Lectionary Reflection: Ascension Day (Thursday, May 9) or Ascension Sunday (Sunday, May 12)

Texts:  Acts 7:55-60; Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

Today, May 9, is Ascension Day: the commemoration of Jesus ascending into heaven forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:1-11). In some respects, it might seem strange to celebrate the departure of the risen Christ from this earth. Why is this a day of celebration for the church rather than a day of loss?

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples had forty days of joy, during which their incredulity and fear and doubt must have slowly transformed into the courage and confidence that enabled their costly witness and even martyrdom in the years to come.

The disciples had forty days of instruction, during which Jesus spoke to them about the kingdom of God. Imagine their chagrin when the One who opened these mysteries to them was taken away into heaven before their eyes.

In Acts, two angels chide the disciples for standing around and staring into the sky after Jesus’ ascension. Time to get their eyes back to earth – they have a mission to complete. And then they learn two important things about Jesus’ departure: he will come again (Acts 1:11; Rev 22:12, 20), and he has not left them alone.

Ten days after the risen Christ ascends to the right hand of God, as witnessed by the first martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:55), the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles in wind and flame and miraculous empowerment on the day of Pentecost. In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises that when he leaves the disciples he will not leave them alone, but will give them the gift of the Comforter, the Encourager, the Advocate, the Exhorter – the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit continues to make the risen Christ present to the disciples, reminding them of his teaching and empowering them to fulfill the mission given to them by their Lord (Acts 1:8). Jesus had already assured his followers that they were one with him and with the Father, bound together by divine love (John 17:22-23); in his “absence,” the Spirit is the “bond of love” that not only binds the Trinity together (as Augustine wrote) but binds Christians to one another and assures them of the risen Christ’s ongoing presence with his church.

The reassurance that the risen Christ will return, ushering in the kingdom of God that his ministry, death, and resurrection inaugurated, does not mean the disciples sit around and wait until he comes back. When they ask Jesus if now (now, please!) is the time he’s going to restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus gently reprimands them (“it is not for you to know”) and then promises them the empowering presence of the Spirit. And empower them the Spirit does; throughout the rest of Acts, the disciples heal, preach, gather in transformed communities, bring good news to the poor, and joyfully take the gospel to the ends of the earth. And although Christ himself, in his resurrected body, has departed the earth, they are never left alone. They live in the Spirit, and they trust that the risen Christ who ascended to the Father will return to earth – this time for good.

Palm Sunday Lectionary Reflection (March 24, 2013)

Liturgy of the Palms:

Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Liturgy of the Word:

Isa 50:4-9a; Ps 31:9-1; Phil 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

I have a friend whose favorite Sunday is Palm Sunday, who experiences on this threshold of Easter the whole story of salvation rolled into one service. I must confess, on the other hand, that I often feel overwhelmed by Palm Sunday, liturgically and theologically. Perhaps I prefer Sundays with one main point, one obvious emotion: Pentecost, for example. Is Palm Sunday primarily a day of triumph and celebration, of children marching down the aisle waving palm branches, of shouts of praise lest the rocks cry out in our place? Or is it primarily a day of preparation, a somber recognition of the necessity of the coming passion, the gathering storm of the crucifixion, a rehearsal of the entire passion in nuce?

The appointed texts for the day neatly highlight the tension: the Liturgy of the Palms offers the triumphal entry texts, and the Liturgy of the Word pairs texts about suffering (Isaiah) and self-emptying (Philippians) with the full text of the passion narrative, from the Last Supper to the placing of Jesus’ body in the tomb, anticipating the holy days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So, which is it? Is it Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday?

After reading and reflecting on these texts for several days, and savoring their richness, I am not sure if Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday are two different things after all. In the Gospels, the responses to Jesus’ remarkable entry into Jerusalem foreshadow the events to come. In Matthew’s account, the whole city is thrown into turmoil. In Luke, the Pharisees tell Jesus to stop his disciples from shouting lines from Psalm 118 as Jesus enters the city. Also in Luke, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, still accompanied by crowds and waving palm branches, he weeps over the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The disciples who have shouted Hosannas will very soon betray, deny, and desert Jesus, fleeing in pain and fear.

One more detail from the triumphal entry links Jesus’ entrance into the city with his coming suffering. All four Gospels report that Jesus enters the city riding on a humble creature – a donkey. Matthew and John make sure that we know why Jesus chose this particular mode of transportation: in order to fulfill the words of Zechariah 9. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In Zechariah 9, as in the Gospels, the king comes to Zion bringing peace. But this peace is bought at great cost, at an unimaginable price: the death of the king, the death of God’s beloved only Son. Jesus’ entry into the city is a triumphal entry, but not at all in the way anyone thought it would be – not the disciples, not the Pharisees, not the crowds of festival pilgrims. If the disciples could have seen what Jesus knew, they might have paused and wept at the gate of the city, too. It’s an ironically, proleptically triumphant entry, a kenotic entry, the moment at which Jesus puts his foot onto the inevitable path of the passion and never turns back.

On Palm Sunday, we can only wave the palms and shout our Hosannas if we remember that it’s also Passion Sunday, if we remember why Jesus has come to Jerusalem. Jesus does not enter the city to be hailed as a king. He enters the city to die.

Hosannas dying on our lips, the resounding thud of the stone rolling across the face of the tomb echoing in the silence, Palm Sunday – Passion Sunday – leaves us waiting, in trembling and hope, for Easter.

January 20 Lectionary Reflection: Epiphany/Ordinary 2 (Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; John 2:1-11)

This weekend our nation gears up for two grand events: the inauguration of a president, and the remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Preparations are being made for elaborate dinners and good wine and heartfelt speeches.

In John chapter 2, Jesus does something very human, very prosaic, very neighborly: he goes to a party. A wedding party, to be precise. If you’ve ever been to a Middle Eastern wedding, you know that they are lavish affairs, often with hundreds of guests. The wedding Jesus went to probably involved an elaborate dinner and at least one or two heartfelt speeches, and we know that it eventually included some very good wine.

We learn right away that Jesus’ mother has been invited to the wedding, too. And we get to witness a faintly humorous exchange between the Son of God and his mother Mary. In verse 4, the mother of Jesus informs him that the wine is gone (clearly expecting him to do something about it), and Jesus says “So what?” (I’m paraphrasing here). In verse 5, his mother says to the servants: “Do whatever he says.” I’d love to know what happens in the tiny white space between the end of verse 4 and the start of verse 5. There’s no break, no transition, not even an “and” or a “but.” What happened in-between verse 4 and verse 5? Did Mary raise her eyebrows? Did she put her hands on her hips? Was Jesus’ question light-hearted, and did he grin afterward and wait expectantly to see what his mother would do? Did either of them smile, sharing for just a moment the knowledge they had that was hidden to everyone else?

As soon as Mary hands the matter off to the servants, Jesus doesn’t argue about it anymore. And just as Mary requests, they do precisely what Jesus tells them to do. Fill the jars! he says. And they fill them. Up to the brim, just to be thorough. Bring them to the chief steward! he says. And they bring them to the chief steward.

The chief steward is so astounded by the water-become-wine that he confronts the bridegroom, pointing out that most people serve the good stuff first and save the cheap wine for later, when the guests have had a bit too much to know the difference, but that this host has saved the best for the end. It’s hard to tell if this is a reproach, subtle advice for next time, praise, or simply an expression of surprise.

What it tells the reader, however, is that God’s delightful abundance has just overflowed through Jesus and blessed this wedding with goodness. Six large stone jars – that is a lot of wine. As the psalmist sings, “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8).

John reports that this act is the first of the “signs” that Jesus does. Turning water into wine, walking on water: we might think of these acts as miracles, as the divine bending or creative reinterpretation of the laws of nature, but John insists that they are signs that point beyond themselves. Signs that call forth belief in Jesus (John 2:11; cf. John 2:23). Signs that reveal the glory of Jesus. In the Old Testament, God’s glory was a symbol of God’s powerful presence with the people (Exod 24:15-18; 34:29-35; 40:34-38) – a presence so overwhelming that nobody could look it in the face and live (Exod 33:12-23).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ glory blazes forth for all the world to see at his crucifixion and in his resurrection (John 17:1-5). At a wedding in a small town in Galilee, an unsuspecting group of wedding guests sees a glimpse of Jesus’ glory: his true identity as the light of the world.

Let’s go back to the very start of the story, just for a moment. John notes that Jesus went to this particular wedding on the third day. It’s a small detail, but now it sparkles with potential meaning. At the heart of Christian conviction is the declaration that God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day (Luke 24:7; 1 Cor 15:4; cf. John 2:19).

“On the third day, Jesus went to a wedding.” Hear those words again in an entirely new way, in the light of the resurrection, in the splendid light of Jesus’ glory. See a glimpse of the wedding of heaven and earth, the wedding banquet at which all the nations sit. On the third day, Jesus arose and went to a wedding, where he prepares the feast for us.

Lectionary Reflection: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 or 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Mark 12:38-44

“The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow…” (Psalm 146:9).

This verse reads like the banner headline of today’s lectionary texts. The book of Ruth follows the story of two resourceful widows: Naomi, an Israelite, and Ruth, who is a “stranger,” a foreigner. Through God’s providence and Naomi’s quick thinking, a son is born – the grandfather of King David. In 1 Kings 17, an unnamed widow receives the prophet Elijah into her home and courageously feeds him her very last bit of flour and oil. God rewards her costly hospitality with miraculous abundance. Truly God upholds the widows, who have no one else to bear them up.

Mark 12 begins not with a widow but with Jesus’ indictment of the scribes – teachers of the law and leaders in the Temple. Continue reading

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

By now, most people have probably read or heard about a mysterious fragment of papyrus that has been tentatively dated to the fourth century, and that cites Jesus as speaking the words “my wife.” (See, for example, Lisa Wangsness’s article in the Boston Globe).

I’m neither a papyrus expert nor a Coptic scholar, so I have no judgment concerning the fragment’s authenticity. Instead, I want to sift through the reactions to this discovery and make a few simple observations. Continue reading

Lectionary Reflection: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Wisdom. It’s a noble word, a strong word. Perhaps we associate wise people with the gift of discernment, with an accumulation of experience, or with a sharp mind. But do we think of wise people as gentle people? This is how the apostle James identifies the “wise and understanding”: they are those who act with the “gentleness of wisdom,” or the gentleness that is born from wisdom.

In his letter, James is worried about rancorous divisions in the church – conflicts caused by envy and ambition, by partiality to the rich and oppression of the poor, by anger and unbridled tongues. James steps into this strife with a word of peace. He instructs them to be gentle. James knows this is not the wisdom of the world. No, this is wisdom from above, God’s wisdom. This kind of wisdom creates peace rather than quarrels; it is forbearing and willing to yield. Imagine a church in which members who were angry at one another were willing to yield. Imagine an office or a household or a dorm room where wisdom meant gentleness toward one another when under stress. Timothy writes that we should correct our opponents with gentleness, in the hope that this will lead them to know the truth of Jesus Christ (2 Tim 2:25).

In fact, James’s description of wisdom in chapter 3 sounds strikingly similar to the apostle Paul’s description of agape, the Christ-like love that ought to characterize the body of Christ: love is patient and kind; it does not insist on its own way; it bears all things and hopes all things (1 Cor 13:4-7). This similarity between wisdom and love makes sense because wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit. For Christians, wisdom does not spring primarily from lots of experience or intellectual ability; it is a gift that comes down from above, from the Father of lights, the giver of all good gifts.

As a gift of the Holy Spirit, the gentleness of wisdom conforms us to Christ, who described himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29). In the gospel reading for today, Jesus overhears his disciples quarreling about which one of them was the greatest. He takes a child in his arms and declares that whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and the servant of all. And this is an apt description of Jesus, who although he was first over all creation, became the least so that he might open the door to salvation for us all.