Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

John 1:1-14

By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

What does it mean to truly live? This time of year is full of all kinds of wonderful things: friends having get togethers, office parties (though one could question the goodness of those), and family time. These are the times of year that we see people that maybe we’ve lost contact with over the course of the year and maybe we finally manage to reconnect. We get to make amazing memories of the holidays.

I remember my Christmases growing up in North Alabama. There weren’t many white Christmases to speak of, but there were lots of memories. My dad has always loved to decorate the house for Christmas. We always had these amazingly beautiful Christmas light displays: vis a vis Clark Griswold from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” There were two amazingly tall Southern Magnolia trees (magnolia grandiflora) in our front yard. They had to be at least 40-50 feet tall. Though I have to confess, they seemed bigger than that as a child. One year when I was a kid my dad decided that he wanted to hang lights on those trees in the front yard. I thought he was absolutely out of his mind. But he was determined, so he came up with a rig. He basically used a smaller tree with all the branches cut off, leaving only a Y at the top of the pole to run lights up into the huge magnolia trees. I can’t believe it even now! Looking back at it, I am amazed at his determination and his commitment to making something special and amazing of that Christmas.

I think about all of the special memories and amazing moments of my life and I am filled with awe and inspired to try to make wonder filled moments with the kids I work with. When I was in seminary, I remember one of my professors saying, “Christians and Jews march on their memory.” It is a comment that has stuck with me after many other things have passed from my memory. I think it has stuck because it is deeply ingrained in my own spirituality. It’s one of the ways that I seek balance and hope in times of trouble. To remember the depth of God’s love and the continual promise of God’s seeking human redemption. Lamentations tells us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

In certain moments it is very difficult to hold this idea and our experience of our daily lives hand in hand. I’m writing less than a week after the tragic shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My heart is broken by this tragedy and the hatred that has been leveled against my Jewish brothers and sisters. Hate is not found in the heart of God. Crimes of hatred and violence betray the very image of God that lays inside each and every human being. Just a few days after the shooting, I had the privilege of standing alongside Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, Mormons, Lutherans at a synagogue here in Calgary and declare that we will reject hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, and stand together as people of different faiths to support our Jewish brothers and sisters following the massacre in Pittsburgh. It is one of the positive moments to come from such a terrible tragedy, but it isn’t the only one. Our Muslim brothers and sisters formed rings of protection around synagogues in Toronto on the most recent Shabbat.[1] We have to look at the good things that can come from these horrible tragedies. It is hard for us to hold these terrible moments in human history alongside the Glory of God revealed in the incarnation.

It is easy to reflect on the power and prestige of the birth of Jesus, but when we celebrate the glory of the incarnation that comes into such a messed-up world where there’s violence and hatred and evil it is much harder to imagine the God of heaven and earth deciding to enter into this world for its redemption. I would love to believe that Jesus entered into a world that was filled with less hate or less pain, but that simply isn’t realistic. It isn’t true to the human experience, and it isn’t faithful to the message of God’s redemptive acts throughout human history for our salvation. God comes in times that are most confused when people have most lost their hope and direction in life and aren’t sure how to live as God’s people in a new age.

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, it was to break the yoke of Pharaoh’s slavery and give us freedom to worship and love God. When God brought God’s people into the promised land, it was that they might not wander lost in the desert eternally but to give them a home. When God came to dwell among us, it was not into a sanitized world apart from the reality of human suffering, but it was to a people who were oppressed by the Roman authorities and crushed under the burden of the legalistic religious authorities that we might know the freedom of true life. St. John Chrysostom in his famous homily says, “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.”[2]

Jesus comes to dwell in and among our ordinary human life filled with both suffering and beautiful things to show us the true treasure of life and invite us to participate in God’s saving work. That we might know the abundant life to which God has called us a life of freedom and belonging and to open to the whole world the way of salvation. There surely is no greater proclamation of God’s love than God’s enduring embrace of the whole of creation through the incarnation. God reaches out through the incarnation to make God’s love known to us and to the whole of creation.

[1] “‘We Share That Pain’: Muslims Form Rings of Peace at GTA Synagogues in Wake of U.S. Shooting.” CBC. November 03, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/gta-muslim-pittsburgh-synagogue-peace-ring-1.4890743.

[2] St. John Chrysostom. “St. John Chrysostom: Homily on Christmas Morning.” Prydain. December 25, 2008. https://prydain.wordpress.com/2008/12/25/st-john-chrysostom-homily-on-christmas-morning-3/.

 

 

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The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

The Rev. Jerrod W. McCormack was recently ordained a transitional deacon in Diocese of Calgary in the Anglican Church of Canada. He serves as the Spiritual Health Practitioner for the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Alberta and as a deacon for St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary. He’s a native of Alabama but has been sojourning in the Great White North for several years now and is pleased to call the Canadian Rockies home.

Reign of Christ(B): Talk Less, Listen More

Reign of Christ(B): Talk Less, Listen More

John 18:33-37

By: The Rev. David Clifford

Coming from a church that does not celebrate the liturgical calendar, I am aware that many Christians may not be aware of the particular festival that is celebrated as Reign of Christ Sunday. Within the liturgical calendar, Reign of Christ Sunday marks the end of Ordinary Time and as well as serving as a prologue to Advent (our preparation and waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas). I believe that knowing the purpose of this particular Sunday provides aid in the interpretation of the scripture appointed for today: John 18:33-37.

In preparing this essay, one part of the interaction between Jesus and Pilate really stood out to me. In the NRSV translation, Jesus answers Pilate’s question, “So you are a king?” with this response:

You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (verse 37)

In a world and culture where the loudest voices seem to get the most air time; where shouting and yelling seem to be the preferred method of getting our point across; where we fail repeatedly to truly hear the person on the other end of the conversation; it seems to me that listening is a skill and practice that we so desperately need to be teaching, learning, and practicing. In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus responds to the crowd’s desire to know if he truly is the Messiah by reminding both them and us that Jesus’ “sheep hear [his] voice” (John 10:27).

This particular scripture walks a very fine line between the politics and theology of Jesus, the early church, and first century Rome. The reality of that particular time period is that there was little to no separation between what we would classify theological and political. In many ways, the theology of the time was political and vice versa. It makes sense for Pilate to question Jesus’ status as king in order to understand if Jesus’ “Kingdom” poses a threat to Rome. Jesus points out that his kingdom is not of this world.

I personally interpreted this statement as Jesus claiming that his kingdom was not created in this world. The Common English Bible translates Jesus’ reply to Pilate as, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.” (John 18:36) Many seem to interpret this statement to mean that Jesus’ kingdom is “out there somewhere” and “not here.” In many ways, this type of interpretation keeps us from doing the work of Christ’s church right now and where we are. In the words of one of my favorite Christian musicians, TobyMac, “If you gotta start somewhere, why not here? If you gotta to start sometime, why not now?”[1] The Kingdom of God is both here, now and is always coming and developing into the future.

As I type this essay, Brett Kavanaugh is being questioned concerning the sexual assault allegations that have been brought to light in the midst of his nomination to the Supreme Court. It appears to me that most of our politics have become a yelling match. Each side attempting to scream the loudest in order to have their voice heard. All the while, the voice of those in pain and hurting are rarely heard or even acknowledged. This is concerning as both an American citizen and a human being.

As a pastor, I am more concerned that this type of culture is overflowing into our churches. Many churches are dividing themselves down theological and political lines. Many churches are yelling at the top of their lungs so their voice will be heard. However, I often find myself wondering how many of our churches are listening to the voice of Christ.

I believe Christ is asking us to do a better job at listening to one another. Maybe we should talk (and in most cases, yell) less and listen more. Maybe we should blame less and confess more. Maybe we should listen to the people that we hear every single day less and listen to the people no one hears more. Jesus shares a very powerful parable in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel about the nations being separated as sheep are separated from goats. One side will be blessed because they feed Christ when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, clothes him when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison. The scripture continues in verse 37:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we say you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40 NRSV)

For those that may be preaching on this text and preparing sermons for the Advent celebration to come, I might suggest a similar focus on listening with care, love, and understanding. This Reign of Christ Sunday offers to us the importance of listening to the other (both politically and theologically). As we move into the Advent season, we begin to quiet our minds and prepare for the coming of the light of the world. What better time to begin intentionally practicing the listening skills that our world so desperately needs: skills such as listening, understanding, confessing, loving. Who knows? Maybe in learning to listen people to one another and learning to listen to the people no one else seems to listen to; we can learn to better listen to Christ himself: our Lord and Savior.

[1] TobyMac – City On Our Knees From the album Tonight.

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.

 

 

 

 

 

All Saints’ Day (B): Love Stronger Than Death

All Saints’ Day (B): Love Stronger Than Death

John 11:32-44

By: Ryan Young

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus is, I think, one of the most difficult pieces of scripture in the context of All Saints’ Sunday. It is the story of Jesus raising one of his friends from the dead, and we are supposed to preach this to a congregation, many of whom are dealing with the recent passing of loved ones who will not be returning any time soon. I will never forget the intense anger at God almost universally voiced by patients with whom I spent sleepless nights as a chaplain at Emory Hospital (to be sure, members of my current congregation experience the same, but it seems that people are more apt to voice those thoughts to a stranger). In the face of that anger, hurt, and confusion I am supposed to offer a story wherein Jesus overcame Lazarus’ death in a way that he did not for their loved ones?

Yes.

Yes, because this story offers us the identity of Jesus. Just prior to this snippet, in verse 25, Jesus claims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In raising Lazarus, that identity is fully revealed. It is God alone who holds power over life and death, and by exhibiting that power, Jesus is shown to be God incarnate.

By raising Lazarus, Jesus exhibits his power over death. By being raised himself, he will exhibit his victory over it. These two events cannot be separated in the Fourth Gospel. It is in fact Jesus’ raising of Lazarus that precipitated the final decision to kill Jesus (vv. 45-53). Jesus’ death is an expression of the measure of love that God has for creation, and his resurrection should convince us that the love of God will not be overcome. Moreover, this love leads Jesus to extend power over death to all who choose to accept it, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (vv.24-26) In other words, because of Jesus’ power expressed both in raising Lazarus and in his own resurrection, Christians are able to experience death differently.

Two years ago, I broke down during an Ash Wednesday service. The youth from the church had been sitting together and had all just come forward together to receive the imposition of ashes and to kneel for prayer at the altar. As our senior pastor proclaimed with each child, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” the truth of the service weighed heavily upon me—each of these children would die. My own child, with whom my wife was pregnant at the time, would also die one day. It is a truth that I could not bear then, and if I am honest it is a thought that I still have trouble entertaining for long. I think that is a sign that the Church has failed in one of its tasks. In my experience we do not talk much about death outside of a few special days each year, indeed unless you came to a Good Friday or All Saints’ service you may wonder what, if anything, Christians have to say about dying. In avoiding the subject of death, perhaps the Church has given the perception that the power of death is indeed stronger than God’s love.

Perhaps one of the reasons we are reluctant to talk about death is that we grasp so little about resurrection. Death seems to final and resurrection so ambiguous. Is it a bodily resurrection? Spiritual? Is it an eschatological hope, or might some on odd occasion share in Lazarus’ experience? If I’m being completely honest, I can’t tell you with any certainty. I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook version of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. To be clear, I am not intelligent enough to understand a third of the book, however I have always found Dr. Tyson to be a fascinating and engaging personality—as an added bonus, his voice puts my fussy one-year-old right to sleep. Near the beginning of the book, Tyson says that, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” This simple pronouncement recalled a truth I have always known. Mystery is baked into the fabric of existence. While not a theist, Tyson’s words served as a reminder that God is under no obligation to make sense to me.

We ought to talk about the raising of Lazarus, and not only on All Saints’ Day, but as often as we can because it points to the truth revealed in Jesus’ own resurrection—that death does not have the final word on human existence, but has been overcome by the love of God. God’s love for creation is so strong, so final, that it is present even in that of which we are most frightened. In Christ we hold to the mysterious promise of resurrection. Maybe it’s a promise that we can’t fully understand or explain, but it is nevertheless a promise to which we can cling.

 

In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
“How could you believe that the life within the seed
that grew arms that reached
And a heart that beat.
And lips that smiled
And eyes that cried.
Could ever die?”
Here come the blue skies Here comes springtime.
When the rivers run high & the tears run dry.
When everything that dies.
Shall rise.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.

-from the song “Love is Stronger Than Death” written by Matt Johnson

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Ryan Young with his wife, Rachael, and daughter, Iris

Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He earned his BA in Psychology from Clemson University and his Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Ryan, his wife Rachael, and their dog Zooey, are thrilled to all be adjusting to the birth of their daughter, Iris.

 

Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

John 3:13-17

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

It is becoming harder and harder for me to read the third chapter of the Gospel of John without worrying about the dangers embedded in a few beautiful lines. The image that comes to mind is Admiral Ackbar shouting, “It’s a trap!” during the Battle of Endor in the 1983 film “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” That may sound odd. After all, our pericope for the day contains one of the most popular lines in all Holy Scripture. The sixteenth verse, specifically, was thrust into the pantheon of American iconography thanks to Rollen Stewart, an eccentric and troubled man who would hoist signs during major sports broadcasts in the 1980s emblazoned with “John 3:16.” Introducing the Gospel to millions appeared to be Stewart’s goal, but as I have discovered in my own study, pulling this one verse out of the rich context of John’s entire story is dangerous business indeed.

Falling into the trap of focusing solely on the oft-confused and maligned sixteenth verse can result in wielding a weapon of exclusion and elitism rather than the life-giving tonic that it was meant to offer. John’s message was intended for a closed group of persecuted believers. This is a message of Good News and inclusion, meant to provide life and hope during dark days. The author would not have imagined that it would one day be wielded to exclude people from the faith or even worse, the basis for which violence might be conducted in efforts to “purify” and expunge infidels.

This well-worn passage also risks a superficial gloss by even the most careful of preachers. For those raised in the Church, it is one of the first memorized lines of scripture for even the youngest of disciples. We think we know it so well that there is nothing more left to reveal. In cases such as this one, it is helpful to heed the advice of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Whenever you come up on something about God, the Gospel, or the life of faith that everyone knows is true, step back from the reverential crowd whose gaze is fixed on it and look in the opposite direction—because nine times out of ten there is something just as true back there, though largely ignored because its benefits are less obvious and its truth harder to embrace.”[1]

For the discerning preacher, gazing in the opposite direction means exegeting one’s own community before wading into the waters of this text. What is your community’s current understanding of this passage? How much of John’s world and context do they understand? Are they even aware of the critical seventeenth verse?

Additionally, the preacher will need to have a solid understanding of how their community understands the cross. Within the lectionary cycle, this passage is the stock Gospel text for the Feast of Holy Cross Day (September 14). This holy day provides the Church with an opportunity to celebrate the cross itself as the instrument of salvation. The collect for the day recalls that Christ “was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself,” and prays that “we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.”[2] It has been my experience that congregations tend to be unbalanced when it comes to their glorying in the mystery of their redemption which offers preachers an opportunity to expand the possibilities of the cross and thus, humanity’s salvation. I have experienced some churches that spend most their salvific exploration on Good Friday and the crucifixion. Even on high holy days, these congregations tend to revel in the mortification and humiliation of the cross. These folks like sing about the grave on Christmas (just Google “cradle and the cross” Christmas lyrics.) On the other hand, I have experienced as many communities that rarely glory in the mystery of the cross because “it makes everyone feel bad.” In these congregations, Good Friday services were sparsely attended and during the few sermons that dealt with the topic, everyone squirmed uneasily in their seats, anxious for it to be over so that brunch plans could begin. Understanding where your community resides will help you determine the preaching path forward that might expand their approach to salvation.[3]

Holy Cross Day provides an opportunity to celebrate Christ’s redeeming death on a cross. One might ask if it is more honest to the Gospel message to balance the agony of the cross with the ultimate outcome–the resurrection of the One crucified for the salvation of all the world (v. 17.) To accomplish this task, the preacher might benefit from theologian Gerard Sloyan’s identification of the Johannine “double ‘upraising’ in crucifixion and resurrection” (8:28, 12:32, 34) throughout the book .[4]

For the church that inclines toward a more punitive atonement focused on Jesus’ death, they may need reminding that “God wills life and not death for all who believe in the only Son. That indeed is why God gave him (v. 16), not for the world’s condemnation but its salvation (v. 17) [emphasis mine].”[5] For the church that hesitates to acknowledge the cross, unpacking the true power of the cross during a feast day celebration, or perhaps more appropriately, in a small group teaching time, may deepen the faith by exploring the mystery of how a symbol of shameful systemic oppression was converted into a sign of hope and life.

This balancing act of the cross’ role in salvation is a perfect opportunity to draw out J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant description of the birth of Christ as the eucatastrophe of human history and the resurrection the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.[6] This imaginative phrasing of the paradox of salvation allows for a preacher to resist the trap of focusing solely on John’s sixteenth verse and instead, to invite the congregation to hold in tension both the crucifixion and the resurrection. To further emphasize the mysterious enigma of the cross on its feast day, singing the hymn “Lift high the cross” can highlight this that the cross is a sign of resurrection rather than one of death and shame, and that John’s Good News is that “once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, [Christ will] draw the world to thee!”

[1] Brown Taylor, Barbara. “Entering the Dark Cloud of God” Festival of Homiletics. 25 May 2014, Central Lutheran, Minneapolis. Address.

[2] The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer, Oxford UP, 2007.

[3] I find that in one-on-one and small group settings, inviting people to tell their earliest memories of Church and how the cross was introduced to them as young children, adolescents or even adults provides for the beginnings of exegeting their current understanding of the cross. These stories can aid a skillful preacher in contextualizing sermons on atonement for their congregation.

[4] Sloyan, Gerard. “John” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, 1988, 46.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Oxford UP, 1947.

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior 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 Christ.

Proper 16(B): Jesus’ Adaptation in Context

Proper 16(B): Jesus’ Adaptation in Context

John 6:56-69

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

Has this ever happened to you? You’re watching a movie, and right at the pivotal moment, the big plot twist, the major reveal, someone enters your space. This person knows nothing about the movie, and in the hope that you might be able to convey enough information in a short amount of time so that the new person might join in on the experience, this kind soul begins to ask you questions: “Who is that? What’s her story? Why are they fighting?”

FYI: If you’ve never experienced this, it’s possible that you might be that person!

This is exactly what I feel like when reading John 6:56-69. The lectionary throws the reader into the middle of a pivotal moment, without all the information. If read simply as the lectionary would have it, one might be under the impression that the disciples’ response in 6:60 is aimed specifically at Jesus’ statement beginning in verse 56, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

In reality, the disciples seem to be responding to a great deal more! Jesus’ teaching stretches back to 6:25. And the central gravity of the passage seemingly comes to a head at 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus says a few more things that seem to hold some weight. Things like:

“…‘This is my Father’s will: that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day’…” (6:40)

“…‘No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me’…” (6:44)

“…‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you’…” (6:53)

Only after a lot of teaching do we finally reach today’s lectionary’s selection.

…‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples who heard this said, ‘This message is harsh. Who can hear it?’… (6:56-60)

While Jesus’ graphic wording in this paragraph is hard to digest, the same can be said for the whole chapter. Jesus’ entire message is difficult! And what is that message? From my perspective, it seems to be this: Jesus is the bread of life, and the way to God. Unless one believes, one may not be raised up on the last day.

In seminary, I participated in an exercise that drew an imaginary line. On one end of the line was Exclusive Christianity (Christianity is the one, true religion.) On the other end, was Pluralistic Christianity (Christianity is one among many pathways to God.) And in the middle—Inclusive Christianity (Christianity is my pathway to God, and there may or may not be others.) We were then asked to figure out where we stood on the spectrum.

Through my first few years of ministry, I thought about that line a great deal, and I couldn’t help but notice that my place on that line tended to shift depending on my context. It still does.

For example, when involved in a deep discussion concerning Christian doctrine with someone who might stand on the Exclusive side, I find myself somewhere in the Inclusive space (possibly approaching Pluralistic.) Likewise, when in a similar discussion with someone who more closely identifies toward the Pluralistic range of things, I end up standing in between Inclusive and Exclusive. It all depends on context.

Similarly, if I participate in a religious conversation, it is going to sound a lot different with a believer than a nonbeliever. We adjust based on context.

This is something I love about Jesus. He is contextual. He adapts to the moment; to the people; to the context.

The same can be said for Jesus in John 6. At the very end of this long passage (in 6:64-66), we finally reach a break in the action, and we find out that Jesus has been aware from the beginning that some of his own disciples may not believe. In fact, the author of John writes that Jesus actually knows the specifics of who would not believe AND who would end up betraying him. Jesus actually states, “Some of you do not believe.”

Since context is important, we need to recognize that Jesus is not addressing the 12. He is addressing a larger group of disciples. A group that seems to include some who are much more committed to the movement than others, and even some who do not believe. And because some disciples do not believe but continue to “follow” Jesus, he declares this to be the reason for his “harsh” teaching, essentially serving to “weed out” the unbelievers from the believers, much like Organic Chemistry seeks to do with Pre-Med students. He’s testing for commitment. His teaching occurs in a context. Thus, the reason for the hard teaching.

I wonder if Jesus would address a crowd of “sinners” in the same way. I wonder if Jesus might address a group of Pharisees more harshly. I wonder if Jesus could say the same deep and difficult teaching to a group of new, post-modern followers. Or would he change the way he said it? Or would he use action? Or simply listen?

We serve an adaptable God, with an adaptable message, and ever-adapting manner by which the gospel makes its way into the world. But that same message of forgiveness, and hope, and love of Jesus Christ will always be the same. God will always be reconciling the world to Godself. But it may look/sound/feel different.

May your reading of Scripture look for context.

May your ministry take note of ways to adapt.

And may you know that God is a God of creativity, innovation, adaptation, and ultimately, love.

 

Andrew
The Rev. Andrew Chappell

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

Proper 15(B): Irrationally Incarnational

Proper 15(B): Irrationally Incarnational

John 6:51-58

By: The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

This appointed text is week four (of five) of John 6 in Year B, the “Olive Garden unlimited breadsticks” of the Revised Common Lectionary. This chapter from John is directly and indirectly why I am an Episcopalian and why I am a priest. I’m also fairly certain that I didn’t encounter this chapter from John, certainly not verses like these, until I was in college—and I grew up in a tradition that emphasized knowing the Bible.

Today’s passage comes between Jesus saying that eating this bread, unlike eating manna, brings life eternal and the disciples saying that Jesus’ teaching is difficult to understand. This is a difficult teaching! It is mystical, spiritual, and irrational—but undeniably tangible, physical, earthy, and incarnational. Jesus is talking about heaven and eternal life, but he’s also talking about bread: a basic substance of human subsistence in almost every culture around the globe.

Jesus says that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven. Jesus says that whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Jesus says that the bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. Then there are complaints and questions. The structure of John 6:51-58 is suspiciously similar to John 6:41-51, which may indicate that this is a different tradition of the Bread of Life discourse added to tease out and emphasize Eucharistic themes.[1]

In the verses before this, there is no mention of blood. Furthermore, the requirement for reaching or having eternal life shifts in 51-58. Previously Jesus has talked about belief. (v. 35, 47) In this second, more clearly Eucharistic version of the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus changes the standard saying, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (53)

John’s tone toward Jewish leadership and how the church has used that to enable anti-Semitism over time must be acknowledged whenever it arises. This is no exception, even as Jewish leaders serve as a counter point to Jesus, inviting him to elaborate on his flesh and blood in the tradition of rabbinical debate. Jewish leaders have complained (twice in this chapter) about Jesus saying that he brings the Bread of Life. He has now upped the ante that unless one engages in cannibalism, eating flesh and drinking blood (see Brown for why the Greek is not metaphor here)—against most social taboos across centuries, and anathema to his first century audience—one cannot have eternal life.

This is a difficult teaching! That’s probably why I never encountered it until college, despite growing up in a tradition that emphasized knowing the Bible. In these passages Jesus repeatedly describes his real flesh as real food, and his real blood as real blood. He says that by eating him his followers abide in him and he in them. It’s not rational, but it is incarnational. Eating—whether Jesus is eating or his followers are eating him—is an inherently embodied act. Jesus says it is this act that brings eternal life, and without this act, one has no life in themselves.

The irrational, mystical spirituality of this passage is probably why I didn’t encounter this text growing up in a modernist, rational American Protestant tradition. Looking at the Eucharist as an act of works-righteousness, and not a sacramental gift of God’s grace, doesn’t leave a lot of room for the mysticism of how completing the action, feeding on Jesus’s true flesh and true blood, brings salvation. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Jesus’ direction to eat his flesh and drink his blood is deeply spiritual, but necessarily incarnational. There is a paradox here that modernist rationalism has difficulty with. There’s a willingness to engage the paradox of the incarnation itself, but a resistance to engage with the idea that the plain and ordinary bread could be the flesh of God made human. Better to ignore it…despite Jesus’ promise that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, his followers abide in him and he in them. This is a promise that stands, even if they don’t always have special, warm feelings. He promises to show up in Bread, to be a body, to be held in hands and tasted on tongues.

It was this promise of showing up, this assurance of ongoing relationship, this deep abiding, that brought me to The Episcopal Church through the Eucharist, and to the priesthood to say week after week, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” This isn’t manna that keeps you alive just as long as your body lasts. This is the true bread, the real bread of life, the bread that brings eternal life. It’s not praying a prayer, or getting a warm feeling. It’s showing up in a body and doing a basic human act: eating.

As an out, gay man who grew up in Alabama in a modernist, rational American Protestant tradition, this passage has not only brought me deeper into my faith and helped me find a tradition, it has helped me — like the way John uses the Jewish leaders in this text — invite others to wonder about their blind spots in their biblical knowledge, or to notice ways that they aren’t as literalist as they think they are.

As an out, gay man from Alabama I still encounter those wielding scripture in an effort to clobber my vocation and call. For the last number of years, however, when confronted (in varying degrees of friendliness) with those clobber passages, I ask the person opposite me what they do with John 6:51-58. Are they familiar with it? What do they read into (or read out of) it? Do they know it the way they know Romans 1, as they emphasize “the whole body of Scripture?”

Jesus saying that the only way to eternal life is to eat his flesh and drink is blood isn’t easy to understand; it is mystical and spiritual. Abiding in God by eating and drinking is also deeply incarnational. Feasting on Jesus’ Flesh and Blood and it yielding eternal life is irrationally incarnational.

[1] Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966), 284-287.

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The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph-St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Washington. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their two cats Maggie and Stan. Joseph is an avid baker (but not eater of Olive Garden breadsticks) and enjoys lifting weights, trivia, show tunes, and refereeing very amateur adult soccer.

Proper 14(B): The Cosmic Jesus

Proper 14(B): The Cosmic Jesus

John 6:35; 41-51

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

This is the passage that’s turned more than one Baptist I know into Catholics. If you’re inclined toward the more literal end of scriptural interpretation, it’s a little hard to ignore Jesus’ words about his flesh actually being the bread that will save you from death. For many people, my friends included, these words translate directly to “transubstantiation.”

It’s true that the author of the Gospel of John often comes across as significantly more literal than the other Gospel writers, perhaps because the goal is to convince us that Jesus isn’t simply God-like, but one with God—the pre-existent, cosmic Logos. (See verse 45a, “They shall all be taught by God.”) But even for those of us who tend toward the metaphorical in our interpretations, this passage yields some really good stuff.

First up, there is verse 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Bread was it in the ancient world—if you were a poor peasant with nothing else between you and starvation, you’d still eat bread. (See the widow of Zarephath, 1 Kings 17:7-16.) The symbolic centrality of bread is reflected today by phrases such as “breadwinner,” “bread and butter,” and “breadbasket;” as Christians we double down on this imagery during communion.

So despite the fraught nature of our modern Western attitudes toward carbs, the phrase “I am the bread of life” still resonates deeply with the basic longings we as humans have for relationship with something (or rather someone) that gives us sustenance. Who among us—who in our congregations—hasn’t yearned for a greater sense of meaning in our lives, for freedom from our past mistakes and healing for our wounds, for assurance that we are loved just as we are? In short, who hasn’t hungered for a relationship that feeds us?

Despite John’s affection for stating things directly, Jesus is obviously not saying he is a loaf to be sliced up and made into sandwiches; rather, the very figurativeness of Jesus’ words here reminds us that connection with God nurtures us in a more profound way than any physical manna we might eat, any worldly pleasure or status we might seek.

Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, a great introduction to the Ignatian Examen, explores this spiritual sustenance more fully. The book gets its title from a story about traumatized children in World War II refugee camps who were finally able to sleep by holding a piece of bread in their hands—a powerful reminder that they would go hungry no more. The authors’ approach to the Examen invites us to see what gives us life during the day—how God is feeding us—and to hold on to that bread through all the things that might distract or drain us.

Or, as Blaise Pascal put it (rather more dramatically): “What else does this craving…proclaim but that there was once in [humanity] a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?” This so-called “God-shaped hole” we humans try “in vain to fill with everything around [us],” only to find that nothing quite satisfies, “since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God[’s own self].” –Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

Really, there’s a whole sermon in just that one verse!

Some of what’s there to unpack gets Jesus in trouble with the religious establishment—they hear in Jesus’ words an audacious claim to divinity (vv. 41-42), and, no doubt, blasphemous echoes of the Creator’s “I AM” statements (e.g. Exodus 3:14).

But Jesus declares it all a wash: whether God is drawing interested followers closer to the Divine through Jesus (v. 44), or they are being drawn to Jesus because they are already close to God (v. 45), the end result is the same—people are being fed spiritually in a way that gives life, beyond even death.

Plenty of early Christians had already indeed eaten of this bread and died—see 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff—so it’s likely that despite the tendency to interpret John literally, the gospel writer is speaking figuratively of life after death; or, if we want to get even more metaphorical, of avoiding spiritual death in the here and now.

Which means it’s time for a little biblical Greek. The NRSV’s “forever” in verse 51 – “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”—is the Greek phrase eis ton aiōna, or “to/in/towards/for/among the age.” Aiōn, from whence we get the English word “eon,” is often translated as “forever” or “eternal,” but as Rob Bell so elegantly explains in his book “Love Wins,” that gives a false sense of how it was used in other Greek sources from the time. Rather than being chronological in nature, aiōn was qualitative in nature—meaning not so much time-without-end as “timeless.” The English phrase “for the ages” captures part of it—something recognized as having value long past the current moment, something that lasts.

So we might think of Jesus’ words as more along the lines of “Whoever eats this bread will live with meaning far beyond the current moment; they will live a life of eternal value instead of one full of spiritual deadness.”

A little more biblical Greek: the “flesh” Jesus asks us to eat, sarx, can literally mean body; or it can mean human nature. I love thinking about verse 51c this way: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my humanness.” It turns the traditional sense of this verse as a reference to the cross (complete with morbid overtones of cannibalism!) into an invitation to embrace Jesus as the incarnation of a God who knows our human experience intimately; a God who has taken on such experience precisely to nourish us, to help us know how deeply we are loved.

(Just to make it a biblical Greek trinity, remember that pisteuōn, so often translated as “believe,” is much closer to our word “trust.” I find that a really helpful insight for parishioners who get caught up in what they think they have to believe about Jesus rather than how to trust in Jesus.)

We’ve gone from the mystic transubstantiation of eating the literal flesh of divinity so we’ll live forever to the ordinary humanness of eating bread so we’ll remember what’s of sustaining, eternal value in the here and now. Perhaps this thoroughly metaphorical interpretation is a sign that the cosmic weight of John’s gospel is just as well understood symbolically as literally. Perhaps it’s a reminder that, just as in communion—no matter how you view it—ordinary words and symbols are God’s invitation to access the spiritual sustenance we all crave.

 

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves a run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 4-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.