If we were to take today’s Gospel reading literally, this room would be filled with folks with only one hand, one foot, and one eye. Fortunately for us all, not everything in the Bible is intended to be taken literally. Seriously, yes. Literally, no.
The Gospel starts out with John complaining to Jesus that a non-Christian exorcist has been successfully healing using Jesus’ name. Now, it was the practice of first-century exorcists to call out a long list of the names of God, archangels, angels, and prophets in order to torment a demon into departing the body of an afflicted person. Evidently, one enterprising exorcist had added Jesus’ name to the list. John is bothered by the fact that it’s an unauthorized use of Jesus’ name.
Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t bothered in the least and tells the disciples to leave the exorcist alone. And he makes a little pun on the word power: “No one who does a deed of power in my name will have the power to speak evil of me soon afterward.” Jesus then quotes a proverb: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Now here is where things get a bit complicated. For in two other Gospels, Matthew and Luke, Jesus quotes a seemingly contradictory proverb. There, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” I think it’s a case where the context makes all the difference in choosing which proverb to quote.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
There is a common thread throughout the readings today: the consequences of human speech. In the Gospel reading, St. Peter finds out that speaking out of turn and rebuking the Son of God is not a good idea. St. James, in his letter, warns of the cosmic dangers of an unbridled tongue. And Isaiah rejoices that “the Lord God has given [him] the tongue of a teacher, that [he] may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
Now, when I was a child, I learned a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I have read that a version of that saying dates back to the year 1862. Another, much more recent saying I learned in my youth, went like this: “I’m rubber. You’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!” Of course, neither saying is true. Words can, and do, hurt people. And verbal assaults do not, in fact, just bounce off their victims.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear how St. Peter erred most grievously by rebuking Jesus for speaking about his impending death. Peter spoke, when he should have held his tongue. If Peter had spoken out of pure love of the Lord, Jesus’ reaction might have been different. But Jesus implies that Peter was motivated by human shame at what he perceived to be “defeatist” words. Peter warrants the rebuke that he receives. Even so, it must have hurt to have his master call him “Satan” in front of his fellow disciples. It’s a difficult story for us to hear, I think. And it should give us pause. How often do our words offend the Lord? And what rebuke do we deserve?
The Gospel lesson begins with one of the most amazing claims in the Bible: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The statement is full of hope and promise, but on a literal level it just isn’t true. For one thing, Jesus is not literally made of bread. And for another, history shows that Jesus’ followers have, in fact, suffered physical hunger and thirst.
Of course, Jesus is not speaking literally, but metaphorically. And it is our task today to interpret that metaphor, to unpack it. What Jesus is claiming is that he is the true source of spiritual nourishment, and that those who are fed by him will be spiritually filled. And folks, we humans, by our very nature, hunger and thirst for just such spiritual nourishment, whether we realize it or not. When we are spiritually empty, we look to fill that emptiness with all kinds of things: money, toys, food, drugs, alcohol, sex…the list goes on and on. But if we would fill the spiritual emptiness, we need only look to Jesus Christ. Through his teaching, we can be filled. Through his mediation with the Father on our behalf, we can be filled. Through the sacrament of his Body and Blood, we can be filled.
The Book of Common Prayer recommends reserving Baptisms for a baptismal feast day, of which there are four. And today is not one of them! But perhaps it should be, for the appointed Gospel reading deals in an indirect way with both of the Great Sacraments of the Christian faith: Baptism and Eucharist.
Last week’s reading from the Gospel of Mark skipped over a large chunk of text, the story of the feeding of the 5000. Today, we get the missing story, although from John’s Gospel.
Word has spread that Jesus is miraculously healing the sick. And in an age when only the very wealthy could afford to consult a physician (much like today!), there were many people who were sick. And they were besieging Jesus. Needing a little respite from the crowd, he climbed to the top of a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. When he sees that the crowd is following him even there, he doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t even complain. Instead, he expresses concern that the people will suffer hunger.
Now, Philip and Andrew, who are there with Jesus, are realists. They know that there is nothing they can do for a crowd of 5000 people. Andrew points out that all they have on hand is five loaves of barley bread and two dried fishes. Philip and Andrew undoubtedly knew the story of how the prophet Elisha multiplied 20 loaves so as to feed 100 people. But for Jesus to feed 5000 from only 5 loaves would require a miracle 200 times more powerful than Elisha’s. Clearly, they didn’t think it possible—even for Jesus. But they were wrong—quite wrong! Jesus took the bread and the fishes, blessed them, and distributed them. All were filled, and there were even leftovers!
As you may know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but in my humble opinion, today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of it. So let me say a few words about the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
We all know the outline of the story of John the Baptist’s judicial murder, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera by Richard Strauss. But I bet that there are some pertinent details that you don’t know. I’ll start with some history that sets the scene for today’s Gospel reading. The prophet John the Baptist, while in his early 30s, reprimands Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he had married his half-brother’s ex-wife. (Oh, and did I mention she was also his niece?) Under Jewish law, the marriage was both adulterous and incestuous. As I mentioned last week, the main purpose of a prophet is to call the people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. And that is just what John does, publicly denouncing Herod’s marriage as an offence against God and demanding that it be annulled. Herod has no desire to repent, and he arrests John to shut him up. But he is reluctant to go so far as to execute the pestilent prophet. Perhaps he is afraid to kill a holy man, or perhaps he is just afraid that John’s disciples will riot
On May 26, while I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I had the opportunity to take a ride on something called the “Jesus Boat.” And I have a certificate to attest to the fact! The boat takes pilgrims and tourists on a short trip out on the Sea of Galilee. The point is to give one a feel for what it must have been like to sail on the sea in Jesus’ day. As much as I enjoyed the little jaunt out on the water, it lacked a certain authenticity. For one thing, the afternoon was sunny and clear, with only the gentlest of breezes. For another, the boat didn’t look a thing like a first-century fishing boat. When we toured the nearby museum, we got to see a genuine “Jesus Boat.” It was about 25 feet long, 8 feet wide, and might possibly have held a dozen people. And unlike the “Jesus Boat” I sailed on, it didn’t have a large deck with deck chairs and a gasoline-powered engine. Looking at the genuine “Jesus Boat” taught me one thing: every trip out on the water in Jesus’ day entailed a risk to one’s life. Maybe that’s why the Old Testament portrays the sea as some sort of creature of chaos, opposed to the orderly rule of God.
Customarily, when I preach, I focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But for some reason, I just didn’t feel like preaching on grapevines this Sunday, so I’m not going to do it! Likewise, it would make good sense to preach on the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch; after all, Eastertide is traditionally a time to explore the Christian sacraments. But I’m not going to do that either! Instead, I am going to focus on the Epistle and talk about love.
If there is a single key to understanding our God, it is that simple sentence: God is love. That statement explains why God created the earth and all its creatures, including our good selves. It explains why God repeatedly sent prophets to guide his children when they had strayed like sheep. And as St. John points out today, it explains why God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, lived among us as one of us, and died on a cross for our sake. It was all because God is love.
Now, we need to be a little careful about that statement. For the converse statement, love is God, is just not true. We do not worship love per se. We worship the God who is characterized by love. And out of love for him, we try our best to imitate that love. We respect all our brothers and sisters, without exception. We wish them well. We pray for their wellbeing. We help them when they are in need. And we are patient with them. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our brothers and sisters. It doesn’t even mean that we will necessarily like our brothers and sisters. But love demands that we respect them as fellow children of God and treat them accordingly. I will admit that this is not always easy to do. To be honest, some folks make it pretty hard to love them!
But if we would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, if we would be dutiful children of our God, we really don’t have any other choice than to love. St. John warns that “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” In a real sense, our ability to love is a test of our faith. You can believe every statement in the Nicene Creed and every word written in the Holy Bible, but if you do not love, you are not a faithful Christian.
Now, if we were on our own, without any help, we all might fail the test of love. But we are not, in fact, on our own. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us at Baptism and renewed at every Eucharist, God lives in us, and among us. And with God’s help, his divine love can be perfected in us. In the Eastern Church, this growth in divine love is called theosis, often translated as “divinization.” The idea is that as we grow more perfect in love and conform ourselves ever more closely to the God who is love, we will share more and more in his divine energies and come to experience eternal life in the here and now. That, my friends, is the proverbial carrot!
Now for the proverbial stick! If we stubbornly refuse to participate in God’s love, if we put our own well-being above the well-being of all others, there will be a price to pay. St. John mentions the fateful Day of Judgment. Likewise, Jesus makes a rather scary reference to unfruitful branches being lopped off and burned in a fire.
Beloved brothers and sisters, each and every one of us has a choice to make this very day. We can choose to live for ourselves alone, always fearing the fateful day when our selfishness will be judged. Or we can choose to love our brothers and sisters as God has loved us, casting aside all fear of judgment and living in complete freedom. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
And as a first effort toward loving your brothers and sisters, I would ask you today to carefully consider what you are doing when you share the Peace. That moment of the liturgy is as sacred as any other, though we rarely treat it that way. We tend to think of it as an informal break in the worship that allows us to have a quick conversation about the upcoming book sale, or to catch up with someone we haven’t seen in a while. But the Peace is not, in fact, a break in the worship; rather, it is an integral part of it. It is the time in the liturgy when we are asked to demonstrate our love for one another by word and gesture, and more importantly, to reconcile with anyone in the room with whom we have had a disagreement. So when you share the Peace today, please remember to share some love! For “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Today is the third Sunday of Easter. And yes, even though you will no longer find chocolate bunnies for sale at Safeway, it’s still Easter! And it will continue to be Easter till we reach the feast of Pentecost on May 20. As you may have noticed, there are various ways that we mark this joyous season in our worship. We use vestments of white, which in Western culture are considered festive. We burn a very large white candle. We read the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Hebrew scriptures for the first reading. We include extra Alleluias at various places in the service. And finally, the Confession of Sin is optionally omitted. During this joyous season, we pause for 50 days to ponder a single day, the Day of Resurrection, and to consider its consequences for us as disciples of Jesus.
That explains why, for the third Sunday in a row, we hear a story from that first Easter Day. It’s kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character experiences the same day over and over again till he learns his lesson. Likewise, we will move on from Easter Day only when we have learned all that we need to learn from that eventful day.
You may have noticed that I did not read the last two sentences of the Gospel reading, as printed in the lectionary insert. It was not an accident due to Holy Week exhaustion; I omitted them because they are not, in fact, part of the canonical Bible. The original version of Mark’s Gospel ended with the words, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end! Now, the early Church didn’t like this abrupt cliffhanger of an ending, and two different appendices were proposed in order to give the Gospel a more satisfying ending: the so-called “shorter ending,” consisting of the two sentences in the insert that I didn’t read; and the “longer ending,” consisting of verses 9 through 20, as found in modern printed Bibles. Very early on, you see, the Church had decided to go with the longer ending, and those two sentences tacked on to the end of verse 8 were scrapped. Unfortunately, an editor at Church Publishing Incorporated seems not to have gotten the memo!
With that out of the way, let’s look a little closer at the eight verses that I did read. We are told that three women got up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to ready Jesus’ body for burial. He had been so hastily entombed that his body had not been washed and anointed with perfume, as was the custom. According to Jewish belief, the soul of the departed lingered for three days after death. So, they would have believed that Jesus’ spirit would have been aware of the fact that they were lovingly fulfilling their duty as members of his unofficial extended family.
The women clearly put some thought into what they would need. The story mentions how they went out and bought aromatic spices in order to perfume the body. But they forgot one rather important fact: the tomb was sealed with a very large and very heavy stone. It is only as they are walking to the tomb that they remember this little detail. They don’t have a team of strong men with them. They don’t even have a crow bar. And the chances of success are pretty minimal. Now, reasonable people would have turned back at this point and rounded up a work crew. But the three women do not, in fact, turn back. They just keep going. Were they being foolish? Or did they just have faith?
Having just heard the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord, you might very well think that today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Well, it isn’t! Transfiguration Day falls on August 6. Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and this day brings the Epiphany Season to a liturgical close. It does this by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, with the telling of the story of the Magi. That story focused on the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of a few nameless wise men. Today’s Gospel story looks at another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples: Peter, James, and John.
On the mountain top, we are told, Jesus was transformed in the presence of these disciples. And they got just a glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory. In Mark’s account, which was read today, only Jesus’ clothes are resplendent. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ face is said to shine like the sun, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mount Sinai. In this vision, the three disciples see Jesus talking with two famous figures from the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Elijah. Here, I suspect, we find ourselves in the realm of the symbolic, with Moses symbolizing the Law and Elijah symbolizing the Prophets. The disciples’ vision of these two biblical figures in conversation with Jesus signifies that Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets. He is indeed the long-awaited Messiah, foretold in Hebrew Scripture.