This is our Good Friday service. It is the first time I’ve used the Gospel of John for this, and John has his own very different emphasis. Same events, but focus on the Divine Jesus, as opposed to the Synoptics human passion.
It felt right. I was much more Christ the victor than the normal Good Friday. This is the Jesus who know and does so willingly, because it is his will. The world doesn’t get it, and so loses. Just when it thinks it has won, it is finished.
This has been a strange 8 days with a Sunday in the middle. The church lost power for most of three days (Wed-Fri) due to a windstorm. Personally I was bedridden sick Friday night until I forced myself up Sunday morning. And then Tuesday and Wednesday we’ver have over 2 feet of snow and been snowed in. Wind, plague, snow and bitter cold, I asked our secretary this morning if Friday was scheduled for the earthquake.
So, buried literally under snow and figuratively under a week worth of work, including tracking and arranging a new date for the delivery of our new organ (did I tell you that was supposed to arrive last Wednesday), I am just getting to the sermon file. Of course the recording line gets real silent at the end of the gospel reading. So, no musical stuff. Also the sermon recording might be a little rough as occasionally not even amplifying brings the sound. (I’m thinking I moved a little far away from the mic at those moments and it got lower clipped.)
It is a shame, because it is one of the greatest texts of the bible. And being under the weather for final editing, I’m short. No hinting or sneaking up on the point. No padding or weak attempts at story telling or making relevant. Just expository. Christ for you. Fitting of John 3:16-17
It was mother’s day, it was also the day often called Good Shepherd Sunday, so called because the reading comes from John 10 where Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd. Except that the lectionary this year gives us not the shepherd but the ten verses often missed where Jesus proclaims himself the door.
The sermon is a mapping of what that could mean. We look at the literal elements of a door brought up by the text: open, closed, proper entry, improper entry, protection. So, when Jesus says that “I am the door” those are the appropriate elements to ponder. What does an open door mean? What does a closed door mean? Since Jesus claims that he himself is the door, most of these things have Christocentric, that is Christ at the center, answers. In particular we examine election, justification and the door to prayer. The sermon proclaims how the door works in these ways and teaches us how we should think of Jesus. We make two moral examples of how we should live today. And the sermon concludes with the eschatological or final things meaning of the door. Jesus has used a figure of speech – the door – to describe spiritual reality, so we spend some time pondering the core meanings. I’d invite you to give it a listen.
Reformation Day to me is always a tough day to preach. For all my formative years and if any of the examples that I sampled this week are representative, the general approach to Reformation Day is full on Triumphalism and spiking of the football. And it is not that I can’t or won’t defend my side. I think Luther in particular and the reformers in general were right on a lot more than they were wrong. But if there is one thing that the gospel doesn’t really accept it is heroes. We have heroes of the faith, usually called saints, but ask why they are saints. Many of them are martyrs with a subset dying gruesomely. The next batch are those dedicated to outcasts – like the priests in leper colonies or Mother Teresa among the untouchables. There are the scholars and teachers and theologians. They often avoided the deaths, but the exchange seems to be that the society around them was passing away (c/r Augustine). Usually the equivalent of the Chinese toast, “may you live in interesting times”. What gets you on the list of the Saints is not usually someone confused with “winning”. The more we make a Hero out of Luther or the Reformers, the less they actually have to instruct us. The more we make them great men and women, the less we allow them to influence us.
Not an argument to tear them down or deconstruct them or even psycho-analyze them (although I suppose I do a little of that). The argument is to see them in context – fully human. When we do that, it is not bringing them down to our level, because according to the law we are already all on the same level – in deep trouble. But when we allow them to human, we are set free. We can admit the flaws (repent) and accept the grace. Both for them, and for us; both for their impossible circumstances, and for ours. We can hope to mend what was broken instead of building monuments. One of Luther’s most famous lines for theologians is: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” It is the harder road, but you don’t get real glory without walking through Calvary.
As with so much else in America, if you want to cut to the soul or the bone of a matter you need to listen to Lincoln. (And Silent Cal Coolidge, but he didn’t live in exciting times, but his Autobiography and letters are deeply full of wisdom and heart.) But Lincoln instinctively knew the limits and failures of the civic religion. In the Gettysburg address:
…We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…
The civic religion is part of the law. And the law has no power to save, to grant life. The sure hope is in Jesus Christ who grants eternal life which will surely not be snatched away.
So at St. Mark we juxtaposed the Sept. 11 memorials and our Church’s 110th anniversary. The one is good and proper, the other proclaims life and hope.
I find it ironic that in an age full of irony with a people tuned to understanding layers of meaning taking place Palm Sunday in some quarters is being transformed into Passion Sunday. Well not at St. Mark in West Henrietta. Since we have been reading from St. John’s Gospel, I took the Triumphal Entry text for this week.
The King comes anyway is a refrain used. Everyone at that first Palm Sunday was clueless. The King came anyway. And truth be told we are usually pretty clueless ourselves. The King comes anyway. He comes in waters of baptism. He comes in bread and wine. He comes in the simple proclamation – do not be afraid, daughters of Zion. The king comes anyway, full of grace and truth. We ask in are prayers that he come to us also.
If you had the power to raise the dead, but it cost you your life, would you do it?
That is the central question. I think we could answer that question no. Jesus answered that question yes.
There are a whole bunch of spiritual truths that come from the sacrifice and resurrection pattern. Not the least is the one who holds onto his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for me, will find it. It’s Good Friday and Easter. You don’t get one without the other. Each one corresponds to a theory of want Jesus did for us – substitute and victory. They are both tied in each other. A church that only preaches one is missing something…
This text is too big. A man goes from being blind through various confessions to the worship of Christ at the end. From the point of his healing, until that end, the story is about Jesus but Jesus himself is absent. It’s a tight allegory on a Christian life with the counter-point of the pharisees deepening knowledge and surety of things that are false. Its also the type of text that really needs two way communication. Its the type of think you wrestle with with others.
We had a double baptism this week. Yes, it breaks a liturgical rule about lent, but the text was perfect – living water, John 4:5-26. The entire segment of John from Nicodemus through the Samaritan Woman and the well with a picture of actual baptisms(!) in between is full of baptismal images and recognition stories.
Many of my metaphors or ways of thinking come out of the business world. One of the clearest to me is a business/tax term called a safe harbor. Many tax laws create safe harbors where if you do your accounting in this way – you are safe. Lets just say those safe harbors are usually the common sense way you would recognize revenue or cost. Many businesses operate outside of those safe harbors. They are not necessarily breaking the law, but if the IRS pursues them and wins in tax court, the business will owe taxes and penalties. They were not operating in a safe harbor. Businesses do this because: a) they might not get caught, b) their accountants and lawyers say it is within the law as written, c) it allows them to keep and report more income usually and sometimes more cash flow when they don’t have to send money to uncle same, d) it might make sense for their industry and laws move slower than business.
The sacraments are how God wants to deal with us. They are the only sure way that God has given for his grace. Baptism is objectively when the Father puts his Spirit in us and claims us as His children. But we all have our subjective stories to tell. We might practice faith outside of those safe harbors – however risky that might be. Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are paired stories about recognition of God and how he works. Nick comes in the dark, and leaves in the dark. He doesn’t recognize the birth of water and the spirit. The Samaritan woman comes at noon. At the start she is as far apart from Jesus as, well, as a Jew and a Samaritan. By the end she has embraced the jewish term messiah and hesitatingly applied it to Jesus. She has started to see her subjective story in the light of God’s objective story revealed by Jesus.
This sermon ponders the multitude of layers between our subjective experience of God and how God has revealed himself. The text itself, playfully, in a Romantic Comedy banter, deals with the Bridegroom meeting the Bride at the well. That is a stock OT image. That is what is going on at that Samaritan well. That is what is going on in baptism. If we have been given eyes to see.
If you are an engineering student you’ve heard the joke that goes with that question. I like that joke. I think that joke captures a whole bunch of folk wisdom beyond just being funny.
I probably should just post this and not say much. But I’m dumb that way.
To me, what the Rob Bell Hellgate speaks to is probably less about Hell and more about how we internalize faith, or make faith our own. It is one thing to say scripture alone, but as soon as you say that, you start to realize that the scriptures are not a logical systematic textbook. They are a narrative written over millenia in different cultures and languages. And that narrative is messy. Almost every group of Christians has developed a second book to help in that interpretation. The Book of Concord is the Lutheran one. Lutherans like to use Latin. We call scripture the norma normans which means the norming norm, and the Book of Concord the norma normata which means the normed norm. Irenaeus would talk of the regula fidei (more latin) which means rule of faith. The scriptures were read with the rule of faith which we today call the Nicene Creed. A Reformed Christian would read the bible with the Westminster Catechism. A Roman Catholic Christian reads the Bible with the Papal encyclicals and canon law. I like to think of those books as guideposts. They are watersheds of wisdom that capture what a large group of Christians at a given time heard in the Biblical story. It can be real dangerous to faith to go outside of them. In the case of the Creed I’d go farther. (But even there there are two splits – the Coptic/Syrian church doesn’t accept it, the Greek church doesn’t accept the procession of the Spirit from the Son, and then there is the western church in all its forms.) Ultimately these are normed norms. Occasionally you need to test them. Occasionally the church needs to remind itself that we follow the living Christ and not a new law in whatever its form. God is his own interpreter as the Hymnwriter Cowper would put it.
What Rob Bell is doing is questioning some of the planks of those secondary books. Many would, but I don’t think he’s gone outside of the Nicene Creed. But to be honest, I’m biased. What he’s prodded at in my mind is the Reformation consensus – in something minor to a Lutheran and in something core to a Reformed Christian. He’s said the story of a forever hell doesn’t make sense with the Biblical picture of God. When the culture is cohering, nobody questions the culture’s interpretation key. It is only when things get scary, when the culture is breaking apart, that the interpretation key get looked at. And that just makes things scarier. But we shouldn’t be scared. Because we are in the Father’s hands. Compared to the Reformation itself – these are very minor questions.