Apr 082012
 

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:26-31

I think that maybe Thomas has gotten a bad rap. Why do we call him “doubting Thomas” when the thing he does at this climactic moment in John is to believe?

You may recall that, just before this scene, we are told about an incident where all of the disciples – except Thomas – were witnesses to an incident in which Jesus, thought dead, suddenly appeared among them. Upon hearing the story, Thomas responded that he would have to touch Jesus’ wounds to believe. However, when Jesus appears again in this text, he no longer finds it necessary. He simply believes.

The Gospel of John will continue for one more Chapter, which contains a sort-of post-script that gets tagged on at the end. However, the main story concludes in Chapter 20 with a blessing for you and I. Like Thomas was before Jesus appeared for a second time, we are stuck with relying on witnesses to believe in Jesus’ Lordship, Kingship, and God-hood. We did not see the empty tomb, and Jesus has not appeared to us – at least not in the way he appeared to the disciples.

Just as the disciples are blessed by his life-giving presence, so we too are blessed when we can “see” Jesus for who he is, based on these accounts. John concludes by urging us to find life ourselves by hearing his story and believing that Jesus is the “Messiah” (a Jewish term for the person who would bring God’s justice into history) and the “Son of God” (a Greek term for the supreme human authority in the Earth).

For Reflection: How is the Easter story speaking to you today? In what ways has John helped you to better see and believe in Jesus, the King of Creation?

 Posted by at 8:47 am
Apr 062012
 

And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face.

* * *

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."

19:2-3; 19-22

On Good Friday, this strange coronation of King Jesus comes to a close, complete with crown, robe and royal title. The supreme irony of all of the mockery in this narrative is that it is all, of course, more true than any of them know. Pilate, the highest human authority in this drama, seems to come closer to understanding what is really happening than anyone else when he refuses to correct the sign in response to the complaints of the Judean religious leaders.

Do not miss the fact that the inscription is written in multiple languages. Jesus' "gloriication" or "lifting up" – as its been called – is for all the world to see. Everyone in their own language must read and see that Jesus is now King.

And with this, "It is finished!" (v. 30). In a single moment, a gruesome scene of torture is transformed into a sign of God's love for the world, and we come to see his ultimate victory over the powers that hold the world at bay. It is a stunning paradox/mystery that – to this day – Christians can find both tragic and triumphant, disturbing and exhilarating, all at once. 

For Reflection: Imagine the scene of the cross in your own mind. On this Good Friday, what are you experiencing in this scene?

[Note: there will be no Holy Saturday post in this series. The final post will be on Easter Sunday.]

Apr 042012
 

Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him." The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God."

Now, when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?" Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."

As we move closer and closer to Jesus' crucifixion, we find Jesus, ironically, more and more in control of the situation. The chief priests and the police pressure Pilate to crucify Jesus for violating their laws against heresy, but Pilate – the only authority that can legally perform the execution – seems unconvinced that Jesus poses a sufficient threat to the Empire to justify an execution.

We are sometimes told that the same crowds that cheered on Jesus on Palm Sunday are the ones who called for his execution on Thursday, but this isn't the story that John tells (I don't think the other gospels tell that story, either). Instead, what we see in this text is a very particular group of people – religious leaders who are from Judea – who are calling for Jesus' death.

In either event, it is clear that everything rests on the decision that Pilate is about to make.

Pilate describes his authority to Jesus in terms of the power of life or death, but Jesus retorts by saying that Pilate does not truly hold such power over him. Rome's power exists only because God is allowing it to exist. The supreme authority within creation doesn't rest in the Empires that are "from" this world, but in the Kingdom of Christ.

Jesus will later demonstrate the power of his own Kingdom when he "breaks" the power of Rome, demonstrated in his execution, by rising from the dead. When the dead rise again, the State can no longer claim its choke-hold on the people.

In a sense, this is the ultimate "good news" in the gospel – God has demonstrated his ability to defeat the powers by raising his son from the dead.

For Reflection: Do you think that human, political authority still exists only because God allows it to be so? Can the "good news" that God has ultimate power over human authorities – and the power over death – bring hope to the world? How so?

Apr 042012
 

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, "I find no case against him.

John 18:33-38

Pilate, the official who is questioning Jesus in today's text, is the Roman governor over Judea. He is present in Jerusalem on this particular date – during the Jewish passover – to ensure that order is maintained. The crowded city, full of people celebrating their liberation from Egyptian slavery many centuries before, probably seemed like a powderkeg ready to explode. Militant revolutionaries, if they surfaced during this time in particular, were likely to be put down very swiftly and brutally.

Yet, during this scene, Jesus successfully convinces Pilate that he poses no military threat.

The key words – "my kingdom is not from this world" – can be easily misinterpreted. They are not meant to say that the kingdom is not "in" the world – as if it existed only in another place or time. Rather, they are meant to convey that it is not the sort-of kingdom that will advance itself by means of violent revolution or warfare. That is why Jesus offers support for his statement by referring to the fact that his followers were not fighting to keep him from being handed over.

Jesus' remark highlights an event that occurred earlier in the evening, when one of his followers drew a sword and struck a servant of one of the religious leaders. Jesus commanded him to put away the sword, so that he could fulfill the purpose that God had given him in his trial and crucifixion (18:10-11).

Jesus was not to become King by force or revolution, but by yielding himself over to the cross, and thus becoming a living image of the magnitude of God's love.

For Reflection: Can it still be said that some/all of us are victims of the forceful ways of kingdoms "from" this world? How so? What role might we play in advancing a different sort-of kingdom – the kind that is not "from" this world?

 Posted by at 12:13 am
Apr 022012
 

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean." After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.

John 13:1-14

What will this kingdom of Christ look like? Will it be like other kingdoms, imposing its will on its citizens, and even moreso on those whom it can conquer? Or will it work much differently?

"If I am your Lord," says Jesus, "and I wash your feet, you also ought to do the same for each other."

In this act of service – the action reserved for the lowest servant in a house – Jesus suggests that his kingdom should appear upside down to those on the outside. The one who has the greatest authority (the "Lord") is the one who does the smallest act of service (and, keep in mind, his act of service will transcend even the washing of his disciples feet when he later gives over his life for them). For that reason, as we think about what it means to live inside the Kingdom of Christ,  we need to think about what it means to serve each other and the world around us.

This theme will return again in an even more interesting way when Jesus is arrested, and during his trial before Pilate, but I will save my comments on those events until tomorrow.

For Reflection: How might we think differently about our roles at work, at church, and within our community if we consider that we are part of the "upside-down" movement of Jesus' kingdom?

 Posted by at 9:21 pm
Apr 012012
 

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—"Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

John 12:20-36

In twenty-first Century America, we tend to point to political problems as a way of explaining the injustice that is around us. When we become conscious of suffering, or oppression, or extreme poverty, we tend to point to the absence of a proper political solution. The answers may be different for each of us. Some might pose libertarian solutions to global poverty, others socialistic ones. But all of us look to the language of politics to explain what is happening.

Not so in John's day. For the people of this time and place, the root of the world's problems was principally a spiritual one. The world suffered under the burden of injustice, they believed, because there were "principalities and powers" who ruled the Earth in place of the Creator God. Political authorities were also responsible, of course, but they were more like collaborators than the true villains. The hope of the Jewish community was that, some day, these "powers" would be displaced by God, so that justice could be restored to the world.

Today's text is about that event. When some Greeks from out of town ask to see Jesus, they seem to be little more than tourists hoping to satisfy their curiosity. But, to the writer of John, their expression of a desire to see Jesus demonstrates that something much more important is happening. The time has come for the rest of the world – those outside the small Jewish state where Jesus lived and taught – to "see" God's new king.

 The world is ready to see so, of course(!), "the time has come." And the leader of the powers is about to be driven out (v. 31).

 As we will see later, this will not happen all at once, but the cross will mark the beginning of the end it will mean certain defeat for the spiritual forces that work injustice in our world.

For Reflection: Do you view injustice as a political problem, a spiritual problem, or both? How might your approach to responding to injustice change if you understood it as both a spiritual and a political issue?

Mar 312012
 

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!"

John 12:12-19

For the next eight days, I invite you to join me in a journey through the last week of Jesus’ life, as it is experienced through the Gospel of John. To fully hear this story, we will need to be prepared to look below its surface. If we are not careful in this way, and only read on the surface, we will experience little more than a tragic account of how a peaceful revolutionary was put to death by a group of frightened, but powerful men.

We will also need to look beyond what we might expect. We have all been conditioned to think of the stories that are told during Holy Week as stories about  how God is offering up a sacrifice so that our personal sins can be forgiven. Without a doubt, forgiveness of sins – for all people – will be an important theme. However, as important as the forgiveness of sins is, what is happening here is much bigger even than forgiveness. This is a story – as today’s text tells us – about how Jesus, God’s representative, becomes King.

The story begins with a demonstration  in which Jesus’ followers recognize his Kingly authority. This limited demonstration, however, is only a precursor to what is to come in human history. The prophetic words that interpret this event come from his own enemies’ lips: “Look! The whole world has gone after him!”

On Palm Sunday, we follow their advice to “look” – both backwards and forwards. Backwards, to the events in the gospels and to the tradition of the Church in celebrating this day. And forwards, to the day when – as Paul puts it – every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus’ kingly authority.

The story we hear this week will climax with the most powerful empire on Earth declaring, ironically, that Jesus is “King of the Jews,” and it will end in a poignant moment in which a skeptic proclaims Jesus to have both the political authority of the Emperor and the divine authority of God.

For many, the experience of Holy Week is about Jesus’ suffering and death, and how we should be grateful for his sacrifice. This is an important and valid experience during Holy Week. But if you are walking through this week with John, it is only part of the picture. In this gospel, we are invited from start to finish to attend a coronation in which God’s chosen King comes into power.

For reflection: How does the theme of coronation change the way you think of Holy Week? What do you expect to experience as you see this week through the eyes of John’s gospel?

[Note: The interpretation of John that you will encounter this week hardly originated with me. NT Wright and Scot McKnight have played a huge role in shaping my perspective on the "big picture" story of scripture, and I am grateful for the work they have done. Scot's book on this subject is The King Jesus Gospel. NT Wright's recent book How God Became King also addresses the subject.]