Albert Mohler: It’s Back—The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” and the State of Modern Scholarship

Well, it’s Holy Week and Easter’s coming. Time for more sensationalist tripe to appear in the media that purports to disprove Christianity and stuff. Surprise, surprise. Mohler does a thorough job of demolition in his piece, not of this particular scrap of papyrus but of the state of modern scholarship. See what you think.

Gospel_of_Jesus_Wife-300x197Heresy is not an abstract issue — it is a denial of the truth that leads to salvation.

That’s why Christians can never respond to heresy with indifference. As the late Harold O. J. Brown observed, “the important thing about heresies is the fact that they are not just permissible variations, options, or choices, but by their very nature so undermine Christian faith that they may well render salvation unattainable for the one who makes the mistake of embracing them.”

So much of what is presented as modern biblical and theological scholarship is an effort to destroy the very idea of orthodox Christianity and to erase all distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy. That is why so much attention is devoted to marginal issues of scholarship like this tiny fragment of papyrus. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” tells us nothing about Jesus and very little, if anything, about early Christianity. It tells us a great deal about modern scholarship, however — and that is the real message of this controversy.

Read it all.

Cory Willson: Why Resurrection People Remember the Dead

A thoughtful piece. From Christianity Today online.

39322Nearly three decades ago, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff issued a protest over the death of his son, Eric, in a hiking accident. “Death is shalom‘s mortal enemy,” wrote Wolterstorff in Lament for a Son. “Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.” For him there is only one response until death is finally overcome:

I shall keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench.

The families of Isaac, Poppy, and Eric will not be fully healed until the trumpet sounds, the dead are raised to life, and Death our final enemy is trampled underfoot. Only then will we shout the protester’s triumph: “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). Only then will memories cease to be the only tie that binds us to our loved ones. Only then will we be delivered to complete shalom—to wholeness, joy, and peace with each other.

We proclaim that our deceased loved ones who trusted Christ are in the hands of a loving Savior. This is central to biblical faith. Yet on this side of the Resurrection, memory also plays a central role in keeping hope alive. Remembering our loved ones who have died is part of our Christian understanding of hope.

Read it all.

An Account of How Palm Sunday Was Celebrated in the Fourth Century

The following day, Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, which they call here the Great Week. On this [Palm] Sunday morning, at the completion of those rites which are customarily celebrated at the Anastasis or the Cross from the first cockcrow until dawn, everyone assembles for the liturgy according to custom in the major church, called the Martyrium. It is called the Martyrium because it is on Golgotha, behind the Cross, where the Lord suffered His Passion, and is therefore a shrine of martyrdom. As soon as everything has been celebrated in the major church as usual, but before the dismissal is given, the archdeacon raises his voice and first says: “Throughout this whole week, beginning tomorrow at the ninth hour, let us all gather in the Martyrium, in the major church.” Then he raises his voice a second time, saying: “Today let us all be ready to assemble at the seventh hour at the Eleona.” When the dismissal has been given in the Martyrium or major church, the bishop is led to the accompaniment of hymns to the Anastasis, and there all ceremonies are accomplished which customarily take place every Sunday at the Anastasis [Church of the Holy Sepulcher] following the dismissal from the Martyrium. Then everyone retires home to eat hastily, so that at the beginning of the seventh hour everyone will be ready to assemble in the church on the Eleona, by which I mean the Mount of Olives, where the grotto in which the Lord taught is located.

At the seventh hour all the people go up to the church on the Mount of Olives, that is, to the Eleona. The bishop sits down, hymns and antiphons appropriate to the day and place are sung, and there are likewise readings from the Scriptures. As the ninth hour approaches, they move up, chanting hymns, to the Imbomon, that is, to the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven; and everyone sits down there. When the bishop is present, the people are always commanded to be seated, so that only the deacons remain standing. And there hymns and antiphons proper to the day and place are sung, interspersed with appropriate readings from the Scriptures and prayers.

As the eleventh hour draws near, that particular passage from Scripture is read in which the children bearing palms and branches came forth to meet the Lord, saying: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The bishop and all the people rise immediately, and then everyone walks down from the top of the Mount of Olives, with the people preceding the bishop and responding continually with “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” to the hymns and antiphons. All the children who are present here, including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. From the top of the mountain as far as the city, and from there through the entire city as far as the Anastasis, everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence, reciting the responses all the while; and they move very slowly so that the people will not tire. By the time they arrive at the Anastasis, it is already evening. Once they have arrived there, even though it is evening, vespers is celebrated; then a prayer is said at the Cross and the people are dismissed.

—Egeria, Abbess, Pilgrimage

Palm Sunday: Hosanna to the Messiah We Do Not Want!

Sermon delivered on Passion (Palm) Sunday A, April 13, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH

If you would prefer to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 21.1-11.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The passion narrative we just read is clear enough, straightforward enough, and rich enough to speak for itself and so I will not comment further on it other than to encourage you to muse on Christ’s passion frequently this week and to make yourself part of the narrative for reasons we will soon see. Instead, I want us to look very briefly at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the so-called Triumphal Entry, that we read in Matthew’s gospel during the liturgy of the palms this morning because doing so will help us grapple with the very heart and nature of God.

What do you think? Did Jesus know that he was God’s Messiah, or was he just basically swept along by the events of his day so that he became the victim of a story that started out well but ended very badly, a rebel without a clue, so to speak? Believe it or not, there are some who argue that Jesus had no self-consciousness about his mission or that he really was the Messiah. To have such an opinion is to either be badly misinformed or to have read and understood the gospel narratives badly because clearly Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem gives us every indication that Jesus knew what his role was and what he must do once he arrived at the city that all Jews believed was God’s dwelling place on earth.

But before we go there, we must ask what the title, Messiah (or its Greek equivalent, Christ), means and what people expected the Messiah to do once he arrived. Messiah comes from the Hebrew term that means “anointed one.” From the very beginning Israel’s kings were anointed with oil as a sign that God had called them to be Israel’s king on God’s behalf. The Messiah was generally seen as God’s ultimate king who would come from king David’s line to do two things. First he would liberate Israel from all its oppressors, which in Jesus’ day meant the Romans, and establish God’s righteous rule. Second, he would cleanse the Temple. Both these actions imply that many in Israel were looking for a military hero in the manner of David whom God would use to finally bring an end to Israel’s long exile and this surely would have been the prayer of many of Jesus’ contemporaries. They were looking for God to make good on his promise to return to his Temple and people to finally liberate them and live with them forever.

And based on what Matthew tells us in our first gospel lesson, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people with him clearly saw Jesus as their Messiah. But how do we know that? Tom Wright, the former Anglican bishop of Durham England and prolific scholar and writer, tells the story of Sir Walter Raleigh allegedly throwing his cloak over a puddle of muddy water so that Queen Elizabeth I of England would not have to walk in it. While no one can prove this actually happened, Wright’s point is that if it did, such an action would be an act of extraordinary devotion which stated in a powerful and symbolic way the high esteem we hold a person. How many of you have ever heard of this being done for a head of state or foreign dignitary in our day? I have not and I certainly know that none of you throw down your cloak in front of me when you see me approaching, which is baffling and more than mildly irritating considering what a big shot you all hold me to be, and that is Wright’s point. Here we have the followers of Jesus literally giving him the shirt off their back, the only one they probably owned, to honor Jesus as Messiah.

Not only that, they took palm branches, an ancient symbol with royal implications, and cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Hosanna means save and Son of David had definite political and Messianic overtones. If you wanted to wave a red flag in front of the bull that was Rome, you couldn’t do a better job than the crowds did that day. No wonder all of Jerusalem was in an uproar when Jesus hit town. And here it is crucial to our understanding of this story that we see exactly what is going on here in terms of the people’s perspective. They were hoping that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah so that their prayers for liberation, cleansing, and an end to their long national exile would finally be answered. In other words, they wanted Jesus to address their immediate perceived needs. Sound familiar?

But this is not the kind of Messiah Jesus intended to be and we must also understand this clearly if we are to understand what Matthew is trying to tell us. First, Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a warhorse. As Matthew reminds us, this naturally brought to mind passages like Zechariah 9.9 that talked of Israel’s king returning in great humility to usher in God’s kingdom. This powerful symbolic act of humility is also consistent with what Jesus had tried to tell his disciples earlier when he warned them three times of his impending death and resurrection (Matthew 16.21-13, 17.22-23, 20.17-19). These things show us clearly that Jesus thought himself to be God’s Messiah and what kind of Messiah Jesus intended to be.

Jesus would indeed come to rescue his people from their exile, but not in the manner they expected or even wanted. He would not usher in God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven as a mighty warrior who defeated all of Israel’s enemies by the sword. No, he would usher in the kingdom and end his people’s exile through his suffering and death on the cross. The end of exile Jesus had in mind was our exile from God that our sin has caused and our restoration as God’s true children in Jesus the Messiah (cf. Colossians 1.19-22; John 1.12-13). In other words, Jesus would indeed answer his people’s prayers but at a level far deeper and more profound than they were hoping for or wanted. By going to the cross and bearing God’s wrath poured out on the sins of all people, Jesus would release us from the grasp of Satan, our real enemy, and all the sin and evil that clings to us so tightly and dehumanizes us. Jesus would do so, not in power and vainglory as the world prizes, but in suffering and humility. This is what both Isaiah and Paul are telling us in our OT and epistle lessons respectively. Jesus’ great act of humility started when as God he took on our flesh to die for us so that we will not ultimately have to die. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, how could Jesus save us if he were not fully human? How could Jesus save us if he were not fully God? Here is food for thought worth our best devotional musing.

This is what Matthew wants us to see and grapple with because like the people of Jesus’ day, we too would prefer Jesus to come in great power and glory, all guns blazing so to speak, to strike down all the bad guys and then let us join with him to rule over everything in pomp and circumstance. We’re all about that, baby! But that is not how God has shown us the kingdom comes. It comes through the cross of Christ and in Jesus’ call to us to be like him by taking up our own cross in suffering and humble love. We are not so eager to take that path!

That is why Holy Week matters. We dare not rush to celebrate Easter without first musing on Jesus’ passion and death. Yes, Easter is God the Father’s mighty vindication of Jesus the Son. It is also the preview and promise of our future as citizens in God’s new creation. But we get there through the cross and by imitating Jesus’ suffering love in our own life and that is never easy. Simply put, without the cross we are dead people walking who have no hope. But we do have the cross, thanks be to God, so that those of us who believe can live as people with real hope.

So this week, before you hurry to see the empty tomb, take time on Thursday evening to sit with Jesus as he initiates the Lord’s Supper and explains to us in it the meaning of his death. Then afterwards stay to begin the vigil of our Lord’s passion and death, and remember he died for you so that you might live, starting right now. On Friday, participate in the stations of the cross and the Good Friday liturgy as you reflect on the terrible price God paid for our sins so that we might find peace and reconciliation with God, and with it our ultimate healing as human beings. Then on Saturday evening, come and hear the story of salvation as we await our Lord’s mighty resurrection at the Easter Vigil. Doing all this will help make you ready to celebrate the great Easter Feast on Sunday because you will have contemplated what it cost God to bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven, to win your release from the power of evil, sin, and death, and what kind of people we are called to be in our Suffering Messiah. Remember too that this same Messiah who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is available to you right now in the power of the Spirit to answer your prayers and heal you beyond your wildest hopes and dreams so that you will be able to live your life with joy and meaning in any and all circumstances. You can do so because you know that you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Why Stories of Resurrection During Lent? Why Not?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 5A, April 6, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130.1-7; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What are our readings with their theme of resurrection and new creation doing in the Lectionary on this fifth Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Passiontide, with its focus on the passion and death of Jesus? It is this question I want us to look at briefly this morning.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!” These are the first words of our psalm lesson this morning. How many of you have cried out to God using those words or something similar? I have. I remember the time when I had gotten divorced and learned that I was not going to be tenured at Miami. I thought I had lost almost everything that was important to me and I almost took my own life as a result. I would cry out this lament regularly through my tears during those dark days. I barely hung on but by the grace of God I did. I suspect if we went around the room and you were honest in your response, every one of you could recount times when you too cried out this plea for help. Perhaps some of you are crying out to the Lord right now because you are in great pain. The fact is, we live in a world where we are confronted regularly by all kinds of hurt, sorrow, loss, and suffering. Nobody is immune to it.

Certainly Mary and Martha were not immune to it because John records that Martha essentially cried out the same thing to Jesus when he finally came to her. “Lord, if you’d only been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.21). If only… How many times have we uttered this phrase as we cry out to the Lord in our pain! Rather curiously, John tells us that Jesus waited for two days before he left for Bethany, even though he loved Lazarus and his sisters, and we are left to wonder why because John only gives us a partial answer later in the story. And we can relate to this bad sense of timing on the Lord’s part (at least from our perspective) because we too are often left to wonder about God’s timing and God’s intentions toward us as we walk in the dark valley. For example, while certainly not a matter of life and death, some of us are wondering when the Lord is going to show us a place we can move to and call our own as St. Augustine’s. We’ve apparently been looking for love in all the wrong places because very little is happening on that front. And so we are tempted to wonder if God hears our cry to find a suitable worship space or worse yet, if God really cares?

We are confronted with this kind of nasty stuff in our lives so that we cry out to God because as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we humans naturally set our minds on the flesh, not the Spirit. But what does that mean? When Paul talks about setting our minds on the flesh, he is not talking about our skin. He means that we focus primarily on things of the world, especially those things that pander to our fallen nature. When we focus on these things, we will inevitably start to behave selfishly or violently or unjustly or in destructive ways because we inevitably become what we worship. To focus on things of the flesh means that we must exclude God from our worldview and thinking because we are focused on ourselves first and foremost. This, of course, means that we are certainly not living as God’s wise and faithful image-bearers to his world and this kind of thinking/acting got us kicked out of paradise and allowed evil a foothold into God’s good creation so that we incurred God’s curse on us and his creation. This state of affairs is known as the human condition and every one of us is so focused on things of the flesh, i.e., so naturally focused on us and our disordered desires, that we cannot possibly heal ourselves because it is literally woven into our DNA. We’ve got inoperable and terminal cancer, so to speak, and without outside help, we are doomed to face a life that is interlaced with both good and bad things beyond our ability to manage, and which will inevitably result in our death. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t find a lot of hope and purpose for living in this scenario. This, of course, is what we focus on during Lent: putting to death the flesh, i.e., all that exists in us that keeps us self-centered and hostile to God (how are you doing with that, BTW?). But at the same time, we have to ask if there is more to life than just this?

And when we get to this point, painful as it is, we are ready to hear the good news that is in the story of Lazarus and that Paul announces to us in our epistle lesson. One of the questions we must always ask when we read the gospels is why a particular story appears in the gospel. The four evangelists didn’t include stories willy-nilly or just because they thought they were cool (even though they are). They included stories like today’s because they help us learn more about Jesus and his work here on earth, work that primarily included announcing the kingdom of God was at hand and then demonstrating this fact with mighty acts of power.

Stories like the raising of Lazarus help us see the very heart of God. We dare not miss seeing, for example, Jesus in tears, perhaps over his friend’s death, but just as likely over his own impending death because he knows he must bear the sins of the world to make possible our own future with God. It is a heart full of love and mercy for his disordered image-bearers, a heart that desires for all people to be saved (healed) so that God became human to announce that he himself was going to do and be for Israel—the people God called originally to help bring his healing love to his sin-sick world—to finally bring that love to the world in ways that Israel simply did not (and apparently could not) do. Whenever we see Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons, we are seeing what happens when the kingdom touches individual lives. And here, in what is the mightiest act of healing in all the gospels, we see Jesus raising the dead and giving us a taste of what the coming new creation will look like, even though technically Jesus only resuscitated Lazarus because Lazarus would die again. But resurrected people in Christ do not die.

When God raises our mortal bodies from the dead, he will have reversed the curse and destroyed the last enemy: death (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.26). God does this because God is faithful to his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing ones. And let’s be clear about resurrection. We are not talking about some form of disembodied existence. We are talking about newly reconstituted bodies that are Spirit-animated and freed from all that weighs our mortal bodies down as Paul so strikingly explains in our epistle lesson. That’s why it’s called new creation. We won’t have the same old recycled stuff, although our resurrected bodies will be physical in nature. We will have bodies that are fundamentally different from our mortal bodies.

And as Jesus reminds us, resurrection isn’t some technical thing that will happen at the end of time. Resurrection is found only in a relationship with him, i.e., resurrection is relational and personal. And because it is relational and personal, resurrection is not about us as individuals getting a brand new body, it is about the community of believers (or as Fr. Bowser would insist, the family of believers) being raised to carry on their God-given tasks in the new heavens and earth, whatever that looks like. This is what our OT lesson is all about. It isn’t about individual Israelites being raised from the dead at the end of time. It’s about God ending the nation of Israel’s exile so that they can carry on their God-given task of bringing God’s healing love to his hurting world and we must always think of our own resurrection in the same way. We should always read stories like Lazarus with Ezekiel 37.1-14 in the back of our mind.

All well and good, you protest. But Jesus is gone and we are not really sure stories like this are true. After all, when is the last time you’ve seen someone raised from the dead, dude? Caca! retort the evangelists and Paul. You are setting your mind on the flesh again. Stop it! The evangelists would tell us emphatically that we can trust these stories because they are rooted in history, history on their terms and as they knew how to tell it, not ours. This is the basis of our faith, after all. We believe the future promise of resurrection and new creation because we believe in the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection which was the first-fruits of the resurrection to come (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.20-28). These things really happened, the evangelists would tell us. Are you so hard-hearted in the face of all the evidence that you still refuse to believe?

And Paul reminds us about as clearly as anyone can, that the risen and ascended Jesus is available to us in the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit who will one day raise our mortal bodies and give us eternal life in God’s new creation. But we don’t have to wait till we die to be in Jesus’ presence. We can have it now in the power of the Spirit. All we must do is to set our minds on the Spirit, i.e., believe it’s true and then focus on what that means and how it plays out in our daily lives. While the list of possibilities is virtually endless, at minimum it means that we are being transformed and healed so that our character is more in line with Jesus’ character so that we act more like Jesus over the course of our lives. It sometimes gets messy because we still live in mortal, fallen bodies and our DNA is not going to let us ignore our fallen desires. But when we believe that Jesus really is alive and the Lord of the cosmos, including this world, we are assured that we will win the war, even while we lose some of the battles. We believe this because we know that Jesus is faithful to his people and desires to forgive and heal us (cf. Luke  15.11-32). This is the heart of God as embodied and made known in Jesus. Do you know it?

Here then is real hope and purpose for living. Resurrection signals new creation which signals God’s faithfulness to his creation and creatures. It means this world and its people are important to God and here we find our purpose for living. We are healed and redeemed so that we can embody God’s healing and redeeming love for us in Jesus to those around us. We do this as individuals but we also do this as Jesus’ body, the Church, because as we have seen, God calls us together as his family. Despite our hurts and fears, despite the sorrow and loss we all suffer in our life, we are called to live our lives in the joyful hope and expectation of resurrection and new creation. God has defeated evil and death in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And God gives us his Spirit so that we are able to stay in relationship with God. If your hearts are not set afire at this good news, I have done a lousy job preaching it or you have either not read the stories with understanding or have a hopelessly hard heart.

And this is why it is appropriate for us to talk about resurrection and new creation on this fifth Sunday in Lent. As Christians, our reconstituted DNA is all about resurrection, new creation, and real and eternal life as God created and intends it to be. During these hard days of Lent with their emphasis on confessing sin and repentance, and on self-denial and putting to death all that is hostile to God within us, it is good and right that we pause for a moment in the midst of them to remember the Big Picture of God’s story of redemption that culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus and which will one day come in full at our Lord’s second coming.

All this leaves us with a challenge and an offer. The challenge is to us as Christ’s body and it is to celebrate and embody our Easter hope to the world. Easter is more than just Resurrection Sunday. It is a season of seven weeks and it is (or should be) the most joyous celebration of the Church. So our challenge as St. Augustine’s is how do we embody our Easter hope to a world that desperately needs to hear it and see it embodied? I issued this same challenge last year and we frankly missed the mark. But we are Spirit-filled people of hope and so I want us all to start thinking and planning how we will live our lives individually and corporately as Easter people. What can we do to proclaim to the world in word and deed that we are resurrection people, that Jesus Christ is alive and well and ruling his world, primarily in and through his healed and redeemed people, and that they too can be resurrection people?

But what if you are one who is hurting badly right now and who is crying out to God in the manner of Psalm 130? By all means, continue to cry out! But don’t get stuck on the first couple of verses. Read the entire psalm and see the hope and promise contained in it. As you do, notice its emphasis on waiting for the Lord. Then go and reread our gospel lesson today and spend some time reflecting on it. Like Psalm 130, pay attention to God’s perfect timing and start to trust it because in doing so, you are killing the flesh and setting your mind on the Spirit, i.e., you are learning to trust God in and through Jesus, not yourself. Then follow Martha’s lead and run off to meet Jesus so that you can bring your problem to him. Ask him your hard questions and be prepared for a surprising response. I cannot tell you what it will be exactly, but I can tell you its nature. In whatever way(s) Jesus responds to you, he will bring some part of God’s future with its good news, hope, and new possibilities into your present situation. But it won’t happen automatically. You must have faith. Remember that faith must be grounded in reality, not wishful thinking and unreality, so do the things you need to help remind you of this. For example, think about all the times God has brought healing to you and others. Ask faith-filled friends to pray for you and support you in tangible ways. Doing these things will remind you of God’s faithfulness in your life. It will also remind you that you ultimately have Good News, now and for all eternity, because Jesus is with you now in the power of the Spirit to help you walk in his light and has guaranteed your future with him by his own precious blood. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Who Sinned? (and Other Distracting Questions)

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 4A, March 30, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23.1-6; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So why did that earthquake hit LA yesterday? Is this an indication of God’s judgment on all the corrupt living going on in CA? And the missing Malaysian jet? Who sinned so that all the passengers are apparently lost? John catches our attention immediately in our gospel lesson this morning by reporting that one of Jesus’ disciples asks Jesus a similar “why” question: “Who sinned, that this man is blind?” We love to ask questions like this, both among ourselves and to God, because as we shall see, they are so deliciously distracting. But Scripture is remarkably reticent in answering our “why” questions. Instead, Scripture focuses more on answering the what and how questions and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

When we ask God and each other “why” questions, we are essentially asking about God’s justice. Why do bad things happen to people? Is it a matter of God’s version of quid pro quo where we get a reward for doing good and get whacked for doing evil? Now on one level Scripture is clear about why bad things happen to people. God created his world good but human sin and evil have corrupted it and caused God’s curse to fall on both his creation and creatures (Genesis 3.1-24). The resulting darkness about which John speaks in his prologue creates all kinds of moral, spiritual, psychological, and physical chaos, and as humans we try to make sense of the chaos. We want to know, for example, why evil (the snake) was in paradise in the first place. But Scripture gives us no answer. The entire book of Job addresses the problem of evil in God’s good world. And while we are given some insight into the source of at least some evil (Satan), at the end of the day, Job’s questions about why God allows evil to operate remain unanswered even as Job’s whole ordeal provides a devastating critique of traditional Jewish thinking on rewards and punishment: good things happen to righteous people and bad things happen to unrighteous people. But Job was a righteous man and he still suffered massively.

Now here in our gospel lesson we have Jesus’ disciples asking him to confirm their thinking about how God’s justice works. They assumed that because the blind man had been born blind, it was because he or his parents were sinners, i.e., here was another example of an unrighteous man and/or his family getting their just desserts. It is exactly the same kind of thinking that the Pharisees used against the blind man and Jesus as they sought to discredit the healing itself, the healed, and the healer. But Jesus would have none of that kind of thinking and we need to take our cue from both his response and the story that follows (cf. Mark 10.23-27).

Instead of explaining to his disciples and us why the man was born blind, Jesus tells us that it provided God an opportunity to work through him to bring God’s light and healing to his world created good but corrupted by sin and evil, i.e., to bring God’s order to chaos, and he promptly healed the blind man. This healing is even more remarkable because as neurologists will remind us, for a man born blind to be able to see immediately, two miracles needed to occur. The man’s eyes needed to be healed and his brain circuitry needed to be rewired to allow him to make sense of what he was seeing because there would have been no mental schemata in his brain to help him organize and make sense of these brand new visual data. For those of us who are born with sight, we take this seeing business for granted because we have spent a lifetime learning how to make sense of the various visual data to which we are exposed. But for one born blind, learning to make sense of the data would require new learning and this normally takes time. But not in this case. The man was able to see and immediately make sense of what he was seeing! None of this should surprise us, of course, because nothing is too hard for God. After all, God is the God who calls into existence things that don’t exist and gives life to the dead (Romans 4.17). This healing therefore has all the marks of being genuinely God-given.

We also notice in this story that we are watching John’s themes of light and darkness that he introduced in his prologue being played out in real life and this is what we need to pay attention to. Here we see a powerful example of God working in his good but broken world to heal it and put it to rights. We see the very heart and love of God for his hurting and broken creatures at work, the same heart and love of God that we read about in Psalm 23 this morning. Here is what John means when he told us earlier that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1.5). It is the same light we ultimately see in Jesus’ resurrection that overcame the terrible darkness of Good Friday so that we can actually call that awful day good because it signaled God’s victory over evil, sin, and death and as we saw last week, our reconciliation with God made possible only by the blood of the Lamb shed for us.

The same light of God’s healing love and goodness that shined so brightly for the blind man is also available to us and our world today to heal and redeem us, to reclaim our dark and broken lives so that we might live in the light of God’s love and new creation revealed in this story and most powerfully in Jesus’ resurrection. That is why we need to read stories like John’s on a regular basis because they remind us of God’s great love for us and that he has both the desire and power to heal all the sin and brokenness of our lives and world. This helps us commit our darkness to Jesus’ love and power and see what he does with it (and us).

All this takes faith on our part, of course, especially because Jesus is no longer available to us in his bodily presence as he was to the blind man, and this can cause us to wonder if Jesus is really with us after all. But he is available to us in the power of the Spirit and through his people, and here we must also pay attention to the warning about spiritual pride and closed-mindedness. Are we going to be like Jesus’ opponents with their preconceived notions of how God should work in his world and our lives, notions that are almost always wrong or distorted (after all, they challenged the healing and the healer!), so that their closed-mindedness and hard hearts caused them to reject the light of God’s love clearly offered in Jesus and powerfully demonstrated in the healing of the blind man so that they had no other option than to incur God’s judgment? Or are we going to be like the blind man and be open to the light of God’s love and healing power for us so that we allow ourselves to follow Jesus’ light as we walk through our own dark valleys? As John’s story reminds us, this is not always a clear-cut or simple proposition because the darkness of human sin and evil produces chaos and unpredictability of all kinds and our path is not always immediately clear. Note, for example, the confusion in the story. Was the man really born blind? Who really healed him? Was Jesus really from God? etc. But the promise of our gospel lesson is that despite the chaos, Jesus really is present to us to heal and rescue us from our darkness, even if it doesn’t look like what we hoped for or expected. Do you believe this? If you do, it’s a game-changer.

And precisely because Jesus is available to us in and through the power of the Spirit and in Jesus’ people gathered together in his name, we need to pay attention to what Paul tells us in our epistle lesson. We are made God’s holy people by the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross and in the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, individually and collectively as the Church. We are called to be God’s holy people in Jesus so that we can continue to embody God’s love for his broken and hurting world to others, which means we cannot go on living in our old selfish and sin-sick ways. Instead, we are called to imitate Jesus in all our living so that he can work in and through us to bring about his kingdom on earth as in heaven. This is what we are saved for and when we live faithfully to Jesus by embodying his self-giving love to everyone, he will happily use us to bring his light to the world to expose its darkness to either heal or judge it.

When we read commands like this, our natural tendency is for us to think that Paul is telling us to go about angrily denouncing sinners (who conveniently happen to be everybody else but us) and judging them. But I do not think this is what Paul had in mind (cf. Acts 17.16-34). When, for example, we forgive our enemies when they hurt us instead of seeking to exact revenge, we expose the darkness of their hatred toward us for what it is and leave it open to the light of God’s love to heal. When we live sacrificially or meet our suffering with real hope and courage so that people stop and notice (and not always in a good way) how we are handling ourselves, we are exposing the dark and selfish ways of the world (it’s all about me and my needs) that those ways may be healed. When we refuse to worship the false gods of money, sex, and power as they are being played out currently in our society, we expose them for the false idols they are that they may be rejected. Or when we are courageous enough to speak the truth of Jesus Christ to his enemies just like the blind man did, we are exposing the darkness of their thinking to the light of Christ’s truth so that it might change. Notice carefully that the blind man did not get personal or judgmental with his adversaries. He simply exposed the flaw of their logic and thinking and essentially asked them to repent.

In other words, we do this to invite others into a saving relationship with Jesus, just like the blind man did with his examiners, so that they too will be healed and not have to face God’s terrible judgment! Of course, when by our faithful living and speaking we expose the world’s darkness for what it is, we should expect to receive on occasion the kind of reaction the blind man received. His opponents reviled him and excommunicated him from the life of his community (the synagogue). But this reviling is part of what it means to deny ourselves and take up our cross as we follow Jesus.

And so we return to our original question this morning. Why did this bad thing happen to the blind man? We are not given a direct answer to that question. Instead we are given a story of how Jesus embodies the love of God to bring healing and relief to God’s sin-sick world and our call as his people to do likewise. As we have seen, following Jesus is not easy because people love to live in their darkness rather than in the light of Jesus and this is the challenge that confronts us, especially during Lent. Are we working hard at putting to death all the darkness in us that wants to keep us hostile to God or are we too busy speculating about other people’s sins so that we can remain sufficiently distracted from dealing with our own? This is what happened to Jesus’ opponents and what can happen to us when we focus on the “why” questions.

So let us live as children of light, challenging as that is. Take hope as you embrace the challenge by remembering that our path to glory is through our suffering, just like Jesus’ path to glory was through his suffering. He is present with us right now in the power of the Spirit and through his people to heal and sustain us. And he promises to be with us forever in the new creation that will come in full one day when he returns in great power and glory. If you really believe that, folks, you can rejoice in all circumstances of your life because you know you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Augustine on Waging War Against the Flesh

Be sure that we will soon celebrate the passion of our crucified Lord. It is therefore in keeping with our commitment to Him that we should crucify ourselves by restraining the desires of the flesh.

Such is the cross upon which we Christians must continually hang, since our whole lives are beset by trials and temptations.

—Sermon 205.1

N.T. Wright on the Seven Signs in John’s Gospel

From John for Everyone, Part 2. Simply Beautiful.

The changing of water to wine was, as he told us clearly, the first in the sequence of ‘signs’ by which Jesus revealed his glory. The second was the healing of the nobleman’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54). From then on he leaves us to count up the ‘signs’, and different readers have reckoned them differently. I think the most convincing sequence goes like this. The third ‘sign’ is the healing of the paralysed man at the pool (5:1–9). The fourth is the multiplication of loaves and fishes (6:1–14). The fifth is the healing of the man born blind (9:1–12). And the sixth is the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44).

John cannot have intended the sequence to stop at six. With Genesis 1 in the back of his mind from the very start, the sequence of seven signs, completing the accomplishment of the new creation, has an inevitability about it. Now here we are, at the foot of the cross. John has told us throughout his gospel that when Jesus is ‘lifted up’, this will be the moment of God’s glory shining through him in full strength. And the ‘signs’ are the things that reveal God’s glory. I regard it as more or less certain that he intends the crucifixion itself to function as the seventh ‘sign’.

As though to confirm this, Jesus gives one last cry. ‘It’s finished!’ ‘It’s all done!’ ‘It’s complete!’ He has finished the work that the father had given him to do (17:4). He has loved ‘to the very end’ his own who were in the world (13:1). He has accomplished the full and final task.

The word that I’ve translated ‘It’s all done!’ is actually a single word in the original language. It’s the word that people would write on a bill after it had been paid. The bill is dealt with. It’s finished. The price has been paid. Yes, says John: and Jesus’ work is now complete, in that sense as in every other. It is upon this finished, complete work that his people from that day to this can stake their lives [emphasis mine]. (pp. 131-32)


Scot McKnight: Heaven: Some Reflections

As usual, an entertaining and thought-provoking post from Dr. McKnight. See what you think. How would you try to comfort a grieving Christian regarding heaven? Which view would cause you the most comfort as a Christian?

Heaven, what used to be the primary motivator for many to become a Christian or be faithful of a Christian, has fallen on hard times. I wonder what you think about heaven? But I’m not asking about just your theory. Instead, I want to come at this from a pastoral angle.

Now some thoughts.

1. Heaven has been swallowed up in our day by kingdom talk, and more often than not kingdom talk is about life on planet earth in the here and now, and that his has diminished discussion and appeal to heaven. Advantages or disadvantages?

2. The old “heaven” has become more focused today on the “new heavens and the new earth,” with the former usually connected to disembodied spirits and souls and the latter to embodied spirits or spirited bodies. Is there that much difference (for the one wondering about what happens they die) between these two? On this theme, see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Read it all.

Trevin Wax: Pagan Propitiation vs. Biblical Propitiation

A clear and succinct summary of this word (never try to say it with food in your mouth and people standing close by). Propitiation fell out of favor with many 20th century theologians and the Church’s theology of atonement has suffered mightily for it. See what you think.

Here’s what I mean: Propitiation is an ancient word, which we as Christians have in common with other world religions. To propitiate a god is to offer a sacrifice that turns aside the god’s wrath. Anyone who believes in a god knows that they need some way to stay on the friendly side of that god. So they give gifts to the god, or serve in the temple, or give alms. And if the god is angry with them, they pay a price, or make a sacrifice, or find some way to soothe the god’s anger: they propitiate him.

In pagan propitiation, the gods need to be propitiated because they are grumpy and capricious. They don’t care much about humans except when something makes them angry; then they smite! And it’s up to humans to get busy doing the propitiating, to make up for whatever they’ve done that angered the gods. The humans find something that the gods like (sweets, or meat, or pain, or blood), and offer it as a bribe to calm down their wrathful deities.

But every aspect of biblical propitiation contrasts with the pagan kind.

Read it all.

Christian Morality

I think Lewis is exactly right. If he is, then he provides us with another compelling reason why the season of Lent with its emphasis on self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial is so important. See what you think.

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that this is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The Essential Vice

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. Does this sound exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are, the easiest way is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?” The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or being clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking, there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really  far more the result of pride.

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

How did you do on Lewis’ “pride test”? Me? Not so good. Using the criteria here, it is astonishing at how Pride manifests itself in almost every segment of our society. Do you understand why Lewis would say that Pride is “the complete anti-God state of mind”? If you do, you are getting nearer to the foot of the cross.