April 24, 2016 - The Key

When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself,
and God will glorify him at once.
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”

John 13:31-35

Choosing which of this Sunday’s readings to highlight is a real challenge.  The second reading contains the extraordinarily beautiful words, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.  The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

But the Gospel reading is as important as the second reading is beautiful.  In this, his farewell address before he is crucified, Jesus rejects the formulation of the new commandment found in the other three Gospels.  Instead of the Golden Rule: ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, Jesus exhorts us to love each other as he loves us.  Here’s an unpopular notion:  Jesus is not that warm and loving.  He is demanding, scolding, and if you’re a Pharisee or a Canaanite, even unfair.  If he was extraordinarily loving it was in his willingness to die for us.  We hear that all the time as Christians – Jesus as Redeemer and Savior - but what does it mean?  Is Jesus just a good example? Is Jesus just a wonder-worker? Did Jesus have to die to satisfy an angry God?  This mysterious command holds the key to faith.

April 17, 2016 - Heaven

For this reason, they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Revelations 7:14-17

This week’s readings are all about heaven.  Many Christians who wish to appear modern and intellectual nowadays dismiss heaven as wishful thinking.  They make heaven a moral issue by asserting that we can create heaven on earth by imitating Jesus’s good example.  For them, heaven is not a place, but a state of mind.

I see no reason for this pessimism.  Judaism and its belief in God arose, survived and thrived for many centuries without the concept of heaven.  If anything, our ancient predecessors in faith believed that at death our bodies descend into Sheol - a shadowy world where we persist in a state of semi-consciousness.  It was not something to look forward to.  But despite offering no comfort in this area, faith persisted and continued to develop.  By two hundred years before Jesus’s birth, the concept of heaven had firmly taken root in Jewish theology, relying on passages of Scripture that hinted, but perhaps did not outright assert that it is our final home.  In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were known to believe in heaven while the Sadducees continued to believe only in Sheol.  In Matthew (22:32), Jesus makes an argument against the Sadducee’s lack of faith in this regard.  Paul tries to throw his trial into confusion by playing the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ beliefs against each other (Act 23:6-9).

Why is pessimism treated as more inherently trustworthy than optimism?  We may not always get what we want, but sometimes we do.  Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Wisdom Traditions of other faiths are infused with extraordinary wisdom and insight into the nature of our relationship to God.  The overarching message of all is of God’s abundance, love and ability to exceed our most wildly optimistic expectations. Heaven may well be for real. 

Photo Credit: Missy Grasso

April 10, 2016 - Forgiveness Without Price

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

John 21: 15-17

Our modern eyes are inclined to see this encounter between the risen Jesus and Peter in terms of command.  Jesus appears to be telling Peter three times to perform some service for whoever his lambs and sheep might be.  But this focus on moral commands hides a far more important message. 

Two chapters ago Peter swore he would never abandon Jesus and Jesus predicted he would not only abandon him, but do so three times.  Of course this came to pass as Peter denied he had anything to do with Jesus in three separate occasions as they prepared him for execution.   Jesus is back.  And, instead of demanding an apology, instead of requiring some contrition, instead of making an example of him or incentivizing him not to do it again, Jesus forgives Peter by giving Peter a task he knows even Peter will pass: affirming his love three times.   With that sort of forgiveness; with that sort of love, how can we do anything but tend to the faith of anyone who is hungry to listen?

April 3, 2016 - Doubting Thomas

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

John 20: 24-29

Do we control what we believe?  Can we, under threat of punishment, decide to believe something we’re not otherwise inclined to think is true?  If I am asked to believe that there will be a pink bow in the sky throughout the month of October in honor of breast cancer awareness month, I might be inclined to act as though I believe it for one reason or another, but I would not actually think it will come about.  Can Jesus really command us to do something that is not really in our power to decide?

Today’s reading is not a command to believe without proof.   It is an observation that faith is possible without seeing a miracle or accepting one of the classic proofs of God’s existence.   Abraham Heschel, who was perhaps the most celebrated Jewish scholar and mystic in contemporary times, wrote that we don’t believe in God because we agree with a philosophical proof.  Rather we agree with a philosophical proof to defend our belief in God.  Our intuition is a powerful tool and can often exceed the most sophisticated science in discerning reality, as Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently demonstrates in his book, Blink.  It is not always right, but it is a mistake to dismiss it as mere bias.  If you have an intuition of God’s existence and that Jesus played a unique role in human history, let that be enough.  To load philosophical baggage on that intuition is just a distraction.  Thomas is not bad for failing to believe, but he is missing out.