Holding On

Blowing Bubbles

Second Sunday of Easter | John 20:19-31

Holding On

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  People love to argue over this passage. Hold on, though, and don’t turn away just yet — past all the arguments, there may be something useful here, something practical.

It’s no surprise that Christians have argued over this Jesus saying. Christians argue over so many other passages, so many other notions, so many other lines in the sand. The world around us, and sometimes the world within us, is full of lines, walls, cracks, divides, most of them no more real or substantial than the edge of a cloud. People push other people away, or draw them closer, all for their relative positions, their ideas, their sexuality, their color, their religion or absence of one, their poverty or wealth, their education or ignorance.

None of it is particularly useful.

Oh, there are all sorts of theological arguments and ideas, if you are inclined to that sort of thing. Much of it comes down to who has power and authority over whom, which seems to miss the point. For instance, was the power of forgiveness or the power to withhold it given only to the twelve (or the eleven who were left after Judas) and so by implication limited to their spiritual descendants, the ordained priests who claim to trace their line unbroken through the patchy bits of history to the select few who received the Spirit of God from Christ himself? Or is this forgiveness (or lack of it) tied solely to baptism, somehow limited to entrance into the Church? Or is Jesus talking about sins committed prior to baptism or those that follow it? And what sort of sin is he talking about, and just what constitutes a sin anyway…?

Blowing BubblesYou see why I say none of it is useful. Nothing in those arguments will get us through a dark night of the soul. There is nothing that would even brighten a cloudy afternoon. It is like giving a thirsty child a cup of honey — it’s very nice, but it won’t help.

Wait it a moment, though. How about this idea of retaining and forgiving, holding and releasing? There might be something useful in there.

How about the burdens we carry? You know, the ones we hold onto. And how about sin, however we understand it (it’s a bit like the famous definition of pornography — we know it when we see it), our own and that of others? We don’t really need to define sin to know it. Or experience it. Or regret it. Or do it, whether it is against God, or against other people, or against ourselves.

Burdens. Sins. Short fallings. Disappointments. Mistakes. Regrets. Injuries. Loss. I don’t know yours, and anyway yours are probably different than mine. We all have them, all of these things, in different measures and degrees and times, but we all have them.With a Bubble

This gospel claims that God empowers people to hold onto these burdens or to lay them down. More than that, it claims that this Spirit of God empowers people to help someone else do the same thing — to let go, to lay down a burden, or perhaps the opposite, to hold onto something precious, to carry a responsibility, to keep a shoulder to the wheel.

After all, the things we carry are not always burdens, and laying something down is not always freedom.

And who gets such power to hold or to release, to forgive or to be forgiven? Well, in this gospel, Jesus was talking to everyone who was there. He breathed the Spirit of God onto everyone present. There is no list of names, no picking this one but not that one. They are just called οἱ μαθηταὶ (mathetai, from the same word that gives us “mathematics”, or ‘that which is learned’.) These are the disciples, all who were there, without limitation.†

Jesus breathed onto his followers so that they might breathe in the Spirit of God. It is the image and symbol of God breathing life into the world all over again — a creation story, a new beginning. It’s a love story. It’s the miracle of forgiveness and of healing, the Easter story of God-whom-we-killed returning to fill us with the life that imbues all creation.

It is the power of letting go of what needs to be let go. It is the power of holding on to what needs to be kept and carried. And it is for everyone, the very breath of God.

† From this same Gospel, compare John 8:31-32: Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Blowing Bubbles

Ideas on the Way to Resurrection

Easter — Resurrection of the Lord  |  John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

Ideas on the Way to Resurrection

What if we don’t buy into this whole story about Jesus coming back to life? What if people made it up? Or what if we only believe it because of our upbringing, or fear of dying, or simply habit?

We wouldn’t be alone. There is plenty of precedent, maybe even including the original, odd, abrupt ending¹ of the first and oldest gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Women come to the tomb to add spices and perfumes to the body of Jesus, an embalming, only to find the tomb empty except for a stranger who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and the women flee in fear and ecstasy. That’s it. No elaboration. No explanation.

IM000871.JPGYet the early Christians (they called it the Way² — still a better name, I think, after all the centuries) flourished. They did it without a systematic theology or chocolate bunnies. They didn’t know that we would call this celebration Easter, the celebration of the story that Jesus died, was laid in a tomb, and rose again.

No painted eggs. No fake grass. No Easter egg hunt.

But what if we still can’t quite believe such a thing happened? What does God do with us, if there is a God?

God starts with us where we are, I think. Actually, if God is unbounded by the space-time fetters that define us, perhaps God starts with us where we are, where we have been, and where we will be, all at once.

And if we can’t quite accept that Jesus was resurrected, how about we just start with the idea of resurrection? It’s a pretty good idea — life where there was none, a new beginning, a fresh breath. Genesis.

What if we think of Christianity (the Way, if you like,) as faith in the idea of resurrection, a celebration of the notion that lives can begin again. Broken things can be mended. Lost things can be restored. New life can begin, and we don’t have to spend our lives shut away in some dark place, no matter whether we got there ourselves or were carried against our will.

Resurrection. That is something worth believing in, an idea worth holding onto. It’s reason enough to follow the Way.

And what of these astonishing claims that God was expressed in human form in this man Jesus, that this God-man allowed himself to die a cruel death at the hands of people like us, that afterward he rose from the dead? Surely if this happened, nothing stranger ever has?

Wormhole, digital art by Les Bossinas, via NASA.gov
Wormhole, digital art by Les Bossinas, via NASA.gov

It is interesting, the things we believe. Take Sea-Monkeys, dessicated brine shrimp that somehow return to life after being dried to dust. We watch them return to life, swimming in little plastic aquariums we order from comic books, and marvel. For fishing bait, my grandfather collected Catalpa worms (we called them Catawba worms, but they are the larvae of the moth Ceratomia catalpae.) He kept them in a box in the freezer. You could take them out later, let them thaw, and sometimes the things would begin to move again. It was peculiar, and amazing, and creepy.

Consider black holes in space, points of such dense gravity that even light itself is pulled inside. Unbelievable. Then there is the idea of a wormhole. Nothing to do with fishing, the Einstein-Rosen bridge kind of wormhole forms a tunnel through space-time. Conceptually, they are out there, though hard to locate — sort of like Easter eggs in space. We hear of such notions and nod, marveling.

God, though? Resurrection? We find those things hard to believe in, but embracing science doesn’t mean we have to let go of the mystical — they serve two different purposes, two differing pursuits, two ways of trying to understand the universe, what it is, what it means.

Maybe for this Easter, even if we are not quite far enough along the Way to embrace such possibilities, we can at least look with wonder at notions of grace scattered like Easter eggs along our path. Redemption. Renewal. Resurrection. This Jesus who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Those are thoughts worth finding.



¹ The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at verse 16:8 — “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

² See Acts 9:2

A Borrowed Donkey

Liturgy of the Palms | Luke 19:28-40

A Borrowed Donkey

The story is that Solomon rode a donkey on his way to become king. People are forever comparing Jesus to him, pointing out that kings rode burros, that Jesus entered Jerusalem in a kingly procession, and all of that is true, so far as it goes. We may be sure of one thing: Solomon never had to borrow a donkey.

The path ahead of Jesus was strewn with the robes of common folk and whatever else they had at hand, palm branches and the like. They were poor, and they could have used some deliverance. As Alan Culpepper wrote, “Jesus was a king, but no ordinary one—the king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples.”¹

Entry Into Jerusalem. Pedro OrrenteA raggedy, raucous, tumultuous crowd, and a borrowed donkey—it was a spectacle. Some of the better folk urged Jesus to calm the multitudes, but he answered that were the crowd silenced even the stones would start shouting. There’s an image. No doubt his answer did nothing to endear him in the hearts of the religious folk.

Is it surprising that religious people wanted the procession quieted? The people who were following Jesus believed in him, believed in the things they had seen him do, believed that they needed a new king to get rid of Caesar, but they were not the religious establishment. They were the fringe, the outsiders, the odd folk Jesus drew to himself over and over. They were the sort of people who make churchgoers nervous.

The religious leaders had told everyone what the messiah would be like, and none of what they taught from their reading of scripture said anything about this man riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey.

All that learning and study and preparation, and God surprised them. They had read the same scriptures that early Christians used to portray Jesus as messiah, and they still expected something different. This man could not be the messiah, could he?

They didn’t miss the signs because they were bad people. They missed the signs because they had traded their sense of wonder for forms of worship, had begun to believe their own ideas about what God is doing instead of believing God is doing something.

We are no better. Some of us think God does nothing, not anymore, and maybe never did. Others are so fervently and devoutly lost in our own expectations that we would not recognize God riding up to us on a borrowed donkey. We’d probably miss the shouting rocks, too, or tell them to hush while we closed our eyes to pray.

We should keep our eyes open. After all, God has better things to do than listen to long prayers. Anyone who’s ever ridden a donkey knows that much.

Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio. Entry into Jerusalem. 1435-40. Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma


¹  R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck et al (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 370.

Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

Glass stopper in bottle

Fifth Sunday in Lent | John 12:1-8

Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

At the dinner table sat Lazarus, the man who died and lived to tell about it. Except that’s the interesting thing: he didn’t tell about it, at least not in the story recorded in John’s Gospel. Surely people of that day were just as curious as we are, wondering what Lazarus experienced in death, what it was like, whether there were things to fear, what it was like to awaken in the tomb, to shuffle into the light wrapped in a burial shroud.

We don’t hear any of that.

Jesus also sat there, the man who was headed toward confrontation and nearly certain death. Everyone in the room knew trouble was coming. The crowd outside knew it. The spies sent from nearby Jerusalem knew it. Judas knew it. Jesus knew it.

As they sat, Lazarus remembering the tomb and Jesus looking forward to it, they were overwhelmed by the scent of the perfume that Mary was rubbing on Jesus’ feet. It is said that smell is the most powerful trigger of memory that we have. Everyone in the room remembered the smell they encountered when they approached Lazarus’ tomb days after his death. Now for the rest of their lives they would remember the scent of this room, this dinner.

John tells us that Judas complained at the cost of the perfume poured out. He had foreseen the end of their discipleship days and wanted a golden parachute for his retirement: today he would have been called a shrewd executive, but John just calls him a thief.

Then Jesus said a strange thing. “Leave her be, that she may keep it until the day of my entombment.”

So that is what it smelled like that morning at the tomb, after it was all done, like Mary’s perfume, the same one she used on his feet, the same scent that filled their house at this dinner gathering, perfume she saved to anoint his body.

VinegarAs I write this reflection, on and off, I have paused to work on a home improvement project, installing an interior passageway door. It is an old door, one that was left in this house by a previous owner I never met. It has twenty seven panes of glass, though I can find no theological significance in the number. It has been trimmed, cut down, repurposed, like many of us. I have just been scrubbing it with vinegar and water.

Vinegar is a cleansing agent and a preservative, but I find the scent reminds me of spring time and nature, of life. Perfume, on the other hand, often reminds me of funerals.

It may be that the scent of Mary’s perfume reminded everyone in the inner circle of this last gathering, one of their last suppers. Jesus may have carried the scent throughout his last days, some of it remaining as he washed his disciples’ feet at their very last supper. As he was crucified, the scent may have lingered in Mary’s hair, may have mixed in the air with the sweat and blood and the pungency of the vinegar Jesus sipped.

We think that God speaks to us in a voice like men, that we might hear it like Charlton Heston in the version of The Ten Commandments that plays in our heads. Maybe that happens. More often, I think God pricks our memory with things as simple as the scent of perfume or the aroma of vinegar.

How strange that we can find the eternal in such ordinary things. Scents. Tastes. Memories. It is amazing that something so ephemeral as perfume can linger with us all our lives.Dogwood Flower

It is more amazing that something so ephemeral as our lives can linger after us, like perfume in a room we have already left.

Peace, Love, Mercy, and No Justice

Fourth Sunday in Lent | Luke 15:11-32

Peace, Love, Mercy, and No Justice

In the late 1970s, Bruce Springsteen famously introduced his song “Thunder Road” in concert this way:

We were out in the desert, over in the summertime, driving to Nevada, and we came upon this house on the side of the road that this Indian had built… Had a big picture of Geronimo out front, said ‘Landlord’ over the top… Had this big sign, said ‘This is a land of peace, love, justice and no mercy.’

This is a parable of peace, love, mercy, and no justice.

The prodigal son was right. He had taken his share of the family wealth before it was his to take, and he had wasted it. That is the truth of the matter. If there were any justice, when he returned his father should have done exactly what the young man planned to ask—make him into a servant and nothing more.

The older brother was also right. He had been a true son, loyal and hardworking, and he had to watch their father welcome his sorry younger brother back as though he were a hero just for showing his face.

In the story, of course, the father is God. So much for God being just, at least so far as this parable goes.

In the story that Jesus tells, God is not in the justice business.

It’s a good thing, too, since we are all like the two brothers. On the one hand, most of us squander most of what we get. Actually envying pigs, though—that is something of a defining low, especially for a first century Jew. The pigs themselves were off the menu, and here this fellow would have been happy to eat what the pigs were eating. Most of us haven’t been quite so low as that, which leads to the other hand–we are more inclined to judge people who have faired worse than we ourselves. They deserve what they get, we think, or they deserve not to have what they don’t have.

Goyaale (Geronimo)There needs to be justice in the world. Maybe God’s justice has less to do with punishing the wrong and more to do with making sure people get what they need. Safety. Food. Shelter. Respect.

The father didn’t need to run to meet his younger son. He could have waited, knowing that the long walk in his father’s sight would drive home this son’s contrition. He would have been right to wait. He would have been just, but he would not have been God-like.

Likewise, the father was under no compulsion to go out into the yard and find his angry elder son, to make peace with him. Waiting for that son to return to him would have been the just thing, the right thing, but just as the father ran to one son, he went also to the other.

Our notions of justice are small, often petty, more like revenge. Revenge seeks to punish. True justice seeks to restore what has been lost, as much by the sinner as by the sinned against.