Christmas Day (B): The Frustrating Child

Christmas Day (B): The Frustrating Child

John 1:1-14

By: Ryan Young

A friend of mine once told me that it is impossible for a parent to view Christmas through any other lens than that of parenthood. Until recently I didn’t understand what she meant, but now that I am the parent of a 2-month-old, I get it. So I have to apologize for writing another parent’s view of Christmas—these sorts of articles used to drive me mad—but after weeks and weeks of trying to write something else, I found that I can only see through the lens of my own parenthood right now.

Last year we only hung three of our four stockings. My wife and I had been trying to conceive for some months and had been met with nothing but frustration. The stocking we had bought and hoped to use as a pregnancy announcement went painfully unused. All the traditions surrounding Advent and Christmas—all our language about anticipating the long-awaited Christ child—took on new and painful meanings. It was difficult to celebrate the remembrance of Christ’s birth when we were unsure whether we would get to experience our own. We were parents aching for our child.

John’s prologue lays out a neat thesis of the gospel that follows, and it begins with an introduction of the Christ to whom it witnesses. In the beginning was the Word—the very Word which existed from the beginning and which created all that is. But there was a problem: darkness. Creation had been broken and pain, sin, death, and all manner of evil had come into existence because of it. Creation was aching for reconciliation with its Creator.

Shortly after Christmas, we found out that we were expecting a child in September. The pain was replaced with anticipation. The first time I saw my daughter on an ultrasound and heard her heart beat, I was struck with the gravity of the situation. The event that we have hoped and prayed for was being realized. Every week was met with a new milestone in our daughter’s development; always measuring her size relative to some sort of fruit or vegetable, a practice which I think we should continue for adults (your author is as big as 408 avocados!) All along the way, my wife and I would play a game where we would try and predict what our daughter would be like. What would her sense of humor be like? Whose smile would she have? Would she play soccer or dance ballet? Most importantly, in a world where the special editions are all that exist of the original trilogy, would she accept that Han shot first? Each day the thing that we understood in theory became more and more a reality. Everything was about to change.

But then, news! A man named John is sent from God to prepare the way for the Word. John comes to the people of God to testify to the arrival of the Christ, and suddenly there is something new: anticipation. What form will the Word take? What will this Christ be like and what will it require of us? There is anticipation and excitement in the realization that God is doing something new and everything is about to change.

I’m sure that every new parent has some variation on the same story, but the panic that set in when we were discharged from the hospital was unlike anything I have ever experienced. How could responsible medical professionals release a newborn into my care? Surely this was some sort of malpractice. Since we got home our world has become a gauntlet of exhaustion. It’s not what we had expected—I don’t mean that we came into it without the knowledge that there would be lost sleep, crying, and mountains of dirty diapers, but that there is nothing that could have prepared us for the difficulty and rewards of parenthood. This child was unexpected.

Christ finally appears in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and not everyone is pleased. Having anticipated his coming, many had begun to develop their own ideas of what the Word was to be—perhaps a military or political leader like David, perhaps a high priest like Aaron, perhaps a revolutionary like the zealots—whatever they had thought, Jesus of Nazareth was not it. Jesus with his questions and parables; Jesus who associated with tax collectors and sinners; Jesus with the audacity to work on the Sabbath and claim authority to forgive sins; Jesus who was too weak to raise a hand against the Roman oppressors. This Christ was unexpected.

Our daughter, Iris, is wonderful and terribly frustrating. Young children’s stages of development come and go so rapidly that, just when we get a handle on how to handle her in her current stage, she changes again. Parenthood seems to be about learning to live in a world where the child you wished and hoped for is a reality, but may not be the reality you imagined. She is her own person, beyond our control, and that makes this so much more difficult. But it also means that we get to learn together and grow together; it means that we relate in a way that is real and beautiful.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word who gives life and shines light into our darkest hurts. On Christmas we remember that the Word came to us in our brokenness. Advent speaks to us about reconciliation; it tells us that, although creation has been broken, God is doing something new. Advent asks us to sit in anticipation, imagining the world made new. Christmas is about learning how to exist in a world where Christ is a reality that we cannot control; a reality that is always moving beyond our expectations. This makes Christianity much more difficult, but it also means that we get to relate to the Word which has existed from the very beginning in a way that is real and beautiful.

Thanks be to the wonderful and terribly frustrating Christ child.

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Ryan Young

Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael, their daughter Iris, and their dog Zooey.

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

John 1:6-8; 19-28

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

Writing this just after Halloween, I can’t help but think that John the Baptist is the original David S. Pumpkins: you feel like you should know who he is and why he’s here, but, along with the Pharisees, you’re kind of in the weeds on John T. Baptist. Is he the Messiah? No. Is he Elijah? Nah. Is he some kind of prophet you just can’t place…? Nope. He’s his own thing.

Indeed, John denies being a prophet, but as a hermit living in the wilderness (v. 23) who embraced an ascetic lifestyle and was sent by God (v. 6), he bears the marks of archetypical prophethood. If you look like a prophet, sound like a prophet, and smell like a prophet (the camel’s hair get up mentioned in Mark had to be a little rank)…. you’re a prophet.

So why does John deny it? Why is he so evasive, especially given that this is the gospel most explicit about his successor’s identity? And why are the Pharisees sending a committee of priests and Levites to vet this guy?

Prophets in ancient Judaism had great importance; as the mouthpiece of God, much attention was focused on them and their message (often times to their detriment; remember Elijah running for his life?). John, of course, wanted the attention focused on Jesus.

But I wonder whether he might also have realized that Jesus was going to break the mold; that he was announcing not just another mouthpiece delivering messages from a higher power, but rather the Messiah (3:28), the Son of God (1:34) who embodies divine love and grace in his very person. God’s new way of being in the world wasn’t going to be like anything the Pharisees had expected; refusing to play into their preconceived categories, as Jesus would later repeatedly do, might have been John’s way of signaling that this was a whole different ballgame.

Prophets also challenged those in power by condemning the way political and religious leaders and the people in their charge were behaving. The Pharisees’ questioning of John shows the institutional elite trying to get a handle on this outsider whose following threatened their authority. Though we don’t hear much about its contents in this gospel, John’s message must have resonated with people; they flocked from the city to be baptized by him.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about baptism. In ancient Judaism, tvilah – immersion in naturally sourced water for purification purposes – was quite common, particularly after coming into contact with a dead body, blood, or other uncleanliness; it was also used when someone converted to Judaism. In both cases, it indicated that the one who had been immersed could now participate fully in the life of the faith community.

There’s lots of good symbolism here – spiritual cleansing, new beginnings, etc. – that fits the synoptic gospel accounts describing John as proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But in this gospel, John has a different agenda: he is baptizing “that [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31) Baptism, then, is no holy rite focused on ritual purification, but rather a spiritual version of  “build it and they” – or rather he – “will come.”

This approach is emphasized in verse 33, where we hear echoes of the prophet Samuel passing in front of each of Jesse’s sons to discern whom he should anoint as king. John, too, is looking for divine confirmation: “‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus is the fruit of that same tree of Jesse – the son of David; the ultimate Anointed One.

Perhaps surprisingly, John continues baptizing even after Jesus has begun his own baptismal ministry. (3:22) But when his disciples confront him about it, John uses it as another opportunity to clarify that Jesus is the star attraction, that Jesus “must increase” while John “must decrease.” (3:30)

Later, John is described essentially as the best man at Jesus’ wedding to Israel. (3:29) We’ve all heard a best man focus his toast a little too much on himself while everyone awkwardly waits for it to be over; but not on John the Baptist’s watch! Everything John says and does turns the spotlight on Jesus.

To wit, there’s the bit of prologue included in today’s lectionary passage: John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (1:7-8)

This is, of course, the gospel of John’s underlying message: everything points to Jesus. The gospel writer’s main concern is to convince us that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and to help us begin to apprehend the mystical, cosmic significance of that role.

Even so, I hope John’s motive for baptizing struck you as odd.

Odd because we are used to experiencing baptism as a moment centered on the believer: it’s their official entrance into the body of the church, when they receive fully the grace and new life God has bestowed on everyone who believes. All eyes are on the one being baptized: the name of the baptized person, inscribed in large font, is the focal point of the certificate we sign, and we hold a celebratory reception, complete with flowers and personalized cake commemorating the occasion.

But what if baptism looked more in line with John the Baptist’s M.O.: baptism that points not to us, but to Jesus?

I have a rather higher anthropology-to-christology ratio than this proposition suggests. Yet the idea of baptism not as an event that glorifies us, but rather as a sort of spiritual dragnet meant to help us find the Messiah fits perfectly with Advent. It is, after all, the liturgical season during which all signs point to Jesus.
If you’re inclined to preach a sermon about keeping Christ in Christmas, here’s your entry point. But we can go broader than that – and deeper. What does it mean to recognize that we’re not the light, but that we’re meant to witness to it? How do we keep from being the self-centered best man at a party that’s not about us? How do we avoid the pull to perform; to enjoy accolades more than service; to be concerned with optics and success more than substance; to center ourselves around our own agendas rather than God’s inbreaking presence? We as humans (and particularly as clergy) all face these temptations.

In chapter three, John’s disciples want to know what’s up with this Jesus guy horning in on John’s territory. John replies with the bridegroom imagery, which, despite my earlier comment about awkward toasts, is deeply moving: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (3:29)

The main event, the One whose presence thrills us with the kind of profound happiness we feel at seeing our best friend happily married, has arrived. For a moment, we forget our own agendas and lose ourselves in joy. As we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, that is true reason to rejoice.

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church UCC 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.

Day of Pentecost: Take a Breath

Day of Pentecost: Take a Breath

John 20:19-23

By: The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

Have you ever been so anxious or afraid that you felt like you couldn’t breathe? Your chest tightens; your pulse quickens. It feels like your whole body is in overdrive. When I was a child and felt afraid at night, I would pull the covers up over my head. Whatever monsters were lurking in the dark or under my bed surely couldn’t get me if I was hidden away, safe from harm. As an adult, I no longer hide under the covers, but I still find myself seeking to hide away from the things in life that are scary or stressful. I still find myself realizing that my body has tightened and I can’t even take a deep breath.

When we enter today’s Gospel story we find the disciples in their own place of fear and trembling—huddled away behind locked doors, hiding from those who would persecute them. It’s a very different Pentecost than the one we see in Acts. There are no dramatic winds or tongues of fire. No ecstatic speeches in multiple languages.  Instead, we see a quiet Pentecost. Into the midst of fear and trembling enters the Risen Christ and breathes into the disciples the Spirit, and with it, the Gift of Peace.

While it might seem less dramatic, it’s still a radical moment—to find peace in the midst of chaos. The disciples’ whole world had changed—everything that they had hoped for was linked to following Jesus. I imagine their fear left them breathless.

Into this space Jesus speaks, “peace be with you,” and breathes into them the Holy Spirit.  Gail O’Day reminds us in her commentary in the New Interpreters Bible that this echoes the moment of Creation wherein God breaths into humanity the breath of life. Here we see a new creation and new life given to these disciples through this breath of the Spirit.[1] I have to wonder if in this moment, they finally took a deep breath for the first time. I wonder if their shoulders relaxed and their fear melted away into a sense of radical peace.

Perhaps it is because I relate so much to these disciples that this image of breathing peace of the Spirit resonates with me. Or perhaps it is because as a yoga teacher, I know so well the power of connecting to the Spirit through our breath. Secular studies show us that these breathing practices do have an effect to calm our minds and bodies, but as a pastor, I think it’s more than that. When we pause to breathe in, to intentionally connect to the Spirit—our life source—that Spirit fills and empowers us. The Spirit changes us. She is there to transform us, if we only take a moment to connect.

Of course, this Spirit, this breath of life isn’t just there for Divine stress relief or touchy feely comfort. We are granted Peace so that we can be sent to continue Christ’s work in the world, even in the face of great trials. This story is both one of receiving the Spirit, as well as being commissioned by Christ to go forth to do God’s work in the world.[2]

I wonder how often we as individuals and as communities of faith hide ourselves away in fear, rather than living a life centered in the radical peace of Christ. I wonder how often we stay in fear rather than journeying out to do the work that God has called us to do.

I can admit—I would really love for God to call me to something safe. I love stability. I love comfort. And yet, the work of the Gospel isn’t always comfortable, or safe, or easy. Working for Justice in the world sometimes means getting our hands dirty or getting out of our comfort zones. Sharing God’s love might mean taking a step out into the unknown.

This path that we are called to isn’t an easy one, but it is one we don’t walk alone. Every step, the Spirit is with us, breathing into us Peace; breathing into us courage; breathing into us life. I wonder what this looks like in our lives and in our communities? Might it mean we step out and take a risk in order to share the gospel rather than trying to just get by?

Perhaps this Pentecost, instead of wind and fire, we might search for just a moment of breath. In that space of silent prayer, we can draw our awareness to the presence of the Spirit around and within us. In that moment, we breathe in, knowing that the sustaining Life we breathe in is nothing short of the Divine Spirit. Perhaps this Pentecost, we might choose to breathe in peace even in the places of our lives or our community’s life where we are afraid. Perhaps we might choose to go forth from that space of radical peace to do the work of God.

 

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The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently serves as the Georgia Field Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network—an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion and rights of LGBTQ people. Prior to their work with RMN they served as Minister for Spiritual Formation and Youth at Saint Mark UMC in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also served as a hospital chaplain and worked in homeless services through their time in AmeriCorps. Kim is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Berry College and is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher. They draw on their theological and yoga training to inform their ministry’s focus on using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the inner peace to be justice makers in the world. Outside of their formal employment Kim serves as chair of the Spiritual Leaders Committee for the Transgender Health and Education Alliance (THEA), and is a member of the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ youth.

[1] Gail O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville:Abingdon, 1995) 9: 846.

[2] Ibid.

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

John 17:1-11

By: The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

Recently, my husband and I moved from Kentucky to Missouri where I accepted a call to serve as Co-Pastor at National Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). When we arrived in Springfield, I showed up to the office for my first day at my new church and already had a message waiting for me. A reporter from the local paper had gotten word that a church in town had hired an openly gay minister and was calling with an interest in setting up a time to sit down with my Co-Pastor and I to do a story. While the article that followed highlighted the ministry that we are doing here at National Avenue, the reporter was also very interested in the theology of a church that would welcome everyone, affirm everyone, and even hire a gay minister. The product of our conversation together was an article that highlighted all of the things that made me fall in love with this particular congregation, but also gave people an idea of who I am as both a person and as a minister.

While we initially said “Yes!” to this opportunity to reclaim the conversation of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, I quickly found myself being put on the defensive. We received incredible amounts of support and saw increased visitor traffic for a few weeks following the article’s run, but I was emotionally unprepared for how to handle the constant criticism of not only the authenticity of my call as a minister who happens to be gay, but also my worth as a person in general.

As I initially read these words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, I cringed a little bit. It seemed like these words that Jesus spoke were laced with exclusivity; the same sense of exclusivity that many have tried to use in order to keep me “out”—to convince me that I had done something to separate myself from the love of God.

When I finally got beyond my negative criticism of the text and finally started looking for the themes that I found to be helpful, I noticed a few things. First and foremost, there is a very obvious relationship at play here between Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. Jesus acknowledges that while he is on earth finishing the work that he was sent to do, he is still one with God and is returning to God.

We also see a very real sense of devotion, loyalty, and authentic faith displayed through these passages. This whole prayer is being prayed for those who have followed Jesus. It is said in the text that these folks for whom Jesus prays have kept the word of God, have acknowledged Jesus’ oneness with God, and have received the words that have been given to them from God through Jesus. In many ways this is being set up as a commissioning of the disciples to carry on the ministry of Jesus beyond the time of his earthly life.

Toward the end of one’s life, or even at a time of real transition, it is common to find ourselves asking, “What about all of this that I have built? Who will care for it when I’m gone?” I found myself asking those same questions as I was wrapping up my ministry at my first call in Kentucky as I prepared to relocate to Missouri. I was nervous that the youth group I had built up would fall apart. I was afraid that the kids that I had loved and formed relationships with wouldn’t have anyone left to love and care for them once I was gone. I was scared that they would be forgotten in the midst of the chaos of a church in transition. So I did what I could do to ensure that that wouldn’t be the case. I began acknowledging the leadership I saw in some of our volunteers and making sure that they felt empowered and equipped to handle things in my absence. Once I saw that the kids would be cared for, I could breathe a little easier and found peace with the transition.

It seems like here Jesus is worrying about some of those same things. It seems as though he’s trying to position the leaders that he has been training—those that had been walking beside him through the teaching, preaching and healing—and empowering them to take over his ministry in his absence.

Even more importantly, though, it seems like there is a prayer from Jesus here that the church may become one—that the church that can be so divided may somehow find unity amongst themselves. I can’t help but think that in a time such as this, a time when we are facing great division over politics, sexuality, quality of life and care, and a whole host of other issues, that Jesus is still praying this prayer. For me, this scripture stands as Jesus’ ordination of the church to join together and continue his work in the world; showing his love and light to all that we encounter through the ways in which we live our lives.

May it be so.

 

Kevin CK
The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Springfield, Missouri with his husband, Ryan, and two dogs, Bailey and Rey. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky where he lived until he moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University, earning his BA in Religion. He received his Master of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a lover of Chipotle, bowties, and dogs.

Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

John 14:15-21

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rev. Caleb Tabor

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

 

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

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

John 14:1-14

By: Jay Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jay Butler

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

 

 

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

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

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

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

And yet, here we are…

 

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

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

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

Here, we get Jesus’ answer to their question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

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