Archive for April, 2016

“The Light shines,” (Sermon, April 24th, 2016)

Note: Today was a Celtic Sunday with a Godly Play-style sermon. Here was the regular sermon I preached at the 8am.

 

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

John 13:31-35

 

“ Ἐν  ἀρχῇ  ἦν    Λόγος,  καὶ    Λόγος  ἦν  πρὸς  τὸν  Θεόν,  καὶ  Θεὸς  ἦν    Λόγος.  Οὗτος  ἦν  ἐν  ἀρχῇ  πρὸς  τὸν  Θεόν.  πάντα  δι’  αὐτοῦ  ἐγένετο,  καὶ  χωρὶς  αὐτοῦ  ἐγένετο  οὐδὲ  ἕν    γέγονεν.  ἐν  αὐτῷ  ζωὴ  ἦν,  καὶ    ζωὴ  ἦν  τὸ  φῶς  τῶν  ἀνθρώπων.  καὶ  τὸ  φῶς  ἐν  τῇ  σκοτίᾳ  φαίνει,  καὶ    σκοτία  αὐτὸ  οὐ  κατέλαβεν.

It’s not often that we get the chance to hear the Scripture in its original language. There’s good reason for that; at the risk of underestimating you, dear friends, I imagine that was gibberish to many of you. What I just recited were the first five verses of the Gospel of John.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I recited it in Greek to remind us of our roots. Koinē, the Greek of the New Testament, may be inaccessible to many Western Christians now, but once it was a language of the common people. Like Elizabethan English it now ironically enjoys an academic, privileged status that it never possessed in life.

Hearing the Gospel in this language reminds us who we are. Not superheroes. Not spiritual Titans of virtue. Ordinary people, using ordinary language. Children using sticks and dust to sketch crude pictures of a promised kingdom beyond anything we could ask or imagine. Children who are afraid, vulnerable, messy, and wobbling on scraped knees. Children who need love and affirmation.

I also recited this passage because many scholars believe it is a microcosm of John’s entire Gospel. If you like, it’s John’s thesis statement – particularly the last couple of lines: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This thesis statement keeps popping up throughout the whole of the book, not only through explicit linking of images and phrases but through implicit construction of sentences and phrases. This was part of John’s genius. He used simple words that any child – or beginning student of Koinē – would recognize, and yet loaded them with layers of meaning so that they are at once maddeningly cryptic and utterly enticing.

Actually, that’s a pretty good description of Jesus – talk about the Living Word.

But John was an even more brilliant wordsmith than that. John’s Gospel is exquisitely crafted, probably one of the most perfectly constructed documents in history. I tell you this because today’s passage, Chapter 13 verses 31-25, is a restatement of that thesis, and it’s done not in an explicit way but in a beautiful implicit way, like a love note passed in secret. I want to share a piece of that with you, because we’re Anglicans and we appreciate beautiful things, and because I really believe that this beauty can be a sign for the world – say, a piece of scaffolding for the coming kingdom of God, which should give us hope during this time of transition and change.

Let’s explore.

Chapter 13, verses 31-35. We also hear it on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. That’s the scene right before this passage in verses 1 to 31. Jesus performs this beautiful sacramental act to teach his disciples, whom he calls “little children,” about the new commandment of love which will be a mark of identity for them. It is a “teachable moment.”

But Jesus doesn’t do this for no reason, and the text makes that clear. He does it knowing full well that two of those who are washed will later betray him. Peter, who at his washing in verse 8 enthusiastically blurts, “Not only my feet! My hands and my head too!” will deny him three times. This is a dreadfully ironic moment. Peter believes this is a statement of faith, but really he has just betrayed himself. He doesn’t really understand what the footwashing is about. It’s not just about love and servitude, you see. It’s about death, and how the Christian person is to respond to death and loss in all its forms.

How do we know this? Well, thematically the washing of feet hearkens back to the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary of Bethany, which she does to, in his words, “prepare him for burial.” And then the text gets even more explicit than that.

The footwashing begins in verse 5. In verse 2 we hear that the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. Then we hear in verse 4 that Jesus took off his robe – except the Greek says, “lays down” his robe. Jesus lays down his robe, like he will later lay down his life.

These verses provide us with a filter to view the washing. And just in case we didn’t get it the first time, we receive another couple of clues. Jesus makes veiled comments about his betrayer in verses 11 and 18. Then in verse 21 Jesus totally does away with subtlety and says outright that he will be betrayed. Judas, who the text implies is present both for the washing and the supper, stays silent, and, after being commanded by the living Word who is in complete control of the whole narrative, goes out into the darkness of night. Remember that time is important in John. “It was night” is a cipher for the machinations of the world (which God is said to love) that seeks to extinguish the light. But the light shines in the darkness.

The teachable moment, overshadowed by the specter of death, is followed by the overt and literal nighttime of Jesus’ betrayal.

And then, just as the darkness is dropping down, Jesus says in verse 31, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

Now? After that?

Yes. This is the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

It really shines in the darkness, because right after the conclusion of the passage, at verse 36, there is more nighttime. After the new commandment, the proclamation of love that never dies, in verses 36 to 38 Jesus predicts the denial of Peter.

Those are the verses which close out the chapter.

Current betrayal, a proclamation of love, and future betrayal. Jesus knows he has been sold out by Judas, and he speaks love. He knows he will be betrayed by Peter, and he speaks love.

The light shines in the darkness.

Jesus, knowing that the disciples’ love for him will not survive the fear of reprisal, commands them to love one another. Knowing that he will once again come to them and they will finally understand, he commands them to love one another, and patiently waits for that later morning of breakfast on the beach, where, over a charcoal fire, he says, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?”; where he asks it three times in order to undo that threefold denial Peter made over the last charcoal fire in this story.

What does this tell us?

That nighttime is no time to be afraid.

Today, we are sitting squarely in the light. We have an advantage over the disciples: we know the whole story. Today, on our last Sunday before our interim priest joins us for our identity-forging journey through the wilderness, through the nighttime of uncertainty, we are given the gift of this new commandment, this new rule of love for our time together.

We do not carry this commandment into a barren place. We carry it into a world made fully new by Love rising from the grave. We carry it into a world where the holy springs up from barren ground, where if our voices fail or are taken away, the rocks and stones themselves will sing for us, where τὸ  φῶς  ἐν  τῇ  σκοτίᾳ  φαίνει, the light shines in the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness…and the darkness has not, does not, will not overcome it.

“God is all in,” (Sermon, April 17th 2016)

Note: This was the sermon I preached on the first Sunday after my mentor, a beloved priest who had served his parish for nearly fifteen years, left to pursue ministry at another parish.

 

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ 25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.’

John 10:22-30

 

In the Godly Play curriculum, when the seasons of the church year change, we begin our stories with, “Everything has changed.” We’ll say, “Now is the time of the colour blue,” or the colour purple. It is a way to encourage our children to notice the changes in church, and to give them a vocabulary to center them in the Christian faith.

Today, dear friends, to encourage and support you in naming the changes in our family, and to give us a vocabulary to center us in the Christian faith, I say:

“Everything has changed. Now is the time of the interim minister.”

As much as we will surely come to love John Bailey, who will be an excellent and stable presence for us, it will not be the same. Everything has changed for us, Jesus’ disciples, today in Dunbar and yesterday in Jerusalem. The one who was friend and shepherd is no longer with us. We are scattered – literally once, metaphorically now, in our heads and hearts.

But this is as it should be.

Easter is not a simple time. Sometimes we shout Alleluia to add to the echo of that momentous shift in the fabric of the universe. And sometimes we shout it because we feel like the echo is all that’s left. Easter is messy that way. We weep at the physical absence of the one whom we loved, but rejoice in the ministry of the one who goes bearing a piece of us, having been with us for a time.

In today’s Gospel reading, we’ve rewound a bit and Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon. If the Gospel of John tells you where something happened, that’s never just a throwaway line. Same if it tells you what time it is. Everything is essential for our interpretation.

We believe that the portico of Solomon was the only part of Solomon’s temple that was not destroyed by the Babylonians in their siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. It held tremendous spiritual significance for the Jewish people living there – a link to a glorious time when they felt as if God was very close and active in their history; a time when they were under no foreign rule but only under the rule of the great I AM who had liberated them and made of them a great and holy nation.

That’s the place.

Now the time. It was close to the Feast of Dedication. This is one of the names for the festival of Hanukkah. We might know the story of a one-day supply of oil miraculously burning for eight in the temple. But Hanukkah, like that portico, was another piece of culture that had ties to a radical time in Jewish history. Hanukkah commemorates the day that the Hasmoneans, led by Judas Maccabeus, liberated the temple from the pagan Seleucid monarchy and rededicated it after it had been closed and polluted under their rule. This was a landmark victory, and it occurred barely two hundred years before Jesus was born. The fire of that victory still rested in the hearts of many Jewish people, who, now under Roman rule, proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, who would liberate the people and their ancestral home. This was the belief of the Zealots, who played a key part in the First Jewish-Roman war about fifty years after the death of Jesus. Their targeting of Romans and Greeks made the chief priests of Jesus’ time angry and fearful. They had good reason, based on past experience, to believe that open revolt would gain little to nothing at the cost of much blood. This might give us a context for why they were so wary of Jesus. This, I think, is what Caiaphas meant when he said, “It is better for one man to die than the whole people.”

So, Jesus walks, through the cloisters that stubbornly proclaimed the glory of God’s people, during the festival where God’s people stubbornly remembered the glory of God’s temple. He walks and is accosted by some folks; folks who heard that he had done great things, but perhaps had not seen them firsthand, or were unable to believe it could be possible; folks nursing old wounds of destruction, nurturing the fire of past victory, yearning and burning for the promised salvation; folks who then say, “Be straight with us. Are you the one? Are you the healer who will bind up these old wounds? Are you the gasoline for that victory fire? Are you the one who will save us from Rome?”

These are all real, heartbreaking questions, and I bet they sound familiar.

We come to Jesus, remembering old wounds, nurturing past victories, uncertain about the future. We come and we catch him here, in this place which has seen joy and victory and pain and loss. And we say, “Be straight with us. Are you going to step up? Are you going to be with us while we walk the pilgrim path? Are you really going to bring the right person to us, someone who will love us and care for us in the way that we have come to know and count on?”

And he answers, and it’s a pretty scary answer. “I have told you, and you do not believe.”

That hurts.

But you know what? For me, sometimes, it’s 100% true. I don’t always know for sure if God’s going to step up – and sometimes I don’t like the way God steps up! And even if I know in my heart that Jesus walks with me through every part of life, sometimes he’s really hard to see. And we may believe that God is working wholeheartedly in our canonical committee, but this is a huge position that we are trying to fill.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes the truth, like Easter, like joy, like resurrection, is messy.

But there is hope.

Jesus goes on to say, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”

We are known.

“I give my sheep eternal life.”

We are loved.

“No one will snatch my sheep out of my hand.”

We are cared for, and there is nothing we can do to escape that.

Now a sheep isn’t exactly a glamorous animal with which to be identified, is it? In fact, “sheep” among our individualist Western society these days is basically a slur. But do you know what Wikipedia calls sheep? “A prey animal with a strong gregarious instinct.”

Have you ever heard a better description of a Christian? We may not be literal prey today, the way we once were in the arena, but we are prey to all of the things everyday people are prey to – fear, uncertainty, selfishness, apathy. We are also by nature of our baptism prey to other forces. We are prey to those who can’t comprehend why it would better to serve than to be served; prey to a culture of self-aggrandizement and promotion that can’t possibly imagine why we would try so hard to regard others as better than ourselves; prey to an increasingly loud culture which claims the world goes down the toilet every time someone chooses vulnerability or empowerment of the weak rather than judgement and bootstrap thinking.

Prey animals with a strong gregarious instinct.

Oh do we Christians have a strong gregarious instinct. We broadcast our story of death transformed into new life to each other and the world, even when no one is listening.

Isn’t that strange? Why would we do that?

Because we think it’s important.

Because we think it might be the most important truth the world has ever heard.

It’s so important, that Jesus told us we would not be left to do the work alone. We have an Advocate – the Holy Spirit, who moves in us and in the world.

It’s so important, that God entered human flesh and said to us, “Okay, children. These are the promises. I’m all in. What about you?”

Promises were made – at the beginning of time in the middle of swirling chaos; two thousand years ago in an occupied backwater nation; ninety years ago in a little neighbourhood on the west coast of Canada.

These are the promises. God is all in.

What about us?