Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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God is Working Still

Jean Vanier introduces his meditation on chapter 5 of John this way:

The first time Jesus journeys with his disciples to Jerusalem he goes to the Temple, his “Father’s House.”

The second time he goes to an asylum where rejected people are lying around unwanted. This is also his Father’s home.

Jesus is calling his disciples to follow him as he goes towards the most rejected of people. He is revealing that he comes to heal the paralysis of our hearts and to lead us all into life.

That is an excellent way to introduce the Gospel pericope of the paralytic’s healing in John 5:1-15. The pool of Bethesda with the magic waters evokes picturesque images. But an asylum is what it really was – a place of abandonment, where parents left their children when they could not cope with their illnesses or handicaps. In that time, children born with a severe handicap were seen as punishment from God. People today still believe such things. People believe that God punishes people by bringing illness or other disasters into their homes.

The man has no friends, no family. He has no hope, even when Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed. He lives by superstition, belief in magic. Abandoned, loveless people resort to magic and superstition. Jesus wants nothing to do with that. He heals him. But the man is still not truly healed, as I will explain.

At the heart of this Gospel pericope is humankind’s struggle for liberation and wholeness. The obstacle to this yearning is always the old – especially the old structures of politics and religion. We see this in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4), a conversation that reaches its climax when Jesus says to her: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

This is always the struggle. We want to worship God in spirit and truth, we want to step out into the wide open spaces of healing and wholeness, but we are held back by religious boundaries, political walls, and superstitions. We are afraid. The man in today’s reading was afraid, even after his healing. When Jesus says to him,  “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse happen to you,” he is not implying that he was paralyzed because of sin. He is saying, You are whole; don’t go back to the fragmented ways of old beliefs and superstitions. Does he understand Jesus? It’s questionable. He goes right away to the religious authorities that had questioned him and revealed Jesus to them. That’s how strong allegiance to politics and religion can be. It’s questionable whether he was really healed.

The Gospel of John is about darkness and light, old life and new life. John declares this at the very beginning of his Gospel (John 1:1-17), that we read at the Liturgy of Easter night: “In the beginning was the Word… In him was life, and the life was the light of human beings. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The darkness is still around us – and not all from outside sources, as our politicians and religious leaders would have us believe. But Jesus is still working. Immediately after the healing of the paralytic at the pool, John goes on to tell us how Jesus answered the religious leaders who were hounding him, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” Knowing that Jesus is still working, keeps me going. He is still the light that shines in the darkness; he is your life and my life.

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Do you trust?

Only John’s Gospel makes Thomas a significant character. The other three Gospels merely list him as one of the disciples. In John’s version of the life and teachings of Jesus, Thomas figures in three episodes. In the Lazarus episode, when Jesus decides to go to raise Lazarus, Thomas says, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) A strange saying. Did he say it sarcastically?

At the last supper, Jesus tells his disciples that he goes to prepare a place for them, so that they might be with him. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:4-7)

And then there is the episode we read today, on this Sunday of Thomas. Thomas stands apart from the other disciples, because of his disbelief. Perhaps that is the reason why he went in the opposite direction from the other disciples. While they went north and west and south, church tradition tells us that he went east, to India. Most Christian churches in India claim Thomas as their founder. Maybe he even traveled as far as Missouri, the “Show Me State” – because Thomas is a show-me kind of person.

He refuses to accept resurrection on hearsay, he wants to experience it directly. He is very modern. And indeed, we the modern followers of Jesus, are blessed because we believe though we have not seen. Remember the Beatitudes in Matthew? Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…? Add another beatitude from today’s Gospel reading: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Belief is the central message. Note how John ends the narrative: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. 

Believe in order to have life. Jesus did not come so that we would believe in certain statements about God and Jesus. Yes, the Creed is important and is valuable as a community statement of commitment – as we do at every Liturgy. But Jesus came with a message – and we are not called to believe the message, but rather to live the message! And that is why Jesus gave a new commandment: that we love one another, that we love as Christ loved us, that we love as the Father loves the Son!

When Jesus or the Gospel said “Believe” it meant “Trust”. Do you trust the Lord enough to do what he commands? That’s the key question for us today.

He breathed on them, Receive the holy spirit. This is not Pentecost, or a preview of Pentecost! This is an echo of Genesis, when God breathed into Adam, and Adam became a living being (Genesis 2:7). It was the breath of life in Genesis – it is the breath of new life here! Both in Hebrew (rûaḥ) and in Greek (pneuma), the word translated as spirit also means breath, wind.

Receive holy spirit (pneuma aghion) – receive the spirit that allows you to forgive one another. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. This is is not a granting of power to the disciples! This is a responsibility, a heavy responsibility! Think how serious it is if you don’t forgive! The spiritual damage that can result from an unforgiving heart – both to the person who is not forgiven and to the person who refuses to forgive. The consequences could very well be eternal. Human spirit cannot fathom this, only a spirit of holiness, a spirit of new life, a spirit of divine grace, can understand the meaning of forgiveness! This is powerful stuff, that has been turned into priestly authority by the church. “Sad” – as our President might tweet.

All translations use capitals: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But the Greek text of the New Testament never uses capitals, even for God. We add the capitals. And perhaps we miss the real weight of Jesus’ words and action. He breathed on them and said, “Receive holy spirit.” Only by a spirit that is holy can we truly live, truly love and forgive. Do we trust enough to live in holiness? May the breath of Christ give us life today!

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Be astonished, O disciple of Christ!

Without us knowing it, and perhaps without the Church intending it (!), the Sundays of Lent have done something of a discipleship catechism for us struggling disciples of Christ. I had never realized this, until I sat down to work on this sermon.

The First Sunday of Lent promised visions of glory: You shall see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. A good way to begin Lent, with vision of final glory.

The Second Sunday brought us into the confusion of everyday life where there is little glory, but where nevertheless forgiveness and healing are possible – indeed probable!

The Third Sunday brought the promises of the two previous Sundays to a focus on the Cross of Christ. the heart of the catechism.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent once again brought us into a chaotic scene of everyday life and everyday disappointments and failures. But we heard Jesus teaching his disciples that he and they together were heading toward the Cross. They did not understand what he was saying to them.

The Fifth Sunday – today – shows plainly that they did not understand. Jesus continues telling them about his coming death on the Cross. And what is the immediate reaction? They want privilege, they want first places in the kingdom – which shows they have no understanding of what that kingdom is going to be!

Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem and the Cross

“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,” Jesus tells them today. They are going to the holy city, where they think he will establish his kingdom. Indeed, he will enter Jerusalem next Sunday as a king, but a different kind of king – not riding a magnificent military horse, but sitting on a donkey. Have you ever ridden on a donkey? I have; there’s nothing royal about it. If you think you have trouble understanding Jesus you’re in good company. The disciples themselves did not understand what he was saying to them. But they did understand after his resurrection… Well, no, not even then, for they were still asking the same questions about the kingdom even 40 days after his resurrection, when he was ascending to heaven.

No, the understanding came with the Holy Spirit, 10 additional days later. Do we understand? Don’t we receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism? Shouldn’t we have the same understanding as the apostles did after the day of Pentecost?

Where are we today in our own understanding? Are we James or John, asking for special privileges? Are we one of the other disciples, angry and jealous at someone else who might seem to have a closer relationship with God? Are we like the ones Jesus singles out who want to be served?

Or are we those who follow Jesus in the path of service? He came not to be served but to serve. Our reading today starts at verse 32 of chapter 10 of Mark. But we only hear the last portion of verse 32. Listen to what Mark wrote: And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him… That whole first section is omitted. Why? Ἦσαν δὲ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἀναβαίνοντες εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, καὶ ἦν προάγων αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐθαμβοῦντο, οἱ δὲ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἐφοβοῦντο. Luke 9:53 says, “his face was set toward Jerusalem.” τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ἦν πορευόμενον εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ – look of determination. No wonder they were filled with fear and astonishment.

θαμβέω = to be astounded, astonished, amazed

φοβέομαι = to be afraid

Are we ever astonished? Does hearing the Gospel ever fill us with fear, with a profound upsetting of our normal thoughts and values? That is the real challenge today: Are we ever shocked by Jesus? If we’re not shocked by him, we’re not taking him seriously. The gospel is dangerous. That is why Jesus warns his disciples today: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” – and he is not talking about having a beer with him or crying at our baby baptism. He is talking about a life that is challenging, that goes against the flow of normal human thinking.

With the fear of God, with faith, and love draw near – is the invitation every Liturgy. I see it however, as a statement about life in general. The Christian lives with fear of God, faith and love. They go together. When it is joined with faith and love, the fear of God is not like fear of being robbed or attacked. Faith and love are not sentimental trivialities when they are joined by a sense of awe, amazement, astonishment – such as the disciples had going to Jerusalem. We are also going to Jerusalem and we will arrive there next Sunday. Can we go this week with some sense of amazement and profound inner anticipation? Try it. Wake every day with a sense of profound ταραχή as we say in Greek – a shaking of all our senses and thoughts. Look upon each day as a journey with Christ. Who you encounter and how you react to situations. Imagine being with Jesus in your encounters this week. Imagine…

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Jesus, teacher of the possible

Nasruddin was walking in the bazaar with a large group of followers. Whatever Nasruddin did, his followers immediately copied. Every few steps Nasruddin would stop and shake his hands in the air, touch his feet and jump up yelling “Hu Hu Hu!”. So his followers would also stop and do exactly the same thing.

One of the merchants quietly asked him: “What are you doing my old friend? Why are these people imitating you?”

“I have become a Sufi Sheikh,” replied Nasruddin. “These are my Murids [spiritual seekers]; I am helping them reach enlightenment!”

“How do you know when they reach enlightenment?”

“That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!

There is freedom in the ability to laugh at oneself. Nasruddin had this freedom. Unfortunately, it’s not something you’ll find in most “spiritual” people.

Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:17-31) brings us into the midst of a turbulent scene. A whole village is in an uproar, with recriminations and blame all around. After an amazing mountain-top experience that Jesus shared with three of his disciples, Jesus comes down from the mountain into this village where the other disciples – the ones who didn’t go up the mountain with Jesus – were incapable to heal an epileptic boy.

We usually focus on the father and the boy, other times we focus on the disciples, but rarely do we focus on the village, the social context in which this miracle took place. This is unfortunate, because the social setting is always important in the activities of Jesus.

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This echoes God’s lament at the Israelites after their deliverance from Egypt:

“How long will this people despise me?” (Numbers 14:11)

“How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me?” (Num 14:27)

This raises a serious question: Is there a connection between the boy’s condition and the faithless generation? “How long has he had this?” Jesus asks. Since childhood, the father answers. Of course the Gospel writer attributes the boy’s condition to a “dumb spirit”. This is normal in a society that didn’t have medical terminology. Clearly from our perspective we say that this boy suffered from epileptic seizures. But is there a deeper spiritual message?

Does this child’s silence typify for us what happens in a society that is faithless? In such a society, there are few options available: You conform, or you get out, or you keep quiet. I’m not saying this is the reason for the boy’s silence and epileptic attacks. But I am saying that this miracle story has many levels of meaning. Perhaps not all of these levels were intended by the Gospel writer, but we as readers of the Gospel in the 21st century bring our own awareness to the miracle story. As this is the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent every year, I have had the opportunity to preach on this Gospel passage 28 times! So over the years I have been able to focus on many levels of meaning.

The central episode is the exchange between Jesus and the father: “If you can, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help me in my unbelief!” This contrasts with the presumptuous attitude and arrogant self-confidence of the disciples. The father is honest. Notice he said, “Help me in my unbelief” – not “Help my unbelief,” as in all major translations. Πιστεύω· βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ. The dative requires something like “in my unbelief.”

This is a healthy response, the kind that Jesus always looked for – a response that opens new awareness. I can imagine this man getting out of the suffocating society of the village. Very often enlightenment comes to those who get out, as Nasruddin joked. Get out of what? Perhaps get out of the village. But, more importantly, get out of resignation. Get out of the “impossible” trap. Get out into the wide open spaces of discipleship. The most liberating experience is to follow Jesus. And not drop out like Nasruddin’s followers. The enlightenment Jesus brings is the life of the possible. With him everything is possible.

The above was given in expanded sermon form. But the delivery of the sermon was not satisfactory, so no audio file is included.

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God’s covenant with ancient Israel: circumcision/election, passover/redemption, sabbath/holiness. These were the most essential parts of the Law, the Torah. Sabbath came first, at creation, but it became canonized at Sinai.

Sabbath was the sign of holiness to ancient Israel – and yet it belongs to all humanity from the 7th day of creation. The cross is the sign of holiness for Christians. They are related.

Jesus died on the cross right before the Sabbath – an especially holy Sabbath, for it was Passover. Jesus rested from his labors on the Sabbath (Holy Saturday) and rose early at dawn after the Sabbath.

Jesus often broke the Sabbath laws – not for disrespect of the Sabbath, but because the Sabbath had become something external, legalistic, and had lost its meaning. It was no longer holy, it was just a law. The same has happened to the cross. We wear it as an external adornment. It no longer has any deeper meaning, it’s just a symbol.

The words Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel (Mark 8:34-9:1) strike us as extreme, and they are.

The Lord said: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

Deny ourselves? Sounds harsh and the exact opposite of every message we receive from our society, the media, school, even church. Deny ourselves? What’s wrong with us, that we have to deny ourselves? Deny our inflated ego, deny our arrogance, deny our ingratitude…..

Søren Kierkegaard (in his Papers and Journals) said something truly profound:

When he had created the whole world God looked upon it and saw that it was good; when Christ died on the cross, the words went ‘It is finished’.

A brilliant statement. What began at creation was completed on the cross. Tetelestai, It is finished. The cross of Jesus Christ is God’s final statement, his final act. And what have we done with it? Constantine turned the cross into a weapon, with which he won control of the Roman Empire – and the cross has never been the same since. We don’t have to deny ourselves now, because our religion won the battle long ago, we are the winners – and winners don’t deny themselves. Winners like their ego.

That is why today’s Gospel reading sounds so strange, so extreme, so depressing really! And yet, it’s the good news of liberation. It’s the good news that we can be delivered from the slavery of our over-inflated egos and selfishness, so we can live for each other and share God’s goodness….

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When Jesus is in the House

Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:21-23)

In the Himalayas the intense ultraviolet rays from the sun pierce the thin mountain air and burn people’s eyes. 65-year old Teteeni is blind. From Kathmandu comes Dr. Sanduk Ruit with a pioneer surgery that he has developed, and he treats many people with eye problems. Teteeni receives the surgery and she can see again! As she walks back to her village, she thanks heaven: “May Heaven reward Dr. Ruit… My heart is filled with light.” (Teteeni’s story was featured in the “Mountains: Life in Thin Air” episode of the BBC series, Planet Earth, The Human Planet. The entire episode is available online here. The Teteeni segment begins at about the 34-minute mark.)

How beautiful, how simple. This old Buddhist woman who probably never heard of Jesus understood the meaning of light. She understood the connection of light and heart. Let’s hear those word of Jesus again: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

Today, as Christianity stagnates in Europe and North America, the most vibrant expressions of faith are to be found in Asia, Africa and Latin America.The Korean New Testament scholar Yung Suk Kim was asked what he thought was the primary work of Jesus. Here is how he replied. I love how he translates the two verses from Mark.

I believe that Jesus’ primary message is well summarized in Mark 1:14-15. “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and God’s rule has come near; change your heart and believe in the good news.” As we see here, Jesus proclaims the good news of God; it is God’s good news. Good news is about God: God’s time and God’s rule has come in the here and now (perfect tense). For God’s time and rule to be effective, people have to accept it by changing their minds, which is what metanoia means.

Note the differences between his translation of Mark 1:14-15 from the more conventional translation in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Note how Kim renders the words in the RSV which I have italicized.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Home is where the heart is” – so goes a popular saying, though you don’t hear it very often nowadays. We’re too sophisticated now for such tidbits of old fashioned wisdom. Right, too sophisticated, because now home is where our smartphone is.

Treasure, home, heart, light – images of God’s good news. Look at today’s miracle story (Mark 2:1-12). Let’s talk about the house where the miracle took place. You go home after a long day on the job, and you want your home to be a place of rest, of escape from all the day’s labors. But here in the Gospel was a house that was overtaken by people who came to see and hear a celebrity. And the presence of that crowd transformed that house into a church, a cathedral even. It was now a place where the Good News was seen and heard. Jesus was in the house!

So what does it mean for Jesus to be in the house? Your house? This house, this church house? Our Gospel reading tells us.

  • When Jesus is in the house, the Word is spoken. This word cuts to the core of our being, challenging us, converting us, transforming us, making us holy.
  • When Jesus is in the house, the poor, the outcasts of society, both faithful and sinners, the strong and the weak, the rich and poor, the sick and the healthy – they will all gather, until there is no more room.
  • When Jesus is in the house, drastic steps might have to be taken. The roof might have to be taken off. The roof that keeps us warm and comfortable in our usual ways, in the way things have always been done, comfortable in our dogmas, our culture, our Liturgy. Sometimes we have to blow the roof off the way things were always done and think in new ways.
  • Finally, when Jesus is in the house, forgiveness and healing will take place. They will take place! Regardless of how many cold hearts are around. Regardless of how little light there is. And that’s when you have to tear the roof – for healing and forgiveness to take place.

As with all miracle stories of Jesus, this too is a parable in action, challenging us, and questioning us: Are we really ready for Jesus to be in the house? But be advised, we might have to tear up the roof!