Tag Archives: Lamb of God

Sunday, January 19th

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 49:1–7
Psalm 40:1–11
1 Corinthians 1:1–9
John 1:29–42

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The Fourth Gospel gives us a very different picture of John the Baptist than what we see in Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John does not give us any of John’s preaching. Initially, we hear only John’s responses to the questions put to him by investigative agents from the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. From his answers we learn a lot more about who John is not than about who he is. John is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah. He is not any other great prophet foretold in scripture or tradition. “I’m just a voice,” he says. John 1:23.

But when it comes to Jesus, John waxes eloquent. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1:29. For the better part of a century, scholars have been carrying on a lively discussion about what the term “Lamb of God” might mean. I will come to that under my reflections on the gospel lesson. What interests me, though, is the second part of John’s declaration, namely, that this Lamb of God will take away the sin of the world. How is he going to do that?

The Baptist of Matthew and Luke is clear about what it will take to purify the people: The Messiah will have his winnowing fork in hand to “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12. See also Luke 3:17. That is all well and good-except that separating the wheat from the chaff is often a dicey business as Jesus points out in his parable of the wheat and the weeds. Matthew 13:24-30. Sin is like a tumor on the brain stem. It is hard to kill it without killing the patient as well. Nothing illustrates that point better than the narrative of Noah’s Flood found in Genesis. God sends a flood to destroy humankind because “every imagination of the thoughts of [the human heart were] only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. This “flood” was more than a bad rain storm. God broke open the seals preventing the waters under the earth from welling up to swallow the land and broke open the windows of heaven allowing the waters above the earth to come cascading down. Genesis 7:11. The entire infrastructure of creation as described in Genesis 1 was beginning to unravel. But then, in the midst of all this carnage, “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. In the nick of time, God promptly pushes back the destructive waters, closes the windows of heaven and seals up the fountains of the deep. Genesis 8:1-2. In the end, God vows never again to bring such a cataclysmic judgment upon the world. “I will never again curse the ground because of [human beings], for the imagination of [their] heart is evil from [their] youth…” Genesis 8:21. Yet wasn’t it the evil imagination of the human heart that brought on the flood to begin with? As far as human beings are concerned, the flood hasn’t changed anything. Their hearts are just as prone to evil as ever. Dare we say that God’s judgment failed? One thing is clear: God has unilaterally taken the nuclear option off the table. God will not be a bully. God will not resort to violence to rid the world of evil. God knows that seeking to destroy evil by violent means results only in our destruction of the very things we seek to save. Violence turns us into the mirror image of what we most hate. God will not let wrath transform him into our image. Rather, God will employ steadfast love in order to transform us into his own image.

So how will the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world? The answer is almost too simple to believe. John sends his disciples to Jesus and they stay with him. John 1:39. Do not under estimate the importance of “staying” with Jesus. We meet that simple concept again and again throughout the gospel. It is best articulated in the fifteenth chapter of St. John:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  John 15:1-9.

To put this as simply as possible, “Sin is taken away when you hang with Jesus.” You are shaped by the company you keep. That takes time. The self-centeredness into which we were born must be broken by faithful habits of worship, prayer, fasting, repentance and forgiveness. Fruit does not appear overnight. It takes years of cultivation, a life time of careful pruning, nurture with preaching of the Word and breaking together the bread of heaven. Sanctification happens almost imperceptibly through lots of long, slow, persistent growth. It requires patience. Perhaps that is why the lectionary folks saw fit to give us one last blast of Advent in the reading from I Corinthians where Paul reminds us that we must “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 1:7.

Isaiah 49:1–7

Once again the reading in Isaiah is taken from the second section of the book (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. For more specifics, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. This is the second of four “servant songs” in which the prophet sings both of his own calling and struggles and, more widely, of Israel’s calling to be God’s light to the nations. For a more thorough discussion of the “servant songs,” see my post of January 12th. As I noted last week, it is not always easy to discern where the prophet is speaking of himself and where he is speaking of Israel as a whole. For example, the Lord declares, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations.” Vs. 6. It seems likely that the prophet himself is the person addressed since he ministers to Israel. Most commentators seem to follow this view. I believe it is also possible, however, that the word is addressed to the Babylonian exiles whose return and restoration of Jerusalem will rally the “preserved of Israel” and so constitute a light to the nations. Again, these different interpretations are really a matter of emphasis. The prophet’s mission is inextricably bound up with that of Israel to the nations.

The first verse lets us know that the song as a whole is addressed to the nations: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and harken, you peoples from afar.” Vs.. 1. There are three stages of development according to Hebrew scriptural scholar Claus Westermann: 1) the election, call and equipment of the servant; 2) the servant’s despondency as a result of his perceived failure; 3) the servant’s new (or perhaps better understood) task. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66 (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 207. To the nations the prophet declares that he has been called to serve Israel’s God and Israel whose mission is to “glorify” God. Vs 3. Once again, the line between the identity and mission of the servant and that of Israel is necessarily blurry. The prophet/Israel is despondent because his life’s work/Israel’s history seems to have been in vain. Vs. 4. So far from glorifying God, Israel has become a despised refugee minority from a fallen nation.

In verse 5 the mood changes with the words “and now.” Though called to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, such a calling is “to light a thing” for the servant. God declares that the servant will henceforth be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Vs. 6.  Verse 7 does not appear to be part of the song set forth in verses 1-6. But it follows naturally from the servant song nonetheless. Though now deeply despised, ruled by foreign powers and oppressed, the day will come when “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Vs. 7. Though perhaps uttered at an earlier time in more vindictive tones, within the present cannon this verse serves to emphasize how the servant’s and Israel’s faithful suffering obedience will finally bring the nations to their knees in adoration of Israel’s just and merciful God.

This and the other servant songs at Isaiah 42:1–9 Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 have been central to New Testament thinking about Jesus and his mission. It bears repeating that the biblical witness to peace and non-violence did not begin with Jesus. Note well how the prophet speaks of his/her call. God has made the prophet “a sharp sword” and a “polished arrow.” Vs. 2. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God’s weapon is God’s word, God’s voice, God’s speech. It is finally through persuasion that God reigns over humanity. Persuasion takes time, patience and a willingness to experience your efforts as “nothing and vanity.” Vs. 4. The way of the prophet foregoes coercion and the use of force. Such faithful suffering witness to God’s reign is, to use St. Paul’s words, foolishness. More precisely, it is the “foolishness of God.”  I Corinthians 1:25. Yet this “foolishness of God” is wiser than human wisdom that seeks results, demands progress and resorts to any means to achieve what it views as the right end.

Psalm 40:1–11

The lectionary folks might arguably have gotten it right in halving this psalm had they ended with verse 10 instead of verse 11. Verses 13-17 of the psalm are found nearly verbatim in Psalm 70. Thus, it appears as though Psalm 40 is a composite of at least two originally separate psalms. Verses 11-12 serve as a bridge linking together verses 1-10 and verses 13-17 into a single coherent prayer. For reasons I despair of ever understanding, the lectionary planners walked halfway across the bridge and stopped short. On the whole, I would have recommended including the entire psalm. It is important to understand that the psalmist uttering the words of praise in our reading is actually encompassed in “evils without number;” that his/her “iniquities have overtaken” him/her; that his/her heart fails him/her. The high praises for God’s past faithfulness and deliverance are thus a preface to the psalmist’s plea for deliverance.

Immature faith naively assumes that trust in God shields the believer from all harm. Growing faith laments, having discovered that covenant life with God sometimes plunges one into the depths of despair. Mature faith recognizes that evidence of God’s faithful intervention and salvation in one’s life stand side by side with indications of God’s absence. Neither praise nor lament can be permitted to exist exclusive of its seeming opposite. At all times both are called for. As Alfred North Whitehead has said, “the fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.” Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality-an Essay in Cosmology, (c. 1978 The Free Press) p. 338. This psalm binds both praise and lament together in a mature expression of faith in time of crisis. Though faced with numerous threats and challenges and seeing no obvious way out, the psalmist boldly cries out to God having recited God’s faithfulness to him/her throughout his/her life. I therefore recommend reading Psalm 40 in its entirety.

1 Corinthians 1:1–9

The reading is from the opening lines of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. It constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style, beginning with the name of the sender. That is important when you consider that these letters were originally produced as scrolls to be opened and read from top to bottom. If the letter were merely signed by the author at the end as we do today, the recipient would not know the identity of the sender until s/he had read the entire letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader knows from the start the audience being addressed.

Though clearly the work of St. Paul, the letter is also from Sosthenes “our brother.” He is not mentioned at any other point by Paul. Some scholars suggest that he might be identified with the Sosthenes who, according to Acts 18:17, was chief of the synagogue at Corinth when Paul was arrested there. While possible, there is no textual evidence for this assertion beyond the name which appears to have been a common one. As in his other letters, Paul introduces himself as an Apostle called by God. The body of the letter will demonstrate that some in the Corinthian church had been comparing Paul’s apostleship and teaching authority unfavorably to other church leaders. Paul is laying the groundwork for the defense of his apostleship to be set forth more particularly in I Corinthians 15:3-11.

As usual, Paul begins his letter with an expression of thanksgiving for the church to which he writes. He also expresses confidence that the testimony of Christ has been so confirmed within the Corinthian congregation that it lacks no spiritual gift necessary to sustain it until “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 7. Paul’s confidence is based in God’s faithfulness as indeed it must. For as we discover upon further reading, the faithfulness of the Corinthian church was more than a little shaky.

It is worth noting that Paul routinely gives thanks for his churches-even a church as compromised as the Corinthian church with all of its personality conflicts, doctrinal disputes and moral lapses. In my view, clergy often do entirely too much complaining about their churches and the church at large. True, the church is far from perfect. Yet it is worth remembering that Paul could say even of this dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Note that he does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ;” or “If only you could get your act together you might someday be the Body of Christ.” He says of this church “you are.” That is already enough reason to give thanks.

John 1:29–42

In this reading John the Baptist, who in previous verses has been reticent about his own identity and mission, now becomes quite vocal and explicit in testifying to Jesus. As New Testament scholar Raymond Brown points out, John unfolds through the speech of the Baptist a whole Christology. He identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, the pre-existent one and the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel of John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29 (c. Doubleday, 1966) p. 58. The reading opens with what Brown identifies as an “encounter formula” frequently employed in the Book of Revelation substantially related to the Johannine literature. A messenger of God sees a person and says “Look” or “behold” followed by a description in which the seer reveals the mystery of the person’s mission. Ibid. A similar instance of this formula is found later in vss. 35-37. The construction has roots in the Old Testament as well. (See, e.g., I Samuel 9:17).

There has been much discussion over what is meant by the term “Lamb of God.” Many scholars argue that the meaning is grounded in a Jewish understanding of the lamb as a heroic figure who will destroy evil in the world. This meaning fits well with the synoptic depiction of John the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher of judgment and with the imagery employed by John of Patmos in Revelation. It does not fit quite so well, however, with John’s depiction of the Baptist chiefly as a witness to Jesus. Other New Testament scholars believe that John’s testimony was shaped by an understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant depicted in the “servant songs” discussed above. Especially pertinent is the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) in which the prophet states that “[The servant] opened not his mouth, like a sheep that is led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers.” Isaiah 53:7. This argument assumes that John (the author of the Gospel) made the connection between these prophetic oracles and the story of Jesus. Although specific textual evidence is sparse for such an assertion, many of John’s allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures are intentionally more suggestive than explicit.

Some scholars favor identifying the Lamb of God with the Passover lamb. As Brown points out, the Western Fathers favored this interpretation. Ibid, p. 61. In favor of this interpretation, the Passover lamb is a central symbol in Israelite worship, whereas in the servant songs the lamb is but one isolated image. Passover symbolism is common throughout the Gospel of John. The slaying of the paschal lamb and its protective blood upon the doorposts of the Israelites fits well into the parallel between Jesus’ mission and the Exodus narrative. The problem arises with what follows, namely, that the Lamb of God is to take away the sin of the world. The Passover lamb was not understood as a sin offering and thus the shedding of its blood cannot be construed as making atonement for sin.

I tend favor the apocalyptic interpretation as most consistent with the Johannine tradition over all. Nevertheless, I believe that the suffering servant theme and the Passover tradition are also instructive and very much in the consciousness of the gospel writers. The fact that Jesus was crucified (according to John’s Gospel) the day before Passover at just the time when the Passover lambs would have been slain in preparation for the meal is suggestive. It seems to me that the death of the Passover lamb that shielded Israel from destruction is not so very inconsistent with the death of the servant in Isaiah whose ministry took the shape of suffering. Nor are these understandings inconsistent with the slain Lamb of God in Revelation who nonetheless is the only one mighty enough to open the seals to God’s future. Revelation 5:1-10.

Finally, we have the call of the first disciples. Two disciples of John the Baptist, one of which was Andrew the brother of Peter, follow Jesus in response to John’s testimony. They ask Jesus where he is staying and they wind up going to Jesus’ place of abode and “remaining” with him. Recall that beforehand John reported that he knew Jesus was the Lamb of God because he saw that the Spirit “remained with him.” The Greek word in both cases is the same and seems to indicate that, just as the Spirit remains or abides with Jesus, so Jesus’ disciples abide with him.  Through him they will also have access to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus will make that very point later on when he tells his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” John 15:4. Again, the word translated as “abide,” is the same word translated as “remain” in our lesson. Abiding in Jesus seems to be all important. Perhaps that is why John’s gospel ends the way the Synoptics begin: with the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. See John 21:15-22.

Sunday, April 21st

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Prayer of the Day: O God of peace, you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep. By the blood of your eternal covenant, make us complete in everything good that we may do your will, and work among us all that is well-pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

For reasons I have never entirely understood, the lectionary always gives us a Sunday during Easter in which at least three of the four lessons relate in some way to shepherds and sheep. My reflections on these lessons have been shaped by the upcoming Synod Assembly at which representatives of our New Jersey congregations will elect a new bishop whose shepherd’s staff has become a prominent liturgical symbol in recent years. I should add for the benefit of my non-Lutheran friends that bishops are a relatively new feature of Lutheranism in America. It all began in the 1970s as little more than a name change. At some point the predecessor churches that merged into the ELCA in 1988 began calling their national president and district presidents “bishops.” The title did not sit well with the pietist contingent within Lutheranism that has always had a deep distrust of ecclesiastical power structures and an unhappy history with bishops. We were assured that the change was nominal and not substantive. “It doesn’t change anything,” said our then president turned bishop Rev. David Preus.

But I believe it has changed us to some degree. For one thing, we have seen the steady growth of liturgical and symbolic encrustation around the office of the bishop. What used to be a purely administrative position held by a democratically elected individual has become a pastoral office. To complicate matters further, at its 1999 Church Wide Convention in Denver, Colorado, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church-USA under the terms of which ELCA bishops and pastors were brought into the historic episcopacy (at least insofar as the Episcopal churches are concerned). Again, for those of you unfamiliar with such things, the historic episcopacy is based on a belief that continuity in the ministry of the alter, i.e. those presiding over the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, has been maintained from apostolic times to the present by the “laying on of hands.” That is to say, there is a communion of bishops entrusted with authority to ordain priests to the office of sacramental ministry who have received their authority from a prior generation of bishops whose hands have been laid upon them. This laying on of hands, according to tradition, goes back to apostolic times and is a witness to the continuity of ministry and the unity of the church. At the same assembly, the ELCA voted to enter into full communion with three other protestant churches that are well outside the historic episcopacy. I am not sure how that shakes out theologically, but was very much relieved to see that, whatever being within the historic episcopacy may mean for Lutherans, it does not mean that we are cutting ourselves off from churches outside that tradition.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with any of these developments. I do believe, however, that we have not taken enough time to think through their ramifications. As a consequence, we have never developed a clear notion about what a Lutheran bishop is or what we expect from one. The constitutional requirements for the office of ELCA bishop are as broad as they are vague. Everyone seems to prioritize them differently. Do we want a bishop who will be the public voice of the church addressing issues of societal concern? Are we looking for a “pastor to the pastors” whose chief responsibility is care and oversight of the clergy? Do we seek a bishop who will be the additional pastor for every congregation and so intimately involved with the lives and ministries of our churches? Do we want a bishop who will take a “hands on” management approach and push local congregations toward a larger vision of the church’s mission or a responsive bishop whose leadership is shaped by the vision and practices developed by the congregations s/he serves?

I don’t pretend to have answers to such questions, but perhaps these shepherd/sheep texts for Sunday can give us some insight into how we might begin to discuss them. It seems to me that part of our problem in thinking about the office of bishop is our tendency to confuse power with authority. Often when we think we are discussing authority we are really talking about power. Power issues have to do with control and they are important. It would be naïve to pretend that we do not exercise power in the church. We discipline pastors, congregations and individuals whose conduct is injurious to the Body of Christ. We decide who is fit for ordination and call for the public ministry of the church. This exercise of power is constrained by guidelines and procedures to ensure that it is not abused. That is why we have constitutions, by-laws and guidelines.

Authority is quite another matter. So far as we know, Jesus had no rabbinic training, no priestly office and no governmental title. He had nothing in the way of power. Yet when he spoke, people recognized his words as authoritative. In our Gospel lesson Jesus says to his opponents, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27. Authority needs no credentials. You know the voice of authority when you hear it. The Gospel of John further relates how the temple police (the guys with the power) were sent to arrest Jesus and bring him before the council. When they came back without Jesus, the leaders asked them why they had not brought him in. They could only respond, “No man ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. That’s authority! Power can be conferred by election, appointment or by operation of law. Authority can only be built into a person’s character over time through a life of faithfulness to the practices of worship, prayer, attentiveness to scripture, generous giving and humble service to the neighbor. Words are authoritative when they are congruent with the narrative of the speaker’s life. It is what we mean when we say that a person is as good as his or her word, or what John meant when he said “the Word became flesh.” There is no gap between the walk and the talk. That is why Jesus could say: Doubt my words, do you? Well take a look at my works. (Highly paraphrased) A person who would exercise power properly and effectively must have authority. The converse, however, is not true. Authority has no need of power and does not fear power. Authority is a gift of the Holy Spirit and cannot be confined to the channels of power nor to any office or title.

In the final analysis, I don’t really care about the next bishop’s leadership style, mission priorities, strategy for the future of the church or theological leanings. I don’t expect the bishop to achieve for us a dramatic turnaround in the downward trajectory of church attendance or shower us with new ideas or (God forbid!) initiate yet another round of congregational self study. I am not particularly interested either in how we define the office of bishop (if we ever get around to doing that). But I pray that God will give us a man or woman who speaks and acts with the authority Jesus exercised.

Acts 9:36-43

In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle account to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues his life giving mission. Luke’s gospel contains two such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). It should be emphasized that these raisings do not constitute “resurrection” in the same sense that Jesus experienced it. Tabitha will eventually die again as did Lazarus, the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus. Like Jesus’ healing miracles, the raisings are not final liberation from death, but only a brief reprieve.

Furthermore, the miracles are never ends in themselves. Peter’s response here is to the distress of the church in Jappa which has lost a valued minister. Tabitha has been raised up to continue her life of good works for the sake of the church and its mission. As the case of Stephen demonstrates, sometimes the mission of the church is served by a saint’s faithful death. Thus, miracles of healing are not doled out as rewards for faithfulness, earnest prayer or any other effort on our part. They are gifts to sustain the life of the church, inspire faith and demonstrate God’s compassion.

It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” Jewish law regarded this line of work as defiling. Thus, Simon would have been an outcast in polite Jewish society. Peter seems to have no problem accepting Simon’s hospitality, though as we will see in next week’s lesson, he has considerable scruples over dining with Gentiles. Luke is therefore setting the stage for the upcoming story of the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius. This will be the next chapter in the church’s story of breaking down religious and cultural barriers. Luke wants to demonstrate that welcoming the Gentiles into the church is simply a logical extension of Jesus’ welcoming outcasts among his own people.

Psalm 23

What can I say about this psalm that has not already been said? Here are a few random thoughts on a very familiar psalm that gains meaning for me with each reading.

Though this is obviously the prayer of an individual, the community of Israel is never far from the psalmist’s consciousness. The God of Israel is frequently referred to as “Shepherd of Israel.” See, e.g., Psalm 80. Thus, the Lord is not “my” shepherd only, but “our” shepherd. Clearly, nearness to the shepherd is closeness to the rest of the flock. So when we are led to the green pastures and still waters, we travel with the rest of the flock. When we pass through the valley of the shadow, we have not only the rod and staff of the shepherd to comfort us but the company of the communion of saints. It is important to keep this in view lest the psalm become nothing more than the pious ruminations of a lone individual.

“I shall not want.” This can be read either as a bold declaration of confidence in God’s willingness and ability to provide all that the psalmist needs, or as an expression of contentment with all that God has provided. These two understandings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the emphasis in our culture should be on the latter. If ever there was a people who wanted more it has to be us. The amount of resources we Americans consume relative to the rest of the world is staggering. Still, we always seem to want more and, as I have pointed out before, it is this lust for more stuff that drives the so called economic recovery. Precisely because people have a tendency to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars simply because they can, jobs and money increase. Is there not a better and more sustainable way to live? Is it really necessary to keep on increasing our consumption at what is surely an unsustainable rate in order to live well?

“God leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here again it is critical to understand that God’s leading is not simply for our own individual benefit. It is for the sake of God’s name; that God’s name may be hallowed. Too often Paul’s promise in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:28) that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” is similarly misunderstood to mean “all things work together for my personal good.” Clearly, they do not. But that is because we are speaking not of people in general, but of people called according to God’s purpose. Thus, while one can be confident that God will achieve God’s purpose in one’s life, that does not translate into “everything will be alright for me.” We are not dealing with a rabbit’s foot.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is a frank admission that being led by God brings us into the presence of enemies. Significantly, the enemies are not vanquished. Rather, the psalmist is able to find peace even in their presence. So how might we learn to live peaceably in the presence of our enemies? Can we trust the shepherd enough to disarm ourselves? To drop all of the defenses we put between ourselves and those we fear? To be more specific, are we sufficiently confident in the Lord’s ability to protect us that we are ready to shut down the alarm system in our sanctuary and remove the locks from our doors? Is that what it might mean to allow God to prepare the Eucharistic Table for us in the presence of our enemies?

Revelation 7:9-17

For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 7th and April 14th. What I find interesting here is the paradoxical statement in verse 17: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This hymn echoes and may be inspired by imagery from Psalm 23. Oddly, Christ is characterized as both lamb and shepherd. The apparent inconsistency is overcome, however, if we accept the proposal of commentator Raymond Brown that, while composed by different authors, Revelation and the Gospel and letters of John share a related theological tradition. Recall that in John 17 Jesus prays not only that his disciples may be one, but “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us…” John 17:21. The “Lamb of God” that takes away the sin of the world now indwells his disciples in the unity of the Spirit and is also the Shepherd.

“The tribulation” out of which the “host dressed in white” has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. They are encouraged to persist in their faithful obedience to Jesus and assured that their journey’s end will be the fuller presence of God. The promise that God will “shelter them with his presence” literally translates as: “spread his tabernacle over them.” The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the Israelites throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The verbal form of this word “tabernacle” is used in the first chapter of John’s gospel where the apostle tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  John 1:14 “Lived among us” literally translated is “tabernacled among us” or “pitched his tent among us.”

This is a powerful message of hope to a church facing extinction under the oppressive weight of imperial persecution. It is similarly comforting to both churches and individuals close to dying and whose faithfulness to Jesus seems futile and ineffective. The Lamb whose faithfulness unto death defeated death shares his resurrection with the saints even as they share his suffering and death. The beast may inflict mortal wounds. But the Lamb bestows immortal and healing love. The last word belongs to the Lamb.

John 10:22-30

The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. Like a snowball rolling down hill, our understanding of Jesus picks up deeper and more nuanced meaning as we proceed through the narrative. Every sentence in this Gospel carries another clue to Jesus’ identity. The Feast of Dedication commemorated the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. Jesus previously conducted his own cleansing of the Temple in John 2:13-22. Rather than rededicating it, however, Jesus declared that his body constituted the new temple “not built with hands.” See John 2:13-22. Jesus’ reappearance in the Temple once again points us back to this clue paving the way to a new revelation about to unfold in the dialogue that follows.

Jesus’ opponents pose a very specific question to him: “Are you the Christ?” While there certainly was a wide range of expectations regarding the role of Israel’s messiah, what he would accomplish and how he would get it done, there was no ambiguity in the question itself. Jesus either believes he is the messiah or he does not. So which is it? While Jesus may seem evasive here, he is actually prodding his questioners to ask a better question: I have already told you who I am. You already know enough to make your judgment about me. Do you really think my answering your question one way or another will change anything I have already said? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. (Highly paraphrased).

“My sheep hear my voice.” The shepherd’s sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. Jesus has previously made this point in John 10:1-6. The sheep cannot be lured away by the voice of anyone but the true shepherd. The converse is also true. Sheep that do not belong to the shepherd will not heed the shepherd’s voice. So this is not a matter of obtuseness on the part of Jesus’ opponents. Their inability to “hear” Jesus voice stems rather from a lack of trust. The sheep heed the voice of the shepherd precisely because the shepherd has proved trustworthy and true. Paradoxically, Jesus’ opponents cannot hear him because they do not trust him. Yet they will never learn to trust him unless they heed his voice. Their situation might seem hopeless but it isn’t. These folks are not of Jesus’ fold now. But Jesus says of them: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16. Jesus has yet more work to do. He will be glorified in his final great work on the cross through which he will “draw all people to myself.” John 12:32. As the lesson from Revelation makes clear in its own lyrical way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.