Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part 3)

Bombs or Bouquets?

It’s clear from a general reading of the Lukan account that the Lukan author has made significant adjustments and additions to the Markan composition. The same can be said of the Matthean account, but that’s a topic for next liturgical year. Those adjustments and additions are obvious in the text for the Baptism of Our Lord C.

We might discuss them in a text study like this or a Bible study in a congregation. But the Lukan editorial work is not a topic for a sermon – at least not in my hermeneutical tradition. That being said, the responsible preacher needs to know these changes and to have some understanding about why the Lukan author does what they do.

And…there’s the challenge.

As we have this conversation, I think it’s important to be clear that I don’t assume that the Markan composition is somehow more “original” or “authentic.” I think it’s clear that the Markan account comes earlier in the timeline of the Christian movement than the other three gospel accounts. That puts the Markan composition closer in time to the actual events, but that is no guarantee that it is more “historically accurate.”

That’s not the agenda for any of the Gospel composers. I’m not saying that they just made stuff up (well, that may be the case in a few instances). Instead, I’m saying that each of the Gospel composers has theological assumptions and goals that found and frame the particular Gospel in question. I like the Markan composition best for a number of stylistic and theological reasons, but NOT because I think it’s the one closest to “The Truth.”

One way to think about the differences between the Markan and Lukan accounts could go like this. I think the Markan composition is more “kerygmatic” and the Lukan composition is more “apologetic.” I’m using those words in fairly narrow technical ways, so I should explain what I mean.

A kerygmatic approach sees the Good News as an invasive reality that has little or nothing in common with the world as it is. There’s a real sense in which the Markan composer likes to blow stuff up – at least theologically. We get dropped into the explosive part of the story right away, and everything seems to happen “immediately.” The impact of this approach is confrontational and challenging. The Good News comes from outside the world as it is, and you can adjust to it or not – your choice.

In the kerygmatic approach, God’s Word comes into the world on its own terms, take it or leave it. Thus, it is (to steal Paul’s language), a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to us – to us who have given ourselves over to that new reality – it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

An apologetic approach sees the Good News as more consistent with the world as it is. We can use things we know about the world to get some general insights into what God is up to with the Gospel. We might be able to see some of these general insights, for example, in the natural world. Human philosophy might offer categories and analytical tools that help us to achieve a better understanding of theology and the ways that God operates. History might be interpreted as the outworking of God’s plans, whether most people know it or not.

Think about the things the Lukan author does in these first three chapters of the Gospel. The introduction is a clear description of an apologetic effort. The author wants to give Theophilus an “orderly account” of what Jesus means and who he is. There are the repeated attempts to locate all of the gospel events in the framework of “secular” history. Non-Jews have large parts in the plot and are at times the partial targets of the rhetoric.

So, Luke makes adjustments and additions to the Markan bomb-throwing enterprise. This seems clear in the account of Jesus’ baptism. In the run-up to the text, John the Baptist give ethical exhortations which are personally pointed but do not require a direct challenge to the Imperial system. Luke notes that the Herodians, clear losers in the historical struggles for rule, are at fault for putting John to death.

And Luke separates Jesus from John at the baptism as well as separating, at least rhetorically, the baptism from the descent of the Dove. It seems that the Lukan author is trying to make the birth and calling of Jesus similar to some degree to the birth stories of Greco-Roman heroes. I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author wanted to make Jesus into a Galilean Hercules. What I’m suggesting is that the Lukan author was keen to put the Gospel account into terms that would be more understandable for people in the Hellenistic world of the late first century.

Markan bomb throwing is fine if you think that the end of the world might come tomorrow or the day after. In fact, in the shadow of that impending doom, such apocalyptic assertiveness would be the only option that made sense. Going slowly, building the case, taking the time for questions – that would seem foolish in a world about to come to an end. Decide! Choose! Or soon the choice will be made for you!

If the Lukan author is coming to grips with a longer eschatological time scale, then such bomb throwing makes less sense. If, in addition, the Lukan author is targeting more privileged and established folks who have more to lose when the establishment gets blown up, then persuasion, meeting people where they’re at, hearing objections and alternatives, that makes more sense.

I don’t experience the Lukan account as “compromising” the Markan composition in any way at all. But it is a different time, a different audience, a different strategy, and a different tone.

Kerygmatic or apologetic – that’s always one of the questions that faces us as Christian witnesses. Do we risk being so “other” and confrontational in our witness that people can’t even hear or understand what we’re saying? That seems counterproductive. Do we line up our presentation of the Gospel so completely with the culture that Christian distinctiveness disappears into the blur of cultural conformity? That may be even worse.

Worst of all, do we allow our Christian witness to be coopted by the cultural establishment as a way not to challenge that establishment but rather to underwrite it? That’s the real challenge for Christians in the past two millennia. In the Eastern churches, there is so often the problem of being a “national” Church, completely aligned with (often oppressive) power structures. That is, in large part, the issue for Orthodoxy in Russia these days.

In the United States, a particular brand of Christianity has underwritten the system of White Supremacy here for four hundred years. A particularly virulent brand of what David Gushee calls “White Christian Nation-ism” has come into full view through the January 6, 2021, insurrection, and other similar events. To be White, Christian, and jingoistically authoritarian are all facets of the same ugly gem, in this perspective.

Those are extreme examples. For many of us western Christians, our accommodation with White supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, individualist American culture has become so familiar that we don’t even notice the accommodation. It could be that the Lukan author can help us this year to walk the line between sectarian separatism and semi-conscious accommodation.

So, for example, various Caesars claimed to be “sons of God.” What did they get wrong (or right) about those claims? How so? Some Christians attribute a vocation for former president Trump analogous to the vocation of Jesus here in Luke and elsewhere. That’s certainly not right, but why not? How so?

To what degree can I accommodate the lifestyle choices of my neighbor for the sake of the gospel witness? At what point does that accommodation become acquiescence? Should I focus more on challenge or dialogue, on debate or listening? I look forward to Lukan help with these questions.

Free Bible Study on Paul’s Letter to Philemon upcoming!

Friends, I am offering a free six-session study of Paul’s Letter to Philemon on Mondays, January 17, 24, and 31, and February 7, 15, and 22, 2022, from 7 to 8 p.m. on Zoom. During the study we will visit topics including how to read and understand Paul’s letters as oral/aural scripts, the nature of human enslavement as an institution in Greco-Roman culture and its impact on Christians, the ways that Paul sought to guide individuals and congregations in following Jesus, and ways in which this letter has relevance and power for our lives of discipleship today. I’ll present on a topic for twenty to thirty minutes and then we’ll spend the rest of the time in discussion. The sessions will be recorded for those who might miss a time or two. There’s no homework other than reading the text and no books to buy. If you want to participate, email me at lowellhennigs@gmail.com or message me on a social media platform, and I’ll send you a Zoom invitation.

Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part 2)

Baptism as Vocation

Why does Jesus get baptized? This seems to be a developing problem for the Gospel traditions that come after the Markan composition. The Matthean account devotes several verses to this issue in chapter three. John resists the idea that he ought to baptize Jesus “for repentance.” Jesus puts the issue to rest by saying that the baptism is proper “to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 14). I’m not clear what that phrase really means, but it is a way to move on from the issue.

The Johannine account does not report a baptism at all. John does testify, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 1:32, NRSV). Thus, even though mention of Jesus’ baptism is studiously avoided here, the descent of the Holy Spirit is emphasized more strongly.

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John, in this version, declares that he did not know Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” before this event. That seems odd, given the Synoptic tradition that Jesus and John were kinfolk. But John receives a revelation that “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33, NRSV). John has seen this descent and testifies that Jesus is “the Son of God.”

The Lukan account reports that Jesus is baptized but seems to separate John from that baptism. “But while all the people were being baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized, then as he was praying, the heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in visible, bodily form as a dove upon him, and there was a voice out of heaven, ‘You are my son, the beloved, in you I have taken pleasure’” (Luke 3:21-22, my translation).

The Matthean and Lukan accounts are pretty much in sync in the verses leading up to this paragraph. But they diverge significantly at this point, applying different “fixes” to the “problem.” The problem seems to be that baptism – whether by John or of the Christian variety – is associated with the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus is regarded, both narratively and theologically, as without sin. So, the question remains. Why does Jesus get baptized?

The Lukan account seems to open up a bit of space between the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit, moving toward the Johannine emphasis on the descent as the important moment in this part of the drama. I think that the Lukan author wants listeners/readers to experience the descent of the Holy Spirit as a moment of vocation more than a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

This may be a helpful emphasis in proclamation for this coming Sunday. In my Lutheran tradition, baptism (at least as understood in the pews) is almost exclusively about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God in Christ. This understanding leads to a highly transactional understanding of the nature of baptism – do the act and get the benefit. This leads to people calling (at least Lutheran) pastors wanting to schedule a time to “get the kid done.”

I hated those calls to my study almost as much as I detested the inquires about weddings because we had such a pretty sanctuary. It’s not that I think nothing happens in baptism regarding the forgiveness of sin and the entrance into a new life. Far from it! I never turned down those “get the kid done” calls precisely because I am sure that the Holy Spirit can work powerfully even when those involved have no interest in that work.

The fact is, however, that a significant part of the Rite of Christian Baptism, at least in our tradition, is vocational in nature. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ is certainly the gift that Paul describes, for example, in Romans 6. But it is also the calling we receive in Christ to follow him and the equipment we receive by the Holy Spirit to pursue that calling.

The presider, for example, marks the forehead of the baptismal candidate with the sign of the cross (often using anointing oil). The presider speaks the name of the person and then continues: “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” That assurance is then followed by the vocation. The presider presents a lit candle to the baptized and brings to mind Jesus’ words: “Let you light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.”

Just as Jesus’ baptism was both gift and vocation, so is the baptism of each person who follows Jesus. The baptismal rite concludes with a welcome to the newest member of the Messiah’s family. That welcome is into the body of Christ, but also into the mission all members of that body share – a mission both of worship and witness, of prayer and service.

I think that we see this working out in the Lukan account both when Jesus is tested in the wilderness and when Jesus preaches his inaugural sermon in Nazareth in chapter four. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirt and is led by the Spirit in the wilderness (Luke 4:1). What is tested is his identity as the Son of God, the gift of identity received after the baptism and the descent of the dove. Following the testing, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee to carry out his calling.

In the Nazareth sermon, we get the content of the call. Jesus reads from Isaiah about the nature of the call which comes from the anointing of the Spirit – bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a declaration of the Jubilee Year. His sermon is one of the shorter on record: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20, NRSV).

This is the content of the call that comes to Jesus followers who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Forgiveness of sin is preparation to receive and enact that vocation. I think the Lukan author would like us to see that such forgiveness is not an end in itself but is rather a necessary step in the journey toward Spirit-born discipleship. Therefore, baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection cannot be a mere transaction. It is intended by God to be an ongoing transformation powered by the Holy Spirit in, among, and through us.

The Baptism of our Lord is an excellent opportunity to remind Jesus followers of this dimension of the baptized life. It will be news for some and a helpful reminder for others. I hope it is an opportunity that is not missed.

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Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part One)

Baptism of Our Lord C – January 9, 2022

A Two-Handed Gospel

“Give me a one-handed economist,” demanded President Harry Truman. “All my economists,” he complained, “say ‘on the one hand…,’ then ‘but on the other…’” Understandably, Give ‘Em Hell Harry wanted simple and actionable information. If only economics at the macro level could produce simple and actionable information. Of course, it would be nice if anything important in life delivered some “one-handed” information.

In the gospel text for the Baptism of our Lord, Year C, the Lukan author uses a favorite construction. It is the “men-de” construction which often produces the translation best rendered by “on the one hand…on the other hand.” We see this, for example, in the way John contrasts himself with the one who will come after him.

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“John replied to them all and said, ‘I on the one hand am baptizing you with water; on the other hand, the one who is coming is my Stronger One, of whom I am not worthy to loose the strap of his sandals; he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire…’” (Luke 3:16, my translation). The construction provides a contrast between the two “hands” without creating an opposition between them.

The same construction is used in verses eighteen through twenty.  “Therefore, on the one hand, with many and various exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people; (19) but on the other hand, Herod the Tetrarch, who was being condemned by him [John] concerning Herodias the wife of his [Herod’s] brother and concerning all of the evil things Herod did, (20) piled also upon all this [and] shut up John in prison” (my translation).

This is grammatical and literary justification for including verses eighteen through twenty in the liturgical reading for this Sunday. The Lukan author summarizes John’s preaching as “Good News” for the people (read, “ordinary people”) but as bad news for Herod the Tetrarch. This historical context, a two-handed description, is the setting for Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his work.

In addition, verse eighteen has a “therefore” or a “then” in the sentence. This means, of course, that the Lukan author understands verses eighteen through twenty as the implication or consequence or meaning of the preceding material. John’s preaching was clearly more than a call to personal repentance. It included the critique of the powerful that put an end to John’s public ministry.

Herod “shut up” John’s critique by shutting him up in prison. On the one hand, Jesus could have taken the hint and faded into the background, dying of old age. On the other hand, he could fill the role described by John and launch into his work. Of course, Jesus chose the latter. He did so under the shadow of the cross, a shadow cast by John’s imprisonment and execution.

I am reminded that the Word of God is always “two-handed,” always capable of doing two things at the same time. In my Lutheran theological tradition, this is the “Law-Gospel dialectic.” The Word always pronounces Law and proclaims Gospel at the same time. It is true that the Lukan author draws a contrast between the “wheat” of the people who come to be baptized by John and the “chaff” of Herod and company. Sometimes the contrasts are that obvious – but not very often.

On the one hand, there is much in me that needs to be purified and removed with the wind and fire of the Spirit. That can be a painful and humbling process and is a daily reality for me and for all Jesus followers. On the other, the Good News of God’s love for all of us in Jesus the Messiah is always being announced, and I am given the ears to hear that gospel. Both things can happen at the same time and even through the same text.

If I am listening from a place of power, privilege, position, and property, I will likely hear the Word as a threat to my place, and I may reject what I hear. If I am listening from a place of oppression and subjugation, I will likely hear the Word as an announcement of liberation of Good News for the poor, and I will gladly embrace what I hear. We get some of that dynamic in Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4.

Jesus comes to bring a “two-handed” gospel – that gathers together the wheat and burns away the chaff. Our temptation is to demand a “one-handed” gospel that omits the cleansing of judgment.

Holy Spirit, empower me to allow both hands of the Word to work in my life today.

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Text Study for John 1:1-18 (Pt. 2); January 2, 2021

In and Among

“And the Word became flesh and tabernacled in us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the Only-begotten from the Father, full of gracious truth” (John 1:14, my translation).

Translation requires choices. The old Latin proverb is “Traduttore, traditore” – “The translator is a traitor.” As long as we can stick with the original language, we can maintain the ambiguity, double entendre, the multivalent and multivocal meanings of particular words.

But the moment we translate, we have to choose. There is rarely an absolute one to one correspondence without remainder between words in different languages. And that lack of correspondence is often biggest in the littlest words.

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In John 1:14, the phrase in Greek is “en hemin.” It is usually translated as “among us.” This is the translation preferred, for example, by the NRSV. It’s an accurate and acceptable translation, but I’m not sure it’s adequate. The most basic meaning of the phrase is “in us” rather than “among us.” I think that most basic meaning is the more helpful translation at this point.

Why does this matter to me? I think that “among” shades pretty quickly, in our minds, into “with.” The Matthean declaration that Jesus is “God with us” colors, I believe, our understanding of the Incarnation as described in the Johannine prologue. And “with” leads many of us to focus on the Divine accompaniment of the cosmos – God alongside us, keeping us company, reassuring us when we feel alone.

I’m not criticizing that understanding. It is certainly part of what we Christians mean to say when we talk about the doctrine of the Incarnation. But I don’t think it encompasses what the Johannine author seeks to communicate. I would suggest that in the Prologue we meet the Incarnate One who not only accompanies but always empowers us. The Incarnate One is not only among us but in us.

I would suggest that this is one of the reasons the Johannine author uses the verb, “skenoo,” here. Elizabeth Johnson, in her workingpreacher.org commentary notes that “the Greek verb translated ‘lived’ in this verse is skenoo, which means more literally, ‘pitched his tent.’ Just as God traveled with the people of Israel in the wilderness by means of the ‘tent of meeting’ in their midst,” she continues, “John announces that God has chosen to ‘tabernacle’ among us in an even more radical way, by the Word embodied in human flesh.”

In the Exodus account, the living presence of God moved from Sinai into the Tent of Meeting (which becomes the Tabernacle). Certainly, the living presence of God was “among” or “in the midst of” the people, although the Tent of Meeting was really located outside the camp. More than that, however, the living presence of God was powerful in and through Moses and the people and led them on the way.

It seems to me that an emphasis on the Incarnate Word as tabernacling “among” (with) us, tends to focus exclusively on the “Person” of Christ. Thus, it leads us to sermons about the nature of the Incarnation and descriptions of Trinitarian relationships. By noticing the “in” character of this presence, we can focus on the “Work” of Christ to empower disciples to put their trust in him and to participate in the mission of the Church.

I don’t think this is an either/or conversation. All I’m saying is that translation forces us to choose one word where several probably would be better. Let me move to the end of the Johannine gospel to illustrate what I mean.

When Jesus appears to the disciples the first time in the locked room, they rejoice when they realize that their Lord is with them again. That is the beginning of the interaction, however, not the end. Jesus then breathes into them the Holy Spirit which empowers them to embody the Divine Life in their relationships with one another. The Word takes on flesh in them and in their reality as community.

I think that the Johannine intertextual reference is obvious here. Just as God breathed the Breath of Life into the nostrils of the first man in Genesis, so Jesus breathes that Breath of Life into the disciples, and they are put on the path to full and flourishing humanity. That gift is certainly among them, but it is also in them. They become walking, talking tabernacles, or as Paul would put it, temples of the Holy Spirit.

It is, therefore, no accident that the Gospel of John is the primary anchor point for the Christian traditions that emphasize theosis (divinization) as the path of the Christian life. These, primarily Eastern, traditions, call us to see not only what God does for us and with us in Christ but also what God does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift of truth to which we are called and into which we grow for now and for eternity.

As I have noted in other posts, this perspective finds a home in Lutheran theology in the notion of “Christ present in faith.” Tuomo Mannermaa reminds us that when Luther discusses the theology of faith in his Preface to Romans, he refers to our passage as an illustration. “Faith, however,” Luther writes, “is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God…” (Kindle Location 467).

Luther continues his description thus. Faith, as this divine work, “kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men (sic), in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.” Then comes the sentence that is often quoted without this theosis context. This faith “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,” Luther writes. “It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly” (Kindle Location 472).

In the Incarnation, Jesus is filled with the gracious truth of the Father. Colossians 1:19 would tell us that in him “was pleased to dwell all the fullness [of the Deity].” Luther argues that Christ “lives and works in us, not speculatively but really, most presently and most effectively” (Kindle Location 480). “According to Luther,” Mannermaa writes, “faith is the right way of becoming a partaker of God because it possesses the whole fullness of the essence of God in Christ” (Kindle Location 489).

The logic of the Reformer’s thinking is as follows,” Mannermaa concludes: “In faith, human beings are really united with Christ. Christ, in turn, is both the forgiveness of sins and the effective producer of everything that is good in them” (Kindle Locations 675-676). The gracious truth we receive from the Incarnate One is that we are restored to full and flourishing humanity and are called by God in Christ through the power of the Spirit to live according to that humanity.

The Incarnation is, therefore, both “comfort” and “call.” We can receive that call or reject it, as we noted in the previous post. Receiving that call makes us children of God who put our trust in His name. That call doesn’t come from any human agency but rather from God, present in Christ through faith.

I rejoice in the presence of the Incarnate One among us as the source of comfort and hope. I rejoice all the more in the presence of the Incarnate One in us as the source of good works that embody that presence and shape me more and more in the likeness of the Incarnate One.

References and Resources

Johnson, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-3/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-9.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification Kindle Edition.

van Deventer, Cornelia. “Performing John: the participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel.” Neotestamentica 53.3 (2019): 517-534.

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Text Study for John 1:1-18; January 2, 2022

Getting Into the Act

I think I am making a gradual return to the land of the living after a week and a half of cold and flu symptoms. I am wondering about what performance criticism methods may have to tell us about the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

We have learned to pay attention to the first-person pronouns in gospel accounts. These are cues that the text is directed toward us as audience and is seeking to engage us as participants. Notice that in John 1:1-13, the pronouns are all third-person. We are spectators at the beginning of the account.

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All that changes in verses fourteen through sixteen. The pronouns all become first-person plural: us and we. Cornelia van Deventer reminds us that this first-person plural move is also found, for example, at the end of the Johannine account – “This is the disciple, the one who is testifying concerning these things and the one who wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24, my translation).

The “we” in John 1 and John 21 seems a bit slippery when I read the verses. On the one hand, the “we” certainly refers to the community which has received, and which communicates the testimony of the Beloved Disciple. On the other hand, the “we” also invites us as the audience and/or readers to become a part of that “we.” Do “we” know that the Beloved Disciple’s testimony is true? And, if so, will we live that way? That is the challenge of the Johannine account.

Remember that the purpose statement of John’s gospel is a direct invitation to us as audience and reader. “But these things have been written in order you (plural) would put your faith in the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in order that as you put your faith in that fact you would have life in his name” (John 20:31, my translation). The Johannine account is written in order to call forth an active response on the part of the hearer/reader.

Cornelia van Deventer argues that this and other purpose statements in the Johannine gospel urge us as listeners to become a “participating audience” and to enact that participation “by performing what [we] have see and to experience the life that accompanies such belief. The Gospel, therefore,” she declares, “contains a dimension of experiencing, participating and ultimately performing” (page 1).

Van Deventer seeks to describe the “implied audience” of John’s gospel in order to come to a deeper understanding of the author’s intended call to action. She sees the Johannine prologue as a critical part of that call to action and a place to begin to understand that implied audience. The Johannine prologue sets up the audience with a framework for understanding the action that will follow in the body of the drama.

The “we” in verses fourteen through sixteen might refer exclusively to the author and the community which supported that author’s work – including others who might have experienced firsthand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, the use of the “we” also creates what van Deventer calls a “porous” group identity – that is, a group identity that can invite and accommodate us as well. She notes that the “we” in verse sixteen is expanded to “we all” with the effect that the audience is included in the text (page 5).

We, as audience, therefore, have insider information as the gospel account unfolds “The audience is initiated into the Johannine story with a revelation of [Jesus’] divine glory,” van Deventer notes, “the perspective that the ‘we’ brings to the table” (page 5). This first-person plural includes us as listeners/readers and seeks to persuade us that we too witness the glory of the Logos and the truthfulness of the story.

Van Deventer observes that this invitation is extended to all of humanity in verses four through nine. The question is whether people will embrace that invitation or reject it. Those who embrace the invitation are called “children of God.” They are the ones who are continuing to believe in the present and into the future. For the Johannine author, the time for responding is now. And the scope of that response is into God’s future.

The drama of the story is whether the characters will be “receivers” or “rejecters.” That drama is then offered to the implied audience as a personal drama as well. The gospel is filled with stories that enact this drama at very personal and intimate levels. The drama is culminated in the testimony and response of the Beloved Disciple, the real model for the faith response the Gospel author seeks to elicit.

“The reality is, however,” van Deventer writes, “that the Johannine audience has not simply been empowered to evaluate the ethos of the various characters in the story, but, according to the purpose of the author, they have the mandate to now evaluate their own” (page 13). That’s an interesting and challenging preaching focus on the first Sunday of a new calendar year. We, who have been believing, are invited to reflected on whether we will continue that life of faith into the future.

“The Fourth Gospel, therefore,” writes van Deventer, “supposes an audience of individuals who were intended to become,” in the words of another scholar, “participators and propagators” of Jesus’ life and words (page 13). That’s what it means to “perform” the Gospel – or in the words of the Johannine author – to continue to put our trust in Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

The Johannine account leaves room for doubt, struggle, questions, thick-headedness, and even rejection on the part of the listeners. We shouldn’t assume that this “believing” comes easily or is merely a once and for all sort of decision. We have only to read the gospel accounts to see that this is an ongoing challenge for any and all disciples.

“The participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel,” van Deventer observes, “is therefore a double-edged sword: it is both encouraging and challenging” (page 14). “We” are invited into the drama as participants. The “fourth wall” of the gospel theater is “porous,” as van Deventer names it, and we can find ourselves passing through it and on to the stage. If that happens, the gospel account has done at least a part of its work.

“By pointing its finger to the audience,” she continues, “the Fourth Gospel makes it clear that it has not fashioned an audience of uninformed bystanders, but an enlightened audience of performers: what they now perform is entirely up to them” (page 14).

I wonder if one simple way to make this experiential in worship is to turn the reading of the Johannine prologue into a sort of call and response experience. Perhaps the liturgical reader could “solo” on verses 1-13 and 17-18. And perhaps the congregation could read/perform verses 14-16. This might be most effective if the participatory and performative nature of the gospel account were pointed out to the listeners in advance of the reading.

Van Deventer offers these conclusions. She “argues that the Fourth Gospel creates a self-conscious audience from the prologue and that this audience is invited to become performers of a certain ethos through the creation of an ideal and porous group of receivers of the Logos and his revelation” (page 14). In addition, the gospel account creates and offers various characters who perform that belief, culminating in the Beloved Disciple. And the gospel account climaxes with the purpose statement that poses the challenge of continuing to believe directly.

This perspective offers a refreshing alternative to tortuous dissertations on the nature of the Incarnate Logos. And it challenges us as preachers to allow the gospel text to do what it was intended to do – to call and recall listeners to active and ongoing trust in Jesus as the Source of abundant life for us and for the cosmos.

References and Resources

Johnson, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-3/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-9.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

van Deventer, Cornelia. “Performing John: the participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel.” Neotestamentica 53.3 (2019): 517-534.

Text Study for John 1:1-18, 2 Christmas C, 2022

Still feeling ill today, so I’m running some previous commentary on the upcoming text. Blessings!

Preachers will tackle this text when people are still more aware of endings than of beginnings. The posts and tweets and memes describing 2020 as a sack of garbage inside a dumpster fire have been shared now for months. The urgent desire to put that calendar year in the rearview mirror has only grown in its intensity. The sighs of relief, the “Phew! Glad that’s over!” declarations will be ubiquitous.

We are surely glad to be done with that year.

Of course, the difference from December 31, 2020, to January 1, 2021, is twenty-four hours, just like any other diurnal cycle. The ending is, quite literally, all in our heads. We have great hopes that vaccines will be effective, that policies will be forthcoming, and that normalcy will return. But really, most endings come gradually, not with a whoosh.

Photo by Kei Scampa on Pexels.com

For most of us, by this time Christmas has been over for a week and a half. But liturgically, the Christmas season isn’t quite over when we get to this text. We still have a couple of days to go before we get to Epiphany. The season will sort of peter out in the middle of the week, and few people will even notice. The text itself dwells not a word on endings. It is about The Beginning – not just any old start-up, but rather The Beginning of all things in The Word made flesh.

First off, I would never read only a portion of John’s prologue. Read it all, or don’t read it. But don’t split it in half. If you’re going to do justice to the text, you’ll end up referring to something you didn’t read anyway. So, just read it all. Every time. “While John 1:1-9 is optional,” writes Karoline Lewis, “verses 10-18 make little sense without the premises set out in the opening verses. The Prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus.” Lewis reminds us. “To view these 18 verses as such is both homiletically and hermeneutically helpful.”

Second, no one can preach a sermon that takes in the depth and breadth, the beauty and majesty, the poetry and power of John’s Prologue. You can’t do that in a ten (or twenty) minute sermon. You can’t do that in an hour-long Bible study. You certainly can’t do it in a few thousand words of amateur commentary. So, pick your spot and remember that this text comes around again.

In the beginning was the Word,” John writes. The “Word” has central place in these opening verses and yet seems to disappear in the rest of John’s account. Some scholars have suggested on this basis that the Prologue was therefore not part of the original gospel account. There is, however, very little manuscript evidence to support this contention. Instead, I appreciate the take we get from Malina and Rohrbaugh in the Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John:

“One term that appears prominently in this opening poem, yet seems to disappear through the rest of the Gospel, is ‘Word.’ To think of it disappearing, however, would be misleading. In v. 14 we are told that this Word becomes ‘enfleshed’ in Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, it is as the story of Jesus that the ‘Word’ appears in the rest of John.” (page 30).

They note that in the Hebrew scriptures, God’s Word is connected with God’s action of and in Creation, and God’s self-disclosure to and through the prophets. We can see those two works of the Word in the Prologue as well. The revelation in the Hebrew scriptures is not contradicted or superseded by the Word.

Instead, this is another place in the Christian scriptures that notes how Jesus fulfills the Word spoken to the prophets. We can read similar language, for example, in Hebrews 1:1-4. “The Word that was with God in the beginning,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “refers to God’s total utterance that has resulted in everything created, visible and invisible” (page 35).

Jesus is not plan B. And the Law was not a mistake. “The law indeed was given through Moses,” John writes, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Holly Hearon writes, “it is important to notice that the word ‘but’ never appears in the sentence. In other words, John is not claiming that grace and truth belongs to Jesus but not to the law. Both grace and truth are found in the law.”

J. Ramsey Michaels puts it this way in his commentary: “God’s gift of the Jewish law, he says, makes way for grace and truth, the gift of the Spirit through Jesus Christ. The distinction is not between law and grace as contrasting ways of salvation, but between two gifts of grace: the law and the Spirit (cf. Paul in 2 Cor. 3: 7– 18).” (page 24).

“The difference, from John’s perspective,” Holly Hearon continues, “is between reading a book and going directly to the author. Going to the author neither sets the book aside nor negates its contents. For Christians, the book (or the ‘law’) anticipates the direct revelation we experience in Jesus Christ.”

John makes an early appearance in this Gospel, not as Baptizer but as Witness. Karoline Lewis notes this as she writes, “Yet the presence of John here, particularly for our Christmas preaching, suggests that a critical response to Christmas is witness. Christmas,” she reminds us, “is not over when the trees are put out to the curb. Christmas is just getting started for those who confess Jesus as God who has become flesh.” Malina and Rohrbaugh note that John is only the first of many witnesses to Jesus in John’s gospel (see page 32).

The Word became flesh and lived among us,” the NRSV translates, too tame by half. It is astonishing beyond words that the One who dwells beyond the categories of being and becoming should enter into our limited and transient existence for our sake and for the sake of the whole cosmos. That coming into existence was not a tourist excursion.

The Creating Word “pitched his tent” among us (the literal translation) and settles in for the long haul. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that the term “may have been intended to draw associations with Israel’s exodus story, in which the tent (or tabernacle) symbolizes the presence of God in the midst of Israel” (page 33).

John’s prologue emphasizes the cosmic dimension of the Incarnation. “The purpose of the Gospel writer is to place the story of Jesus in a cosmic perspective,” Michaels notes. “The light that came into the world in Jesus Christ is the same light that illumined every human creature from the beginning.”

In just a few chapters, we will hear that God loves the cosmos by giving the only-begotten Son so the whole cosmos may be saved. The context of the prologue, according to Michaels, “strongly suggests that in a wider sense Jesus’ own country is the world to which he was sent and his own people are human beings of every race or nation, all those on whom God’s light shines (cf. vv. 4, 9). These wider implications will become apparent when Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the last time (cf. 12: 19, 32) and when he confronts Pilate and the authority of Rome.

Within this cosmic framework, there is a relationship of infinite intimacy between the Father and the only-begotten Son. It is not the Father’s “heart” that describes the relationship of Jesus to the Father. The Greek word is “kolpos” and would be better translated as “bosom” or “breast.” Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus, as God’s unique expression of God and God’s son, dwells at the bosom of the father. The meaning conveyed in this picture of Jesus at the bosom of God is extraordinary tenderness. One would be hard-pressed,” she concludes, “to secure a description of relationship more intimate than the nursing of a child.”

“Thus, the poem ends where it began,” observe Malina and Rohrbaugh, “the close personal relationship between Father and Son is what makes it possible for the Son to reveal the Father. As the Gospel proceeds,” they suggest, “it will also be the bond that creates and enables bonding among the group members to Jesus and to each other” (page 34).

In the beginning was the Word. There is meaning, purpose, order, life and light underneath and in the middle of the chaotic darkness. Humans, at our worst and at our best, ask, “So, what’s the point?” We seek meaning. We find meaning. We make meaning. Or not.

But the promise at the beginning of John’s Gospel is that, whether we know it or not, the point is there. And the point is love beyond deserving, light no darkness can hem in or snuff out. I can’t cram all that into my little brain, my mini-mind, my haunted heart, my stifled spirit. Sometimes I can glimpse or sniff or taste a bit of it. Sometimes I shiver as the mystery brushes the back of my neck. Mostly I trust that the point is there somewhere, and it is enfleshed in Jesus.

References and Resources

Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-3.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-5.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) [Kindle Android version].

Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” Address to the Scottish Church Theology society conference, January 2013, and published in Theology in Scotland.

Christmas at Home

“I’ll be home for Christmas.

You can plan on me.

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents on the tree…”

It was summer, 1943—the dead center of the Second World War, although no one really knew it yet.  Allied troops had conquered Sicily and set their sights on Italy.  Russian troops began to push Nazi forces west across the great European frontier.  A glimmer of hope appeared for those waiting for loved ones around the world.

In August of that year Walter Kent and James Gannon published the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  In October, Bing Crosby recorded the song.  In four weeks, the song was number three in America.  The lyrics expressed the hopes of every American soldier and the dreams of every waiting family member.

“Christmas Eve will find me

Where my love light gleams.

I’ll be home for Christmas,

If only in my dreams.”

In the end, it is a bittersweet song.  Being home for Christmas may be past my power.  At best, home for Christmas may be a fond dream—and nothing more.

Tonight is another Christmas away from home.  This is literally true for hundreds of thousands serving in our military.  It is also Christmas away from home for many more.

This is the first Christmas apart for those who have lost loved ones this year.  It is Christmas away from home for families broken by conflict and divorce.  This is Christmas away from home for the sick, for those in prison, and for those enslaved by addictions.

Christmas must be away from home when you have no home.  That is the case on tsunami-ravaged coasts, in hurricane-flattened neighborhoods, and on the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I’ll be home for Christmas.

You can plan on me.

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents on the tree…”

That first Christmas, Jesus wasn’t at home either.  At least, he wasn’t among family and friends.  Mary and Joseph may have appreciated a little time away from the disapproving stares and damning whispers that dogged their every step. 

They were helpless victims of an imperial system that cared nothing about their comfort and everything about their coins.  Jesus found himself in a borrowed bed, surrounded by strangers, cooing to cattle.  He wasn’t at home.

“Christmas Eve will find me

Where my love light gleams.

I’ll be home for Christmas,

If only in my dreams.”

Something, however, is missing here.  Jesus wasn’t in Nazareth.  That much is true.  But Jesus Christ is certainly at home!  The Gospel of John writes the headline for this story.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”

We don’t come home to Christmas.  Christmas comes home to us!

In American culture, Christmas is always the silly season.  It is filled with confusing images, mixed metaphors and contradictory values.  Everyone wants a piece of Christmas, but that sort of Christmas offers no peace.

This Christmas season has been sillier than most because it has been hijacked once again by politicians of all stripes.  But we Christians have an opportunity.  We have the opportunity to reclaim Christmas for Jesus Christ.  Christmas isn’t defined by trees or gifts or manger scenes or Disney movies.  Those are all things WE do.

We don’t come home to Christmas.  Christmas comes home to us!

Revelation twenty-one puts it better than I ever could:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

They will be God’s peoples, and God indeed will be with them;

God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

For the first things have passed away.”

We don’t come home to Christmas.  Christmas comes home to us!

Kathryn Koob grew up on a farm southeast of Waterloo, Iowa.  She was an American embassy professional.  On November fourth, 1979, she and fifty-one other embassy staff were taken hostage during the Iranian revolution.

Katy and her colleagues were imprisoned for one Christmas.  They sat in bondage for another.  During that second Christmas, Katy and other hostages were allowed to send a satellite message home.

Her nephews and nieces loved their Aunt Katy.  She sent a message to them.  She reminded them of the Christmas carols they sang together.  Then she sang “Away in a Manger.”  Verse three brought tears to her eyes and to mine.

“Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to say

Close by me forever and love me, I pray.

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care

And fit us for heaven to live with you there.”

Kathryn Koob understood that HER location didn’t make it Christmas.  Christmas depends on Jesus Christ’s location.  His location is right here—within us, among us, and around us—right now.

We don’t come home to Christmas.  Christmas comes home to us!

In this silly season, we Christians must be absolutely clear.  The Lord of all Creation has freely chosen to live in us, among us, and around us.  God’s home is right here and right now.  This is no dream.  This is no fond wish.  This is the reality that makes all the difference in the world.

Titus three makes it clear:  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

I always think of Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, as I prepare for Christmas.  I can’t help but think for a moment about how it ends.  Christmas came to live at Scrooge’s house every day of the year.  Dickens put it this way:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

We don’t come home to Christmas.  Christmas comes home to us!  May the final verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” be our Christmas prayer.

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;

Oh, come to us; abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”

We don’t come home to Christmas.  Christmas comes home to us!  Amen.

Text Study for Luke 2:40-52 (Pt. 1); December 26, 2021

How to Play It?

If you are preaching on December 26th (and I hope that most parish pastors have come up with some other plan for that day), you have two choices initially. Will you observe the Feast of Stephen – and sing “Good King Wenceslas” (along with appropriate commentary), or will you observe the First Sunday after Christmas? I’ll begin by reflecting on the gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas. I’ll see if I get to any Stephen-tide reflections along the way.

The text is really Luke 2:21-52. Whether you choose to read that whole text at worship or not, this is the Lukan framework for experiencing and interpreting the text. I want to begin by focusing on a number of small details that might impact, first of all, how one would perform the text. How would you play the dialogue between Jesus and his parents?

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“Child,” his mother says to Jesus. This is not the term for a very young child or infant but for one who has grown some but still have not achieved the adulthood which would have been less than a year in the future for a twelve-year-old. This is the first word and reminds us all (including Jesus, one would think) of the nature of the relationship between him and Mary.

That being said, do you read it with an exasperated exclamation point after the word? “Child!” Having lost track of a child more than once in my parenting career, I’m tempted to play it that way. But that is certainly not the only option. One could sigh with long-suffering parental exhaustion and follow the address by an ellipsis and a weary shake of the head: “Child…”

Or one could put on a scolding tone and even hold up an accusing index finger while raising one’s voice as the word comes out – “ChiLD!” One could even do this dialogue with a bemused sense of parental humor – “Child” (as in, “what in the world have you been up to this time?”).

I lean toward an anxious and frustrated accusation myself, given the length of time spent searching and the expressed anxiety experienced during the search. But that’s not the only option. It’s worth reflecting on this as you consider reading and then preaching on the text. Because questions hover in the background of this text. What did Jesus’ parents know, when did they know it, and did they forget some of it over the years?

“Why have you acted like this toward us?” Mary asks. Again, is this an accusation or a scold? Is it an expression of pain in the midst of the relief? Is it a question about how Jesus could dishonor his parents in front of family, friends, community, and a bunch of strangers? “Jesus, what were you thinking?” Does the question express any sense of betrayal or disappointment? Is this question the source of their parental “amazement”?

“Pay attention! Your father and I have been seeking you, feeling anxious.” Does Jesus’ mother plead to be noticed, to be taken seriously? Does this have more of the flavor of “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” I know we can’t import twenty-first century tween behavior into a first century text. However, I can certainly imagine the eye-rolling and the looking elsewhere that I have experienced when trying to impress the seriousness of a situation on a twelve-year-old. It’s hard for me to keep that out of this scene.

Then there is Jesus. We get no clues from the Lukan account about emotional tone as we do in Mary’s lines. He simply spoke to them. Verse forty-nine begins with an “and,” so there’s no sense of adversative tone or an alteration in perspective. But he does certainly temper the anxiety and perhaps discount it.

“Why was it that you were searching for me?” Does Jesus say this in dismissive tones? Is he genuinely surprised that there was a problem? Is he irritated by the unnecessary interruption? Does he put off his parents in that infuriating manner that tweens have of making it clear that what was happening was really no big deal, so lighten up, will you? I don’t know.

“Didn’t you understand,” he continues, “that it was necessary for me to be in my father’s…?” In my father’s what? The text doesn’t say. The NRSV fills in the blank with “house” since the whole incident takes place in the Jerusalem temple. That’s certainly an option, but we can’t rely on that with certainty. “About my father’s business” is as good a translation as that, but certainly no more secure.

The word for “know” has the underlying sense of understanding rather than mere awareness. “If you had thought about it,” Jesus may be saying, “it might have occurred to you to begin looking for me here rather than coming to this place as a last resort.” That sense of the sentence still doesn’t provide us with any hints about tone. It could easily be uttered as a cutting remark, a comforting reassurance, or an objective observation.

“And they did not comprehend the words which he spoke to them,” the Lukan narrator tells us. What does this assessment mean? That they were too anxious to take it all in, just relieved to have found their boy after all? That it was just too much to take in and required long processing – precisely the thing that his mother did, storing up all these words “in her heart”? Were they confused by the reference to his “father’s house,” which to them was in Nazareth rather than in Jerusalem?

I think the Lukan author wants, in this scene, for Jesus to grow up right in front of us. I would start the reading no later than verse 40, since that seems to serve as an inclusio with verse 52. In verses 40 and 43, Jesus is described as a small child rather than a pre-teen, no matter what the NRSV translation may say in verse 43. That child is the one who decides to remain in Jerusalem rather than to return immediately to Nazareth with his parents.

The text moves us from Joseph as the father of Jesus to the God of Israel as the Father of Jesus. Jesus is a partner in the conversation at the grown-ups’ table. He isn’t giving a theology lecture. Nor is he sitting and taking notes. He is trying both to understand and to contribute to understanding. He is asking questions and proposing answers. He’s beginning to do what rabbis do.

There’s a sense in which this text performs the same function as a spinning globe did in old black and white movies. The globe could represent the passage of time, the movement through space, and often both at the same time. We get a compressed glimpse at Jesus as he grows from child to adult, and as he prepares for the ministry ahead of him. These are the first words we hear from Jesus in the Lukan account. His next words will be his inaugural sermon at Nazareth. We get some preparation for those words in this story.

Perhaps the Lukan author wants us to identify with Jesus’ parents and especially with his mother. Can I allow Jesus to be fully human as well as fully divine? The Lukan author doesn’t give us a poetic theological meditation on the nature of the Incarnation as does the writer of John’s gospel. Instead, we get a story about a child who grows to be a man – one who asks and answers questions, who listens and understands, who prods us beyond our settled assumptions.

Can we stand to have a relationship with the God who doesn’t want us to rest on what we think we know for sure? Can we stand to have a relationship with the God who wants us to have faith in Jesus rather than having faith in having faith?

Are we willing to sit with our uncertainties and discomforts rather than demanding that all our questions be answered, and all our confusions be resolved? Mary ponders. Mary collects experiences and information and lets it all percolate. That’s anxiety-producing for Jesus’ parents and for us. Failing to understand is not permission to reject new information. It is, rather, an invitation to ponder more deeply, to hold contradictory things in tension, to let the Holy Spirit work on us a bit at a time.

Do we expect to “get it” all at once and never have to review or revisit what we have learned about Jesus in the gospels? Somehow, the years have dimmed the light of the angels and dulled their songs. Who Jesus is has ceased to be quite so clear – perhaps because he has simply acted so much and so often like a real boy (Pinocchio is, after all, a resurrection story). How could they have forgotten? Why didn’t they understand?

Because they were normal human beings who need to learn things over again. I’m astonished at the adult Christians who think that they learned the Christian faith once as children and that’s enough. People don’t think that about anything else in life. What if physicians never learned one more thing after medical school? What if carpenters stopped practicing their trade for ten years and then tried to pick it up again? Why should we think that one dose of Jesus should be enough for a lifetime?

What we know about Jesus may not change much. But we surely do. For forty-five years I have read and studied these same texts. I discover something new and life-giving every time I come back to them. That happens for several reasons. I may have retired, but the Holy Spirit has not. The Word has depth, beauty, and complexity that I cannot exhaust in one lifetime. And I am not the same person I was three years ago or thirty-three years ago. There is no reason why the text should seem the same to me.

At the very least, this story calls us to hold what we know and what we believe close in our hearts until it becomes a bit clearer.