Trinity Sunday (B): Be Moved to Join the Movement

Trinity Sunday (B): Be Moved to Join the Movement

John 3:1-17

By: Casey Cross

Every extraordinary experience sparks from the ordinary.  Full of curiosity, Nicodemus proactively seeks Jesus out at night. Jesus transforms what was an inconspicuous evening into a remarkable, life-changing event.

What I love about the Gospel of John is the way we readers, thousands of years later, are turned into witnesses. We become witnesses not just to fact-based, hard-nosed, “real news,” but to God’s reality on earth. We become witnesses, not to an ideology, but to the movement of God. We are suddenly standing alongside Nicodemus, bound by our physical bodies and limited perspective, about to have our mind blown by a completely new way of seeing and being in the world.

In this particular story, we see Jesus launch the transformation of Nicodemus from questioning leader, ἄρχων (John 3:1), to witness, μάρτυς (John 3:11) to the movement of God. The movement of God is Trinitarian; it is physical, spiritual, and divine. It takes our full selves to be part of this movement. We cannot compartmentalize it to one hour or one day. We cannot compartmentalize it to a single choice and belief. This is difficult for us to grasp because our entire world is about compartmentalization. We count the minutes and hours of our days, divvying up our time to work, relationships, goals, celebrations, conversations, and chores. This is also difficult for us to grasp because so much of our lives are about reaching certain dates, milestones and achievements. We live by the idea that once we reach that particular place, we will have “made it.” Nevertheless, the movement of God blurs and smudges the lines by which we have ordered our lives. The movement of God never stops. The movement is, in essence, God’s full self – Father, Son, and Spirit. During this late-night conversation, Jesus invites Nicodemus to wake up, be “born again,” move beyond the limits of his occupation and title and join the movement.

In his book, The Divine Dance, Father Richard Rohr describes the movement of God as flow. To join God’s movement is to step, jump, or dive into the flow of God’s full self with our full selves. The tide of God’s movement leads us to a way of life that is always growing, evolving, transforming; a way of life that is about unification, alignment, and action.

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Source: https://upliftconnect.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Light-9-1.png

Like Nicodemus, it takes a little time for us to catch on. It’s hard to be moved from all that we know – this one body, this one life, our understanding of science and creation. Even without fully understanding Jesus’ words, Nicodemus is caught up in the tide of conversation and can’t stop himself from asking, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus doesn’t back down. With Jesus’ response, we 21st century readers are no longer merely observers of a late-night conversation. Jesus’ reply vibrates and echoes from the pages of the Bible to us, today. “You must be born from above.”

Jesus tells us to move beyond dualistic thinking into a Trinitarian way of being, the place where our bodies, mind, soul, and spirit meet. Jesus calls Nicodemus, and all of us, to live in the realization of all that we are. We are not just machines, a body moving by habit and functionality. We are not just spontaneous balls of unaware reactivity to the life being lived around us. God made us to be part of the Movement. While we struggle with discernment, wondering what God is truly calling us to, remember that the answer will always involve our full selves, it will involve our transformation (often over and over again), it will involve us physically moving, following the example of Jesus, and getting into it.

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Source: https://vtn.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/parkland-survivor-emma-gonzalez-holds-powerful-moment-of-silence-at-march-for-our-lives.jpg

Consider the social movements we witness in history books and the news. These movements do not appear from nowhere. They are products of an accumulation of factors, but we often wonder where they came from. Like the wind, we hear the sound of it, see the effects of these movements, but we do not always know where they came from or where they will go. Isn’t this just like the movement of God? Isn’t this exactly what Jesus is calling Nicodemus, and all of us, to join?

 

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Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mysticism#/media/File:Grunewald_-_christ.jpg

Jesus knows we are suspicious. Jesus knows we are trapped by our need for tangible, provable facts. Yet, in this conversation, Jesus doesn’t stop there. We are called to join the Movement. Despite ourselves, we are made witnesses. We are not witnesses of our own understanding, but of God’s action, movement, in the world, for the world. Receive the testimony given to us by the Living Word who walked among us. Bear witness. Wake up. Be moved with your full self – your emotions, your mind, soul, and strength. Rise up. Join the movement of God. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross serves as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. She can be found in the kitchen with her husband, walking her black lab, Lola, listening to music, drinking coffee, reading too many books at once, and sitting around, thinking about stuff that might eventually get written about on her blog: http://caseykcross.wordpress.com.

 

 

Pentecost(B): What are we Celebrating?

Pentecost(B): What are we Celebrating?

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

By: Chris Clow

Today is the only Holy Day in the entire liturgical calendar devoted to the Holy Spirit.  Think about it – Jesus gets all the good feast days. Christmas lasts for 12 days (not to mention a whole season devoted to the buildup to it.) Lent is 40 days; Easter 50. Every day within the season of Easter is called the 3rd or 5th or even 7th ___-day of Easter.

What do we call the first day after Pentecost?

Monday.

The Spirit really gets a bum rap, and it’s not really fair. We’re talking about a whole third of the Trinity, after all. Without the Spirit, there wouldn’t be a Church. It is the Spirit that continues to move in us today, continues to animate the Church and keep it alive. Even throughout the years of persecution and pain, doubt and division, scandal and schism—Christianity is still around.

Today is the Church’s birthday. So, what are we celebrating?

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says that the Spirit will lead us all to truth. I will admit, sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe that. I’ve been given a class of students to teach this semester (something I’m pretty sure they’ll never let me do again), and it has truly been an awe-inspiring to see how difficult it is to try and lead someone to any kind of truth. No wonder Jesus got frustrated with his disciples so often. And in times where I am just exhausted by work, by the stressors of life, it can become harder for me to strive to see the Spirit at work—both in myself, and in those around me.

I can sympathize with the disciples in the upper room that Pentecost day. All they had worked for still seemed to be lost, and while they had even seen Jesus fully resurrected and taken up into Heaven, they weren’t sure what to do next. He was their teacher, the one who knew what to do. Now what were they supposed to do with him gone?

I bet that for a lot of us, the feeling is mutual—when we get so consumed with the busy-ness of our lives that it makes us harder to see the greater purpose; when we get so weighed down with the concerns of the world that it’s harder for us to see our neighbor who is also struggling with us, who we might need to help carry, or who might need to help carry us. It can be hard to believe that the Spirit is still at work in a world that can seem so broken some days.

Yet, I know the fault is with me, and not with God. The problem is not that the Spirit has stopped moving, but more likely that I have stopped listening for it, even for just a bit. So, in this (one-day) season of Pentecost, how do we get better at listening to the Spirit? I’m no expert, but I think we have some clear lessons in Scripture on how to start.

The first thing: we need space. That can be a hard thing to find in our lives, and not just finding the free time—there is a constant temptation to fill up our lives with all kinds of excess and other random things. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with material possessions, but it sure does seem like we can get out of hand with it. The band “Arcade Fire” bemoans this in their song Everything Now: “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” – and there are times where I find that line hits a little too close to home for me. I’m betting I’m not alone in that.

It helps to remember that when Jesus called his apostles, he didn’t tell them to pack a suitcase, much less a second pair of sandals. Does that mean that we too need to follow in such an example of poverty? I don’t know. As my wife and I prepare for the birth of our child in a few months, I think it’d be a rather foolish thing to suddenly decide to sell the house, bed, and all the other things that will help us provide for this new life. But maybe we need to not be so attached to them. The things we possess are, at best, means to an end. If they help us to become happier, better, more loving people, then great. If they don’t, then what are we doing with them? We need to keep on clearing out our clutter, both spiritually and physically, to help us listen better to the Spirit move in our lives.

The second thing: we need community. The apostles before Pentecost were huddled in fear, yes, but also together. The Spirit did not come to each of their individual houses, looking for them on their own. It found them in community.  Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

Furthermore, that community doesn’t require some sort of saintly perfection in us. The Spirit didn’t come when the disciples were feeling particularly courageous—it showed up precisely when they were afraid. They were lost, and not sure what to do now that their Master was gone, but they still had each other. The Spirit did not ask for perfection from them; rather, it took what they were able to offer (even if it was just their presence) and strengthen them for what they would need. So to for us, even when we maybe aren’t “feeling it,” or don’t feel like we belong in this community of faith—the Spirit is still calling us, too, wanting to work in us all the more. God is not first seeking perfection; God first seeks us, as we are, and works with us, as we are, to help us become the best we can be.

Finally: we need to get out. Look, the wind and flame of Pentecost are an incredible sign of the Spirit’s presence with the apostles, but to me, that’s not the miracle. The miracle of Pentecost is that these sad, scared Apostles got out of the upper room, and went to spread the Gospel.  The Spirit is does not want us to just stay within this community, but to share the Gospel message with the world. Much as no one puts a light under a basket, but lets it out to shine (to paraphrase Jesus), so too is the Spirit meant, like a driving wind, to drive us out into the world.  You know, that world that can so often drag us down, that can worry and stress us out, that world which exhausts. I often feel like pulling the metaphorical covers over my head and trying to drown the world out, but this is not a Spirit-filled desire. I need to be able to go out into the world, even the parts of it I would rather ignore.  We need to be able to encounter the world, and share the Gospel news to all we meet, especially to those who are in need, even when we might rather not.

What are we celebrating? That the Spirit is continuing to dwell with us still, and that we are given a chance today to do as the early disciples did—to testify to the Gospel message of Jesus.  May the Spirit renew us all this Pentecost.

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Chris Clow

Chris Clow is a campus minister and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. When he isn’t composing music or begging students to sing in his choir, he likes to play games of all sorts, watch his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, spend time with his wife Emily and their pets, and prepare with joy (and just a touch of anxiety) for the arrival of their first child in September.

Easter 7(B): Sorrow & Joy Made Complete

Easter 7(B): Sorrow & Joy Made Complete

John 17:6-19

By: The Rev. Canon Manoj Matthew Zacharia

Some call John 17 the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. Whether it is the prologue that stresses Jesus as the incarnate word (Jn 1) or the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus proclaims: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16) there is an ostensible shift in the theological emphasis of the Gospel of John.

The theological emphasis of our gospel today seems to depict a world negation not present in the rest of John’s gospel. The experience of angst seems to guide the High Priestly prayer of Jesus.

The words of Jn 12 sets a context: “Now my soul is troubled. (Jn 12:27-28) Confronting one’s non-existence puts things into perspective. Facing the reality that his time on the earth is limited, Jesus, according to the accounts of Matthew and Mark, goes to Gethsemane to pray (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42) and becomes vulnerable to his companions. Jesus reveals, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”

The Chalcedonian (451 AD) formulary that emphasizes the equal and full divinity and humanity of Jesus is fully realized in Jesus’ grappling with physical non-existence but a social deprivation where those closest to him will abandon him for their self-preservation than in that statement of deep anguish.

The funeral liturgy of the Antiochene Rite gives us a glimpse of such anguish. The liturgy prays:

My beloved, why are you standing away from me?

`           Come near, bid me farewell… pray for and lament over me,

            for today death has stripped me at the gates of Sheol.

             Beloved, I am truly in distress, for terror and dread encompass me…

            My mind is distressed for the Savior of the world has sent and taken me away and I am bidding farewell  with deep grief.  [1]

While it is understandable to be swept away with lament when facing the reality of our finite existence, the emphasis of Jesus’ prayer is that we are sanctified into the truth. To be sanctified by the truth is to give ourselves over to the vision of the world as God has intended, a vision that has been lived out in incarnation, earthly life, and resurrection.

One aspect of this truth is that while the world was created by God, we have chosen to alienate it from God’s vision of, and for, the world.  Jesus as the Light of the World (Jn 8:12, 9:5) is shining truth amidst the layers of darkness that has been enfolded the world. Being sanctified by the truth is to give our heart over to Easter Hope. Such hope is the transformation of sorrow into joy (Jn 16:16-24) or death into life. The experience of resurrection is guided by a hope of a restored creation – a new earth and a new City of Peace. We are invited through the resurrection to:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

…See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:3-5)

As we continue in the joyous celebration of Easter, let us remember that being sanctified into the Truth is not merely offering a giddy ephemeral panacea that all will be well; but, a thrust to confront the reality of non-existence as we know it with the hope of a glorious re-creation rooted in the fullness of God through Christ.  For the Christian, there is no resurrection without the cross and no cross without the resurrection as the words of the Taize’ community signify: We adore your Cross O Lord, and we praise you for your resurrection.

The truth is that life is sorrow and joy made complete and the cross and resurrection symbolize that wholeness.

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The Rev. Cn. Manoj Zacharia

The Rev. Canon Manoj Mathew Zacharia serves as Sub-Dean/Vicar of Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati. A native South Asian and New Yorker, he along with his wife Joelle and children Abigail and Johan are avid NY Mets fans and passionate about the gospel! Manoj is about to defend his Ph.D. dissertation on “Pluralistic Inclusivism as Theological Methodology” from the Toronto School of Theology (University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.) He requests your prayers!

[1]Burian Service IV for Men of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Trans and Ed Manoj M. Zacharia.

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.