I hate it when my thoughts are given voice by the villains in stories. It’s just the worst.
Every time I read this passage about Mary’s extravagant and symbolic display of affection and devotion, I get uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I’ve awkwardly stumbled into a very romantic and intimate moment between Mary and Jesus. Just imagine, you’ve been invited to a dinner at Lazarus’ house, which is already kind of strange because Lazarus died. But now, Lazarus is alive again somehow and willing to host a meal at his home with his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus is listed as the host of the party, but Martha serves all the food. Then Mary pulls out some incredibly expensive perfume and rubs three-quarters of a pound of it into Jesus’ feet, lets down her hair, and rubs his feet again with her hair. This is so intimate.
Feet are intimate. Hair being let down is intimate. This is all very intimate. I can only imagine how awkward it would have been to be present for such a moment. Because of that, I know I would have had a million thoughts in my head about how inappropriate it was. The easiest to justify is that the use of three-quarters of a pound of pure nard was wasteful. If you’re going to make the dinner party uncomfortable, at least be thrifty. At least make an attempt at maintaining some holiness and decency.
Then Judas voices my discomfort and I feel a wave of shame wash over me.
The parenthetical verses explaining that Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus (12:4) and that his concern for the poor was a lie (12:6) don’t help either. Judas’ concern about the inappropriate use of perfume had nothing to do with any real care for the poor. He was concerned only about his comfort in a weird and intimate moment. Judas was concerned about his own desires for material wealth and the comfort that his position afforded him. Seeing a real and tangible display of affection for Jesus disrupted that sense of comfort and demonstrated a threat to Judas’ way of life.
I don’t really want to be too hard on Judas here. I think Judas represents more of us than we would like to admit. He’s a part of a new movement of religious hopefuls that are eager to overthrow the roman occupation and rebuild the Kingdom of God with power and wealth that had last been seen by Solomon. The only model for a new kingdom that any of have ever known is built with wealth and power, not with submission and love. His motivation is very human.
But, it isn’t the way of Jesus.
And that is the tension we stand in.
On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we are on the edge of the most dramatic and overwhelming weeks of our year. We are about to worship through the very real tension between our expectations of a new King that will overthrow an oppressive empire and the let down at watching him be crucified by his own religious community in the very same week before the drama of resurrection on Easter Sunday. This story about Mary’s intimate love for Jesus and Judas’ discomfort with her wastefulness is a perfect reminder of this tension. Mary is able to worship Jesus sacrificially and wholeheartedly as the Lord of life who can transcend death. And Judas is stuck wanting some benefit for himself.
So, this Sunday, I think it is important to do the important work of just sitting with this tension. For me, I do still kind of wish Jesus would use the power of God to just fix everything. I am disappointed that Jesus’ ministry was cut short after just a few years. I wonder what would have happened if he were willing to play by the rules of society. I imagine our world would look very different.
But, then again, it probably wouldn’t. As it turns out, humanity is already too good at using power and wealth to get more power and wealth. That is a cycle that seems to perpetuate itself. Mary demonstrates a drastically different way of pursuing life. She just loves extravagantly. Jesus shows a new way of life. He becomes a servant to the world in order to disrupt the cycle.
Preaching this scripture is weird. It’s a little too intimate and if you read it wrong, it can sound like Jesus doesn’t care about the poor. But I think that is a good reason to wrestle with this passage. It is a perfect reminder for all of us to reconsider the motives of our faith. Thank God for that.
The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.
Economics has long been called “the dismal science,” and, for me, the Parable of the Prodigal Son conjures memories of economics class in college. I am not what one would call, “a math person,” but rather someone much more interested in the roots of suffering than the root of an integer. In a nutshell, I’m bad at math, and I’d rather not do it to any great extent.
Imagine my horror on my first day of economics class. Numbers and equations, graphs and charts all spelled “doom” as I calculated that I needed four full semesters of this stuff to graduate college. Yet, somehow, from all these numbers I gleaned that there exists a “supply” of goods to be sold and a “demand” for them to be bought, and a good’s price depends on where this supply and demand meet.
Generally, as the demand for something increases, all other things being equal, its price increases. More people want something, so it becomes more expensive. As supply increases, the price of an object decreases. Because there is more to sell, and the same amount of demand, the object becomes cheaper. For example, if there are a ton of apples rotting in a warehouse, they are likely to be sold at a lower price than if apples were rare, juicy, and in demand. Or something like that.
Early on in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer rails against what he calls cheap grace. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares,” he writes. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the disease by which the Christian comes to rest on their laurels. With cheap grace, a Christian is led to believe “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.” Cheap grace produces no change of life, no discipleship, but rather becomes a throwaway commodity, an abundance of rotten apples.
After despairing at the abundance of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer establishes the concept of costly grace. He does this by metaphorically limiting its supply, saying, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.” The pastor writes that, because God’s sacrifice on the cross cost much, therefore grace itself costs the Christian much, even their life. Now, Bonhoeffer is rightly calling for Christians to display some sort of counter-cultural living and oppose the Nazi regime. His argument calls others to live like grace changes something. Costly grace is precious and rare. Costly grace is eight juicy granny smith apples when everyone wants to bake a pie.
Even the great Bonhoeffer cannot escape the laws of supply and demand, and Jesus paints a picture of extremely cheap grace. The supply is literally unlimited, driving its price down to zero. In this week’s parable, the youngest son wastes everything he has, spending himself into poverty. The father lavishes love, forgiveness, and—yes—money on his returned son by throwing an extravagant party. Only the older brother, who lived a life of moderation, wound up angry and corrected. I can hear the older brother yelling, “Cheap grace!” as he argues with his father.
This week, in the midst of our Lenten discipline, I will relish the opportunity to celebrate grace that is prodigal. Prodigal grace is neither cheap nor costly but rather hyper-abundant. From the Magnificat to the breaking of bread in Emmaus, Luke announces that Jesus brings the world into God’s economy. This economy is not bound by the earthly laws of supply and demand, for one could argue that the demand of sin is eternally high. God foolishly and enthusiastically showers us with grace upon grace, believing like the parable’s father that our life is worth celebrating. Yet, in God’s world, that which is abundant remains extremely valuable; a precious gift.
While many may wish for grace to be cheap, many others still prefer it remain too expensive for most to afford. The weekly churchgoer, faithful though they may be, may likely see themselves as the prodigal son, the forgiven one. However, their actions may be more like the older brother, preferring that the price of God’s love remain out of the reach of “those people.” Some may even quote Bonhoeffer down their noses, demanding to see signs of costly grace. This parable, however, reminds us that even (especially) the spendthrift, the disrespectful, the prodigal remain loved and celebrated and welcomed. Perhaps the change that Bonhoeffer wishes grace to cause is the movement from self-righteous brother to extravagant father.
I may not know economics, but I have an understanding of prodigal grace. Prodigal grace changes lives, however freely given it is. Prodigal grace provides homes for those who can’t seem to pay their bills on time. Prodigal grace welcomes refugees even though they overstayed a tourist visa. Prodigal grace prays with a prisoner after their guilty verdict. Prodigal grace puts one’s life on the line for those persecuted in Nazi Germany. Prodigal grace is priceless, lavished on those who can’t afford it. Prodigal grace offends the pious. Prodigal grace even forgives the bad joke at the end of an essay. How do you like dem apples?
The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is how Jesus speaks of the city that plans to kill him, the city to which he has set his face, to which he is on his way — but not there yet. “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
For whatever reason, this passage from Luke stirs in me Jesus’ tenderness. Like Zechariah says upon first seeing Jesus, in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us. Here we hear Jesus tenderly talking of the city of his people, even in the midst of his own personal trials and tribulations, which aren’t even coming to a head yet. He’s not yet to the cross, but he knows where he is going.
The lectionary plays somewhat fast and loose with the passages from Luke this Lent, starting in Luke 4, fast forwarding us to the middle of Luke 13, and then having us at the beginning of Luke 13 before going to Luke 15. As the depths of Lent increase, so too must the preparations for baptism — the culmination of Lent at the Great Vigil of Easter. Rather than asking “What does this text have to do with repentance?” we must ask “What does this text have to do with baptismal formation?” of which repentance is necessarily a part.
As far back as Luke 9 (vss. 51-56), Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, a passage that does not appear in the Sunday RCL Lenten lectionary. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem in a town that does not welcome him in Luke 9. This is a Samaritan village that does not receive him. The disciples, who have professed him as Messiah and heard him predict his own death, want to destroy the village with fire and brimstone rained down from heaven. Jesus suggests that they simply try another town.
In today’s passage, Jesus has been going through villages that do welcome him. He’s preached turn or burn sermons, healed a crippled woman, told a story about the necessity of preparing plants for harvest before giving up on them, made a joke about the Kingdom of Heaven being a weed that is somehow much larger than ever earthly possible, said that God’s reign is moving through creation like a little bit of yeast through flour, and directed the difficulty of following him.
Now in our passage, a Pharisee—teachers of the law who are not Jesus greatest allies—warns him to stay away! “Herod is trying to kill you!” Jesus is unfazed by this warning and command. He’s predicted his own death and made up his mind to go to Jerusalem. He responds not with safety and a plan to leave. He doesn’t do what the disciples tried to do at the Samaritan village, plan destruction in order to avoid difficulty. He answers with bravado and compassion — the tender compassion of our God as the dawn from on high breaks upon creation.
“You tell that fox” Jesus says, “I’ve got people to take care of. I’ll deal with him soon enough.” Then he shows God’s compassion my declaring again his ongoing mission during his earthly ministry: Casting out demons and performing cures. He’ll finish his work on the Third Day.
The foreshadowing in these three verses is so thick you can almost taste it. Jesus’ work will be accomplished on the Third Day, alluding to the Resurrection, while also again predicting his death: “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Those who warn him will not see him again until his triumphal entry, the beginning of the end of his life, as they call out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Even as Jesus predicts his death, he weeps for this city, this city where God has sent prophets and sages, monarchs and judges, to bring them back to God’s direction to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Time and again they have turned away from God by killing those who proclaim repentance and good news. Yet still Jesus’ response isn’t to destroy the city. It’s a listless sigh of the city’s name — and the desire to give it a hug.
This passage from Luke gives us one of the most tender images of God, and one of the most clearly feminine images of God in Greek Second Testament scripture: that of a mother hen gathering her brood unto herself. This is like the prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer describing Jesus as having “stretched[ed] out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.” (BCP, 101)
Julian of Norwich says this
Christ came in our poor flesh
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
Christ carried us within him in love and travail,
until the full time of his passion.
And when all was completed and he had carried us so for joy,
still all this could not satisfy the power of his wonderful love.
What then is a preacher to make of baptism from these five verses that are not about repentance, or even about water? In baptism, we are joined to Christ our mother, who carried us within him in love and travail until the full time of his Passion. We are joined to his death and resurrection through the waters of the font, the womb of the Church by which we are born of water and the Spirit.
God’s love, known through Jesus’ words, is not unlike the sighs earthly mothers make for their children who they know can do better but haven’t seen how or chosen how yet. Still, God continues to send prophets, sages, and preachers to call them to do better. In baptism, Christians are gathered under God’s wing, and when renewing their baptismal promises try to do better. Again. The passage from Luke 13 appointed for the Second Sunday of Lent in RCL Year C invites Christians to look deeper into God’s love for them while living the reality of their faults. While not about repentance, this passage is deeply about baptismal formation, preparation, and daily living.
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews currently lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon and their cats Stanton and Maggie. In his spare time — of which he currently has too much — Joseph plans and cooks food for the week, sews liturgical vestments, goes to the gym and is working on a pattern for a romper. His cats, food, progress photos, and sewing are all on his Instagram, @josephpmathews.
When I was in seminary, I was required to do CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education. My CPE placement was at a hospice outside of Atlanta that had an in-patient unit for severe cases, or for families who had home care but need a break or additional medical treatment for a short stay.
As a freshly minted seminary graduate, but not yet an ordained minister, I began my summer as a hospice chaplain. In many ways, I loved working at the hospice. The nurses were caring in a way that I had not seen in other medical settings. You have to have a certain mindset to care for patients who you know will not survive their illness. I walked with grieving family members and held the hands of those who faced death with varying reaction: stoicism, quiet contemplation, relaxed joy, and assurance. And, unlike other medical situations, I always knew what I was getting when I walked into a room: someone was dying.
Yet I found that hospice chaplaincy—and much of ministry in mainstream America—is infused with a pernicious lie: that God Has A Plan.
I loathe the “God Has A Plan” sentiment. It’s theologically bereft, shallow, and only sounds good to her person saying it (and I’ve said it).
God Has A Plan theology shows up in times of crisis, times of unexpected misfortune, or distress. God Has A Plan helps us to feel like there is something in control of all this awfulness, and that my suffering—my heartache—means something.
God Has A Plan when my high school best friend lost her dad to cancer right before her 19th birthday.
God Has A Plan when my colleague labors to deliver her baby girl, only to find that the baby died in the delivery process.
God Has A Plan when a freak car accident takes a student’s life.
God Has A Plan theology is a lie.
The reading for this Sunday in Luke 13:1-9, shows Jesus summarily dismissing God Has A Plan theology. He addresses the crowds and asks first, whether or not the Galileans who were butchered by Pilate so inhumanely that their blood was mixed with their sacrifice, were worse sinners than the Israelites in the crowd.
What Jesus is asking in a larger sense is: are people who die because of human sin/folly/evil actions sinners who deserve to die? Did their sin cause and/or justified their deaths? This is a theology linked to God Has A Plan, which is that Sin Causes All My Suffering. Sin Causes All My Suffering theology jumps over human freedom and places all actions as a result of God’s will.
The second example Jesus gives is of eighteen people who were killed when the Tower at Siloam fell. He asks the crowd if those eighteen were worse sinners because of that horrible accident. Here too, Jesus is pointing to God Has A Plan theology—that God planned their deaths for some inexplicable reason: punishment for sin, for some greater glory, because God does whatever an omnipotent, omniscient, immortal being wants.
To both of these problematic theologies Jesus says, “No, I tell you.”
Their deaths expose the fragility of life—and the urgency that we each should have in repentance. We can’t know when our lives will end, whether by human folly or freak accident. So, we need to repent now.
Jesus wants us to Take Life Seriously. Take Life Seriously theology means recognizing how precious—and precarious—life is and living differently because of it.
His parable of the fig tree that follows (Luke 13: 6-9) shows that judgement and mercy are interwoven. The fig tree isn’t producing and a farmer *sought* to rip it up and plant a new tree that can produce fruit. But, the gardener advocates for one more year. While it’s tempting to read this as a straight allegory, I think it’s better as a metaphor. Life is precious. Each year is valuable, and judgment is inevitable. Take Life Seriously. Repent, live differently, and get to the good work of building God’s kingdom.
So this Lent, check that bad theology at the door! Get rid of your God Has A Plan and your Sin Causes All My Suffering. Take Life Seriously and revel in its preciousness. Don’t wait to make the changes you’ve been considering—start today! And know that in the midst of the worst distress, we have a Savior who journeys with us.
The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.
The irony of this passage is that it tempts the preacher to write about ALL OF THE THINGS![i] There is SO much packed into this short segment that it provides rich fodder for the preaching and pastoral imagination, and it could be explored any number of ways. The challenge, then, is to pick one direction – what is the one thing that you most want your people to hear in this story?
The trial of a well-known text, for me, is finding the refreshing new angle; the new thing to say about it that hasn’t already been heard, preached, or commented on umpteen times. And yet, as I read once again this familiar story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, I heard something I had never heard before in the many times I have heard it proclaimed and preached and meditated on: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Forty days (Bible speak for a really long time) of tempting and testing and trial and tribulation precede the three traditional temptations that we focus on. The thing I never noticed before is that Jesus only gets these three major temptations when he’s already at the end of his rope. (Not to mention not eating anything all that time! If Jesus was anything like me without food, he was probably hangry, too.) If he’s gone through test after test after test, he’s likely bone-tired, creativity drained, energy exhausted; mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally spent.
Haven’t we all been there? At some point or other, it all catches up to us. Perhaps our forty days have been the last few months, or a year, or maybe even longer. Everything that could go wrong, it seems, has. Bills pile up. Job satisfaction is low. The country, maybe even the world, appears happily headed to hell in a handbasket. Our communities are in chaos, the drama is never-ending. Maybe we’ve been through abnormally painful personal ordeals: friendships and marriages fail, toxic family relationships demand more than we have to give, an unexpected medical or spiritual illness zaps our strength, we lose out on that dream job.
It’s then – when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted – at that moment when we’re starving for refreshment, that the devil pops into our head with a juicy temptation. Why not just cut off that toxic family member? Why not just tell that friend to go to hell? Why not throw that difficult coworker under the bus and take the promotion yourself? Why not just call it quits entirely, walk away and don’t look back?
But here’s the thing… we only reach those moments of total burnout, and the temptation to give in and give it all up, when, like Jesus, we have been tested for a really long time during which we have eaten nothing at all. I wonder if this story introduces us not to the divine Jesus, but to the fundamentally human Jesus? This is a Jesus I can relate to: hangry, tired, fed up, and really, trulytempted to take advantage of the options the Devil offers.
The first temptation is to put the gifts I’ve been given to the wrong use, where my own self-interest becomes my fundamental priority. This is why I love my tradition’s definition of sin: the seeking of my own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting my relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. We live in a culture that tells us our happiness is dependent on “making it” to that place where we feel fulfilled, happy, stable. And, of course, tells us that the way to do that is to accumulate. Fill our lives with things that will give us that sense of happiness and stability. But if my “happiness” and “stability” is dependent on physical fulfillment – whether having that perfect closet of clothes and accessories to support the “got it all together” image I want to project, or having enough money in the bank to not have to worry about buying groceries or paying rent – I have given in to the temptation to self-reliance and independence from God. I think a lot of people think “I’ll give my gifts when I’m stable enough to give.” I think a lot of us humans convince ourselves that once we’ve “made it” we’ll be in a better position to help the other people God calls our attention to. When my hunger is met, of course I’ll my power to turn stones into bread to help feed other people. Jesus himself could have put that power to good use and become a very popular guy with all those actual hungry people he was trying to minister to. But the problem is, we never “make it.” Life happens. There will always be some other problem, some other bill to pay, some other item I have to have to fill the void. And when my behavior reinforces putting myself first every time, by the time there’s enough or more than enough to meet my own needs, I tend not to give or to give as much as I could because, well, there’s that vacation I really want to take, or that next item to purchase that will convince me I have all I need. The energetic and spiritual deprivation that comes with accumulation, ironically, results in deeper hunger to have more. One only needs to listen to Lily Allen’s song, The Fear, to understand the toll this culture of consumption takes on our spiritual well-being.
Jesus’s response to the temptation to put himself first was to remind himself that “one does not live by bread alone.” Those who live in poverty, who actually struggle every day to meet their physical needs, are often those who trust most in God’s provision and care. They have to. Those with resources tend to rely on themselves; those without know they are dependent on others and on God and have the humility to admit it. Even those of us with resources are only one major illness or accident away from finding ourselves in the place of depending on God and others to get us through. We get it backwards – our cultural ideals of “happiness” and “stability” are fleeting. Physical satisfaction alone cannot satiate spiritual hunger, and self-care is different from self-absorption. Only our deep relationship with the Divine, the source of the things that truly matter in life, and connection with compassionate communities of care provide us the spiritual nourishment necessary to bring us through the wildernesses we journey through.
The second temptation is to take the easy way out, to trade what God calls me to do for power and prestige. To do what’s convenient instead of what’s right or just. We need look no further than the halls of power in our own country to see how prevalent and rampant this particular human temptation is, and the impact that thirst for power has on the whole. Or perhaps our own churches. Or our own families. The human craving for power is as ancient and insidious as the human desire to be like God that tempted the first humans in the garden. And power plays play out in all kinds of ways. Promoting my own agenda instead of what’s best for the group. Withholding affection, or resources, or support in order to get my own way. Allowing my own perception of reality to sway my participation towards what I’m most comfortable with over what requires me to change. Our lives are not lived in black and white; usually we find ourselves in gray areas where right and wrong aren’t terribly clear. More often, our choice is between bad and worse, or good and better. Subtle, seemingly small and insignificant choices in how I live, how I progress through the journey of life, whether I accept the reward for conforming to the status quo and upholding misused power and control – these are the moments that can greatly affect the state of my soul, my relationship with God, and with my neighbor. The temptation to “get ahead” might lead me to base my worth, my value, on success rather than faithfulness. Or to use my power to exercise control over people instead of advocating for justice and mutuality. Or to allow the riches of the world to distract and captivate my attention instead of doing the work God has given me to do. Or to compromise where God might want me to take a stand. When we trade on our integrity for comfort and convenience, the rewards may be great indeed… but what does it profit me to gain the world and lose my soul?
Jesus responds to this second temptation by remembering and recognizing the Ultimate source of his power and authority. All he has been given is to be used to accomplish God’s purpose, which is also Jesus’s purpose: reconciling humanity with God and God incarnate in humanity. Jesus will exercise power. He will forgive sins, cast out demons, heal disease and infirmity. I suppose that Jesus could have decided to set up shop, could have made a lucrative career out of being a healer and miracle-worker, could have taken the easy way out and the easy power the Devil offered. But he didn’t. He kept his focus on God, trusted in God’s call and God’s will, and refused to be distracted from the mission God gave him. And through him, God’s love reigned supreme, love which overturns and transforms human power and greed.
The final temptation I once heard described at a leadership conference as the temptation to perform to the expectations of the crowd. The problem with basing your self-worth on the approval of the crowd is that you’ll have to throw yourself off higher and higher heights to continue to impress. Jumped off the Temple, you say? Saw that one last week. We’ll really be impressed when you jump off that cliff! That’s a great interpretation, but the deeper challenge here is whether or not we’ll really submit, really surrender to God’s will and God’s call regardless of where God might lead us. God’s call, while always good, is rarely easy. Death is certainly involved, even if only dying to self-will, but to truly follow God’s call often comes with a cost to give up more than we might want to. And so this temptation usually comes at the most opportune moment – in that moment when I’ve given all I think I have to give, when I’m at the end of my rope, when I’m tired or discouraged or frustrated and there’s nothing but me and the choice I must make to trust the call that I’ve heard. Those moments when I’ve been tempted to throw it all in and get out while I can, those are the moments I’m tempted by escape, rescue from the burden of following God where I really don’t want to go. Maybe it’s escape from my vocation, or from the particular ministry I’m involved in, maybe from having to give up my possessions and move halfway around the globe to be a missionary to unknown people in an unknown land. Maybe it’s to do the hard work of confronting broken relationship. Maybe it’s being present in and with the extreme suffering of another person. Maybe it’s having to excise those parts of my ego and psyche that continually resist God’s commands.
In this challenge, the Devil presents Jesus with the temptation to be rescued from sure and certain death. This is the mother of all temptations. Go ahead, put God’s promises to the test. What I’ve discovered is that this temptation to escape usually comes precisely at the moment I’m actually most in concert with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. When I actually am doing God’s will. When I am following, however imperfectly, though I may know nothing about it. If the forces of evil really want to work a number on us, this is the way to do it. Get her to give up when she’s just getting going. Make it seem like nothing he’s doing is accomplishing anything. Kick them out of sync with what God’s about to do, derail the plan. But Jesus’s response is to submit to God’s command. To drink the cup though he did not want to. Jesus fulfills God’s purpose, and his purpose, not by escaping but by accepting his call. Trusting. Choosing to do what he knew God wanted of him, even though it meant suffering and death, even though he would have chosen otherwise if left to his own devices. And in following God’s call, Jesus utterly vanquished the powers of evil and death.
Jesus knew temptation, a universally human experience. For me, the power in this story, “the wonder is not that Jesus was incapable of sinning, but that he was able to avoid sinning although he was tempted.”[ii] What gave Jesus the strength, over and over again? Because these refusals weren’t the end: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” For us humans, the opportune time are those moments when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted. If that’s where you’re at, you definitely haven’t been eating enough!
We could do worse than to adopt Jesus’s rule of life: “One does not live by bread alone”: go do something that fills you with joy! Connect with a friend. Do something creative. Get out of your office and take a walk. Whatever it is that gives you joy, joy is one of the sure signs that God’s kingdom is present and active.
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”: Fill your mind, heart, and soul with scripture – know it and use it as Jesus did. Choose to trust in God’s promises. God’s brought you to this moment, right now, and hasn’t done that just to drop you on your face. Believe that you are beloved, you are called, and you are enough.
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”: Faithfully resist the temptation to do less or other than what God has called YOU to do. God has given you everything you need to fulfill the purpose for which you are chosen. Pray regularly for God to guide and direct your paths. All of us have to “work it out” as St. Paul says; “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”[iii]
The more that I learn about the spiritual life, this strange calling to walk in the Way of Jesus, the more I fall in love with this beloved prayer penned by Thomas Merton – may it be comfort and grace to you, too.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
[i] For an excellent explanation of ALL OF THE THINGS contained in this text, including some of the thoughts that influenced this essay, see Alan Culpepper’s commentary on this passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.
Four years ago, I gave birth to my first child. After hours of intense labor, I was exhausted and in need of rest and healing more than ever before. Ironically, the finish line of the giving birth marathon was also the starting point of a new marathon. Before I even left the delivery room, I began caring for this squishy and vulnerable little person. As I held her on my chest to keep her warm, caring for her became the most important purpose in my life. I have taken care of her nearly every single day since. Though she constantly becomes more independent, I am back in the trenches of baby care with my new son. It truly is a marathon of feeding, changing diapers, bathing, snuggling, and assuring that both children are tended to every moment of every day.
I have always loved the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet for the way it resonates with what I understand to be the very heart of Christian teaching: that by humbly serving those considered lesser by the world, we can experience God’s love for us. That in Jesus’s love for each of us, especially the poor and oppressed, the whole world is saved. Since becoming a mother, though, I understand this passage in a new light. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, even knowing that he was about to be betrayed, was not a mere symbol of his love for them. This act of physical care is a literal representation of his love for his disciples. Though I understand the symbolism of feet within this context, I would argue that this act is not about the feet. When I change my son’s diaper, it is impossible to separate the act of caretaking from the love I have for him. The wiping, the words I speak to him, the songs I sing, the eye contact I make, the care I take to ensure the tabs are not attached in a way that scratches his skin—these things are all physical manifestations of my love. Though these years of constant physical care are certainly draining, my husband and children are the very easiest people for me to love. In practicing love for them, I become better equipped to love each person in my life.
In the second part of this passage, Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrates a love that we can extend to anyone. The way Jesus encourages us to extend love reminds me of the Buddhist principle of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness is the kind of love that actively changes the way you see others, “the heart-felt aspiration for the happiness of beings and is the antidote to hatred and fear.” In the development of lovingkindness, love of even one’s enemies begins with meditation on loving one’s self. Only once you truly love yourself, believing that you are deserving of peace and freedom from suffering, you move to loving someone dear to you. After myself, I might focus on my baby son, who is adorably easy to love. From there, you move to someone who is neutral to you, and eventually on to someone who is difficult for you to love. From your starting point of loving yourself and those close to you, you can picture the ways that this not-so-lovable person is not very different than you or your beloved at all. That person that is hard for me to see eye-to-eye with was once someone’s baby. Someone once changed that person’s diapers, fastening the tabs to make sure they weren’t scratchy.
Though I (thankfully!) don’t physically care for every person I come across, these acts of physical care for those closest to me can nurture a love that I can ultimately feel for any person. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was not only an act of love for his disciples, but an act of humble love for the whole world. I imagine that Jesus intended this initial physical act of service to symbolize how we are to love the world. Like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples of water starting small but quickly growing larger to reach all the water, our small acts can help us to love as Jesus loved. Jesus washed the feet of only a few men, but in doing so taught us to love and serve everyone.
Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and two children in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The scripture passage for Good Friday is a narrative so dramatic it leaps off the page. When I read John’s account, I’m transported back to a live Stations of the Cross in Biloxi, Mississippi several years back. As we followed the man playing Jesus in the last moments of his earthly life, being hoisted up onto a cross with a crown of thorns on his head, my emotions were on a roller coaster. In the space of less than two chapters, after all, we have anger, betrayal, disbelief, unimaginable sorrow, fear, shame, impotence, bloodlust, and more. The writer of the gospel certainly has crafted a tour de force designed to bring us into the thick of the action.
Despite the pathos of the story he tells, though, John’s goal here is not necessarily to excite our empathy. Just as he started off his gospel with John the Baptist’s testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, he continues to make his case in Jesus’ last mortal moments. As in the beginning, scriptural fulfilment (18:9, 32; 19:24, 28, 36) and others’ testimony are given priority; it’s as if John insists, “Don’t take my word for it.” And we get no help from Jesus himself, who confirms nothing other than his name and his hometown, pushing his interrogators to decide for themselves just who he is.
I have to admit, this is not my favorite Jesus. The other Gospel crucifixion scenes dwell on Jesus’ humanity; Jesus talks to God, cries out, bleeds, sweats, agonizes. By contrast, John’s Jesus does everything according to scriptural formulae laid out long ago; even his thirst is a pre-ordained fulfillment of prophecy rather than a matter of simple biological need. And though he shows compassion for his disciples and his mother, there is no hint of personal suffering. John’s portrait of Jesus as the cosmic Logos, somewhat distant from the upheavals of everyday life, is consistent even in death; very little humanity clouds the aura of his stoic, enigmatic Messiah.
In a way it can be deeply reassuring that Jesus is untouched by the world’s cruelty; sometimes we need a Savior who is above it all, a classically powerful, unchanging rock to which to cling. But I find more comfort in the very real dilemmas of the other characters portrayed. While Jesus may be the calm at the center, the supporting cast is anything but static. Whose inner turmoil do we identify with? When have we betrayed; when have we faltered; when have we had our hearts broken seemingly beyond repair?
To his credit, John has given us many points of entry into these mini-dramas. There is Judas, as John portrays him a pawn of the devil (13:2) betraying Jesus out of demonic compulsion or perhaps out of his own fear (which may be, in the end, the same thing.) There is Peter, eager to defend Jesus from behind the shield of violence, yet without it unable to admit his association with his teacher. There is the police officer, frustrated at Jesus’ obfuscation. There is Pilate, hemmed in by his own impotence and apparently by divine fiat (19:11), unable or unwilling to risk his authority to do what is right. There is the crowd and the soldiers, acquiescing to a mob mentality they may later regret. There are the Marys, silent but steadfast witnesses to their beloved’s torture. There is the heart-wrenching moment linking Jesus’ mother Mary and the disciple whom he loves, given to each other as a balm against the raw wound of his approaching death. There is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both afraid to publicly admit their discipleship while Jesus lived, but clandestinely willing to care for him in death.
John’s commitment to the fulfillment of scriptural destiny means everyone is caught up in machinations they have no power change. Pilate struggles the hardest to turn the tide but ultimately fails; as Jesus tells him, none of this would have happened without having been ordained by a higher authority. This, too, can work to distance us from a God who has long ago ordered that it should be this way; or it can help us feel that we are not alone in being overwhelmed by events beyond our control.
John’s narrative is one of sweeping power and momentum; we, along with Jesus, are driven unswervingly to its end. Evil, grief, and suffering often seem this way—inexorable, insurmountable. Yet John’s dramatic arc extends through resurrection—an event of equally cosmic proportions reminding us that God’s universe is ultimately tuned to goodness, to redemption, to grace—to life.
PS: John is notorious for his use of the broad term “the Jews” to refer to those who clamor for Jesus’ death. (The Synoptics refer to a narrower group defined by their religious authority, not simply their religion.) This has long fueled anti-Jewish attitudes no matter John’s original intent. (Scholarly opinion varies from accusing John of straight up anti-Semitism to catering to an audience that wouldn’t have known who the Sadducees were to calling it a “class designation.”) When reading the Gospel aloud, I encourage you to consider using alternate translations such as “the religious authorities,” “the Jewish leaders,” or even the Jesus Seminar’s preferred term “the Judeans,” i.e. residents of Judea, a province hostile to Jesus’ ministry.
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 an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.
One of my guilty pleasures is watching movies about some type of earth-ending event, movies like Armageddon (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and San Andreas (2015). I love how most of these movies start calmly, pleasantly even, with everything just fine. The characters might even be in a celebratory mood—a new romance has blossomed, an important, high-profile job has begun and then, suddenly, things turn catastrophic. Life as they know it has ended. In a movie, this quick turn from good to bad is expected. It is part of the Hollywood formula. To go from a parade to an execution order and tortured death in the span of 45 minutes in worship, however, is almost too much for a congregation to handle. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “boy, that escalated quickly.”
But, did it really? Mark’s Gospel, our text for Year B, is known for its quick-tempo; but reading along throughout Lent, we have watched the rising escalation between Jesus and the religious authorities since the scripture’s abrupt beginning. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s dialogue in The Sun Also Rises:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Gradually and then suddenly. Mark’s Gospel starts off with a bang—healings, exorcisms, preaching with authority, and growing crowds drawn to Jesus, but we barely get out of the second chapter before the scribes began to question among themselves who this man from Nazareth thinks he is (2:6-7.) Gradually and then suddenly.
The arrival of Palm/Passion Sunday each year is the source of liturgical infighting among worship teams. There are camps that wonder why we can’t spend the whole Sunday focused on the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Why can’t we wave our palms and enjoy Jesus getting “his due” for once before we head into Holy Week and the cross? There are other camps that would prefer to skip over the palm parade and spend the Sunday firmly rooted in the Passion as in this excerpt. Those in this camp argue that practically one-third of Mark is taken up with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life,
the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death. Only 11 verses tell of his triumphal entry into the city of David. Still others feel we must compromise and squeeze it all in—start with joy and celebration at the gates of Jerusalem and move to grief and despair as the tomb is sealed. We should start of gradually with pomp and circumstance and then arrive suddenly at the tragic end of Jesus’ ministry. Liturgical whiplash be damned. Gradually and then suddenly, that’s how the end of our brief encounter with the God-of-us.
In my childhood Bible, I remember the illustration from the palm parade—it looked like there were thousands lining the streets welcoming Jesus, hanging out windows and up trees, it looked like an ancient version of the ticker-tape parade. My current favorite children’s illustration looks nothing like my childhood memory. This Jesus, in Christina Balit’s illustrated world, is wrapped tightly in his robe, bound tightly for death upon the colt, face drawn as in a death mask. Regardless of how Jesus looked upon his entry, viewed through the lens of Empire, the procession must have certainly looked foolish to Rome.
It may be helpful to congregations to temper their palm pageants, often led by the children of the church, with the reminder that there were likely two processions in Jerusalem. In one, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt, with no weapons and no army. There was simply singing, celebration, a quick visit to the Temple, and then it was all over (at least in Mark’s account.) In the other procession, Pilate rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse accompanied by legions of Roman soldiers with all the pomp and ceremony of an Imperial authority figure. Today’s Passion reading is a counter-narrative to the Palm Sunday reading and intensifies the dialectic between the insider/outsider perspectives.
Perhaps the “let’s have it all” camp has it right. One approach to Passion Sunday is to demonstrate for the modern disciple how Jesus’ earthly ministry ended gradually and then suddenly once Passover weekend in Jerusalem. With such a long reading, it is helpful to break it up in vignettes or through a dramatic reading because Mark covers a lot of ground in the two chapters selected for the appointed Sunday. Mark spends time preparing Jesus for his burial through the anointing at Bethany and the quiet, intimate Passover dinner with his disciples. He is quickly betrayed by those he loved and turned over to the religious authorities. In short order, he is handed to Pilate, who, washing his hands of the mess, allows the crowds, hungry for blood, to issue the ultimate and final verdict. It makes one wonder, how short are people’s memories? Had they already forgotten the recent parade where they welcomed and called on him to “save them now” (the basic meaning of Hosanna)? Were they so naïve that they easily believed the religious leaders? Mark is playing all the time with the notion of who is on the inside, who is on the outside. The crowds move from inside to outside, the disciples move in and out of this dance repeatedly.
And, yet, in the last week of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he continued to challenge all the various forms of human Empire. Instead of a show of wealth, power and brute force, he revealed a way of being and of living together that was in complete contrast. Instead, revealing the Reign of God through giving, community, and simplicity. This Sunday’s readings allow pastors to remind their people of this contrast. A skilled preacher will quickly move the congregation from the ways in which we have witnessed, over the past 40 days, how Jesus chose not to flee from the pain of the world, but to head straight into those places in the world that frighten us. How Jesus challenged the Empire at every turn of his ministry. The last week of his life is no different.
Given the reality is that most of our congregation will fail to experience the fullness of Holy Week, we can allow Mark’s Passion narrative to help our Sunday morning crowd experience the fullness of the Jesus’ earthly ministry. For some of our flock, they have never allowed ourselves to spend any amount of time thinking about the sacrificial love of God for each one of us. They jump from the Palm parade to Easter brunch without even a glance at the events that lead to resurrection. Embracing the fullness of the passion will allow churchgoers to sit with Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion for a time before we rush to the tomb.
Before we get to Resurrection Sunday, before we put on our new clothes, before we welcome new lives into the baptismal covenant and sing our way to the Holy Table, to truly experience love, we must face suffering, trusting that love is always stronger than fear, that hope is stronger than despair and that life is stronger than death. For some of us, that witness and revelation, comes upon us gradually and then suddenly during Holy Week. We realize gradually and then suddenly that on the other side of that suffering, we can stand together as witnesses to the greatest love of all, God’s love for each one of us born upon that cross in Christ Jesus.
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.
Carved into the pulpit of one of the churches I used to preach at in my first call are the very same words that start off our Gospel for this Sunday: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” When I first read those words, which had been both crudely and permanently gouged into the wood with a pocket knife, I was stunned. In a simple, yet beautiful church, whose altar guild would spend hours making sure everything looked spotless for worship, I was not expecting to be confronted by such aggressive graffiti every time I stepped foot in the pulpit.
I say aggressive, because the way the message was practically slashed into the wood with a pocket knife tilted the words in a very threatening way for me. To this day I cannot help but imagine a congregation member sneaking into that pulpit on a dark night, when no one else was around, and delivering these words to their pastor with the pointy end of their blade. That image has single handedly cut away all the softness or politeness in those words. Now when I hear them, I see a person holding the knife that carved them into that pulpit and hear not: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” but “Give me Jesus… Or else.”
Granted, I have been mugged at knife point before and have more than likely confused my experiences with this one particularly traumatic and personal event in my own life. I suspect that no other pastor who has stepped foot in that pulpit before has experienced that message in such a threatening way as I have. But it certainly made an impact on me, and more than anything, made me view those words with the seriousness I believe they actually deserve.
Pastors get lost sometimes. We lose ourselves in stories, in clever wording, and in those wonderful ideas we sometimes get that we just can’t help but share with our congregations. And sometimes we just get plain lost, like everyone, in the struggles of everyday life.
We forget so many important things when we are lost. We forget that all this ministry we are a part of has very little to do with us. We forget that it is God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is truly responsible with the calling, gathering, and enlightening of God’s people. And most of all we forget that it is Jesus, not us, who is given for the salvation of all.
Jesus. Not us.
That is why we gather to worship. That is who we gather to worship. Jesus. Not us. We wish to see Jesus. In the same way that it was for the Greeks at the festival who went to Philip, and for the knife-wielding congregation member, our request, desire, and need is serious. We wish to see Jesus. Give us Jesus. Or else…
…Or else we’ll get lost.
Have we—the Church—become lost? That’s an important question, I think. Sometimes, I think the answer to it is rather obvious. Yes, we have. Sometimes, I think that we the Church can get so overwhelmed by what, or rather who, people like Philip in the Gospel direct us to when we say we wish to see Jesus, that we get so frustrated—even angry—that we close our eyes. We close our eyes in the shock of who Jesus chooses to reveal himself through and we become lost.
At other times, impatience for God’s promise of the coming Kingdom causes us to be demoralized, especially when the call for justice and mercy in this world that knows nothing of the sort goes seemingly unanswered. We wish to see Jesus, but we know we won’t. At least, not like we want to. And when we know we are about to see something we don’t want to, we close our eyes and we become lost.
There was not a single one of Jesus’ disciples, friends, or family who wanted to see Jesus crucified. The disciple Peter even tried to fight back. When the temple guard came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and demanded, “Give me Jesus, or else!” Peter drew his own sword and immediately lost himself to violence. Yet that was where Jesus insisted he must go. With the guard and to the cross where the whole world would see him, with their own eyes, lifted up.
Then, when Jesus rose from the dead not a single person wanted to see him as he would first appear to them. Not outside the tomb behind locked doors or as a gardener or as a fellow traveler on the road to Emmaus. Yet again that was exactly how Jesus chose to reveal himself.
Sometimes even what we say we want isn’t really what we want. No one wants to see Jesus when they doubt him the most and publicly call him out in the midst of others who are claiming to have actually seen him (think Thomas.) This is why I truly believe that no matter how lost we might get; no matter how tightly we shut our eyes; whether we know it or not and whether we want it or not, Christ will always reveal himself in the way that is best for us.
Like the disciples before us, we too struggle with the way we see Jesus. We have our own particular ways we wish to see Jesus. Even knowing the story of Christ on the cross and hearing the good news we have through that cross, we struggle with following him there. At the foot of the cross it is not a “might” or a “maybe.” When we come to the foot of the cross, we WILL see Jesus. And wherever Christ on the Cross is lifted up, the Spirit will draw our eyes open and we learn an exceedingly important message about life: That those who love it lose it, and those who lose it for Christ’s sake gain it eternally.
The Reverend Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor, along with his wife The Reverend Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
We all know John 3:16…or the gist of it. When I see that verse spray-painted on a rotting piece of wood nailed to a telephone pole that I’m speeding by, I admit feeling judgmental. My internal dialogue, shaped by privilege and a mainline theological education, goes something like this: “If only they would look at verse 17…” or “What good are they trying to accomplish by posting that?” I feel of mixture of superiority, pity and disgust…and then ashamed that I’m so judgmental! In order to reconnect with the Good News in this passage, I need to distance myself from the cultural context and root myself firmly in the text’s context.
This monologue from Jesus is part of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is someone maybe like me, someone who has a position in the religious hierarchy, who is relatively secure, who probably lives in a bubble and thinks he has it all figured out. But then he encounters Jesus. He was a likely onlooker as part of the Temple elite when Jesus made a whip and drove all the merchants out. He may have been among those who asked Jesus for a sign to justify his disruptive behavior.
But something about Jesus “hooks” him enough to make an under-cover visit to Jesus. Maybe Jesus struck a chord with Nicodemus’ own doubts about how the temple was being run, or maybe Nicodemus just wants to cover all his spiritual bases: “What if this guy is really the Messiah…?” But Nicodemus doesn’t “get” Jesus right away. And, if I were a betting woman, I’d wager that most of us don’t either. So I read John 3:14 – 21 in the context of shedding some light on who Jesus is, what his purpose is, what his life and death “do” for humankind. Jesus is working with Nicodemus, planting some seeds that do germinate over the course of the Gospel (see 7:50 – 52) and blossom into embodied and tender devotion (see 19:39-42).
As I ponder preaching this text, I imagine that I will be preaching to a bunch of people who can relate to Nicodemus just as I can. Maybe they’ve had some encounter with Jesus, or with the Spirit, or with the Divine, that has shaken them up a little, made them wonder if there is “more” to life than meets the untrained eye, planted in them a seed that needs tending in order to blossom into self-sacrificial devotion. Three terms jump out for me, this year, as ones worthy of exploring from the pulpit: belief, eternal life, and judgment/condemnation (I pair these two because John uses one Greek word family, krine and krisis, that we’ve translated variously as judgement and condemnation in this text.)
Belief: If I had a nickel for every time a parishioner spoke with me about the difficulty of believing aspects of the Nicene Creed, I would have at least $2.00! Seriously, we get caught up on this word so easily because we restrict its meaning to the mind alone—cognitive assent to an objectively provable truth. Like many commentators before me, I think the word “trust” captures what Jesus is trying to explain better than “belief.” The concept of trust is big enough to acknowledge our cognitive ambivalence but say “yes” to Jesus anyway; it allows us to “lean in” to something far bigger than we can understand.
Eternal Life: Again, I quibble with how the Greek is translated. N.T. Wright suggests this is better translated as “life in God’s new age.” And it is truly Good News that God’s New Age overlaps with the “old age” of life-as-we-know it. The ages, or eons—which gets us closer to the Greek—overlap. Eternal life is not what happens when we “get to heaven;” rather, it begins for us in baptism and never ends. In God’s good time, the new age will completely eclipse life as we know it. The light (new age) is shining in the darkness (old age.) We might as well allow more and more of our lives to be lived in God’s good, truth-loving light.
Judgement/Condemnation: Condemnation connotes negative judgement. But the Greek text doesn’t have this negative connation; rather the root krine has to do with deciding or separating things. You might want to consider re-reading this text and inserting some variant of separating or distinguishing for condemnation in vv. 17 -18. For example, what if you translated verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not separated, but those who do are separated already because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God.” This translation opens up all kinds of sermon possibilities about how the ways we live either lead us toward God, toward truth, toward light, OR toward shame, toward darkness, toward isolation.
So back to Nicodemus. Jesus’ conversation with him was transformational. He goes from being a scared higher-up visiting Jesus at night to a higher-up who at least advocates for due-process when Jesus stirs up the crowds and threatens the hierarchy by offering his listeners the bread of life and living water, the basic building blocks of life in God’s New Age. And finally, Nicodemus is transformed into one of the brave souls who lovingly anoints Jesus’ dead body and places it reverently in a tomb. But the movement toward Nicodemus’ “belief,” toward his trust in Jesus took time. For preachers who proclaim the Good News in an increasingly skeptical age, reading John 3:14-21 in the text’s context of Nicodemus’ long conversion that happens throughout the book of John invites our trust in the often slow and steady work we’re called to do.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer began serving as the 22nd rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina in February 2016. Prior to that she was the Associate Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has degrees from Davidson College, Episcopal Divinity School, and the University of Edinburgh. As a priest, she loves crafting sermons, teaching all kinds of classes, and the challenge of faithful organizational development. Her husband, Brian Schaefer, practices law with a specialty in Elder Law. They have two young children, and therefore very limited time when it comes to hobbies!