Saturday, March 28, 2015

"The King Who Comes" -- March 29, 2015 (Palm Sunday)

John 12:12-16

When Queen Elizabeth was dying – that’s the Queen Elizabeth that Shakespeare worked for – one of her chief advisors told her that she must go to bed, to which she responded, “’Must’ is not a word to use to princes.”  She died, not in bed, but on the floor.

I tell that story because few people in human history, even monarchs, have really and truly had such power.  Even Elizabeth, for most of her reign, had to play off various factions against one another, a talent she inherited from her father, Henry VIII.  Even so, she was quite clear about the true nature of monarchy, which means a ruler who does not need to answer to the subject.  In theory, the subject is supposed to behave with that same understanding, but that rarely if ever happens.

            Shakespeare had a lot to say about how fragile royal rule truly is.  In Richard II [Act 3, scene 2], King Richard has been deposed and says to his few faithful followers,

“… let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

Kingship looks better to people who are not kings.  Keep that in mind.

When Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, the crowds gave him a royal welcome;

“they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
   the King of Israel!’
[John 12:13]

which was, of course, exactly the thing to shout if you wanted to bring him to the attention of Herod, the official King of Judea, installed as such by the Emperor Tiberius.  When Pilate, acting on behalf of the Senate and people of Rome, had Jesus nailed to a piece of wood to die,

“Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’” [John 19:19]

 It’s clear, when you cut to the chase, that the crowds had expected Jesus to act against the Roman occupation, which is why the Romans saw him as a threat, but that Jesus had not taken up their call to arms.  He disappointed them and they felt betrayed and turned on him very, very quickly.

            They knew what a king must do.  A king must fight.  A king must destroy his enemies and the enemies of his people.  A king must be ready to shout, “Off with his head!”  A king must sit on his throne and give orders and rule with a nod of the head or a twitch of his finger.

            But look at Jesus.  Every one of the gospels says that when they came to arrest him, he didn’t put up a fight.  In fact, when one of his disciples did try to protect him and drew a sword and cut off the ear of one of the posse, Jesus told him to put his sword away and he healed the man’s ear before he went with them.  Later, when he was in front of Pilate, being interrogated, he declared,

“‘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.’” [John 18:36-37]

Yes, he was a king, but not one of the usual sort.  He was a real one.  That is one of the hard things to recognize as his follower.  Since he truly is a king, it is not for us, like the crowds in Jerusalem, to try to tell him what to do and when and how to do it, no matter how certain we are that we know what he, the king, must do. “’Must’ is not a word to use.”

            We are not much different from the crowd in Jerusalem.  We, too, want him to give orders and exercise authority with a strong hand – as long as it accomplishes our ends, and puts our enemies in their place, and does everything on our timetable.

            If we pray for healing, and we don’t see it happen, we turn away, convinced that he doesn’t care for us.  So why should we care about him?  In fact, healing takes a lot of forms and sometimes it happens slowly.  At other times, we may be whole in ways that we overlook.  Sometimes, too, our weakness leads to someone else’s strength.  Yet we are sure what Jesus must do, and when he must do it.

            If we pray for a loved one who is going through trouble, and things don’t improve for them, after awhile we give up.  That’s always a mistake.  We have no idea what may be going on in someone else’s soul, and all the time we see nothing, his or her life may be changing.  Or perhaps the Lord is holding out some good for them that they, for their own reasons, fail to take.  There’s this pesky thing we call “free will” or “choice” that he insists on leaving to us.

            Or maybe we pray for peace but expect that the King will bring it about without our having to offer forgiveness to our enemies, or even speaking to them.  We pray for an end to poverty, but are content to soothe our consciences with a few cans of cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving and never get around to looking at the ways that the whole economic system favors us and locks others out.

Thomas More, a man with great insight into human nature, wrote a wise prayer:

“Give us, good Lord, the grace to work for the things we pray for.”

If we really and truly see Jesus as the King, we also really and truly have to understand ourselves as his subjects.  Quite honestly, we aren’t very good at that.  In fact, we are very bad at that, so bad that we can twist his kingship in cruel ways.  As Austin Lovelace wrote,

“To mock your reign, O dearest Lord,
they made a 
crown of thorns;
set you with taunts along that road
from which no one returns.

In mock acclaim, O gracious Lord,
they snatched a purple cloak,
your passion turned, for all they cared,
into a soldier's joke.

A sceptered reed, O patient Lord,
they thrust into your hand,
and acted out their grim 
to its appointed end.
They did not know, as we do now,
though empires rise and fall,
your Kingdom shall not cease to grow
till love embraces all.”

There will be more about that next week.  Come back and we’ll pick things up there.  But for this week, this Holy Week, we have to learn first to stare straight into the eyes that we don’t really want to see and to hear words that we don’t really want to hear.  They will be eyes that cry, not for themselves, but for us – and that cuts deeply.  They will be words that speak of what we have done and reveal the worst about us – and that at the same time offer us pardon.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King…” [John 12:13]

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Jesus: A Martyr" - March 22, 2015

John 12:20-33

            The Greek word for “witness” gives us the English word “martyr”.  It doesn’t just mean “witness” in the sense of someone who sits on the stand at the front of a courtroom and describes what they saw and heard on the night of April 12 between the hours of 9:00 and 11:00.  It does, however, mean someone who is prepared to share “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.  Specifically, a martyr, as we use the term, is somebody who, at the cost of life itself, is ready to bear witness to the message of God’s grace for humankind in Jesus.

            Over the centuries, thousands and thousands of people have been called upon to do that.  Some of them, especially from the earliest days, have stories that have become encrusted with some questionable material.  There was a woman named Thecla who lived at the time of Paul, whose preaching brought her to faith.  At some point she was arrested and asked to renounce her belief in Jesus, but she refused and was sentenced to be thrown to wild animals.  That’s where the story goes a little bit off, though.  Instead of lions or wolves, an ancient document says that she was thrown into a pit of water filled with ravenous seals.  Since she had not yet been baptized, she announced on her way into the water that she accounted that her baptism.  But then the seals miraculously died instead of her.  Ancient authorities leave out how she actually died, which confuses things even further, but that’s the nature of ancient authorities.

            There is a monastery of St. Thecla in the town of Ma’loula, Syria.  On December 3, 2013 a group of fighters aligned with An-Nusra, a branch of Al Qa’ida, opposing the Syrian government in the civil war took thirteen nuns from St. Thecla’s as hostages.  The nuns had remained in the town when others fled, although they evacuated the orphans who were in their care.  They were moved around for three months before they were freed as part of a prisoner exchange on March 9, 2014.  They said that they were well-treated.  Nevertheless, they had no idea when the town was overrun what would happen to them, nor when they were taken prisoner, nor when they were being used as bargaining chips.  What they did know, however, was that the convent and the orphanage were their responsibility.  They also knew that Thecla had faced death with calmness and trust, and they apparently were ready to do the same.

            In our day, we should remember and pray for people who face such trials.  We should not forget or give up on the 150 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram.  We should not ignore the Christians living in areas held by ISIS or those who lost loved ones just last week in the bombing of a church in Pakistan, any more than we would ever forget the Christian children who died in the Birmingham church bombing in our own country during the Civil Rights Movement.

            There is an old saying, that goes back to a man named Tertullian in the second century, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.  He wrote to the Roman persecutors,

“The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”[1]

He was repeating what he had heard in the gospel.

“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. [John 12:24]

Those are the words of the greatest martyr of all: Jesus.

            A martyr may, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, give his life as a witness that the loving rule of God comes before that of power-hungry human governments.  Given the choice between serving Hitler with freedom (or what passed for freedom at that time) or serving Jesus in a prison, he accepted the prison.  The day that he was killed he was called by Gestapo agents as he prayed with other prisoners.  On the way out the door, knowing the gallows was his next stop, he leaned over and said to one of his companions, “This is the end.  For me the beginning of life.”[2] 

A martyr may, like Oscar Romero, give his life as a witness that the loving care of God makes all people of equal dignity. 

“There are not two categories of people. There are not some who were born to have everything and leave others with nothing and a majority that has nothing and can’t enjoy the happiness that God has created for all. God wants a Christian society, one in which we share the good things that God has given for all of us.” [3]

He said that in El Salvador in the days when the wealthy were maintaining control of society by the use of death squads.  He opposed the rule of greed and said,

“By contrast, whoever out of love for God gives oneself to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. …Only in undoing itself does it produce the harvest.”[4]

I could go on and on with examples of others, yet each and every one of them looks back to the words and deeds of Jesus who, unlike them, who had his wisdom in mind and the courage of the resurrection in their hearts, had to face death bravely and with love not just for his friends but also for his enemies.  We fool ourselves if we think that it was somehow easy for him, yet he was obedient to God in the deepest possible way.

“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.”  [John 12:27-28]

And if the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, the blood of Christ is the source of salvation.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  [John 12:32]

His sacrifice is the one that theirs points to.  His Spirit is the breath that is in them and the life that carries on in them to all eternity.  Without him, all else that follows would be empty and pointless: one more innocent victim of whoever happens to be the tyrant currently in power.  With him, as he said,

“where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” [John 12:26]

There is not only comfort in that.  There is outright joy.  One more story:  Lawrence was the treasurer of the church in Rome and when he would not surrender the church’s funds to the emperor, he was chained to a grille and a fire was lit beneath him.  His last words to his executioner were these: “Turn me over.  This side is done.”

[1] Tertullian, Apologeticum, 50.
[2] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 528.
[4] Ibid.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Seeing Jesus through John's Eyes" - March 18, 2015 (Community Lenten Service)

John 1:1-14

            I enjoy teaching confirmation class, which in the United Methodist Church is one of those duties specifically assigned to pastors.  I think that taking people with four years of college and three years of seminary and hours and hours of continuing education and forcing them to take the questions of thirteen-year olds or to make the importance of Christian belief and practice clear to them on days when they really don’t want to be there is good for the clergy.  Of course, every class is different and has its own character and they stand out in unique ways.

            Back in the early ‘90’s I was serving as part of a group ministry of four inner-city churches and was co-teaching the confirmation program with a colleague.  Now, the students that year were the sort who loved philosophy.  One of them I called, “Eeyore,” but he could have been called, “Jean-Paul,” because you could easily picture him sitting in a cafĂ© in Paris and talking about the emptiness of life.  When we went on a retreat he didn’t want to get up at 6:00 for breakfast (for which I couldn’t blame him) but instead of saying, “I want to sleep longer,” he stuck his head out of his sleeping bag and said, “Why should I get up when I’ll only have to go to sleep again in eighteen hours?”  You get the picture.

            So my colleague and co-leader had to miss a session that was on “Names of God”.  It touched on titles that the Bible uses for the divine, including the one we come across this evening, where John calls Jesus “The Word”.  As I say, this was a group that enjoyed thinking and approaching God with their minds.  (Remember, we’re supposed to love the Lord “with all our hearts and all our minds and all our souls and all our strength.”)  They latched onto John’s vision of Jesus’ being intertwining with the being of God the Father from all eternity and of his being the pattern for creation in some way.  Being not long out of seminary myself, I taught them a phrase to express that and the next week we began class this way: “Okay, kids!  Let’s review things for Pastor Janet.  Paul Tillich described God as…” “The ontological ground of all being.”  Then we watched her fall apart.

            John does things like that, and that’s one of the things that speaks to me about the way he declares the good news.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John 1:1-5]

There are times when human beings need to be reminded that God is eternal and omnipotent, beyond all of our comprehension, majestic and almighty, the Ancient of Days, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last; and there are times when we need to know that God has lived here among us in the flesh, that he grew thirsty when the day was hot and sat down at a well, that he had friends who disappointed him even though they loved him, that he cared what would happen to his mother when he couldn’t look after her in her old age, that he returned from death a whole and entire person who could sit down to eat with his followers and could point out his scars.

            So if I want to see Jesus through John’s eyes, that’s what I see.

            One further catch, though: there are three other letters in the New Testament that are traditionally attributed to John.  Mind you, John (or its Greek equivalent) was a common name then, as it is now.  They were written late in the first century, sometime after the gospel of John.  But they use a lot of the same style and grammar and vocabulary as the gospel, and even if they come from a different person’s pen they come from the same school of thought and devotion. 

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” [I John 1:1-4]

What they add to the mix is their insistence that it isn’t enough simply to try to understand what God has done for us in Jesus.  What is on us is to see the world the way that God shows it to us through Jesus’ eyes.
“Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.” [I John 1:3-6]

            I try to get that through to my confirmation classes, but when I do that I am really trying to get that lesson through to myself.  Belief and action go hand-in-hand.  Sometimes you act because you believe, and sometimes you believe because you act.  A few years ago I was working with some parishioners, rehabbing an old rowhouse.  Our job for that day involved digging out part of the cellar so that the dirt floor could be replaced with concrete.  After awhile, it was clear that one of the men was having a hard time with something about the assignment and we went outside and I asked him what was going on.  He told me that his father had been a miner, and that although he knew that he had loved his family, that afternoon as he found himself digging in the dark the way his father did every day for decades, it suddenly hit him how much he had loved them to put himself through that his whole life.

            We learn the depths of God’s love for us in the same way, when we love as he first loved us.  He loved us enough to go from being the eternal and omnipotent Lord of all to being a corpse hanging on a cross.  And that was so that we could go from being lifeless people, not knowing why we should even get out of bed in the morning, to being… well, let’s hear how John puts it:

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”  [John 1:10-13]

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Jesus: Source of Life" - March 14, 2015

John 3:14-21

Over here at the bottom of the window nearest the pulpit is a picture of a snake wrapped around a branch.  Don’t you think that’s an odd image for a church?  Snakes don’t have an especially good reputation in the Bible and I have to admit, for myself, that I’m not very fond of them.  This image is a reminder of something that happened to the people of Israel when they were wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, grumbling about what they were going through, and placing blame.

“The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”  [Numbers 21:5-9]

That’s why this image is at the base of a window that shows some of Jesus’ miracles of healing. 

            Right above it is the picture of a woman who had been hemorrhaging for fifteen years who slipped up behind Jesus in a crowd, because she had become convinced that if she could touch even the edge of his clothing, she would be healed.  And she was.  Then there is an image in the middle that shows Jesus, having gone to Peter’s house right after he had called Peter to follow him, meeting Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick with a fever.  He took her hand and helped her up, for she had immediately become better.  (I love the way this window shows Peter and his wife watching from the doorway.)  Then at the top is a blind man with his cane, kneeling in front of Jesus.  The clump of stuff you see over Jesus’ right shoulder is a pile of dirt that Jesus used in the process, having gathered it together and spat on it to make it wet enough to smear on the man’s eyelids, he told him to go wash it off, and when the man did that, he was able to see again.

            Jesus spent a lot of time healing people and making them well.  These three are emblematic of so very many more times that people reached out to him for help, or to whom he extended his hand.  Yet the symbol of the bronze serpent goes beyond that, as Jesus’ understanding of what it meant to heal went beyond that, because life is not just what we know here and now.  Life, in its fullness, is unending.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. [John 3:14-15]

There are physical maladies, but there are also illnesses of the soul that also need a physician, and Jesus is the one who comes to restore wholeness in those situations, too.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [John 3:16-17]

That’s one of those Bible verses that is so familiar we sometimes don’t feel the punch behind them.  If you put it back into the context of snakebites, maybe a bit more of the wildness of the proclamation will reappear, a bit more of the wonder at Jesus as the one who returns our life to us when we are headed straight for oblivion.

            Think of it this way: the world can be a desert where you find yourself suddenly in a nest of rattlers, and the chances that you can move left or right or just calmly back out without getting bitten are slim to none.  You can count on it that you will be hurt, and that some of the poison is going to enter your system.  The people around you are not going to be any help because they also are dealing with the same problems and, in fact, may have been the ones who led you into the danger area to begin with.

            I think of teenagers and young adults who get caught up in a culture of binge drinking, who turn it into a matter of boasting whenever they overdo it, and find their behavior being reinforced or applauded by their friends’ laughter.  I think of politicians who get drunk on power and self-importance, who end up selling out their beliefs because they need campaign contributions to hold onto their seats, and who become more and more dependent on maintaining the system the better they become at working it.  I think of athletes who put just a little bit of an illegal steroid or two into their bloodstreams because everyone else is doing it and they think they have to do that, too, just to keep the playing field level.  I think of parents who just cannot bring themselves to say, “No,” and who learn ten years later what that may mean to a child.  I think of any number of people in any number of situations where they find themselves trapped, sometimes physically ruined, always sick in their heart and dead in their souls, who just want that one, last hope, but who are convinced that there are just no alternatives because the ways of the world are so well established.

            Well, there is an alternative.  Just as the snake-bitten Israelites were able to look up and see the bronze serpent that Moses held up, the sin-sick soul can look up and see Jesus on the cross, and know that there was one who willingly has placed himself between us and death, and has become the source of eternal life.  His ways may not lead to the same places of power and glory that the world promises, but ask yourself how many who chase those things actually reach them.  On the other hand, the lasting good that Jesus holds out, he holds out for everyone who will have it.

            George Herbert was born in Wales in 1593 and his family moved to London after his father died.  He was a smart child and gained a lot of attention for his scholarship, which led him to waver between academic and political careers.  Then everything began going wrong.  He had hitched his political wagon to people who suddenly fell out of favor, and one of them went into disgrace for accepting bribes.  Then his stepfather’s main investment, the Virginia Company that had settled Jamestown, was dissolved by King Charles.  Soon afterward, he got caught in the middle of the fighting between King and Parliament that would become the English Civil War.  By “caught in the middle” I mean that he had connections on both sides, which meant that nobody trusted him anymore because they didn’t trust his friends.  The strange thing is that all of this ended up deepening his spiritual life and making him more and more aware that his life did not come from any of the things he had looked to sustain him and to make him prominent.  He became more and more aware that the source and meaning of his life was elsewhere.

            He wrote a poem that we are about to sing as a hymn:

"Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:

Such a Heart, as joyes in love."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Jesus: A Religious Reformer" - March 8, 2015

John 2:13-20

               The problem with religion is that sometimes people mistake it for God.  Religion is a means of helping us relate to God, and in the end, all of our religious practices and even all of our good deeds turn out to be insufficient.  God himself has to come to us in the person of Jesus and put away all of the false images and all of the false ideas and all of the false practices that can get in the way and separate us from God.  Then it can be good.  

               That's really what Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was all about.  At the start of worship in the Temple, way back at its beginnings, the whole practice of sacrifice was understood as a sign of devotion.  When that became lost or buried, he wanted to restore the inner core of the rituals to its proper place, in worship and in daily life, where love and sacrifice go together.

               We sacrifice one way or another for the people that we love and they sacrifice for us, in a great give-and-take of mutual love. Parents sacrifice for their children all the time from the moment that the baby is born and the parents no longer get to sleep for a while, until the day when the child is sitting up by the parents’ bedside at night to check on them, it goes back-and-forth.

               People sacrifice for their country in many ways. One of the most basic is by honestly paying their taxes.  Then there are people who serve in civil capacities or sit for no pay behind the tables on election day, or who serve as jurors for (what is it now?)  something like seven dollars a day.   Then there are the people who enter the military, who really lay things on the line sometimes.

               Sacrifice was the central expression of loyalty to God in the worship at the temple in Jerusalem.  In the early days of the temple people brought what was important to them – the best of their sheep, the best their goats – so that those could be given to the Lord in token of their love and their obedience their loyalty in all areas of life and in apology for the ways in which their love had failed. In response, the priests would splatter the people with the blood from the sacrifice so that there on their bodies and on their clothing would be a symbol that what lay at the center of it all was a mutual giving-and-taking between God and humanity that was a covenant between them, established first by the Lord’s gracious giving and binding people together with him and one another in a single community where there was forgiveness as well as law.

               I'm sure there was a lot more to it than we would ever understand. It is very hard to gauge what anybody else is feeling and experiencing in any religious ceremony, even the ones that are familiar to us in a way that animal sacrifice is not. I regret being part of one of those online conversations this past week in which people were taking sides about worship styles.  One person wrote,

“Some people’s worship is entertainment in the eyes of some people but on the inside they’re praising God with all their might.  I might dance around when playing guitar or singing but I’m not ‘rocking out’.  I’m filling my soul with God’s love. …”

Another wrote,

“Many…find the praise music, electronic instruments, TV screens and the jumping and dancing around not only uninspiring, but downright disrespectful. …The pastor should also be robed.”

Then someone with a more practical viewpoint and less of an axe to grind than either of those two (whose remarks I’ve edited to leave out some of the less helpful commentary) added,

“I cannot do electronic amplified instruments and drums for a very simple reason.  I am deaf in one ear and the music overwhelms my good ear and it is too painful.”

Who knows what was felt by people in that temple in Jerusalem where the sheep and doves and goats and lambs were being sacrificed while trumpets blared and cymbals clanged and singers chanted the Psalms?  Who knows what they felt when they smelled the smoke from the altar and the burning carcasses and clouds of incense?  Did it put them physically in awe of God?  Did it make them nauseous?  No doubt there were those who found a renewed sense of the Lord’s presence with them. There may also have been those who found less than that.

               At some point, and it was probably a good idea at the time, the people who were in charge of the temple began to find ways to make things a little bit easier and to facilitate worship for people who had begun to come farther and farther distances. They began to make animals available for sale right there so that if you came from, say, Greece or Syria, you would not have to carry a coat the entire way.  That’s why when Jesus went to Jerusalem

“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the moneychangers sitting at their tables.” [John 2:14]

There were so many people from so many places throughout the Roman Empire finding their way back to the temple in Jerusalem that they had with them the Roman coinage. The problem there was that the emperor’s face was stamped on the front like George Washington on the quarter.  That was a graven image, forbidden by the Ten Commandments.  Even worse, on the back was usually the image of a pagan god, an outright idol.  So what do you do about that?  Well, if you are part of the occupied Jewish state,  you establish a special coinage for the temple so that people can buy the animals for sacrifice using coins that were not objectionable in any way.

               Again, it all made sense at first, until over time those practices meant to be helpful became an end in themselves. People began making money from the enterprise. It was a problem.  But what do you do?

               Maybe you are one of the people who comes from a distance even though you live
in Palestine. Maybe you are someone who's lived with the poor who could not fully afford the exchange fees. How do you help them?  Maybe in the midst of this you would find yourself, like people you care about, being cut off from God by the very practices that were supposed to draw you closer together. Perhaps you would get angry.  You would if you were Jesus.  He lost it.

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’” [John 2:15-16]

At that it became clear that he was a threat to the system. Systems don't like being threatened. When that happens systems threaten back.  He knew that.  He accepted what it would mean, and he began once more to speak both of his death and of his faith that God would validate him, even in the grave.

“’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ …But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” [John 2:19, 21]

               Who was Jesus?  He was many things.  One of those was a religious reformer. He loved the traditions of the faith deeply, and recognized what they should have been but were not. In fact that love is part of what led to his death. It was part of his love for us, for his very being was God reaching out to us.

               Sadly, the need for reform never goes away.  We never will get everything right from our side.  Listen to what it sounds like when somebody puts that belief in clear terms.  This was written by Curtis Freeman, who is a Baptist clergyman, a member of the Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity of the Baptist World Alliance.  He speaks from his own tradition, but you could hear others saying something similar from their own background.

“Baptists and other free-church folk often tell the history of the church like this:  Jesus came and called the apostles, and then he died and the apostles started this movement that was the early church, and it spread throughout the world and it flourished.  Then at some point, about the third century or so, we went through this dark period.

We don’t really say what all that was, but somehow the church went off, and then Martin Luther came along, and he got everything sort of back on track, but he kept baptizing babies.  Then there were the Anabaptists that came along, and they got things worked out, but they had some other problems, so then came us, and we straightened it out.”[1]

Every branch of the Jesus Movement has needed its reformers over and over and over again.  We’ve needed Teresa of Avila and we’ve needed Martin Luther and we’ve needed John Wesley and (I’m going out on a limb here) we’ve needed Pope Francis.  Salvation is never found in the forms of the institution, no matter how many times it splits apart over matters of doctrine or practice. 

               Happily, salvation is found in Jesus himself, in faith in him who never lets us settle for human forms alone. Jesus pushes us constantly to see the love of God that can and does come to us in the worship of our hearts before God.  He drives out all that prevents us from feeling the love of God for ourselves and lets us know God's grace for ourselves experienced in prayer and praise and acts of loving sacrifice.

               The Church at its best remembers him and proclaims that we ourselves, no less than anybody else, are sinners whom he calls back over and over and over again into relationship with God.  There are times when reform comes with terrible convulsions, and that is not good, but it is what happens when the problems lie deep within.  There are times when renewal comes with the Holy Spirit’s gentle but persistent touch, and that is good.

               But know this, either way:

“The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
She is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.
With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.”

[1] Curtis Freeman, “’Other Baptists’ and Confronting Catholicity” in Faith and Leadership (Durham, NC: Duke University Divinity School), February 24, 2015.