Proper 16(B): To Whom Can We Go?

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By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

After several weeks of reading from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, it may be all the more tempting to look toward one of the other appointed readings for sermon inspiration this week.  After all, hasn’t Jesus already said everything that can possibly be said about the bread of life?  Haven’t you? 

Stay with it. Jesus’ discourse in John’s sixth chapter just might have another nugget or two of wisdom.

The scene is familiar by now. Jesus has been about his work of itinerant teaching and healing, feeding and calming, amidst the hills and waters of the Galilee.

In addition to the narrative that we’ve now committed to memory – Jesus is the bread of life, the true bread which gives life to world, the bread that lasts, the bread that will satiate every hunger, the true food that offers eternal life when eaten – Jesus’ disciples re-enter the story at this point, our final week of sojourn here before returning to Mark’s Gospel.

“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

How many times, I wonder, must the disciples have pondered this very question in response to the teachings of Jesus? Who can accept such challenging instruction? Who has the audacity to follow this man and his demanding way of life?

While it is the only time this query is recorded (in this form, at least) in all the Gospel accounts, I like to imagine that it was a familiar conjecture of those who traveled in the inner circle of the itinerant teach from Nazareth. Indeed, his teaching, the invitation to a way of discipleship, is difficult.  

“Does this offend you?”

Jesus offers a wondering question back to his friends. Beneath the question is a much deeper inquiry—does the truth of your humanity, your finitude, come as an affront? Does the truth of God’s boundlessness ache in the face of your own boundedness?

It is a difficult thing to come to terms with one’s own humanity. Jesus is, no doubt, fully aware of this reality. From the time of our birth, we humans are terminal, our mortality ever before us. Thank God, that is not the whole of the story.

“The words that I have spoken to you are truth and life.”

Jesus’ words are truth and life. Perhaps this statement doesn’t bid us much pause as twenty-first century readers of the Gospel; perhaps it should. 

In a world that is fading before our eyes, torn by the excesses of greed that render some full and others famished, Jesus’ words are life. In a world too often willing to settle for ‘alternative facts’ and agreeing to disagree, Jesus’ words are truth.

This is far from a throw away statement. It is a powerful declaration – Jesus words are words of truth and life.

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him.”

The truth, however, is not always good news to all, particularly when it upsets the very structures and norms that govern the community receiving the good news. The hope of freedom for the oppressed is not necessarily good news to the ears and minds of their oppressors. 

The words of truth and life for all people mean that the power structures of the status quo are going to be transformed, flipped upside down, overturned altogether. It is no surprise, then, that many turned away. 

“Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life?”

John the Gospel writer is a master storyteller; the narrative is always carefully expressed to convey the depth of theological wisdom that lay beneath. This scene is no exception.

The disciples have witnessed the seemingly impossible – thousands fed with but a few loaves of bread and couple of fish, their teacher stepping over the terror of waves and through the fierce winds to walk from the shore to their boat. They have heard the challenging words of discourse – bread that lasts, a manna greater than that which was received by their forebears in the faith, is now before them, readily available. 

Now, the final point, toward which all the tedious discourse has been pointing, is revealed – The Eternal, Incarnate Word offers, to the disciples and to us, the words of eternal life. There is nothing more satisfying to be sought and found.

And, there it is – the greatest miracle of John’s sixth chapter. Greater than the momentous feeding of the hungry masses, greater even than walking across the tumultuous sea, the great miracle proclaimed by the Evangelist is this – Jesus, the Incarnate and Eternal Word, possesses and shares, the words of eternal life. 

To whom else can we go?

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter Eleanor, who was born in 2017, and son David, born in 2021.

Proper 12(B): More than Abundance

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By: The Rev. Jacob Pierce

The Feeding of the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel is replete with theological themes and motifs. Preachers might choose to go in a multitude of directions with this story. But what has always struck me is the abundance of food and the attention Jesus pays to the leftover fragments. 

Years ago, I attended a conference where Walter Brueggemann was the keynote speaker. Throughout the week, Brueggemann delved deeper into many of the themes in his writing, paying particular attention to this notion of “totalizing narratives.” Brueggemann argues that there exist narratives in our world that are in direct opposition to the narrative of God. These totalizing narratives are so consuming that the narrative of God is often lost. Brueggemann points to examples in scripture, of how God’s narrative has broken through the narratives of the world.[1]

For example, the totalizing narrative of Pharaoh in the Exodus story kept Israel in bondage. Pharaoh’s narrative was that there was no life outside of Egypt, that if the Hebrew people left and went into the wilderness, they would die. And the Hebrew people believed it! After their liberation the people complained as they remembered the melons in Egypt. But it was in the wilderness, it was in leaving Egypt, that the people of Israel saw God. God’s narrative broke through.  

Totalizing narratives, according to Brueggemann, always begin the same way: the people who have the most develop anxiety about scarcity, and from that anxiety comes accumulation, monopoly, and eventually violence. Pharaoh was the man who had the most, Egypt was all-encompassing, and the irony was that Pharaoh was afraid he might not have enough. Remember, the Israelites were building storehouses in Egypt, not pyramids.

In the first century, the Roman Empire was all-encompassing. The narrative of Caesar was that nothing exists outside of the heavy boot of Rome. Rome would supply just enough to meet their needs if they’d submit to its rule. But when Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fish, it must have terrified the Romans. By feeding the people, Jesus was not only meeting their needs and revealing God’s glory, Jesus was offering a new narrative; an alternative narrative to the totalizing narrative of Rome. Jesus was revealing in a very tangible way that in God’s kingdom there is enough. But there is not only enough; there is more than enough—there are leftovers! 

I’ve often considered this in the context of the Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist defies the narrative that food is scarce, that it must be earned, and that God only communes with certain people. Eucharist is an alternative to that narrative. At the Eucharist all people commune directly with God, uninhibited by scarcity and monopoly, and God provides more than enough.

One of my favorite reflections from Barbara Brown Taylor is when she notes that God seems to prefer things that are broken.[2] One example she gives is that whenever Jesus is given bread in the gospels, he breaks it. This story in John’s Gospel is not only about abundance, but the special attention Jesus pays to the leftover fragments.

Preacher, you might consider the totalizing narratives of your own context. What are the totalizing narratives that keep your congregation from living out its ministry? What narratives keep your worshipping community from believing that the impossible is possible? We all have these narratives in our faith communities, the “we’ve always done it that way” excuse. You might also consider the narratives of our larger society: the division in our country, the partisan gridlock, the hopelessness that still permeates corners of our society after 15 months of a pandemic. Whatever you choose to focus on, remind them of God’s abundance. Remind them that God’s narrative is breaking through right now. And if they’re feeling broken Jesus is there to gather them up.

The Reverend Jacob Pierce is Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He served as Curate at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church and as Associate Rector at St. Peter’s before his call to become Rector there in the spring of 2021. He lives in South End with his husband, Adam Santalla Pierce, and their dog Hamlet.

[1] For a full excursus on this subject, see: Walter Brueggemann, God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).

[2] See: Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blessed Brokenness,” in Gospel Medicine (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).

7th Sunday of Easter(B): Called in Prayer and Sustained in Love

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By: The Rev. Kimble Sorrells

This Sunday’s text invites us into an intimate moment in the life of Jesus: his prayer and conversation with his Father amid his farewell to his disciples. While the opening and closing parts of his prayer are selections for other days of the lectionary, this central section focuses on his prayer for the disciples as he anticipates their life without him.  

Jesus’ words convey that the disciples are called into his mission and will be sent into the world to live out their lives of faith. There is no escaping the world or its hardships; indeed, he says that the world will hate them. Yet they are called to be set apart as holy and a witness—to live in the tension of being “in the world but not of the world.” It’s important to note that while the prayer carries a weight of responsibility, it also reflects reassurance that they will not be left alone, but are entrusted to God’s ongoing care, guidance, and protection.

It is easy today to see faith and spirituality as a personal matter—something that I do for my own self and my own wellbeing. We might see it primarily as being about feeling filled and connected to the Divine presence. As someone whose ministry is primarily focused on contemplative practices and retreat ministry, these aspects are obviously something that I think are important. However, this prayer reminds us that Jesus’ final request for his followers was for our faith to be about much more than or own personal lives. While it’s good to rest and withdraw from the world to recharge, we must return to engage the world around us. As followers of Christ, we are called to bear witness to God’s ways of truth and justice. A faithful follower and faithful community must take seriously its role of being in solidarity with the victims of injustice and marginalization, calling out the broken systems and engaging in active witness to God’s ways. 

It seems that the times we are living in have made this tension even more apparent. Many in our faith communities are likely experiencing a bit “world-weary.” We have now lived through just over a year of a life-altering pandemic, and while we have hope of vaccines, we are certainly not out of the woods yet. Through this time, we also have experienced heightened suffering due to systemic racism, especially in the areas of police brutality and violence. Our country has grappled with the epidemic of gun violence as we see ongoing mass shootings. And of course, the threats to democracy that seemed a given shook our sense of security in a peaceful state. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all that’s happening, but it does seem exhausting.

To say that many of us are tired would be an understatement. If Jesus was sitting in front of me praying right now, I will be honest that I would much prefer that he pray for me to have a nice vacation—perhaps a little get away to the mountains. However, when Jesus prayed for his disciples (and that does include us today), he prayed that they not be taken out of the world but rather be made holy as a witness within it.  

The key of holding this tension lies in the hope that Jesus also entrusted us to God’s care, guidance, and loving presence. We can find fulfillment, rest, and joy as we experience connection to God and feel God’s love. This allows us to live as called people bearing witness to God’s ways in the world. In this way Jesus’ prayer offers us both a weighty responsibility and the reassurance that we are not alone; that God is with us. 

In preaching or teaching on this text, one might spend time exploring what this tension looks like to your community.  How is it that they might need to find ways to retreat and tap into and connect with the Joy of God’s love, and how is it that they might need to bear witness to that by engaging in the world around them? What is happening locally that contrasts with Jesus’ radical message of justice? How is it that your community might engage in faithful witness—both individually and collectively? What ways do you need to examine your own community of faith? Are there ways that it falls short of the ways of justice and inclusion? 

In preparing for worship or meditation, you may wish to examine the ways that your community may be feeling world-weary as well. What would serve to connect to God’s Love at this time? How might you spend time resting in the joy that Christ prays his disciples will experience? As we listen anew to the text for this week, we are invited again to overhear this intimate conversation between Jesus and his Father. We are invited again to receive a prayer on our behalf and lean into the call of discipleship, held and led by the Love of God as we go forth into the world. 

The Rev. Kimble Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ  and a graduate of Candler School of Theology (Emory University) and Berry College. Kimble’s interests are in using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the peace and resolve to be justice makers in the world. They are also a Registered Yoga Teacher and draw on this and other spiritual traditions to inform their ministry. Kimble has experience in a variety of ministry settings. They have worked in LGBTQ advocacy for many years including  as staff for Reconciling Ministries Network and the Atlanta Pride Committee, and organizing with Atlanta’s Trans and Queer community. They have also served in local congregations and as hospital chaplain. Kimble is also dedicated to civic engagement and is a member of the Civil Air Patrol and an Alumni of Americorps Program. 

6th Sunday of Easter(B): God’s Kind of Friendship

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By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

Growing up, I bristled when my church sang the popular hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” As a kid, I thought the song too sappy and monotonously rhymey. In my small Illinois town, I was firmly in the minority opinion, given how often the song was chosen during hymn sings. The song has long maintained a love-hate relationship among critics and the masses. As the Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal notes, “In spite of the fact that this hymn, with its tune, has been criticized as being too much on the order of the sentimental gospel type, its popularity remains strong, and the hymn retains a place in modern hymnals.”[1] My teenage condescension seems to have been made harmless by the tremendous service the hymn has provided to generations through the years.

Looking back, my reaction to the song’s sentimentality probably had more to do with the quality of my friendships at the time than my relationship with God. I couldn’t identify a friend in whom I could share all my weaknesses and sorrows. I had learned quickly that middle school friends were often not the best equipped to help bear my griefs and burdens. My “friends” seemed to delight in my trials and tribulations so the metaphor of “Jesus as friend” was not one I desired. I wanted my Jesus to be my rescuer, my defender, my God.

In middle age, I am becoming more appreciative of the song’s sentiments – even if they still seem a bit saccharine – especially as I spend more and more time in the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Typically, during the weeks of Eastertide, we remember the accounts of Jesus’ appearances during the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension and then the 10 days of waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But this week, we don’t read a resurrection story.

Today’s lection is a speech of Jesus while he was still alive. These speeches are read during Eastertide because they are a sort of preparatory teaching – preparing the disciples for what lies ahead. This part of the Gospel of John sometimes referred to as the Book of Glory (13.1-20.31), a section demonstrating how those who believe in him become children of God. Scholars have identified chapters 14-17 of John’s Gospel as a presentation of several of the teachings of Jesus in the form of a “farewell address.”

Because of the repeated themes in chapter five, the careless reader might be tempted to speed through the verses set aside for the sixth Sunday of Easter. In doing so, they will miss some of the most intimate indications of God’s desire for relationship with humanity. Or they may find themselves collectively humming, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as verse 15 is read aloud. Either way, the skilled preacher might consider unpacking what’s it means to be a friend of the Godhead including the notion of consent (according to Jesus, we get a choice in this relationship) and reciprocity (this is perfect friendship, shattering the barriers that often cause human friendships to stumble).

Jesus tells his disciples that his relationship to the Father has forever changed how we will be in relationship with God. Key to this relationship, according to Jesus, is remaining in his love. Remaining or abiding, from the Greek menó (to stay, abide, remain; of him who cleaves, holds fast, to a thing) should come as good news. We have a Creator who wants to be with us. Yet, in my experience as pastor, many church-going folks would prefer a root canal over hanging out with their Lord and Savior. Philosopher and spiritual formation teacher Dallas Willard reminds us that “the single most important thing about us is our idea of God and its associated images.” Far too many people have a picture of God that conflicts with the image Jesus shares in today’s reading. That picture often causes people to want to keep their distance from the Father.

Friendship as Being

But Eastertide offers preachers an opportunity to disrupt old notions of God for new generations. It also affords the teaching office to dispel any possibility of discipleship shortcuts for an on-demand culture. My spiritual director used to start our conversations by asking, “Are you still on speaking terms with God?” She was asking, have you been remaining or abiding in God’s love. Was I putting in the work to be the kind of friend that God’s desires in me? This is a life-long pursuit of investing in my friendship with God.

In “Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life,” Rowan Williams describes relationship maintenance with God in this way, “Discipleship is a specific way of being. It’s not intermittent. It’s keeping company with Jesus.” Keeping company with Jesus may sound easy. It is certainly what the early followers of Jesus did. Repeatedly, we hear of people – some committed, some simply curious – following him around the countryside. Classically, students hung out with their teacher as a way of learning. Jesus, in the role of the good rabbi, has a group of students who are abiding with him and learning first-hand what it means to be in true relationship with the Father. The Twelve certainly would have understood their relationship to Jesus in this age-old pattern of teacher to student. In his farewell address in John, Jesus is clarifying that their relationship is far more intimate than teacher and student. It is one of abiding friendship and love.

Learning rather than Trying

For disciples who are in pursuit of this kind of relationship with God, but have struggled with commitment to their spiritual practice, a pastor might encourage them to consider eliminating the word “try” from their vocabulary. A spiritual mentor once suggested this after listening to me complain about my fits and starts in my spiritual journey. “Embrace the role of a life-long learner of Jesus,” he suggested. “Instead of try, what if you used the word, learn? You’re not trying to keep the company of Jesus; you’re learning to keep the company of Jesus.” This psychological shift has given me grace to continue learning how to be a better friend to Jesus.

Which is a lesson we might all need to learn. We are learning to abide in God’s love. We are learning to keep God’s commandments and we are learning to love one another as God has loved us. Jesus sets the groundwork for a disciple’s learning plan in this lectionary reading.


[1] W. G. Polack. Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal (1941). St. Louis: Concordia. p. 323.

The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.

2nd Sunday of Easter(B): Believing in Your People

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By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

“Do you believe because you see me? Happy (blessed) are those who don’t see and yet believe” (John 20:29 CEB). These are Jesus’ words, and they round out a story that historically resulted in the term “doubting Thomas”—not to mention a lot of guilt for some growing up in hard-nosed Christian homes.

The story itself is covered in peace. Jesus appears on Easter evening to his disciples and speaks “peace” and “forgiveness.” Of course, Thomas isn’t there. The disciples tell Thomas upon his return that they have seen Jesus. But unless he sees the wounds of Jesus, he will not believe them. Eight days pass and the disciples are in the same spot. Jesus appears and utters “peace” and then looks at Thomas. Jesus shows Thomas the wounds and says, “Believe!” And Thomas believes.

But is the idea that Thomas’ belief is based on sight a negative thing? After all, the other disciples saw Jesus too and they believed. Why does Thomas get the short end of the stick just because he missed the first party? Every character in this chapter sees Jesus and believes. And then along comes Thomas, who desires the same thing, and Jesus makes an example out of him!

I think there’s more to this story than just a simple narrative with a moral. In order to better understand, we need to look at the language. The word used for “happy”or “blessed” is from the Greek word makarios, which is also the word used in the beatitudes. Indeed, this word means “happy, blessed, to be envied,” but a more extensive meaning can be shown as the following: describing someone in a position to be envied.

“Do you believe because you see me? Blessed (and to be envied) are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Scholars believe that of the four gospels, John was likely written last. And like many of the other writings that make up the Bible, this gospel was written to a specific community. The community of John was likely made up of folks that were second (even third) generation Christians. They didn’t have the experiences of the first generation. They didn’t know Paul or many of the other disciples. They had never met Jesus. All they had to go on were stories.

Thus, it would make sense that this story would (only) find its way into the latest gospel. To a community who struggled with having not seen Jesus and the time of the first generation, the author of John sends an encouraging word. “You think the disciples were blessed because they saw? They aren’t to be envied. YOU are. After all, you have not seen and yet you still believe.”

Some of the best leaders I’ve known have encouraged people with what I call “statements of wish.” They’re not necessarily statements of fact, but rather a statement painting a desire for the future, a wish. One of my favorite pastors moved to a new church where the congregation had been through it. They’d had some rough times. And she began saying in every worship service benediction, “You are beloved children of God.” Over time, that constant reminder began to make its way into my heart and the hearts of others. I began to really believe that I was beloved, that before anything else, I am loved by God. This statement of wish took hold!

I believe this is what the author of John is doing for his community; a community struggling with not having been a part of the wave of the first generation. He is sharing a statement of wish. “You are not cursed. You are actually blessed. You are to be envied. Because you have not seen and yet you believe!” And perhaps over time, the reading and rereading of this passage reminded the audience that they were indeed blessed. Perhaps they came to really know that they were blessed.

Statements of wish are important in leadership, in parenting, in mentoring, in counseling. They help us to lead from a place of hope and care. What statements of wish have you spoken over someone lately?

Sources for language: https://biblehub.com/greek/3107.htm

The Rev. Andrew Chappell serves as the Associate Pastor of Newnan First United Methodist Church in Newnan, Georgia. Andrew has an M. Div from Candler School of Theology and has been in ministry for over 10 years. He is engaged to Adair, enjoys Star Wars, and hopes to one day take his mandolin-playing skills up to the next level.

Maundy Thursday(B): Doing it Anyway

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By: Dr. Emily Kahm

On Maundy Thursday, we read again about the Last Supper – but this portion of the text isn’t about the meal; rather, it’s about the foot washing. In fact, there really isn’t much description of the meal at all. Instead, Jesus gets up, washes feet, predicts the future, and recites quite a few sermons before they leave. At least in Matthew’s gospel, it sounds like he got a few bites to eat!

In John’s gospel, here and throughout, Jesus is especially divine-seeming and prescient, soothsaying and sometimes distant. One gets the sense that his mind is so preoccupied with things yet-to-come that he almost floats above the ground rather than walking on it. He seems like a helium balloon, only lightly tethered to the mortal plane of existence.

This is one reason that it’s rather shocking (and gratifying) to have a moment where Jesus gets so physical with his disciples, washing their (presumably) gross feet, serving them bodily in a way that’s humble and intimate and kind. It’s not a comfortable experience for all of them – Simon Peter tries to wriggle his way out of it, and then goes overboard trying to take it back when Jesus reacts poorly, which tells us a lot about how unsettled the guy must have been. They’re friends, obviously, but there’s a power distance between them and Simon Peter feels it acutely.

It’s also interesting how before the foot washing begins, the text reminds us that Jesus was perfectly aware of Judas’ inevitable betrayal. Nothing he was about to do, no great preaching moment or act of service, was going to turn aside his fate or change Judas’ actions. Still, he crouches on the floor with some water and a towel and washes his betrayer’s feet anyway. Why? I can only assume it’s because whoever Judas is, whatever choices he has made, this is just who Jesus is. He can’t bring himself to exclude someone he loves, despite how badly he is hurt by them.

It’s this inconvenient truth that keeps me encouraging students who have fallen behind in my courses, even when I know there’s nearly no chance they’ll keep all their enthusiastic promises to turn in late work and stay on top of readings and study hard. It’s why I offer pep talks and affirmations and help them construct detailed catch-up plans, knowing it’s probably going to make no difference for this particular semester. I don’t shy away from offering my assessment of their chances, and I never offer false hope, but if they insist they want to try, I give them every opportunity in the world to succeed. At some level, it doesn’t really matter if I doubt they’ll keep their promises; the kind of teacher I want to be is one who’s engaged and encouraging, who is willing to let students set their own goals and even endure their own failures. It’s not about who they are; it’s about who I’m trying to be. It’s okay if it doesn’t change anything that I can see.

Judas never found his way back to experiencing Jesus’ mercy, at least not that we’re told in the Bible, but one has to wonder if that foot washing moment came back to the other disciples later. “He knew Judas would betray him… but he treated him with kindness anyway.” How much could that example have inspired and convicted those first leaders of Christianity, whose message was so frequently received with derision or confusion? Would Christianity have survived at all if they hadn’t kept with the hard work of evangelism, knowing that their efforts might not produce much that they’d get to see?

As much as it can be a drudgery, I find wisdom in the idea of doing it anyway; living into our values even when they gain us nothing, being true to ourselves even when others will dismiss us, doing the hard, minimally satisfying work that is our best despite knowing it won’t be recognized. Ultimately, we are the person we are when we least expect to be rewarded for it. And who knows? There might be new life or growth that finds its beginnings in the icky, foot wash-y moments of doing it anyway.

Dr. Emily Kahm is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris, their son, Xavier, rabbit, Hildegard, and as-yet-unnamed new child due in May of 2021.

2nd Sunday of Christmas(B): Light

John 1:1-9

By: The Rev. Ryan Young

There is really nothing more I think I could say about the “Word of God” spoken of in the prologue to John’s gospel. Anything that can be said has already been said by others far wiser and more learned than me–there’s an entire Beatles song to that effect. I sought for something to say about any of the other lectionary texts for this Sunday, but I could not stop hearing this gospel text multiple times throughout my day. Literally. Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and candidate for one of Georgia’s senate seats, quotes John 1:5 in a prominent campaign ad. “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness overcometh it not.” As a resident of Georgia, I have seen this ad dozens of times (it’s just after Thanksgiving, so it will probably be hundreds by the time you read this in January). I don’t know if it’s just the repetition of that ad or because 2020 has felt like the avatar of “darkness,” but I’m finding a lot of comfort in considering Jesus as the light of the world.

“Light” becomes an important image throughout the fourth gospel. It’s used 21 times in John’s 21 chapters, and these few verses seem to set it up for the remainder of the book. The image of light, as much as the use of the term logos, serves to connect Jesus to the creation narrative. As Jesus is the Word which was active in creation and is the light of the world, he can be seen as the light that ordered the primordial chaos–light was the primary method that God used to order creation and its presence (day) or its absence (night) has always been the way people order and measure their lives. 

Light is also revelatory. The light which shines in the darkness reveals all for what it is; nothing is hidden. It reveals reality and so is both liberating and disconcerting. It is embraced by those with the bravery to live truly, but is mostly hated by all of us who would rather hide parts of ourselves.

Light is a guide. It can be difficult for this image to land in a modern world of electricity and light pollution, but I often think of the times in my childhood when my family would drive out to Edisto Beach. The road was narrow and flanked by imposing oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The headlights of our car only illuminated so far, but that illumination was enough to keep us on the road and prevent us from colliding with those trees. 

Conversely, “darkness” also becomes an important image in John. Darkness can be a lack of enlightenment–a stumbling in the dark–or it can be something that people actively engage with–one hides themselves or things that they don’t wish found in dark places. However, the most important attribute that darkness has is its complete inability to extinguish light–a candle left alone in a dark room will go out once it is burned to the nub, but the darkness itself is not a thing which has any power to act upon it.

The most important interpretive lens for the fourth gospel is the reality and experience of the resurrection. The gospel of John only makes sense in light of the resurrection. It begins with an affirmation that the resurrected Christ has always been–that Christ shares the essence of the Creator–and it ends with a witness to the continued life and activity of the resurrected Christ. The resurrection is a prism through which we can view the darkness of any present situation. Because of the resurrection we can be assured that the darkness does not, cannot overcome the light. Because of the resurrection, Rev. Warnock can say that, in the midst of a global pandemic, there is hope.

Just because I was drawn to write about the image of light in John 1 doesn’t mean that others haven’t written more beautifully about it than I am able. And so, I close with this excerpt from Tolkien’s Return of the King in which Samwise, despairing and approaching resignation in a hostile land, sees a star through a break in the clouds.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

The Rev. Ryan Young serves as the Pastor of Care and Spiritual Development at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is passionate about guiding the church in building more just and equitable communities and serves on the boards of the North Georgia United Methodist Church Housing and Homeless Council and Action Ministries/Hope Atlanta. He currently lives in Woodstock, Georgia with his wife, Rachael, daughter, Iris, and dog, Zoey.

Christmas Day: Be Refreshed by the Word Made Flesh

John 1:1-14

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

Among the Gospel readings assigned for Christmas, my favorite has got to be the prologue to John’s Gospel. With its bold affirmation of the flesh, the prologue unmistakably rejects all those early Christian heresies that denied the full-body reality of Jesus Christ. The Word did not just appear to be flesh, it became flesh and lived among us, thus making it crystal clear that God loves physical matter: God made it, God became it, and God wants us to experience Him through it. Ever since William Temple declared that “the Word made flesh” is the most important phrase in all of Christianity, Anglican Johannine scholars have tended to emphasize this flesh-affirming character of John’s Gospel.[1] As an Anglican priest who has published a book on John, I find myself standing in this lineage and eager to share the Gospel’s invitations to affirm the flesh as God’s preferred vehicle for His glory.

It was this affirmation of the flesh that surprised me most in studying the Johannine Jesus, whom one scholar famously described as a detached “god who glides across the face of the earth” and whom another scholar called a “stranger from heaven.”[2] Although I wasn’t looking for it, I kept noticing how much John’s Jesus seems to love the world and take great delight in earthly pleasures. He inaugurates his ministry by miraculously bringing more wine to a wedding party in which the guests are already sufficiently drunk (2:10); his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well is charged with nuptial and even erotic overtones (4:1-42); he offends listeners with a description of the Bread of Life that is far too fleshy for their religious tastes (6:60-61); he makes healing ointment out of dirt and saliva (9:6); he receives an expensive and seemingly excessive foot anointing from a female friend (12:1-8); and he himself strips down to almost nothing to wash his disciples’ feet (13:1-11). This Johannine Jesus is no stranger to the world.

John’s prologue functions as a poetic prelude to the almost scandalous ways that Jesus delights in creation; and the prologue invites us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the matter that is all around us and the matter that is us. On Christmas day, as we celebrate the Christ Mystery born of a woman’s body, John’s prologue reminds us to appreciate the gift of our bodies and to experience our flesh (and the earth!) as sacred vessels for divine life and expression. One helpful way that John’s flesh-affirming prologue invites us to celebrate the Incarnation is by helping us to appreciate the gift of our five senses, which are all explicitly referenced in the Gospel’s subsequent narrative.[3] When Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, he invites us to appreciate the gift of audition by teaching the Pharisee about the spiritual significance of simply listening to the wind (3:8). The gift of taste is underscored when Jesus quenches the Samaritan woman’s deepest thirst (4:14). In the healing of the man born blind, we learn to appreciate the gift of vision by seeing God’s healing power at work in the messy muddiness of our lives (9:6). The gift of olfaction is highlighted as Jesus invites Martha and Mary to smell the subtle hints of resurrection in the midst of death (John 11:39); and Jesus emphasizes the gift of touch in his beautiful and enigmatic exchanges with Mary Magdalene and Thomas (John 20:17, 27).[4] Throughout the Fourth Gospel, the Word Made Flesh invites us to be refreshed by the gift of our own flesh, our own temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), specifically by appreciating our five senses.

Another way the Word Made Flesh offers refreshment is by inviting us to rest. The Word who was with God at the beginning of creation knows the crucial importance of Sabbath rest (Genesis 2:2). So, it is no surprise that Christ urges his disciples and us to rest and abide in him (15:4, 7), to honor our flesh by giving it proper time to rest. This might be the Gospel’s most helpful piece of advice on Christmas Day for preachers and parishioners, who are likely exhausted after a busy and demanding Advent season, especially during a pandemic.

Traditionally, the author of the prologue is St. John the Evangelist, whose feast day happens to be celebrated on the third day of Christmas (Dec 27). Identified as the “Beloved Disciple,” St. John exemplifies perfect rest when he reclines next to Jesus during their last evening together (13:23). According to the Celtic Christians, St. John was resting upon the bosom of Christ and listening to his heartbeat.[5] On Christmas day, when Episcopalians pray to be “renewed by the Holy Spirit,” may we all be refreshed by deepening our appreciation for our five senses and by resting and abiding in Christ, whose heart continues to beat in our own holy flesh.


[1] William Temple, Nature, Man and God: Gifford Lectures, Lecture XIX: “The Sacramental Universe” (London: Macmillan), 478; as cited in Christ In All Things: William Temple and His Writings, ed. Stephen Spencer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 130. Anglican Johannine scholars who have emphasized the flesh-affirming character of the Fourth Gospel include John A. T. Robinson, Richard Bauckham, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Dorothy Lee.

[2] Ernst Käsemann, The Testament of Jesus: According to John 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 75. Marinus de Jonge, Jesus: Stranger from Heaven and Son of God: Jesus Christ and the Christians in Johannine Perspective (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1971).  

[3] I am indebted to Dorothy Lee, whose scholarship on John and the five senses have helped me to see the many ways that the Gospel affirms the flesh. See Dorothy Lee, “The Gospel of John and the Five Senses,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (Spring 2010). Also see Dorothy Lee, Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John (New York: Herder & Herder, 2002).

[4] During Lent (Year A), the Revised Common Lectionary assigns the above readings from John’s Gospel on Sundays, referencing the gifts of audition (3:1-17), taste (4:5-42), vision (9:1-41), and olfaction (11:1-45), while the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday references touch (20:1-18). Inspired by Dorothy Lee’s work, I have offered Lenten retreats, workshops, and a sermon series on “Experiencing the Fourth Gospel Through the Five Senses.”

[5] See J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1997). Also see Bede, Ecclesiastical History 3.25 in which “the blessed evangelist John” is described as “worthy to recline on the breast of the Lord.”

The Rev. Daniel London, PhD is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka, California, where he loves to engage his five senses in the church’s gorgeous redwood sanctuary, especially during Christmas (as pictured above on Christmas in 2018.) He teaches online courses for Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal School for Deacons, and the Diocese of Northern California’s Center for Bible Study. He is the author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic) and serves on the Executive Board for the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars

Pentecost(A): Finding the Peace

Pentecost(A): Finding the Peace

John 20:19-23

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

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.

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Dr. Emily Kahm

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.

Easter 4(A): Smelling Like Sheep!

4th Sunday of Easter(A): Smelling Like Sheep

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. David Clifford

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.[6] 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!

[1] 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.

[2] Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.

[3] Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1

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The Rev. David Clifford

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.