25 January 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Third Sunday After Epiphany

Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached G‑d’s Good News. “The time promised by G‑d has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of G‑d is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”

One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.

A little farther up the shore Jesus saw Zebedee’s sons, James and John, in a boat repairing their nets. He called them at once, and they also followed him, leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men.

What is the gospel? The good news? The εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion [e-van-gel-eon]; that’s the Greek word)? For a while now, this gets asked a lot more than one might think. With the “emergent” movement or “emerging church” — that is, followers of The Way of Jesus who question many of the traditions in Western Christianity and seek to shape their faith through a shared conversation with many voices — the old understanding of the gospel has been called into question.

And rightly so, in my estimation.

For most people the gospel of much of Western Christianity can be summed up like this, “The wages of sin are death and we’ve all sinned against G‑d and our neighbor. Therefore, because G‑d’s eternally righteous and holy, we all must be eternally punished. But, instead of punishing us, G‑d chose to punish someone who’s completely innocent — Jesus, G‑d’s own child! All we have to do is believe that and we’ll be forgiven and saved from G‑d’s wrath. But if we don’t believe that, G‑d will punish us eternally. So, believe in Jesus and we’ll be saved!”

That’s such a huge departure from what Jesus said the gospel was. “The time promised by G‑d has come at last!” Jesus announced. “The Kingdom of G‑d is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1.15) According to Jesus, the good news is that the long awaited Realm of G‑d had finally come!

But what does that mean?

Let’s look at it like this. In Jesus’ day, when there was a new Roman Emperor — say, when Tiberius became emperor during Jesus’ life (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified) — heralds were sent out to proclaim the “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον, it’s the same word). They would arrive in a community and say something like this —

“Greetings! We bring you good news! Tiberius has become the Lord of the world! He’ll bring peace and salvation to the realm! He demands your loyalty and allegiance! Hail Caesar!”

Now notice there’s nothing like, “If you will only believe, Tiberius will save you.” The heralds make a proclamation about something that happened that changed the world — Tiberius was now in charge. It didn’t matter if people believed it or not. That’s the new reality.

It also spoke of things to come. Under Tiberius’ reign, there will be peace and salvation. This meant, of course, that peace and salvation would only come under the Roman sword and taxes. Again, it didn’t matter if one believed it or not. That’s what Tiberius was going to do. He was changing the world as he saw fit.

That’s the same idea we have when Jesus announced the “good news.” So let me say this as plainly as possible:

It doesn’t matter if one believes it or not, the Realm of G‑d has been established. Jesus is the new Ruler of the world. He will restore all of creation.

As St. Paul wrote:

For G‑d was in Christ, reconciling the world to G‑dself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And G‑d gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.

For G‑d in all fullness
   was pleased to live in Christ,
and through Christ G‑d reconciled
   everything to G‑dself.
G‑d made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
   by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Somehow, only G‑d knows, the Realm of G‑d was brought into our world through Jesus of Nazareth. At Jesus’ resurrection, that Realm was inaugurated. At the fall of Jerusalem, it was fully established. Since then until now, G‑d’s Realm has been spreading all over creation, slowly changing it; rescuing it. Through people following The Way of Jesus, G‑d’s Realm is fully coming “on earth as in heaven.”

But what does that look like? How’s it being accomplished?

I think we’re given a clue by looking at what Jesus said in Luke’s telling of the story.

When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

“The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me,
   for Yahweh has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
Yahweh has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
   that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of Yahweh’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”

When we see things like the poor being fed and clothed and housed, when they’ve been set free from poverty; when the prison system has been restructured, for-profit prisons dismantled, inmates being treated like people; when the eyes of the blind — emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually — are being opened and people are truly seeing; when the oppressed receive justice; when the 1% truly changes their hearts and minds to act on behalf of the 99%; it’s there, in those places where G‑d’s Realm exists. It’s there, that G‑d’s Realm is expanding.

So, the “good news,” is about something that has happened that changes everything. The call of humanity is to live in that change.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

19 January 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Second Sunday After Epiphany

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Come, follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, Andrew and Peter’s hometown.

Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.

As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here’s a genuine son of Israel — a man of complete integrity.”

“How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”

Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you’re the Son of G‑d — the King of Israel!”

Jesus asked him, “Do you believe this just because I told you I’d seen you under the fig tree? You’ll see greater things than this.” Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you’ll all see heaven open and the angels of G‑d going up and coming down on the Son of Man.”

In our Gospel reading today, Jacob’s Ladder is the backdrop to Jesus’ coded message in the last verse.

It’s a great children’s story from Sunday School. In that story Jacob has cheated Esau, his twin brother, out of his blessing and inheritance. Because of this, Esau vowed to kill Jacob. So, Jacob ran away! On his journey, he fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream, he saw a ladder (or staircase) stretching from earth upward to “heaven.” Jacob saw Yahweh’s messengers ascending and descending the ladder. Then Yahweh appeared and told Jacob —

“I am Yahweh, the G‑d of your father Abraham and the G‑d of Isaac. I’ll give you and your descendants the land on which you’re lying. Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you’ll spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. I’m with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you” (Genesis 28.13-15; CEB; adapted).

Jacob woke up terrified because he recognized that he’s slept in a sacred place — “It’s G‑d’s house and the entrance into G‑d’s Realm” (verse 17; adapted). He then took the stone he used for a pillow and made a sacred pillar out of it — a standing stone. He poured oil on it and named the site “Bethel,” meaning “G‑d’s house.”

In ancient times, the Celtic people also erected standing stones for various reasons — mark territory, burial sites, etc. And, just like Jacob, some standing stones marked sacred places. The stone was used to mark a thin place — a place where our world and the Other world was believed to be easily accessible. Some used the stone as a warning. Others, as a place of ritual.

When Christianity came to the island, some of these stones were used as places for Christian worship. Some were decorated with Christian symbols. In other places, the standing stone evolved into the celtic high cross. This cross was used as a place to build communities. Often one would find it marking the center of a monastery.

So what does Jesus mean by using this as his backdrop? More often than not, one will hear sermons about how Jesus is the ladder; how he’s the way to get to heaven. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.

In Jacob’s understanding of his dream, he slept in a thin place; a place where heaven and earth met together. And that’s exactly the message that John tries to convey over and over again in his Gospel. Jesus isn’t saying he’s the ladder for taking people to heaven. He’s saying he’s the place where “heaven” comes “down” and meets “earth.” He’s saying that he’s the place where “heaven” and “earth” unite. He’s saying that he’s the place where G‑d’s Realm and our realm become one.

For those of us who follow The Way of Jesus, that’s our story, too. We’re suppose to be the place where “heaven” and “earth” meet. Too often, though, I’m more “earth” than “heaven.” May G‑d grant us the courage and the grace to be a thin place. May we, too, be a standing stone for those around us. May we be the place that opens others to The Way of Jesus.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

11 January 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The First Sunday After Epiphany

This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to G‑d to be forgiven. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.

John announced: “Someone’s coming soon who is greater than I am — so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he’ll baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”

One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You’re my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”

There are (at the very least) three points the writers of the New Testament are trying to make — 1) Yahweh has returned to Israel; 2) the long hoped for Realm of G‑d has been established upon the earth; 3) what that looks like in “real life.” Obviously, though, things don’t look like they were expected to look.

Of course, these points create a lot of questions. In fact, it questions a lot of the long held beliefs of Judaism at the time — Yahweh’s appointed military king would destroy the pagans, the end of history, the resurrection of the dead at the end of history, etc. And, honestly, I think the reason a lot of the New Testament was written was to show people how some of those things can be understood in poetic (i.e., non-literal) ways.

An example of this way of understanding can be seen by looking at John the Baptist. John’s appearance is described here so that readers would realize that he was, in some mystical way, Elijah who was to come before Yahweh returned to the people of Israel (cf. verse 6 with 2Kings 1.1-8; see also: Malachi 4:5ff; Matthew 17:10-13). That is, John should be understood as the harbinger of the return of Yahweh. And if John is Elijah, then Jesus is, at the very least, the Messiah, Yahweh’s representative.

However, the writers of the New Testament, specifically the Gospels,  are clearly pointing out that Jesus is, in some mystical way, more than the Messiah. They’re painting the picture and telling the story in such a way as to say that Jesus is Yahweh and, therefore, the true Ruler of all creation.

Furthermore, if Jesus is (somehow) Yahweh “in the flesh” (see John 1), then the Realm of G‑d has been established. The thinking here is a King can’t be a king without a realm from which to rule. “‘The time promised by G‑d has come at last!’ Jesus announced. ‘The Realm of G‑d is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News’” (Mark 1.15; NLT; adapted)! That’s the whole point of the Gospels.

But, as I stated above, it seems to me that part of the point of the rest of the New Testament is what that looks like “in the trenches.” That is, the writers of the New Testament are working from the world view that G‑d’s Realm has actually been fully planted (and is growing) through the vocation of Jesus. That’s their starting point, their framework. So, then, how does that work in the here-and-now? Through the power of the Spirit.

The reading states that John’s purpose was to prepare people for this shift in paradigm. Once that’s been done, and the world has been made ready, then the power to live in the “coming age” is through the Spirit.

The idea of “baptism” is the idea of being immersed into something. Think of a flowing river. You walk out into the water and then are plunged underneath the surface. In a very real sense, you’ve become part of the river; you’ve become one with the river; you’re “inside” the river.

John stated that Jesus would “baptize” us with the Holy Spirit. In the New Creation (G‑d’s Realm) that Jesus established, one will need to be immersed in the ebb and flow of this new world. And that’s done by the Spirit. As Paul wrote in Romans, “Now we can serve G‑d, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit” (Romans 7.6; NLT).

The long-hoped for Realm of G‑d has already been founded. It was started during the life and ministry of Jesus, inaugurated at his resurrection (see John 20 and note that the resurrection takes place on “the first day of the week” in the New Creation), and fully established at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. From that time forward, the Realm of G‑d has been spreading out as the waters fill the sea (see Habakkuk 2.14; Isaiah 11.9) through the power of G‑d’s Spirit.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

04 January 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — The Second Sunday of Christmas

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. When Jesus was twelve years old, they attended the festival as usual. After the celebration was over, they started home to Nazareth, but Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t miss him at first, because they assumed he was among the other travelers. But when he didn’t show up that evening, they started looking for him among their relatives and friends.

When they couldn’t find him, they went back to Jerusalem to search for him there. Three days later they finally discovered him in the Temple, sitting among the religious teachers, listening to them and asking questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

His parents didn’t know what to think. “Son,” his mother said to him, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.”

“But why did you need to search?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they didn’t understand what he meant.

Then he returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. And his mother stored all these things in her heart.

Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with G‑d and all the people.

The number three is very important in Celtic tradition. In fact, it’s considered the perfect number. It represented the three elements — Earth, Sea, and Sky. It represented the “middle path” — the balanced way of navigating the intertwined reality of this world and the Other world. It represented their understanding of the phases of the moon and the stages of one’s life.

You can see it in their art and symbols. The Triskele or Triple Spiral, is a great example of this.

When The Way of Jesus came to Ireland, it’s said that Patrick used the shamrock to represent the Trinity, the Triune G-d. And, because of the Celtic peoples understanding of the sacred number three, it made sense to them. They recognized their religious tradition as their “Old Testament” — it pointed to the reality of the Realm of G-d revealed in Jesus the Messiah.

For them, the number three represents completeness; wholeness.

You can understand why, then, “Three days later…” shimmered out to me. Luke’s the only one who tells us this story; that Mary and Joseph found Jesus’ “three days later…” And that phrase — “three days” — should call out to us. It harkens us to the end of the story. And Luke’s telling of the end of the story is also marked by a couple (possibly husband and wife) returning home from a three days journey from Jerusalem. They encounter the “found” Jesus (who was “lost” for three days). Yes, Luke is definitely bringing his story to completeness; to wholeness.

And in the middle?

In the middle we find Jesus. He’s challenging the religious institutions of his day, even from a young age. And then, at the end of Luke’s story, Jesus is again challenging people’s understanding of Scripture and reality and justice.

So, in the middle, Jesus.


How is Jesus challenging us today? Are we content with the way our societies are? Are we satisfied with how we relate to people who are different from us — whether it’s the color of their skin or their socio-economic status or their sexual orientation? Do we see others as our sisters and brothers?

Are we challenged by the way we are destroying our planet? Are we pleased with the way things are as long as it doesn’t affect us?

What about our religious and political affiliations? Are we being challenged by the way we seem to be ever divided and never united? Are we challenged about how the powerful seem to be getting more and more powerful and the weak and poor seem to be getting weaker and poorer?

In all of these ways, Jesus is challenging us. He’s challenging us to not settle for anything less than equality and justice and peace for everyone. And then, the way Luke tells us the story, things will be complete. Things will be whole. We will be One.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.