Beginnings

John 1:1-18 CEB (Italic added for emphasis)

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being though the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not of blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. The Word become flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s own son, full of grace and truth. John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘he who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’” From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being though Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God [but Jesus] has made God known.

Beginnings

The text we have before us today is the beginning of John’s account of the life of Jesus. And as we’ve noted before, John is a different kind of animal when it comes to telling the story. Eugene Peterson in the introduction to John’s Gospel in The Message Study Bible creatively describes how John differs from the other three gospel accounts. “Matthew, Mark, and Luke write like kayakers on a swiftly flowing river with occasional patches of white water,” he writes. “There’s never any doubt that they’re going where the course of the river takes them. But John is more like a canoe on a quiet lake, drifting unhurriedly, paddling leisurely to take in the sights along the shoreline, noticing rock formations, observing a blue heron fish in the rushes, pausing and drifting to sketch cloud patterns reflected in the glassy water. “[i]

So, let’s climb into our canoe and begin drifting upon the smoothly flowing rhythms of John’s prose. How? Well, let’s begin at the beginning. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God is presented as speaking the world into existence. You remember the first creation myth. God speaks a word and it happens: heaven and earth, oceans and streams, trees and grass, birds and fish, animals and human beings, everything seen and unseen, are called into being by God’s spoken word. Now, in a deliberate parallel to the open words of Genesis, John presents God as speaking salvation into existence. This time, however, God’s Word takes on human form and enters history in the person of Jesus. [ii] “The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” (1:14).

And this is where the focus of this gospel begins to take shape. The Incarnate One, Jesus, also speaks a word and it happens: forgiveness and healing, illumination, mercy and grace, joy and love, liberation, freedom and resurrection. You see, for John, Jesus is God and God is especially present in Jesus. And this presence, while mysterious in nature, has been from the beginning and will always be.

So, the bottom line here is that John views the incarnation of Jesus as more than just a single moment in time. John is concerned with what happened before and what will come after. In our text for today he writes, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning.” (1:1-2) But, as I said, he was also concerned about what would happen in the future. In chapter 14 he writes, “I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.” (14:18-19) He goes on in that chapter to say, “I have spoken these things while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.” (14:25-26).[iii]

But what does all this mean for us? Well, as I was preparing this message, and with this emphasis of incarnation in the back of my mind, I was struck by the use of the word “being.” John writes, “Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.” (1:3) Okay. Why’s this important? Well, the Greek verb that’s used here has a wide range of meanings, but the essence is that of “coming into existence.” But that’s not the most interesting part. This verb also expresses an on-going action. In other word, “to continue to be.”

So, that’s the nerdy way of saying that the Word not only spoke salvation into history, but the Word as Advocate, as Holy Spirit, continues to speak salvation into our lives still today. And this all makes perfect sense when we consider verse 4. John writes, “What came into being was life, and the life was the light for all people.” (1:3b-4) “The life” that John speaks of here encompasses the past, present, and future. Like creation itself, salvation is on-going, ever-evolving, continually in the process of being and becoming more.

However, we’ve often been led to believe that salvation is some sort of a “one-and-done” deal. I choose Christ, or accept him, or take him into my heart, whatever verbiage that particular congregation uses, and that seems to be it, with the possible exception of “bringing others to Christ.” Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not casting shade on anyone else’s beliefs. There are many paths up the mountain. I firmly believe that. But what I am offering is another way of viewing salvation. Salvation as an on-going process.

Now, in order to wrap our minds around this concept of salvation maybe we should return to Peterson’s image of the kayak vs. the canoe, but with a twist. I would offer that salvation is like that canoe on the quiet lake. Drifting, paddling once in a while, taking in all the sounds, smells, and feelings along the way. You see, in this way of thinking, this theology, the incarnate presence of God is around and though and within the entire journey. In other words, God isn’t something that’s down the river only to be encountered at the end of a single day of kayaking. But instead, I contend that God is in the bird songs; God is in the warm sunshine that we feel on our face and the cool water dripping from our fingers; God is in the feeling of sheer joy that the day imbues. A bit of God, my friends, is within each of us and within each and every living thing. And as we journey through this life, as we paddle leisurely around our lakes, we would do well to slow down and enjoy each of these sacred moments.

John understood this. John understood that life was eternal, that life was on-going, and John understood that Jesus represented life itself. You see, for John, Jesus’ life was the light for all people. “The light,” he says, “that shines in the darkness.” And what this tells me, as we continue to face the challenges of our times, is that within our on-going, ever-in-process, lives of faith and salvation, there is hope. Hope because there is a light shining in the darkness. And that light, the very light of Christ, is within each of us. All we have to do is let it shine!

How? Though kind words of compassion and inclusion. We can let our Christ-light shine through generous actions, by promoting justice, and by propagating peace. In all of our relationships, near and far, with people and within creation herself, we can and must bring life by being a light for grace and truth. That, in the end, is the essence of being and the very foundation of salvation.

“From his fullness we have all […all have] received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being though Jesus Christ.”

Grace and Truth. Life and Light. Being itself.

Amen & Amen.


[i] Eugene Peterson. The Message Study Bible. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012)  pg. 1635

[ii] Ibid Peterson pg. 1634

[iii] Common English Study Bible (CEB) Introduction to John Joel Green, Gen Ed. (copyright 2013) pg. 167-168

The Loving Path

John 15: 9-17

I like snowshoeing. It’s good exercise and it allows me to continue to be immersed in nature even in the winter. I’ve skipped the last couple of weeks of course, 30 below is little too cold for me. However, when the temperature rises there’s another obstacle to snowshoeing. Deep snow. The first time out after a big snow is difficult. I have no means to “groom” my trails, so I have to trudge up and down the hills, breaking the trail as I go. But here’s the thing. One the trail is broken, once the snow is packed down, snowshoeing becomes much easier and dare I say, more enjoyable.

There are also some obstacles to overcome as we approach our text for today. Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” Easy-peasy …right? This path is already packed down and ready to go. Love each other, got it! But do we …have it? I mean, it’s easy to love those who look like us, those whose lifestyle matches our own. But what about the person who makes our blood boil? What about the neighbor who complains all the time? What about cranky people who are unapologetically rude? What about the ones who attacked and defaced our capitol building on January 6th? How do we love them? What about those who are not only under the spell of the QAnon cult but are actively trying to recruit others? What about the Proud Boys, or the KKK, or any of these hate groups? Do we love them? I think this commandment is just got a little more difficult.

But, difficult doesn’t mean impossible if we approach this command with integrity, faith, and a sound theological understand of the context surrounding it. And that context begins with a Latin phrase: Pax Roma, (the Roman Peace)

Now, on the surface “peace” sounds great, right? Well, maybe not so much. You see, Rome believed that peace could only come through conquest by means of military force. The formula went like this: Religion + War + Victory = Peace. But how did they get there? Well, historically speaking, Rome actually began its rise to power as a republic. There was no king, no emperor, no Caesars. It was a representative government that allowed two representatives called “consults” from each conquered territory to speak for their constituents. Understand, however, that these two consults were limited to a 1 year term, thus, limiting their power.

But, as is often the case in national politics, differences arose along with power struggles, resulting in a civil war that lasted 20 years.  Which ended only when Octavian (later called Cesar Augustus) defeated Anthony and Cleopatra. Now the Roman citizens hailed Octavian as their “divine” liberator and savior, because he brought peace to the land. Hence the four-fold path to peace – religion + war + victory = peace. This was the birthing of a new theological and political era for Rome through the promotion of Cesar Augustus as the Divine Emperor. Divine in the sense that he was not just ordained by God but that he actually was a god, a god incarnate in human form here on earth. Sound familiar to anyone?[i]

So, to review, the Roman way to peace, Pax Roma, was to gain power by crushing those who would oppose them. Peace through fear. Peace through pushing down those who are already on the lowest rung of the ladder. This is the backdrop of our reading for today. This is the society that Jesus was born into and the foundation of the system that he opposed.

You see, Jesus had a different way of viewing peace. His path was a loving one. His path to peace was to gain power through non-violence, through lifting every person up, outsiders and those on that bottom rung alike. Jesus and his followers didn’t adhere to the pattern of the Pax Roma. His formula for peace went like this: Religion + Non-Violence + Justice = Peace.[ii] Which brings us back around to loving our enemy.

When we read this very important passage in John’s Gospel, I think we become laser-focused on the “love one another” part and we tend to ignore the rest of the thought: “…as I have love you”. What do I mean? Well, think about how God has loved us. God forgives us even when we cannot forgive ourselves. Even when we’re quote-unquote “unrepentant” God continues to offer us opportunity after opportunity to turn around, to move in a more compassionate, outward looking direction, and God is still around when we finally do. We see over and over again a Jesus who heals and restores wholeness to a diversity of people. He loved the poor, the sick, the outsider, and the marginalized alike. He invited those of other religions, and ethnicities, and races into fellowship with God.

And that’s the kind of love John is talking about. He isn’t saying we should condone the actions of the domestic terrorists on January 6th anymore than he’s advocating for the Pax Roma. You and I both know that affirming or ignoring bad behavior won’t fix the behavior. That’s not loving someone. But neither is demeaning someone, or writing someone off. Yes, we sometimes have to distance ourselves from a toxic relationships, but that doesn’t mean our task is to destroy that person. Our path to peace, inner peace or global peace, simply cannot be the Roman formula of religion + war + victory = peace. There’s finally no joy in crushing those who oppose us.

But my friends, there is joy, long, hard-earned joy, in Jesus’ way to peace. How do I know this? Well, personal experience for one, and common sense, and by understand the actual teachings and tradition of the Church, which come to us through the words of Jesus himself: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. Or, to use the sentiment of the Psalmist, Joy comes not in darkness, not in violence, but rather, “joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes when our religion demands non-violence and when it seeks justice for all people and all of creation. A justice that leads all of us to that deep, abiding and lasting kind of peace that Paul espoused.

My friends, the path before us is deep with snow. But let us not be deterred. My hope and my prayer for all of us is that we put on our snowshoes and start breaking that trail toward peace. Because you know what, if we do that hard work of creating a non-violent movement toward justice now, the path for those who will come after us will be packed down and their way will be easier.

Jesus said, “I give you these commandments, so that you can love each other”. May it be so. Amen & Amen.


[i] Borg, Marcus and John Dominic Crossan  Eclipsing Empire: Paul, Rome, and the Kingdom of God (Video series by Living the Questions www.livingthequestions.com)

[ii] Ibid Borg and Crossan.

Ash Wednesday

The Lenten Season is traditionally thought to be a time where we’re reminded of Jesus’ life and death. It’s a time of self-examination and repentance. In many traditions it’s a time when one thinks about what one can do without. This year, however, you’re being invited to begin your Lenten journey from a different place. It’s not that we’re going to toss tradition out the window, but rather enhance your experience of Lent by grounding it in a broader, more expansive understanding of faith.

Now, the best place to begin this enhanced journey is by reflecting on our unity with all that is, by remembering that each of us is part of an immense and continuous creation, a creation which entails the entire universe. Although we humans are a vital part of this creation, we are by no means the center. Yet we know that all too often we imagine and act as if we were the center—as if everything were here for us, for us to use for our own purposes, even to use up. And yet in our hearts we know that we live in and through a complex set of interconnected relationships, and that it’s our responsibility, as it has been the responsibility of each generation that preceded ours, to bequeath a healthy, fruitful, and beautiful world to all who shall follow.

Now, at this point you may be asking: “What does this understanding of connection and responsibility have to do with Lent?” Well, if we are open to allowing God to expose the places in our hearts that suffer from the illusion that we are separate and apart from creation and if we are willing to allow God to bring into the light those places where change is needed, then, I would contend, this is the real work of Lent. The real work of Lent is to renew our sense of connection, thus restoring our dignity and calling us back to ourselves, to a place where we acknowledge the invitation to choose life and our responsibility to act co-creatively with God.

And this journey of co-creativity begins today. Ash Wednesday is a day when we call all of our angers, hatred, and jealousies out from their dark corners. It’s a day when begin to acknowledge that these negative personal emotions affect more than just ourselves. You see, this is a season of healing. A healing that begins on the inside and expand outward. The ashes are not only a reminder of our need for transformation and healing, but they’re also a reminder of our connection with earth and how each of us can be instruments of healing to other and all of creation.

So, let the journey begin! Until next time, be safe, be well, be kind, and continue the good work of seeking justice and peace, healing and wholeness for all of creation. [i]


[i] The premise of this devotion and a portion of its content can be found in an article by Louise Rasmussen called The Star Within: An Alternative Ash Wednesday Ritual.  (www.progressivechristianity.org) 2014

Source of Strength

Mark 1: 29-39 (paraphrased)

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick with all kinds of diseases and disorders. The whole town gathered near the door to watch as he healed all of these people.

 Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they said, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

Jesus replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues, healing the sick, and bringing wholeness into the lives of many.

Today’s Message: Source of Strength

There are all kinds of patterns in this world. The first thing we probably think of fabric, right? There are an endless number of patterns from plaids to stripes to solids to ones with little bears and pine trees on them. But there are other types of patterns as well. Mathematical patterns for one. There are patterns in writing, especially in poetry; there are patterns in science; patterns of logic. How about the patterns of nature, ecosystems, the circular pattern of the ever-changing seasons, and the constant and on-going patterns of evolution. I can go on and on, but you get the point. Patterns exist everywhere.

But what about the Bible? Are there discernable patterns there?

Well, as I began to look theses four brief passages that we have before us today, a pattern began to emerge. First, Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, next he cures many illness for those gathered around him, he then takes a moment to rest, before moving on to widen the scope his mission. And here’s the really interesting part. This fourfold pattern seems to reflect the nature of his message. Time and again, we Jesus go first to the inner circle, second to the gathered crowds, he then finds a brief time to rest, and finally, he turns outward, taking his message to all people.

Now, as I say this, there are two lingering questions in my mind. First, why this outward-moving pattern? And second, why does Mark, a writer who never wastes a word on anything; why does he emphasize the need for Jesus to sneak away to find some “alone” time?

Well, let’s taking-on that latter question first because there’s a pretty simple answer here. Jesus was fully human. He, like all of us, needed to get away and recharge his batteries once in a while. And while we may have a variety of understandings about the divinity of Jesus (ranging from fully God, to possessing the energy of the divine, to having a unique relationship with God) it’s pretty safe to say that, historically, we know that a man existed, whose charisma and radical message drew large crowds. And it was because of this message and the size of his following that he became a threat to the powers that be, leading of course, to his execution by the Romans. We know all this from independent historians of that era.

Theologian E. Elisabeth Johnson adds, however, that the “…restoration of human wholeness is not for Mark a demonstration of Jesus’ personal power or his unique identity so much as it is a disclosure of God’s invasion of the creation. So, Jesus prays to the God who is at work in him.”[i]

In other words, there must be some type of separation or uniqueness between the divine part of Jesus, the incarnational aspect of God in Jesus (the “invasion of the creation” part) and Jesus’ humanity.  And, here, in the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel we see this human side of Jesus being fully lived-out, even as he began to teach about that nature of God. I mean, so far, we’ve seen him baptized in a river, tested in the wilderness, and we’ve seen him proclaim that “the Reign of God has come near” in him.

And specifically in today’s text, we see Jesus heal a woman, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, in the privacy of her own home; we see him heal many people in a very public arena; and then, as I said before, after recharging his batteries, we see Jesus take his message to the masses. The threefold pattern emerges.

But let’s set the pattern aside for a moment and dig into this “in-between time” …this early-morning need for solitude that Mark highlights here. I think this is important for us to consider because this is where we’re invited enter the narrative. Jesus got up early, before dawn the text says, to find a quiet place so he could spend some time in prayer. For a little while anyway, in the cool, quiet of the pre-dawn, the pace of his life slowed down a bit. That’s our challenge as well. Our challenge is to find a corner of solitude, a sacred space,  where we too can find the time and the peace to be in the presence of God. A time of day when we might squirrel away in a soft chair and lose ourselves in prayer. We, like Jesus all those years ago, must seek those sacred moments when the pace of life slows down a bit. This is a vital aspect of our faith.

But, as we all know, a personal experience of the divine is just the beginning and not the sum total of our faith. So, turning back to Mark’s threefold pattern, we too, with recharged batteries, are called to share the love of God with our inner circle, with the gathered community, and to all the ends of the earth. This is what I call “the natural progression of faith.” The natural progression of faith begins with an “inner discovery of the divine” and then expands outward into an “on-going expression of our faith” through education, relationships, and service to others.

Do you see where Mark is taking us here? This threefold pattern is the heart of discipleship. This “from the inside/out” way of being faithful in the world is the blueprint for our commitment to love God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. I mean, beginning on the inside, we love ourselves by taking care of ourselves; physically, mentally, and spiritually. We’re continually in the process of becoming more than we already are; we should always in the process of attempting to develop healthy habits and relationships because in the end, our movement toward wholeness will lead others toward wholeness. Our progression toward become Light, will lead others into the Light. Others in our inner circle, (family, friends, our church family) and those beyond the walls of our community, out there, to all the ends of the earth.

One final thought today. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” This is such a profound statement as we attempt to apply the wisdom of Mark’s pattern to our own journey. Because what lies within us, all of us, all of humanity and all of the natural world, is what Whitehead called “the spark of the divine.” In other words, there is a bit of God within each of you; God’s goodness, God’s grace, God’s calling to turn your gaze outward by sharing the compassion and the forgiveness that was demonstrated in the life and teachings of Jesus. Yes, it’s a process. It’s a process that’s on-going. But it’s a process that’s necessary as we continue to work toward the day when justice is the norm and peace a constant.

This is my on-going hope and never-ending prayer. May it be so. Amen.


[i] Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014