Four Gospels, Three Years
I don't know whether John is complaining. His fellow evangelists get to have whole years named after them, but we use John as supplementary material, inserting it here and there, especially in Lent and Easter. Of course, chopping up John the way we do, it is not easy to get a sense of the Fourth Gospel as a whole.
It's difficult even when we step back and scan the Gospel in its entirety, asking, "What is the story in John's Gospel?" Here are two attempts to summarize the plot of the Gospel of John in a single sentence. It is of course risky to attempt summing up a complex document of some 15,400 words in a single sentence, but the exercise may be illuminating.
In a book entitled Three Gospels (Scribner, 1996) Reynolds Price traces John's account of Jesus' life over several pages and then sums up by compressing the entire story into this sentence: "The force that conceived and bore all things came here among us, proved his identity in visible human acts, was killed by men no worse than we, rose from death, and walked again with his early believers, vowing eternal life beside him to those who also come to believe that he is God and loves us as much as his story shows" (p. 166).
Price is a voice to reckon with. He has written twenty-six volumes of poems, plays, essays, memoirs, and novels. For forty years he has been professor of English at Duke University, and during his long tenure he has pursued his interest in the Bible and in the Gospels in particular. Because of that interest he has in recent years offered seminars on the Gospels of Mark and John, and now he has written Three Gospels.
By the time he was "broiling in adolescence," he writes, he could see that "the four gospels' successful accounts of a single life, a life that was tortured and then transfigured by the dark hand of the source of creation, had not only shaped the actual Earth and the lives of its creatures through two thousand years." He could see also that "those brief accounts had also produced--as sparks from their core--the work of my early models and masters: Dante, Michelangelo, Milton, Bach, Handel, the late poems of Eliot, those stories of Ernest Hemingway that also ache for sublime transcendence, and a good many more of the props of life for millions at least as curious and needful as I" (p. 14).
Price speaks of his Three Gospels as payment of a "partial installment on my old debt to a pair of tales [the Gospels of Mark and John] that have counted as much in my life" (p. 15).
Here's the effort of New Testament scholar Charles Talbert to get the whole of John's plot or story into one long sentence: "John tells of one who came as revealing, empowering presence; who picked/produced a new community and provided them and others during his public ministry with warrants for a different kind of worship; who privately predicted what their future would be like, offering promise, parenesis, and prayer for that time; and who ultimately made provision for their future community life, worship, and ministry before he returned to whence he had come" (Reading John [Crossroad, 1992], p. 64).
Two who have written more extensively on the plot of John's Gospel are R. Alan Culpepper and Fernando Segovia. Here is my paraphrase of several paragraphs of Culpepper's treatment: Jesus, the incarnation of the divine logos, enters the world with a multifaceted task: to reveal the Father by bearing witness to the truth, to take away the sin of the world, and to authorize the children of God. In doing this he faces opposition of cosmic proportions. The more Jesus announces his redemptive mission the more clearly his identity is revealed and the more intense the hostility toward him becomes. Hostility mounts until, at the cross, Jesus' enemies appear to achieve their purpose. Unbelief appears to triumph over belief. And yet the cross is Jesus' glorification, the moment that finally reveals his glory for all to see. And at the end a community of faith has been established (Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel [Fortress, 1983], 87-89).
For Culpepper, plot development in John is not a matter of how Jesus changes but of how his identity, revealed to readers already at the beginning of the narrative, comes to be recognized and how it fails to be recognized. He notes the way "each episode [in the Gospel] has essentially the same plot as the story as a whole. Will Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman or the lame man recognize Jesus and thereby receive eternal life?" (pp. 88-89) The aim of the Gospel's plot, says Culpepper, is to woo readers to accept its interpretation of Jesus and thereby to join the company of believers glimpsed in the "we" of 1:14 (p. 98).
Segovia sees a twofold use of the ancient biographical "journey motif" in the Gospel of John. First is the cosmic journey of the Word of God moving from the world of God to the world of human beings, becoming flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and carrying out the mission of the Father in and to the world (1:1-18). Upon completion of the mission, the Word returns to the world of God (18:1- 21:25). In the second place, the public life of the Word made flesh (1:19-17:26) is narrated as a series of four journeys to Jerusalem.
After a long section on the journeys and the structure of the Gospel, Segovia turns in a very helpful manner to what he sees as "a rather complex variety of strategic functions for the Gospel as a whole" (p. 47).
1. Strong didactic function. Jesus engages in "widespread and sustained teaching regarding the ways and values of God, his own status or identity as Word of God, and his role or mission in the world.... As a result ... the implied readers of the Gospel are indeed drawn thereby into the community of believers ... the children of God are those who believe in Jesus and carry out his commands."
2. Very strong polemical function. "Jesus as the Word of God undertakes a broad and sustained attack on the ways and values of the world at large.... The community of believers, the children of God, should see itself as deeply estranged from and at odds with the world, the children of the devil--in fact, they have been 'taken out of' the world and are no longer 'of the world."'
3. Admonitory function. "The readers of the Gospel are specifically warned that an acceptance of the ways and values of God in the world implies and entails severe opposition from the world," including hatred and oppression.
4. Clear consolatory function. "An acceptance of the ways and values of God in the world implies and entails a very privileged position while in the world, ultimate victory over the world, and an abiding union with God in the world above: the community of believers shall receive glory not only in the world of human beings but also in the world of God."
5. Exhortatory function. "The mission of the Father must be undertaken as appointed regardless of the consequences.... Only through trials and defeat in the world can the teaching of God be properly disseminated and the mission properly accomplished." (Fernando Segovia, "The Journey(s) of the Word of God: A Reading of the Plot of the Fourth Gospel," Semeia 53 , 23-54)
I am intrigued by these efforts of Price, Talbert, Culpepper, and Segovia to grasp the plot of John in briefest possible compass. It seems to me that Talbert and especially Segovia are helpful in thinking about John's varied purposes in writing. Both of them put flesh on the assertion that "these things are written that you may believe" (John 20:30-31). That summary verse is often understood too narrowly so that John is thought to be satisfied when readers can say, "I believe." As preachers and teachers we really need to go farther even than Talbert and Segovia in the effort to discover what John meant by saying that he wrote to generate faith in Jesus so that believers might have "life in his name." John gives plenty of clues about the many dimensions of such "life." But they are neglected in traditional readings of John that offer primarily christological grist for the theologian's mill. Segovia's list of "functions" begins to point us in the right direction.
Assisting us with the task of penetrating to the heart of the Johannine and other texts for the Lenten season in preparation for preaching is my friend Herb Spomer. He and I sat next to one another for four years back in our seminary days. Classes were large, and we were directed to sit in alphabetical order. And I mean "directed." It was not a mere suggestion! Those were the days when we began Greek studies before entering the seminary. In seminary we all continued Greek and started Hebrew. Herb was particularly fascinated by Hebrew and went on after seminary to further language study. He then taught Hebrew and Old Testament for nearly twenty years at Concordia Senior College and Gettysburg Seminary, and after that first career he entered parish ministry.
Herb is now retired from St. Thomas Lutheran Church in St. Thomas, Pennsylvania, where he served for eighteen years. Or has he retired? He presently serves as part time chaplain at Luther Ridge Retirement Community in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and he is a member of the Lower Susquehanna Synod's Leadership Support Committee. He is active in the Chambersburg chapter of the American Guild of Organists and performs occasionally. When he is not at the keyboard, he is probably stamp collecting, vegetable gardening, or enjoying his grandchildren.
Heartiest thanks to Herb and to all preachers who wrestle with the texts week after week, striving to wring from them an animating and energizing word for God's people in our time and place.
Robert H. Smith, Editor of Preaching Helps
Professor of New Testament
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
2770 Marin Avenue, Berkeley CA 94708
RELATED ARTICLE: Ash Wednesday February 26, 2003
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 (or Isaiah 58:1-12)
Psalm 51:1-18 (NRSV 1-17)
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The adjectives pile up, as Joel describes the coming horror. The Day of the Lord is a superlative disaster. Nothing like it has ever happened before; nothing like it will happen again!
The only hint that it is Yahweh who sends the locusts, aside from the fact that this is a day of the Lord, is in verse 11, "The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army...." And the only indication that the plague is brought on by the people's sin is implied in the word "return" (used twice, vv. 12 and 13). Also the clause "relents from punishing" suggests there might be something to punish. Job sat in the ashes, too, but had nothing to repent of!
There is no prophetic diatribe; the plague is a natural disaster. Yet, responding to the call of its leaders, the community came together to fast. Yahweh quickly responded to the plea for relief, became jealous for his land, and took pity on his people. Following the fast, things soon got back to normal. Is there repentance here? If sin and repentance aren't that explicit here, why use this text for Ash Wednesday?
The involvement in Joel is communal: in Psalm 51, initially, it is personal. The individual knows his sinfulness, even though the psalm doesn't say how he became aware of God's displeasure. But after the psalmist experienced cleansing, he drew the community into this reality as well: "I will teach transgressors, sing aloud of your deliverance, offer sacrifice" (2:13ff.). Those acts signal the completion of the process of repentance and the entry into the forgiven life.
"See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!" (2 Cor 6:2) The day of the Lord can be, and in fact is, a day of salvation. "Be reconciled to God!" The Greek verb is the intentional human response to good news of divine listening and helping, "God was in Christ...." That day is now! The "now" is not compelled by some crisis, plague of nature, or other "act of God." The time is now because everything is new. It is the right moment, kairos, for the world! For Paul, bearer of this news, plagues and personal hardships only intensified his urgency to get out the word, making use of all the proper "weapons" to accomplish this.
Being seen and praised by others for their alms, empty prayers and fasting is the empty gratification the Pharisees are rewarded with now (Matthew 6). Their actions have the intent of gaining a reward and are not directed to God. But "whenever you [singular] give alms, pray, or fast, be inconspicuous." This guarantees the personal attention of the One who already knows. To be assured that your Father "sees" you is your reward. Sharing, praying, and abstinence are their own reward, which offer nothing tangible for now, but which have ultimate value, "treasures in heaven."
Ash Wednesday does not summon the community to fasting or repentance as the response to random "acts of God," acts of war, or other tragedies. What does our nation, following September 11, have to repent of? These days ad hoc prayer vigils respond to such things. Ash Wednesday is fixed into the ecclesiastical calendar. Even so it receives scant attention. The droughts and floods of last summer, the business scandals and the drying up of retirement accounts, the continuing alerts to possible acts of terror, abductions of children, do not bring people to their knees in repentance. The normal responses are chagrin, outrage, vigilance, and yes, prayer for God to act.
Yet "no other sign" may be given. For the church to establish a routine for communal repentance and to encourage individual confession and absolution, for the church to accept available signs as God's reminders to fast, pray, and give alms is appropriate. It is the responsibility of the ministry of reconciliation to lead the community in such observance and to proclaim the day of salvation.
First Sunday in Lent March 2, 2003
Psalm 25:1-9 (NRSV 1-10)
1 Peter 3:18-22
At times it is good that God remembers. The flood proved to be disastrous--even to God, whose early attempt to cleanse the world of wickedness resulted in the return of chaos and the destruction of the primeval population, but unfortunately not the destruction of sin. Now God wants to forget about it. The part that God is to remember is the promise that he won't ever again cut off all flesh by the waters of a flood. What God is now going to do about sin is something new. This is not the only covenant God will make with his people.
Then there are times when it is good that God does not remember. "Old sins, forget them please, God! But your mercy and steadfast love, which is older, remember!" Remembering is not only the mental act of recalling the past. It is acting in the present. The psalm lists ways in which God is to "remember," to act in behalf of the suppliant. These actions consist of a balance between dealing with dangerous liabilities on the outside and engendering inner assets. All of this is based firmly on "your goodness' sake, O Lord."
1 Peter brings news of what God has done about sin. Christ suffered, the righteous one for the unrighteous ones (he is your substitute), to bring you to God (he is your mediator). The career of Christ took him on a complicated itinerary, but the road is always upward. It included suffering for sin, once for all, so no more floodlike destruction is needed. Peter's memory of the flood put a new spin on the event, emphasizing its saving character and pointing ahead to baptism. Christ's road brought him to the right hand of God where he firmly contains any forces that oppose him or harass the saints.
The Spirit-driven itinerary of Jesus begins at his baptism (Mark 1). From Nazareth he goes to the Jordan, to the wilderness, and back to Galilee, with a rough and ready urgency. The tearing apart of the heavens, the declaration to Jesus of his unique Sonship by the heavenly Voice, the descent of the heavenly Dove, the sojourn in the wilderness, temptation by Satan, the company of wild beasts, the ministry of angels--all this prepares Jesus for the rigors of proclaiming the good news.
The world is a dangerous place. God didn't make it that way, Scripture insists. It became that way shortly after creation and continued on a downward spiral. Evil could not be contained and the world could not be saved! Yet, by God's grace the world weathered the crisis of the flood and got the promise that life would continue. So God made plans for life to continue, but more, God made plans for it to get better, based on his steadfast love and mercy. Let the healing begin.
So you too still live in a dangerous world, but the forces of evil, yet active, are now contained. Mark doesn't disclose the outcome of Jesus' temptation, but the outcome is obvious when diseases are healed and demons are thrown Out. The good news is that in a dangerous world you can be safe. There isn't a moment in your life when God doesn't remember what he promised. God is capable of "forgetting" your sin by remembering Christ who has been "made sin" for you. Thanks be to him, God knows how to remember and how to forget.
Second Sunday in Lent March 9, 2003
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30 (NRSV 22:23-31)
"He was as good as dead"--which is not good, except that for God it didn't make that much difference. In fact Abram and Sarai, old as they were, lived a remarkably active life for the shape they were in. It was covenant time again. But God kept getting the cart before the horse. Abram thought God's covenant with him and with his descendants would have no significance as long as Sarai didn't produce a son, and time had already run out. Ignore that for now. Let's get on with the covenant.
This time the covenant brings some obligations: "Walk before me and be perfect," and later, "I (and no one else) will be God to you and to your offspring." And there is the obligation to observe the rite of circumcision (Gen 17:9-14). In Paul's view, the blessings of Gen 17:6 happily precede circumcision, so none of the nations are excluded by this new stipulation! But back to the promises. The land, all the land of Canaan, in which Abraham is a ger, a resident alien, is to belong to him and to his children. To seal his promise, God gave Abraham ("father of a crowd") and Sarah their new names, and again only the promise of a son. The gift of a son would also be the gift of life, and so God guarantees life to Abraham and Sarah.
In the early portion of Psalm 22 the agony of the sufferer is articulated with vivid detail. When you join the reading of the psalm, persuasive prayer has already found an ear: "You have rescued me" (v. 21). Again, an individual lament concludes with public testimony of recovery and restoration to life. Here not only the attending congregation but "all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD." Even more inclusively, that remembrance is shared by past generations already in the dust and future ones yet unborn!
Paul, too, catches the broader vision of Abraham's promise in Romans 4. Abraham's domain is not restricted to Canaan but incorporates the world! That's because the rule of law is exclusive, while the reign of grace, which now has taken over, is inclusive. Grace embraces all of Abraham's descendants among whom the Gentiles are now numbered. For Paul, the nations coming from the "ancestor of a multitude" are not limited to those whom Abraham has physically begotten. Paul also catches the significance of Abraham's faith, essentially his trust in the Creator's ability to make something that isn't there come into being, such as life for the dead (or those as good as dead). So Paul commends this same faith to his readers, that is, to trust in this same Creator who raised Jesus.
Today's reading from Mark 8 is at the center of Mark's good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus called to the crowd with his disciples, If any people want to come after me, let them carry with them their cross (v. 34). It's all about life, for the world. It's time to teach crowds and disciples in plain speech, no longer in parables. "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering." Jesus is the Messiah, but for the disciples and Peter and for the crowd "Messiah" would still be metaphor. It doesn't begin to communicate the radical nature of Jesus' career. He will be rejected by the religious leadership, perhaps also by the world, and misunderstood by his disciples. Only after the resurrection will the disciples and the world be able to confess Christ with the proper understanding.
That informed confession is to be reflected in a radical understanding of discipleship. "Those who want to save their life will lose it...." These are hard sayings, because if you wish to talk about life, how do you speak clearly about it to your listeners? What is life? What is it that you save? Do you save it, and how? What is left when you renounce everything that has temporal value?
Life is the objective of the Creator and the desire of every creature. Death has been in contention with life practically from the start. Are you a pawn in the contest? Does God have creator rights to you? Does Satan have reality on his side? God has exclusive redemptive rights! What is your role in the struggle as to who will claim you? The preacher's responsibility is, in some sort of balance, to invite belief in her or his listeners and to counsel the sanctified life. There is clearly an active role in the outcome for the individual. Each day you, the preacher, strive to clarify these roles in terms of your people's temptations and misfortunes, joys and successes, genuine values and relationships, so that those who want to lose (or keep) their lives for Christ's sake and the gospel's can do so.
Third Sunday in Lent March 16, 2003
Exodus 20: 1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Exodus 20 contains the preamble, the historical foundation, and the stipulations portions of the Sinai covenant. George Mendenhall, in Ancient Israel's Faith and History (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 61, points out that the ten words are not to be regarded as demands or even commands but commitments. They were freely adopted at Sinai, forming community under the reign of God. They were personal, religious, and fundamental. They reflected a value system. To uphold these values is to assert God's "worth-ship" and to make a confession about the character of the god of the community.
In the light of Psalm 19, God, who has created the heavens, the members of which perform in perfect harmony, is also the creator of the Torah. There are six synonyms for the covenantal stipulations beginning with verse 7: law, decree, precept, commandment, fear of the Lord, ordinance. And how they are valued is demonstrated in the worth-shipful attitude of the psalmist. His high praise for their worth is born of gratitude for the gift of Torah. For the community, gratitude for rescue from Egypt is the chief reason for embracing the commitments. In keeping them, harmony and good fortune are going to continue. And yet there is the constant danger of error and insolence, of distorting the truth, putting human life in jeopardy, endangering the family, and so on. These "ten commitments" warn against such errors and are effective in keeping in check those forces that would weaken those commitments and drive a wedge into the community.
The Corinthians reading is also about worth-ship and values, loyalty, and the reality about the God of the Corinthian church. Surprisingly, it is possible to lose sight of the Christian commitment when the church is endowed with a plethora of gifts of the Spirit. And the Corinthians had gifts: "You have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind" (v. 5). And they had a variety of gifted leaders (Paul, Apollos, Cephas, not to mention Christ). What causes the community to falter in spite of its endowments? Distraction from the real things of God, which, in terms of this passage, is the utter absurdity of the cross in contrast to the accumulated wisdom of this world.
How can the established church stay on course? Through the foolishness of preaching the Crucified. Foolishness is not the essence of the cross and its proclamation, but its preaching is regarded as such in the eyes of Jews and Greeks, who insist on concrete proof of this reality about God. No other proof will be furnished than the confession of those who are saved.
Early in his ministry Jesus protested against the failure of the temple to proclaim in spirit and truth the worth-ship of God (John 2). The temple infrastructure, created for convenience, perpetuated the false value (worship) of sacrifice over true worship. The mild response of the Jewish leaders to Jesus' disruptive behavior in clearing out the temple is to request a sign, so they too, presumably, might believe the reality about God. The ambiguity of Jesus' saying about the temple's destruction and the resulting misunderstanding puts the Jewish leaders in league with those who don't comprehend the foolishness of the cross. For John the crucified Christ is the exalted Christ. The sign is Christ's being raised from the dead, which prompted the disciples to remember his words and believe the Scriptures.
The church these days is heavily endowed with worldly treasure and is easily distracted. The crystal cathedral's virtual denial of the cross week after week is a parade example of distraction. Success, wisdom, and philanthropy are not sinful in themselves. But they are everywhere praised and given priority. Crystal power sanctifies these, spiritualizes them, and counsels gratitude and commitment in kind. Such worth-ship describes a Baal-like god astride the clouds and not one lifted high upon the cross. In crossless preaching Christ is absent, and so is the power and wisdom of God. We are called to preach the foolish Christ who emptied himself on the cross but whose name is above every name.
Fourth Sunday in Lent March 23, 2003
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The world is a dangerous place. Some places are less hospitable than others, e.g., wilderness and sea (Ps 107:4, 23). Wilderness is the place of temptation. The Spirit drove Jesus there. Moses escorted the refugees from Egypt there. The Israelites yielded, but Jesus prevailed. The people's patience grew short over issues of food and water, standing for practically every aspect of their wandering, to fulfill "the desires of flesh and senses" (Eph 2:3). The serpent, still the agent of destruction, this time appeared after the temptation and bit and killed. Intruding into this world's affairs is the ruler of the power of the air seducing to disobedience and disrupting the progress of God's people in reaching their goal.
In each of these first three readings, you can follow a clear sequence. Sickness and death are the direct result of sin. "Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction" (Ps 107:17). The hostility of the environment, as in the case of the wilderness, both prompts rebellion and punishes. Following the course of this world "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived." But there is also intervention. The Israelites prayed and asked Moses to intervene. The ones who were sick cried to the Lord in their distress. "But God, who is rich in mercy...." Then there is restoration. The word "forgive" isn't used in the sequence. But the words "Make alive" and "Heal" are there.
The world is the domicile of God's people. Yet this environment is not benign. But it is here that the Son of Man, a human, descends (John 3:13) to make his home. The purpose? To reveal to us things both earthly and heavenly, that is, what God is accomplishing on earth through his only Son's works and words. The world and its people are worth saving. The ascent, the exaltation, of the Son of Man begins with his being lifted up on the cross, just as Moses lifted up the saving serpent on a standard as the ultimate sign of God's love for all the world to see.
But Jesus' words and signs meet with a mixed response, always. Some believe and are not condemned, some do not believe and are. It doesn't take a judge to rule on this. People judge themselves by believing or not believing, by loving the light or the darkness, by doing or not doing what is true.
In the face of hardships some shake their fist at God; others are drawn closer and their faith becomes stronger. Why some and not others is a mystery. Neither group has atheists. The problem isn't defined as one of having other gods. It's simply a matter of believing or not believing. The evidence of God's love is there for all to see and experience. The words, the signs, the Living Water, the Bread of Heaven are all provided. Alienation is traceable to a lack of tolerance for the extreme conditions of the world, the presence of evil powers, or the human rebellious nature (the devil, the world, and the flesh). But God doesn't give up on you. You are still his piece of work. You are still and will always be the object of God's love.
Fifth Sunday in Lent March 30, 2003
Psalm 51:1-13 (NRSV 1-12)
"The days are surely coming," "on that day," "at that time," and all the future tenses, starting with Jeremiah 30, are features of the "Scroll of Hope." The message is one of restoration for Jacob and for Judah. Everything will be "new." For the rebuilt and replanted community the covenant is to be new, too, different from the old one. Today when something is advertised as being new and better, you can be sure that it is the same old thing in a new package, maybe a new patent, and of course at "popular" (read "higher") price.
So what is new? The old active ingredient in the covenant is "I will be their God, and they shall be my people." That can't be changed. Is God just taking the old covenant out of mothballs and repackaging it now that the people are back home? Instead of an external writing on stone or on parchment, which can be destroyed (see Jer 36:20-26), the law, says the prophet, will be written on the people's hearts. It is to be internal. So its effectiveness will not depend on teaching, which is subject to deception. If it's inside, it is now part of their created makeup. There will be a new commitment by the people, who themselves are new (verse 27). They shall "know" the Lord. Their loyalty will be properly and permanently in place.
The truth which God desires in the inward being is achieved when God creates a clean heart and a new and right spirit (Psalm 51). This is the clue to the essence of the new covenant. The person, just as the community, becomes a new creation. Has God finally succeeded in making a super race, people who can consistently know and perform God's expectations? Rather God declares that a new start for the community and for the individual is always possible. The people of God are never abandoned by God.
No, there is not a spiritually super race. But there is one who is appointed to hold God's people close, who is the Son of God and yet thoroughly human, who joins humanity (Hebrews 5). The marks of his honored station as high priest are his compassion and suffering (sympathy). The description of his obedience as offering up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears is somewhat startling. But it signals the Son's utter humanity. His suffering is a model of obedience for those who pledge to keep the covenantal commitments.
Obedience, suffering, and martyrdom are also the theme of Jesus' words in John 12. The Greeks came to see Jesus. They are those "other sheep" for whom he will lay down his life (John 10). The hour for his glorification has arrived. It is time for his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Any reluctance to go through with his glorification (think of Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels) is overcome by Jesus' prayer, "Father, glorify your name." The wonderful parable about the seed, which, by falling into the earth and dying becomes productive, connects the glorification of the Son of Man with that of his followers. Fruit can be produced only through dying. Again, as in Mark 8 (Lent 2), saving/loving life is opposite to losing/hating one's life, the former having the effect of losing it, the latter of keeping it. Serving Jesus means continuing in the effort to drive out the ruler of this world, whose power is already broken. To be honored by the Father is the reward.
"Hallowed be your name" and "Your kingdom come" and "Your will be done" are really the same prayer as "Father, glorify your name." The believer sets Out on a new course of commitments, a matter of the newly fashioned heart created in Baptism by the Spirit, and gets ready to sacrifice her or his life.
Very few suffer a violent end these days for the sake of the gospel. What relevance can talk of martyrdom and the offering of such prayers have for today's disciple? Think of the kinds of mischief the "ruler of this world" is still able to do. Think of the ways you try to counter this mischief inside of you and around you. Pray for guidance to discern how God's will can be accomplished. Also be assured that in your own death, even when peaceful, the Father will honor you. John 12:23-26 is still an appropriate part of the Christian burial rite.
Sixth Sunday in Lent Passion/Palm Sunday April 6, 2003
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]
Mark's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11) is brief and spare. Half of the story is about procuring the colt. His disciples negotiate, Jesus' requirements are met, and the parade begins. The crowd seems somewhat restrained, giving him two cheers (we give him three) surrounding two beatitudes, both from Ps 118:25-26, and part of the Passover seder. The NRSV gives the original meaning of hosanna, "Save us, we beseech you, O Lord." But the cry was also a simple expression of praise to God. This was an occasion of praise, but the celebration didn't extend beyond Jesus' entry into the city. Once inside, there was a calm, authoritative, take-charge atmosphere. According to Mark, the fireworks were to begin the next day.
John's version has crowds meeting Jesus with palms in hand. Some with him (verse 17) had witnessed the raising of Lazarus. The Pharisees got it right (v. 19), "The whole world has gone after him!" And in fact Jesus was drawing all to himself, not as the king some might imagine but as one whose "kingdom is not of this world," yet one who gives life to all the world. In the face of this glorious rule the Jewish leaders admit they are helpless.
A third servant poem from Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 50) casts the servant in the role of teacher. Continuing attempts to identify the servant by making comparison to Jeremiah or identification with Moses, for example, seem to miss the mark. Perhaps it is better just to ask, What is God doing through the servant? Daily the teacher/ servant receives instruction from God and mediates the message to "the weary." The risk of rejection develops into hostility, but this does not deter the teacher. The source of these insults, the rationale for the abusive action, is unclear, since the servant's mission is to proclaim God's intervention and restoration for the weary community. "I did not hide my face from humiliation ... I have not been humiliated." Acts of abuse do not produce the desired psychological effect in the teacher or a loss of resolve. The servant acknowledges God's hand both in subjecting him to pain and in helping him through the ordeal.
Akin to the servant, the psalmist's total life is a wreck, a shattered pot, fit only to thrown away (Psalm 31). His plight doesn't elicit even the slightest pity. It's hard to improve on this description of complete isolation. But, as the servant also acknowledges, the Lord comes for deliverance. The prayer for salvation, as always, is based on trust in the Lord's steadfast love.
Jesus' biographers, noting parallels in the Psalms and in the servant poems, saw that in his suffering he fulfilled the pattern of Old Testament sufferers. But the hymn in Philippians says Jesus did it his way and established a new pattern of servanthood. (I still prefer "servant" to "slave" for the Greek word doulos.) Jesus was not the helpless victim. He deliberately emptied himself of any power. "Became obedient" reflects far more than a humble attitude; it signifies full subjection to the will of One beyond himself. The cross is the servant's ultimate objective and the point at which exaltation begins.
It is a terrible scene: betrayal, desertion, abuse, false witnesses rising up, denial by one of the inner circle, the crowd's insistence that Barabbas be freed, condemnation, vilification. Small wonder that Jesus cries out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" But was he really forsaken? by God? Jesus' death was immediately followed by the veil of the temple being tom in two, from top to bottom. This was God's action. The sanctuary would no longer be the holy place. Another, not made with hands, was taking its place. The centurion, "who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last." And that centurion, seeing how Jesus died, spoke the truth: "Truly this man was God's Son!"
Now and then the church or the nation loses persons whose contributions to church and society have been profound. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two examples, as are other individuals have been cut down in their prime, who, if they had gone on, might have enriched our life, the arts, and scientific understanding incalculably. The inevitable question Why? may admit of some meaningful answer if one can get past thinking about what might have been and get a grasp on what God has given and continues to give us through them. The world cannot forget a Lincoln or a Gandhi, and their sacrifice sharpens what they spoke and did in their lives into guideposts and precepts for all time.
"... even death on across ... the name that is above every name." What would the church look like if Jesus' career had continued for another five or ten years? What additional gifts would we possess? I don't know if such speculation has any use. The gift of God was complete. The Spirit wakens the ear of today's servants day by day to celebrate this gift so that every tongue may confess that Jesus is Lord.
Maundy Thursday April 10, 2003
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The people are to reset their calendar and get ready for a journey into the unknown (Exodus 20). Plans for the trip include elaborate instructions for preparing and eating the Passover. Clues in the text reveal that many of those rules were made up later in order to remember the deliverance from Egypt and to retell the story. The feast of which Paul speaks is for the followers of Jesus a successor to the Passover meal. Regrettably, among the Corinthians abusive practices attached themselves to the communal meal that stifled the remembrance of Christ's death and clouded the anticipation of his return.
The reading from John 13 concludes with Jesus' "new" commandment, to "love one another, just as I have loved you," giving this day its designation as Maundy (=mandate or commandment) Thursday. What is so new about this, since love was long acknowledged to be the summary of the (ten) commitments? Perhaps the answer can be found in considering a strikingly new commandment, the elaboration of which takes up the whole first part of the reading: "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."
Jesus' washing the disciples' feet is set forth in the light of his status as one who "had come from God and was going to God" and of his full authority and knowledge of what would happen and how his disciples, exemplified by Peter, would oppose his action. They knew he was their Lord and Master, their teacher. Foot washing is a menial task, done only by slaves. That was the ancient social rule! If anything, disciples could show their devotion to their teacher by washing his feet.
When the disciples (Peter) objected to his washing them, Jesus told them that they may not understand now, but they will later. As true as this is, it wasn't sufficient to overcome the objection, so Jesus forced the issue: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."
It is only after the resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit that the disciples realized what Jesus was teaching. He becomes a slave, surrendering his status as Lord, Master, God, and gets ready to suffer and go to the cross, from which there is no turning back. Jesus' love for his disciples sets the pattern for his followers to wash one another's feet. This is a new reality of humility, love, self-sacrifice, of relationships, of commitment, among believers reflecting the closeness that Jesus has with his heavenly Father. That's what's new.
Jesus' new commandment is that his followers practice love, agape. Do we understand this self-giving love? We might well ask how we can possibly understand! We can try using all kinds of words to define it. It can begin to make some sense that way, and yet our poor words always fall short of making "love" something that we can grasp with the mind. What is needed is to experience God's great love, God's own agape, richly bestowed in Jesus. The truth of love cannot be distilled by some logical or lexical analysis, but it can be verified in our experience of God's unstated giving.
In all of this there's a kind of learning curve. "You don't know now," said Jesus. But then moments later he says, "Do you know what I have done to you?" And the evangelist (John 13:14-15) goes on to explain it for us. But the disciples present with Jesus on that ancient occasion need more time before they can come to understand it. We talk about a "teachable moment," a useful concept. But that can be a long moment. There is an appropriate instant when the teaching can begin--with a parable, a sign, a saying. Something is taught, something learned on the spot. But reverberations of an original moment also offer time for reflection and learning. The truth of words, parables, and precepts sinks in over time.
What do faith, God, and the Spirit, have to do with the learning curve, the interminable teachable moment? Only God can take things like foot washing, loving, and eating the sacramental meal and make them real and redemptive in our lives. And God does it by means of the ongoing tutoring of the Spirit.
April 11, 2003
or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9)
The unheard of is now being told. The servant was successful but didn't live to express his triumph in person (Isaiah 52). By contrast, the psalmist (Psalm 22) recovered to deliver his praise personally and to make good his vows in the congregation; his life was restored. So the servant's curriculum vitae becomes the confession of those who have witnessed the results of his life. From birth, through his suffering, and matters leading up to his death and burial, a modern observer might advise the servant to "get a life." His contemporaries shunned him. Who could perceive that this disfigurement and humiliation was to be a means by which God would accomplish his purposes?
The whole business was inelegant at best. But what an amazing outcome: the servant gave his life, and in so doing he gave a life to those who observed his suffering. Observers came to realize what had happened. The servant had taken their sicknesses, their sorrows, their blows, their sins, and had carried them off. This time no celebrity, no historical hero, no intellectual, just a common, weak human being, at God's appointment, was able to work this change in his fellow humans. They acknowledged that their survival was the result of the work of the servant.
Hebrews revisits two emphases from recent weeks: the new covenant and the sanctuary veil. The quotation from Jeremiah makes the application of the covenant inclusive, not limited to Israel and Judah. The covenant inscribes the law on heart and mind. The effect is that the Lord will remember sins and lawless deeds no more. That spells forgiveness, total and comprehensive. And where there is such forgiveness, sin offerings are abolished. This Jesus entered the inner place of the veil (10:14) and "by a single offering perfected for all time those who are sanctified." The sanctuary veil, which until now had the effect of confining God's presence, is penetrated by Jesus and redefines God's presence among his people. "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!" (Charles Wesley, LBW #60)
The Fourth Gospel's passion narrative is a priceless legacy. The title "king of the Jews," written uncompromisingly in three languages for all to read, accorded Jesus his rightful place on the judgment seat of the world (19:13). In effect Pontius Pilate is proclaiming, "Here is the king!"
We are reminded again and again that Jesus knew all that would happen. Indeed, he predicted much of it. John pictures Jesus as being completely in charge. Jesus is not sentenced by the Jewish leaders. Pilate does not pronounce judgment. He makes repeated attempts to release Jesus. Yet Pilate's question, "What is truth?" reveals that he, too, is not among those who know Jesus as "the way, the truth, and the life." The accusation "He has claimed to be the Son of God" puts fear into Pilate, but whether this is "the fear of God" or the gods or whether it reflects Pilate's helplessness in making a judgment is not clear. But Jesus is not helpless, and in the proceedings the religious and political authorities bring judgment on themselves.
In John's account of the passion Jesus carries his own cross, and from the cross he reigns as king. John mentions nothing of agony or mocking or insults. No darkness covers the earth from noon till 3. Instead of isolation Jesus is portrayed in the company of his mother and other women and of the disciple whom he loved. Jesus' final word, "It is finished," is a majestic declaration that he has completed the sacred work given to him by the One who sent him.
Attendance at Good Friday services has steadily fallen off in the past decade or so. All sorts of reasons are suggested as to why this is so. But perhaps the overarching reason is that it is not easy to come to terms with Good Friday, and as a result, it is thought the problem can largely be over-come by ignoring it. In this effort to ignore, there is a significant level of cooperation between the church and the world.
The role of Jesus as High Priest becomes superfluous if sin doesn't need to be forgiven. If sacrifices can become obsolete, cannot sin with some effort be made obsolete as well? If monarchies, while not ruling well their own households, lose their grip on the rule of nations, should we further entertain any thoughts of the rule of the King on earth or even in heaven?
But the question "What is truth?" will in one form or another continue to challenge and haunt those who acknowledge a need to be forgiven and to be governed. There will be skeptics, but there will be those who know that the Truth, the Way, and the Life have not disappeared from the earth but still resides with us, and the closer we are drawn to the Cross, the better our access to a share in that Life.
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|Title Annotation:||Ash Wednesday - Good Friday, Gospel of John|
|Author:||Smith, Robert H.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2002|
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