Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

John 15:9-17

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

In this sixth Sunday of Easter, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to love. After all, Easter is about the love God has for humanity. We throw around the word love a lot: I love coffee, I love my spouse, I love Sunday afternoon naps, I love my best friend, and I love my dog. Love means something different in each of these instances and we ought to take the time to talk about what Jesus means by love this week.

There are several words for love in Greek: phileo, agape, eros, and epithymia. The Gospel writer sometimes uses the words phileo and agape interchangeably. In this passage, agape is used to mean a love that is interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own. This love does not try to own or possess anything, and is not limited by time and place. This is the type of love that Jesus says the disciples, and we, should have for one another, and for all people.

Jesus says, “my father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…  This is my command, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In this Jesus says I have put you above my own self even to the point of death. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has alluded to his death and to the disciples being important not only in his life, but in the time to come. In this passage he takes their relationship to the next level. Jesus says, you are my friends and friends love one another, love others, and lay down their lives for one another. We read this passage every three years, and often we use it in other sermons, and I think we forget just how shocking it is for Christ, God incarnate, to call us friends. And nearly as profound, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

Friendship changes us, makes us into people who are bound together. Aristotle says, “A friend is another self.” Christ offers a level of friendship that is beyond having dinner and playing board games, it is intentional life-altering friendship that changes who we are and how we see the world. Friendship with the Divine is a friendship that is not about attempting to gain favor or about just having good and pleasant feelings being friends. Jesus says the mark of a friend is someone who loves so deeply and truly that they might lay down their life.

In this Easter season, we cannot help but think of chapters that follow this, the chapters that lead to the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion, his literally laying down his life for the love of others, all of which he willing goes to. The commandment given by Jesus is to love one another as he has loved his friends. It is clear that we are called to lay down our lives for others. Laying down our life could mean literally dying that we might save one we love, but might it also mean laying aside our desires, ambitions, and self to be fully present with another person. Perhaps in this age where we are so aware of discriminations of people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ persons we might acknowledge the privileges we each have and lay that privilege aside, or even better, use that privilege to come alongside our brothers and sisters in their struggles. We have a lot to lose, but so much more to gain when we all are living into the fullness of love that God first showed us.

Perhaps this week’s sermon can be used to remind our congregations that we are not only called to love one another as Christ loved us, but also that if we say love Jesus we must do works of love as a tangible sign of our discipleship, a sign of our friendship. We have a world that desperately needs people who stand alongside the outcast, the other, and who stand against those who stand for injustice and hatred. The mark of a faithful, loving community of God is one that looks like Christ, and that lays aside, or uses its privilege in acts of love.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles is a Methodist Minister in New Orleans, Louisiana. She attended Converse College, a liberal arts women’s college, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Religion. Following college, AnnaKate attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology where she earned her Master of Divinity. She also attended Cambridge University where she wrote her thesis on John Wesley and the Holy Club. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Candler School of Theology. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at the Audubon Zoo as an educator and advocate for animal conservation, and eating tacos.

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

John 15:1-8

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

Can I be honest here? I have really mixed feelings about this text. On the one hand, I value this text that reminds me that I am a part of something larger than myself, and I value this text as a sacred reminder that the fruitfulness of my life does not come from my own work, but instead comes from Christ dwelling within me. On the other, I grieve Jesus’ words that a branch that is withering will be cut off from the vine and thrown into fire. That is really hard to hear.

In my own life I have gone through some significant periods of doubt and mistrust of God. I have seen friends die tragic and sudden deaths way too early. I have witnessed depression and anxiety that has quieted and dulled some of the most vividly alive spirits that I have known. I have watched addiction pull families apart. And to think that this doubt, pain, or withering would bring God’s holy pruning shears breaks my heart. In fact, it seems to go against the scope of God’s grace, which may point to a greater truth that Christ is naming for his disciples.

These two significant overlapping feelings of abiding trust in the sustaining vine of God, and fear that I could be cut off at my most vulnerable moments are so overwhelming to me that I’m not even really sure how to react. This tension is almost enough to limit my relationship with God. With this tension, I’m not sure I will be allowed to stay on the vine or not. I can be pretty dry sometimes. I have doubts, I have persistent questions, I have days where I am confused, and I have days where I am just not interested. If that means I would be cut off, I’m just not sure I want to show those parts of myself.

The truth is that those feelings, questions, and experiences of doubt and uncertainty already make us feel pruned back, raw, and vulnerable. And maybe that is the point Jesus is making. Maybe Jesus isn’t warning the disciples that God will remove them from the vine if they make a mistake, or doubt, or have periods of fruitlessness. It may be the case that my initial reading of the scripture as judgmental and exclusive missed some significant details that provide hope and healing. Maybe God is naming a truth that the disciples will learn in just a few short days.

These verses of scripture are a part of the last conversation that Jesus has with his disciples before he is arrested, put on trial, beaten, and crucified. They are lingering at the door after the last supper. Jesus has already washed everyone’s feet (John 13:1-20), Judas has already left to sell Jesus out to the leaders of the day (John 13:27-30), and Jesus has even said, “Get up, we’re leaving this place.”(John 14:31b) I wonder if Jesus is trying to help his disciples prepare for their grief.

Jesus knows that the disciples will abandon him, according to Matthew’s Gospel he’s even told them that they will (Matt. 26:31). Jesus knows that Peter will deny Jesus three times, he’s even told him that he will (John 13:38). Jesus knows that he will die and then come back, he’s even told the disciples that he will (John 10:17-18; 12:20-36). But hearing these things is much more palatable than actually having to live through them.

If there were ever a withered vine to be pruned, it would be Peter. He denies Jesus (John 18:15-27), he walks away from ministry to return to his fishing boat (John 21:3), and yet, it is his redemptive conversation with Jesus after the resurrection that John’s gospel focuses on (John 21:15-19). Peter isn’t cut off in his moments of denial. The disciples aren’t cut off in their moments of grief. Thomas isn’t cut off in his moments of doubt. It is in those moments that Jesus shows up most vividly.

Jesus doesn’t pull nourishment away from a fruitless vine. Jesus doesn’t withhold life from a dead branch. Jesus speaks life into death. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with having to be fruitful, perfect, or righteous. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with God’s judgmental pruning shears. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus has conquered death. A branch attached to the vine cannot die. Any of us who struggles with life and faith is in good company of everyone else who has ever lived. Life is filled with heartache and tragedy as much as it is with joy and hope. But when we try to block that out, or when we try to put a happy face on when we just don’t feel like it, we cut ourselves off. See, I don’t believe God prunes us off of the vine, but I do worry that we cut ourselves off every time we try to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t.

As we continue our celebration of Easter this Sunday, I wonder what would happen if we opened our hearts and minds to a God who meets us in our grief. Like the disciples before us, we live in a complicated world that can be simultaneously inspiring and terrifying—sometimes in the same moment. What would happen if we could dwell in the presence of our God even through that tension? What if we brought our dry and weary bones to Christ’s presence seeking nourishment and resurrection? I imagine we might find that God finds a way to bring new life even to the most wounded and disconnected parts of ourselves.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber (with his wife, Susannah Bales)

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.

Easter 4(B): What About the Mediocre Shepherd?

Easter 4(B): What About the Mediocre Shepherd?

John 10:11-18

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

When I was in seminary, course assignments often asked students to imagine that they are serving a parish that is dealing with some issue—the need for a new Sunday school curriculum, the need for a policy of some sort, or any number of psycho-social conflicts that tend to arise when groups of people spend lots of time together in the same place. Whenever I was charged with completing one of these “what would you do” assignments, I would take my creativity to its logical and snarky conclusion, naming the imaginary church in question the “Church of the Mediocre Shepherd.”

The truth is, John 10:11-18 is so familiar that it’s gotten a little stale. It relies on agricultural imagery that is second-hand knowledge at best for most of us, so we insert idyllic and pastoral notions of fluffy white sheep gleefully following a dutiful and attentive shepherd. From there, it’s easy to see how the text becomes a simple allegory about Jesus’ sacrificial love on one side of the equation and the threats of wolves and fickle-minded farm hands on the other.

All of that is to say nothing of the tendency of preachers and parish leaders to cast themselves in the role of “Good Shepherd” tending the flock of Christ. But as Gerard Sloyan reminds us, “The danger is that shepherds who are doing the preaching will identify themselves with the “noble shepherd” at all points. It is good, even essential, to make Jesus’ cause one’s own, but making one’s cause that of Jesus is a risky business.”[1]

Perhaps a better homiletical move is to consider what might be underneath the text. We know of the dangers of wolves and derelict farm hands, but there’s another danger lurking just under the surface here. Think about it: If there is such a thing as a “good” shepherd, then it stands to reason that there have to be at least a few “not-so-good” shepherds around, right?

Let me explain what I mean: Jesus claims that a “good shepherd” lays down his life for the sheep. And yet, our political discourse is laden with words like “weak” and “small” and “lame” as adjectives for anyone who is not a macho, gun-toting, threatening figure. (Fragile masculinity, anyone?) We all know stories of heroes and heroines laying down their lives for someone helpless in harm’s way. Firefighters, first responders, police officers, and other folks who sacrifice themselves for others in this manner are rightly and justly celebrated.

But what about laying down one’s life for a sheep who has gone out of their way to get themselves into trouble? Sure, we’ll risk it all on a damsel in distress, but what about a sheep who has knowingly and willfully distanced herself or himself from the flock over and over and over again, refusing to help her or himself? Self-sacrifice for the sake of self-sacrifice isn’t exactly a good résumé builder.

And what about these other sheep that don’t belong to this fold? The “good shepherd” is going to get a reputation as a poacher if he’s not careful! Even in ecclesial circles, crossing into another shepherd’s pasture to minister to her or his flock is tricky! Better that there are many mediocre and not-so-good shepherds in the name of peace and “free association” than one “good shepherd” who is impervious to concerns about letters of transfer and membership status and ecclesiastical reports.

The threats facing the flock aren’t as easily-identifiable as wolves, or even inexperienced farm hands. It should come as no surprise that the cult of Nationalism is alive and well. “My shepherd is the strongest, the most well-armed, and the most able to protect me from danger. Everyone is afraid of my shepherd!” Maybe so, but will your big strong shepherd who’s armed to the teeth selflessly lay down his weapons and his very life for yours?

There are hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States alone, each with their own theological, doctrinal, geographical, and cultural eccentricities. How much are our mediocre shepherds really working to build ties that bind us together? I mean really? Psalm 85 speaks of righteousness and peace meeting and kissing each other. I’d be happy if the local clergy group could meet over pizza and discuss real-world concerns like racism, sexism, and gun violence without it turning into a snowball fight!

My point is this: When it comes right down to it, we who are in ecclesiastical leadership roles have two essential tasks. The first task is to admit that we’re not perfect. Our churches aren’t perfect; our flocks aren’t perfect; the world isn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t the goal. Discipleship is the goal. That leads me to the second task: our job as shepherds—mediocre as we may be—is to point our flocks to the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are not. We do our best and most important work when we remind the faithful (and ourselves) that the path of discipleship is not about following us mediocre shepherds; it’s about following the Good Shepherd.

[1] Gerard Sloyan, John in “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 130.

 

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

 

 

 

 

 

Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

***EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an emergency with the scheduled author, we are re-posting the featured essay from 2016.***

Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Doubting Thomas: a tale of skepticism, suspicion, and contempt—or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe. In reality, we’ve gotten far more mileage out of the label “doubting Thomas” than we have from the meaning of the story itself. And yet, every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear this story. In fact, this is one of the few passages in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that never changes. Every year, we journey through Lent and Holy Week, arriving at Easter Sunday with an interchangeable combination of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as our guides with John occasionally appearing along the way. But on this and every Second Sunday of Easter, we always hear from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel.

There is much fertile ground for preaching and teaching this text by following the trope of doubt—both in the text and in our lives. On closer reading, it becomes clear that Thomas’s doubt is not the exception, but the rule. Much the same is true in our own lives of faith. We all have moments—some longer than others—of doubt. It is important to note that Jesus never condemns or rebukes Thomas for his doubt and indeed, lovingly reminds both Thomas and us, “Do not doubt, but believe (John 20:27).” Preachers and teachers who follow this exegetical path will also find several good commentaries and other resources, such as the Feasting on the Word commentary series, or through several of the helpful resources provided weekly by TextWeek.com (oh, and an unsolicited plug: if you don’t know about the wonderful weekly preaching and teaching resources provided by The Text This Week, do yourself a favor and check them out!)

For my part, however, I find flowing from this passage a different but no less pervasive aspect of human identity being brought to bear: blame.

Although there are no overt mentions of the disciples blaming Thomas for failing to believe, this passage has been preached and taught as an exercise in blaming the “other” in innumerable ways. As early as the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE, St. John Chrysostom wrote that Thomas “is held to blame” for his unbelief at the Apostles’ assertion that they had seen the Risen Lord.[1] Artwork dating to the early 6th century also portrays Thomas as an obstinate, incorrigible doubter. The famous “Incredulity of Saint Thomas” is a fixture among the mosaics at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

The Patristic authors and classical artists aren’t alone in their contempt for Thomas. History is teeming with scores of (often bloody) examples of Christians rushing to position ourselves for Jesus and against anyone or anything we decide is against Jesus. And in Thomas’s case, doubting Jesus is just close enough to being against Jesus to wind up with a less-than-glamorous remembrance.

We know this “us versus them” dynamic all-too-well. If we can assign blame to the “other” political party or the “other” religious sect or the “other” ideology, then we can create for ourselves a cozy (albeit false) blanket of security, thinking ourselves immune from whatever interpersonal or religious or societal ills we’ve hocked at our enemies.

The Buddhist mystic and author Pema Chödrön writes eloquently and provocatively about our need to blame others in her book, When Things Fall Apart:

We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things that we don’t like about our associates or our society. It is a very common, ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better. Blame others… Blaming is a way to protect your heart, trying to protect what is soft and open and tender in yourself. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.[2]

Was Thomas the only person to doubt Jesus’ resurrection? Of course not. In fact, everyone doubted it! Was Thomas lacking in moral fortitude? Hardly. After all, Thomas’s affirmation of the Resurrected Christ as “My Lord and my God” is perhaps the most powerful statement of faith among any of the disciples. No, Thomas is our scapegoat; he’s our “fall guy.” And like it or not, we’ve all met him, and some of us know him well.

Thomas is the embodiment of the “other” that we blame for the problems facing our religions and our societies. Thomas is the one we saddle with blame so we can protect our hearts from vulnerability, from pain, and perhaps even from the parts of ourselves we’ve spent our lives trying to ignore and outrun.

The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said that our fears, our anxieties, and our insecurities lay the groundwork for sin because it is from these things that we are led to absolutize our values, identifying ourselves as “right” and everyone and everything else as “wrong,” in an attempt to satiate those very same fears,  anxieties, and insecurities.[3]

Perhaps, then, it is fitting after all that we hear this very same tale of Thomas every year on the Second Sunday of Easter—fitting because maybe we need Thomas to convict us of more than our doubts. Perhaps we also need Thomas to bear witness to all that is “other” in our world, blamed for an ever-expanding litany of sins, but in the end summoning the faith and the courage to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] John Chrysostom, “Homily 87 on the Gospel of John.”

[2] Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 100.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, 1844. Trans. Walter Lowrie, 1944.

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

John 20:1-18

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Here you are again (or again for the first time), trying to write an Easter sermon. If you’re a parish preacher and you’re like most new preachers, this task doesn’t seem easy. This is, after all, one of two times per year that you’ll see some of your parishioners: the fabled “Christmas and Easter” crowd. It makes sense, then, that preachers would be tempted to throw everything into this sermon, telling a story so compelling that at least one of the “Christmas and Easter” crowd will become a regular.

Every year, preachers make Easter their Super Bowl, trying to find some new take on Easter that will compel and wow the congregation. And every year, preachers fail at this task for one reason: the resurrection story was already compelling enough. People are not coming to church to hear your take on the Easter story.

            People come to church to hear the Easter story.

They come to smell the flowers and to shout, “Christ is risen indeed!” and to see everyone they haven’t seen since Christmas. And that’s okay. Because, you see, the tomb was empty before anyone else arrives. In John, there is no angel to announce that Christ is risen. The tomb is simply empty, and that is all God’s doing.[1]The tomb was empty before Mary arrived, and preacher, that is true for you, too.

Before the Easter flowers arrive, before the paraments are changed to white, before you write your sermon and put on your vestments, and before the people arrive at the church on Sunday morning, Christ is risen indeed.

So what should you preach?

The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nothing more, and nothing less.

You don’t even really need that much setup. Regardless of how often they come to church, the people that you will see from the pulpit do not need convincing that death is an impossible and draining reality. You will look from the pulpit into faces of those who have just lost their spouse to cancer last year, those who lost a friend in a car crash last week, those so overcome with depression that they only made it to church on Easter because they knew they’d hate themselves if they didn’t. You will look from the pulpit into the eyes of adults whose marriages are crumbling, children just coming to terms with the reality of the death of a grandparent, and the young adult who’s are hiding her addiction all too well. You’ll see the transgender teen who’s wondering if their parents will ever accept them as they are, and you’ll see the preteen who dreads going to school tomorrow because the other kids are so cruel to him.

Those people do not need to hear your groundbreaking fresh take on Easter; they simply need to hear that Christ is risen. In the words of Harvey Milk, “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

So here’s your chance, Preacher. Take a breath and get ready to tell them the story.

Tell them the story of a radical rabbi born to a poor carpenter and his fiancé who grew up in an occupied land. Tell them about how he grew up to tell everyone that God is loose in the world. Tell them about how he caused such a ruckus that his loved ones begged him to lay low for awhile, but he wouldn’t, because he had a mission. Tell them about how the powers that be captured him and mocked him, beat him, and killed him while the people looked on or even joined in. Tell them about how he was buried in a cold tomb hewn out of the rock, sealed there presumably forever, like every human who had died before him. And then tell them how Mary found that tomb empty three days later.

            Preacher, just tell the story they came to hear.

The story they need to hear.

            Tell the story you need to hear.

Because it’s also true that you have tombs of your own. If you’re preaching on the first Sunday of Easter, chances are good that you’re in parish ministry. You’re tasked with so much with so little support. You’re responsible for reports to the local denominational body and preparing for Bible study and pouring a ton of effort into sermons that a very limited number of people are likely to either read or hear. You’re answering emails with silly questions and consoling people who are upset over the color of the carpet and maybe even wondering if this whole church thing is worth it anymore. There are moments of hope and joy and there are wonderful people, yes. But there’s a lot of loneliness, too.

The church can indeed be a lonely place, especially if you’re the pastor and you’re the only person your age in your parish, as is the case with many millennial pastors.

It’s been pointed out many times before that Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. She comes to the tomb, overcome with death’s effects, overcome with grief, weighed down. And the risen Jesus calls her name.

Because the Good News is that God is still loose in the world. Through the closing churches and the angry emails and the frustrations and the loneliness, God is still loose, undeterred by the Church’s failures, even the failures that are our own.

            Through it all, God still finds a way to get to us. Not even death could stop God.

So let go of trying to find a new take on Easter. Instead, consider preaching that Jesus is loose: in wine and bread, in water and words, in human bodies and broken souls. Jesus is loose and that matters, regardless of — well, anything else.

Preacher, Jesus was risen long before you arrived on the scene. Your job is simply to give ‘em hope — so just tell the story. Tell them that

            “Death took a body, and discovered God.

            Death took earth, and encountered Heaven.
            Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see….

            Christ is Risen, and death is defeated!

            Christ is Risen, and demons are cast down!

            Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

            Christ is Risen, and life is loose!”[2]

            Jesus is loose. God is loose. Love is loose in the world, coursing through your church sanctuary and every seemingly forsaken corner of the world and our own hearts.

That is all they need to hear. And just maybe, it’s all you need to hear, too.

Go get ‘em, Preacher.

 

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

 

 

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 377.

[2] John Crysostom, Easter Homily, (paraphrase)

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.