Category Archives: Ministry

Solemnly engaging to conform

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?

 Answer

 I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. (BCP 526)

Engaging to conform

I have already been living under this vow for 20 years as an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, but I have been invited to reflect on it again as I prepare for ordination to the priesthood.

First and foremost, I believe the center of this particular vow – in response to the bishop’s questions about loyalty and obedience – is the promise to engage to conform.

Doctrine, discipline, and worship may be the legal matter of this vow, but conforming (both willingly and readily) is the spiritual energy of this promise made by bishops, priests, and deacons at their ordination.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

We live in a culture that does not value conformity, but rather tries to sell us on the endless allure of newness, entrepreneurialism, start-ups, and fashion.

Being transformed away from that culture, away from conformity to that world, means the “renewing of our minds” toward the good, the acceptable, the perfect. Being transformed toward good requires the paradoxical conformity of humility.

Humility means learning the hard lesson that there are people who know more, and know better, than I do. As I have realized often in my professional career and in 20 years as a deacon (and more recently in three years of recovery), I can learn from the experiences of people who know what I need to know only to the extent that I am willing and ready to conform to “the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery,” or to the experience of my colleagues, or to the practice of the Church’s disciplines.

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Discipline

I have been taking an online Canon Law course through Bexley Seabury this fall, so I now happen to know that where clergy discipline is concerned:

Discipline of the Church shall be found in the Constitution, the Canons and the Rubrics and the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer. (IV.2)

The church’s disciplines are not random, but have organic beginnings in the early Church and have developed over time as society has changed.

In our particular branch of the Church, we have disciplines that include organizing ourselves in General Convention and dioceses and parishes, agreeing how we will worship (down to the fine print), and setting out requirements for ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons.

Engaging to conform to the discipline of the Church means willingly working within the political structures of General Convention, the diocese, and the parish – even if you are working ultimately to change those structures.

It means willingly participating in an ordination process that involves many other people, even if (as my faculty advisor observed a long time ago) it’d be easier just to stand on the street corner and say, “I’m a preacher!”

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It means willingly observing the fine print of the prayer book or other services authorized by Convention, whether you agree with the changes or not.

I’ve always worked in large, bureaucratic organizations, so I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact that there are policies and procedures – disciplines – that govern the way we live, and work, and worship together.

Worship

Together or alone, we Episcopalians worship God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, in the Name of Jesus Christ.

In just the same way as the disciplines of the Church have changed over time, so too has the Church’s worship, whether personal devotions or corporate prayer.

From the very basics – fasting and the Lord’s Prayer – to personal prayers several times a day, to gatherings of Christians morning and evening, to splendid Byzantine liturgies and daily Latin Masses, to monastic offices, to worship in the vernacular and the Reformation focus on the reading of Scripture, the Church’s worship has changed and evolved in myriad ways throughout the 20 centuries since Jesus’ time.

Engaging to conform to the Church’s pattern of worship means, for me, praying “by the book” using the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

Though the public offering of the Daily Office has not been required of clergy in the American Episcopal Church as it was in England, it’s the heartbeat of the English prayer book tradition and an unparalleled practice for hearing and responding to the Holy Scriptures. Other forms of personal prayer, like meditation and Centering Prayer, supplement the offices and give me a chance to be silent and receptive, communing with God in that way.

Secondly, even though for a long time Sunday worship in the English and American Church featured Morning Prayer and only occasional Communion, the pattern since 1979 (and in many places even before I was born) has been to celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and on other Major Feasts. The prayer book rubrics are clear on the subject.

I read an article this week in The Living Church by Andrew Pearson, a cathedral dean who says “we are a Morning Prayer parish in the first place, already differentiating ourselves from nearly every other Episcopal church in the United States.”

Engaging to conform, to my mind, means setting aside that kind of idiosyncratic preference in favor of practicing and promoting the Church’s current pattern of corporate worship.

It’s often said (by Episcopalians, at least) that “praying shapes believing.” Practicing the Episcopal Church’s discipline and following the pattern of the Episcopal Church’s worship reveals the Episcopal Church’s doctrine.

Doctrine

According to the canons of the Episcopal Church:

Doctrine shall mean the basic and essential teachings of the Church and is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. (IV.2)

In the parishes and dioceses of the Episcopal Church we baptize new members of Christ’s body, making and renewing promises before God as we recite the Apostle’s Creed.

We pray morning and evening, reading from the Holy Scriptures and reciting that same baptismal creed. We celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday, reading from the Holy Scriptures and reciting the Nicene Creed in affirmation of the faith we hold.

We confirm lay persons and marry people and ordain ministers in the context of the Holy Eucharist. In other sacramental rites, we reconcile the penitent, pronouncing on them God’s absolution; we minister to the sick, laying hands on them and anointing them with oil for healing; we bury the dead, commending them to God in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Exsultet at Holy Communion

Our doctrine is our common prayer, and it is to be found in its disciplines.

My teaching over the years – in the catechumenate, in abuse prevention training, in Deacons’ School, in Episcopal 101, at retreats, on this blog, in Education for Ministry – has been, and will always be, rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and the Holy Scriptures, as the Episcopal Church uses them.

I stand willing and ready once more to engage to conform.

Peace with every step

 If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

There is only one way into a labyrinth. It’s not a maze, but a winding path.

Earlier today at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin — at Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor training — we watched a video called With One Voice.

Contemporary mystics from 14 spiritual traditions, monastics and lay people, men and women, spoke of the universal human experience that mystics have, even though they seem to pursue many different paths toward (or following) that experience.

One of the mystics who spoke, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Yoga Center, suggested paradoxically that “there is only one path. That path is you.”

In just the same way, there is only one path into the labyrinth, and you must take the winding road toward the center.

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As you approach the center, you come very close, but then the winding path leads you farther away, back around for another loop.

Similarly, as you leave the labyrinth, retracing your steps along the one path, you seem to get quite far along, and then you suddenly find yourself near the center again.

There’s a quality like breathing to a labyrinth — the rhythm of going in and back out, out and back in again.

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As I approach ordination to the priesthood, I have been walking for the past few months in company with members of my discernment group (a priest, a deacon, and two lay people).

I am feeling the same sort of in-and-out, near-and-then-far sensation as in the labyrinth.

Some days, the prospect of beginning a new pastoral ministry seems crystal clear and tantalizingly close (what are we waiting for?), then a question from the group causes me to wonder if I’m really as ready as I think I am.

Other days, it feels like Jesus might have felt at the beginning of Mark’s gospel: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness ….” I’ve had a chance to meet many members of the new congregation, and it feels in some ways like we’ve already started. But the ordination date hasn’t even been set.

Back to the center. Loop back around.

Perhaps I should “put off sense and notion,” as Eliot suggests. I’m not here to “verify,” to nail things down, to organize the whole project. Other people, like my bishop, are in charge of that.

Perhaps all I need to do right now is kneel right here, where prayer has been valid. I know from experience that the DeKoven Center is just such a place.

There is only one path, and it will wind wherever it leads, to the center and back again, as long as it takes.

The vows we make | A response to Rod Dreher

A Facebook friend and former parishioner shared, at my request, some of what he’s been reading about the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision regarding same-sex marriage.

One of those was Rod Dreher’s June 26 article “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn to Live as Exiles in Our Own Country” in TIME magazine.

Here are my thoughts in response to Dreher’s five main points.

A culturally post-Christian nation

We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.

I could not agree more with Dreher on this point.

However, I see this as a good thing. Our dependence is to be on God alone, not on “the fundamental norms [we] have long been able to depend on.”

Orthodox Christians and other social conservatives

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Obergefell decision — and the seriousness of the challenges it presents to orthodox Christians and other social conservatives … LGBT activists and their fellow travelers really will be coming after social conservatives.

Dreher suggests an equivalency between orthodox Christians and social conservatives that I believe is false.

Certainly, the Episcopal Church to which I belong has long understood that people of various political persuasions belong together as practicing Christians.

We’ve also seen in recent news regarding the environment encyclicals and statements by both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew — bastions of orthodox Christianity — that could by no means be called “socially conservative” in the sense Dreher uses.

In the second part of this paragraph, Dreher also suggests that “the next goal of activists will be a long-term campaign to remove tax-exempt status from dissenting religious institutions.”

Here again, as a Christian (and a non-stipendiary ordained deacon) I must say that I read this as a positive development.

It may be good for Christians no longer to belong to institutions that enjoy the benefits of a special status beyond what others receive — that’s what tax exemption is.

Instead of depending on our institutions or on “fundamental norms” that others in American society don’t enjoy, perhaps we should focus on practicing our faith in the middle of lives that are just like everyone else’s.

The institution of marriage

Third, the Court majority wrote that gays and lesbians do not want to change the institution of marriage, but rather want to benefit from it. This is hard to believe, given more recent writing from gay activists like Dan Savage expressing a desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy in all marriages.

Here Dreher makes a non sequitur between those who want to be married and those who “desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy.”

The Obergefell ruling is about those who want to be married.

Those who don’t want to be married (or don’t want to be monogamous) still don’t have to be married (or respect their spouses). The decision doesn’t change that.

The individualism at the heart of American culture

In his final argument, Dreher gets tangled up again.

[T]he Obergefell decision did not come from nowhere. It is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution, which valorized erotic liberty. It has been widely and correctly observed that heterosexuals began to devalue marriage long before same-sex marriage became an issue. The individualism at the heart of contemporary American culture is at the core of Obergefell — and at the core of modern American life.

Dreher correctly draws a line between the Sexual Revolution and the time when “heterosexuals began to devalue marriage.”

But to suggest that Obergefell is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution just doesn’t make any sense, and it’s another non sequitur.

Obergefell is about those who value marriage, those who have waited for years to have their faithfulness legally recognized, not those who “valorize erotic liberty.”

If Christians, for our part, want to combat “the individualism at the heart of contemporary American culture” we ought to encourage everyone to be married or to participate in intentional community.

The Benedict Option

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Dreher concludes his article by describing what he calls “the Benedict Option,” a shorthand reference to Christians retreating from the Roman Empire into monasteries following the example of Benedict of Nursia (d. 547).

He asks the question:

How do we take the Benedict Option, and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions?

And here at the end, you won’t be surprised that we answer the question differently.

In The Episcopal Church we already have a Benedict Option, and it’s called the Book of Common Prayer (or BCP).

The Book of Common Prayer, historically influenced by Benedictine worship, outlines a pattern of daily, weekly, seasonal, and occasional prayer that “builds resilient communities.”

It’s portable and can be carried out of our communities and into our lives in exile. The daily prayers are even available on an iPhone app. Everyone can participate in the Benedict Option.

See my other blog about the Daily Office for reflections about using the prayer book in just this way as I go about my work and ministry.

But here’s my biggest concern with Dreher’s version of the Benedict Option: When conditions are “increasingly hostile,” as he suggests, we ought all the more to open the doors of our resilient communities to all guests.

Benedict himself wrote in his Rule that “all guests are to be welcomed as Christ” (Ch. 53).

The vows we make

I have often taught that the vows a couple makes in the marriage ceremony are very much like the vows made by someone entering a monastic community.

Even though monastics traditionally make vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of life, the essential vow is the first one: to stay put in one community until death.

Benedict has harsh words for monks who continually go from place to place, looking for novelty.

Similarly, a couple being married promises to stay together “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death” (BCP 427). The essential vow is to stay put “until we are parted by death.”

For most heterosexual Christians, the way we experience the spiritual benefit of making and keeping vows is through marriage.

The more of us who can practice this spirituality, making room in our lives for another person and making our homes into “havens of blessing and peace” (BCP 431), the better.

Isn’t it great that, at least in the Obergefell decision, the Supreme Court has expanded the number of people in America who can now make those promises in the context of marriage?

We can’t always count on American society to mirror the best practices of Christianity (and I agree with Dreher that we shouldn’t expect it), but in this case I’m glad to see it.

The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 22:1-5)

Bible as Canon

The Bible as canon, according to John Dally of Bexley Seabury, provides a narrative arc offering salvation by helping us understand our place in the universe.

My notes from the first of three sessions of Fr. Dally’s “This Dangerous Book: Strategies for Teaching the Bible” are reproduced below.

The canonical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.

The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.

Creation of the World

The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.

The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).

However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.

Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.

Creation of Israel

Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.

During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.

Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.

The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.

The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.

Creation of the Church

Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.

Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.

As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.

End of the World

The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.

The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.

“The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

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More like a literary festival, really

A nearby church posted this message on their sign last week.

Seems to me that the presence they describe would be less of an author signing and more like a literary festival, really.

Point/Counterpoint

The Priestly editor and the Deuteronomic editor will discuss their project to finally get the early history of God’s people (now available in a five-volume set called The Pentateuch) in order after their return from exile. They share stories of their uneasy collaboration and editorial disagreements with flashes of humor.

Israel Did What Was Wrong

They will be joined by their colleague the Deuteronomic Historian, who will discuss the ups and downs of Israel’s relationship with neighboring cultures. All six volumes are now available in paperback: Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings.

Protest singer, he’s singin’ a protest song

The Major Prophets Ezekiel and Daniel (feat. The Three Isaiahs) will headline a panel discussion and karaoke session entitled “The Suffering Servant: Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Burnin’ While the Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Jeremiah requests lamentations only at karaoke.

The minor prophets Hosea, Joel, Amos (“I hate, I despise your festivals”), Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, disgusted by the commercialism and frivolity of the event, will appear outside the festival grounds in a dramatic reenactment of Israel’s harlotry (NSFW).

Rebuilding the Walls

Ezra and Nehemiah, with special guest the Chronicler, will describe the monumental task of rebuilding that faced the exiles upon their return from Babylon.

I Write the Songs That Make the Whole World Sing

The Psalmist (“Call me David”) will talk about the challenge of writing church music about both the love of God and human frustration with pain and suffering.

50 Shades of Grey

The couple featured in the Song of Songs (rated M for Mature Content) will share their honeymoon photos and videos. 18+ only, please.

Pithy Sayings

Don’t forget to follow the “men of Hezekiah,” who will share their images and uplifting quotes from the Proverbs of Solomon on both Instagram and Facebook throughout the festival.

We’re From the Philosophy Department

Landowner Job will join Qoheleth, Ecclesiastical Professor of Philosophy, and give his first-person account of losing everything and finding God. Prof. Q, lyricist for the Byrds (“To everything, turn, turn, turn”) will offer reflections on the vanity of striving.

A reception will follow — everyone’s invited to eat, drink, and be merry!

Storytellers’ Hour

Don’t miss Jonah and his tragicomic “Fish Tales of Nineveh.”

Esther will tell the story of how Purim came to be such a great party (spoiler alert: Haman gets it in the end), and Ruth is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face with “How to Win a Man and Get Along Great With Your Ex-Mother-in-Law.”

Remainders

The Maccabees will thrill audiences of all ages with their stories of hardship and courage during the war over the Temple. Free menorahs and dreidels to the first 100 kids.

Ben Sirach and his fellow Wisdom writer “Anonymous” will read from their books, accompanied by Ben Sidran and his fellow jazz pianists (set list TBD).

From the Good News Department

Writers Matthew and Mark are joined by Dr. Luke (whose two-volume history is now available in audiobook form) to share their perspectives on Jesus and to discuss similarities and differences in their work.

Here’s Your Sign

Gospel writer John will discuss his approach to the life of Jesus and talk about the “signs” he weaves throughout his account.

Free wine tasting.

 My Baby, He Wrote Me a Letter

Megastar author Paul (“I Don’t Want to Boast”) of Tarsus will talk about the churches he founded and the leading apostles who owe everything to him, if he does say so himself.

Several other minor litterati will join Paul each day of the festival. Check the schedule for appearances by James, Peter, and John.

Coffee Talk

He brews. Get it? Hebrews!

Seriously, join the author over coffee to ask your questions about “this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul.”

Leaving Laodicea

Join John of Patmos as he describes the mystical visions he saw while vacationing on Patmos. “Hunter J. Thompson’s got nothin’ on me!” exclaims the author of the final book to be featured in our festival.

Kings and priests and friends | Sermon for Good Friday

Kings

Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant,

Kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. (Isaiah 52:15)

We heard last night the refrain “Servants are not greater than their master” (John 13:16). Consider some of the servants of the king – the Roman emperor and the imperial government – in this Passion Gospel:

  • The detachment of soldiers – who coordinated with the Temple police in a tactical raid to arrest Jesus
  • Pilate – the governor of Judea, who bowed to political pressure and for expediency released a convicted killer and sentenced an innocent man to death
  • The soldiers at the headquarters – who beat and taunted and humiliated an innocent man, parading him around in a purple robe and crowning him with thorns
  • The emperor himself – whose hold on power depended on brutal, efficient force and military might
  • The soldiers at the cross – who shared their sour wine with Jesus and who did not break his legs to hasten his cruel death, because he was dead already.

“Kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see.”

Priests

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach …. And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1, 11)

We heard last night the refrain “Servants are not greater than their master.” Consider some of the servants of the Temple hierarchy in this Passion Gospel:

  • The police from the chief priests – who came with lanterns and torches and weapons (and a SWAT team of Roman soldiers) to arrest Jesus; who bound him and took him to …
  • Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas – who questioned Jesus, who had his police strike him for blasphemy, who had him bound as though he were dangerous.
  • Caiaphas, the high priest – who “advised that it was better to have one person die for the people.”
  • The chief priests – who complained “Do not write ‘King of the Jews,’ but ‘This man said ‘I am King of the Jews.’” and who shouted to Pilate “We have no king but the emperor!”

Kings and priests, priests and kings …. upholding the law, administering the law, enforcing the rule of law, executing the sentences of the law.

“[The law] can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.”

Friends

Kings and priests …. and friends.

We heard last night the refrain “Servants are not greater than their master.”

But Jesus went on to say more, after he had shared a meal with us, after he had washed our feet as an example, and after his betrayer had gone out from among us.

“I do not call you servants any longer, for servants do not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).

Br. David Vryhof writes in the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s online meditation today that:

We are invited to take our stand at the foot of the Cross, joining the small company of Jesus’ friends who are already gathered there. We stand there together, under a dark and threatening sky, to witness the suffering of our Savior, to be with him in his hour of immense pain and desperate need.

Consider the small company of Jesus’ friends:

  • Peter – whose early-morning bluster and swordplay in the garden earned him a silent rebuke from Jesus, who was undone by a servant girl’s questions, who denied his friend before the sun even came up, but whose confession would become the rock on which Christ would build his Church.
  • Mary – who with her sister and two other Marys stood at the foot of the cross, all of them pierced through the heart for the son and master they had loved, but whose faithfulness meant they would be first witnesses to his resurrection.
  • The disciple Jesus loved – who could not only bear witness, but who could bear up his friend’s mother in her grief, laying her head on his breast just as he laid his head on Jesus’ breast at the table last night.
  • Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – who had much to fear from the chief priests and the council, but who stayed firm in their resolve to do their part.

“Kings shall shut their mouths at him,” for his gentle power undoes their shows of force, and “priests by their sacrifices can never take away sins,” for their law of might betrays their true allegiance.

But let us – the small company of Jesus’ friends, the Master’s friends – “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

We Wish to See Jesus | Sermon for Tuesday in Holy Week

Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

At the time of Jesus, most Jews spoke Greek, and the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in a version called the Septuagint. 

“Greeks,” though, is the term the Gospel writers usually use not for non-Jews or residents of Greece, but instead for Greek-speaking (and often non-Palestinian) Jews and also for “God-fearers,” those who were not Jewish but who attended synagogue services and practiced the faith as best as they could. 

Stephen the Deacon was a Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking Jew; Cornelius the Roman centurion was a Gentile and probably a God-fearer.

But what do you think these Greeks wanted to see? Who do you think the “God fearers” were looking for?

Paul says that “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” but what Jesus says to the Greeks who come looking sounds foolish.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jesus first talks about the pattern of his life – the dying and rising, the self-emptying which is central to his ministry. He links that dying and rising to his work of salvation on the cross.

He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” His dying on the cross will accomplish not only his rising to new life, but bear fruit in ours, too.

The pattern of dying and rising doesn’t make any sense. The dying doesn’t fit with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that just happened right before our reading; it doesn’t fit with hailing Jesus as the coming King, the Messiah who “remains forever,” according to the Hebrew Bible.

What do you mean? the crowd asks Jesus.

Jesus answers them with another odd image: 

The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.

Several times during his ministry, Jesus has said something like this:

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” – he said that just last night at dinner with Lazarus and Mary. His feet probably still smelled of Mary’s costly perfume as he rode into the city on the back of a donkey.

“While the bridegroom is with them, his friends rejoice” – he said that early in his ministry when he was questioned about why his disciples didn’t properly observe some Sabbath regulations.

While we have Jesus with us, everything is different and the old rules don’t seem to apply anymore.

So Jesus’ dying and rising is the pattern for his life, and his presence makes a difference to his friends.

On Saturday night – after our “way of the cross” has led us with Jesus to supper with his friends and his betrayal by one of them; to his agonized prayer in the garden and to his arrest; and to his crucifixion and his death – on Saturday night the darkness of our church will be split by a single candle flame.

I’ll sing, “The light of Christ!”

And you’ll respond, “Thanks be to God!”

You see, dying and rising is the pattern. Good Friday comes, but so does Easter. Self-sacrificing, daily dying to self, is necessary, but it leads to resurrection life. The darkness comes, we no longer see our friend Jesus, but ultimately the light of Christ prevails.

This is the Gospel message that Stephen and the other Greek-speaking followers of the Way witnessed to, many of them with their lives. 

This is the Gospel that Paul carried to the Hellenistic world, to the actual “Greeks” and Romans and other Gentiles, and eventually, down the long centuries to us.

Many centuries before Jesus was born, the people of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon. Though many returned to the land, many more remained in the Diaspora – no longer speaking Hebrew, but speaking Greek like their neighbors.

“It is too light a thing,” said God upon his people’s return, “that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The restoration, the enlightenment, the resurrection life is not for keeping. It’s for sharing.

And you see, we still “walk while we have the light.”

“The darkness has not overcome it,” says John, and with the Spirit in our midst we always have the light of Christ with us, so the darkness will not overtake us.

Jesus’ dying and rising is the pattern for his life, and his presence makes all the difference to us – his friends.

By our dying and rising, by the pattern of our lives, we walk in the light, witnessing to the light of Christ in us and sharing it with “all the nations.”

May the Greeks who come looking always see Jesus when they encounter us …

An audio version of this sermon can be found at St. Thomas’ YouTube page:

http://youtu.be/JoE1b_qa0Ok