Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Beloved Disciple: An Easter Meditation on John 20:1-18

"The Empty Tomb" by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

There’s a mystery at the heart of John’s gospel. Have you ever noticed? The other disciple. The unnamed disciple. Also known as the “beloved disciple.” “Disciple” means “learner,” by the way. To be a disciple is to want to learn, all you can, from the one you are following.

Have you noticed? Have you wondered? Who is this special person? The one described as “the one Jesus loved” as he races towards the tomb?

The idea that Jesus had a particular beloved does not sit well with me. This person, who shows up at the last supper, late in the game, if you want to know the truth—fully halfway through the gospel! He’s missed an awful lot of the really good stuff. Jesus has already turned water into wine, and healed a blind man, and stopped people from shaming a woman taken in adultery, and saved a child’s life. He has already broken down barriers of religion and ethnicity and gender by talking to the woman at the well as if she were an actual person with thoughts of her own. He has wept at the tomb of someone he loved, and then gone and raised that man from the dead. This other disciple is late to the party.

But there he is, leaning against Jesus after supper, and after Jesus has washed everybody’s feet—and I do mean everybody’s.

And then the beloved shows up during Jesus’ trial, following him around, trying to stay close, despite all the obstacles that get in his way—mostly soldiers, truth be told.

And then, there he is at the cross, one of the faithful remnant: the women and the beloved disciple. One of the beloved’s most important lessons comes in the moments when Jesus is dying on the cross. Even in the midst of his death throes—sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying—Jesus takes a moment to create a new family, a new community. He gives his mother and his beloved into one another’s care. Here you are, he says. You are for each other now.

And he is there on Easter morning.

The beloved disciple isn’t the first one at the tomb. That honor belongs to Mary Magdalene, no matter what gospel you’re reading.  Early in the morning on the first day of the week, so early it is still dark out. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. Some say she goes to properly prepare the body, with herbs and spices and oils. But in our story, she goes without explanation, drawn there, the way we are drawn to the graves, and the photographs, and the scent lingering on the sweaters of the ones we love who have died. And whatever her reason, her visit is disrupted by the disturbing reality that the stone—the probably 2000 pound stone that had been rolled in place to close the tomb—has been removed.  And backing away, the way you run from an accident to get help, she runs.

She runs to find Simon Peter and the other one, the beloved disciple.

What follows can only be described as a race.

The two set out together, but the beloved disciple is the faster runner. Maybe he is younger? Hasn’t yet blown out his knees with poor body mechanics hauling 300 pounds of fish out of the Sea of Galilee? Maybe it is his love that carried him?

He outruns Simon Peter. And he bends down to look into the tomb, but doesn’t go in.

When Simon Peter arrives, he does go in… and there he sees the evidence, the linen grave clothes that had been wrapped around Jesus, like the swaddling clothes of a baby. And that funny detail of the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head, separate from the rest, rolled up, as if someone had sat there, maybe a little groggy, absentmindedly pondering what to do next. Maybe some gardening would be nice.

Then the beloved disciple enters the tomb too. And he sees, too. And he believes.

He believes. Even though it is still very early—early in the day, early in the game, early in the whole gorgeous seedling of an enterprise that will end up being something they will call “the Way,” and we call “church” or “faith community.” He believes, even though he and the others haven’t yet had a chance to sit down with the scriptures to work all this out. He believes.

And then they leave, the beloved one and Simon Peter. They return to their homes—which are more than a hundred miles away, at least a four-day walk for someone in pretty good shape. Whatever they saw, or understood, or believed, their response in that moment is to go, head for home.

Mary, on the other hand, stands there weeping. And her hesitation to depart, her tears, her grief… well, in a certain way I suppose they are rewarded, aren’t they? Because someone who looks like he’s been gardening shows up, and calls her by name, and he walks with her and he talks with her, and tells her that she is his own.

But I am still wondering about the other disciple, the one the author of this gospel refuses to name, which means, we can all project all kinds of things on to him. We can make him John, or we can make him Lazarus, or we can make him Nicodemus. We can make him a her.

A bunch of us sat together the other night and we studied this passage, and we wondered together. Who is it?

Well. I am going to let you in on the secret. I know who that beloved disciple is.

It’s you.

It’s you.

You weren’t there at the beginning. You didn’t get to be walk Jesus for his many miracles—you didn’t get to see him make a paste of mud and spit and restore sight to a blind man. You didn’t get to eavesdrop on his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. You didn’t get to hear him call, “Lazarus, come out!” and see a dead man stumble from a tomb.

You found Jesus when he had already given his life to be nourishment for his people—you found him around the table. You came to Jesus when he had already shown, by washing the feet of all and sundry, that the core of this community, the heart of this faith, is forgiveness. You discovered Jesus when he was lifted high on the cross, and, just as promised, he gathered all kinds of people to himself—including you. He commended his community into your care—pointed to the church and said, “There she is. Take care of her.” You listened to the testimony of the ones who were first at the tomb—you looked into it yourself, and you believed.

You are the beloved disciple.

There is a mystery at the heart of this gospel. Have you noticed?

And it turns out not to be about Jesus playing favorites, but about something much more powerful, much more relevant to you and to me. It’s about a space that has been created in this story for us to enter and encounter God, the Word made flesh, dwelling among us here and now. The beloved disciple is every one of us who have listened to the witness, passed down from generation to generation, and who, along with all those other witnesses, are drawn, early in the morning, to the place where death is no more, sorrowing and sighing and pain are no more, for he is risen. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Words from the Cross: A Maundy Thursday Meditation on John 19:23-30

"Crucifixion," Master of Catherine of Cleves, 1438 CE

Scripture can be found here...

It is odd, isn’t it? To be hearing this passage on this night.

A night when we usually hear the words that Jesus spoke to his friends on the night before he died.

“Take, eat. This is my body. Drink this, all of you, this is my blood.”

“Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.”

“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

“Stay awake with me.”

These are the words we associate with this night—a night when Jesus breaks bread, and pours wine, and sits at table with his friends. A night when he takes off his outer robe, wraps himself in a towel, and washes their feet. A night when not only tells, but shows what love looks like.

But here we are, and it’s as if we are reading, not tomorrow’s headlines, but Saturday’s.

Our passage begins, “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus…” and so we come in, in the middle of the crucifixion. Jesus is already nailed to the cross.

And what happens first is a bizarre, even unseemly thing—the soldiers standing nearby, angling for his clothing. There’s even a reference to a psalm, to show us how it fulfills some kind of prophecy. It’s almost enough to distract you from the fact that he is now entirely naked, entirely vulnerable. Whatever we know, or think we know, or believe, or hope about who and what Jesus is, at this moment, he is utterly powerless. In fact, he is dying.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were, most likely, four women, and one more person, a man… he is that mystery, that enigma, the “beloved disciple,” the one who is never named for us. He is there too.

One of the women is Jesus’ mother. When he sees her, and the beloved disciple beside her, he speaks.

“Woman, here is your son.” 

And then he turns to the disciple.

“Here is your mother.” 

This is a deceptively simple moment.

At the most basic level, Jesus is securing some… well, security for his mother. A woman in ancient Palestine was the responsibility of her nearest, most senior male relative. Husband. Brother. Eldest son. Her safety and security depended upon his willingness to fulfil this basic obligation.

Here is Jesus, dying on the cross. And he wants to make sure his mother has a place to live, and someone to care for her as she ages. Simple.

And not so simple.

This is Jesus’ mother. The one and only other time we saw her in this gospel was in the second chapter. She and her son (and all his friends) were at a wedding in Cana. They had no wine. In that moment, she intervened. She urged her son to step in and help. And when he did, he turned what was already a joyous occasion into a God-hosted love-feast, pouring out overflowing abundance and deliciousness.

And here she is now, as her son is dying on the cross. In a moment we will hear his next words.

“I am thirsty.”

And a very half-hearted attempt will be made to get some sour wine into his mouth via a sponge and a stick.

As dreadful as that sounds to us, as completely mortifying and even painful it would be to try to drink it in the midst of real suffering, we are being asked to hold the events together. We are being asked to see them as all a part of what Jesus came to do.

The wedding banquet, a beautiful feast made even more so by an offering of the best wine anyone has ever tasted.

A man on a cross, dying, commending his mother into the care of his dearest friend, who, after that day, takes her into his home—or, as the Greek says, takes her “into his own.”

And in both instances, in both situations, as wildly unlike as they are, Jesus is about the exact same thing.

Jesus is creating community.

The wedding: a community in which two people pledge caring and devotion until their dying breath; a community of laughter, dancing, celebration of a circle opening ever wider; a community blessed by an unforeseen outpouring of God’s delicious abundance.

The cross: a community of love that gives itself fully until its dying breath; a community in which the caretaking does not come to an end, but in which the circle opens wider and wider, so that no one—no one’s mother, no one’s child—is left out in the cold; a community in which the outpouring of abundance is one man’s very body, his very blood.

Jesus is creating community. Jesus is showing, not telling, what love looks like.

Jesus’ words and deeds from the cross are not so different from his words and deeds at supper the night before.

“Stay with me.”

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”

“Here, let me wash you.”

“Take, and eat. Take, and drink. This is my life. I give it to you.”

And finally, ‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’

Finished. Not as in, “Whoa, that guy is finished,” as we say when someone is carried from the rink or the field.

Finished, as in, “Mission accomplished.”

Finished, as in, “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me.”

Remember. Put it all together. Put us all together.

“Love one another, just as I have loved you.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Execution of a King: Meditation on John 19:16-22

Scripture can be found here...

I have been thinking a lot about kings. For the past four months or so I have been watching movies and television shows about British monarchs. It all started back in December with “Elizabeth R”, a 1971 miniseries depicting the life of Elizabeth I of England.  That was followed by the movies “Elizabeth,” “Elizabeth the Golden Age,” “Mary, Queen of Scots,” “Anne of the Thousand Days,” and then all four seasons of “The Tudors.” After that, we went back to Henry II with “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter.” Fast forward several hundred years to “Edward and Mrs. Simpson,” and then rewind again to the miniseries “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” And back to his daughter with the “The Virgin Queen.” It still isn’t over. I have a list of fifteen more films about Elizabeth I alone. We (the movie- and TV-watching public) seem to have a bottomless appetite for the stories of kings and queens.

And it was not unheard of for monarchs to be executed. Lots of beheadings—Mary Queen of Scots, James I, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard… not to mention courtiers such as Sir Thomas Moore and Thomas Cromwell.

It is a fearful thing to watch a monarch walk to the place of their execution. Even if you are aware that you are watching actors, on a very accurate period set, all recorded for purposes of entertainment, your pulse quickens a little. Your throat dries out. Anne Boleyn was convicted of adultery, incest, and high treason, though most scholars believe she was in fact innocent of all those charges, and the victim of the king’s fierce desire to have a male heir. On the day of her execution she walked to the scaffold smiling, in a grey gown trimmed with fur, an ermine cape over her shoulders, her long hair tucked into a white bonnet to give the executioner, a particularly skilled swordsman brought in from France, a clean view of her neck. She spoke to the crowd.

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man… but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord… And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.

The gospel of John is very different from the other three gospels. Are you tired of my saying so? I can’t help myself. Read John’s account of the crucifixion, and then read any other account for comparison. In John’s gospel Jesus goes to the cross with all deliberateness, with all confidence that this is God’s will and plan, and that it is, instead of a moment of despair or defeat, a moment of absolute, resplendent glory.

In our short passage today, Pontius Pilate pronounces the sentence, though we don’t ever hear his words. There is one ruler, there is one king here, and it is not Pilate. It is Jesus. He is not assisted by anyone; he carries the cross himself. He is not led, or dragged, or carried; he walks, under his own power. He is crucified alongside two other men, but their backstory and their ultimate fate is no concern of John’s, so we don’t hear a word from them. Our focus is on Jesus, and only Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

‘Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”’ ~ John 19:19. This caused some amount of consternation. Why not write, “This man said ‘I am the King of the Jews?’” they asked. “What I have written, I have written,” replied the prefect of Judea.

What are we to make of this? Are we to nod our heads and think, “Ah, Pilate is convinced”? Or, do we look at the prefect and think, “Oh, he’s figured another way to torment the Jewish population: show them a man on a cross, and send the message, ‘No one is safe, not even your king.’” I think we could go either way.

Me, I lean towards the “Out of the mouths of…” well, not babes, in this case—more like ‘Out of the mouth of the enemy.’ Or, ‘Out of the mouth of the oppressor.’ The person who you would least expect to get it, gets it. The people with all the education, the ones who know their scripture inside out, who’ve spent their lives steeped in God’s word—they don’t get it.

But really, why should they? Even now, even two thousand years after the fact, with something like ninety-nine generations of preachers between Jesus and us, interpreting the story, explaining it to us, helping us to see him for who he is… even now, we read these words, or we close our eyes, or we gaze up at a movie screen to watch a biblical epic, and we see this image of a man nailed to a cross, and it is very, very hard to understand what in blazes Jesus means by “his hour of glory.”

Irenaeus was a prominent figure in the early church, born just about 100 years following the death of Jesus on the cross. “At the very heart of his faith was a conviction that the unseen, unknowable God who had created everything so loved humanity that he had become a human being just like us.”[i] And perhaps the statement of Irenaeus that is  best-known and most often-quoted is one that speaks to this text: “The glory of God is the person fully alive; and the life of the person is the vision of God.”[ii]

John tells us that the vision of Jesus on the cross is truly the hour of his glory, and the glory of God. The moment in which he is lifted high on the cross is the moment at which Jesus is most fully alive, the moment at which he truly gives us a vision of God and kingship unlike any we have seen before, and unlike any we will see again.  

We see the God and king who does not leave us alone in our suffering, but who joins us there.

We see the God and king who does not cling to his power, but who empties himself of it.

We see the God and king who does not flinch from love, but who embraces it, arms stretched wide, whatever the cost.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Portraits of Witnesses to Christ: Saint Irenaeus of Lyons,” at
[ii] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What is Truth? Sermon on John 18:28-19:16a

"Ecce Homo" ("Behold the Man") by Antonio Ciseri
Scripture can be found here...

How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?

The first time Pontius Pilate really came to life for me was in the 1973 film adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Actor Barry Dennen originated the role on the recording, and on stage, and in the film. I’ll never forget his entrance: the hot, dusty desert locations, scored with the screaming electric guitar riffs and full-throated choruses suddenly give way to a cool, breezy palace scene, a quiet acoustic guitar, and a soothing British accent. Pilate is clearly one of the elites. His first song—“Pilate’s Dream”—is a confession, a portent of the trouble Jesus is about cause him. He is melancholy. He is sympathetic, and my sympathy only grew for him as I saw Jesus’ unwillingness to defend himself. Pilate’s hands were tied.

How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?

Let’s begin with information drawn from historical sources, including inferences based on what we know about the Roman nobility of his era.

Pilate was born into a wealthy family, right around the same time Jesus was born into relative poverty. Pilate, most likely, was born in Rome. There are not many historical clues about his early life, but we know one thing: as a teenager, Pilate did what most Roman boys did when they were teenagers: he joined the army. The armies of Rome were—and remain—legendary for their flawless and harsh discipline. If a legion lost a battle in a way that brought dishonor, the troops were punished, sometimes through a practice called “decimation”—they would kill every tenth soldier. This is the schooling Pilate had for leadership.

Pilate showed himself early on to be harsh, ruthless, and unafraid of spilling blood, which is probably how he rose to the rank of commanding officer. Pilate—Pilatus in Latin—is not a family name, but a nickname. It means, “skilled with a javelin.” Pilate was one of the elite “equestrians,” soldiers who rode on horseback in battle.

His success in command caught the attention of the Emperor Tiberius, who, in the year 26 CE (AD), appointed Pilate to be governor (or ‘prefect’) of Judea. Scholars have referred to the position as “both an honor and a curse.” Rome was a hated occupying ruling power, and the Judeans had never accepted Roman rule. They maintained their own power structures, both royal (the King of the Jews, a puppet-ruled who stayed in power at Rome’s pleasure), and religious (the power structures of the Temple priesthood and of the Pharisees). Governing the province was considered the most challenging post in all of Rome’s vast conquered territories.
Still, the prefect was Rome’s ultimate authority in Judea. The role was primarily a military one. The armies stationed in Judea acted as peacekeepers and police force, and the prefect oversaw the structures that collected taxes and executed justice. Pontius Pilate was the Emperor’s legal representative in Judea, judge and jury. It is that role that brought Jesus and Pilate together, in the scenes we have read in our scripture passages today. This part of Pilate’s biography is only attested to in the gospels and other early Christian writings. We will return to this in a few minutes.

Historical records show that, shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate enraged the Judean people by taking money from the Temple to support a misbegotten building project. Pilate built an aqueduct over a cemetery; to Jews, any water that flowed through the aqueduct was considered impure because it flowed over graves. The aqueduct was useless because most of the population refused to drink its water. When the populace protested openly, he had them beaten and killed. The aqueduct fiasco was only the latest of a series of actions in which Pilate—either deliberately or ignorantly—flouted Jewish customs and disrupted their exercise of their religion.

The savage brutality with which Pilate continued to rule Judea brought an ever-increasing number of complaints to Rome. Known for his “vindictiveness and furious tempter” [Philo], Pilate was accused of abusing both his power and his people. The new Emperor, Caligula, removed him from his post in the year 37 CE.

This was not like the President of the United States asking for the resignation of a member of the cabinet. To be removed from a post by the Emperor was not only humiliating; it was a sign that your life was in danger. While there is no direct evidence, there is a strong tradition that Pilate did what most disgraced Roman officials did: he killed himself. For a Roman citizen of the noble classes, this was considered the honorable way out of a life that had come to dishonor and shame.[i]

How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?

Pilate is a prominent figure in the crucifixion story in all four gospels—so prominent he has earned himself a place in the creeds proclaimed around the world every Sunday. Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.” But the portrait of Pontius Pilate that emerges in the gospels, and particularly in the gospel of John, deviates considerably from what the historical record shows.

As our passage begins, the religious authorities take Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters. Pilate goes outside to speak with them. In their first exchange, Pilate learns nothing except that they believe Jesus to be a criminal, and wish to see him executed. It is only in Pilate’s conversation with Jesus that he asks the loaded, and all-revealing question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Remember, only a few days earlier Jesus had entered into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, to the shouts of the crowd: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” [12:12-19]. And for Jesus to either claim that title for himself, or to refuse to deny it when others applied that title to him—that was an act of treason under Roman law.

In every other gospel, when asked the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers, “You say so.” In John’s gospel, a kind of dance ensues.

Jesus: Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?

Pilate:  I have no dog in this game. Come clean. What have you done?

Jesus: I have a kingdom, all right. But it’s so far removed from anything in this world you can’t even imagine it.

Pilate: So, you are a king?

Jesus: That’s you talking. Here’s why I’m here: to tell the truth.

Pilate: What is truth?

At this point Pilate throws up his hands and goes out to the assembled crowds, including the religious leaders, and, for the first time but not the last, says, “I find no case against him.” He offers to release an insurrectionist named Barabbas. The crowd refuses.

What is truth?

The dance continues.

In the one moment in our reading that may come the closest to showing the Pilate reflected in the historical record, Pilate has Jesus flogged. This was done with a whip with metal bearings in the ends. It was against the law to whip anyone more than 40 times, because 40 lashes was considered a death sentence. The common practice with dangerous criminals, (such as traitors and insurrectionists) was to whip them 39 times, just one lash short of the death penalty.

How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate? What is truth?

After further humiliations—the robe, the crown of thorns, the blows across the face—Pilate tells the crowd again, “I find no case against him; crucify him yourself.” Pilate is portrayed from this point on as struggling, striving, doing everything in his power to release Jesus. He is “afraid.” He appeals to Jesus to offer some exculpatory evidence; he appeals to the crowd to agree to his release. He goes back and forth, out of the palace and in again, no fewer than seven times. He is boxed in on every side.

In short, he is very much like the Pilate of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And except for that flogging, he is almost nothing like the Pilate shown in the historical record, the killer who was removed from his post for excessive cruelty against the people in his charge.

What shall we say about Pilate? What is truth?

Here’s one truth: the depiction of Pilate in the gospels has been disastrous for Jews for the last two thousand years. Author and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield states it this way:

There is no question that the story of the trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, conducted before the Jews at Jerusalem, has been used time and time again to legitimize, not only bad feeling towards Jews, but the murder of Jews. Because the claim is that, at the time, the Jews asked for Jesus, and Pilate [acquiesced]… And that becomes one of the cornerstones of a theology that says, “You contributed to the killing of God, and now we have the right to kill you.”[ii]

Here’s another truth: The Pilate of history was very, very unlikely to have gone to any lengths to please the Jewish leaders or people. The idea of him being afraid of them is almost laughable. Pilate was not a benevolent and compassionate leader who could be frightened by an unruly crowd. He was a Viktor Yanukovych, firing on the people when they got too unruly.

And another truth: the early church was still stinging from the family fight between Jews who proclaimed Jesus Lord and Jews who saw that as an affront to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And that same church had much to fear in the Roman empire—which was, by all accounts, responsible for the death of Jesus by the Roman practice of crucifixion. The gospels seem crafted to show Rome in the best possible light, at the same time they reveal a deep sense of ongoing bitterness on the breakdown in relationships among faithful Jews who did or did not follow Jesus.[iii]

What is truth? How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?

In the end, it’s impossible to talk about Pilate without talking about Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” without ever understanding that he is looking at the truth, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.   Dressed in purple robes and a crown of thorns, beaten almost to death, Jesus is a more powerful image of truth than any answer he could give. In his body, broken by beating and ready for the cross, Jesus reveals the truth of the empire’s love of power and need to dominate. And in that same body, given over freely, Jesus shows the truth of our God of love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Pontius Pilate. The Biography Channel website. 2014. Available at: Accessed Apr 04, 2014.
[ii] Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Pontius Pilate: Biography Channel website. 2014. Available at: Accessed Apr 04, 2014.
[iii] Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5. (1992) pg. 399–400. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.