Palm Sunday: Coexistence

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the sixth sign.

One of the key underlying themes in this story is a question with which any person of faith (Christian or otherwise) has wrestled at least once; many who have given up on faith did so because they could not resolve the tension in this question.  The question:  How can a good God allow evil in the world?

John’s answer, as shown in this story, would likely be thus:  God and evil can coexist.  I’ve seen it happen.  But it doesn’t look like what you would think.

Over the course of John’s account, Jesus and his disciples have been bouncing back and forth between Judea and Galilee.  Galilee is up north.  It is safe space; it is where Jesus’ family, friends, and supporters live.  Judea, especially Jerusalem, is dangerous territory.  Why?  Because anytime Jesus appears in Jerusalem he stirs up the people.  And the Jewish religious leaders don’t want that, because if the people get stirred up then Rome gets stirred up.  And when Rome gets stirred up, bad things happen.  This week Jesus is in the Jerusalem area again and, for the reasons given above, his disciples are on edge.

Repeatedly the temple leaders have asked:  Jesus, are you the Messiah?  Don’t keep us in suspense.  Tell us straight out, once and for all.  I did tell you, Jesus said.  I’ve shown you.  You just don’t want to see.

So now Jesus goes all out.  His intent is to manufacture a sign so undeniable that it will force the religious leaders’ hands.  He heads to a small town just outside Jerusalem, and that is where our story picks up.

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

–John 11

Right off the bat we learn that Jesus had a purpose in all this.  This delves into nature:  it was left unattended–on purpose.  Jesus’ purposes.  Sickness for the glory of God was a completely and totally new category in that religious culture.  Realizing that Jesus’ words would likely sound crass, John jumps in with an editorial comment to reassure the reader that Jesus did in fact love Mary and Martha and Lazarus.

Jesus then proceeds to stay on with his disciples for two more days.  He is staging a sign here, a sign with a purpose.  He had healed sick people all day long, but for him to do what he is about to do, that will kick it up several notches.

Finally Jesus returns.  His disciples try desperately to talk him out of it.  As noted above, anytime they are in or near Jerusalem the disciples are on edge, for Jesus’ life and their own as well.  Jesus’ response:  “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”  Translation:  12 hours of daylight = 12 hours of opportunity.  Follow the light of the world (that would be me) while you still can.  You can stay here if you want but if you do, you will miss the opportunity of a lifetime.  Finally the disciples give in.  Thomas speaks up and says what they are all thinking:  Let us go so that we may die with him.

They get to Bethany and by that point Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.  They were just wrapping up the funeral service.  Martha goes out to meet Jesus and comes at him with the full force of her raw humanity:  Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.  But I am sure that even now God will give you whatever you ask – trying desperately to cling to some last sliver of faith in that moment.

Your brother will rise again, says Jesus.  I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day, says Martha.  Translation:  Don’t try to comfort me with your theology.  I’ve already read all the books and I know all the verses, and it is no comfort to me.  If you had been here a couple of days ago we wouldn’t be waiting for the last day.

I am the resurrection, says Jesus.  You don’t have to wait for the last day.  The last day is right here with you, right now.

Now Mary comes out to meet Jesus and what we see here is divine empathy.  Jesus knows fully how all of this is going to play out, yet he does not rush through to the happy ending.  Instead he enters into the moment and is fully present with his friends in their grief, even to the point of weeping himself.

At no point did Jesus offer any of the pious cliches and platitudes that we have come to expect in moments like this.  Nothing like “God will never give more than you can handle”, “If God brought you to it, he will bring you through it”, “With God, everything happens for a reason” (though in this case we know from earlier in the story that this did happen for a reason), or my all-time favorite (and likely yours too), “God is in control”.

We know how the story ends.  Per John’s account, many who saw this go down believed in Jesus.  That’s John’s MO:  Seeing leads to believing which in turn leads to trusting in Jesus.

Now the soundtrack shifts.  This was so indisputable a sign that those who were willfully blind had to act immediately.  The sign had had its desired effect; it had forced the hands of the Jewish religious leaders.  “If we let him go on like this…”  Note the supreme arrogance in that statement.  Elsewhere in John’s account Jesus states “I lay down my life and take it up again” so no one is letting Jesus do anything or stopping him from doing anything.  “…everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation”, said the religious leaders.  They had that part right.  They had no idea.

This ties back to the beginning of John’s account:  Light has come into the world, but some people loved the darkness.

Coronavirus: An Unending Holy Saturday

Those of you who come from liturgical Christian traditions know about Holy Saturday.  It is the day between Good Friday and Easter.  On this day, the Church goes dark, as it were, as we await the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter.

As present-day Christians, we have the luxury of knowing how the story ends.  But Jesus’ disciples had no such knowledge.  When Jesus died on the cross–as far as they knew, it was over.  There was no movement to sustain.  There was no dream to keep alive.  It.  Was.  Over.

After Jesus was crucified, John and Peter and the other disciples disappeared into the city, found someplace to hunker down and wait.  It was a Sabbath, so they were required by law to wait.  But for what?  For the Sabbath to be over so they could complete the work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial, because they fully expected him to do exactly what every other dead person had done since the dawn of time:  Stay dead.  After that, for things to die down so they could slip quietly out of the city and go back home to their old way of life up in Galilee.

We don’t know the sort of conversations they had during that time.  But we can imagine.  They probably said things like “Well, that’s three years of our life that we’ll never get back.”  “You don’t crucify the Resurrection and the Life.  Clearly this guy was not who he said he was, not who we thought he was.”  “Just another wannabe messiah…what the fuck were we thinking?”

In this world of coronavirus, we wait.  Just like the disciples on that first Holy Saturday.  For what?  For it to be over.  For things to get back to normal.  For it to be safe to go back to where we were before–which for many people is not such a good place.

Over at Christian Century, Richard Lisher writes that the coronavirus pandemic has the feel of an unending Holy Saturday:

The Gospels say little about the disciples’ behavior on Holy Saturday. We can only imagine. It was a day of rest. They were required to rest. What preparations the women made must have been done furtively.

In the world of the coronavirus, we are also waiting. But waiting for what? When the women came to the tomb in the gray morning, they came not with high hopes but with their world’s version of embalming fluid. In Hebrew, the verbs “wait” and “hope” can be rendered by the same word. But in a time of contagion, our waiting does not appear to be en­riched by hope any more than theirs was.

Our waiting has an intransitive feel. “For what?” is hard to answer. For it to be over. For those who are sick to recover. For a magically resurrected economy. For school to start and the multiplex to open. For baseball. For a paycheck once again. Waiting to get back to where we were—which for many of us wasn’t a good place to begin with. The people who clean hotel rooms, who work at Macy’s or the shop down the block, whose husbands or wives have died and remain unburied, who live in prisons, who are hoping for a bed in the ICU—what are they waiting for?

But waiting, like hoping, demands an object. We are waiting for a solution to the inexplicable. We are waiting for deliverance from our vulnerability to nature, of course—and from death—but even more from our vulnerability to the self-interest, lying, hoarding, and venality that make the pandemic even worse. Which is to say, we want to be delivered from ourselves.

 

Lent Week 5: Open Eyes

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the fifth sign.

Over the course of John’s account, Jesus and his disciples have been bouncing back and forth between Judea and Galilee.  Galilee is up north.  It is safe space; it is where Jesus’ family, friends, and supporters live.  Judea, especially Jerusalem, is dangerous territory.  Why?  Because anytime Jesus appears in Jerusalem he stirs up the people.  And the Jewish religious leaders don’t want that, because if the people get stirred up then Rome gets stirred up.  And when Rome gets stirred up, bad things happen.

So now Jesus and the disciples are back in Jerusalem.  They pass a blind man, and there we pick up our story.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

–John 9:1-41

The story begins with a simple question:  Rabbi, who sinned?  This man, or his parents?  Neither, said Jesus.  You’re coming at this the wrong way.  No one sinned; instead this happened–for a purpose–so that the works of God might be displayed.  Jesus then did as he usually did and took the conversation somewhere that had nothing whatsoever to do with the original subject.  My identity, he says in effect, will never be more clear than it is right now.

Go and wash, says Jesus.  This is foreshadowing; the blind man walks by faith, trusting the word of someone whom he cannot see.  He washes, and he can see.  So he goes home.

His family takes him to the Pharisees, because that’s what you do when you were ill but then are healed, before you can reenter Jewish community life and worship.  But now the soundtrack changes.  You see, this was a Sabbath.

As we know from prior editions, the Pharisees had 39 categories of things you couldn’t do on the Sabbath, without being in violation of the command not to work on the Sabbath.  Among these things:  You couldn’t mix or knead.  Also you couldn’t practice medicine of any sort, except to save a life.  Jesus was guilty on both counts.  Consequently, Jesus was not from God because he did not keep the Sabbath.  To the Pharisees this was a no-brainer.  But in reality, as we know already, it was only their version of the Sabbath that Jesus didn’t keep.

How can a sinner perform such signs?  they asked.  Their was not any room in their theological categories for what was happening right before their very eyes.  This is what Francis Collins would call “willful blindness”:  when there is something to see but you don’t want to look.

In the face of increasing pressure from the Pharisees the formerly blind man grows more insistent.  I don’t have all the answers, he says, but I do know this:  I was blind but now I can see.  I’ve already told you everything, but you don’t want to listen.  Do you want to become his disciples too?  To which the Pharisees responded:  You were steeped in sin from birth.  You deserved this.  Your parents deserved this.  Bye.

Willful blindness.  Refusing to see what is there to be seen, because it falls outside our theological categories.  When you engage in this, you run the risk of leaving outside the context of your spirituality many people whom God loves, and perhaps even God Himself.  As Christians, we should be excited about any context in which people are moving toward God, even if it does not fit inside the context of our theological presuppositions.  God is bigger than anyone’s theological categories, and it is not OK to not look if there is something to be seen.

Michael Spencer: Looking For an Exit

Today I direct your attention to a post by Michael Spencer from several years back entitled “Looking For an Exit“.

Last week we discussed Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand as presented in the gospel of John.  John makes the point that this attracted multitudes who followed Jesus not because they believed him to be who he said he was, but because they liked the show and they saw him as the answer to their political aspirations.  When Jesus couldn’t physically remove himself from the crowd, he thinned the crowd by proceeding to teach some weird shit.

It worked.  For many in the crowd, including several of the disciples, they heard Jesus say “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” and that was it for them.  They just couldn’t anymore.

This goes against the picture many of us have of Jesus’ closest followers.  We think of them as basically an easy sell, living in the Judean backwoods with nothing much going on and then some rabbi shows up and wants them to follow him and they’re all in.  Yet the reality is that many days probably ended with long discussions around the fire, lasting well into the night with one disciple or more trying to talk some other disciple or more out of leaving, or with the next morning coming to find that some disciple or another had packed his stuff and left during the night.

It is the same way in evangelicalism.  We tend to think of everyone in our communities as already convinced and already on board when the reality is that we just don’t know the real life struggles which others around us are facing, some of whom may be approaching or at the point of “I can’t do this anymore”.  We are accustomed to believing that good theology or apologetics cures all ills.  Yet for many people in many seasons, theology and/or apologetics just aren’t enough.

Peter says, “Yes, it’s difficult sometimes, but where else and to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Where else can we go is a great response. It’s honest and authentic. It doesn’t make Christianity a game of “How many questions can be answered?” No, it’s a matter of WHO Jesus is, and despite the mystery, the challenge, the intimidation and the difficulty, who else comes to us as God on earth, with the words of eternal life?

…For all those who are looking for the next place to “get off” the path of following Jesus and/or being a Christian, their is no list of answers. There is only one who overwhelms all questions and answers; one to whom we ultimately say “Even with all my objections and reservations, where else could I go, Jesus, except to you.”

Is God Saying Something To Us Right Now?

Several weeks back I opined that we as evangelicals are deathly afraid of the possibility that God might be better than we think.  So many of our most deeply cherished theological constructs are based upon God as the absolute worst possible version of Himself.  As a test case, Coronavirus has shown this to be true.  In spades.

Actually seen on social media this past week:

I have seen this picture with the highlighted verse out of 2 Chronicles floating around Facebook in a couple of different contexts lately.  You have probably seen it too.  The one I wish to draw your attention to was a poster who shall remain anonymous, who opined thusly:  “The minister in me cannot ignore this Scripture. God allows trials to come our way to get our relationship back in tune with Him in order to keep us from eternal calamity. Evidently, we need to pay attention for He knows what is ahead.”

Let me repeat that once again so it can sink in:  “God allows trials to come our way to get our relationship back in tune with Him in order to keep us from eternal calamity.”

FBC Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, one of the most vociferous and well-liked Donald Trump supporters on the planet, concurs.  He preached a sermon entitled “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” in which he stated, “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin.”

But lest you think this is strictly an evangelical phenomenon, we find that it is not.  Catholic historian and author Dr. Roberto de Mattei appears in an article on LifeSite News, in which he calls the coronavirus a “scourge from God”.  De Mattei looks at the virus as an economist, a historian, and a theologian of history.  As an economist, he states that the world economy simply cannot handle the unique disruptions caused by the coronavirus and will inevitably go to shit, taking government and all the rest of human society down with it, and thereby sounding the death knell of globalization.  (Globalization is a liberal modernist construct; as a conservative Catholic pundit, de Mattei is not a fan.)  As a historian, he likens the virus to the Spanish Flu of 1918 and, looking back even further, to the Black Death of the 14th century which reduced Europe’s population by a third.  As a theologian of history, he opines that it is the Church’s role to judge history but in our modern age we have reversed that and instead see history as judging the Church.  He sees coronavirus as God’s judgment against the Church for allowing itself to become captive to the lies of modernity.  He quotes St. Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444), who declared thusly:  “There are three scourges with which God chastises:  war, plague, and famine.”  He concurs, stating:

The theology of history tells us that God rewards and punishes not only men but also collectivities and social groups: families, nations, civilizations. But while men have their reward or chastisement, sometimes on earth but always in heaven, nations, which do not have an eternal life, are punished or rewarded only on earth.

God is righteous and rewarding and gives to each what is his due: he not only chastises individual persons but he also sends tribulations to families, cities, and nations for the sins which they commit.

God is the author of nature with its forces and its laws, and he has the power to arrange the mechanism of the forces and laws of nature in such a way as to produce a phenomenon according to the needs of his justice or his mercy.

He ends by noting the spiritual dimension in all of this:  Due to coronavirus, all the churches in Italy, all the way up to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, are closed for the foreseeable future.  We are approaching Holy Week and the Easter season, the climax of the Church’s liturgical year, and the Church, which ought to be a light for all peoples, has gone dark.  For those who hold to the Catholic way of looking at things, the significance is inescapable.  He even goes so far as to chastise bishops who do not hold to his view of things and, in effect, accuse them of gross pastoral misconduct.  (He is not a fan of Pope Francis, but you probably figured that out already.)  Citing a vision of St. John Bosco in 1870:  “You, O priests, why do you not run to weep between the vestibule and the altar, begging for the end of the scourges? Why do you not take up the shield of faith and go over the roofs, in the houses, in the streets, in the piazzas, in every inaccessible place, to carry the seed of my word. Do you not know that this is the terrible two-edged sword that strikes down my enemies and that breaks the wrath of God and men?”

Over at Maclean’s, Michael Coren offers a dissenting view:

At a more serious or theological level, this is a reductive and banal spirituality that may satisfy the zealot but is dangerously crass and in fact profoundly ungodly. It depicts a genocidal God, sufficiently cruel to hurt indiscriminately, and too indifferent or impotent to be able to punish only those who have genuinely caused harm. It’s all the product of an ancient, fearful belief system that has nothing to do with the gentle Jewish rabbi of the 1st century who called for love and forgiveness, and so distant and different from the Gospel calls of Jesus to turn the other cheek, embrace our enemies, reach out to the most rejected and marginalized, and work for justice and peace.

If God is speaking to us in all of this, perhaps it is to say that this is our time to step up and be the people of God?  To love our neighbors, make sacrificial choices to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities, pray for wisdom for government officials and those on the frontlines of our medical system, and generally proclaim the good news of Jesus to a watching world – a Jesus who has compassion on the sick and binds up the brokenhearted – as opposed to a message of divine judgment?

Hebrews 1 tells us that Jesus is God’s final and greatest word to us.  John 1 tells us that the previously unseen God is now seen in Jesus.  “War, plague and famine” are not harsh words from God to us but instead the groanings of a broken creation yearning to be put right.

Yet there are those among us who reject that view of God.  All evil in our world ultimately traces back to the work of God to punish sin, individually, corporately, and ultimately tracing back to that awful day in the garden of Eden when our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit.  God is up in Heaven, watching all of this go down, listening to our cries and pleas for mercy, and saying “Tough shit motherfuckers, you shouldn’t have eaten that forbidden fruit.”  Those who don’t hold to that way of looking at things are in effect atheists who disguise their hatred for God as hatred for those who proclaim this view of God.

To which I say:  If that is all God is, then that God deserves atheists.  If, when I show the kind of sacrificial love for others that this crisis demands of me, I am proving myself better than the God who put us in this mess in the first place because of original sin and total depravity, then that God has lost me.

Allow me to close with this.  This is a U2 song which was very poignant for me during a season much like the one we are in now, a time when my panic meter was at an all-time high (and probably yours as well), when our nation was deep in the thick of the post 9/11 war on terror and it seemed that not a day would go by without some awful news from somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan or some other such place.

Lent Week 4: Lunch and Learn

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the fourth sign.

When you have an agenda, you cannot be direct or honest in your dealings with another person.  There is always this dance you have to do:  you cannot ask directly for what you want because that would be rude and the other person would know that he/she is being used and/or played and who wants that?  On the other hand, you have to express whatever it is you want at some point, in some fashion that the other person will understand, or else you will never get what you want.  But at the same time you can’t be too obvious about it, so you have to give hints and come at it indirectly.  At the same time, you need for your hints to be clear enough for the other person to pick up on.  And back and forth it goes, where it stops nobody knows.  This week’s sign has to do with some people–a lot of people, actually–who had an agenda for Jesus.

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

–John 6:1-15

To set the stage for this, last time Jesus was in Jerusalem.  Now he and his disciples had returned from Jerusalem to Galilee.  The Passover was approaching.  This was significant because the Passover honored Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt some fifteen hundred years prior, and, well, at this stage in their history, they needed another Moses.  They needed another Joshua.  They needed another Judas Maccabeus.  They needed someone who would rally the people to victory and drive out the Romans, and their hopes were high that this Jesus could be the one.

So when they heard that Jesus was headed back up their way, a whole crowd of people turned out to meet Jesus.  Per John’s account, the crowd numbered about five thousand men.  This is significant, and not because they didn’t count women and children because women and children didn’t count.  It is significant because five thousand men is the size of a fully formed Roman legion.  Given that, and the fact that Passover was approaching, it is not hard to guess what the people had in mind.

Jesus asks Philip where one can buy bread for these people to eat.  Of course he was asking ironically, because he already knew full well what he intended to do.  As noted last week, just because Jesus is the Son of God doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to have a sense of humor.  Philip’s answer:  It would take more than a half year’s wages to buy enough food for all these people to have a bite.  Translation:  There ain’t no food out here.

Andrew found a boy down front with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  At this point you’re thinking that the food trucks show up with bread and fish for everyone.  But that’s not how this went down.  Jesus prayed a blessing and then instructed the disciples to start passing out food.  With all those people in that grassy area and only five small loaves and two small fish, you can imagine the panic that the disciples felt.  Amazingly enough, when they looked up, everyone had had their fill and then some.  They gathered up the leftovers and there was enough to fill twelve baskets.

This was remarkable.  When Moses fed the Israelites in the desert with manna, there was only enough each day to last for the day.  Yet here they had gathered up enough food for God knows how many days.  Given that, together with the fact that, as noted above, they had enough men for a fully formed Roman legion and Passover was near, you can see where this was headed.  They would head south, with Jesus leading the way, picking up more and more people as they advanced, and by the time they got to Jerusalem it would be Passover and they would have four fully formed legions storming the gates and the Romans would be toast.

Jesus knew all this.  Per John’s account, he knew that the people were intending to make him king by force.  He wanted no part in it, so he took the disciples and put them in a boat.  One could imagine him grabbing the disciples and manhandling them to get them into the boat:  “Don’t get any ideas here.  Don’t let any of this go to your heads.  Let’s go.  Keep it moving.”  Once they were off he stole away to a mountaintop by himself in order to lose the crowd.

But the crowd found him and the disciples on the other side of the lake.  “Rabbi, when did you get here?”  they asked.  There it is.  They didn’t want to know when Jesus had gotten there.  They wanted Jesus to be their king and lead them in triumphant assault upon Jerusalem and kick the Romans out on Passover.  But Jesus knew all this.  “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”  (John 6:26)  Translation:  “You missed the point.  You’re just here for the food.”  He called them out on it, and then proceeded to thin the crowd by teaching some weird shit, as the rest of John 6 unfolds.

The takeaway is this:  As long as following Jesus is about getting stuff – no.  These people were in the very presence of God Himself come down to earth – God in a bod, if you will – yet they couldn’t see past their stomachs.  They had the opportunity to be followers of Jesus, yet they couldn’t see past their stomachs and their political aspirations.  Many unfollowed Jesus when things got weird later on in John 6.  But a few remained.  They saw the movement through to its surprising climax, and then they proceeded to change the world.  We can likewise change the world in our age.  But it starts with being followers of Jesus, not consumers.

Lent Week 3: Carry On

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the third sign.

Healthcare back in ancient Rome was a joke.  Doctors were scarce and they did not know much.  In ancient Rome, it was against the law to defile a dead body.  This extended to doctors and meant that they could not examine a dead body.  So autopsies were illegal.  Doctors would try to get to almost-dead people and do as much of an autopsy as they could before they died.  Needless to say, this created a situation which is best left undiscussed.

So in that world, doctors were scarce and they were scary.  For this reason, only the wealthiest of the wealthiest of the wealthy could afford doctors.  For everybody else, there were two options:  temples and superstition.  You could take your chances at the temple; with the proper sacrifices the gods might, just might, be cajoled into doing something for you.  Or the priests might, just might, have mercy on you.

Failing that, there was superstition.  This week’s story hinges on a local superstition.

There was a pool in the city of Jerusalem, in an area of town called Bethesda, which was believed to have healing powers.  This pool was fed by an underground spring.  Every once in a while this spring would produce an air pocket which would work its way up to the surface.  This would, of course, disturb the surface of the pool, and perhaps provide a natural explanation for the phenomenon which gave rise to this superstition.  From the perspective of one looking at the pool from above, it appeared as if the surface was being disturbed for no apparent reason.  By Jesus’ day, a legend had grown up that these disturbances were caused by an angel who would occasionally come down and disturb the water, and the first one to enter the pool after such a disturbance would be healed of whatever illness he/she had.

Imagine the chaos here.  And the irony:  This pool was believed to have healing properties, yet the scene around it was the exact opposite of health and wellness.

Needless to say, healthy people avoided this area of town like the plague.  Because it was the plague.

Yet Jesus goes right into the heart of this area, and that sets the stage for today’s sign.

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.  Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered columns.  Here a great number of disabled people used to lie–the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.  While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up!  Pick up your mat and walk.”  At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”

But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ”

Then they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”

The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.

Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again.  Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”  The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

This is a situation where religious rules have gotten in the way of basic human compassion.  Here we have a man who had been lying there at the side of this pool for 38 years.  In all probability he was an old man.

Jesus asks him a question:  Do you want to get well?  Seems like a question with an obvious answer, but this is a trick question.  You see, not everyone wants to get well.  Sometimes there are benefits to staying sick.  You get things you wouldn’t otherwise get if you were healthy.

But this guy did.  Underneath the sob story, he really did want to get well.  We know because when Jesus commanded him to get up and walk, he did.

Now the day on which Jesus did this was a Sabbath.  That is what makes this a sign.  By doing this miracle on a Sabbath, Jesus kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest.  The religious protocols of the day required anyone who had been sick and recovered to show themselves to the priests, who would examine them and declare them fit to once again participate in the community’s life of worship.  So off this man went, mat in tow, to the temple.  Of course the Jews did stop him to inform him that the law forbade him to carry his mat on the Sabbath.

Which was a lie.  The law did not forbid any such thing–their tradition did.  You see, when Moses came down from Sinai he brought the written Torah and the oral Torah.  The oral Torah was a commentary on the written Torah.  It was a fence, a guardrail if you will, around the written Torah to ensure that it would not be broken.  But it was held to have the exact same authority as the written Torah.  This oral Torah spelled out 39 categories of things–not things, but categories of things–which you could not do on the Sabbath.  One of these was to carry an object from one place to another.  Ergo, this man was in violation of the 4th commandment.

But the whole point of the 4th commandment is to take a break from labor, not to take a break from love.  Yet this is precisely what happens to any religious person, in any religious community, when you ignore the why behind the what.  When defending a theological system, an ideology, a political agenda, or a party platform takes precedence over the very people whom these things were created to serve.

When what is best for people is no longer important to you, then you are at odds with God.

This man responded to the Jews by saying, “The man who made me well told me to pick up my mat and walk.”  One could imagine him continuing thusly:  “You never did anything for me or said anything to me except that I deserved to be in my predicament because I or someone in my family sinned.  This man showed me kindness, so I’m going with whatever he says.”

Later on Jesus finds the man and has some words for him.  Scholars, theologians, and others much smarter than yours truly have teased this out in all manner of ways.  But I think the best answer to this may be the human answer that is as obvious as the nose in front of your face.

“Stop sinning”, Jesus says.  But what on earth could this man have possibly done?  This man had just spent the past 38 years of his life lying on a mat at the side of a pool.  He couldn’t sin because he couldn’t do jack shit.  Was there some sin in his prior life, or in the life of his parents, which had put him in that state?  This was a commonly held view in that culture, and one which Jesus devoted considerable energy to turning on its ear.  A few chapters later (spoiler alert), Jesus comes out and refutes it directly.  So why in the world would Jesus affirm it in this instance?  If we look at the story on its face, the only option left is that Jesus was referring to the man “sinning” by carrying his mat–which Jesus himself had told him to do.  Just because you are the Son of God doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a sense of humor.

Now we come to the punch line:  “…or something worse may happen to you”.  Really?  This man had just spent the last 38 years of his life on this stinking, chaotic, plague-infested poolside.  What could possibly be worse than that?  Of course there is always room for John Piper-esque grandstanding that the consequences of sin are far worse than any physical ailment.  And that may be true.  But if you assume that posture, you do so at your own risk.  You see, God is for people.  And when your religious views or theological commitments get in the way of people and in the way of basic human compassion, then you are at odds with God.  When you look at another person’s–very real–pain, and see nothing more than a teaching point concerning the consequences of sin, that’s a problem.

A question to close all this out with;  Does your version of religion and/or politics get in the way of loving other people?  If so, then you are at odds with God.  God is love.  John says so later on in the story (spoiler alert).  You know what love looks like; get on the wrong side of love and you are on the wrong side of God.