I’ve been doing something in our Sunday services these past few weeks that professors of preaching and liturgical scholars tell preachers not to do. The rule is, always preach the gospel. Well, rules are meant to be broken and there are very good reasons for breaking them. Those of you who have been around here a while know that I usually do preach on the appointed gospel text although some of you will remember many times when I’ve done otherwise. For example, three years ago, when we last had these lectionary readings, I spent most of the summer focusing on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Curiously, I’ve never had anyone ask me for more of that. Continue reading
We are in the season after the Epiphany. It varies in length depending on when the date of Easter, (and hence Ash Wednesday) falls. This year is relatively lengthy as Easter falls on April 16. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and roughly means manifestation, revealing, or showing. Usually it is connected with an appearance or manifestation, presence if you will, of the divine. In the Christian context, the feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the magi coming to worship the newborn Christ at Bethlehem, although in ancient and Eastern Christianity, the Epiphany also connects with Jesus’ baptism, which is in part why we commemorated his baptism last Sunday, and with other miracles, like the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and as the gospel of John says, “revealed his glory.”
This season is a time when we celebrate and reflect all of the ways God is present in the world, in the glory and goodness of creation, but especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And although this is the year in the lectionary cycle when we read the Gospel of Matthew, on this Sunday, as in every year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we read from the Gospel of John. That makes sense in a way, because the themes of John connect very well with the themes of Epiphany, and nowhere is that more true than in this first chapter—the first 18 verses of which we heard on Christmas Day.
In today’s reading, we get John’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the story of the call of the first disciples. Coincidentally, this past week I was reading two books that I purchased as possible subjects for Lenten study this year. Both of them began with a discussion of this encounter between Jesus, Andrew, and the other disciple as a way of getting at the meaning of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
You may recall the story of Jesus calling the first disciples from the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee. He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John repairing the nets on their fathers’ fishing boats. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The four get up, leave the nets, the boats, and their fathers behind, and follow Jesus.
There’s a completely different dynamic here in John’s gospel. In the first place, Andrew and the other disciple (We never learn his name, by the way) are already disciples, but of John the Baptist. John and his followers come across Jesus in their wanderings, and John points Jesus out to them, saying, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world!” The next day, the same thing happens, and two of his disciples, follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they respond oddly, by asking “Where are you staying?” To that question, Jesus answers, “Come and see.”
“Where are you staying?” What kind of question is that? What might the disciples learn about Jesus by staying with him for the day? To understand what’s going on we need to put this question, and the event itself, in the context of John’s gospel. Staying… to use the traditional language of the Authorized Version, to abide… is one of those themes that is repeated throughout the gospel. In fact, we heard the theme sounded already in John’s testimony about Jesus. When he reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, he says that “it remained on him.” In today’s gospel the words is used at least four times in quick succession. Much later in the gospel, in the lengthy farewell discourse that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
These two questions, “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you staying?” get at the heart of what the Gospel of John understands by discipleship and the nature of faith. More than that, these two questions, and the understanding of discipleship they open up, invite us to a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our present day.
Discipleship is a word we use a great deal in the church but is easily misunderstood or distorted. Indeed, to the extent that it is a grounding metaphor for the Christian life, it can be as misleading as it is helpful. For one thing, we often think that faith, our Christian life, is primarily concerned with knowing a certain set of ideas, or holding a certain set of beliefs. But note that Jesus did not ask Andrew and the other disciple, “What do you know or want to know?”, or “What do you believe? He asked them, “What are you looking for?” Or perhaps, “What do you want?”
Posed in those terms, Jesus’ question gets at the very core of our being, our deepest desires and hopes, who we are and what we want to be. It’s a question of identity
And the question Andrew poses to Jesus in response, while seemingly unrelated to Jesus’ question, is very much of the same nature. “Where are you staying?”
Andrew’s question is an expression not of a desire to receive a set of instructions, or learn a set of doctrines. Andrew wants to be with Jesus. He wants to stay with Jesus so that he can experience the relationship that Jesus offers him. By abiding with Jesus, by staying with Jesus, Andrew will begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus talks about throughout the gospel.
Thus for John, discipleship is about relationship, not right doctrine or the transmission of a body of knowledge. Discipleship is about being in community with Jesus, and with others who seek to follow Jesus. And there can be nothing more important than that, being in community in these uncertain and frightening times.
We have been experiencing a great number of shocks to our worldview over the last months. Many of us are confronting the fact that we are living in a very different nation than the one we thought we were living in. Institutions that used to function and create stability seem to be out of whack—like the news media. Old alliances are collapsing and being reshaped. We are afraid of what might happen to our healthcare and our planet. Many of us wonder whether we will lose basic rights that we hold dear or for which we or our parents or grandparents struggled mightily. Christianity itself seems to be on the brink of collapse in the US, and with so many conservative Christian leaders preaching a message of hate, we may not even want to be called Christian anymore.
In all of this disruption and disorientation, negotiating a path forward is perilous. We’re not quite sure what to do, how to act, how to be in the world. Here’s where this gospel reading offers a model. Relationship—abiding with Jesus. In the first place, we are called to open our hearts and our lives to deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and through that relationship begin to experience and to live in the presence of God’s love for us. To open our hearts to Christ’s love is to begin to know the love of the God who became one of us and loved us and the world so much that he gave his life for the world.
And as we open ourselves to Christ’s love, experience Christ’s love, abide in Christ’s love, we also will begin to open ourselves to those around us, to others who experience that love of Christ and abide in that love.
All of this is quite abstract and you may think it has little to do with our daily lives. But I wonder. In the midst of all that we have to do, do we take time to be with Jesus? Do we take time to be fully present to our loved ones? Do we really know our fellow members of the Body of Christ in this place? What might it be like for us to nurture deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ in the coming months? What might it be like for us to take the time to get to know one another better, to listen to each others’ stories, to their hopes and fears? By nurturing those relationships, with Christ and with each other, not only would we be strengthened for the journey but the world around would catch a glimpse of the possibilities of new life in Christ’s love.
Last Sunday, as I was locking up the building, I heard some voices down at the end of the hall in the education wing. I went to investigate. It was the middle school /youth class meeting. I joined them for a few minutes. They were talking about the service, my sermon and the bible readings. One of the kids had a good question for me. They wondered why I usually preach on the gospel and don’t talk about the other texts. It’s an easy answer. Our job as preachers is to preach the gospel. I don’t always do that, of course. Last summer, for example, I preached a number of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and earlier this summer, I preached on the texts from the Hebrew Bible, as we were reading the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David. But for the most part, I do preach on the gospel reading for the day.
That being said, there are Sundays when the lectionary readings present particular problems. They may be confusing or troubling. They may even be offensive. Continue reading
I have a routine as I prepare sermons week to week. I try to read the texts as early as possible. If I get a good nap on Sunday afternoon, I’ll look at them in the late afternoon or evening. The gospel reading will echo in my mind all week, as I continue to mull it over. There are a couple of websites I visit to read commentaries and reflections. I look back at sermons I’ve previously preached on the text. I think about what’s going in the world, the city, and in our congregation. I’m always looking for a new idea, a new perspective that will give me a new way of thinking about the text, as well as a way for you to enter into the text as well, and to explore how that text might inform your own life. Continue reading
I have been profoundly affected by the image I saw a couple of weeks ago of ISIS fighters about to execute 21 Coptic Christians. The scene was horrific in its staging; the victims on their knees, behind each one of them his executioner, with a sword at the throat. I have struggled to make sense of this and other horrific acts of religious violence over the last weeks and months, struggled to understand the interplay of religion and politics, the effects of twelve years of the global war on terror, struggled to make sense of the inhumanity of human beings. Continue reading
This week’s lessons are here.
A brief story from the gospel this week but one that has carried a great deal of freight in the History of Christianity. In recent decades, it’s been a particular focus of feminist interpretation and reflection. In the tradition, Martha and Mary have stood as ideal types for the active and contemplative life, or the contrast between social activism and single-minded attention on the love of God. It’s hard for us to read or hear this passage without projecting Mary and Martha on to our own experience, and ask our selves whether we are a “Mary” or a “Martha.” If we’re a “Martha,” should we stop and try to be more like “Mary?”
I’m reading this passage in light of an earlier incident in Luke’s gospel that caught my attention. After Jesus cast the demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, the villagers found him “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (Lk 8:35) In this case, the healed man begged Jesus to allow him to go with him, but Jesus told him to go home and tell people what God had done for him.
Like him, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus commends her behavior to Martha, declaring, “she has chosen the better part.” We don’t see either Mary or Martha following Jesus but it’s important that Martha is described performing “diakonia,” service, in our translation that was the “many tasks” that distracted her. In Acts 6, a similar dynamic can be seen. The twelve complain, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). As a result, seven deacons were appointed to distribute food to the poor and widows. Martha is the deacon, Mary the servant of the word; but in our story, Martha has a voice, Mary remains silent (like other women in Luke and Acts), while Martha is silenced by the Lord (as Paul in Acts 8 silenced the slave girl).
Luke wants female disciples to be silent and sit at Jesus’ feet. He even tries to downplay the importance of their diakonia (service) as hosts, founders, maintainers of house churches in Acts. This story may partly be a projection of that reality and the tension that surrounded it from the Early Church back on to Jesus’ own ministry.
In the Gospel of John, Mary and Martha appear as the sisters of Lazarus. They are friends of Jesus. In John, Martha is not silenced. She makes one of the great Christological statements, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Do these different stories offer insight into the way Martha and Mary were understood in the first decades of Christianity? Do they provide evidence of Martha not just as a disciple but as a deacon (a minister of hospitality and the Eucharist) but also as a preacher of the Gospel? And did Luke try to suppress that tradition?
It’s a familiar story; versions of it in the other gospels. Full of drama, more than a little eroticism. Listening to it, we become spectators to a drama that is playing out. We are almost voyeurs, but also perhaps a little embarrassed by the woman’s actions which seem inappropriate and out of place at a dinner in the home of a respectable leader in the town and probably the synagogue. But its drama and intimacy pull us in as it has enticed Christians for nearly two thousand years. We want to know who this woman was, what sin she committed. We also want to know what happens next. And so in the history of interpretation and the history of Christianity, she becomes Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned penitent, with the long flowing hair. Over the centuries, this wasn’t invented by Dan Brown, we speculate that there was some sort of special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Continue reading