Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Four)

Researchers call it the “Last Place Aversion.” Why do people those near the bottom of any social status pyramid treat those beneath them badly? Why do people in low-income groups vote against their self-interest and support systems of inequality? Philosophers and historians have known about this human tendency for centuries. But the explanations offered have not been very convincing.

Until recently. In 2014 researchers[i] suggested that we humans really hate being in “last place.” We will even act against our self-interest if that keeps us out of the bottom of the heap. Nothing makes us happier than having a group or class to look down on. As we move up in status, last place anxiety decreases. As we move down in status, it increases.

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In one set of experiments, people were given random dollar amounts. Then the experimenters showed them where they landed on the dollar hierarchy. Each subject then chose one of two strategies. One strategy gives the player more money as almost a sure thing. The other strategy is higher risk but gives the player the chance to move up in the hierarchy.

All the players chose the almost sure thing except for the bottom two. The last-place player wants to move up. The second-to-the-last place player wants to keep from moving down. Both players are willing to tolerate higher risk than average. The one hates being in last place. The other hates the thought of being in last place.

Last place aversion.

Another experiment is a money-transfer game. The players get random amounts of money. Each player has one dollar less than the next highest and one dollar more than the next lowest. Everyone knows their place on the money ladder. Players receive two dollars more. Each player has to give their extra two dollars either to the person directly above them or directly below them on the money ladder.

If I give the two dollars to the person above me, that person will move higher on the ladder (except for the top person). If I give two dollars to the person below me, I fall one place on the ladder. On average, players offer up or down at about the same rate regardless of position.

That’s true except for one person on the ladder. Can you guess which one? That’s right. The second-to-the-last person almost never gives two dollars to the last place person.

Last place aversion.

Of course, you might say, those are games played by undergraduates in psychology programs. That wouldn’t happen in the real world, would it? Think about people in favor of or against raising the minimum wage. The Pew Research Center did surveys to see which lower income group was more likely to oppose increasing the minimum wage. Which group do you imagine was more likely to oppose that increase? You guessed it. Those people being paid just above minimum wage.

Last place aversion.

Well, Pastor, you may say, that’s mildly interesting. But what’s it got to do with anything here today? I’m so glad you asked!

Jesus turns decisively toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. On the way, Jesus and his entourage pass through Samaria. Samaria was the territory between Jesus’ homeland of Galilee in the north and Judea, the location of Jerusalem in the south. Jews regarded the Samaritans as half-breed heretics and traitors. They intermarried with conquerors over the centuries. And they worshiped at a temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.

The Samaritans were regarded by many Jews as the lowest of the low. The urgency of Jesus’ mission is underscored by the fact that he passes through Samaria.

It was ancient tradition that local folks, regardless of their background, would offer hospitality to travelers. In the first village they come across, Jesus’ followers are rejected and refused.

James and John regard the rebuff as the highest possible insult. I can imagine something like this going through their minds. “We may be hicks from the Galilean boonies and backwaters. But at least we’re not those damned Samaritans!” I’m not swearing here. At least some Jews were sure that Samaritans were cursed by God.

Now we get to one of the awful parts of the text. “Lord,” James and John ask, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” We don’t have to put up with such treatment from those low-lifes. If we do, those bottom feeders will be one up on us. And we can’t let that happen.

Last place aversion.

That psychological reality is written into the fabric of the New Testament. You may not know it, but it is written into the fabric of American history as well.

In 1675 Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against wealthy landowners in the colony of Virginia. Late in the rebellion, as things weren’t going well, Bacon offered the promise of freedom to white and black indentured servants and Native Americans if they would fight on his side. More than seventy men of all colors took him up on the promise.

In the end, Bacon’s forces lost, and Bacon died from typhus fever. But the wealthy white men learned a powerful lesson. If all the folks at the bottom ever joined forces, they could overthrow the ladder of privilege that kept them all in their place.

The wealthy folks separated out the poor whites from the Blacks and Native Americans. They offered the poor whites legal, economic, and social privileges. The price of those privileges was cooperation in enslaving the Blacks and the Native Americans.

The historian, James Rice, described the situation like this. The alliance of rich and poor Whites “forced Indians and Africans to shoulder the burden of resolving the tensions and divisions within white colonial society.”[ii] Clyde Ford says that “liberty and equality are possible for the privileged few, because they are denied to a great many, based on the color of one’s skin. That fundamental equation,” Ford concludes, “is as true today as it was in the late seventeenth century.”[iii]

Last place aversion.

This is very odd for us who follow Jesus. Just a few verses before our text, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest. They may all have felt superior to the accursed Samaritans, but there was still the matter of their internal pecking order.

Jesus puts a child on the seat beside him. “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus tells the disputing disciples in Luke 9:48, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

For the least among you is the greatest. We’re Last Place Lovers. That’s the discipleship standard. And it’s one of the things that makes us Jesus followers so weird. But how in the world can it be true?

If there’s anything we can say about the God we meet in Jesus, it’s this. You are first in God’s heart. So am I. So is every bit of this beloved Creation. There’s no point in trying to protect my place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus already has that covered.

That’s the good news for today. Last Place Aversion is a waste of time. We’re Last Place Lovers, because we’re all first place with God. So, James and John, the only heavenly fire you’ll get is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That fire calls people of every time and place into God’s beloved family. And in that family, everyone is in first place.

What does this mean for us? I’ll make a few brief suggestions. When I’m worried about my spot on the ladder, I’m getting this Jesus-following thing wrong. The Spirit helps me let go of that worry every day.

Whenever we get the chance to dismantle and demolish human hierarchies, we Jesus followers should be part of that work. These are the things that Paul calls the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. I’m thinking about racism, misogyny, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism for starters. We live in a time when some folks want to put all the old hierarchies back in place. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Whenever I get the chance to lift up anyone in a last place, I need to jump at the chance. That’s what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. I pray that you and I can be bear that fruit fully and daily. Amen.


[i] “LAST-PLACE AVERSION”: EVIDENCE AND REDISTRIBUTIVE IMPLICATIONS. Ilyana Kuziemko Ryan W. Buell Taly Reich Michael I. Norton. Working Paper 17234. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17234. NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 July 2011.

[ii] Quoted in Clyde W. Ford, Of Blood and Sweat, page 117.

[iii] Ibid.

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Three)

The Twelve carried with them the assumptions, perceptions, and reactions of men raised and socialized in an honor/shame culture. The evidence is close at hand to our text. Malina and Rohrbaugh note, concerning Luke 9:46-50, that “A squabble over honor status would be typical within any ancient Mediterranean grouping” (page 344). The wrangling over who’s the top banana disciple is certainly a prime example of a squabble over honor status.

It’s worth reviewing the highlights of honor-shame societies from Malina and Rohrbaugh’s work. They contrast such societies to the more “guilt-oriented” Western cultures, although I have doubts about that contrast. Nonetheless, “Honor can be understood as the status one claims in the community together with the all-important recognition of that claim by others” (page 310). Such honor is either ascribed or acquired. In Luke 9, the disciples are wrestling with relative gradations of ascribed honor, since they all have been labelled as part of the Twelve.

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In our text for Sunday, honor challenges and insults abound. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that Samaritans perceive an honor offense because Jesus is merely passing through. His face is set toward Jerusalem. “Of course the Samaritans perceive this as a slight,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “while James and John view such rejection of hospitality as insulting; hence their desire to get satisfaction by ‘commanding fire from heaven’ as Elijah did…” (page 345).

It should be clear that the system is working as designed. The Twelve are particularly primed to react to such an insult, given the conversation they’ve been having. They are tightly focused on their status and the honor such status provides them. That honor is tied to the status of their master. Jesus has been deeply disrespected, and such an insult cannot pass unanswered. The response of the disciples, in this system, is not only plausible but required.

Therefore, the surprising response comes, not from James and John, but from Jesus. Life in the Kin(g)dom of God will be anything but business as usual.

I noted earlier that I’m not so sure about the sociological differences between modern, Western societies and the honor/shame culture of the first-century Mediterranean. Indeed, it appears to me that an honor/shame culture has been driving the cultural and political life of American Evangelicalism for two centuries. I think there’s no question that the culture of the antebellum South was an honor/shame culture, with the wealthy White male at the pinnacle of the social pyramid. The defense of White womanhood, the celebration of chivalry, the culture of dueling, and the need for Black people to make up the base of the pyramid are all signs of that culture.

This matters to me because that’s the culture which came out of the Civil War and embraced the mythology of the Lost Cause. That mythology has undergirded White Evangelical culture since the end of the Civil War and has taken firm control of significant parts of the larger American social dynamic, especially the conservative Evangelical Christian part of that social dynamic.

For a full and clear treatment of this culture and its power in American culture and politics, I would encourage you to read (and re-read) Kristin Kobes DuMez’s book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. “Generations of evangelicals learned to be afraid of communists, feminists, liberals, secular humanists, ‘the homosexuals,’ the United Nations, the government, Muslims, and immigrants—and they were primed to respond to those fears by looking to a strong man to rescue them from danger, a man who embodied a God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity” (page 13). Of course, that “strong man” was Donald Trump.

DuMez notes that many early-twentieth century Christians thought they had a masculinity problem. They were concerned that Victorian Christianity had made Christian men too soft and even feminized. This concern was echoed in the larger culture through the rhetoric of men such as President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had suffered shame as a young man for being a weakling, a fancy-pants fop, and a high-voiced girl. He reinvented himself as a cowboy, an paragon of male rugged individualism, and a combatant in the battles of life. One only has to recall Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech to capture the full flavor of his ideology.

This “crisis of Christian manhood” followed American evangelicalism throughout the twentieth century and continues in the twenty-first. I was taken, for example, by many things that John Eldredge had to say in Wild at Heart. The call to a more authentic masculinity in the face of post-industrial existence resonated with me and many of the men in my life. In the end, however, this perspective always ended in violence, subordination of women, and some honor-based classist and racist hierarchy. Anxieties about the honor of men always risk the call for a fiery end to one’s enemies. For Eldredge, the real model of a Christian man was not Jesus but rather William Wallace (as portrayed by Mel Gibson).

If anything, this rhetoric has gotten far worse and far more violent. It’s no accident that the attention of right-wing domestic terrorists has turned toward the transgender community. The anxiety is always about protecting White Male privilege, power, position, and property. Anything that might complicate that status is “the enemy.” In the 1990’s, the attention was directed toward the gay community more generally. The outcome of that attention was events like the torture and assassination of Matthew Shepherd. The White Male Christian rage expressed then and now is a direct result of the worship of privilege, power, position, and property claimed as the sole possessions of White Christian men.

Let’s be clear, then, that Jesus rejects this understanding of real “honor and shame.” As noted in a previous post, the desire of James and John to punish the Samaritans with a fiery death is not an honorable desire. It is, rather, demonic and receives Jesus’ rebuke. The desire for White male Christian power in our time and space is similarly demonic and requires a similar rebuke. This is not “bringing politics into the pulpit.” Rather, I think we need to respond to claims being made in the culture that coopt and pervert the Christian gospel for the sake of White Christian Male Nationalism.

The disciples cannot perceive the meaning of Jesus’ betrayal and death. We read that in the verses before our text. Nor can many people in our own time. When a nationally-known politician jokes that Jesus didn’t have enough AR-15 assault rifles to “keep his government from killing him,” we know that Christian thinking has gone off the tracks and is completely derailed. I can’t read our text without having this conversation in my head. I’m not quite sure yet how I want to have it in the message I will give. But I know that I can’t avoid the topic.

The “kick ass and take names” approach to following Jesus will get us a rebuke from Jesus and nothing more. The view that following Jesus is one lifestyle option among many on our busy calendar (see Luke 9:57-62) will get us an invitation from Jesus to think this whole thing over again. Neither of these responses is what it means to be a Jesus follower. As a disciple I am called to bear the full cost of Jesus-following in my life and to refuse the temptation to offload some or all of that cost onto others.

I can’t find a lot of “good news” in this particular gospel text. I would like to think that Paul can bail me out in the second reading from Galatians 5, but I’m not sure that’s much help either. I don’t know about you, but I have to sit with this one for a while yet.

References and Resources

Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Kobes Du Mez, Kristin. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Two)

When I worked with churches in conflict, I sometimes asked a pointed question. “Would you rather,” I would say with some drama, “be right or be in relationship?” For a while, I thought the question was a mic drop sort of query. Then I realized that I was dealing with people who were more honest than I liked. The “right answer” for Christians (as I was assuming) is that it’s more important to be in relationship than to be right. Unity in the Body of Christ is a primary value in the New Testament witness. Some of my conversation partners, however, didn’t see it that way.

“Well, Pastor,” some replied, “of course I’d rather be right. What’s the point, after all,” they continued, “of having a relationship with someone who’s wrong and simply won’t admit it?” I learned that if someone was at that point in a church conflict, the chances that the sides would find common ground and reconciliation were vanishingly small. The desire to be “right” took on existential importance and urgency, sometimes leading to verbal, institutional, and even physical violence.

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The first paragraph in our text for Sunday has some terrifying dialogue in it. “When the fulfillment of the days had come for his being taken up,” we read in Luke 9:51-52, “and he fixed his face to go into Jerusalem, he also sent messengers before his face” (my translation). Here we begin the “Lukan travelogue,” the narrative of the way of discipleship that leads from Galilee to the cross in the Holy City. This is not merely a “road” as the NRSV would have it in verse 57. This is “the way” that Jesus has firmly resolved to take.

The lectionary selection and headings in many translations tie together the declaration of purpose in Luke 9:51-52a with the Samaritan refusal in Luke 9:52b-56. However, I think it’s more helpful to see this little section beginning with Luke 9:46. More than that, the declaration of purpose is framed by two discipleship fails, first on the part of John and then on the part of James and John together.

In Luke 9:49-50, we have the Lukan version of the “Unknown Exorcist.” Jesus had commissioned the Twelve in Luke 9:1-6 to go out proclaiming the kingdom and healing. That healing certainly included the exorcism of demons, just as it did for Jesus. It seems that John thought this was a “Jesus” schtick, and they needed to protect their performance rights. “And we hindered him,” John reports to Jesus, “because he is not following us” (Luke 9:49b, my translation and emphasis).

Note what John says here. The unknown exorcist was using Jesus’ name, but he wasn’t following “us.” He wasn’t on the right team, the right side, the in-crowd, the cool kids. He was an outsider who had to be brought to heel. It was more important to be right than to extend the mission of healing in Jesus’ name.

John’s report is a direct response to Jesus’ comments on the interminable “who is the greatest” debate among the disciples. Jesus knows what the argument is — a distraction from all that icky talk about betrayal and a delicious debate about the disciple pecking order. Jesus, therefore, uses the example of welcoming a child in Jesus’ name as a measure of real discipleship. It’s another window into the Lukan “great reversal” theme.

“And as John answered,” we read in Luke 9:49, “he said…” All John got out of the welcoming children example was the phrase “in my name.” With that little prompt he was once again off to the races, seeking to establish both rank and power. Jesus, of course, is having none of it. “Don’t hinder him,” Jesus replies, “for the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50, my translation).

This is the lead-in to our lectionary reading. While Luke 9:51 is usually regarded as the beginning of the Lukan travelogue, I don’t think we can read verses 52-56 without taking verses 46-50 into account in our interpretation. The one who is greatest is the least. The one who is not against us is for us. Being right is not all it’s cracked up to be.

What will we do to ensure that we are “right”? Tom Nichols wrote a recent op-ed online for the The Atlantic entitled “What Are Trump Supporters So Afraid Of?” Nichols worries that as additional information about events surrounding the January 6 coup attempt comes out, “there will be more irrational anger and threats from people who cannot bear the truth.” That line was immediately ratified by the testimony of Georgia public election officials who, in the wake of their defense of 2020 ballot counts in the state, have been subjected to death threats, harassment, verbal assaults, home invasions, and loss of jobs and peace of mind.

Nichols suggests that the people who engage in such behavior are “less angry than they are terrified.” They are not only terrified of losing political, economic, cultural, and legal power, Nichols continues, although all of that is the case. “I think,” Nichols argues, “the Trump superfans are terrified of being wrong. I suspect they know that for many years they’ve made a terrible mistake,” Nichols continues, “that Trump and his coterie took them to the cleaners and the cognitive dissonance is now rising to ear-splitting, chest-constricting levels. And so,” he concludes, “they will literally threaten to kill people…if that’s what it takes to silence the last feeble voice of reason inside themselves.”

The rest of the column is worth the read, but you get the gist. And perhaps you get the point that strikes me here. In Luke 9, we get an escalation of behaviors on the part of disciples who seem to be protecting their right to be “right.” We’re not going to let some freelancer horn in on our disciple gig. We’ll put a stop to that. Samaritans don’t know enough to extend some hospitality to us on the way (of discipleship, remember)? We’ve got a solution for that straight out of Elijah’s playbook in 1 Kings. Some fire from the sky should put the fear of God into anyone who might contemplate a similar sort of resistance.

Pay attention to the words in Luke 9:54. “But when the disciples, James and John, saw [this], they said, ‘Lord, do you wish that we might call fire down from the heaven and destroy them?'” The Lukan author makes it crystal clear that disciples are offering this suggestion. It happens to be James and John in this case, but it would seem that they represent the consensus of the group. Clearly, the vocation of discipleship doesn’t automatically make anyone less of an asshole. That seems to take a bit of doing.

The Lukan author also makes it crystal clear that this suggestion by the disciples is demonic. “But turning around, he [Jesus] rebuked them” (Luke 9:55, my translation and emphasis). Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves when they threaten the disciples. Jesus rebukes the fever in Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus rebukes demons, and they leave people. Most recently, in terms of our text, that happens in Luke 9:42. Peter rebukes Jesus and gets called “Satan” (I know that’s in Mark, but it’s still the case). This is not a gentle correction of a slight faux pas.

Jesus doesn’t excuse the Samaritans for their response to him. Neither does he blast them to smithereens because they are “wrong.” Based on Jesus’ training with the Twelve, he shakes the dust off his feet and moves on to another village where the reception might be better. Nobody is going to die here today, James and John, no matter how “right” you think you are. That’s not how people who actually “are” right operate.

Tom Nichols puts it this way. “No one who truly believes they are right threatens to hurt anyone for expressing a contrary view,” he argues. “The snarling threat of violence never comes from people who calmly believe they are in the right. It is always,” he continues, “the instant resort of the bully who feels the hot flush of shame rising in the cheeks and the cold rock of fear dropping in the pit of the stomach.” If Nichols is right, then the fiery proposal is not an expression of conviction but rather the insecure response of those who still harbor doubts.

For the Twelve at this point in the Lukan account, I’m afraid that shoe fits all to well. And perhaps it fits too well for many of us.

I find it hard to see how so-called Christians could read our text and then conclude that violence in the name of being “right” is ever an option for Jesus followers. We may indeed find ourselves in a place where we are called upon to die for the sake of the mission (see Luke 9:57-62 for some insight into this notion). We who follow Jesus cannot find ourselves in places where killing in the name of Jesus is ever the “right” thing to do. More than that, doing violence to protect our “rightness” is demonic not disciplic (I know that’s not a word, but it should be).

Text Study for Luke 8:26-39 (Part One)

Who are you? It seems like a simple question.

My name is Lowell Hennigs. Yet, that doesn’t really answer the question. A name is a label. It’s not an identity. A name is handy handle to holler across a crowded room. But it doesn’t tell you who I am.

At times, people thought names meant more. A name could describe or even determine a person’s character. It could identify an ancestor’s vocation. It’s not hard to see where people got last names like Butcher, Baker, Carpenter, or Plumber. Even now, parents hope children’s names might matter. We name our children sometimes to carry our hopes and dreams for their futures.

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Yet, there’s more to me than my name. My name is an identifier, not an identity. “I am large,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I contain multitudes.” Think for a moment of your multitudes. I am a spouse, a parent, a friend (or enemy). I am a neighbor. I’m retired and still a pastor. I am white, cisgender, straight, and male. I’m a citizen. I’m a Lutheran Christian. And much more.

Some of my selves work together. Others contradict or even conflict. Some of my selves are dominant and obvious. Some are in the background or mere relics of my past. Some of my selves are more masks than identities. Someone asks me, “Who are you?” That’s hard to say. Identity is a moving target, a work in progress, a complicated dance.

Jesus travels from his home country of Jewish Galilee to the Gentile territory of Gerasa. Gerasa is on the Other Side. It’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee physically and geographically. Gerasa is also on the Other Side in religious, political, and ethnic terms. Jesus enters foreign territory. Who knows what might happen in such a strange place?

Jesus barely hits the ground, and all hell breaks loose. That’s not a profanity. It’s a literal description. A local, filled with demons, accosts Jesus. It seems that Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave the man. The spirit, still in the man, falls at Jesus’ feet in obedience and begs for mercy. Jesus asks him, “What is your name?”

It’s not clear if Jesus is addressing the man or the spirit at this moment. But the spirit answers. “Legion,” the spirit replies, “for (Luke tells us) many demons had entered him.” Legion? That’s an odd name. What’s going on here?

At the start of the story, we might have considered the man mentally ill. We wouldn’t be far wrong. The man’s neighbors had tried to protect him and themselves by restraining the man. If they didn’t care about his welfare, they might have simply put him out of his misery. But they tried to help him.

Those efforts failed. The man was so desperate for freedom that he rejected the limitations even of clothing. He fled human company to be free or to protect others from himself, or both. He wandered in a local graveyard as one who was already dead.

I can imagine such a man on the streets of our city. Most of us no longer attribute such a condition to demonic possession. Yet, with all our scientific advances, we don’t manage some of our neighbors who battle their own Legions much better than did the first-century Gerasenes.

Jesus asked him (or them), “What is your name?” The reply is no accident. My identity comes, in part, from inside myself. But it also comes from outside of me. It comes from the people and systems and forces that connect me to the world that isn’t me. The demonic name reflects a system and forces that are literally driving the man out of his mind.

My family has formed me. My communities shape me. I don’t create the laws and rules, values and histories, of this land. I didn’t sign up in advance to be white or male or cis or straight. For that matter, I didn’t check the boxes for left-handed or partially color-blind. I didn’t whip up Christianity or democracy or capitalism in my spare time. Yet, all these externals make me, at least in part, what I am.

Nor did I create the racism in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t manufacture the homophobia, the transphobia, or the misogyny in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t invent the classism, the ableism, the imperialism, or all the other “isms” that shape my life and worldview. Yet, they are part of who I am. These forces seek to possess me, to use me, even to destroy me. If these forces get a deep enough hold on me, they can literally drive me out of my mind.

For the man among the tombs, the external forces wore the face of the Roman Empire. A legion may have been an army of demons. It was also six thousand well-armed and highly trained Imperial invaders. They controlled thought and extorted taxes. The man lived with a system that demanded obedience and conformity on the pain of death. This system called violence peace, extortion prosperity, and oppression freedom. Such a system would make any person more than a little crazy.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go. I hope that’s a thought you’ll take with you. The only question is where the expelled Legion will land. Jesus allows them temporary refuge in a herd of hogs. But the poor piggies cannot tolerate the invasion any better than the man in the graveyard. The demons join the pigs in a watery grave.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go.

Now we see the man, for the first time, for who he really is. We see him for himself. His neighbors find him healed and saved. He’s fully dressed and completely lucid. Most important, he’s sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Who does that posture mean in the gospels? Disciples sit at Jesus’ feet. Jesus sets the man free. In that freedom, the man becomes himself. And he becomes a Jesus-evangelist in his hometown.

What is your name?

What makes you “you”? Paul wrestles with the Galatian Christians over this question. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The real key to our identity is not who we are but whose we are. The man became most fully himself when he took his place as a disciple at the feet of Jesus. What might that mean for us?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor. He participated in the German resistance plot to remove Adolf Hitler during World War II. The plot failed. The Nazis threw Bonhoeffer in prison. He was hanged there on April 9, 1945.

In prison, Bonhoeffer wrote letters reflections, and sermons. He also wrote poetry. One poem was titled, “Who Am I?” Bonhoeffer knew he was not only the bold disciple face he presented to his captors and cellmates. He knew he was also afraid, depressed, lonely, weary, empty, and ready for it all to end. Like Whitman, Bonhoeffer “contained multitudes.”

Bonhoeffer ends his poem with these words. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!” Bonhoeffer had no time for illusions. Real life tears away the false and fragile identities we create. What is left, for me at least, is this calm assurance. Whoever I am, O God, I am yours.

I hope you can take that Good News with you today.

So, we aren’t imprisoned by identities we create to defend ourselves and dominate others. Nor are we defined and determined by identities that others try to force upon us. We can be freed from the legions that want to destroy us. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul writes, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

If my primary identity gives me power, position, and privilege, that identity is bondage, not freedom. On this one hundred fifty-seventh anniversary of Juneteenth, we can celebrate with our Black sisters and brothers a triumph of human identity over the forces of power, position, and privilege. If you don’t know and celebrate the story of Juneteenth, I hope you will seek out the resources to help you know and understand.

Last Friday was the seventh anniversary of the murder of the Emanuel Nine is Charleston, South Carolina. This was an example of White Christian Nationalist identity as dominance and death. It’s clear that we White people continue to live in and benefit from a system that believes difference is for domination. That system of White supremacy is demonic and continues to make people crazy in a variety of ways. Faithful disciples reject that system and work to dismantle it.

Who are you? That’s the question of the day. How do my actions and commitments answer that question? I hope you’ll spend time thinking about your answers this week.

Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part One)

5 Easter C 2022

Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together.

We have passed the midpoint of the Easter seasonal journey and are beginning the move toward Ascension Day and Pentecost. In the Johannine account, this means that along with the disciples, we are reflecting on what it means for Jesus to “leave” us and return to the Father. That reflection is the basis for the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17. In our text this week, we have the words that introduce the Farewell Discourse proper.

Karoline Lewis suggests that the sign, dialogue, and discourse that make up the narration of the Foot Washing (John 13:1-30) “should function as the prologue to the Farewell Discourse, that is, an introduction to the tone and themes that will unfold in the following chapters” (pages 177-178). While I don’t recommend that we read those verses aloud in addition to the appointed text, if we’re preaching on the gospel text, then we should take this narrative context into account.

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In John 13:1b, we get the superscription that describes the love Jesus has for the disciples. Jesus loves his disciples “into the end,” that is, both through the fulfillment of events and to the uttermost. In verse 2, we get the certain signal that Judas will hand Jesus over – although we know from John 10 that this is according to Jesus’ intention and plan, because only he can lay down his life and take it up again.

I think we need to tell our listeners that the immediate framing of our text is Judas’ journey into the darkness of betrayal on the one side (John 13:21-30) and the prediction of Peter’s craven denial on the other side (John 13:36-38). In the center of this frame is the command to the disciples to love one another just as Jesus has loved them. This is not the sweet script for a cross-stitch project. This is a description of the only ethic by which the disciple community under existential threat can survive.

In John 13:30 we read that Judas, perhaps still chewing on a chunk of bread from Jesus’ hand, “went out immediately.” We get three more chilling Greek words to follow – “but it was night.” Lewis notes that these two details ring down the curtain on Judas as disciple and introduce him as an agent of the Evil One. “Judas has left the fold,” Lewis writes. “Judas has entered the darkness,” she continues, “He has gone to the dark side” (page 183).

This is the scene that leads us into our text for Sunday. If I were performing this chapter of the Johannine account, I think that I would leave some silence between John 13:30 and 13:31. The language of the Johannine narrator encourages this move to shocked silence. “When, therefore, [Judas] went out, Jesus says…” (John 13:31a, my translation). The narrator draws a deep and pained breath as those words are uttered. There are too many emotions wrapped in too few words to skip forward blithely.

I think it would be appropriate to leave enough silence for the crowd to grow restless and uncomfortable. In the narrative itself, I imagine this was the situation. While the Johannine account moves on to Jesus’ words, Judas’ abrupt departure was a troubling and destabilizing event. And yet, Jesus’ next words are perhaps even more troubling and destabilizing.

“Now the Son of Man shall be glorified,” Jesus tells the remaining disciples, and God shall be glorified in him” (John 13:31b, my translation). We know from the words in John 12 that when the Son of Man is “glorified,” a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die. Those who serve Jesus must follow him into that death and will be honored by the Father for that service.

Jesus recognized at the beginning of chapter 13 that the hour of his glorification had arrived. Judas may have left the building and entered the darkness. But now it was time for Jesus to leave the disciples and return to the Light. What precedes the commandment to love one another is this clear statement about Jesus’ departure.

“As a result,” Lewis writes, “this is not a general, generic claim to love one another; it is rather, an essential injunction to know and feel Jesus’ presence when he is gone” (page 184). Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together. This new situation, when the disciples must continue their life together in Jesus’ absence, calls forth a “new commandment,” to love one another. “What is new about the commandment,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is that it directs disciples toward one another; up until now,” they continue, it was mutual love between Jesus and the disciples that was underscored” (page 226).

“In the Mediterranean world,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “love always had the underlying meaning of attachment to some group,” including a fictive kinship group such as that of Jesus and the disciples. “Since in first-century Mediterranean society there was no term for an internal state that did not entail a corresponding external action, love always meant doing something that revealed one’s attachment,” they continue, “that is, actions supporting the well-being of the persons to whom one was attached” (page 228).

This is a demanding text to preach in our time of radical individualism, toxic partisanship, and deep divisions – in the larger society, in the American church, and in particular congregations. The love to which Jesus points, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh “is reliability in interpersonal relations; it takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The phrase ‘love one another,’” they suggest, “presumes the social glue that binds one person to another” (page 228).

“A new commandment I am giving you, in order that you may love one another,” Jesus says, “just as I have loved you, in order that you also may love one another” (John 13:34, my translation). It should be clear from a reading of John 13 that this “love” is most clearly demonstrated in the foot washing. Jesus says he has given an “example” – a type, model, or pattern for what it looks like to love one another. I don’t think we can preach on this love without helping our listeners remember the model.

It is a model of humble and self-giving proximity – literally getting in touch with the one whom I am called to love. Personally, I’m not comfortable with any of this. I know lots of people have been damaged and devastated by the lack of interpersonal contact and connection during the pandemic lockdowns. I’m wired in such a way emotionally and was situated in such a way relationally that I wasn’t the least bit troubled by this separation. The hard part for me comes now – when we start to get back together.

What I know is that the lack of proximity, as necessary as it has been and perhaps continues to be, is damaging to my capacity to love others. There is just no substitute for being together in one fashion or another as the community of disciples. I’m starting to participate again in face-to-face worship. We’ve been involved in the restart of adult education activities in our home congregation. We’ve gone to meetings in person and not just on Zoom. We’ve even been to a congregational potluck (and I enjoyed it!).

I’m not a complete misanthrope (no matter what some people might say). I’m just an introvert, and increasingly so as I get older. But without proximity, contact, conversation, ministry together – I cannot find myself in the place to love others as I am loved. So, loving in the way Jesus loves the disciples means, at the very least, being “in touch” with one another (whatever the safety precautions and vaccination doses might be necessary to make such proximity possible).

Of course, being in the same space with others means that I cannot avoid my differences with and dislikes of some of my colleague disciples. Nor can they avoid my objectionable and off-putting characteristics. I know that I have gotten out of practice in applying the skills of interpersonal tolerance of irritating differences (and the habits of keeping my most unnecessary and offensive thoughts and behaviors to myself). I assume that many others are as out of practice in dealing with me. Difficult times can drive us apart or bind us together. We disciples are called to respond to the difficulties by going toward one another rather than away from one another.

I know from our text that going away from one another means going “into the darkness.” And it is certainly possible to enter that darkness even with a mouth still full of bread from Jesus’ hand. For me, it’s the easiest thing in the world to whip up a self-righteous snit and storm out a door, certain that I’m right and the rest of those idiots can just go to hell (my interior ruminations are often not a pretty item upon which to report). The result of that going out, of course, is increased isolation – the opposite of the abundant life which Jesus promises.

Our text is an invitation, a command, and a plea to draw near to one another in love – particularly in the most challenging of times. If the church and individual disciples could do that in such a time as this, perhaps we would do something really countercultural and world-changing.

References and Resources

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

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

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Four)

What is the best translation for Jesus’ question to Peter in John 21:15? Ilaria Ramelli demonstrates that the emphasis in the question should fall on “me.” As a result, the verse reads, “Therefore, when they ate breakfast, Jesus says to Simon Peter, ‘Simon [son of] John, do you love me more than these [other disciples? Things?]” (my translation).

There is no case to made for an emphasis on “you” in the question. In fact, the pronoun for “you” does not appear in the verse. This absence of an emphatic subject “makes it strongly implausible that Jesus is contrasting Peter, the subject of the phrase, to the other disciples as the one who loves Jesus more than the others do” (page 333). In his response, Peter asserts his love for Jesus without the comparison and thus ignores the real kernel of the question.

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Ramelli shows that the contrast Jesus proposes is between loving him and loving someone or something else more. Thus, the second issue is the phrase the NRSV translates as “these.” These what? Some translations and interpretations assume that “these” refers to the other disciples. But, as Ramelli notes, the word for “these” can just as easily be neuter in gender as masculine here. That is, the translation “these things” is readily permissible in grammatical terms.

“Peter should love Jesus more than anything else,” Ramelli continues. “This is why Jesus predicts his martyrdom soon after” (page 334). The translation of “these things” is necessary, according to Ramelli, in grammatical terms beyond the ambiguity of gender in the construction. Ramelli disagrees with Raymond Brown in this regard. Brown argues that a choice for Peter between the material things of this world and the risen Jesus would be “ridiculous, but it is precisely the choice between Jesus and all the rest of the world,” Ramelli responds, “including his own life, that leads Peter to total service and martyrdom” (page 334).

Ramelli reminds us that some scholars argue against a comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus felt or expressed by the other disciples. Such a comparison would indicate a rivalry among the disciples which runs quite counter to the nature of the discipleship community in the Johannine account. In addition, Ramelli notes that in the Johannine account it is the Beloved Disciple who is pre-eminent in love for Jesus, if any comparison is to be made (page 335).

The one possible translation that makes sense of the comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus on the part of the others is a translation with an ironic sense. “So, Peter, do you think you love me more than these other characters do? I’m not sure your track record stands up to that scrutiny, if in fact that’s what you think of yourself.” While Ramelli merely mentions this translation possibility in passing, I’m not sure we should dispense with that possibility quite so easily – especially given the frequency of irony and double entendre in the Johannine account.

If, on the other hand, the translation really needs to be “these things” rather than “these other characters,” then the ironic translation is either inaccurate or has a different twist to it. Ramelli launches into a dauntingly detailed grammatical and philological analysis of the Greek phrase. The analysis covers several pages, several languages, several genres, and several centuries. If that sort of thing is your interest, then be sure to read the article (probably several times to get it all).

Ramelli concludes that the grammar, syntax, and textual analysis demand the translation, “Do you love me more than these things?” In particular, the phrasing of the question in other contexts and documents connects love for Jesus to martyrdom, especially in first-century, New Testament contexts. Thus, this is likely the best translation of the question.

Commentators note the connection between John 21 and the call of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. In the Lukan account, the disciples leave “everything” and follow Jesus in response to the miraculous catch of fish. Peter is overwhelmed by the power of the event. He falls to his knees before Jesus and confesses that he is a sinful man. Karoline Lewis suggests that the placement of the large catch of fish at the end of the Johannine account “will necessitate a reevaluation of what discipleship means” (page 254).

Lewis argues that abundance is a consistent theme within the Johannine account, and that this theme is central to our text for this week. “The resurrected Christ will be seen in displays of abundance,” she writes, “The ascended Christ will be known when his disciples establish opportunities to experience abundant grace” (page 255). The ascended Christ is certainly known at this moment as the disciples experience abundant fish. For just a moment, at least, I have to wonder if these “these things” refers to the fish.

That may seem to be an odd and trivial connection, but I’m not so sure about that. Peter, do you love me for me? Or are you grateful that I can provide you with such an abundance of stuff? If the fish went away, would you still feel the same need to connect to me? Are you committed to me for me, Peter, or for you?

This is an ongoing question in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I think about the Satan’s question to God regarding Job. “Does Job love God for nothing?” Some translations render this question along the lines of “for no reason,” but I don’t think that’s right. Job is swimming in abundance – of stuff, of honor, of family, of well-being. What’s not to like? But the Accuser focuses on the ambiguity of such abundance. Can we sort out our love for God from our love for satisfaction and security?

There is nothing more attractive to us than the realization that someone else loves us. In fact, too often we can mistake our love for being loved as being our love for another. Jesus lifts this up in the Lukan sermon on the level spot in chapter 6. If I love those who love me, how can I sort that out? If I do good as part of a mutuality pact, how can I discern my real motives? If I lend at interest, how can I call that altruism? Instead, love with no expectation of return. That’s what makes us “children of the Most High.” That’s the way to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

Peter, do you love me more than these fish? I don’t know if that’s actually the question. But I think it may actually be the question. Peter, do you love me for me or for the benefits? When the benefits went away, for example during Jesus’ trial, Peter’s love seemed a fleeting thing at best. “In John, Peter does not deny Jesus or knowing Jesus,” Lewis reminds us, “but he denies his discipleship. Jesus will now reveal to Peter what discipleship demands” (page 256).

Lewis argues that the threefold question in John 21 is not only about Peter’s forgiveness, reinstatement, and/or rehabilitation. “None of these summaries adequately recognizes the significance of Jesus’ request of Peter,” she continues. “Peter is not simply restored to his role as disciple, but he will have to imagine discipleship in an entirely different way” (page 256). So will we.

Jesus puts the question to me. “Do you love me more than these things?” These things, in my case, are probably not a netful of large fish (although I have not been above praying for a large catch on particularly slow fishing days). These things might be some other sort of material stuff. These things might be my privilege, power, position, or property – these things that might be at risk if I really followed Jesus fully. Do I love Jesus more than I love these things?

Well, now we’ve gone from preaching to meddling, as they say.

It strikes me that my response to this question is more about giving myself to Jesus than it is giving myself for Jesus. Loving Jesus means placing myself in his loving care, come what may. That’s far more frightening than making heroic sacrifices for Jesus — acts for which I could perhaps take credit now or later. This love is most clearly expressed as trust regardless of the circumstances. I can’t think of any greater “demand” on me (except that it’s an invitation, rather than a demand).

“Trust is our gift back to God,” Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust, “and [God] finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). This is the real conversion for believers, Manning suggests. “The faith that animates the Christian community is less a matter of believing in the existence of God,” Manning notes, “than a practical trust in [God’s] loving care under whatever pressure” (page 6). Peter, will you love me even when the fish are scarce, and the fears are plentiful? More important, will you trust me to love you to the end?

That’s a question with some real bite (pardon the fishing pun) – both for me as an individual disciple and for us as disciple communities. The answer can set us free to become the fully human persons God has created us to be. “The heart converted from mistrust to trust in the irreversible forgiveness of Jesus Christ is redeemed from the corrosive power of fear,” Manning writes. This conversion, he continues, “is the moment of sovereign deliverance from the warehouse of worry” (page 7).

The fish are going to disappear, Peter. Troubles are going to multiply in their place. You can trust me, Jesus says, in either case. Will you? If so, then you can be freed to love as I love.

References and Resources

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

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

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Two)

Do we have a renewal or a rebooting of Peter’s call to discipleship here in John 21? No, it would seem that in the Johannine account, the narrative in John 21 is the first time that Peter is actually called to follow Jesus as a disciple. Sean Kim argues this point in his 2017 article in Neotestamentica.

Kim observes that the Synoptic authors put Peter’s call upfront in their accounts. In addition, the Johannine author would have had opportunities to describes such a call, for example, after Peter’s confession in John 6 or when Peter said he would die for Jesus. Instead, the Johannine author waits until the very last chapter to describe this call. “What theological idea does the Evangelist communicate,” Kim asks, “by the distinctively Johannine literary arrangement of positioning this call after Peter’s denial and Jesus’ manifestation?” (pages 41-42).

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Kim observes that nearly all call stories in scripture come early in the description the main character’s life and mission. This is true in both testaments. In addition, the distinctive vocabulary of call which is applied to other disciples in the Johannine account, is not applied to Peter until chapter 21. The only “call-like” feature that the Johannine author includes early in the account is the name chapter from Simon to Cephas in John 1:42 (page 45). Even that event is narrated with a future tense verb and not in the present tense.

And even in chapter 21, Jesus does not refer to Simon Peter by that full name but rather as “Simon of John.” In the Synoptic accounts, Kim argues, Jesus gives Peter the nickname in response to something Peter says and does. In the Johannine account, the nickname comes entirely from Jesus’ own consideration and imagination. In this way, “the Evangelist implies that Simon’s future life as Cephas will be wholly founded on Jesus himself,” Kim argues, “his will, plan, initiative, guidance, and work for him” (page 46).

Kim wants to show that Peter’s call as a disciple is not rooted in anything native to Peter. Rather, the initiative and the power rest entirely with Jesus. This will be the reason why Peter’s call story comes at the end of the gospel account rather than at the beginning. “It is not that the Evangelist intends to denigrate Peter’s status or to portray him pejoratively,” Kim argues. “It is an intentional design to communicate something that he regards as theologically important” (page 46).

Peter disappears between John 1:42 and John 6:68-69. Peter’s confession in John 6 is one of the high moments of the gospel. It contains major themes from the Johannine account – words and eternal life. Yet, there is no affirmation of this confession, as we would find, for example, in the Matthean account. Peter, according to Kim, needs more time in the discipleship crucible before he is ready for his great calling (page 47).

Peter makes his next major appearance in John 13, where he misreads the significance of Jesus’ foot-washing action. The Johannine author makes it clear in chapter thirteen and throughout the Farewell discourse that this behavior is a demonstration of love. It is also clear that Peter does not yet understand what this demonstration means for him as a follower of Jesus. “Despite seeing Peter’s veneration for him, however,” Kim writes, “Jesus did not give him an apostolic mission at this time” (page 48).

Instead, in verses 36-38, Jesus makes it clear that Peter will not (yet) be able to follow Jesus on his path of suffering service. Kim notes that the first time the Greek verb for “to follow” is applied to Peter in the Johannine account, it is used to state Peter’s inability to follow at that time. Jesus predicts Peter’s denial in all four canonical gospels. “Yet only John’s gospel uses akoleutheo in connection with the denial,” Kim observes. That connection is emphasized in John 13:36-38, where the verb is used three times – all in ways to show what Peter cannot (yet) do (pages 48-49).

The “yet” becomes explicit in this paragraph. In verse 36, Jesus tells Peter that Peter is not about to follow him “now” but will be able to follow Jesus “later” or “in the end.” Yet, Kim argues, this is not just a matter of timing or process. Instead, Peter will discover that he has no capacity within himself to follow Jesus at all, much less to his death. It is significant, therefore, that this is the moment in the Johannine account when Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him (verse 38).

The Greek word for “follow” appears again in John 18. In verse 15, the text notes that Peter did in fact “follow” Jesus to the courtyard outside of the place where Jesus was tried. But this following results precisely in Peter’s threefold and therefore complete denial that he was one of Jesus’ followers. “Peter proved that he was unable to follow Jesus by means of his own loyalty and love for Jesus,” Kim argues, “contrary to his claim that he would lay down his life for his friend (13:37; 15:13). The Evangelist employs akoluetheo,” Kim concludes, “precisely to confirm Peter’s inability to follow Jesus” (page 50).

Now we come to the actual call of Peter in John 21. Peter is called to be a good shepherd of the ones Jesus loves. Kim wants to make the case “that Jesus revealed himself in John 21 in order to give Peter the akoleuthei moi command and to commission him with shepherding Jesus’ sheep in and by Jesus’ love for him, not his own love and loyalty” (page 51). In other words, the Johannine author wants us to see that discipleship comes from Jesus, not from us.

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy (page 17). Kim’s argument regarding Peter in the Johannine account brings Stevenson’s line to mind for me. In fact, coming to terms wit those “worst things” (see the previous post) is a real gateway to a life of humble following, depending upon Jesus rather than upon myself. “The ultimate reason why Jesus leads Peter to confess his love is to draw him into Jesus’ love for him,” Kim writes, “into the web of divine love that exists between Jesus and the Father, as a participant therein” (page 58).

Why does Peter’s call story come at the end of the Johannine account and not at the beginning? Kim offers some conclusions. “I have argued here that the reason for this relocation was to communicate the implied theological message that Peter’s own loyalty and love, which were based on his own self-confidence,” Kim writes, “were insufficient as a foundation for following in Jesus’ footsteps and doing his mission. Only when Peter was fully embraced by Jesus’ love, so that he relied solely on Jesus,” Kim continues, “was he able to follow Jesus and tend his sheep. Peter’s work (and his ability to do the work),” Kim declares, “was ultimately enabled by Jesus’ unconditional love for him” (page 61).

Peter’s personal loyalty, gifts, strengths, and determination did not qualify him to serve as one of Jesus’ disciples. In fact, the unjustified self-confidence and hubris which arose from those elements served to be the greatest stumbling block in Peter’s efforts to be a faithful disciple. Instead, Kim writes, “from a Johannine perspective, Peter’s life illustrates that the journey of following Jesus is fragile and faulty when based on one’s own self-confidence and sense of loyalty” (page 61). It isn’t until John 21:17 that Peter begins to depend fully on what Jesus knows rather than on what Peter knows.

I’m not sure the Johannine author is particularly critical of Peter. Instead, I think that Simon Peter is another example of the various ways in which people come to know that the Messiah is Jesus, the Son of God. Peter is not Mary or Thomas (or Judas!). Nor is he a template or model for all the disciples who come after him. His story is like many disciple stories but not the definition of all disciple stories. We can learn something from his story but not everything.

“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards,” writes Soren Kierkegaard. “But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood,” Kierkegaard continues, “exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”

It was not that Peter was particularly slow or resistant or disloyal. This was Peter’s journey to faithful discipleship. If he had taken another, he would have been a different disciple. Sometimes we might wonder if we would choose a different past, were one available. I have thought about that often, and I know that the answer is “No.” With all of the twists and turns, all of the pain and perversity, all the joys and sorrows, my journey has brought me to who I am and where I am. Another journey would produce another me.

For Peter, the challenge was to accept his journey and to accept Jesus as the source and center of that journey. That’s the call to discipleship.

References and Resources

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Seven)

Lay people have sometimes expressed to me the wish that they could have had the experiences of those first witnesses to the Resurrection. After all, the conversation goes, they had up to three years with Jesus. They saw the miracles, heard the sermons, wrestled with the parables, got the explanations, and asked the questions. They witnessed both Jesus’ death and his resurrection appearances.

They had it all right in front of them. It must have been so much easier to believe, based on the direct evidence of personal senses and experience! Doesn’t the Gospel of John say as much at the end of our reading – that those of us who believe without the benefit of seeing are especially blessed? Maybe we get some sort of theological extra credit because we have to do it the hard way. And, if only we could have been among that first generation who had it so much easier!

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That doesn’t seem to be the assessment we get in the gospel accounts. This week, we get two of the four resurrection appearances at the end of the Johannine account. In neither of those cases does “faith in the resurrection” come easily or quickly. Nor is it any better for Mary in the garden, as she mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener. Peter recognizes Jesus on the seashore in John 21, but that results in an exceedingly difficult conversation.

Next week we get the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are not models of quick and easy belief either. We know that in the Markan composition, the gospel ends with the women terrified and somewhat tongue-tied. Even in the Matthean account, the most confident of the four options, as the disciples meet Jesus on the mountain for the last time, there are still some who doubted.

Then there’s Paul. He has to be knocked flat on his back and struck blind. When he gets his sight back, it seems in the Book of Acts that he gets right to work at witnessing. But in Paul’s own account in Galatians, it seems that he went off for seventeen years to study and try to work things out before hitting the road as a missionary. And I thought seminary took a long time!

The New Testament documents do not report an easy accommodation to faith on the part of hardly anyone in the early Jesus movement. Could it be that the stories from John we have in this week’s gospel lection are intended to offer support and encouragement to people who struggle not only to believe but also to continue believing? That is, could it be that the stories from John we have this week are directed to people just like us?

What is it, at least for those first disciples, that makes faith in the risen Lord Jesus such a challenge? David Norman discusses this question in his article. His thesis, which probably seems uncontroversial to many of us, is that for the first witnesses, the problem wasn’t the Resurrection by itself. Instead, the problem was this. “How was it possible that the one they hoped would redeem Israel (Luke 24:21) could die,” Norman wonders, “and then manifest himself as one with Israel’s God?” (page 787).

Perhaps the first disciples were able to believe in the Resurrection when they realized that it was not really a literal bodily resurrection but rather some intense but psychologically internal group experience. That is the argument that some scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, continue to make. We don’t need to embrace the notion of a literal, physical, bodily resurrection, because that’s not what the first witnesses had to embrace either. Instead, just as the first witnesses were informed by intensely vivid and even communal (but subjective) visions, so we can content ourselves with that same sort of experience. Problem solved.

Norman and others note that such an interpretation renders accounts of the empty tomb at least superfluous and probably fictional. It seems, however, that the gospel accounts regard the reports of the empty tomb as neither inconvenient window dressing nor made up stories. “Without the empty tomb, the argument for a bodily resurrection is sapped of its force and conviction,” Norman writes, “without the empty tomb narratives there is no link between the glorification/exaltation of Jesus and his death on Calvary” (page 791).

“Dispense with the empty tomb,” Norman continues, “and one can argue that after Jesus gives up his spirit on the cross (John 19:30), he experiences exaltation, rendering the physical resurrection of his body redundant” (page 791). Without the empty tomb, the cross is a mere inconvenience or even an illusion. But the gospel accounts do everything they can to render the death of Jesus as a real death of a living person – one whom we believe was “crucified, died, and was buried.”

But, as Norman notes, what is at stake in the gospel accounts is not merely the story of a man who died and is alive again. That’s not where Thomas ends up in his confession of faith. “The question I want to address,” Norma proposes, “is: why did the followers of Jesus suddenly believe in him as Lord and God? What was it,” he continues, “that moved them from men and women covering in fear to courageous advocates of Jesus as Lord and God?” (page 796).

The gospel accounts show clearly that the first witnesses did not immediately recognize the risen Jesus – not as Jesus, and certainly not as their “Lord and God.” It’s hard to imagine why the gospel writers would compose this difficulty as a fictional element of their reports. This difficulty in recognizing the risen Jesus for who he is doesn’t do much to enhance the credibility of the reports. It is more likely that this is how the experience worked (and works).

“The resurrection narratives cry out that the coming to faith was not easy,” Norman observes, “both Mark and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 indicate that the difficulty lies in the cross, the major stumbling block to belief” (page 798). Norman argues that any inner transformative experience coming out of the resurrection appearances has to be reconciled with the reality of Jesus’ death and burial. “There was no belief in Jesus as Lord and God, the one who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68),” Norman declares, “without the simultaneous recognition that this Lord and God is the Crucified One” (page 798).

Norman reminds us that Thomas comes to his resurrection faith in precisely the way the other ten do. His experience is not, therefore, a demonstration of how much better it would be to believe without seeing. Rather, Norman asserts, “It is that doubt itself is the necessary prerequisite to faith, at least for all those who were Jewish followers of Jesus and who ‘had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (Lk 24:21)” (page 805). Every witness to the resurrection struggles to believe, Norman observes, including the Beloved Disciple in John 20:8.

What, Norman wonders, led in the Johannine account to Thomas’ sturdy refusal to believe the witness of the other ten on its own? “Just as a dead Messiah led to a dead end,” Norman writes, “in the same way, Thomas could not worship a dead Christ until he had experienced firsthand the Exalted One the other disciples called Lord” (page 808). It is the death of Jesus the Messiah and his resurrection as the Glorified One that make it clear that this One is indeed God in the flesh.

“What was mutually exclusive has become inclusive,” Norman writes, “Israel’s God includes both Jesus and the one Jesus called Abba” (page 808). What made this hard for the first witnesses was that the cross of the Messiah was a profound and scandalous stumbling block to such faith. “The faith of Thomas in Jesus as Lord owes as much to his appearing with his wounds,” Norman argues, “as it does to his appearing in the glory of his Father, in the glory of God” (page 809).

Therefore, Norman concludes, Jesus doesn’t reject Thomas’ demands for physical confirmation of Jesus’ identity. Instead, Thomas becomes the first of the rest – all of us who are challenged to put our trust in the crucified God (as Martin Luther describes Jesus). “Those who, through the power of Christ’s Spirit,” Norman continues, “surmount the hurdle that Jesus’ death poses tread in Thomas’s footsteps” (page 810).

I have never found faith in the Risen Christ to be an easy or intuitive matter. For some, it is just that, and I envy such facility of faith. The Johannine account shows four different personal encounters with the Risen Christ and four different experiences. I’m glad that range of experiences includes the witness of Thomas. For me, such faith started out hard and has never gotten much easier. I’m glad I can find myself in the Johannine account, in the one I can call a “twin” in faith.

“In summary,” Sandra Schneiders concludes, “John’s resurrection narrative is not about Jesus’ vindication after his shameful death. It is about where and how his disciples, the first generation symbolized by Mary Magdalene, and all those who were not with them when Jesus came, symbolized by Thomas the Twin, will encounter Jesus as their Lord and God” (page 34). It is not that seeing and hearing Jesus personally are no longer relevant. The question for us is where we see and hear the risen Jesus now. John’s answer is that we see and hear the risen Jesus now in the witness of the community of faith.
References and Resources

Feltman, Charles; Sue Annis Hammond. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Intervarsity Press, 2020.

Norman, David J. “Doubt and the Resurrection of Jesus.” Theological studies 69, no. 4 (2008): 786-811.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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Text Study for Luke 1:39-55 (Pt. 6); December 19, 2021

Mary and Mamie Till

Here in the States, we Christians find ourselves in the now-annual kerfuffle regarding “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s a song loved and hated by millions of Christians and is a staple of the Contemporary Christian Music scene during the Christmas season. The lyrics ask Mary if she knew she was the God-bearer, the mother of the Lord, if when she kissed her little baby that she knew she “kissed the face of God.”

Well, I don’t know what Mary knew or didn’t know about Jesus’ divine status. Nor does the song. It ends with the same question as it began. The minor key and the longing tone of both lyrics and melody seem to indicate that perhaps Mary didn’t know (but would have been better off if she did).

Photo by mohamed abdelghaffar on Pexels.com

Every time I hear the song, I wonder what exactly the point is, if it leaves Mary as apparently ignorant as she began. It seems to me that the point of the song is to make sure that we “know” all about the Divinity of Jesus as the Incarnate One.

I find that the song reflects the perspective on Christian faith that equates believing with intellectual assent to a set of facts and/or principles and/or doctrines. It reflects what the theologians would call a Christology “from above.” Such a Christology privileges the “God’s-eye” view of Jesus and is always in danger of minimizing or ignoring the human, finite, limited, and suffering dimensions of Jesus’ life.

The Lukan account, by contrast, is pretty specific about what the angel tells Mary. The Magnificat doesn’t put this knowledge in the theological or narrative terms of the Lowry/Greene lyrics. But Mary does sing pretty clearly that she knows what God is up to in this baby – the overturning of the powers of sin, death, and evil, and the establishment of God’s reign as God intended it to be from the beginning.

Lukan Christology certainly knows the details that come “from above.” But the Lukan author begins with the view of Jesus “from below” and stays there through the crucifixion. Not only does the Lukan author see Jesus “from below,” but the author portrays Jesus as seeking out those who are “below” in the world around him and spending most of his time with them. Those are things that Mary could know.

That being said, it seems to me that we can say something more about what Mary may have known. Or, at least, I wonder about other things she might have known. Mary may not have known about the miracles and the manifestation of Divinity. But I’m pretty sure that Mary had an idea what this little boy would face in his life under the oppressive rule of empire and the terrified compromises of those kept in power by the oppressors.

I recently watched the PBS documentary, “The Murder of Emmett Till.” In that film, Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, describes the conversation she had with her barely-fourteen-year-old son before he boarded the Illinois Central train in Chicago to spend some time in the Mississippi Delta. She described how she told him when meeting a white person to step off the sidewalk, to keep his eyes down, and never to talk to or touch a white woman for any reason whatsoever.

Emmett apparently thought she was exaggerating the danger, and she agreed that she thought she was as well. But she hoped that through this heightened description, she might penetrate Emmett’s teenage bravado and natural good will. I know that Black parents across this country can identify with the need to have “the talk,” especially with their pre-teen and teenaged sons, hoping and praying that those sons will not become another story on the evening news after an interaction with local police.

I’m pretty sure that Mary knew what dangers lay ahead for a little Jewish boy in Galilee in the twenties of the first century. Judas of Galilee led a revolt against the increasing and crushing tax burden imposed by the Romans. At least some of the fighting during the revolt happened in the neighborhood of Nazareth. The surrounding hills were covered with the crosses of the revolutionaries as a clear advertisement of what happened when Galilean boys resisted the Empire.

Did Mary have the first-century equivalent of “the talk” with Jesus at some point in his young life? Did she give him instructions on how to deal with the Roman occupiers and their local collaborators? Did she remind him of the crosses and the rotting corpses on those hills while he was playing with his toys in Nazareth?

Did she worry that no matter how much she tried to explain things, she couldn’t protect him from that world?

Mamie Till described the last time she talked to her son as she put him on the train headed south. Emmett was exuberant over the possibilities and in a hurry to get on the train. He had forgotten to give his mother a goodbye kiss, and she called him back for one last embrace. She told him that she wasn’t about to put him on a train, possibly never to see him again, without that goodbye kiss. That conversation was far too prophetic.

Did Mary ever send Jesus over the hill with lunch for his father, wondering if she would him again? A chance encounter with a few Romans, a sideways glance, an ill-chosen word, and her son might have disappeared into the oblivion of oppression. Jesus was certainly capable of a sharp word to the grownups, as we shall note in the second chapter of Luke. What if that wise mouth had gotten him in trouble with a sharp sword and a Latin curse?

I don’t have to wonder if Mary knew about that.

And it didn’t take an advanced degree in political science to know that someone who was destined to challenge the powers was destined for trouble. If this child of hers was to bring the powerful down from their thrones, was to send the rich away empty, was to scatter the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, Mary knew there was going to be trouble.

Is it any wonder that after Jesus’ birth, Mary’s response was a thoughtful “pondering”?

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,” the old spiritual says, “that Jesus my Savior did come for to die.” John Jacob Niles heard the song and captured it on paper for us to know and to love. We can come to terms with that sentiment knowing how the Jesus story turns out. But what about those other young people, those young black people among us, who seem to have “come for to die”?

Did Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, know that her son had come for to die? No, I don’t think so. Did Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, know that her son had come for to die? No, I don’t think so. Did Larcenia Floyd, George Floyd’s mother, know that her son had come for to die? He cried out for his mother as he breathed his last, but I don’t think she knew.

Except that these mothers did know. They did know that it could happen. That it happens all the time. That the chances of their sons dying at the hands of white law enforcement are many times that of white sons. I never had to have “the talk” with my sons (well, not that talk, anyway). I never had to think about how likely it was that my sons had come for to die.

But Mary had to think about it. Mary, did you know that your little boy could die at the hands of Roman executioners after a trumped-up trial with the collaboration of the local power bosses? Of course, you did. That was the one thing Mary could know for sure in this whole story, and it didn’t take a prophetic vocation or the gift of the Spirit to figure it out.

It didn’t get better as Jesus grew into adulthood. We know how things worked out for his kinsman, John. Speaking truth to power is a good way to get yourself killed.

In the end, it’s not about what Mary knows or doesn’t know. The song of victory we know as the Magnificat isn’t about what Mary knows but rather is about who she trusts. Mary trusts in God, who is bringing about the promised end of a world where “the talk” is still necessary. She trusts in the God who brings down the powerful, rejects the reign of riches, and stills the hands of violence. She trusts that her baby will bring the inauguration of that new world, and she rejoices in the hope of that promised future.

We who follow Jesus are privileged to proclaim that same Advent of justice and hope. Yet, we still live in a world where “the talk” is necessary for Black and Native children in America, for Palestinian children in Israel, for Uighur children in China, for Muslim children in Europe (and North America). But “the talk” is only necessary because we who benefit from power, privilege, position, and property allow it to be so.

I don’t think Mary knew about the miracles and the majesty. And I don’t think that mattered. She trusted the One who was bringing the Good News. She depended on God for all she was and hoped and knew. She didn’t have to believe the What because she trusted the Who.

What Mary knows is that how things work in the “real word” will come to an end. What she trusts is that ending begins in Jesus. We Jesus followers today – do we?

References and Resources

Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).

Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55.

Jacobson, Rolf, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55-3.

Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.

Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/306.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.

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And That’s the Good News — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Luke 21:1-36

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

My world has been coming apart at the seams and from the center since long before I was born. “Things fall apart,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919, in ‘The Second Coming,’ “the centre cannot hold.” Yeats wrote his twentieth century apocalyptic verse in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, the near-fatal illness of his wife, and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Disintegration was in the air around the globe.

Secular prophets had predicted and pointed to the dissolution of modernity even earlier. “God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “and we killed him!” The collaboration of Enlightenment modernity and liberal Protestantism had produced a sterile and empty consensus which equated Christianity with high European culture. That empty consensus was the soil out of which National Socialism arose as the old world continued to fly apart.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I didn’t know about these things in my young life. The world seemed put together well-enough for my tastes. I was born while the myth of American innocence and the ideology of American exceptionalism still seemed to make sense. There was that odd little police action on the Korean peninsula that threatened to unmoor us a bit, but we recovered from that. Joe McCarthy rattled the chains of authoritarianism, but he was too stupid to make that stick.

My world – the world of White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism continued to turn, apparently undisturbed. But under that serene surface, my world was disintegrating.

Thurgood Marshall moved the Supreme Court into only its second spate of morally defensible rulings on race. But the world that produced me pushed back – some schools resisting until nearly the end of the millennium. Sputnik threw us Americans into a beep-beeping panic as we wondered if we really were the best and the brightest this cosmos had to offer. But Jack Kennedy, poster boy for these best and brightest, promised that we would land on the moon before the end of the decade.

President Kennedy nearly got us blown out of the cosmos before the first space capsule could be launched with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We survived by a hairsbreadth. Then Lee Harvey Oswald ripped the façade off our invincibility from the School Depository window. The center began to wobble. The foundations started to shake.

I learned to speak, to write, to read, and to think while Civil Rights and Vietnam filled the newspapers. The nightly news carried the body counts, the bombings (both foreign and domestic), and the cities on fire. Malcolm died, although I didn’t hear about it until later. Then Martin. Then Bobby. The wobble became a shaking. The foundations were crumbling.

I lost a school bus driver, a friend, and a cousin to the body bags. I came of political age in the era of Watergate. I cast my first vote for Carter, but the tide was already running to Reagan. Law and order, family values – White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism pushed back hard. My world was held together with myths and lies, with enemy lists and Iran Contra, with law and order that was hardly lawful and anything but orderly.

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

I got to seminary and learned to watch my language. I wasn’t swearing in class, well, not much. But I heard about inclusive talk, something my conservative little church college had kept safely in the shadows. I knew the critique was correct and started to wonder what else I assumed that was wrong. The list was and is so very long.

I hadn’t gotten out of seminary yet when I heard that everything I had learned, all the training I had received, was obsolete. I had been trained as a pastor in “Christendom” (whatever the hell that was), and the time of Christendom was now over. I had to be contemporary, seeker-sensitive, visitor-friendly, and driven by attendance numbers rather than membership statistics.

I learned about the homogeneous unit principle of church growth, although I never learned to love it. And I went to conferences in places that looked like gyms and warehouses rather than basilicas and cathedrals. Megachurch pastors were like rockstars. I didn’t want to be one, but it didn’t hurt to imitate them.

Well, that had a short shelf-life, decreased in part by the misconduct of giant egos and in part by the classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and narcissism of the models employed. That wasn’t the answer. But my world kept spinning into wider chaos, deeper despair, murkier visions of the future.

So, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing a dying world because that’s what I was given.

Our personal worlds have a tendency to fly apart as well. I thought I could see the path from the all-consuming parish to a quiet retirement with my spouse. But the denomination and the congregation had other plans. The denomination made the right decision on homosexuality, and some of those closest to me in the parish made the wrong kind of response. It was time to go, and to let go of that part of my world.

A few months later, I was no longer married, and my first wife was buried. Only now did I really experience what it was like to have a world disintegrate, to have the future run through my hands like so much sand. There was no going back to the way things were. There was no recovery. There was only being pushed forward into a newness that I had not sought and for which I was not prepared.

My world has been disintegrating my whole life, and most of the time I didn’t even know it. Yet, that disintegration is the good news.

It’s the good news because large parts of that world need to die in order for God’s love to live fully among us. A world constructed for the sake of White Supremacy does not deserve to continue. A world built to preserve Male dominance is not worth saving. A world that makes northern European the definition of normal and cultured is too limited for the grandeur of Human being. A world that seeks moderation in all things always ends up underwriting the status quo of those with the power. Unfettered capitalism will destroy us and our environment on its own unless we find another way.

We know from the Hebrew scriptures that there is nothing new under the sun. Those who claim to be the only ones who can save us – those charlatans are a dime a dozen in human history. Nonetheless, we are often still seduced by their siren songs. Wars and insurrections are everyday realities now and have been for millennia. Conflict between nations, empires, kingdoms, and tribes is ubiquitous. Natural disasters arrive like clockwork, plagues (and pandemics) don’t care about scientific progress, and famine is a perennial feature of human greed.

“Now,” Jesus tells his followers, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

We who follow Jesus proclaim that we are not destined to face the disintegration alone. The Son of Man is the Coming One – not just once or twice, but always. This is the very heart of the one we call Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. That’s why we can lift up our heads in hope as the world is falling apart. Heaven and earth will come apart, he tells us, but his words – his promise of hope and salvation – will never desert us.

“This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us,” Serene Jones writes, “as clergy, could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the divine coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s presence” (page 39).

It is that presence which makes the proclaiming possible. White Christian Nationalism must be dismantled if humans are once again to flourish as part of the American project. White Male Supremacy must be abandoned if all people are to live out their identities in hope and love. An economic system that places the majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of a group small enough to fit in a conference room is a system that cannot be allowed to continue. A world political order that declares democracy obsolete and human rights impractical is an order that must fall.

You see, I have just described my world – the world I inherited, the world I accepted uncritically, the world that has given me more power, position, privilege, and property than I could ever deserve. That’s the world that has been disintegrating for longer than I’ve been alive. That process of dissolution will continue long after I’m gone. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will look back in disgust at the world they have left behind.

I’m no utopian. The world as we know it, on our own terms, is always coming to an end. And that’s the good news. But there is something about our time which has a particular stench of death and decay about it. And the dim outlines of a different way are beginning to rise up out of the debris.

So, we hear the call of Advent to be awake, to be alert, to stay sharp, and to do it all with prayer and courage. And that’s the good news.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.