John

Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

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Tough Words

Luke 9:51-62

Tolerance is a catchword these days. Lord knows, we need tolerance. It is not all we need, but it is a good place to start.

Regarding the first part of today’s verses, Scottish theologian William Barclay asserts, “There is no passage in which Jesus so directly teaches the duty of tolerance as this.”

While passing through Samaria, the disciples wanted permission to deliver some tough words. The Samaritans in a particular village had refused to show Jesus and his followers any hospitality—not surprising when you consider how the two groups had been at odds for centuries. In short, the Jews considered the Samaritans half-breeds, the descendants of Jews who had mixed with invaders. Usually Jews avoided Samaria entirely. I suppose the Samaritans saw the Jews as a little uppity.

Feeling disrespected, James and John wanted Jesus to empower them to imitate Elijah, calling down fire from heaven, this time on a village of people rather than an altar. (They also likely had God’s ancient air strike on sinful Sodom and Gomorrah in mind.) We’re told Jesus rebuked the disciples, a “Let it go, already” coming directly from God’s Son.

His tolerant attitude was rooted in the somber task ahead of him. We are told Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. The point is so important it is repeated. This is Luke artfully saying Jesus was now certain his ministry was taking him toward torture and death on a cross. There was no other way out of sin and death for humanity.

Jesus was about to do a new thing. It would bring life, not death, for everyone, redemption free for the taking. And on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus would not have his redemptive ministry punctuated by a violent act.

The tolerance Jesus demonstrated marks the starting point for how we deal with others, particularly when others have opinions radically different from our own. Tolerance is the basis of civilization. We cannot have a truly modern society until people say, “We may disagree, but we’re not going to destroy each other.”

It is obvious people are struggling with this idea in many places now. Radical Islam is the most extreme example, built on the idea, “Disagree with me and die.” I’m reminded of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s terrorist puppet: “Silence! I kill you!” The psychology of Dunham’s routine is pretty obvious: We’re nervously laughing at the very behavior that could destroy modern culture, hoping if we ridicule it, no one will want to behave that way.

Jesus was teaching the same lesson we learn in Luminary’s church-based karate class: If you can walk away, walk away. Words and ideas should not lead to violence. Jesus’ tolerance of the rude Samaritans and of sinners in general was a big shift in theology, an expanded understanding of God’s will.

Tolerance is something anyone in the world can learn. And for Christians, there’s an additional twist, some extra behaviors we must incorporate. In case you haven’t picked up on it in Scripture, we’re supposed to be helping grow the kingdom. Ephesians 1:22 tells us the church is now Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

To make the world a different place, we have to be a different people. This is where some tension arises in our lives as Christians. It’s easy to say, “Let’s all be tolerant,” sing “Kumbaya” and head for the house. Today’s text takes us further, though.

We’re told that as Jesus continued along the road, some would-be followers approached him. Finally, Jesus offered tough words, just not the kind the disciples had first sought permission to use.

His responses had a basic theme. Following Christ is going to be difficult. It may cost you home and family, assuming home and family prove to be in conflict with God’s kingdom. And there is truth to be told, the kind of truth people are not always ready to hear. Proclamations are calls to change! Again, people may kill you when they don’t like your ideas. The Jewish leaders killed Jesus because he was an ideological and political threat.

Regardless of the dangers, we are called to be holy examples in an unholy world, drawing people toward what is godly. Understanding God’s will requires much study and prayer. If you believe the Bible, then you from the earliest chapters have to believe our minds and bodies are too broken to fully grasp God’s will on our own. What feels right may be very wrong, simply because our minds and souls are a little fractured.We need guidance, from God’s written word and God’s Holy Spirit.

Intertwining tolerance and holiness can seem strange at first. Our instincts tell us they do not go together, but Christ made it clear they do. Using them together, we help the kingdom grow.


The featured image is the Monument of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Photo by Avishai Teicher, 2009, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Beginning

John 1:1-5, 9-14

This time of year, Christian minds quickly go to a baby in a manger. But we also are invited to contemplate an astounding idea: The true nature of what is within the child.

Last week, I mentioned that if you accept that Simeon saw the face of God when gazing upon the baby Jesus, then you understand a central tenet of Christianity. Jesus is God among us, God taking on flesh in order to be among his creation and, ultimately, to save his creation from sin and death.

The opening of the Gospel of John takes this idea and runs with it. As we read it, we are asked to put aside notions of time and space and understand the godly essence of Jesus has always existed and always will exist.

We are told there is an an aspect of God we can think of as “the Word.” When we see God as creative, as life-giving, we are seeing the Word. In Greek it is logos, which we also might translate as “truth” or “reason,” if we trust some of the meaning ancient Greek philosophers read into the concept.

This high-minded notion of creativity, truth and reason existing beyond space and time—indeed, making space and time—is overwhelming to try to grasp. My head hurts just trying to think about it. And yet, in all of this, there also is love. And God loves his little human creations so much that this endless aspect of God, this Word, concentrated and shrank himself enough to inhabit flesh.

That is what Christmas is about, by the way. The Word inhabited flesh.

When you begin to get this notion of the Word walking among us, a lot of Jesus’ miracles make more sense. Of course the loaves and the fishes were superabundant; the aspect of God that made every fish and every grain of wheat that ever existed was present.

Of course he could heal a man born blind, even though no one had ever heard of such a miracle. A little spit and dirt mixed into a mud, and voilà, new eyes. The aspect of God that made every eye that had ever existed was present.

Of course Jesus rose from the dead, made indestructible. The battered body contained the inventor of life, and he would not be restrained.

To ease the theological headaches we sometimes get from such big thoughts, we also have this notion of Jesus being the “Son of God,” an idea we also see reflected in the Gospel of John. I’ve seen people struggle with this, taking the phrase too literally, saying, “No, Jesus isn’t God, Jesus is the Son of God.” But we have to remember, we call Jesus “Son of God” as a reminder that a new being was created in Mary’s womb, one fully divine but bearing human flesh.

Saying “Son of God” also makes our lives a little easier; the idea is simpler to grasp. It is hard to talk about Jesus in the high-flying language of John’s first chapter all the time.

The beauty of Christianity is that while we’re invited to stretch our minds, to exercise our imaginations, no great leaps of thinking are required for a relationship with God. Theologians can spend a lifetime studying Christology, but at the same time, a child, through simple belief, can be saved and brought into a relationship with God through Christ.

John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Belief is enough.

As you contemplate the baby in the manger this year, may your Christmas be merry, and may your visions of God be magnificent.

Simple Act of Faith

In this Lenten season, we’ll call this “Back to Basics Day.” Let’s begin by considering exactly what Abram (later to be called Abraham) gave up when he listened to God and moved toward an unspecified land.

This initial call in Genesis 12:1-4 is written in a rather matter-of-fact tone, but the risk must have seemed huge for an aging man. He had property and people around him, including slaves, the mark of a comfortable, wealthy man. We don’t know how long Abram had been in Haran—we only know his father Terah had moved the family from far-away Ur some time earlier—but as the family had been able to grow their wealth while there, we can assume life in Haran had been good to them.

Now Abram was to pack his family and possessions and make a journey that ultimately would prove to be more than 500 miles, about the same distance as the drive from Kingsport, Tenn., to Jacksonville, Fla. Except they had no cars. For them, it was a dangerous month-long one-way trip, assuming the animals in their caravan were in good shape. A return visit to Haran or the true family homeplace, Ur, might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, perhaps when someone needed a bride of proper bloodlines.

And yet, Abram went, without question, without comment. He would have questions later, but not in this initial act of faith, this huge, trusting leap toward God.

It’s easy to get caught up in what Abram did rather than focusing on the importance of what was simply in his heart. The Apostle Paul uses Abram in the fourth chapter of Romans to illustrate that it’s the trust that saves us, not any work we do. When God sees we trust him, he goes ahead and calls us righteous, even though we don’t deserve it. Paul made clear he was talking about the God we know best through Jesus Christ, the one who made all things and then restored all things to holiness despite sin.

All we have to do is believe the God who promised all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abram ultimately walked among us as Jesus Christ, working great mysteries on the cross so we do not have to die forever. I know, I just leaped across hundreds of pages of Scripture to make that connection, but it’s the connection the Bible, Old and New Testaments, strives to make. Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of that initial, broad promise offered to Abram, a promise grand enough to set a very comfortable man and his people to packing.

So, we’re invited to a simple act of faith. But at the same time, we’re also called to remember that it’s so simple it can be confusing, particularly for the uninitiated. When we’ve turned away from God and are caught up in sin, we feel like we’re trapped in that Harry Potter hedge maze, the one where the turns and dead-ends seem endless and the roots and branches grab at us. We have to figure the maze out, right? To survive, we have to beat back what entangles us, right?

Wrong. All we really have to do is look up and say, “Lord Jesus, I believe you can pluck me out of this.”

In the third chapter of John’s gospel, we see the Pharisee Nicodemus desperately wanting to follow Jesus, but at the same time struggling in his rigid, legalistic mind with how to do so. Accept what is from above, Jesus told him. Trust God. Trust God’s love for his creation.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” Jesus said. And then came the real kicker, particularly for a legalist striving to make himself righteous: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What, God doesn’t seek to punish us first? I don’t have to clean up my act to accept God’s gift of salvation?

We have Nicodemus types around us, perhaps even among us. They want to make that first step toward God much more difficult than it is, trying to resolve personal angst and the global problem of evil in one fell swoop. Often, they expect a requirement to crawl at least halfway back toward the one they’ve offended before being accepted.

As Christians, our job is to keep simple what can be misunderstood as complicated. The God of Abraham, the God who walked among us and died for our sins, loves us. He’s been reaching down to humanity for thousands of years and continues to do so today.

Sure, once we accept God’s offer, there’s more to do. It’s only natural that we want a developing, continuing relationship with the one who gives us eternal life in place of death. We pray, we study, we joyfully respond to his simple requests, the first being, “Go and tell others.”

That initial act of accepting God’s outstretched hand remains simple, however.

Doubts

John 20:19-31

What is doubt? And what is doubt’s antidote?

In the 20th chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, we find the story of Jesus appearing to a terrified band of disciples. Mary Magdalene had told them Christ is risen from the dead, but the news gave them no comfort.

Certainly, these disciples were afraid of the Jews who had crucified Jesus. It’s also likely that they, having failed Jesus in his time of need, feared what the risen Christ might say or do. They doubted the resurrection had really happened; and if it had happened, they doubted where they stood with the one who had overcome death.

The door to the room where they huddled was locked, but a lock is no barrier for a body that has defeated death and is now indestructible, infused with the unrestrained power of the divine. Jesus appeared among them. It was not to chastise them, however. Instead, the risen Christ told them repeatedly, “Peace be with you.”

And peace they had, it seems. They moved from fear to rejoicing; doubt had vanished.

All of Jesus’ key disciples were present except Thomas. When he returned, he refused to believe in the appearance until “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.”

A week later Jesus appeared to Thomas with the same message: “Peace be with you.” He even invited Thomas to touch the scars. And of course, Thomas believed.

So, what is doubt? Looking at this story, it seems to be more than just lack of evidence. It is a guardedness brought on by a belief that a situation cannot improve, despite what others are saying. Certainly, we are more likely to feel doubt when we find ourselves in a particularly sticky mess.

There is a lot of doubt in our world today, and I’m not talking just about religious doubt. People feel stuck in all sorts of ways, and a lot of them don’t feel any kind of institution, agency, cause or movement can free them.

As the church, bringing people an experience of the risen Christ is our way of helping to cure some of that doubt. We are, after all, a people who believe in the resurrection, a people of hope. Our rallying cry is “Peace be with you.” And there are actions that must coincide with our words, actions that bring peace.

Somewhere in our community, there are children who fear each day because they face abuse, hunger or neglect. The true church, acting as Christ’s body on earth today, finds them, rescues them, feeds them and loves them, bringing the peace of Christ to their lives. We participate in such activities now, but we need to do more.

Somewhere in our community, there are people suffering a crisis of identity, people who feel they have no value because they lack a job or a family or a relationship. The true church finds them, helping them learn they are first and foremost children of God. We brush against these people occasionally, but it’s time to fully embrace them.

Somewhere in our community, there are sinners, hard-core sinners, sinners who believe their evil is so great that nothing can be done to redeem them. They feel they can only smirk at or fear the church.

The true church tells them the work of redemption already is complete; belief is all that is required. And like the cowering disciples, these sinners find that in a relationship with Christ, there is no condemnation, only peace. We say our doors are open and we wait for these people to come to us, but we need to learn to go to them.

Somewhere in our community there are the mentally ill, the drunks, the drug abusers, the unwed mothers, the prisoners, the sick, the dying. The true church finds ways to rely on the Holy Spirit and creatively say to them, “Peace be with you.”

After all, we are the body of Christ on earth until Christ returns.