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.

Fr. Stephen Freeman: It’s Not Your Job to Reform the Church

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Eastern Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.

Today’s post is entitled “Healing the Tragic Soul of the Modern West“.  Freeman’s jumping-off point is a quote from one of the Orthodox fathers, the gist of which is that we cannot understand the Western world on the basis of idea versus idea, but instead we must back up another level and look at the historical events, thought processes, etc. which gave rise to those ideas in the first place. What’s more, this examination must take place within a patristic framework. (“Patristic” is just a big fancy word for anything having to do with the Church Fathers, most of whom lived in the second or third centuries AD.) Yet this examination must not come from a place of mere intellectual argument–something that’s just all about winning an argument and/or making a point. Instead, it is, in Freeman’s words, “the gathering of the whole of the West within oneself and plunging it into the depths of the Orthodox way of life. This is not a mental exercise – but the fullness of existence in the very roots of our being.”

Freeman takes as an example the notion of “making the world a better place”, a thoroughly modern notion which is part and parcel of much Christian thought and practice nowadays. It is not sufficient to debate whether this is right or wrong, instead one must go deeper and look at how this even became a thing at all. Freeman reflects on his own spiritual journey; he was an Anglican priest prior to his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and much of his energy during that season was devoted to trying to fix the church. The Anglicanism of his time was moving away from many points of traditional teaching and he saw it as his calling to raise his voice in protest. After his conversion to Orthodoxy he came, through a long and excruciating journey with the help of a close and trusted spiritual mentor, to a place where he no longer saw it as his place to save or to fix the Church.

There are a couple of takeaways here. First: One of the recurring themes in Eastern Orthodox thought and writing is the theme of struggle and conflict with the West. It is as if they see Western Christianity, and anything else coming out of the West, in much the same way that a Georgia Tech fan would look at Georgia, or Georgia or anyone else in the SEC would look at Alabama: as this ginormous thing which dominates all it sees, as something akin to the Death Star.

Why? The Great Schism out of which the Orthodox faith was birthed, happened several centuries before the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity have developed along separate lines for centuries. Anyone speaking or writing from within the Eastern Orthodox perspective with respect to the West does so from an outsider’s vantage point.

Many of you are familiar with this. Many of you have left the expression of Christianity or the religion that you grew up in, and now look back on it from an outsider’s perspective. There are many things about your religious faith that seemed perfectly normal to you when you were in it–everything in the fishbowl seems perfectly normal to those who are in it–but now look weird when seen from outside the fishbowl.  Now imagine this outside-the-fishbowl perspective applied, not just to an individual church or congregation or even to a religious system, but to the entirety of Western society and Western Christianity.  Such is the Eastern Orthodox vantage point.

The larger takeaway is this: It’s not your job to reform the Church. This is especially important for opinionated young punk bloggers like yours truly, who see it as our job to reform the Church one post at a time. That is not your job, and more to the point, that task is much too big for any one person to take on. Instead, your task is to let the Church reform you. This is hard, because there are many places and contexts where the Church looks like a complete shitshow. Whether you are a Catholic living in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandals, or a Willow Creek attendee living through those scandals, or a black evangelical living through the scandals that have rocked that world over the past decade…I could go on but I think you get the point.

But consider this:  The Church is essentially just a knockoff Jewish sect that should never in a million years have made it out of first-century Jerusalem, let alone first-century Rome.  Yet here we are.  Clearly there is something to it.  That something is the Holy Spirit, working behind the scenes to preserve and reform the Church.

Despite what things may look like from our perspective, the Holy Spirit is reforming the Church and holding it together. Our task is to lean into that and let the Church reform us. Once we enter into that posture, then we will be in a healthier space from which to speak out and work to reform those aspects of our particular expression of the Church which need reforming.

Lent Week 2: Living As If

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 second sign.  But first, some context.

After Jesus performed the first sign (at Cana, which we looked at last week), he and his disciples went down to Jerusalem for passover.  Every time Jesus goes to Jerusalem danger is in the air, so of course the disciples were holding their collective breath for every waking moment.

Jesus cleansed the temple.  Per the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), this event took place during the Passion week, the last week of Jesus’ life.  Yet John moves this event to the top of his account.  Were there two temple cleansings?  Unlikely.  After something that drastic, it would only be a matter of days before Jesus was dead.  Most likely, John had other priorities than to give us 21st century moderns the actual factuals.  Regardless, note that when the authorities questioned Jesus they asked “Who do you think you are?”, not “What do you think you’ve done?”.

Jesus did many signs.  He conversed with Nicodemus under cover of darkness.  He went back to Galilee.  En route, he conversed with the woman at the well.  There is some foreshadowing here:  The people of her town, Sychar, believed because of her testimony–what she had to say about Jesus.  Eventually Jesus and the disciples returned to Galilee, and here our story picks up.

After the two days he left for Galilee.  (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.)  When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him.  They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, for they also had been there.

Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine.  And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.  When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

Jesus replied, “You may go.  Your son will live.”

The man took Jesus at his word and departed.  While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living.  When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”

Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.”  So he and all his household believed.

This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.

–John 4:43-54

The first sign, which we looked at last week, was a joyous occasion.  This was a heartbreaking occasion.  Jesus wades into both.

Now the royal official lived in Capernaum, which was 8 hours from Cana by foot, 3 hours by horse/chariot.  This was a wealthy individual, who in all likelihood had purchased his title.  He didn’t walk 8 hours to Cana.  He was probably a Sadducee.  The Pharisees were deeply religious and conservative, the party of the people, as it were.  (Think:  Midwestern Republicans.)  The Sadducees were very wealthy, intellectual, aristocratic (think:  Northeastern liberals); they held a deterministic worldview.  There was no resurrection; you just lived for God and then you died and whatever happens after that, happens.

But on this day, he was a desperate father so all of that got pushed aside.  He went to Jesus and begged him to come.  Forget dignity.  Forget worldview.

Jesus’ response was not an indictment of the official or of anyone else.  It was just a statement of fact:  People will not believe unless they have evidence.  He asked the official to trust him based on the testimony of others.  Go on about your business.  You have nothing to worry about.

This was a whole lifetime reduced to a single day.  We go about our days and our lives, believing Jesus based on the testimony of others.  The official made his decision:  He believed Jesus and went home.  He walked away from the only person who could heal his son–because he trusted him.  This is walking by faith:  Not walking by wishful thinking, but walking as if what Jesus says is true.

We close with Jesus’ words to Thomas from later on in the story (John 20:29), which are spoken indirectly to all of us:  “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”