Good Friday: The Hour, the Family, the Work, and the Spirit

Audio is available here: Good Friday 2014

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

John sets the scene deliberately, the camera angle is framed, four soldiers to the left of the cross gambling for Jesus’ earthly possessions, four women to the right of the cross looking on in horror, unable to help, just as unable to leave. Jesus and the Beloved Disciple in the middle. And as the soldiers settle the estate of Jesus of Nazareth, he cares for his mother. He gives his mother to the Beloved Disciple, and him to her. And from that hour, the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home. After this, Jesus knew that all was now finished. He bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

One could sentimentalize the scene and say, his earthly work was finished because he made arrangements for his mother to be housed and fed after his death. In the end, Jesus was a good son, looking out for his mother, and her welfare. With no estate to give her in support, with even his clothes becoming sport for soldiers, Jesus could at the last call only upon the loyalty of the one disciple who did not run. He could make arrangements. And he did. But is this what John asks us to do with his story? Does John want us to soften the edges and make the story of Jesus’ crucifixion a tragedy whose one redeeming feature was that Mary and John left together to remember the teachings of the good, but finally and desperately mistaken teacher?

No. I don’t think so. And the reason is found in four key phrases.

Here’s the first one: “And from that hour.”

Those four words should arrest us! They should stop us cold. We’ve heard something like that before. Where? And our imaginations are cast back to a wedding scene in Cana of Galillee. Can you see yourself there? People are dressed in their best. They are feasting—I like to imagine pita and hummus and a lamb shank and lots of wine. They are singing. They are clapping. They are circling around the bride and groom, pressing in on them to wish them well. And off to one side stands the strange itinerant rabbi who has gathered a few disciples. His mother pulls him away. “They have no wine,” she says to him. She is embarrassed—perhaps the bride or the groom is a close family member for whom she feels some responsibility. She doesn’t want any social breaches spoiling the party. The wine is running low. She wants Jesus to fix the problem. And his answer: “What is that to you and to me? My hour is not yet.” My hour is not yet. Four more words. The hour. What hour?

Hang on. That’s not the only place. Where else have we heard something like that? Oh right. Phillip—the disciple who hailed from Cana in Galilee—comes to Jesus with a strange report: “Jesus, some Gentiles want to meet you.” And Jesus reply? “Now the hour of the Son of Man has come.” And he begins to speak cryptically about what sounds like his death.

My hour is not yet; the hour is come; and from that hour. Do you see?

The hour for which Jesus came, the hour which would forever bind Gentiles to the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the hour which is, from God’s perspective, the beginning of the great wedding party that would mark the end-time for God’s people, is the hour of the cross. Good Friday recalls the hour of Jesus death. This is the hour for which the Son of Man came, the hour of his glory, the glory of God’s one and only. This is the place where the glory of the Son, which was his from all eternity, was put on public display. On a roman Cross. The glory not of a conquering general surrounded by sychophantic soldiers in a victory parade, but the glory that is a life poured out to display God’s love for the world.

And from that hour, what?

And from that hour, he (that is, the disciple) took her (that is, the mother of Jesus) into his own home. That is our second phrase. He took her into his own home. What is the first effect of the hour of the Son of Man? What is the first result of the glory of the Son being put on display? What just the arrangement of an adoptive relationship which would allow his mother to live reasonably well into old age? No. What the coming of the hour creates is a new family. The death of Jesus creates a new family, with new family bonds. Bonds effected not by the blood that flows through our veins, but by the blood that was spilt as Jesus freely gave up his life. Bonds that tie all those born of water and the spirit together.

All four Gospels make plain that Jesus had a strained relationship with his family members. Mark’s portrayal is the most blunt, where the mother, brothers and sisters of Jesus attempt to restrain him, forcibly if necessary, and take him home. They think, quite simply, that he is crazed. And for his own safety, he needs to be, well, silenced. And while Luke and Matthew take the same story and soften its edges somewhat, there’s no escaping the words of Jesus: “Whoever does the will of my father, this is my brother, my sister, and my mother.” Jesus believes in family, to be sure, but in family of a different kind. Jesus’ family is one brought about not by procreation, but by re-creation in the waters of baptism and obedience to the commands of the Father.

John himself, who all four Gospel writers, has the least to say about Jesus’ brothers, tells his readers plainly that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. Indeed, it seems that it was only after the resurrection, and as a result of a vision of the risen Lord, that two of Jesus’ brothers—James and Jude—became disciples. Jesus own flesh and blood: James, Jude, and even his mother, do enter into Jesus’ true family, but in the same way we all do: by responding in faith and obedience.

By so establishing a new family relation between his mother and his disciple, Jesus in fact points us to a deeper reality: that his death is the means by which God’s people are reconciled not simply to God, but also to each other. It is the sacrificial death that founds the community of the church, the Famiy of God. The death of Jesus, in other words dissolves some social ties and creates new one ones. The death of Jesus creates a brand new way of thinking about family. The death of Jesus creates the church.

That brings us to the third phrase. What is the response of the dying Jesus to the abrupt departure of his mother and disciple, from that hour? Jesus, says John, knew that all was now finished. He knew that all was now finished. The work was done. The new family was created. This is how the world will be saved.

John announced this at the outset of his Gospel with these words: “He came unto his own and his own did not receive him. But to as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the children of God, even to those who believed on his name.” And he concluded his Gospel with the same words: “These things were written that you might believe on the Son of God, and in believing have life in his name.”

And here, at the climax of his Gospel it is told in narrative form. This—the cross—is the work that Jesus came to do. And the sign of its success is simply, the creation of the new community, the church, in the people of his mother and his beloved disciple. All is accomplished. Expressed quite powerfully in one word in Greek: Tetelestai. It is finished. The very last words John places on Jesus’ lips.

Why are we here? Have you ever wondered about that? Why is the Church here? Why are Christians here? We are here, said Pope Benedict, quite rightly, to do three things: we are here to care for the poor. We are here to worship God. We are here to evangelize, to tell people the Good News about Jesus. At the end of the day it’s a very simple threefold mission, a plain, elegant, single braid, if you will. And Good Friday should bring us back to that simple, plain, elegant braid. For here we are reminded of whose example we are to follow, whom we worship and why, whom we are to talk about. Here is where it all holds, the nail, if you want, around which all three strands of our mission are tied.

We are a people in mission. We are a people called to care for the poor, to worship God and to evangelize. Why? Because this is the family the death of Jesus has created. And that work is finished. Oh we have work to do—compassion and justice, worship and liturgy, preaching and evangelism—but it is all done, weaved together in a single braid, because Jesus knew that with the creation of his new family, all was accomplished.

And with that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Our fourth key phrase. At a plain level, it is a fitting, simple conclusion. Jesus’ work is done. And knowing that, he dies. Jesus dies not at the whim of Pilate or Herod or the religious leaders. Not even at the whim of the soldiers who crucified him. He dies in his time, at the conclusion of his hour, when his work is accomplished and not one second before. This is John’s way of stressing—as he has done throughout his Gospel—that Jesus is never reactive. He is from first to last free. He has a job to do and a timeline in which to do it. And he is in control throughout.

But as things always are in the fourth Gospel, this reading is but the beginning. John’s highly polished Greek is here ambiguous. It is most often translated in such a way as to emphasise the death of Jesus. He gave up his spirit. He freely gave up his life. And that is true. But here is another, equally valid translation: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head, and gave over the Spirit. Wow! Think about that. In the moment of his death, is Jesus giving up his spirit to his father, or giving over the Holy Spirit to the Church?

The answer is both. The death of Jesus is what creates a new family—the Church—and it does so by becoming the place where the Spirit is poured out on God’s people. The Spirit—the very life of God—is, by the death of Jesus—given to those who believe in him, making us not partners in a common cause, but brothers and sisters because we share the same source of Life—divine life!

The life that animated the ministry of Jesus, by his death, now animates the lives of his followers such that we become his family, and as his family, do the things he does. We care for the poor. We worship God. We announce the Good News.

So it is that John’s depiction of Jesus’ death, far from being a sentimental soft focus portrayal of a dying man’s last care-full expression of love for his mother, is a depiction of the hour in which the Son of Man would be glorified, the hour in which a new community would be created, the hour in which the life-giving Spirit would be given. So it is that Good Friday is the ground upon which we gather as God’s people, not simply today, but everyday. For here we remember that we are who we are because of what Christ has done. It is accomplished.

Maundy Thursday: Chosen Friends

Audio is here:  Maundy Thursday


Do you see yourself at the table with the Lord? Are you there on that first night, that dark birthday of the Church when the Lord Jesus, for the first time, took bread, gave thanks, and broke it and gave to his disciples, saying, “This is my body.”

You should, you know. You were there, on that dark birthday. And so was I.

There, at the table where the community was gathered, constituted for the first time around the meal that calls to mind the sacrifice, around the meal that is at the heart of its being, the meal without which it is not anything more than a social group. There at the table, the Great High Priest took bread. And after supper he took the cup. And in so doing, he instituted the sacrament that made the church. And if the church was born on that dark night, then by virtue of your baptism, you were there. And so was I.

Can you see yourself sitting among the 12? Somewhere between Peter the Denier and James and John, the Judgmental, and Judas the Betrayer. Can you hear yourself bluster with Peter, “Even though they all for sake you I will not.” Can you see yourself with Peter outside the High Priest’s house, under the gaze of our Lord as he is taken in to his trial, a gaze that says, “I see you, Peter. And I know you. You are a traitor and a fraud. And I love you.”? Can you see yourself with James and John, the Sons of Thunder, who cannot wait to call down God’s consuming fire upon those who reject the Gospel? Do you you’re your footfalls with theirs as they flee the Temple police come to arrest Jesus in the Garden? Can you see yourself asking with Judas the Betrayer, “Is it I, Lord,” knowing full well the answer is, “Yes, it is you.” Can you see yourself coming with Judas and the Temple police to the Garden, saying to them, “The one I kiss, that one is Jesus of Nazareth.”?

Can you feel the anger beginning to flush in your face as you argue with everyone there about who is the greatest? The unending argument that seems to keep this little band in perpetual conflict begins again as Jesus stands. And strips to his waist. And wraps towel around himself. And taking a basin and pitcher, begins one by one to wash the disciples feet. What do you think, what do you say when he gets to you? Do you go along in silence just because everyone else has? Do you voice your sense of unworthiness as Peter does? How do you respond when you hear him say, “An example I have set for you: that you should also do as I have done for you?”

“On the night he gave up his life for us, Jesus, at supper with his friends, took bread.” Taken from one of our Eucharistic prayers, this short sentence discloses much—and much that is very uncomfortable. Jesus, at supper with his friends. The notion of friendship is a weakened one in our day. It means, someone we like. In the ancient world, friendship was something much deeper. A friend was one on whom you could rely, even to the point of death. These were Jesus’ friends. These were not random relationships brought about by happenstance or chance meetings. These were not relationships arranged around shared occupations, political desires, or personal quirks. These were deliberate relationships. They were friendships established entirely upon the choice of Jesus. There were many Galilean fishermen, but Jesus chose to go to Peter and Andrew and James and John. There were many tax collectors in Judea, but Jesus chose Matthew. There were many with dreams of political deliverance, but Jesus chose Simon the Zealot. Jesus even chose Judas—not to be the betrayer, certainly, but knowing that Judas would hand him over to his enemies. Jesus’ friendship was deliberate and embraced even enmity.

These are the people whom Jesus chose to be his friends. People whom he chose to be his messengers. People whom he sent to heal and to exorcize and to preach the Good news. These are the people he chose. People chosen to be his friends. The Denier, the Judgmental, the Betrayer. Cowards all who would soon scatter before the swords and clubs of the Temple police.

The events that would soon unfold at the Garden of Gethsemane—the climactic event of betrayal, the kiss with which Jesus is given to his enemies—constitute a blasphemy and a horror. Yet these events unfold in and through these people whom Jesus chose to be his friends. They are not other. They are not outside the Church that Jesus calls into being. To quote Ephraim Radner, “All of them ran away; all of them abandoned him; all of them denied him. And so too [Judas’s] leaving is continues with his betrayal, continuous with his brethren. And thereby Judas stands as the mirror of the Church, even if he is not of the Church’s exhaustive reality. He is ‘one of us’ insofar as we are ‘one with each other.’”

What does it say, not about them, but about you and about me that these are the people whom Jesus chose to be his friends, the people whom he chose to serve, the people whom he called to service after his example?

What it says, it seems to me, is at first deeply unsettling. For it locates what the Biblical writers call the mystery of iniquity—that is, the reality not merely of human weakness, but also and more perversely, human sinfulness—lies close to the heart of the community that Christ is creating for the redemption of the world. It means that if we dare to confess the Church as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, (as the Creed bids us to do) we do so only in the desperate hope that the qualities of unity, holiness, universal breadth and apostolic proclamation are not ours, but are gifts continually given by the Lord Jesus, and not for our sakes, but for the world. It means that the righteousness in which we come to this table, on this night that is unlike every other night, is but filthy rags. It means that we too are liars and frauds like Peter, and judgmental snobs like James and John, and even willing to hand the Lord Jesus over to his enemies like Judas. (For the final sin of Judas was not that he betrayed the Lord, but that he cut himself off from redemption by cutting himself off from the community where alone the saving grace of Jesus could be found).

What it says, second, is comforting: there’s always room. If the friendship of Jesus can encompass deniers and betrayers and cowards, then it can encompass me. If the bad news is, my righteousness is, like yours, not up to it, the good news is, it doesn’t need to be. We have been chosen by Christ. Called into his service. Not because we are perfect, but because he is gracious.

Now hear his command to all his unworthy servants: An example I have set for you: that you should do as I have done for you.

Tenebrae: Imagination, the Shadows and God

Audio is available here: Tenebrae 2014

“The purpose of imagination is to make us more like God.” So says Dale Ahlquist in a short article about the journalist and popular writer of the early 20th century, G. K. Chesterton. How? Here’s how: Imagination gives us fairy tales.

Fairy tales?!?

Yes. Fairy tales. Fairy tales bring us close to the reality of God.

The service of Tenebrae takes place on the threshold of the greatest Christian act of imagination, the climax of the very best fairy story—what is called The Great Three Days. The one very long worship service that begins Thursday night and ends in the wee hours of Sunday morning. That begins in shadows and ends in the dawn of Easter Day.

The service of Tenebrae, taking place, as it does, in the evening, with candles slowly being extinguished, in gathering gloom, is here to remind us that whatever we might imagine, the shadows aren’t part of our imaginings. The shadows are already here. The self-same shadows that gathered around our Lord as he prepared to enter into what the Gospel writer John called, “the hour of the Son of Man.” Sin and sickness, death and the devil, people undone by the harshness of life—these are real. They are as real for us as they were real for Jesus. They press in upon us. They threaten to undo us.

Sin is crouching at the door, says God to Cain. Satan desires to sift you, says Jesus to Peter. The shadows are there already. The shadows are here, too. We live in their midst. We need—even in our individual and collective adulthoods–a fairy story to get us through. And The Great Three Days comprise the high point of just such a story. A fairy story. THE fairy story. The Gospel.

In saying this, I am liable to invite the scorn of atheists and the ire of Christian apologists both, insisting as they do that the stuff of the Gospel has to do with the material world, and can be falsified or vindicated through careful scientific analysis. We have been taught since the late 18th century that fairy tales are the stuff of childhood and should, once adulthood has been attained, be relinquished. Culturally we have convinced ourselves of that—almost.

The scorn of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the rest of the new Atheists is a reflection of the cultural impatience with those who will not give up on perhaps the most beguiling fairy tale of all. The fairy tale of God. And so it is with the cold, hardened eyes of materialism that they bid us look out at an empty and finally meaningless universe, and say with them “There probably is no god. So stop worrying and enjoy life.”

Part of that sentiment is true: the imagination is perhaps the first mental faculty we exercise in our cribs; we do learn fairy tales in childhood. But the idea that the fairy tale, the notion of God, is what yields a world that is dark, full of shadows (which is what the word Tenebrae means), menace, even evil that must be overcome by clear sighted reason is simply false. The imagination does not invent the darkness for us. We know that instinctively. Deep in our bones. We don’t imagine the bogey man, Chesterton might say, he’s already there. Imagination is what allows us to create world in which the bogey man is beaten, where evil is conquered, where menace is calmed as shadows give way to light and the darkness withers. Real life gives us a world full of dragons. Imagination tells us that St. George is coming to kill them.

The ire of the apologists also captures something true—namely, the perception that fairy stories are finally false, and if the Gospel is a fairy story, it is false, too. What it misses is that the great fairy stories, like great works of art, tell deep truths about ourselves and our world. And the Gospel is just such a story. It is a story that, unlike the story of Alexander conquering Egypt, is not one that leaves us unaffected. The Gospel is a story that, like all the best fairy stories, narrates us, absorbs us into its world. It frees us to see that so many of the stories we like to tell ourselves—about our own freedom, control, self-sufficiency—are themselves finally false. It is the task of fairy stories, says Chesterton, to make settled things seem strange. And if you listen to the Gospel long enough and hard enough, like the very best fairy stories, it will make this world seem so strange as to be finally false.

But there is more to be said. The Gospel is THE fairy story, the story from which all other fairy stories take their cue, because it is the story God has, in his mercy, not simply told us, but lived out in front of us, in our world, this world, where the shadows deepen, where sin, death, and the devil seem to reign. The Gospel is the fairy story that unfolds in the world of Pilate and Herod, which is the first century way of saying, the world of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. It is THE true fairy story, if we might put it that way.

Real life has indeed given us a dragon. And on Tenebrae, as the candles go out and the darkness gathers we hear again that old dragon beginning to stir. We see the shadows deepen, the darkness thicken, and we hear the rumble of the principalities and powers which, deep in our bones, we know are there. And The Fairy Story assures us, not that St. George is coming, but that the Lord Jesus has come. Not that the dragon will be defeated, but that he has been undone. And that the darkness will itself yield to day.

“The purpose of imagination is to make us more like God.” So says Ahlquist. Chesterton said it much better: “The trumpet of imagination like the trumpet of the Resurrection, calls the dead out of their graves.”



His Blood Be On Us. . . .

This past Sunday, we listened to  St. Matthew’s Passion (26:17 – 27:66) as a dramatic reading. And once again, the haunting, horrifying words of 27:25 rang out in our nave: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’” They are both haunting and horrifying as simply part of the story–the mob moving with one mind toward an end and with a purpose that shock, willingly drawing into the consequences of that purpose the innocent. Even worse, the words are haunting and horrifying for the use to which they have been put throughout Christian history: the justification of Anti-Semitism from its crudest acts of murder to its most refined attitudes of exclusion. So I want to begin by commending the women who prepared the reading for not excising that part of the text. Rightly, it belongs there. Rightly, it was read. The question now, though, is what do we do with it?

Perhaps the first thing to do is to see that we are all implied in its judgment. “His blood be on us and on our children,” is not a Jewish rejection of Jesus as much as it is the world’s rejection of Jesus. Jesus has been betrayed and abandoned by his disciples; he has been rejected by the religious leaders; Pilate has by now washed his hands of him. Jesus is alone. And the crowds who hailed him have, on the pain of failed and finally false expectations of a political deliverer, turned on the one whom they begged to save them (“Hosanna–save us now!”) and called for him instead to be crucified. We are all implicated, Jew and Gentile, in the death of Jesus. And the curse voiced in Matthew is one we have pronounced on ourselves. There is no place to blame the Jews or the Romans or whomever, as though the drawing of such a moral line would save us from indictment. Had we been there, we would have done no differently. Indeed, in some way, we were there and we are complicit in the death of the Son of God. And so that curse is the curse of all of us on all of us. We have called down innocent blood on ourselves. We stand with Cain, murderers from almost the beginning.

The second thing, however, is to notice that, in the Gospel of God, this curse is transformed into a plea. For while it is true that in this curse, this curse we bring on ourselves in order to pass the sentence of death upon the Lord of life, we stand with Cain, it is not true that Jesus thereby stands with Cain’s murdered brother, Abel. After Abel’s murder at the hands of his brother, God tells Cain that Abel’s blood “cries out from the ground,” (Genesis 4:10). It cries out for justice. It cries out for revenge. Such that the ground itself curses Cain and God must intervene and so “mark” Cain that his life would be spared (Genesis 4:15). Creation so rebelled against the murder of Abel that Cain could settle no where until he had distanced himself from creation by building a city. This is a story of the first founding murder, the sacrifice that leads to sociality. Cain murders his brother; Abel’s blood cries out for justice; Cain’s “mark” is to build a city for his own protection. The city Cain builds is thus both a reflection of God’s and creation’s judgment on his sin and a statement of God’s mercy in protecting Cain from creation’s vengeance.

The blood of Jesus, however, is unlike the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24). It speaks a new and better word, not a call for vengeance, or for justice, but for mercy. For this blood, as the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it, is the blood of the sacrifice that ends all sacrifice, the blood that breaks the annual cycle of atonement, the blood that is spilled once, and for all. The blood that cleanses not simply our bodies, but our consciences too. This blood marks those who follow Jesus. By it, we are made citizens of a new city, the city that will replace the city of Cain, the City of God (Rev. 21:1-7).

So it is that in the grace and mercy of God, our judgment upon God’s Son becomes God’s judgment on us. And where our judgment, my judgment, is murderous, God’s judgment is, even in the reality of its wrath, gracious. His blood be on us and on our children. In the transforming power wrought by a transposition of subjects–from Abel to Jesus–these words have ceased to be a curse and become instead a plea. A personal one. His blood be on me and on my children. Here, and here only is my deliverance from the curse of Cain and the vengeance of Abel. Here is the founding sacrifice on which the true city, the eternal city, is built. Here is where violence and vengeance end.

Sermon: From Above, Again

Audio is available here:From Above, Again

Last week, we began our Lenten journey by spending time with Jesus in the wilderness, in his battle with the tempter. The narrative was not an Aesop’s able morality tale as much as it was a battle, indeed, the second round in a cosmic battle that began in Genesis chapter 3. Paul summarized the battle in our Epistle of last week, too. Through the one man, all died; so also, through the one man, all will be made a alive. God of God, light of light, entered into our story, took up our flesh, and as one of us, did for us what we could not do: defeat the tempter.

One theme to draw from this story is that God’s work of salvation, restoration, healing—of human individuals, of the human race, and of creation as a whole—is a work that takes place outside ourselves, extra nos as the theologians might put it. And the biblical metaphors used to express this saving work—cosmic battle, legal verdict, vicarious sacrifice—all carry with them notions of representation and substitution. Leaving aside the latter two, we can say that in engaging in the battle with the tempter, Jesus acts as a representative human being—he takes up in himself the entire human race. As one of us for all of us, we might say. But not only is he a representative human being, but he is also a substitution—where we would (and do!) succumb to the tempter, he stands in our place and wins. As one of us, instead of each of us.

That Christ acts on our behalf and in our place, that our salvation takes place outside of us, is one of the great biblical themes of salvation. But it is not the only one. This morning, in our Gospel lesson, we are introduced again to salvation, healing and restoration. But this time as a work of God that happens to us, and in us. The great cosmic reorientation and restoration effected by the coming of Jesus is now retold with an individual focus, in the story of Nicodemus come to Jesus in the dead of night.

First a word about Nicodemus. He is described by John as a leader of the Jewish people and a member of the Pharisees. That should tip us off right away, but, so accustomed as we are to seeing the Pharisees (and even more troublingly, the Jews) as the villains of the Gospels, we may miss the writer’s point here. Nicodemus is the guy you want to have as a neighbor! Respected by his community. Devout. Maybe a bit like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. You know, a little odd. Perhaps too religiously intense, but when Homer needs a hand, Ned’s there. Nicodemus was that guy. The guy you want to live next door to you. Not only is he a pillar in the community, he has a high estimation of Jesus. He calls him, Rabbi. Not ironically or cynically as sometimes happens in the Gospels, but straightforwardly. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God,” he says. And yet, something is lacking.

And Jesus, knowing what is lacking, cuts right to the chase. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. The word translated “from above” is alethon. That’s important. I’ll come back to it. For now, focus on the remainder of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus in verses 3-17 to find out just what “born from above,” means. To be born from above, does not mean to re-live a human life; it is to be born of water and of spirit. To be born of the Spirit is mysterious and unpredictable, like the wind—it is not, Nicodemus, something you can control. And it is somehow tied to the lifting up of the Son of Man. Finally, all of this together displays both God’s love for and his judgment upon the world. The world is judged to be in need of rescue; God loving acts to do just that; and God does so at the level of the human individual—every one who believes shall not perish.

Before we take each point in turn, let’s lo ok again at alethon, from above. It can also mean again. And theologians and bible translators argue with each other over which is to take emphasis here. Does Jesus mean you must be born from above (referring to the One who effects the birth—namely, God), or does Jesus mean you must be born again (referring to the timing of the birth—namely, a new encounter with God)? It seems to me that Jesus here intends both. To be re-born refers both to an act of God and to a specific time in a person’s life when that new birth takes place. Now, what does this “gennethe anothen” to be born from above and to be born again mean?

To be born from above, to be born again, means, first, to be born of water and the Spirit. There is, in other words, a twofold movement. The work of the Spirit is not utterly ethereal. It is tied to water, tied to a physical sign. Everyday water, as Martin Luther said, the kind a cow drinks. And when the work of the Spirit is tied to the water, that ordinary cow drinkable water, becomes the bath of regeneration, the waters of rebirth, the water of life.  So the new birth of which Jesus speaks is tied definitively to baptism. To be born of water is, simply, to be baptized.  At the same time, the new birth is not identified entirely with baptism. There is a distinction drawn through the use of the little word “and.” Water without the Spirit is just water.  Water with the Spirit together is the sacrament of the new birth.

Second, to be born from above, to be born again, is the mysterious work of the Spirit. Meaning, it’s not our work. It is not a work of self-reformation, a putting into practice, the Seven Habits of Highly Spiritual People, if there are such things. Remember Nicodemus—a religious leader, a pillar of the community, positively disposed toward Jesus. And yet, Nicodemus needed to be born from above; without the new birth, Nicodemus would not see the kingdom. To be sure, the new birth leads to changes in life. Sometimes they are instantaneous; sometimes they are the result of long, slow, painful work. But the new birth is not identified with such moral or spiritual renewal. Just as we did not choose to be born the first time around, we cannot effect through our own efforts to be born from above, to be born again. We can see the effects of the new birth, just as we see the effects of the wind. But we can no more bring it about than we can control the wind. It is the work of the Spirit.

Third, to be born from above is to look on the Son of Man. What does that mean? Well in the text there are two movements to which we need to attend. The first is the reference to a story found in Numbers 21, where the people of God, because their trust in God’s provision lapsed yet again, complained. For their complaints, they were sent serpents whose deadly venomous bite could be remedied only by looking on a bronze serpent fixed to a pole and lifted up. To be healed from the serpent bite, one had to look at Moses’ serpent lifted up on a pole. To be born from above, says Jesus, one must look at the Son of Man—Christ himself—lifted up on the cross. And that brings us to the second movement. There is here an allusion to the Cross of Jesus as that event which saves, which rescues. It is an event that happens outside of us. An even that happens in time. But at the same time, it somehow effects the work of the Spirit within us, such that gazing upon the cross—or perhaps better, passively receiving the cross that fills our gaze—becomes the place where the gift of the new birth, what Jesus here calls, eternal life, is given and received.

One need not be a moral exemplar like Nicodemus, nor a moral pauper like rich Zacchaeus. For here the ground is level and all distinctions matter not. At the foot of the cross, we are equal, needy, and need only to look to receive what God has provided for our rescue.

Finally, this gift of the new birth given through the work of Christ on the cross and by the power of the Spirit in our lives is itself a demonstration of the judgment and love of God. Judgment because it assesses, it judges, the situation of creation, and human beings within creation rightly. We need to be rescued. Creation needs to be healed. The world, as it now is, is not God’s kingdom and human beings, apart from the work of God, will never see that kingdom. That is the judgment, the assessment of God. In response to this assessment, the love of God does not condemn, but acts to rescue. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, what whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. In God’s saving work in Christ, in the God’s mysterious life giving work of the Spirit, judgment and love are equally on display for they are one.

Now, what does this strange story of a dead-of-night conversation about being born from above, being born again, have to do with us? Well, nothing really. The sharper question is what does it have to do with you? What does it have to do with me? That’s the pointed question. If the temptation narrative directs us toward the cosmic significance of God’s saving work, the Nicodemus narrative directs us to the individual. It directs us to the God who not only loves the world, but also loves “whosoever that believeth,” as the old King James might put it. The story invites you, invites me, to put ourselves in the place of Nicodemus, to hear from Jesus not that our good works, our religious sympathies, our moral sensibilities are bad, but that they cannot bear the weight of rescuing us from the consequences of our own sin. Something more is needed.

That can be highly offensive. How dare Jesus say that I am not good enough! Well, that is not quite what Jesus says. It is more that, your good works and mine, your morality and mine, are not fit for the work that God only can do, that, indeed, God has done.

What is needed, Jesus says to Nicodemus, and Jesus says to us, is to be born again, to be born from above, to be born with water and the Spirit, to look only upon the Son of Man lifted up from the earth. In so doing, he strips away from Nicodemus and from you and from me any pretense, any plank, any position from which he might appeal to God on the basis of his own goodness. He invites us again to trust only in him, the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, and in so doing find eternal life, the spirit’s life, not simply re-animating the world, but re-enlivening us, making us fit to live in God’s new creation.

It may be this morning that some of you, having trusted Christ whether long ago or for the first time this morning need to be baptized. It may be that some of you today, though you have been baptized many years, will trust Christ for the first time, and so actualize in the timing of God’s unpredictable Spirit, the promises that were objectively declared over your life when you were brought to the font as an infant. It may be that some of you need to remember your baptism and be thankful.

For now though, it is time for the baptized to come, to stand again on the level ground, to look again at the exalted Son of Man, and to touch and to taste the love that would heal our souls and the whole world.

Lent 1: Undoing Adam

Audio is available here: Undoing Adam

“Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, porneia sarkos, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.”

So says Article IX.

We’re starting with the article titled, “Of Original, or Birth-Sin,” to remind ourselves of our own tradition not simply as Anglican Christians, but as Christians in the Western or Latin tradition in general. Perhaps I’m question-begging here—do we need reminding? Well, I think so. This past January, the Church of England authorized a new alternative baptismal rite which, while the substance remained, dropped the words devil and sin rather conspicuously. You can imagine the reaction in the blogosphere. Some of our more conservative brothers and sisters lamented yet another “dumbing down,” (their words) of worship for the sake of accessibility. Some thought of our more liberal ones decried it as being “window-dressing,” for it still insisted, deep down, that the baptismal candidate was not already good. I found myself disagreeing with both camps—being a good, muddled Anglican, I wanted a middle way that could alter older language for the sake of comprehension, but did in fact preserve the intention of the original language.

And part of the intention of the original language is that whoever comes to the font—whether parent, godparent or child, or for older believers, whether sponsor or catechumen—whoever comes is a sinner. And baptism—no matter how old we are—is the sacramental way of confronting that problem.

So, let’s begin by granting that maybe we have forgotten just what Article 9 is getting at, and let me try to rephrase it in a way that is sensible to modern ears (if not sensitive to modern convictions). Original sin means that from the moment of our conceptions, we are in a mess. It is not merely a matter of bad habits; it is part of who we are. It is not that we are sinners because we sin; it is that we sin because we’re sinners. Sin is not merely a matter of bad habits that we can be educated out of by following a better example; it’s more like a deadly disease from which we need to be cured. We need a physician for the soul as much for the body.

What our Old Testament lesson this morning insists is that this state is an interruption in God’s original intention. Sin is not the first word. So it is that the lesson begins not with the serpent in the garden, but with the command of God to the first human not to eat of the tree. In the Genesis saga, human beings were, in their original creative intention, for the keeping and tending and even expanding the boundaries of God’s garden, Eden. But along with the positive instruction to tend and to keep came a negative command—do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat of it you will surely die.

What a strange command. Does God want to keep us in a state of ignorance and subservience? Some who have scorned this story have thought so. Mistakenly, I think. The clue to a right reading of the story is found in the serpent’s words to the woman. “You will not surely die. God knows that when you eat of this fruit you will become like one of the gods, knowing good and evil.” What the command to refrain enforced was a sense of place in the cosmos. On the one hand, human beings were exalted—created in God’s image, called to care for God’s creation, made (as the psalmist would later write, just a little lower than the angels)—and on the other, they were not divine. They had an exalted place; that place was fit for them. It was not God’s place. In eating the fruit, the woman and the man together grasped after a place which was not theirs, which never could be theirs.

It is unfortunate that the lesson stops there for it leaves out the hope with which the original story ends. Hope found in God’s promise that the seed of the woman would one day crush the serpent’s head. Hope found in God’s persistence with human beings—making clothes for them, making provision for them, so that they would not be completely alienated from each other and from God. I’ll say more about that hope in a moment.

To be sure, this story leaves lots of questions unanswered. And we don’t need to try to answer them all—not least because the story itself isn’t interested in asking at least some of them. Rather, it is a story that attempts to explain to its readers why they experienced the world in the way they did: a place where one toiled to survive, where rivalry between humans was the norm, where God all too often seemed distant, and so on. And the answer? It was not always this way; it is in some measure our own fault. The story of the Fall is not a story of an event in the remote past, a story toward which we are only spectators, clucking our tongues. It is one particular chapter in the Bible’s account of all of us. It is our story. It gives us a sense of space—this is where we are: we are fallen. And also of time—it was not always so: at its deepest structures, creation is, and human beings are, good. And finally of future—there is hope; God has not abandoned us.

It is that hope that animates the Gospel lesson this morning. And that means, first of all, when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we are not to read it as we would one of Aesop’s fables—a moralistic tale with a “Go and do likewise” ending. This is not a how-to in the battle against the temptations we face. A just do what Jesus did—quote scripture, don’t argue, defer to the authority of God. To read the story in this way severely minimizes the reality and gravity of the temptations we face everyday, and is to turn what is a story about hope into a story of hopelessness because, as we all know, in spite of all the exhortations to yield not to temptation, eventually, we do.

Well, if it is not a fable with a moral, what is it? It is, from first to last, a battle. It is a battle that is a microcosm of the entire ministry of Jesus, that is a microcosm of the battle of God against God’s (and humanity’s) enemies. It is a terrifying battle. One human being will come alone to face the full brunt of the tempter’s power in the wilderness—the place of the tempter’s greatest strength. He will come shorn of every physical advantage, having fasted for 40 days. He will come to challenge the one who claimed his human prizes so long ago in the garden. How often do we see Jesus glibly swatting Satan aside, as though the temptations meant nothing to him, had no impact upon him. But look at them again.

Turn these stones to bread. Fill your belly. Do you hear the hunger pangs sharpening beneath each word of Jesus’ answer? “Humans do not live on bread alone, but on the Word of God.” I imagine him sweating, spitting out the words, so desperately hungry, feeling the reality of the temptation to the depths of his being. Make yourself a miracle worker! Don’t go on the way of suffering. A little shock and awe and people will believe in you! And Jesus, knowing what future lay in front of him, knowing that the slow steady climb to Calvary had begun, and wanting a different way, parries with the reply, Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Take the route of the political power! I can give you all these kingdoms for they are mine to give. Just worship me. And again, Jesus fights out the answer, Worship God and God alone.

This the story of the only human being ever to feel the full weight of the tempter’s power without buckling. This is the story of the triumph of the God who triumphs as a man and only as a man. It is from first to last a human victory. And not only a victory for that one man, but also a victory for all men and women who are is. As Paul put it in our Epistle today, if through the one man (Adam) all died, then through the one man (Jesus) all will be made alive.

Why is the temptation story a story of hope? The temptation of Jesus is a story of hope because it is the re-telling of the Fall, only in reverse.  In the Genesis story, the serpent comes to the human’s place of strength—the Garden; in the Gospel, the human comes to the tempter’s arena—the wilderness. In the Genesis story, the tempter comes to thwart God’s intention and corrupt God’s creature. In the Gospel, the creator takes up the creature’s flesh, and in that flesh conquers the tempter. In the Genesis story two human beings stumble, and with them so do all their children; in the Gospel, one human being wins, and in him, so do all who believe. In the Genesis story, human beings are enslaved; in the Gospel, human beings are set free.

And not just human beings in general. Human beings with names like…. And not just temptations in general, but temptations toward anger, gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, envy, and despair. The temptation I believe directed against us by that same ancient foe is that last one. Despair. Despair at the size of the task facing us with respect to our building. Despair that is the flipside of the nostalgia that tells us our best days are behind. These names, and these temptations—the Epiphany, Despair—are bound up in the destiny of the one who took the tempter on his own turf and bested him. That is why this story is a story of hope.

We embark on another Lent, not in despair. Nor in grim determination to make ourselves better human beings. We embark on another Lent in the hope that comes from a union with Christ. A union that we will have strengthened when we come, now, to his table. To feast at his banquet, to share in his life, to pariticipate in his victory.



Served up for Worms: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Audio is available here: Served Up for Worms

In Canterbury Cathedral Quire, immediately across from the Archbishop’s pulpit, is the tomb of Archbishop Henry Chichele, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1414 until his death in 1443. Archbishop Chichele’s tomb is quite a sight. It sights on two levels. On the upper level, which stands a little over one meter off the floor, lies a statue of the Archbishop arrayed in his vestments and mitre. Angels look down on him; choir boys hold the pillow on which his head rests. His face is serene; his hands folded in prayer. He is the image of the medieval Archbishop and courtier.

But beneath the ornately arrayed archbishop, just off the floor of the quire, is another statue. A corpse. Skin-stretched paper thin over bones looking as though they are about to break through. Face gaunt. Eyes staring emptily. Mouth gaping. Naked except for a loin cloth. It too is Henry Chichele. And here is the caption written on this very disturbing tomb: “I was pauper-born,” reads the inscription on his tomb, “then to primate raised. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.” Who is to behold his grave? Well, it’s no accident that Chichele placed his tomb in the eye line of whomever happens to be preaching from the Archbishop’s pulpit on any Sunday that he’s there. You may be rich. You may be powerful. But one day you will die. What will your money and your influence do for you then?

That is the question Christians face every Ash Wednesday. It is the question embedded in the ashes that you will feel on your foreheads, the question under the haunting words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Everyday it is harder to remember that we are dust. We construct elaborate cultural illusions to distract, to deny, to deflect us from this simple truth. You’re going to die? Shhhh. Big Bang Theory is on. You’re going to die? Yeah, but Spring Training has started! You’re going to die? But I have grand kids. Ernest Becker, in 1973, wrote about the human capacity to deny the obvious in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death. Human beings, Becker says, deny their mortality, distract their gaze from Chichele’s cadaver, by engaging in what he calls immortality projects. We create things that we hope will last after us, that will give us in some way a measure of continuity beyond the cessation of our bodies. If we must have tomb, we want it to look like Chichele’s ornate body in repose. We don’t want to see his cadaver, or hear his warning: “I was pauper-born, then to primate raised. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.”

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And the risk for Christians, it seems to me, is that we will turn the faith itself into an immortality project. Into a way of denying the fact of our mortality. We turn the Gospel into a message about an immortal soul that is no more fazed by the death of the body that I am fazed when I get out of my car and get into my van. My body, like my vehicles at home, is just a container to get the real me, my soul, from one place to the next. Death, says the old southern gospel song, ain’t no big deal. Or we misunderstand the resurrection of Jesus as an undoing of his death, and also a dismantling of our mortality such that when we come to face it, we don’t really have to face it.

Ash Wednesday is the one day in the Christian year above all others when we should be freed to remind ourselves that those conceptions, as popular as they might be, as engrained in our pieties as they might be, are not the Gospel. The Gospel is a story not about immortal souls going to heaven when they die. It is about, as Bishop N.T. Wright has put it pithily, life-after-life-after death. Whatever of us survives the deaths of our bodies, safe in the hands of God, awaits another day, the day of recreation, the day of the Kingdom come in its fullness. The Gospel is not that we do not die, but that in death, we still belong to God.

The Gospel is not a story about the resurrection undoing the death of Jesus. The Gospel is the resurrection announcement that the death of Jesus is the death that saves us from our bondage to sin, that saves us from the wrath of God, that is the final sacrifice that washes us inside and out, and opens the doorway into the very life of God for those who believe. But that life is poured out into our hearts now, as Paul says in his magnificent letter to the Church in Rome. It is a present reality imperfectly experienced. And before it is experienced in full, we will die. The Gospel is not that we do not die, but that in death we still belong to him who died.

To be sure, the Gospel refuses death is the final word. Death is the last enemy to be defeated. As the Creed says, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But the word death speaks over all of us is a real word, a word when uttered in the space of the Gospel, reminds us how precious each life is. Each life that is bounded by death, marked by a beginning and an end, is precious because it is unique, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. The lives of children in the sweat shops of Guangzhou, says death, are as valuable to God as the lives in private elementary schools of North Toronto. And to us who are tempted to spend our wealth denying the inevitable, the word death speaks invites us to consider whether that wealth is better spent clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoners, freeing those who are enslaved.

Death is not the Gospel’s final world, but it is a real word. And when that word is uttered in the space of the Gospel, all our immortality projects—whether noble or base—are shown to matter not a bit. A pauper I was born. To primate I was raised. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave. The right and proper word death is granted in the Gospel reminds us that our hope of life lies not in ourselves, in our capacity to transcend our mortality, in our ability to build great buildings or write great books, or make beautiful films, or have children who will outlive us. Our hope lies in the Gospel hope that by our baptisms, we have been hidden with Christ in God. Our hope lies in the God who gave us the gift of life and has promised to give those who die in Christ new life. Our hope is a gift, something that lies entirely outside of us, and entirely within the goodness of the Creator. And that hope invites us to spend our lives—themselves precious, irreplaceable, unrepeatable—as gifts for the sake of the world.

If anyone would be my disciple, Jesus said, let him, let her, take up the cross and follow. Let him, let her, follow me even to the point of giving the life that has been given to them for the sake of others, even as I gave mine. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I was born a pauper. I was raised to primate. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.

If there is hope to be found, it will be found in the hope that God refuses to abandon even the dust that we will become. That is the Gospel of Ash Wednesday.

Sermon: Unity, Wisdom and Maturity

Audio is available here: Unity, Wisdom, Maturity

In our Epistle (1 Cor 3:1-9), Paul continues to chide the Corinthians for their lack of wisdom. In last week’s Epistle, you will recall, Paul insisted that the wisdom that the Corinthians so eagerly pursued was in fact foolishness because it did not find its beginning in the simple message of the Cross, which Paul brought to them. This week, he goes further: “There is such a deep wisdom. But you, Corinthians, are not ready for it. And it is obvious to me that you are not ready because you set up divisions over me and Apollos. You are still infants. You still need to feed on the basics of the faith, because your feeble spiritual bodies can metabolize only such basics.” We might say, that in Paul’s absence, the Corinthian Christians had developed a spiritual case of “failure to thrive syndrome.”

Then, Paul irons out his relationship to Apollos. They were both commissioned by the risen Lord to do different things—Paul planted the church on the preaching of Christ crucified and in the Spirit’s power; Apollos came after and nourished it with the same resources. Therefore, to pit Paul and Apollos against each other is to misunderstand not only Paul and Apollos, but the Lord Jesus himself. Together, Paul and Apollos work (each according to the distinctions of their call) in God’s field or building God’s building.

In our Epistle next week, Paul will pick up this second image and develop it. For now, let’s stop and ask. What does Paul have to say to us?

It seems to me that the takeaway here is the complex, but undeniable, interrelationship between wisdom, maturity, and unity. When a church community has one, it has all three; when it lacks one, it lacks all three. And the first visible sign that things are awry is unity. A church community that is divisive is so, because it lacking in wisdom, because it is spiritually undernourished. It seems to me that this is a basic principle which applies not only in the specific situation of Corinth, but is evidenced in local communities, within denominations, and in the wider Christian world. A divided church is an unwise church; an unwise church is a church that is, for whatever reason, malnourished because it is trying to digest food for which it is not yet ready.

Let’s pick an easy example of the problem, where lack of maturity corrupted wisdom and led to disunity. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which Christians visited violence upon their brothers and sisters, in which churches were demonically transformed from places of sanctuary into houses of murder, points to Christian communities that had lost the plot of the Gospel. Indeed, if Ephraim Radner, in his new book, A Brutal Unity is right, the Christian communities who engaged in the genocide did not lose something they previously had. Rather—and horrifically—they had deeply indwelt a deficient presentation of the Gospel, had understood it, and had acted it out with ruthless efficiency. Here were Christians—baptised, confirmed, born-again, Spirit-filled—pick which ever vocabulary works for you—who with ease murdered people. And did so in churches, surrounded by symbols of a way of life which ostensibly spoke of a different way of living together. Of course, we can point to lots of similar examples throughout history, can’t we?

And it might be comforting for us, because we can thereby safely remind ourselves that we are not that extreme and therefore excuse ourselves. Well, that was a problem for Christians long ago or far away or who are so very different from us. But the Gospel lesson for this week (Matt. 5:21-37) won’t let us do that. There, Jesus points us away from specific behaviours (in his case, murder and adultery and oaths) to the orientation of our hearts (hatred and lust and truth telling). He points us (as we talked about last week) away from specific applications of Torah, to its deep intention. He points to the need for “heart surgery,” without which the Torah will be experienced as an impossibly cruel standard, rather than a gift of life intended for the healing for the world. The difference (and it is a big one!) between the divisions in Rwanda and divisions that are closer to home, are in Jesus’ eyes, differences of degree, not kind.

Why do we miss that in the teachings of Jesus? That question bedevils me, I’m afraid. But that we do I do not doubt. I ran into it most explicitly during a class I taught at Laurentian last year. Students were working through a series of primary texts from Plato to Feuerbach, each of which presented a vision of the “Good Life.” And I picked Matthew chapters 5-7 as Jesus’ vision of such a life. Students were invited to present a summary and critique of each of the primary selections to the class. The summary of the Sermon on the Mount was straightforward:

“Jesus wants us to be good.” Said the group leader.

“OK, what does being good look like?” I pressed.

“Well, you know, love your neighbour and stuff.” Another replied.

“Can we do that?”

“Well, it’s kind of obvious isn’t it?” chimed in a third.

“Yes!” exclaimed the first student, answering my question.

“Huh. So, when Jesus talks about murder and lust and lying beginning inside of us, when he talks about ripping out eyes and cutting off hands, in order to avoid going to hell, he means, basically, ‘Do your best to be nice.’”

“That’s what we think he means.” Said the group leader.

“I was going for irony.” I said.

My students—all of whom had some basic Christian background, and a couple of whom were confirmed in the church—had so internalized a false Gospel that it had inoculated them against the real thing. Such that, confronted with the very harsh and demanding words of Jesus, they were simply unable to hear him. For all intents and purposes, they had thought they had presented the wisdom of the Gospel, but in so doing had demonstrated a kind of religious “failure to thrive” syndrome not all that different from the one Paul noted in the church in Corinth.

This morning, Paul lovingly, but nevertheless thoroughly, rebukes the Corinthians, and shows that their disunity, their trying to fracture teachers whom God intends to function together, hides a deeper malaise of immaturity unable to recognize wisdom. He moves from an outer description to a diagnosis of an inner disorder. This morning, Jesus moves us away from particular actions, to particular dispositions from which those actions spring. Likewise, he moves from outer actions to a diagnosis of an inner disorder. And one that cannot be cured by a Gospel that reduces to, “Do your best to be nice.” Indeed, such a Gospel is symptomatic of the same inner disorder.

What then are we to do?

Our liturgy, it seems to me, provides us with some possibilities for discovering a cure: gather in God’s presence. Hear God’s word. Confess the sins exposed by God’s word. Draw near with faith to receive in bread and wine the promises announced in God’s word. And in these practices, open ourselves up to the grace that might heal us, transform us from the inside out, cure us, make us people who might grow into our identity as God’s building. God’s Temple. A home for God.

But that’s a sermon for next week.

Sermon: Excessive Righteousness

Audio is available here: Excessive Righteousness

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Aren’t you glad you’re not a Pharisee? Those poor guys kept running headlong into Jesus, and ending up on the short end of the argument. They were hypocrites who believed one thing and did another. They were legalists who wanted to impose their vision of religiosity on everyone else. I mean thank God Jesus said that our righteousness was different. That we didn’t have to be righteous like they did. We didn’t have to observe the law.

Except, of course, Jesus didn’t say that. If we are going to really hear Jesus’ words rightly—hear them first as law which exposes our sin and then as Gospel which frees us for service—we need to do a little more work with the Pharisees. And that means a bit of a detour into 1st century sociology of religion.

And the place we need to start is with the word, “religion.” When we talk about religion, we talk about something that is separate from daily life. Something that is marked off and identifiable. Religion, wrote William James, “is what a man does with his solitude.” And while we might not fully subscribe to that—after all, we are not alone here—that definition is something we get. Religion is what we do as a result of or to encourage experiences that are inner, that are private, that have to do with the heart and its relation to God and not with the mind and its relation to truth or our bodies and their relation to lived life.

If that is what we mean by religion, then we need to write the Pharisees off right away. They would not have known what do with that peculiarly modern understanding of the soul’s duty toward God at all. Neither would any of the first century parties that made up the Judaism of Jesus’ day. If this is what we mean by religion, then the Pharisees were the name for a political party far more than religious one, and indeed, the same is true for the Jews they argued with.

We can plot the various parties on a line based on political interference. At one extreme, there were the Essenes. A group of ascetic Jews who had given up not simply on the Romans, but also their fellow Jews. They had withdrawn to the little communities around the Dead Sea, and from there, waited for the coming judgment of God who would purify the land of idol-worship and sin and bring in his kingdom, a kingdom led by a Priestly Messiah who would order worship and a Kingly Messiah who would reign from a renewed Davidic throne. Their political stance was self-conscious and deliberate non-participation in public life. God was going to sort it all out. And soon. And they would watch from a safe distance.

Next in line came the Sadducees were the urban elites who controlled the Temple. They were, if you want, the priestly caste. They had entered into a truce with the occupiers, a truce in which each would not interfere in the specific scope of the other. Why on earth put the Sadducees, urbane and urban as they were, next to such a fringe group as the Essenes? Precisely because of their strict uninvolvement in politics. That was the affair of Rome. They would police, (and they did have their own police) the Temple Courts. And the Romans would police everything else. And each would manage their own affairs. Theirs was an arrangement borne of pragmatism. By remaining studiously uninvolved in discussions about the land, the Temple guardians had purchased their own corner thereof and ensured that Temple worship would continue.

Last come the Zealots. Now the Zealots did not exist really as a party in Jesus’ day. But their ideas were sufficiently common that the writers of the New Testament could look back at one of Jesus’ disciples—a fellow named Simon—and to distinguish him from Simon Peter, they named him Simon the Zealot. The Zealots (or at least their fathers) advocated the taking up of arms against the Romans, in the hope that God would reward their resolve for political purity and autonomy with victory over their idolatrous enemies. Their inspirations were the Maccabean leaders of some centuries before. As Judas Maccabeus and his followers had expelled the Greeks from the Holy Land (a victory celebrated in the festival of Hannukah), so the Zealots would expel the Romans.

Now, where on our plot did the Pharisees fit?

The Pharisees fit between the Sadducees and the Zealots, and probably leaned a little more toward the Zealots than to the Sadducees. Their name comes from the word Parush, which means, separate. And they were concerned with keeping themselves holy without giving up on life in the land. They would observe the law rigorously (indeed, there were lively debates among their Rabbis about how best to keep the law). They would thereby keep themselves separate both from their compromised Jewish brothers and sisters, and from the pagan Romans. And in their keeping of the law, they would bear witness to the God who had given them the Land that the Romans now occupied. In their keeping of the law, they would find covenant fellowship with that God. In their keeping of the law, they hoped to hasten the coming of the Messiah, the King, who would vindicate them and purify the land. At the coming of the Messiah, the dead would be raised, the world would be judged, and all would be put right for God’s people. Their creed, if we can put it that way, was incredibly simple. One God. One people of God. One future for God’s people in God’s holy land.

And Jesus—this is the point—was a Pharisee. At least, based on his depiction in the Gospels, Jesus has far more in common with the Pharisees than with any other of the parties we have mentioned. Jesus did his Temple duties, as all observant Jews did. But Jesus taught in the synagogues—where the Pharisees were in charge. Jesus debated over keeping the law—a Pharisaic concern. Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead at the end of days—a key Pharisaic belief. Jesus was a Pharisee.

Moreover, when Matthew pens his Gospel, he appears to pen it to a group of people for whom the Pharisees would have been the heroes of the story! These are the people who had time and means—both in terms of education and leisure—to parse out the many ways in which the Law of Moses did and did not apply to daily life. And they were strict in its keeping, not because they were self-consciously hypocrites, but because they longed to be in fellowship with God and longed for the restoration of the people of Israel—even if only a righteous remnant—under the reign of the Messiah on the day of resurrection.

For the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, a background assumption would have been, if ANYONE had a chance at being raised from the dead, to be part of God’s future in God’s land under God’s reign, it was a Pharisee.

And then here comes Jesus: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom.” Jesus does not say, do better than the fellow next to you. He says, show a better righteousness “than that of Israel’s best and strictest and most zealous representatives. . . . better than the official form which it had assumed at the hands of its most competent human champions.” (KB CD IV.2, 551)

And that is how we first need to hear the words. We need to hear them as law. We need to hear them as judgment. Jesus is not about sidestepping the demands of Torah. He raises them. Rather than imagining all the possible ways in which Torah applies to daily life as the Pharisees did, trying thereby to make pastoral sense of Holy Scripture, Jesus exposes his hearers to their deep intention. And in so doing, he raises the standards!

Listen to his words “You think I came to abolish Torah? I came to fulfill it. Not one stroke of a pen will pass away from Torah until the world ends. You have heard it said, do not murder, but I say to you anyone who calls his brother a fool is in danger of going to hell. You have heard it said do not commit adultery, but I tell you if you have lusted in your heart, you are guilty of adultery. If your eye causes you to sin, cut it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter into heaven blind and lame than to go to hell whole.” That’s the Jesus we meet in the Gospel of Matthew. And it is the same Jesus who says, unless your righteousness exceeds, you will never enter the kingdom.

And if we do not hear those words as words of judgment, as words of condemnation, at least at first, we do not hear Jesus this morning, and we will not hear just how wonderfully good the good news of the Gospel is.

But we’re not quite there yet. First, we need to see that Jesus is not, in these words, saying much of anything that was not already written in the Scriptures of Israel, whether the Torah (especially Deuteronomy 27-30) or the prophets (especially Jeremiah 31). God gave Israel Torah as a gift of grace, so that they could live as his people, and in so doing, be a light to lighten the Gentiles. But Israel failed, failed often, and failed consistently. To the degree that they were exiled from their land, and the “returns” of Ezra and Nehemiah and the victory of the Maccabees had not brought about the great restoration that the prophets promised. Were you to ask a first century Pharisee from the synagogue in Capernaum, he would tell you, we are still in exile until we keep the Torah and God restores our fortunes.

But to be those people, the people who would see the restoration, the prophets said, Israel would have to not keep the law outwardly, with rules and regulations, food laws and circumcision. Cutting the law into your body through circumcision, said the prophet Jeremiah, was not what God wanted. On the day of restoration, God would soften his peoples’ stiff necks. He would write the law on their consciences. He would circumcise their hearts. Torah on that day would no longer be an impossible external standard reminding Israel again and again of her inability to keep it. Torah on that day would well up from inside. It would be a fountain of living water flowing out from Israel to give life to the whole world.

And that day, Jesus says to us, is here. That is the good news!

Unless your righteousness exceeds the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those words should first lay bare before us our sin, our inability to keep God’s Torah. They should prompt us to repentance.

Then, and only then, will we hear the Gospel call of the Lord Jesus: “Come, all who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you for it is easy and my burden is light.” Exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees begins when we recognize that such righteousness is, because of our state, as we now are, impossible to attain. We need first   to become different kinds of people. People for whom God’s Torah is not an external standard against which we are measured, but a life giving spring flowing out of us. Exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees begins when we recognize that such righteousness is itself a gift to be received, a gift that renews our hearts, and makes us—to use the language of St. Paul—new creations.

New creations. That is precisely the kind of people that Messiah Jesus wants to present to his Father. People—Jews and Gentiles—who have through his grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit, have had their hearts renewed, made alive. People for whom Torah is the gift of God and a spring of life welling up from inside us, rather than a curse and a standard outside and beyond us.

And here is the place where that transformation happens continuously. Here at this altar. Here we are united to Christ. Here our communion with him by his Spirit is strengthened. Here we receive the grace of a softened and circumcised heart. So that we might go forth from here and be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, obeying God’s Torah and teaching others to do the same.