A few years ago televangelist Robert Schuller proposed that we take another look at the meaning of Lent. Lent, the TV preacher suggested, ought to be understood as an acronym, with the letters standing for "Let's Eliminate Negative Thinking."
There do seem to be a lot of negatives associated with Lent: saying no to temptation, denying one's physical desires, fasting and making sacrifices. In some ways Lent is the liturgical season that most goes against our looking-out-for-No. 1 culture. The purpose of the season, though, is not just to recall Jesus' fasting in the wilderness, his torture, and execution. It is to draw us closer to God by attending to the deeper spiritual realities of life, to open our hearts not only to the suffering of the cross but to the wondrous joys of resurrection. For even while we go through Lent, we are always called to the awareness that we are in the final analysis an Easter people. He is risen indeed!
Who Needs Faith?
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
To be human is to experience temptation, and in Luke's narrative—the final event before his public ministry begins—Jesus is put to the test. He resists the promise of material abundance: as indispensable as bread may seem, humble obedience to God is even more important. The devil offers worldly power and glory, which Jesus rejects in order to "serve only God."
The third temptation seems more removed from our experience; most of us are not inclined to leap off tall buildings, assuming that angels will cushion our fall. But obtaining mastery over death by death-defying feats is an understandable desire for we oh-so-mortal humans. A clue to what's really tempting here, though, is found in Jesus' response: Do not put the Lord your God to the test (which he quoted from Deuteronomy 6:16). What's wrong with "putting God to the test"? What is being sought in such a test, of course, is concrete proof of God's existence and benevolence. With this kind of religious certainty, who needs faith?
But it is faith to which we are called—invited to believe, even though we have not seen (John 20:29). Paul argues that it is this faith in God, not any work of human hands, through which we are saved. The law can't save us, nor can any human institution or affiliation—nor even the most righteous acts of justice or peacemaking. All we can do, as one author put it, is to cooperate with the grace that is already there, poured out for us. Some have understood this teaching as exclusive: Only those who say the right words, in the right way, will be saved. But Paul takes the opposite approach: All barriers to salvation are now destroyed; there is no us and them, no distinction between Jew and Greek; the Lord is the Lord of all. The door is open; we are invited to enter.
Citizens of Heaven
Psalm 27; Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
The founding of the church at Philippi, recounted in Acts 16:9-40, has so many remarkable elements that it is no wonder that Paul said the community there has "a permanent place in my heart" (Philippians 1:7) and is "my joy and my crown" (4:1). In today's passage, Paul contrasts those who behave as "enemies of the cross" with those whose "citizenship is in heaven."
The "enemies," Paul says, have their minds set on earthly things; their god is the belly, as New Revised Standard Version puts it. But "belly" is a misleading translation if the reader assumes it refers merely to food; what Paul is decrying here is unrestrained self-indulgence. (It may be a little unfashionable to talk about self-indulgence, but in all eras it is the enemy of the cross, and the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting and self-denial are appropriate spiritual responses.)
When Paul writes about heavenly citizenship, he's not advocating an other-worldly focus; note that he uses the present tense. Our citizenship is in heaven, even while we reside in the here and now; we are, in effect, resident aliens, emissaries as it were from another nation. This is by no means an excuse to postpone faithfulness or to wait for some hoped-for future transformation. On the contrary, it stands as instruction to act in such a way that bespeaks our heavenly citizenship. This bears directly on our relations with secular authorities and earthly kingdoms, including modern nations; we are strangers in a strange land. Unfortunately, Christians often as not identify themselves as citizens of their nation, not realizing that the "dual citizenship" that results leads to hating one master and loving the other, as Jesus says in another context (Matthew 6:24).
Today's gospel gives us an example of Jesus' stance toward the secular (and religious!) authorities of his day: "You tell that fox...." Knowing full well that Jerusalem "kills the prophets," Jesus nonetheless chooses to ignore the warning he's been given and "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51) for the final confrontation.
Come to the Waters
Psalm 63:1-8; Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
"Who that was innocent ever perished?" (Job 4:7). People have long believed that there is a connection between sin and suffering—and the inverse that saints are somehow immune from tribulation. The ancient notion that prosperity and good health are signs of God's favor persists, despite all evidence (including the strongest testimony of all, the crucifixion of the one without sin).
Today's gospel passage is not the only time Jesus confronts—and rejects—such beliefs. When faced with a man born blind, Jesus' disciples asked him, "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" (John 9:2). Jesus responded, "Neither." Likewise, when asked about the sinfulness of Galileans murdered on Pilate's order, Jesus rejects the assumption that their treatment was in any way warranted by their behavior. He responds by giving another example, citing the 18 people killed by the tower of Siloam. There is evidence that the tower was part of the aqueduct Pilate was building for the city of Jerusalem—a project financed with money taken from the temple funds. Those working on the project would likely be despised and hated for their collaboration with the occupying forces. Yet even those 18, Jesus says, are no worse offenders than everyone else.
Jesus' message is clear: The tragedy that befell the workers was in no way related to their moral state. And despite the temptation to believe otherwise, the same is true regarding those who suffer today.
But Jesus doesn't stop there. While earthly suffering is not the result of sin, Jesus affirms the reality of judgment: Unless you repent, he says, you too will perish. Lucky for us, the possibility of repentance—and more important, mercy—is offered to all. As the parable illustrates, there is still time for the children of Israel to repent and bear fruit.
Paul explains that no one—not even the most blessed—is immune from the need for repentance, and warns against overconfidence among those considered the elect. And the Hebrew scriptures give us a sure sign of that repentance: A soul, thirsting for God, as in a dry and weary land. Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.
The Other Prodigal Son
Psalm 32; Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
This very familiar tale is often called "the prodigal son." The focus, however, is more appropriately placed on "the loving father" who welcomes back the penitent sinner. After all, Jesus relates this parable (following that of the lost sheep and the found coin) in response to the complaint, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." What is God's posture toward sinners? God doesn't hold our trespasses against us, Paul writes. "I confess," the psalmist says, "and you forgive."
But perhaps more attention ought to be given the elder son. While the younger son went out to live the good life, part of his heart was always home. The elder son, on the other hand, seems to have been as distant in spirit as his brother was in body. If the younger son represents the publicans and sinners, the elder stands for the Pharisees and scribes. All the marks of proper religiosity are there. Rules are followed, protocols are served. But where is the real love, of God and of other people? Where is the compassion, the empathy, the forgiveness?
The elder son may be an unappealing figure in the parable, but he has many descendants; they are found in both church and society, steadfast and leading citizens who have no patience for those who squander time and money or little sympathy for those out of work or down on their luck. While the elder brother has kept the letter of the law for many years ("I have never disobeyed your command"), he has broken its spirit. He doesn't share his father's grief over his lost brother—"this son of yours," he sneers contemptuously—and is filled with self-righteousness (deriding the younger son for "devour[ing] your living with harlots") and self-pity ("you never gave me a kid").
The father reaches out to the older son with gentle love and acceptance: "Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours." The elder son, too, has been lost, but he is invited to come home again by the love of the father. How will he respond? The end of the story is up to us.
A Beautiful Thing
Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8
The gospel reading centers on Mary's love for Jesus, and his love for her. In the previous chapter, when he comes—apparently too late—to their house, Mary anoints his feet with her tears of sorrow at her brother's death. Jesus, in great distress, weeps with her in one of the most emotional scenes in scripture.
Later, with his face set toward his fateful visit to Jerusalem, he again visits Bethany. Again, Mary anoints his feet, this time with expensive perfume. Judas, supported by the other disciples in Matthew's version (26:8), protests the "wasteful" act. But Jesus commends the "beautiful thing" she has done (Matthew 26:10), seeing in her action a symbolic preparation for his imminent death—and a sign that he is indeed "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25) as he promised her sister.
While Jesus affirms the appropriateness of Mary's loving gesture toward him—indicating even to us that such expressions ought not be postponed—he is in no way lessening our responsibility toward the poor. Mark's version makes it more explicit, adding the phrase "whenever you will, you can do good to them," since they are always with us. Both renderings draw upon a teaching from the Torah: "Of course, there will never cease to be poor in the land; I command you therefore: Always be open-handed with your brother and sister, and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor" (Deuteronomy 15:11).
Mary, who wept for her brother and perhaps shed anticipatory tears at Jesus' forthcoming passion, was one of those for whom the psalmist wrote, "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy."
Blood Poured Out
Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
Today's lection is easily the longest—and arguably the richest—of the year. The gospel reading recounts the whole passion story, from the Last Supper to the burial of Jesus. Many churches, of course, choose the Palm Sunday focus on the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-40 and parallels), and save the story of Jesus' betrayal, crucifixion, and death for Holy Thursday and Good Friday services.
Today's readings, whenever they are used, are packed full of theological and spiritual content, with material enough for reflections on a variety of themes: the New Covenant and the meaning of the Eucharist; servant leadership; testing and faithfulness; following God's will in trying times. Each of these is part of the central focus, Jesus' passion and death.
What would it be like to go through the events of those days at Jesus' side? Imagine yourself in the shoes of one of the disciples—say, Peter, or perhaps one of the women "who had accompanied him from Galilee and saw it all happen" (Luke 23:49). What thoughts, what emotions, would you experience as the hours unfolded? They would likely include excitement and awe at recent happenings. They had come to Jerusalem, entered the city with fanfare, and boldly confronted the hypocrites in the temple: those who "turned it into a robbers' den" (Luke 19:45-46) and, even more significant, those who loved to "take the front seats in the synagogues" (Luke 19:47-21:4)—the religious establishment of the day. Imagine the dread as Jesus promises that his blood "will be poured out," and the terrible fear and anguish as Jesus is arrested in the garden and tortured by the authorities. Finally, imagine the brokenheartedness and the horror as you watch Jesus executed.
We know now that death doesn't have the final word. But the grief of those who watched Jesus crucified likely echoed that of the psalmist: "For my life is worn out with sorrow, my years with sighs; my strength yields under misery, my bones are wasting away" (Psalm 31:10).
April 12 Easter
I Have Seen the Lord!
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18
Seeing isn't believing. Many saw Jesus throughout his life, yet refused to believe. But there at the empty tomb, John's whole life (and more!) is transformed: He saw and he believed. It is not, it should be noted, belief in the "historical Jesus" that is at stake here—that was never in doubt for John, and many "unbelievers" crossed paths with Jesus. It is also worth noting that it wasn't the teaching of scripture, which he "failed to understand," that opened his eyes—it was seeing the empty tomb with the eyes of faith.
It is only with such eyes that one can comprehend. The shepherds that heralded Jesus' birth "saw" no more than the innkeeper or even the oxen, but because their hearts were open they glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen.
Mary's statement to the disciples—"I have seen the Lord"—is the essence of Christianity. Christianity does not mean knowing about Jesus, it means knowing Jesus. When Mary, weeping, searched for him at the tomb, the angel said, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5). Many people today continue to make the same mistake, searching for the Jesus of 2,000 years ago and failing to see the risen Christ among us now.
And his rising has changed everything. Most important for us, through his rising we are likewise given the gift of life. As Paul writes in the earliest account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, Jesus' resurrection is the "first fruit" through which our own is guaranteed, just as the first crocus or daffodil of springtime contains the promise of new life bursting forth all around. Through his rising, the psalmist sings, he has become my salvation. I shall not die, but I shall live. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
My Lord and My God
Psalm 150; Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
The disciples have heard from Mary and the other women that Jesus has risen, but they are still very much afraid, hidden away in their fear behind closed doors. Their movement, it seemed, was an abject failure, their hopes crucified with their leader.
Then, to their great surprise, if not shock, Jesus is there among them. In words reminiscent of the upper room (John 14:27, 17:18), he reassures them not once, but three times: "Peace be with you." What I have come for was not lost on the cross, but fulfilled. And—this is key—he commissions them to carry out the mission: "As the Father sent me, so am I sending you."
But he does not send them out alone. This gathering is like a mini-Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-4). The disciples cower in a locked room, and Jesus breathes on them, filling them with life (Genesis 2:7) and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Before receiving that power, they are reduced to hiding away in fear. Emboldened by the Spirit, as we discover in Acts, they fear no one—not even the authorities who have crucified Jesus. Even after they are arrested and repeatedly ordered to cease, they boldly "fill Jerusalem with their teaching." And Peter—Can this be the same Peter who fearfully denied even knowing Jesus?—willfully challenges the Sanhedrin: "We must obey God rather than any human authority."
Their courageous witness resounds through the ages, yet so many of us, like Thomas, are inclined to disbelief. As Jesus says in the gospels' final beatitude, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe"—and blessed, too, are those who join with Thomas in the proclamation, "My Lord and my God."
Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Peter, as we know, had betrayed Jesus three times. The door to repentance and reconciliation, it must have seemed to Peter, was slammed shut when Jesus was crucified. Now that he has risen, that door has been wedged open a crack. But even though Jesus has appeared to the disciples and "did many other signs" in their presence (John 20:30), Peter apparently hasn't quite figured out his role in the new order of things; he's gone back to fishing. The future of the church is at stake here. As one commentator put it: If these men are caught into the old life again, will there be, can there be, a Christian church at all?
Jesus joins him on the beach for a poignant fireside chat, and gives Peter the opportunity three times to affirm his love and loyalty, echoing the triple denial. Each time that Peter insists, "You know that I love you," Jesus responds, "Feed my sheep"—show your love by putting it into practice. Jesus concludes the conversation by offering a sign of Peter's restoration and a reiteration of his initial call (Mark 1:17): "Follow me" (and I will make you fish for people).
While Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to Peter gently returns him to the fold, Paul has a much more dramatic encounter with the risen Lord. (Paul makes no distinction between pre- and post-ascension appearances; see 1 Corinthians 15:5-8.) The lectionary links these two seminal New Testament figures, the people most responsible for the spreading of the gospel of the Nazarene. The scriptures make it clear, however, that it is not their own strength, their own wisdom, or their own righteousness that creates their vision and compels their ministry. Rather, they—and the whole church—are empowered by the Spirit to sing with full voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" (Revelation 5:12). n
Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474).