Monday, May 19, 2014

John 14:1-3 Is Not about Where; It's about Who

Fred Craddock tells about playing hide-and-seek with his brothers and sister when he was a kid. He had the perfect hiding spot—under the steps of the porch. His sister searched everywhere—behind trees, in the barn, in the corncrib. She passed by him again and again.

Fred said he was confident she would never find him. Then it hit him—she would never find him. So he stuck out a toe, she saw it and cried, “I see you. You’re it, you’re it.” Fred crawled out muttering, “Phooey, you found me.”

What did Fred really want? To stay hidden? To be alone? He wanted what we all want—to be found. We all want to be in relationship. It’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s basic to our humanity. And when we are in touch with our deepest longing and need, we know that we long to be in relationship to God as the foundation for all other relationships.

John’s Gospel has a lot to say about this divine-human relationship utilizing very intimate mystical language.

In John 14:1-3 Jesus assures his disciples that the relationship he has with them is ongoing. It cannot be severed, even by death.

Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” This is not an admonition to not be sad, but rather, to not be frustrated and fearful. Jesus himself struggled with this according to John’s account. Three times John says Jesus was troubled: at the death of Lazarus, when he contemplated his own death, and when he realized that his own disciples would betray and desert him in his final hour.

Jesus issues a call to faith, which can be read as either a statement or a command. Either way, it is an invitation to trust and be faithful. Some translations read: “Trust in God, trust also in me.” It is a call to trust that the relationship we have with Jesus will not be broken by death.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Keep in mind that a dominant theme in John’s Gospel is the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus. Jesus’ followers are invited to share and participate in that relationship.

The language here is figurative. What Jesus is saying is that God is a welcoming, hospitable God who invites all who are willing into relationship. Jesus is not talking about heaven; Jesus is talking about being in relationship with God and with himself now and in the future. 

When the Authorized Version translated “dwelling places” as mansions in 1611, in that day and time mansion simply meant a dwelling or an abode. Of course, language evolves doesn’t it?

The point here is that there’s a place for everyone; there’s a place for you and me in God’s household and nothing can tear us apart from God and from the Christ— not even death.

The reference to Jesus’ coming again to take us to himself can be applied to Jesus’ resurrection, to the giving of the Spirit (the Paraclete), to the time of death, or to the end-time coming when the early believers expected Christ to fulfill the promises of a new creation.

The main point is that while Jesus is going to leave because the hour of his death, his departure, is at hand, his death will not end or destroy the relationship. The relationship will continue, though in a different form. No longer will the relationship be physical; it will now be spiritual.

John is expressing here what Paul expressed so beautifully in Romans 8 when he said that nothing, no power in heaven and earth can separate us from the love of God that has come to us in Christ.

John 14:1-3 is not about mansions in heaven, it’s about being in a relationship with God and with Christ that time cannot diminish nor death sever. 

John 14:6: Honoring Jesus While Respecting Others

There is a growing number of Christians today who are interpreting texts like John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”) inclusively, rather than exclusively.

Some interpreters apply this to the risen, cosmic Christ who they see working anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. The Gospels, they point out, were written from a post-Easter point of view. What others call by a different name they believe is actually the living Christ.

Others interpret Jesus’ statement “except through me” to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated. In other words, anyone who embraces the values and virtues of Jesus can know God regardless of their particular beliefs. Acts 10:34 supports this reading: “In every nation anyone who fears (reverences) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”

Still others, like me, emphasize that John was writing to his particular community. When John wrote “no one” he meant “none of you.”

Gail O’Day, in the New Interpreter’s Bible calls this particularism. That is, the claims made in John 14:6 express the particularities of the Johannine community’s knowledge and experience of God.

In other words, this is not true for everyone, but it is true for Christians. From this point of view, John 14:6 says nothing about how those outside of Christianity can know God. This is how Christians know God, namely, by following the way of Jesus into the truth and life of God. For Christians, Jesus is the definitive revelation of God.

This means, on one hand, that Christians are free to treat with acceptance and respect adherents and participants of non-Christian religious (and secular) traditions without feeling obligated to impose Christian beliefs on them.

On the other hand, this means that Christians must take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously as “the way” to live, not just a doctrine to be confessed.

It’s ironic that some Christians who demand all people adhere to their Christian beliefs in order to know God do not, in practice, take the life and teachings of Jesus that seriously.

Shane Claiborne, a founding member of the “The Simple Way,” recently wrote an article titled: “If It Weren’t for Jesus, I Might Be Pro-Death Too: A Response to Al Mohler.”

He points out that Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a 1200 word argument for why Christians should support the death penalty and did not mention Jesus a single time. He also noted that the official pro capital punishment policy of the SBC does not contain a single reference to Jesus or the Gospels in support of their position.  

How is that possible? How can a President of a Theological School and the largest Protestant denomination in the country take a definitive moral position without any mention of Jesus who is our definitive revelation of God?

Of course, I can’t point my finger at others without pointing it at myself. How can I (or any Christian) harbor anger instead of nurturing forgiveness, or seek money, honor, position, and power over the kingdom of God, or pursue my own interests above the interests of others, if indeed Jesus is my guide and standard?

If Jesus is our definitive revelation of God, then not only must all Scripture be evaluated and assessed through the lens of the story of Jesus, but the totality of our Christian lives must be made to conform to the grace and truth he “fleshed out” among us.

Ann Howard of “The Beatitude Society” shares how John 14:6 bothered her as a child. When she was 10 years old a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of America. Her family hosted a Russian, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday.

She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled her. She asked her mother about it.

“Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus or even believe in God. I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”

Ann’s mother wisely responded: “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

If Jesus is our Lord, then every moral, ethical, and social position, as well as all daily priorities and decisions should be evaluated and determined on the basis of “the way” of Jesus. Jesus is our authority on how to live.

It’s much easier to believe a doctrine about Jesus and demand that others conform to it, than it is to actually embody “the way” of Jesus and love and accept others where they are.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Living a Flourishing Life (John 10:1-18)

The late Henry Nouwen described life in the world as both filled and unfulfilled. Our lives, said Nouwen, are filled with things to do, people to meet, projects to finish, appointments to keep; they are like overpacked suitcases bursting at the seams. We are bombarded with life’s demands and opportunities. The result of all this overstimulation is that we get caught in a web of false expectations and contrived needs that often leaves us fearful and anxious and unfulfilled.    
I am reminded of the preacher who liked to read and preach from a big loose leaf Bible. One Sunday he preached from the Genesis text about Adam and Eve. As he stood up to preach, one of his pages fell out. He was reading along, “And Adam said to Eve,” and he turned the page. He paused and read again, “And Adam said to Eve.” He looked under his Bible as he said again, “And Adam said to Eve . . . very interesting, looks like a leaf is missing.”

The great paradox of our day is that while our lives are filled and preoccupied with so many things, we still feel unfulfilled, we sense that something is missing.

In verse 10 of our text, John’s Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I would like to suggest some guidelines for understanding this prospect. One, it would be a great mistake for us to read this as a promise of self-fulfillment and personal success as those tend to do who preach a gospel of material and personal prosperity. Two, it is important to keep in mind that John’s Jesus is speaking of community life, the life we share together as disciples of Jesus, not just our individual personal lives.

And three, a flourishing life is not a life without suffering or problems. In fact, in this Gospel Jesus warns his followers that they will indeed face trouble and hardships. In some ways, our discipleship to Jesus complicates our lives. In John 16, Jesus says to his followers, “If the world hated me, it will hate you too, because you do not belong to the world . . . In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world.” The world here is the domination system; the world of greed, selfish ambition, and pride. The fullness of life Jesus makes available to us is not without difficulties. 

It’s important to understand too, I think, that these long discourses in John’s Gospel attributed to Jesus were actually elaborations of a few short sayings of Jesus by John’s church, the Johannine community. In other words, the language here is the language of John’s church, not the actual language of the historical Jesus, which is why Jesus talks differently in the Synoptic Gospels than he does in John. That doesn’t mean, however, that these teachings are any less important to us, because they are part of the sacred tradition of Jesus passed on to us.

The basic imagery here is simple, though the structure of the text is rather complex. Jesus is described as both the gate and the shepherd. According to the brilliant Johannine scholar R. E. Brown, the writer has combined two parables. The first parable of the gate is in verses 1-3a and it is expounded in verses 7-10. The second parable of the shepherd is found in verses 3b-5 and it is expounded in verses 11-16. So, we have two parables combined, which is why Jesus is called by the gate and the good shepherd.

Jesus is the good shepherd who stands out in contrast to those described as thieves and hired hands. The thieves are those who want to steal the sheep, who care nothing for the well-being of the sheep, who are interested only in acquiring the sheep for personal gain. The hired hands are not as bad as the thieves, but they, too, do not actually care for the sheep. At the first sign of danger they flee to save their own lives leaving the sheep to fend for themselves.

By contrast the good shepherd knows the sheep by name and they know him. He calls them out and they follow him, and he leads them in and out of the sheepfold. He leads them out to find pasture and then leads them back in to a safe place. They follow him because they know that he is the good shepherd and is looking out for their good. In fact, the good shepherd is so good that he is even willing to lay down his life for the sheep, he is willing to sacrifice his life in order to protect the sheep from danger.

Several of the Hebrew prophets speak of false shepherds in Israel. Ezekiel, for example, sounds this indictment: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals” (34:2b-5). What the false shepherds fail to do, the good shepherd does.

We are called to good shepherds and good sheep. Sometimes we lead; sometimes we follow. But what is constant or should be constant in our life together as church, as a Christ centered community, is the depth of our love and commitment to one another. 
This is the kind of love we should also express in our families and in the world at large. On this mother’s day it is good to be reminded that we all need spiritual mothers and fathers to help us on the path of life and we need to be spiritual mothers and fathers to others. Families and churches should be microcosms of the macrocosm of God’s love. We need to express in our families and churches the kind of love God has for the world.

Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” This is true of those outside our local Christian fellowship and of those outside the Christian fold in general. Remember, in his prologue the Gospel writer says that the light that became incarnate in the living Word enlightens every person. So we are called to not only love those in our church, our family or group, but to love those outside our church community and those outside the Christian community at large, because God loves the world. God’s love is that large and expansive.
The Scripture says that the sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd and by following that voice are led in and out of the sheepfold and find pasture. The voice of the good shepherd is the voice of the Spirit at work in the community. Jesus tells the disciples later in this Gospel that he will be leaving them, but he will send the Advocate, the Counselor, the Spirit of Truth, and the Spirit would be with them and in them. The Spirit who reveals Christ and guides us into truth and empowers us to love is in us and among us. So how do we hear the Spirit’s voice? How do we discern the Spirit’s leading?

Quaker author and educator, Parker Palmer explains how he took a yearlong sabbatical from his work in Washington to go to Pendle Hill, outside of Philadelphia, as dean of a Quaker living-and-learning community of some seventy people.

Their mission was to offer instruction regarding the inner, spiritual journey and teaching about non-violent social change, and explore the relationship between the two – between the inner life and social justice. Their life together in community involved silent worship each morning, shared meals, study, physical work, decision-making, and social outreach.

During Palmer’s tenure as dean at Pendle Hill he was offered the opportunity to become president of a small educational institution. He visited the campus, spoke with administrators, trustees, faculty, and students, and had been basically told that the job was his if he wanted it.

Initially, he felt quite certain this was the job for him, but in the Quaker tradition, he called upon a few trusted friends to form a “clearness committee” to help him with his decision. In this process the group, though refraining from giving advice, asks open, honest questions to help the seeker discover his or her own inner truth. The clearness committed helps clear away the obstacles so the person who called the committee can hear God’s voice and discern God’s will.   

Palmer said that at first the questions were easy: What is your vision for this institution? What is its mission in the larger society? How would you change the curriculum? How would you handle decision making? How would you deal with conflict? All of these he handled with ease.

Halfway into the process, though, someone asked him a question that initially sounded simple, but then turned out to be very difficult: “What would you like most about being president?”

In Palmer’s words, the simplicity of the question loosed him from his head and lowered him into his heart. He thought about it for a full minute before he could respond. Then, very softly and tentatively, he started to speak and went into this litany of what he would not like about it: “Well, I would not like having to give up my writing and teaching. . . . I would not like the politics of the presidency, never knowing who your real friends are. . . . I would not like having to glad-hand people I do not respect simply because they have money. . . . I would not like . . .”

Gently but firmly, the person who had posed the question interrupted him to remind him that the question was about what he would like about the job.  

His response was that he was working toward an answer. Then, he resumed his litany: “I would not like having to give up my summer vacations. . . . I would not like having to wear a suit and tie all the time. . . . I would not like . . .”

Once again the questioner called him back to the original question. But this time Palmer felt compelled to give the only honest answer he possessed. In a low voice he said, “Well, I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.”     

These were seasoned Quakers and while they knew his answer was laughable, they didn’t laugh. They went into a long and serious silence. Finally, the one who posed the question broke the silence and evoked laughter from the group by saying, “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?”

By then it was obvious to Parker that his desire to be president had much more to do with his ego than with the ecology of his life. When the clearness committee ended, he called the school and withdrew his  name from consideration.

We discern the voice of God by listening to what God says through the community. And as a Christian community, at the heart and core of who we are and what we are about is our understanding and appropriation of the sacred tradition of Jesus, so everything is sifted through that filter. Hearing God’s voice is never just an individual undertaking done in isolation. It is the work of the community that is committed to the way of Jesus.

Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Being saved, in this context, is not about going to heaven or the afterlife, it is about entering into the healing and wholeness of God and sharing in God’s flourishing life. This is God’s very life and often called eternal life in this Gospel. It obviously extends beyond this life, but the emphasis is on now. This life is to be experienced now.  

The gate is the way of Jesus, the life of God he incarnated and embodied in the world. It is the way of love and faithfulness. There are other ways to enter into the love and faithfulness of God; Jesus is the Christian’s way – our way. As we strive to be faithful to the way of Jesus and as we listen to, share with, care for, and lovingly give ourselves to one another in our church and to those outside our church, we can expect to experience the fullness of God’s life.

The flourishing life offered us here is, actually, nothing less or more than God’s own life, God’s very life claimed, entered into, experienced, and shared.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Where Do We Find the Living Christ? (Luke 24:13-35)

This is a kind of reverse reversal story. Much of Luke’s Gospel is about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, but these two disciples, possibly a husband and wife, are leaving Jerusalem. They are on the road to Emmaus, but it’s not like they were going anywhere in particular, they are simply leaving Jerusalem, because for them the story of Jesus had ended, and it ended badly, it ended in tragedy. The one in whom they had placed their hope for the redemption of Israel was rejected and crucified.

But then something happens. They meet a stranger along the way. And as a result of this encounter, hope is reborn, a new faith is ignited that reverses the reversal – that turns them around and sets them on a new direction.

How many times has the direction of your life changed because of an encounter with God, because you met the living Christ? Hopefully, at least once. Possibly, many times.

This appearance story, I believe, sketches out the contexts where such encounters can occur, where we are likely to meet the risen Christ.

We are reminded again how elusive the risen Christ can be. Here and gone, and not immediately recognizable. But all is not happenchance.

The stranger asks about the events that took place in Jerusalem and then begins to open the Scriptures to them. Luke says, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Critical and central to our life together and our ongoing ministry and mission is the reading and appropriation of our scared texts. And this story seems to highlight and focus on the key to a faithful, authentic, and transformative Christian reading of these texts.

Luke says, “He interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.” The story of Jesus is the story through which all other stories in our Scriptures must be filtered. As followers of Jesus we read and assess our Scriptures through the lens of the sacred tradition of Jesus.

When we engage Scripture in this way we can avoid two pitfalls. The pitfall on the left is the pitfall of biblical apathy and indifference. The temptation here is to be dismissive of Scripture, to push it out on the edge, diminishing its significance for our spiritual journey. This, I think, is a temptation for some in the Catholic tradition who tend to ascribe more authority to their church tradition than Scripture and some in the more liberal Protestant traditions who give little weight to Scripture, but generally, this is not our struggle is it? We are generally not dismissive of Scripture.  

What we have to avoid is the pitfall on the right. This is the temptation to elevate our sacred texts to divine status, to make them infallible. We must avoid the pitfall of bibliolatry.

Because I frequently warn Christians about this pitfall, sometimes in a public forum, occasionally I will get hammered by those on the right who believe it is the literal word of God. The most common argument I hear is: If you can’t trust the Bible in one area, then you can’t trust the Bible in any area, so you might as well throw out the whole thing.

That is such a weak argument. Have you ever spoken an untruth to your spouse, something that was not true? Have you? Well, of course you have. You may not have intended it to be untrue, maybe you were passing on what was passed on to you or perhaps you misheard something that was told you. You didn’t mean to, it was inadvertent, but nevertheless you were wrong.

Or maybe you were intentional. Maybe there was a reason you were not completely honest. I don’t suppose you ever told your spouse what he or she wanted to hear, because you were just in no mood at the time to deal with the issue with all its ramifications? I know you would never do that would you?

Does this mean that because you were inadvertently wrong or because on a particular occasion you smudged the truth that you can never be trusted again? Is that grounds for divorce?

The Bible did not float down from heaven on the wings of angels. No matter how we understand inspiration, these are human documents written by fallible human beings.

So how do we judge and assess the value of our sacred texts and the authority we should give them in our faith community and our personal lives? This Lukan story suggests that we filter all the biblical stories through our primary story – the story of Jesus.

We must ask of every biblical text: Does this text bear witness to the gospel of Jesus? Does this Scripture bear witness to the unconditional love of God and the universal call to restorative justice embodied in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Sometimes the Scripture stands in opposition to the gospel of Jesus.

This means that any authentic reading, any redemptive interpretation and appropriation of Scripture will always be tilted and biased toward the virtues and values that Jesus embodied, taught, lived, and died for.

Reading our Scriptures through the lens of the story of Jesus provides a context for meeting the living Christ and for encountering a living word, but more is needed. Even after the Scripture was expounded, the two disciples still did not recognize him did they? Jesus was still hidden to them.

As they journey on, it gets late and Jesus walks ahead of them as if he were going on. But they urge him to stay. They welcome him to their table. They share their food with him. Luke says: “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

Certainly there is an allusion here to Holy Communion. When the early followers gathered to worship they would share a meal together and observe Holy Communion – it was central to their worship. But of course, it was not just the ritual itself, it was what the ritual signified and pointed to.  

Just as Jesus’ body was broken on the cross, they knew it was their responsibility to share their broken lives with one another, to make themselves vulnerable, to be open and honest and humble as they cared for and shared their resources as well as their very lives with one another.

And just as Jesus’ life was poured out even unto death for the good of others, just as Jesus invited all manner of strangers to the table, they knew that it was there responsibility to pour out their lives in the service of others, welcoming the marginalized and disenfranchised, and serving the outcasts and downtrodden.

They knew that in the sharing of their broken lives with one another, and in the sacrificial giving of their selves in compassion and service to others, they would meet the living Christ.

Neil Steinberg, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, tells about hearing Sister Rosemary Connelly give a talk. She founded Misericordia, Chicago’s pre-eminent home for those with Down Syndrome and other cognitive disabilities.

Her original mission was to care for disabled children who were dumped by their distraught mothers on the doorsteps of Catholic churches. Then, when they turned 6, she was to hand them over to state care. But when Sister Rosemary saw the awful conditions in these state run places, she refused. She demanded the archdiocese do something. It sort of shrugged and gave her the newly shuttered Angel Guardian Orphanage, which eventually became the 31-acre state of the art Misericordia home. She has been tireless in her efforts as advocate, fundraiser, and cheerleader.

On this day, she told a story about a mother who called her in despair. She was crying. She told Sister Rosemary: “I’m a single mother. I have a 15-year-old boy who can do nothing for himself, and he’s too heavy for me to lift. The only place I’ll ever bring him to is Misericordia.” Sister Rosemary had to tell her that didn’t have any room and there was a 600 person waiting list.

Sister Rosemary told the audience: “It was heart breaking. She could no longer lift him. She was worrying about his future. She didn’t know what she was going to do. And I very piously told her that he was God’s child, even before hers, and she had to trust.”

Somehow, without violating her self-imposed rules against showing favoritism, she was able to help. Perhaps how is less important than why.

Sister Rosemary said, “I saw her wheel this boy down the hall, going back to a very depressing situation, and I said to myself: Who’s God but us? If we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.”

Who’s God but us? If we don’t do it, how is God going to get it done?

Paul said, “to live is Christ.” He said, “it is no longer I (the little I, the ego-driven I) who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” One of Paul’s disciples said, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” — not our own personal glory, but the glory of the cosmos, the glory of the world. We are God’s hope for the world – God in us, Christ in us, the Spirit in us, empowering us to bear God’s image and do God’s work.

Who’s God but us? Where is God in the world doing good work, but in us?

Where do we look for the risen Christ? We can look for him in our sacred Scriptures and, particularly, in the sacred tradition of Jesus that functions as the key to unlocking all the Scripture, that functions as the filter for our assessment of the redemptive value of Scripture for our lives and communities. We can look for him there.

We can look for him in our worship together, our singing and praying together, in the preaching and teaching of Scripture, our eating the bread and drinking the cup. We should look for Christ there.

But if that is where it ends, if that is as far as our journey takes us, then we will still find the risen Christ elusive, hidden, concealed. If Christ is to be recognized, if we are to see and experience the power that raised him up, if we are to know him intimately and experience his compassion and love, then we must keep going, we must journey farther, and not let Christ go until he shows himself to us.

Where do we find Christ? We will find Christ at the intersection of our broken lives, where mutual sharing and caring take place, where we expose our frail, weak, vulnerable selves to one another. There we will find Christ.

We will find Christ in those places where the hurt, pain, loss, misery, and desperation of the world intersects with our compassion and love, where bread is shared with the hungry and the stranger is welcomed to the table. There we will meet the Christ.

Where can we meet Christ? We can meet him in those places where we cross borders and tear down boundaries to welcome the marginalized and excluded and all manner of folks others have despised. There we will meet Christ.

We can expect to meet Christ where ever we stand up for those taken advantage of and treated unfairly, where we challenge and confront the powerful domination systems that create pecking orders that decide who’s in and out. 

Sisters and brothers, in the breaking and sharing of our lives and the giving of ourselves to one another and our world, we meet the risen Christ.

Who’s God, who’s Christ, but us?