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.

The restless heart and disordered affections (Collect for Lent 3)

For the third Sunday in Lent, Thomas Cranmer assigned a collect from the Sacramentary of Gregory that consisted of a simple yet earnest plea to God for protection against enemies.

We beseech thee, almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For Anglicans in North America, this remained the collect appointed for Lent 3 until the wholesale revisions of the 1979 Prayer Book. The collect traditionally appointed for Lent 2 was moved to Lent 3 while the remaining traditional collects were replaced with more contemporary prayers.

The 2019 ACNA Prayer Book has taken quite a creative step. It has appointed for Lent 3 a collect that is traditional, in that it restores some of the language of the original, but also introduces new language that directly confronts an egregious societal evil that is directly challenging the contemporary church. The result is a moving prayer, crafted from sources most ancient, yet powerfully relevant for the present day.

Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The opening ascription is borrowed directly from Augustine’s Confessions. It is an acknowledgement that God, our Heavenly Father, made (created) us for himself, that we might worship and serve him. Until they rest in the unspeakable joy of communion with the Father, our hearts will be restless. Consistent with the language of last week’s collect, this is an acknowledgment “that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Our loving and merciful heavenly Father who made us for himself also calls us to himself that, in him, we may find rest at last.

The term, “disordered affections,” is borrowed from The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. A simple definition would be any thing or person that becomes the object of our desire, at the expense of our relationship with God. In other words, “disordered affections” is a most grievous form of idolatry. The most obvious example of its manifestation in contemporary society is homosexuality, a subject directly addressed in this week’s Epistle lesson (Romans 1:16-32). Such a coupling of collect and pericope is a bold, but very welcome, move. Here is the church confronting evil in the most appropriate manner, through the Word of God and prayer.

When “disordered affections” pollute our “heartfelt desires,” we have no recourse but to call out to God to “purify” us in order “that we may behold [his] eternal glory in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The original collect asked God to “be our defense against all our enemies,” an apparent plea for protection against outward and visible forces that seek to do us harm. In its new form, the collect appears to expand the idea of “enemies” to include those inward forces, those “disordered affections,” that would lead us down the path of destruction and death, were it not for the gracious intervention of God through his Son Jesus Christ.

Setting the story right again (Adapted from an old sermon on Matthew 4:1-13)

Jesus, fresh from the cleansing waters of baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” was led up by that same Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Now, the Old Testament is replete with stories of trial and testing in the wilderness—from Moses to the Israelites to Elijah. So, it is not at all surprising that Jesus would be sent to so desolate a place. But it’s not simply because the wilderness happens to be a good place to be tested. The wilderness is a recurrent theme in Scripture because it is the place where humanity, because of Adam’s sin, has been left to wander since being cast out of the garden. Adam and Eve wanted to see with their own eyes and know good and evil on their terms. But after eating from the forbidden tree, their eyes were opened and they beheld not the beauty of a garden, but the ugliness of a barren wilderness. They saw not a creation redeemed by their own efforts to better themselves, but a creation utterly devastated by their naked act of rebellion. Jesus is led into the wilderness because the wilderness is where the fallen race he came to save now finds itself.

In the generations following Adam, the crafty serpent never changes his playbook. Every time humanity stumbles over its own fallenness, it is because of the same old lie, the same old exploitation of the human desire for self-preservation, self-gratification, and self-exaltation. Jesus in the wilderness faces the same temptation as Adam and Eve. It’s repeated three times, but it’s really all one temptation.

Turn stones to bread and feed yourself.

Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and call attention to yourself.

Bow down and worship me and you will have all the kingdoms of the world for yourself.




“Eat from the tree, and you will be like God.”

It’s the same old lie; the same old empty promise. Satan yanks God’s own word out of context, perverts its meaning, and seeks to confuse us and exploit our fears. But why do we keep falling for it?

We keep falling for Satan’s lie because, like Adam and Eve, we forget the context of the story. Adam and Eve fell because they lost their perspective on who they were and for what reason God created them: not to gain glory for themselves, but to give glory to God; to enjoy perfect fellowship with the One who created them in his image and likeness.

The serpent’s words are enticing because, with our perspective clouded by a misguided desire for something other than the way God has provided, the lie sounds like the simplest explanation.

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’ Did he really make life so difficult by imposing such a rigid standard?”

“Well, actually, no. He didn’t forbid us to eat from any tree, only the one in the center of the garden. But since you did remind me of how stern God is with his rules and regulations, I’m not even going to touch that tree, lest I die.”

You see, now, how the serpent’s lie has complicated things. The context has been lost. The perspective has been distorted. God has become the taskmaster who imposes impossible burdens. Freedom has become slavery. But Adam and Eve will not be slaves anymore. They will seize the power themselves. They will decide what is good and what is evil, on their terms. They will decide what is best for themselves. They will eat from the tree and become like God, and they will control their own destiny.

And there you have it: the root of the problem which has been our downfall ever since.




The gospel according to me, myself, and I.

It is this misplaced, out of context, “me first” orientation, the root cause of our dehumanizing self-centeredness, that Jesus confronts and challenges—not in the pristine beauty of the garden, but in the arid ugliness of the wilderness: the serpent’s home turf. But where Adam and Eve failed miserably, Jesus triumphs victoriously because he will not allow the tempter to take his focus off the big picture.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”

“Sorry, Satan. That’s not the whole story. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

“Hey, Satan. Why don’t you let God’s Word be its own best interpreter? Don’t just throw out a couple of proof-texts and expect me to take the bait. Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“You see all these kingdoms? All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

“Be gone, Satan! You may have fooled some into thinking you control the world. But I know the whole story. I know its beginning, and I know its end because I wrote it, and you’re nothing but a footnote. For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

From the manger to the Jordan River to the wilderness to Galilee to Jerusalem to Calvary to the empty tomb to the ascension to the right hand of the Father: in Jesus, the story is put back in context. Through Jesus, we begin to understand the story from a proper perspective. And with Jesus, alive in us in the power of his resurrection and the working of his Holy Spirit, our self-centeredness is being replaced by Christ-centeredness; our desire for self-exaltation is being replaced by a passion for Christ-exaltation; and our appetite for self-gratification is being supplanted by a hunger for righteousness and holiness as we offer ourselves in thanksgiving as a living sacrifice to a loving God, who through his Son Jesus Christ has set us free indeed from the law of sin and death and given us the promise of eternal life as the free gift of his grace.

Lenten disciplines as a means of grace

The most commonly observed discipline associated with the Lenten season–that of “giving up something”–is but a pale residue of the actual disciplines of fasting and self-denial which are the true emphases of the season. These disciplines are means of grace whereby we, in the words of Hebrews, “lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely” in order that we may “run with perserverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Rather than simply “giving up something” which we will all too eagerly take up again at the end of these forty days, Lent ought to be a time of serious self-examination, a time to look deep within ourselves to see what hinders our walk with Christ and resolve to give up that sinful habit, that wrongful attitude, that errant practice not for forty days, but from this time forward and forever. St. John Chrysostom reminds us of the true purpose of the Lenten fast.

What advantage is it if we have kept the fast, and not improved our conduct? If someone tells you, I have fasted the whole of Lent, let your answer be, I had an enemy and am now reconciled; I had a habit of reviling, and have left it off; I had a custom of swearing, and this evil propensity is checked. It is no use for a merchant to cross the seas, unless the merchant returns home laden with goods, nor is there any use in our fasting, if with the act itself, all further good good ceases. If our fasting has consisted merely in abstaining from meals, when Lent is ended our fast will have passed away. But if our fast consists in abstaining from sin, when the fast has come to an end the benefit will still remain and will lay up for us treasures in the heavens.

Easter is the joy that is set before us. But first we must crucify “the sin which clings so closely” and hinders our growing up into Christ. Lent is the season for confronting all the roadblocks that Satan puts in the way. The joy of the resurrection will be all the more glorious when celebrated with a heart in perfect harmony with the will our heavenly Father.

The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth,
and formed me into a living being,
breathing into me the breath of life.
God honored me,
setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible,
and made me companion of the angels.
But Satan the deceiver,
using the serpent as instrument,
enticed me by food–
parted me from the glory of God,
and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of the earth.
But in compassion, O Savior, call me back again!

Byzantine Vespers