A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: July 9, 2017: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
11:16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;

11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

11:25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

11:28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why was Jesus a friend of the non-observant?
  • Why does that matter?

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing to think about, and perhaps the most important, is what a yoke is used for.  My father’s generation knew about yokes from common experience.  My generation does not, for the most part, because we have no occasion to use them in daily life and work.

A yoke is what you use to make it possible for oxen to pull a heavy load.  A well-made yoke is fitted to the individual oxen, shaped so that it does not chafe and rub the skin raw, designed so that the weight is borne by the animals’ shoulders.  And it probably matters that oxen were yoked in pairs.  Pulling heavy loads was a task shared by two animals accustomed to each other using a yoke that was particularly suited to each of them.  That is what it means to say that a yoke is “easy.”  A more practical translation might be “serviceable:” a well-shaped yoke let oxen be as strong as they could possibly be, and also protected them from injuries that would weaken them.  Imagine the effect of a yoke that rubbed the skin raw and left bleeding, oozing sores just where the weight of work would be borne.  A wounded ox could pull little or no weight, and that doesn’t even consider the ethics of damaging a living being.  As I hear it, my grandfather had particularly harsh words for people who mistreated their draft animals, harsh words that, as I hear it, he never otherwise used.

The second thing to think about, also important, is that an ox yoke was a common metaphor in the ancient world (and still today) for the Torah.

The implications of this metaphor are illuminating.

For one thing, it implies that Torah observance (“taking on the yoke of Torah”) makes a person able to pull her weight.  Life requires us to pull weights heavier than we might have imagined, and Torah is pictured as a help in meeting such demands.  But notice that Jesus’ use of the image takes special note of the need for the yoke to be properly shaped to individual creatures.

This suggests two important things.

First, Torah as taught by Jesus (notice that he explicitly links yoke-bearing and learning in this scene) is serviceable and well-shaped to the human condition.  Don’t take this as a Law v. Gospel, Judaism v. Christianity contrast.  It is not that.  Jesus is Jewish, and his words about a well-shaped pattern of Torah observance fit with what other Torah-teachers have said, both in the ancient world and now.  Jesus is addressing the same question that rabbis always address: What ways of being faithful are most life-giving, most “serviceable,” most helpful in carrying out the tasks that life hands human beings?  This is the question that leads to answers like, “Do unto others…,” which is found in Jesus’ teaching and in the teaching of other rabbis of his time.  It is a question that lies parallel to another well-known question: “Who, then, is my neighbor?”  Or, “What does the LORD require of you?” (see Micah 6:8).

Second, this suggests that there are forms of religious observance that are NOT well-suited to human being.  Every community of faith that I have studied, and every form of faithfulness, has within it twisted versions of hyper-religion that are dangerous.  Jesus seems to know this.  When he says that his yoke is serviceable, he implies that others chafe, rub you raw, and injure you.

He is right.

One diagnostic sign of such forms of faithfulness shows itself in the expectation that “real” faith has to strenuous and even painful.  “No Pain, No Gain” theologies are always abusive.  They rub people the wrong way, and their practitioners are taught that the oozing sores that result are the marks of real faith, the necessary signs of “cross-bearing.”  Sometimes the sores are the result of what is called the “mortification of the flesh.”  Other times the hyper-religious are simply trying to mortify anyone who is not as hyper-religious as they are.

There are other interesting implications of Jesus’ use of the yoke metaphor.  For instance, it might imply that Torah observance (and religious practice in general) must be shaped differently for different people.  There OUGHT to be Conservative Jews in the world and there also MUST be Reform Jews.  We need Methodists AND Lutherans.  We might even need Two-Seeds-In-The-Spirit-Hardshell-Baptists.”  And we need Muslims.  And Buddhists.  And we need people who are simply DONE with religious practice, especially when what they are actually done with is religious abuse carried out by those who insist that religion has to hurt to be real.

And, this metaphor makes it clear that human life is a shared task.  We pull our load together.  And the yoke of religious observance is intended to increase human strength, to make us better able to carry the human load that the Creation needs us to carry.

That is worth thinking about.


A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: July 2, 2017: Matthew 10:40-42

Matthew 10:40-42
10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

10:42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

A Question or Two:

  • What is a prophet’s reward?
  • What is a righteous person’s reward?

Some Longer Reflections:

Again a scene about welcome.  This time the welcome is shared, distributed.

This is also a scene about reward, which is tied to welcome, and therefore is shared and distributed as is welcome.

It makes sense that those sent out are linked with those who sent them, whether it’s the disciples or Jesus, all are linked to God.  Notice, therefore, that all parties in this scene are part of the project of turning the world right-side-up.  God sent Jesus, and that means that the Messiah’s project is tied to the act of original Creation.  Jesus sent the disciples out, and that means that anyone properly called a disciple is an agent of messiahship, a partner in righting the world.  And anyone who extends hospitality to such a person is directly welcoming messiahship into the world.  This little verse is establishing a web of allies in a dangerous world.  Matthew’s narrative world opens itself with a genocidal murder: Herod, the stooge of Rome, slaughters all the toddlers in and around Bethlehem in an effort to kill Jesus (the one sent by God).  The world ruled by Rome is a vicious and dangerous world, but even in this world there is web of allies, says Jesus, and these allies welcome each other and welcome God’s efforts to turn the world right-side-up.

Not many are prophets, but hospitality to a prophet brings a reward.  A “righteous person” is someone who observes Torah thoroughly and well.  Observing Torah is an act of welcoming the reign of God into the world; it echoes the act of welcoming Shabbat into a Jewish home.  Shabbat comes like a queen to every observant Jewish home and brings with it a glimpse of all of God’s promises.  Welcoming a person who observes Torah brings with it the same glimpse, the same reward.

The web of allies is wide.  Even in Matthew’s violent world, allies are everywhere.  And the key to all of it is hospitality.  The key is welcoming the righting of the world.

How will the world be turned right-side-up?  I still do not know.

But the matter of offering a simple cup of water to a little one probably offers a clue.  It’s not a matter of accomplishing stupendous deeds of apocalyptic importance.  The key to our responsibility as Christ-ians, as partners in messiahship, lies in tending to the needs of those who cannot defend themselves, or even get themselves a cup of water.  I suppose that affordable health care counts as a cup of water.

A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: June 25, 2017: Matthew 10:24-39

Matthew 10:24-39
10:24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;

10:25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

10:32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;

10:33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

10:35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

10:36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

10:38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

A Question or Two:

  • What are “many sparrows” worth?
  • What is the exchange rate for sparrows?
  • How does that transfer to mallard ducks?

Some Longer Reflections:

First of all, what is all this about being “worthy?”  The Greek word is ἄξιος.  That’s just the regular word for worthy. It does sort imply, in Greek as in English, that this is a matter of worth and value, not just eligibility.  This makes the linkage with crucifixion strange, of course. The only people who could be crucified were those who had no worth, of who had to be identified as having no worth. So jesus’ remark has a bitter, humorous, ironic bite: you’ve got to be a useless no-account like me to be worth anything.  So it’s a little like the old Jefferson Airplane song:

We are forces of chaos and anarchy;

Everything they say we are, we are.

The humor is essential, especially in this scene with so much potential for anger and violent action.

The sparrows.  The matter of being worth crucifixion.  Even the bit about parents and children.  The humor is bitter, to be sure, especially in this last instance, but it is crucial to catch it, because if you don’t, you will read this as a “hate your parents” project, and that makes the Jesus movement into the most frightening sort of cult.  But seen from the point of view of people that Rome kept crucifying, the bitter humor might make sense.  Nobody’s parents raised them for such an outcome.  Follow God’s promise to turn the world right-side-up and the Empire will crucify you.  And no one would call that loving your parents.  Nor would anyone call that caring for your children.

Except parents who are also caught up in turning the world right-side-up.

And except children who need a world where the cynical worst possibilities aren’t the only options.

That is the promise and the danger of this scene.

That is the promise and the danger of believing that Jesus is the Messiah.  If the world is in the process of being turned right-side-up, the sacrifice is worth it.  But if not, then this whole project is only a religious diversion from the cynical work that we ought to be doing.

I have to admit that the cynicism is attractive.

This week a jury acquitted the police officer who killed Philando Castile.  I was not on the jury.  I do not have access to the evidence or the arguments that led to that verdict.  But I (along with many others) have followed the trial and have paid attention to the ways that basic racism leads to triggers being pulled.  It is a fair bet that if I had been driving the car with a broken brake light, I would not have been shot.  It appears that you have to have dark skin to be (quoting another incident that contributes to cynicism) a “big, bad dude.”

The reasons to quit hoping and pick up cynicism are many, and pretty convincing.  The current president pays taxes and follows laws “only when you make me,” to paraphrase a moment from one of the pre-election debates.  Maybe it IS smart to avoid paying taxes.  And maybe the only way to resist the resurgence of fascism is to mount violent attacks on white supremacist marches.  And maybe the next time a bunch of testosterone-addled white guys feel the need to carry weapons into local coffee shops, just to dare anyone to challenge them and their “Second Amendment remedies,” maybe we need to challenge them right back.  Maybe they’re right and the world is only safe for people who are armed.  And maybe….

You know how it goes from here.

The thing is, the cynical violence of the moment calls for such wondering.  If the world is NOT being turned right-side-up, then the cynics are right, maybe especially the ones with guns.

So we have some decisions to make.

This is a violent moment in our history.

If when we call for calm and rational discussion we are mostly just saying that things aren’t THAT bad, we are not really calling for peace, just for quiet.  And for a maintenance of the status quo.  Which means that we are glad to have someone else engage in violence to protect our comfort.  That’s not pacifism, or peace-making.  It is, simply, privilege protecting itself.

If, on the other hand, we actually believe that some basic systems are broken, that racism is no longer tolerable, that the natural environment needs defending, then this implies vigorous, uncompromising action.  Some of that action will be violent.  All of it will be disruptive.  None of it will allow us simply to wait, and hope, and be patient.

There is another option.

Probably there are several others.  We will have to discover if we actually believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  Is the resurrection real, and is the world in the process of being reborn to new, more abundant life?

Not “spiritually” but actually.

If that is the actual situation, it is all over for the status quo.  Patience is at an end.  Privilege is a luxury we cannot afford.

The same goes for cynicism, however.  If the Christian faith is not simply a favorite narcotic of a post-war society that longed for calm and respectability, then this is a moment for real change, real disruption.

Cynicism is easier, too much easier.  Violence is finally only destructive and desperate.

I do not know if I dare to believe that God is turning the world right.

That remains to be seen, I guess.  But there is one thing that caught my eye in this scene, something that I had not considered before.

Jesus says that There is “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”  I have sometimes wondered what this might mean, but my wondering was casual at best.  But over the past year I have found myself wrestling with the role that cynical secrecy plays in our life together.  Sexual abusers smile, secure in their public role, with the secret of their actions covered by a blanket of social conventions, the least or which is the idea the “boys will be boys.” A presidential candidate brags that he could shoot someone on State Street and not lose political support.  The True Believers would only dismiss any evidence or even any inquiry as “fake news” that is part of a “witch hunt.”  Faced with health care realities that require us to honestly look for ways to protect workers and families from medically induced bankruptcy, politicians spend their considerable energy and resources looking for ways to convince the electorate that the most important issue is whether the solution to our shared health care conundrum will raise their taxes.

In a society where secrets protect injustice, Jesus’s words offer what looks to me like the key item of faith for Christians (and probably Muslims and Jews, too).  Is honest revelation finally something we can count on?  It is, but only if the world is in fact being turned right-side-up.

And I do not know if I dare to believe that right now.  Maybe I’ll start with trusting that God has counted the hairs on my head.  And the hairs on Philando Castile’s head.  And the hairs on the heads of soldiers who can came home haunted by PTSD.  And the hairs on the heads of police officers who go off to work not knowing what they will meet.

A Provocation: Second Sunday After Pentecost: June 18, 2017: Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
9:35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

9:38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;

10:4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,

10:6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

10:7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

10:9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,

10:10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

10:11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.

10:12 As you enter the house, greet it.

10:13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.

10:14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

10:15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

10:17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues;

10:18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

10:19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;

10:20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

10:21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;

10:22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

10:23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

A Question or Two:

  • Sodom and Gomorrah refused hospitality to vulnerable people.  Why is this so serious?
  • Who is vulnerable?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus goes about teaching, proclaiming, and curing.  He sends his disciples out to proclaim and heal.  If you look at the list of things that are to be healed, it is clear that “proclaiming the kingdom” is closely tied to real, active concern for everything that affects human life.  These are not abstract “religious” tasks, they take on the things that restrain human flourishing.

This comes especially clear in the list of things that Jesus is doing.  The last item in the list is translated as “sickness,” which is a suitable translation.  But the word is μαλακίαν, a word that refers to vulnerability.  It might be better translated as “infirmity,” but only if you stop to think about it a little.  The word has a long history in English.  If you are old and infirm, you might indeed be subject to infirmities, for which you would be sent to the infirmary.  The word implies that healthy people are firm, and sick people are infirm.  Healthy people can stand up for themselves, and sick people need help to stand up at all.  Healthy people are able to resist disease (and other things), but sick people are vulnerable.

We do not like being vulnerable.  This can be a nasty world if you have a pre-existing condition.

A little over a year ago I found myself in the midst of some dangerous health adventures.  Heart stuff.  Lung stuff.  Nasty stuff, some of it.  I remember the day that I discovered that if I walked to chapel on campus at 10:00 (a distance of about 100 yards, one way, involving descending and then ascending two flights of stairs) I would be too out-of-breath to teach at 11:00.  This was an unpleasant discovery.  Attending chapel has been a regular part of the rhythm of my work for my whole time at Augustana University, now 27 years.  Fortunately, friends in the Nursing Department lent me a wheelchair for the semester, so I could go to chapel if I found someone to push me.  Again fortunately, Augustana is filled with people willing to help with tasks like that.

And I found myself hating the idea of having to ask.

I disliked being “infirm” more than I might have guessed I would.  And I really disliked the attention that rolling into chapel in a chair brought.  I generally slip into the back row, right side.  In a wheelchair with a helpful pusher there is no slipping in anywhere.  People felt bad for me.  I didn’t like that much.  My “infirmity” brought with it a loss of my ability to vanish into the ordinary crowd.

By the time my health issues were sorted out I had a new appreciation of why Jesus might spend his time curing infirmity.  Yes, please.

But our dislike of infirmity, of having to ask for help, makes Jesus’ instructions to his disciples interesting.  He tells them:

Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…


That means that he sends them out vulnerable, as infirm as the people they are to cure.  They aren’t naked, but they aren’t wearing shoes.  And they have no money.  If they are to survive, they will have to ask for help.

I wonder why this is so important?

A Provocation: Trinity Sunday: June 11, 2017: Matthew 28:16-20

Matthew 28:16-20
28:16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

28:17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

28:20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the Trinity matter?
  • If God is One, why ought we to bother with the complications that come with the Trinity?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, it’s Trinity Sunday.

The one thing everyone knows about the Trinity is that any attempt to define it lands in heresy: every drawing, every metaphor, every analysis of the natures and of the interactions and of the relationship that is essential to God as Christians conceive of the Deity.  Heresy every time.  Some models blur the individuality of the Persons of the Trinity.  Some make them so utterly individual that it is hard to argue (with a straight face, anyhow) that Christians really ARE monotheists.

Some models offer a good picture of the relationality of the Deity, but make God seem to be obsessed with God, and uninterested in acting, which makes it hard to figure out how such a Deity ever got around to creating anything, much less redeeming it and making it holy.  Other models get the acts of God clearly in focus, but end up with a muddled picture of God, who becomes either a team of three Divinities or a Deity who likes to play dress up.

My own particular favorite image of the Trinity comes from a woman in the congregation I served in Door County, WI, a few decades ago.  She told me that she had come up with this image when she was 12 years old.  Her grandmother was teaching her to bake.  She said that she realized that the Trinity was like a cake.

I had no idea what she meant.

She explained: It’s like the eggs, the flour, and the sugar in a cake.

I still had no idea what she meant.  That sounded like a list of ingredients to me, and a partial list at that.  And, I asserted, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were not ingredients.

“No kidding,” she said.

I realized I was going to have to listen more closely.

I asked her if the image didn’t lose the “threeness” of the Trinity in an effort to affirm the “oneness” of God?  After all, God is one, and a cake is only one thing.

“A cake is not one thing,” she said, “and it’s not just a jumble of ingredients.  The ingredients react with each other, they affect each other, change each other, but in order for a cake to be a cake, they all have to be there.  A cake is not one thing.”

“It’s a relationship,” she said.  “The elements don’t vanish when they interact.  When I taste a cake, I can tell you how many eggs are in it, and how much flour and sugar.  And I could tell you if there were too much of any one element.”

“I’m a baker,” she said.  “A baker can tell.”

I thought (briefly) about arguing that God is active and creative, while a cake is a thing and it just sits there, but then I remembered what it was like to eat something that she baked.  A cake, when she baked it, was not just a thing, and it did not just sit there.  Anything she baked wrapped you up in flavor, aroma, texture.  Anything she baked revealed things about flavor, things about life, that you would never have imagined on your own.  Her cakes created joy and hope.  A family told me once that her cakes were the only thing at the funeral lunch that didn’t taste like styrofoam.

I am sure that someone will find all sorts of problems with the image that she showed me.

I am sure that someone will find heresy.  Someone always does.  It is one of our great skills, finding fault.

But the idea that we are baptized in the Name of creative hope and restored life seems just right to me.  The idea that baptism bakes us into the love and skill that went into my teacher’s cakes seems to catch something that is essential to the work of God in the world.



A Provocation: The Day of Pentecost: June 4, 2017: Acts 2:1-21

Acts 2:1-21
2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,

2:11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

2:12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

2:13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

2:14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

2:15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.

2:16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

2:17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

2:18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

2:19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

2:20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

2:21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

A Question or Two:

  • Why is the same word used to refer to the “tongues” of fire and the “tongues” that people speak?
  • What might a “language of fire” sound like?

Some Longer Reflections:

First of all, because Pentecost blows into the imagination of the Church once a year, I have written about this scene in Acts before, just about a year ago.  You might want to go back and read that Provocation, as well.  Last year I spent time thinking about Ezekiel and the breath that brings life back into the world.

This year, what struck me was the people who were gathered in Jerusalem.  They lived there.  They were Jews.  They were “devout,” we are told in English.  I wonder what people make of that word these days.  It sounds like such a church word, such a specialized holy word, so stiff, starched, and pious.

The Greek is more interesting.

The word is εὐλαβεῖς.  It is not simply a religious word.  It means “well-taken-in-hand,” which is also an old expression not much in current use.  It means that a person so described has been brought up well, raised to be trustworthy and true, proved by experience to be the sort of person you would want next to you in the midst of tough times.

And they came from every Gentile nation on the planet.  And they come to Jerusalem complete with the “languages into which [they] were born.”  This last phrase is translated into English as “native languages,” which means roughly the same thing, but with less concrete reality.  In this scene, the crowd is packed with people who were born into languages that the rest of the crowd did not understand.

This suggests at least two things.

First of all, all the people in the crowd will have learned language from a mother who sang to them, played with them, and nursed them.  That is what it means to be “born into” a language.  That is what a “mother tongue” really is.  My mother was “born into” the Swedish language, and only learned English when she went to kindergarten.  To the end of her life, you could hear her mother singing to her when she spoke Swedish.  And you could see the soft, warm love wash over her when she spoke and heard her mother tongue.  My mother was like the people in the Pentecost crowd.

Second, this birth language will have shaped the way the people in the crowd spoke the other languages they knew.  Every language has its own melody, its own rhythms, its own unique sounds, and the music of your birth language leaves marks on everything you say.  If you do not speak Swedish, look up the pronunciation of this set of letters: “sjö.”  There is a whole spectrum of ways that native speakers pronounce this syllable, none of which sound very much like what you would guess as a native speaker of American English.  Though English does not include this sound, it is a sound that you could hear behind every English word my mother ever said.  My mother spoke English with a Swedish melody.

It always sounded normal to me.  It sounds like the way we speak in our family.

And, of course, it did not sound at all normal to people from other backgrounds, other families.

We reserve a special gladness for the ways other people speak English, and we direct a specially kind of ridicule for those ways of speaking.  We tell jokes that can only be funny if you think that others talk funny.  This is the limping premise of every ethnic joke I have ever heard.  We take careful aim at ethnic forms of English and shame those that use them.

The people in the crowd on Pentecost will have heard all the shaming jokes; they will have been identified throughout their lives as outsiders, potentially dangerous.  Their speech was the marker that made them a target.

Notice what happened in this scene.

People are speaking about the “God’s deeds of power.”  People understand what they are saying.

But in all this speaking and understanding, the ethnic accents are not removed.  Everyone hears of the greatness of God in a voice as warmly accented as their own mother, with all the ethnic lilt fully intact.  The foreign melodies do not offend either God or the storyteller.  The foreign melodies are the music of revelation.

I have been listening to the way Christians sing their faith.

It is often pretty depressing.  When we sing, too often we imagine that we, and we alone, have the song right.  When we sing, too often we DO NOT imagine that anyone else has anything useful to add to the song.  In fact, we regularly sing in ways that shut other people out, and we take their inability to sing as evidence of who is, and who is NOT “saved.”

I think it is time we stopped singing only to ourselves.  I think it is time we quit requiring others to learn to sing like us before we will listen to them.

And I think that it is time that we all stopped cheering when someone says what I just said.  As I listen to Christians sing, I hear most voices asserting that no one else is listening.

Stop it.

The miracle of Pentecost is not that everyone finally talked just like you.  It is not that everyone finally talked the same.

The miracle of Pentecost is that God spoke like everyone’s mother, that God embraced the differences, and did not reject them.  So God sounds like a Millennial and like a Baby Boomer.  God sounds like a woman and a man, a child and an elder.  God embraces every way of speaking, and every way of speaking life into a world that needed resurrection.

So, when Christians gather to imagine Pentecost, would Jews hear us speaking of the mighty acts of God?  Would Muslims?  When we imagine the life-giving work of the breath of God, what will be heard by people who (often for very good reasons) are simply DONE with religion in any ordinary form?

These might be useful questions for our reflection on the miracle of Pentecost.



A Provocation: The Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 28, 2017: John 17:1-11

John 17:1-11
17:1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,

17:2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.

17:3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

17:4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.

17:5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

17:6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.

17:7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you;

17:8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

17:9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.

17:10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

17:11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

A Question or Two:

  • Does the only true God belong exclusively to your denomination of Christianity, or is monotheism more interesting than that?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, Jesus is giving eternal life to people whom God gave to him.  This seems customary enough.  Life we can make sense of, even if we have no proper sense of eternity.  We think of it in terms of time, which is precisely not the point, since we would then be thinking of extremely long periods of measurable time.  Eternity, however, is an attribute of God, who is not subject to measurable time.  So that’s a bit of a problem.

But there is actually another, more interesting, problem here.

When the NRSV has Jesus promise “eternal life” to those given to him, the Greek original promises αἰώνιος ζωή.  Life is promised, that is sure, but though it is customary to translate αἰώνιος as “eternal,” that is not exactly what it means.  The phrase αἰώνιος ζωή means, not “really, REALLY long life,” but “aeonic life.”  Life of the aeon.  

“Aeonic life” is not exactly a phrase that rolls off your tongue, but it does have discernible content.  In the phrase, “aeonic” functions as an adjective, it paints the noun, life, with a certain quality, a distinctive character: it is life that has the character of the aeon.

Whatever that means.

Though we use the word aeon (or eon) in ordinary English to refer to “really, REALLY long times,” that is not what it means in ancient Greek, especially when the ancient Greek text in question dances with Jewish apocalyptic notions.  In such texts, the aeon under consideration names a shift in the quality of existence.  In the present aeon, Rome has control, children starve to death, diseases hunt us, the past haunts us, and death finally limits life, making us subject to whoever has the power of the sword.  Jews in the ancient world waited for a new aeon, an existence in which Rome no longer washes the world in blood, all Creation flourishes, and Life rejoices.

This is what Jesus is promising in this scene: Life of the promised Aeon, unlimited by death, subject only to the God who gives life.

That’s why he describes αἰώνιος ζωή the way he does: aeonic life consists in knowing God, the only true God; aeonic life consists also in knowing Jesus who is the messiah.  

These two descriptions belong together, even for ancient Jews who were not convinced that Jesus was significant (at least except for the Jesus part).

The messiah was understood as the agent who accomplished the shift in aeons.  Though faithful people have disagreed (then and now) about whether Jesus has accomplished that shift, still Jews in every century recognize that “messiah” is a word that functions as code for one way of thinking about God’s balancing of Creation.  Aeonic life would erupt out of the restorative work of messiah.

But what I find most interesting is the recognition that the key step in living aeonic life comes with knowing God.  This is not a Christocentric statement.  Knowing God is accomplished by living a life shaped by Torah, and knowing God is the substance of aeonic life.  The key to living a life shaped by God’s promise of a new aeon is to live a life shaped by Torah, a life shaped by the stable and orderly love of the one true God.  This is the point of the statement made by Jewish writer, Ahad Ha’am: More than the Jewish people has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.  Jews have long known this.  Christians ought also to learn this.

Of course, Jesus goes on to make claims that are only convincing to Christians.  But these claims only come after Jesus lays down a principle that is simply and straightforwardly Jewish: Knowing God (which happens through Torah observance) is what allows faithful people to live a life not dominated by death.


A Provocation: The Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 21, 2017: John 14:15-21

John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

A Question or Two:

  • What do love and keeping commandments have to do with each other?
  • Aren’t we supposed to think that commandments can only kill?
  • Or did we misunderstand that one?

Some Longer Reflections:

There is much to love in this scene, just as there is much to love in the gospel as a whole.  It is not for nothing that John was my mother’s favorite gospel.  There are sweeping statements of love that sweep all of Time, all of Creation, into God’s promise of restoration and hope.

And there are jagged shards of sayings that puncture the tenderest stories.

This scene is one of the punctured stories.  In the midst of words about love and welcome and support, words intrude that split Christians off from the κόσμος.  The word is translated as “world” and Christians have become so accustomed to theologies that urge resisting “the world” that we don’t stop to ask what is meant by all of this.  “The world” has become religious code for the powers of Empire that oppose God, so it seems natural and normal that “the world” would be unable to receive the spirit of truth.

But the word is κόσμος, Cosmos, and it refers, not to Empire but to the whole beautifully ordered Creation that God “so loved” back in the third chapter.  The notion of beautiful, orderly creation is essential to the word κόσμος (which is the root of the English word, cosmetology).  The word reveals that biblical understandings of Creation don’t picture God as a distant, disinterested creator.  Neither is God a slap-dash rough carpenter who lacks the skills of a real carpenter.  God is a cosmetologist, skilled at arranging hair and makeup in ways that would never occur to people who lack the skill and patience such work requires.  I work with actors.  I have witnessed what a skilled makeup artist can do.  It is rather remarkable.  Using the word κόσμος for the Creation implies that God does hair and makeup, not stopping until the Universe is not just functional but beautiful.

But this scene is punctured by a theology that seems blind to beauty, seems to imagine that the real point of religion is to escape the world.

It is time that we were clear: any theology that cuts itself off from the Creation is wrong and should be resisted, even if it is put into the mouth of Jesus.  And it is not just tree-hugging post-hippies that think such things.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the same thing in his Ethics.  Our responsibility is not the members of our own sect, our own club, our own co-religionists, our own faith.  Following the lead of Christ, our responsibility is to the world that God entered in the Incarnation.  God did not become Incarnate as an Evangelical in order to save Evangelicals.  God did not become Incarnate as a Lutheran in order to save (the right kind of) Lutherans.  God did not even become Incarnate as a Christian.

Jesus is Jewish, after all.

But Bonhoeffer makes it clear that the Incarnation was an act of joining the world as it is, the real world, the world that remains the world (no matter how much we might wish it otherwise).  And we are answerable to (and for) that same whole world.  We will perform our responsibilities more faithfully if we cease separating ourselves off into pure little enclaves, little spiritual retreats that allow us to enjoy ourselves (a revealing phrase, it seems).

“Is not this the fast that I choose,” asks the prophet Isaiah (58:6), “to loose the bonds of injustice, to  undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”  It is a good question, but it is not one that can be answered if we imagine that Jesus, and the Spirit of Truth, came only for us and for those Christians who are extremely similar to us.  If we read this little scene in John and emerge glad that we are free from paying attention to the κόσμος, we are sure to fail at “breaking EVERY yoke.”  The vision of God is bigger than ours.

Sara Miles (in her fascinating book, the City of God: Faith in the Streets) says it clearly:

But there is no area of life from which God is shut out, and the “proper form” can’t be contained in a manual, limited to the actions of official priests, or contained in a service inside a sanctuary.  The blessing, as my neighbors and my neighborhood keep showing me, has been set loose: God has left the building.

It is time to open all the doors.



A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 14, 2017, John 14:1-14

John 14:1-14
14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

14:2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

14:7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

14:9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

14:12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

14:13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14:14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

A Question or Two:

Some Longer Reflections:

First, some little things.

The verb and its tense:

The phrase in the first verse, “Believe in God,” has implications in American English that it does not have in Ancient Greek.  The verb, “believe in,” implies (in English) what it implied in the Wizard of Oz when the Cowardly Lion kept repeating, “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.”  The experience in the Enchanted Forest had terrified him and he now believed that spooks existed.

That is not what it means in John’s story.  For one thing, the verb phrase in Greek, πιστεύετε εἰς, is usually translated as a present imperative, “Keep on believing in God.”  This is a perfectly workable translation, maybe even preferable.  But the verb could also be a present indicative: “You (already) believe in God.”  Both versions begin by acknowledging the existing belief in God.  That matters.  If the verb is an imperative, Jesus is urging (or even commanding) the disciples to keep on doing what they are already doing.  Imperatives imply that there is a danger that they will cease doing that.  If the verb is an indicative, Jesus is acknowledging the disciples already established faith, in God, and also in Jesus himself.  Either way, faith already exists, and I think this is important to hear, especially for Christians who have been trained to expect that they are continually surrounded by unbelief.  

Not so much, it would seem.

The basic meaning of the verb:

But more important is the meaning of the verb itself.  πιστεύετε εἰς in Greek does not so much express a belief that something (or someone) exists.  The verb πιστεύετε is more about trusting than it is about acknowledging bare existence.  

And this is a Jewish text, written by Jews for Jews who believed that Jesus was Messiah.  But they were all Jews.

That means that πιστεύετε would remind the audience of patterns of faithfulness, of Torah observance, of halakah, the practical application of the Torah to everyday life.  Torah observance is not something Jews do to earn God’s favor; it is a gift given to the Jewish community when God graciously chose to claim them and love them.  This usually surprises Christians, especially some kinds of Protestants, but it is crucial for understanding both Jewish Scripture and the New Testament.  Maintaining patterns of faithfulness is one way Jews bear witness to the lovingkindness of God.

And that is what Jesus is talking about in this scene.

He says, “You live faithful lives shaped by the love of God, and you live faithful lives shaped by the belief that I am the Messiah, the Logos sent to bring the world back into line, and back into love.”

And now some bigger things:

This way of translating sets up the next verses.  Jesus, when he talks about the “many rooms” reserved for the disciples in the “Father’s house,” is not suggesting that Christians have been given membership in some sort of Elite Lodging Club with an especially good Rewards program.  He is saying that, because they are Jews, they have rooms in the heavenly mansion just like all the other Jews.  If that were not the case, says Jesus, wouldn’t he have told them that he was going to prepare a place for them?

This is not the way this verse is usually translated.  Usually Jesus tells the disciples that there is a place for them in the heavenly realm, or he would not have told them that he was going on ahead to prepare that place specially for them.  This seems so comforting.  But of course, Jesus hasn’t told the disciples that he is going to prepare such a place.

Why is Jesus’ statement translated as a question?  After all, there are no question marks in the original manuscripts.  I think that translators liked feeling special.  They liked it that Jesus was preparing a special place just for Christians, even if John’s storyteller never says anything like that.  Maybe it was just left out by some sort of “scribal error.”  Or not.

I think a more natural reading renders Jesus’ words as a statement: “Of course there is room for you, as well.  Of course there is.  And even if there were not, wouldn’t I have told you that I was going to prepare one?  You belong together with all of God’s people.”

This more natural reading is also a more welcoming reading.

The point would be: God has a big house, bigger than you might imagine.  Because there is room for people who are not you, there is room for you, too.

You can find plenty of places in John’s story that are narrow.  You can find plenty of instances where John’s story rejects people that do not measure up.  But those passages stand in conflict with other places in the story (like this scene in chapter 14) where the doors are thrown wide open.  I think that the welcome is the basic message of John’s story, and of Christian faithfulness in a wider sense.  I think that the point of proper faithfulness is that the doors are wide open on God’s house because God is actively involved in making all things new, not in making all things narrow.  And if that is NOT the main point of faithfulness, it ought to be.

So what are we to make of the next verse?

Jesus, in verse 3, DOES talk about going and preparing a place for the disciples.  What’s up with that?

It is worth noting that this statement about “going” and “preparing” is in the subjunctive mood, as part of a conditional sentence.  A bony translation of the beginning of this verse would say something like, “And if ever I actually DID have to go and prepare a place….”  Jesus is picking up the rhetorical device that he introduced in the previous verse.  His words extend his affirmation that there is indeed room for everyone.  “Wouldn’t I have told you that I would go…?” flows straight into “And if I had told you that, wouldn’t I also have…?”

The thing that intrigues me about the way Jesus extended his words of welcome is the metaphor he uses.  “I will come again and will take you to myself,” he says in English.  In ancient Jewish practice, he is describing the process that flows from betrothal to intimate married life.  The husband-to-be goes away from the childhood home of the wife-to-be.  He prepares a place, and then he returns to “take [her] to himself.”  I remember the moment my wife and I, as a part of our marriage service, formally claimed each other and promised ourselves to each other.  I remember it warmly and with amazement.  That moment was the beginning of learning what it meant to love each other and to claim each other.

I think that Christians ought to resist imagining themselves as Jesus’ one-and-only.  That’s the problem with the marriage metaphor: because it is polyvalent it points to a great many things.  Exclusivity is one thing it can point to, and that can be trouble.  It’s time we quit patting ourselves on the back because we, and only we, have snagged us a heavenly husband.  This way of doing theology has us secretly proud that we succeeded in getting God to “put a ring on it.”  It gets ishy from there on.

But other aspects of the marriage metaphor are truly promising: supportive, life-giving intimacy with the Universe and its Creator who promises love and faithfulness.  The theology that flows from that source is warm and welcoming.

It is also truly transformative.

Most every Christian denomination has imagined that it alone had the REAL truth.  Most of us have gotten over that, mostly, and it has been good for us.  It is time for Christians to grow yet more.  God does, indeed, love and choose Christians and welcome them into the father’s house.  God has a great big house, after all.  But God’s promises have always been for the entire Creation that God knows and loves.  The entire Creation.

The rabbis tell stories of how God created the Universe by speaking God’s own ineffable Name.  This Name, the rabbis tell us, is the Name attached to the Mercy Attribute, that character of God that forgives and welcomes.  Think about that: God created the world as an act of Mercy.  That means that any theological separation between Creation and Redemption is an artificial distortion.  That means that this scene in John’s story about God’s really big house, and equally capacious welcome, is a scene about Mercy for the entire Creation.  It’s time we took that seriously.


A Provocation: The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 7, 2017: John 10:1-10

John 10:1-10
10:1 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.

10:2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

10:5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

10:6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

10:7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.

10:8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This week’s Provocation is excerpted from my commentary on the gospel of John (Provoking the Gospel of John: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010).  The Provocation is long, but John’s story is so inter-woven that I thought it might be helpful to include the entire portion on this scene.  It would be nice if John 10 did not flow out of what Jesus says in John 8, but it does, and interpreters need to think about that.  My Provoking the Gospel commentary treats each text under four headings: Ritual Text, Intra-Text, Inter-Text, and Provoking the Story.  The first of these sections examines the scene as it appears in the flow of the life of a worshiping community.  The second examines the way the scene is woven into the larger story of the gospel.  “Inter-Text” looks at how the scene might connect with texts and situations outside the Bible, outside the Christian community.  And the final section considers ways that the scene might be explored through performance.

The John commentary, and other books in that series, can be ordered online  from The Pilgrim Press (www.thepilgrimpress.com).   You can also order them from Amazon, though you sometimes get sent to used-book sellers there.

Ritual text: The Life of the Worshiping Community

No matter which cycle of the RCL you are in, on this Sunday you are going to be reading a scene from John 10.  No matter which cycle you are in, you are going to be talking about shepherds, somehow.  Every year, you might very well find yourselves singing “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”  This is Good Shepherd Sunday.  

This is the Sunday on which pastors (the title means “shepherd”) often talk about cute little sheep and fuzzy little lambs, thereby revealing to anyone in the audience that they know little or nothing about herding sheep, having never met one personally.  My uncle, who kept sheep, dislikes this Sunday because pastors tend to say things that simply are not true.  Suffice it to say that, to anyone who has worked closely with sheep, it is not a compliment to say that we are the sheep of God’s pasture.  Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along.  Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell.  Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be.  

And in this passage, sheep sort themselves out of a mixed and milling mess of flocks gathered in a sheepfold, responding to and following the voice of their own shepherd and no other.  I have never seen this happen.  The flocks of sheep that I have been around are single flocks, not large mixed flocks massed together in a fold for nighttime protection.  But a colleague of mine claimed to have seen exactly this self-sorting take place when he was in Greece.  The shepherd came, called to his flock, and out of a milling multitude of sheep his sheep emerged and followed him out of the fold.  I find that hard to believe, but my colleague swore that he saw it.  

In a gospel that begins with a λογος, a word, an utterance, a voice, a story making order out of chaos, this ritual of sorting seems right at home.  In a mass, no one can tell one sheep from another, but the voice sounds and a sorting begins.  When the voice finishes calling, an individual flock has formed that is quite separate from the whole (otherwise indistinguishable) group of sheep.  What makes John’s community different from the rest of the Jewish community?  They sorted themselves out of the synagogue.  The story will have it that this sorting came as a result of responding to the voice that created the world by calling to it.  The implications are frightening.  


Intra-Text: The World of John’s Story

In the scene assigned to this week, Jesus delivers a statement of metaphoric self-identification.  “I am the gate of the sheep,” he says, without making it entirely clear what he means.  Early in the scene he contrasts those who enter by the gate with those who climb over the wall.  The latter are thieves and bandits.  When he identifies himself as the gate, he states that all those who came before him were thieves and bandits, again without adequate clarification.  Just who all is included in the roster of thieves and bandits who came before Jesus?  Sometimes interpreters imagine that this is a reference to messianic pretenders who preceded Jesus, though this would be the only reference to these pretended predecessors in the Second Testament.  Sometimes interpreters find a reference to members of alternative communities in this statement, but that misses the temporal sequencing that the storyteller lays out.  

In John’s story, the one who came before Jesus was John the Purifier, and though it is hard to imagine Jesus dismissing him as a thief or bandit, he is a natural candidate.  Probably he is rescued by virtue of having been named in the prologue as giving certified testimony to Jesus as light.  

The other option hinted at by the storyteller would be all the characters of Jewish history, particularly Moses and Abraham.  These two characters are cited by people with whom Jesus disagrees.  In chapter 9, Pharisees who guard Shabbat are divided over whether Jesus’ act in healing the blind man on Shabbat is clear evidence that he is not allied with God, or whether it is evidence that he must be Torah-observant, regardless of appearances.  A schism develops.  After further investigation, they call the man who was healed and direct him to give glory to God for the healing.  This is an interesting development.  This group of Pharisees seems to have reached a sort of compromise regarding Jesus.  His non-observance is a problem, but the healing is clearly accepted as proceeding from God, so they have decided to recognize the healing as divine as long as the man is willing to recognize the source of the healing as divine.  Jesus remains a problem, but God is recognized as potentially able to work on Shabbat.  This comes close to accepting the justification that Jesus offered in chapter 5 after he healed the man who could not walk, again on Shabbat.  In that instance, as in the instance in chapter 9, the problem is Jesus, who insists on claiming God’s prerogatives for himself.  In chapter 9, pushed to the wall, the Pharisees who are willing to accept the healing of the blind man as divine work, Shabbat or no, state their position clearly.  “We are disciples of Moses,” they say, linking themselves to a long, continuous stream of faithful tradition.  God spoke to Moses, after all.  “This one, we do not know where he is from.”  And they are correct, and their care is proper.  Moses came before Jesus and had had more than a millennium to prove his worth.  Jesus erupted out of nowhere and acts in ways that disrupt faithful life.  They do well to wait and see.  

The case of the citation of Abraham is complicated.  All the citations are in chapter 8, unlike the citations of the name of Moses, which are spread throughout the story.  Despite the localization of the citations, they follow the same large arc as do the citations of Moses.  Again, the conversation partners are identified initially as Pharisees.  As the scene develops, the identification shifts, and the conversation partners are now called Judeans.  This does not necessarily imply that the speakers changed; it could imply only that the Pharisees in question came from Judea.  The conversation began when Pharisees reminded Jesus of a basic rule of jurisprudence: one witness establishes nothing in court.  Corroboration is necessary.  They ask Jesus for evidence that does not come from his own mouth.  This is a reasonable request.  Jesus replies with a strangely convoluted claim that his father stands as a witness to his identity and establishes his credentials.  His claim could be taken as an admission of guilt (“You’re right: I am the one who testifies concerning myself, no one else does.”), or it could be taken as a speaking of the Divine Name followed by the claim that God stands in the courtroom offering decisive testimony, perhaps in the person of Jesus himself.  This claim would be blasphemous or lunatic, and the questioners kindly do not take it so.  They decide to grant Jesus the benefit of the doubt and ask for him to produce his father.  This is not an incidental request.  For one thing, they demonstrate a willingness to accept testimony from the unmet father if he appears on the scene.  Further, they are doing, through this willingness, what traditional societies have done through the ages: they show themselves willing to tolerate the excesses of a son if they can see the kind of mature man he may be expected to grow up into.  Jesus’ response is again cryptic, amounting either to a refusal to produce his father as the witness he had promised to produce or an attack on the faithfulness of his questioners.  Neither option is good.  

Since no one arrests him for this excess, he goes further.  (This is the force of the word “therefore” in the sentence that marks the transition to the next speech.)  After hearing what Jesus says, his conversation partners worry that he might be suicidal.  This concern, though perhaps meant by the storyteller to be ironic, must also be taken as genuine.  No threat of suicide can be taken as idle and meaningless, and Jesus’ conversation partners seem to know that.  They are behaving in ways that would save Jesus’ life.  

Jesus responds with another rant about “above and below” and the κοσμος.  To members of the storyteller’s audience, Jesus is simply recapitulating themes that have been knotted together since the beginning of John’s story.  To the conversation partners in the story, however, the rant can only be confusing.  Out of nowhere, Jesus attacks these partners and tells them that they will die in their sins.  They respond by asking, again, who he is to be saying such things.  

Jesus’ answer rambles and is even more convoluted than what has gone before.  He again recapitulates key thematic threads and threatens again to speak the Divine Name.  Despite all the provocation, the storyteller informs us that many of those who listened to him became faithful to him.  Remember that these conversation partners have been identified as Pharisees and as Judeans.  Now the storyteller has Jesus turn to the Judeans who had been faithful to him.  Now Jesus goes further.  

In response to a somewhat cryptic statement about being made free, these faithful Jews respond by calling Abraham into the discussion and asserting that since the days when Sarah and Abraham roamed the land following God’s promise neither they nor their descendants have slaved to anyone (see the discussion of John 8:31-36 for Reformation Day on page 000 for a fuller consideration of these verses).  While this assertion carefully overlooks the time of slavery in Egypt and the years of Exile in Babylon, not to mention the current situation of living under Roman overlords, it is a statement of identity, not history.  Jesus responds by accusing them of trying to kill him.  Remember, he is speaking to Judeans who had been faithful to him.  While the storyteller has told us that there were Judean officials who sought to kill Jesus, this is not that crowd.  Jesus acknowledges their claim to be children of Abraham, but then contrasts their family of origin with his: he does what he has seen from his father, they do what they have heard from their father.  

The Judeans return to the last part of the conversation that might have made sense.  They repeat that they are children of Abraham.  Jesus (in a statement complicated in verb tense and modal structure) again charges that the faithful Judeans are seeking to kill him and alleges that this is because they have a father other than Abraham.  

The reply of the Judeans reveals that they have lost patience.  “We are not the product of fornication but of faithfulness,” they say.  “God is our father.”  This is the claim Jesus has made for himself earlier in the story.  It is the claim that any Jew can make with justification.  The storyteller has Jesus respond with perhaps the most unfortunate speech in John’s entire gospel.  All the ranting about Judeans seeking to kill him comes to a climax.  The Judeans standing before him are accused of slander and murder and deep dishonesty.  And then Jesus, directly contradicting his own storyteller (see verse 31), says that the Judeans before him are not faithful to him.  This is a strange development.  I can only finish the scene by concluding that the Judeans are justified in their reaction: they conclude that Jesus is either an opponent-outsider or demon-possessed, or both.  

Abraham enters the scene one last time when the Judeans ask Jesus who he thinks he is.  He has claimed powers greater than those of Abraham or the prophets.  Someone had to remind him that such a claim by a human being is ridiculous and dangerous.  At this point Jesus offers the final offense.  “Before Abraham was, I AM,” he says, clearly claiming the Divine Name and its eternality as his own.  The crowd reacts as they would to a mad dog.  They pick up stones to deal with the danger while keeping it at a distance.  The audience to John’s story may have seen their act as murderous and vile, but the storyteller has shaped the scene so that an attentive interpreter must ask what to make of Jesus’ insistent escalation of his offensive statements.  Deeper and deeper he goes until Judeans who started the scene as supporters finish the scene with stones in their hands.  

Perhaps the storyteller (in chapter 10) means to have Jesus charge that both Moses and Abraham were thieves and bandits, after all.  This would indeed be a most disturbing development.  Add to the mix the fact that translators generally read οι ιουδαιοι in chapter 8 (and throughout the story) as “the Jews” and translate ο διαβολος not as “the slanderer” but as “the Devil” and things become much worse.  With these words John’s storyteller nourished a vile theme in the relations between Christians and Jews, a theme that has borne bitter fruit.  To taste how bitter, read The Devil and the Jews by Joshua Trachtenberg.  Or you might visit one of the death camps set up by people who, because they had been carefully taught who the enemy was, knew that the solution to all of humanity’s problems was to eliminate “the Jewish problem” by digging it out, root and branch and little children, and consigning it to the fire that Jesus lights in chapter 15 (in one of the next “I AM” sayings).  

If this were only disturbing, things would be easy.  It is worse than that.


Inter-Text: The World We Think We Live In

As I write this, another American political campaign is finishing its run.  With only a few weeks to go, the campaign is increasingly characterized by bitterly dishonest attacks, attacks that would be avoided earlier in the slander season because there would be time to fact-check them.  With only days remaining, the gloves come off and the worst in people comes out.  

This year has been particularly bad, it seems.  Perhaps I would say that during the late stages of every campaign, but this year seems worse.  The politics of anger stalk through the crowds at rallies, and not at the edges or in the dark shadows.  Voices in the center of the crowd have called out for the opposing candidate to be beheaded.  I am reminded of the violent political rhetoric that we heard in Israel concerning the Oslo Accords (1993) and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  In Israel a violent argument raged, and extremists said publically that the Accords represented a danger to the nation that justified murder.  Perhaps no one expected the shouting to end in shooting, but it did when Rabin was assassinated in 1995.  

I read the rhetorical excesses in John’s story with a deep sadness, and painful apprehension.  No matter who the storyteller means to attack as “thieves and bandits,” the language is frightening and violent.  Thieves had their hands cut off and bandits were crucified by the Romans.  And in chapter 8 the storyteller has Jesus attack the children of Abraham as children of the devil.  

It is time for such language to stop.


Provoking the Story

There are thieves in the world, and there are bandits, real ones who pose real dangers.  Play this scene with such real and present dangers visible and threatening.  Such terms were applied to the rebels who incited the worst excesses of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, the Zealots who burned the food that was stored inside the walls of Jersualem because they wanted the defenders to fight with more rabid zeal.  

But there are also religious leaders from every conceivable kind of faith community who have used violent language to speak of their political opponents.  Priests have called people who work in abortion clinics murderers.  Rabbis have called those who seek negotiated settlements traitors.  People at political rallies have called Barack Obama, at this moment the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, a terrorist.  Play this scene with these people yelling out “thieves and bandits” from the middle of the crowd listening to Jesus.  Play the scene with someone yelling something about “children of the devil.”  

Now play the scene with Jesus saying those same words.