“Die”

GOSPEL | JOHN 11:7-16

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”  11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”  12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”  13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.  15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”  16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (v.16)

I’m not sure I understand all of Lent’s language about dying. I thought I did, but in the midst of the story of Lazarus, and in this week’s discussions on baptism, and in Lent’s journey to the cross, I am more and more confused. What does it mean that I have died with Christ in baptism? I’m still alive! and what is more, sin is still alive in me!

Thomas understood dying quite literally. He resigned himself with all the disciples to go with Jesus to Judea, where Jesus will be executed. The threat of real death looms large at this moment; the foreboding of Holy Week is thick.

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. Growing up, this meant a chance to let the adorable children have their 20 minutes of being precious with palm branches, and hear the story about how Jesus knew a donkey was waiting for him. But Jesus’ “triumphal” procession into Jerusalem is anything but precious, anything but adorable. The disciples are terrified of the certain death awaiting here, both for Jesus and for themselves. Jesus is also painfully aware of his violent, cursed death.

The pain and fear and anguish of Lent is far greater than missing chocolate, or coffee, or Pinterest. Giving up small conveniences (or even major ones) is a small sign of this death, and a personal avenue into what the Catholic tradition calls purgation and what the Reformed tradition calls mortification — essentially, dying to self. But I know from years of giving stuff up for Lent that come April 1, I will race back to Pinterest like a dolphin to a dangled sardine.

There is an important flip-side to mortification: vivification (or regeneration), living the new life. This is the first Lent where I have both given up something, and added something. Practicing Lectio Divina (sacred reading) every day during Lent and blogging my reflections has been an expression of freedom for life, more than just a freedom from death. It is this small addition to my schedule that has been for me a river of new life flowing from within.

Lord Jesus Christ,

the Giver of the Life Abundant,

send your Spirit to remind me always of my baptism

— as both my watery tomb and my spiritual womb,

where I was both buried with Christ and raised with Christ —

so that conquered sin may not rule over me

— whether the Shadow that entangles from within

or the shadows that pursue me without —

but that I may freely live to, for, and under You,

my Savior, Lord, and Teacher.

I pray this in Your name;

Amen. 

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“Belong”

GOSPEL | JOHN 10:22-30

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

“you do not believe, because you do not belong” (v.26)

Thanks again to my Systematic Theology class, for giving me food for thought and a pair of lenses through which I cannot help but read Jesus’ words. This semester for my internship I have been looking at and developing a curriculum for educating new church members. My Systematic Theology class has just started looking at baptism by reading Dr. Brownson’s book The Promise of Baptism. This quote came up in today’s lecture, as a way of getting at the truth that the church is not a voluntary organization:

One does not become part of Christ’s body by deciding to do so. Nor does one become part of Christ’s body by the approval of the existing parts of Christ’s body, any more than my two hands could decide that my body needed a third hand to help out with a difficult problem. We become part of Christ’s body because God joins us to Jesus Christ and makes us part of Christ’s body. Being part of Christ’s body is not a human option; it is a divine act.

~ James Brownson, The Promise of Baptism18.

This is an unpopular truth, one that we (Americans, specifically) rebel against. The emphasis is on God’s action, not ours. Here’s another quote that expresses much the same thing:

The Church is creatura verbi divini: the creature of the divine Word. The Church is constituted by God’s action and not by any human action. It is not an association of people who have a shared taste for religion or the creation of some kind of human community spirit. It is not a community devoted to a common cause or to the realization of a common aim, and in this the Church differs from other organizations. As the creature of the divine Word the Church is constituted by divine action.

~ Christoph Schwobel, from “The Creature of the Word: Recovering the Ecclesiology of the Reformers,”

in On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community, ed. Colin Gunton

How frustrating and inconvenient! Why can’t church be “an association of people who have a shared taste for religion”? But wait? Isn’t it? That’s certainly what it looks like: on the corner of Post-modern and Popular, we have the New Community of Hipsters, and across town, in the middle of Conservative Way stands the First Traditional Church. Don’t our churches line up according to people’s personal preferences about worship styles, preaching voices, church structures? How can this be a product of God’s action first and foremost?

How am I, as a pastor of this mixed bag of competing realities, supposed to hold forth and believe this truth that the church is called together by God, when it sure looks like we get to choose which church we like best, and choose to leave it as soon as we don’t like it best? I’ve had to come to harsh terms with this second reality in my work with the church’s way of doing its “membership class.” We aren’t educating “new” members, so much as we’re orienting existing church members (as in, baptized Christians who are part of the Body of Christ) to the way we do things differently (or, as it turns out, not-so-differently. Yes, I’m a little pessimistic. Sorry.

I am also deeply hopeful, because of the very powerful truth that God is indeed gathering, growing, and sustaining his Church for his glory and his mission for the sake of the world. It is a truth much more difficult to see at work, but that’s where the belief comes in. “I believe; help my unbelief.”

“Come”

GOSPEL | JOHN 3:16-21

16 “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.  17 “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.  18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

“‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world…'” (3:19)

The light is our salvation, but it is also our judgment. In Lent, we intently – if squeamishly – attend to our mortification, the part of the Christian life wherein we lay down our sinful, fallen habits. Reflecting on baptism is a beautiful way into this uncomfortable, uncomely act: in the waters of baptism, we are cleansed from the stain of sin upon us. In going down, we are put to death; in coming up, we are brought to new life.

This Lenten journey started with an invitation: “Come and see” (John 1:39). What we find is not always pleasant or affirming. The light is startling and disorienting. However, the light is also safe and welcoming. After all, John begins his Gospel by declaring that Jesus Christ is “The true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), and Jesus tells us today that he did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

Lent can drag on. 40 days is a long time. The repetition of these themes – suffering, death, temptation, sacrifice – can become harrowing, and we’re ready for Holy Week well before Palm Sunday. And again we hear, “Come.” When I’m tempted to say, “My old self isn’t so bad,” or, even worse, “My sins are not nearly as bad as theirs,” Jesus speaks clearly into the darkness of night and says, “Come.”