The Hour Has Come

(Year B, Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018; Gospel Reading form John 12:20-33 [34-36])

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.  So these came to Philip…and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’  …Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” – John 12:20-24 (ESV)

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Wheat in field

There are many occasions where I fool myself into feeling superior to the likes of Peter, James, and John when they are jockeying for position, supposing myself to be among those who really get “it” about what Jesus is bringing and somehow think that I would do better.  As misguided and outright wrong as that attitude is – just as misguided and wrong as their jockeying for position – it is nevertheless an honest view of the characters portrayed in the Scripture.  I must continually remind myself that the only reason I’m somehow better able to appreciate the teachings of Jesus is because I have the benefit of the past twenty centuries worth of theological discourse and Christian teachings.  Put me in the identical shoes of any of the Apostles in the Gospel writings, and I’m probably going to be in the same boat of (mis)understanding as they are.

And it is readings like this that most point that out to me.  Because I remember first reading this account before I had the benefit of a study bible, or read any commentaries, or was exposed to the teachings of the Fathers, and thinking that Jesus’ response was seemingly disjointed, and – dare I say it – melodramatic.  Why should Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus cause him to go into a lengthy discourse about grains of wheat and glorification, and receiving eternal life by hating your earthly life?  As a young Christian I wasn’t exactly troubled, but I was puzzled.  The text does say that he said these things to show what kind of death he would experience, but I still failed to see why Greeks had anything to do with it.

One of the constant mysteries that underlies all the Gospel accounts is in regard to the identity of Jesus.  Is he a Prophet, a madman, or God Incarnate?  John’s gospel was written after the three synoptics, and is written, as I’ve stated in another reflection, to highlight the “whys” more than the “hows” and “whats” – which the synoptics cover more than adequately.  The mystery in John’s gospel account is deepened considerably in that John explicitly states that Jesus, being the Word, was with God and was God (John 1:1), and yet portrays him as possessing what appear to be certain limitations to his power.  This passage appears to me to be one example – it seems as if Jesus takes the interest of the Greeks to be a sign not only that his crucifixion is near, but also that it is time to let the disciples in on what is about to happen.

Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians that “…[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV)  Part of the “emptying” of himself, and taking on the form of a servant, must have meant losing the divine omniscience that He would have in His glorified state.  But even though he had to rely on the sign of the appearance of the Greeks, he was able to discern what they meant, just as he was able to read the hearts of those whom he encountered during his ministry.

When this is brought to mind, the seemingly out of the blue remarks by Our Lord come into focus – the appearance of the Greeks marked for Jesus a turning point in his ministry.  He had done many things in the fulfillment of prophecy to the Jews, but the interest of the world outside the Hebrew people marked that the call to the Gentiles to come and believe in the Lord Jesus was imminent.  Before it could happen though, the Christ must be captured, mistreated and tortured, killed shamefully, and then rise in the fullness of the Glory of God.  He was telling Phillip and Andrew that before he could be proclaimed to the world (by preaching to the Greeks) he must first put off his mortal body and put on His Resurrection Body.

All Christians have some ministry that they do – it is a consequence of the Faith, no one can truly call themselves a Christian and be content to sit on the sidelines, or doze in the pews.  As James says, “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17, ESV) Not all ministries are publicly acclaimed; many lay Christians engage in the ministry of intercessory prayer, which is done in closets and by beds and only occasionally on street corners.  Since we all have ministries, we either will encounter or have encountered turning points where something happens that signifies some coming change and makes us ready for the next faithful action.  These changes can be anxiety inducing, and we either rise to the challenge or shy away, vainly hoping to maintain the status quo.

This week, I ask you to reflect on your personal ministries, whether they are large or small, and ask God for insight into their shifting needs, how they need to grow to work in harmony with His will.  Also ask for clarity and understanding when reading the Word of God, so that you aren’t like me, and unwittingly committing the sin of Pride by thinking the Lord disjointed and ineloquent.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Feeding the Five Thousand

(Year B, Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018; Gospel Reading from John 6:1-15)

“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.  Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.”
– John 6:10-11 (ESV)

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Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish (ca 1620-1623)

The miracle recorded in this Gospel reading is the only one aside from the Resurrection that is recorded in all four Gospel accounts.  This is notable, since the Apostle John in the rest of his Gospel seems almost to take great pains to not mention miracles worked by Jesus that are recounted in any of the other three canonical Gospel accounts.  In fact, the only other one that is written about outside of John (in Matthew and Mark) is Jesus walking on water.

Why is this?  A reader of John’s Gospel will note pretty quickly that it is very different in style from the other three Gospels.  Whereas Matthew and Luke start off with accounts of the nativity, and Mark jumps straight into Jesus’ ministry, John talks about the Incarnation, explicitly saying that Jesus “was with God and was God.”  Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount Jesus’ parables in an effort to communicate the hidden wisdom God intended to reveal to those whose eyes and ears and heart were opened; John’s Gospel contains seven “I am” statements, intended to get Jewish readers to recall the name of God told to Moses: “I AM THAT I AM.”  Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke are focused on Jesus’ actions and what he did and what he said, John is intent on what it means.

So why is it that John records this miracle when he leaves out most of the others?  In John’s Gospel, all miraculous works are signposts to reveal the hidden truth about who Jesus is as not just a prophet, but as the Word of God Himself.  In contrast, miracles in the other three Gospels reveal in general terms the authority and power given to Jesus to do wondrous things (again, the difference between “what happened” in the synoptics, and “what it means” in John).  For John to record a miracle meant that it had significance in revealing the Messianic character of Jesus.  In my thoughts, these may have been the miracles that John himself, when looking back on his time as Jesus’ disciple and then Apostle, was most impacted by in coming to his conclusions about and faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

The revelation of what the feeding of the five thousand means in terms of Jesus’ messianic character actually comes later in chapter 6, after the end of the reading.  One of the seven “I am” statements recorded in John is “I am the bread of life” and is said after the crowds who had been fed come looking for Jesus and asking – somewhat surprisingly – for a sign so that they would believe his teachings.  They seemed to think that receiving bread from a prophet was just something that disciples of a prophet were supposed to expect, citing their fathers’ receipt of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4, 15).  Jesus reveals to them that he is something greater than manna – not the miraculous provision of food, but he himself is the true bread.

In all of the accounts of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, the Gospel writers use language that make it clear that the multitude didn’t just get a subsistence portion – Matthew says “they were filled,” John says they ate “as much as they wanted.”  The miracles in John’s Gospel seem to serve the same purpose as the parables of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Just as what was a meager portion was turned into an abundance, the man who was described as “meek and lowly of heart” is in reality the Word of God that sustains and gives life and meaning to the Creation.  Additionally, this miracle, I think, is a prefiguring of the Eucharistic feast.  As mentioned above, this miracle leads to a teaching moment where Jesus reveals that he is the Bread of Life.  The imperfect (meaning, incomplete, not fully realized) miracle of manna was made complete not by a bigger banquet of choice foods, but by the Bread of Life being given freely to any who believe in Him.

Aside from the theological import, this miracle shows us the depth of God’s care for His Creation.  In Matthew’s account, it says that Jesus had compassion on the multitude, and that was his motive for feeding them from the loaves and fishes.  The story of God’s actions on behalf of His people is steeped in accounts of His Providence (which itself is rooted in God’s quality of being Gracious).  This provision is presented in one of two basic ways – either by removing a need or an obstacle or by fulfilling a need, sometimes beyond what was needed in a way that forces the recipient to goggle and renders the recipient speechless at what has been given.  When either of these are accomplished by means that defy possibility, you have a miracle.

I encourage you to think about the multitude this week as you face your individual daily trials and obstacles and needs.  Think about what it would be like to be just one in a sea of people and starting to all get hungry.  Remember that even though they were in a remote, barren place, Jesus not only was able to feed them, he wanted to feed them.  This is the God we serve and love and worship: one who is not just powerful but is also loving and compassionate.

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

The True Gift

(Year B, First Sunday After Christmas, December 31 2017, Gospel Reading from John 1:1-18)

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
– John 1:12-13 (ESV)

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First and foremost – “Merry Christmas!”

It is my hope that everyone who reads this blog had an enjoyable time celebrating the “reason for the season” – the Incarnation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t until relatively recently that I understood what a miraculous work the birth of Jesus actually is.  The pseudo-Christian culture we live in regards Christmas, when it does regard Christmas, as Christ’s birthday.  And as it concerns His humanity, I suppose that is appropriate.  But too often that’s where the thought process stops, and the true gift that was given to the Creation is left unopened.

I look at the Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke like a cleverly wrapped present.  In my family, and maybe some of yours, the best presents are the ones that you’re never really sure you’ve finished unwrapping.  They are multifaceted, many layered.  The outward miracle (the virgin birth) draws the seeker in and forces them to immediately choose a side, either discount the whole story or accept what the Gospel writers say happened.  If I disbelieve this detail of the story, that Christ was born of a virgin, then why should I believe any of the rest of it?  If this is embellished, what am I to do with a corpse being reanimated (let alone Resurrected)?  But if I do believe the Nativity account, then what choice do I have but to dig deeper – why born of a virgin?  Why Mary?  Why from the line of David?  Why Bethlehem?  Why born in a manger?  I could go on and on.  Like the cleverly wrapped present, I am drawn into removing the outer paper, investigating every aspect of the parcel in order to truly see what lies within.

The true gift is not at all what I thought it was at first.  Think about if the Christmas story were only about the birth of a baby boy in a humdrum town in late BC Palestine, even if he turned out to be a particularly good man.  It seems to me that the Santa Claus narrative as told today is a more compelling reason for celebration – aren’t baby boys and girls, good and bad born every day?  But Jesus’ birth in a manger is just the physical protrusion of the great Spiritual work that John is talking about in the first chapter of his gospel.  Where Matthew and Luke focus on the narrative of the nativity, John points out the theological import – and thank God he does, because many who claim the Name of Christ have missed it, celebrating the birth but not appreciating the Incarnation.

What is the gift then?  What is the “point” of Christmas and the Nativity accounts?  I believe, and the Church has taught since the first century, that the true gift is John’s statement in chapter 1 verse 12, that we who receive Him and call upon His Name are afforded the right to be called “sons of God.”  If He were just a boy who happened to be called “God Saves,” then the only right we would have would be to acclaim his perfect example, and we would be no better off than before.  For Jesus did not loosen the Law – if anything He strengthened it and made it more of a witness against us.  The only way we could have the right to be called sons of God is if God himself gave us that right.

For me there can be no doubt:  If we do not understand, as John does, that the Nativity was the Eternal Word of God becoming flesh and blood and sinew and matter, then we bar our way to receiving Him, and cast doubt on His Name.

This week, as we feast and celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord, I ask you to look a little deeper into the Holy mystery around the Nativity.  Think on its implications.  I ask you to pray for deeper understanding, and to give thanks for whatever understanding God has given you.

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

“He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease”

(Year B, Advent 3, December 17, 2017; Gospel Reading from John 3:22-30)

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:27-30 (ESV)

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The Appearance of Christ Before the People,
A. Ivanov, ca. 1837-1857

Last week, I wrote about our mutual unworthiness in comparison with Jesus Christ, and how this provides an example for modern day ministers of the Gospel.  This week, John the Baptist reveals another great truth that all Christians, and especially all would-be ministers should and must keep in mind: “I am not the Christ.”

You might be thinking, “But that’s obvious!  I am the first to admit I’m not perfect, and heaven knows that if John wasn’t worthy to unlace Jesus’ sandals, I’m barely fit to walk the same ground as Him!”  And that’s a fair and rightly humble attitude to take.  But does it marry up to your everyday life?  When you are met with adversity is your first response to pray and give it over to God?  When met with reproof for your actions (never mind if you believe they are right or wrong), do you accept the correction?  In a disagreement, is your first instinct to relinquish the high ground so that the other will not fall into deeper disaster?  I know in my case, the answer is “no, no, and no.”  It is like I know in my head that I am not the Christ, but my actions and attitudes are what I imagine a Chosen King’s should be.  But being the Christ is not merely about perfection or overwhelming Worthiness.  John said, “I am not the Christ” because his followers needed to understand that, for all his good teaching, John was not what he prepared the way for.  We say, “I am not the Christ” because the truth of that statement is painfully and abundantly manifest in our lives.

To be the Christ, as I said, is not just about perfection and the inherent Worthiness of being the very Son of God.  To be the Christ is to trust perfectly in the Father, secure in the perfect love between Father and Son.  To be the Christ is to put the personal will second to the Father’s Will.  To be the Christ is also to be the perfect lover of the souls of men and women.  Setting aside my imperfection and my inherent un-Worthiness as a created being, I find it easy to trust God – but only when things are already in hand.  I can easily subject my own will to His – so long as our wills aren’t that far different.  Finally, I love people – especially those that I know will love me back, and look like the sort of people that it’s okay for me to hang around.

I am not the Christ.  It is only if Christ lives in me that I can claim any part of Him.

John says “I am not the Christ” to emphasize that he is not the Big Thing that his followers are supposed to be looking for.  He goes on to say “my joy is complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”  In the words he uses to teach his disciples his role in the First Advent of Jesus Christ, John also gives us the secret to turn the heaviness of the charge “I am not the Christ” into the hope and joy of all the world:  By sacrificing myself – putting my will, wants, and appetites second – I leave room for Jesus to fill my life with His perfection.  But any part of me that I do not give up, that I hold onto tightly, that part of me cannot be transformed and filled with Jesus.  The prescription against the disease of sinful Death is that “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This reading is for the Third Sunday in Advent.  Advent is one of two seasons of preparation, the other being Lent.  Advent is not overtly penitential in character in the same way that Lent is, but an overarching principle of “making ready” connects the two seasons.  In Advent, we anticipate Jesus’ Second Coming by remembering the first.  We started off this journey talking about the End of the Age.  Last week, we continued by recognizing our unworthiness-made-worthy in God’s call upon our lives, and the call for all of us to be like little Johns the Baptist.  This week we hear again from John, who this time models for us the behaviors and attitudes necessary for our hearts and souls to be made ready for the Lord.  Next week, we will hear the culmination of the first Advent story, and celebrate the realness of the first Christmas while the whole creation groans for the restoration following the Last Christmas, which will be the Day of the Lord.

In response to this reading, and as a preparatory and prayerful meditation looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation as a baby boy in a stable, I invite you to join me in praying: “I am not the Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.