After the Sermon: The Jesus You Find

 

I love to listen to stories told by couples or friends who have been with each other for a long time. Generally, it goes one of two ways: the story is seamless, they riff off one another, pause for laugh lines, and bring to life their shared experiences. Or, they interrupt one another. Bicker. Challenge the facts. Both approaches, in their own way, have merit.

We have the latter today. Mark and John are the original Bickersons. Mark reports the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John, the first four men to respond immediately to Jesus’ call to be fishers of human beings.

Last week, we considered John’s accounting of Nathanael’s call. Nathanael, who appears only in the Gospel of John, tells us a lot about John’s Jesus. He’s the things we have come to expect, having read Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called the Synoptic gospels—all of which were written before John—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, King of the Jews. But to John’s Nathanael, Jesus is the fulfiller of all prophecy.

According to John’s reckoning, Jesus attends the wedding at Cana, and records his first and most universally celebrated miracle, turning water into wine. But then, he goes to the Temple, an event that the Synoptics all record as happening at the end of Jesus’ ministry. John puts it in the beginning.

John also makes some other significant changes. “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem,” he reports. Seems straightforward enough. The Greek word ἀναβαίνω (“to go up”) was used in reference to religious pilgrims. But Jesus does not behave like one on a pilgrimage. Not because of the actions that he takes in the Temple, but rather for the actions he does not.

Throughout John’s gospel there are references to the “Passover of the Jews,” and central Jewish festivals like the feast of Tabernacles and the feast of Dedication do not concern Jesus and his disciples religiously. Jesus does not participate. There is no last supper in John’s gospel. In other words, John presents Jesus and the disciples as Christians for whom Jewish festivals are meaningless.

So, Jesus comes to the Temple, not as a pilgrim who then discovers his father’s house defiled but rather as one who is objecting to Jewish worship itself. According to an expert on the gospel of John, “Jesus could not have waited until the end of his ministry to effect his protest in word and deed against this kind of worship.”[1]

Here is where, were our two friends Mark and John to be sitting on the couch telling the story of Christ, the bickering would start. Jesus was Jewish, Mark would say. His mother was Jewish. His brothers and sister? Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. They were Jews who did Jewish things because in case you forgot: Jewish.

The bickering would continue after John says, “The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty–six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Uhh, Mark would interject, are you trying to say that Jesus was 46 years old? He was thirty, thirty–three at the most, so check your sources!

We would most likely witness full­–on arguing after John concludes, “But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” We can imagine Mark shooting back, Jesus told people to be quiet about his identity because there were people trying to kill him. He was a human being with human emotions. He lost his temper. He got irritated with people. He had to because that is the nature of human love. But Jesus spent time with people, getting to know them, encouraging them to be their best selves. That was kind of his whole bag.

The Gospel of Mark was written first and, crudely stated, presents Jesus as a man-god. The Gospel of John was written last and presents Jesus as a God-man. They sit on opposite ends of the couch, our two friends, and see Jesus much differently. That tension (or diversity, depending on your perspective) lives in our faith tradition because it is part of life. We can love someone with whom we disagree, even vehemently.

We each of us see things differently. Sometimes these differences are picayune. Sometimes they are prominent. Sometimes we sit on the couch right next to each other, holding hands, and sometimes we are each jammed up against opposite arms, staring daggers and grinding teeth. It can be difficult when we feel that someone else’s perspective is so alien, so hostile to our own, that we don’t even want to be in the same room.

There is merit to a Jesus who is more human. This Jesus is not only relatable, but also seems necessary if we are to imitatio christi, imitate Christ in our own lives. On the other hand, a Jesus who is perfect, who is the exemplification of divinity on Earth is powerful and represents the love of God in transcendent, transformative ways. There are lots of Jesi in–between. There is a Jesus that meets us in every situation, whether we find ourselves sitting right next to him or plastered to the aforementioned couch arm.  Amen.

**

When I purposefully chose the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary gospel portions for this Sunday’s worship, I didn’t know why I was doing so. There was just a nagging feeling in my gut. Because the information has to be sent to the paper on Monday by noon, I sometimes look back from the vantage point of Saturday and ask myself what I was thinking with a sermon title choice, or a decision to deviate from the lectionary we have been following.

This weekend has been difficult for me personally because of a recent piece that appeared in the local paper. I will pass over it without comment except to say that I understand being a public figure, I will be subject to criticism, fair or unfair. I’m a loudmouth who can have a poison pen. I know that backlash comes with the territory.  What was published is an attack piece, plain and simple.  Therefore, it is beneath my dignity to respond in print or to give a point–by–point refutation.

As someone who writes about following Christ and holding myself accountable for my actions, though, I try to reflect upon criticisms, even the ones that I feel are off–base. I think it is too my detriment if I do not, especially as someone who wishes to be a positive influence in the community.

My Christ was unrecognizable to the author of the…I don’t even know what to call it. Article is wrong, essay is too generous, and letter isn’t quite it either. But to the author, either I espouse a Jesus they’ve never seen or the implication is that I’m a hate–monger. I think it is important to get to the heart of this because it is an important issue to me. I try to be consistent and transparent in my life, perhaps too publicly but that is what I choose. And I try to emulate Christ in a way that is an ongoing mea culpa for the Church as a whole.

It is my responsibility to follow the Christ I see and feel, but always to remain humble and attentive to the experiences of others. It is important that when I use harsh words to denounce structures and systems that stand in opposition to the Gospel, those words be spoken with a genuine love that is rooted in understanding that each person bears the Imago Dei, the image of God. I believe I have been consistent in doing just that, and when I do not I have always recognized it, apologized, and worked to do better.

Just yesterday, at our community meal, I made four new friends who are exploring spirituality in vibrant and exciting ways. While none of them are Christian, their words helped me draw closer to God. In our conversation, we learned from one another and planted seeds of compassion within the fertile soils of our hearts. I still smile just thinking about the powerful energy we experienced together.

I write this addendum because it is important to me that people who read my work know that I am not someone who acts differently than he professes. People are important to me. Especially those whom Jesus tells us to prioritize. I will not help create spaces and call them safe, only to invite in and tolerate people whose ideology is based on destroying others. I’ve said it before and will again, if that makes me intolerant, so be it.

The Christianity I follow is not based on confrontation, but it is also uncompromising. Homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia: there are all grave sins that have put millions of victims in their graves. For those who wish to have transformation and healing, I offer to be on that journey. For those who want to justify prejudice, there is no relationship for us to share except that of mutual sinners who’ll have to answer to God.

I thank you for your time. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

[1] Ernst Haenchen, Robert Walter Funk, and Ulrich Busse, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 182.

Oh, no! Not another Aziz Ansari piece! (Or, What’s so difficult about consent?)

consent .jpgWhether or not Grace’s complaints against Aziz Ansari meet the legal or moral definitions of assault is being discussed widely, with lots of good think– pieces exploring the nuances.  This is not one of those.

I write as a forty-one-year-old married man who has been a serial monogamist since I was a kid. I never had a one–night–stand (although I made out with a ton of people). But I had situations with girlfriends and longtime partners in which communication was poor. Or too much alcohol was involved. Or I was being selfish, or pushy. There were two times in which I did not heed the first no. I heeded the second, but the damage was still done. I wasn’t as safe as I once was; I had excuses, we always do, and it wasn’t intentional. But it took me looking beyond my own sexual desire to understand that I felt entitled to someone else’s body and that isn’t a good look for anyone.

I share this because I am reading so many men becoming defensive, responding something like, “OMG, we can’t do anything now without being accused of assault.” That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t mean that at all. What it does mean, though, is that we need to get serious about talking consent. We need to talk about it with one another, fellas. It needs to become part of what we think about when we think about having sex with another person. Sex is not masturbation with a meat puppet. It is an intimate act with another autonomous person who has agency.

I hear some men of my generation encouraging the generation of men behind us to “protect themselves from these women who just want to destroy men.” Consent talk, therefore, is just about guys protecting themselves from false accusations. It is not about the potential damage we can do to women. The Ansari story, in particular, seems to be Exhibit A in the menagerie of ridiculousness, according to the interwebz and twitting machine. She had bad sex and is now ruining Ansari’s life. See, though, any positive that might come from discussing the nuances of this situation is sullied because the mindset is that of adversaries. Men need to protect themselves from women.

To be sure, women have to engage in a totally different calculus, so I am not speaking to that. But this notion that there are millions of women looking to accuse of assault every man with whom they sleep is preposterous. It minimizes the real dangers of hook-up culture. I am not a sexual prude or puritan in the slightest, but frankly, if you’re a man who thinks that consent is only to protect yourself, you might want to reconsider your choice of sexual partner. Consent conversations are about trust and limits; they are about taking a few minutes before getting extremely intimate and asking, “So, what’re you thinking we should do?”

Consent is sexy. Safe words are hot. Asking questions, giving feedback, making suggestions, checking–in: all of these make for much, much better sex. Not always. Consent is not a guarantee that you have good sex. But it does help guarantee that you are at least getting the bad sex you signed up for.

I hope that enough men, especially Gen Xers, will talk to their sons and nephews, to their cousins and godsons about consent. And, of course, it is not just for heterosexual sex! The seismic shift, though, has to occur with the upcoming generations of boys understanding how to properly respond to clues both verbal and non–verbal. I hope that is something on which we can all agree.

 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?: On God’s shitholes

9ChristianCaves.JPG“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael wonders aloud in today’s passage, the timing of which once again proves to me God’s continued guidance of us through Scripture.

Just a few days ago, the president of the United States allegedly referred to certain countries as shitholes, implying that the people from said countries are, well, the shit that fills the holes. Both Nathanael’s question and the president’s reported statement have the same underlying factor: assumptions about an area and a people they do not know or understand.

**

         Settlement in the area called Nazareth^ began during the Middle Bronze Age and continued through the Iron Age. Archaeology tells us this, as the great Jewish historian Josephus mentions nothing of Nazareth. It appears that the area was uninhabited after the Assyrians conquered the North in 722 BCE, but by the time of the Hasmonean Dynasty (c. second century BCE), there was a population of about five hundred souls.

Jesus lived in what St. Jerome terms a viculus, a Latin word that can describe both a small village or an alley. The Galilee—think of it as a province in which Nazareth is situated—was already looked upon with a bit of side-eye from those in Judea. Galilee was far from Jerusalem and was populated by persons who practiced Judaism in ways that were different from those in the South. Sadly, those customs have been lost to history, but we know enough to know that Nazareth was rarely used as a positive word. Where is he from? Nazareth? Oh, I see…

There is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated with the unfolding of time and a little insider knowledge.

Philip is the fourth disciple to be called, according to the Gospel of John. They are in the Galilean town of Bethsaida, and Philip goes looking for Nathanael, an apparent friend, and says to him: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” This is curious phrasing. Andrew, just a few verses before today’s passage, tells his brother Simon, whom Jesus renames Cephas, or Rock, that the Messiah, the Anointed One, has been identified.

But that’s not what happens here. No, Philip makes an important, but bold claim: Jesus is the fulfillment of all prophecy from the Hebrew Bible. He cites no book, no chapter, no verse. This Jesus, Philip tells his friend, is the real deal.

Nathanael is uncertain, as we’ve discussed. He is simply reflecting the attitudes of his time. In just a few chapters, Nicodemus will be queried by the chief priests and Pharisees after asking that Jesus be extended equal justice: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”

Philip does not give Nathanael an explanation or a defense of Nazareth, he simply says, “Come and see.” But it is he who is seen by Jesus, who in John’s gospel is more God than man, even before Nathanael knows Jesus’ name. Nate responds by extending two more important Christological titles: Son of God and King of Israel. Can any good come out of Nazareth? How does Messiah, Son of God, King of Israel, and fulfiller of all prophecy grab ya’?

**

         Above, I wrote that there is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated in the fullness of time and with some insider baseball. I submit to you that Nathanael’s call story largely is about needing to scratch beneath the surface. Don’t assume you know a place or its people if you are not from there; don’t rely on the prejudiced assumptions of others as a basis for your behavior. God sees you, the text says, from the most surprising of places.

For much of modern biblical studies, Nazareth in the first century has been considered a backwater burg. It was a place one left, not a place from which one came. But archaeology began to change that opinion in the late nineteenth century. A Neanderthal skull was discovered in 1934, dating human occupation to the Middle Bronze Age. Beneath the present-day Church of St. Joseph and the Church of the Annunciation are two caves that contain great marvels. The first, a painted plaster cross and a mosaicked floor with prayers to Jesus in Greek that likely date from before the time of Constantine (c. 4th century).

Even more telling, there is evidence of an original building constructed over the caves; the building was situated north-south, toward Jerusalem. It was likely a Jewish–Christian synagogue, again sparking heated debate regarding the split between Judaism and Christianity.

Also uncovered was a mikvah, a ritual Jewish bath, dating close to the second century. By the fifth century, the whole lot was buried as a church and monastery, likely a pilgrimage stop by the sixth century, was built and dedicated.

**

         See what happens when we dig beneath the surface? See what comes up when we don’t regard a place as a crap–hole with people to match? We find magnificent things.

It is important to remember that Jesus was born on the periphery, that the circumstances of his life helped him to understand intimately the challenges and stumbling blocks that assumptions can produce.

It is also important to remember that Jesus tells us, what we do for the least of these among us we also do to Jesus. We do to God.

My own personal political feelings aside, the Revised Common Lectionary is leading millions of Christians to this story today. That can’t just be a coincidence. Whether or not we think the president actually said the horribly dismissive and presumptive words, as Christians we should be stopped short that this text has come up now.

If ever we wonder whether or not scripture is still relevant, moments like this, at least for me, banish all doubt. Christian denominations and individuals around the world are stepping up. They are saying, “We know that good comes out of Nazareth.

When Nathanael saw Jesus and understood him, Nathanael not only changed his opinion but also started speaking up. Yeah, this guy from Nazareth. I’m telling ya’. Not what you expected, huh? Me neither, but I think that says a lot about our limits and God’s expansiveness, no?

I also like to imagine that there was some pride among the inhabitants of Nazareth. Not all, as Jesus was rejected at home and abroad. But I like to think about the little kids who suddenly stood a little taller, felt a little more seen because someone was willing to challenge the notion that Nazareth, and her peoples, were worthless. May we all remember this before we assume things about others that could cause them pain, or to feel unseen, or before we shut our own hearts to the work that God so often does in unexpected places. Amen.  

 

^I relied heavily on the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entries for archaeological information regarding both Galilee and Nazareth. Any errors or incomplete assessment of the evidence are mine alone.