The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Back in 1964 Bob Dylan sang “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ / It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls…” Today, between the January 6 hearings and the recent Supreme Court decisions, we might wonder whether the 60’s were just the warm-up act.

So what’s our role as Christians? The parable in today’s Gospel is a key part to any Christian answer.

Recall what lead up to the parable… “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” The question assumes that some are my neighbor, that some are not. This is likely a near-universal assumption. Consider our pronouns: What does “we” mean if it doesn’t contrast with “they”? Consider the role of language (accent, vocabulary, etc.): after a few words we’ve instinctively slotted the speaker as one of us or them. Clothing, zip code: so many ways of slotting people into us or them.

So: who qualifies as my neighbor? That’s the conversation the lawyer wants to have. And Jesus’ parable is designed not to answer that question, but to blow it out of the water. At least two elements accomplish this: First, the cast (Priest, Levite, Samaritan [The Samaritan the classic “Other”; “Be a good boy or a Samaritan will…”]. Second, Jesus’ closing: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Now, if we pull back the camera, there’s an obvious question. A few weeks back we heard Paul say “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Haven’t we just replaced these contrasts with “Christian and non-Christian” so that we’re back where we started?

A response to that question requires two hands. On the one hand, the NT is clear: saying “yes” to Jesus is fundamental. On the other hand, if that “yes” motivates anything other than love, it’s no longer Jesus to whom I’m saying yes.

Here’s the thing. Jesus’ “love your enemies” isn’t simply one element in his teaching; it captures his Father’s modus operandi throughout the Bible.

His Father’s modus operandi: we meet this in today’s first reading from Amos and repeatedly in the coming weeks with the Old Testament lessons from the 8th & 7th C. prophets. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) and Southern Kingdom (Judah) are turning their backs on God, oppressing the vulnerable. Those two actions are two sides of the same coin: I turn my back on God and—surprise—I’m no longer in solidarity with all those who bear God’s image, but with those who bear my image: same skin color, dialect, etc. Anyhow, Israel and Judah: they have made themselves God’s enemies. So for God all the good and easy options are off the table, and God struggles to find a way to stop the madness and to begin laying the foundation for a better future.

And it captures Jesus’ modus operandi. Two weeks ago we heard James and John offering to call down fire on a Samaritan village that—they thought—had not given Jesus a sufficiently enthusiastic reception. So Jesus finds himself for neither the first nor the last time among his enemies.

Any two-bit god can surround themselves with friends; Jesus’ God is constantly seeking out his enemies.

Our Eucharistic Prayer reminds us of this weekly. For example, Prayer A: “to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all” or, again, “Sanctify us…and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.”

To stay with our liturgy for a moment, every week there’s the Confession and Absolution. So the divide between Christians and non-Christians isn’t between friends and enemies of God. On our good days we Christians are allowing God to continue the life-long work of transforming us from enemies into friends.

In sum, that’s one thing the parable is doing, messing with our notions of “us” and “them.”

The other thing the parable is doing: highlighting compassion.

“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity [compassion].”

Words matter. It turns out that in the New Testament the Greek verb translated ‘have pity/compassion’ is used exclusively for Jesus, the two exceptions being in Jesus’ parables. Compassion, the Gospel writers tell us, is fundamental to how Jesus navigates this world. And this, in turn, shapes their understanding of how we follow Jesus.

So, in the parable compassion is the turning point in the story. And if we read the parable as an allegory of the divine-human history, it is the turning point in that history: this Samaritan God finding us and caring for us on the Jericho road. We hear that turning point in our Eucharistic Prayers. What is the start of Eucharistic Prayer A if not an extended description of compassion?

“Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.”

Today so much undercuts and deadens compassion—and nothing more effectively than the us/them dichotomy.  We need this parable—particularly in an election year, in which the political parties are pulling out all the stops to motivate us, but usually not toward greater compassion.

What this sermon boils down to: an invitation to use Jesus’ parable as a lens through which to view the world we’ll encounter in the coming week. Us and them. Notice how often this gets encouraged, the subtle ways it can distort our identity. Look for opportunities to enact William Temple’s claim: “The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Compassion. Notice all that deadens it. Look for opportunities, however small, to practice it.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Had we continued the Gospel reading for one more verse we would have heard this: “At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’”

‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…’” In context, Jesus is thanking God for the work the seventy have just reported. These infants, not the wise and understanding who hold power in Jerusalem and the synagogues, are declaring and embodying the good news of the Kingdom. And these words identify a recurrent theme in our readings, and so serve as the backbone of this sermon.

Our first reading introduces us to Naaman: “Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.” Short of being king, he could not have greater honor. But his disease threatens all of that.

He learns of the possibility of healing in Israel. His king takes advantage of the situation: he sends Naaman to the Israelite king with a letter: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” He’s insured that Naaman will have access to whatever’s available in Israel: if Naaman’s cured, wonderful; if not, the Israelite king’s behind the 8-ball. The Israelite king responds by rending his clothes (his own, not Naaman’s). And the story could have stayed stuck there had not Elisha heard of it and told the king to send him Naaman.

We know what happens next: “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.’” Naaman, of course, is furious that Elisha has slighted him by not coming out himself. His servants find a way to spin the situation to maintain Naaman’s honor, so that he washes and is cleansed from the leprosy.

Elisha could have met Naaman at the door and followed Naaman’s script (“I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”) That he did not is a clue that the story is not only about the Lord’s desire and power to heal—worth celebrating!—but also about the Lord’s hostility toward the human games surrounding honor. Elisha, the Lord’s prophet, refuses to play that game, and Naaman’s cure depends on his loosening his grip on it as well—even if only a little.

“The Lord’s hostility toward the human games surrounding honor.” Is that too strong a way of putting it? Maybe. Nevertheless, something like that is true, and explains, for instance, the Lord’s regular preference for the one who is not the firstborn: Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; David, not any of his older brothers. It’s part of what gives the edge to Paul’s “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

And, of course, it prepares us for Jesus’ words: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” So what happens to the wise and understanding? Look again at what happens with Naaman: his salvation comes through folk considerably below him: that little Israelite maid captured in one of the Syrian raids, the servants who accompanied him to Elisha’s house. What gifts might God be trying to give us through people we regard as below us?

Paul’s words, in turn, are helpful for understanding how Jesus’ words might play out among the Galatians, and, by extension, among us. His discussion of walking according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (the flesh: our humanity in rebellion against God) is not designed to give us a new way of playing the honor game, an additional way of ranking people. Rather, he encourages us to guard against letting concerns for honor get in the way of more important things, to look for ways to build each other up.

One test for how we’re doing in the honor/humility department is the way we respond to insults or slights. Some are intentional; others are unintentional, byproducts of our fallibility. It is our response to them that’s important. Abba Isaiah, one of the desert fathers, said “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults. The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day”. Abba Isaiah is not encouraging us to water each other—that is something we do without encouragement. He’s encouraging us to see insults, slights, etc. as opportunities to grow in humility.

In addition to giving us a window on (or maybe a mirror for) issues of honor and humility, our first lesson provides an opportunity to notice something about the means of grace, the Sacraments and Scripture in particular. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Elisha’s command is quite arbitrary. There is the same sort of arbitrariness in our Lord’s choice of water to give us new birth in baptism or of bread and wine to give us his own Body and Blood, or of Holy Scripture as a privileged setting for conversations with our Lord. There are so many attractive rivers out there, so many promising strategies for healing and self-improvement, so many other places to be on a Sunday morning. We come to the water, the bread and the wine, the Bible, because that’s where Jesus told us to go, and that in itself requires a certain ongoing humility.

Of course, in this story Naaman has it easier: seven dips in the Jordan and he’s cured. The means of grace sometimes have this immediate and dramatic effect, but usually it’s a long-term process: water eroding our stony hearts. And so Paul encourages us: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” It is a matter of, as Nietzsche put it, “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Paul follows that encouragement with “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all” and with that we’ll return to the first reading, to notice the people who were pivotal in the story, or, in Jesus’ language, the infants.

Notice, first, the little maid, captured in a Syrian raid, and now serving Naaman’s wife. She could easily have kept the information about Elisha to herself, and taken a sort of joy in watching the commander waste away. She could have seen it as a sort of justice, or even as punishment from her God. She’s near the bottom of the totem pole, but she has choices, and she chooses to give Naaman the information that saves him.

Then there are Naaman’s servants. Naaman’s response to Elisha’s non-appearance suggests that he had a short fuse, and his servants would have been the first to suffer from that. Never mind whether they thought Elisha’s instructions had any merit: they could have enjoyed watching their master stymied. They’re not much up the totem pole from the little maid, but they have choices, and they chose to deal gently and honorably with their master, and he is saved.

The little maid and the servants. Nameless, they’re the heroes of the story, Scripture’s story. Scripture plays many roles; the role noticeable here is that of providing a sneak preview of the Final Judgment. The story honors them, and in so doing reminds us that there is finally only One whose opinion/honor matters. So let us seek honor, but be careful to seek it from God, who alone is in a position to truly give it. And if we do as well as the little maid, or Naaman’s servants, we will have done very well indeed.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1; the citations from Galatians are from the New International Version)

Our second reading from Galatians is a gem. With its probable allusion to baptism (“those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh”) and all its references to the Spirit it inspires a sermon that we might entitle “Baptism: P.S.”

As you may recall, the letter to the Galatian churches was prompted by the arrival of folk who argued that to properly follow Jesus the (Jewish) Messiah, the gentiles had to be circumcised and observe all the law of Moses. Paul writes to convince the Galatians that this is a dead end. That said, let’s walk through our text.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The yoke of slavery: all the commandments in the law of Moses, particularly those which served to separate Jews and gentiles: circumcision, the Sabbath, the food and other purity laws.

We Americans really like this verse, whether in relation to last week’s Juneteenth, or next week’s Independence Day. Freedom! But what Paul does with it: “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Slavery no, but becoming “slaves to one another” as the NRSV puts it, yes. Say what???

Our culture likes the stoic philosopher Epictetus’ definition of freedom: “He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered…”[1]

“Who lives as he wills:” for Paul that can’t be what freedom’s about, first, because it ignores Jesus’ model, serving us humbly in love. In love: enact “Love your neighbor as yourself” and you’ve nailed the entire law.

“Who lives as he wills:” for Paul that can’t be what freedom’s about, second, because it’s impossible in light of the following verses (vv.16-17). The Spirit and the flesh in combat: in the middle of that battlefield anyone who thinks he “lives as he wills” is a bit naïve.

The Spirit and the flesh. The Spirit: the Holy Spirit. The flesh: that’s a bit more complicated. Sometimes it’s a morally neutral term, us in our vulnerable humanity. Sometimes—as here—it captures our “autonomous fallen humanity…standing in opposition to God” (Hays). And in this text we might hear it as personified, an exterior force like Sin and Death ranged against us. So Paul’s Spirit vs. Flesh isn’t about two parts of the human person, but about two powers locked in combat. And, again, in that context simply living as one wills is not on the menu. This seems to be the point of the last part of v.17: “so that you are not to do whatever you want,” or, as the KJV translated it, “so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”

We can get a better handle on ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ by looking at Paul’s two lists. The “acts of the flesh” list starts and ends where we might expect: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; … drunkenness, orgies.” But having named these, Paul gives them no further attention. His focus is on the center: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” This is what he highlighted in v.15 (“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”). ‘Bite’ and ‘devour’: in the Greek text that’s characteristically what animals do, so we’re back to last week’s theme that our baptism gives us the possibility of living humanly. And these acts are what Paul returns to in the final verse (“Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”). It’s pretty clear that if Paul wanted to organize a tour of the sins of the flesh he’d head not to Las Vegas but to Washington D.C. Paul’s list might encourage us to revisit where we see “the flesh” at work, to not get behind on the weeding.

The fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” This is fruit tailored for very imperfect communities (love, peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness), and that’s encouraging. It’s fruit that strengthens relationships, that enables us to encourage each other’s flourishing.

The fruit: notice that the list isn’t an implicit to-do list: cultivate these virtues! It’s saying that this is what walking in the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit, produces over time.

Spirit and flesh locked in combat. Yet Paul says “Live by the Spirit.” Why does he think we have a choice? Here’s where v.24 comes in: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Earlier in the letter Paul said:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:19b-20).

“Crucified with Christ:” when did that happen? Judging by the common testimony of the early Church and what Paul writes in Romans, at baptism. Here’s that Romans text:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin” (6:3-7).

“Freed from sin.” But Paul, we might say, why then is sin such an issue in the church, why so many admonitions and warnings in your letters? I think Paul would say that while our baptism gives us wonderful new possibilities, it isn’t a lobotomy. God still treasures our freedom. And the freedom to live humanly, to love, is more like the freedom of a ballerina or a pianist than the freedom to choose this or that dessert at the buffet. It takes focus, practice, openness to accept correction. It’s a skill, something we acquire over time.

OK Paul, we might say, what would a dummy’s guide to this text look like? After Paul stopped laughing here are three things he might include: (1) Freedom. Remember that it’s freedom to serve. Remember that exercising it is a skill.

(2) Walking by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit: that demands focusing on the neighbor. If we’re to serve one another, what does that “other” need, how does that “other” experience the world? Focus, practice, and openness to correction come into play if we think about listening. It’s remarkably easy to assume that we can love or even serve the neighbor without listening to the neighbor, although a moment’s reflection on our own experience at the receiving end will remind us of how well this works. And listening is not easy. Stephen Covey got it right in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

“’Seek first to understand’ involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”

Listening, one example of a human activity that demands a surprising amount of focus, practice, and openness to correction.

(3) Focus, practice, openness to accept correction: these all assume some awareness, some remembering what story I’m in. So how do I help myself stay aware, remember I’m in a story centered in Jesus (who’s usually already standing next to my neighbor)? Here I have many options including making the sign of the cross before beginning an activity (balancing my checkbook, responding to a problematic letter, etc.), sending up very short prayers throughout the day, cutting a bit out of one of today’s readings and taping it to the bathroom mirror or the door on the fridge—and reviewing these options when they begin to get stale. How to stay aware, to remember, is a non-trivial question.

So let us end where our reading began: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Amen.


[1] Diss 4.1.1 as cited in Hays “The Letter to the Galatians” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.

The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Today we are baptizing Eliza, so it’s not a day for a long sermon. Nevertheless, each of our readings underscores something important about this baptism, and that’s worth noticing.

From the letter to the Galatians: “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Today happens to be Father’s Day; today we’re celebrating Father’s Day on steroids: in baptism we are adopted as God’s children. After herbaptism Eliza has the privilege of calling God ‘Father’. She has a new family, with all that comes with living with a new family.

Adopted as God’s children. In the Thanksgiving over the Water we pray that “those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” Part of what’s at stake is shown by our Gospel reading. Sin is not simply something we do; it’s something that enslaves us, dehumanizes us. So, in the questions for the candidates “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” The possessed man enters the story in a very bad way; after meeting Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” Baptism gives us the possibility of living humanly.

In today’s psalms you may have noticed the refrain:

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Baptism heightens the tension between the way things are and the way things are supposed to be, the way God wants them to be, the way to which God will ultimately restore them. C. S. Lewis put it bluntly:

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”[1]

Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, used to pray “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Heartbreak is part of the baptismal package, which—please God—can result in what Representative John Lewis used to call “good trouble.” Here’s a bit of John Lewis:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” [2]

“Sea of despair:” not a bad description of Elijah’s situation in our first reading: “I alone am left.” In Elijah’s day the problem was Baal, a religious problem, but equally a political problem, because Baal was another of those gods who automatically underwrote the status quo, with all the oppression and violence this entailed. And Elijah had caused “good trouble.” Among all the things we might notice in this reading, there’s God’s parting statement: “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Elijah, know it or not, you have company. Eliza, know it or not, you have company, more than you can imagine, a very large and diverse family

After the baptism we pray “Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” Eliza, we look forward to God’s response to that prayer, and to the ways that your response to God’s response will enrich us all. Amen.


[1] From “Answers to questions on Christianity,” reprinted in God in the Dock.

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/07/18/rep-john-lewis-most-memorable-quotes-get-good-trouble/5464148002/ (accessed 6/13/2022).

Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings

Joyous Feast of Pentecost! Happy Birthday, Church!

The Spirit who brooded over the waters at creation, the Spirit who raised up a mighty host from Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the Spirit who sustained Jesus throughout his ministry, this Spirit descends on the disciples. The excitement in our Acts reading reverberates throughout the New Testament letters: the Holy Spirit has arrived with power; fasten your seat belts!

Power. We heard about it in the Ascension Day readings:

And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Lk. 24:49)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

We often associate power with compulsion. If I’m powerful enough you’ll do what I want whether you like it or not. But God, who treasures human freedom, doesn’t use power that way. And that’s costly for God: recall Revelation’s Lion of the tribe of Judah who is therefore the slaughtered Lamb. The Holy Spirit’s power is like that, so that in the New Testament letters we hear admonitions like “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30) and “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19). The Spirit’s choices re power are costly for the Spirit, and—obviously—for us when we grieve/quench the Spirit!

So, it’s clear that the Spirit’s coming isn’t about power as compulsion. What sort of power then? Power/strength for what turns out to be a long-term project: planting God’s life, love, grace, glory in every nation under heaven: Parthians, Medes, Elamites…that’s just the start of the list. Scroll down the list far enough and we hit the Badgers, and are by no means at the end of the list. But this power—coupled with God’s passion for human freedom—carries its own vulnerability, so our choices matter.

These choices are, in fact, the focus of the readings from Romans and John.

In John the Spirit’s coming is set in the context of the Father and the Son making their home with those who love Jesus and keep his commandments. “Making their home”—that’s what King George’s troops did in the colonists’ homes. Not appreciated, one of the sparks for the revolution. We will “make our home with them:” for God that has to be what we desire, that desire expressed in loving Jesus and keeping his commandments. That combination of love and obedience echoes Israel’s classic confession, the Shema:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. (Deut. 6:4-6)

Perhaps Jesus is updating the Shema.

In Romans Paul focuses on his readers’ choices by contrasting “a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” and “a spirit of adoption.” That’s worth chewing on for a bit. What drives our choices? Certainly fear and desire belong in any short list.

Fear. It’s not as though there were nothing to be afraid of. Recall the parodies of Kipling’s poem “If” that started appearing early in the last century: “And if you can keep your head when everybody round you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.” There’s plenty to fear. In Luke’s description of Jesus in the Garden we hear “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (22:44). The issue is what we do with the fear, and Isaiah nails it: “Surely God is my salvation; / I will trust, and will not be afraid, / for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; / he has become my salvation” (12:2). We’re not told that Jesus received any answer in the Garden, but he chose trust over fear.

Desire. How much of Scripture—including today’s Romans and John readings—seek to nurture our desire! Paul: “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.” Not easy in suffering, but vital precisely there. The author of Hebrews recalls “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). And John: ”…my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” As house guests go…

C. S. Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (from “The Weight of Glory”).

Recall too the prophet Joel’s words that Peter quotes: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The Spirit, showering us with dreams and visions, awakening our too-feeble desires.

So, fear and desire. I spoke earlier about God’s project of planting God’s life, love, grace, glory in every nation under heaven. A big part of that is dealing with our fears and desires. In this nation, even ours with its toxic brew of fears and desires. So, we want to pay attention our fears and desires, talk with God about these in our daily reading Scripture and praying. Pay attention to these navigating whatever combination of opportunities and challenges the day presents. The choices we make re our fears and desires will make the Holy Trinity more or less welcome as houseguests. And the welcomed presence of the Trinity: what that can do in shaping our fears and desires!

Consider Peter in our reading from Acts. The Spirit has arrived, opening multiple new channels of communication. But Peter still has choices. The chief priests, elders, temple police, Romans, the crowds that seem equally happy to cry “Hosanna” or “Crucify him:” they’re all still in place. What will Peter do with his fears and desires? He opens his mouth…and throws the gates wide open: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That’s what God’s power looks like.

The Spirit is about opening channels of communication, providing language that bridges divides. In a highly polarized context that’s perhaps not a bad starting point for thinking about how the Spirit might be working among us today. We have choices in our language and actions, to open up or close channels of communication, to make understanding across barriers easier or harder. The Spirit that brooded over the chaos and darkness at creation: that Spirit’s probably not intimidated by our current context. Those dreams and visions the Spirit’s been giving us, so easy to write off: let’s take them seriously and see where they might lead.

Ascension Day: A Sermon

Readings (Psalm 93)

Joyous Ascension Day! I’ll come at our feast in two ways, looking at what it says about our humanity, and looking at how this ascended Jesus through the Spirit encounters us in the Eucharist.

“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Yes, Ascension Day is one of our major feasts, but what do we make of it? If all we had were these two texts from Luke, it would be like having our experience with weddings reduced to watching the bride or groom head off for the ceremony. Fortunately, we have Daniel’s vision for the important part:

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (7:13-14).

So, the New Testament writers in various ways understand the ascension as the culmination of the human story, Jesus, the Second Adam, breaking with the disobedience of the first Adam, and so bringing our humanity to its intended goal.

Psalm 8 asked the question:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Ps. 8:3-4)

What are human beings? Oh, the ways that question gets answered! “The one who dies with the most toys wins!” That’s one of the more popular answers, and our economy would probably collapse without it. Macbeth, facing his own death, human life “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing” (V.5.25-27). The prophet Isaiah cries out in near despair “All people are grass, / their constancy is like the flower of the field” (40:6). The good news: Jesus’ ascension is the definitive answer to that question: human beings are those destined for “dominion and glory and kingship.” For that the Father created us; for that Jesus took on our flesh; for that the Spirit empowers us.

What are human beings? Let’s come at this in two additional ways. In Luke’s texts what isn’t said is as important as what is said. There’s no hint of Jesus shedding our humanity (“Finally!”) to return to being, well, simply divine. Jesus in all his humanity—including those wounds he’d invited Thomas to probe—ascends. The Greeks got it wrong: progress isn’t about distancing ourselves from the body, from matter; these are part of God’s good creation. Nor is progress about erasing the hard, painful, or even dumb moments in our pasts. Jesus ascends with those scars, and they’re part of his glory. So, whether it’s that strange assortment of voices that is my self, or the equally strange combination of events and circumstances that constitutes daily life, there’s nothing that God isn’t out to touch and transform.

What are human beings? Our answer to that is inevitably shaped by our experiences with those more powerful than ourselves. “Children should be seen, not heard.” “Yes, you can come in, but don’t touch anything!” Is that what our humanity comes to before divine grandeur? We focus too much, I think, on divine grandeur and too little on divine generosity. Recall last week’s Gospel: “we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14:23). The God revealed in both the Old and New Testaments desires to share as much of God’s self as we can take in, to share as much of God’s love, God’s joy, God’s peace as we can take in.

What are human beings? Invitees to a celebration that has no end. And all this underwritten in Jesus’ ascension.

“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” That’s a real break: Jesus is there; we’re here. It’s an unnerving enough break that our two collects do their best to dance around it. The first collect: “give us faith to perceive that…he abides with his Church on earth.” The second collect: “so we may also in heart and mind there ascend and with him continually dwell.” Absence, what absence?

Now in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says “I am with you always” (28:20). So how is this absent Jesus present? The short answer is the Holy Spirit—in an astonishing variety of ways. We might also ask why would Jesus be present? The short answer: to walk with us. Today’s texts don’t go into this, so let me simply recall a bit of Luke just before today’s Gospel. On Easter Sunday two disciples are walking to Emmaus and a stranger joins them. They talk about the week’s events and…

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he [the stranger] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (24:27-31).

Jesus opens the Scripture; Jesus breaks the Bread. It’s a one-off event; it’s the pattern of every Eucharist. Through the Holy Spirit in every Eucharist Jesus is present. “The Word of the Lord.” “This is my Body…This is my Blood.” All very material: ears, mouths, bread, wine. God likes matter; God created it.

Jesus with us in the Eucharist: it’s a hinge in time. We hold up our recent past: praise, offerings, confession. The Scripture, the Bread, the Wine: these propel us into the new week. The Scripture: how do we incarnate this Word on Monday morning, Wednesday midafternoon with the clock moving at glacial speed, Friday night? The Bread and Wine: Jesus’ Body and Blood, but therefore the model for everything our hands touch during the week. How do I lift this moment, this situation up to God so that God can do something extraordinary with it? The good news: we’re not alone in any of this. Jesus—through the Spirit—let’s do this together. “I am with you always.”

Ascension Day: the glad proclamation that even when Jesus’ way is heartbreakingly hard, it is the human way, and it leads to unending joy.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings (Using the John 14 reading)

I hope you’ve not skimped on the coffee this morning, because we’re going to jump into the deep end, that reading from the Revelation. That, in turn, will set us up to think about what the Church is for—not a bad question since we’re only two weeks out from celebrating Pentecost.

A few weeks back we noticed that Revelation likes images that shimmer, enigmatic images. John hears “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” but what John sees is “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:5-6). So here, toward the end of the book, John hears “the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” but what John sees is “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (21:9-10). This is something like what we encountered in Physics 101. Is light a particle or a wave? Yes, depending on what you’re trying to explain.

The new Jerusalem. No need for a temple, or a sun, for that matter: “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.… for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” Pull the camera back to include John’s Bible (our Old Testament) and it’s clear that this New Jerusalem is finally fulfilling the hopes for the original Jerusalem. Recall Isaiah:

2 In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (2:2-3)

Something beautiful is happening, and the nations want in on it.

Then there’s Ezequiel’s river flowing from God’s presence: “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” So healing is needed—still! The city has gates, the classic means of controlling access, but the gates are never shut. A bit later we’ll hear “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (22:17). Jerusalem is finally fulfilling its role, being the place where God’s glory is visible and healing is freely available.

I mentioned enigmatic images a bit ago, and in its final chapters the Revelation takes these to a different level in the form of two juxtaposed stories. In the one, a decisive battle in which evil is destroyed and the great white throne before which everything is sorted out. On the other hand, open-gated Jerusalem offering glory, joy, and healing to all who would enter. Well, which is it? What the Revelation may want to show us is that within the limits of human language and human understanding our clearest picture is this pair of starkly contrasting images.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. Recall how our story starts. Genesis gives us not one, but two creation stories. In one everything is good from the start, the humans play no active role, the seven days are as much liturgy as anything. In the other God works by trial and error, Adam plays an important role, and the good emerges at the end of the process: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken” (2:23). To capture the reality of the beginning and ending of human history Scripture gives us pairs of stories.

What may be at stake in these pairs of stories is the challenge of doing justice to God’s sovereignty and human freedom. There’s a popular saying attributed to various folk (Augustine, Ignatius, etc.) “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” Maybe, but it could be heard as a call to run ourselves ragged. I like what the Ignatian author Jim Manney does with it:

“I prefer to reverse it: ‘pray as if everything depends on you, and work as if everything depends on God.’ This means that prayer has to be urgent: God has to do something dramatic if everything depends on me. It also puts our work in the right perspective: if it depends on God, we can let it go. We can work hard but leave the outcome up to him. If God is in charge we can tolerate mixed results and endure failure.”[1]

OK, what of the Church? In John’s vision there’s the New Jerusalem, finally doing its job. Sounds pretty good. What happens until then? Let’s circle back to the angel’s words: “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” “The bride, the wife of the Lamb:” that sounds like the language used elsewhere in the New Testament for Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride. Or, to come at John’s vision from another angle, from 1st Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you (3:16)?” Or, more extensively in Ephesians, “19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2:19-22).

Because God desires that all enter freely into joy, into God’s presence, God really needs a place where God can be at home, where God’s healing glory is visible, and that is the Church. That’s the dynamic in this morning’s psalm, God’s blessing here that ripples out to the corners of the earth. That’s at the core of today’s Gospel: “we will come to them and make our home with them.” This is why, by the way, the New Testament letters devote virtually no attention to evangelism and virtually all their attention to the elements in congregational life that make God’s healing glory easier or harder to see.

And this sweeping vision plays out in the decisions of specific women and men, folk like Lydia, that dealer in purple cloth from our first reading, folk like you and me.

We’re here, God knows, because we need to be here. And in the larger story that the Revelation brings into focus, we’re here because God needs places where God’s at home, where God’s healing glory can be visible in the common life of God’s people, whether gathered together or scattered through our communities during the week. A tall order, yes, which is why Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit on approach, the flaps extending, wheels down.


[1] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/work-as-if-everything-depends-on-god/ (accessed 5/16/2022).

The Fifth Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Readings (2nd reading extended to include Rev 21:7-8)

What a combination of texts!

Let’s start with the psalm, one of the psalms at the book’s climax dedicated to praise. Think about what we praise, what happens in us when we praise: a delicious meal, a wide receiver’s unbelievable catch, a pianist who nails a concerto, the beauty of a sunrise. These moments, completely spontaneous, take us out of ourselves, bring us joy. They’re usually accompanied by gratitude, gratitude that we were there to participate. It’d be surprising if there weren’t some physiological benefits as well. So, praise: we probably want to be doing it more often.

The Book of Psalms, the Psalter, thinks that even if we’re half awake praise naturally focuses on the Creator. In fact, for the Psalter the basic contrast isn’t praising vs. silent but praising vs. dead. “The heavens declare the glory of God, / and the firmament shows his handiwork,” and the Psalter encourages us to join the chorus, gives us words to join the chorus.

Our Morning Prayer usually begins with Psalm 95: “Come, let us sing to the Lord; / let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.” All hell may be breaking loose, Murphy’s Law may be strutting its stuff, but we still have the choice of how to respond, and in our tradition that’s with this psalm, even when a good part of our energy is going into keeping a firm grip on that Rock.

You see, the placement of Psalm 95 in Morning Prayer isn’t just about liturgy, but about we start our days in this unpredictable and dangerous world. When I first open my iPhone in the morning, do I go first to the Psalter or the New York Times? (I’m preaching to myself here.)

Psalms like Psalm 95 or today’s psalm have a further effect: they calibrate the rest of our responses. Let these psalms sink in, and the breathless calls to applaud the rich and famous or to fear the powerful lose some of their force. When I turn to the news my blood pressure meds have less work to do. Over time our praise of the Creator molds us into particular people with particular responses.

Now in Psalm 148, after all that praise of the Creator there’s a gear shift in the last verse: “He has raised up strength for his people / and praise for all his loyal servants, / the children of Israel, a people who are near him.” The Creator is also the Protagonist in our history, paying special attention to Israel. And for the Jews praying this and similar psalms, the temptation was virtually irresistible to emphasize the contrast between us and them. Of course, initiatives like the forced Hellenization that sparked the Maccabean revolt a couple centuries before Jesus didn’t help matters!

Which brings us to the reading from Acts. Peter has ignored that us/them contrast and the “circumcised believers” want to know why. So Peter tells the story, which includes both Jesus’ words and the Spirit’s sovereign action: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” It turns out that that line in the psalm “the children of Israel, a people who are near him” isn’t the last word. And that’s a hard one for Peter’s audience to swallow, and the issue appears later in Acts as well as in Paul’s letters. Praising the Creator and Protagonist in our history means—well, should mean—acknowledging God’s freedom to introduce the new. Unfortunately, it’s easy to slip into an implicit contract: we keep praising; You keep doing things we like. You may remember the uproar when Bob Dylan went electric. Anyhow, the new…

“See, I am making all things new.” We can draw a straight line from Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and earth that we heard on Easter Sunday to John’s vision.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (65:21-22)

Our world will not be trapped in futility and oppression indefinitely. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” That’s worth celebrating, and that celebration is one of the dimensions of every Eucharist: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (That’s one of the short answers to “Why do you go there on Sunday mornings:” there’s a new world coming and we’re celebrating!)

What of the last two verses? John’s visions use that word ‘conquer’ more than the rest of the New Testament books combined. The context is one of persecution, so at one point we hear “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11). Pulling the camera back to include the rest of the New Testament, I suppose that the more general point is that courage—one of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues—is necessary to live humanly. Our choices matter, not because God is keeping score, but because our choices mold us, mold our capacity to respond to this God. This God, not generic deity, but the God who has no use for “Rank has its privileges,” the God who welcomes the prodigal son, the God who welcomes the gentiles and the other riff raff, the God who apparently still doesn’t understand that you’re either predator or prey. Do I really want to spend all eternity with this God?

There’s a scene toward the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle (the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia) that tries to capture this:

“But as they came right up to Aslan—Lewis’ Christ figure—one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression on their faces changed terribly—it was fear and hatred… And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared… But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of these were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan’s right” (Chapter 14).

Our choices matter, and may require some courage. This is probably one of the reasons for Jesus’ “new commandment” in our Gospel reading “that you love one another.” We need each other’s love, whether we’re choosing wisely or foolishly.

Let’s circle back to the psalm. Praise too is a choice, one of those choices that molds us into folk more receptive to God’s presence and God’s choices—or not. With Spring finally arriving with all that is new and green, it’s not a bad time to clear our throats and renew our praise.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Readings

Today’s combination of collect and lessons invites us to contemplate Jesus the Good Shepherd. The collect: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people…”; Psalm 23, the classic statement of this theme; Revelation’s promise that the Lamb will be the shepherd of this multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude; Jesus’ words of promise in the Gospel regarding the security of his sheep. Our first reading looks like the one exception; that’s OK; we’ll come back to it.

“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people—we prayed—Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” There are multiple biblical themes in that prayer; let me notice four of them.

First, Jesus “calls us each by name.” While we properly use “we” a lot (“We believe in one God…” “We confess…” “Our Father…”), the individual relationship with Jesus is equally important. Each of us is different, and so while we have much in common, we’re also irreducibly distinct. So Jesus’ relationship with each one of us will be different. Toward the beginning of Revelation we encounter this promise: “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (2:17 RSV). So the ways in which I’m different are not things to be suppressed or ignored—even if some of them may result in behaviors for which repentance is needed—but part of the “I” that Jesus loves and would transform.

Second, following where Jesus leads assumes a fundamental asymmetry between Jesus and ourselves. Perhaps we’re not tempted to think that Jesus should follow where we lead, but in this egalitarian culture it is tempting to assume that we’re in a position to evaluate the job Jesus is doing—as though as in the Olympics the sheep might hold up numbers at the end of the day. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-10 RSV). So we should expect not to understand some of the things God does, or allows to happen, or asks of us. Child of this egalitarian culture, I like this no better than you do. But I hope we can also recognize the wisdom of Gregory of Nyssa’s insight that any God we could understand would not be worth worshipping.

Third, knowing Jesus’ voice and following where he leads isn’t automatic. Some days it’s easy; some days it’s the last thing we want to do. So we pray “Grant…”, that is, we need God’s help, help which comes through some combination of the Holy Spirit, means of grace like the Holy Eucharist and Holy Scripture, the habits that Holy Spirit is nurturing within us, and the encouragement of other Christians.

Fourth, “follow where he leads” reminds us that Jesus is moving, and that if we’re going to stay with Jesus, we need to be moving too. Think about the ending of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20 RSV) He’s with us always all right, always out in front, us always playing catch-up.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd: it’s a powerful image—but Jesus isn’t done with it. Remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter that we heard last week:

—Simon son of John, do you love me?
—Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.
—Feed my sheep.

The Good Shepherd delegates some of that shepherding work to Peter, and, by extension, to all His followers. After what I said about the asymmetry between Jesus and ourselves, Jesus obviously doesn’t delegate everything to Peter, and church leaders can overreach. But he does delegate, and that’s what we watched in the first reading in Acts.

Sandwiched between Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (which we heard last week) and Peter’s preaching to the gentiles at Cornelius’ house (part of which we heard on Easter Sunday), we’re told of Peter healing Aeneas’ paralysis in Lydda, and raising Tabitha from the dead in Joppa. The way the stories are told—sometimes even their vocabulary—recall Jesus’ miracles. Peter is doing some serious shepherding.

But there’s more. Luke tells us that Tabitha “was full of good works and acts of charity.” Later, when Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them.” She’s been doing some serious shepherding as well. And then there are the two disciples who go from Joppa to Lydda to get Peter.

What Holy Scripture has given us in this brief story is a picture of a thick web of relationships through which pretty much everyone shepherds and is shepherded in turn: Peter, Tabitha/Dorcas, the widows, the messengers.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd. On the one hand the image promises an intimate individual relationship with Jesus. If we stop there we may regard other Christians as irrelevant or potential distractions. But with Jesus saying intimately to each one of us: “Tom, N, N, do you love me?… Feed my sheep,” “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” becomes the charter for a thick web of relationships in which all shepherd and are shepherded, in which Jesus’ love comes to me through others and to others through me. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 RSV).

Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Do we believe this? We show our belief as this image propels us on both an inward and outward journey: intimacy with this Jesus who knows me by name, practical actions—like Dorcas’ tunics and other garments—for Jesus’ sheep. Amen.

The Third Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Readings (Expanded to include Rev 5:1-10)

What a combination of readings! Let’s start with the psalm.

Psalm 30 is a typical song of thanksgiving, recounting the crisis, the psalmist’s prayer, and the Lord’s deliverance. Together with many other texts, it celebrates the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness, celebrates the Lord taking pleasure not in our sickness and distress, but in our health and shalom. So, like the psalmist, in synch with the whole Bible, we pray for the sick and those in distress. May their story—may our story—end as the psalmist’s does: “Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; / O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”

But what to do with v.10 (“What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? / will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?”)? For the psalmist that’s a rhetorical question. But after Holy Week, after Jesus’ resurrection, it becomes more complicated—gloriously more complicated.

The thing is, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything. That’s dramatically captured in John’s vision in our second reading. As the vision begins, the issue is a scroll, and who’s worthy to open it. John’s vision is full of open-ended symbols, and that scroll is one of them. We might gloss it—in pencil, not in pen—as “How the whole story ends” or “What the whole story means.” And just when it looks like no one is worthy to open it, to answer that question—and how many loud voices we hear today pretending to answer that question—”See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” That’s what John hears. But when he looks: “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Well, which is it, Lion or Lamb? And John’s answer—throughout the book—is “yes.” That makes Revelation one of the more challenging books to read, because yes, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything.

And then John gives us the text of the song he hears: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” The focus is on the Lion/Lamb. The focus is equally on what the Lion/Lamb has won: “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” Every language—even English. Every people—even the Badgers. So if we pull out the binoculars, we’re in John’s vision.

We can use John’s vision as a door into our other readings.

Saul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” If it’s only the Lion in play we might expect an impressive thunderbolt. Well, there is a bright light—accompanied by a question “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Lion/Lamb is forming that “kingdom and priests serving our God,” and Saul has just been drafted. And his form of service mirrors—largely—the Lamb’s as we learn from the Lord’s words to Ananias later in the text (“I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”).

“How much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Paul does suffer at the hands of the Synagogue and the Empire, but this sort of suffering is contingent, dependent on local circumstances. More fundamentally, Paul suffers because—as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it—“Obedient faith is itself, in its very nature, a form of suffering. This is because faithful obedience always demands letting go of an absolute hold on one’s own desire/place/privilege/interest in order to respond to the needs of others. And such letting go hurts in small matters as well as large” (Interpreting Paul p.285). And Paul practices such obedience.

John’s Gospel started with a poetic prologue (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”) and ends with a sort of epilogue that ties up some of the Gospel’s loose ends, like the respective roles of Peter and the “Beloved Disciple.” We may recognize the fishing story; Luke puts it toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. You “have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,” and here we watch Jesus doing that by serving them, making them breakfast. Jesus is, after all, the model for the faithful obedience Johnson described. But it’s not simply a matter of obedience. Hard as it might be to imagine, Jesus enjoys spending time with these folk—with us.

The miraculous catch: as in Luke, it looks like a foreshadowing of what they’ll be about, serving God by fishing for people.

Then, for Peter, the thrice repeated question and commission. Peter had denied Jesus publicly; Jesus gives him the opportunity to confess him publicly. There’s no way reliving this wasn’t painful for Jesus, but it’s what Peter needs, so on Jesus goes. It’s Peter’s rehabilitation, Peter’s re-inclusion into this “kingdom and priests serving our God.” And the expression of Peter’s love? “Feed my sheep.”

Parenthetically, this scene with Peter makes me wonder about Judas. How much difference was there between Peter and Judas? As the Gospels tell the story, I wonder if the most important difference wasn’t that Judas’ suicide closed off other possible endings. Too easy to forget that we aren’t the ones worthy to open the scroll—even of our own lives. We may strive to make faithful decisions, but there’s no encouragement in Scripture to assume we know how things will or should play out.

Having said that, in Peter’s case there is a preview in the final verses: “’Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)”

As I said earlier, the Lord assuming human flesh shifts everything. The psalmist assumed no profit in my blood, if I go down to the Pit. After Holy Week, with the Lion/Lamb opening the scroll, even our deaths can serve God, can glorify God. So at Burial the liturgical color is white and we confess “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

But, returning to the Gospel, the last word in this scene isn’t the preview, but the simple command “Follow me.” The Lion of the tribe of Judah, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered: that’s the One Peter follows, the one we follow. The bad news, if you like, is that suffering, “letting go of an absolute hold on one’s own desire/place/privilege/interest in order to respond to the needs of others” is integral to that following. The good news is that with the Lord assuming human flesh, the joy and glory celebrated in the psalm aren’t for later, but for now. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.