I had to laugh as I read the Gospel passage for Pentecost this week. The disciples are behind locked doors, scared to go out; Jesus comes in and breathes upon them. From where I sit in coronavirus lockdown, I know well what it feels like to stay inside for fear of what’s “out there.” My viscerally negative reaction to Jesus exhaling on his disciples tells me a lot about how well I’ve internalized the importance of social distancing. And then he says, “Peace be with you.” Sure, Jesus. I’ll get right on that. I just need to wash my hands first.
It was encouraging, though, to remember that despite the fact this Gospel is read at Pentecost, this story isn’t about that fire-and-language-filled day; this is the story of the disciples just after the crucifixion, terrified that what had just happened to their friend would happen to them. They didn’t know if they were being hunted down by local authorities or if the friends who presumably brought them food and news would sell them out. Even when Jesus arrived, their reaction wasn’t excitement or comfort at first. Surely, they thought they were seeing a ghost – what else could come so easily through a locked door? Even when they realized he was there in the flesh, they had to have been terrified that he would be angry with them. They’d abandoned him and left him alone to suffer a brutal death! It’s reasonable to think he’d be a little salty about the situation. And now that it was pretty clear he wasn’t just another ordinary human, given that he was recently dead but currently wasn’t… how badly had they just ticked off the Almighty with their cowardice?
While the point of this reading is really about Jesus commissioning his disciples, I find myself more struck by the fear and isolation they experienced before and during his arrival because it so clearly echoes my current life landscape. Their community was fractured and strange, even while it was still real and important; mine is too, right now. I’m sure they were conflicted about what to do next, fearful of how long this in-between time would last; I know I am. But Jesus shows up in the midst of it all anyway, tells them “Peace,” and after a little bit more panicking, things aren’t as bleak anymore.
Jesus’ response to their disbelief and terror is one of the things he says most frequently in the Gospels, and the one thing that I most want to hear too while I’m locked in my own upper room – “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t promise them immediate resolution to all their fears or assure them that their troubles are over; he just reminds them that he is there, they can experience peace anyway, and that worrying isn’t necessary. This is my lockdown mantra; peace. Peace be with me, and my neighbors, and my family, and my students. Our trials haven’t ended, but we’re still here, and Jesus has showed up the way he always does. The peace is there for us, if only we embrace it.
Dr. Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and their energetic toddler, Xavier.
A key theme throughout this week’s lectionary is the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – the one who cares for his sheep. This image of the shepherd as a symbol of leadership has deep roots throughout the scriptures. God is depicted as Israel’s shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in our Psalm reading for this week. David is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king in 1 Samuel. Many of the greatest leaders of God’s people learn much from their role as shepherd. In fact, the notion of shepherd-leader is also a familiar metaphor in Greco-Roman literature.
Ted Waller reminds us of both the familiarity and importance of the shepherd for Ancient Middle Easterners:
The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.
As we are reminded in our Psalm reading, the shepherd protects the flock and is with the flock even as we walk through the darkest of valleys. We have nothing to fear, because we know that our shepherd is watching over us. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is caring for us. At the core of the shepherd image is the relational bond the flock of sheep share with the shepherd. We see this relationship throughout the various scriptures for our week.
The text from Acts reminds us that as the early church is being taught by the apostles and cared for by the apostles – a relationship in and of itself in which the apostles become the shepherd – Jesus continues to be with them. We are told in Acts 2:47 that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV) The beauty of the Easter season in that the Resurrected Christ continues to show up in our lives in unexpected ways. In Psalm 23, the Shepherd constantly watches over us.
I am reminded of a key moment in my own learning that the shepherd role is highly relational. A few years back, I read a spiritual leadership book by Dr. Lynn Anderson. The title of this book was a key learning for me, as a pastor, about what it truly meant to be a shepherd: They Smell Like Sheep. In this book, Dr. Anderson makes a very obvious statement that is sometimes missed when we read of ancient shepherds in the scriptures: “A shepherd smells like sheep.” By this Dr. Anderson means that the shepherd is deeply relational to the flock of sheep. “A shepherd is someone who lives with sheep. A shepherd knows each sheep by name; he nurtures the young, bandages the wounded, cares for the weak, and protects them all.”
In the 1 Peter scripture, we are reminded that the shepherd guards our souls. The protection of the flock moves us to a key learning from our Gospel reading. In verse 7 of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the gate for the sheep.” This gate points to a key way that Jesus protects the flock. Dr. Anderson describes the protection of the sheep by the “gate” of the shepherd:
When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five fee high—safe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the “gate.”
This notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful reminder for our lives and our communities right now. As I type these words, many churches and communities are attempting to figure out what the ever-extending social distancing in response to COVID-19 means for them. Many have lost jobs and many are isolated in their homes. This is nothing compared to the many who have lost jobs; and even still the man who are sick and have died; the various people we know that are losing loved ones and are worried about loved ones. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus knows us and knows our pain, anxiety, and fear personally. The resurrected Christ is here with us. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus is protecting us. He is the gate that keeps us safe from thieves and bandits – from plagues and death.
Finally, there is a beautiful connection to this notion of Good Shepherd in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 3:8 says, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (NRSV). In John Ortberg’s study, When Compassion Meets Action, he interprets Jesus as the open door. Ortberg notes that the Greek word for “door” in Revelation 3:8 (thyra) is the same word for “gate” in John 10:7. It is in this revelation (pardon the pun), that we find the beauty of Christ as Shepherd. Not only does the Good Shepherd relate to us and protect us; but the Good Shepherd leaves the gate open for each of us to walk through. In a time of chaos, fear, anxiety, and even death – Christ invites each of us to walk through the gate of His resurrection and protection. What a joy it truly is!
 Donald Senior, “Exegetical” commentary of John 10:1-10 found in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 443.
 Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.
 Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4
 John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1
The Rev. David Clifford is the transitional minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David will become the senior minister of FCC Henderson in May as Dr. Chuck Summers retires. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.
“I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia!
You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia!
O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” (more information)
“Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!’”
The Second Sunday’s gospel text is familiar for the story not of Jesus’ walking through walls two Sundays in a row, not for Jesus telling the disciples that if they forgive sins, the sins are forgiven, but for Thomas’s missing the meeting and saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.“
For centuries, this honest humanness of Thomas’ words has gotten Thomas short shrift — and that mindset has encouraged blind faith. Blind faith in leaders and institutions has enabled those in power to commit and hide abuses across Christian traditions from the most Catholic to the most Protestant. While Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” this should not be taken as a rebuke of questioning or having doubt.
The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”
In the passage from John today, Thomas notices the mess. Jesus’ appearance at the beginning of the pericope takes place behind locked doors. Preachers should notice and name the messiness of how passages like this — especially from John — have been used to foment anti-Semitism throughout Christian history. This could be an historical-critical analysis of John’s community, the school of writing of the gospel, and how relationships to their synagogues and Jewish Jerusalem leadership. This could be as simple as a reminder of this Christian history and reiteration of God’s eternal covenants with the Jewish people.
After Jesus gets through a locked door, he shows those present his hands and side. This is Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples, and they see his hands and side. Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene in the morning. John has her conveying her resurrection experience to the disciples just before the passage for 2 Easter starts. Luke’s account of the day, however, is clear that the men do not believe the women. In Luke, this prompts Peter to run to the tomb himself. Although Thomas misses this encounter, his request is no different than the other disciples: they see Jesus’ hands and side before they believe.
The context of the liturgical year cannot be ignored in preparing to preach on the Second Sunday of Easter. Either Matthew or John’s resurrection narrative has likely been heard the week before, either at a Vigil or Sunday Morning, or both. Thomas Sunday is a continuation of the Easter Day narratives, concluding the Octave of Easter — which is treated as one long day in the Orthodox Church. This Second Sunday of Easter (in the context of the calendar) bears two important notes: a resurrection appearance! and mystagogy (of the newly baptized).
If a congregation has had catechumens through Lent, the Second Sunday of Easter is an excellent time to begin public mystagogy — explanation of the mysteries of the faith. Even if no new candidates were baptized at Easter, mystagogy is a lifelong journey of growing closer to God, deepening the Christian faith. While Thomas gets the most attention most frequently, this passage is an invitation for preachers to explore reconciliation of a penitent / confession and absolution however their tradition embodies that, communally and individually. Even the Presbyterian Church (USA) has A Service for Repentance and Forgiveness for Use with a Penitent Individual (Book of Common Worship, p. 1023). Jesus says in this day’s text, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus has given the disciples the Holy Spirit (by breathing on them, no less) and then given them — in some traditions — the Office of the Keys. This happens in the context of a resurrection appearance at the end of the first day of the resurrection. “I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia! / You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia! / O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” While Thomas has gotten much attention over centuries this Sunday, there is much more to this text — and much more than needing to justify Thomas or reclaim him or humanize him (as the beginning of this essay does!).
In preparing to preach this text, consider not only Thomas, but Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, his resurrection (alleluia), the forgiveness of sins (and God’s infinite forgiveness), and how the newly baptized — and not newly baptized — continue to learn about the depths of the Christian faith, especially in the Easter Week of Weeks.
The ritual that comes out of the gospel reading for Maundy Thursday is incredibly beautiful—the central image of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, patiently explaining to them that service is the highest expression of love. Many congregations re-enact this ritual because it is such a counter-cultural and humbling practice.
On Maundy Thursday, it is easy to skip over the introduction to the entire scene because we focus so intently on the ritual and the new commandment, but the text begins, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1, NRSV). Jesus heard the clock ticking and was aware that there were precious few teachable moments left. Jesus knew his fate.
This, of course, is not a surprise to those who believe that Jesus understood himself to be sent by God as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. It was his life for humanity’s sin. Everything about his life and ministry led up to his death on the cross because it was The Plan.
But Jesus’ knowing that his time was short is also not a surprise to those who do not hold said theological understanding. Divine or not, Jesus would have known “that his hour had come to depart from this world” because he had seen firsthand what the Roman Empire did to agitators and status-quo disrupters. Crucifixion was a “form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent.”
Jesus would have been aware with every healing, every pardon of sin, and every act of inclusion of someone deemed unclean made him more of a threat. Given that Jesus had been welcomed into Jerusalem with a joyful parade just a few days before (what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), the authorities desperately needed to discourage his followers using “a very public and prolonged form of execution deliberately designed to be seen and be a deterrent” so no further protests or uprisings would be organized. But Jesus never changed his message to cause less trouble because being faithful to death to living the kingdom of God, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) was The Plan.
While it might seem easy to skip over the introduction to the foot washing scene and the giving of the new commandment on Maundy Thursday, it is arguably our sole focus the other 364 days of the year. There has been much time and energy spent debating why Jesus knew his time was short. Actual wars have been fought over the person and substance of Jesus, scattered the Church with capital “C” to the four winds, and cause more than a few congregations to splinter.
This continues today. We still spend an incredible amount of time differentiating ourselves from one another. So-and-so believes this. So-and-so denies that. What we believe about what someone else believes makes them either in or out, no matter one’s theological bent. We divide into factions, denominations, and teams, all declaring not to be “that kind of Christian.” We have explicit and implicit lists of beliefs by which we measure each other, self-declaring who is a “real” follower of Jesus who and who is not.
Perhaps this was something else Jesus knew would happen, just like his death.
Maybe this is why he not only gave us the examples of humble service to one another in the act of foot washing, but then directly said that love is how his disciples would be identified—not by creeds or doctrine or litmus tests.
As we prepare for Maundy Thursday, the text gives us an opportunity for multiple considerations. We might wonder not only whether others identify us as followers of the Prince of Peace, but also about what gives us away. Are we marked as Christians by our love or because of a list of beliefs? Are we more interested in being right or being loving? Then we can turn the question around: how do we identify others as followers of Jesus? Who have we written off as heretics instead of partners in Christ’s service?
Put another way: Is there someone whose feet we would refuse to wash?
It is not hard to imagine what Jesus would have to say about that.
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.
 Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power And How They Can Be Restored (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
All schools in Fulton county had just been shut down due to an outbreak of coronavirus and I was talking with a church member about when they might re-open. As I wondered what it might mean for parents without flexible work schedules having to suddenly find childcare or for teachers having to play catch-up, she asked this question. It was the first time I had considered it, though it probably shouldn’t have been—as a church we pack lunches in the summer and weekend meal kits in the fall and spring for kids from food-insecure families. Yet the entire narrative surrounding the global outbreak of COVID-19 thus far had been financial in nature—a pandemic told through stock tickers, projected GDP dips, and productivity losses—and I am ashamed to say that one of my first concerns was how many Sundays it might cause a dip in giving. My first inclination, before compassion or love for neighbors, was fear.
Fear permeates the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John. I am sure that fear was a major motivating factor in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Fear of losing status and upsetting the established order seemed to be what was behind many of the religious elite’s plans to arrest and kill Jesus. Fear drives Peter to take up a sword in defense of Jesus, and hours later to deny any association with him. Fear chooses Barabbas over Jesus. Fear leads the people set apart to act as a priestly nation to side with an invading army over their own prophet. Fear forces Pilate’s hand.
Fear is the motivating force behind all empires throughout history—it was true of Roman society, and it is true in America today. Empires claim the right to reshape the world to fit their desired outcome and they demand submission and sacrifice in return. They use fear to claim the role that rightly belongs to Christ. Empire highlights your vulnerability and offers security. Empire elicits fears from past wrongs you have suffered (either individually or collectively) and offers vengeance. Empire emphasizes scarcity and offers economic advancement. Empire practices excluding, scapegoating, and oppressing others in order to offer membership in privileged group. Empire simultaneously creates and provides solutions to your fears. All you have to do is submit. You have no king but Caesar.
Good Friday provides us an alternative to the imperial ethos—the opposite of empire, in all of its violence and greed, is the love of the cross. The cross tells us that the way of security is vulnerability. The cross tells us that forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of wrong and vengeance. The cross tears down the barriers between those with and without status—the idea that God plays favorites makes no sense in the light of Good Friday. All you have to do is accept. You are loved by the creator of the universe.
That’s pretty good news.
The Rev. Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is a graduate of Clemson University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He, like the rest of you, is currently adjusting to working from home with his family due to a global pandemic. His 2 and a half year old has just discovered Fancy Nancy. Send help.
Deep in the heart of the West Bank stands a stone church guarded by a thin, wizened, Orthodox Christian priest with a long white beard. He has been there for decades, despite living under the constant threat of death, escaping a death plot sixteen times. A crumbling chunk of the wall bears witness to the time someone threw a hand grenade at him. This priest, who spends his days writing icons, lived in the church for 14 years while surrounded by a hostile army, refusing to abandon the treasure he guards. He once refused a $1 million grant from Yasser Arafat to continue construction of the church because he did not want any political strings attached to his mission to keep the church open to people of all walks of faith. This priest is the protector of a treasure of the three Abrahamic faiths, and he fights with his simple, quiet presence to keep the site open to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He is the guardian of the treasure that sits deep at the very heart of the church.
As you enter the church, hundreds of lovely icons greet the eye, but one stands out from the others. It is simple and plain in comparison to the golden saints that gather everywhere the eye can see, but no less lovely for its simplicity.
This particular icon depicts a man and a woman in conversation, their gaze interlocked. She listens intently as he gestures confidently with assurance and authority. He points to the heavens with one hand, perhaps to her town with the other, as if to declare that there is an inherent tension between the two directions. Or perhaps he sends her—commissions her—to tell what he has shared in conversation. Either way, the tension is evident in her body turned toward him even as she appears to take a step away. She remains poised on the edge, almost as if she can barely believe what she has heard, yet yearning for it to be true.
This icon is key to the Christian tradition about the site, and perhaps is why the priest guards this treasure so intently. The priest is the guardian of Be’er Ya’akov, Jacob’s well, a holy site open to people of all nations and faiths. The priest is the guardian of a deep tradition of radical hospitality to the “other,” the hallmark of Jesus’s life and ministry. This is the site where Jesus overcame all social mores and boundaries to encounter a woman in a deep, life-changing moment.
God in Jesus makes a radical statement in his meeting with the woman at the well. She is “other” in every way to Jesus. She is a Samaritan: considered heathen and apostate; he is a Jew: considered devout and Chosen. She is a woman: of low status in a man’s world, undeserving of notice; he is a man: respected as a teacher, noticed by crowds of people. She has a shameful past that distances her from her community (she comes alone at noon instead of in the morning, as women usually would); he is of good repute. She is nameless; he is Christ, the Son of God. Everything about this woman separates her from Jesus and from society: her gender, her religion, her social habits, her personal history, and her lifestyle. In the eyes of the world, she is a nobody.
But in Jesus’ domain, she is somebody—somebody worth noticing; somebody worth saving. Somebody worth filling to the brim with the gift of God, the living water of eternal life. Despite what she has done, Jesus does not turn away from her. Rather, he invites her into conversation, takes her seriously, and lodges in her village. He cares deeply about her welfare and about her community.
This is not just a tale about an individual. The story plays on a geopolitical front as well. Jesus approaches the nations, not just individuals. She represents an “outsider” nation. Samaritans believe in one God, but that God’s holy place is on Mount Gerizim not at the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans believe that they, and they alone, keep the “pure” faith, having preserved the bloodlines, traditions and old ways of worshipping for over 2,000 years. When Jesus tells her “Go, and come with your husband,” we may assume that he speaks to her in the language of the time. In Hebrew, the term ba’al may refer to master, husband, lord, or the particular god of a region. In Deuteronomy 22:22, an ishah ba’al is a married woman. The Hebrew word is also used in Jeremiah and Hosea to depict the relationship of husband and wife between God and Israel. Jesus tells her she has had five husbands (five gods?), and the one that she is living with is not legitimate. He describes her personal story, but also her nation’s story. The gods, traditions, and holy sites worshipped in the past are not legitimate. Legitimacy comes of worshipping the one God in spirit and truth, unconfined to particular spaces.
This is Good News, but also challenging news for the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ time, just as it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims today. It is challenging news because it reminds us that the people we think of as nobodies are somebodies in the eyes of God. This text, says Deborah Kapp, “reminds faithful readers that sometimes our attempt to draw the boundaries of the faith community are too narrow. We often prefer to leave out the nobodies, but Jesus does not do that. He welcomes outsiders, as well as insiders, into discipleship.” What does it mean that Jesus cares as deeply for the outsider as for his own chosen people? What does it mean to worship God in spirit and truth, when the particulars of tradition and dogma don’t seem to matter much to God?
The example of the priest at Be’er Ya’akov may provide us with the answer. Drinking deeply of the living water of God means having compassion for the other. In fact, as Jesus reminds us, it is at the heart of what it means to live out the Gospel. “There is no greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If only we could open our hearts as Jesus does! Perhaps then the world would overflow with living water—embodying the true peace of God.
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb), as she and they live their faith in their everyday activities. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
Last week, churches celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord as narrated by Matthew, and this week, we hear it again—except this time, it’s narrated by John.
The contrasts between John and the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so well-known by most preachers that they hardly bear repeating here—except to say this: I have come to believe that John’s gospel doesn’t simply happen to be different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke; rather, it is my conviction that John is intentionally different from the other three. Moreover, it is from these differences that the Spirit can speak an important word to us.
Notice, for example, that in John’s gospel, John doesn’t actually baptize anyone. Rather, he reports what he has seen. The Spirit descends upon Jesus, and John shares with others what he sees.
Then, the very next day, John is again gathered with a few of his disciples when Jesus passes by. Immediately, the Gospel says, John shouts, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
When the two disciples hear this, they follow Jesus. And then Jesus turns to them and he doesn’t say, “Welcome aboard!” he says, “What are you looking for?”
In other words, “What are you hoping to find in following me? What is it that you need?”
That’s a remarkably simple question, isn’t it? “What is it that you need?”
And yet, how often do we create space for it to be asked authentically and discerned faithfully?
Several years ago, my Diocesan Convention hosted a series of workshops—one of which was on the topic of Millennials (translation: people born roughly between 1980 and 2000) and the Church. Given that I’m one of a handful of professionally religious Millennials in my Diocese, I signed up.
When I arrived for the workshop, we were asked to self-identify by generation: baby boomers, Gen Xers, the Greatest Generation, Millennials, and so on. Here’s how it panned out: Number of people attending the workshop born before 1980: 57. Number of people born in 1980 or after: 3—including myself. For the next hour, my two fellow millennials (both of whom were also church leaders) and I listened as the 57 other people in the room asked and answered the question of “what do millennials need” without ever actually asking the three millennials in the room.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this was an earnest and well-intentioned conversation. But it followed an all-too-familiar pattern: “I know what you need.”
Jesus, however, shows us a different way: “What is it that you need?”
If you want to know what young people need, ask young people, and then listen for them to answer.
If you want to know how to support and uplift young families, ask young families what they need from their church family, and then listen for them to answer. Note well, however, that the answer you receive may not be comfortable or easy to hear. Don’t ask the question if you can’t tolerate the answer. Madeleine L’Engle was on to something when she observed, “The truth I have to tell may not be the truth you’re ready to hear.”
Even when we struggle to name or understand or articulate our faith; even when we opt for cheap substitutes we think we can buy or earn; even when we struggle to share our faith with others; even when we wonder if we believe anything at all, there stands Jesus, arms outstretched, still asking what it is that we most deeply need; still inviting us to come and see; and still determined to love us more than we can possibly imagine!
Who knew it could be that simple?
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.
Christmas is always such a strange holiday. And I don’t mean the way it has taken on a secular life of its own and become another occasion for buying and selling and overdoing almost everything in life. I mean the actual Christmas or nativity stories we get in the gospels are really strange. They have women young and old prophesying. They have young men dreaming dreams. They have the most glorious birth in human history being honored by common shepherds and livestock, and later on foreign magicians. They even feature a balance of life and death when one expands the scope into the passages commemorated on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
By far the strangest “nativity” story to me, though, has to be the one in John’s Gospel. It really begins at the beginning, emphasizing that the One coming in a particular way to dwell among us isn’t just a person like we think of people, much in the same way that Matthew and Luke go out of their way to show us that he isn’t a king or messiah just as we often think of kings and messiahs. He is the genesis of all people and indeed all things, manifest in a particularly acute way in the life of a Jewish teacher in the Ancient Roman Empire.
I have always been acutely drawn to the section that discusses the Word or Logos – the Divine Reason or Creative Principle. John’s nativity doesn’t just begin at Jesus’ birth. The “birth story” for John begins not just with a baby in a manger, but with the birth of all creation. In so doing this gospel shows us something extremely important and often neglected; each of us finds ourselves in Christ. More than that, we find the whole cosmos in Christ. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In Christ we find the people we love and the people we hate. We find the animals that charm and terrify us. We find the natural elements that nourish and control us. We find the tame and the wild. We find the lamb and the lion. It brings to mind Ephesians 1:23, where Christ is “all in all.” Or the end of the Book of Job, where God actually shows up and takes both Job and the reader on whirlwind tour of creation, showing that all things find meaning and belonging in the One in whom we live and move and have our being. This kind of spiritual connection with the rest of creation isn’t quite the hippie song it sounds like. It means we have a real, unbreakable connection with everything else in all of creation.
That is a truly tough lesson to digest. There are some people, animals, and things in creation I don’t ever want to see near me, much less be connected to in all of eternity. And brings a whole new light to the command to love our enemies. We have to. There’s no getting away from them if we are all really one in Christ. I have to confess I don’t always like how that makes me feel. As a queer person I don’t know that I want to be connected to those who have assaulted my community and will continue to do so. Then I remember that part of why my own oppressors have seen themselves as justified in their violence in the past is that they’ve been able to disassociate queer folks from the Christ to whom we have always belonged. So, I resist that same (admittedly satisfying) temptation in favor of the hard truth that will, in the end as in the beginning, set both sides free if we let it.
Our world specializes in breaking apart and destroying this unity which God ordained from the beginning by making all things and doing so through the Logos (or Cosmic Christ as Richard Rohr so often likes to say). Thinking of this Logos, this Word, this Spiritual Union of all created things as a light which cannot be overcome is a precious gift, especially when one considers the curses of human division and opposition in the world. It is all the more hopeful when one considers too the bitter harvest of climate change we are reaping for abusing the delicate balance of all creation. This bit of the Christmas story reminds us that we are all connected. It goes back to the beginning of all things and re-infuses our reality with Divinity from the first minute. It reassures us that no matter what bitter oppression or danger we face; Christ is present with us. And that is an incarnational theology which can bring some real hope to our often sterile, clinical, over monetized, hyper partisan, and bitter reality. What a gift indeed.
The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is ALL about eating. You don’t have to buy presents, you don’t have to put on a costume, you don’t have to decorate the house, you don’t have to buy fireworks, you don’t have to worry about if you have a date to take out—you just have to cook and eat with people you love.
For many years now, it has been my tradition to celebrate Thanksgiving with good friends in Rhode Island. We get up early, walk the dogs, preheat the oven, then I go to church. After the Eucharist, we gather in the kitchen to cook, laugh, and revel in the joy of being together. We eat around 2, take a nap, then repeat.
Our lesson from John appointed for Thanksgiving certainly mirrors this joy of eating in community. Those who preach regularly will remember that last year (Year B) we had five Sundays in a row going through the Bread of Life discourse that makes up Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. All of this, including our lesson appointed for today, stems from the Feeding of the 5,000–an image that many Thanksgiving chefs might have in their heads already!
The people who just have partaken of the feast of loaves and fishes are so amazed by that experience that they follow Jesus across a body of water seeking more. “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves,” Jesus says to the crowd (Jn 6:26). Jesus recognizes that the miraculous meal got the people’s attention. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the meal comes in the context of Jesus healing people (Jn 6:2). One sign leads to another: Jesus heals the sick, and the people are amazed. They follow Jesus to witness more of these healings, and suddenly there is a large crowd that needs to eat. Jesus not only points the way to the Kingdom of Heaven in restoring health to the sick (healing signs), but he points the way through attending to the physical needs of those gathered (sign of the loaves and fishes).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ signs always have two purposes: they address the immediate needs of those gathered, and they point toward the Kingdom of God which Jesus comes to initiate. In the case of the Feeding of the 5,000, the people are hungry. They need sustenance. Jesus feeds them. The sign also points the way to the Kingdom of God wherein God transforms even the smallest gift into abundance.
Coming back to today’s lesson, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27). He further clarifies that he, himself, is that food that endures: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). Jesus, here, is not knocking the actual meal. People were hungry. People were fed. That’s good. He goes a step further, however, in reminding the crowds that the good meal is a means to an end, not the end itself.
When I think about my favorite Thanksgiving gatherings with my chosen family in Rhode Island, we ate amazing meals. We drank delicious wines. We played games and laughed. The great joy of those gatherings, however, were not the turkey, the Pinot Noir, nor the Scrabble board. The joy came from the love for one another expressed in fellowship.
The love we feel and experience at Thanksgiving is heightened because of the occasion. The holiday festivities point toward the greater love found through fellowship. Just as the many signs in John’s Gospel point the way to the Kingdom of God, our Thanksgiving observations point the way to the joy of community in thanksgiving for the many blessings of this life. What is more kingdom-y than that?
Because the Gospel of John has no dedicated lectionary year, preachers might take this opportunity to highlight the nature of the Johannine sign. What signs does God show us in our Thanksgiving traditions that point the way toward the Kingdom of God? How might we incorporate these signs and revelations into our everyday lives? Where can we use these signs to point others toward God’s Kingdom?
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen serves as Associate Rector at Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware, working alongside English and Spanish-speaking congregations. Prior to ordained ministry, Charles spent over a decade working in the professional theatre world as a director, actor, and puppeteer. His love of story informs his passion around biblical studies and sharing the Gospel of Christ.
“When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday and it is the one day in the year that we do not focus on a proclaimed message from the Gospel or readings for the day, but instead focus on a message or understanding that comes solely from centuries of the Church’s teaching about, and life in, God. Although our understanding of the Trinity is certainly and directly inspired by Scripture, it is important to note that the word “Trinity” is not found anywhere within.
When it comes to this doctrine of the Church, many (most? all?) of us get caught up in when we attempt to explain every detail and specific quirk about it. We try to put all the pieces together in a nice, heavily manipulated picture, and call the puzzle of the Triune God solved. In doing so however, we lose the freedom, power, and understanding the mystery of the Trinity holds and bestows in our lives.
So I’m not going to go there. Instead, what I want to highlight is what the Apostle Paul refers to in Romans 5.2 (the epistle reading for this Sunday) as “boasting in the hope of sharing the glory of God.”
In order to do so, let me first draw you all back again to that image of the puzzle that I mentioned briefly before. Whether they be crossword, Sudoku, or even just the plain old jigsaw puzzles, my wife and I love them. We like big, complicated puzzles that take days to finish. And the reason we like them, I must admit, is because we know that if we just work at it hard enough and if we just work together well enough, we will finally be able to solve it. We will be able to turn that table top from a picture of chaos into a picture of—oh I don’t know—Mickey Mouse and all his friends, or one of Monet’s paintings, or anything really. The important point is that the puzzle is solved and we have a proud sense of triumph over it. We pat each other on the back and give each other a high five, before looking for the next puzzle to solve.
Now jigsaw puzzles might not be everyone’s preference, but most folks I know gain some degree of satisfaction from solving problems. There is something deeply rewarding about fitting together pieces of information until you can explain every detail and stand in triumph over it, knowing that nothing about that problem, question, or mystery escapes you any longer. This drive for solving problems have moved scientists to map the human genome, allowing them to put together certain pieces of DNA as if they were Lincoln logs or Legos. We are working on trying to solve the puzzle of life itself.
…God who is the source of all life?
God who created all things and knows each of those things, intimately?
God who weaves us together in our mother’s womb, names us, and numbers every hair on our heads before we take our first breath?
We try to solve God too, but we find that doing so is impossible.
When solving a puzzle, it’s often easier to fill in the border first, fitting each piece together until the image is contained in a neat, perfect box. That leads me to wonder: given that we often treat God as a puzzle to be solved, what borders does God have? What end pieces are there to limit the Creator of all? What box can contain the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
This is why we have so many heresies revolving this specific doctrine. People want to give God a definite border. But God is not a puzzle. God is not to be solved. No matter how much time and effort we put into solving God, we find that God is simply too big.
So then what does Jesus mean when he says that when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide us into all the truth? Doesn’t that mean we will be given all of the answers to life—that all the pieces of the puzzle will finally be put together? I wish it did.
At times, the questions and mysteries of life seem so great and overwhelming that I want to scream! Truth be told, I have screamed! I’ve cried out to God, hoping that God will make things black and white. “Make it clear and easy! Explain yourself to me! Tell me why you let it all get so muddled up! Why you let wars go on, tornadoes and hurricanes rip life apart, loved ones die, hunger prevail, and hate destroy?”
But you know, in return, more often than not (though seldom all at once), eventually I do receive God’s response. It does not come as a proof of some truth that acts as the keystone, solving all of my problems. Rather, it comes as understanding.
Understanding is not the same as solving a puzzle or problem. The details often go completely unexplained. Rarely (and to the chagrin of my math teachers) am I able to “show my work.” When I receive understanding, I do not receive some sense of triumph or victory over a puzzle solved; rather, I receive peace. Peace in the understanding that triumph and victory belong to God. The problems and puzzles in this world are solved by God’s hand, not mine.
Understanding that God is Triune reveals to us what life is and is to be. God is not to be solved, but God is certainly to be revealed. The Holy Trinity reveals to us that through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is in full, life-giving relationship with Godself. And through the Trinity, we are invited into the truth, life, and peace that flows out of that relationship. In contrast, the individualistic culture that surrounds us in this world leads us to value and decide everything in terms of ourselves. The relationship of the Trinity, however, leads us to value and decide everything in terms of others.
Listen again to some of the key scripture verses we have in this powerful, life-giving faith of ours from just the Gospel of John alone. John 3:16 “For God so love the world that he gave his only son so that whosoever believes in him may not parish but have eternal life.” John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And John 16:15 “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I [Jesus] said that he [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
In Christ we are invited and connected to the Holy Trinity by Jesus’ revealing act of the Father’s love on the Cross and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Through the Spirit, we are given the understanding that we have indeed been created in God’s image. We are created in that Triune image of God for relationship. We are made for each other.
The Reverend Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor along with his wife, Pastor Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.