In high school I learned that “justification” meant it was “just as if I’d” never sinned. I no longer think that’s the best way to understand this key teaching in Christianity.
- Justification: a better illustration
- By faith or by works? Not the right question.
- Jesus weighs in
- Justification as a “then and now” reality
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Anyone who’s ever done any word processing knows that “justification” determines how the lines of a text relate to the borders of the page. For example:
Especially since the Reformations of the 16th century, the church has debated the topic of justification around two main texts, one from Paul and one from James. Paul’s comes from the lectionary reading for today and includes this: “no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Gal. 2:16) Compare this with James 2:24, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Is one justified by faith, or by works? Where skeptics see this as a contradiction, many Protestants see it as the difference between their Christianity and Roman Catholic Christianity. Did Jesus ever talk about justification, and the relationship between faith and works?
One of the many themes in the Gospel of John is the relationships among Jesus, God, God’s mission, and Jesus’ ministry. As a snapshot of John’s theology, consider this passage (Jesus speaking): “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? . . . the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. . . . I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:10-12, see John 10:37-38)
There are three foundational observations to see from this passage. First, the essence of Jesus is union with God. John’s Gospel more than any other presents a Jesus identified with God. Second, Christ’s union with God was public. While the relationship between Jesus with God was personal and intimate, it was not private. Jesus argues that the way he lives his life, evident to all who care to investigate, is the proof of his union with God. Third, those who “believe” are also one with God and are called to a public life resembling Jesus’, of God working through them.
Given this perspective from Jesus, Paul’s teaching on justification becomes clearer. For Paul, baptism is the symbol of faith—where there is faith, there is baptism also. And in his most concentrated teaching on baptism Paul writes, “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11, more on this next week.) In other words, the person with faith has a new life, one shared with God and Christ.
In our passage, the image Paul uses is one of co-crucifixion with Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” The word translated “crucified” here has a completed-and-ongoing sense in the Greek (the language of the New Testament). In other words, just as in baptism, there is a once-in-history event (the crucifixion of Christ) which has an ongoing effect (our crucifixion and Christ’s subsequent living in us).
What could Paul possibly mean by still being crucified? We get some insight from two of his other letters. In Philippians 2:12-13 Paul urges to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” There remains “work” for us to do with regard to our salvation—work that is determined by God’s will, empowered by God (an allusion to the Spirit), and that is offered as in worship (“fear and trembling”).
This worshipful approach to the life of justification is referred in the second passage, Romans 12:1-2, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, . . . 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.”
So for Paul, justification has an historical anchor, namely in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Because this is Christ’s personal history and not our own, we are passive in relation to it. We can only receive it, believe it, have faith in relation to it. But justification also has a present and ongoing effect, namely Christ living in us. Because this is our history shared with Christ, we have an active part in it. We can participate in it, partner with it, and work in relation to it. Faith and works are both part of our justification. (With debt to theologian Karl Barth for this conceptualization of “histories.”)
On my computer, I can set the justification to “left and right” so the words are aligned on both the left and right sides. But until I write a sentence long enough to continue to a second line, it looks like left justification. For example:
Justification in the spiritual life is kind of the same. It starts on the left side with Christ’s crucifixion, but until we live into it long enough, “doing the works of the Father” as Jesus would put it, “walking in newness of the baptized life” as Paul would put it, we don’t “see” and experience the full effects of justification. Paul and James are both right on justification, reconciled—it turns out, as all things are—in Christ.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What difference would it make if you went with “only Paul” or “only James” in regards to justification? What difference does the perspective on justification presented here make in your life?
- Do you consider yourself one with God, crucified with Christ, and living in faith as Christ did, discerning and doing the will and work of God? If not, why not, since this is the proclamation of the New Testament, the gospel?
Maybe there’s something we can learn from Paul’s experience of salvation that will help us find a meaningful life today.
- Paul’s personal experience of salvation
- Paul in relation to tradition
- The nature of salvation according to Paul
- Our faith and Christ’s faith
- A meaningful life that lasts
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Recall from last week that for Paul, the gospel of salvation meant the freedom of all creation from the powers of sin and death. This freedom applies to each of us, in some general ways but also in some personally unique ways. For Paul, he experienced freedom from being overly concerned with the opinions of others.
It appears that earlier in his life, the opinions of others mattered a great deal to Paul. In our passage this morning, for example, Paul asserts that he, “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:14). In Acts 22:3, Paul is defending himself against accusations that he is leading the Jewish Christians astray by saying, “I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” From this introduction, Paul goes on to share his share conversion story.
Preoccupation with the opinions of others is something we see quite readily, especially in children. My early elementary age child can tell you which activities are “boys’” activities and which are “girls.’” Boys like certain colors; girls prefer others. Later, in middle and high school, we see kids clustering in groups according to musical tastes, whether they’re athletes, and around academic interests.
In my privileged position of listening to men and women much older than myself, I am challenged to wonder whether this obsession with others’ opinions is something we ever outgrow. For while I talk about the conformity trends of grade schoolers and college students, my 70-80 year old friends suggest my generation does the same thing. Which leads me to the question: Is there any way to tap into something more meaningful, lasting, eternal?
We might think, on the basis of this passage in Galatians, that after his conversion, Paul’s pendulum swung too far in the other direction. It may seem that he no longer cared about the opinions of anyone, that he was a lone ranger, a stand-alone prophet and renegade leader. After all, he makes it a point several times to say he sought the approval of no one in Jerusalem—not Peter, not James, no one.
But that would exaggerate his point beyond its meaning. We know that Paul respected the tradition as he received it. For example, in 1 Cor. 11:23-25 Paul reminds the church that, “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you,” namely, the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. Later, in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 he writes, “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: Christ died, was buried, was raised, and now appears.” So Paul recognized his dependence on the tradition, and even was pleased to pass it on.
So what is Paul’s point? Paul’s gospel is one of freedom, of liberation: the entire cosmos has been set free. The key insight for Paul is that one is liberated from outside—we cannot free ourselves. We are “set free,” a passive way of speaking. It has to be done to us. This is the point Paul is making by saying his gospel is “not of human origin, but received and revealed,” or to use the theological term, the gospel is “grace.”
Paul’s personal experience of this included his once being enslaved to pleasing others, but now being concerned to please God. He once took his direction from “the world.” He now is free to follow God.
Consider his testimony in Philippians 3. The context is similar, he is contesting the necessity of circumcision for new Gentile Christians. His argument again appeals to his impressive public religion of former days: “If anyone has reason to boast, I have more . . . a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3.5). But following his conversion, he recognizes that righteousness is a matter of faith. Most translations talk about righteousness by faith “in” Christ, but another translation (and one preferred by an increasing number of theologians) is faith “of” Christ. In other words, Christ’s faith—his dependence upon and obedience to God—is the path of righteousness, and those who would be righteous must follow that same path. This is how Paul understood it: he wants to know the “power of Christ’s resurrection, sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, to attain to the resurrection” Phil 3.10-11.
There is a purpose to God’s freedom, and we will explore this more in three weeks. But here, in Galatians 1, Paul recognizes that God has set him free, “so that I might proclaim among the Gentiles” (Gal 1:16). In Galatians 2, he adds that the Jerusalem church asked him to “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10), which he agreed was part of his freedom. Today’s other lectionary passages emphasize God’s faithfulness to the orphan and widow and strangers. This is the purpose of salvation, of God’s freeing the world, of God’s freeing us.
For Paul, then, following God means creating community. He proclaimed the liberating word to people who had not heard it before (see Ephesians for an extended treatment of this theology). It also means re-creating community. Paul received traditions and repeated them in light of the freedom of the gospel.
In both cases, Paul was free to do this because he rejected his earlier preoccupation with the opinions of others and instead pursued what God was calling him to be. So Paul called all men and women, Gentiles and Jews, to live according to the freedom that we and the world have in Christ. No matter how old we are, this is always in season, this is what lasts, because what impresses others changes throughout our lives, but God is always impressed with our faithfulness.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Think about your younger self. In what ways were you preoccupied with the opinions of others? How has that concern shaped your life? What are some negative consequences? What are some negative ones?
- How much are you living according to the opinions of others today? You might not even be conscious of it without questioning it. How much of what you do, what you buy, how you think, is influenced by what others do, buy, and think?
- How does the gospel of freedom apply to your life right now? For Paul, he needed liberation from pleasing others. What do you need liberation from? (See last week’s message for more guidance on this question.)
Wow, Paul’s letter to the Galatians has some harsh things to say about our churches today. Too bad we don’t recognize it because we’ve been misreading it since the Reformation.
- The Difference Between Luther and Paul
- Paul, Salvation, the Law, and Faith
- The Place of Ritual in Salvation
- Three Applications
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
Since the Reformation of the Western church begun in the 16th century, the interpretation of Galatians has emphasized individual salvation. The question Martin Luther was asking had to do with how a person is saved. Is it by good works or by faith, as he had begun to believe? This question became the defining question for Roman Catholics and Protestants. They, particularly the Protestants, read Galatians in such a way as to equate Jews with Roman Catholics with salvation by works; and Paul with Protestants with salvation by faith.
But Paul’s question was not Luther’s question, and Paul’s concern was never how individuals attain salvation. For Paul, that questioned had been answered—if anyone is saved they are saved by God in Christ. Faith, for Paul, is simply recognizing that God has done this. Rather, Paul’s question was what is expected of us after we have faith. Or to put it another way, What does faith look like practically?
Paul sees that how we practice faith affects salvation, but not salvation in the individual sense. Rather it affects our experience of God’s salvation in Christ in the cosmic sense. Instead of individual salvation, the issue is access to God, or from another perspective, experiencing God’s presence. This is the question Paul is answering in Galatians.
Before the revelation in Christ, Paul, like all Jews, experienced God through the law. To access God, one obeyed the law, beginning with circumcision which is a sign of the whole law. And so Psalm 119:1, the longest chapter of the Bible, consisting of 176 verses comprised of twenty-two 8 verse refrains exalting the law begins, “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” What if you disobeyed the law? You made sacrifice, which was again, according to the law.
The law was a gift from God whose role was to guide us in a hostile world, a world hostile to God, a world hostile to goodness. This hostility ultimately triumphed in death. Ours was a world enslaved to sin and death. This is what Paul refers to as “the present evil age” in which we live: ”Jesus Christ, gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4).
But what was revealed to Paul in Christ is that sin and death were conquered in Christ’s resurrection. So work it backwards: Christ’s resurrection overcomes death; death is the ultimate consequence of sin, so the resurrection overcomes sin; it therefore makes accommodation to sin unnecessary; therefore the law no longer is necessary to access or experience God.
Paul puts it this way in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us— for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14-15). “But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).
Salvation, that is access to God, that is experiencing God, is no longer mediated by law. Salvation is now by faith. The law is still good in Paul’s mind, for it guides us in God’s way through a hostile world. (More on this in two weeks.) For now it is important to recognize that for Paul, it is possible to experience God through the law, but experiencing God no longer requires the law.
This is what is revealed in Christ. This is what matters to Paul. This is why his opponents in Galatia are wrong. In a summary statement Paul writes, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:15) What matters is the new creation, not bound by sin and death—a whole new creation which includes us.
This is why Paul is astonished that anyone would want to act as a slave to sin and death again. “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (Gal. 4:8-9) The Galatians were submitting again to circumcision, to food laws, and to ritual holidays in addition to faith. Paul attitude is you can do them, but you don’t have to do them.
This is what we misunderstood in the Protestant Reformation. Paul saw value in ritual as an expression of faith. Some Reformers argued ritual was evidence of non-faith. Some Reformers cried “faith alone, no ritual.” Paul cried “Faith is the foundation, then do ritual in faith.” The key is that we experience God through faith—faith that Christ has overcome sin and death, that Christ is Lord of all. The Roman centurion understood this, and Jesus commended him for his faith.
How does this apply today? Three ways.
(1) We so often do the same thing as Paul’s opponents in Galatia. We proclaim a gospel of “faith-and”: Faith and church attendance, faith and volunteer service, faith and financial giving, faith and traditional worship, faith and clean living. We, like Paul’s opponents, judge other Christians with this “faith-and” attitude. Worse, we judge ourselves with the “faith-and” attitude, never measuring up, still trying to be better Christians, to earn God’s presence. Worse yet, we repel others from Christianity with this “faith-and” attitude. Worst of all, we abandon the gospel of Christ who opened access to and experience of God to all people through faith alone, not through “faith-and.”
Instead, of “faith-and” we need to embrace a gospel of “faith-then”: Faith then joining a community, faith then serving others, faith then supporting God’s mission, faith then openness to however God will lead—for some that will include ritual, but not for all. Before we can embrace “faith-then” we have to confess and repent of “faith-and” with words such as these: God our Father, you resurrected our Lord Jesus Christ, and in doing so overcame sin and death. You freed us from the present evil age that we might live as your children, beloved even as Jesus was beloved, free to approach you in faith and not fear. We confess that we have not rejoiced in this Spirit of adoption, but have instead tried to make ourselves lovable by our religious activities. We confess that we have imposed our religious activities on others, and distanced them and ourselves from your love for us in Christ. Forgive us once again, and fill us with your Spirit, that we may be restored to your image as you created us, and view others with the same grace with which you adore us. In Christ’s name we pray.
(2) Whatever binds us today—hopelessness, addiction, cynicism, fear, bitterness, regret, self-hatred, prejudice, etc.—these are part of this present evil age. They are powers of sin and lead to death. Christ has overcome them. We now have the power of God in faith through the Spirit. We can continue to fight these demons in the power of God through faith. When we approach the Lord’s Supper, we can bring these to the table, receive the body and blood of Christ, and leave these other things on the altar of worship to be consumed by the fiery power of God. (See the OT reading for today.)
(3) The world “out there” also has been liberated from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). So when we see sin and death—poverty, immorality, dishonesty, environmental exploitation, etc.—we can remember that Christ has overcome them. Then we should join the work that is God’s redemption of this world, for we are set free to do this work in faith, just like Jesus.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Talk about the differences between Luther’s questions and Paul’s questions, and how Luther used Paul’s answers to answer his questions. Share if you’ve ever been part of a Bible study that equated Paul’s opponents with either “the Jews” or Roman Catholics.
- How does the perspective that God’s salvation in Christ is as much (or more?) about saving the cosmos as it is about saving individuals change your understanding and experience of salvation? How can your experience of salvation interact with the salvation of the world?
- What is the role of ritual in your spiritual life? Are there activities you engage in as an expression of your faith? Are there things you engage in to somehow impress God or to try to earn salvation? How can you better relate your ritual life to faith? How can your faith take on more meaningful ritual?
- How can the “faith-then” attitude help you be more patient with yourself and with others?
As a trained and practicing liturgical theologian, I usually struggle over the relationship between secular holidays and the Lord’s Day worship. Mothers’ Day was no exception until I came to appreciate it as an opportunity to broach a subject that is taboo in many churches, namely the idolatry of God as Father.
Of course Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God as Father in Matthew and Luke. He is not unlike typical Jews of his day for whom Father was one of many titles used for God. Remember that Paul also addressed God as Abba. Nor is addressing God as Father to be unexpected in sacred texts arising out of patriarchal cultures. Thus it is a perfectly legitimate practice to address God as Father.
That being said, however, there are counter currents to be found also. For example, in Matthew 23:37pp, Jesus assumes the voice of God and laments over Jerusalem: “How often I have desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings?” Here it is obvious we are dealing with a metaphor—no one would address God as Hen. But that it is a female metaphor is worth noting.
The prophet Isaiah 66:13 offers this simile for God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Earlier Isaiah 49:15 assures us with this image: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? Even if she could, I will not forget you.” Here God is quite comfortable being likened to a mother. Watching my wife mother our children, I can see why.
At the heart of the issue theologically is not whether some references to God are “mere” metaphors (for example “God is my Rock,” Psalm 42:9) and others are to be taken more literally. In fact they are all metaphors. All linguistic and visual references to God are metaphorical because, as Jesus taught the woman at the well in John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship God must do so in spirit and truth.” She was a literalist, wanting to know on which mountain it was proper to worship. Jesus explodes her literal religious understanding and invites her into the language of metaphor.
The second commandment is the prohibition of idol making. God’s people are not allowed to create images of the divine, much worse to worship such images. God preserves God’s divine position and status by refusing to be domesticated by an idol. This is obviously the case when it comes to animal representations or statues. But what about language like “Father”? Words are not “mere” words—they create images. In Jesus Christ, after all, we witness a word becoming flesh.
This is why it is so important to recognize not only the potential of words to help us understand and articulate the numinous, but the limitations of words to capture completely that which is mysterious. To say nothing is unfaithful, to speak literally is idolatry.
Which brings us back to Mothers’ Day. I rather like Mothers’ Day because it invites me to conceive of God as Mother, not just as Father. In doing so I am reminded of the super-mom qualities of the divine—all those things my biological mother did well which are merely a reflection of God’s nature. But I am also redeeming all my biological mother’s failures—all those things she did that did not reflect God’s intentions but can’t obstruct them either. God as Mother, just as God as Father, is redeeming my parents’ parenting.
This is, I hope, an allowable interpretation of Psalm 27:10 which says, “If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.” It is certainly God’s intent that we learn dependence upon our biological parents but that we transfer that dependence to God later in life. Not that we don’t ourselves become adults, even parents, but that fundamentally our orientation is towards trust in God. Our parents lay that foundation. But if they don’t, God doesn’t abandon us. “The LORD will take us up.”
God desires that we speak to God, of God, and for God. But God does not bind Godself to our words. God is faithful to use them, but not restricted to them. Very much like the sacramental symbols of water, bread, and wine, God is present, but not contained. So it is with our words.
On Mothers’ Day I invite people to pray to God as Mother. If they choose not to, then at least they are reminded that whatever metaphor they use—God as Father, Warrior, Rock, whatever—it is metaphorical and not literal language. My hope is that when their chosen metaphor fails, the conversation won’t just cease. I hope people will feel the freedom to find another metaphor. For not only are we free to do so, we are required to do so.
As the closing prayer of his farewell discourse, this passage gives us a glimpse of what is most important to Jesus.
- Milestone Moments and Their Value in our Spiritual Journey
- Three Assumptions Jesus has About Us
- What Jesus Prays for for Us
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
It’s graduation season. Commencement, of course, means “beginning,” but it feels like an ending. Really it’s a threshold, a transition, a milestone on a journey. John gives us Jesus’ “farewell discourse” closing with the “priestly prayer,” as something of a commencement address. The disciples of Jesus’ day and the readers/hearers of John’s gospel are crossing a threshold. They are commencing their faith journey without Jesus present.
These milestone moments pause our lives and give us time to rejoice in our achievements, thanks for God’s deliverance, and to think about the future. Like worship each week, these milestone moments ask us the question: What is our future going to be, based on our past? It allows us to recognize that every future is unique, because every past is unique. What these milestone moments do is help ensure we live into God’s future.
For Jesus, there are some base assumptions. First, we are God’s gift to Jesus. Twice in this passage Jesus prays to God for, “those whom you gave them to me from the world.” It’s quite remarkable that we celebrate Christmas as God’s gift of Jesus to us, and here Jesus refers to us as a gift from God to him.
Second, we are God’s gift to the world. Jesus prays, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus received us as a gift from the world, and then regifts us back into the world.
What is the gift we are to be to the world? Earlier in John’s gospel we find one of the most famous verses in the entire Bible: “God so loved the world he gave his son.” (John 3:16) The gift we are to be is the same as Jesus—a demonstration of God’s love.
When Jesus talks about the love he experienced with God, he talks about it in terms of unity and oneness. It is this oneness with God that Jesus hopes for the whole world: “As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Given these assumptions that (1) we are a gift to Christ and (2) to the world, and that (3) the gift we are is a demonstration of God’s unifying love, we can now appreciate the nature of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. He doesn’t pray for separation from the world or for his disciples to be evacuated. Instead he prays for protection. He does this because this is a commissioning, it is a commencement prayer.
And we need Jesus’ commencement prayer in the milestone moments in our lives so we don’t forget what God has done, so we don’t forget what God has called us to do, and so that at the end of our lives we welcome Jesus’ return.
Our weekly gathering around the baptismal font and communion table also serve to remind us of what God has done, is calling us to, and to hope for Jesus’ return. Especially at the Table, we receive God’s love in order to offer that love to others in realizing Jesus prayer that the whole world may believe.
The lectionary this Sunday includes the closing passages of the Bible from the Revelation of John. There Jesus says, “I am coming soon, and my reward is with me.” Let us commence from this and every worship service rededicated to living from this day forward for that reward.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Think about your last graduation, from school, a certification program, etc. What accomplishments did you celebrate? What difference has it made in your life since? Identify some “graduations” or milestone moments in your spiritual journey. Share with someone some of these moments.
- Have you ever thought about yourself as a gift from God to Jesus and the world? What impact does such a perspective have on your self-image and your behavior? Think about who you are, the things that uniquely make you you. What can you offer of yourself to Christ and the world?
- In what was can you actively show God’s unifying love? Is there someone with whom you need to pursue reconciliation? Someone you need to forgive? Someone who needs your assistance?
- What if you envisioned worship as a commencement ceremony? What achievements should you celebrate? What acts of God should you remember? What difference is it going to make this week?
Jesus doesn’t seem to mind questions. The problem is, his answers aren’t always obvious.
- John’s questions are our questions, too
- Answers that are Spiritual and Real
- Discovering Peace in our Lives
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” is built on three questions. Thomas said, “We don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” Phillip asked Jesus to show them the Father. Then there is Judas’ question: “How will you reveal yourself to us, but not to the world?”
Today we might reframe these questions as: “Are we on the right path?” (Thomas); “Can Jesus really show us God?” (Phillip); and “How do we know we are we really seeing Jesus?” (Judas). I’m reminded of John the Baptist’s question when he had doubts about Jesus: “Are you the one, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:20)
Jesus’ answers to these questions, Judas’ especially, has two parts: Spiritual and Real. Earlier in this chapter Jesus tells his disciples that though the world doesn’t see him, he is nonetheless present. Though he himself is absent, the Spirit is near. This prompts Judas’ question: How come we will see this, but the world will not? Jesus says that the Father will send the Holy Spirit.
The point Jesus is making is this: the same God who sent the Son yesterday, is the same God who sends Spirit today. Maybe today Jesus doesn’t seem real to you. But can you think of a time when he was undeniably real? Ask yourself, was the Son here or not? Before you had the questions you have today, was Jesus real to you?
This is why frequent celebration of the Lord’s Table is so important. The bread and the cup are real. You can’t get more real than eating something. And just as real as the bread and cup are, so real is the presence of Christ in the Spirit. This is why Jesus gave us this meal to remember—to remember Christ’s presence, both past and present.
That’s the spiritual part of Jesus answer. But there’s a real one also, real beyond the Table, real beyond worship. In response to Judas’ question Jesus said that those who love him will keep his word. Which word might that be? It’s probably the word of service that we find in the previous chapter. There Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and told them love one another in the same way.
Loving Christ means to love one’s neighbor. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God, and second is like it, to love your neighbor. (Matthew 22:36-40)
But Christian love of neighbor must be real, not just spoken. James 2:15-16 asks us what good is it to wish well for those who are suffering. Real love alleviates suffering. Romans 12:9 says genuine love helps the needy, blesses our enemies, and lives peaceably with others (among other things—see the whole chapter).
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable about the sheep who discover they’ve been living in God’s kingdom all along since they have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned—that is, by loving their neighbor whom they could see, they loved God whom they could not see (see 1 John 4:20). When we do these things, when we love others, we encounter Christ. Christ is present. Christ is real.
It’s true, we’d rather have Jesus with us as he was with his disciples, but Christ is gone, he is ascended (May 9th is Ascension, see Acts 1). Jesus tells Judas and the others that if we love him, not only will we follow his word of service to others, we will also let him go. To let Jesus go is an act of trust. We trust God to provide even in Jesus’ absence. This is what Jesus is teaching us—that we can trust God in his absence, and to do that we have to embrace the Spirit.
When we let Christ go—trusting God, loving our neighbors—Jesus gives us this promise: we will have peace. He says it’s not peace as the world gives. Worldly peace implies no more conflict, or maybe assurance about future. But this is peace we “understand,” and the Bible talks about a peace that “transcends understanding” (Philippians 4:7). This peace is the presence of Christ by the Holy Spirit now, even in the midst of trouble, even in the midst of questions.
Judas asked our question: How will we see Christ? Jesus’ answer? By letting him go, by trusting God, by embracing the Spirit, and by serving our neighbors.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Think about the questions you have about your own spiritual life. Compare them to the questions asked by Thomas, Phillip, and Judas. How do they relate? How do Jesus’ answers to their questions apply to yours?
- Have you really let Jesus go? Are you still trying to hold on to a childhood faith that no longer answers the questions of adulthood? As an act of loving the Jesus you knew, can you let him go and embrace the Spirit of God in a new way today?
- How can the perspective, that the reality of the eucharist is intended to remind us of the reality of Jesus’ past presence and Spiritual presence, change your experience of Holy Communion?
- Who are some neighbors you can serve? And will you do so expecting to meet Jesus?
Many people wish God would just “speak plainly” to them. The problem is God prefers to do no such thing.
- God’s use of metaphor and his favorite one in the Bible
- The nature of Christian faith in God—why it isn’t doctrine
- Recognizing Christ and becoming like him
- Questions for discussion and reflection
- The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table
When “the Jews,” as John calls them, were divided over the nature of Jesus’ identity, they asked him, “When will you stop keeping us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” I see this played out often with people who are themselves “divided” over Jesus’ identity. We want to believe Jesus is more than “just a good man,” but we are also skeptical about what the church claims about him. We wish he would have just spoken plainly about it.
Jesus’ answer to the Jews of John’s gospel? “I have told you.” We look in vain for when Jesus “told” them, or his exact words. Instead, what we find is a rich and extended metaphor about Jesus as a shepherd.
The metaphor of the shepherd runs throughout the Bible. It appears most often in the context of ancient Israel being in exile, that time when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and deported prominent citizens. In this circumstance, God pronounces a judgement upon the leaders—the shepherds.
He accuses them of not strengthening the weak or healing the sick. They do not bind up the injured or bring back the strayed. They have not sought the lost but have instead fed themselves—in essence they have fed upon the very sheep they were supposed to protect. Therefore God promises that he will shepherd the people himself. God will rescue the sheep from mouths of bad shepherds (see especially Jeremiah 23:1-4, Ezekiel 34:1-16).
One finds fewer more beautiful depictions of this shepherd-God than in Isaiah 40:11, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” The most famous reference to God as the shepherd is, of course, Psalm 23.
What we learn from Jesus’ answer to the Jews is that God prefers metaphor over plain talk. Plain talk is what we want, metaphor is what we get. Some people force plain talk from the Bible, but in doing so they betray and commit violence upon the biblical witness. The Bible isn’t plain talk. It is metaphor.
Listen to how one Episcopalian explains it. “The trouble with talking plainly about the things of God is that the things of God are anything but plain. When a person begins speaking with unequivocal certainty about God, this is a sure sign that the person is no longer speaking about God. We can speak with unequivocal certainty about things our minds can grasp, but God is not one of those things. God grasps us; we do not grasp God.” (Gary D. Jones, in the Feasting on the Word commentary)
When Jesus said, “I have told you” what he meant is “I have shown you.” Jesus’ identity is not a title, but an experience. We call him “Messiah,” “Lord,” and “Christ,” but unless we actually experience him as such, we don’t really know him. Christian “belief” is not in a title, but is a lifestyle. In the Newer Testament “Jesus is Lord” is not a statement, but an orientation; the rest of our commitments revolve around this truth. And thus Christianity is not a doctrine, but a way of life.
John’s gospel, when read through, was written to make this point, from the prologue to epilogue. In the first chapter John says the “Word became flesh.” Why? In the penultimate chapter it says the gospel was written so that all could “come to believe” and that they “might have life.” For John that life begins now, in this present life. Jesus comes, in our passage, to give life abundantly, to give eternal life, not after death, but in this life.
This, then, is Christian faith in God. You can believe in God in many ways, but Christian faith in God is believing that is active in this life. It is believing in order to have life, not in the future or in some afterlife, but now. It is why Paul explains baptism as dying and rising with Christ in newness of life (Romans 6).
Sometimes Christian teaching (that is, doctrine) gets in the way of this understanding of Christian faith. We get caught up in the centuries old theological disputes about the nature of Christ, for example, instead of getting to know Christ personally by experience. This is substituting plain talk for metaphor. It’s realizing again the subtle lesson John has included in this reading, that during the Feast of Dedication (what we call Hanukkah), during the “Festival of Lights,” the one John calls the Light of the World is walking around Solomon’s Portico and the people who are there—religiously observant people—don’t recognize him.
Only those who are God’s sheep, who hear and follow, recognize Christ. They recognize God in Christ because Jesus does what God does. This is what he means in the several passages in which he identifies himself with God (here, John 10:30, and again 10:38, 14:10, 17:21). And if you read the rest of John 10 carefully, you’ll see that Jesus invites us all to experience oneness with God by just the same means—doing the things that God does.
The reading from Acts gives us an example. There Peter raises the widow Tabitha from the dead. In her life she was “dedicated to good works and acts of charity.” By raising her to life, Peter in essence preserves her example of faith. What is more, he performs pure religion (according to James 1:27) by caring for a widow, that is, someone who is at risk.
These are the kinds of things God as shepherd does; the things Jesus did. This is how we recognize God in Christ, and so this is how others will recognize God in us—if we do these same kinds of things. This is how the vision of Revelation comes to pass—people from all nations and tribes worshiping God. They are not there because of our doctrine. They are there because they have seen and experienced God in Christ through the activities of the Christian church—that is, if we do as Christ and God and Peter do as shepherd.
So let us resolve anew to listen for voice of our Good Shepherd. Let us enter the gate that is Jesus. Let us become one with God in Christ. And let us do so by doing Christ’s work in our own lives.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Having heard that God prefers metaphor to plain talk, reflect on your life, past and present, and see if you can find the places where God has spoken to you metaphorically. What was said? How will you listen differently from now on?
- Try to talk about your Christian faith without saying “I believe that” but rather “I follow Christ by . . .” Imagine the effect of sharing your faith this way instead of trying to teach doctrine.
- Is there someone in your life from another “nation” or “tribe,” that is, someone who isn’t Christian like you are, with whom you can have a conversation like this? Maybe God is calling you to be the bridge for this person into the heavenly vision of Revelation.
Following is the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table
We give you thanks, Creator God, for by your Word all things live, move, and have their being. At the beginning of time you envisioned a world full of creatures who praised your name by their very existence—the grandeur of a soaring eagle, the diligence of the earthworm, and the human family living in harmony while caring for your earthly garden. When we went astray, as like sheep we often do, you sent the shepherd Moses to deliver and guide us, and the shepherd David to protect us. Others were not so faithful, but you did not abandon us to the wolves. You promised our redemption by becoming yourself our shepherd.
We thank you that in the fullness of time, Christ’s came to fulfill all your promises. As his birth was announced to shepherds, so he was revealed to be the shepherd of our souls. He left the ninety-nine in order to find the one. We who are gathered here as the ninety-nine are also the very ones he sought and found. Though you have called us together, we still need the comfort of your rod and staff. Find us again where we are lost.
We thank you for your Holy Spirit, for anointing our heads with oil in baptism, and for our cups that overflow at this table which you have prepared for us in the midst of a broken world, in the presence of our enemies. We come to this table, Good Shepherd, because we have heard your voice. We come to this table, to enter the gate that is Christ. We come to this table to be fed by you. We come to this table to pass by still waters, to graze in green pastures, to have our souls restored. Receiving the grace that is ours in the presence of Christ at this table, send us forth to give grace as the presence of Christ in the world, for it is in his name that we pray. Amen.