Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another

There is a world that is passing away and, along with it, all the temporal pleasures and desires which make it something less than the world God intended. The love of the Father for the world he created endures forever, and that love will abide throughout the world to come. It is the love that already abides in “whoever does the will of God” (1 John 2:17), thus making real in this world that is passing away that world which will never pass away. John writes to those in whom the Father’s love abides in varying degrees (“little children,” “young men,” “fathers”) to encourage them to continue in that love, that they might indeed “abide forever.”

This is what Jesus was praying for when he prayed not only for John and the other apostles, “but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).

The prayer of Jesus, still fresh in John’s mind when he wrote his epistle, surpasses any mere desire on our part, noble as it may seem, for some kind of organizational unity among believers across denominational or sectarian lines. The unity for which Jesus prays, the unity which manifests God’s glory to the world, is nothing less than incorporation into the divine community itself. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them,” Jesus prays to the Father, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).

This is a unity that goes beyond any human-concocted scheme. It is the union established by the Father before the world began; a bond of eternal love between the Father and the Son, into which are incorporated all to whom the Son has made the Father’s name known, that is, all to whom the Son has imparted the divine nature through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Those to whom such a gift is given are the true chosen people of God in whom abides the same Spirit which revealed to Daniel the mystery of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:1-30).

By contrast, the one who walks apart from Christ is like the pitiful “wise men” of Babylon, groping about in the darkness, “not know[ing] where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). As those “wise men” were under the sentence of death before the intervention of the truly wise and righteous Daniel, so are we all under the sentence of death before the intervention of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. By his coming into the world, he has shown us the way of truth and, by his example of self-giving and self-sacrifice, demonstrated that truth cannot exist apart from love. To his apostles, he imparted the very word which is truth, that is, the same Word of God which he himself made incarnate. He “kept them in [the Father’s] name” and “guarded them” so that “not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12).

Pilate will later cynically ask, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Jesus has the answer. “Your word,” that is, the Word of God the Father, “is truth” (John 17:17). It is the Word that Jesus himself has made incarnate. Thus, he not only gives the answer, he is the answer. Jesus himself, the very Word made flesh, is the embodiment of the truth, the full revelation of the will and purpose of God from the foundation of the world. To be “sanctified in the truth” is to be sanctified in Christ, made holy as the Father is holy through the truth abiding in us through the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), whom God has sent to lead us in the way of righteousness.

To abide in Christ, the Word made flesh, the truth incarnate, is “to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). It is an often difficult road of selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love. “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in the darkness,” John writes. “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (1 John 2:9-10) because the light in which he abides is Christ himself.

Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another. Only in Christ are the two made one; and only in Christ may we be sanctified in the truth to shine forth the glorious light of his love.

Herod’s ignominious end

Herod’s reign came to an ignominious end “because he did not give glory to God” (Acts 12:23). No doubt he gloried, instead, in his own vanity, relishing the accolades of the crowd shouting, “The voice of a god, and not a man!” (Acts 12:22). It was precisely the kind of praise Herod wanted from “the people of Tyre and Sidon” who had come to him to ask for peace. It was a coerced form of praise, however. Herod staged the event. He “put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them” (Acts 12:21)

It was the perfect setting for a king to garner the praise of his fickle subjects. “Look at me!” Herod was saying. “See my flowing robes. Look at my glorious throne. Hear my voice. Am I not a god to you? Do I not deserve your praise and adoration?”

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Herod got the praise of the people, but his own failure to praise God cost him his life. As the people gloried in his vanity, Herod was struck down by “an angel of the Lord.” God tolerated no pretenders. To him alone belonged the glory, but his striking down of Herod was no mere act of petulant jealousy. In failing to give glory to God, Herod was failing the people. He was causing them to bow at the feet of a mere man and proclaim him a god. In pouring out his wrath upon Herod, God was showing mercy to the people who had been acting out of ignorance.

Herod’s rotting corpse was “eaten by worms.” In fact, a strict reading of the text suggests the worms starting feasting on him even before “he breathed his last.” Whatever the order of events, it was a gruesome end (cf. Acts 12:23).

“But the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). Did the people, having seen Herod struck down, then glorify God? Perhaps some did but, as was so often the case during Jesus’ ministry, some people were hard of hearing even when God spoke through the Person of his own Son.

Faith that is so absolutely necessary

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,” writes John in his first epistle (5:1). Faith, according to John, is the fruit of the new birth; a spiritual re-orientation of our whole being that enables us to love the Father and all his children, obey his commandments, and overcome the world (vv. 2-5).

True faith, faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, is not a natural human inclination. To have faith, we must be “born of God,” that is, “born again,” to use Peter’s words, “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). For God alone is able to create faith within us, graciously drawing us away from our sins and toward his merciful, loving embrace; and it is God alone, revealed in his Son Jesus Christ, who is the beginning and the end of our faith.

It is only when we place our faith in God and God alone that our faith becomes real. A faith placed in the things of this world is no faith at all. You are not truly born of God if you still rely on your own strength, your own mind, and your own will. Neither are you truly born of God if you look to human institutions for security, protection, and livelihood. It is easy to fall prey to the temptation to trust in those things which are visible and tangible. Faith in a God we cannot see is indeed wrought with many uncertainties. But it is precisely those uncertainties which make a constant and abiding faith in the God who created the heavens and the earth so vibrant, so alive, and so utterly necessary.

The resurrection and the life (Lent 5/Passion Sunday)

We don’t learn much from Jesus about how to conduct a funeral. Every time Jesus shows up at a funeral, he has the peculiar habit of bringing the deceased back to life. What began as a funeral ends as a wedding feast.

That, in fact, would appear to be the point John is trying to make. He structures the first half of his Gospel around the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. He begins with a wedding in Cana and then comes full circle with a funeral in Bethany (John 11:1-44, this week’s Gospel text). Jesus has been setting the stage for the raising of Lazarus ever since he turned water to wine.

To fully understand the story, however, we have to go back further, much further, to the day when the Israelites languished in exile in Babylon. During that dark period of Israel’s history, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision: a vision that looked at first like a gloomy vision of death, but was transformed by the Word and the Spirit of God into a glorious vision of new life. This week’s Old Testament text describes what Ezekiel envisioned.

Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.

The images seen and described by Ezekiel so many years before literally reverberate in the words of Jesus throughout the first half of John’s Gospel.

“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.”

“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The language of Ezekiel and the language of Jesus are one and the same. For the Israelites in Babylon, Ezekiel’s vision was symbolic of their return from exile. They were at the time “dead” in Babylon, but God promised that the day was coming when they would be “alive” again; restored to their homeland. Ezekiel had spoken, in previous chapters, about the renewal of the covenant, of cleansing from sin, of God gathering his sheep as when a shepherd seeks them out when they are scattered, and, finally, of giving Israel a new heart and a new spirit. Not for Israel’s sake, but for the sake of his holy name, God was going to act to rescue and vindicate his people, and thus vindicate his holiness for all to see.

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

The language here is that of restoration, of gaining back that which was lost. God himself, who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning, was going to do so again. The renewal of the covenant would mean the new creation. The word that came to be used to describe this great reworking was resurrection!

After their return from exile, the Israelites whose hearts were truly seeking after God knew that Ezekiel’s vision was more than a metaphor. There was a deeper meaning behind all the symbolic language. No exile would be permanent. Even death itself would be swallowed up by life in the great and glorious day when God would act to restore all things.

As John writes his Gospel, he brings together this long history of hope and expectation. From the wedding at Cana to the funeral at Bethany, everything Jesus has said and every sign he has performed has been leading up to this moment.

“You must be born again.”

“I am the light of the world.”

“I will raise them up on the last day.”

“[He] who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. . . The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”

“I am the good shepherd.”

“Before Abraham was, I AM.”

But every time Jesus opens his mouth or performs some sign, somebody somewhere wants to kill him. The people are so bound up in their sins, so enslaved by their human traditions, that they cannot receive the Word of God, but instead reject the Word made flesh as a blasphemer.

By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus is in no mood for sentimentality. The Greek term politely translated, “deeply moved,” means, literally, “indignant.” Even his disciples appear clueless. When he tells them they are going back to Judea, they try to stop him.

“Lord, last time you were there, they tried to kill you.”

When it is obvious they cannot prevail, they seem resigned to a tragic end. As Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”

What are they expecting?


What was Mary expecting?

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

What were the people expecting?

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Among the cast of characters in this story, Martha stands out as the one who seems to hold on to a glimmer of hope. She confesses her belief in “the resurrection at the last day.” She even confesses her belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. But all of this only compounds her grief, because even her expectations are clouded by the shadow of death. Like her sister Mary, she complains . . .

“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The disciples, Mary and Martha, the crowd: their focus is uniformly on DEATH. It is the valley of dry bones all over again.

Martha is right about one thing.

“Lord, by now there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”

Death does have a way of stinking up the place, of casting a long shadow over the hopes and expectations of a people. Death has a way of closing their eyes in blindness, of shutting them off in a cold, dark, smelly tomb.
But against this dark backdrop, the light of the world is about to shine. When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means it literally. “You believe in the resurrection on the last day? Woman, you are looking at the resurrection. Open your eyes and behold the living end!”

In Jesus, the end has come, but life goes on.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

 “Did I not tell you a time was coming when the dead would hear my voice and come out of their tombs?”

“Did I not tell you that everyone who believes in me has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day?”

“Did I not tell you I am the good shepherd, that I call my own by name and lead them out?”

“Lazarus, come out!”

This is a pivotal moment in John’s Gospel. Here begins the unfolding of the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, seen thus far in tiny glimpses through the signs Jesus has performed, but only revealed fully and completely in Jesus himself. Here is the turning point, the radical re-orientation, whereby we begin to understand that Christ draws us to himself not by what he does, but by who he is: the Bread of Life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.

Worshiping out of place: This Sunday’s challenge and opportunity (Lent 4)

The challenge faced by some churches last week will undoubtedly be faced by many more this week. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and government leaders are urging a period of “social distancing” in an attempt to contain the spread, most churches are having to curtail their on campus activities, including regular worship services.

If you are like me, you shudder at the phrase, “worship services cancelled.” Only extreme occurrences of inclement weather, which made it literally impossible even to walk, much less drive, to church have forced such a measure in the past. Fear of contracting an infectious disease while worshiping in the house of God is not something to be countenanced by persons who take their faith in Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, seriously.

Nevertheless, the continued shifting of the goal posts with regard to how large or small a group of people are permitted to gather in one place, has finally forced most churches to make the difficult decision to suspend normal operations until the coronavirus threat is contained. It would be a mistake, however, to say most churches are “cancelling” their services. The availability of a variety of social media platforms affords them the opportunity to offer services online via livestreaming. Many churches, of course, have been livestreaming for some time but those webcasts were of actual in person worship services. The challenge even those churches now face is creating a meaningful worship experience for a congregation that is entirely virtual.

Those of us charged with the proclamation of the Word face perhaps an even greater challenge. We are going to have to reconfigure our homiletical approach, as we will be speaking, from our vantage point, either to a nave full of empty pews or a computer screen in our study. As is so often the case, through the providence of God, this Sunday’s lessons offer us a unique opportunity to address the unusual circumstances that we and our parishioners now face.

In the Gospel text (John 9:1-13, 28-41), John gives the account of the man born blind whom Jesus healed by rubbing mud on his eyes and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam (“sent”). This miraculous sign is not met with great enthusiasm by the Pharisees who, after some considerable back and forth with the man, “cast him out” of the synagogue. Jesus, hearing of the man’s expulsion, seeks him out and reveals his identity to him. Believing that Jesus is “the Son of Man” who has healed him of his blindness, the man responds by worshiping him.

The contrast John has drawn is stark. The man has been cast out of the synagogue, that is, the place of worship, by those who would claim to be the true worshipers of God by virtue of their being “disciples of Moses.” He is subsequently found by Jesus and, upon declaring his faith in him as “the Son of Man,” he worships him, not in the place from which he has been “cast out,” but right at the very feet of the One who gave him his sight.

As with last week’s account of Jesus and the woman at the well, the message conveyed here is that worship is not, indeed cannot, be confined to any particular place. For those of us who believe, the “place” of worship is wherever we may be; for whenever we worship God “in spirit and truth” (to borrow again from last week), we know that God is with us.

Nicodemus, the New Birth, and this week’s truncated pericope

“Truncated pericope” is a term I use whenever I come upon an assigned lesson from the lectionary that does not convey the full meaning of the text because important elements of its context are missing. The most notorious truncated pericope comes during the First Sunday of Advent. Whether it’s Year A, B, or C, the Gospel lesson for that Sunday picks up in the middle of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), specifically the portion in which Jesus speaks of apocalyptic “signs” such as the sun being darkened and the moon not giving light, stars falling from heaven, the powers of the heavens being shaken heralding, one would assume, the return of Christ, “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Such a reading certainly fits the theme of the First Sunday of Advent, and the overarching theme of the season, namely, preparation for Christ’s Second Coming.

The problem that becomes clear, when reading not only the entirety of the Olivet Discourse but also the wider context of the whole biblical narrative, is that the image of “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is not one of Christ descending from heaven to earth to establish his kingdom, but ascending from earth to heaven to receive his kingdom (cf. Daniel 7:13-14).

This is not to say that the three versions of the Olivet Discourse do not contain plenty of Second Coming material. It is only to say that the pericope in truncated form forces an incorrect interpretation of a major biblical image in order to fit it into the theme of the day.

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, is also a truncated pericope, although it may not appear to be at first glance. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading is John 3:1-17. The new ACNA lectionary cuts it off at verse 16 and the bulletin inserts from the provincial office, interestingly, end it at verse 15.

Those minor tweaks are not the problem, however. Obviously, the editors of whatever lectionary you are using want to focus this Sunday on the very familiar theme of the New Birth. That is well and good, but John 3 is not merely a discourse on how to be “born again.” It is an account of a conversation between Jesus and “a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1).

Understanding the wider context surrounding that conversation is important in developing a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the New Birth.

Nicodemus is often viewed sympathetically. Out of all the Pharisees, he is the one who bravely breaks ranks and seeks an audience with Jesus to learn more about him and his teachings. As John’s story unfolds, Nicodemus does, indeed, show signs of a growing awareness of who Jesus is but, as he is introduced in chapter 3, he is the very embodiment of all that is wrong among the Jewish religious elites.

To begin with, the opening of chapter 3 cannot be understood without first reading the last three verses of chapter 2.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

John has not constructed a favorable context for the introduction of Nicodemus.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2)

The context is even less favorable when Nicodemus is contrasted with John the Baptist, introduced in chapter 1.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

The contrast here is stark. John the Baptist was “a man sent from God,” a divinely inspired prophet with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees,” a member of the old guard who held his position merely by virtue of his birth according to the flesh. John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” His work was done out in the open, for all to see. Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” He snook away from his colleagues and met with Jesus under cloak of darkness.

John is intentionally playing one “man” off of the other. John the Baptist was the herald of the new order, a “man” anointed with the Spirit of God, bearing witness in broad daylight. Nicodemus was the embodiment of the old order, a mere “man” about whom Jesus needed no one to bear witness, seeing the “signs” but failing to comprehend their meaning (cf. John 1:5).

Nicodemus was bound up in generations of human tradition which made it impossible for him to grasp the truth embodied in the man with whom he was conversing under cloak of darkness. As a Pharisee, he understood the essence of Judaism was being a child of Abraham, a descendant of Israel’s great ancestor according to the flesh. But it was precisely this cherished tradition that put Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,” outside of the kingdom of God. It was not enough to be born of Abraham. You had to be “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), that is, you had to be “born again” or, literally, “born from above.” Citizenship in the kingdom of God was not someone’s right according to one’s heritage. Jesus gave “the right to become children of God” only “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name” (John 1:12).

Nicodemus could not comprehend the things of the Spirit because his mind was dulled by the things of the flesh. He knew of no other birth than that which involved entering his mother’s womb, a feat which he could not imagine accomplishing “a second time.” The birth about which Jesus speaks is a birth “from above,” entering into the realm of God and being transformed by the power of his Spirit to be a part of a glorious new creation. Perhaps Nicodemus failed to understand precisely because he was so in love with the old creation. After all, he had done pretty well for himself under the present regime. He was wealthy, respected, and influential. Why should he have the faintest desire to be “born again?”

Yet, Jesus’ words, “You must be born again,” were spoken directly to Nicodemus. This well-to-do “man of the Pharisees” and “teacher of Israel,” this elite “ruler of the Jews” was staring God’s long-awaited Messiah in the face. But he was unable to see because the darkness of cherished tradition blinded him to the truth.

Structure, spirit, and truth

“The structure is the message,” J.I. Packer said in an address to the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in 1991. Nowhere is this more true of Scripture than in the fourth Gospel. The Beloved Disciple weaves his story together through simple yet profound structural relationships.

When Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus at night, fails to understand Jesus’ statement, “You must be born again,” Jesus responds, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10b). This reaction is almost incredulous on the part of Jesus. How could the man who is supposed to be Israel’s teacher—an expert in the law and the prophets—be so utterly in the dark, that is, blind, to what those sacred writings say? If Nicodemus does not understand so simple a concept as being born again, how can he possibly teach the people the deeper mysteries of God’s redemptive plan?

Contrast Jesus’ reaction to Nicodemus with the Pharisees’ reaction to the testimony of the man born blind: “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34). The Word of God is a sharp, two-edged sword, and nowhere is it sharper than when this episode is considered within the wider context that stretches back to the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. But there is yet more to that wider context. The main thrust of the former blind man’s “teaching” to the Pharisees is, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” Here, the story connects back to another conversation, that between Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). In that conversation, Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).

True and false worship emerge here in as sharp a contrast as true and false teaching. The one naturally flows from the other. False and insincere worship—having the form of godliness but denying its power—leads to false and misleading teaching. The Pharisees demand of the man born blind, “Give glory to God,” is utterly ludicrous and hypocritical. They believe the only way to glorify (worship) God in this case is to deny that Jesus has the power of God to heal. The idea that God could become incarnate in Jesus and do a miraculous healing as a sign of the in-breaking of his kingdom did not fit in with the structures they had erected around their “worship” and, thus, was utterly foreign to their interpretation of the Scriptures.

But the man born blind does give glory to God by affirming Jesus’ power to heal. The Pharisees hear this, however, not as a testimony to the transforming power of God but as evidence of the man’s in-born sinfulness. They expel him from the synagogue, that is, from the place of worship. Jesus then seeks him out and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

The man responds, “And who is he sir, that I may believe in him?”

Jesus tells him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”

Then, John ties together all the loose ends. “He said, ‘Lord I believe,’ and he worshiped him.”

As Nicodemus was unqualified to be Israel’s teacher because he lacked the basic knowledge of one who was truly “born again,” so the man born blind was eminently qualified to teach the Pharisees (Nicodemus himself being “a man of the Pharisees”) because he had been touched by the transforming power of God. As Jesus told the woman at the well that worship was not a matter of physical location but of spiritual orientation, so the man born blind, having been expelled from the place of worship, is able to worship without inhibition when he confesses his faith in Jesus.

Thus, Jesus’ declaration makes complete and perfect sense: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

Christian hope and the resurrection

Scripture is its own best interpreter, the saying goes. An “obscure” passage may seem less obscure when interpreted in light of a more straightforward passage. Consider Paul’s words of encouragement to the believers in Corinth, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:13-14).

Paul is here restating what he has previously said (if the scholars are correct in their historical chronology of his letters) in that favorite passage of dispensationalists, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

The dispensationalist interpretation of the latter passage, that this is a reference to the so-called “rapture” of the church, is a classic exercise in missing the point. The Christian hope is not about flying away, but about being raised up.

Both 2 Corinthians 4:13-14 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14 have a similar structure. Paul ties the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead to the resurrection of Jesus. God raised Jesus from the dead and he will, therefore, also raise those who put their faith in Jesus. There is both a continuity and a discontinuity between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of believers.

On the one hand, Jesus’ resurrection happened at a particular moment in history. Jesus is the prototype of the redeemed humanity, the new creation, which still awaits its full and final consummation.

On the other hand, when that final consummation happens, when the dead in Christ are raised to new life, it will be the realization of that which God already accomplished when he raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of the dead will be one and the same. As the resurrection of Jesus was the ground of all Christian hope in this world, so it will be the life-giving reality which ushers in the next world.

Gerald R. McDermott has done us a huge favor

Gerald R. McDermott has done a huge favor for the Anglican Church in North America. Whether or not you agree with the argument he makes in his article, “God is Not Fair: Some Thoughts on Women’s Ordination,” the larger issue he raises takes the discussion to another level.

Gerald R. McDermott

Debates over “women’s ordination” often become acrimonious, being driven more by emotion than by sound theology and exegesis. As an isolated issue, it can become the basis for declarations of impaired communion. Conflated, as it often is, with what should be the less controversial issue of “women in ministry,” it becomes fertile ground for accusations of sexism and exclusion.

The ongoing Taskforce on Holy Orders, under the direction of the College of Bishops, has managed, at least up until now, to navigate skillfully through the troubled waters this issue often brings. The bishops are playing the long game, wisely avoiding the pitfalls that have doomed so many previous attempts at Anglican reformation.

What stands out about McDermott’s essay, although written specifically to address the issue of “women’s ordination,” is his calling attention to a factor in the debate that has long been overlooked, if not entirely forgotten.

So if God believes in equality, it is a different equality from what most think. God’s equality does not mean giving every person the same chance to do everything.

Neither did Jesus’ equality mean that. He treated women in revolutionary ways, and had female disciples like Mary who studied with him in ways normally impossible for Jewish women. Women traveled with him and talked with him in public in ways that violated cultural conventions. So when he chose his twelve apostles, it wasn’t the culture or his own fears that prevented him from including women.

This is difficult to think through, because we want to believe that Jesus must have believed in equality as we do. But he did not.

Scripture presents us with a view of equality between men and women that is decidedly different from the view so often promoted by contemporary culture. McDermott reminds us of this, in all its gory details, noting that “we are revolted by what Paul said and by what Jesus did (or did not do) because they violate what recent cultural mavens have told us.” As is so often the case, not only with this particular issue but with many others, as well, contemporary debates are guided by things temporal rather than things eternal.

McDermott concludes with a not necessarily rhetorical question for all of us in the ACNA.

What do we do? Should we feel a bit uncomfortable about trying to improve on what Paul and Jesus thought and did?

It is quite obvious what his answer would be. Regardless of how others might answer, however, McDermott has challenged us to move the conversation to a much higher plane.

Resurrection, reinstatement, and replication

John’s Gospel is the most self-contained of all the Gospels. The ordeal of Jesus’ passion is presented as embodying the “tribulation” that the whole church must endure to the end, with Judas cast in the role of “the son of destruction” (John 17:12) and the hour in which the Apostles will be “scattered, each to his own home” (John 16:31) being the apostasy that must necessarily precede the Day of the Lord, that is, the resurrection (Peter and his three denials being, perhaps, the embodiment of this episode).

Christian eschatology is nothing if not simple common sense. The Greek term for “falling away” is apostasia, literally, “standing off.” Conversely, “resurrection” in Greek is anastasis, literally, “standing again.” Simple logic dictates that a “standing again” be preceded by a “standing off.” So when Paul says, for instance, in 2 Thessalonians 2, that “the Day of the Lord” (connected again, implicitly, with the resurrection) will not come unless the apostasy comes first, he is merely stating the obvious. It is a scenario as old as Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve fell away by eating the forbidden fruit, had their nakedness (that is, their inner man of lawlessness) revealed, and had to face the judgment of God, being able to “stand again” only after God himself had intervened to provide them an adequate covering for their nakedness. If you want to understand “the end,” then go back to “the beginning” and everything will make sense.

Following his resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (John 21). There, he reminds Peter, in particular, of his apostasy (through symbols that recall the night of his denial, such as the breaking of bread and a charcoal fire), reinstates him in love (asking him three times, “Do you love me?”), and then says to him, “Follow me.”

Previously, in a conversation with Peter in chapter 13, Jesus said, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (v. 36). The conversation in chapter 21 closes the circle. Jesus, having gone to his death on the cross and having risen in triumph over sin and death, has established the pattern that Peter is now called to follow, even though it may lead him to a place he does not want to go. John states several times throughout his Gospel that Jesus said this or that “to indicate the kind of death he was going to die.” Now, he writes that Jesus said this to Peter “to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”

Peter, and by implication all who would follow Jesus, must now replicate Jesus’ ministry of redemption and transformation, up to and including making the ultimate sacrifice out of love for him. The path of each individual may not be completely identical. John, for instance, would not die a martyr’s death but would, rather, glorify God through a life of abiding faith that would become an extension of the very life of Christ (“If it is my will that he abide until I come, what is that to you?”). Yet, all who follow Christ are called to hold back nothing, including life itself, from the service of his kingdom.