Saturday, December 20, 2014

An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense


There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah.  His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.  But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.  And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.  Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

- Luke 1:5-12

As it is the time of Advent and the Christmas season, dear readers, I am taking a break from the usual Lectionary readings and postings on my blog.  It is a time for me of rest and reflection, a time for services and listening to our pastors, and participating with our communities.  My posts may be sporadic until Epiphany, at which time I will resume blogging commentary on the Daily Office Lectionary.  Today I begin with Luke 1, the story of prophecy, the "new beginning" for the people of God.

 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah.   His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  Luke sets a historical date for us, in his attempt to be as thorough and reliable as he can.  Herod ruled Judea from 37-4 BC.  Known as a great builder of wondrous projects, he was also renown for his cruelty as a leader.  My study bible says, "An ancient prophecy of Jacob indicated the Messiah would come when a king ruled who was not from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10).  As Herod was a non-Jew calling himself the king of Judea, the coming of Christ was surely at hand."

And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.   But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.   My study bible points out that Zacharias and Elizabeth are righteous before God; that is, not merely in outward appearance, but to the core of their being.  The holiness of John the Baptist came in part through the faith and piety of his parents.  It is a case in which both are blameless in God's sight, but she bears a public reproach.  So we begin our story with one of a typical portrait of a woman -- as so many others that Christ will point out -- who loves God without blame, and yet bears a social stigma in the public eye.  My study bible says that "like Sara (Genesis 16:1), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Rachel (Genesis 29:31), Hannah (1 Kings 1:2), and Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth's temporary barrenness was in fulfillment of God's plan for the salvation of His people."

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.  And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.  We remember that incense is a way of sending prayers to God; as the Psalm says, "Let my prayer be set forth before You as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice (141:2), and we are to be a pleasing fragrance to God (1 Corinthians 2:15).  Revelation speaks of the heavenly golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the holy, the saints (5:8).   My study bible explains that each priest was assigned to a division.  There were twenty-four divisions in all, each serving a week at a time in rotation.  The responsibilities in the division were decided by lot; Zacharias is here assigned the duties of the high priest.  This event takes place at the time of the Atonement, when the high priest would enter the temple and make offerings for the sins of the people."

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.  My study bible says, "Angels minister continually at the altar of the Lord, though usually unseen.  Those priests of pure heart, such as Zacharias, are occasionally chosen by God to witness this angelic liturgy (see also Isaiah 6; Revelation 7:9-17)."

The story of Christ begins with a sort of ordinary day.  That is, we're given a scene from the regular operating of the temple -- the system of worship, the rotation, the service, the hour of incense, the prayers of the people outside.  A kind of ordinary couple are the first to populate the scene in this vignette taken out of history, as we focus in on the story.  We get the time set for us in the rather extraordinary reign of Herod the Great -- a builder of wonders for all to admire (including the awe-inspiring reconstruction of the temple), and a ruthlessly violent and cruel ruler, known even among authorities of the time as a man who commits exceptional levels of murder, even as a murderer of family members.  But this couple we focus in on has its own problems, and is also extraordinary in its own way.  They are people of exceptional faith, not only blameless in the Law but blameless before God, in the heart.  And they have a problem, a social problem:  Elizabeth is barren, and so she bears a social reproach despite her great sanctity, and her blamelessness before God.  We begin in this place of daily life, ordered as it has been for centuries in the divisions and workings of the temple, among the people and this now older couple.   But the extraordinary sense of the heavenly appearing in earthly life is about to happen.  It's not unheard of, but here in this place of Zachariah's turn to minister and perform his duties, an angel appears -- even as we know the angels celebrate with us, even as the incense burns to send up the prayers of the people of God.  The holy intersects our world.  It "breaks in" as some references in the Gospels will teach us, it breaks into our midst with a kind of violence of its own, a sudden terror seizes Zacharaiah at what must be a tremendous sight of an angel at the altar.  We think of cherubs as the sweet looking little child inspired by images of the ancient Eros (or Cupid), god of love.  But we should and must remember angels also as fiery beings, the ones of tremendous light and power and energy, many-winged heavenly beings who serve God.  Here is not just an angel but an archangel, a leader of angels, and impulsively and with knowledge of the spiritual history of Israel, Zachariah does well by his instinctive and informed "terror," because the greatest messenger of the completely unknown and infinite, mysterious God (the Lord, whom we know as the "I AM") has broken into this scene and appeared before him.  What will the angel bring?  An announcement of God is about a future unknown, taken into new territory, and who knows what task may be at hand to fulfill this word?   It is the kingdom of heaven breaking in, coming near, at hand, and Zachariah is right not to underestimate that anything may happen, that he is about to be called into something beyond extraordinary.  Let us remember the lightning-flash brightness, the energy and fire of these awesome beings who serve the glory of the Lord, whose word (as messengers) is God's command.  Zachariah is bold enough and humble enough to know this, and to be aware of the impact of such a command which becomes a responsibility, an oath.   This angel ought to inspire awe, even a kind of terror at the power of what is God's business, and what it might mean to be open to that power at work in one's life, and called upon to bear something into the world.   Let us remember the humility that understands that we cannot contain God nor God's power in our lives. 



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hereafter the Son of Man will sit on the right hand of the power of God


 Having arrested Him, they led Him and brought Him into the high priest's house.  But Peter followed at a distance.  Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.  And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, "This man was also with Him."  But he denied Him, saying, "Woman, I do not know Him."  And after a little while another saw him and said, "You also are of them."  But Peter said, "Man, I am not!"  Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, "Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean."  But Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are saying!"  Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.  And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, "Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times."  So Peter went out and wept bitterly.

Now the men who held Jesus mocked Him and beat Him.  And having blindfolded Him, they struck Him on the face and asked Him, saying, "Prophesy!  Who is the one who struck You?"  And many other things they blasphemously spoke against Him.

As soon as it was day, the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, came together and led Him into their council, saying, "If You are the Christ, tell us."  But He said to them, "If I tell you, you will by no means believe.  And if I also ask you, you will by no means answer Me or let Me go. Hereafter the Son of Man will sit on the right hand of the power of God."

- Luke 22:54-69

Yesterday, we read that after His Passover supper (the Last Supper) with His apostles, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him.  When He came to the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."  And He was withdrawn from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done."  Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him.  And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly.  Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.  When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow.  Then He said to them, "Why do you sleep?  Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation."  And while He was still speaking, behold, a multitude; and he who was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus to kiss Him.  But Jesus said to him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?"  When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they said to Him, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?"  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.  But Jesus answered and said, "Permit even this."  And He touched his ear and healed him.  Then Jesus said to the chief priests, captains of the temple, and the elders who had come to Him, "Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs?  When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me.  But this is your hour, and the power of darkness."

  Having arrested Him, they led Him and brought Him into the high priest's house.  But Peter followed at a distance.  Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.  And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, "This man was also with Him."   My study bible suggests that "a girl being the first to test Peter is an icon of the temptation of Adam by Eve (Genesis 3:6).  Our fallen state is overcome in Christ when women are the first to hear, believe, and proclaim the Resurrection (24:1-10)."

But he denied Him, saying, "Woman, I do not know Him."  And after a little while another saw him and said, "You also are of them."  But Peter said, "Man, I am not!"  Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, "Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean."  But Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are saying!"  Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.  And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, "Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times."  So Peter went out and wept bitterly.  My study bible notes:  "Peter is so overcome with fear that neither Christ's prediction nor the crowing of the rooster calls him to repentance, but only the Lord's gaze causes him to weep bitterly.  Nevertheless, 'through tears, what cannot be defended can be purged, for tears wash away the offense which is shameful to confess out loud' (Ambrose of Milan)."

Now the men who held Jesus mocked Him and beat Him.  And having blindfolded Him, they struck Him on the face and asked Him, saying, "Prophesy!  Who is the one who struck You?"  And many other things they blasphemously spoke against Him.  Here is another example of the evil at work in this situation, the "power of darkness" as Jesus has called it.

As soon as it was day, the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, came together and led Him into their council, saying, "If You are the Christ, tell us."  But He said to them, "If I tell you, you will by no means believe.  And if I also ask you, you will by no means answer Me or let Me go."  During a hearing in which the council violates their own rules of procedure, Jesus is not permitted His own questioning (and, as we read elsewhere, His own witnesses).  My study bible says that during His ministry, at times of open confrontation with them in the temple, Jesus asked many questions of these leaders which they refused to answer because doing so would have meant confessing Him as the Christ (Luke 20:4-7; Matthew 22:41-46; Mark 3:4).

"Hereafter the Son of Man will sit on the right hand of the power of God."  It is His last hearing; Jesus makes an open declaration that He is equal with God.  And, it is also another prophecy for us to hear.

It's interesting that Jesus declares His equality with God here before these men who will neither believe Him nor enter into a truthful questioning of Him.  They have brought Him in order find a way to kill Him.  He, in making this declaration, offers them all they need to do so according to their thinking.  But His mission is finished -- or rather, almost finished.  His careful earthly ministry of the past three years, building and constructing guidance and gradual revelation of His divinity for His apostles, disciples, and followers, has come to an end, and it is His Passion which has arrived -- the time of suffering and death.  But He is already speaking of Resurrection, which of course the leadership cannot understand.  It's as if the time is up; there is no more time for ministry of the type He has engaged in.  If He tells then the truth, they won't believe Him.  If He asks them questions, they won't answer Him and they will never let Him go.  They have made up their minds and there is no opening them.  It is the very definition of "hard-hearted" as the Scriptures use the term.  They have no eyes for seeing and no ears for hearing.  Jesus simply sticks to His own truth, His testimony about Himself, and it is a point on which He will not budge, a time of pure declaration, the only line in the sand.  He is who He is and He will not deny it, even if He must die for it.  Elsewhere Jesus teaches His apostles that they must be careful not to give what is holy to dogs, and not to cast pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).   He knows these men are so intent on having Him put to death that they will never listen to truth and they don't care whatever it is He has to say, or even Who He truly is.  It is the power of darkness:  a deliberate ignorance that throws away every good thing they know in favor of their envy of His Person and His ministry, their competition and fear that He holds more authority with the people than they do.  And such darkness has crowded out everything else.  All is expendable for this one goal of murdering Jesus, getting rid of Him permanently -- including traditions of justice in their own regulations.  And we come down to this one point, and we must learn from Jesus.  At such a time there remains something we never give up, and that is the spiritual truth we know.  It's more important than convincing those who cannot be convinced.  It's more important than everything else.  It becomes the only way to minister, even among those who would trample the pearls of spiritual truth underfoot, and simply tear one to pieces.  Jesus answers the question, "Who are You?" and tells us that His earthly ministry is finished; hereafter He will sit at the right hand of God.  Let us understand His courageous example, let us understand His faith and strength.  It is over.  It is enough.  In how many ways is this scene played out over and over again when any form of darkness or injustice is at work?   His is the example for us, always.


Monday, December 15, 2014

This is your hour, and the power of darkness


 Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him.  When He came to the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."  And He was withdrawn from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done."  Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him.  And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly.  Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.  When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow.  Then He said to them, "Why do you sleep?  Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation."

And while He was still speaking, behold, a multitude; and he who was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus to kiss Him.  But Jesus said to him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?"  When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they said to Him, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?"  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.  But Jesus answered and said, "Permit even this."  And He touched his ear and healed him.  Then Jesus said to the chief priests, captains of the temple, and the elders who had come to Him, "Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs?  When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me.  But this is your hour, and the power of darkness."

- Luke 22:39-53

On Saturday, we read that Jesus said to Peter, "Simon, Simon!  Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."  But he said to Him, "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death."  Then He said, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me."     And He said to them, "When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?"  So they said, "Nothing."  Then He said to them, "But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.  For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me:  'And He was numbered with the transgressors.'  For the things concerning Me have an end."  So they said, "Lord, look, here are two swords."  And He said to them, "It is enough."

 Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him.  When He came to the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."  And He was withdrawn from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done."  Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him.  And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly.  Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.  When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow.  Then He said to them, "Why do you sleep?  Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation."  My study bible says that Christ's agony here is the product of His human nature.  "In asking that the cup be taken away, He reveals His human will.  By submitting His human will to the Father, Christ reveals His divine will to be one with the Father's, and further shows that each person must submit his own will to God's will (11:2).  Christ willingly takes in Himself the voice of weak humanity, thereby conquering weakness:  'The words of weakness are sometimes adopted by the strong in order that the hearts of the weak may be strengthened' (St. Gregory the Great)."  We have to note also the repeated emphasis on prayer; it's not only essential to Jesus, but to all of the apostles.  It's a time of testing, and for that prayer is absolutely indispensable to their lives and what they are going through.  "Rise and pray lest you enter into temptation" is a warning to all of us at times of our own stress and difficulty.

And while He was still speaking, behold, a multitude; and he who was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus to kiss Him.  But Jesus said to him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?"  When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they said to Him, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?"  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.  But Jesus answered and said, "Permit even this."  And He touched his ear and healed him.  Then Jesus said to the chief priests, captains of the temple, and the elders who had come to Him, "Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs?  When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me.  But this is your hour, and the power of darkness."  We note once again there is a chance for Judas to confess and repent before Christ, and Jesus explicitly opens the door for this before Judas can speak or act.  Of the healing of the high priest's servant, my study bible comments that this particular healing is only recorded by St. Luke the physician.  It says, "It indicates the manner in which we are to treat our enemies.  The Fathers see a spiritual meaning in that it is Christ who gives people the ability to hear the truth and thereby come to salvation (see 8:8; 14:35)."   Even here we note Jesus' boldness in speaking.  In the night, away from the crowds in the temple who love to hear Jesus speak, they come to take Him as if He were a robber (see Saturday's reading, in which Jesus said that the Scripture would be fulfilled:  "He was numbered with the transgressors" - Isaiah 53:12).   And they will crucify Him between two criminals (or literally "evil-doers"), as Luke will put it (23:32).   It is "their hour, and the power of darkness," for which we all need prayer as our greatest true weapon.  Regarding darkness, my study bible gives us two references from the Gospel of John:  3:19-21 and 13:30

 Let us think about darkness, and what it is to experience a particular hour, and the power of darkness that comes with it.  I have experienced such times.  Darkness is first of all ignorance; the power of evil is in this ignorance, and it is sometimes experienced as a deliberate ignorance.  That is, a time when people deliberately ignore what they already know, what they have been taught.  It's a potent form of lying, often accompanied by envy, and the kind of competition that allows for mercilessness.  That's a very dangerous time, and it is - as Jesus indicates in His instructions to the disciples - a time when we really need to be wary of temptation, as we try to stay on the right path in the midst of it.  It's a time for which only the power of prayer becomes the sword that we need, the truth that we need to find so that we make our way through it without being scathed or damaged by the temptations that are present.  We're all going to experience weakness and temptation in times of great stress, when we don't necessarily have an answer for the full scenario in which we may be caught up, which is playing out all around us and in our lives.  We can only stay in the moment and try to stay with Him, be strengthened in prayer whether we are by ourselves and alone, or also if we have the resources to call upon for support (church, friends, and the whole communion of saints we pray with and to as requests for such aid and assistance in prayer).   Sometimes we need all the help we can get, all the strength we can get, but our basic weapon for that is prayer whether we have others praying with us or not (besides Father, Son and Spirit).  I think there is a kind of degree of darkness that can be experienced at different times.  In this case in which Jesus is seized here in the dark in the garden, we have "an hour" of real, intense darkness.   They will take Him to a night court, which is an illegal procedure under their own laws.  He will be charged illegally, with all kinds of phony witnesses, without being allowed to speak in His own behalf or call witnesses of His own, and despite the fact that they all know what His ministry has been and what He has openly taught every single day in the temple since His arrival in Jerusalem.  They will take Him also to the Romans, a governor who will wash His hands of the mess although he finds Jesus innocent, leaving the decision to the crowds who've been stirred up by these leaders.  All of this against their own rules, the rules and laws of these religious leaders who are supposed to be the guardian of such laws and traditions.  This is not just darkness that comes with a slight temptation, but the greatest darkness of total ignorance imposed against the things they know, and know well.  It is a time of turning their backs, their eyes and ears, and hearts against the Scriptures for which they are meant to be the experts and guardians.  Above all, the darkness here is against God, against the works that have been done with holy power in Jesus' ministry, against the Spirit who has spoken through the prophets (as the Creed tells us).  This is the power of darkness, and it is ignorance -- a truly deliberate, hard-hearted ignorance, a giving in to ignorance of God and ignorance of the things of God.  Therefore let us observe that who know better, who have been given so much of the grace of God (such as we who have come later and been given the benefits of centuries of faithful) are thereby subjected to the greatest temptations of darkness, because it is a deliberate evil in which one turns one's back on the things of God that have been revealed.  In Saturday's reading, my study bible commented that the testing of Peter will be greatest, because his faith is the stronger.  Let us take it all to heart and remember the power of prayer, the temptation we are all subject to in times of darkness, great or small.  It's Jesus' warning to His apostles, it is His practice, and it remains His teaching for us today.  Especially in times of uncertainty, where the greatest darkness may blindside us so that we can't see clearly a way, nor know by thinking beforehand what it is we must do, how to react.  It's the time that darkness may stun us with its unexpected depth and outrage.  This is that hour for the disciples.  And it can happen to any one of us.  That's the time we must stay most firmly with Him.  Prayer is our mindfulness. 






Saturday, December 13, 2014

Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat


 And the Lord said, "Simon, Simon!  Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."  But he said to Him, "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death."  Then He said, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me."

And He said to them, "When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?"  So they said, "Nothing."  Then He said to them, "But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.  For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me:  'And He was numbered with the transgressors.'  For the things concerning Me have an end."  So they said, "Lord, look, here are two swords."  And He said to them, "It is enough."

- Luke 22:31-38

In yesterday's reading, we read about Jesus' last Passover supper with His disciples.   When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him.  Then He said to them, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."  Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."  And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me."  Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.  But behold, the hand of My betrayer is with Me on the table.  And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!"  Then they began to question among themselves, which of them it was who would do this thing.  Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.  And He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called 'benefactors.'  But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.  For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves?  Is it not he who sits at the table?  Yet I am among you as the One who serves.  But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials.  And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."

  And the Lord said, "Simon, Simon!  Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."  But he said to Him, "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death."  Then He said, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me."  My study bible points out to us in the first "you" (in Indeed, Satan has asked for you) is plural.  That is, Jesus is referring to all of the disciples as those whom Satan has asked for.   But when Jesus tells Peter, I have prayed for you, the "you" is singular, and this is directed particularly to Simon Peter.  That is because Peter's faith was the strongest, so he will be tested the most.  Regarding Peter's return (in when you have returned to me), see John 21:15-17.  When Jesus tells Peter, Strengthen your brethren, He's referring not only to the other disciples, but to all the faithful until Christ's return.

And He said to them, "When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?"  So they said, "Nothing."  Then He said to them, "But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.  For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me:  'And He was numbered with the transgressors.'  For the things concerning Me have an end."  So they said, "Lord, look, here are two swords."  And He said to them, "It is enough."   My study bible tells us that when Jesus refers to the sword here, it's not to be understood literally (compare vv. 49-51), but instead refers to the living word of God in the battle against sin (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12).  St. Ambrose adds another meaning to this passage:  giving up one's garment and buying a sword refers to surrendering the body to the sword of martyrdom.  My study bible says, "Because the disciples were thinking of swords literally, Jesus abruptly ends the discussion with the words, 'It is enough,' or better translated, 'Enough of this!'  (see Deuteronomy 3:26, Mark 14:41)."

Regarding Jesus' warnings of His "end" and also that the disciples must be prepared for anything, we read, above, the interpretations and commentary my study bible offers us.  Other commentators, such as Cyril of Alexandria, and also additional commentary by St. Ambrose, indicate also a warning here.  After Jesus' death, violence of the most extreme nature will come to everybody in Jerusalem, every Jew.   St. Cyril, as my study bible indicates, suggests that the two swords are the Old and New Testaments.  But all of these combine with the warning given to Peter in the earlier verses:  that evil is at work, that Satan desires to claim them all, that a great test is at hand.  And I think this is the deeper meaning here, for which the "two swords" of the Word are the armaments of battle, for which great alertness and alacrity must be commanded and prepared in their minds and hearts.  Indeed, these will be the departing words of Jesus to the disciples and we have read them all along as He prepared them for this time of His suffering and death.  All of the warnings here come in response to the fact that it is a time of crisis, of testing, of evil asserting itself against the Christ, against God.  And it's also an indication of the times in which we live, the times that occur between His suffering, death, Resurrection and Ascension -- and the time we are in now, in which we await His return.  The great battleground is the world, and ultimately the battle is one of souls, a spiritual battle.  It's the toughest battle there is, in the sense that the weapons we must learn to use are spiritual, and that the wakefulness we need is one in which we can become aware when we're caught in some kind of snare, whether it be psychological or physical or any other sort of difficult and hard choice we're forced into.  There is a spiritual reality present that can become difficult to fathom, and difficult to follow.  The word of Christ isn't always an easy thing for us to follow, by any means.  There are all kinds of hardships and deceptions that may come our way when it is time to stand up and make a choice.  Jesus has warned of divisions within households, and in one of the verses we're referred to above, St. Paul speaks of the sword that cuts so deeply into everything:  "For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).   It is this sort of  'conflict' we can be prepared for.  It mirrors all the things that go on in the world, but the real battle for awareness is within, keeping our minds sharp, our hearts in the right "chain of command" loyalties.  And the sword, as reflected throughout Scripture in so many ways, is the sword of truth, His truth.  Let us be prepared and let us understand that this battle is no less a struggle than many ways in which we think about battle.  The difference is that this truth is all about God's love and what it teaches us; the sword isn't just a sword of truth, but one of light from Christ, and we know where His heart, His love, and loyalties lie.  We know what He has offered us and done for us, as we enter into the labors of others, and struggle through the trials that come with Him.


Friday, December 12, 2014

You are those who have continued with Me in My trials


 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him.  Then He said to them, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."  Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."  And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me."  Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.  But behold, the hand of My betrayer is with Me on the table.  And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!"  Then they began to question among themselves, which of them it was who would do this thing.

Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.  And He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called 'benefactors.'  But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.  For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves?  Is it not he who sits at the table?  Yet I am among you as the One who serves.

"But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials.  And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."

- Luke 22:14-30

In recent readings, Jesus is in Jerusalem.  Yesterday, we read that the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover.  And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might kill Him, for they feared the people.  Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve.  So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him to them.  And they were glad, and agreed to give him money.  So he promised and sought opportunity to betray Him to them in the absence of the multitude.   Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed.  And He sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat."  So they said to Him, "Where do You want us to prepare?"  And He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters.  Then you shall say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?" '  Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready."  So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover.

When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him.  Then He said to them, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."   My study bible says that Christ has a fervent desire for this Passover because this meal will impart the mysteries of the new covenant to His followers, and because this event will inaugurate the great deliverance of humanity from sin through the power of the Cross.

 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."   This first cup, my study bible tells us, is the conclusion of the Old Testament Passover meal that Christ eats with the disciples in order to fulfill the law.  Until the kingdom of God comes speaks of His Resurrection, at which time He will eat again and drink with the disciples (see Luke 24:43; Acts 10:41).

And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me."  Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you."   My study bible tells us that gave thanks has at its root the Greek word eucharist, which immediately came to refer to both the Liturgy and the sacrament of Holy Communion.  It says, "Before the end of the first century, a manuscript called the Didache refers to the celebration of the Liturgy as 'the Eucharist,' and in the year AD 150, St. Justin says of Holy Communion, 'This food we call "Eucharist," of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing [holy baptism] for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ commanded us.' "  We note that Jesus says, "This is My body."  The Eastern Church has always accepted that this statement is true, that, as Justin says, "the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from Him is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus."  For the Eastern Church, this mystery is, however, kept as mystery, a mystical work of the Holy Spirit.

"But behold, the hand of My betrayer is with Me on the table.  And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!"  Then they began to question among themselves, which of them it was who would do this thing.   We note that Judas is also invited to the table for this mystical supper, and that therefore Jesus is seeking by all means to save him.  My study bible says, "His unworthy participation leads to his utter destruction (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30; compare Esther 7," esp v. 4).

Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.  And He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called 'benefactors.'  But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.  For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves?  Is it not he who sits at the table?  Yet I am among you as the One who serves."  My study bible points out the contrast between the mysteries Jesus has just revealed and this petty, small-minded dispute that takes place just afterward.  Jesus corrects the disciples by comparing them first to power-hungry Gentiles, whom they themselves considered an abomination -- and by contrasting them to Himself, who serves us even though He is Lord of all.

"But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials.  And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."   My study bible cites Ambrose of Milan here:  "Christ judges by discerning the heart, and not by examining deeds.  So also the apostles are being shaped to exercise spiritual judgment concerning faith, and in rebuking error with virtue."  It notes that the apostles will judge not with earthly judgment, but by the witness of their own lives.  God's kingdom begins with the Resurrection of Christ -- therefore, my study bible notes, the authority of judgment has already been given to the apostles and their successors in the journey of the Church on earth (Matthew 16:19; John 20:23).

It's Jesus' last supper with His disciples; that is, it's the last time they will have a meal together until after His Resurrection.  He knows what He is facing, and declares it here:  "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer."  With a last meal before suffering and death, one might presume that a person seeks comfort, gathering to Himself the things in which He finds affirmation for His life.  But Jesus' last supper is typical of Jesus; He gives the greatest gifts possible to His disciples.  He gives Himself.  He gives them the Eucharist, which He declares is His mystical body and blood.  He gives this gift to the disciples, and also to all of us who follow Him, for an unending future of faithful who will come afterward.  Typically, the disciples fail to really understand, and respond with the pettiness of human beings.  They argue over which one of them will be greatest in this Kingdom that is coming.  This happens in several places in the Gospels, but the typical characteristic is the misunderstanding of the disciples to the announcement and expectation of the coming of the Kingdom.   And in this chapter, this dispute comes after what is even more unthinkable:  the revelation of a betrayer who is sitting at table with them, one of the twelve.  Nevertheless, Jesus' generosity is immense, unthinkable.  Not only does He give us Himself, He is going to the sacrifice that will make Resurrection possible, a gift for all of us, for the life in abundance He promises to us, for the resurrection in each confession, in every repentance, in the repairs to our souls, and the transcendence of the world.  Even after their childish behavior, the disciples are made another truly great promise, one of the Kingdom:  "You are those who have continued with Me in My trials.  And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."   He teaches them about leadership and sacrifice, and service.  And He tells them that they are the ones who have remained with Him through all of His trials.  I think this statement is so profound, and that it is for each one of us.  In our faith, as we go through trials, we must go through them with Him, together.  We remain faithful, with Him, and thus in a very real sense, we share His trials, too.  This is a very mystical thing to think about, how we share Jesus' suffering by being His disciples, or how every trial we go through in working out that place of finding how He wants us to go through our difficulties, somehow contributes to His work in the world.  It is a carrying on of His ministry.  It has a purpose and a point, if we are with Him.  And it continues and remains a service to the world.  In the Eastern church one often comes across great paradox, paradox at the very center of Christ and His life as Jesus in the world.  One of these paradoxes is a joyful suffering, or a joyful mourning.  When St. Paul speaks of dying daily, he is telling us of this same place of joyful suffering.  That is, a way of mourning what we leave behind, as we walk with Him who is our joy, and the fullness of our peace, the One who gives, as at the last supper, not as the world gives.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Then Satan entered Judas


 Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover.  And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might kill Him, for they feared the people.

Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve.  So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him to them.  And they were glad, and agreed to give him money.  So he promised and sought opportunity to betray Him to them in the absence of the multitude.

Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed.  And He sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat."  So they said to Him, "Where do You want us to prepare?"  And He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters.  Then you shall say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?" '  Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready."  So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover.

- Luke 22:1-13

Yesterday, the lectionary gave us a passage from John's Gospel, which some insert at this point in Luke's Gospel.  We read that after another test by the leadership, everyone went to their own homes, but Jesus spent the night on the Mount of Olives, with the pilgrims.  The time is set (at this point in John's Gospel) during the Feast of Tabernacles. Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them.  Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery.  And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned.  But what do You say?"  This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.  But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first."  And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.  And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.  When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours?  Has no one condemned you?"  She said, "No one, Lord."  And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." 

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover.  And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might kill Him, for they feared the people.   Here, my study bible notes that the Passover (Pascha in the Greek) is the celebration of the destruction of the firstborn of Egypt and the deliverance of God's people from bondage (see Exodus 12-14).  It says, "In remembrance of this, the Jews would slaughter an unblemished lamb and partake of it with unleavened bread.  This prefigures Christ's Passion, in which the only-begotten Son of God is slain in order to deliver His people from their bondage to sin and death, and then is raised to lead them into the eternal Kingdom."  Thus, Pascha is the primary term by which Eastern Orthodox refer to the death and Resurrection of Christ, (known as Easter in English, related as the One who comes from the East, the sunrise - a name taken, according to Bede, by Anglo-Saxon Christians from an ancient goddess related to spring equinox, but a concept entirely appropriate to Christ throughout the whole of Christianity).  All over the early Christian world, pagan concepts, for example, of resurrection (e.g. celebration of spring) were understood as primitive, very partial glimpses of the mysteries Christ fulfilled, revealed, and expanded for all.  He was the fullness of truth revealed for all that humanity had grasped for, the fulfillment of the most valuable (good, true, and beautiful) concepts of the pagan world, including Greek philosophy (i.e. Logos).

Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve.  So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him to them.  And they were glad, and agreed to give him money.  So he promised and sought opportunity to betray Him to them in the absence of the multitude.  My study bible notes:  "Satan does not enter a man except by the man's consent.  The reason Satan chose Judas and none of the others is that Judas had a place for Satan in his heart, while the others did not.  Luke's mention of Judas being numbered among the twelve emphasizes the depth of the betrayal and shows that religious position is worthless if not accompanied by faith and virtue."

Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed.  And He sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat."  So they said to Him, "Where do You want us to prepare?"  And He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of  water; follow him into the house which he enters.  Then you shall say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?" '  Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready."  So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover.   Here is another mysterious segment of Jesus' time in Jerusalem at this final Passover of His life as Jesus of Nazareth.  It's similar to the passage in which Jesus teaches the disciples what they must do to find the animal He will ride into Jerusalem (from the East, the Mount of Olives) in His Triumphal Entry.  (See Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.)   As in that earlier preparation, every detail is supplied by Jesus, there is no question of His omniscience and His arrangement for things; all the disciples do is act in obedience to Him.

What can we observe about today's reading?  There is the great betrayal of Judas, which comes at a particular time in Jesus' ministry.  It is the apex, in some sense, of Jesus' ministry.  He successfully engages with the leadership at the temple that tries to test Him.  He has ridden into the holy city hailed as Messiah.  In our worldly understanding of success, He has seemingly conquered this city in an entirely peaceful way.  But right at this moment, at this crux of engagement and powerful ministry in the center of religious life at the great temple, in creeps our denouement, the thing that sets in motion His worldly ministry as Jesus toward a particular close.   But let's take note what the Gospel tells us, it is the evil one, Satan, who is creeping in and finding the weakest link in this chain.  Judas' own vulnerabilities lead him into this place.  John tells us that Judas was a thief and would steal from the treasury (of which he was in charge).  We're given the story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary, in which Judas complained against her, but was rebuked openly by Christ.  Perhaps this sealed Judas' resentment.  This took place on the eve before the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Perhaps, combined with all of the above, Judas' greatest vulnerability was a desire for importance, and he seized his chance by playing to the authorities, deluding himself about his motives.  In modern terms, people may say it was a lack of "self-esteem" -- and I'm not ridiculing this concept, except to put it in light of discipleship:  if Judas needed to be in some place where others looked up to him then it was a weakness never addressed.  The "opinion of men" cannot fix this internal problem.  Arrogance isn't the same as a true understanding of self-worth in Christ's eyes.  A seeking of position for self-aggrandizement is entirely inappropriate for the Church, condemned by Christ in His teaching.  And that is a weakness cured with the type of humility we learn in dialogue with Christ, in relationship.  It all speaks to a lack of humility that is necessary for real discipleship, a knowledge of the forgiveness we may need, a true picture of what our worth is, separating weakness from identity and redemption in Christ's eyes -- a lack of honesty within himself and regarding himself and his true spiritual state.  Whatever the reasons, it's important that we see our own vulnerabilities and the reasons why we practice the discipline of humility before God.  As we spoke of in yesterday's commentary, there's a reason why we seek to truly "know ourselves" but always in the light of Christ and the safe place that He offers for guidance, repentance, and a new beginning.  Many people say this was Judas' greatest mistake, a lack of repentance with the Master, which truly led to his fate.  Even after betrayal, he could have come to Christ.  Even in the garden of Gethsemane at His arrest, Jesus gives Judas an explicit chance to explain and confess, as we will read later on in this chapter.  Let us remember the importance of the kind of humility Christ asks of us, a humility before God, before Christ, the Person who is Truth, in a loving embrace that only wants for us restoration and wholeness.  But it takes honesty, and a willingness to face ourselves in that place of truth and God's love.  Let this be an example about our own weaknesses, and where they may lead us if we do not do the work of spiritual discipleship, and take care in our own spiritual struggle.  There's a kind of wisdom one hears, for example on an airplane, in the instructions in case of emergency.  We're to take care of our health first (by putting on an oxygen mask) so that we can help others.  The spiritual struggle is the same.  We deal with our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and blind spots in dialogue with Christ, in confession and humility, we seek to remove the plank in our own eye -- and thus we are better prepared to be of service to others in this love we learn at the feet of Christ.  It is only there we find real leadership and strength.





Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more


 And everyone went to his own house.  But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them.  Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery.  And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned.  But what do You say?"  This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.  But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first."  And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.  And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.  When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours?  Has no one condemned you?"  She said, "No one, Lord."  And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." 

- John 7:53-8:11

In recent readings, Jesus has been in Jerusalem, and it is Passover week.  Yesterday, we read that He spoke to His disciples a parable, after discussions in which Jesus prophesied the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem, and also spoke regarding His Second Return:  "Look at the fig tree, and all the trees.  When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near.  So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.  Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. "But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.  For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.  Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man."  And in the daytime He was teaching in the temple, but at night He went out and stayed on the mountain called Olivet.  Then early in the morning all the people came to Him in the temple to hear Him.
  
 And everyone went to his own house.  But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them.  Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery.  And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned.  But what do You say?"  This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.  Today we briefly skip to John's Gospel for this story.  Some references suggest that early manuscripts of John didn't include it; others suggest it goes elsewhere in John's Gospel, or here in Luke's Gospel, right after yesterday's reading.  In the story in John, Jesus is in Jerusalem attending the Feast of Tabernacles, an autumn harvest festival which is also a feast of the Coming Kingdom, commemorating the time that Israel lived in tents or tabernacles.  My study bible says that the law dictated the death penalty for adulterers (Leviticus 20:10).  But this ordinance wasn't observed to the letter at Jesus' time.  So the conclusion is that the Pharisees are testing Jesus to trap Him, by bringing this woman to Him.  If He objected to the punishment, then He could be accused of opposing the Law; if He upheld it then He could be accused of showing no mercy to sinners.  My study bible notes that this is the only place in the New Testament where it's recorded that Jesus wrote something.  It says, "Several theories exist as to what He wrote.  Some say He wrote out the Ten Commandments, which all the accusers had violated at least once.  Others say He wrote the names of the accusers who had themselves committed adultery."  The statute in Leviticus says that both adulterer and adulteress should be put to death, so one obvious question here remains:  Where is the man?

But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first."  And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.  And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.  When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours?  Has no one condemned you?"  She said, "No one, Lord."  And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more."   My study bible suggests that Jesus' answer confounds the Pharisees, because He's upholding a great principle of the Law -- that the wages of sin is death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23) -- but without neglecting its greater aspect of mercy (Deuteronomy 13:17; Psalms 116:2-117:4; Hosea 6:6).  God's mercy is offered freely to all repentant sinners.  "In order for us to receive this gift," it says, "we must in turn flee from sin."

There's a small aspect of today's story that intrigues me.  I hadn't really noticed it so clearly before today.  That is that those whose consciences have been stricken go out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.  What is it about being older that would have this effect more quickly on the "elders" in this group?  Perhaps they've heard more preaching, or they understand the precepts of Judaism more clearly.  Perhaps they've simply been working at this longer, and so know their place here more swiftly.  But one thing we can possibly conclude here is that the insight of experience has to count for something.  In a spiritual context, the "elders" within a religious community become important figures.  That is because religious experience has to count for something, or perhaps we might call it spiritual experience.  In the Eastern Christian understanding (in Orthodoxy) the elder plays a very important role.  It's considered that an elder (usually but not necessarily someone who has been living in a monastery, devoted to the spiritual life) is a person who can guide others.  In this sense, then, an older age isn't necessarily the defining point of an elder, but rather one who has faced the struggle for reliance on God to a greater or deeper extent, intensity, or period of spiritual growth.  To battle within ourselves on this journey there is one thing highly necessary, and that is that we know ourselves -- truly know ourselves in a way that is unreservedly honest, even when we would rather not know!  There's an ancient Greek adage inscribed on monastery doors, so old that it appeared in the ancient religion at the temple of Delphi:  "Know thyself" (γνῶθι σεαυτόν).  It was used by Socrates, but existed long before his time as a kind of essential wisdom.  Practices of confession came out of this understanding:  in the Eastern tradition, confession is not so much simply a catalogue of personal sins as it is a way to confer with an elder, to really come to know oneself, to have as clear a picture as possible of who we are, including the plank in our own eye that Jesus spoke to us about.  To know who we are truly is to practice humility, and to grow in this practice.  And to grow spiritually really seems to mean to become aware of our own flaws and shortcomings, all those awful things we might see in others and understand just because we've got the same flaws, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses.  This is what it means that the elders in the crowd were the ones who went out first.  To have any wisdom, to come to know ourselves through spiritual discipline, means that we must be aware, conscious enough to develop a real conscience.  I see so many people rushing to judgment these days; and it seems especially true of the young somehow.  Jumping on a bandwagon of condemnation is characteristic of both scapegoating and bullying, and contrary to personal responsibility, to conscience.  But becoming older and wiser must mean that we grow in knowledge from our own mistakes -- and true spiritual seeking means we become more aware of sin and error, but especially via coming to terms with our own!  For today, I would like to focus on this important concept of spirituality; that it is spiritual experience which is essential.  It's not just that we grow in our relationship to God, to Christ.  But without this serious examination and understanding of ourselves, knowledge of the spiritual struggle and journey, how can we help anyone else on their way?  How do we possibly help to remove the splinter in someone else's eye unless we know what it is like to struggle with that plank and with time, remove it?  (Or, at least some of it.)  We need the humility and honesty to really be good spiritual leaders, and that doesn't come via ideology.  It doesn't come with laws.  It doesn't come with theories, no matter how true.  The best teacher in this struggle is experience; it is an experience not only of our own imperfections and struggle to change (to repent), but also the experience of God, God's love and God's mercy.   Without this direct experience, how can we communicate the things of God?  How else do we truly know and learn love?  We'll never know what Jesus wrote on the ground, so seemingly oblivious to the men around Him.  But we know the outcome, and we know the real effect of what it is to understand.  Let us remember that Jesus doesn't insist on the innocence of anyone here; rather that He tells her He won't condemn her.  But His message is clear to her, too:  "Go and sin no more."