Tag Archives: Beloved Disciple

A green olive tree in the house of God | Sermon for Proper 11C

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)

Gethsemane

The earthy smell of the olive trees in Gethsemane, ancient and alive at the same time, reminds Jesus of Martha and Mary. He smiles in the dark, his face wet with tears.

His disciples follow him as best they can, but look at them sleeping over there on this night so heavy with decision!

The men and women who crowd around him are sometimes caught up in his vision of the kingdom of God, sometimes seem to understand what he’s trying to say, but it’s his friend Mary who draws the vision out of him, whose listening ear gives him space to talk.

And it’s Martha who makes a home for him to rest in, to eat and drink and recover from the stress of his ministry.

He’s in agony now in the grey moments before dawn on this Friday morning, his heart racing just as it was when he heard that his friend, their brother Lazarus, had died.

Lazarus

Martha challenged Jesus right there in the road when he finally arrived — “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hands on her hips, she gets right in his face: “You should have done something!”

Martha’s love drives him to tears, the living water pouring from him in waves of grief and love, like healing oil for his friends, for her and Mary and Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” he says.

“Unbind him.”

The wailing of the mourners in Bethany is silenced, and all he can hear is tree limbs creaking in the breeze. The scent of the grave clothes is sharp and pungent, earthy and spicy.

Bethany

The first time he had come to Bethany, the whole house was warm, and the aroma of bread and spices filled his senses.

Martha was cooking something delicious – everything she made was delicious – and she gave him some green olives to eat before dinner was ready.

She chided Mary for not helping, but he laughed and said Mary had chosen the better part, and it would not be taken from her.

Mary held a rose in her lap, and she was listening, helping him to relax and put his thoughts in order while Martha busied herself in the background. The sharp taste of the olives kept his mind from wandering.

“You are busy with many things, Martha. There is only one needful thing.”

Like a green olive tree

On one knee in the crowded Jerusalem street, he struggles to rise. The earthy scent and the deadly weight of the wooden beam press him down, causing blood to flow freely from his wounded back and head.

Later, as he hangs from the cross, his breath getting shallower and more labored in the noonday heat, he is given a taste of sour wine.

His eyes close. What he wouldn’t give for another taste of green olives, for another evening in the warmth of Martha’s home!

Pain pierces his hands and feet in waves of grief and love as he stretches out his arms, offering himself with the same gesture she made when the meal was ready and she invited him and Mary to come to the table.

“Take, eat …”

“They know not what they do … but now I know what I am doing.”

“Lord, I know that the Messiah is coming.”

“I am the resurrection and the life … O Martha, believe.”

His vision of the kingdom completely clear now, he speaks to the one hanging next to him.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”

Jerusalem

In the garden of Gethsemane stand olive trees that are more than 2,000 years old.

Fr. Aran tells me they still smell earthy and spicy, ancient and alive, just as they did in Jesus’ time.

They have endured the endless agonies of men and women down the centuries, continually bearing fruit from their gnarled limbs and giving oil for healing.

Another beloved disciple and friend of Jesus did catch his vision and followed the Way of his Lord into old age. In a revelation, John glimpsed “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

In the center of the heavenly city flows the river of the water of life, “and 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 – like a green olive tree in the house of God — are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).

Amen.

 

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).

Friends abiding in Christ

The Fellowship of St. John is composed of men and women throughout the world who desire to live their Christian life in special association with the Society of St. John the Evangelist … Together [with the brothers] they form an extended family, a company of friends abiding in Christ and seeking to bear a united witness to him as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” following the example of the Beloved Disciple. (Rule of the FSJ)

Singing the Daily Office

I was first drawn to the Society of St. John the Evangelist because of the Daily Office.

When I was in the Diocese of Chicago’s discernment process leading to ordination as a deacon, I attended a weekend retreat held at the DeKoven Center in Racine, WI. In the bookshop (a necessity wherever Episcopalians gather) I found a cassette tape of the SSJE brothers discussing and singing Morning and Evening Prayer.

I’m a devotee of the Daily Office, as those who read this blog will understand.

What I found most attractive about SSJE was that they were a monastic order who worshiped according to the Book of Common Prayer. That meant they were praying essentially the same prayers I was, using the same forms for Morning and Evening Prayer, for Noonday Prayer, and for Compline.

My own project, so to speak, has been to pray the Daily Office “by the book” these last 20 years — and I find immense support and encouragement knowing that the brothers are praying from the same book.

A sign to the Church

Later I came to value even more the Society’s wisdom about Christian community.

When the Church Insurance Company began to mandate training in sexual misconduct prevention in the early 1990s, the Diocese of Chicago’s pastoral care officer (Chilton Knudsen, who went on to be Bishop of Maine) invited me to help write the curriculum for the diocese.

All told, I spent more than a dozen years training lay people and clergy in the Dioceses of Chicago and Milwaukee in the prevention of child abuse and sexual harassment.

The early years of teaching were very difficult. Nobody wants to talk about child sexual abuse in the first place. Lay people, especially vestry members, resented the mandatory training that focused so heavily on penalties — up to and including the threat of losing insurance coverage. Clergy resented being told how to practice pastoral care and being required to accept limits on their freedom.

The tension was palpable; I would finish each four-hour training session with a splitting headache.

When the community published their Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in 1997, I discovered in its pages an extended meditation on right relationship in Christian community.

The contemporary Rule helped me reframe my teaching, away from penalties and toward a vision of ministry and interpersonal behavior so clear, so transparent, that any attempt at abuse would stand out by sharp contrast.

That vision of right relationship also transformed those who attended the training in later years. Rather than grudging, reluctant attendance, parish leaders became more eager to invite each year’s new Sunday School teachers and youth workers. Many parishes even began scheduling training sessions a year in advance.

Christ’s gift of enduring love

Meditating on the SSJE community’s Rule transformed not only my teaching, but also my own spirituality.

I began training sessions with an icon of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple — an image of the intimacy which God desires each one of us to experience with God and with each other.

Icon of the Beloved Disciple from Mt. Angel Abbey

Icon of the Beloved Disciple from Mt. Angel Abbey

My teaching focused on the ordering of our affections and our disciplined care for vulnerable children and adults, over against the disorganized, scatter-shot attention to safety that is too prevalent in our institutions.

My spiritual life these last 17 years has blossomed with extended reflection on the Beloved Disciple and intimacy with God.

That’s not to say I don’t fall short, and sometimes pretty spectacularly. Disorder and lack of discipline, sin and failing, are a daily reality. The Rule of Benedict, on which most Western monastic Rules are based, observes that “every day we begin again to follow our Lord’s teaching.”

What I have come to understand in the company of the SSJE brothers is that I do not need to hide from that suffering, for it will be transformed by Christ and will bear fruit in my life.

If we abide in that perfect love shown on the cross we will receive the grace to face together all that we are tempted to run from in fear. Christ’s gift of enduring love will be the heart of our life as a community … Love will make us [people] of faith who know God’s power to bring life out of death. (SSJE Rule, Chapter Two).

 

Daily his delight

Icon of the Beloved Disciple from Mt. Angel Abbey

Icon of the Beloved Disciple from Mt. Angel Abbey – the inscription reads “My heart and my flesh cry out: O God, O living God!”

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.
(Proverbs 8:27-30)

Powerful Seeking

John’s gospel shines with both power and intimacy.

Jesus crackles with energy, turning water into wine, driving the moneychangers from the Temple, confounding learned and pious Nicodemus, speaking with a foreign woman, and healing with a word (whether the beggar by the pool wants it or not). And that’s only in the first five chapters of the story.

Jesus’ power radiates as clearly as his love and concern for people.

The man born blind, healed by Jesus’ touch and by a compress of mud (how like God’s own touch, forming mud and clay into the first human), is driven out of the synagogue by the religious leaders. But the story doesn’t end there, and John provides the key to understanding it fully.

“Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he had found him …” (John 9:35).

Jesus the power of God, whom John has come to understand is the same Word who was with God in the beginning, seeks out those who are hurting in order to effect their healing. He seeks out those who are estranged in order to effect their reconciliation.

As Reynolds Price writes in Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, the Gospel of John “says in the clearest voice we have the sentence that mankind craves from stories — The Maker of all things loves and wants me.”

Intimate Sending

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, writes from a position of intimate knowledge. It is he who reclines next to Jesus at the Last Supper.

From within that close embrace, John sees both the betrayal Jesus suffers and the love that he demonstrates in washing the disciples’ feet and sending them out to serve one another.

Because today’s Feast of St. John falls on a Friday, in Morning Prayer we have the added poignancy of the Prayer for Mission that captures this intimate sending:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

Daily His Delight

Jesus, the Word of God, was with God at creation and was “daily his delight.” At the Incarnation, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

John, the Beloved Disciple, who was close to Jesus’ heart and “daily his delight,” wrote his Gospel “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

And you? The disciple whom Jesus loves?

You who have come within the reach of Jesus’ saving embrace and are “daily his delight,” how will you reach forth your hands in love to bring those who do not know Jesus into the knowledge and love of him?

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

20121227-065903.jpg

Then I was beside him, like a master worker;
And I was daily his delight,
Rejoicing before him always,
Rejoicing in his inhabited world
And delighting in the human race.

Happy is the one who listens to me,
Watching daily at my gates,
Waiting beside my doors.
(Proverbs 8:30-34)

More than the other Gospel writers, John captures the scope and grandeur of the Incarnation.

The full creative force of God, the Wisdom that rejoices in creation, became part of creation through the birth of Jesus to Mary. That man Jesus, known best perhaps to “the disciple whom he loved,” showed his followers that love is the abiding quality in God’s own life. Love is also to be the characteristic of our lives.

As he reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, John heard the new commandment “that you love one another” from a privileged position — but that privileged position is now open to each one of us.

Each of us is a Beloved Disciple in our own right, invited to share the same intimacy with Jesus that John did, and called to share the same good news of love with those around us.