the truth that God really does care for us, even when it feels like all hell has broken loose all around us.

 

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The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02).  As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace.  You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.

 

Ascension: Why Do You Stand Looking Up Toward Heaven?

Ascension: Why Do You Stand Looking Up Toward Heaven?

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

As I write this commentary, a growing restlessness pervades the United States. Hopes and rumors that stay at home orders will soon be lifted abound. A roiling vortex of emotion about those decisions –joy and disbelief, relief and anger, grief, fear and hope – swirl together in a complex coil. No one knows what the future will look like. No one knows, with 100% certainty, if lifting the orders will result in greater death and economic disruption, or if our lives will slowly settle back into familiar patterns of the prosperity some of us have known. Experts and authorities are at odds with one another; antithetical messages battle for supremacy. And yet, through the melee a universal question surfaces over and over again: is this the time of our restoration? Is this the time when our economic vitality will rebound? Is this the time that will force us to bridge our partisan divides and pull together? Is this the time that will catalyze our country (our kingdom), once again, to greatness?

As our church leadership thinks through what our communal life might look like in the aftermath of physical distancing, I hear the same question, and the same roiling emotions, surface: Is this the time of our restoration? Is this the time when we go back to our beloved buildings to gather together the same way we’ve always gathered, with the same experience of sacrament and space? Is this the time when people will return to the church and thus return the Church to its former role as a pillar of society? Is this the time when the Church will be restored, once again, to greatness? Yet even as we ask the question, there is some recognition that the worship traditions we cherish, and the way we’ve always practiced them, will likely have to change.

In some ways, the Church today asks Christ the same question that the disciples asked: will we be restored to our former glory? The disciples, even in the midst of their immediate, personal experience of the new thing God was doing in the Incarnation, got caught up in the religious and political expectations of their time. Expectations that the Messiah would deliver them from the yoke of Rome’s oppression, that Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel who had experienced centuries of inter-tribal division, the destruction and desecration of her Temple, the Exile and diaspora of her people, and the fracturing of her political independence and self-governance.

Our context today faces a similar political challenge, but the hope of restoration is different. The largest age demographic in most denominations are those who are 65+, aka the Boomer generation.[i] As children in the 1950s and 60s, their experience of religious life was as the epicenter of social and civic life. Sunday school classes were bursting at the seams, churches were planting roots in flourishing suburbs, volunteerism was at an all-time high because serving on a religious committee was socially emblematic of being a good citizen. However, in the longer scope of Christian history, what our tradition considers “normal” and what we long to return to is anything but. The dominance of Christian life in the 50s was an outlying blip on the overarching span of church history. What we long to return to as normal never was the norm and, I hope, will not be the vision we hold up as our longing for the future to come.

Which is why I appreciate the scene of Jesus’s Ascension in Acts Chapter 1. I confess that, in this time of physical distancing and pandemic isolation, I hear the words of this text differently than I have before: Jesus “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father;” that “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…[and] you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[ii] Then as Jesus ascends into heaven, I’m sure with great cloudy fanfare and divine pyrotechnics, the disciples stare after him in awe, ostensibly taking Jesus’s instructions quite literally.

While they are waiting, in verse 11, two (angelic?) messengers give them the proverbial divine slap upside the head with the question “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And so the disciples return to the city, where they spend many days “constantly devoting themselves in prayer” with other faithful believers. This period of prayer is followed by God fulfilling God’s promise at Pentecost, sending the Holy Spirit upon them and empowering them in language and deed to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all.

At the time of his writing, Luke’s context was not a pandemic, nor were the events global, and yet there is a global call to the work God gave the apostles, and us, to do.  Which is why I confess it difficult to empathize with the preoccupation to be restored to our buildings, to what we’ve always known, and the grief at how the church must change to adapt to meet the needs of the world around us. Hasn’t it always been our mission to meet the needs of the world with God’s love and power working through our hands and our feet? Has not God constantly been doing a new thing, shaking the foundations of our human structures, boundaries, and expectations? Do we not believe that baptism is our initiation into Christ’s body and a lifelong process of transformation with the help of the Holy Spirit working in us (sanctification)? Why then, would we expect to return to what we have been instead of anticipating what God is preparing us to become?

Much of my ministry as a priest has been to encourage communities to ask themselves the hard questions of if and how they are deepening their relationship with God, if and how they are listening for and to the Holy Spirit (who, in my experience, is constantly doing a new thing and constantly pushing us out of our comfort zones), if and how they are ministering to the needs of their neighbors around them in an authentic way, if and how they are willing to change in order to become the beloved community that God envisions, that accepts and welcomes ALL people created by God in God’s image.

As much as we declare ourselves to be people of resurrection, resurrection is uncomfortable. Resurrection is hard to define, takes time to come to fruition, and never looks the same. Resurrection requires a comfort with uncertainty and the Unknown that is not an innate human characteristic, but is a skill developed over time as we are pushed into growth situations (often against our will). Resuscitation to the old life we’ve always known would be much easier and much more comfortable.

Becoming people of resurrection means helping our churches become comfortable with the unknown. It requires immense courage and adaptive leadership: diving into the wilderness, trying new things, learning from failure, and picking up and trying again. [iii] It requires all the baptized to reclaim their baptismal gifts, empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue God’s mission and ministry. Getting comfortable with the unknown means taking risks and making decisions that may not be popular with those who want to return to the status quo. But risky, daring, bold, courageous leadership is needed from every heart if the people of God are going to survive and thrive in the midst of a “foreign (read secularized, unchurched) land,” on the margins, and in a “tent of perpetual adaptation.”

These are not skills valued by an institutional structure in its death throes and resisting, with every fiber of its being, the new life it is being called into. As a bishop once said to me, “such a style of leadership is not helpful for our institution.” He’s not wrong. But when did God call the church to become an institution? The church’s call has always been to continue the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ: proclaiming the good news of God’s love, offering healing and restoration to those who seek reconciliation with God, and serving our neighbors as we would serve ourselves. This moment requires of us the difficult, messy work of creative reimagining. In order to live into the new life of resurrection, we have to die to the old self and let go of the former ways of being. Easier said than done, as our hierarchies and structures have demonstrated, and mourned, for decades now.

I do not believe that the church is dying. I do believe that the institution as we know it is dying. I do believe that religious life as we know it is changing. But I do not mourn these things. This moment, this opportunity for exercising our God-given ingenuity and creativity to rethink our spiritual growth, mission, and ministry models fills me with hope, not dread or grief, or fear. I see a higher attendance rate and far more newcomers dropping in on our online services and offerings than before, and that tells me that the world is still hungry for God’s love and God’s presence, and our ability to mediate and interpret that with meaningful and tangible means. It is my hope that this moment may indeed call us to metanoia, conversion, awakening to reclaim the essentials of our calling and mission. As a wise colleague once reminded me, God is going to do what God is going to do, with or without the Church institution. We haven’t managed to kill the church through millennia of human history, action or inaction. The Body of Christ is the faithful who remember that God has acted before, abide in the promise of Immanuel: God with us, wait expectantly and eagerly for the new life to show up in unexpected ways, boldly venture into the unknown trusting the power of the Holy Spirit, working in us, to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

In his seminal work, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez exhorts the church to stop looking up toward heaven, waiting for God’s return or waiting for escape from the chances and changes of this life, and instead to focus on proclaiming the good news of God’s love in the here and now, doing our part in helping to usher in God’s kingdom of justice, love, reconciliation, and peace with the people beside us, part of the church or not.[iv] It is time for us to get evangelical, if you will, by which I mean reclaiming that word to its true meaning – proclaiming the good news of God’s love. To reinforce words with action, to do what we profess to believe. So what is the work of the Church in this time? There are several things that happen in this text that we can put to use as we creatively reimagine our models for mission and ministry:

Teach:

An essential part of the work of the Church is to give people a framework for interpreting and making sense of the events of their lives. Theology is important; how we understand God and what we believe about God shapes how we act in relation to God’s promises. Preach the message you discern that the Holy Spirit wants her people to hear, and teach boldly in a way that fosters spiritual growth. Challenge clichés, sit with the difficult questions and uncomfortable moments when questions can’t be answered, listen for the insights, wisdom and passion of the people you are teaching and learn from them, too.

Trust the promise:

Remember God’s good action and promises fulfilled in the past, and watch expectantly for God’s power to pop up in unexpected times, places, and people. God is constantly drawing outside the lines, calling us beyond our boundaries, asking us to meet Her in the wilderness moments of our lives, bringing forth streams in the desert and making crooked ways straight again, leveling high places and lifting up the lowly.

Receive the power of the Holy Spirit:

Say these sentences aloud, every day.
“God called me for a time such as this.”
“God gave me gifts to help build me up and to build up the people around me.”
“God gives me power and help to accomplish the purposes God intends for me.”
“God will work through whatever I offer, large or small, to do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine.”

Witness:

Tell others how God has shown up in your life. How has God healed or restored you? Where has God helped change your heart and renew your mind because of your participation in a faith community? Ask yourself why your relationship with God and God’s people is important to you, why it matters to you to get up and go to church or online worship each week? After you take time to reflect, write a Facebook post or tweet on Twitter giving thanks for a spiritual blessing you have discovered or a person who has helped you recognize God’s action in your life.

Finally, and most importantly, Pray:

The first thing the disciples did after this scene was to “constantly devote themselves to prayer.” They did this gathered together and, I presume, also on their own. Prayer in and for the power of the Spirit is the essential foundation for the tasks of ministry. It is not enough to simply experience Christ’s presence or know the words of scripture to be an effective minister; our tasks will simply be “doing” if we are not also grounded in the “being” of God’s presence. Prayer is as simple as inviting God to fully participate in all that we do, but there are also specific things everyone can pray together in unity for at this time:

  • For our church leaders to be given courage and confidence to have hard, truthful conversations, to make difficult decisions, to let go of the fears that create barriers to God’s mission of love and reconciliation.
  • For God to show us the people and needs God wants us to minister to, who need to hear the message of justice, reconciliation, and peace of God’s love.
  • For God to show us the gifts for ministry present in ourselves, in our faith community, in people we might not expect that can be asked to help us creatively reimagine how God would have us fulfill God’s purposes.
  • Or together to pray this prayer: Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even as we grieve the loss of power and influence we have enjoyed, even as everything we have known to be “normal” changes around us, even as “the way we have always done it” gives way to experimentation and failure and new ways of being, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

These are not new and innovative tools, but they are essential to braving the unknown with courage, gaining clarity in discernment, and getting our heads out of the clouds into the work God has given us to do right in front of us. I hope our faithful vision will be open, even amidst change and uncertainty, to the new thing God is doing in our circumstances, and the new life that will come out of it. At the root of apostolic faith (and the word, apostle) is an expectation to be sent out, to the ends of the earth, but also in our own communities to proclaim God’s love, God’s power, God’s justice, and God’s peace. The world is hungry for those promises. What are we waiting for?

May the God who shakes heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power to go forth and proclaim the gospel of new life amidst the fear of death.[v]

[i] https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-denomination/episcopal-church/

[ii] Acts 1:4-5, 8. NRSV translation.

[iii] For a great resource on adaptive leadership, see Tod Bolsinger’s book “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.

[iv] Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation.

[v] https://www.fortworthtrinity.org/download_file/view/873/

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.

6th Sunday of Easter(A): Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Acts 17:22-31

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

In my tradition, we pray a prayer at the beginning of Sunday worship called a Collect (COLL-ect), which gathers together (“collects”) our thoughts and prayers and sets the theme for the day. The Collect assigned for this Sunday describes a God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love.[i] This idea of experiencing the incomprehensible God through love rather than knowledge is expressed in a Christian tradition known as apophatic theology, which insists that God can never be truly known through human intellect. The apophatic tradition reminds us that all our thoughts, images, and ideas about God are just that: about God, not actually God. In fact, our attachment to ideas about God can easily become idolatry. Surprisingly, this rich tradition of apophatic theology has roots in Paul’s address to the Areopagites in Acts 17.

As Paul waits for his missionary partners in Athens, he notices how crowded the city is with idols and discovers one altar dedicated to an “unknown God.” Because Paul is a gifted evangelist, he knows that all cultures have within them seeds of the Gospel that need to be affirmed, watered, and grown.[ii] So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” is really the God who has made himself fully manifest and accessible in Christ.[iii] Eventually, Paul is brought to the court of Areopagus, where he essentially says, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God and I’m here to tell you that this God has been made known in the Risen Christ, through whom we can tap into the divine source of being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”[iv]

The lectionary unfortunately leaves out the Athenians’ response, which is mixed: some scoff, some want to hear more, and two listeners become convinced that Paul is speaking truth: a woman named Damaris and a man named Dionysius (17:32-33). Although Dionysius doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens.[v] But more importantly, Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination as the great spiritual icon for experiencing the God who is beyond all human understanding. In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this biblical character’s name as a pseudonym in writing books about accessing the God beyond all knowing. The author chose this pseudonym because he imagined that Dionysius had been deeply persuaded by Paul’s teachings about the “unknown God,” a phrase that inspired the author to formulate the foundations of apophatic theology. Today, this Syrian author is referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius” and is considered one of the most significant theologians of church history. Most theologians since the 5th century have been influenced in one way or another by Pseudo-Dionysius, who is also referred to as “Psuedo-Denys,” or, as I prefer, “Denys the Menace” (because he laced his apophatic theology with a not-so-healthy dose of Neo-Platonism).

One theologian who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is an anonymous English author who wrote a text called The Cloud of Unknowing in 14th century Nottingham, the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood. Although the apophatic tradition does not conflate images with the divine, the Cloud author uses images to describe the human relationship with God. He explains that between ourselves and God, there is “a cloud of unknowing,” which we cannot penetrate with our thoughts, but which we can penetrate through humble love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through this cloud. He offers a practical way to do this which has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind and to detach ourselves from our thoughts. This sacred word is meant to be repeated as a kind of mantra, an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting carried away by our thoughts, we return to the sacred word. By returning to the sacred word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud.

I have personally found this prayer practice to be deeply beneficial and transformative as it helps me develop a healthy detachment from my thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of secondary benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, and deeper sleep. However, the primary benefit I receive as I let go of my thoughts and try to be present to God through love is a direct experience of God as my very being. The Cloud author says, “God is your being…and God exists in all things, as their cause and their being.”[vi] In Acts 17, Paul says something very similar when he preaches, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28). Paul and the Cloud author invite us to experience the “unknown God” by being present to the simple reality of our existence because it is by being present to our existence that we are actually being present to God. Richard Rohr paraphrases the Cloud author when he says, “Offer up your simple naked being to the joyful being of God…Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are!”[vii]

Although it is unlikely that Paul would have ever identified as an apophatic theologian, his prophetic words to the Areopagus provided the soil out of which apophatic theology could emerge and grow. From that soil, we have inherited the wisdom of Pseudo-Denys and the contemplative prayer practice of the Cloud author, both of which invite us to directly experience the God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love. By accepting this invitation, we can come to experience the “unknown God” as the One in whom we live and move and have our being; and indeed, as the One who is our being.

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The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California and author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic). He enjoys exploring the pristine beaches, gentle rivers, and stunning redwoods of Humboldt County with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi. He tries to practice Centering Prayer, but admits that he often sips coffee during contemplation.

 

 

[i] “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 225.

[ii] Christian Missiologists sometimes refer to these “seeds of the Gospel” as logoi spermatikoi. See Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 23 – 72.

[iii] Even though the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), the apophatic tradition insists that our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God.

[iv] My paraphrase of Acts 17:22-31.

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by Kirsopp Lake. LCL 153 (Cambridge MA: Harvard, 1998), Book III.iv, 197.

[vi] Author of The Cloud of Unknowing, The Book of Privy Counseling, translated by William Johnston (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 139.

[vii] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019), 224.

 

Easter 5(A): Rebuilding Identity in Christ

Easter 5(A): Rebuilding Identity in Christ

1 Peter 2:2-10

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

David Kessler is an expert on grief. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His latest book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (published November 2019). In a Harvard Business Review interview in March, he commented that he believes “we will continue to find meaning now and when this [the coronavirus pandemic] is over.”[1]

Most of us have not arrived at the meaning stage. As I write this, I am not sure what state the world will be in by the time the fifth Sunday of Easter arrives. I do know that this Easter season will be like no other we have experienced in modernity. For that reason, you might consider nixing the “do not be troubled” opening line of John’s Gospel and instead pick up 1 Peter for your sermon inspiration.

Peter’s first letter is a good comfort for the distressed. We are suffering on a global scale. The grief, disappointment and hurt is palpable. I have participated in dozens of video calls where, at some point, someone on the call begins to cry. Physical distancing, self-isolation and other coronavirus-induced limitations on life should not be viewed as a trivial form of suffering. N.T. Wright explains: “There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment…. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.”[2]

This “poised, anxious sorrow” is the perfect reason to pick up Peter’s letter during the season of Easter. As the epistle serves to strengthen Christians in times of distress, it also sets their lives within the history of God’s activity and offers meaning for our experiences of sorrow, distress, and suffering.

Don’t be tempted to use your precious exhortation time unpacking the historical debates around the letter’s authorship. Save that for the clergy lectionary study or the Wednesday night Bible study where you can share the broader context. Rather, I suggest we consider it a piece of early Christian correspondence included among those New Testament writings that Martin Luther remarked, “show thee Christ.”

Peter’s first letter is addressed to a group of early churches that are alienated from the surrounding society, offering them comfort which is why it continues to offer us wisdom today. Particularly, this epistle reminds believers what it means to live out the sacraments as individuals and as a community. From 1 Peter, churches may discover clues to faithful living even while restricted in their public gatherings.

Peter reminds the churches that the Christian life, while not separate from the world beyond our doors, offers more, much more. Amazing promises are made to those who give their life to this new world by placing one’s full confidence in Jesus. As Peter writes to the church, those who love and trust Jesus will “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8)

The author calls his readers to spend their time, despite their distress, renewing their identity in Christ. As we learn to live into a new normal, one of the ways we might make meaning during our suffering, is to spend the Easter season renewing our identity in Christ.

No amount of special facilities, programs, talents, digital platforms and “relevant” messages are required to experience this type of renewal. Don’t tell the finance committee, but it doesn’t even require a line item in the budget! What it does require is faithfulness to the process of becoming more Christlike. Wise preachers, even those weary from intensive on-the-job training as digital pastors, might heed this opportunity to strip away non-essentials and invite disciples into an intensive re-building project. Peter’s message reminds disciples that Christians and non-Christians don’t see different things, but that we see the same things differently. The disciple will make Jesus their bedrock while, for non-Christians, Jesus is an inconvenience, a rock to be tossed out of the way. This Easter season, as we await the remembrance of the Pentecost and invite the Holy Spirit to inspire us anew, believers have an opportunity to take seriously that having been born through water and the Spirit, they may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The epistolary lection is meant to offer affirmation and comfort for those chosen to be a holy people. By using images and phrases from the Old Testament, the epistle simply substitutes the language of Israel for the church. This catena of images previously reserved for Israel seeks to reinterpret the Old Testament for the expanding Christian community in Asia Minor. Any commentary worth their salt can offer an extensive review of the Old Testament allusions in this passage of the letter. If you are preaching this text in 2020, there is a great opportunity to remind the people of who they are and what that means for their daily lives as God’s holy people. If your congregation continues to shelter-in-place or practice physical distancing, providing specific ideas on how to shape their days while at home could serve as the bulk of your message.

One such practice might be in meal sharing since the passage offers a strong food metaphor. Suggesting that community members plan for a special meal – one that takes time and love to prepare – alongside a special prayer. You could write a special, short liturgy for members to offer before their meal or suggest the Moravian-inspired Love Feast. Through the meal, remind believers that we have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet.[3] The Lord is Christ and Jesus is to be the basis of their growth – they have tasted of him through the Word and through the Sacrament and now they can grow up in him. Because of this, they have chosen to see things as Christ sees them, not as the world sees. Through these new eyes, they can lay the cornerstone of their spiritual house and participate in re-affirming and in the case of many, re-building their identity in Christ.

[1] Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review. 23 March 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief. Accessed 2 April 2020.

[2] N.T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” Time. 29 March 2020. https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/. Accessed 4 April 2020.

[3] I prefer Luke Timothy Johnson’s preferred translation of chrēstos as sweet: “Taste and see because the Lord is sweet.” Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Third Edition. Fortress Press: Minneapolis (2010), 430.

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus and is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.

Easter 4(A): Smelling Like Sheep!

4th Sunday of Easter(A): Smelling Like Sheep

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. David Clifford

A key theme throughout this week’s lectionary is the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – the one who cares for his sheep. This image of the shepherd as a symbol of leadership has deep roots throughout the scriptures. God is depicted as Israel’s shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in our Psalm reading for this week. David is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king in 1 Samuel. Many of the greatest leaders of God’s people learn much from their role as shepherd. In fact, the notion of shepherd-leader is also a familiar metaphor in Greco-Roman literature.[1]

Ted Waller reminds us of both the familiarity and importance of the shepherd for Ancient Middle Easterners:

The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.[2]

As we are reminded in our Psalm reading, the shepherd protects the flock and is with the flock even as we walk through the darkest of valleys. We have nothing to fear, because we know that our shepherd is watching over us. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is caring for us. At the core of the shepherd image is the relational bond the flock of sheep share with the shepherd. We see this relationship throughout the various scriptures for our week.

The text from Acts reminds us that as the early church is being taught by the apostles and cared for by the apostles – a relationship in and of itself in which the apostles become the shepherd – Jesus continues to be with them. We are told in Acts 2:47 that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV) The beauty of the Easter season in that the Resurrected Christ continues to show up in our lives in unexpected ways. In Psalm 23, the Shepherd constantly watches over us.

I am reminded of a key moment in my own learning that the shepherd role is highly relational. A few years back, I read a spiritual leadership book by Dr. Lynn Anderson. The title of this book was a key learning for me, as a pastor, about what it truly meant to be a shepherd: They Smell Like Sheep. In this book, Dr. Anderson makes a very obvious statement that is sometimes missed when we read of ancient shepherds in the scriptures: “A shepherd smells like sheep.[3] By this Dr. Anderson means that the shepherd is deeply relational to the flock of sheep. “A shepherd is someone who lives with sheep. A shepherd knows each sheep by name; he nurtures the young, bandages the wounded, cares for the weak, and protects them all.”[4]

In the 1 Peter scripture, we are reminded that the shepherd guards our souls. The protection of the flock moves us to a key learning from our Gospel reading. In verse 7 of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the gate for the sheep.” This gate points to a key way that Jesus protects the flock. Dr. Anderson describes the protection of the sheep by the “gate” of the shepherd:

When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five fee high—safe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the “gate.”[5]

This notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful reminder for our lives and our communities right now. As I type these words, many churches and communities are attempting to figure out what the ever-extending social distancing in response to COVID-19 means for them. Many have lost jobs and many are isolated in their homes. This is nothing compared to the many who have lost jobs; and even still the man who are sick and have died; the various people we know that are losing loved ones and are worried about loved ones. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus knows us and knows our pain, anxiety, and fear personally. The resurrected Christ is here with us. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus is protecting us. He is the gate that keeps us safe from thieves and bandits – from plagues and death.

Finally, there is a beautiful connection to this notion of Good Shepherd in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 3:8 says, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (NRSV). In John Ortberg’s study, When Compassion Meets Action, he interprets Jesus as the open door. Ortberg notes that the Greek word for “door” in Revelation 3:8 (thyra) is the same word for “gate” in John 10:7.[6] It is in this revelation (pardon the pun), that we find the beauty of Christ as Shepherd. Not only does the Good Shepherd relate to us and protect us; but the Good Shepherd leaves the gate open for each of us to walk through. In a time of chaos, fear, anxiety, and even death – Christ invites each of us to walk through the gate of His resurrection and protection. What a joy it truly is!

[1] Donald Senior, “Exegetical” commentary of John 10:1-10 found in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 443.

[2] Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.

[3] Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the transitional minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David will become the senior minister of FCC Henderson in May as Dr. Chuck Summers retires. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

Luke 24:13-35; Acts 2:14a, 36-41

By: The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The word that sticks out to me in the readings assigned for today is only actually used once – and yet it seems to hover around all of them, tying them together somehow. In Acts, Peter is reported to say, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Let them know with certainty.

Now, maybe the word sticks out to me because it is so appealing – and yet, I know that it is entirely antithetical to faith. Faith, and God, are so much more mystery, and incomprehension, and immensity – and how can one be certain of any of those things?

Despite knowing that, certainty always has and likely always will appeal to me. I love the idea of knowing, beyond the shadow of a doubt. I have always liked to write things in my planner in pen, not pencil – thinking somehow the ink on the page created an unchangeable, immovable fact. It became something I could be certain of, not just a proposal of possibility.

But, can we ever be certain of God? Or, maybe a better question – should we ever try to be?

In a chunky reading from Luke, we have the story of the road to Emmaus. Two disciples are walking along the road, and Jesus himself comes near to them, but they do not recognize him. He asks what they are discussing, and they explain to him that they are talking about Jesus, who they hoped would be the one to redeem Israel. Now, this must be interesting for Jesus to hear, because of course, as he understands it, and as we, his modern-day readers understand it, he DID redeem Israel. Yet the two disciples are so certain that they know what the Messiah will be like, that they don’t see that God is with them.

Our scripture says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Could it be that their certainty was, in fact, their blindness?

They continue walking and tell Jesus about the women who have astounded them, by reporting that there was no body at the tomb, and, furthermore, that they had seen a vision of angels. Perhaps their certainty that this would never happen to women kept them from receiving the good news. Jesus calls it being “slow of heart to believe.”

I wonder if our hearts are slowed by our certainty.

Jesus becomes known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps it’s because they’ve never been certain about what’s actually happening in the breaking of the bread. Jesus has shared many meals with them, but maybe there’s always been a moment of mystery in that action. Maybe there’s always been a moment of inbreaking – a moment where God is revealed or cracked open – where God is beyond.

As soon as the disciples understand that Jesus has been with them – when they get certain about the identity of the stranger who has been travelling with them, he vanishes. As soon as we get certain about the way Jesus has appeared, he disappears again. It isn’t his way to be in a box, or to appear in the ways we expect. It’s his way to surprise, to delight, to break through our certainty and reveal to us mystery, instead.

So, I might edit Peter – because I don’t think we should come to God with certainty. My prayer is that we learn to live with such mystery, and with such ambiguity – that we greet everyone as if they are Jesus, travelling down the road with us.

 

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The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka mail woman, who loves walking barefoot, the warmth of sunshine, and planting seeds in her garden. She serves as a curate at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, Hawaii and is in her second year of priesthood. Serving God’s people is a joy and a privilege, and she laughs along the journey daily.

2nd Sunday of Easter (A): The Faith of Thomas

2nd Sunday of Easter (A): The Faith of Thomas

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

“I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia!
You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia!
O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” (more information)

“Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!’”

The Second Sunday’s gospel text is familiar for the story not of Jesus’ walking through walls two Sundays in a row, not for Jesus telling the disciples that if they forgive sins, the sins are forgiven, but for Thomas’s missing the meeting and saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.“

For centuries, this honest humanness of Thomas’ words has gotten Thomas short shrift — and that mindset has encouraged blind faith. Blind faith in leaders and institutions has enabled those in power to commit and hide abuses across Christian traditions from the most Catholic to the most Protestant. While Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” this should not be taken as a rebuke of questioning or having doubt.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”

In the passage from John today, Thomas notices the mess. Jesus’ appearance at the beginning of the pericope takes place behind locked doors. Preachers should notice and name the messiness of how passages like this — especially from John — have been used to foment anti-Semitism throughout Christian history. This could be an historical-critical analysis of John’s community, the school of writing of the gospel, and how relationships to their synagogues and Jewish Jerusalem leadership. This could be as simple as a reminder of this Christian history and reiteration of God’s eternal covenants with the Jewish people.

After Jesus gets through a locked door, he shows those present his hands and side. This is Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples, and they see his hands and side. Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene in the morning. John has her conveying her resurrection experience to the disciples just before the passage for 2 Easter starts. Luke’s account of the day, however, is clear that the men do not believe the women. In Luke, this prompts Peter to run to the tomb himself. Although Thomas misses this encounter, his request is no different than the other disciples: they see Jesus’ hands and side before they believe.

The context of the liturgical year cannot be ignored in preparing to preach on the Second Sunday of Easter. Either Matthew or John’s resurrection narrative has likely been heard the week before, either at a Vigil or Sunday Morning, or both. Thomas Sunday is a continuation of the Easter Day narratives, concluding the Octave of Easter — which is treated as one long day in the Orthodox Church. This Second Sunday of Easter (in the context of the calendar) bears two important notes: a resurrection appearance! and mystagogy (of the newly baptized).

If a congregation has had catechumens through Lent, the Second Sunday of Easter is an excellent time to begin public mystagogy — explanation of the mysteries of the faith. Even if no new candidates were baptized at Easter, mystagogy is a lifelong journey of growing closer to God, deepening the Christian faith.[1] While Thomas gets the most attention most frequently, this passage is an invitation for preachers to explore reconciliation of a penitent / confession and absolution however their tradition embodies that, communally and individually. Even the Presbyterian Church (USA) has A Service for Repentance and Forgiveness for Use with a Penitent Individual (Book of Common Worship, p. 1023). Jesus says in this day’s text, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus has given the disciples the Holy Spirit (by breathing on them, no less) and then given them — in some traditions — the Office of the Keys. This happens in the context of a resurrection appearance at the end of the first day of the resurrection. “I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia! / You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia! / O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” While Thomas has gotten much attention over centuries this Sunday, there is much more to this text — and much more than needing to justify Thomas or reclaim him or humanize him (as the beginning of this essay does!).

In preparing to preach this text, consider not only Thomas, but Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, his resurrection (alleluia), the forgiveness of sins (and God’s infinite forgiveness), and how the newly baptized — and not newly baptized — continue to learn about the depths of the Christian faith, especially in the Easter Week of Weeks.

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The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews (@JosephPMathews) is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington. He loves Music from St. Gregory’s, chanting, the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and podcasts. He is a shape note singer, soccer referee, and gay bar socializer for trivia or show tunes. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their son Topher and their cats Maggie and Stanton.

[1] https://todayscatholic.org/mystagogy-is-a-lifelong-journey-of-growing-closer-to-god-deepening-our-faith/

Maundy Thursday(A): Whose Feet Would You Refuse to Wash?

Maundy Thursday(A): Whose Feet Would You Refuse to Wash?

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

The ritual that comes out of the gospel reading for Maundy Thursday is incredibly beautiful—the central image of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, patiently explaining to them that service is the highest expression of love. Many congregations re-enact this ritual because it is such a counter-cultural and humbling practice.

On Maundy Thursday, it is easy to skip over the introduction to the entire scene because we focus so intently on the ritual and the new commandment, but the text begins, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1, NRSV). Jesus heard the clock ticking and was aware that there were precious few teachable moments left. Jesus knew his fate.

This, of course, is not a surprise to those who believe that Jesus understood himself to be sent by God as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. It was his life for humanity’s sin. Everything about his life and ministry led up to his death on the cross because it was The Plan.

But Jesus’ knowing that his time was short is also not a surprise to those who do not hold said theological understanding. Divine or not, Jesus would have known “that his hour had come to depart from this world” because he had seen firsthand what the Roman Empire did to agitators and status-quo disrupters. Crucifixion was a “form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent.”[1]

Jesus would have been aware with every healing, every pardon of sin, and every act of inclusion of someone deemed unclean made him more of a threat. Given that Jesus had been welcomed into Jerusalem with a joyful parade just a few days before (what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), the authorities desperately needed to discourage his followers using “a very public and prolonged form of execution deliberately designed to be seen and be a deterrent”[2] so no further protests or uprisings would be organized. But Jesus never changed his message to cause less trouble because being faithful to death to living the kingdom of God, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) was The Plan.

While it might seem easy to skip over the introduction to the foot washing scene and the giving of the new commandment on Maundy Thursday, it is arguably our sole focus the other 364 days of the year. There has been much time and energy spent debating why Jesus knew his time was short. Actual wars have been fought over the person and substance of Jesus, scattered the Church with capital “C” to the four winds, and cause more than a few congregations to splinter.

This continues today. We still spend an incredible amount of time differentiating ourselves from one another. So-and-so believes this. So-and-so denies that. What we believe about what someone else believes makes them either in or out, no matter one’s theological bent. We divide into factions, denominations, and teams, all declaring not to be “that kind of Christian.” We have explicit and implicit lists of beliefs by which we measure each other, self-declaring who is a “real” follower of Jesus who and who is not.

Perhaps this was something else Jesus knew would happen, just like his death.

Maybe this is why he not only gave us the examples of humble service to one another in the act of foot washing, but then directly said that love is how his disciples would be identified—not by creeds or doctrine or litmus tests.

As we prepare for Maundy Thursday, the text gives us an opportunity for multiple considerations. We might wonder not only whether others identify us as followers of the Prince of Peace, but also about what gives us away. Are we marked as Christians by our love or because of a list of beliefs? Are we more interested in being right or being loving? Then we can turn the question around: how do we identify others as followers of Jesus? Who have we written off as heretics instead of partners in Christ’s service?

Put another way: Is there someone whose feet we would refuse to wash?

It is not hard to imagine what Jesus would have to say about that.

 

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

 

[1] Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power And How They Can Be Restored (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid.