Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

John 14:15-21

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

At this point in the church year we are winding down Eastertide and looking towards Pentecost. The reading assigned for Easter Six rather obviously reflects this, in that Jesus is talking about the coming of an Advocate which will be with the apostles (and presumably at this point the Church which proceeds from them), but this selection of Scripture is about more than just the promise of a coming spiritual power.

There are a lot of paths people take when they try to exegete some meaning out of this passage. Of the many options presented here, the one that struck me upon reading the text and reflecting on it was the notion that Christ takes a moment here to help us figure out the roadmap for a relationship, complete with where we fit in, and how we can best live it out.

When I read this passage of Scripture, there is a phrase that comes to mind that may (or may not) be popular in your part of the world. I know growing up and continuing to live in the South (North Carolina—a state I didn’t used to have to apologize for every five minutes) it was and is popular for a great many folks, especially “youthy” kinds of people, to describe Christianity as “not a religion, but a relationship.” I think of that often (over)used phrase when I read this because most of this passage is taken up in relationship dynamics involving Jesus Christ, his Father, and his followers. There is a lot of I in you and you in me and I in the other kind of talk here (insert your own I am the Walrus joke here if you like—goo goo g’joob[1]). I am not particularly fond of that “not a religion, but a relationship” saying because I think it creates a false dichotomy. A religion is often about a relationship of some kind, and our relationship with God the Holy and Undivided Trinity and its consequences for our relationships with other people is a religion.

As I said before, what is set out for us today is the roadmap of a relationship/religion, looking at the dynamics of what would later come to be called the Holy Trinity and how we all fit into that eternal and undivided relationship of love which is at the heart of all things. It can be a little confusing to read it at first because a lot of the I in you, you in me language can read sort of like a tongue twister for your eyes. What the Gospel communicates here is that when we love Christ, we then find ourselves in the midst of the eternal force of love that is the Trinity. At the core here is the assurance that we belong and will not be abandoned, but rather strengthened if we consciously participate in a relationship with God in whom we live and move and have our being.

That being said, another popular issue arises.  Again, being from the South, I hear a lot about “faith, not works” leading to salvation (which is usually another way of saying that faith is what is really important and works are just kind of a nice detail). Unfortunately for this often misused tagline, the Gospel here does not really mesh well with it. When Jesus describes those having faith in him, in the same breath, he speaks of keeping his commandments. Faith and works (actions) together, like two sides of the same coin (like relationship and religion). Faith and actions are an intrinsic part of keeping this relationship with Christ going. The love of Christ is not conditional here. He phrases it such that those who love him keep his commandments. It is another way of saying that love has consequences. Just like any other relationship, if you don’t live out your love, it will wither on the vine. And if we do not keep Christ’s commandments, then we are in a one-sided relationship of love, where we receive but do not properly reciprocate. Any clergy who has done pre-marital counseling knows that is a giant red flag right there.

It can be a daunting task to think about being in a solid and growing relationship with God and basing it on not just having emotions, but letting actions flow out of them. Loving our enemies looking first to the outcasts and weirdos for the face of God, respecting authorities and partisans without letting them define us, promoting peace in a world of war, respecting the dignity of all, feeding the hungry, comforting the sorrowful and afflicted, healing the sick, casting out demons, loving God, loving Jesus, loving one another as Jesus has loved us—these are all difficult things to do more than once in some cases, much less make a whole lifestyle out of it. With Jesus no longer among us as he once was with the disciples, it can seem even more impossible to try, much less succeed. Much like the early Christians, faithful folks today may think, “Who will lead us?” “Who will guide us?”  “What power will sustain us?”

The answer to that is the Advocate spoken of here: the Holy Spirit. The early Christians faced these difficulties of maintaining a flourishing relationship with God in Christ while having to make basic decisions in the world and deal with impulses common to us all and contrary to the Gospel, but they were sustained by the same Spirit who has fallen afresh on each succeeding generation in the Church.

I often find that Christ’s commandments promote a vision of a world and a humanity that is so brilliant we can barely bring ourselves to look at it, a way of life so liberating that it frightens folks to consider all of the consequences, and then he calls us to live them out as a part of our relationship with God and others. I find it personally reassuring to see such passages that promise the Spirit’s help as we navigate the spiritual depths of our relationships with one another and with God.

Modern Metanoia Picture
The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Carrboro, North Carolina where he lives with his husband Logan and their dog Archer. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.

 

[1] By the way, it is “goo goo g’joob,” not “coo coo ca choo,” as is often said. John Lennon may not have been bigger than Jesus, but he is certainly misquoted by his fans about as often.

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

John 14:1-14

By: Jay Butler

Growing up, my family strongly emphasized our faith in God through Jesus Christ. We went to church all the time, participated in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and any other activity that the church offered. It’s not that I was forced to go either. I genuinely wanted to be there. As a product of me being there all the time, I picked up a lot of information, especially after I started attending a Christian school in seventh grade. I was a “Bible class All-star”, because I was banking all of this knowledge. Knowing that information was important to my faith. It also warped what I thought a relationship with Christ was, but that’s a whole different story, for a whole different time.

My job as pastor now requires me to use that knowledge to help my congregation, and to help my congregation understand the importance of having that knowledge in their lives. Being a pastor also means we have to deal with people who don’t get it the first, or second time. It’s not because they’re trying to undermine your ministry. They just genuinely don’t get it. Nevertheless, ministry can sometimes give you “facepalm” moments.

Have you ever heard of a “facepalm” moment? A “facepalm” moment is when you are either so embarrassed or frustrated at something or someone, you put the palm of your hand up to your face and just shake your head in disgust. One of my most memorable “facepalm” moments occurred in seventh grade. We were reading “The Hobbit” in English class. In “The Hobbit,” Bilbo and his company of dwarves encounter and run away from a band of giant spiders. We talked about them for days in class, because it’s a sizable portion of the plot. However, one girl in our class looked up from her book and asked our class, “What spiders?” The class just froze. How could you miss that? The whole class just shook their head in disgust. Jesus must have a lot of those moments in the Gospels.

Jesus, in His ever-abundant patience, dealt with a lot of questions during His ministry on earth. Whether it’s people asking Him questions they already know the answer to, or Pharisees trying to trap Him with questions, Jesus answers them all to some degree. He also answers questions from his apostles. Oftentimes they’re questions they should already know the answer to. In this week’s Gospel reading, John 14:1-14, I want to look at the dynamic between Jesus and His apostles, specifically Jesus’ responses to those questions.

John 14:1-14 takes place in the middle of Jesus’ “Last Supper Teachings.” These are the final teachings of Jesus before He is arrested, and starts a process that leads to the death and resurrection of our Savior. It has iconic verses, such as, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” In many ways, this is Jesus’ farewell sermon. However, the first thing I notice when approaching this scripture is not Jesus’ profound wisdom, but the apostles’ many interruptions.

Jesus is interrupted twice in only fourteen verses. Thomas asks in verse 5, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In the next verse, Jesus responds with the iconic “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, when Phillip asks Jesus another question, Jesus seems exasperated. It reads as though Jesus is confounded by the idea that Phillip doesn’t know the answer to his own question. For the longest time, when reading the Gospels, I grew frustrated at the apostles’ supposed sheer stupidity. How can you not understand what Jesus is saying? What don’t you get when it comes to following God? I then had a stark realization that my viewpoint was immensely prideful and arrogant. It was then I began to identify with the apostles in the Gospels.

Character studies can be a tricky way to exegete scripture. It’s not an exact science, but it allows the text to come to life, not just in the interpreter, but in the congregation that hears the interpretation. When we dive into the characters of the Bible, we make theology more relevant and applicable to our congregations. When preparing a sermon on this text, my mind immediately wanders towards the apostles. I want to know what they’re thinking, because even though Phillip and Thomas are the only ones that John mentions as asking questions, I’m sure that the others had questions as well. What was going through their head-space during Jesus’ last sermon? The text focuses a lot on Jesus leaving the apostles, so maybe there was confusion. This wasn’t the first time Jesus spoke about this in the book of John. Jesus has been dropping hints that he will be betrayed and die, so maybe there’s fear and anxiety. Finally, there may be some anger or stubbornness (I’m looking at you, Peter), because they do not want their Rabbi to be hurt, and will do whatever it takes to protect Him. Whatever they felt, I feel it’s necessary to look at the apostles and to look at their questions from their perspective.

When looking at the interactions between Thomas, Phillip, and Jesus, I notice that Jesus is trying to give some of His most important theology as an answer to the apostles’ questions. In the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “These verses announce in clear language the theological conviction that drives the Fourth Evangelist’s work…”[1] The verse that that theological conviction is based off of is verse six, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This powerful display of the power of God is in response to a “dumb question”! It wouldn’t have been given if Thomas hadn’t asked that question!

Thank the Lord that the Lord is so patient. Our humanity gives God many “facepalm” moments, but the Lord is just and powerful. It allows us to ask the questions like, “What spiders?” that portray us as not seeing the work of God overtly playing out in our lives. It gives us the freedom to grow, because God gives us gems in response to our questions. It frees us to grow unhindered, and to leave no proverbial stone unturned. Thank the Lord for patience, and ask your stupid questions.

14595808_10106165475853810_7909623686024938259_n
Jay Butler

Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.

 

 

[1] O’Day Gail R., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Luke/John, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (1995; repr., Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 633-34.

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Sheep Sunday! Every year on this Sunday, the lectionary doles out a reading from John 10–and, as the reader will quickly realize, the dominant metaphor of John 10 is sheep. Last year, Jesus was concerned with those who were not among his sheep because they did not believe. Next year, our text will pick up where today’s leaves off in verse 11, with the famous, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” But today, Jesus is concerned about the flock’s ability to recognize the shepherd.

The imagery of Jesus as shepherd and the faithful as sheep is to Christianity what apple pie is to America. They go hand-in-hand. Perhaps that is why most preachers I know–myself included–let out an audible groan whenever this Sunday comes around. What more is there to say about Jesus the Good Shepherd, anyway?

And yet, here we are…

 

For starters, I suggest steering clear of an agriculture lesson. Most folks have already heard the truth about sheep: they’re ornery, smelly, dirty, dim-witted, like to get into trouble, and would rather follow each other than their shepherd. We know the truth about goats too: they’re creative, agile, intelligent, and they have a built-in defense mechanism–horns! Yes, there’s a metaphor in there that could be mashed and patted out into a sermon, but I am convinced that there’s a more important word here that the faithful need to hear.

Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

By itself, this phrase sounds nice–comforting, in fact. But while it can be difficult to catch, this week’s Gospel lesson is actually the second part of a larger story that started at the end of chapter 9, which we heard way back on the 4th Sunday in Lent. Remember that? Jesus heals a man from physical and spiritual blindness, which causes the Pharisees to ask if Jesus was insinuating that they, too, were spiritually blind.

Here, we get Jesus’ answer to their question.

Jesus speaks of abundant life to emphasize the fact that our lives of faith aren’t simply about having sins forgiven or getting our celestial tickets punched. It’s also about our lives right here, right now!

Remember the man in chapter 9? For him, abundant life means sight. It means freedom from his socioeconomic station in life. And the healing that Jesus provided meant abundant life now–in the moment!

I think the word that our people need to hear from us is that the salvation made known to us in Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd is not an other-worldly, enigmatic thought experiment. It’s tangible, and it’s here among us, making itself known right before our eyes!

You know your community better than I do, so what would it look like to hold out examples of where abundant life is making itself known in your community–among your people?

Here in the living of these Easter Days, I’m reminded of Athanasius of Alexandria’s short but incredibly profound book, “On the Incarnation.” He writes this about God’s revelation in Jesus: “[The revelation of God] is in every dimension–above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”

The salvation that Jesus invites us into is not some distant notion or cosmic future. It’s a concrete invitation to discover life more abundantly; to discover God in the world around us!

Headshot1
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Luke 24:13-35

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Third Sunday after Easter. We have passed the austerity of Lent, the spiritual high of Easter, and (hopefully) everyone is now back in their pew after the post-Easter slump. Now the real work of the Resurrection life can begin.

There is a lot of exegesis that could play into a study of this text, and if you go looking you are sure to find it. The third Sunday after Easter is always the Road to Emmaus. Every lectionary commentary deals with it at least three different ways and every commentary on Luke addresses the text at least once. That is to say nothing of the academic periodicals, blog posts, and preaching commentaries like this one that can be summoned from the depths of google and ATLA.

My advice to you is to resist a deep exegetical dive into this text. You may be tempted to delve into a complicated theological treatise on the divine presence of the Eucharist, but I say to you: RESIST.

People in the pews are tired after a long Lent and the exhausting ecstasy of Easter. Let deep theological explanation melt away this Sunday. Let the bread be bread. Let the fellowship be fellowship. Let the road be the road. Let the hospitality of Cleopas be hospitality. Let the Resurrection be the Resurrection. Humble yourself on Luke’s Emmaus Road; you cannot do better.

Let the text be the text, because in this story of fellowship and resurrection the specter of Good Friday is shed from the eyes of Cleopas and his companion. The road to Emmaus is about seeing God in our midst overcoming death, and the Church is preoccupied with death. Attendance, membership, and budgets have been steadily declining for 30-50 years.

The Millennial pastor to whom this blog is aimed is in an interesting position; we have never known a year of Church growth. Sure we may be part of growing communities, but we have grown up in failing denominations. We have heard about new methods for church growth our whole lives and now our whole ministries, because the Church has not found one that works.

As contrary as it sounds, millennial preachers, pastors, and priests are in a wonderful place because MILLENIALS HAVE ONLY KNOWN CHURCH DEATH! This could be a depression inducing epiphany, however I believe that this is our generation’s greatest strength. Who better to point to life? Who better to say look at who has come out of the tomb? Who better to stand with the disciples in Emmaus and say, “Were our hearts not burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?!?!?!”[1] Life isn’t the status quo the church has been trying to hold onto, or claw back to life; true eternal life is a gift given only by and in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the joys and purpose of table fellowship. He says:

…The congregation of Jesus believes that its Lord will to be present when it prays for his presence. So it prays: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest”—and thereby confess the gracious omnipresence of Jesus Christ… Christians, in their wholehearted joy in the good gifts of this physical life, acknowledge their Lord as the true giver of all good gifts; and beyond this, as the true gift: the true Bread of life itself; and finally, as the one who is calling them to the banquet of the Kingdom of God… At table they know their Lord as the one who breaks bread for them; the eyes of their faith are opened.[2]

Our gift as Christians, as the Church, is found in fellowship together. It is in fellowship that we see the resurrected Christ revealed, and realize both who has given us these gifts of life and who and what the true gift is.

For this third Sunday after Easter let Jesus confound our expectations. Emmanuel Lartey, who taught my Introduction to Pastoral Care course, said in class that the role of the pastoral caregiver is to walk into someone’s life and point to a God who is already there.[3] This Sunday, more than most, the role of the Preacher is to stand up and point to a God who is already there, to the places where God is at work, and the people who are inviting Christ into the community. We are Millennials (and folks who resonate with the Millennial generation). Who better to point to the creative, innovative, and new *gasp&shutter* ways that Christ is breaking the bread in our midst? Who better to see the new life that has been flowing all along, name it, and embrace it? Who better to see the ways that Christ has broken bread, broken death, and brought life than the very people who have only seen a church preoccupied with the power of death?

Preacher, SPEAK OF NEW LIFE! The dead will bury the dead and only the gift of Jesus Christ will raise the dead to life!

This week isn’t about deep exegesis of the text. This week is about a deep exegesis of the congregation. This week is about pointing to the moments where Christ is revealed in the lives of those in the pews. Speak of the grandparents who bring their grandkids to Church. Speak of the retiree who gives their time reading with school children during the week. Speak of the folks who staff soup kitchens, clothing closets, and homeless shelters. Speak to the creative, new, and unexpected ways that God is breaking into the world. God is already here. Speak of those who are caring for the immigrant and refugees in your community and our nation (Trust me. No matter what you think of your congregation’s politics, you will not have to look as far as you imagine). The resurrected Christ walks among us here and now. This Sunday do not let Christ get away without breaking the bread of himself and opening our eyes to the resurrection that is among us.

 

happyjon
The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a grad of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. Jonathan enjoys the outdoors, spending time fly fishing, biking, running, and hiking. He has thru hiked the Appalachian Trail, completed a triathlon, keeps chickens and bees, and ran his first half marathon in March. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. They have one dog named Nantahala (Hala for short).

[1] Luke 24:32; NRSV. Punctuation mine.

[2] Bonheoffer, Dietrich, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, trans. John W.Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 67-68.

[3] Lartey, Emmanuel. “Introduction to Pastoral Care” Seminary Course, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 2013.

Easter 2(A): Sucking Wind

Easter 3(A): Sucking Wind

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

Sucking Wind

My Grandpa Charlie spent the last of his life suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD makes it hard to breathe because air flowing in and out of your airways is restricted, so you are progressively, and sometimes, aggressively relying on less and less oxygen. Grandpa would joke that he was “sucking wind” because it seemed his mouth would blow away more oxygen than it took in. As you might imagine, with COPD comes anxiety. The anxiety is contagious. Watching him wheeze and suck desperately at the air around him was painful and angst-ridden for my whole family. In his last months, nothing gave me more pleasure than sitting at his bedside during and after a breathing treatment. The gift of breath—the opening of the airways in his lungs—relaxed his oft-tensed face and his body. And then the Grandpa I knew and loved would reappear with a smile and a wink.

Anyone who has ever had the wind knocked out of them or experienced a panic attack knows that breath is one biological commodity that you only notice when it’s gone. That first wonderful gasp of air inflating your lungs after falling flat on your back off the swing set is like being reborn. The world looks different.

I think this might have been the case for the followers of Jesus when he summoned and gifted the Holy Spirit by his breath that evening on the first day. I imagine his appearance within the locked room sucked what little breath was left in it. And with a simple greeting of peace and the gift of breath, he gives them new life (cf. Gen. 2:7) invoking a new world whereby the relationship between God and humanity had forever changed. The world looked different.

Becoming God-Begotten (Reception of the Holy Spirit)

This passage in John witnesses Jesus widening his circle of post-resurrection believers. There is much to unpack in John’s second post-resurrection story. And yet, the practical preacher may find it best to focus on one of the three areas of this passage and allow the mystery of Easter to continue to resound. In particular, vv. 19-23 offers the hearer ample depth to plumb in reflection on the new relationship established through Christ’s resurrection and the connection between Jesus’ greeting of “peace be with you” and reconciliation through forgiveness. This passage, in particular, provides an opportunity for a congregation to wrestle with the purpose of the cross and what it says about the character of God.

As the sun begins to set on that first day, Jesus isn’t finished up-ending the world. This is the second post-resurrection appearance in John. Mary encountered her living “Rabbouni” (Teacher) in the place of her dead Lord early that morning and has sought out the disciples to share the Good News. When we next hear from the disciples, they are hiding out in a locked house.

Are the disciples are huddled in the dark because of what they heard Peter say about the empty tomb or are they wincing with anticipation of their own persecution foretold by their leader (Jn. 15.18-27)? It may be helpful to unpack for a Sunday morning crowd that the depiction of the disciples locked away “for fear of the Jews,” is closely connected to the growing tension and conflict between the synagogue and the Christian community at the end of the first century rather than the contemporary political climate immediately following the Roman execution of Jesus. The author, therefore, is writing into the Gospel narrative their own experience of persecution and marginalization within the Jewish community.

Despite this contextualization, the Gospel’s author offers a critical teaching in the way the Christ works in our life in this post-resurrection world. Forgiveness is a relational thing. We have to be in relationship in order to give and receive forgiveness. Jesus’ appearances to his disciples are bodily affairs: they cling to one another (v. 17), they are close enough to feel one another’s breath (v. 22), they reach for each other and poke one another’s flesh (v. 27). With the in-breaking of God into humanity through the personhood of Jesus, the Godhead is proclaiming a new, personal way of relationship for the believer. No longer are priestly sacrifices or bureaucratic and showy displays of religiosity required. Righteousness is far more basic and yet deeply intimate than that—relationship simply requires our reception of the breath that Christ offers us. That reception of the Holy Spirit can happen anywhere. In our grief. In our fear. In our locked rooms. Christ meets us in our fear and isolation, even when we are huddled together under the cover of darkness scared out of our wits, to empower us for the work of sharing that peace with others.

Christ is our Peace. The Church as Peace-Offeror

The reception of the Holy Spirit brings with it peace. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, is fully united with the Godhead. His greeting of “peace be with you”—offered three times in this chapter—represents the peace that resides in the Godhead and in relationship within each member of the Trinity. He reappears in the lives of his followers to bring them that peace. As the Alternative Service Book declares: “He has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross. We meet in his name and share his peace.”[1]

Like fresh air filling up one’s lung, with the reception of the Holy Spirit, Christ grants the gift of new life that is meant to be shared through forgiveness and reconciliation. As John Wesley would say, the “fruit of this living faith is peace.”[2]

The Gospel offers the Church a chance to renew one of its critical marching orders. In this visit, Jesus teaches the early movement one of its key responsibilities: the power to offer forgiveness, peace, and the Holy Spirit to others. In a world filled with conflict, tension, fear, and pain, what witness does the Christian community and the individual disciple provide? Do we offer the Holy Spirit and gift of new life, or do we horde the gift of liberation for the precious few, particularly the ones we agree with, who look like us, pray like us, spend like us, vote like us?

Life requires breath. Being a follower in the way of Christ means to be receptive to the breath of the Spirit in the life of the community and in its followers. Because the Spirit is inherently relational, one cannot receive the Spirit without sharing that gift with others. The Spirit will always pull the believer toward community, toward relationship, toward the other. That is the Holy Spirit’s desire. It is who the Christ is. On the second Sunday of Easter, the community continues the feast of celebration by readying itself to receive the Holy Spirit.

In common parlance, sucking wind usually refers to people who are breathing heavily, usually while performing some activity, and because they are out of shape. My Grandpa understood that his way of labored breathing was the result of failing systems in his body. The Church might ask itself if it is sucking wind or if, like Jesus, it offers the Holy Spirit’s gift of peace and reconciliation, forgiveness and liberation from sin and oppression readily.

 

[1] Alternative Service Book (1980), 128.

[2] John Wesley, “The Marks of New Birth” (Sermon 18).

 

KimberlyJenne_headshot
The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne (@kimkjenne) is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, Lay Servant Ministries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills United Methodist Church 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 Christ.

 

 

Good Friday: Give Us Barabbas!

Good Friday: Give Us Barabbas!

John 18:1-19:42

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

I’ve often wondered how it is that we get from Palm Sunday to Good Friday so quickly. How is it that we can shout “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify!” the next? How can we want for Jesus to save us on Palm Sunday, and then revel in Jesus’ torture and demand his execution on Good Friday? One day, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord;” the next day, “give us Barabbas!”

Is it our tendency for capriciousness? Perhaps. Could it be our desire for immediate satisfaction? Maybe. Might it be our desperation for certainty? Possibly. We might like to think that we would have reacted differently if we had been there. After all, we enjoy the benefit of having fast-forwarded a bit. In my parish, as well as in many others, the faithful will gather tomorrow evening at nightfall, kindle a new fire, and mark Christ’s passing over from death to life with shouts of, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

Where they were unsure about just who Jesus was, we know. Where they were under threat from the Empire, we enjoy the First Amendment. Where they were in the moment, we’ve read the story through to its end.

And yet…

…And yet…

…When everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, the voices of our better angels are drowned out.

“There is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness,” writes Wendell Berry. “This sort of violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.”[1]

The truth is that although we are sure that it is Jesus we want, each and every one of us still clings to Barabbas. For as much as we might like the idea of Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom of God, we’ve all gotten pretty used to Barabbas and the mechanisms of the Kingdom of this world.

We believe in Jesus, yes, but how much do we really believe in the ideas for which he gave his life? “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” but this is reality, so I’m going to “Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto me.” We teach our children to tell the truth, but how often do we rebuff or dismiss others when they speak their truth because it does not fit with our own? Justice sounds nice, but the moment we say, “I’m gonna get mine,” justice vanishes and is replaced with vengeance and retribution.

If Holy Week and Good Friday remind us of nothing else, they remind us that when it comes right down to it, we’re not quite prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We might be fascinated enough with Jesus to steal a knife and cut the ropes that tied him to the cross, but we will follow him only from a safe distance, so as to avoid sharing his fate.[2]

This is the great irony of Good Friday: the longer we convince ourselves that if only we had been at the foot of the cross instead of Jesus’ cowardly and fickle friends, his fate would somehow have been different, the louder our shouts demanding Barabbas and condemning Jesus become.

In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the 19th century philosopher and critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, makes a startling observation. It was not the wicked who put Jesus to death; rather, Nietzsche argues, crucifixion was a deed of the “good and just.” “’The good and just’” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good. The “good and just” have to crucify the one who devises an alternative virtue because they already possess the knowledge of the good.”[3]

The crucifixion of our Lord was not the work of some foreign terrorist’s wicked plot. It was the result of good people like you and me who could not abide having our notions of justice and fairness and truth questioned. After all, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us in The Gulag Archipelago, “To do evil a human must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”[4]

In the crucifixion of our Lord, we encounter the crucifixion of our certainty. We encounter the crucifixion of our fickle and capricious notions of justice and fairness and truth. As the body of our Lord lay broken, we come face-to-face with our sinfulness—our treachery—and we are shattered.

“Give us instant gratification! Give us vengeance! Give us comfort!”

“Give us Barabbas!

And so they did.

 

Headshot1
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

 

[1] Wendell Berry, “Caught in the Middle” in Our Only World, p. 94.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation p. 276.

[3] Ibid, p. 61. Volf is following Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[4] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1971.

Maundy Thursday: Servant Leadership

Maundy Thursday: Servant Leadership

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

By: Kristen Leigh Southworth

In the late 1960s, there was a senior executive at AT&T named Robert Greenleaf, who was increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional, authoritarian models of leadership that were so pervasive among corporations and institutions in the United States. So he spent the next several years researching different management styles and organizational structures, and he discovered that in fact, most top-down control-oriented systems don’t actually work very well. Attempts to compel compliance by those in power only elicited frustration and resistance from employees, and procedures and guidelines that were intended to streamline efficiency instead ended up preventing the natural flow of collaboration and creativity that leads to high-quality productivity.

In a groundbreaking essay, Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” as a way of describing what he found to be the most effective form of leadership, which seemed paradoxically to come not from a desire to lead, but from a desire to serve. The most successful leaders were the ones who put serving others first—including employees, customers, colleagues, and the larger community. This quality of leadership instills trust and calls forth the best in people, allowing creativity and freedom to flourish in an environment of relational awareness, empathy, and authenticity.

In 1977, Greenleaf wrote an influential book entitled Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, in which he optimistically observed that:

A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving of one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.

In today’s Gospel reading we see that this is not really a “new moral principle” at all. It is, in fact, a very old principle. And it’s a principle that lies at the very heart of Christianity.

The image of Jesus kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet during his last dinner with them is perhaps one of the most memorable and iconic examples of this principle of servant leadership. But of course the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching was meant to point the disciples towards that same foundational truth: that true power lies not in coercion or control, or achievement and success, but in kenosis – “self-emptying.” This is the word Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians when he implores them to “have the same attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (εκενωσεν), taking the form of a servant.” (2:5-7)

I would argue that this “servant leadership” that Jesus embodies and calls forth in us is perhaps the most important, and yet the least understood and appreciated aspect of his entire ministry. The theology of a God who “empties himself” has been explicated and debated at length for centuries. But we have focused so much of our attention on questions about Jesus, trying to nail down the particulars of his divine constitution, that we have managed to conveniently avoid the whole matter of how we might go about practicing kenosis in our own lives. Thus, “servant leadership” as a lived moral principle has become so rare in our church institutions, and so against the grain of our so-called “Christian” culture, that when it is re-discovered by Greenleaf in the secular context of organizational management theory, it is thought to be a wholly new idea.

But as the late Episcopal bishop Bennett J. Sims observed after stumbling across Greenleaf’s work, we don’t believe that this paradox of servant leadership is true simply because Jesus taught it. Rather, we believe that Jesus taught it because it is true. If we truly understand Jesus to be the self-disclosure of God to humanity, then we should not be surprised to find those patterns and teachings that he revealed to us woven into the fabric of our everyday lives in the way things actually work.

This path of kenosis and servanthood is the key to understanding the true God of Christianity, who contrary to popular conception is not a remote, white-bearded, iron-fisted man who sits upon a throne in the clouds. That’s Zeus, the God of the Greeks. The Christian God is an active, self-emptying Love who chose to be born into human poverty and suffering, and who welcomed death in a humiliating scene of torture and despair in order to reveal to us a different kind of power, and a deeper kind of hope than anyone had ever dared to imagine. This is not a God who raises up the powers that be in this world; but rather, this is a God who casts the mighty down from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly. This is not a God who wants us to measure our success in terms of what we have gained, but measures in terms of what we have given away.

Of course, it’s incredibly difficult to live into such a radically countercultural paradigm, and if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we do not live this path of kenosis most of the time. Even many sincerely devoted Christians will spend much of their time asleep, caught up in an unconscious acquiescence to the dominant value system, which would have us define our value and the value of others in terms of what power, prestige, and possessions we have acquired.

This is why I love Peter. We call Peter the “rock” of the church. Roman Catholics recognize him as the first pope. In the Gospels he is usually listed as first among the disciples, and he often acts as a spokesperson for the twelve. And yet over and over again, Peter is depicted as the one who most flagrantly and unabashedly doesn’t get it. He strongly believed Jesus to be the “Messiah,” who would usher in the “Kingdom of God.” But it’s clear that throughout the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, he had no idea what that actually meant.

This scene at the last supper is particularly comical. When Jesus approaches Peter to wash his feet, he is horrified. “You will never wash my feet!” he yells. It is reminiscent of that moment in Matthew 16:22, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to be killed, and Peter pulls him aside to yell at him saying, “No! That shall never happen to you!”

Peter, like most of us, cannot fully fathom the concept of a self-emptying Messiah – a true “servant leader.” All of Peter’s notions of power and success—everything he thinks he knows about what it means to be a “king”—are based on those same conventional top-down models of leadership that most of our human institutions (even the “democratic” ones!) still organize themselves around today. Peter, like many of us, does not have the “eyes to see” what Jesus is really up to, or the “ears to hear” what he is plainly saying. Even when Jesus insists that he must wash Peter’s feet in order for him to have a share in the kingdom, Peter hears this not as a demonstration of what real power looks like, but as an observation of how dirty he is. He exclaims eagerly, “then not just my feet but my hands and face too!” desperately hoping to be made clean enough to be worthy of entry into the Kingdom. You can almost hear the facepalm of Jesus as he reminds Peter that people who have already taken baths don’t require any additional cleansing.

This is what it looks like when we try to put new wine into old wineskins. So often we hear only what we expect or want to hear, interpreting words from within the context of what we think we know. Usually it takes something pretty major to burst those old containers. For Peter, it was the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Only in the context of a hope that was deep enough to embrace life beyond death did the pieces of the puzzle start to really fit together, and Peter was finally able to make that paradigm shift which enabled him to live out his own path of kenosis faithfully and courageously.

On this eve of crucifixion, perhaps many of us would like to skip Good Friday. Perhaps like Peter, we still want to believe on some level in a salvation that would let us somehow avoid that whole dying-to-self thing. And yet, this is the pattern that has been woven into the cosmos. This is the practice that enables a different kind of power to emerge. This is the unexpected entry point into new and abundant life: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

 

13217101_770356213404_4804605943406833648_o-001
Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Southworth is Assistant Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is also a freelance writer, theologian, consultant, and indie folk singer-songwriter with an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she focused her studies in music and art, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, early church history, and ecumenical worship.