Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Though I was blind, now I see

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

- John 9:18-41

Today's reading is a continuation of the episode of the man who was blind from birth, and the healing of sight by Jesus. The Pharisees are anxious to say that Jesus is a sinner, that he cannot be a holy man, and so begin their questioning of the formerly blind man and his parents. First there is aspersion cast on the idea that this man could have been blind from birth, an important fact in the story. Then, his parents are put on the spot - because they are afraid of the consequences and being put out of the Temple, they redirect the Pharisees to question their son. But the healed man does not waver; in fact the opposite happens. His faith becomes stronger and more adamant the more it is questioned.

Later, Jesus himself is finally approached. The formerly blind man confesses his faith, and the Pharisees are confronted. Jesus' words turn to judgment, and how judgment is shaped and formed by the works of God, and witnessing. There is a greater and deeper accountability brought about by these works, by this action of Spirit, of God in the world. When an act is done by the will of God, by the action of Spirit, it becomes a tool for judgment - and we are called to be witnesses. We can be true or false witnesses, but either way our accountability has become heightened.

Thus Jesus says, I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. And when the Pharisees further question him regarding his statement, and what it means about them, Jesus tells them: If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

The thing that creates Judgment is this action of the holy. It is for this reason Jesus has also said that the one thing to remain unforgiven is the blasphemy of the Spirit. Are we alive to the action of the Spirit in our lives? Where does it dwell and how do we see, how do we listen? I think this notion of the heightening of accountability is significant. I wonder what does it mean for us today. Are these stories only about something that happened 2000 years ago, or does the Spirit live and is present to us now - are we blind to it or do we see?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Heal our blindness

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

- John 9:1-17

In reading commentary on this passage, I have found several significant ideas. First, I am told that this is the one healing in which the man who is afflicted was blind from birth. I read also that this blindness signifies the blindness of humanity in a darkened world. This passage was apparently read in the ancient Church on the eve of Easter when the catechumens were baptized, as it reiterates themes of healing, washing, illumination, redemption.

Because I have been concerned in the most recent commentaries with the notion of the omnipotence of the Father, what strikes me first and most obviously in connection with this reading is the notion that this man's affliction is an opportunity for the glorification of God. Jesus' disciples ask him who sinned to cause this blindness - but Jesus denies that this affliction has anything to do with specific sin. In these two sentences, we do have an ample opportunity for comparison to baptism and its elements of redemption: his affliction is neither his fault nor his parents', but rather reflects the conditions of the world into which he (and we) are born. As such, the brokenness of the world, all our affliction in need of healing, is reflected in his blindness - and blindness is a metaphor for our lack of understanding, our limitation, our need. Again, the commentary I have read notes that Jesus uses earth (mud made from dirt and spittle) to repair what is born of earth: another reflection of the rebirth of baptism and its aim of illumination, to give us the Spirit we need for what ails us, for what we are otherwise blind to.

I think this passage is significant for its reflection of what we are born into and what we are born for: for the glorification of God, so that God's works may be shown in us, regardless of our condition and who we are as the product of birth into an imperfect world. There is no sin or guilt to cause those conditions for which we take blame, but this does not mean that we don't need healing, that it is not up to us to grasp the gift that is offered. We all need the light of illumination to find our way out of our own blindness and darkness nevertheless.

Power was brought into the world so that it might do its work in us and through us. What law serves to blind us to that is blindness indeed. It is faith that leads us to the light. And what do we do with it from there?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Take up your cross

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’

- Mark 8:31-9:1

Jesus here tells his disciples what is to happen to him: his rejection, his crucifixion, trial and suffering - and resurrection. Peter takes him aside and rebukes him - for which Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, and tells him that he's thinking of the human things only and not the divine.

We often ask ourselves, and each other, what it means in our own terms to suffer for the sake of the spiritual, to follow in Jesus' footsteps and take up our own cross, as Jesus tells us we all should, in this passage. Most of us will never have need to practice this literally, no doubt (I would hope none of us do) as did Jesus and many of his early followers. But for us, I still read this message very clearly: for me, I see this taking up the cross, this suffering for the sake of the divine things, as being a part of the choices that I must make every day. We all have the choices between selfishness and compassion or generosity. We know what it is to hold ourselves back from temptations that involve behavior that is merely self-centered, as opposed to behaviors we consider to be the better path, and better for those around us.

But I feel there are even deeper choices than the sort of daily moral code or ethical or good behavior we know of. In prayer, we can make connection with the "divine things" and ask for direction for our lives. Often we are called upon to make choices where good and bad are not so clear. I'm certain that Peter thought Jesus' choice - in this particular scene we are given - was not good at all for the morale of the followers! But Jesus' choice is for His Father's will, the things that are divine and not merely human. This choice to die on the cross is not an obviously good choice by human standards. It is perplexing, and it will serve as a stumbling block, a model of foolishness - so we are told elsewhere. So there is a depth, I feel, that each of us are called to in which we engage in prayer to find our way forward. This is a focus on the "divine things" to which Jesus refers, when we seek discernment and our own way to do what God asks of us as individuals.

When we seek to put aside our "shoulds" and "musts," and seek through dialogue and prayer the way to know what God asks of us, then (I believe) we are taking up our cross. In this way we let go of our lives, deny ourselves and take up His cross, and follow Him.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Spirit and Life

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

- John 6:60-71

Jesus words' of yesterday's passage, regarding his flesh and blood, are too hard for seemingly many of his followers. Finally, the sword Jesus said he would bring has begun to fall. His words are too difficult, his teachings too extreme. And so we are told that many of his followers leave him over the words in which he referred to his own flesh and blood as the food that will give life.

Here he tells us that it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. This signifies to me the nature of the eucharistic gift he was referring to in the "hard saying." Jesus is speaking of spiritual flesh and blood, and referring to himself in these terms. So, in this continuation of his teachings, Jesus is giving us further understanding of his eucharistic gift, revealing more about the nature of these teachings and his words: The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

Moreover, he adds: Among you there are some who do not believe. For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father. So we have come to a place where Jesus validates his teachings from the beginning, when he began to teach that he was from the Father, and that those who know the Father would know him. At this point, we enter into mystery that is at a depth for me mind-boggling. It's something I do not understand, unless I think of such a choice in conjunction with a depth within ourselves beyond our awareness. Certainly we can say that Jesus is once more affirming that his own judgment is subject to that of the Father's in the first place. I think we can also accept that Jesus is saying clearly that he can compel no one to faith - that this is beyond his control, and not subject to his own desires.

In the epistle reading of today (from Romans), Paul speaks of this choice by the Father:

So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.

At this level of the nature of choice, I come up against that (for me) endless mystery of the omnipotence of the Father. Do these words mean that my faith has nothing to do with my own choice, but rather that the Father has chosen for me that I will have faith? I cannot know the mind of God, so this is a judgment I cannot make for myself. But at some level, we are told that the children of God's promise are those children of faith that remain true. This is a separation for all time from works, and a depth of affirmation about spirit and the internal life of the heart being the place where faith and the promise hold. All I can conclude is that the Father is at work deep within us, in that place of the promise, and as we are drawn by the Father so we are drawn to Christ. This nature of choice and faith is still a deep mystery to me, but one on which I would like to ponder.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Food and Drink

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

- John 6:52-59

These are strange words indeed, at first glance. One once again wonders what his audience would have made of them. But we have markers and understanding and reflections to make on these words. First of all, Jesus has already referred to himself in the same passage as the bread that has come down from heaven, when he compared his being in the world with the manna that came from the Father in heaven to feed the Jewish ancestors in the wilderness.

I am also reminded of Adam's words to Eve, that she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Elsewhere, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom, and we, the Body of Christ, His Church, are the bride. Jesus defined marriage as "twain that become one flesh." So we have reflections on the notion of yet another depth of relatedness.

These sayings about food, referring to himself as food, seem to me to establish ever more deeply relationship: our very being is in the partaking of his spiritual flesh and blood so that we become of one Body with Him. Earlier in John's gospel, Jesus has also told his disciples that he has food to eat that they know nothing about - that his food is doing the will of his Father who sent him. So also, if our food is that of Christ, in relationship to both we must do the same. And finally, there is of course reference to the eucharist - to which Jesus will explicitly refer again at the Last Supper when he tells his disciples, "Do this in remembrance of me."

So, this "hard saying" about flesh and blood must resonate within us on many levels. We must understand it, of course, in spiritual terms, and as denoting an even deeper relationship than all we have already been led to understand through this gospel. Not only are we, humanity, invited into relationship with Father and Son through this gift of the son who has come to claim all that the Father has given him, but here we have the ultimate depth of relationship. Christ himself is our food; when we partake of the bread that is him - in other words, the bread and wine he offers us is himself - this denotes the idea that we become a part of him, our very lives are formed and shaped by the food we take in, of which we partake.

So, once again, for me, we come to deeper and deeper allusions to relationship - this time He is our very food and drink, when we share in His life, we become inseparably a part of His very life.

The Lamb of God is broken and distributed
Broken but not divided
Forever eaten yet never consumed
Sanctifying those who partake

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Children of God

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

- John 6:41-51

No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Jesus here claims a kinship with his followers that is deeper than mere belief, as I understand the word. There is a kinship here in that first his followers are somewhere in themselves taught by the Father, influenced by the Father. As we are formed and shaped by the Creator, made in the image of God, so the Father has an indwelling connection in us - and those who hear what Christ has to say are those who already have a kinship through the Father, deep within.

In today's epistle reading (from the Epistle to the Romans), Paul writes:

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.


Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

So, in the words of Christ in his ministry, and in the words of Paul, we have further statements of kinship. Humanity is included in this kinship of Father, Son and Spirit. Indeed all that Christ does has been inspired to claim the "children of God" that Paul refers to in these quotations - that through faith, through the depth of Spirit to spirit, we are called to Our Father in Heaven. This kinship of which Jesus has spoken so eloquently through the gospel of John as we continue through Lenten readings, is also a kinship that is within us. But it is felt through the reality of the Father and the Spirit. We understand this Trinity to be inseparable, but what I read in these passages is this depth of relationship at work within us.

I think this is highly significant; it has a resonance for us that we cannot put down and cannot ignore. Because if we are called to such a level of relationship then what is it when we don't feel that call, or when we ignore it? Jesus here speaks of resurrection and judgment, but for me there's a greater immediacy to these words spoken long ago. And that immediacy is in my heart. What do I find there? If I pray or meditate, or call upon Spirit, what do I find in myself? In my heart? What connection or teaching is there for me?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I shall lose nothing of all that he has given me

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

- John 6:27-40

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal. Here in the gospel of John Jesus continues to spell out his theology to those who wish to receive the bread of life that does not perish. To do the work that it takes to receive this bread, this food that does not perish, is quite simple: one must simply believe. This is the labor that is required.

The crowd asks for a sign, that they may believe in him, and they mention the manna given to their ancestors in the wilderness. Jesus says that not only was this manna from God, the Father in heaven, but so he himself is sent from heaven by the Father, to collect all that belongs to the Father - all that has been given to Christ. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me. Those who have this faith, in whom this love and relationship is at work, Jesus will never drive away - they will remain with him always and he will not lose what he has been given.

My sense of awe at these words increases with the thought of wonder at just how this recognition takes shape. What causes belief? What causes us to love God or to love Christ? Is it something buried deep within us, so deep we can't access what it is? This is a great mystery for me, and I don't have an explanation for it. But I feel it must be something that is a part of our identity that is buried so deeply within our hearts that it's just not a matter for conscious decision or rational choice. It doesn't depend on signs. It can't be coaxed or forced - as much as the gospels and all that has been written about them are important, I don't believe this decision is made by mere persuasion but rather comes as some form of recognition, of trust and love. And a feeling of loyalty. How does love survive not merely a lack of signs, but disaster and famine and tragedy? How does love survive all things that will come to attack it, the evil and harm in the world? My ancestors survived a genocide - had they renounced their faith they could have been saved. Yet faith remained. I cannot even understand where my faith and love for Christ comes from, except a love and deep recognition in my heart for this beauty that I must be loyal to.

The psalmist says today:

My zeal consumes me

because my foes forget your words.

Your promise is well tried,

and your servant loves it.

I am small and despised,

yet I do not forget your precepts.

Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,

and your law is the truth.

Trouble and anguish have come upon me,

but your commandments are my delight.

Your decrees are righteous for ever;

give me understanding that I may live.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Food that does not perish

When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’

- John 6:16-27

Jesus walks on the water in this passage, which is written in a way that begs wonder - because it seems like such a strange story. I suppose that the reason the disciples are rowing away by themselves is because, we've just read, Jesus withdrew by himself up the mountain. So the disciples are on their own. The water gets choppy, the great wind blows, and Jesus appears to them, walking toward them on the lake. When he arrives and they take him into their boat, they are immediately on dry land.

We must remember these men are experienced fishermen, one presumes they are used to choppy seas and winds on the water. (On the other hand, I've known experienced boatmen who rather knew the dangers better than the rest of us as well.) But if we look more deeply at the text we see analogies to our own states of being in life. It's night, it's dark, and away we row our boats on waters that are unreliable. Storms can brew any time. So our vision is limited, we don't always know what is going on in our lives. Our emotions can run with the wind, and toss us about despite our desires to stay a steady course. I see this as a great analogy to the calling within us for our Lord, in prayer - his influence is steadying, above the emotional life, he comes through to us to steady us and to lead us to the land. When we pray, he comes wherever we are, and part of what we pray for is his peace.

But despite the storm and the difficulties, and Jesus' withdrawal to the mountain, the crowds are still following him. So they come to Capernaum. This is the same crowd that Jesus miraculously fed the day before, and they are after the good things he's given them. So, it's time for teaching. It's time for the teacher to assert what he's here for, and to give the spiritual food he's here to distribute. This crowd is not following him because of signs now. It's there for food. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal, Jesus tells them. We must labor for the spiritual food he's here to offer. Jesus sets down not only his purpose here for the crowds that were fed the day before, but he also tells them their real work, and the real reward, is in the spiritual food that he's here to offer.

I wonder what does it mean that he uses the word "work" here - not only is he not here to give a free ride full of goodies that perish, but he's here to command our work for something that does not. Food for thought, indeed! What labor might that be?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The bread of life

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

- John 6:1-15

This is the event, here in John, to which Jesus refers in yesterday's passage from Mark - the feeding of thousands (which his disciples had apparently forgotten when they assumed Jesus was upset because they'd forgotten to bring bread). Today we read that Jesus was being pursued by crowds because of all the healings he had done, and so he is given a large following because of these signs.

The first thing that strikes my mind is Jesus' retreat to a mountain. He's not necessarily happy with all of this fame and renown, to be pursued and followed by crowds clamoring for more signs and giving him the adulation that comes with fame. It seems to me that going up to the mountain and sitting there with his disciples is in the first place a retreat for meditation - to recall himself to his job. And so the crowd follows him even up the mountain and Jesus is concerned for what they will eat. In this gospel passage we're told that he tested the disciple by asking about buying bread; elsewhere his sympathy for the crowds is expressed. Significantly (because no sentence is wasted in these texts) we are told that the Passover festival was near. To my mind, this feeding on the mountaintop gives an allusion to the feeding with manna of those wandering in the wilderness following Moses and God's instruction. Here Jesus distributes bread, as we are also distributed bread in communion (and we were taught to pray for spiritual bread). There is also fish to distribute. And so, five thousand people are fed. When he understands they wish to make him king, he withdraws again - this time alone.

What does it mean that so many signs and miracles are done, and yet Jesus simply wishes to withdraw? Why should he have bothered, if he didn't want people following him simply for signs? Perhaps we might wonder why he didn't become king, solve everyone's problems, and feed all those who followed him? I think this is the question that is the crux and the heart of this ministry, and understanding what it is that God seems to want from us. What I have found in my own life is that so often things do not go as I wish them to go, prayed for them to go. And yet, after the understanding that this was so, there was a way open for me to go forward in faith that I had not anticipated. I found instead, a way God wanted me to go forward which actually had to do with what I could do for Him. There were others I could help, and in this helping was my gold, my reward, my food - and a way to go forward with my life and new, added understanding. Always, the result was to draw out deeper reserves I didn't know I had within myself, a new strength or quality I didn't know I was capable of developing.

I feel that ultimately the love that is distributed through this relationship is that which invests in us as disciples, gives us responsibility as capable beings. We are not here merely to be fed, but also to be entrusted with responsibility to discharge the things we're capable of doing, to build up values of the gold that doesn't rust, to create merit in the world. Our Lord doesn't wish to be made king - to find fame and favor is not what he's here for. Instead he asks of us virtue, and merit, and invests in us his love, his bread, his name.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Bread

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.

Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’

- Mark 8:11-21

This passage is for me one of the bible passages that I love, because it is in some way a tender and humorous portrayal of human nature, even of Jesus' disciples who don't understand him.

In the beginning, we have Jesus facing those who wish to test him, who doubt him, and they demand a sign. But this is not the way that faith works, and it is not the way that he desires the sheep to know the shepherd. His "faith" is always one of recognition - of a bond of love and trust. It is something that happens within the hearts of people, in depth, and not through signs and wonders.

And so, he's back with his disciples, traveling on, and he tells them to beware the yeast of these people who sow doubt, and fear, and demand signs and proofs. Beware of the way of thinking of those for whom doubt and fear and proofs serve as shields to block the action of the heart, to block love and recognition, and the faith that comes from a positive depth response. Jesus' disiples fail to understand him - and they conclude that he is angry and upset because they forgot to buy bread for their journey, because he has used the analogy of yeast for what it is that this way of thinking does to spoil spiritual bread.

I love, first of all, the humanity portrayed here, that even Jesus' disciples fail to understand his teachings. And I love the evidently frustrated Jesus, who must point out to the disciples that not only do they fail to hear and understand him themselves, but they fail even to remember that he fed thousands from a few loaves of bread - that he is not talking about a shortage of food! In this is contained the love and mercy of this relationship - that where love and relationship is at depth, being perfect in all things is not exactly the emphasis here, and does not create this relationship. He knows their hearts, and their love and loyalty, and even in his frustration their failure does not sever those ties. This little scene about human nature, and the poor understanding that is within our natures teaches us about the humility of who we are and the great love invested in that humble understanding that will always need teaching. Love is the great bridge for our poor ears, and imperfect hearts. And it is humanity that Jesus loves.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I am

Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’

The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honour my Father, and you dishonour me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

- John 8:47-59

Yet more theology of Father and Son is revealed to us in this passage today. Jesus says that if he denied his relationship to the Father, that would make him a liar. Beyond that, there is a new claim here - a clear kinship that extends far beyond the immediacy of his time and place. There is this phrase, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." We must note the tense of the phrase "I am."

In the Orthodox churches, there is often an icon stretched across the ceiling high on the dome of the church. This is Christ Pantocrator (from the Greek) - "Pantocrator" meaning "all powerful." It is the notion of Christ resurrected and in his role as Lord. Around this icon are the letters, "OΩN". These are the words, in Greek, that represent the Tetragrammaton of the Old Testament, and these words here in the gospel of John in the present tense, "I am." If I were to try to give a translation in my very vernacular English, one could roughly say "O ΩN" could be translated as "the one that is" or "the one who is." In English we have the Old Testament translation "I am that I am." This is the Being whose very ontological state is always in the state of the verb "to be."

And so Christ asserts not only his relationship to the Father but his very being with the Father in a concurrent reality, a constant state of being, beyond what we understand of time. His words here clearly allude to the Tetragrammaton, the four letters from which we derive the word Yahweh. This is the response given to Moses when he asks for a name. Jesus' words, translated from the Greek here, are simply, "I am" but it is a clear allusion to the Name given to Moses of the identity of God. And so some in the crowd respond by attempting to stone him.

In this phrase, Jesus aligns himself with the Lord of the Old Testament, who appeared in the burning bush, who loved and shepherded the Jewish people and set them apart through their history. He is stating a nature that is the same as that of the Father - the One that Is. And what are we to make of this divine alignment, these powerful awe-striking words? How do we respond?

Friday, March 20, 2009

The truth that makes free

They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’

They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’

- John 8:33-47

Jesus elaborates further, in today's passage, on the theology of Father and Son, and the freedom from sin. There is a careful analogy, to my ears, here, that lays out relatedness and its relation to sin and to truth.

We first have the depth of the relationship of Father and Son - if you know One, you know the Other. But then there is the inclusion of humanity in these relationships. Are we, as individuals, related to Father and Son? Or are we outside of such a relationship, so that we recognize the nature of neither - in one or the other? In other words, if we "know" One, we know the other, but this knowing and this knowledge - this faith and trust and recognition - constitutes relationship. It is a conferring of relatedness, of one house or clan, of inclusion. It is similar to the idea of being "in the name." Relationship extends and includes. So, in such a relationship, the Son sets sinners free. By faith, by relationship of this type, one is no longer a slave to sin but becomes free in the truth expressed in the relationship. The very understanding, recognition and knowledge itself has the ability to set free.

And then there is the notion of a different relatedness, of the devil in this picture. The one who is the father of lies, and does not love truth. The manipulator who would rather murder truth than face what denies control, material power, and the ability to deceive. The exclusion from this relationship is the desire to hang onto a type of power that relies on lies and manipulation, and makes of others slaves - because it is a continuation of condemnation in sinfulness. And that is altogether a different kind of relatedness, it is no longer love - it is control, manipulation and condemnation. And above all, it is no longer freedom. It is a love of truth that sets us free.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The truth will make you free

Again he said to them, ‘I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.’ Then the Jews said, ‘Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, “Where I am going, you cannot come”?’ He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.’ They said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all?* I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’ They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’ As he was saying these things, many believed in him.

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’

- John 8:21-32

Jesus continues his teachings about himself from yesterday's readings. In this passage we are given the idea that in judgment he is entrusted by the Father to do the Father's will, to speak as he is taught, because he is true to the One who sent him, and the One who sent him is true.

In the epistle reading from Romans today, Paul writes of faith and justification, continuing his thoughts regarding righteousness, and how faith in Abraham was reckoned as righteousness. So also, Paul says, faith in Christ, in the words and truth of Christ, is reckoned as righteousness and justifies many who were condemned by the law.

This is the foundation, in these passages, for notions of faith and truth, and the opening up to the idea that by faith one is justified. It is a question of recognition, of knowing and loving the Father, that comes through this faith - and a willingness therefore to do the will of the Father. This love and faith is like that of Abraham, who recognized and loved what was good in his understanding and faith in the Father. This is a question of recognition, of the sheep knowing their shepherd, and in relationship maintaining that bond of faith with Father and Son, to both and through both.

I take comfort most of all in this bond of love and loyalty - of love reaching out not through law and condemnation but through an offer of love and relationship, and justification through relationship - and escape from sin.

We are told that many believed, whom I assume were drawn by love and took comfort also in these words and teachings.

‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The light of the world

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgement is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.’ Then they said to him, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’ He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.

-John 8:12-20

So, in this passage, Jesus boldly states his character and his nature. He is the light of the world, and he is sent by his Father. Perplexing words to his listeners - they've never heard anyone speak like this. How can they understand what he is about?

In this passage we have the testimony of Jesus himself as to his own true nature and origins. His ties to the Father are unassailable - so close as to constitute a recognition of both if a person knows one or the other. In these passages in John, we are given theology, a notion of the relationship between Father and Son, and what it means to know One, and therefore the Other.

I'd like to focus on relationship, and the nature of the relationship between Father and Son. For me, the intrinsic nature of the depth of relationship described here means what Jesus says, that knowing one means knowing or recognizing the other. Their natures are so aligned, and so meshed, that this recognition takes shape as a matter of some form of automatic cognizance. If you know one, then you know the other. So what does it say about the nature of the mysterious Father? This is what intrigues me today. In Jesus we have a dynamic, potent, powerful man, unafraid to speak the truth, to risk death for that truth. Ultimately, someone who is loyal to the place he's from, to the Person with whom he has such a relationship. He may have been born into the world, but his awareness is of whence he's come, and where he will return. I wish to focus on that loyalty and that love, because for me it is the true character of God. In that loyalty and love I also receive God's investment in us, and Christ's love and loyalty to us. I feel that this relationship between Father and Son is also extended that deeply into us, and that the door on Christ's side is always open to invest that same trust, love and loyalty in us. This is what distinguishes God's holy character for me: it is ultimately good, loyal and loving. Christ put his faith in the healed demoniac to be an evangelist, to represent Jesus to the world, just as the Son was sent by the Father. So love and loyalty of Father and Son are also extended to each of us, and can reach even unto the hell in which we may find ourselves - in love and loyalty to us. So, this light is not just shared between Father and Son, but is extended in love to us. To quote from today's psalm reading:

I say, ‘You are gods,

children of the Most High, all of you'

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Where's the proof?

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.’ Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’

- John 7:37-52

So the crowds are stirred up, and divided, and are debating who this man is, this Jesus who has spoken so that no one has heard anything like it. Is he the prophet? Is he the Messiah? And the Pharisees are pushed into a defensive position. They must defend their notions of who is in charge and who has proper authority, and they turn to the law. No prophet is to arise from Galilee, and no authority nor Pharisee believe in him. Nicodemos, the man who has asked what it means to be born again, replies also in the law: that no one is to be judged without a hearing.

The crowds also are stirred up and divided. There are those who ask if he is the the prophet, or the Messiah, and those who say that the scriptures say that the Messiah must come from Bethlehem and be descended from David. And in all of this division the temple police have no idea what they should do. On the one hand, they would arrest him. On the other, no one has ever spoken like this, and their astonishment stands in the way.

So, Jesus, as he will say elsewhere, has brought a sword, and the crowds are divided, the people as a whole are divided. Some are wondering, a few believe, some are adamantly against him and already wish to get him out of the way. But the one sure thing in this picture is the reliance on the law and the scriptures about whence comes the Messiah. He is to be from Bethlehem, from the line of David. And in this surety lies the great fault. Because proof to this crowd of one of the conditions of Messiah status is lacking. Jesus is from Galilee - everyone knows this. And so he has failed to fulfill the proofs, the conditions required, to be the Messiah.

In the gospel of John, there is but one reference to Bethlehem that I could find, and this is it. This is not a gospel of genealogies, or description of Jesus' birth. This gospel instead begins with Jesus' spiritual birth of his public ministry, with the baptism in the Jordan, and we have an entirely different emphasis. It's not "just the facts." In John we are constantly reminded that there is another dimension to life, and it is the realm of spirit and of faith, for which we must have eyes and ears to perceive so that we can understand in fullness. However, the gospel writer knows that those to whom he is writing this book are already aware of Jesus and his birthplace, even if the crowd in this scene is not. They have no proof that Jesus is from Bethlehem, and therefore the law says beyond all doubt that he cannot be the Messiah.

The problem with proofs is that they only tell you what you know, and not what you don't know. If you don't have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, and you rely on proofs for faith, you're going to miss this man who has stirred up the crowds and who has spoken as no one has done before. You're going to miss what the news is, and what he is offering, and the rivers of living water that nourish and replenish the soul. And most of all the heart will not be open to receive -- and even of one's own ignorance as to the facts at hand (i.e. Jesus' birthplace), one will continue to be unaware.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Reckoned as Righteousness

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works:

‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,

and whose sins are covered;

blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’

Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.

- Romans 4:1-12

A passage about works and faith is given us today in Paul's epistle to the Romans. Being a Christian, I haven't pondered much on the significance of circumcision. But from my perspective, I see circumcision not merely as a covenant between one people and God, but as an act of obedience to God. It is a symbol of one's subservience to God, covenant between Creator and creature with significant difference in stature between the two parties. We worship God, therefore this covenant is not merely a handshake between two equal partners in the sense of a business deal. The act itself seems clear: it is a symbolic covenant of subservience, a willingness to accept the word, or the law, as the case may be. This is my impression - at least in the story of Abraham.

So, when Paul here mentions Abraham, and when we are confronted with the phrase "circumcision of the heart," the meanings for me become more clear when I consider these aspects of the meanings of circumcision. A circumcision of the heart is one bound by humility before God, in covenant to that which teaches us. It's not a deal or a bargain, but a covenant that we will listen, that it is on us to be humble before God, shaped and disciplined in God's word - and in the circumcision of the heart, obedient and listening (or trying, anyway) to the laws of God which are written on the heart.

So this circumcision of the heart is what is reckoned as righteousness, according to Paul, and it is therefore that which belongs both to the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Therefore, says Paul, Abraham is the ancestor of both. For righteousness came to Abraham by virtue of the internal circumcision, by virtue of faith - before the work of physical circumcision was performed. Let us not forget that God knows what is written in the heart, and that we are understood as deeply as the internal reality of the heart. Let us practice our own circumcision of the heart, and remember that this is why we try to follow our covenant to hear the Word, to listen with the proper ears to hear, and the humility that is conveyed by this act of circumcision.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tell them how much the Lord has done for you

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

- Mark 5:1-20

Jesus meets a man who is afflicted with the persecution of many demons possessing him. I won't go into what one may speculate on the nature of demon possession or its resemblance to mental illness. But instead I'd like to focus on the story. We're all familiar with the phrase "My name is Legion." Suffice it to say that this is a man beyond the pale, someone considered irredeemable, unsalvageable. He is cast out into the most forlorn place of all, he lives among the tombs. Not only is this the forlorn land of the unclean, but also of the dead. He cannot even be restrained by chains anymore, so he's relegated to a place where he cannot live among his fellow human beings, but only among the dead. Figuratively, we could view this as a statement that this man is numbered among the dead, among those without hope of life whatsoever.

And so, Jesus arrives. And the spirits know him. "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" There is a recognition in this spirit world, and the story - as a piece of literature - is setting us into a place where we must understand there is a spiritual battle going on, and those who are players in a world beyond our sight and beyond this 3-dimensional scene of the wild man among the tombs know one another already and recognize each other. This is not an early believer at this stage, recognizing Jesus for who he is. This is the realm of the dead among those tombs, the land of that which is beyond death, the "underworld" as it would have been understood in the Decapolis.

The demons, legion though they may be, are cast out, they are immediately subject to Jesus. They beg him for some form of mercy, not to be sent out of the country, and so they are sent into the swine who immediately run and plunge to their deaths. The man is saved, and begs to follow Jesus. But instead he's told that he must go and proclaim his thanks to God, and share his good news of healing and redemption with others. This demoniac, among the most profoundly lost and disturbed, relegated only to the dead and not the living, has become an evangelist. Jesus' redemption makes of him one of the first sent out into the world to declare the good news, and to bear witness.

I find many metaphors in this story of life and death, of what is and what isn't. Particularly of note is the idea that he lived among the dead, in this underworld of the tombs, and yet he is sent out as among the first evangelists, to those in the Decapolis, a Greek-speaking region, fortified by Rome and Roman rule, for whom the underworld of Hades - reflected in life among the tombs for this man - would have signified in the story of the one who has returned from that life to proclaim the healing by Jesus Christ. So this unclean man, possessed by a legion of demons fit only through mercy to enter a herd of swine (unclean animals for the Jews), goes on to become among the first to proclaim the good news. And in this story we have absolutes as deep as death and life and rebirth, in the ultimate unclean outsider who becomes appointed by Jesus himself an evangelist, a witness to represent news of Jesus to the world and a proclamation of what the Lord can do. I take it to say that there are no limits to redemption, that the power of the Lord knows no bounds and no problem impossible to solve. There is no one beyond hope, and no life beyond redeeming in this power.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Show Yourself

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.’ After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, ‘Where is he?’ And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, ‘He is a good man’, others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd.’ Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

- John 7:1-13

Here we have another instance in which Jesus chooses to do his work in secret, hidden from the crowds. We are often told that this is because it is not yet his time, but in this passage, as in the previous passage of yesterday's reading, we're given perhaps a more important spiritual reason why this is so. He is taunted by his brothers that someone who wishes to be widely known has to go and publicize his acts and his deeds. He must show himself and put himself on display, so that he will be an effective teacher, and prove himself to the world..

Jesus himself tells them that it is not yet his time, but there's more to the story. We're also told that his brothers didn't believe in him - therefore those who are telling him he must be famous, or must seek to show himself and to show off his works are those who don't believe at all. Couple this with the passages from yesterday, about glory and whence it comes, and you have an affirmation about Jesus' perspective that it is not fame or praise of men that he seeks at all. He testifies of the world that its works are evil - because people do not seek the glory given from God - and so the world hates him. He has work to do before he meets his fate, it is not yet his time.

So the shunning of fame and self-glorification for its own sake comes as a component to yesterday's admonition about the difference between glory that comes from God and the glory that comes from self-aggrandizement, or the praise of other men. I couple this with Jesus' teachings about praying in secret. This is not a person who needs others' approval to have faith in what he is doing. Nor is he someone who seeks glory or fame for its own sake, in order to bask in the reflection of the world, in his image in other people's eyes. The taunting that he must show himself comes from those who do not believe, not from the faithful he seeks as his followers, who are able to share a different perception of glory.

So Jesus goes to the festival in secret; he is there but does not show himself. I wonder if that is a wonderful metaphor for his presence in our world today. He is here, he is by our side, for those of faith. We have a companion upon whom we call. But what happens if our faith is based on the showing of works and the praise of others?

Friday, March 13, 2009

The glory that comes from God

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?
- John 5:39-47

In John's gospel, we are constantly being exhorted to understand that there is life in many dimensions, and that if we do not learn to perceive properly, we will fail to see that which we seek. We will fail to perceive that which we claim we are in search of, or that we need for our lives. Jesus clearly states there is a level of perception that even those who seek the scriptures for eternal life are failing to see. Even those who seek the scriptures for eternal life fail to see what those scriptures point to, what exactly they write about. He's talking about a kind of perception of reality that has to do with a spiritual level of life, an extra dimension added to "the facts." And if one does not see with eyes to see, one will fail to see what one searches for.

It is important to note the statements in today's readings about glory. Jesus says that the glory that is his does not come from human praise. It is not about aggrandizing the persona of Jesus as a human being alone. This is quite significant, because he also goes on to say that if he were merely a self-glorified person, then people would honor him. But the glory that comes from this other dimension, that requires a different sort of perception, eludes him in a world of those who do not truly see that which the scriptures point to. Jesus states that they do not know the Father, otherwise they would know him.

In the passage in today's epistle reading from Romans 2, we have a similar idea about glory:

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.

"A person who is a Jew is one inwardly, and real circumcision is one of the heart -- it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receive praise not from others but from God." This again, is another passage affirming the notion that glory and our perception of what is good in a person relies on a level of perception that is tied to the spiritual, to a dimension other than the literal or the one we see in three dimensions. We cannot prove glory except through the sight that spirit and spiritual perception provides.

Do we look for the glory that comes through spiritual sight? I wonder how do we receive spiritual sight. Do we pray for it and are our prayers enough to be given this sight? I wonder how many of us today value spiritual sight at all - or is it relegated to just another one of those things that form an individual whim, a fantasy, or a myth someone made up long ago that has nothing to do with truth?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Father and the Son

Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.

‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
- John 5:19-29

In the passages of today's reading in John 5, Jesus makes clear his authority. He states very clearly that he is given authority by the Father. Not only does he have the authority given him by the Father, but this authority and this power extends to life and death, and to judgment. This authority happens not through the power of the Son alone, but because the Father has invested authority and power in the Son, and because the Son acts as the Father does, and does not judge of himself alone. This passage clearly lays out the integrated relationship of the Father and the Son, while it also clearly lays out the authority of the Son. Jesus speaks boldly and clearly about himself, his role, his identity. These are strong claims, to say the least, not made lightly by a person who has a form of earthly authority or the power to teach, but made plainly and clearly and without mincing words. All power seems to be invested in the Son.

Jesus takes great care to tell us also that without the Father, there is no authority - that all that the Son does is with the Father, through the Father's will, in complete relationship. But, in this relationship is the great key: that the Son does what the Father wills, therefore those who do not honor the Son also do not honor the Father.

This is a testimony about relationship and authority, what gives authority and what gives power and what it is that grants the power of Judgment. We are to understand Jesus' authority on these terms. I can only imagine what it must have meant for those whom Jesus taught to hear such language. But for us today, we must also ponder strongly and carefully these words and claims. For myself, I can only begin with the writings of Paul in today's reading, from Romans 2:

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? You that boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

Paul states here that there is a law written on the heart, belonging to the Gentiles, to those who have not heard the law. So I take it then, that in this judgment, there is room for everyone, for those who have heard and those who have not. Paul goes on to address his fellow Jews, to say that if they who have the law do not uphold it, then it is they who cause others to blaspheme God. I can simply paraphrase for myself, that if I as a Christian do not uphold what we have been taught by him who called himself the Son, then we also cause others to condemn our faith and to scorn God, or the gift of what is good and true. Having invested in us in so great a relationship as the Son, we then must take care of our own behavior so that it reflects what we have been taught. Our faith isn't a gift we put away in a closet and keep as a precious possession, but it has to be something lived and real each day. Religious hypocrisy is what kills faith. So, in living that faith, how do we make an effort to be true to the Son, as the Son is to the Father, and true to his teachings?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Take Up Your Mat

Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
- John 5:10-18

Jesus chooses a man out of a crowd at a pool, a natural spring, said to have healing properties. The man has not asked him for help, and does not even know who Jesus is. But Jesus asks him, "Would you like to be made well?" The man doesn't know what Jesus is really asking, and tells Jesus that he needs help being put into the pool, because the others are more able - and faster - than he is, and so he cannot get to the healing water when it springs up. Jesus tells him to take up his mat and walk.

So, in this instance, the healed man is clearly chosen to be healed - he doesn't know who Jesus is, and only asks for help after Jesus asks him if he'd like to be made well. This is an example. This happens for a reason beyond a request by the sufferer. It is the sabbath, and Jesus - through his ministry - is making a point. He is about his Father's work, and it is appropriate on the sabbath to honor the Father by doing His will and His work. He also says clearly that his Father is working. But those who wish to put the law above the One for whom the law is intended to give honor, do not understand what Jesus has done. They know the rules, but they do not know spirit. He has healed on the sabbath, and furthermore he has declared that he is doing the work of the Father, of his Father - and so has broken another rule intended to honor the Father by calling himself a son, thereby making himself an equal.

Clearly Jesus has provoked this crisis, this moment of choice. He has acted boldly - both healing on the sabbath and declaring that he will continue to do the work of his Father. He instructs the healed man, "Go and sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you." Jesus shows his love and respect for God, by telling the man to honor God in proper gratitude for the healing. But those for whom the spirit of God is not felt or known can only see the technical violations of the law, and not the spirit at work in Jesus' action. Moreover they wish to persecute him for doing his work, and for declaring that he is serving his Father. The depth of truth and the immediacy of spirit we are asked to understand in this text is striking, almost shocking. Jesus does what he knows will not be acceptable to those for whom the law exists apart from the perception of spirit and truth, but it is not yet his time. He disappears into the crowd, and it is only later they find who he is and he defends his work. Yet for all this, his work is good, we can see the effects and so can everyone else in the story.

We don't know what it is to stand in the presence of Jesus, but I wonder if this story in its immediacy does not present us with a choice we make every day. If we separate the law from Spirit, from truth, are we able to understand it? Do we face such immediacy of choices every day?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Please Heal My Son

Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.’ The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
- John 4:46-54

Jesus has returned to Galilee after having been in Judea at the Passover. This time, upon his return, many Galileans have seen or heard about the signs he did in Judea. He also performed a previous miracle, a sign, in Cana itself: that of turning water to wine at a wedding. But as we have seen already, mere belief in miraculous signs is not true faith, it is not the depth of soil required for the faith that Jesus wants.

A royal official comes to Jesus claiming his son is ill, and asking Jesus to come and heal him. Once again, Jesus encounters in Galilee a faith based on signs alone. So he admonishes, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." But the father is adamant, what he truly cares about is the healing of his son. "Sir, come down before my little boy dies." Jesus tells the official to go, that his son will live. And so, the official follows Jesus' advice (we are told the man believed Jesus' word), and is met by his slaves who inform him that the child is alive. He takes care to ask the hour at which the child began to recover, and is told that it was at the time the official spoke with Jesus.

It's often that we are tempted to feel love or relationship by virtue of the gifts we get from that connection, from that relation or friendship. We may find a person dazzling or impressive in some sense. But love makes deeper connections than simply what one gets from something or someone. Love and faith involve a deeper sort of connection of trust. Jesus knows that faith based on the signs he can perform is not the faith he's looking for. It's not the deep soil of real faith. This story we encounter today is a story about love. The father is not merely looking for a sign. He loves his son, he desperately desires that his son be well. He has faith in Christ's word without the sign, because love has prompted him to ask, and in faith he goes back home.

What do we require of our own faith? Is it a faith that lasts as long as it seems to prosper us, or to give us good signs and wonders? Faith is a different level of being, a different sort of connection. That faith is something that has to last us also through difficulties, but its road comes from love that transcends the surface. As we know, faith will lead through crucifixion in this story, through death and to something beyond. But this story is rooted in love, as in the deep care of a father for his child, and the compassion of the Christ in that connection of love. The depth of mystery for me is in that love. Where does it lead us, and who does it teach us to be? In whom does it teach us to have faith and trust? And who responds to that love?

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Fields Ripe for Harvest

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
- John 4:31-38

Jesus at last sees a harvest. This is clear now from his experience with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. From her testimony gather many believers, and they are on their way to see him. In the passage following the one quoted above, we learn that many Samaritans believe, not just because of the woman's testimony but because they hear him preach and teach, and they believe for themselves.

Jesus begins to instruct his disciples in the way of his work, and what sustains him. "I have food to eat that you do not know about." His food is to do the will of the one who sent him and to complete his work. Jesus is working for a goal, for a harvest, and the work itself sustains him, gives him spirit and energy, and propels him forward. Jesus then teaches his disciples that they must do the same work, although they will reap what they do not sow. So, we have an allusion here in the readings to the parable quoted in the section from Mark yesterday, of the sower whose seed scatters everywhere, but takes root and gives yield only in the good and deep soil. Jesus is already marking to his disciples the ripeness of the field, the reaping that is happening even as the sower continues to sow. In the Samaritan believers, the reaping is already happening so that reaper and sower rejoice together.

The passage continues:
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

Jesus' harvest among the Samaritans is their faith and understanding of his identity, and this he calls the fruit for eternal life, the fields ripe for harvesting. These outsiders shall be among the first fruits of the harvest, once again teaching us that a sincere heart and sincere faith are the things which qualify us for this harvest and this eternal life. As I think about this scene and these early believers, I wonder how it applies to us today. Do we reap? What do we reap, for whom the word was sown long ago, for whom these stories are now thousands of years old? I also ponder on the allusions to harvest which tell us not simply about faith, but harken to the idea of judgment and Jesus' messianic mission, and give us echoes of the apocalyptic understanding of what is transpiring and what is underway.

In these early believers, an important pattern is laid down, the rules of the past are broken, and expectations shattered. These outsiders are not the ones to whom the earlier laborers - the prophets - were sent. The teacher breaks apart our assumptions and understanding to reveal the new. What new do I await and expect now? Do my eyes need to be opened to something new today?