Monthly Archives: March 2021

Easter Trauma


Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

Prayer of the Day: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

If, like me, you accept the majority opinion of New Testament scholars that Mark’s gospel ends at Chapter 16, verse. 8, then we are not left with the joyous revelation of Jesus’ resurrection, but with the horrifying discovery of a grave robbery. We read that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome came early to the tomb of Jesus. They had come to “anoint him,” to give him a decent burial.

We who are disciples of Jesus understand what that is all about. We have a process for dealing with death. When a member of our community dies, we surround them with comfort. We bring meals to lessen the burdens of a family in deep pain as they struggle with funeral arrangements, burial details and the financial issues that arise with a person’s passing. We visit them as they gather for a wake or visitation, expressing our love, offering our prayers and sharing memories of the lost loved one. We frequently say our final farewell in a sanctuary surrounded by the symbols of our faith, the baptismal font where life with Jesus begins and the altar where it continues and extends to dimensions we cannot see with mortal eyes, to that great “cloud of witnesses,” that throng from among all nations tongues and peoples robed in white praising the Lamb, that realm of “angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.” Finally, we place the remains of our loved one into the earth, not as though it were a “final resting place,” but in the hope and expectation that this “seed” we plant today will bloom in a new creation on the day of resurrection.

I can only imagine how traumatized the three women must have been that morning. They had seen Jesus, the one they had followed, loved and in whom they had placed their hope cruelly tortured to death. With this wound still raw and fresh, they arrive at his tomb to find it torn open. The body of Jesus is gone and one could only imagine where it might be, what Jesus’ enemies might have done to it and what condition it might be in now. Small wonder the women ran from the tomb filled with terror without saying anything to anyone. They remained silent for the same reason sexual assault victims so often say nothing to anyone of their trauma. When you have been so deeply and intimately hurt, the last thing you want to do is open up the wound to further injury.

All of us have shared the women’s experience in some measure this year. We have seen a lot of death over the last several months. And like the women, we have been robbed of the faith practices that assist us in grieving, getting closure and moving toward healing. Three deaths that were close to me in varying degrees illustrate the point. The first was the death of an elderly woman in a nursing home. Her family insisted that she have a traditional church funeral although Covid-19 infections were spiking at the time. Though the state in which this woman lived permitted in person funerals subject to size limits, social distancing and masking, many friends and family members did not feel safe attending the event. As a result, there were hurt feelings and disappointment on the part of the grieving family and a good deal of guilt and unresolved grief on the part of those who did not attend.

The second was the sudden death of a young man in his 50s with a large and very close family. After some painful soul searching, the family decided that having a funeral at the peak of an epidemic was not a responsible thing to do. They resolved to do some type of memorial once the danger of infection subsided. In the meantime, however, their grief remains in many respects unaddressed and one wonders whether a service more than a year after the fact will fully meet their needs.

Finally, I viewed the recording of a Zoom funeral for another man who died after years battling cancer.The pastor gave a powerful gospel sermon. Participants were able to see the faces of the family and the family could see those of all the other participants. Participants were able to share in singing the hymns we all love and, though we could not be together in the sanctuary, we could at least view that holy place where we worshiped together for so much of our lives. Nevertheless, a funeral in which there are no hugs, no back slaps, no handshakes nor any one-on-one conversations leaves a lot to be desired. Despite the best efforts of the pastor, church and family to make this event as meaningful as possible, so much was achingly absent.

But here’s the thing. True, the gospel tells us that the women ran from the tomb in terror and told nobody anything of what they had seen and heard. Yet we know that could not have been the end of the story. If it were, I would not be writing these lines and Easter Sunday (and every other Sunday for that matter) would be just another day. So we are left with the question: How did these women finally overcome their trauma and their paralyzing fear? How did they manage to discern the dawn of a new age in the midst of what seemed to be the ultimate desecration? How were they “forced outside” themselves? How did they manage to find their voices, speak the good news of Jesus’ Resurrection and persuade their fellow disciples to return to the mountain in Galilee where they encountered the resurrected Lord?

Perhaps Mark intended to leave us with these questions because he understood that Jesus’ church was experiencing some traumatic body blows. Perhaps the Evangelist understood that his church would need a resiliant faith to see it through the dark times ahead. Maybe this gospel comes up in this cycle of readings in this time in order to challenge us to recognize the presence of Jesus in the midst of our own trauma. Perhaps we need to be reminded that we have been here before, that the worst thing that could ever happen to us already happened on Good Friday and the Jesus we thought we had lost for good came back to us. He comes back to us again. So take heart, people of God. We are going to be alright after all.

Here is a poem by Maya Angelou exploring the struggle between hope and despair. It is here where discipleship is lived out and where Easter dawn repeatedly shines through the cracks of death made by Jesus’ Resurrection.

A Plagued Journey

There is no warning rattle at the door
nor heavy feet to stomp the foyer boards.
Safe in the dark prison, I know that
light slides over
the fingered work of a toothless
woman in Pakistan.
Happy prints of
an invisible time are illumined.
My mouth agape
rejects the solid air and
lungs hold. The invader takes
direction and
seeps through the plaster walls.
It is at my chamber, entering
the keyhole, pushing
through the padding of the door.
I cannot scream. A bone
of fear clogs my throat.
It is upon me. It is
sunrise, with Hope
its arrogant rider.
My mind, formerly quiescent
in its snug encasement, is strained
to look upon their rapturous visages,
to let them enter even into me.
I am forced
outside myself to
mount the light and ride joined with Hope.

Through all the bright hours
I cling to expectation, until
darkness comes to reclaim me
as its own. Hope fades, day is gone
into its irredeemable place
and I am thrown back into the familiar
bonds of disconsolation.
Gloom crawls around
lapping lasciviously
between my toes, at my ankles,
and it sucks the strands of my
hair. It forgives my heady
fling with Hope. I am
joined again into its
greedy arms.

Source: Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (c. 1983 by Maya Angelou; pub. by Penguin Random House LLC). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Calling A Thing What It Is


Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1 — 15:47

Prayer of the Day: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’” Mark 15:8-13.

I have always held that one ought not preach on the Passion Narrative. The story of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution, as told in the four gospels, preaches itself. But for every rule there are exceptions and this year might be one of them. This year Holy Week unfolds under the shadow of a horrific mass killing of Asian women by a single white gunman. And this is only the most recent of many lower profile acts of violence against Asian Americans in recent months. Just as medieval Europeans blamed and persecuted Jews under the pretext that their poisoning of public waters brought on the Black Death, so also a significant number of Americans are convinced that Asian people are responsible for the spread of Covid-19 in this country. Some are giving vent to their irrational pandemic related fear and anger in acts of senseless violence.

We don’t have to look far to find the source for this recent spate of lethal animus. Though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention criticized the phrase “China virus” as inaccurate and potentially harmful in promoting racist associations between the virus and  people perceived to be Chinese or related to China, that has not stopped former President Trump and the Republican Party generally from using this and similar racist slurs in attempting to cast blame on China for the spread of Covid 19 in the United States.[1] The first time President Trump used the slur, “Chinese Virus,” was March 16, 2020. The following week saw an increase in anti-Asian hashtags and a rise in hate crimes. Indeed, though overall hate crimes in 2020 decreased by seven percent, those targeting Asian people rose by nearly 150 percent.[2] Everyone should be alarmed by our government’s incitement of violence against our fellow citizens. Those of us who identify as disciples of the one whose death was orchestrated by this very means should recognize in the victims of such violence the image of the Lord we serve. “Where I am,” says Jesus, “there will my servant be.” John 12:26.

Under the right circumstances and where it is politically expedient, it doesn’t take much to whip a mob into a frenzy of hatred. A mob is bigger than any of the individuals making it up, but it draws its strength from the deep wells of fear, anger and resentment living in the gut of each one. It has no memory nor any clear understanding of its own inner turmoil. A mob comes to life whenever someone finds a way to focus its rage on some person or group that can be blamed and punished for its members’ collective unhappiness. They who control the mob have the power to instigate insurrection, rioting and murder without ever getting their hands dirty. Jesus’ political enemies understood that. So does a certain American political party that believes staying in power requires feeding scapegoats to the lowest, meanest and most bigoted segment of our population, otherwise known as the “Trump base.” What happened to Jesus on Good Friday and what happened to the Jews in medieval “Christian” Europe is happening now to Asian Americans.

I submit that there is no neutral ground here. If you took offense at Donald Trump’s remark to the effect that there were “fine people” among the KKK, Nazis and Proud Boys protesting in Charlottesville, I frankly do not understand how you can insist that there are “fine people” in a political party that, at best, tolerates the scapegoating of Asian Americans for a virus induced epidemic. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther remarked that “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” I cannot think of a better time and place to call this repulsive and murderous Republican politics what it really is. I cannot think of a better time and place to make our stand with the Crucified victim of mob violence than on the Sunday of the Passion. I hope that every preacher in every church this coming Sunday proclaims Christ with an Asian face and rips the masks off all who stoke the murderous rage of those who would see him crucified yet again. Shame on us all if we remain silent.

Here is a poem by Carl Sandberg speaking to mob dynamics and the ways its destructive potential might be re-directed toward becoming a people. If that is to happen, there must be a voice to leading away from blind fear to understanding, from historical amnesia to remembrance.

I Am the People, the Mob

I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.

The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

Source: English for Students. Carl Sandburg (1878 – July 22, 1967) was a Swedish-American poet, biographer, journalist and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and one for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Sandburg is widely regarded as a major figure in contemporary literature. At the age of thirteen Sandburg left school and began driving a milk wagon. Throughout his early years, he worked as a porter at the Union Hotel barbershop in Galesburg, Illinois, a bricklayer, a farm laborer in Kansas, a hotel servant in Denver, Colorado and a coal-heaver in Omaha. Sandburg began his writing career as a journalist for the Chicago Daily News. Later he wrote poetry, history, biographies, novels, children’s literature and film reviews. He also collected and edited books of ballads and folklore. He spent most of his life in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan before moving to North Carolina. You can find out more about Carl Sandburg and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] E.g. Republican Representative Chip Roy, who at a congressional hearing examining anti-Asian violence, defended anti-Asian slurs, blamed China for the spread of Covid-19 and added for good measure, “”We believe in justice. There are old sayings in Texas about find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree,” Roy said at the hearing on Thursday. “We take justice very seriously. And we ought to do that. Round up the bad guys.” Also, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

[2] See Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism.

Drawing the World to See Jesus-Evangelism and Missions Revisited


Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Prayer of the Day: O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” John 12:21

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

Some “Greeks” are eager to “see” Jesus. Presumably, they wanted to meet him. Scholarly consensus seems to be that they were Diaspora Jews, that is, Jews living in areas of the Roman Empire outside of Palestine whose primary language was Greek rather than the Aramaic spoken throughout Judea and Galilee. But whoever they might have been, they were outside the scope of Jesus’ ministry. Like the magi, these Greeks were drawn to Jesus and we are not told what “star” brought them to him.

Andrew, the disciple with whom they first made contact, is at a loss about what to do. So he consults with fellow disciple, Philip, and together they decide to consult Jesus. At first blush, Jesus’ response seems like a non-answer. He goes off on what appears to be a tangent, speaking in cryptic terms of his coming crucifixion, the demands of discipleship and the potential cost of following him. But Jesus is actually going somewhere with all this. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” he says. Until that time, no one can fully “see” Jesus. The disciples themselves do not yet “see” Jesus for who he is. They will finally see him, but only in retrospect. John’s gospel is replete with examples of occurrences, the significance of which the disciples only recognize after Jesus was raised from death, (i.e., the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem John 3:22; Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem John 12:16; Jesus washing the disciple’s feet John 13:7). In time, not only the disciples, but “all” people will finally “see” Jesus and be “drawn” to him.

“All” is a big word. That is because the news about Jesus is big. It is not only for a select few. As I tried to point out in last week’s post, salvation and eternal life are intended for the entire cosmos. Thus, the missionary impulse to spread the good news to all people. That imperative was drummed into me from an early age. The Lutheran congregation of my childhood held “mission Sundays” at least annually at which missionaries on furlough were invited to speak and a special offering was taken up to support their work. I can recall vividly attending one such event with my parents on a Sunday evening early in the fall. We were sitting on metal folding chairs in the darkened church basement watching a grainy black and white movie filmed by one of our missionary guests. My recollection is that it was shot somewhere in Asia. It was clearly staged. A young, smiling couple stood with their two children in front of their modest home as our guest narrated. “Now this,” he said, “is what happens when Jesus comes into the home of a new believer.” The family turned and went into their house, promptly began collected artifacts of traditional worship set up on shelves and little stone altars in the main living area, placed them into a bag and threw the bag in the fireplace.

That image has haunted me all my life. Even at the tender age of eight or nine there seemed to be something “not quite right” about what I was seeing. The discomfort only grew as I matured and was exposed to other religious traditions through the people I met. Most memorable was a young woman I knew during my college years. I will call her “Min.” Min was an exchange student from Taiwan and a devout Buddhist. Still, she attended our chapel services regularly and showed a keen interest in Christianity. That, of course, attracted my evangelical soul like a magnet and led to my having a number of conversations with her. Even at that point in my life, I knew better than to think I could “convert” Min to Christianity. That was the job of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, I felt it my duty to present Jesus in the most compelling way possible-just to give the Spirit plenty to work with.

The conversations I had with Min were sometimes enlightening, but more often frustrating and confusing. I was never quite sure we were even speaking about the same thing when we talked about “God,” “eternal life” and “heaven.” But during one of our last conversations, Min said something that always stuck with me. “You know,” she said. “There is a lot about Christianity that just doesn’t make much sense to me. But I think that knowing Jesus has helped me to become a better Buddhist.” At the time, I thought I had failed in my ministry to Min. She had not converted to Christianity, been baptized or rejected her Buddhist faith. But at the same time, I felt somehow relieved. There was something beautiful about Min’s religion, her way of being present to everyone she met and her deep compassion that I would not have wanted to destroy. Her conversion, it seemed to me, would mean snuffing out a flame “that shines forth…in unaccountable faith, in stubborn hope, in love that illumines every broken thing it finds.” Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Seasons c. 2015 by Jan Richardson pp.47-48. It has taken me some time to reconcile these conflicting feelings, but I think I am now in a better position to make sense of them. Like the disciples in John’s gospel, I look back on my friendship with Min and recognize now that she was in fact “drawn” to Jesus, came to “see” him and was even tranaformed by him-just not in the way I was taught to expect.

The history of Christian missions is a mixed bag. In spite of the assumptions of white supremacy and colonial ambition that often accompanied the missionary enterprise, many of the missionaries themselves were caring and faithful witnesses with a deep love for the people they came to serve. There is no disputing that this effort, misguided as it often was, gave rise to thousands of lively, faithful and creative indigenous churches. Notwithstanding the dubious terms in which the gospel was often presented by Northern European and American missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the resulting churches have nevertheless managed to make the gospel their own and speak it to the world in fresh and startling ways.

Racism and colonialism are not the only impediments to proclaiming the good news about Jesus in lands where it is a foreign element. We have unfortunately been schooled to think of evangelism as a zero sum game in which a soul is either won or lost. Other religions are frequently viewed as competitors. Evangelism is a contest for market share. The endgame is conversion to Christianity with a repudiation of what has gone before. Where that is the prevailing assumption, it is hard for non-Christians to see missionaries, however courteously, respectfully and tactfully they may present themselves, as anything other than invaders intent on destroying their faith, to say nothing of imposing upon them a lot of unwanted cultural baggage. But what if being “drawn” to Jesus does not necessarily imply conversion to Christianity? What if mission work includes helping Muslims be better Muslims? Buddhists better Buddhists? Conversely, an openness to other religious traditions enriches our own worship, preaching and practice. Witness the profound effect Buddhism has had for contemplative Christians like Thomas Merton and Rowen Williams. For my own part, no Christian theologian has ever helped me appreciate the full implications of the Incarnation as did Jewish author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

By no means do I object to conversion, so long as it does not involve coercion or undue influence. Many of my friends in Christ have been “evangelized,” that is, drawn to Jesus and his church’s ministry along a path leading away from prior faith commitments or from having no faith at all. But I am not convinced that evangelism is a zero sum game with conversion to Christianity as the sole objective. I believe that Jesus has much to offer adherents of other faith traditions and that these traditions offer Christians fresh perspectives with which to understand our own faith. I don’t believe we must choose between rejecting or devaluing the faiths of others on the one hand or watering down all faiths to some trite common denominator on the other. All we need to do is “speak of what we have seen and heard,” “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” Jesus can be trusted to draw all people to himself in his own good time, in his own good way and on his own good terms.

Here is the poem/blessing cited above by Jan Richardson in full. This lyric piece illustrates the good news about Jesus, light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness cannot extinguish.

Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light
Blessed are you
Who bear the light
In unbearable times,
Who testify
To its endurance
Amid the unendurable,
Who bear witness
To its persistence
When everything seems
In shadow and grief.

Blessed are you
In whom
The light lives,
In whom
The brightness blazes-
Your heart
A chapel,
An altar where
In the deepest night
Can be seen
The fire that
Shines forth in you
In unaccountable faith,
In stubborn hope,
In love that illuminates
Every broken thing
It finds.

Source: Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Richardson, Jan (c. 2015 by Jan Richardson; pub. by Wanton Gospeller Press). Jan Richardson is an artist, writer, and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. She grew up in Evinston, a small community outside of Gainesville, Florida. She is currently director of The Wellspring Studio and serves as a retreat leader and conference speaker. In addition to the above cited work, her books include The Cure for Sorrow, Night Visions, In the Sanctuary of Women, and Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life. You can learn more about Jan Richardson and her work on her website.

John 3:16 Reconsidered


Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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.” John 3:16.

Like nearly everybody else of my generation raised in the church, I memorized John 3:16 at a very early age. I can’t say with absolute certainty that it was the first Bible verse I ever learned. My memory does not extend back that far. But if I had to bet on it, I would feel reasonably comfortable putting my money on John 3:16. Known among us protestants as “the little gospel,” John 3:16 was planted everywhere we set foot. It still is. You find this verse on bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, baby onesies, billboards, commemorative plates, note book covers, key chains and welcome mats. John 3:16 has become so well known (or so it is assumed) that I often see the naked citation without any text or context. “Obey John 3:16” declares one billboard I used to see on Route 80 traveling through Pennsylvania.[1]

John 3:16 was the subject of many of the sermons I heard over the years. The pastor of one church I attended in my youth suggested that we insert our first names in place of the word “world” and then recite it to ourselves: “For God loved Peter so much that he gave his only Son…” The gist of what our pastor was communicating is true, as far as it goes. God does love us individually with an abounding, sacrificial love ready to pay any price to have us. But, strictly speaking, the verse does not say that God loves me, that God loves the church, that God loves believers or even that God loves human beings. It says that God loves “the world.” In the original New Testament Greek, the word “world” is “kosmos” from which we derive our word “cosmos.” That is to say, God so loved the cosmos, the universe and each individual molecule of it that God sent to it the only Son.

Rather than reducing the scope of John 3:16 to the personal and individual level, we ought to be recognizing the broad sweep of its inclusive embrace. That, however, is not the way I was taught to read John 3:16. I was always given to understand that God’s promise of eternal life was exclusively for human beings and, more specifically, for human beings who accept Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior.” Moreover, eternal life was something experienced only after death. “Eternal life” was thus equated with the “after life.” From all of this it was abundantly clear that, notwithstanding God’s professed love for it, the world was not going to be saved. To the contrary, it was doomed to perish. Only a limited number of human beings would be saved from this mass extinction event-those who believed on Jesus Christ.

This restrictive interpretation of John 3:16 was supposed to inspire a feverish missionary zeal for “winning souls.” It was imperative for those of us who believed to lead as many other people to faith in Jesus Christ as was possible before their personal demise or the close of the age, whichever came first. This was so because the only way a person could be certain of obtaining eternal life was through believing in Jesus and so being “saved.” That led to many late night discussions at youth retreats I attended in my formative years. There was no shortage of agonizing questions raised by what was supposed to be a verse proclaiming good news: What about those who died before they were old enough to understand the gospel? Baptism? But what about kids that were never baptized? Will they be lost because of their parents’ negligence? What about people who live in parts of the world where the gospel has never been heard? [2]

Had we but read one verse further, we would have learned that “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 3:17. That might have moved us to consider whether we were not getting John 3:16 all wrong. Perhaps God has bigger plans in mind than simply rescuing a few souls from the deck of a sinking ship. Perhaps God means to save the whole ship. If we had looked more carefully at the rest of John’s gospel, we might have discerned God’s sweeping divine intent. For example, Jesus tells us that “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16. Whether in the fold or out of the fold, Jesus has more sheep than those presently among his disciples. Note well that Jesus nowhere tells us that we are responsible for bringing these sheep into God’s fold or that we must compel them to listen to his voice. Neither the salvation of the world nor any of its inhabitants weighs on our shoulders. Jesus promises to take care of that.

It is also important to look more carefully at what John’s gospel has to say about eternal life. First and foremost, it is not only a future hope, but a present reality. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3. Note well the present indicative. Life that is eternal is not merely so in duration. It is life qualitatively different from the sort of life the world knows, different because it is lived out of faithfulness to Jesus and the eternal love binding the Trinity. Life is eternal when it is poured into those things which are eternal. Saint Paul would say that these eternals are faith, hope and love, the greatest being love. I Corinthians 13:13. Eternal life is therefore not a prize to be obtained after death, but a gift to be enjoyed now with the assurance that not even death can take it away from us.

So what is the point of having a church if salvation is for the whole world? Actually, one of Jesus’ disciples posed that very question to him during his final hours together with them. “Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” John 14:22. Jesus responds, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23. In other words, the Incarnation, the “Word becoming flesh” announced in the opening lines of John’s gospel will continue within the community of disciples. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world,” says Jesus. John 17:18. Jesus prays that his disciples will be one even as he and the Father are one “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23. It is through a church, an “ekklesia,” built on mutual love of its members for one another and for the world that the world will come to know its worth, its value and the destiny intended for it by its Creator.

So the church is called to be what Koinonia Farm founder, Clarence Jordan, famously called a demonstration model for God’s reign on earth. It exists as a continuation of Jesus’ ministry as God incarnate. I would say, therefore, that it is not the church’s mission to convert everyone to Christianity or to increase its membership. It is, however, critical for the church to make disciples from among all nations and for the church to be present in all nations. It is critical that the church be a community made up of every nation, tribe, people and tongue putting the lie to nationalism, white supremacy and patriarchy while witnessing to the unity of the human family and its responsibility for the care of all creation. God’s will for the cosmos is that it be drawn into the restorative love that unites the Father with the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Jesus graciously invites us to be part of that future now so that the world may know it, embrace it and welcome its arrival. That is eternal life.

Here is a poem by priest, poet and activist Daniel Berrigan that captures with great eloquence God’s incarnate love at work in the world and bears witness to the eternal life to which disciples of Jesus are called.

The Face of Christ  

The tragic beauty of the face of Christ
Shines in the face of man;

The abandoned old live on
in shabby rooms, far from comfort.
din and purpose, the world, a fiery animal
reined in by youth. Within
a pallid tiring heart
shuffles about its dwelling.

Nothing, so little, comes of life’s promise.
0f broken men, despised minds
what does one make-
a roadside show, a graveyard of the heart?

Christ, fowler of street and hedgerow
cripples, the distempered old
-eyes blind as woodknots,
tongues tight as immigrants’-all
taken in His gospel net,
the hue and cry of existence.

Heaven, of such imperfection,
wary, ravaged, wild?

Yes. Compel them in.

Source: Selected & New Poems, (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 80. Daniel Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957. Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear warheads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release. Berrigan died on April 30, 2016 of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old.

[1] This is odd, because John 316 does not order, direct or even suggest that anyone do anything. It is simply a declarative sentence.

[2] There wasn’t much talk of hell and eternal punishment in the religion of my youth. The notion that this God who loved us would create a place where we might be tortured for eternity over a stolen apple was a bridge too far for me even in my “evangelical” days. Still, the prospect of a future that excluded people I knew and loved because they never arrived at a point where they could believe in Jesus was troubling enough.

Divine Weakness and Holy Foolishness


Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” I Corinthians 1:25.

No self respecting god would allow its temple to be destroyed. A god that cannot protect and defend its holy place is no god at all. That is why the Babylonian destruction of Israel’s temple in Jerusalem was such a traumatic blow. How could the God who brought Israel up out of Egypt and led them into the land promised to the matriarchs and patriarchs fail to defend the temple upon which God solemnly promised to place God’s name?

A similar question was raised by Saint Peter in last week’s gospel in which Jesus told his disciples that he would be rejected by the religious authorities, arrested and killed. How could such a thing happen to God’s messiah? So, too, in this Sunday’s gospel Jesus practically invites his opponents to “tear down this temple,” meaning the “temple of his body.” That does not sound reassuring. Yes, Jesus went on to say that he would “rebuild” the ruined temple in three days. But a true messiah would never allow his temple to be destroyed in the first place. The occurrence of such a sacrilege is a sure sign of divine weakness.

That, of course, brings us to Saint Paul’s odd comment in our second lesson from I Corinthians: God’s “weakness” is stronger than human strength. The cross, according to Saint Paul, stands our understanding of strength and weakness on its head. God’s strength lies in what appears to all the world as weakness and impotence. God’s strength is demonstrated in God’s resisting the temptation to employ coercive action to get what God wants. God’s strength lies in the power to forego retribution-even for the murder of the beloved Son. God is too powerful to be drawn into the vortex of tit for tat retaliation that has consumed nations, tribes and families from the dawn of time. God’s love is so deep, so respectful of its objects and so patient that it refuses to exercise force to have its own way. Instead, God’s love outlasts all resistance to it.

We have a hard time recognizing this “weakness” of God as “power.” Power, in common parlance, is the ability to make other people do what you want and make things happen in accord with your wishes. At the bottom of all my children’s “why” questions about what I told them to do was the answer “because I am the Daddy.” Nations are deemed powerful to the degree we fear their military might or depend on their economies. Your power is measured by the scope of your control. So it is not surprising that the “evangelical” god that steers the universe along an unalterable course toward the end of history, threatens to rapture its own out of the world and pound those who remain into submission through a “great tribulation” is so attractive to so many Americans. This god comports with our notions of what the “almighty” is supposed to be-like Rambo only bigger. We crave the protection of a “strong” god who is “in control.” The God who draws a resistant world toward new creation through suffering love and invites us to join in that enterprise is not attractive to a society that views “winning,” “victory” and the annihilation of enemies as the only way forward. To us, this powerful “weakness” of God looks like foolishness.

Following Jesus means submitting to the “foolishness” of God’s “weakness.” To a world fixated on “strong” militaries, “strong” economies and “strong” leaders, disciples of Jesus are called to warn all nations that the power they worship is the worst kind of impotence in the face of dangers that would destroy them. The world needs to know that there is no future in sealed borders, nationalist pride, faith in “strong men” and security through fire arms. It means telling the world that genuine power is the courage to rid our homes of weapons, break down border walls, un-gate exclusive gated communities, let go of privilege and release our death grip on wealth. When we are poor, meek, merciful, pure in heart and making peace we look foolish to a world in thrall to coercive power. But we are truly “strong” in the biblical sense. See Matthew 5:1-12.

How might such divine weakness and holy foolishness shape our lives as parents, spouses, siblings, church leaders, participants in civil government, employers, employees, business people and professionals? How does one lead without controlling? How does one resist hostility without becoming hostile? How can one be assertive without being aggressive? How can one be persuasive without being manipulative? How do we witness boldly to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims without sounding arrogant and self-righeous? Answering these questions in any particular context always requires empathy, wisdom and integrity or, in other words, the “mind of Christ” formed within communities of faith.

Here is a poem by Edward R. Sill in which a fool speaks truth to power. Sill’s poem illustrates what looks very much like “weakness” and “foolishness,” that unleashes transformative power.

The Fool’s Prayer

The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“‘T is not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘T is by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.

“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.

“The ill-timed truth we might have kept–
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say–
Who knows how grandly it had rung!

“Our faults no tenderness should ask.
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders — oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.

“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”

The room was hushed; in silence rose
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Edward R. Sill (1841-1887) was born in Windsor, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1861 where he was Class Poet and a member of Skull and Bones. He engaged in business in California and entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1867, but soon left for a position on the staff of the New York Evening Mail. He taught at Wadsworth and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio from 1868 to 1871. Thereafter he became principal of Oakland High School in Oakland, California. From 1874 to 1882 Sill was professor of English literature at the University of California. He retired in 1883 and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. He devoted the rest of his life to literary work.