Easter Vigil (C): The Mysterious Night

Easter Vigil (C): The Mysterious Night

John 20:1-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The challenge of preaching during Holy Week and on Easter is that once again, only a year after we’ve told this story, it’s time to tell this story again.

Don’t get me wrong: as far as stories go, it’s a good one. It’s actually the main one for Christians. Christ died, buried, and risen again.

But when you’re a preacher tasked with inviting people into the story year after year anew, almost as if they’ve never heard it before, it’s easy to be intimidated.

It’s in these moments that having multiple versions of the story comes in handy. The lectionary rotates the stories around each year, changing up when we read one passage for Easter Vigil and when we read a different passage for Easter Day. We keep it rotating, and though the changes may seem small, they always provide us with particular lenses through which we can tell the new, old story.

This time around, the Johannine version of the story is reserved for Easter Vigil, which is delightful since the passage begins, “while it was still dark.” Because there is an aura of mystery in the night, there is rich imagery to explore in the mystery of the night, the mystery of the Easter story, and the mystery of faith in the resurrection.

There is mystery in the night simply because we cannot see as clearly in the dark as we can see when the sun is out. This sense of mystery and healthy fear would be embedded in us as animals from generations, dating way before we had electricity and ways to light up entire rooms efficiently. We honor this mystery in a couple different evening services in the life of the church: Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve are two most common, and both of those are connected to the mysterious incarnation of Christ.

There is mystery embedded in the story. Mary Magdalene arrives to the tomb first, and she is shocked and confused to find the stone rolled away. She thinks the body has been stolen, which is a sentiment that seems mysterious to current readers of the text. There is a mystery about who she goes to—Simon Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” And they do not know more than she does, in fact, the story tells us that they did not understand the scripture.

It is only when Mary Magdalene speaks with the angels and Jesus in the tomb that she realizes that Jesus is not dead, but alive. At first Mary Magdalene did not recognize him—though it is unclear whether that’s because she was so upset and unexpectant or because his post-resurrection self was hard to recognize. Either way, there is mystery surrounding the whole encounter, from the presence of angels to the recognition of Jesus.

Just as Mary Magdalene could not figure out where they took her Lord and just as the disciples “did not understand the scripture,” so it might be with the people of God gathered for Easter Vigil. People come to our churches on Easter for a variety of reasons: tradition, obligation, devotion, or any mix of the three. There are many who will be with us for Easter Vigil and Easter Day that are not sure how to make sense of the Easter story. It is full of mystery, not just for the followers of Jesus who found an empty tomb, but for those of us who read the story today.

Perhaps it is of great comfort for those who have a harder time making sense of the Easter story and the resurrection to hear that they are not alone in the mystery. Just as making one’s way through the dark is scarier alone than with other people, feeling like the only one in the room who can’t make sense of the mysteries of faith is scarier than knowing that there is room in the church for uncertainty. There was room for Mary Magdalene, there was room for Simon Peter and “the other one,” and there is room for all who are ready to embrace the mystery of our Christian faith.

And if we’re lucky, when we embrace the mystery of our Christian faith in the darkened setting of Easter Vigil, we can say that “We have seen the Lord.”

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

John’s Gospel text, appointed for this evening in Holy Week, invites us into the dining room of a home somewhere in the city of Jerusalem. It is not a familiar setting, for us or for Jesus and congregation his friends sitting around the table. From the other Gospel writers, we know that this is a borrowed table in the home of an unnamed resident.

The night that brings them around that table is the night that is different from every other night—the night that, for first-century Jews, the night of remembering the story we will also read from the Exodus. This night is a moment to pause and to recall with thanksgiving the great faithfulness of God who acted in mercy toward the people of Israel, bound for generations in slavery in the land of Egypt. It is a night to remember an identity.

And yet, all over again, this night is about to become different from every other night. Even as the twelve are around the table, Jesus is setting in motion a new remembrance; a new act of God’s mercy.

The sacred ritual that will mark this new, old remembrance is an act of humility; a chore reserved not for the leader of the movement but for the servant of the household. By removing his outer robe and wrapping the towel around his waist, the night became new and different all over again.

As the simple sound of pouring water strikes the bottom of the basin, one can almost sense the tension that must be present in the room.

What is he doing? Has he forgotten?

No, in fact, he is remembering who he truly is, as he attentively washes and tenderly dries the first pair of feet, then the next, and the next.

Simon Peter, for those in the room and, truly, for all of us, names the tension. To Jesus he wonders aloud, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus, in reply, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And, in response, “You will never wash my feet.” Just like that, so many of us find, in this old Gospel lesson, a person with whom we can relate. Not me. Not my feet, Lord.

You will never wash my feet that haven’t had time to receive a pedicure.

You will never wash my feet that have walked around in these shoes all day long.

You will never wash my feet that went to the gym during the lunch hour.

Lord, you will never wash my feet.

To this, Jesus issues the most difficult of his responses: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Tough words, for the disciples around the table and for us who hear this text some two millennia later.

Their Lord and Teacher reminds them of his place among them; an example that they have seen and should go forth to imitate themselves—servants are not greater than their masters and messengers are not greater than their senders. But the teaching, the message, he tells them, is in this mandatum, this new commandment:

That you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

All that Jesus has showed them, all that he has taught them, all that he has sought to share with them in their journey has been summed up in this single and simple way: Love one another.

It is a daring love.

But let’s be honest about what the disciples either did not or could not say in that sweet, solemn moment: Loving one another like this sounds well and good; but when put into practice, it is not as simple as Jesus makes it sound.

Love one another.

Love one another and bear each other’s burdens.

Love one another and feel one another’s pains.

Love one another and allow the possibility of being hurt.

Love one another and open yourself to being understood in your depths.

Love one another and make amends where you have wronged the other.

Love one another and put your arm around the one who cries, who hungers.

Love one another and be willing to love even to the point of washing one another’s feet, as Jesus has knelt to wash those of his closest friends, his tender hands touching their dusty, calloused feet.

It is daring because this kind of love bids the invitation to open up to be seen for who one really is; to experience the type of intimacy that everything around warns us to guard ourselves from; to be vulnerable enough to look into another person’s eyes as they wash with water the calloused skin of a bare foot.

Love such as this is not easy because it is the type of genuine love that does not come cheaply.  This love comes at a cost; at a great expense. But in and through and by such love, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Do we dare love so deeply?

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The Rev. Andrew Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

 

 

 

 

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Luke 23:1-49

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

If you’re looking for ways to spin the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the story of salvation, read no further, because that’s not what I’m going to offer here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the crucifixion itself is not a story of hope and salvation, that it was never meant to be, and that trying to pretend like it is will always do more damage than good, leading us inevitably into moral and theological error.

And yes, I do still consider myself a theologically orthodox Christian.

A great deal has been written over the past century on the subject of atonement theology, and far more qualified theologians than I have already done the work of deconstructing the heresies associated with the idea of “substitutionary atonement” –the idea that Jesus “had to die” on the cross in order to pay the price for human sin by satisfying God’s wrath against all humanity for disobeying him in the Garden of Eden. It’s unnecessary for me to repeat all the criticisms of this theology here, but I highly commend Elizabeth Johnson’s excellent new book Creation and the Cross, along with Brock & Parker’s lengthy but thorough historical analysis in Saving Paradise.

 Suffice to say, while many people in the U.S.—Christians and non-Christians alike –still believe substitutionary atonement to be a core tenet of the Christian faith, most people with even the slightest bit of theological education or awareness of Western history know that the idea was not part of the Christian faith until Anselm of Canterbury proposed the doctrine in the 11th century, which was right around the same time that we find the earliest images of the crucifixion showing up in Christian art.

In other words, for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there were no images of Jesus dying on the cross, and no references to Jesus’ death or the crucifixion event itself as being constitutive of salvation. Apparently, crucifixion is not necessarily the core of Christian faith.

Many mainline clergy and theologians have long since rejected Anselm’s child-like notions of the need to appease the abusive wrath of a parental deity with a blood sacrifice. But most still attempt to re-frame the crucifixion in “positive” terms, spiritualizing it as a metaphor for “kenosis,” self-sacrifice, or non-violent resistance. They attempt to reject Anselm’s doctrine while still retaining a framework that places Jesus’ death at the center of the faith. And yet, we still end up with a theology that is built around—and dependent upon—violence. This is a theology that teaches that the ends can justify the means—a theology which can only perpetuate and enable cycles of abuse and oppression by glorifying suffering and victimhood in such a way that encourages people to stay in abusive and oppressive relationships.

While Christians of the first millennium seemed to reframe everything in the context of life—incarnation, resurrection, and the redemption of the world—the crucifixion-based theologies of the second millennium dealt only in death, shifting the focus to the next world while giving up on this one. At the end of the day, this is a theology of despair, and has accordingly encouraged and contributed to the despair and death of far too many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who have found themselves defenseless on the wrong side of a power dynamic. Rather than experiencing God as one who calls us out of patterns of human violence and into new and redeemed life in Christ, many victims of violence believe that God is pleased by their suffering, demanding the erasure of selfhood for the sake of redeeming oppressors.

This is not the Gospel. It is nothing more than codependency writ large, and then reframed as a religion. This does not point the way to salvation. It is simply a defense mechanism that makes suffering more bearable by spiritualizing it and reframing it as altruistic.

I am convinced that no matter how you spin it, there is no way to frame the crucifixion narrative as positive or necessary without falling into this morally and theologically debased trap. I am also convinced that we do not need to frame the crucifixion as positive or necessary in order to be grounded in the Gospel Truth.

The story of the incarnation constitutes our hope and salvation. The story of the resurrection constitutes our hope and salvation. But the story of the crucifixion is a tragedy nothing more. It is the tragic story of a pattern that plays out in our world every single day, over and over again—in workplaces, in courtrooms, in classrooms, in churches, in living rooms, in bedrooms –a pattern in which the people most responsible for harm are the ones most shielded from having to take responsibility for it. A pattern in which oppressors look like victims, and innocents are framed as villains. A pattern in which those with power can wash their hands of blame, while the masses find easy scapegoats that can satisfy the desire for “justice” in ways that avoid addressing underlying power dynamics and allow us to return to the safety of the status quo. It is a pattern in which victims are left with no recourse but to accept whatever blame is foisted upon them, knowing that if they try to defend themselves, they will only invite more blame, and more suffering.

This is what makes the story of the crucifixion matter. And this is why it is important to tell it in all its vivid, excruciating detail. Not because it is a story that constitutes our redemption, but because it provides us with the recognizable context that makes resurrection matter. This is the hell that we are saved from – a hell that the poor and the oppressed know well, and will immediately recognize. It is a hell that must be named, because so many people are in the midst of it right now. We see crucifixion in abusive relationships. We see crucifixion in the structural racism that is built into our criminal justice system. We see crucifixion in the religiously-motivated dehumanization of LGBTQ people. We see crucifixion in bizarre stories like the one recently reported by the NY Times in which an innocent kid with codependency issues became the scapegoat for the tragic death of his friends, while the landlords and the city officials responsible for ensuring the building’s safety washed their hands of it.

The crucifixion is a story that needs to be told so that the people who find themselves living in this hell can understand that even though this is what happens, this is not God’s will, and they are not alone, and no matter what happens or how they are made to suffer, this is not the end. The crucifixion only has meaning through the lens of resurrection, and that this is the only way in which we can frame it through a lens of hope.

On Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) we must resist the urge to skip ahead to Easter by giving the crucifixion narrative a happy spin, or trying to frame it within a theology where violence is part of God’s plan, and realize that we tell the story of crucifixion so that we can name the truth about who we are as human beings, and the kinds of insanity that we are saved from, through a faith that would never call us into this kind of death, but always calls us into new life beyond death.

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Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.

 

 

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

John 18:1-19:42

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Preacher Fred Craddock advised lectionary preachers to “distinguish between lengthy readings that are single narratives and those which consist of collected teachings. The key is to be sensitive to the integrity of the text – that is, its inner most unity, whether it is one verse or fifty.”[1]

So what is a preacher to do about the Gospel selection for Good Friday? The pericope is over 80 verses long! On one hand, it is easily broken down into smaller narratives. There’s Jesus’ arrest in the garden and then the questioning and trials (first in front of Caiaphas, then Pilate). We overhear Peter’s three denials of being a disciple. Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial could each be a specialized attention. It would be reasonable to give a nod to the entire reading, but then focus on just one of those scenes. There is enough material in each of them for a sermon.

But in the context of Good Friday, slicing-and-dicing the text into smaller chunks isn’t particularly effective. To hear all eighty verses is to walk the entire road with Jesus. We should sit with the gravity of it, if nothing more than to note that even just reading it elicits tension and grief, even anxiousness to get it over with. Sunday’s coming, right?! Some of us might also admit beginning to count all the opportunities there were to stop the madness or at least join Jesus in the fray. Take your pick of the people who interacted with Jesus in the passage: the disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Peter, or anyone in the crowd. Where was their compassion, and, for the disciples, where was their conviction? Even though we know how the story ends, there is something about reading the entire narrative that elicits frustration over the abandonment and suffering of Jesus, maybe even a little judgment.

Why didn’t Peter admit to being a follower of Jesus? Why didn’t Caiaphas use his position as high priest to apply divine wisdom to the situation? Why didn’t Pilate listen to his better angels? Why didn’t anyone in the crowd do some fact checking? All of which low-key implies that we might have responded differently. Most of us are too humble to admit it out loud, of course. Just as we are sure we would have been marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement, we are certain we would have been right there beside Jesus through it all. There is, of course, an easy way to find out what we would have done in their shoes: take a long look in the mirror.

If we wonder what we would have done in the garden, whether or not we would have been peacemakers in the face of violence, we might reflect on our current behavior. What we are doing now gives us the answer. Are we offering a theological response to war? What about gun violence in our own neighborhoods? How about peace between our own relatives?

If we wonder how we would have answered the question of loyalty posed three times to Peter, we should consider to what extent we are willing to be inconvenienced in order to follow Jesus. What we are doing now gives us the answer. We are usually happy to be generous, as long as it doesn’t impact whether or not we can afford another cable station. We are typically willing to help a stranger out with gas or a meal, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our morning Starbucks run.

If we wonder what we would have done during Jesus’ trial, we might evaluate our connections to our neighbors and neighborhood. What we are doing now gives us the answer. How much do we know about the single mom living across the street? Have we exchanged more than a superficial hello with the family next door? If they were in trouble, would we know enough to step in and offer help? We might be interested in what’s happening to them, but that’s different than being invested in them.

As we sit with such a heavy text, let us use it as a mirror. Whatever we might have done in the garden, at the trial, or at the foot of the cross, we are already doing. Or not.

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 91.

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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.

Easter Vigil: It’s All a Joke!

Easter Vigil: It’s All a Joke!

Mark 16:1-8

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

There’s a Korean joke that asks, “What noise does a toaster make?” The answer is the Korean word for bread. Hilarious, right? How about this one from Japan: “There is a mandarin orange on an aluminum can.” ROFL? No?

Humor doesn’t translate very well across languages and cultures. Comedy is grounded in breaking expectations, so in order to even pick up on the fact that something funny is happening, you have to have a pretty good handle on the cultural assumptions and linguistic norms of a given context. You need to know what is expected in order to recognize when something unexpected has occurred.

Many people, Christians especially, are surprised to learn that the Bible—and Gospels in particular—are actually filled with humor, wit, irony, satire, and even jokes. I had a professor in seminary who said that most of Jesus’ parables would have been hilarious to their ancient hearers, but since we have lost so much of the context, most of the time, we just don’t get it.

Christians in general also have a tendency to take the Bible very seriously…. perhaps a little too seriously. Whether we are part of sola Scriptura traditions that interpret the Bible literally, or liturgical traditions that parade heavily-ornamented Gospel books around during worship, most Christians tend to approach the Bible with an attitude of solemnity, and an expectation for rational, moral instruction. There is nothing wrong with a little reverence, but when we approach Scripture with these kinds of expectations, we potentially miss out on important layers of meaning in the text that are communicated through its creativity and its sense of humor.

Mark’s resurrection story is probably my favorite example of this. Perhaps no story in the Bible is approached by Christians with more seriousness than Jesus’ resurrection, since our entire faith hinges on it. People have been arguing for two millennia about whether to take this story seriously or not. Mark’s version of the story is the earliest, with many scholars dating the text to about 40 years after the events it describes, so one might expect it to be taken the most seriously out of all the Gospel accounts.

But many people have come to think of Mark’s resurrection story as something like a “first draft” –it provides basic information, but it seems to end rather abruptly, with nobody having seen the resurrected Jesus and nobody spreading the good news. The last verse in our excerpt today is the original ending of Mark; verses 8b and 9-20 are not in the original manuscripts, and they are understood to have been added much later since neither Origen nor Clement of Alexandria seem to have any knowledge of them.

Most Christians deal with this seemingly incoherent conclusion by either ignoring Mark’s account entirely or by drawing from Matthew, Luke, and John to fill in the rest of the details. However, I think that Mark’s version of the resurrection is the most compelling by far, and that we must take it on its own terms, and in its original format. Besides, otherwise we miss the joke.

In the very first chapter of Mark, we read about Jesus healing a leper. Afterwards, he sternly warns the man, saying, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” But the man goes out and begins to proclaim it freely (Mark 1:40-45.) A few chapters later, Jesus raises the daughter of a synagogue leader from the dead, but strictly orders them that no one should know about it (Mark 5:43.) Nevertheless, the news of Jesus and his healing powers spreads, and a couple of chapters later, the crowd brings him a man who is deaf and mute. Jesus pulls him away from the crowd to heal him, and then tells everyone gathered not to say anything about it. But the text says that “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36.)

At the end of the book, the women go to the tomb after Jesus’ death to offer him a proper burial, only to find an empty tomb, and a man sitting there dressed in white. He instructs them to go and tell everyone what they have seen: that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

So what do they do? They run away and say nothing to anyone.

Get it? They finally listened to Jesus! I think it’s hilarious.

Especially when you consider the fact that the Gospel of Mark was written during a time when the first generation of disciples and eyewitnesses to the mission of Jesus had recently died or been killed, it is all the more remarkable that the text does not depict them in a more honorable light, as the mighty heroes of the one, true, pure faith. Instead, they are shown to be a bumbling group of fearful and incompetent witnesses, who always did the exact opposite of what Jesus told them to do, all the way up until the very end when they were finally supposed to do the opposite, at which point they turn around and finally follow the original instruction.

The depiction of Jesus’ original followers is indeed very funny, but its function is not merely comedic. Through this humor we are offered a resurrection story that demands our presence and participation. The Gospel of Mark is not about recounting the facts of something that happened in a distant time and place. And it’s not about glorifying people from the past, or comparing our experiences to theirs. Later accounts of the resurrection would fill in some of the post-resurrection details with stories of how it happened to Mary, and Peter, and John, and Thomas. Those stories seem to offer us a more satisfying conclusion by giving us something clear that we can hang our hats on. But they also maintain a kind of distance between ourselves and the resurrection reality. Those other people from the past, they had these miraculous encounters with Jesus after his death, and that’s what this is all about.

The Gospel of Mark does not give us the option of making Jesus’ story into a story about the past, or the story of other people. Its ending requires us to show up and fill in the rest ourselves. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, it leaves it up to the reader what will happen next. Will the women eventually go and tell the rest of the disciples about what they have seen and heard? Will the disciples listen and go to Galilee? Will they see Jesus there? Will you? If you want to know the end of the story, you have to live it yourself.

Mark’s original resurrection story is not simply a first draft. It is a literary masterpiece that calls forth new generations of Christians continually to take up their crosses and resume the mission of Jesus. The foibles and failures of the previous generation of disciples become our call to action. Instead of simply being asked to simply respect the heroes of the past, we are invited to take their place, to succeed where they failed, to pick up their slack, to seek the resurrected Jesus in our own lives in new and unexpected ways and to proclaim the good news of his resurrection based on our own experiences, not simply by reporting the vicarious witness of others.

Mark’s story leads us to the threshold of faith and then leaves us to stand there, asking ourselves whether we will cross. Will a new generation of disciples go and tell what they have seen and heard? Will they open themselves to encountering the resurrected Jesus? Will you?

 

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Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Mitchell is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she studied cultural theology, Biblical interpretation, theological aesthetics, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she works as a freelance writer, musician, and teacher.

 

Maundy Thursday (B): Caretaking as Love

Maundy Thursday (B): Caretaking as Love

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

By: Sarah Harcourt Watts

Four years ago, I gave birth to my first child. After hours of intense labor, I was exhausted and in need of rest and healing more than ever before. Ironically, the finish line of the giving birth marathon was also the starting point of a new marathon. Before I even left the delivery room, I began caring for this squishy and vulnerable little person. As I held her on my chest to keep her warm, caring for her became the most important purpose in my life. I have taken care of her nearly every single day since. Though she constantly becomes more independent, I am back in the trenches of baby care with my new son. It truly is a marathon of feeding, changing diapers, bathing, snuggling, and assuring that both children are tended to every moment of every day.

I have always loved the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet for the way it resonates with what I understand to be the very heart of Christian teaching: that by humbly serving those considered lesser by the world, we can experience God’s love for us. That in Jesus’s love for each of us, especially the poor and oppressed, the whole world is saved. Since becoming a mother, though, I understand this passage in a new light. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, even knowing that he was about to be betrayed, was not a mere symbol of his love for them. This act of physical care is a literal representation of his love for his disciples. Though I understand the symbolism of feet within this context, I would argue that this act is not about the feet. When I change my son’s diaper, it is impossible to separate the act of caretaking from the love I have for him. The wiping, the words I speak to him, the songs I sing, the eye contact I make, the care I take to ensure the tabs are not attached in a way that scratches his skin—these things are all physical manifestations of my love. Though these years of constant physical care are certainly draining, my husband and children are the very easiest people for me to love. In practicing love for them, I become better equipped to love each person in my life.

In the second part of this passage, Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrates a love that we can extend to anyone. The way Jesus encourages us to extend love reminds me of the Buddhist principle of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness is the kind of love that actively changes the way you see others, “the heart-felt aspiration for the happiness of beings and is the antidote to hatred and fear.” In the development of lovingkindness, love of even one’s enemies begins with meditation on loving one’s self. Only once you truly love yourself, believing that you are deserving of peace and freedom from suffering, you move to loving someone dear to you. After myself, I might focus on my baby son, who is adorably easy to love. From there, you move to someone who is neutral to you, and eventually on to someone who is difficult for you to love. From your starting point of loving yourself and those close to you, you can picture the ways that this not-so-lovable person is not very different than you or your beloved at all. That person that is hard for me to see eye-to-eye with was once someone’s baby. Someone once changed that person’s diapers, fastening the tabs to make sure they weren’t scratchy.

Though I (thankfully!) don’t physically care for every person I come across, these acts of physical care for those closest to me can nurture a love that I can ultimately feel for any person. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was not only an act of love for his disciples, but an act of humble love for the whole world. I imagine that Jesus intended this initial physical act of service to symbolize how we are to love the world. Like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples of water starting small but quickly growing larger to reach all the water, our small acts can help us to love as Jesus loved. Jesus washed the feet of only a few men, but in doing so taught us to love and serve everyone.

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Sarah Harcourt Watts

Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and two children in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

 

 

Good Friday (B): The Arc of God’s Universe

Good Friday (B): The Arc of God’s Universe

John 18:1-19:42

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The scripture passage for Good Friday is a narrative so dramatic it leaps off the page. When I read John’s account, I’m transported back to a live Stations of the Cross in Biloxi, Mississippi several years back. As we followed the man playing Jesus in the last moments of his earthly life, being hoisted up onto a cross with a crown of thorns on his head, my emotions were on a roller coaster. In the space of less than two chapters, after all, we have anger, betrayal, disbelief, unimaginable sorrow, fear, shame, impotence, bloodlust, and more. The writer of the gospel certainly has crafted a tour de force designed to bring us into the thick of the action.

Despite the pathos of the story he tells, though, John’s goal here is not necessarily to excite our empathy. Just as he started off his gospel with John the Baptist’s testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, he continues to make his case in Jesus’ last mortal moments. As in the beginning, scriptural fulfilment (18:9, 32; 19:24, 28, 36) and others’ testimony are given priority; it’s as if John insists, “Don’t take my word for it.” And we get no help from Jesus himself, who confirms nothing other than his name and his hometown, pushing his interrogators to decide for themselves just who he is.

I have to admit, this is not my favorite Jesus. The other Gospel crucifixion scenes dwell on Jesus’ humanity; Jesus talks to God, cries out, bleeds, sweats, agonizes. By contrast, John’s Jesus does everything according to scriptural formulae laid out long ago; even his thirst is a pre-ordained fulfillment of prophecy rather than a matter of simple biological need. And though he shows compassion for his disciples and his mother, there is no hint of personal suffering. John’s portrait of Jesus as the cosmic Logos, somewhat distant from the upheavals of everyday life, is consistent even in death; very little humanity clouds the aura of his stoic, enigmatic Messiah.

In a way it can be deeply reassuring that Jesus is untouched by the world’s cruelty; sometimes we need a Savior who is above it all, a classically powerful, unchanging rock to which to cling. But I find more comfort in the very real dilemmas of the other characters portrayed. While Jesus may be the calm at the center, the supporting cast is anything but static. Whose inner turmoil do we identify with? When have we betrayed; when have we faltered; when have we had our hearts broken seemingly beyond repair?

To his credit, John has given us many points of entry into these mini-dramas. There is Judas, as John portrays him a pawn of the devil (13:2) betraying Jesus out of demonic compulsion or perhaps out of his own fear (which may be, in the end, the same thing.) There is Peter, eager to defend Jesus from behind the shield of violence, yet without it unable to admit his association with his teacher. There is the police officer, frustrated at Jesus’ obfuscation. There is Pilate, hemmed in by his own impotence and apparently by divine fiat (19:11), unable or unwilling to risk his authority to do what is right. There is the crowd and the soldiers, acquiescing to a mob mentality they may later regret. There are the Marys, silent but steadfast witnesses to their beloved’s torture. There is the heart-wrenching moment linking Jesus’ mother Mary and the disciple whom he loves, given to each other as a balm against the raw wound of his approaching death. There is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both afraid to publicly admit their discipleship while Jesus lived, but clandestinely willing to care for him in death.

John’s commitment to the fulfillment of scriptural destiny means everyone is caught up in machinations they have no power change. Pilate struggles the hardest to turn the tide but ultimately fails; as Jesus tells him, none of this would have happened without having been ordained by a higher authority. This, too, can work to distance us from a God who has long ago ordered that it should be this way; or it can help us feel that we are not alone in being overwhelmed by events beyond our control.

John’s narrative is one of sweeping power and momentum; we, along with Jesus, are driven unswervingly to its end. Evil, grief, and suffering often seem this way—inexorable, insurmountable. Yet John’s dramatic arc extends through resurrection—an event of equally cosmic proportions reminding us that God’s universe is ultimately tuned to goodness, to redemption, to grace—to life.

PS: John is notorious for his use of the broad term “the Jews” to refer to those who clamor for Jesus’ death. (The Synoptics refer to a narrower group defined by their religious authority, not simply their religion.) This has long fueled anti-Jewish attitudes no matter John’s original intent. (Scholarly opinion varies from accusing John of straight up anti-Semitism to catering to an audience that wouldn’t have known who the Sadducees were to calling it a “class designation.”) When reading the Gospel aloud, I encourage you to consider using alternate translations such as “the religious authorities,” “the Jewish leaders,” or even the Jesus Seminar’s preferred term “the Judeans,” i.e. residents of Judea, a province hostile to Jesus’ ministry.

Leah headshot PACC
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.